Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Epicurus and randomness - No providence - God is denied.

In MN 3:17, as an introduction to his opinion on Providence, Rambam lists five approaches. I will post each one separately and discuss them as they relate to different currents in Judaism.

The first opinion is the easiest one to deal with as it is foreign to Judaism. It is the theory proposed by the Atomists[1] who did not accept the existence of a First Cause. Everything to them was a result of random recombination of atoms without any underlying plan or rationality.

“There is no Providence at all for anything in the Universe; all parts of the Universe, the heavens and what they contain, owe their origin to accident and chance; there exists no being that rules and governs them or provides for them. This is the theory of Epicurus, who assumes also that the Universe consists of atoms, that these have combined by chance, and have received their various forms by mere accident. There have been atheists among the Israelites who have expressed the same view; it is reported of them: "They have denied the Lord, and said he is not" (Yirmyahu 5:12). Aristotle has proved the absurdity of the theory that the whole Universe could have originated by chance; he has shown that, on the contrary, there is a being that rules and governs the Universe. We have already touched upon this subject in the present treatise.”

Rambam is so convinced of the irrefutability of his proof for the existence of a First Cause that he does not even bother refuting this theory. As you know from my previous posts I am of the same opinion. So far none of the counter arguments have been convincing to me.

An interesting aside and a question that I really do not have an answer to: In his Pirush Hamishna on Sanhedrin 10:2 Rambam comments on the word Epicurus mentioned in the Mishna. He says it is an Aramaic word meaning a lack of respect for authority. Rambam clearly knew Epicurus as he mentions him in the above quote. Did he think that the Rabbis of the Mishna did not know him? I would doubt that very much. I would also doubt that he did not know about him in his twenties, when he wrote his commentary on Mishna discovering him only later. Anyone have any thoughts about this?

[1] The ancient theory of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, according to which simple, minute, indivisible, and indestructible particles are the basic components of the entire universe. ( http://www.answers.com/atomism?gwp=11&ver= )


  1. jewishskeptic11/21/2006 3:27 PM

    >He says it is an Aramaic word meaning a lack of respect for authority.

    Very surprisingly,Jastrow in his dictionary accepts Rambam's view:

    "The peculiar form & also the assigned to our w.found a ready support in its phonetic coincidence with Epicurus,the philosopher...The derivatives of our w.and those of the plain root
    פקר interchange frequently.)"

    As for randomness ,a one line sentence from an ancient Greek philosopher says (I dont remember the exact pithy wording):
    "There is no randomness but it's unplanned or unintentional"
    I think of it as someone oberserving an accident involving 2 cars. He can see by the speed the cars were traveling etc. that the accident was inevitable,it was DETERMINED to happen,no randomness,
    yet it was completely unintentional.

    There is a law of cause & effect in the universe(by using the word 'law',it doesn't follow there is a 'lawgiver'.we use it for lack of a better word).
    If one so wishes on can call this law by the word 'God',if It has no will ,it makes no difference.
    & will It can not have,for we can only associate will with living beings.
    If one asks: but who created this cause & effect law? By answering God you don't gain anything.
    It's just a tautology.You are just repeating the same thing(law)but using another word for it(God).

  2. >if It has no will ,it makes no difference.

    You put your finger on the crux of the matter as usual. Will as it applies to God is an ontological attribute. It is not provable empirically but something we accept as it fits with the system we live with. i will be writing about that soon and show that Rambam holds that way.

  3. The topic of folk etymology in rabbinic sources is worthy of its own post. I'd write such a post myself, if I could come up with more examples of the phenomenon. I only stumble across it occasionally, like the midrash that derives the name Esther from Hebrew. But I know there are many more examples out there.

  4. Epicurus did believe in randomness. The reason he believed in it was because he thought it was essential to free will. if the movement of the atoms were determined then everything else would have to be determined also, and there would be no free will.

  5. In a comment to your Feb 24 post you replied

    “JF I have two comments on your observation. I was never bothered by trying to prove God's existence so I never really studied it. I understand it more as an axiom that is the basis for religious speculation. It is not exactly an ontological basis but if it cannot be disproven it is enough for me.”

    But on your March 25 post you stated

    “The idea that there is a God is based on realizing that there is a First Cause. There has to be an “entity” that is hierarchically, if not in time, the First Cause of the first physical entity. Rambam understands that when the Rabbis say that Anochi and Lo Yh’yeh lecha – the first two commandments of the ten, that there is a God and that He is unique, are “mipi hagevurah” means they are known through rational analysis – Gevuras hasechel. Revelation is NOT the basis for these two beliefs. Har Sinai is only the basis for the belief that God “interacts” with man or to be more exact man can find and “hear” God.”

    On Nov 21 you state:

    “Rambam is so convinced of the irrefutability of his proof for the existence of a First Cause that he does not even bother refuting this theory. As you know from my previous posts I am of the same opinion. So far none of the counter arguments have been convincing to me.”

    Furthermore on March 26 you state

    “The mitzvah of Yedias Hashem requires that a person use his rational faculty and accept through it that God exists. That is what the word Yediah – knowledge means. To do that we have to first develop a basic concept of what God is. Here is Rambam in Moreh 1:35”

    Therefore based on your understanding of the mitzvah of “Yedias Hashem” your comment and your opinion of Feb 24 can not be a kiyum of this mitzvah. Furthermore the spirit of that comment seems contrary to your entire blog. Additionally, your subsequent posts state that you have indeed accepted the First Cause proof. Baruch Hashem, everyone should grow and change their mind when they encounter the truth. However, there are many counterarguments to the First Cause “proof” and to say that one is “convinced of the irrefutability of his proof for the existence of a First Cause” or that “none of the counterarguments have been convincing to me” – without giving them a full airing is not much better than saying that we will just accept this argument on faith. I don’t think you can maintain your Rambam based interpretation of Judaism and let this slide. This is axiom number one – for you to be consistent it should be giving the highest priority in your discussion. IMHO.


  6. R. Phil, I am flattered and impressed that you went to the trouble reading my posts so thoroughly including the comments. I have gone back to that comment and i am not sure exactly what I was thinking at the time. I always knew the Rambam's position that the existence of God can be ascertained by the "gevurat hasechel". I also always knew that the search for God is man's mission according to rambam. I don't think he means that one just sits around and tries to devise philosophical proofs for His existence but rather find His traces by knowing what He is not.So I don't think one has to spend much time on proving His existence but rather on trying to understand His transcendence, After all our daily declaration is "Echad" which is synonymous with transcendent.

    However as my next post will touch upon, all we know is that there is a First Cause. The meaning of that statement is quite broad and can cover many things. Aristotle believed in a First Cause but did not believe in God notwhistanding Rambam's statement to the contrary. JS pointed out many times that who says He has will?

    That already is not provable and the contingency argument put forth in that piece does not address that. Maybe that was my thought at the time.

    Bekitzur, I am sorry if I was confusing. I will address these issues many more times and I will keep your comment in mind and focus on it.

    I want to thank you and the other commenters as you all have forced me to confront issues that I thought I had clarified in my head and after your comments I had to go back to the drawing board.
    This warrants a post which I will save for the upcoming anniversary of this blog.

  7. R. Phil, After the next post I will address the issue of God and First Cause and whether they are the same.

  8. You are right about Epicurus as a Cynic philosopher; however, his vulgar followers interpreted his views as a license to self indulgence. I remember reading a dramatization of this in Milton Steinberg's, As a Driven Leaf (the book about Elisha Ben Avuyah). The Rambam was apparently aware of that fact as were the Rabbis.

  9. Avakesh I saw you mention as a driven leaf on another blog. It is a great book highly recommended.

    If you want other books well written and jewish subject get Chaim Sabato's books. They are all translated into English I think there are 3 now though in Hebrew he has \several more.

  10. It seems Rambam was referencing Rabbi Yohanan's use of some sort of Hebrew or Aramaic etymology for what an epicurus was (Sanhedrin 38b): תנן התם ר"א אומר הוי שקוד ללמוד תורה ודע מה שתשיב לאפיקורוס אמר ר' יוחנן ל"ש אלא אפיקורוס גוי אבל אפיקורוס ישראל כ"ש דפקר טפי א"ר יוחנן כ"מ שפקרו המינים תשובתן בצידן

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