Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Unknowable - Ultimate wisdom is the acknowledgement of the limits of knowledge.

One of the cornerstones of Jewish theology, in fact of any theology that deals with metaphysics, is the limit of human knowledge. It is not a defensive position but one that a person has to assimilate into the mind logically and rationally. Emotionally we tend to resist it because it goes against our sense of entitlement; to really understand our reality. However there are areas that we cannot go to rationally. Let me explain.

When we observe our universe, we know that eventually science will be able to decipher every mystery. In the last century science’s pace has accelerated and will continue to accelerate at an exponential rate. That is just how things are and is a great testament to man’s ingenuity and drive to understand and take control of his environment. That is fine and well when we deal with the universe as we know it. When we start looking at its origins, how it came to be, whether it came to be in time, whether it was here forever, who and what was the impetus for its existence, we must realize that science will never answer these questions.

I do not think that anyone can deny that there is a concept underlying the universe namely the Laws of Nature that coexist with it. (This is a question very similar to the one addressed in contemporary philosophy as part of the “The mind body connection” issue. For readings on this Keith Campbell – Body and Mind and a classic Karl K. Popper and John C. Eccles in The Self and its Brain – an argument for Interactionism). But when one poses the question, can and do these laws “exist” independently of their subject, one has already entered the metaphysical realm. It is more a philosophic question than a scientific one. We sense and know that there must be something that is behind all this but there is no way that we will ever understand or know that something other then by inference. Denying the existence of that “something” is counter intuitive and requires a great effort. It is a quixotic attempt to deny our instincts. Notice I have not yet used the word God, but it is where I am leading. That vague concept that I described is the first step when one tries to describe what God means. When Avraham Ovinu conceived of the existence of God, that was his first deduction. This is the meaning of Rambam in Moreh 3:29:

Abraham was brought up in Kutha; when he disagreed with the people and declared that there is an agent (an Aristotelian term which I explained as the “something” in our contemporary parlance) besides the sun, they raised certain objections, and mentioned in their arguments the evident and manifest action of the sun in the Universe." You are right," said Abraham;" [the sun acts in the same manner] as ' the axe in the hand of a carpenter”. The carpenter being the conceiver of the Laws of Nature. It is just a vague notion of an entity that we sense. For a clear exposition of this idea see my post

Accepting this idea of the existence of God we now deal with whether the world is created in time or not. We cannot ever prove that because we are asking a question that is outside the boundaries of our experience – the Rabbis refer to that as “Mah Lefonim” – what is before. Rambam in 2:17 uses a metaphor to explain this:

Let us assume, in our above instance, that a man born without defect had after his birth been nursed by his mother only a few months; the mother then died, and the father alone brought him up in a lonely island, till he grew up, became wise, and acquired knowledge. Suppose this man has never seen a woman or any female being: he asks some person how man has come into existence, and how he has developed, and receives the following answer:" Man begins his existence in the womb of an individual of his own class, namely, in the womb of a female, which has a certain form. While in the womb he is very small; yet he has life, moves, receives nourishment, and gradually grows, until he arrives at a certain stage of development. He then leaves the womb and continues to grow till he is in the condition in which you see him." The orphan will naturally ask:" Did this person, when he lived, moved, and grew in the womb, eat and drink, and breathe with his mouth and his nostrils? Did he excrete any substance?" The answer will be," No." Undoubtedly he will then attempt to refute the statements of that person, and to prove their impossibility, by referring to the properties of a fully developed person, in the following manner:" When any one of us is deprived of breath for a short time he dies, and cannot move any longer: how then can we imagine that any one of us has been enclosed in a bag in the midst of a body for several months and remained alive, able to move? If any one of us would swallow a living bird, the bird would die immediately when it reached the stomach, much more so when it came to the lower part of the belly; if we should not take food or drink with our mouth, in a few days we should undoubtedly be dead: how then can man remain alive for months without taking food? If any person would take food and would not be able to excrete it, great pains and death would follow in a short time, and yet I am to believe that man has lived for months without that function! Suppose by accident a hole was formed in the belly of a person, it would prove fatal, and yet we are to believe that the navel of the fetus has been open! Why should the fetus not open the eyes, spread forth the bands and stretch out the legs, if, as you think, the limbs are all whole and perfect." This mode of reasoning would lead to the conclusion that man cannot come into existence and develop in the manner described.”

Without empirical evidence, and there is none for the pre- physical, we cannot answer the question scientifically. Accepting that is the first step to real knowledge. Once accepted that idea allows us to then understand that we will never understand the essence of God, we will never be able to rationally prove whether He created the universe in time or not, we will never be able to understand how His will works (more about this in future posts), how His omniscience works, His omnipotence and so on.

That insight is required before engaging in metaphysical speculation. It is accepting in a scientific way that we cannot answer everything and understand it empirically. It is what Rambam calls Negative Theology. It is a rational process of inferences and study of our reality which when done properly and with strict discipline some answers can be intuited. Rambam explains in Hil Yesodei Hatorah 1:10 what Moshe was able to apprehend:

Moshe comprehended - that God is different in intellect from other things in existence, just as a particular person is different in dress and intellect from all other people. Scripture hinted at this matter by saying, "...and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen”.

Interestingly none other then Rashi, who is not known for deep philosophical insights – an incorrect assumption in my opinion – verbalizes this in Yevamos 49:2. The Gemara quotes a Braitha that all prophets saw through an unclear speculum – Latin for mirror or eyeglasses while Moshe saw through a clear speculum. Rashi comments as follows “s.v. Be’aspeklaria she’eina me’ira ukesvurim liro’ot velo ro’u umoshe nistakel be’aspeklaria Hame’ira veyodah shelo ro’ohu befonov”. All prophets thought they saw but did not while Moshe who looked through a clear speculum knew that he did not see His face. In other words Moshe’s clarity was his understanding the limits of knowledge as opposed to other prophets whose imagination had to be restrained. (This reference in this context I learned from Professor Leibowitz in his book on Hashgacha).

This is not lack of knowledge because of ignorance – it is plain and simple unknowable. The realization of those human limits allows us to focus on the traces of that entity we sense exists and we call God. We know that it is all we can expect to learn about Him and that we will never get close to His essence. It is also why the introduction of mysticism (Kabbalah) into metaphysical speculation is dangerous. In my mind it shows a lack of understanding of the limits of human knowledge and an attemot to transcend that. It is impossible and therefore one risks falling prey to the imagination which, if unfettered leads to idolatry.


  1. >>That is fine and well when we deal with the universe as we know it. When we start looking at its origins, how it came to be, whether it came to be in time, whether it was here forever, who and what was the impetus for its existence, we must realize that science will never answer these questions.

    What if further coding of DNA revealed that hidden in each sarcomere was a gematria code coresponding exactly to the 72 letter name of God. What if the smallest particle was found to take a particular formation that mathematicaly coresponded to the exact letters of the first chapters of bereishis.

    I think many OJ people expect that science will one day shed light on the creator, and I think many people would be satisfied with evidence that corresponded with their beliefs accordingly.

    The problem arises when evidence supports the idea that no one knows, or points to a non design format.
    In this scenario people like to say that we just can't ever know, so don't bother to study. However, should a shred of evidence, a hint of a study, or a shard of academia ever list towards a religiously held creation myth, believe me, the religious proponents of sceintific investigation into the universes origin will simply abound.

    That is what religion is about, after all, picking your opinion on the false basis of faith, and then winowing the available facts to find anything that supporst you.

  2. very interesting posts, by the way, and very well put, I didn't just come here to bark my usual anti dogmatic rant, I really enjoyed reading your take on the rambam. I will have to get around to reading the moreh at some point in time, it looks like it is required reading material for your blog :-)

  3. Ben Avuyah, I am not sure where you were going. I believe that if a thinking OJ believes that the Creator will ever be known in his Essence other than through his actions, he is akofer Be'ikar. The was the argument between Ra'avad and Rambam in Hil Teshuva. Ra'avad could not accept that Nebech a kofer is also a kofer. Here is Ramabm in Moreh 1:36

    If you think that there is an excuse for those who believe in the corporeality of God on the ground of their training, their ignorance or their defective comprehension, you must make the same concession to the worshippers of idols: their worship is due to ignorance, or to early training," they continue in the custom of their fathers." (T.B. Hullin, 13a) You will perhaps say that the literal interpretation of the Bible causes men to fall into that doubt, but you must know that idolaters were likewise brought to their belief by false imaginations and ideas. There is no excuse whatever for those who, being unable to think for themselves, do not accept [the doctrine of the incorporeality of God] from the true philosophers. I do not consider those men as infidels who are unable to prove the incorporeality, but I hold those to be so

  4. BTW thanks for the compliment. I truly believe that if Ramabm's philosophical writings were taken more seriously nowadays a lot of pain could have been and will be avoided.

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