Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Is man the center of the universe? Does it exist to serve humankind?

One of the most important existential questions we face is whether there is a purpose to existence. Is the universe and all its content just an accident, a purposeless mass of physicality or does it have a mission, a purpose, a goal of some kind? Intriguingly when we look at the components of the world that surrounds us we can detect a certain reliance of one thing on another. We see that water is one of the catalysts that make things grow; growing things serve as food to others and to living things while they serve as food to other living things and to man. There seems to be a system of dependability what we call an ecosystem. It is therefore tempting to establish a hierarchy and say that the lower elements, the ones that have less mobility, less independence, less freedom of choice are there to serve the higher and more developed organisms. Extrapolating backwards one may come to the conclusion that everything is there to serve man, the highest and most developed organism in the known universe. Many philosophers have come to that conclusion. Many of our great thinkers believe that it is the Torah way of looking at things. Many assertions by our prophets seem to promote that idea.

The problem with this anthropocentric position is that if man is the center of the universe, why do so many bad things, things that seem to hurt man, occur? After all if everything is there to protect man, why are there earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and other such natural disasters that kill large segments of a population? What about diseases? What about genetic diseases? And this is before we address what man does to each other? What about the threat of nuclear destruction where man has harnessed nature to self-destruct? It would seem that humanity survived so far in spite of all the obstacles in its path. Add in the belief in a just God and the incongruity magnifies. Is this justice? Bring in religion and the idea of emulating God and you go off the charts. Is this apparent injustice, this self-destructive streak in nature that we are supposed to emulate?

Clearly anthropocentrism is a myth and a mirage. It is wishful thinking. Man is just another organism within a whole ecology. He may have superior abilities, his survival skills are more developed, and he therefore can make better use of his surroundings. He may be able to control his environment though not always to his best interest. From a religious perspective we look at man as part of an infinite universe. God created this universe to last forever and man is one little organism that is part of this infinite entity. The first and foremost priority is for the universe to survive with or without man. Man’s abilities, the abilities that developed as part of God’s will at creation, allow him to actively partake in this great system. He has the choice of being productive and eventually take control of his environment or destroy it and himself. That is the meaning of the Passuk we will be reading in a few days:

כח וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ; וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם, וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבְכָל-חַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל-הָאָרֶץ.
28 And God blessed them; and God said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.'

Rambam in MN 3:13 addresses the issue and concludes:

I consider therefore the following opinion as most correct according to the teaching of the Bible, and best in accordance with the results of philosophy; namely, that the Universe does not exist for man's sake, but that each being exists for its own sake, and not because of some other thing. Thus we believe in the Creation, and yet need not inquire what purpose is served by each species of the existing things, because we assume that God created all parts of the Universe by His will; some for their own sake, and some for the sake of other beings, that include their own purpose in themselves. In the same manner as it was the will of God that man should exist, so it was His will that the heavens with their stars should exist, that there should be angels, and each of these beings is itself the purpose of its own existence.”

In other words man is not the purpose of creation. Creation happened because it is God’s will (I have touched on the meaning of God’s will in the past but will deal with many more times).

Further in the same chapter Rambam continues:

Study the book which leads all who want to be led to the truth, and is therefore called Torah (Law or Instruction), from the beginning of the account of the Creation to its end, and you will comprehend the opinion which we attempt to expound. For no part of the creation is described as being in existence for the sake of another part, but each part is declared to be the product of God's will, and to satisfy by its existence the intention [of the Creator]. This is expressed by the phrase," And God saw that it was good" (Gen. i. 4, etc.)… And “good” is an expression applied by us to what conforms to its purpose.”

This brings us to the meaning of “Good” and consequently the opposite “Bad” or Tov and Rah.

The consequences of this outlook are immense and far-reaching. Rambam presents this as he starts discussing providence or what we generally call Hashgacha. I will be addressing this in more depth in upcoming posts.

Moadim Lesimcha.


  1. Jewishskeptic10/10/2006 8:52 AM

    I find this quote from Moreh 3:13 difficult.
    The shem Tov ad loc writes:

    שאחנו נאמר שהשם המציא כל חלקי העולם ברצונו ואחר שכלם שבים אל רצונו בטלה מהם שאלת התכלית

    Does that mean there is no purpose to the universe?
    Are *Will* & *Purpose* identical?
    I can imagine willing without a purpose. Or would you say that only with God are they identical?
    Or that Will & purpose are two different things & conclude from it that God's Will has no purpose!
    Then why search for a meaning & purpose in anything? It's all God's Will & that's that!

  2. JS, as usual you hit it on the head and move the discussion to the next level. if you read Rambam in 3;13 he starts off by saying that according to Aristotle who holds of Kadmut, the question is mmot. It was never created so what could the purpose be? According to us who believe in Creation whether Platonic or Yesh Meayin, we add in Will into the mix. But now we have a problem because in humans will and purpose are not identical. Furthermore will cannot be separate from Atzmus or we have multiplicity. So it is no longer will only by equivocation. In other words it would be will if a human would do such a thing. God's will is different and it is one with Him and all the other attributes. What are we humans left with? We try to discern that will from analysing creation and how He runs it, the 13 Midot. So the simple answer is yes Will and purpose by HKBH is one as is Chochma. Hashem bechochma bara aretz. (Quoting from memory probably wrong but you get the gist.)

    Mekubalim use this as the strating point. Look at the Etz Chaim, ( i will give you the location tonight when i get home if i don't forget)

    the problem is that they break away Ratzon from the Etzem. i once wrote about it based on the Ohr Sameach on hilchot teshuva.

  3. I can imagine willing without a purpose

    As did Schopenhaur and his student Nieztche. This is really the starting point of all existential thought - whether there is an underlying predefined purpose to our willfulness or whether man defines (wills) his own purpose.

    the problem is that they break away Ratzon from the Etzem.

    This is a HUGE machloket in kabbalah and revolves around whether the sefira of keter (will) is synonimous with ein sof or whether it is derivitive from it. One of the most fascinating discussions in kabbalah is on the inter-relationship between keter and chochma - which is really the question of whether will has a predefined order or is chaotic.

  4. >One of the most fascinating discussions in kabbalah is on the inter-relationship between keter and chochma - which is really the question of whether will has a predefined order or is chaotic.

    Interestingly Prof Avraham Nuriel AH analyzed the two arabic words Rambam uses for will, Meshia and Aradah and tries to show that he differentiates between a "higher" will and a 'lower". This created a lot of argument among scholars. Aviezer Ravitsky wrote a paper to rebut as did others. in Michael Schwartz edition see note 26 on chapter 1:2 where he also questions the nuriel assertion.

    I think Nuriel was much more on target re Hanhaga and Hashgacha. i will write about that too.

  5. Jewishskeptic10/10/2006 3:55 PM

    David,I am re-reading M.3:12
    from the traditional Moreh & his nosei kelav.There is a very long Shem Tov at the beginning of the ch. Sometimes his perush is unnecessarely too long.It's a pity that Abarbanel didn't write a perush for part 3.
    Chardal,what you write about Schopenhaur is correct. However,his Will is a complete blind force.I think he was an outspoken Atheist.

  6. >However,his Will is a complete blind force.I think he was an outspoken Atheist.

    Of course. Its hard to imagine a purposeless will which is not chaotic.

    In Rav Kook's criticism of Schopenhaur, he takes him to task for seperating will from chochma - that is of seperating the will we percieve in the world from the order we percieve in it.

    Rav Kook, following the mystical model, asserted that will and chochma are both the primary buildiing blocks of the world and have a co-dependant relationship with one another. Will without chochma is unfocused and can not be effectual. chochma without will can never bring anything into the actual.

  7. I don't disagree with your position on anthropocentrism.

    However, your argument against it is flawed. The fact that the laws of nature yield results that hurt man is not a proof that the universe was not created for us, for two reasons:

    1 - It is possible that the universe was created for humanity in general, but, like any system, can cause pain to individual members of the species from time to time.

    2 - The real benefit of the universe for man is intellectual, not physical. The material world causes us pain in the course of conforming to God's law. If it deviated from those laws every time they might harm us, it would not allow us to perceive the harmony and design of the natural order as clearly. This would deprive us of the opportunity to study God's wisdom and reach ahava and yirah.

    This point is made by David Conway in The Rediscovery of Wisdom, contra Hume who argues that the "injustice" of nature proves that God is not merciful or concerned with our welfare.

  8. Rabbi Maroof, I think I said the same thing as you do. I guess I did not make myself clear enough so here goes and opportunity for another post on the same matter.

    Shavua Tov.