Knowledge Problems

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Unknowability of God In Jewish Rationalism I

The rationalist approach to interpretation of the Bible and religious tradition is based on the fundamental doctrine that Torah and reason cannot be in conflict, and that an individual therefore need not adopt any position on matters religious which transgresses against reason. The basic spirit of Jewish rationalism — its motivation and method — is well captured, I think, by these two statements from Bachya and Ralbag:

And if he does not delve into the truth and certainty of the matter, he is disgraceful and is considered to be intellectually and functionally lax. He would be like the patient who knew all about his disease and its cure, but who depended entirely on his doctor to heal him, and was reluctant to use his own knowledge and judgment to determine if the doctor was doing the right thing or not... — Bachya ibn Pakuda (pakuda_96)

... when the Torah, interpreted literally, seems to conflict with doctrines that have been proved by reason, it is proper to interpret these passages according to philosophical understanding, so long as none of the fundamental principles of the Torah are destroyed... It is even more proper that we not disagree with philosophy when the Torah itself does not disagree with it. — Ralbag (feldman_84)

Thus, there is shame and disgrace attached to the failure to investigate matters of religious principle using the fullest powers of human reason. One cannot be considered wise or perceptive if one does not attempt to understand the origins, and establish the correctness, of one's beliefs. Moreover, at least on Ralbag's view, the "claim of reason" occupies a higher place than the "claim of tradition," and traditional understandings must be brought into conformity with the demonstrations of philosophy, rather than vice versa, to whatever extent this is possible.

Of course, one challenge of the "religion of reason" is that the dictates of reason change over time, and this approach — if it is to be pursued over the long term — demands a never-ending reinterpretation of tradition. This is because, as new principles are discovered and new facts uncovered, what earlier seemed a "reasonable" position slowly becomes an unconvincing, and, finally, untenable position. It is then replaced by a position that is more "reasonable" in light of current knowledge (and biases). This being the case, if Torah and reason are to remain free from contradiction, then the interpretation of Torah may need to change as often as do the artifacts of reason.

This observation has no doubt caused many to dismiss as foolhardy any effort to reconcile religion and reason. Those of a scholarly mindset will argue that the inevitable "tortured reconciliations" forfeit the original meaning and message of the text (e.g., Spinoza, sarna_66), while those more inclined to skepticism will wonder at the usefulness of a document whose only apparent remaining purpose is to be periodically "reconciled" with external evidence. They will see this as a symptom of pathology, as analogous to one who lugs around an old phone book from 1985, periodically updating the numbers in it with new information from

On the other hand, those of a traditional inclination will cite the short shelf-life of philosophical wisdom as evidence of its fallibility. If the claims of reason change every few years, then reason cannot be a genuine pathway to truth. Maharal (mallin_carmell_75) expresses this as follows:

Philosophers are interested in comprehending and revealing hidden matters, although they fail to understand the obvious, even the things that are before their very eyes. One school expounds one opinion about the essence of mind and soul, and another school expounds a different theory. And indeed none of the opinions are of any value, for what can material man understand? Granted, God has given man understanding and wisdom, but it is all relative to and connected with the material; all his rationality is subjective and related to matter. How can he grasp that which is abstract? A person would know nothing about the ways and actions of that which is far removed from his world had not Hashem revealed this to Moshe and the other prophets, who in turn passed this knowledge on to the Sages, who revealed these hidden things to us in the Midrashim and other teachings.

The implications of Maharal's statement are very much along the lines of the injunction of Ben Sira, later quoted by Bachya: "Do not inquire into what overwhelms you, and do not delve into what is hidden from you. Reflect upon what you have inherited instead; for you have no business occupying yourself with mysteries" (3:21). And one can certainly see Maharal's point regarding the questionable value of ancient philosophies (if not regarding the scientific merits of Midrashim). The "philosophies" with which the medieval rabbis were concerned to make the teachings of the Torah correspond are indeed among those untenable notions that have long since passing into the history of human ideas (though not without first fertilizing the ground for their successors), a situation which would seem retroactively to vindicate the opponents of medieval rationalism. In any case, Maharal has made his position clear, and it is readily adopted by the multitudes who are pleased to "remain silent" and to eschew any philosophical investigation of metaphysical matters. However, it is still worth considering the following words of Rambam (GP I:50):

If you belong to those who are satisfied with expressing in speech the opinions that are correct or that you deem to be correct, without representing them to yourself and believing them, and still less without seeking certain knowledge regarding them, you take a very easy road...

Regardless of how favorably one views the agenda of the rationalists, their efforts at reconciling Torah with what is (for us) an antiquated philosophical framework has from a practical standpoint diminished their appeal to modern readers. There is only so much one can read about the "Agent Intellect." If their commitment was indeed to Aristotelian theories of physics and cognition that vanished from sight 400 years ago, then we can wonder what relevance their work has for today's student. However, if their commitment was to the pursuit of reason, whatever its form, then at least their passion in pursuit of this commitment is still highly inspiring. Scholars like Rambam recognized, I think, that it is disingenuous to preferentially insulate religious beliefs from the critical evaluation that one brings to other beliefs about the world. In the words of a contemporary author, "Jewish apologetics... must not encourage that division of the mind in which incompatible ideas are allowed to exist side by side in water-tight compartments" (jacobs_57). It is therefore the rationalist attitude toward the study of religion, rather than the particular proofs or arguments yielded by this study in the medieval era, that is the most important contribution of the medieval rationalists. However, as our purpose here is not to assess the merits of the rationalist agenda, we will not dwell on this, and instead move on to presenting some of their actual opinions.

The greatest medieval proponent of the "unknowable God" is without any doubt Maimonides. But before approaching Rambam, we first briefly mention the treatment of the unknowability of God by two earlier scholars, Saadia and Bachya. Saadia in Beliefs and Opinions (Emunot V'dayot) informs us the following:

But we have arrived at the result that the world was created from nothing, and this being the character of the object investigated at that stage, it is necessary that the character of the object investigated at the next stage, namely, the Creator (be He exalted and glorified) should be more abstract than anything abstract, more profound than anything profound, more subtle than anything subtle, deeper than anything deep, more powerful than anything powerful, and higher than anything high, so that it becomes impossible to probe His quality.

This passage regrettably does not provide much insight into the nature of God's unknowability, and is perhaps even a regression from Philo's analysis, which at least offered a somewhat concrete Platonic notion of transcendence. Saadia's argument seems to be that each successive stage of investigation requires as its subject something more abstract than the previous stage (perhaps he intends here a reference to the relation between species and genus), and as the world came from nothing (a propertyless void), its Creator must be even more abstract — more propertyless — and thus presumably "beyond" nothing. However, without any further elaboration on this point from Saadia, it is difficult to say more about the particulars of his view.

Bachya ibn Pakuda in Duties of the Heart (Chovot Halevavot) is somewhat more explicit in his analysis, recalling in his remarks elements of Philo and ibn Gabirol — the latter of whom lived at around the same time — but adding (perhaps for the first time in Jewish thought?) the rudiments of the "negative theology":

There are three of them [expressions of God's Essence], and they are: that He exists, that He is One, and that He is Eternal and without beginning... But what you must understand about these terms is that they do not imply any sort of change or variation in God's Essence. They are there to deny their opposite in the Creator, and to have us understand that the Creator is not plural, He is not nonexistent, and He was not created... They do not mean to indicate change in God's Essence, nor do they imply the existence of properties or plurality in Him... (pakuda_96, p.45-47)

What you must also understand about God is that there is nothing like Him, and that when He is described one way or another, you are meant to take that description as a denial of its opposite. As Aristotle said, "It is better to describe what God is not than to describe what He is," because whatever we could say about Him would refer either to His Essence or His properties, and the Creator of essences and properties cannot be described the way they are described. Whatever, in fact, draws us away from such descriptions is undoubtedly true and suitable to Him, because He is beyond all description and attribution, and superior to all likeness and comparison... we cannot imagine or fathom His Essence... the only things we understand about Him are His name and the fact of His existence... (pakuda_96, p.47-51)

You only exhibit profound knowledge when you acknowledge and truly believe that you are utterly ignorant of God's Essence. (pakuda_96, p.54)

In the last passage we see resurfacing again the idea expressed by Philo (and many mystics) that the ultimate knowledge of God is only present in the stark realization of our absolute lack of knowledge concerning God. The more deeply this realization grabs an individual, the greater is the knowledge of God that individual can be said to hold. We also see again the idea of the absolute "beyondness" of God that is typical of the mystical writings, and is present as well in Saadia's position above.

What is new in Bachya is this notion that there is a difference between the positive description of God and the negative description of God. The reason, on Bachya's account, that we cannot affirmatively describe God in any way is that such descriptions would either be descriptions of his essence or properties, and that as the creator of essences and properties, God cannot be described in these same terms. However, the logic here seems to be somewhat muddled. Besides the problem of whether anything is gained by the use of negative attributions over positive attributions (a problem recognized by Rambam, Ralbag, and Albo, but perhaps not by Bachya), if God is the maker of essences and properties, and therefore cannot be said to have essences and properties, then what do we mean when we say there is such a thing as God? If He has no essence and has no properties, then aren't we deceiving ourselves in believing that the term God has any referent at all? It becomes just a nonsense word, designating nothing. If, on the other hand, God does have an essence or properties of some kind, but just not the kind that can be described by way of any predicates that we possess, then we return again to the question of why this should be the case. In what manner do our predicates fail to represent God's essence or properties?

What is also notable about Bachya, besides the nascent negative theology, is the distinction made between God's essence, God's properties, and God's actions. In Bachya's philosophy, our only exposure to God comes by way of God's actions or deeds. By contrast, His essence and attributes remain — as mentioned above — utterly unknowable:

Since the Creator is completely hidden and utterly at a distance from us in His Essence, we can only comprehend the fact of His existence. For we would lose whatever understanding of His existence we had trying to imagine Him, because we would have exceeded our reach (and it would be like trying to experience something physical with the inappropriate sense). So, we should pursue God's existence through the signs of His deeds in creation, and they will prove Him to us. (pakuda_96, p.55)

But "expressions of God's deeds" speak of God in terms of His deeds, and we are allowed to compare them to those of His creations. Yet, we are only permitted to use them in reference to Him because of our pressing need to know about Him and grasp His existence in order to take service to Him upon ourselves.(pakuda_96, p.47)

Here we see the idea, taken up later by Rambam, that God is partly unknowable (in His essence and His attributes) and partly knowable (in His actions). We will have an opportunity to discuss this dichotomy at greater length later, but here we just point out that there is an ambiguity in this stance, since a priori we don't know which particular events in the world reflect the actions of God and which do not. The only reason we would attribute certain actions to God in the first place is because we have prior reason to believe that certain events are representative of the kind of things that the Deity might do, and yet the kind of things that the Deity might do depends on the particular traits that the Deity possesses (i.e., his psychological profile, as it were). Thus, any analysis of God's "actions" is inextricably bound up with analysis of God's attributes and essence (spero_73), and yet on Bachya's account this is precisely the information to which we do not have access. How then do we learn about God from God's deeds?

What is also interesting here is Bachya's analogy of this problem to that of using an "inappropriate sense." He expands on this idea as follows:

Each sense is limited in what it can do, and none can extend beyond its limit. So while you can easily see things close up, they are harder to see further away, until you cannot see them at all (which goes for hearing, and the other senses). It is also impossible to perceive with anything but the appropriate sense and if you try to, you will fail. So, for example, you could not listen to a song by "seeing" it; you could not see things by "listening" to them; and you could not taste things by "touching" them — even when the objects of your efforts are right in front of you. Because you cannot experience things with the inappropriate sense organ.

Bachya extends this idea from modalities of sensation also to modalities of cognition — i.e., memory, thought, imagination etc. — indicating that each of these has a particular domain of activity beyond which it fails to operate. What Bachya gives us here (even only by analogy) is something seemingly richer than the idea of Platonic transcendence presented by Philo and ibn Gabirol. It is not just that each creature perceives (or receives) God according to his mental "grasp" or intellectual level, where this capacity is viewed as a single parameter. Rather, Bachya's analogy rests on a kind of faculty psychology (cf. Fodor_83), positing that within a given individual there are multiple information channels that are dedicated to particular modes of information processing. A particular event in the environment may simultaneously be represented within the sensory apparatus dedicated to vision, olfaction, or audition, etc., or it may only be represented in a subset of these modalities, or in none of them. Thus, it might not be reading too much into Bachya to think of the cognitive system as effecting a representation of variation (i.e., of variables) in the environment. Different environmental variables are made available to the intellect in different perceptual modalities. It is possible that a variable exists in the environment that is represented in one sensory or cognitive mode and not in another, or in no mode at all.

Now, Bachya intends this as a metaphor for the problem of knowing God's essence, not as an explanation of the problem. He says "it would be like trying to experience something physical with the inappropriate sense," not that this is what it would be in actuality. But what his analogy may be getting at is that even though God is very near — to the point even that information concerning Him is in fact present in our cognitions (i.e., "even when the objects of your efforts are right in front of you") — there is nevertheless some intrinsic mental limitation that prevents us from encoding this information in the manner necessary to facilitate understanding. Perhaps there is more to this metaphor than meets the eye.


  • Excellent!! I am always left wondering what the rationlists would have done if confronted with modern scientific rational...

    In any case, I'm looking forward to the next installment.

    By Blogger Ben Avuyah, at Dec 31, 2006, 9:51:00 PM  

  • Thanks! It's an interesting question. I wonder too...

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Jan 1, 2007, 9:24:00 AM  

  • since a priori we don't know which particular events in the world reflect the actions of God and which do not.

    I think that Bachya believes that everything relates to God as the First Cause- a point you left out. It is only by analysing the result of the "action" that we imply there was an action. Having analyzed the result we assume an action had it been a human and a psychological picture had it been a human impelled to act - thus attributes- which are just the closest we can get to understand.

    excellent and i enjoy watching where you go.

    Re your comments about the medieval's thinking, I believe they believed in an evolutionary humanity with Torah as a blueprint composed of riddles that are to be deciphered by man as he evolves. The riddle does not represent facts but just ontological interpretation of whatever the state of each evolutionary step. It is quite explicit in Rambam and I plan to post on that but can be found in other rishonim, Ramban, Bachya, Ralbag et al. Spinoza missed that point.

    By Blogger David Guttmann, at Jan 1, 2007, 2:38:00 PM  

  • > but just ontological interpretation of whatever the state of each evolutionary step.

    I meant the state of knowledge at each evolutionary step.

    By Blogger David Guttmann, at Jan 1, 2007, 2:39:00 PM  

  • Having analyzed the result we assume an action had it been a human and a psychological picture had it been a human impelled to act - thus attributes- which are just the closest we can get to understand.

    Thanks David. But the problem seems to me that in order to learn anything from God's actions, you need to be able to clearly identify what God's actions are. Without knowing anything about God's attributes, I don't see how this can be accomplished. The problem is not solved by appeal to tradition either, since the prophets would have faced the very same dilemma presumably.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Jan 1, 2007, 4:32:00 PM  

  • God's action is the universe.We know nothing about God and whether he really is kind but we do know that He as First Cause caused a universe to exist and self perpetuate.For us we need to look at the world, nature and how it operates. For example we see that there is a system in place that perpetuates things,they evolve to survive in an environment that is sometimes hostile. We therefore conclude that God wants the continuity of a species. We see this as kindeness, Verachamav al kol ma'asav". We see that sometimes he destroys things so that the whole should survive. we see this as anger and punishment though constructive. and so on. that is what the prophets tried to teach us.

    It is not a purely philosophical issue but practical as we are expected to emulate Him by partaking in the process. That is where environmentalism becomes a religion. Of course you will not find this thinking in traditional observant communities but that does not make it less important.

    The Torah and the prophets show us how they looked at things based on their understanding of the world. The medievals adapted this outlook to their times and showed us how we should do it for our time and the way it understands the world.

    By Blogger David Guttmann, at Jan 1, 2007, 6:50:00 PM  

  • So on your view, David, when the medievals talk about "God's actions" or "God's deeds," they are really only talking about ONE deed, the creation of the universe. Hmmmm. I'm not sure if that's what Bachya intends, I will have to read him again.

    I still think we are left with a large problem, since one can go either way on making inferences from nature to God. One can reasonably say, as the nihilists do (and Kohelet does at times), that the entire thing seems utterly pointless. All the pain and suffering and striving, what for? If the creation of this is God's singular DEED, we might infer that God is some kind of sadist. I don't know how we can make inferences to God's personality by studying the world. It seems a lost cause to me.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Jan 2, 2007, 12:00:00 PM  

  • >I don't know how we can make inferences to God's personality by studying the world.

    I don't believe the rationalists think that God has a personality.

    By Anonymous B. Spinoza, at Jan 10, 2007, 12:06:00 PM  

  • Depends how you define "personality". I just mean it loosely, as "attributes of agency possessed by God in his capacity as Agent".

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Jan 11, 2007, 9:23:00 AM  

  • >"attributes of agency possessed by God in his capacity as Agent".

    can you define what you mean by agent?

    By Anonymous B. Spinoza, at Jan 12, 2007, 11:22:00 AM  

  • Well, here's the definition from Russel and Norvig (a computer science text):

    "An agent is just something that acts (agent comes from the Latin agere, to do). But computer agents are expected to have other attributes that distinguish them from mere 'programs,' such as operating under autonomous control, perceiving their environment, persisting over a prolonged period of time, adapting to change, and being capable of taking on another's goals. A rational agent is one that acts so as to achieve the best outcome or, when there is uncertainty, the best expected outcome."

    Only some of this definition would probably apply to God-as-Agent, but basically I was referring to the problem of trying to establish God's "properties" or "attributes" based on observations of the world, or rather the impossibility of achieving this.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at Jan 12, 2007, 12:36:00 PM  

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