Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Rambam on Omnipotence

Further to last night's shiur, here is the full quote from Rambam regarding G-d's Omnipotence. Rambam clearly writes that G-d is bound by the laws of logic, and that anyone who denies this is only doing so because of religious conviction rather than based on philosophical reasoning.
It is from Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh Nevuchim) Book III; chapter 15. I am using the Friedlander translation of 1904 (which I know is not very good, but it is available online for free - feel free to check the original Arabic if you are able, or the excellent Hebrew translation by Schwartz)

THAT which is impossible has a permanent and constant property, which is not the result of some agent, and cannot in any way change, and consequently we do not ascribe to God the power of doing what is impossible. No thinking man denies the truth of this maxim; none ignore it, but such as have no idea of Logic. There is, however, a difference of opinion among philosophers with reference to the existence of any particular thing. Some of them consider its existence to be impossible, and hold that God cannot produce the thing in question, whilst others think that it is possible, and that God can create it if He pleases to do so. E.g., all philosophers consider that it is impossible for one substratum to have at the same moment two opposite properties, or for the elementary components of a thing, substance and accident, to interchange, so that the substance becomes accident, and the accident becomes substance, or for a material substance to be without accident. Likewise it is impossible that God should produce a being like Himself, or annihilate, corporify, or change Himself. The power of God is not assumed to extend to any of these impossibilities. But the existence of accidents independent of substance is possible according to one class of philosophers, the Mutazilah, whilst according to others it is impossible; it must, however, be added that those who admit the existence of an accident independent of substance, have not arrived at this conclusion by philosophical research alone: but it was mainly by the desire to defend certain religious principles, which speculation had greatly shaken, that they had recourse to this theory. In a similar manner the creation of corporeal things, otherwise than from a substance, is possible according to our view, whilst the philosophers say that it is impossible. Again, whilst philosophers say that it is impossible to produce a square with a diagonal equal to one of the sides, or a solid angle that includes four right angles, or similar things, it is thought possible by some persons who are ignorant of mathematics, and who only know the words of these propositions, but have no idea of that which is expressed by them. I wonder whether this gate of research is open, so that all may freely enter, and whilst one imagines a thing and considers it possible, another is at liberty to assert that such a thing is impossible by its very nature; or whether the gate is closed and guarded by certain rules, so that we are able to decide with certainty whether a thing is physically impossible. I should also like to know, in the latter case, whether imagination or reason has to examine and test objects as to their being possible or not; likewise how things imagined, and things conceived intellectually, are to be distinguished from each other. For it occurs that we consider a thing as physically possible, and then some one objects, or we ourselves fear that our opinion is only the result of imagination, and not that of reason. In such a case it would be desirable to ascertain whether there exists some faculty to distinguish between imagination and intellect, [and if so,] whether this faculty is different from both, or whether it is part of the intellect itself to distinguish between intellectual and imaginary objects. All this requires investigation, but it does not belong to the theme of this chapter.

We have thus shown that according to each one of the different theories there are things which are impossible, whose existence cannot be admitted, and whose creation is excluded from the power of God, and the assumption that God does not change their nature does not imply weakness in God, or a limit to His power. Consequently things impossible remain impossible, and do not depend on the action of an agent. It is now clear that a difference of opinion exists only as to the question to which of the two classes a thing belongs; whether to the class of the impossible, or to that of the possible. Note it.

Also, here is a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Omnipotence. Which is very interesting.


  1. Does the Rambam's position hold today? He presumes that Aristotilian logic is part of Emes, and thus of Hashem's Essence, not needing creation. But once you have multivalent logics, modal logic (which the Rambam is prefiguring here with this distinction between the impossible and that which just happens not to be true), quantum logic, fuzzy logic... Can we moderns assume that any one system of logic is prior to creation?

  2. I know that Rambam believes in negative theology, but tachlis - if logic can change (which I'm sure Rambam didn't believe it could) then does that mean that G-d (and His limitations) can also change?
    Would you say that the average Jew believes Rambam on this? That G-d can't break the rules of logic?

  3. I think the popular hashkafah on the street is simplistic, what they learned from Morah Miriam in preschool, and whatever exposure they had to aggadita consequently didn't change core beliefs. And then we wonder why there is a crisis of disconnection (see the most recent Klal Perspectives), and why cant produce more people with the motivation to resist ethical temptation than communities who don't have access to the Torah do.

    Now that I dismissed the opinion you asked for...

    I assume most hold like the Ramchal, that logic was created and thus Hashem is not bound by it. And R' Aryeh Kaplan says that the two positions -- the Rambam and the Ramchal -- is itself only an illusory conflict. The paradox between them is as real as that of the "stone so heavy even He can't lift it".

    Logic doesn't "change", there are simply many ways of defining what is logical. Something being impossible due to paradox takes on a very different notion once you're willing to say Schroedinger's Cat is not paradoxical. Until the 19th cent, we only had one of them formalized; so it seemed like there was an objective definition of "impossible".

    So I don't know what you mean by the implication that G-d could change. Logic hasn't; just our research into it did.

    And yes, that opens the door to R' Moshe Taku's position that the incomprehensibility of G-d doesn't lead to our only being able to apply logic to what He isn't, but to our being unable to apply logic at all, and needing to rely on mesorah. That once one doesn't feel Hashem is bound by logic, then how could we do theology at all, and all we have is the Torah's "Yad H'", "Charon Apo", etc... and no way to argue that they're metaphorical.

    That door is open. I don't need to walk through it.

  4. "That door is open. I don't need to walk through it."

    To be less opaque... We know that the Ramchal, despite his position that Hashem isn't bound by logic still didn't believe in a corporeal god. For that matter, he took all of Lurianic Qabbalah more as organizing principles and metaphors than ontologies, even when not descriptions of G-d or His Action[s].

    Not being able to rule out something logically isn't the same as having to say it's true. In this case, to believe in a corporeal god would require believing that the halachic process could prohibit that believing something that happens to be true. In the years since R' Moshe Taqu, too many people who know what Torah feels like concluded otherwise for preconscious reasons.

  5. Another thought... Perhaps Hashem-as-percieved "can't" violate logic for Kantian reasons. Logic describes the categories human perception imposes on the world. So, no matter what Hashem would do to noumenal reality, we are designed to experience them phenonenologically as logically consistent. More than just He wouldn't, but can't because of limitations in perception, not in Himself.