Wednesday, October 03, 2012

"Why Does The World Exist?" - Towards a Jewish Answer - Part 1.- Divine "Existence".

In his book “Why Does the World Exist?”(Which I highly recommend to all those who think about existential issues), Jim Holt interviews a series of philosophers, physicists and writers. He poses to them the question “why is there a world rather than nothing at all?” and reports their answers.  The answers can be divided into three camps listed by the author as; “optimists” who hold that there has to be a reason for the world to exist; the “pessimists” who believe there might be a reason for the world to exist but we will never know for sure; the “rejectionists” who believe there cannot be a reason for the world to exist and the question itself is meaningless.  The fact that thinkers in each group grapple with the question, while even the rejectionists work hard to explain why the question is meaningless, proves that the question is important and begs for an answer.  With the Big Bang, the currently accepted theory of how the world began, the question is; what triggered the singular event? How did the Big Bang come about? The answers given by the different interviewees vary from, it just happened; to it was started by some quantum induced or other possible scientifically explained event; to God as the Creator being behind the event. Each of these answers leaves us with a mystery as the question still remains; who made God, who or what established the scientific law that triggered the event or what was behind the “just happened” event. The book’s point is that the question still begs for a definite answer and will continue to do so for a long time if not forever.

The same question is posed by Rambam in Hilchot Avodah Zara 1:3 –
ט  [ג] כיון שנגמל איתן זה, התחיל לשוטט בדעתו והוא קטן, ולחשוב ביום ובלילה, והיה תמיה:  היאך אפשר שיהיה הגלגל הזה נוהג תמיד, ולא יהיה לו מנהיג; ומי יסבב אותו, לפי שאי אפשר שיסבב את עצמו.  ולא היה לו לא מלמד ולא מודיע דבר, אלא מושקע באור כשדים בין עובדי עבודה זרה הטיפשים

As this solid individual (Avraham Avinu) matured, while still a youth, his mind began to wander and think day and night pondering; how is it possible for this sphere to always circle without it having a driver? Who is making it circle? After all it cannot do so by itself. He had no teacher or someone who could inform him for he was ensconced in Ur of the Chaldeans amongst the stupid idol worshipers.

Rambam presents the question in context of the Aristotelian physics of his time putting it into Avraham Avinu’s mouth. The movement of the spheres was seen as the force that made earthly existence possible; the movement caused the elements to mix together creating the endless combinations of matter that make up the world. The outer sphere, הגלגל הזה, causes all the other spheres to move. The question is what is behind that moving force just as contemporary thinkers ask what is behind the Big Bang. That question has not changed with our more advanced understanding of how things work and there is no outlook that it will change with further advances in our understanding of our environment and universe. The answer that Avraham arrives at according to Rambam is

וליבו משוטט ומבין, עד שהשיג דרך האמת, והבין קו הצדק, מדעתו הנכונה; וידע שיש שם אלוה אחד, והוא מנהיג הגלגל, והוא ברא הכול, ואין בכל הנמצא אלוה חוץ ממנו.

As his mind wanders and contemplates, he arrives at the true path, and thanks to his straight thinking he develops the correct line of thought; he knows that there is out there one God who directs the sphere, who created all and no other God exists besides Him.

Avraham’s God is the Creator and His existence is a deduction that Avraham arrives at through questioning the provenance of the natural environment he lived in. He deduces that there is a Creator, a unique God that is also the continuous force that is responsible for all physical existence. The exact definition of “unique” had not yet been developed completely and therefore he had not answered the ultimate question; how did God himself come into being? That question remained even with Avraham’s understanding of God’s uniqueness. It is only when Moshe comes onto the scene that the question is finally answered with his introduction of a more advanced concept of God that addresses the question.
For all men, with few exceptions, were ignorant of the existence of God; their highest thoughts did not extend beyond the heavenly sphere, its forms or its influences. They could not yet emancipate themselves from sensation, and had not yet attained to any intellectual perfection. Then God taught Moses how to teach them, and how to establish amongst them the belief in the existence of Himself, namely, by saying Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, a name derived from the verb hayah in the sense of "existing," for the verb hayah denotes "to be," and in Hebrew no difference is made between the verbs "to be" and "to exist."… This is, therefore, the expression of the idea that God exists, but not in the ordinary sense of the term; or, in other words, He is "the existing Being which is the existing Being," that is to say, the Being whose existence is absolute. The proof which he was to give consisted in demonstrating that there is a Being of absolute existence, that has never been and never will be without existence.” (MN 1:63)

Moshe introduces the concept of negative knowledge when dealing with God’s existence leaving us with the only possible expression, “the existent Being which is the existent Being”. When we say that God exists we mean that His existence is absolute. He does not exist in the way we understand and use the word existence which is qualitative. Existence is not a quality of God but His essence meaning that God by definition cannot NOT exist. This concept cannot be grasped by the human mind because our senses attach existence to things. In our experience all things we know are brought into existence by another thing, by an event or another type of cause. We live in a world of cause and effect and that is what we can understand. The only way we can get a sense of God’s existence is by understanding that whatever we understand existence to be it does not apply to God just as the concept of cause and effect does not apply either. The great understanding of Moshe Rabbeinu was that any concept of God we arrive at, that concept cannot be God. God is inconceivable; He is the Great Mystery and also the ultimate Truth. (For a fuller treatment of Rambam’s understanding see my article in Hakirah.) This concept was taught to us as a nation at Sinai where the Torah continuously repeats that God appeared in darkness and clouds on the one hand and fire and sound on the other, a metaphor for this tension between knowing that there is an Entity responsible for existence while at the same time, that Entity is unknowable to the point that even “existence” is equivocal when used in this context. It is only once this new concept of God has been accepted that we can move to the next step and say that this Existent is the Creator. We are thus saying that there is a singular incomprehensible Entity which we call God, an Entity that has a singular existence that is responsible for all that exists.

This understanding of God makes the question “who created God?” incomprehensible. Time, space and therefore location have no meaning when thinking about such an “existent”. He “is” but not in the sense we understand “is” to be. Creation is needed for the common existent who therefore has to have been caused but the kind of “existent” we think of when talking about God is not in the same category. To summarize; we sense that there must be something out there that is responsible for this existence but this something is completely incomprehensible to us to the point we cannot even imagine anything about His essence nor ask questions about His existence which cannot be what “existence” is to us. The closer a person can come to internalizing these opposing ideas, the closer he is to God. At Moshe’s first encounter with God (Shemot 3:6) he immediately hid his face and refrained from looking. He had internalized that God is incomprehensible. The Rabbis tell us metaphorically (TB Brachot 7a) that as a reward for this it is said about Moshe (Bamidbar 12:8) that he saw God’s image. In other words the true apprehension of God is the “not” apprehension, the deep acceptance that whatever one thinks is God, it is not. No wonder Moshe was the humblest of men.  (See Rav Adin Steinsaltz edition of Sha’ar Hayichud Veha’emunah of the Ba’al Hatanya page 98 in his wonderful comments).

This is how Judaism according to Rambam explains existence and how it came to be caused by the incomprehensible God. Had it stopped here we would have a nice abstract explanation of an existential question.  But Judaism goes a step further. This Entity that we sense its "existence" and is responsible for ours whom we find incomprehensible, can however be traced via that same existence. Our own existence results from His existence. We are therefore one of the results of His “actions” and so is everything that surrounds us. By looking at all that objectively and very carefully we can develop a sense of where He wants to take this whole enterprise namely existence. That is the focus Judaism puts on this speculation and redirects it to the practical; how do we emulate God’s actions? In next post(s) I will attempt to address this and how it affects our question “why does the world exist?”