Sunday, June 11, 2006

A methodology for proving the unknowable.

  • Jewish Thinker made this comment:

    Isaac Franck's statement is simply a variant of one of Aquinas'. This is not the proof of God, it is the proof of a concept that existed and was not created. There is nothing about this that suggests omnipotence, or uniqueness, or even sentience for that matter

    And I answered: Correct.

    That was exactly my point. We can only prove the existence of an entity that is not contingent and that we call God. What God is, does and so on is not provable by this method.

    Before I proceed I want to explore the types of proofs we can expect on the different topics under discussion. When making an assertion, it is incumbent on us to follow it up by verifying its validity. In the case of the existence of God we were able to infer from our own physical existence that there is overwhelming evidence for the existence of an entity that preceded that existence, not necessarily in time but in hierarchy, and we named it God. Although we were discussing pre physical existence, which is something we cannot comprehend at all, we were still able to infer that something non-physical had to “exist”. When we try to know anything about that entity we are entering into the unknowable. So how do we deal with it?

    Rambam addresses it in a whole chapter, in Moreh 2:23. When trying to verify an assertion about a non-physical unknowable entity, all we can do is propose opposing arguments but ultimately a subjective judgment has to be made. How can we rely on such a judgment?

    But the comparison cannot be trustworthy unless the two theories are considered with the same interest, and if you are predisposed in favor of one of them, be it on account of your training or because of some advantage, you are too blind to see the truth. For that which can be demonstrated you cannot reject, however much you maybe inclined against it; but in questions like those under consideration you are apt to dispute [in consequence of your inclination). You will, however, be able to decide the question, as far as necessary, if you free yourself from passions, ignore customs, and follow only your reason.”

    In other words the human condition stands in the way. Our own personal preferences make a fair judgment impossible. One has to develop himself so that there is no personal impact. The following conditions must be met:
  • First you must know your mental capacities and your natural talents: you will find this out when you study all mathematical sciences, and are well acquainted with Logic.
  • Secondly, you must have a thorough knowledge of Natural Science, that you may be able to understand the nature of the objections.
  • Thirdly, you must be morally good. For if a person is voluptuous or passionate, and, loosening the reins, allows his anger to pass the just limits, it makes no difference whether he is so from nature or from habit, he will blunder and stumble in his way, he will seek the theory which is in accordance with his inclinations.

    These are ideal conditions that very few people can honestly attain. So what are the choices? One can completely turn away and decide not to think about issues that are unsolvable. It is a fair choice and as long as one lives a productive, moral and good life he is a fine person. But not everybody can be satisfied with this restraint. That person, that seeker, must therefore turn to people he believes have met the requirements for unbiased judgments and not accept them at face value but as Rambam suggests in Moreh 1:50:

    "For belief is only possible after the apprehension of a thing; it consists in
    the conviction that the thing apprehended has its existence beyond the mind
    [in reality] exactly as it is conceived in the mind. If in addition to this we
    are convinced that the thing cannot be different in any way from what we believe
    it to be, and that no reasonable argument can be found for the rejection of the
    belief or for the admission of any deviation from it, then the belief is true."

    I turn again to Isaac Franck who very succinctly explains this Rambam:

    "In other words, among the mental activities of human beings is the activity we
    call Belief. Through this activity we apprehend certain data. We are convinced
    that corresponding to our “belief-state” there is a “belief-object” which has
    its existence in reality exactly as apprehended by us. In addition to this knowledge through Belief there is knowledge through Reason. It is incumbent upon us to examine all our beliefs thoroughly in the light of Reason, and if we find them to be in conflict with reason, i.e. to be absurd, we must discard them…

    … If in the course of our thoroughgoing examinations we
    can find no reasonable arguments for rejecting our belief, if we find that
    science and logic break down and cease to be relevant to the belief under
    consideration, only then may we hold to our belief with a clear conscience, even though we cannot supply any logical proof of its truth. If Maimonides had
    written in Latin he is likely to have said something like “credo et intelligo” –
    “I believe and understand”. Reason and Faith are on equal footing as sources and methods of knowledge… We may never be able to prove these revealed truths logically but if we cannot find any logical reason for rejecting them they are valid.
    [1] "

    As I start discussing what we can know about God we have to keep in mind this important understanding of what proofs can be expected. We are going to be dealing with issues that, although deductible from our physical reality, are essentially unknowable and empirically unprovable. They are ideas that we deal with a posteriori, we dissect and analyze beliefs we received from people that acquired them through a process that we call revelation. We will have to use the second method to verify their truth. Ultimately it is Faith, but Faith that is governed by Reason. “Believing is Knowing”.

    A few words about Isaac Franck, as I quote him so often. I discovered him by serendipity when a paper I was reading referred to him. He was a Russian Jew (1909-1985) who came to this country as a teenager and entered a life of serving various Jewish Communities. He studied Philosophy at Columbia, Harvard, and University of Michigan. He was the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington and at the same time taught Philosophy and Social Psychology at American University. He subsequently taught full time Philosophy at Howard University, Baltimore Hebrew College, Catholic University of America where he taught a course in Spinoza’s Ethics and finally Philosophy and Philosophical Poetry at Georgetown University. He published several papers on Rambam Philosophical works, Spinoza and Jewish Ethics. A collection of his papers is available on line here -'s%20Harvest:%20The%20Philosophical%20Papers%20of%20Isaac%20Franck

    [1] In Isaac Franck Maimonides Philosophy Today originally published in Judaism: a Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought vol. 4, Spring 1955 pp. 99-109.


  1. If living a life free of passions enables clear thinking, then why have the world's greatest thinkers and scientists been lusty and loony?

  2. JF - Apparently for objective analysis one can be anything. It is when one deals with subjective judgments that Kedusha is required. Metaphysics is the latter.