Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A guide to today's perplexed - still perplexed!

I finally got a chance to read this book by Kenneth Seeskin. This is a book that [edit:GODOL HADOR and] some people on Godol Hador's blog recommended as a good introduction to the main themes of the 178 chapters of Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed. I enjoyed the book, and it served it's purpose, but frankly, I am still as perplexed as I was when I started.

Maimonides gets a lot of traction in the Orthodox Jewish circles which would like to take a more rationalist (naturalist) approach to Judaism. It is easy to see why Maimonides is their mascot. A main thrust of his philosophy is to say that G-d is a natural part of the universe, and so He doesn't intervene to make miracles happen. The miracles may be kind of baked into the Universe, almost like time bombs waiting to go off, or many of the descriptions of the miraculous events are allegorical.

In general, Maimonides assumes that there is a rational explanation to the world, and that G-d wants us to be rational, and that being rational, especially a thinking person, a philosopher, is the highest form of existence.

Now, I know that reading a 140 page introductory book does not make me an expert on the Rambam. I also can appreciate the extent of his genius and his intellectual honesty. What is not clear to me is why people assign any truth value to his theories.

As far as I can tell, Rambam arrived at his ideas about G-d, creation, the content of the Torah, the nature of revelation and prophesy through no other means than thinking about them and coming up with a hypothesis which seemed the most reasonable to him. But this does not lend any more legitimacy to him than to any of the other great philosophers, e.g. Baruch Spinoza, or Thomas Aquinas. They all do the same thing. They propose an understanding of the universe based on their intellect.

In terms of truth value, I would almost be inclined to believe the Kabbalistic idea of knowledge handed down from generation to generation of a specific Divine revelation. At least there you have an element of Divine, whereas in Rambam's case he relies purely on human reasoning. Human reasoning without the ability to test your hypothesis seems like a losing cause. In general, I believe that in most areas today, one cannot ascertain how something works by just proposing a reasoned argument. As a matter of fact we are constantly surprised by discovering that many things work in ways that are compeletely the opposite of how one would expect them to work.

Any lurking philosophers out there are welcome to comment and elucidate!

18 Comments:

Blogger Godol Hador said...

> This is a book that some people on Godol Hador's blog recommended

Me! I recommended it. Also, I agree with you. Rambam's theology was just his invention, like any other Rishon. But, he based a lot on Greek philosophy, and he was a smart guy, so it's pretty interesting stuff. But there is no inherent reason to believe he had all (or any) answers. He's just incredibly interesting and a free thinker, and quite 'frum' too, so you don't have to feel like a total apikorus by reading him.

May 23, 2006 10:03 AM  
Blogger Tobie said...

The thing is, much of philosophy ends up with a conclusion that human reason is valid, which is a nice self-justifying, circular argument, but all very well if you buy it. For example, from what you've said of the Rambam, he concluded that man is created as a reasoning creature and meant to be rational. One conclusion from this is that man's reason is enough of a tool for him to be able to figure out his purpose, soul, and so forth.

Of course, this reasoning isn't necessarily applied to other sciences, but that makes a certain amount of sense. Just because we are given reason enough to figure ourselves out, doesn't mean that we should be able to unravel anything else. Just that reason is enough to unravel things that relate to reason. And of course, this is aided by the fact that there really aren't any empirical ways to test philosophy, so they are forced to find excuses to content themselves with the tools that they have.

(Sorry, I don't think that was quite as coherent as I intended it to be)

May 23, 2006 11:50 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

>In terms of truth value, I would almost be inclined to believe the Kabbalistic idea of knowledge handed down from generation to generation of a specific Divine revelation

why? You have no reason to believe them. Maybe they just made it up? But if someone gives you a real solid reasoned argument to support his view, then you don't need to trust their motives or intentions, you can just judge it based on its merit.

>Human reasoning without the ability to test your hypothesis seems like a losing cause.

you could test it by pointing out the logical flaw in the argument. The real problem with us non philosophers is that we don't have the logic skills to distinguish between a good philosophical argument and a bad one.

>In general, I believe that in most areas today, one cannot ascertain how something works by just proposing a reasoned argument.

this is true in regards to the finite, where things can be measured and tested. But when dealing with metaphysical ideas, you can't test it.

May 23, 2006 8:07 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

b.Spinoza:why? You have no reason to believe them. Maybe they just made it up? But if someone gives you a real solid reasoned argument to support his view, then you don't need to trust their motives or intentions, you can just judge it based on its merit.

For the record, I am not saying that the tradition is reliable, nor am I stating that it is unreliable.

Most philosophers have as many motives and intentions as anyone else.

you could test it by pointing out the logical flaw in the argument. The real problem with us non philosophers is that we don't have the logic skills to distinguish between a good philosophical argument and a bad one.

An argument can be logical, yet still not have truth value. An argument needs to start with basic assumptions, and those are usually chosen axiomatically.
You did hit on a point that I would agree with. It takes a very intelligent person to see subtle flaws in another great philosopher's work.

this is true in regards to the finite, where things can be measured and tested. But when dealing with metaphysical ideas, you can't test it.

Agree. Hence my problem with accepting these ideas. I am a pragmatician. If someone is interested in a purely academic pursuit of metaphysics, more power to them, but most philosophers are a lot more interested in "unlocking the secrets of the universe" and in order to do this, they need to at some point be measured against the yardstick of reality.

May 23, 2006 9:29 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

Just a thought- doesn't math work in much the same way? Based on logic built off of basic axioms, and not really provable through anything outside of the mathematical system?

May 23, 2006 10:31 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Tobie,

Yes, that was exactly my point. I may be talking out of my butt here, but I think it was Kurt Godel that demonstrated that the truth value of a statement is not related to it's ability to be proven through logic.

So abstract math is a cool set of puzzles until it is somehow tethered to a context. Once that happens, we can test the results of the mathematics against the real world. I can calculate the current in a wire, or predict the location of a falling object, etc...

May 24, 2006 7:07 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

>Most philosophers have as many motives and intentions as anyone else.

That’s true, but the point is that philosophers aren't asking you to trust them, they are asking you to evaluate their arguments based on the arguments merit, and not their own personal merit. While people who claim to have a special tradition must be evaluated on how trust worthy they themselves are.

>An argument can be logical, yet still not have truth value. An argument needs to start with basic assumptions, and those are usually chosen axiomatically.

We all make assumptions. It's part of being human. Some axioms are so vital to human thinking that they are impossible to deny. A great philosopher will stick to these essential axioms and build without making logical errors

If you rejects his axioms then you can ignore his argument, but if you accept the axioms then you must accept the argument if it logically follows.

Philosophy is helpful when two people accept the same axioms but have different conclusions. It can help to clarify why one concludes A while the other concludes B and which person has more solid reasons for believing one over the other.

>but most philosophers are a lot more interested in "unlocking the secrets of the universe" and in order to do this, they need to at some point be measured against the yardstick of reality.

What is reality (God)? This is a great philosophical question.

If I was a real philosopher, I probably could make a better argument for it :)

May 24, 2006 8:20 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

by the way, what we are doing now is having a philosophical discussion. Do you find it useful? If you do then you are admitting that philosophy is useful.

May 24, 2006 8:29 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Philosophy is helpful when two people accept the same axioms but have different conclusions. It can help to clarify why one concludes A while the other concludes B and which person has more solid reasons for believing one over the other.

Yes, this is my whole point. I don't accept the same axioms that he does. An axiom by one definition is a statement that is incontrovertibly true. His axioms cannot be defined as such. By another definition (sounds more like yours) an axiom is a starting point for a logical set of deductions and reasoning. From that perspective, that is a fine endeavor. I greatly respect the Rambam's acumen and deductive reasoning abilities.

by the way, what we are doing now is having a philosophical discussion. Do you find it useful? If you do then you are admitting that philosophy is useful.
Philosophy, as I am sure you know has many branches... In terms of being useful, yes philosophy can be useful for certain purposes and useless for others. If I discern the purpose that many Jews try to lean on the Rambam for, it seems like it is not very useful.

May 24, 2006 9:06 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

oh, I wasn't trying to defend the Rambam per se, I was just talking about philosophy in general. I don't like the way Jews rely on the Rambam as the end all and be all just because he's Jewish

May 24, 2006 10:10 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

I'm a Spinpza guy, in case you have not guessed

May 24, 2006 10:11 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Was there something particular about Spinoza that attracted you to his philosophy?

May 24, 2006 11:06 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

The main thing that attracts me to Spinoza is that he was not hampered by religious dogma, yet he does have an appreciation for the spiritual life. He tried to reconstruct God and religion using the light of reason.

Although there is much of his philosophy that I don't understand, the things that I do understand I tend to agree with. I am hoping that as I study more I will increase my understanding of reality.

May 24, 2006 8:40 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

The Rambam exhorts us to be rationalist, which was always very attractive to me. He believed that he arrived at his conclusions rationaly. But reading the Guide is very unsatisfying. (Of course you're right that I'm not a philosopher, and metaphysics gives me migrains.)

One thing which was great was Abraham Joshua Heschel's brilliant biography of the Rambam, which does a great job of capturing the everyday aspects of his life and really conveys his importance.

May 24, 2006 9:54 PM  
Blogger David Guttmann said...

>philosophy is to say that G-d is a natural part of the universe,

Chas ve chalila. You have to back off and learn. you misunderstood seeskin whose book i am about half way through and i plan to review as he misses a few things.

May 25, 2006 5:36 PM  
Blogger David Guttmann said...

>Kabbalistic idea of knowledge handed down from generation to generation of a specific Divine revelation

Nonsense; and you believe that they had revelation. Read Idel about the last quarter of the 14th century where new inspiration was rife with the navi of avila, avraham abulafia, joseph gitkilla et al. Rambam at least used the only thinbg that we have that is sensible which is Sechel while they had great imaginations!

May 25, 2006 5:40 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

>philosophy is to say that G-d is a natural part of the universe,

Chas ve chalila. You have to back off and learn.


Maybe I misspoke. Are you saying that G-d is not a part of the Universe? Like an Ein Sof concept? That doesn't sound like your general philosophy so I must be missing something.

Nonsense; and you believe that they had revelation.

I am not saying that I believe that the Kabbalists had the Truth. All I am saying is that given the two claims about understanding the Universe, if one group has a claim of Divine Revelation, while the other claims to come up with it through reasoning, I would posit the first group has a stronger claim, assuming you could substantiate the revelation. Too many times human intellect has lead us down the path of someone saying 'This is really how things work' and then we learn more about something and find out that the person was totally off the mark. He may have not misled intentionally, but in terms of the truth value of his understanding he was just wrong. (I am talking in general, not about the Rambam specifically)

May 25, 2006 9:38 PM  
Blogger David Guttmann said...

>Like an Ein Sof concept?
No.

> That doesn't sound like your general philosophy so I must be missing something.

Yes you are. Read again about transcendence and think about it carefully. You cannot read a summary of a great philosopher's ideas and become an expert on it. Your disclaimer helps but your writting shows that you did not get it. Sorry but I have a hangup about misunderstanding the greatest thinker of the Jews since Moshe Rabbeinu.

>I would posit the first group has a stronger claim, assuming you could substantiate the revelation.

The problem is the latter. Read my post on Har Sinai. That is just skirting the issue I will write more on the subject.

> Too many times human intellect has lead us down the path of someone saying 'This is really how things work' and then we learn more about something and find out that the person was totally off the mark

True. That is why we have a Torah and why it sets certain conditions on the process of thinking for it to be accepted. Torah leaves science to man but insists that man have certain controls before he makes statements about the theological and ontological analysis of what he discovers.

May 26, 2006 2:02 AM  

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