Monday, July 17, 2006

Rambam and the Need for Natural Science

I found a great quote the other day from the Rambam that just fits so well to throw in the face of those anti-science, anti-intellectual dogmaticists who exist in the Orthodox community. It's found in his introduction to the Guide for the Perplexed.

"Do you not see the following fact, that God, may His mention be exalted, wished us to be perfected and the state of our societies to be improved by His laws regarding actions. Now this can come about only after the adoption of intellectual beliefs, the first of which being His apprehension, may He be exalted, according to our capacity. This, in its turn, cannot come about except through metaphysics (his term: maaseh merkavah), and this metaphysics cannot become actual except after a study of natural science (maaseh bereishit)."


[And for those who doubt the correctness of using the terms 'natural science' and 'metaphysics' in place of Rambam's specific terms, I refer you to see just a couple of pages before where the quote above was given. There he says that the terms used that way specifically are correct and he refers the reader to pages in his Mishneh Torah (Mishneh torah, I. ii. 12, and iv. 10) where he explains it.]

It may be ironic that the Rambam, arguably the founder of a series of dogmas (his 13 ikkarim) is apparently the one here stating that scientific knowledge of the world (which's accurate understanding we now understand cannot proceed via dogmatism) is foundational before correct religious beliefs. Naturally, this apparent irony can be made sense of once we understand that the Aristotelian theories on the natural world (on which the Rambam's whole major philosophy depends) were not based on current scientific methodologies, but on simple empiricism and 'proofs' with often unfounded axioms. It was the logical and dialectical method of Aristotle that made the Rambam believe that when Aristotle's logic was sound, it was absolutely true and was the way the world works.

Hence, since Aristotle's theories were based on logic and sound deductive arguments there was no way for it to be overturned. Reason stands eternal and natural science is therefore on as solid a philosophical ground as metaphysics and the Rambam's own understanding of God and Judaism. To the Rambam, it was all logic, and all logic, if sound, is equally correct.


The only problem with Aristotle, as mentioned above, was that his chosen axioms for a given argument were not always based on good empirical facts. For example, in regards to the speeds of falling objects, he said that heavier things fall faster. Clearly, if you drop a brick and a paper in your living room, the brick will fall much faster. But of course we now know that to be a misleading experiment. It's not the weight of the objects that are being well tested, it is the difference in air resistance. Aristotle's method was poor on experimental empiricism - which is why the modern scientific method and its fruits has replaced nearly all of Aristotle's favored reasonings. The experiments don't lie.

Would the logophilic Rambam find favor in the modern scientific method? That is impossible to know. It's problematic because no truth in modern science is conclusive. We have no means to be sure that our scientific reasonings is the way it really is. All we can do is see that no evidence contradicts our theories and ensure parsimony and things of that nature. This is a far cry from the logical, certain world of Maimonides.

Without that sureness, it makes it devilish to try to build a philosophy or theology based on our knowledge of natural science. Nothing is certain and so the ground is always shifting. It makes our constructions far too liable to topple. We live in a transitional age with progress in our understanding coming in spurts and stops. It is paradoxical, but while progress in our knowledge is surely a good thing, the unstable nature of the process through which we get there often leads to depressing existentialism. If we cannot be certain about the nature of our external world, either in terms of physical science or metaphysics, we find that we can only rely on the knowledge of our own existence and how we individually perceive our reality for our philosophical well being. Our expanding knowledge of particulars makes our constructed understanding of the general impossible to maintain.

In the end, we find that we cannot disagree with the basic argument offered by the Rambam. We need to understand natural science before we can rightly begin speculation on metaphysics. Yet we find that life is short and we cannot wait until we get the all clear from those in the science camp. We must resign ourselves to the fact that, in all likelihood, we will not know the secrets of the universe in our lifetimes. So we must proceed even on such shaky terrain!

Although our science is limited, even with all of its limitations, it is far better to engage it than to pretend it does not exist. It is true that it is probably wrong in many places, but it is doubtlessly more correct that it contains more truth than the deep ignorance promoted by those still following wholly irrational ways of thinking. To reiterate: we must proceed!

20 comments:

hayim said...

great post

B. Spinoza said...

well said

Ben Avuyah said...

Yup, empiricism and rationalism, despite their blights and shortcommings, are, at least for the moment, all we have. If we chose to move forward it will be with these tools.

Alex said...

"the deep ignorance promoted by those still following wholly irrational ways of thinking."

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is irrational and 10 is rational, where would you put the Rambam?

Orthoprax said...

Hayim, Spinoza, Ben,

Thanks guys.


Alex,

Though I'm not sure rationality is a scalable concept, if the Rambam was still promoting his same philosophical theories today, based on the same reasoning, I might put him around halfway. Perhaps a five or six. Maybe even a seven. I'm judging him relatively favorably because he'd still involve more of the rational concepts, like logic for one, that purer fundamentalist dogmaticists completely ignore.

Even were I to judge Aristotle himself, while his ideas were frequently flawed and his methodology left plenty to desire, his science and philosophical riguers were still more on the ball than those of the religious dogmaticists, though given with some well known exceptions.

Alex said...

I wonder if the famous logician, Andrew Flew, when he made his famous recent "change," moved /up/ on the logical scale - the scale I mentioned above.

ADMITNOTHING said...

Check it out !

www.toughjews.blogspot.com

You'll be glad you did !

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

I too wonder. But I don't know much about the specific whys of his change or even the specific whats of his change. From what I've read he seems to be rather mysterious about all of that.

Of course, the scale was not about logic, but about rationality. And I do believe that when you get to the fundamentals of metaphysics, (i.e., is there a God?) there is more than one sustainable rational answer given the data we do have.

A lot depends on definitions.

Alex said...

Self-correction: It's Anthony, not Andrew, Flew.

Orthoprax said...

Oh, I hadn't even realized that you wrote Andrew initially.

Kylopod said...

In the past, it's quite probable that people didn't generally think of themselves as belonging to a particular religion. You were taught, or you assimilated from the surrounding society, the "truths" of your religion. It was only when two religions came into contact with each other that questions arose. People did change religions, but more often than not it was by force or social pressure rather than by seriously rethinking one's beliefs.

Nowadays (in democracies at least), the situation is changed. Intelligent religious people are well aware that they live in a world full of doubt and uncertainty, where nothing is proven absolutely. Coercion and pressure still play a role, but there's a sense that faith is a choice.

I wonder, however, whether we're all part of some "religion" that we don't notice. Just as the religious outlook of people in the past was assimilated unconsciously, there are many societal beliefs today that just about everyone--Jews, Christians, and atheists alike--tend to accept without questioning, being part of the framework of our society. Maybe future observers will look at the beliefs of their ancestors--us--as constituting a "religion" of our society, even though none of us formulated it in such terms.

Orthoprax said...

kylopod,

"In the past, it's quite probable that people didn't generally think of themselves as belonging to a particular religion."

How far back in the past do you mean? I strongly suspect that the Rambam saw Judaism as a religion as distinct from other.

"there are many societal beliefs today that just about everyone--Jews, Christians, and atheists alike--tend to accept without questioning, being part of the framework of our society."

Sure, there are a bunch of them. Like free will, belief in justice, a sense of individuality and so on. There are a few that may question these basic assumptions but usually they're of the more philosophical type. Yet even when they doubt, they'll still act as if they are true.

Kylopod said...

"How far back in the past do you mean?"

I'm thinking in particular of the Middle Ages.

"I strongly suspect that the Rambam saw Judaism as a religion as distinct from other."

Without doubt. As did Judah Ha-Levi, Thomas Aquinas, or any of the religious apologists of the time, not to mention the Christian missionaries sent to convert the heathens.

But I still think these were exceptions. The average person lived his life taking for granted the beliefs that his religion taught--he assumed they were true, and never even considered that they could be subject to debate. They were processed unconsciously.

It's different in modern America. Yes, many people still go through life without thinking much about religious topics. But I think there's a far greater awareness that religious belief is not something you simply take for granted. You live as a pious Christian, or Jew, or anything else, you do so with the full awareness that there are a lot of intelligent, reasonable people who hold different beliefs, and you encounter those people on a day-to-day basis. Yet there are still many beliefs that most people today process unconsciously and do not question--but this time, they are outside of any particular faith, and simply a part of our general culture.

Orthoprax said...

Kylopod,

"The average person lived his life taking for granted the beliefs that his religion taught--he assumed they were true, and never even considered that they could be subject to debate. They were processed unconsciously."

Oh, I see what you mean. Sure, like a child, if you are brought up with a certain faith and never come in contact with other ideas that are different from the party line then you'll have little cause to start thinking skeptically.

"Yet there are still many beliefs that most people today process unconsciously and do not question--but this time, they are outside of any particular faith, and simply a part of our general culture."

Yeah, I understand. Though could we extend this even beyond our local culture? Are there great unconscious assumptions that the entire human race is subject too? Most likely.

Kylopod said...

Though could we extend this even beyond our local culture? Are there great unconscious assumptions that the entire human race is subject too? Most likely.

Well, haven't at least the philosophers explored them all? It's not like any of them are going to become true solipsists, though.

halachickman said...

Excellent post!

Sort of mirrors what the Rambam says in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah where he discusses the definition of the Mitzvah of loving God. He approaches it to mean that the love is not stemming from a blind emotion, but from an intellectual appreciation of the world around us. The Rambam seemingly held it as a Mitzvah of the highest degree to learn about the processes of the world around us as that would lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of God.

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof said...

Have you ever read AJ Ayer? You would probably like his work. He was a radical empiricist. His most impressive work the a priori he wrote at the age of 24. It is quite amazing. The bottom line is that believe it or not Aristotle did make empirical evaluations. Aristotle said objects fall to the ground because they long to be near the earth. Newton said there is an invisiblr force called gravity and that why they fall. Einstein said Gravity is a manifestation of Mass wrping space. (Even Newton in Principia writes concernign gravity that he felt while his math was good [F=g(M1)(M2)/D2]was not a full explanation of what gravity was. Now Aristotle wasn't all that wrong it was just an inadequate explanation of why it falls and we don't really get an adequate one until 101 years ago when einstien published his work. I guess my point is that the human race learns as it goes and empicism is only as good as the observer.

Orthoprax said...

Halachikman,

Thanks.

"The Rambam seemingly held it as a Mitzvah of the highest degree to learn about the processes of the world around us as that would lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of God."

Indeed. And I think that because the Rambam was so willing to get this wider perspective on reality from external non-Jewish sources he was more ready to read verses from the Torah in a much more liberal way than his contemporaries.


Tzedek,

"Have you ever read AJ Ayer? You would probably like his work."

Logical Positivism has its points, but at the end it isn't sufficient or satisfying by itself.

"The bottom line is that believe it or not Aristotle did make empirical evaluations."

Yes, but poor ones.

"we don't really get an adequate one until 101 years ago when einstien published his work."

I think it still could use some more explaining. How does mass warp spacetime?

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof said...

Thats just it! There is always more explaining to do. But then again Stephen hawking felt in 1995 that we had learned everything about physics there was to know. Wow wasn't he wrong.
My point is there is always new info although these days they are always discovered by accident (said by the mouth of a scientist who used to work for NASA). This means scientists don't know what to look for, they feel around in the dark and when they hit something they go "ooh I found something".

Orthoprax said...

Tzedek,

"This means scientists don't know what to look for, they feel around in the dark and when they hit something they go "ooh I found something"."

Well, I wouldn't go that far, but it is true that the progress in our scientific knowledge of physics has slowed incredibly since the heady days of the early 20th century.

It's been said that the 20th century was the century of physics while the 21st will be the century of biology given all the recent knowledge gained in that sector. Think genetics. A lot of purposefully directed study in biology is going on.