Tongs, Used To Make Tongs

Est Reading Time: 3 min

Pirkei Avot (the Ethics [lit: Chapters] of the Fathers) is one of the most popular of the 63 tractates of the Talmud. Unlike the other 62 which generally deal with law and aren’t very accessible to the average Jew, Avot simply quotes the ethical maxims, sayings and proverbs attributed to the Talmudic sages. As such, they’re often studied in Hebrew school and even recited as part of the prayer service. Here is one paragraph that I’ve always found interesting, because of a phrase I’m bolding. It comes in chapter 5 which gives miscellaneous lists of 10:

Ten things were created at twilight on the eve of the first Sabbath:
the mouth of the earth (Numbers 16:32);
the mouth of the well (Numbers 21:16);
the mouth of the ass (Numbers 22:28);
the rainbow;
the manna;
Aaron’s staff;
the Shamir, writing;
the inscription on the tablets of the Ten Commandments;
and the tablets themselves.
Some also include the evil spirits, the grave of Moses, the ram of Abraham; and others add the original tongs, for tongs must be made with tongs. [Avot 5:9]

The point of that little hook is that to make tongs out of cast iron one must use something to grasp them with — the previous tongs! Therefore, the original tongs must have been created by YHWH during that fateful first week of the universe 5770 years ago. Beneath that profound (and I think jokey) statement lies the epitome of theism. As I found in an online article about this: “In its modest and whimsical way, Rabbi Judah [the compiler of the Mishna] was employing the same method of proof that was adopted by the great philosophers in order to speculate about such weighty questions as the origins of the universe or the existence of God. For each observable phenomenon, these thinkers would persist in asking what was its cause or what set it into motion. Eventually, as it was no longer possible to keep posing such questions ad infinitum, they were forced to posit the existence of an Unmoved Mover, an Uncaused Cause, or a similar hypothesis, in order to account for the existence of the world.”

This is part of the distinction the philosopher Daniel Dennett makes between skyhooks and cranes. In the religious view, things are supported by giant hooks that come out of the sky. Complexity, design and purpose must be derived from something greater, namely a god. The opposite to this view is a crane, where something is supported by a stable bottom-up foundation that gradually grows to the desired height. This is what made Darwin’s idea so powerful — it provided a mechanism for cranes and explained why tongs need not be made of tongs. No wonder a 19th century critic called the theory a strange inversion of reasoning.

In fact, it really is. Us humans are naturally hard-core creationists and believe in tongs made from tongs. As I commented in this post, the whole science-and-reason enterprise requires us to undergo this strange inversion of reasoning and to literally turn our naive faculties upside down. And it’s important to remember that such a huge number of religious arguments (design arguments, first cause arguments, possibly transcendental arguments and probably more) are just rearticulations of the same raw intuitions evolved in these strange apes called us.