Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Where does Physics Stop and Metaphysics Begin? Rambam and Ramban.

There is very little difference between Rambam and Ramban, the two great representatives of the two schools of Judaism, the rational and the mystical, when it comes to defining the goals and objectives of humanity. They both agree that the goal of Torah is to bring about a perfect civilization that knows God[1]. Rambam’s position is discussed in my earlier posts. We read similar ideas in Ramban in Torat Hashem Temimah (Kitvei Ramban Chavel Edition (Heb.) Vol. 1 page 142-143) and in many of his other writings. The difference between these two greats is how one answers the question of where science stops and metaphysics starts. The implications of the answer to this question underlie the great chasm that developed between the Rambam’s rationalism and the Ramban’s Kabbalah.

Rambam maintained a clear delineation between the physical and the spiritual. Spirituality to him had no place in science. If he did not understand something about the physical world, he assumed it was some mechanism that he had not yet understood. He thought that there are things that humans will never understand through systematic research, only through inspiration or intuition, but ultimately the explanation will be physical. Rambam addresses this in several places in his writing, (I know offhand of three but I am sure there are more), and to me the most telling, especially to a contemporary Jew, is the following one in his introduction to Pirush Hamishna. In a discussion about the purpose of the different components of our world, he makes the following statement -

, ויש שתכליתו עמוקה ונסתרת עד שלא תוודע כלל זולתי אם נודעה בחזון

או בידיעת הנסתרות, אבל בחקירה מדעית אין הדבר אפשרי, לפי שאין ביכולת

האדם לחקור ולדעת מדוע המציא הטבע מן הנמלים בכנפים ומהם בלי כנפים, וכן

מדוע המציא תולע מרבה רגלים, ואחר פחות רגלים ממנו, ומה תכלית התולעת הזו

והנמלה הזו

some things’ purpose is so deep and hidden that it cannot be known except through a vision or intuition [my paraphrase/explanation - the method used in finding hidden things (see Rabbis Kafieh and Sheilat notes in their respective editions)]. Understanding the purpose of those things through scientific inquiry is impossible. For it is impossible for man to inquire and know why nature has produced ants with and without wings, why it produced a critter with many legs and another with less, and what the purpose of this critter or ant is.

The example he brings is an anachronism for a contemporary reader. Darwin has explained this phenomenon quite conclusively. Rambam however contents himself with stating that there must be a physical reason and explanation that is unknown to him. To him Darwin, who explained it, would be either intuitive or a visionary, which is not so far from the truth. There is no possible “spiritual” explanation to natural phenomena because there is no interaction between the conceptual (to us), non-physical existence and the physical world we live in.

Ramban on the other hand explained scientific mysteries by ascribing them to spiritual entities that emanate from the stars and spheres. Where Rambam saw only unknown physical phenomena, what we now know is gravity, magnetism etc… Ramban saw transitional semi-physical entities that carried out the wishes of the astral powers. In his world, there was no clear delineation between the physical and the metaphysical. There is a category of semi transcendence populated by a multitude of entities such as Sheidim, Ruchot (spirits) and Neshamot (souls) which are found in Tanach and the Gemara. Where Rambam saw allegories and metaphors, Ramban saw science and reality. For a thorough discussion of the contrast between these two thinkers in this area see R. Buchman’s article in Hakirah Vol. 2 http://hakirah.org/Vol%202%20Buchman.pdf .

Ramban could therefore accept many Chazal and verses in the Torah literally. An angel was not just a “form” but also a physical entity albeit ethereal. The soul is similarly a physical entity that God “blows” into man just as the Passuk says. When the rabbis say that there are a finite number of souls stored in the “Guf” created at the same time as the world, he sees that as literal (Kitvei Haramban page 159). That being the case souls must be recycled and a whole body of theories regarding Gilgulim comes into existence. Ramban has support for these ideas from old Midrashim, the Heichalot, and literal reading of more accepted sources. This approach leads to a completely different understanding of Olam Haba, Techyat Hametim and generally has a much more eschatological view of death and its aftermath.

There is no question that some earlier thinkers including some Amoraim and probably Tannaim, held similar positions and Ramban has a rich tradition to rely on. Rambam knew the same sources and either ignored them or when forced to confront them, either interpreted them allegorically or rejected them. Rambam accepted that the Rabbis had no clear tradition when it came to these issues and based their understanding on how they saw their world. He therefore did not have a problem accepting that there are different schools of thought that contradict each other and when looking at a text one has to see to which group the author belonged. When forming our own opinion on which group to follow we have to evaluate which one fits with our reality and follow the Truth as we see it.

Rambam held that there is a limit to what humans can apprehend. Knowing that limit and not going beyond it is a sine qua non of knowledge and perfection.

A boundary is undoubtedly set to the human mind which it cannot pass. There are things (beyond that boundary) which are acknowledged to be inaccessible to human understanding, and man does not show any desire to comprehend them, being aware that such knowledge is impossible, and that there are no means of overcoming the difficulty. (MN 1:31)

If, on the other hand, you attempt to exceed the limit of your intellectual power, or at once to reject things as impossible which have never been proved to be impossible, or which are in fact possible, though their possibility be very remote, then you will be like Elisha Acher. You will not only fail to become perfect, but you will become exceedingly imperfect. Ideas founded on mere imagination will prevail over you. You will incline toward defects, and toward base and degraded habits, on account of the confusion which troubles the mind, and of the dimness of its light, just as weakness of sight causes invalids to see many kinds of unreal images, especially when they have looked for a long time at dazzling or at very minute objects.” (MN1:32)

Contrary to popular belief, Rambam was the more conservative of the two. He set limits to how far we may speculate beyond the physical. Ramban with his world of mysticism was much more daring. It was not that Ramban did not accept the limits to human knowledge but rather, though there was no direct evidence for the existence of a spiritual world, there was a lot of circumstantial evidence supporting it. One has to wonder how much his perspective would have changed when confronted with the empirically proven scientific explanations for the once mysterious phenomena. Would he still maintain that magic and astrology work but may not be used because Jews have to rely on God? Or would he accept Rambam’s position that they are forbidden because they do not work and are false? How would this have affected his understanding of the supernal world?

It is important to understand that the two approaches are mutually exclusive. If one accepts Rambam, one has to follow his position to its rational conclusion. Clearly, what to Ramban was science to Rambam was superstition and forbidden. It brought the transcendental into the physical where it does not belong. I find it an affront to my intelligence when I read some who seemingly seamlessly integrate the two approaches. It is insulting to both of these great truth seekers. The approach would have to be with both to try to update their ideas based on our current knowledge. As I quoted in an earlier post, Rav Kook already implied that this would be a much easier task with Rambam’s rational outlook than with Ramban’s mystical one. As I discuss idolatry, we will have to keep in mind the different ways Rambam and Ramban looked at the world. We will see that even in what seems a Halachik issue, the underlying philosophical thinking affects practical rulings.

[1] They seem to differ in their respective understanding of Vehalachta Biderachav. That is a subject for a separate analysis.


  1. I enjoyed this post. Very clear and it explains some of your previous ideas.

    I have some questions.How does the Rambam handle mathematical entities, such as numbers and sets? They are not physical entities, but they exist and aren't an illusion.

    How does he handle consciouness and its content, thoughts, beliefs, intentions, images,etc?They are ostensibly mental entities, not physical.

    How does he understand the will? Is a will a physical thing like a bone or a neuron?

    My question is... do you know of any place where he deals with these issues?

  2. EJ,

    thank you for your comment.

    Rambam deals with every issue you talk about. unfortunately it is spread all across his writings as they are the core issues that underlie theology. i will put together, when i get a little time some references and either post or email you.

  3. EJ

    I gave some thought to your requests and it is not easy to recommend a particular reading as it is all part of his system.

    >How does the Rambam handle mathematical entities, such as numbers and sets? They are not physical entities, but they exist and aren't an illusion.

    I cannot think of any place he addresses this directly, though I may be wrong. I understand it as part of his concept of the Active Intellect. Thus not only mathematics but also all knowledge is real in the sense that it "exists" before man apprehends it and before it goes from potential to actual. It is a little akin to the Body & Mind problem. He has an interesting discussion in MN 1:68 on a related subject -

    >How does he handle consciouness and its content, thoughts, beliefs, intentions, images,etc?They are ostensibly mental entities, not physical.

    I would read carefully his introduction to Avot - the Shemona Perakim especially the first chapter. There is an excellent edition of the Hakdamot Harmbam Lamishna by R. Yitzchak Shailat with extensive notes and explanatios. There is also a transcript of Shiurim by Prof Leibowitz which is excellent but hard to find.

    Will be discussed there too. It is also discussed intermittently in Moreh hanevuchim in different contexts. Very shortly and cryptically in MT hil De'ot, Yesodei hatorah and teshuvah.

  4. >Will be discussed there too

    I meant - Will is discussed there too.

  5. I want to comment on something you posted on in your previous post (in the comments). You were comparing atheism to Avoda Zara and you said AZ is worse. Now first of all I believe atheism is a type of AZ. In a way these adherents make a diety out of man and take rational thought to an extreme. Second of all while both are bad, in this day of age I believe atheism in the western world has done much more harm then superstition and idol worshiping. Third of all what imho atheism does that makes it worse then superstitious deisim (or polydeism) is that it removes hope from mankind. Hope and belief and faith are intertwined, and while AZ corrupts it, Atheism takes it away and steps on it. Both are bad, but the latter is worse.

  6. Also btw you had some interesting commentators in your previous post. The last one obviously has no clue about what you are talking about.

  7. Thanks.

    Assuming he does allow for minds interacting with physical as well as truths that exist independently of any mind and somehow are causally connected to our apprehension of these truths, then he does allow non physical entities to be the causes of physical states.

    The issue between the Rambam and Ramban is more than a disagreement whether astral bodies exist or influence human events. You suggest the Rambam only allows physical causes.

    Am I missing something?

  8. ZB

    Atheism does not make man into a deity necessarily but rather Azav Hashem et Ha'aretz concept. Man is alone and adrift. That is preferable to relying on a mirage!

    >Hope and belief and faith are intertwined, and while AZ corrupts it, Atheism takes it away and steps on it.

    Are you saying that Avodat Hashem is utilitarian?

  9. EJ

    This is one of the most difficult concepts that I had with this derech. I wrote about several times trying to define the concept of "Form". It is something that exists only in man's mind -
    והצורות שאין להם גולם, אינן נראין לעין, אלא בעין הלב הם ידועים, כמו שידענו אדון הכול בלא ראיית עין.

    Yesodei Hatorah 4:13

    The idea of how one acquires knowledge is connected with this issue and honestly whenever I think I understand it it escapes me again. All I know is that a concept can "exist" independent of a physical existence. It cannot be described as "spiritual" because that would see it as "existing" in the same realm as we do.

    Read Yesodei Hatorah 2:3 to 10 with the above in mind and you will see what I mean.

    To me to understand that is the challenge and I have a feeling it falls under the category of

    Do not imagine that these most difficult problems can be thoroughly understood by any one of us. This is not the case. At times the truth shines so brilliantly that we perceive it as clear as day. Our nature and habit then draw a veil over our perception, and we return to a darkness almost as dense as before. We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night. On some the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day. This was the degree of prophetic excellence attained by (Moses) the greatest of prophets, to whom God said, "But as for thee, stand thou here by Me" (Deut. v. 31), and of whom it is written "the skin of his face shone," etc. (Exod. xxxiv. 29). [Some perceive the prophetic flash at long intervals; this is the degree of most prophets.] By others only once during the whole night is a flash of lightning perceived. This is the case with those of whom we are informed, "They prophesied, and did not prophesy again" (Num. xi. 25). There are some to whom the flashes of lightning appear with varying intervals; others are in the condition of men, whose darkness is illumined not by lightning, but by some kind of crystal or similar stone, or other substances that possess the property of shining during the night; and to them even this small amount of light is not continuous, but now it shines and now it vanishes, as if it were "the flame of the rotating sword."
    (Introduction to Moreh) Sorry for the long quote!

  10. I understand and am not asking for an answer how we apprehend forms. The corresponding issue in the philosophy of mathematics remains open. I am saying there has to be a different way of explaining the Rambam-Ramban differences other than saying the Rambam avoids minds or abstract entities causing physical changes.

  11. Natural Laws, Whence And How They Come About



    The term "natural laws" is still an enigma despite the continuous efforts of Science and Theology to define it and to give a meaning to it; even though we are embodiments of it and refer to it profusely we are still far from comprehending it.

    Linguistically the "laws of nature" are empirical or scientific generalizations that describe empirically or scientifically observed and defined recurring facts or events or processes in nature.

    The prime yet unanswered question about the laws of nature is "whence and how natural laws come about".


    I do not attempt to search/review/discuss/assess the many proposed conjectures-answers to the subject question. Just suggesting my own conjecture:

    Singularity and D-Infinity, maximum cosmic space expansion since Big Bang, are the alternating cosmic start-and-end states. The cosmos alternates between expansion and impansion. The in-between state is a metastable state, which is an everyday commonsense experience, that the denser the compacting goal the more energy need be invested and, vice versa, the more thorough the disintegration the higher the amount of energy released. It seems that E=mC^2 is a specific case of the cosmic (and universal) process E=Total[m(1+D)] where D is the Distance from Big Bang point and the sum is of all spatial values of D from D=0 to D=selected value.

    [BTW, (Nov 9 2006), following Newton (1) gravity is decreased when mass is decreased and (2) acceleration of a body is given by dividing the force acting upon it by its mass. By plain common sense the combination of those two 'laws' may explain the accelerating cosmic expansion of galaxy clusters, based on the above E/ m/ D suggested relationship.]

    Since the Universe (including its sub-systems, also Life) is a continuously evolving fractal system, ergo energy is the base element of everything. Cosmic evolution is evolution of energy. At the beginning of the present cosmic cycle was the energy singularity. At its end there will be a small amount of mass and an infinite dispersion of the beginning energy. In-between, the universe undergoes continuous evolution, consisting of myriad energy-to-energy and energy-to-mass-to-energy transformations.

    Cosmic impansion will come about to replace expansion and evolve towards singularity when gravity will begin to overcome expansion, when the strain of the stretching space-time matrix will no longer be overcome by the continuously diluting expansion forces.


    So whence and how do natural laws come about?

    The laws of nature are products of the cosmic evolution, the evolution of energy, that consists of myriad energy-to-energy and energy-to-mass-to-energy transformations.


    And a relevant minor question is "who hijacks science"?, who claims-pretends to have the Scientific Answers that we do not have?

    The answer to this question is that the hijackers are, broadly, of two general types:

    - those who consider themselves, or are considered by others, to be scientists, but posit as scientific findings conjectures that involve some degree of bone fida scientific consideration, and

    - those who consider themselves, or are considered by others, to be theologians, and posit that all scientific matters already discovered and yet to be discovered emanate from their deity that is the creator of the cosmos including whatever is brought to our comprehension via science.


    Dov Henis


  12. Proposed Definitions Of Earth Life, Organism And Gene.


    Earth Life: 1. a format of temporarily constrained energy, retained in temporary constrained genetic energy packages in forms of genes, genomes and organisms 2. a real virtual affair that pops in and out of existence in its matrix, which is the energy constrained in Earth's biosphere.

    Earth organism: a temporary self-replicable constrained-energy genetic system that supports and maintains Earth's biosphere by maintenance of genes.

    Gene: a primal Earth's organism.


    Dov Henis