Monday, November 05, 2007

Two Perspectives - Dependence and Independence.

When we look at the world and try to understand its working there are two possible perspectives. We can look from the top down and try to understand how one thing brought about the other. Using the theory of survival of the fittest for example, we are able to explain how certain species evolved. If given enough information we should be able to predict the path of that evolution. The environment and the circumstances where a particular biological entity finds itself will put pressure on it to adapt by selecting for a mutation that fits best under the circumstances. From this perspective, each element in a particular environment is seen as having its own independent purpose however adapting to function harmoniously with each other. Had there been a different environment, they would have evolved in a different way ultimately finding a harmonious way to cohabitate.

The other perspective is to look from down up. Without knowing how the mechanisms that make the species evolve in a particular way work or even if there is such a mechanism, we can however see that there is a dependency between different elements in the same environment. From this perspective, the different elements in the environment are there to sustain each other. In many cases, we can even discern a certain hierarchy where one element is the most important in that environment, thus seeming the focus of all the others.

I remember a National Geographic presentation I saw years ago, where they showed how the baobab tree in Africa propagates. Elephants eat the leaves and fruit, separating the seeds in their digestive system and expelling it in their feces. Eventually a rare seed finds its way into the ground and a new tree grows. The tree exists in an arid environment with rare rains. The tree evolved this way so that its seeds have a longer life span in the moist dung of the elephant surviving until the rains come. The elephant evolved with a long trunk enabling it to survive in that environment by reaching the higher areas of the tree untouched by other animals. Looking from up down, the elephant has its own raison d’etre as does the tree. They evolved into a symbiotic way of existing with each other. Each would have found a way to adapt in a different environment or with different elements in the current environment. From down up, we see the tree as being there for the elephant as a source of food. The elephant, though involuntarily, plants additional trees to provide more food in the future. Both perspectives are correct however, there are some interesting ramifications ensuing from each.

In a discussion about the purpose of creation in MN 3:13 Rambam argues that –

“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.”

In the same chapter he then says –

It is also reasonable to assume that the plants exist only for the benefit of the animals, since the latter cannot live without food… To those who receive the good flowing down upon them, it may appear as if the being existed for them alone that sends forth its goodness and kindness unto them.”

Rambam is using the two perspectives, each in its proper context.

Another interesting idea that springs from this insight is how we understand things about God in this context. Starting from the top down perspective, let us assume that we do have all the information and we can predict how things will evolve, once that knowledge is acquired, knowing the future, what each element will look like in any future time period is automatic. There is no new knowledge and all is predictable and theoretically predicted. This is always God’s perspective so to say and therefore when we say God knows the future there is no added knowledge which would imply change. It is always God’s perspective because He is the Creator of everything.

An artisan makes a box in which weights move with the running of the water, and thus indicate how many hours have passed of the day and of the night. The whole quantity of the water that is to run out, the different ways in which it runs, every thread that is drawn, and every little ball that descends--all this is fully perceived by him who makes the clock. His knowledge is not the result of observing the movements as they are actually going on; but, on the contrary, the movements are produced in accordance with his knowledge… His [God’s] knowledge of things is not derived from the things themselves: if this were the case, there would be change and plurality in His knowledge; on the contrary, the things are in accordance with His eternal knowledge, which has established their actual properties ” (MN 3:21)

Our perspective, on the other hand, is always from down up when seen relative to God’s knowledge. Even when we understand the mechanism that makes things how they are, we get that knowledge from observation rather than planning and creating. Our knowledge is therefore incremental and contingent.

In my next post, I will discuss if we can know the purpose of existence. It is an extension of the discussions in this post.


  1. I must admit I am not exactly clear on your evolution example. For example I don't understand the idea of purpose in an evolutionary context. These mutations just happen, no purpose. And I don't understand what it means to say in this context we " have all the information and we can predict how things will evolve, once that knowledge is acquired, knowing the future, what each element will look like in any future time period is automatic." These mutations are random which by definition means cannot be predicted. I don't think that even God can predict a totally random occurrence. Are you saying evolution is random to us, deterministic to God?

  2. EJ - I was thinking that the mutation or class of mutations- that will survive is predictable - though I can see that being there is probably an infinite possibility of mutations exactly which specific one(s) will survive would be hard to predict. I am no biologist but I had some business dealings in the field and I know that scientist will try to select for certain mutations in a petrie (?) dish.

    When I say purpose I dont mean ultimate purpose or goal which is the subject of my next post - I am talking about immediate purpose of survival and interdependency between different elements in an environment.

    The issue of determinism as to God is a major problem and I always vascilate between the two sides. Can God predict when there is an infinite amount of possibilities? At this time I believe we would say He can and therefore He knows and as knowledge is essential to God, deterministic. Thus the conundrum of behira and yediah is still alive and well and the answer is "Ein Yediato Ke'yediateinu". The issue would be whether God can do the impossible. (A four sided triangle?) For an interesting take on this see R. Ytschak Grossman's article on that in Hakirah vol 3 at the site (available in full there)