Knowledge Problems

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Unknowability of God In Jewish Rationalism V: So What's Left?

Having concluded our little survey of Jewish rationalism, let us summarize. The position on God's unknowability found among many in the Jewish rationalist school (including, as I see it, Bachya, Rambam, and Albo) is that God's attributes are completely unknowable in the strongest possible sense. That is, there is no known predicate (i.e., one for which we can specify the classes induced by the predicate) which can be applied to God. Not even the predicate "one" or the predicate "exists" (if the latter even qualifies as a predicate) can be applied to God. The reason that we cannot know any of God's attributes is simply that God does not possess attributes, period. Naturally, objections both ancient and modern have been raised against this strong position on unknowability. I earlier mentioned the objections of Gersonides, Aquinas, and Berkovits, and I will return to consider their positions at the end of this essay (should I actually make it that far). Here, I just want to consider where the "strong unknowability" position leaves us in our relationship to God.

It could not have escaped a thinker of Rambam's caliber that by making God utterly unknowable and outside of any relation or likeness to mundane entities he was flirting with the possibility of God's complete irrelevance to the world of men, and thus of opening the door to the utter vanquishment of religion. He knew that while there might be some intellectuals who could achieve satisfaction and meaning through sublime meditations on the transcendental nothingness of the Unknowable Absolute, this task could hardly satisfy the majority of religious people, for whom "ponderation on ultimate unknowing" would scarcely constitute a religion of any sort at all, let alone the religion of the Bible that they had been taught from childhood. For the Jewish religion to make any kind of sense, God must have some tangible influence in the world of men — despite His unknowability. The solution that the Rambam proposes (and in which he is followed by many others) is that God is indeed yet knowable — not in His attributes, but through his actions:

Every attribute that is found in the books of the deity, may He be exalted, is therefore an attribute of His action and not an attribute of His essence, or it is indicative of absolute perfection (GP I:53)... Thus, God's emanation or connection with the world is his actions, and this is the intent of God's message to Moses in Exodus 33 (GP I:54)...

To recollect, Exodus 33 is perhaps the Bible's theological manifesto sui generis, if one reads it that way, of course: Moses had asked God, "Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor," and "Oh, let me behold Your Presence." God had responded:

I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and I will grant the grace that I will grant and show the compassion that I will show. But," He said, "you cannot see My face, for man cannot see Me and live." And the Lord said, "See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.

Rambam sees in this passage evidence that God is providing an affirmative answer to Moses' first question concerning God's ways (actions). God shows "goodness" and "compassion" in the world of men, and it is through these actions that He can be known. The second entreaty of Moses, to behold God's Presence (God's attributes), is however denied. "Man cannot see Me and live." And the final statement that "you will see My back" can again be taken, as by Philo, as a reinforcement of the idea that it is solely by the effects of God's actions in the world that He can be known.

Albo makes a similar reading of Psalm 104, which begins "Bless the Lord, O my soul; O Lord, my God, you are very great; You are clothed in glory and majesty."

Alluding to the first aspect [God's essense], he says, "O Lord my God, Thou art very great," i.e. from the side of Thy quiddity Thou art very great, so that man can not speak about Thee, and with all this, "Thou art clothed with glory and majesty," i.e. from the side concerning which it is possible to speak about Thee, namely from the visible activities which come from Thee. They show Thy glory and Thy majesty. Therefore he describes in the sequel the creations which come from God, and which point to God's excellence and perfection by the perfection which is visible in them. (husik_29, p.6)

But what does it mean to say that God is knowable in His actions? I have not seen a coherent account of how one could know something about the actions of an agent, and simultaneously not know anything about the attributes of that agent. Is not to say that "agent X does action Y" just to say that "agent X has the attribute of doing action Y"? Is not an animal which digs holes in the earth just an animal that has the attribute of "burrowing"? How does one ascribe an action to an agent without simultaneously ascribing attributes? If God's attributes are utterly unknowable (or even nonexistent), then surely his actions are unknowable (or nonexistent) as well. I am hoping that I might find somewhere in Rambam a more coherent explanation of how this can work, but until then I cannot say much more.

A different problem related to God's actions which weighed on the minds of many medieval thinkers (and which indeed seemed considerably more pressing than the one I just mentioned), is the question of what the notion of "action" entails for alteration in the state of the Deity. From our own mundane experience, we recognize that (intelligent) action is generally precipitated by some sequence of changes in the cognitive state of the acting agent. We (as agents) speculate, we discover, we hypothesize, we deliberate and revise, we decide, we will, and then we finally act. However, the medieval thinkers absolutely rejected the idea that any such sequence of cognitive state-changes could obtain in the case of actions by the Deity. God's state cannot change, both because this would imply plurality in the Deity (multiple states), and because it would imply that the Deity's present state is not one of ultimate Perfection. If God is Perfect, why would he ever need to undergo change? The typical medieval opinion is that change is a defect, and so cannot be predicated of God (cf. Albo, husik_29, p.129).

The problem is even more keen on the view (cf. Aquinas, kreeft_90, p.136) that God's intellect, knowledge, and essence are all one and the same. If such is the case, a change in God's intellect would imply a change in God's essence, and, as Maharal suggests, "it is better to remain silent than say such things" (mallin_carmell_75).

The solutions to this problem are as a whole quite unsatisfying. Albo, for example, cannot deny of God a notion such as "will," because if God could be said to lack will, this would make him by any account an inferior kind of agent (if an agent at all). And yet to allow the notion of divine "will" leads to a lengthy sequence of logical dilemmas. Here is Albo capturing the conundrum:

...the term voluntary applies where the agent desires and does a given thing at a given time, which he did not desire before. The term voluntary does not apply to a thing which is always in the same condition. It follows therefore that the one who has will changes from a condition of not willing to a condition of willing. If so he is affected by, and receives change from another, for a thing can not be active and passive at the same time in the same relation. But God can not change, nor be affected by another. Nor can He be affected by Himself, for He would then be composed of two elements, an element by virtue of which He acts, and an element by virtue of which He is acted upon. But there can not be any composition in God at all, as we shall see. Nor can God be active and passive at the same time. It follows therefore that God's activity can not be voluntary, since He can not change. Moreover, an agent possessed of will lacks the thing which he desires. But God does not lack anything which He desires at any time and did not have before. Similarly one who exercises a choice chooses one of two things because that thing is more suitable to him than the other. He therefore lacks the thing which he chooses before he has chosen it. It follows, therefore, that God's activity can not be due to choice or will. But if He does not act with choice and will, nor like a natural agent, as light comes from the sun, as we explained, how can God be called an agent? (husik_29, p.13)... If God does not act with will, He can not act at one time rather than another, a supposition which leads to the doctrine of eternity in the absolute sense, and to the rejection of all the miracles in the Torah. Prayer ceases to be of any avail in time of distress, and right conduct and repentance are useless, and so on..." (husik_29, p.16).

The possible solution that God's actions in history (for example, the miracles retold the Bible) were somehow "planned out" from eternity (or from Creation), and therefore did require any proximal change in God's will, is dismissed by Albo as positively absurd:

Thus they say, God stipulated with the works of creation that the Red Sea should divide, that the fire should not burn Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. From this it seems that their purpose was not to attribute to God a newly originated will at the time of the occurrence of the miracle. Therefore they say that the miracle occurred when it did through an eternal will, which determined that the miracle should take place when it did. But this opinion is far from intelligible. For if we examine the expression eternal will, we find that it is a spurious conception, and points to necessity rather than will. For the question remains as it was originally. When the world was created or when the miracle occurred through His eternal will, was it possible for God to postpone it to another time, or not? If He could postpone it, then the eternal will was nullified. For the reason He did not postpone it was not because of the eternal will, but because He did not desire at that moment to postpone it. If He had desired to do so, He would have postponed it. And if it was not possible for Him to postpone it because so the eternal will had decreed, then there is no such thing as will any more, and He becomes an agent acting by necessity and not with will, since He could not postpone the act if He would. We should have to say the same thing about all miracles and all acts proceeding from Him at any time, that they happen by necessity, and that the thing could not help being when it is, for so it has been determined by God's eternal will, which can not be changed... (husik_29, p.15)

And so what Albo, following Rambam, is forced to fall back on is simply the notion that we cannot understand what kind of an agent God actually is. That is, we do not know what it means for God to have "will" or "desire", or to make a "decision". These concepts simply cannot mean the same thing for Him as they do for us, and we thus have absolute equivocation in terminology. Albo again:

Because at first sight it might seem that there is a change in God's will, he says, "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways...," i.e. as there is a difference between His knowledge and our knowledge, the two not belonging to the same class at all, so there is a difference between His will and our will, and between His ways and our ways, there being no similarity between them at all (husik_29, p.23)... It is clear therefore that since we see acts emanating from God which are similar to those acts which emanate from a voluntary agent, we speak of God as desiring and willing; though we can not understand how will and desire reside in God without causing change and affection. This is unknown to us, as the nature of His knowledge is unknown to us (husik_29, p.145).

Indeed, on Albo's opinion, the only alternative to absolute equivocation is to attribute ignorance to God (as does Ralbag, to whose views Albo is evidently contrasting his own below):

There is no way out of this difficulty except by saying either that His knowledge is not of the same kind as our knowledge, and that it does not cause change in Him as our knowledge causes change in us, or to commit the grievous heresy of attributing ignorance to God and saying that He does not know any particular thing that originates in the world, but the universal only, that He did not know Moses while he was in existence any more than He knew him before he existed and after he ceased to exist and that God does not know opposites, else He would have different kinds of knowledge. The best solution is to say that His knowledge follows His wisdom, and as His wisdom is of His very essence and not something added to His essence, and is absolutely unknown, so His knowledge and His will and His power, which follow His wisdom, are absolutely unknown (husik_29, p.21).

So if God's will is not like our will, and God's knowledge is not like our knowledge, and therefore God's actions are not like our actions, then how is it meaningful to talk about knowing God through his actions? I hope someone can explain this to me. In any event, on the rational view it seems that this is the very limit of what we can know about God.

Next section: Wrap-up of the Introduction! Hallelujah! (Yes, sadly, everything till now was part of the Introduction. Hopefully things will move more quickly now!)


  • are you planning on making this into a book?

    By Anonymous B. Spinoza, at May 13, 2007, 8:59:00 AM  

  • Very eloquent and well thought out post.

    Re attributes, agent and action - the way I understand it is that all we can do is observe God's actions, develop a sense of what they accomplish and emulate them.(see MN1:54 at length).

    It is in fact the underlying element in Rambam's religion and is defined in Sefer Hamitzvot Positive commandment 8. Rambam's organization of the Mitzvot is a pyramid where the higher numbered mitzvot are at the bottom and as they go lower in numbers they become more important huerarchically and the objective.Thus Mitzva 1 is knowing God followed by 7 that deal with that issue followed by 8 which is the reason for all the Mitzvot below it. Those mitzvot, after 8, help us by making us thinking, disciplined, ethical and moral people to properly understand God's ways thus emulate them correctly. It is only as we act in those ways that we can reach the ultimate which is the most a man can know the unknowable.

    That explains why Judaism is an experiential religion. The phylosophic underpinnings can only be reached a posteriori. The search for the unknown cannot be accomplished through meditation alone but must be accompanied with experience, or better actions.

    To understand that better read the last chapter in MN. I believe that in reading MN the last three chapters should be read first as they are a summary, I would say almost an abstract for the whole book.

    By Blogger David Guttmann, at May 13, 2007, 9:17:00 AM  

  • >Thus Mitzva 1 is knowing God followed by 7

    I meant followed by 6 Mitzvot ...

    By Blogger David Guttmann, at May 13, 2007, 9:18:00 AM  

  • Hey Spinoza. Are you being sarcastic? I can't tell. Anyway, my fantasy is that, if when all is said and done I feel I have written something worthwhile, I would look for some venue to put it into print. However, my suspicion is that at the end I will probably just rediscover Ralbag's position anyway, but if I can introduce some formality along the way, maybe I can still say that there is something novel. Probably not, though, but maybe.

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 13, 2007, 10:07:00 PM  

  • Thanks David. I will skip to the end of MN, and see what's there. I'm all for thinking, disciplined, ethical people, but I still don't see what that has to do with knowledge of God. But let me read....

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 13, 2007, 10:11:00 PM  

  • I was half serious

    By Anonymous B. Spinoza, at May 14, 2007, 5:33:00 PM  

  • >>>are you planning on making this into a book?

    Hmmm, how about "chickensoup for the skeptics soul"


    "Ten things you always wanted to know about God... but were afraid to ask"


    By Blogger Ben Avuyah, at May 14, 2007, 9:14:00 PM  

  • Maybe better:

    "Ten things you always thought you knew about God... and why you really didn't know them."

    Or, if we want to go more in the generous spirit of Rambam:

    "Ten things you always thought you knew about God... and why this makes you an imbecilic pagan."

    By Blogger Big-S Skeptic, at May 14, 2007, 10:56:00 PM  

  • USFINE.COM devote itself to runescape powerleveling and Warhammer powerleveling service.

    By Blogger rebecca, at Sep 24, 2008, 10:07:00 PM  

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