Sunday, August 13, 2006

More about First Cause and Belief

On my post responding to GH where I discussed the proof for the existence of a First Cause, I responded to a comment that argued that all I proved was that a First Cause exists but it could be *anything*:

No it could not be anything. It would have to be *something* that contained in it all the information necessary for the universe to exist for it to be the cause for its existence. That *something* by definition is hierarchically higher than everything else.

To which another commenter made the following comment:

Is this not all belief? You cannot prove that "something" exists that contains all the information for the universe to exist and therefore hierarchically higher.

When I say that the First Cause is hierarchically higher to everything it is simply because it is the only entity that has no cause. The First Cause by definition exists independently of its effect and has no cause. It is therefore hierarchically the highest possible position in a chain of cause and effect.

The idea that all information is contained within the First Cause is much more complicated and I will propose a way to think about it. For Rambam and other medieval philosophers it was much easier to demonstrate. They understood that the motion of the spheres is because the spheres have a mind that conceives of the First Cause. They therefore emulate what they visualize as the perfect entity, the First Cause. For the First Cause to be perfect it by definition has to contain all knowledge, be omniscient and omnipotent. This idea of the spheres having a mind and thought sounds like a fantasy to us but they could not conceive of the laws of motion, inertia and gravity and this was their cosmology. The challenge is for us to translate that into contemporary science.

The way I see it is that the law of motion itself, the concept which is the cause of the movement of the planets, has to have a First Cause that conceived it. The First Cause therefore contains that law within itself as it contains all the other laws of nature, which it causes, within itself. It is the non-physical repository of the Laws of nature and therefore the cause of all existence. Being that it is a non-physical entity, it is not temporal but eternal. Time has no meaning outside the physical.

There is a revealing sentence in Rambam in Moreh 1:72 that made me think of that approach.

It is true, we might have compared the relation between God and the universe, to the relation between the acquired intellect and man; this intellect is not a faculty in the body, but is truly separate from the organic body and overflows toward it.”

The idea “acquired intellect” is when man has developed the intellect he is born with to its maximum potential by acquiring all possible knowledge. Rambam is comparing the relationship of God to physical existence like man’s mind to his body. Both God and the mind influence a physical entity but are outside it. He is referring to the well-known and much discussed mind-body problem, and uses the observation as an example of how a non-physical entity influences another physical one. Although Rambam is not talking about the issue we are discussing here, which is what impels us to say that God or the First Cause is more than a mere entity, the comparison to the intellect made me think in this direction. I do not think that it is a definitive answer to the question but rather a direction of thinking that I believe gives me a sense of the ultimate solution.

As to the question of belief and its role in philosophical and theological discussions, I think it is necessary to address it head on. The way I try to think and the way I believe a man of religion should, is to be realistic and know that one cannot develop a philosophy a-priori. Most of us who would try to go that route would eventually get tired and end up with nothing. As religious Jews we start with the things we are taught, or better supposed to have been taught, that God exists, He is one, incorporeal, omnipotent and omniscient. We now spend a lifetime trying to understand the meaning of these terms, prove them as true and by doing that develop an understanding of God, His relationship to us and the world and our relationship to God. Our goal is to turn belief into conviction in our minds. That is the mitzvah of Yediat Hashem. Plain simple belief is only a stepping-stone and a tool to help us stay focused in our search for understanding.

My objection against statements that God is a belief and no more is that it negates all that the Torah is meant to teach us and have us accomplish which is getting to know God. One of the most touching prayers we say every day is in the “Uvah Letzion Go’el” where we say “Hu yiftach libeinu betorato veyassim belibeinu ahavato vey’r’ato la’asot retzono ule’ovdo belevav shalem lema’an lo niga larik velo neled labehala” the last few words so that we should not toil in vain and be born for naught, are a reflection of every man’s internal question, am I going to find the truth at the end of the road? It is only through a constant and focused search that there is hope that we will find the truth. That is the purpose of Torah and Mitzvot, to keep us focused and searching at all times.

49 comments:

  1. Nice post! Perhaps we agree more than we disagree?

    ReplyDelete
  2. BS sounds like I am getting into trouble! :-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Na, I'm just becoming more "frum" :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. a skeptics skeptic8/13/2006 9:25 PM

    What proof or evidence exists that there is a "first cause".If we believe in the aristotelan idea that the world is eternal,what proof is there that there exists a supreme being.Either approach you must resort to belief.True the search is a constructive excercise but only after you believe in either theory.In the end since its in possible to prove either one we are only left with belief.

    ReplyDelete
  5. sketics skeptic8/13/2006 9:27 PM

    spelling correction-impossible

    ReplyDelete
  6. Your claim that "Our goal is to turn belief into conviction in our minds" seems not to cohere with your claim that "It is only through a constant and focused search that there is hope that we will find the truth". I don't think you can start out with some ancient beliefs from a primitive culture (more likely, "cultures") and think that the act of meditating on that belief set constitutes anything like a search for truth. I'm not saying you necessarily have to start from "Cogito ergo sum," but you at least have to be willing to start there.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Skeptic skeptic, I do not understand what you are asking. I thought that we have proven there is amn entity that is the first cause as an indefinite chain of causes is impossible. see all my posts on the subject. Your question about what we know about that entity is legitimate and I addressed it here.

    ReplyDelete
  8. >I don't think you can start out with some ancient beliefs from a primitive culture (more likely, "cultures") and think that the act of meditating on that belief set.

    First I do not accept that we are talking about a primitive culture at all. In fact I see it as the real basis for modern thought. It is Judaism and how it impacted the cultures that it met on the awy that created our current society. There is an excellent book by Jose Faur, In the shadow of hiostory that is a worthwhile read on the subject. Secondly I do not argue that neditation should be on Aristoteleian philosophy. All I am saying is to use Rambam's approach to Aristotle and apply it to contemporary scientific knowledge. i believe we will end up in the same place.

    Read this post and my other posts on the subjec. I think it is quite convincing.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Oh nand one more thing, why do you think Cogito ergo sum does not work with the idea of a first cause? In fact to my mind it fits very nicely with rambam's understanding of the human consciousness.

    ReplyDelete
  10. My point was that, while your proposal that "As religious Jews we start with the things we are taught, or better supposed to have been taught, that God exists, He is one, incorporeal, omnipotent and omniscient" may provide a convenient and easy course of study that does not dramatically challenge our deepest beliefs, there is no reason that the true search for truth should start from this point. The true search for truth has to begin with something like "What do I know?" or "What can I know," which is the spirit of the Cogito.

    If you can start from most basic principles and derive from them the existence of First Cause, etc., then fine. I don't think you (or anyone) can do this convincingly, although I know you think you have. But to begin the search with conjectures and speculations that we have been taught (as truth) about God completely sabotages any real search for truth.

    And you're right — to the extent that our conception of God comes out of Platonic or Aristotelean thought, this is not the result of a primitive culture. To the extent that our Jewish conception of God comes out of the Bible, I think the matter is in some doubt. But regardless, departing on a search for truth from this point is shear folly. Perhaps it might be a good starting point from which to develop a religious system, but truth is a different matter.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Some Guy, I would agree with you if I had not developed a tremendous respect for the sages that interpreted the torah over the ages. It is not possible for a single person in a lifetime to attain all that is needed to find the truth. It is, just like science, something that has to build on the work of earlier generations. The question is how do we know that they, the earlier ones, have led us in the right direction? It becomes subjective somewhat just like science is. We will every so often deviate, sometimes many for a long time, sometimes the maistream for a long time. However we have to believe that and hope that at some point Judaism followed by all of humanity will eventually turn to the right path to truth. To me that is the meaning of the trust that Moshiach will come, the real deep meaning behind that "Ani Ma'amin". A cynic might say it is an illusion. I can understand that but i also feel bad for him. What then is the raison d'etre for his life other than a transient passage. i would rather see myself as a small link in a continuous chain of truth seekers. Maybe that is Olam Haba or at least a part of it. . וכן זה שאמרו עטרותיהם בראשיהם--כלומר דעה שידעו שבגללה זכו לחיי העולם הבא, מצויה עימהן, והיא העטרה שלהן, כעניין שאמר שלמה "בעטרה, שעיטרה לו אימו" (שיר השירים ג,יא). והרי הוא אומר "ושמחת עולם, על ראשם" (ישעיהו לה,י; ישעיהו נא,יא), ואין השמחה גוף כדי שתנוח על הראש; כך עטרה שאמרו חכמים כאן, היא הדעה.

    ה ומה הוא זה שאמרו, ונהנין מזיו השכינה--שיודעין ומשיגין מאמיתת הקדוש ברוך הוא, מה שאינן יודעין והן בגוף האפל השפל

    Hil Teshuvah 8.

    ReplyDelete
  12. David,

    I may agree with you that for most people it would be better if they stayed with Judaism rather than leave. However, is it possible that for some people leaving would be the better choice?

    I would also say that we can learn from other spiritual traditions too. We should never be so close minded as to say that no other spiritual tradition has truth. Buddhism for example does have a lot to offer in my opinion. And even, if we remain within Judaism, we can still learn from others.

    ReplyDelete
  13. > I thought that we have proven there is amn entity that is the first cause as an indefinite chain of causes is impossible

    I honestly find this to be one of the weaker proofs. I can imagine an infinite chain. Take the front end of a chain and attach it to the back end. Now you have a chain without a beginning or an end. Perhaps I'm missing something?

    ReplyDelete
  14. BS the problem you have is that you visualize chains as a sequence in time. We are not talking in time. Your circular chain now becomes a closed entity that needs something to be its cause. Read again my early post http://yediah.blogspot.com/2006/02/negative-knowledge-essential-doctrine.html

    Re other religions, of course each one may have something good within it that can be adapted to judaism. It probably has been absorbed through history and become part of it having sometimes changed so much that it is unrecognizable. I find that i have so much to learn from our own tradition things that i don't know or need to integrate with everything else that i do know, that I have no great interest at this point to look elsewhere.

    It seems to me that to many of the commenters here the traditional Judaism , rather what they think is traditional judaism, they were fed in yeshivot is so unattractive that they despair of finding anything good in it. I agree with them. The Yeshivot are a disaster when it comes to dealing with thoughtful people. But that does not detract from the truth to be found in our tradition. i have been there myself and it is only through assiduous reading and learning our sources on my own with the help of both traditional and non traditional thinkers and interpreters, good and thoughtful friends, that I have developed a healthy respect and interest in tradition. "Ta'amu Ure'u ki tov Hashem"

    ReplyDelete
  15. i would rather see myself as a small link in a continuous chain of truth seekers.

    As would I! We just have to be honest with ourselves about what constitutes a search for truth, and what simply makes us feel good about our place in the universe. They are not necessarily one and the same. Sometimes the truths we find (e.g., evolution) may not necessarily accord with some of the beliefs that provide psychological comfort.

    I will supplement your quote (assuming I understood it correctly with my awful Hebrew) with this one from Philo:

    As for the divine essence, though in fact it is hard to track and hard to apprehend, it still calls for all the inquiry possible. For nothing is better than to search for the true God, even if the discovery of Him eludes human capacity, since the very wish to learn, if earnestly entertained, produces untold joys and pleasures.

    Incidentally, I wonder if Rambam knew of Philo at all. Julius Guttman claims that the first flowering of Greek-Jewish thought (which must include Philo) was lost to the Jewish tradition, while only the second flowering (including Bachya, Saadya, Rambam, etc.) made a lasting impact on the religion. I wonder...

    ReplyDelete
  16. Sometimes the truths we find (e.g., evolution) may not necessarily accord with some of the beliefs that provide psychological comfort.

    You have too little faith in the wisdom of our tradition. just because some idiotic "gedolim" don't accept it does not negate that our traition can live with the truth in tandem.

    Your quote by Philo is excellent. I see julius Guttman is working for you. If I dont forget tonight I will refer a good book on Philo. The name of the author slipped my mind just now.

    ReplyDelete
  17. >You have too little faith in the wisdom of our tradition. just because some idiotic "gedolim" don't accept it does not negate that our traition can live with the truth in tandem.

    *sigh* no benefit of the doubt... oh well.

    Interestingly, I saw recently a "study" about world wide belief in Evolution, and it wasn't so clear cut. They defined evolution by asking people the world over if people came from monkeys.

    Anyway..

    I am pretty sure that Einstein and a Hubble proved that the universe does not go back in eternity.

    There is a book called "the big bang never happened" and despite its terrible title, it is a book showing how all scientific discoveries have been modified and interpreted through the economic, philisophical and psychological ideas of the time, and how scientific discoveries also influence those. For example, he argues at one point how scientists chose the Mathematical model over imperial evidience. They decided that thier math was more true than what they obsereved.

    My point being, is that there is no such thing as starting from scratch. Unless you start at sayin the only thing I know is my brain, but modern science has shown how that too can be misleading to a person.

    ReplyDelete
  18. My point being, is that there is no such thing as starting from scratch.

    Indeed. But among all the possible places to start a search for truth, the Bible seems like a particularly odd choice.

    With regard to David's point, although I hate to say it, I do not have a very lofty opinion of our sages in their capacity as truth-seekers. I think in many cases they had wonderful ethical insights, but they were simply too committed to traditional Jewish beliefs to really offer much insight into the working of the physical universe. This is certainly true of Chazal, and probably true of Rambam as well.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Some Guy, My goal is to change your opinion re the sage's search for truth. I know you undrestimate them and misunderstand them. But let's talk again about that in a while.

    ReplyDelete
  20. >Indeed. But among all the possible places to start a search for truth, the Bible seems like a particularly odd choice.

    What is so odd about it?

    True, if I was walking down the streat, was a martian and found the bible I wouldn't start there... however, nobody, well very few, people first encountered the bible that way.

    The bible is supposedly based on the teachings of a tribe of people which was started by one man who was the first to find the unity of G-d. Why is that such a strange place to start looking for "The Truth" which is just a synonym for "that which explains everything" which is just another way of saying, The unity of the universe.

    ReplyDelete
  21. >I think in many cases they had wonderful ethical insights, but they were simply too committed to traditional Jewish beliefs to really offer much insight into the working of the physical universe.

    The purpose of religion is not really to teach you about the physical universe. It is primarily an ethical/spiritual system. It's not fair to judge Chazal based on their lack of scientific, just like it wouldn't be fair to judge a scientist based on his lack of spiritual awareness.

    ReplyDelete
  22. but they were simply too committed to traditional Jewish beliefs to really offer much insight into the working of the physical universe.

    What in the world makes you think this is what they were out to do?

    ReplyDelete
  23. Chardal, BS you both make a very strong point and are exactly right. Chazal were out to show that science and physics, whatever the understanding of the times, eventually led to an understanding of God. They were teaching how that had to be done with the knowledge of their time. Rambam emulated them applying it to the knowledge of his time and it behooves us to do so with our contemporary science. That is where my friend Some Way gets off the track as does GH and many of the other commenters and bloggers.

    ReplyDelete
  24. What in the world makes you think this is what they were out to do?

    I do not think that is what they were out to do. They were not necessarily truth seekers. That was partly my point. David suggests that a search for truth should start with Bible or Chazal. I think that would be a terrible place to start a search for truth, because those authors — intelligent as they might have been — were motivated by a set of concerns and beliefs that were not conducive for an open-minded and critical search for truth.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Umm, learning the physical sciences does not lead one to Truth.

    Here is the Wiki article on the subject.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truth#Types_of_truth

    You will notice that the scientific method is but a small refrence in this article.

    Truth is rarely ever argued by science, instead it is argued by philosophy and religion. There is also vague truth in Law, and a sort of mechanical truth in Math and Logic.

    But the scientific method has little to do with Truth.

    ReplyDelete
  26. Just did a search on the scientific method article in wiki for the word Truth, and each time it came up, it was in a sentance that refered to the idea that science does not find truth.

    ReplyDelete
  27. By the way David.. Chagigah has a very kabbalistic section in it. Curious how that is explained by the Momondians.

    ReplyDelete
  28. >Chagigah has a very kabbalistic section in it. Curious how that is explained by the Momondians.

    Keep on reading the Momondians and I will be sure to touch on it:-)

    ReplyDelete
  29. I had learned the mishna before, and a few of the gemorahs, and those are fairly basic.. however some of the aggadatas that the artscroll just comments on saying "we don't know how to understand these, you are not allowed to know" are right up in line with what I have read in the 'false' kabbalah books.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Just did a search on the scientific method article in wiki for the word Truth, and each time it came up, it was in a sentance that refered to the idea that science does not find truth.

    Well, it sounds like you've really studied the issue.

    ReplyDelete
  31. They were not necessarily truth seekers

    Of course they were! And when the gentiles made arguments that chazal felt better described the phisical world, chazal conceded - precisely BECAUSE they were truth seekers.

    This is where cultural bias rears its head. You can not possibly understand chazal unless you look at the world from the angle they were looking at it. Chazal's methodoligy was to create a legal/spiritual formula to fit in with the world around them. The purpose of this system was to define the proper behavioral and mental relationships between man and external existance.

    It concerned them much less whether they had the correct cosmology than if they had a cosmology that worked for the purposes of running a proper calendar or for symbols to communicate deeper abstract truths.

    I always wonder why chazal are treated so harshly by skeptics. Do skeptics feel that aristotle was a fool for having a faulty physics?? Of course not! Was he not a truth seeker? Of course he was! Why the double standard when it comes to chazal?

    ReplyDelete
  32. Well, it sounds like you've really studied the issue.

    Whether he did or not, I think most would agree that Hume pretty much put to rest the idea the induction is an avenue to truth.

    ReplyDelete
  33. It concerned them much less whether they had the correct cosmology than if they had a cosmology that worked for the purposes of running a proper calendar or for symbols to communicate deeper abstract truths.

    Chardal, that is exactly the point I was trying to make.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Hume's argument defeats, shall we say, "strong induction," in the sense that correlations or "constant conjunctions" do not logically imply causal structure. But that is not the end of the story. Causal relationships manifest themselves as particular correlational patterns, and thus correlational patterns (particularly conditional probabilistic dependencies) are indicative of underlying causal structure, with a computable degree of probability. (Correlational structure is the "shadow" of causal structure, as one author puts it.) This is the underlying motivation for all the work in Bayesian (Belief) Networks. I once suggested to David that this field should be seriously studied by those interested in arguments about causality. It has been a very popular area of machine learning for about 10 years. Judea Pearl's first book is the seminal work.

    In any case, if "the scientific method has little to do with Truth," as Irviner suggests, then there's no sense at all in talking about a quest for truth at all. If doing carefully planned experiments does not reveal any truth about the world, then sitting in an armchair with some ice-cream and making up fanciful stories doesn't seem like a very promising alternative to me. And frankly, although we can endlessly debate the definition of "Truth" in a broad sense, if well-tested scientific theories (e.g., relativity) do not contain an element of "Truth," then what is Truth?

    ReplyDelete
  35. >It concerned them much less whether they had the correct cosmology than if they had a cosmology that worked for the purposes of running a proper calendar or for symbols to communicate deeper abstract truths

    I agree that they were trying to construct a structure that fit in with science, I dont agree that they were less concerned with the science itself. I see them as telling us to learn from them how they fit a theological system over the science of their time , we should do the same in our time and so too future generations with their science. that is why I am less concerned with their science but how they dealt with it.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Chardal, that is exactly the point I was trying to make.

    But that is not what you said, you said they were not truth seakers, whereas what it seems like you meant was that they were not searching for the same area of truth you are searching for.

    But that is not the end of the story.

    I never said it was but all that you write ends up amounting to not much more than the assertion that science is good at creating models that work in the phycial worlds and in predicting the behaviors of things in the physical world.

    I don't think anyone here denied its usefullness or its achievements. But, if someone wants to get a better understanding of spiritual matters, about morality and the human condition, about spirituality and will, then science has very little to offer.

    The new science only challenges us to create a greater spiritual model to match up to our better understanding of the phisical world, but it in no way answers any of major questions of life.

    ReplyDelete
  37. I agree that they were trying to construct a structure that fit in with science, I dont agree that they were less concerned with the science itself.

    That is not what I meant. What I meant was that what is in the texts we have from them, mishna, gemara, tosephta, etc., the purpose is not to describe the physical world. Whatever their interest in science was, it was secondary to the manner in which we spiritualy relate to the physical world in whatever capacity we understand the physical rules that govern it.

    ReplyDelete
  38. >spiritualy relate

    I also have a problem with the word "spiritually" as I am not sure what it means. I prefer ontologically. The new age lingo has hijacked so many words and made them suspect.

    ReplyDelete
  39. But Chardal I knew what you meant i was just picking on the words. It is only after one learns Chazal intensely, both halacha and aggadah one realizes that truth was their greatest treobjective truth wherever possible. R. Ytzchak Isac Halevi in his Dorot Harishonim brilliantly shows how dedicated to the truth they were. He does that in context of criticism by Graetz and Frankel on some of Chazal's statements. If you have the patience and the fortitude to follow a giant in Torah and how he applies it to history it is worthwhile. It is 6 volumes of heaven! I know rav Kook is critical of him in one of his letters and accuses him of extremism and anger, but he was fantastic nonetheless.

    ReplyDelete
  40. Science attempts to have an idea of how the world works at this point in time. They have the Truth to the best of thier understanding at this moment, if they understand all of science. (assuming that is even possible for one person to really do)

    There is no claim in the sciences to "have the Truth." Just as there is usually no claim in courts to "know the Truth." These are not things that Science pursues. What they pursue is a working understanding of the physcial world which is able to make predictable results, so that they can use that information to better understand, and if they are altruisitic, to help humans have more things to make thier life easier/more interesting/whatever.

    If one were having problems in thier lives, and did not know who to get married to, or what to do at a family outing, they will not call up a physists and ask them. If one wanted to know, what they were suppose to do with thier time, they would not call up a chemist.

    ReplyDelete
  41. >I also have a problem with the word "spiritually" as I am not sure what it means. I prefer ontologically. The new age lingo has hijacked so many words and made them suspect.

    Doesn't ontollogically mean, how they are in reality despite observation?

    That is not what spiritually means.

    It is a shame that you think new age hijacked so many words that instead you try to use new words. I would think if you want to get away from the New age hijackings that you use hebrew terms instead, as they tend to be much more exact.

    ReplyDelete
  42. >Doesn't ontollogically mean, how they are in reality despite observation?

    Ontological means the study of Being or Existence. And as we all know it's hard to define

    ReplyDelete
  43. I meant Ontology is the study of being or existence. Which would mean, in a way, the study or knowledge of God

    ReplyDelete
  44. >I would think if you want to get away from the New age hijackings that you use hebrew terms instead, as they tend to be much more exact.

    I think spirit=ruach. What does ruach mean? Maybe power or essence. These terms are all very hard to define

    ReplyDelete
  45. spirit can mean Ruach, Neshema, Nefesh, Coach, and a few other words that escape me, which are normally translated as essence and "in the spirit of law" vs "the letter of the law"

    However, in Jewish literature, I think Ruach is fairly well defined as being an external source moving towards an internal experience, or the pushing of your intenal eperience onto the external world.

    ReplyDelete
  46. >However, in Jewish literature, I think Ruach is fairly well defined as being an external source moving towards an internal experience, or the pushing of your intenal eperience onto the external world.

    Where do you get these ideas and make such sweeping statements? Do you have a reliable source for this?

    ReplyDelete
  47. irviner why do you have more than one identity depending on the blog?

    ReplyDelete