Sunday, July 30, 2006

God's will part 3 - a Paradox and Prophecy.

In my last post, I posited that God’s will is not temporal. It therefore follows that from God’s perspective everything has already happened and consequently is pre-determined. Even man’s actions, which are subject to his free will, are already known to God. This brings us to the paradox of God’s “knowledge” and man’s free choice. How can man be responsible for his actions if God already knows how he will chose? The answer is that although God “knows” it does not pre-determine man’s actions. We do not know how that works because God’s “knowledge”, just like His “will”, is just words that explain certain observations we make about the result of God’s actions. Rambam in Hilchot Teshuvah 5:5 legislates:

[ה] שמא תאמר והלוא הקדוש ברוך הוא יודע כל מה שיהיה קודם שיהיה: ידע שזה צדיק או רשע, או לא ידע; אם ידע שהוא יהיה צדיק, אי אפשר שלא יהיה צדיק, ואם תאמר שידע שיהיה צדיק ואפשר שיהיה רשע, הרי לא ידע הדבר על בורייו.
יא דע שתשובת שאלה זו "ארוכה מארץ, מידה; ורחבה, מני ים" (איוב יא,ט), וכמה עיקרים גדולים והררים רמים תלויים בה; אבל צריך אתה לידע ולהבין בדבר זה שאני אומר.
יב כבר ביארנו בפרק שני מהלכות יסודי התורה שהקדוש ברוך הוא אינו יודע בדעה שהיא חוץ ממנו כבני אדם שהן ודעתם שניים, אלא הוא יתברך שמו ודעתו אחד; ואין דעתו של אדם יכולה להשיג דבר זה על בורייו. וכשם שאין כוח באדם להשיג ולמצוא אמיתת הבורא, שנאמר "כי לא יראני האדם, וחי" (שמות לג,כ)--כך אין כוח באדם להשיג ולמצוא דעתו של בורא: הוא שהנביא אומר "כי לא מחשבותיי מחשבותיכם, ולא דרכיכם דרכיי" (ישעיהו נה,ח). וכיון שכן הוא, אין בנו כוח לידע היאך ידע הקדוש ברוך הוא כל הברואים ומעשיהם.
יג אבל נדע בלא ספק, שמעשה האדם ביד האדם; ואין הקדוש ברוך הוא מושכו, ולא גוזר עליו לא לעשות כך ולא שלא לעשות כך. ולא מפני קבלת הדת בלבד נדע דבר זה, אלא בראיות ברורות מדברי החכמה. ומפני זה נאמר בנבואה שדנין את האדם על כל מעשיו כפי מעשיו, אם טוב ואם רע. וזה העיקר, שכל דברי הנבואה תלויין בו

In other words we live in a dialectic reality which is pre-determined and not pre-determined at the same time. From our perspective some things are predictable and pre-determined, such as natural phenomena, and some are not such as human actions. From God’s perspective everything, past and present, has already happened and is known. It is the interaction of these opposites, nature’s predictability and man’s freedom of choice, thus his unpredictability and on the other hand God’s “knowledge”, that is, as we will see, the basis of Rambam’s understanding of prophecy and miracles.

One of the ways God’s will manifests itself in our universe is through the laws of nature. These laws in a certain sense contain in them everything that happened and will happen. When we look at the Universe without taking into consideration God as creator we look at it from the outside. We observe phenomena, analyze them, develop a theory of how they function and then verify if the explanation fits all manifestations of those phenomena. If we take God as Creator into consideration, from God’s perspective, He has designed these phenomena. He has an a priori knowledge of them and their effect. Rambam addresses this difference in Moreh 3:21 as follows:

Whatever we know of the things is derived from observation: on that account it is impossible for us to know that which will take place in future, or that which is infinite. Our knowledge is acquired and increased in proportion to the things known by us. This is not the case with God. His knowledge of things is not derived from the things themselves: if this were the case, there would be change and plurality in His knowledge; on the contrary, the things are in accordance with His eternal knowledge, which has established their actual properties, and made part of them purely spiritual, another part material and constant as regards its individual members, a third part material and changeable as regards the individual beings according to eternal and constant laws. Plurality, acquisition, and change in His knowledge are therefore impossible. He fully knows His unchangeable essence, and has thus knowledge of all that results from any of His acts. If we were to try to understand in what manner this is done, it would be the same as if we tried to be the same as God, and to make our knowledge identical with His knowledge. Those who seek the truth, and admit what is true, must believe that nothing is hidden from God; that everything is revealed to His knowledge, which is identical with His essence; that this kind of knowledge cannot be comprehended by us; for if we knew its method, we would possess that intellect by which such knowledge could be acquired. Such intellect does not exist except in God, and is at the same time His essence.”

Rambam here describes one aspect of God’s “knowledge” and how it differs from ours. It is an elaboration of what he wrote in Hilchot Teshuvah I quoted earlier. He considers this as an extremely important doctrine :

"Note this well, for I think that this is something most extraordinary and a true opinion; if it is carefully studied no mistake or distortion will be found in it, nor will incongruities be attached to it and no deficiency is ascribed through it to God .. "

Although God’s “knowledge” is something we can never acquire it is still man’s goal to, as impossible as it is, try to acquire some of it through getting to know as much as possible about God’s ways and His will. Medieval philosophers call the information available to man for that purpose, Sechel Hapoel – Active intellect. In our modern termwe would call it scientific knowledge however looked at from a perspective that allows for God as Creator to be part of it. It is a combination of empirical science with metaphysical interpretation. The metaphysical interpretation must however, first and foremost, not clash with the scientific evidence. Prophecy is when a person has reached that perfect balance between science and metaphysics.

Without having experienced prophecy we can only build a theoretical construct of what it is. However we can get this understanding from what we glean from Tanach and the rabbi’s interpretation thereof. The process needed to develop prophecy is in itself an interesting subject of great practical importance to every Jew. I will address these issues in future posts. Here I have outlined a sketch of what the goal is and how it relates to God’s will.

Finally, as I have discussed in earlier posts, the word angel describes any tool that God uses in the functioning of the universe. This Active Intellect being composed of the laws of nature that are behind the functioning of the universe is therefore referred to as an angel. Rambam in Yesodei Hatorah 2:5-7 explains that we designate different names to the various forces that function as sequences of cause and effect and govern our universe. To help us visualize them we separate them into ten groups with the last one in the sequence of cause and effect, the Active Intellect. That last group is also called “Ishim” –

ומעלה עשירית, היא מעלת הצורה שנקראת אישים, והם המלאכים שמדברים עם הנביאים ונראים להם במראה הנבואה; לפיכך נקראו אישים, שמעלתם קרובה ממעלת דעת האדם.

This post is already longer than I intended. I will leave it here knowing full well that I have only touched on “Rashei Perakim”. I just wanted to outline the connection between God’s “will”, “knowledge” and prophecy.


  1. Someone sent me a string theory link about seeing in 10 dimensions.

    The 10th dimension is all possibilities on all time lines, and therefore the 11th dimension is "impossible".. quite a brain teaser there...

    Anyway, we only live in 3 dimensions, (time doesn't count as a dimension) yet persumably G-d would be outside all of these dimensions, and so it would not be hard for G-d to know without it affecting freewill.

    Atleast, thats the mathematical explanation.

  2. That's a mathematical explanation? Sheesh.... (Recommendation: Don't base your understanding of string theory on a link someone sent you. There are books on the topic.)

    Anyway, David, with regard to the statement:

    If we were to try to understand in what manner this is done, it would be the same as if we tried to be the same as God, and to make our knowledge identical with His knowledge.

    Don't you think this is just a giant cop-out? Rambam is faced with the paradox of God's omniscience vs. free will, and the great rationalist basically throws up his hands and says "yes, you can have both, but I cannot conceive how this is possible, and moreover it is impossible for anyone ever to conceive how this is possible." What kind of a solution is this?

    I think Gersonides' solution is much more serious: God's omniscience does not extend beyond the logical bounds of omniscience. Thus, God does not know the outcome of events which are contingent on man's exercise of his free will. This is not a defect in God, because it is not a defect when something fails to do what is logically impossible to do. This solution is not without it's problems (since most of the history of civilization is contingent on men's decisions), but it seems far more honest to me.

    The problem with the Rambam is that once you throw up your hands, and say that an obvious contradiction is not a contradiction because of some reason we cannot explain, then basically it's "anything goes". ANY logical contradiction may then be tolerated based on some reason we cannot explain. It makes a mockery of the logical method.

  3. Some Guy, you make a very valid point and Ralbag's approach does have merit just like it had with transcendence. They, rambam and ralbag, are two rational approaches that if carried forward to their logical conclusions will both solve some problems and create new ones the other does not. There is no perfect solution.

    What attracts me to rambam's approach is his clear delineations between science and metaphysics. He posits that science has to be emppirically provable, metaphysics has only to not contradict a scientific demonstration. He accepts that there may be more than one answer but will try to adhere to the one that is most in synch with Torah and the rabbis. i did not post the last few sentences of the quote as i did not want to go off topic but here it is:

    "These sublime and profound themes admit of no proof whatever, neither according to our opinion who believe in the teaching of Scripture, nor according to the philosophers who disagree and are much divided on this question. In all questions that cannot be demonstrated, we must adopt the method which we have adopted in this question about God's Omniscience. Note it."

    To me that honesty is compelling and defines the religious experience as an integrated ontologiocal interpretation of observable phenomena rather than trying to be a scientific explanation of a religious and ontological theory. I hope I make sense to you.

    That brings me to the mystical experience. It crosses that boundary and tries to impose an ontological interpretation to science. It therefore interfers with scientific inquiry and makes a mockery of it. Hence the nonsense we hear nowadays about age of universe and other such stupidity.

    I was readind in skeptics magazine an article about orthodox college students, especially students of sciences, accepting the age of the universe as 5766 and literally the pessukim in Breishit. If true it is a reflection on the poor quality of our Rashei Yeshivot's intellectual honesty and general thought process. it is very painful to watch and has distorted Judaism to the point of making it close to an idolatrous religion. i doubt that their adhesion to ritual has any religious meaning other than superstition.


    Thats the link, whats wrong with the content?

    I appologize for not going through every step of the explanation on a level of detail which would leave me with no time to do more important things.

  5. Jewishskeptic7/31/2006 9:18 AM

    R.Chisdai Crescas in his 'Or Hashem'concedes that man doesn't have free will .The sechar va'onesh is only for his 'attepting'to do good & stay away from evil,not that he really has F.W. That's my understanding of him.
    Still, that's begging the question.
    You need F.W. in order to 'attempt'something & the question remains, why sechar va'onesh for the attempting if the attempting itself was forced upon him.
    I can't think of any other Jewish philosopher who holds this view.

  6. JS, Ra'avad in his comment to Rambam in Hil Teshuva seems the say that people have a predetermined path imposed by the stars and has the ability to overcome it. In other words he takes away foreknowledge from God and passes it to the stars. Ibn Ezra in Yesod Morah says a similar thing. Again you beg the question where is God's omniscience? Do they accept Rambam's approach just add a layer? Ra'avad in his comment however seems to attack rambam's answer.

    I believe that awareness of the limit of human knowledge is the right answer. It is my understanding of Anava that Moshe Rabbeinu had. it is told in context of his special nevuah at the end of beha'alotcha. Although he had the highest level of undersatnding man can acquire he was still acutely aware of human limits.

  7. Irviner, I don't think that link has anything to do with string theory. It's written by some music producer named Rob Bryanton, and reeks of New Age mumbo jumbo. I would recommend reading one of the popular treatments of string theory by an authentic string theorist (Brian Greene come to mind), or by a serious science-journalist type. It should be clear that such books only convey a "flavor" of string theory, which is itself among the most mathematical branches of physics, but at least they won't mislead you as to it's general contents.

  8. JS, I see that Louis Jacobs agrees with your assessment of Crescas' uniqueness, but he goes on to say

    Although Crescas is generally considered to be the only Jewish thinker of note whose views approach religious determinism, the Hasidic master R. Joseph Mordecai of Izbica (d. 1854) has an even more radical deterministic view. R. Mordecai Joseph quotes the Talmudic passage (Ber. 33 b): "Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven" but observes that in reality: "Everything is in the hands of Heaven even the fear of Heaven." In this world the full truth that in reality only the will of God prevails is hidden from man so that the illusion of free will is maintained as an inducement to man to worship his Creator. In the Messianic age the truth will be revealed in all its splendour and in that age there will be neither virtue nor sin since all is due solely to the will of God. See his Me Ha-Shiloah to Korah, p. 98; to IIaazirlu, p. 127 bot., and to
    Va-yera, p. 15. See the fine article by J. G. Weiss: The Religious Determisrn of Joseph Mordecai of Izbica.

  9. Jewishskeptic7/31/2006 12:06 PM

    Some guy,
    Thanks for the reference.

  10. David, I just started reading a classic called "Philosophies of Judaism" by a certain Julius Guttmann, translated from German. I was curious, is he related to you in some way, perhaps?

  11. Some Guy,I have it in Hebrew and i read parts of it. No he is not as far as I can tell.Just curious, are you an academic? in what field? If you want you can email me.

  12. Too bad. I thought it would be neat if you were related. (I am a postdoc in cognitive psychology. My interest in "knowability of God" is related to my general interest in "knowability of anything," which, for the time being, is basically the topic of my studies, but in a much more mundane setting.)

  13. >I can't think of any other Jewish philosopher who holds this view.

    well, Spinoza didn't believe in "Free-Will", but he believed that reward comes from the natural consequence of our actions/thoughts. If you are close to God then regardless of free-will you will be blessed

    Although I'm not sure if you would consider Spinoza as a "Jewish philosopher" or not

  14. >If you are close to God then regardless of free-will you will be blessed

    Isn't it a result of free will that one is close to God? Isn't it a choice?

    I have a hard time understanding your comment.

  15. >I thought it would be neat if you were related

    I am flattered.

  16. >In the Messianic age the truth will be revealed in all its splendour and in that age there will be neither virtue nor sin since all is due solely to the will of God.

    Almost sounds like moral relevatism, which intrinsicly I want to reject, but again, as I learn I start seeing partial truths in it.

    >sn't it a result of free will that one is close to God? Isn't it a choice?

    I have a hard time understanding your comment

    I think its an issue of definition rather than cause and affect.

    Being close to G-d is being blessed, so if your close because your forced to be there, or if your close because you chose to be there, you are being blessed.

  17. >Irviner, I don't think that link has anything to do with string theory

    I am pretty sure that string theory promotes the idea of infinite time lines, and varying degrees of "reality" in different dimentions. And the concept of Flatlanders is from the early 60s I think. And normally a must read for geometry students.

  18. Flatland dates from long before the 60's. (Unless you meant the 1860's.) I don't recall it being required reading for geometry, although it's certainly an insightful book, up to a point. (Ha,ha.) Are you just teasing me, Irviner?

  19. The book has been asigned to students in geometry classes to help them think about geometric space.

    But its possible I'm thinking of sphereland, and not flatland exactly.

    Regardless, the point is that if you think of infinite time, and multiple dimensions, its not hard to see how a G-d can have omnipitence and not affect free will.

  20. If it's indeed not hard to see, would you care to explain it to me? How does multiple dimensions get you out of the paradox? Let's have it. Feel free to use whatever mathematics you have at your disposal. I will do my best to understand.

  21. Doing an action on this timeline, does not affect me doing an action on another timeline, if I even exist in another timeline. G-d being outside of all timelines, can view all timelines equally, and thus know what happens in every possible timeline, past and present. However, I only exist in one time line, and which "timeline I exist in" could be said to change based on the choices I make. However, I could have made a different choice and thus in another timeline I would have done so, and that possiblity is also known.

    Also, we find that the act of observation defines the reality for us Humans. I think this leads one to question if G-d can "observe" us the way we would observe a photon acting as a particle or a wave, and thus pinpoint us, or if that is too human of an action, and therefore sees all possiblities. Meaning, that if Gd were to be compared to the scientists, the scientist would always see the photon as both a wave and a particle, no matter the method of observation.

  22. You could even argue, that you exist in all possible dimensions, however you as the observer only exist in the one you are observing. So your choices are not so much your choices of actions but rather your choices of observations.

  23. That's a very nice story, but in what sense is your choice free if God knows what choice you make in each "timeline"?

    Here's how Louis Jacobs characterizes the problem. Perhaps this will clarify things: If God knows before a man is born all that he will do in his lifetime how can that man help doing whatever he does? It will not do to reply — as many have tried to do — that God's foreknowledge is not determinative, that while God knows what man will do this does not compel him to do it any more than our knowledge of what a man has done in the past exerts any compulsion on him to do it. For this is precisely the difficulty, how can foreknowledge fail to be determinative? It is not as if God is said to assume or guess approximately or assess with great probability how men will behave in the future. God is said to know how they will behave in the future. Such knowledge must preclude any possibility of error and it is hard to see how, granted this understanding of divine omniscience, a man can be free.

  24. Because there is no difference in reality, which timeline you end up being in.

    Take a choose your own adventure book for example. All the possibilities exist right there infront of you, you could choose to not skip around like the instuctions say, and just read from page to page.

    The "story" as it were is all happening. the question is only, as a Human being, which story are you currently engageing yourself in. what choices are you making to observe the particular instance of a particular reality within the realm of infinite instances of infinite realities.

    I'm having some difficulty finding the exact language to get my point across. But if "You" exist in multiple places, yet "You" only can observe one of yourselfs at any particular moment, does that negate the existance of the other "You"s.

    think about what the act of observation does to an Electron as it spins around it's atom.

  25. Irviner, I think you need to clarify your thinking. Is your point that there is some reality corresponding to every decision you could possibly make (i.e., a many-worlds situation)? This doesn't solve anything, becuase God still knows what decisions each timeline contains, no?

  26. What I am suggesting is a bit of a mix.

    I am suggesting that what we call "ME" is just an observer status.

    If you were to take it to the extereme, you could say, You don't make decisions to do something or not, you make decisions to view one timeline over another.

    To take the wave particle duality, You are not deciding if it is a wave or a particle, you are deciding if you want to Observe it to be a wave or a particle.

  27. But each timeline is an actual reality, right? In one timeline I break the fast on ice cream, in another timeline I break the fast on Corn Flakes. (You can see what's on my mind.) But both of these events actually happen in their respective timelines! As well as every other of infinite possibilities of what I might break the fast on. They all actually happen, but I just select which timeline I want to watch? Ice cream, in 5 minutes, probably. But who is watching the other timelines? In the timeline where I will be eating Corn Flakes in 3 minutes, is the "me" in that timeline not conscious or something? Is he not rewarded by God for eating Corn Flakes and not ice cream? And does God know which timeline I will choose to view at every moment? Does he know which food timeline I will enjoy in 1 minute? And if "I" will actually simultaneously experience every timeline (including those where, oddly, I don't eat anything in 1/2 minute), what is the actual content of God's foreknowledge? He just knows that "anything at all can (and will) happen"? That's pretty lame. OK, gotta run. It's gonna be pizza, then Corn Flakes, then ice cream.

  28. I don't know, the Mind's I never really adressed that question, or gave me anything to really think about the answer to the question of what the other "me" experiencees, if anything.

    What does a plant "experience"? Its hard to understand exactly what the conciousness is. However, if the concept of conciousness is really only the same as the concept of observer its a possible, if maybe lame, answer.

  29. Hmmmmmm.....