Friday, February 24, 2006

Negative Knowledge - an essential doctrine.

I came across this citation by Dr. Isaac Franck which is the most succinct exposition of the doctrine I have come across.

Without knowing the nature or essence of G-d, we know that G-d exists because we know from our experience that things, contingent things exist. If anything exists, and obviously finite, contingent things, such as you and I, do exist, then it cannot be the case that everything that exists is contingent. To be contingent means that the existence of the contingent thing is contingent upon, depends upon, some other thing or being. But not everything can be dependent on something else, i.e., not everything can have been caused by, or brought into being by, something else. At least one entity must be in existence by itself, independent of anything else, must have come into being (if it did not exist eternally) by itself, must be its own cause, i.e. must exist necessarily not contingently, and its non - existence is inconceivable[1]. This necessarily existent being is what we call G-d... G-d is the absolute existent, to whom existence is so essential as to be His very essence. Accordingly His very existence is different from the existence of contingent things. The very term “existence” “can only be applied equivocally to His existence and to the existence of things other than He”[2]. We know that G-d exists, that His absolute essential existence is radically different from our existence, and our knowledge that He exists is utterly independent of any affirmative attributes we may be tempted to ascribe to Him.[3]

Awesome and appropriate for this week's parsha. Good Shabbos.

[1] See Moreh II, 1 for a lengthy discussion of this argument.

[2] Moreh I, 35 page 80.

[3] Isaac Franck, Maimonides and Aquinas on Man’s Knowledge of G-d. in Maimonides; A Collection of Critical Essays Joseph A. Bujis, Ed. Univ. of Notre Dame Press 1998.


  1. Do you find this at all convincing? Frankly, I find the argument (if that's what it is) completely archaic, and the consequences of negative theology and the unknowability of God to be highly contrary to religion. If we really can't apply any of our human terms to God, then what do we really know about Him? If we don't know anything about Him, then why do we worship Him, trust Him, appeal to Him, etc.? The price of negative theology is quite high, and I think Ralbag has pointed this out in his monumental work of philosophy that nobody reads anymore, becuase Jewish philosophy is dead.

  2. >to be highly contrary to religion

    It depends what one understands religion to be. All the things you describe,worship etc... one does to keep our focus on the search for Him. It is a search with no end in sight the goal being to get as close as one can to grasping this unknowable God. One has to go beyond the pashtus and realize that there is an unfathomable depth to existence. Jewish religion is not supposed to be a crutch at its philosophic level. Prof Y. Leibowitz made it the center of his theology which he claimed to be Rambam's. (Questionable though this part is true). Interesting that I find this whole idea extremely exhilarating - maybe because it speaks to me.

    BTW I do have the Milchamos Hashem however I am always put off by his tenacious belief in Astrology and how it impacted his understanding of many things. The same goes for the Ma'aseh Nissim by R,Nissim of Marseilles and Livyas Chen by R.Levi ben Avrohom.

  3. This argument form the idea of neccesary existence has been debunked so often and so thoroughly that I am amazed that you posted it. Please read Russell and then repost.

  4. JF - I am not discussing the proof for the existence of God here. All I am addressing is the concept of transcendence. I thought that Isaac Franck verbalized Rambam's position very succinctly.

    BTW I just read the Copleston - Russel debate. Fascinating.

    As I say in the heading of my Blog I am in a learning mode and the input from commenters is very helpful and appreciated. As I am pretty much an autodictat in this area it is fun to hear from others.

  5. When all is said and done the only thing that we can say for sure about God is that there for the past few thousand years there have been people who have contemplated his existence.

  6. Anonymous, well said. That is exactly the idea joining them in the quest for knowledge and understanding.

  7. DG: I don't think you understand what you are reading, or else you need to delete all of the post after the first comma. This *is* a variation of the proof of G-d from contingent existence. If you are making another point, it's not in your post.

  8. JF I have two comments on your observation. I was never bothered by trying to prove God's existence so I never really studied it. I understand it more as an axiom that is the basis for religious speculation. It is not exactly an ontological basis but if it cannot be disproven it is enough for me.

    Re the quote above, if you read it in its entirety you are right that it does put out an argument for the existence of God. I read it as an argument rather than a proof because of my personal bias as above. What it does though is explain the concepot of transcendence which is key in Rambam's thought process and I find very exhilarating as it clarifies Hashem Echad (not like the idiotic head movement of some to the 6 corners).

    The little I read about Russel in this area it seems that his arguments have not yet been fully accepted. I am no mathematician so I just follow it from the side.

  9. David G: Thank you for the clarification, I understand what you are saying. What fascinates me is the basis of your belief in G-d. If you could write about that I would be very interested to read it.