Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Rambam's Relevance In Light of Contemporary Science -

As Rambam used Aristotelian physics in explaining his theology, many argue that it became irrelevant in the modern world, once the science of the Greeks has been debunked and shown to be utterly wrong. I struggled with this for a long time until I realized that I was missing a very important point – I realized that Physics and Metaphysics, though related, operate on very different modes of thinking. Medieval science or what we refer to in contemporary language as physics, astrophysics, chemistry and biology, deal with demonstrable phenomena. Metaphysics begins where physics ends. It tries to explain the non-demonstrable. If something can possibly be demonstrated, it cannot be categorized metaphysics. Physics deals with existence and how it is explained and understood, the underlying science that makes things function the way we know them, while metaphysics deals with the why, when and Who that precede, so to say, existence. The questions that metaphysics deals with, many times, have more than one possible answer and as long as the proposed answer does not contradict physical reality, it may be true. Which answer one chooses to believe is therefore a theological issue and can only be resolved that way. This is how I understand the Halacha in Hilchot Avodah Zara 2:4-5 we discussed at our shiur this Shabbat.

ד ולא עבודה זרה בלבד הוא שאסור להיפנות אחריה במחשבה, אלא כל מחשבה שגורמת לו לאדם לעקור עיקר מעיקרי התורה--מוזהרין אנו שלא להעלותה על ליבנו, ולא נסיח דעתנו לכך ונחשוב ונימשך אחר הרהורי הלב: מפני שדעתו של אדם קצרה, ולא כל הדעות יכולות להשיג האמת על בורייו; ואם יימשך כל אדם אחר מחשבות ליבו, נמצא מחריב את העולם לפי קוצר דעתו.

ה כיצד: פעמים יתור אחר עבודה זרה; ופעמים יחשוב בייחוד הבורא, שמא הוא שמא אינו, מה למעלה מה למטה, מה לפנים מה

לאחור; ופעמים בנבואה, שמא היא אמת שמא אינה; ופעמים בתורה, שמא היא מן השמיים שמא אינה. ואינו יודע המידות שידון בהן עד שיידע האמת על בורייו, ונמצא יוצא לידי מינות.

Note that in Halacha 5, the listing of prohibited thoughts is in areas of metaphysics which cannot be demonstrably proven. It does not list the question of the existence of God because according to Rambam that is demonstrable, as I have shown many times (see label “Existence of God). It is the questions that can never be demonstrated, that we have to accept based on tradition and revelation, which we may not question. One may not question the unity of God, how and where existence came into being, prophecy, and the divinity of Torah because these questions can only be answered through revelatory tradition. However, it does not mean that we should not strive for a better understanding and insight into what these beliefs mean and how they dictate how we think about and deal with our existence. On the contrary, this search for understanding is part of the commandment to love God, for love is commensurate with intimate knowledge.

How are we to define the boundaries that separate physics from metaphysics? As I said earlier, metaphysics deals with matters that can never be demonstrated. As our understanding of science advances, that boundary keeps shifting where physics takes over areas that until now were thought to belong to metaphysics. Some of the issues that Rambam held to belong to metaphysics are now demonstrably explained by science. For example, Rambam had no concept of gravity and therefore could not explain the movement of the heavens through physics. He accepted Aristotelian conjecture that the spheres had a built in urge to perfection which encouraged them to self propel in a perfect movement – the circle. As the four elements we know (fire, air, earth and water), do not have the ability to think, the spheres must therefore be made of a fifth element that is of a higher matter that allows the heavens to think. As humans are composed of the four elements, the coarser elements, they cannot have an as advanced ability to comprehend the abstract as the heavens do. It is based on this that the heavens and how they operate was seen as belonging to metaphysics. Apparently, Rambam had his doubts about the accuracy of this conjecture.

For as regards the things in the sublunary world, his [Aristotle] explanations are in accordance with facts, and the relation between cause and effect is clearly shown. It can therefore be assumed that everything is the necessary result of the motions and influences of the spheres. But when he treats of the properties of the spheres, he does not clearly show the causal relation, nor does he explain the phenomena in that systematic way which the hypothesis of natural laws would demand.” (MN 2:19)

Of course, we now know that this whole construct was fiction and can be explained through the Newtonian laws of physics. However, the basic questions still remain – who was responsible for it to be as it is? Is God in fact responsible for existence, as we know it? Is God a static force in the universe or was He responsible for willing creation in time? If He willed it, for what purpose did He do so? Does God have a plan for existence or is it all left to chance? The answers to these questions have not changed with all the technological advances and scientific insights and are still based on revelation and revelatory tradition. These questions remain whether the world is 6000 years old or millions and the basic answer does not change either. We may have to tweak the questions and answers a little so that they conform to our new understanding but the underlying thought and concept does not change. With the current understanding of the Big Bang, the question of what was there before remains. We still have to answer how was it triggered? If we now suggest that there was some kind of event based on quantum theory the question still remains what and how was that quantum induced event triggered and how did this quantum based system come into existence? We just pushed the question back up the cause and effect ladder but the question remained.

It is with this in mind that I learn Rambam and his thought. It is why I do not see it as irrelevant. I find that he was the most thought out amongst the Rishonim, the medieval thinkers, when it came to understanding the divide between the physical and metaphysical. I think we can see this clearly when Rambam went against almost all thinkers in his time and considered astrology to be nonsense. He clearly understood that although the heavens think, they do not think for us. They may influence the physical on our world through whatever force (gravity of course was unknown), that force is physical only and has no influence on how human minds act. That was so outside the thinking at the time that even Maimonidean followers in Provence could not accept it. His letter to Montpellier which laid out his thinking on this had no impact whatsoever. Maimonideans like R. Yaakov Anatoly, Nissim of Marseilles, Ralbag and many others held on fiercely to astrology. To them that was pure physics just like astronomy. Even as late as the 18th century, the great Gra could not accept that. He accused Rambam of being too influenced by the Greeks when he denied the spiritual forces exerted by the heavens.

It is this clear outlook that rambam teaches that attracts me to his thought and theology and keeps it fresh even during our fast paced scientific age.


  1. Wonderful post. The way I see it, Rambam's science might have been disproven for the most part, but the approach is what matters. We can only know what we know in science because of the scientists that came before us. Had the science of the time of the Rambam not existed then we never would be where we are today. Just because the theories that existed at his time were ultimately proven untenable does not say anything about the Rambam's approach or brilliance.

  2. Why do you put the spheres in the realm of metaphysics? The Rambam in the Mishneh Torah includes them in the chapters on physics (Yesodei Hatorah chapter 3 Maaseh Breishis). The Rambam seems to distinguish between physics and metaphysics depending on whether the object of study is form in matter (physics) or form separate from matter (metaphysics). However even though they are part of physics they occupy a level of existence between us and the angels. And are materially distinct from the sublunar world.

  3. Yaakov, i defined metaphysics as something that is not demonstrable as opposed to physics. I think I am correct.

    Just a little point to illustrate:in perek 1 we read

    ואלוהינו ברוך שמו, הואיל וכוחו אין לו קץ ואינו פוסק, שהרי הגלגל סובב תמיד, אין כוחו כוח גוף

    The Galgal is ma'asseh Breishit because it is demonstrable that it always circles,the force that gives it the ability to do so is not demonstrable - it is ma'asseh merkavah. When he discusses the physical turning of the Galgal he describes it in perek 3 when he discusses how it moves he discusses it in Ma'asseh Merkavah in perek 1.

    BTW the statement i quote here requires quite a bit of thought and I beleive can stand even now that we know gravity. But that is not for a comment and probably not postable either.

  4. I don't see how your distinction explains a lot of the rambam's examples,

    here are some of the Rambam's ideas which don't seem to fit your distinction

    1. The existence of god is provable, is is therefore not metaphysics? similarly the fact that God is one and not physical is provable.

    2. The fact that the Galgalim have knowledge is not provable, why is it in perek 3, similarly that they do not have a smell or flavor is not provable yet is in perek 3

    3. the number of galgalim is not provable yet is in perek 3

    I am also curious in how you think the statement in perek 1 which describes the force which turns the Galgal is still applicable with modern physics

  5. Yaakov, good questions. When I wrote this post I was not equating metaphysics with ma'asseh merkavah but rather defining it as non-demonstrable which is what I believe it means in contemporary parlance. I was going to give you this answer when I saw your first question but then as I was glancing through perek 1 Yesodei Hatorah the quote above stood out and it caught my attention so i jumped to answer without thinking it through.

    The point I am making in this post is that Rambam was clear in distinguishing between demonstrable and non demonstrable science. Whether it is categorized in Ma'asseh breishit or Ma'asseh merkavah.

    As an aside, eino guf is interesting - here is how Rambam demonstrates it in MT

    הרי מפורש בתורה ובנביא, שאין הקדוש ברוך הוא גוף וגווייה: שנאמר "כי ה' אלוהיכם, הוא האלוהים בשמיים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת" (ראה דברים ד,לט; יהושוע ב,יא), והגוף לא יהיה בשני מקומות. ונאמר "כי לא ראיתם, כל תמונה" (דברים ד,טו), ונאמר "ואל מי תדמיוני, ואשווה" (ישעיהו מ,כה); ואילו היה גוף, היה דומה לשאר גופים.

    Why use tradition to prove something that is demonstrable? Is galgal sovev TAMID not demonstrable? What does tamid mean? Kadmon?

    Note that the presentation on Metziut Hashem is much more definite and seen as demonstrable than on eino guf and echad. Instead of הרי מפורש בתורה ובנביא which connotes using the passuk as proof here he says
    הוא שהנביא אומר and והוא שהתורה אומרת IOW the demonstrated proof explains the tradition and refers to it as the unique and ultimate truth as opposed to all other yediotהוא לבדו האמת, ואין לאחר אמת כאמיתו .

    I am saying this because I am surprised you did not question my assertion in the post based on the halacha in hilchot Avodah Zara where I suggested that Eino guf is non-demonstrable and based on tradition. (BTW this has implications and puts in a new light Ra'avad's comment on the "greater ones" that believed that He is a guf.)

    There is much more to write on this and hopefully one day I will get to it.

  6. also weird how the rambam brings proof that G-D is not physical"כי ה' אלוהיכם, הוא האלוהים בשמיים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת"-how is this pasuk proof-it just means that G-D is the master or ruler over both,

  7. I agree that there is a question why the rambam brings numerous pesukim in support of incorporeality, however the rambam in the previous halacha brings a proof, and in the moreh hanevuchim at the begining of book 2 he openly says that these ideas are provable regardless of what you hold as to kadmus haolam or briah yesh meayin.
    In terms of the raavads comment, it seems that he is saying that these people hold God is physical because of a mistake in understanding the mesorah, but they werent philosophers.
    (This might be why the Rambam brings pesukim even though Oneness is provable, since he is showing that the Torah presents incorporality and you must learn the other pesukim in that context. The mishneh torah is not a book of philosophical proofs but rather of Torah shebaal peh, which is a pirush of torah shebikhtav)

  8. you may be interested in Frank Tipler's book called The Science of Immortality. He follows the rambam's method and uses his scientific knowledge to discover God (He is a professor of math and science at Tulane university.) He even quotes the Rambam in his book