Thursday, June 14, 2012

What Would Rambam Do?

What would Rambam do if Aristotle was proven to be correct regarding the eternity of the universe?

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?


  1. The Rambam denied such a conflict being possible. He doesn't give any indication of siding with one or the other simply because he doesn't believe it could come up. Either science/philosophy is being misunderstood or the Torah (including Oral Torah and thus the flexibility and limitations of mesorah) was.

    I'm also wondering what conflict Big Bang theory poses that needs resolution.

  2. I'm not sure how you know what Rambam was thinking. If he didn't believe it could come up he could have said so definitively. The fact that he says explicitly that Aristotle is not compelling means that he did (at some point) consider the possibility that it may be true. And Alfakher also thought Rambam entertained the possibility. I know that science hadn't changed for over 1000 years by the time of Rambam, so he may have felt he was on safe ground. But I'm still not sure how he would answer the theoretical question.

    Big Bang (and all of modern physics) poses the same problem that Rambam addresses with Aristotelian eternity. Scientists claim that the laws of physics are constant and eternal, and explain the behaviour of the universe. Thus "everything in the universe is the result of fixed laws" etc. Just as Aristotle posited an eternal universe co-existing with an eternal G-d, so physics posits eternal laws of physics (which may or may not co-exist with an eternal G-d, depending on which physicist you speak to). The Big Bang is certainly not the concept of creation which Rambam refers to (though he does allow for Platonic creation, so perhaps you could kvetch that into the Big Bang, but I don't think most modern physicists would agree that G-d shaped the eternal matter to make the world that we see. They prefer to take G-d out of the equation when they try to understand the universe)

  3. Isn't Moreh 2:23 all about how to resolve such apparent contradictions?

    The Rambam believes in only one Truth, and since both Torah and philosophy describe that Truth, they can't possibly contradict. As he says in 2:25: in the case of eternal age, it was Aristo who didn't really understand the philosophy that made an illusion of contradiction. In the case of anthropomorphism, it was the literalists who didn't understand the Torah who erred. (And in the Haqdamah and 2:47 the Rambam cites Chazal to show that the Torah, including be'al peh, isn't literalist.) But both, properly understood, wouldn't and can't contradict.

    Actually, Big Bang theory (the accepted part confirmed by detecting the CBT, not variants proposed to accommodate String "Theory") says: In the beginning, there was a singularity, a point of zero size and infinite density, and thus for it we cannot do any math nor construct any physical law.

    With String "Theory" comes the possibility of the size being not-quite-zero, and the above being wrong. In fact, String "Theory" has a while to go before being a theory rather than a domain of possibilities in which to hunt for a theory, never mind proving it. But we're discussing the hypothetical, what if things did get to that point?

    Science today discusses the scientific. IOW, it describes the world as it behaves in accordance to physical laws. Aristo's natural philosophy was just that, part of philosophy. Aristo's field of inquiry includes "are miracles possible?" Science can't
    ask, never mind answer, that question -- the reality of miracles is simply out of scope. Even if it chould show that the "how" of creation didn't /require/ a miracle, science could never show that it didn't actually involve one (or that it did, for that matter).

    Aristo's argument for the eternity of matter, in fact, required assuming that yeish mei'ayin is impossible because laws of nature cannot be violated. It's not that his notion of eternity proved that there is no lemaalah min hateva, it was based on assuming it. The Rambam says we don't share Aristo's assumptions, because that would undermine kol haTorah kulah, so this conclusion -- qadmus -- is unacceptable even though Jewish Philosophy could absorb it if we had to.

  4. Many religious speakers have used a bugaboo called "scientism" to be able to say that they aren't against science, science is good. But evolution, or global warming, or whatever other idea they object to, isn't science, it's "scientism".

    I think we need a label for what's being done wrong, so I'll reuse "scientism" even though I am cynical about its typical use:

    Science is the study of repeatable empirical events. The finding of patterns in physical behaviors. Scientism is confusing the domain of science with the totality of truth. But much of reality isn't physical, and Judaism teaches that the actions of Providence or man aren't necessarily repeatable.

    So, any theory that invokes G-d is not scientific. But to think that says anything about the actual non-existence (or existence) of G-d is scientism.

  5. I know that science cannot invoke G-d by definition. This does not mean that G-d does not exist.
    Aristotle's eternal universe also did not deny G-d's existence. He believed in an 'Unmoved Mover'. But it does argue against miracles and revelation. I'll quote wikipedia, because it is closest:

    The Supreme Being imparted movement to the universe by moving the First Heaven, the movement, however, emanated from the First Cause as desirable. In other words, the First Heaven, attracted by the desirability of the Supreme Being "as the soul is attracted by beauty", was set in motion, and imparted its motion to the lower spheres and thus, ultimately, to our terrestrial world.
    According to this theory God never leaves the eternal repose in which His blessedness consists. Will and intellect are incompatible with the eternal unchangeableness of His being. Since matter, motion, and time are eternal, the world is eternal. Yet, it is caused. The manner in which the world originated is not defined in Aristotle's philosophy.

    This seems to me to be exactly the way in which physics explains the world. If it suits you to invoke G-d to explain the singularity (where the infinity destroys the laws of physics) then you have the unmoved mover. But you don't have a world of miracles and revelation.
    There are other arguments that can be used in favour of miracles, and as you say, lack of proof is not disproof. But to use the Big Bang as an argument FOR the truth of the Torah still seems to me to show a lack of understanding of creation vs. eternity.
    If G-d only interacts with the world at the singularity, then you have redefined Aristotles god, the Unmoved Mover, in modern terms. I'm not sure how Rambam would interpret the Big Bang. But this definition of G-d is certainly incompatible with the more modern (non-Rambam) concepts of hashgacha pratis, tefillah and bitachon.

  6. Natural Philosophy is a philosophy, therefore its domain overlaps religion's. Science is more limited in scope. It can at most make claims about how G-d did thing or that, if He did it in a way that obeys laws.

    But there is nothing to say that science's laws are always obeyed. Since by definition science only studies the repeatable, it can't speak to whether or not it's possible for something to happen that doesn't repeat.

    WRT beri'ah (creation ex nihilo), current Big Bang theory happens to say that science has to throw up its hands too -- there is no formula that includes the Big Bang because the BB involves dividing 1 / 0. But that doesn't mean that this is the only way science leaves room for G-d to intervene. It also leaves room because it is only a description of a circumscribed subset of reality.

    Think about it... if when we ask about miracles (overt or covert) we mean to ask whether G-d can defy the determinism or raw randomness of the universe, then we are asking whether there are empirical events outside the scope of science. If they're outside the scope, lemaalah min hateva, then how can science address them to rule them out? To tighten the tautology: Supernatural events defy nature, so of course they don't fit within nature-as-studied,

    As I wrote earlier, Aristo's eternal universe appears to me to be a product, not a cause of, his disbelief in exceptions to natural law. Because hyle (chomer) can't be destroyed or created, it must have always been around and always will be. Beri'ah (ex nihilo) defies this law of conservation, and therefore Aristo ruled it out.

    But because in Aristo's physics, all motion starts with an intellect imparting an impetus to an object (which then moves until the impetus runs out), he has no problem fitting G-d's Will or our free will into his physics. Physics begins after will.

    Another issue I would raise is that science has no way to describe will. There is no way to model something that is neither random nor has an algorithm. Another tautology: Because if you did, that would be your algorithm! There are ways to construct sequences of output that are provably neither; not random, but would require an infinite machine and an infinitely complex algorithm. But we can only show it exists, not what it is.

    So how can we study it, discuss it, or reliably find it in the world around us? We could always just instead think it's a law-following, alorithm-following, event that happens to be more complex than our ability to analyze.

  7. Does the Big Bang allow for the possibility of Yehoshua stopping the sun?

  8. No. The Big Bang is a singleton case where science realizes that math wouldn't work. (Assuming the theory isn't replaced.) But there could well be cases where things didn't follow the formula even though they are not the case where we found there can't be a formula.

    The possibility of Yehoshua stopping the sun is built into the scope of science. Science is the study of repeatable empirical events -- it doesn't try to connect to a metaphysics, nor does it have the methodology to study exceptions. This is how science differs from Natural Philosophy. We're claiming there was a day when something non-repeatable happened. How can science say yea or nay?

    Miracles by definition (or at least many definitions) defy science. So of course they don't fit within it. But since science isn't philosophy, so what? It doesn't claim to be able to address everything.

  9. I also have problems with the way you phrased the question, it still has the chain of logic reversed.

    Aristo denied that the universe had an origin because he denied that there could possibly be an exception to the law of conservation of hyle (chomer). His theory about nature being compulsory is what forced his theory about eternity.

    The parallel would be asking whether the possibility of Yehoshua stopping the sun allows for the Big Bang, not the other way around.

    The parallel from Aristo to today's science would be:

    Denying miracles means the Big Bang would now be our best guess as to how the universe came to be. (Even if it admits to being necessarily incomplete.) With miracles, it's still a pretty good guess, as an explanation that depends on miracles leaves the mystery of why the outcome is a bunch of evidence consistent with a Big Bang. But it's no longer as compelling.

  10. I'll say it your way then. If Yehoshua stopped the sun, then the evidence for the Big Bang falls away. The evidence for the Big Bang is the expanding universe, and the Background Radiation. If the sun stopped (i.e. the earth stopped rotating? The sun entered into a geostationary orbit around earth? I don't know) then we have to discount the Big Bang. If the laws of physics were not constant then we cannot know whether the Big Bang makes any sense or not.
    The possibility of Yehoshua stopping the sun is NOT built into the scope of science. Metaphysics is fine, but stopping the sun is empirical and physical. Tanach makes the claim that the relationship between the sun and earth has not always been the same as we see it today.
    Similarly, if we look in Chazal, the possibility of moving the star Chima to make a flood also contradicts the theory of the Big Bang.
    And if you say that G-d did the miracle, then put everything back exactly as it was (the Gemara says the opposite about Chima, but whatever), then we are also denying the constant nature of the laws of physics.
    Everything we know about the Big Bang is contradicted by Yehoshua stopping the sun. And vice versa.

  11. If Yehoshua stopped the sun, then we have more options about how to explain the evidence. Big bang theory is one way of explaining the cosmic background radiation and expansion of the universe. If we were to know science wasn't violated, then it's the only way we have thought of, so far.

    But given that we can't assert that science wasn't violated, because we do believe in the possibility of miracles...

    The scope of science is narrow in two ways: the situation being described must be empirical, and it must be able to fit into well ordered patterns. Events in the empirical universe that aren't according to the usual equations aren't ruled out by science -- they simply aren't studied. Science's whole point is to find the formula. If the earth's spin is interrupted do to a Will that is most complex than formulae can capture, the event simply can't be studied. You can't test hypotheses, etc... You can't even do repeatable experiments testing the consequences of that one event, because you have no way to assert scientifically what those consequences ought to be.

    Omphalism is the notion that G-d created an old-seeming universe, the way Adam was made (according to one opinion) at the apparent age and level of development of a 20 yr old. IOW, an expanding universe, with light planted partway between stars headed in just the right direction, etc... everything as though the universe were created 13.7bn years prior and running according to the laws of nature ever since. The Lub Rebbe and R' Avigdor Miller believed this.

    The problem with omphalism, if you have one, isn't scientific.

    The objects I personally would raise involve theology. I would also wonder if G-d could create a fake history to the universe, or if the fact that G-d created it makes the history as real as everything that happened since. (I'm not saying this as a limitation on G-d. but a limitation on the concept of "fake". Reality is that which G-d made, directly or by enabling it, so how could anything he made be unreal?)

    But science? Science can't rule out miracles. It can only explain how the world runs when there aren't any.

    I would radically rephrase your last statement to read: Much of what we know about the Big Bang and about Yehoshua stopping the sun involve miracles. If we want to assert both, we to choose our theory about miracles accordingly.

    As for what I myself believe... I believe reality is more complex than human comprehension. That Ernst Mach was correct -- what we call science is the study of the world according to human categories. That's why the way we think not only describes the world on the human scale -- which it would have to for thinking to be worth much -- but also on every scale we do science upon. The world fits the math we come up with (even tensors and whatnot) because the mind that came up with tensors is the same kind of mind that imposes order on the perceived version of the universe.

    This dovetails with the Maharal and R' Dessler's view of miracles, that they only happen to people who merit miracles. As R' Dessler puts it (based on Kant, not Mach), if you truly perceived the world such that the laws of justice and mercy were more absolute than gravity, then you would perceive the world such that those were the ones it conformed to. People who live mundane lives impose mundane categories on the incomprehensible noumenal reality get nature. Those who truly live lives of moral law end up with miracles.

    Thus, as the Maharal notes "shemesh beGiv'on dam", everyone else experienced a different reality. This is how a liquid and be both water and blood at the same time, "vehamayim lahem chomah", etc...

  12. Maybe this will help:

    The scope of things science can study excludes both:
    - the metaphysical: nonempirical "things" from angels to defining justice to the quale of the color red; and
    - the supernatural: empirical events that are one-off because they are caused by will (or Will), not nature.

    Science can study gravity and come up with a formula for how a rock falls when I let go of it, but (assuming we both believe in free will) it can never produce a formula that predicts when I choose to let go. Similarly miracles and Divine Will. There is no predictability, repeatability, or possibility of experiment.

  13. I have just found that Ralbag (Gersonides) also understands that Rambam would be prepared to reject creation ex nihilo if it were conclusively proven. He writes in Milchamot Hashem VI.ii.1 (p. 419)
    וםפני זה ביאר הרב המורה. כל מה שבא בתודה ממה שיביא לחשוב שיהיה השם
    יתברך בעל גשם באופן שלא יםתר מה שהתבאר םררך העיון, ולזאת הסבר גם כן אמר שאם היה םתבאר חיוב קדםות העולם םדרן העיון שכבר יוכרח לפרש םה שבא בתורה שיראה חולק עם זה הדעה באופן שיאות העיון
    For this reason Maimonides interpreted anything in the Torah that suggested the corporeality of God in such a way that it did not contradict the teachings of reason. Similarly he said [Guide II.25] that if philosophy could prove the eternity of the universe, he would be obliged to interpret those passages in the Torah that seem to differ from this doctrine in such a way as to be agreement with reason.

  14. I do not understand how the Ralbag can attribute this idea (which is apparently his own position on the subject) to the Rambam, given that the Moreh lists two differences between the two cases: Aristo's eternity is both not well proven AND defies the essence of Torah. The Ralbag is ignoring the second.

    What do I think the Rambam would do in this case? He would be shocked, since he states it's impossible. The only way to assess Philosophy and Torah is to accept that both are reliable (and to be good, unbiased, etc... This is Moreh 2:23 as well as the aforementioned 2nd criterion). After a crisis of faith he would ultimately change his position. The Rambam's new position might indeed end up the one the Ralbag attributes to him. But I don't know how the Ralbag could know that.

  15. Once again, I found a relevent blog post on Aspaqlaria, that does a better job of explaining how I reached the conclusion than I am doing now.