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A thought inspired by Wednesday’s Daf (page) in the Talmud, Nedarim 8

A thought inspired by Wednesday’s Daf (page) in the Talmud, Nedarim 8

This post presents a philosophical argument inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people are estimated to study on the same day. The format of the post is a brief presentation of an idea in our regular daily lives or general philosophy with no direct bearing on religion. This is followed by sketching the connection to some text in the Daf. This connection may seem inaccessible to the general reader as it may involve practicalities of daily life 2000 years ago or some technical aspect of religious observance today or in the past. However, I seek to show that the underlying philosophy of the Talmud can have great significance for anybody trying to understand our secular reality today.

I will argue the goals that drive you are almost always your own goals. It is not correct to say that you are only executing the goals of other people. I accept that many of your goals were formed during childhood by other people. However, even if you were exposed to only a narrow range of views, even if you were “brainwashed”, the goals that animate you are truly your goals. Even if your goal is to help someone else, even to serve some other person, Entity or cause, it’s still you.

I am staking out an extreme position here. If you think I’m wrong, please tell me why in the comments.

I’ll start with some definitions. A goal is a state of affairs that an agent is motivated to bring about. An agent can be a person, biological creature or machine that has multiple actions available. It furthers its goal by selecting actions likely to bring it about. For it to count as a goal, there must be some knowledge embedded in a medium accessible to the agent. That knowledge, taken together with previous templates of plans drives the action to be selected.

If a biologist moves the paw of some dead animal, that does not count as an action. If you blink your eye in response to an incoming object, that could count as mechanistic goal-directed behavior, but in the context of the full knowledge potential of a human, it is better seen as action-response. If your life is threatened and you chose to do something that morally disgusts you, then that is an action in service of a survival goal, but your goal. It is just not motivated by any goal normally associated with such behavior.

There are roughly two kinds of goals, instrumental and value goals. If you walk to the store, your goal is to get to the store. However, being in the store is an instrumental (sub) goal that is part of other goals. If I keep climbing the ladder of goals, I will get to a value goal. Facts, reason or Science cannot tell you what your value goals should be, they can only tell you how to plan.

I justify saying that a goal belongs to an agent, because doing so is part of making sense of the actions of the agent. If I value the agent as an end and not as a means, I will seek to help them achieve their own goals.

If you help or serve some other person or Being, the action itself is in service of the other’s value goal. However your goal of helping them is your value goal, then their value goals become your instrumental goals.

You could object that if someone was brainwashed into serving someone else’s goals, then the goals that drive their actions are not their own goals. Your goals are only those that serve your needs. You, as a biological creature have in-built objective needs and only serving them would count as your goals.

Rather than dealing with that or any other objection now, I’d rather do so in the comments.

The Talmud does not usually speak in terms of goals. It speaks in terms of obligations. I propose that the two concepts refer roughly to the same thing but differ in meaning, connotations and world views in fascinating ways. However, that is not the subject of this post. I’ll just treat obligations as goals (unless you object) for now.

The text deals with a concept mentioned in many places called Nishba Ve’omed, meaning you have already sworn at Mt. Sinai (when the Torah was given) and your prior commitment is to that obligation. Once I make an oath, following that with a contradictory oath has no effect. Therefore, if I swear that I will eat non-kosher food, the oath is invalid because I already made a prior oath. On the other hand, if I swear that I will only eat kosher food, that oath is also invalid because it is meaningless. You are already committed to that. If you swore using the name of G_d, then you have taken His Name in vain.

Here’s the question that led me to the thought. If the Commandments and values expressed in the Torah are those Desired by G_d, or even if they are those that the Jewish people throughout the generations have come to value, then are those values not external? If they are external, then there should be something deeply meaningful in taking an oath to take on board these values. Why does the text dismiss it?

My answer is that the Talmudic sages do not see these values as external as all. That is what they mean that you, as an individual, have already made this oath at Mt. Sinai. I was not, literally, there (besides a verse in Devarim to the contrary). The deeper meaning is not literal. It is that the values are not external to me. They are already my obligation. Any new obligations must take place in that context.

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