Thursday, November 23, 2006

God and First Cause: Is there a difference?

I have been confronted with critical comments about my position on proving the existence of God. R. Phil Goode has even gone so far (to my great satisfaction and gratitude for such a thorough reading of my blog) as to find a contradiction between a comment I made in February and later posts. You can find the exchange here .

First I have to make a disclaimer. So far on this blog I have focused on understanding Rambam’s views. I know that sometimes I come across too forcefully; I therefore want to make it clear that these opinions are my own interpretation of Rambam’s views. I do not purport to know whether I am correct in my understanding. Several commenters have taken me to task several times on my opinions and they were not always wrong. I also reserve the right to change my mind as I go along and relearn something. It is my hope to learn as much as possible from the discussions. I try, not always successfully, to keep my ego at bay my goal being to get as close to the truth as possible. I always try to keep Rambam’s

הוא שהנביא אומר "וה' אלוהים אמת" ירמיהו י,י--הוא לבדו האמת, ואין לאחר אמת כאמיתו

in front of my eyes. So far the experience of writing and learning has been exhilarating and I thank all readers for helping to make it so.

I have endorsed in the past the argument for the existence of a First Cause referred to as “from contingency”. The argument goes as follows: We see that everything is contingent on something else. Nothing exists on its own but is always caused by something else. If we follow the chain of cause and effect up the line there must be one entity that is not contingent on anything else which is the cause of everything. That entity we refer to as the First Cause. It is the first of several arguments Rambam uses to prove the existence of God (MN 2:1). This argument is not a Rambam original. Aristotle and other Greeks discuss it and arrive at the same conclusion that there must be a First Cause.

Although Rambam states that Aristotle believed in the existence of God, that is not exactly correct. He believed in a First Cause but that is not synonymous with the God of religion. It is a vague concept of an uncreated or self-created entity that causes everything. It is not tied into time thus eternal. Although a little simplistic I view that as the concept behind existence. It is an entity that we know must exist but we cannot really grasp or define – it is just there.

What can we prove about that entity? We can prove it is unlike anything else, that it is not time dependent, it does not change thus never in a state of potential and is not physical. This concept of First Cause is just an attempt at explaining how things exist. It does not give that entity freedom of will or any connection with its effects. It is just an inanimate entity that has a very distant connection with us. Religion makes that connection. It tells us what to do with that information. It tells us that although that entity that we now call God is unknowable, we have to seek ways of understanding Him through observing the results of His actions. It tells us to accept that God is not just an abstract concept, an inanimate entity, but a so to say (kevayachol) conscious entity that caused everything in a manner we, humans, would consider willingly.

In his Sefer Hamitzvot Rambam’s first Mitzvat Asseh reads as follows:

המצוה הראשונה היא הצווי אשר צוונו להאמין האלוהות והוא שנאמין שיש שם עלה וסבה הוא פועל לכל הנמצאות והוא אמרו ית' אנכי י"י אלהיך. ובסוף גמר מכות (כג ב, כד א) אמרו תרי"ג מצות נאמרו לו למשה בסיני מאי קראה תורה צוה לנו משה כלומר מנין תור"ה והקשו על זה ואמרו תורה בגימטריא הכי הואי שית מאה וחדסרי הואי והיתה התשובה אנכי ולא יהיה מפי הגבורה שמעום. הנה כבר התבאר לך כי אנכי י"י מכלל שש מאות ושלש עשרה מצות והוא צווי באמונה כמו שבארנו:

The first Mitzvah is Yediat Hashem[1] is to know intellectually that there is a First Cause. Note how he ties it with the Chazal that Anochi and Lo Y’heyeh are “MiPi Hagevurah” which we know he understands as Gevurat Hasechel or intellect, not revelation. In other words it is empirically provable. This is a distant and impersonal God and other than being an obligation to know and demonstrate this to oneself, this God is quite distant. It is only when we try to understand His attributes, what He is or is not, that we personalize Him. Some of these attributes can be proven empirically, such as His unity or as I prefer to say uniqueness and Rambam’s understanding of prophecy and how humans connect with it. (BTW the test of whether it is empirically provable is when Rambam, in Mishne Torah, uses the term Leidah as opposed to Leha’amin.) Others are things we accept because they make sense even though there is no way that we humans can definitely prove them. We can only show that it is an acceptable position to take that most plausibly fits with our way of thinking and other empirically proven positions. That God wills is one of those positions.

In short we can prove empirically the existence of a First Cause. To personalize that First Cause and turn Him into our God we have to employ different types of proofs, plausibility tests and acceptance of the yoke of heaven. It is only then that this belief in a distant God takes on practical connotations affecting our way of thinking and day-to-day life. It does not mean relying on beliefs as XGH always comments and posts. It means using every ounce of our rational capacity to make sense of our existence using the tools and information at our disposal.

[1] The Sefer Hamitzvot was written in Arabic. This translation reads Leha’amin which in English is to believe. Rav Kafih translates Leidah- to know. See note 1 in Rav Chaim Heller’s edition published by Mossad Harav Kook.


  1. To say that the first cause argument can be empirically proven puts it into the realm of science or mathematics. Unfortunately only a very small minority of thinkers (if any) accept this assertion. Are all the world's thinkers (past and present) blind fools who refuse to see the plain facts of G-d's existence?

  2. That G-d is identical with the first cause is a confused issue among mekubalim. The issue is important in respect as to who we pray. The Shaarei Orah says it is to Ein Sof (or in the language of the Zohar - (ila hoilot) but the Pardes holds that it the First Cause as reflected in the sefirah of Tiferes.

    I realize that this blog takes a dim view of Kabbala; however, we cannot summarily reject what it has to say on this important topic. Praying to the First Cause suffers from the problem of how one can ask something of a Perfect unchangeable Being, a subject addressed by you on this blog previously.

    The issue has been reviewed by Michoel Cardozo in the 1st chapter of Boker Avraham. It is a good detailed summary, albeit by a person who is probably a Sabbatean heretic. His conclusion: Moslems and Philosophers identify G-d (YHVH)with the first cause, Kabbalists identify Him with Tiferes, other opinons are hopelessly confused. His own argument, for which he was put in Cherem, was that it is the sefirah of Malchus.

    BTW, wikipedia, quoting the Jewish Encyclopedia, is wrong on assigning to him the view that it is Keter Elyon. This view was held by some Kabbalists but not Miguel Cardozo. It has been rejected by the Pardes but expressed by some early Kabbalistic works and is considered an Orthodox but rejected view.

    for more on him, see