Monday, November 15, 2010

The Paradox of Creationism and Non-Corporeality.

Proving the existence of God is a topic discussed from time immemorial and seems to be a never-ending subject. I believe that the cause is the lack of definitions[1]. When we are trying to prove the existence of God, the thinking is that we are talking about a personal God, an entity that created and controls existence and is involved in it on a constant basis. That is the God that is relevant to the general public and is therefore the one that is instinctively sought after. Unfortunately, the only thing that we can prove unequivocally is the existence of a non-contingent entity that is uniquely non-contingent, non-physical and whose “existence” itself is only a term used for an entity that “exists” in an “existence” that we cannot fathom.

“…for even the term “existence” is applied to Him and other things, according to our opinion, only by way of absolute equivocation.” (MN 1:52, repeated in MN 1:35, 56 and 57.)

I say “Prove”, but I have to add a caveat even to this. Let me explain. Rambam in the introductory chapters to his discussion of the proofs for the existence of God presents the most common proofs, the ones used to this day, which are based on creation and referred to nowadays as “ID - Intelligent design” and which he vehemently rejects.   Rambam explains that basing the existence of God on the argument that the world[2] must have a creator for it to be so magnificently structured is a very risky approach. He argues that there is no unequivocal proof that the world was created. It is only an argument that seems to be the most appealing and logical but cannot be proven incontrovertibly. Basing the existence of God on such a weak base is not a good idea. He therefore undertakes to prove it based on the possibility of an eternal universe too. He brings several proofs and one of the most compelling to me is the one arguing that in a world that we observe as being contingent, where every part of it is contingent on a preceding cause, there must be one entity that is non-contingent – that entity is what we call God[3]. In essence, he therefore shows that whether we believe in a created universe or an eternal one, there must be an entity, a “First Existent” that we refer to as God. The problem that we face is that the God that emerges from the eternal universe argument is necessarily uniquely non-contingent and therefore non- physical while the one that emerges from the creationist argument does not necessarily have to be non-physical and therefore uniqueness cannot be proven.

The universe is either eternal or has had a beginning; if it had a beginning, there must necessarily exist a being which caused the beginning; this is clear to common sense; for a thing that has had a beginning, cannot be the cause of its own beginning, another must have caused it. The universe was therefore created by God. If on the other hand the universe were eternal, it could in various ways be proved that apart from the things which constitute the universe, there exists a being which is neither body nor a force in a body, and which is one, eternal, not preceded by any cause, and immutable. That being is God.” (MN 1:71)

Unity and non-corporeality can only be unequivocally proven if one assumes an eternal universe. A created universe can accept a non-corporeal unique God but it cannot be unequivocally proven. We therefore face a great paradox – accept creation – God does not have to be non-corporeal, accept eternity of the universe, God must be non-corporeal. We, Jews, who accept creation as a belief should therefore be able to live with the idea of a physical God. In fact, many great Jews did believe that God was corporeal. Ra’avad in Hilchot Teshuvah 3:7 makes the famous comment that “greater and better people [than Rambam who considers corporealists as minim] accepted that belief based on what they read in the scriptures and even more in the Aggadot that confuse thinking”.

It is with this in mind that I believe Hilchot Teshuvah 3:7 becomes clearer. 

טו  [ז] חמישה הן הנקראין מינים:  האומר שאין שם אלוה, ואין לעולם מנהיג; והאומר שיש שם מנהיג, אבל הם שניים או יתר; והאומר שיש שם ריבון אחד, אלא שהוא גוף ובעל תמונה; וכן האומר שאינו לבדו ראשון וצור לכול; וכן העובד אלוה זולתו, כדי להיות מליץ בינו ובין ריבון העולמים.  כל אחד מחמישה אלו מין.

The first of the five “Minim” must be read as one who accepts the existence of an entity such as God but does not accept Him as the entity responsible for natural law (מנהיג)[4]. An atheist, one who does not believe in the existence of God altogether, is not a Min – a religious definition. Denial of the existence of a “First Existent” is illogical because,

 יסוד היסודות ועמוד החכמות, לידע שיש שם מצוי ראשון
(Yesodei Hatorah 1:1)

The existence of a First Existent is a fact; it is the foundation and supporting column of all knowledge. In Hilchot Teshuvah, the Min rejects how our religion sees God and that places him in the category of Minim.

Micah Goodman in his excellent book “Secrets of the Guide for the Perplexed” (pg. 268-269) concludes that Rambam did not really believe that the existence of God is unequivocally provable[5]. I believe he erred by conflating the existence of God with “what” God is, an argument he himself makes several times in the discussion. True, the idea of a non-physical God is not provable; the existence of a First Existent is factual and provable. All the proofs that God is non-corporeal are based on the eternity of the universe which is not provable. The proofs for the existence of a First Existent are based on either possibilities; eternal or created universe.   


[1] In a letter to Marseilles Rambam writes:
Know, my masters, that it is not proper for a man to accept as trustworthy anything other than one of these three things. The first is a thing for which there is a clear proof deriving from man's reasoning—such as arithmetic' geometry, and astronomy. The second is a thing that a man perceives through one of the five senses—such as when he knows with certainty that this is red and this is black and the like through the sight of his eye; or as when he tastes that this is bitter and this is sweet; or as when he feels that this is hot and this is cold; or as when he hears that this sound is clear and this sound is indistinct; or as when he smells that this is a pleasing smell and this is a displeasing smell and the like. The third is a thing that a man receives from the prophets or from the righteous. Every reasonable man ought to distinguish in his mind and thought all the things that he accepts as trustworthy, and say: "This I accept as trustworthy because of tradition, and this because of sense perception, and this on grounds of reason." Anyone who accepts as trustworthy anything that is not of these three species, of him it is said: "The simple believes everything" (Prov. 14:15).
[2] I use “world” for simplicity and clarity. I am really talking about physical existence.
[3] A variation on this proof is what is referred to as the metaphysical proof; all existents are “possible existents” – they are not necessary existent. In an eternal existence, there must be a time when no “possible existents” were in existence. As we are here, there must therefore exist a “necessary existent” who is God. This proof too is dependent on an eternal universe.
[4] Otherwise, the first should be counted as two. It is only after accepting the existence of God that a discussion can be held on His role in existence. Clearly שאין שם אלוה must be read as one with . ואין לעולם מנהיג
[5] He bases it on professor Ze’ev Harvey’s article ‘Maimonides” Avicennianism” Maimonidean Studies Vol 5 (2008).


  1. How do you view the issue with the current position of science that the universe is in fact finite and not eternal, expanding and ultimately ending?

    Also isn't it clearly Chazal's position that the universe is finite? שיתא אלפי וחד חרוב

    Or is there a distiniction in what you're saying between: the world, between the universe, and between existence?

  2. Daniel,

    1. A finite universe does not contradict uniqueness and transcendence - it just is not necessarily so and cannot be proven. Torah, or revelation if you wish, tells us that is so and as long as facts do not contradict that we accept it.

    2. Rambam does not accept that see MN 2:29. He believes in eternal universe a parte post. He says Rabbis were alluding to something else.

  3. This is excellent and very thought provoking, thank you. I have always thought of G-D's necessity in the complicated appearance of our universe and the beautiful majesty. However, it is true, these things are shaky at best to base a belief in G-D on.

    However, I don't understand how the Rambam ends up saying that an eternal universe needs a G-D. I am unclear on that idea. If the universe always existed as it is, why would any G-D need to exist? G-D is only absolutely required if we are to say the universe is created. I just can't understand this concept. Maybe you can try explaining it to me, please?

  4. e-man,

    it is a complicated and lengthy discussion but just look at one simple approach. What creates movement? there must be an entity that "pushes" the first moving object for movement is not spontaneous.That eternal entity that is eternally concurrent with matter that eternally moves is God. Of course with modern theories of movement - inertia- this "proof" needs to be adjusted but it gives you an idea of where this going. See also note 3 above.

  5. e-man,

    i realized "the first moving object" in the above comment might be confusing. Think of it as "first" hierarchically not in time. In other words the physical movement that causes all other movement but eternally in time.

  6. I think I understand. So, the idea is that G-D and the universe are eternal, but G-D is what causes the universe to have "life." In essence, G-D is the battery of the universe?

  7. Perhaps we should begin with a simple question. Why do we say that a body in motion, stands in need of a cause for that motion? Does a body at rest need a cause for it being at rest?

  8. according to rambam's thinking a body at rest would need a cause to exist but not to move. A body in motion needs a reason for both. In our terms we would stick with the proof from contingency and not from movement.

    A point has to be made that rambam in MN offers a variety of proofs. I have not so far been able to figure out why he needs more than one. Does it mean that none are strong enough? Or each addresses another aspect and they have to be seen in combination (see MN2:1-2). I hope one day i will figure it out though my instinct is to go with the latter though I do not know why.

  9. Why does a body need a cause to be in motion, according to Rambam's thinking?

  10. Rabbi Sacks,

    I said "according to rambam's thinking a body at rest would need a cause to exist but NOT to move

  11. ג [ב] דרך האש והרוח, להיות מהלכם ממטה מטבור הארץ למעלה כלפי הרקיע; ודרך המים והארץ, להיות מהלכם מתחת הרקיע למטה לאמצע--שאמצע הרקיע, הוא המטה שאין למטה ממנו. ואין הילוכם בדעתם ולא בחפצם, אלא מנהג שנקבע בהם וטבע שנטבע בהם.

    Why doesn't each element not just attain its natural place and stay there?

  12. >according to rambam's thinking a body at rest would need a cause to exist but not to "move".

    sorry, i just realized i meant NOT to be at "rest".

  13. That makes a lot more sense.

  14. How is it possible for there to be a physical G-d if one believes in a created world? If G-d is physical then he would be dependent on other physical things meaning that G-d would not be the first existence.

  15. Dear Follower,

    You are asking a very good question. All a created world tells us is that there was something other than itself that created it. That "other" could be either physical or non-physical. It does not have to be eternal as another physical or non-physical entity which again may be eternal or finite, physical or non-physical that created it. This can go on ad-infinitum. However if the physical world is eternal and as we know it is composed of things that are contingent, in an infinite time there must be a second in time where everything simultaneously reaches a point of non-existence and thus no longer exist. There must therefore be an entity outside it that is non-contingent, therefore non physical that exists independently.

    I know it is complicated but if you think about it carefully you will see what i am saying.

  16. when I said in the earlier comment
    "It does not have to be eternal as another physical or non-physical entity which again may be eternal or finite, physical or non-physical that created it." I meant to say

    "It does not have to be eternal as another physical or non-physical entity which again may be eternal or finite, physical or non-physical may or may not created it."

  17. I understand the first part of your answer. Isn't that the idea behind the Big Bang Theory with a little twist. But again I still don't understand how its possible for this "other" and the "other" that would have to cause the "other" and the "other" that caused that "other" and so on to be physical. Again, if we are going to say that the world ("world" meaning physical existence) was created then the "creator" CAN'T be physical because that would just be saying that the world is infinite.

  18. When I mentioned the Big Bang Theory in my previous comment I was referring to the theory that there were a series of bangs that occured until the world was created.

  19. You said -

    CAN'T be physical because that would just be saying that the world is infinite

    No, the physical god that created the world as we know it was (could be) eternally physical. it is only when physicality is eternal that God MUST be non-physical.

  20. But how did this physical entity (god) come into existence if it is creating everything that is physical?

  21. But then how did it cause all "physicalness" if it is physical?