Friday, March 10, 2006

Is intelligent design compatible with Judaism?

The doctrine of Intelligent Design is brought up a lot in discussions of Jewish theology. Although it seems similar to our concept of Creation, it is at heart a fundamentalist Christian import and there is a very basic difference between the two ideas. Intelligent design argues that we cannot explain all of nature without pointing to an intelligent entity that planned it all. The existence of God is dependent on His creations. Rambam in Moreh 1:71 describes a similar method used by Islamic philosophers of his time:

“They set forth the propositions which I shall describe to you, and demonstrated by their peculiar mode of arguing that the Universe had a beginning. The theory of the creation ex nihilo being thus established, they asserted, as a logical consequence, that undoubtedly there must be a Maker who created the Universe. Next they showed that this Maker is One, and from the Unity of the Creator they deduced His Incorporeality. This method was adopted by every Mohammedan Mutakallem in the discussion of this subject, and by those of our co-religionists who imitated them and walked in their footsteps“

Rambam takes strong exception to this approach. The argument he uses sound very much like the argument used by scientist nowadays to attack ID.

“I have examined this method, and find it most objectionable. It must be rejected, because all the proofs for the creation have weak points, and cannot be considered as convincing except by those who do not know the difference between a proof, a dialectical argument, and a sophism. Those who understand the force of the different methods will clearly see that all the proofs for the creation are questionable, because propositions have been employed which have never been proved.”

In Judaism God exists independent of the universe and its Creation. We state it in Davening every day “ato hu ad shelo nivro haolom veato hu meshinevro haolom”. God “is” independently of the world. We are not so concerned about the existence of God. We accept that a priori. What we are concerned about is what God is, or rather as Rambam says what He is not, His actions and wishes. We do this to understand His ways and act according to them – Veholachto Bidrochov ma hu af ato. We have a concept about how God acts that we call Rotzon and Chefetz, will and volition. This Will is not temporal, it is there before the world was created. And because with HKBH there is no potential, everything is in actu, the results of that Will are already in place. In simple language whatever happens, past present and future from our perspective,is already happening from God’s. Just like God’s omniscience does not affect anything from our perspective, we have Bechira in spite of His knowing how we will act, because His knowledge is different than ours so is His will different than our will. It therefore does not affect the physical world from our perspective. All the questions about how the physical world functions is to be resolved from our perspective because we cannot understand what His is. There is no contradiction between Evolution and God’s will, just as there is no contradiction between God’s omniscience and our freedom of choice. This is a very difficult concept for us humans to accept and requires much thought and contemplation. Rambam therefore repast this idea many times in all his writings - it is after all what Echod means - unique. It is also an important yesod in the machshava of Ramban and the genuine Mekubalim. For a very thorough analysis see the Ohr Someach in Hilchos Teshuva.

I believe that if this idea is absorbed properly many of the issues of science versus Torah disappear. This is the deep thought behind Rambam 2:25:

“We answer to all these questions: He willed it so; or, His wisdom decided so. just as He created the world according to His will, at a certain time, in a certain form, and as we do not understand why His will or His wisdom decided upon that peculiar form, and upon that peculiar time, so we do not know why His will or wisdom determined any of the things mentioned in the preceding questions.”

Evolution is a result of God’s will. Nothing is random from His perspective as it has already happened. From our perspective it is all part of natural law and its cause and effect system. Science therefore does not clash with Judaism theologically. If it does not then reconciling Torah with it is only a mechanical process that requires some creativity. As Rambam says in a different context “Nor are the gates of figurative interpretation shut in our faces….” (Moreh 2:25.)

Good Shabbos.


  1. Very interesting idea. I need to think about it.

  2. Good post. Rambam seems to be your specialty.

    If I were to take your point further... are you saying that even the notion of randomness would have to be created by G-d?

    This is very interesting intellectually but it seems like it would be hard to convince most Orthodox Jews not to support ID. Most of the ones I know think it is the greatest thing that could have happened. I think they still operate on the principle of "my enemy's enemy is my friend", just like the rabbis from Neturei Karta

  3. >If I were to take your point further... are you saying that even the notion of randomness would have to be created by G-d?

    Yes. In Rambam thinking randomness is an "accident" just like time. I just laid out a general idea. I will try to flesh it out.

  4. I think Rambam would agree Hashem created randomness/chaos.
    I also am not a big fan of the watchmaker argument. And I think Rambam is absolutely 100% correct in saying God is taken on faith and that looking for proof is counterproductive.

  5. Before objecting to your proposition, I should warn you to limit your use of Friedlander's translation which contains many errors and is more of an emendation than translation.

    Now to my objection, which you are free to accept or reject:

    In the Moreh 1:71, the Rambam criticizes the Mutakallimun for their irrational doctrine of occasionalism and atomism proposed by al-Ash'ari and developed by Al-Baqillani, which denies any secondary causation.

    This view is far from being the view of ID proponents. Like Rambam, they rest their case on the reliability of the senses and a stable natural world. The only objection of Rambam that may be applied to ID is their method of proving their principles from the creation of the world rather than, as Rambam proposes, start first with the existence of God. But this can hardly be called "anti-Jewish" since it was used by Rasag.

    Although Rambam doesn't use this as sufficient argument for the existence of God, he does say that the anomalous movement of the spheres and the irregular distribution of the stars is evidence for a volitional Creator (Guide 2:19). Obviously, Rambam as a Jew saw this nonnecessity as design rather than chance, Epicurus' view. This idea can be seen as a precursor to the theological ramification of the Chaos Theory.

    Moreover, Rambam attributes this particularization to a supreme intelligence (ibid). If you have the translation of Dr. Shlomo Pines, read the rest of that chapter concerning the thickness of the veins and the ramifications of the nerves, and see for yourself how close this train of thought to that of ID ("the supposition that all these things have been ordered in virtue of necessity and not in virtue of a purpose is very remote indeed from being conceivable" should especially sound familiar).

  6. I use friedlander for ease as it is available on line. I however read Rambam with Tibon, Kafach,Schwartz and pines when necessary. I will change Friedlander wherever I find him impossible. It is indeed a very poor translation.

    I am well aware of the Rambams you quote and a careful read will show that it is not ID. I am not sure if i have not addressed it already on one or more of my posts. probably in passing. I am contemplating to create an index of all the rambams discussed on my blog. I just need time.

  7. I read all posts tagged "ID" before commenting. It would be delightful to discover that Rambam finds ID arguments unfruitful just as I do. However, from the sources it seems that every classical Jewish thinker indeed proposed one form or another of ID - not always in argumentative forms. The genius of the Rambam, however, is in showing the "hand of God" in the irregularities in existence spitefully.

    You think otherwise?

  8. The way I understand Rambam on ID is that it is not a proof for the existence of God but rather an ontological belief which fits well with our observed reality. But his ID is different as it accommodates the theory of Evolution as well as the Big Bang for example. It argues that things are so perfect that they must have had a Creator who thought up this system. To him evolution would be one more proof of how great the system is and therefore must have had a thinking entity. He does not accept that God changes things at will though he could if He wanted to. He never would do so because that would take away from His omniscience intimating that He needs to make adjustments. Miracles are therefore just natural anomalies that are part of nature and become miracles when a prophet predicts them or like Moshe takes advantage of them.

    See MN 3:13 where if read carefully says it in a few words.

    ודע שמציאותה של תכלית זאת בדברים הטבעיים גרם בהכרח לפילוסופים להאמין בעיקרון אחר זולת הטבע והוא אשר אריסטו קוראו עיקרון שׂכלי או אלוהי15. הוא אשר פועל דבר למען דבר אחר. ודע שאחת הראיות הגדולות ביותר לחידוש העולם, בעיני מי שניחן ביושר, הוא מה שהוכח בהוכחה מופתית שלכל נמצא מן הנמצאים הטבעיים יש תכלית כלשהי, ושהיות דבר אחד למען דבר אחר16 הוא ראיה לכוונת מכוון, ואין להעלות על הדעת17 כוונה אלא לגבי מה שמישהו יוצר18.

    note שאחת הראיות הגדולות ביותר לחידוש העולם

    which is different than empirical proof - as opposed to proof for God's existence in 2:1

    בהתאם להנחה העשׂרים-וחמש1 מתחייב שיש מניע אשר הניע את החומר של (עולמנו) המתהווה והכָּלֶה הזה לקבל את הצורה

    where he uses מתחייב all the time.

    That is why I object to ID argument. It is not a "proof" but rather a strong argument for Will and Creation. That distinction to me is very important because it is logically defensible while the other ID lost in court!