Thursday, December 24, 2009

Rambam and Aristotles - A Complex and Nuanced Relationship. - Creation From Nothingness - The Creation of Time. (Part two of a series)

Stephen Hawking in a lecture about creation from nothingness makes the following statement:

“The problem of whether or not the universe had a beginning was a great concern to the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. He felt there were logical contradictions, or Antimonies, either way. If the universe had a beginning, why did it wait an infinite time before it began? He called that the thesis. On the other hand, if the universe had existed forever why did it take an infinite time to reach the present stage? He called that the anti thesis. Both the thesis, and the anti thesis, depended on Kant's assumption, along with almost everyone else, that time was Absolute. That is to say, it went from the infinite past, to the infinite future, independently of any universe that might or might not exist in this background.

This is still the picture in the mind of many scientists today. However, in 1915, Einstein introduced his revolutionary General Theory of Relativity. In this, space and time were no longer Absolute, no longer a fixed background to events. Instead, they were dynamical quantities that were shaped by the matter and energy in the universe. They were defined only within the universe, so it made no sense to talk of a time before the universe began. It would be like asking for a point south of the South Pole. It is not defined.” (For the whole lecture, see here )

In MN 2:13 Rambam has the following discussion:

Even time itself is among the things created; for time depends on motion, i.e., on an accident in things which move, and the things upon whose motion time depends are themselves created beings, which have passed from non-existence into existence. … For time is undoubtedly an accident and according to our opinion one of the created accidents like blackness and whiteness. It is not a quality, but an accident connected with motion. This must be clear to all who understand what Aristotle has said on time and its real existence…. We consider time a thing created: it comes into existence in the same manner as other accidents, and the substances which form the substratum for the accidents. For this reason, viz., because time belongs to the things created, it cannot be said that God produced the Universe in the beginning…. Consider this well; for he who does not understand it is unable to refute forcible objections that are raised against the theory of Creatio ex nihilo. If you admit the existence of time before the Creation, you will be compelled to accept the theory of the Eternity of the Universe. For time is an accident and requires a substratum. You will therefore have to assume that something [beside God] existed before this Universe was created, an assumption which it is our duty to oppose.”

I am not a historian of medieval philosophy and I do not have the expertise to know whether this insight of Rambam about time was accepted generally in his time. From the presentation (including the pieces I skipped), it would seem that Rambam considered his opinion as novel in his time. This however is very important in Rambam’s thinking and has major implication in our ongoing discussion. In the previous post, I explained that although Rambam bases his thinking on Aristotelian physics, when it comes to metaphysics he deviates strongly and disagrees with Aristotles. It is not because he can prove that Aristotle is wrong but rather because Aristotle cannot prove his position nor is there a possibility that anyone will ever be able to do so.

“Everything produced comes into existence from non-existence. Even when the substance of a thing has been in existence, and has only changed its form, the thing itself, which has gone through the process of genesis and development, and has arrived at its final state, has now different properties from those which it possessed at the commencement of the transition from potentiality to reality, or before that time… It is therefore quite impossible to infer from the nature which a thing possesses after having passed through all stages of its development, what the condition of the thing has been in the moment when this process commenced; nor does the condition of a thing in this moment show what its previous condition has been. If you make this mistake, and attempt to prove the nature of a thing in potential existence by its properties when actually existing, you will fall into great confusion: you will reject evident truths and admit false opinions.” (MN2:17)

We extrapolate how things were based on the nature we know and the science we develop to explain it. That is based on the world we know. It is however impossible to extrapolate from the present state of our existence to how it was before everything we know came into existence. Therefore, Rambam argues that Aristotle when he talks about things that are beyond or before our existence is only conjecturing and trying to argue for what he considers the most likely, not truly what it was. In other words, Aristotle when he talks about creation is talking about something no one can ever know based on science and factual evidence.

The important thing that we have to take away from this is that Rambam believes that a scientific answer to how the Universe came into existence will never be demonstrated. We live in this universe, the physical one and we will never be able to extrapolate and definitely prove how it was before existence came to be. It is with this preamble in mind that we read Rambam in (MN2:25)

“Owing to the absence of all proof, we reject the theory of the Eternity of the Universe; and it is for this very reason that the noblest minds spent and will spend their days in research. For if, the Creation had been demonstrated by proof, even if only according to the Platonic hypothesis, all arguments of the philosophers against us would be of no avail. If, on the other hand, Aristotle had a proof for his theory, the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected, and we should be forced to other opinions. I have thus shown that all depends on this question. Note it.”

Many have picked on these words of Rambam that he had an esoteric position that Aristotle was right. Some even made him out to be a hidden heretic, a precursor of Spinoza. But if read in the proper context it is clear that Rambam rejects Aristotle’s position and even Plato’s Materia Prima theory as conjectures that can never be proven. The answer to the question is therefore relegated to religion and revelation. It is a matter of accepting a position taught by prophecy without worrying that it can ever be disproved. We can confidently accept it.

Clearly, this confirms Rabbeinu Avraham rejection of those who accused Rambam of being an Aristotelian. In an upcoming post, I will discuss and show how Rambam was cautious and when it came to a matter that Aristotle believed to be scientific while Rambam felt that science might one day find a different explanation, he was extremely cautious and accepted Aristotle for lack of a better explanation.

Before I leave this, Hawking in his presentation does not necessarily accept that creation from nothingness was a result of God’s will. He conjectures a merging of Einstein’s relativity and quantum physics as the explanation of how things came into being from nothing. That will still only be a theory and will also leave us with the question: was this a spontaneous singularity or a willed one. I am confident that a scientific answer is impossible.


  1. You know what I'm thinking, so just subject headers:

    The Rambam disagrees with Aristo, but plays on his court -- his disproofs of Aristo's position involve Aristo's versions of intellect, motion, causality, time, form, substance, essence, accident...

    So, while he disagrees with one of Aristo's more central conclusions, is that really enough not to call him an Aristotilian?


  2. In the specific context of this post, the Rambam's notion of time is of a created entity. But that doesn't change the basic notion of Aristo's, that time is a property -- the kind of property is an "accident", meaning not the essence -- of change. Not a dimension, as we have seen it ever since Galileo made the location of a pendulum a function of time.


  3. R. Micha,

    Would you expect a contemporary thinker not to accept relativity? Of course not. Would that make him an Einsteinian thinker when he talks about Ma Lefanim Ma Le'achor? Of course not!

    As Rambam says everything "below the moon" I accept Aristo but above that I question him. He has no expertise there. Those who accused Rambam of being swayed by the "greeks" such as Gra and Ramban did not clearly separate the two areas. Ramban held that magnetism belongs to the realm of Sichli and therefore called Rambam a Mitchassed. One can say, tongue in cheek that Rambam's greatness was his being a Brisker with a clear appreciation of chilukim.

    As you will see in my next post on the subject, when it came to an area where he could not make a clear delineation, Shamayim, he erred bur if you read him carefully you will see that he is guilty of the same he accused Aristo of doing re Creation.

    Re Time, of course Rambam had no inkling of Newtonian, Galileian or Einsteinian physics. He was however prescient enough to see it as created and not eternal and was able to accept that.

    The other vgreat thing is his ability to see that one cannot extrapolate from nature to before creation. Rabbeinu Azriel in his pirush Shir Hashirim 3:9 could not and saw Yesh Meayin as a Nimna'ot (Chavel's Kitvei Ramban vol 2)