Rambam writes that Aristotle's belief in the eternity of the universe contradicts many fundamental principles of Torah. Yet Rambam rejects Aristotle for two reasons: (1) Eternity has never been demonstrated conclusively and (2) Eternity contradicts the Torah.
Here is Rambam's Guide for the Perplexed 2:25 (From Friedlander's translation)
WE do not reject the Eternity of the Universe, because certain passages in Scripture confirm the Creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being; nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation. We might have explained them in the same manner as we did in respect to the Incorporeality of God. We should perhaps have had an easier task in showing that the Scriptural passages referred to are in harmony with the theory of the Eternity of the Universe if we accepted the latter, than we had in explaining the anthropomorphisms in the Bible when we rejected the idea that God is corporeal. For two reasons, however, we have not done so, and have not accepted the Eternity of the Universe. First, the Incorporeality of God has been demonstrated by proof: those passages in the Bible, which in their literal sense contain statements that can be refuted by proof, must and can be interpreted otherwise. But the Eternity of the Universe has not been proved; a mere argument in favour of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a Biblical text, and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory can be supported by an equally good argument.
Secondly, our belief in the Incorporeality of God is not contrary to any of the fundamental principles of our religion: it is not contrary to the words of any prophet. Only ignorant people believe that it is contrary to the teaching of Scripture: but we have shown that this is not the case: on the contrary, Scripture teaches the Incorporeality of God. If we were to accept the Eternity of the Universe as taught by Aristotle, that everything in the Universe is the result of fixed laws, that Nature does not change, and that there is nothing supernatural, we should necessarily be in opposition to the foundation of our religion, we should disbelieve all miracles and signs, and certainly reject all hopes and fears derived from Scripture, unless the miracles are also explained figuratively.
For several years I have been trying to understand this Rambam. At first I understood it as Natan Aviezer did (in his article in Tradition, Fall 2009 cited on Seforim Blog)
Did God create the universe? Seemingly a simple question, with the answer given in the very first verse of the Torah. Not so, writes Rambam (Guide 2:25), asserting that Torah hashkafa does not require one to believe that God created the universe. But what about the first chapter of Bereshit, which clearly states that God did create the universe? Rambam writes that one may interpret this chapter metaphorically, as an allegory that never happened, because “the paths of interpretation are not closed to us.”
However, Marc Shapiro there understands Rambam differently. He claims that Rambam holds it is IMPOSSIBLE to prove the eternity of the universe, and therefore there is no challenge to our tradition.
After years of preferring the first (Aviezer) option, but being (almost) convinced of the second (Shapiro) approach I found it very reassuring to see that one of the main critics of Rambam, Yehuda Alfakhar also understood the Rambam the first way. In a strong attack on Rambam he writes:
ועוד שיש בו לענין הקדמות שאלו נמצא עליה מופת ברור לארסטו בחוק ההגיון ומשפטו, היה יכול להוציא מקרא מעשה בראשית מידי פשוטו ופורט על פי הקדמות פרטי כאשר עשה לענין צלם ודמות מפני שמורה פשוטי הגשמות ־ וכן כל מקרא שיבוא המופת על הפכו
אין שומעין לו כדרכו
Furthermore there is the concept of eternity. If clear proofs would be found for Aristotle, using laws of logic and sense, he would be able to remove Scripture’s references to creation from its literal meaning and explain based on eternity, as he did to the concepts of ‘image and form of God’ because they imply physicality. Similarly any words of Scripture that would be contradicted by proofs would be removed from its simple meaning.
(Interestingly, Hebrew Books has three versions of this kovetz teshuvot harambam, but only one of them has the final section which is called Iggeret Kina'ot and which chronicles the Maimonidean controversy).
If his harshest critic understood Rambam like that, I feel justified in also understanding him like that (or at least I am in good company).
This issue is not simply of historical interest. The Big Bang (which is often trumpeted by those who don't know any better as a 'proof' that the Torah is true) would be, for Rambam, in the same category as Aristotle's eternity. Does this quote not apply to modern physics just as much as to Aristotle?
If we were to accept the Eternity of the Universe as taught by Aristotle, that everything in the Universe is the result of fixed laws, that Nature does not change, and that there is nothing supernatural, we should necessarily be in opposition to the foundation of our religion, we should disbelieve all miracles and signs
Therefore, how are we to respond to Wilson and Penzias' clear evidence of Cosmic Background Radiation which basically proves the Big Bang?
What would Rambam do if Aristotle were proven correct?