Like many curious kids, I considered the metaphor of the inkwell with both passion and suspicion.
Passion, because in the fresh dawn of my young mind’s awakening, proof, and even better, proof of big things, captured my imagination. Suspicion, because with a mind comes the awareness that big claims demand big proof, and that our fathers can be our indoctrinators, and maybe the people from the Internet are right.
Like many curious kids, I felt I was in a position to judge the inkwell, to weigh the truth of it with the tools I owned and decide what to believe.
In deciding, the course of my life philosophy would be set.
I would never have to wander.
Confession of a recovering debater: In the surety of my youth, when I could still answer questions, I was deaf to nearly all the inkwell had to offer.
I can still remember one of the first arguments I ever had on the Internet, when small, homey forums were the norm, before Reddit or persistent identity or the rule of the common denominator. I could not yet have been fourteen years old. Middle school was garbage, the Internet more interesting. But these strange people with their foreign gods came and dented with their adolescent antagonisms the words of the work that remains the foundation to my entire life, The Little Midrash Says. So I looked to argue with their teenaged Darwinism, seeking to settle the matter forever, for the entire Internet, once and for all. I would never so glibly produce the metaphor in argument again. I learned it only in order to teach, studied only to break my enemies’ hubris. This was unwise. But looking back on my younger self, I cannot stop him; he did what he thought was right.
I slapped the inkwell down upon the proverbial table.
The inkwell can be summed up in one sentence: “If a letter or a poem cannot be created by an inkwell spilling, how can the world come about with G-d?”
If there is one thing that characterizes the cruel hopes of our youth, it is the assumption that the world, so used to crushing others with indifference, will yield to us. I was taken with this hope, and therefore nothing appealed to my thinking quite like science. And it was by science that I thought I’d won the argument.
Here is how a voracious reader of children’s encyclopedias understood the inkwell: It is a statistical argument stemming from the nature of structure and design. What are the chances that ink spills and forms words on a page? Astronomically low. How do we then look at the massive complexity of the world and arrive at the conclusion it likely has no designer?
The first of my Internet interlocutors demanded I produce the credentials of a scientist who found this argument to be valid – a clear win for me, as any rookie Facebook scrapper knows. But the second guy told me if one rolls the dice a trillion trillion times, it shouldn’t surprise us that they come up correctly once. I had no response to this; it makes sense.
In the years since, I’ve realized this is the argument of the multiverse theory, and that it gained popularity largely because it’s good at answering this question. Licking my wounds, turning his response over and over, I’ve composed my perfect riposte, wherein I first get him to concede the importance of evidence and then press hard for evidence of this alleged vast cosmic lottery which violates not just Occam’s Razor but, in its unsurpassed inelegance, Occam’s blunt club as well. In bedrooms, dorm rooms, and classrooms I worked out how to save the inkwell from his attack, but never until adulthood did I once consider it was my perspective that needed rescuing.
The god of the probability inkwell has all the metaphysical weight of the purported planet Vulcan that was once assumed to intervene between Mercury and the sun. Vulcan was never observed, but Mercury moved strangely, and so scientists proposed, in order to rescue their own understanding, the existence of an extra planet we happened to not yet have seen.[i]
So, too, did I, a curious boy, march proudly onto the world stage with my adolescent intellect and declare, arms akimbo, that G-d must exist because if He doesn’t, I don’t understand the universe.
And that, make no mistake, is the nature of the probable god. He is the conclusion to a thought process that begins with materialistic axioms. He is the “god of the gaps,” who exists only to explain holes in my understanding that may tomorrow be plugged, rendering him irrelevant.
Therefore, it’s only natural for his worshippers to turn from theists to deists, who believe that G-d if he exists, is irrelevant. They say G-d gave the universe over to nature[ii], a comforting position different from atheism but not to the extent that G-d can actually do anything, change the world, or disrupt our enlightened conquest of nature.
And if deism is functionally atheism, its only god is a once-upon-a-time watchmaker who introduced order and design and naught else. Why blame the actual atheist for calling everyone’s bluff and declaring he has no use for a statistically probably deity? Who can blame him for finding likely scientific explanations, such as Darwinian evolution, for design, and thereby stop up the gaps?
If the process that arrives at the creator absolutely assumes and uses empiricism and statistics, who is my highest deity, really? With gods like these, who needs gods?
It was only later, walking near the elegant curve of Jerusalem’s white bridge, mind split between the sidewalk and my headphones, that I first heard the goal of knowledge is to not know.
My life was then steeped in transformation. The official Deeper Mysteries of the Universe seemed to pour from mouths and inky pages in my Yeshiva, my Hebrew quickly improving with my thirst to grasp the next class, the next page, something with an answer. And slowly, not all-at-once, but with the sometimes-painful rearrangement of my inner architecture, it began to occur to me that the search for questions should precede the search for answers.
It seemed implicit in the order of the intellectual sefiros, for example. Chachma precedes Binah; the rigorous analysis is birthed and informed by the ineffable flash of insight; it is only through knowing what the thing is that we can understand anything true about it. It was also hidden in the structure of the Chassidic discourses, which used their questions precisely, like spiking a spigot into a barrel, to break through to deeper comprehension. Most of all, the question’s advantage over the answer cried out to me when I reviewed something I first learned months or years earlier, when my initial understanding blew away like chaff, because I did not in the first round understand the question the information came to answer.
A boy seeks a better teacher, flashier arguments, new information. A man, I learned, seeks to listen to the first teacher properly, revels in “boring” technicality, and learns the old discourse again. A man puts deeper before further. It is a pleasant thing for one to grasp in one’s early twenties, because trying to go further has its limits and they are our limits, the ones we are just beginning to learn. As a sage once said, nothing is going to hit harder than life. The cult of further, of which I was an initiate when I first met the inkwell, is an attempt to launch a counterattack on life. All you get for it is bruised knuckles and a bruised ego. The way of depth is the way of accepting the blow and changing oneself.
The inkwell, it turns out, is not about the statistical likelihood of a designer god. Such an interpretation would probably have sounded heretical to Rabbeinu Bachya, who deploys it in Chovos HaLevavos. Again: To say the world has no creator is to accept that a knocked-over bottle of ink can write a poem or a letter. However, this, I assure you, has nothing to do with statistics, and only a little to do with design. This is about meaning, purpose, and unity.
My mistake as a boy lay in not considering what makes a letter or poem significant. It is not the chances of ink landing in the shape of words or sentences. It is the fact that we can distinguish them from a random spill at all. What is the poem, that my heart leaps up when I behold those words upon a page? Why are they meaningful? How can marks of ink on dead-tree membrane cohere into “The Tiger”? Only, a good philosopher would tell you, through telos, the final cause, tachlis. What makes the poem is not merely its matter, which is only ink and paper, nor its form, which is its arrangement, nor even the hand that writes it, which brings the arrangement to the ink and paper. What makes the poem the poem is purpose. Matter is incoherent, form does not alone provide a discrete existence; a hand bereft of purpose produces nothing. Give each of them an ordering purpose, a unifying cause, and the stanzas flow like wine.[iii]
When the inkwell is overturned and the ink forms a poem (and not merely ink in the shape of a poem), we are observing unity and purpose without an intelligence to make it so, order and directedness simply arising on its own, and this is impossible. It is not impossible that knocked-over ink could form something in the shape of a poem without an ordering intelligence, merely highly improbable. But it is impossible for knocked-over ink to form a poem, because a poem is inherently purposive.
If things which have an effect exist, they are not mindless accidents, for if they were, what precise effect could they be said to have? Don’t believe the rumors; vodka makes you drunker rather than more handsome, every time. There is an inherent, consistent order to it. And what is order if not intelligence?[iv]
In other words, a poem, by nature, being a thing directed toward an end (say, making your girlfriend cry), must be created that way by the presence of a unifying and purposive mind. The very notion that we recognize the running ink of the accidentally overturned well as a poem, rather than stationery, or a Rorschach test, or a handwriting test for children to trace, indicates that we are judging it not merely by its matter or form but by its purpose as well. What is preposterous is not that ink should coincidentally attain the form of what is materially indistinguishable from a poem, but that the coincidence could cause a poem.[v]
So, too, the universe, which coheres in an orderly fashion. This coherence is explicable only in terms of intelligence – and we know where that leads. The matter and its form are in a sense created by the question that they answer.
I realized in Yeshiva that the question is more important than the answer, that our purposes define the information they try to teach us.
But it was not enough.
The devotion to going deeper rather than further alleviates some of our coarsest problems, but raises new questions of its own.
The world is, it seems, not as logical as even the wisest sage can possibly understand it to be. The highest knowledge, to not know, is a call to further learning draped in a shroud; it has an air of tragedy about it. Philosophy only goes so far. It, too, begins with axioms. For example: We can know the truth; we do not live in an illusion. This seems true, but limits us, ultimately, to the world as it appears and our minds as they seem to work. There is no way to prove it, no other solid thing on which to base itself.
As many Yeshiva students have learned, the world of appearance is not enough. One does not break free from exile by affirming with absolute certainty the reality of the pharaoh as he appears. The exodus does not begin with believing only our eyes. One only escapes Egypt with a little wilderness at the edges of one’s brow, with a dream, with openness to seeming-stupid sentiment, like a child. “The way everything is,” said the one in five Hebrews who followed Moses across the sea, “is not how it must be. Water can be blood. The waves can be dry land. A slave can be free.”
It’s possible, if G-d wills it. Anything is.
If the world has no creator, a knocked over bottle of ink can write a poem or a letter.
I came to wonder, later, driving down a wintry road, radically divorced from all assumptions, from all I thought I knew:
Who knocked over the bottle?