Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What is the Purpose of Existence? A Question That Has No Answer

Rambam in MN 3:13 discusses the question of God’s purpose in creating the Universe.

Intelligent persons are much perplexed when they inquire into the purpose of the Creation. I will now show how absurd this question is, according to each one of the different theories [above-mentioned].”

The question Rambam considers absurd, is not trying to understand the reason for the existence of the different elements that compose the universe. As I explained in my previous post, when viewed from down up, we can definitely develop a theory of why each element is necessary for the existence of the whole. Even from the up down perspective, where theoretically, predictions of how things will evolve may be possible, we can discern a logic as to why things would evolve the way they do. Although each element may be seen as independent, it is also a component of the total environment and plays a role in its long-term survival. In fact, were we to accept that the world is not created, that matter is eternal a parte ante, even if we were to understand that a non-contingent intelligent entity is the First Cause, we would perforce argue that survival of the whole is the ultimate goal for the totality of existence. Each component of an environment, coming into being and even at times disappearing, can be understood in this context, and we can therefore explain its existence and purpose. There is no absurdity in such a question but rather is the basis for all scientific inquiry.

The question Rambam considers as absurd is the one that comes to mind, if we accept that the universe was created in time, willed into existence by HKBH, asking to what end and purpose did God create. God, in whom Chochma is essence, cannot have created aimlessly. So why did he create? What was the purpose? Although at first blush the question seems logical, Rambam explains that there is no possibility for us humans to ever find an answer to that question. A question that cannot be answered is an absurdity (is not a valid question). [I am not sure that the word “absurd” used by Friedlander makes sense in this context. Pines translates the last sentence above “Now I will explain that in all schools this question is abolished”. However, I would have to rewrite too much so I will stay with the word cautioning the reader to keep this in mind.]

Here is how Rambam presents the problem -

But of those who accept our theory that the whole Universe has been created from nothing, some hold that the inquiry after the purpose of the Creation is necessary, and assume that the Universe was only created for the sake of man's existence, that he might serve God. Everything that is done they believe is done for man's sake; even the spheres move only for his benefit, in order that his wants might be supplied. The literal meaning of some passages in the books of the prophets greatly support this idea. "He formed it (the earth) to be inhabited" (Isa. xlv. 18); "If my covenant of day and night were not," etc. (Jer. xxxiii. 25); "And spreads them out as a tent to dwell in" (Isa. xl. 22). If the sphere existed for the sake of man, how much more must this be the case with all other living beings and the plants. On examining this opinion as intelligent persons ought to examine all different opinions, we shall discover the errors it includes.” (MN 3:13).

The fallacy of this trend of thought, Rambam explains as follows –

Those who hold this view, that the existence of man is the object of the whole creation, may be asked whether God could have created man without those previous creations, or whether man could only have come into existence after the creation of all other things. If they answer in the affirmative, that man could have been created even if, e.g., the heavens did not exist, they will be asked what is the object of all these things, since they do not exist for their own sake but for the sake of something that could exist without them. Even if the Universe existed for man's sake and man existed for the purpose of serving God, as has been mentioned, the question remains, what is the end of serving God? He does not become more perfect if all His creatures serve Him and comprehend Him as far as possible; nor would He lose anything if nothing existed beside Him. It might perhaps be replied that the service of God is not intended for God's perfection; it is intended for our own perfection,--it is good for us, it makes us perfect. But then the question might be repeated, what is the object of our being perfect?”.

Having been brought up in traditionally frum Yeshivot, I was quite shocked when I first read these words. It shattered all my preconceptions.

The words that follow are one of Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz favorites, though I am not sure his understanding of them is what Rambam had in mind.

“We must in continuing the inquiries as to the purpose of the creation at last arrive at the answer, it was the Will of God, or His Wisdom decreed it; and this is the correct answer. The wise men in Israel have therefore introduced in our prayers (for Ne‘ilah of the Day of Atonement) the following passage:--"Thou hast distinguished man from the beginning, and chosen him to stand before Thee; who can say unto Thee, What dost Thou? And if he be righteous, what does he give Thee?"”.

Man was created because God so wanted it and we have no idea what the reason is. Leibowitz focuses on one more detail in the text - and chosen him to stand before Thee- reading it as saying that once created, man is now obligated to stand before God in service without any reason or understanding why. Man, having the ability, the brains, to ask the question, realizing that there is no answer, realizes how insignificant he is and all that he can do to find his place in this universe making sense of his existence, is by serving his Creator. Leibowitz stops here. To him this is the ultimate reason for why we do Mitzvot and work on self improvement; God's service.I think that he does not reflect accurately Rambam’s position. I accept the idea of service, Avodat Hashem. I however believe that once man has realized how insignificant he is, he finds his own reason for existence in the need to emulate God and partake in His creation. He wants to exploit to the maximum the gift that he has been bestowed with which allowed him to compose the question in the first place. His Avodat Hashem expresses itself in a creative and positive manner. (See the last chapter of MN for Rambam’s presentation of this idea).

Rambam then continues -

“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 other words, we can figure out the purpose for the different elements that compose our environment but we cannot hope to understand the purpose pf the whole. The most important aspect of this insight is that man is not the goal of Creation. Man is just a small cog who has a tendency to be self important and narcissistic. The implications of this way of thinking are far reaching in Rambam’s thought and understanding of reality, Divine Providence and Jewish Theology. (See my article in volume 5 of Hakirah).

How different this is from the following selected excerpts from Ramchal in Derech Hashem Chapter 2.

הנה התכלית בבריאה היה להטיב מטובו יתברך לזולתו

God’s goal in creation was to bestow from His goodness to others.

ובהיותו הוא לבדו יתברך הטוב האמיתי, לא יסתפק חפצו הטוב אלא בהיותו מהנה לזולתו בטוב ההוא עצמו שהוא בו יתברך מצד עצמו, שהוא הטוב השלם והאמיתי

Being that God Himself is true goodness, He could not fulfill His goodness without awarding others the same goodness that He Himself experiences, which is the true and perfect goodness.

ונמצא היות כוונתו יתברך שמו בבריאה שברא, לברוא מי שיהיה נהנה בטובו יתברך באותו הדרך שאפשר שייהנה בו.

God’s purpose was to create someone that could enjoy God’s goodness in the best way that is possible.

In other words – a good person cannot actuate his potential for goodness without having another on whom to bestow the good. The same applies to God – the Perfect Goodness. He had to create man to actuate this potential for good. According to Ramchal, man is the goal of Creation. Man gives God the opportunity to actuate His potential for goodness.

The contrast between these two thinkers is jarring. The Ramchal approach is nowadays considered mainstream – it is much more soothing and satisfying. Though when we read further we find Ramchal challenging man to achieve greatness, the idea that man is the center and end of the whole of existence is too exalting. Rambam’s approach, which is basically a challenge to do truth because it is truth and nothing else, is too daunting and scary.


  1. IIRC R' Arye Kaplan z"l addresses the Ramchal vs. others in the sefer Moreh Ohr.

  2. R' Kaplan does address this in his sefer. The idea of Hashem being meitiv as the tachlis is found in R' Sadya Gaon, also see the Rambam 3:25. You have to be mechaleik between the tachlis as seen from our perspective vs. ultimate "true" tachlis.

  3. I agree with Chaim B. basically, but I wonder if the Ramchal really does agree with the Rambam. The Ramchal starts his sefer that the purpose of the world is for etc... The Rambam rejects the whole notion of searching for one.

  4. R. Chaim - I had 3:25 in mind when I wrote this post. I guess I did not make it clear that it is us that do not know the reason ("ultimate" tachlis) for existence though HKBH does everything BeChochma.Ultimately though we cannot give a reason other than "Kach Ratza Bechochmato"
    while RAMCHAL and as you point out RSAG (I have not yet looked carefully at Kuzari or Ramban on this perticular issue) do impart a reason.

    The point I was trying to make is exactly that to differentiate between the tachlis of survival which we can discern and the ultimate one which we don't know according to Rambam.

    Elamdan, just had a peek at your blog and I need to look more carefully.

    You seem to agree with me if I read you correctly.

  5. Conversations with God [the audio] posits that the purpose of Creation is that God cannot appreciate HIMSELF and so HE created outsiders whose mission is to know and to appreciate God from without.

    And thus, it follows that the Midrash of forgetting all Torah means that every soul starts out with a total knowledge of God or God's Torah and loses it all. The process is recovery in order to appreciate WHO GOD IS by living in this world.

    And our lives are more of a labrotory than a classroom. We as God's children are sought to Return to God "hashiveinu Hashem Elecha" by living a Godly life.

    So God did not necessarily create us to BE KIND to to DO a kindness, but to be recognized as Kindness itself.

    In primordal Eden perhaps God COULD be readily appreciated, but the Etz Had'at erased this from our consciousnes and we were exiled from Eden. Now, our Goal is not so much to SERVE God but to KNOW God to Reurn to and to restore that primordial intimate relationship with our Creator. Union with God is in fact a RE-Union because after God is from whence we came!

    With Kafich's new Tranlsation of Sefer Hamitzvot, the ideal of KNOWING God as mitzva #1 replaces BELIEVING in God. Believing in God is a step towards a goal, not a Goal. The Goal is to KNOW God. This dovetails with the ideal that to KNOW God is to LOVE God and this is our purpose, goal, aim and Tachlis.

    Summary: our purpose is to Return ourselves to God by fully appreciating God while in our material body having been removed or exiled from God

  6. RRW The question is who is gaining from this? It cannot be God as you started for God is perfect and you intimate that he needs us to help Him actuate His potential C"V. (That is the problem with RAMCHAL too.)

    If it is for us, ultimately the question returns why should God care if we are perfect or not? Thus tefialt Ne'ilah.

  7. I think a different view of the importance of Man in the world can be found in Rambam's Hakdama to the Mishna,

    אך על דרך כלל יש לדעת, שכל הנמצאים שתחת גלגל הירח נמצאו בשביל האדם לבדו. וכל מיני החיות, יש מהם למאכלו, כצאן ובקר וזולתם. ויש מהם לתועלתו בזולת המאכלים, כמו החמור, לשאת עליו מה שלא יוכל להוליך בידו; והסוסים, להגיע בהם מהלך דרך רחוקה בימים מועטים. ומהם מינים שלא נדע להם תועלת, ויש בהם תועלת לאדם, ולא יכיר אותם. וכן האילנות והצמחים, מהם למאכלו, ומהם לרפאותו ממחלותיו. וכן העשבים ושאר המינים. וכל מה שתמצא מן החיות והצמחים שאין להם תועלת מזון, ואין בו לפי מחשבתך, דע שהדבר ההוא לחולשת שכלנו. ואי אפשר לכל עשב ולכל פרי ולכל מין מבעלי החיים, מן הפילים עד התולעים, שלא יהיה בהם תועלת לאדם. והמופת על זה, שהרי בכל דור ודור ייגלו לנו עשבים ומיני פירות שלא נגלו לקדמונינו, ויש בהם תועלות גדולות. ואין ביכולת אדם להיות דעתו כוללת תועלת כל צמח הארץ; ואולם נגלה עניינם בדרך הנסיון בדורות החולפים.

  8. Mevaseret, I know this Rambam. I thought you were going to point out a little further where he tell us that a house was saved from a disaster so that a Chasid in some future time will find shelter there. That is even more jarring. I have not finished with this issue by a long shot and will come back more to it.

    One thing is clear, when talking about Hashgacha he considers this point of view to be contrary to correct opinions and one of the roots of misunderstanding.

  9. Dear David,

    if you belive this is true:
    [ד] הוא שהנביא אומר "וה' אלוהים אמת" (ירמיהו י,י)--הוא לבדו האמת, ואין לאחר אמת כאמיתו. והוא שהתורה אומרת "אין עוד, מלבדו" (דברים ד,לה), כלומר אין שם מצוי אמת מלבדו כמותו.
    ************ לבדו האמת ********

    and this is true too:

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

    therefor if Existence=הנמצא is exists from
    מאמיתת הימצאו
    That mean we are subject to the law of inherited (I think inherit is not the best word,
    I believe the Jewish way of saying it is from “the Light” or Rambam way see &&) of/from it, which I believe called providence. If it was Purpose of Existence how could we get “the light?” if there is Purpose of Existence, therefore I could say G-d is exist in the world…

    I believe the problem Purpose of Existence is human issue, not a faith issue, therefore I can not see how it could be a solution to:
    What is the Purpose of Existence? A Question That Has No Answer.
    Which I believe is true statement and I hope I managed to put some substance to it.

    Kind regards