Sunday, October 28, 2007

Truth - An Attempt at Defining a Difficult Term.

In comments, Evanston Jew and I had an exchange about the meaning of Truth as we use it in describing the search for God and I realized that I had not discussed it in depth yet. In fact, I realized that I needed to fully define it for myself and thus clarify my thinking on it. It is one of the most important aspects of religion and in fact, Rambam begins his Mishne Torah (Hil Yesodei Hatorah) with a discussion (definition) of True Existent as Truth. I will therefore use that text as the basis for my upcoming discussion and the goal is to understand clearly these Halachot. As usual, the translation/paraphrase is mine. My comments or elucidations are in brackets.

א יסוד היסודות ועמוד החכמות, לידע שיש שם מצוי ראשון

The foundation of all foundations and the [supporting] column of all knowledge is to “know” that there is “out there” [my translation of שם see Kessef Mishna ad locum] a First Existent.

I was always intrigued by these opening words and it is only when I pictured the imagery that Rambam uses in this opening of his MT that I realized what he was saying. A building rests on columns that are connected to the foundation. The foundation of the building is embedded in the earth that itself is suspended in the cosmos. That leads us to infinity of contingent existences which is incongruent. The only way we can resolve this incongruity is by “knowing” that there must be one non-contingent existent. The goal of everything that comes after this in the Mishne Torah is to train us so that we can “know” this. The word “know” is defined by Rambam in MN 1:50 as follows:

“Know, you who studies this my treatise, that knowledge [here I used Rav Kafih’s translation and also as suggested by Professor Nuriel, as opposed to Pines and Schwartz, who translate it as belief] is not the notion that is uttered. It is the notion that is represented in the soul when one holds it to be true [I used Prof Schwartz suggested translation here. Pines: when it is averred of it] that it is in fact just as it has been represented.”

The sense that I get is that the goal is to understand that in itself, why infinity of contingent existents is incongruous and at the same time why the existence of a non-contingent existent is the only solution to the problem. In other words, it is not enough to “believe” because we were told by prophets through their revelation that there is such an existent; we also have to be convinced rationally that it is the case. There is therefore no a priori approach. We accept by tradition but we have to prove it to ourselves independently.

“For belief [R. Kafih: knowledge] is only possible after a representation; it consists in the affirmation that the thing represented has its existence beyond the mind [in reality] exactly as it is conceived in the mind. If in addition to this we are convinced that the thing cannot be different in any way from what we believe [R. Kafih: know] it to be, and that no reasonable argument can be found for the rejection of the belief [R. Kafih: knowledge] or for the admission of any deviation from it, then the belief [R. Kafih: knowledge] is true.”

I purposely left in this last quotation both “belief” and “knowledge” because at this point in the process the two are very similar. If someone is convinced rationally that something is true, he truly believes it. We start with belief based on acceptance and we end with belief based on knowledge and conviction.

והוא ממציא כל הנמצא; וכל הנמצאים מן שמיים וארץ ומה ביניהם, לא נמצאו אלא מאמיתת הימצאו

He is the cause of all existence. All the existents from heaven to earth and all in between exist because of His True Existence. [There is a difference between True Existence and the truth that He exists – more about this later].

We are asked to convince ourselves rationally of the existence of God as the First Cause. We are also asked to prove to ourselves that God, as the only non-contingent existent is True existence. “True existence” is defined as non-contingent existence but also as a unique existent. There can only be one non-contingent existent by definition. Non-contingency is that Existent’s uniqueness.

Much has been written about Truth and almost every philosopher has addressed it and each one had his own understanding of what it means. One only has to take a look at Wikipedia on the word and there is enough there for a semester in college. I will however focus on it in the context of Rambam writings I quoted here.

We have here two separate definitions of truth. When we talk about human knowledge which Rambam defined in the quote above, truth is convincing ourselves that our mental speculation is true by proving that it is in conformity with our observations of reality. Our observation of reality is based on repetitiveness and constancy. For example, we assume that because the sun rises every day it will do so forever and based on that we develop a theory explaining what makes it do so. That leads us to an understanding of cause and effect and contingency. The word truth in this context is an adjective that describes the status of an apprehension, whether it is true or false and whether it conforms to reality. The sun itself is not true or false; it just is there. It came into existence at some point in time and may disintegrate at a later time and it is only true while it is here. Its truth is dependent on its being here at a certain time and in a certain place performing certain functions. In this example, the observation is true but both the observer and the observed are not true in themselves.

There are also things in the physical realm that we really do not know other than by induction. We never physically see certain entities. We just know they exist and have certain qualities because we observe their effects such as energy, atoms, black holes and gravity to name a few. These are only a few of such “realities” that meet the criteria laid out by Rambam as true knowledge “it is the notion that is represented in the soul when one holds it to be true that it is in fact just as it has been represented.” Here too truth is an adjective describing an apprehension while the observer and observed are not truth itself.

Many people believe this to be the only possible Truth. It is what some will argue is the only possible “rational” and empirically provable reality. However, it explains the chain of cause effect that we observe but it does not address the rational incongruity of there being infinite contingent existents. It is at this point that philosophy and metaphysics step in offering a solution to the incongruity. It tells us that there must be a non-contingent Existent that by definition is unique in His essence. This Existent is a singularity in its every aspect including essence and existence. That uniqueness in itself defines Him as the ultimate Truth with a capital “T”. Being non-contingent, He exists without depending on anything else by definition. That is the ultimate definition of Truth, a simple eternal [constant] unchanging Truth.

. [ב] ואם יעלה על הדעת שהוא אינו מצוי, אין דבר אחר יכול להימצאות. [ג] ואם יעלה על הדעת שאין כל הנמצאים מלבדו מצויים, הוא לבדו יהיה מצוי ולא ייבטל הוא לביטולם: שכל הנמצאים צריכין לו; והוא ברוך הוא אינו צריך להם, ולא לאחד מהם.

Should we entertain the notion that He does not exist, nothing else could exist. [Without a non-contingent entity, existence is incongruous]. Should we entertain the notion that nothing exists besides Him, He alone will be existent. [Should we entertain the notion that] every other existent is nullified He will not be nullified. [God’s existence is completely independent of whether anything existed at some time or still exists.] This is so because all existents need Him but He, the blessed One, does not need them or any particular one among them.

[ד] הוא שהנביא אומר "וה' אלוהים אמת" הוא לבדו האמת, ואין לאחר אמת כאמיתו. והוא שהתורה אומרת "אין עוד, מלבדו"כלומר אין שם מצוי אמת מלבדו כמותו.

That is the meaning of the prophet’s [Yirmyahu] “and Hashem Elohim is Truth”, He alone is the Truth and no other [is] Truth like His Truth. That is also the intent of the Torah “there is nothing more, except Him” meaning there is not “out there” a True Existent like Him other than Him.

God is the only Truth that is absolutely independent of anything else. He is the only True Existent. God is Truth itself.

Summarizing, there are two definitions of truth. The one used in our common parlance is an attribute for a statement about what is observable. The other, Truth, is a word we use to indicate the existence of a non-contingent existent – God. The former is a derivative of the latter where the latter is its paradigm.

Note: I decided to put up this post after much hesitation. I hope that I have advanced my own understanding of this difficult issue a little and sharing it with others the right thing to do. I am sure I am going to return to this many more times, as my thinking develops further.


  1. Thanks for your attempt at clarifying the idea.I do understand the general thrust of your explanation. Here are some random thoughts (heh-arot)concerning your post.1)I think the word ‘incongruous’ is not suited for your purposes. You don’t mean inappropriate or lacking in harmony. I think you mean something like self contradictory, necessarily inconsistent or a priori impossible. 2) You say we have to be convinced rationally that the proof is true AND our belief is based on knowledge. Knowledge of X these days is taken to mean you believe X, have adequate evidence, reasons, proofs and X is true. If the Rambam’s argument fails we can never know that the argument is true, even if we have convinced ourselves and have reasons. I think it is generally agreed that most of the standard cosmological arguments are not valid. Also even if some argument works we need not ever know that particular variation and thus it is still possible that we don’t know that God is truth. 3) You do not explain why there can’t be two non contingent beings for all eternity. Try numbers and God. 4) God is truth, on your view, means a) God’s existence is not contingent but necessary b) God existence and essence is unique and singular. c) God is simple d) God is eternal e) God is unchanging. Does a-e) exhaust the meaning of God is truth, or is something more required? Does there also have to be some relation between God’s existence and his essence?

  2. EJ, Wow you do dig deep! Good for you! and thanks for the opportunity to clarify to myself. I am not sure I have all the answers to your questions but I will try.

    Incongruous- I thought about it and used it in the sense "Not in keeping with what is logical" though it is a little stretch. Pines uses it a lot in his translation in this sense.

    Re 2 - Non contingency is an argument that has only one weakness - just like you can have a non physical singularity as a non contingent existent so can you argue for one that is physical. The argument would be that a non physical entity is novel why not a physical non contingent entity? What forces you to assume a non physical entity is the non contingent one? I have a problem with this argument because what we are saying when we argue for a non-contingent existent we are arguing for something beyond what we can conceive. We just "know" that such an entity "exists" nothing more and that is all we can "know". Even the word "exists" is not really correct as it is a term for something we can understand. It is the ultimate "Unknown" the great mystery. Now, Rambam argues that Aristotle also believed in such an entity but attributed to it nothing more than "existence" and First Cause not will or choice. It just "exists" and always "existed" along with physical existence. Rambam agrees that we cannot "know" more than that without what he calls revelation. In my early posts about transcendence I wrote a lot about that see under transcendence label.

    Re non contingency being one I am not sure what your question is. Numbers are a concept that we can only have once we have existence. the same would be for anything else except for one non contigent existent that is the cause of everything. Without physical existence there cannot be more than one as space itself is existence as is time and anything else we would say. Remember before the first effect was caused there is nothing, not even space to place it. It is a very difficult concept and in reality we are just talking about the unknowable and we are stepping int o what is God's essence. This where the mekubalim came up with the Tzimtzum idea. I belief they overstepped the boundaries of what humans can now and are dealing with pure immagination.

    Re your last question in truth we cannot say anything about God. We can only say what he is not. He is not non existent, he is not not truth etc... I wrote about that in my first article in Hakirah "Negative Knowledge and..." So it would be appropriate to try to define what God is NOT. Whatever we say about Him positively is "Leshaber et Ha'ozen" because that is the only way we can communicate.

    I also want to make it clear, and I have written many times about it, Rambam believes there is a limit to human knowledge and only once one accepts that, one is humble enough to stop at a point and say no more,can one arrive at this level of "knowledge" that this Mitzvah of Yediat Hashem demands of us. That is according to him what Moshe did at the sneh "Vayaster Moshe Panav" and it is why he was able to "Utemunat Hashem Yabit". See my above article for elaboration.

  3. I'll confine myself to your comments about noncontingency. I don't understand at all why you make it a matter of definition that there is only one necessary being. I thought that would be the chidush or the result of the proof. The definition is not at all motivated. There are contingent propositions such as empirical truths and necessary propositions such as mathematical truths. If you want to now say there are necessary,i.e, non contingent beings, what gives you the right to say by definition there is only one? Even chazal thought it was a matter of discovery if there were two or only one power in heaven.If it was a question of definition, why did they have to enter the pardes?Ein od milvado is not a claim about language but about heaven.

    As for numbers, why do they depend on existent created beings or space and time. Suppose there were no apples or marbles, wouldn't 2+2=4? Numbers do not have and do not need a place, and the truths concerning them are timeless. In any event such a Platonist view is one leading possibility.

    I think you views would be easier to express if you were familiar with the idea of truth across possible worlds. Saul Kripke's Naming and Necessity is a place to start.I realize time is precious.

    I'll tell you a joke. What is the difference between philosophers in NY and those in Boston. In Boston two philosophers meet and disagree. They stand there and "talk in learning" until one dies. In NY after a hour one says to the other "I realize there is a lot more to say, but you see I have opera tickets for tonight..."

  4. I will only respond to the Joke - I hate Opera!

  5. EJ Now as to your serious questions...

    I used an unfortunate term "by definition". The reason that there can only be one non-contingent entity is muchrach because we understand that God cannot be physical. Multiplicity is a consequence of physicality. (yesodei hatorah 1:7)

    True numbers are concepts and they would exist anyway though there would have to be an entity that conceptualized it, but it would be a concept nothing else. Although it is hard for us to visualize an existent that is non physical, God is not a concept but a reality, the ultimate one. I know it sounds like I am just saying words that are hard to conceptualize, but that is the nature of the unknowable.

    I know I could read a lot more about many subjects. I can hardly keep up with my current load, in fact I cannot! I also have tried to read Rambam and understand him as much as possible internally and try to translate his ideas into our modern worldview. As his was based on an Aristoteleian cosmos the only way to do that is to see how he dealt with the conflicts between his reality and Torah. I try to adapt his methodology to our worldview. I find that getting bogged down in the details trying to match every scientific theory is counterproductive. In my understanding the Torah is teaching us how to look at our reality in the context of an understanding of God according to the basic concepts of Judaism - schar ve'onesh, nevuah, TMS, etc... It is not a book of scientific truths but rather philosophical and theological teachings that we have to adapt to what we consider scientific truths. That is why Rambam believed that science is paralel to Torah in fact is part of mitzvat talmud Torah itself. To him learning physics is equally a kiyum of mitzvat talmud torah as learning a Rambam in hil Ishut. Torah is a complement and interpretation of science and therefore one cannot know Torah without having a basic scientific education. Each person who specializes in a particular discipline should be able to take Torah's view and attach it to his acquired knowledge. I need to write more about this. You see your questions just open up a rush of thoughts and ideas. Thank you.

  6. mevaseretzion10/30/2007 6:04 PM

    Very good post, and good comments by EJ. This hearkens back to a big thread last year between myself and exgh. We discussed many of these issues.

    Thanks for posting this! I will re-read it and try to comment more intellectually.

  7. DG and EJ: I want to compliment you both for the civility and good cheer of your discussion. Although I have vigorously disagreed with each of you, and there is a time for passion, I appreciate harmony and dignified discourse--and think that this give and take between the two of you offers an excellent model for the blogosphere.

    And, DG, although we hold very different points of view on religion, I admire your humility on this blog, and your remaining in the mode of lifelong study.

  8. AW Thank you for the compliment. The way I see it is that although at this stage you have a different opinion about our religion then I have, at least you are thinking about it. The negative reaction to it that you show means that you care and think. That is much more than what the majority of both camps, the followers and the rejecters, do. Thinking may bring about nlightenment - not thinking is a hopeless and endless abyss.

  9. DG, I very much agree with your views on the superiority of intellectually conscious living over the life of either reflexive conformity or reflexive rebellion. The more we all strive for, among other helpful traits, humility, openness of mind, the willingness to expend great mental effort, and the deep commitment to intellectual honesty, the more people can help themselves and each other refine their views--and get closer to seeing things as they truly are.