Sunday, July 23, 2006

God's Will Part 1 - Can God have will?

A central theme in Judaism is God’s will. We perform Mitzvot because it is God’s will, we accept our fate saying it is God’s will and it is inculcated in us since childhood when we say without thinking “Im Yirtzeh Hashem” whenever we discuss a future event. However it is not a simple matter and has many theological problems touching on God’s omnipotence, omniscience, our freedom of choice, revelation and Torah. In other words it touches every aspect of our belief and religion. I will be discussing this in several posts as it would be too lengthy for one or even two posts. I will try to take every aspect of the problem separately and address it.

We have shown that there is strong and irrefutable evidence that there is a First Cause and we call that entity God. As He is transcendent, beyond the ability of our minds to grasp Him, completely unknowable, we cannot say much about Him. We can however try to infer, by looking at our existence, some things about Him. These inferences are not always empirically provable nor are the conclusions able to tell us anything about God’s essence. They only describe His abilities in human terms, meaning that if a human wanted to accomplish such a feat, he would have had to have this particular ability. God being a unique entity different from anything we can imagine, He does not necessarily need to have that ability. The results we perceive could have been brought into existence through a completely different action, indeed no action at all, for God does not act. With that in mind any attribute that we append to God is nothing more than a word we use to help us understand and communicate about God and his deeds.

God’s will is such an attribute. If a human being wanted to create the Universe at some point in time, he would have to have a will that precipitated his action. We therefore say that God created the universe at the time He willed to do so. As He does not act He created everything by willing it all.

Aristotle however believed that attributing will and change to God would mean that God is not perfect. A perfect entity does not change. Aristotle sees change as an adjustment implying imperfection.

“He (Aristotle) asserts - though he does not do so textually, but this is what his opinion comes to - that in his opinion it would be an impossibility that will should change in God or a new volition arise in Him is impossible that a volition should undergo a change in Him or a new will arise in Him. (Moreh 2:13)”

In other words Aristotle’s position is not only that God has no will but also that it is impossible that He should have any. Rambam however points out that Aristotle missed one little detail, God’s transcendence. The idea that God has will is only a human description of what would be required for something to occur at a point of time. It does not mean that God has a changeable will as He can make things happen in time without those attributes.

“... it is only by equivocation that our will and that of a being separate from matter are both designated as “will”, for there is no likeness between the two wills (Moreh 2:18)”.

The fact that God has will and decided at a point in time to exercise it and create the universe does therefore not imply imperfection. Rambam has taken the first step in showing that what Aristotle considered impossible to attribute to God is really not far-fetched and in fact plausible.

Having shown that it is possible for God to have willed, it remains to be shown on what basis we attribute will to God. What makes us say that God willed? Why can we not say that the First Cause and the universe are two parallel entities, one physical and one conceptual eternally existent and unified? They are just there, which is Aristotle’s position as described by Rambam in Moreh 2:25:

“The belief in eternity the way Aristotle sees it - that is, the belief according to which the world exists in virtue of necessity, that no nature changes at all, and that the customary course of events cannot be modified with regard to anything …”

As we are dealing with a question that is outside the realm of physicality, we are dealing with something that precedes it, there is no possibility for empirical proof. It will have to be something arrived at by inference, logic and subjectivity.

Furthermore as we are dealing with something that precedes time itself, it is eternal. As hard as it is to conceive, God’s will has always been there and always will be.

I will address these issues in my upcoming posts.


  1. Will Also needs to be defined better.

    Its common to say that animals have will, but it is not so common to say that a commet hurling through space has will, or that water has will.

    But on some level, those things do have a will. Its jut not a free will in any sense of the word, there is no choice whatsoever.

  2. Irviner, please read my post again carefully. Will is only a term used by man to describe the impulse that urges him to do something. It is therefore used in describing what we would imagine God would need to act, knowing full well that it is something else altogether.

  3. >In other words Aristotle’s position is not only that God has no will but also that it is impossible that He should have any.

    And you say you disagree with Aristotle who says that God can't possibly have Will. But then say that when you say God has will is something altogether different from what we call will. That's not fair. Aristotle was referring to the concept which we human's call will.

  4. >That's not fair. Aristotle was referring to the concept which we human's call will.

    That is correct. But Rambam shows that although Aristotle seems to have been aware that God's will is totally different, he chose to ignore it.rambam feels that he was playing with and being disengenious. read Moreh 2:15.

  5. I believe "b. spinoza" above is referencing Gersonides' objection to absolute equivocation. I find Gersonides' argument to be completely convincing, but his solution less so. Here is some of the objection, from Feldman's translation:

    ...since it is clear when we deny attributes of God that are found in us that such attributes are not completely equivocal with respect to God (may he be blessed) and us, the same is true when we affirm of God predicates that are true of us. For example, we say that God is immovable, since if He were movable He would be a body, for all movable objects [are bodies]. Now it is evident that in this proposition the term "movable" is not completely equivocal with respect to the term "movable" when it is applied to nondivine things. For if it were, there would be no proof that God is not movable, since the movable object that must be a body is that which is movable in the domain of human phenomena, whereas the term "movable" (in the completely equivocal sense) would not imply that it is a body. Hence, since it is evident that the predicates we deny of God are not absolutely equivocal, neither are the terms that we affirm of Him. In general, if the terms used in affirming predicates of Him were absolutely equivocal, there would be no term applicable to things in our world that would be more appropriate to deny than to affirm of God or [more appropriate] to affirm that to deny of Him. For example, someone could say "God is a body" but not mean by the term "body," "a magnitude"; rather he would mean something that is completely equivocal with the term "body" as we usually use it. Similarly, someone could say "God does not have knowledge," since the term knowledge would not [on this view] have the same meaning for him in this statement as it does for us. (v.2 p.110)

  6. Some guy, Thank you for your quote. Is Feldman's translation available on line? (I have the Milchamot in Hebrew downloaded from - could you please give me the reference for your quote?)

    The way I read the Ralbag ultimately we do not understand the term of the attribute as it applies to God. His argument is that for example movable, it could apply to God even if he is not a body, because it would have another meaning. It comes down to semantics. Ultimately God is unknowable.Correct me if I am wrong.

  7. I don't know whether the translation is available online. The quote comes out of volume 2, which is available on Amazon (used copies as well). There, it is on p.110. If you want to find it in the Hebrew, it would be in Chapter 3 of Book 3, "Divine Knowledge."

    My reading of Ralbag is that he is unhappy with the entire idea of absolute equivocation. Rather, when we use terms to describe attributes of God, these terms must mean the same thing with respect to us and with respect to God. That is not to say that God's "knowledge" is identical as our "knowledge," but nevertheless, the term "knowledge" must mean the same thing in both cases. He goes into a discussion of primary and secondary attribution (i.e., attributes are predicated of God primarily, and his creatures secondarily), which I believe is intended to provide a resolution to his critique of Maimonides. I'm not sure I completely understand what he is trying to say here, though.

  8. Some Guy, Come to think of it I do have one volume at home prfobably the one you refer to. i'll check tonight.

    I have been looking for the original hebrew for years. I think there was a scholarly edition in the 60's but I cannot get my hand on it.

  9. I have been looking for the original hebrew for years

    Here it is:

    You can print it out and take it to kinkos where they will happily bind it for you. I often do this with text that are no longer available in the book stores.

  10. Once again, you've given me much to digest.