TheDeath of Jewish Philosophy:An Excerpt from Jewish Faith and Modern Science
This is a book of problems without answers—at least not yet. The central thesis is that Jewish philosophy can no longer be done as it has been for the past two centuries.1 I will begin by stating what modern Jewish philosophy is and then explain why it has failed. This argument will constitute the majority of the book. It is, in effect, an argument for the death of Jewish philosophy. However, I intend the final part of this book to be constructive. It will be a case for the rebirth of Jewish philosophy, or at least it will be a prolegomena to such a case. Based on the analysis of how Jewish philosophy died, I will lay out a program for its rebirth.
In logical form the constructive case is an argument by analogy. Jewish philosophy was forced to change in the past because of (a) the way learned people thought about almost everything, and (b) the social-economic-political conditions of Jewish life.2 Based on an analysis of what classical Jewish philosophy was and why it changed in modernity, I will argue that Jewish philosophy must again change in comparable ways because of contemporary philosophy and history. Furthermore, to affect this change will require a significant (possibly radical) rethinking of almost everything we have taken for granted about the Jewish people.
The first part of this book deals only with problems, not solutions. The second part deals with solutions, but the solutions are only opinions, not knowledge. Although the proposed solutions are interconnected, I have separated them into three familiar central topics in Jewish philosophy—creation, redemption, and revelation. My contention is that all three have to be rethought as a dialogue between the major conceptual texts of rabbinic tradition and contemporary science. The goal of the dialogue is truth about absolutely everything. The discussion assumes, at least as a working hypothesis, that both areas of inquiry make truth claims that are worthy of consideration by intelligent people, and that whatever the truth is, it is something that reflects what these disciplines teach.
The project is not new. It claims to do precisely what classical Jewish philosophy attempted to do as a dialogue between the ancient tradition of rabbinic interpretations of the Hebrew scriptures and the classical interpretations of the ancient Hellenistic writings in the physical and human sciences. In its most general terms, the second part of this book sets forth a future agenda for a study of science in relationship to rabbinic Judaism as a replacement for what has been the agenda in modern Jewish philosophy for the past century. In place of a study of the relationship between Judaism and the Jewish people on one hand and the tradition of continental philosophy on the other hand, this part proposes a new study of the relationship between Judaism and contemporary physical and human sciences.
I am willing to accept, without argument, that the now three-hundred year-old philosophical tradition of continental philosophy has dictated the agenda for the field of modern Jewish philosophy. However, so defined, I believe the field to be dead, as I argued previously, dead because it has nothing to contribute to what is the primary task of all philosophy, including Jewish philosophy—the discovery of truth about everything. I believe that Judaism and science are both committed to the search for truth as fundamental and therefore defining values, and thus in principle they should be in agreement. However, as we have seen, they do not seem to agree. The final part of this book will make some suggestions for research programs intended to resolve the apparent conflict.
The positions to be outlined presuppose three sets of lessons learned from the first part of this book. The first is that Jewish thinking presupposes an understanding of history at its most general level, but the conception of the scope of history in past Jewish philosophy has been far too narrow. The Jewish people are not only those people who came out of Judea as rabbinic Jews and eventually settled in Western Europe and North America. Furthermore, Jewish religion is not limited to claims about the Jewish people in relationship to God and the world. In fact it is not even limited to claims about God and humanity. Judaism makes critical faith claims about the relationship between God and the entire universe, organic and inorganic, and its understanding of who the Jewish people are and what is their mission within the universe requires this most general perspective to be conceptually adequate in order to interpret Judaism’s foundational texts.
The second assumption is that Jewish thinking should transcend the dichotomy of thinking about reality in terms of the mental and the physical. Reality is to be understood as a relation between God and his/her creatures within the continuously changing space of the created universe. As God is one, so ultimately there is a unity of being to all his creatures—including inorganic as well as organic entities, space as well as the occupants of space, matter as well as spirit, and body as well as mind. What the declaration of the Shema3 affirms is the ultimate unity of absolutely everything.
No analysis in modern science more clearly highlights the inadequacy of thinking about reality in terms of traditional ontological dichotomies than the analysis of light in modern physical cosmology and optics. The geometry and the anatomy of light shows that seeing is both a mental and a physical activity, whose nature in itself undercuts any radical distinction between objectivity and subjectivity. It is not the case that the lenses, fluids, shapes, and neurons that make up the physiology of sight, and the spatial geometry that describes how visions are constructed, in themselves cause sight. Rather these are only tools by which human minds construct what they see. Ultimately we are conscious not of what the physical organs of our brain and nervous system construct geometrically to be spatial reality; rather we are conscious of what our mind judges to be reality based on those mere physical reports. Yet, that is not to say that something called a mind has existence independent of a brain. Similarly we cannot claim from the data of vision that reality is something nonmaterial like energy or information, or that reality is something material like electrical impulses measurable in neurons. Rather, whatever reality is, it is something that unifies the products of both sources into a single picture.
The third assumption asserts that Jewish thinking must face the apparent facts that, on one hand, doctrines of Jewish chosenness or election are fundamental to any attempt to make intelligible Jewish identity, but that, on the other hand, all past conceptions of the distinctiveness of the Jewish people have involved, explicitly and/or implicitly, distinct conceptions of race, and all current theories of race are both scientifically false and ethically evil. The suggestion is not that Jews should cease to affirm the moral and religious value of identity with the Jewish people. Rather, the suggestion is to explore ways of interpreting that faith obligation that do not entail, as it has in the past and continues to do in the present, a racist understanding of who the Jewish people are in relationship to the other people of the planet earth.
The first lesson charges that until now Jewish understanding of reality has been too narrow to support an adequate quest (and Judaism is a quest) for the truth about absolutely everything. The third lesson charges that Jewish thinking distorts reality when it sees everything primarily in terms of Jews and other human beings residing on the planet earth. From this perspective there is no way to grasp at least one fundamental Jewish doctrine—God is the creator of the universe—and to the extent that the doctrine of divine creation is not intelligible, the conception of reality as an interplay between God and the universe is unintelligible. Whatever reality is, it has something to do with the Jewish people in relationship to other human beings on the planet earth. Yet, Jews, human beings, and the earth are temporally and spatially a very small part of reality, in fact too small to provide a perspective to grasp God, the universe, and the relationship between them.
If the biblical narrative is to be believed as history, at first the world and life view of the Hebrew people was limited in perspective to a small nation situated in the Judean hills that lived in relationship with a small deity who defined himself solely through his relationship with this people. It is only through a series of national disasters of global military conquest that Israel’s conception of absolutely everything was broadened enough to begin to speak of a God who rules every nation and all people, with a Hebrew nation that defines itself in terms of its redemptive responsibility to all other nations of the earth.
It was not until the tenth century, in Muslim lands that even this less but still narrow conception of reality was further broadened, through exposure to classical science, to become truly for the first time, a conception of a universe beyond the surface of a single planet governed by a deity who created, governs, and will redeem absolutely everything—in all space (atomic, terrestrial, and celestial) at all time (from the origin to the end of the entire universe). However, even this most universal conception of everything in classical Jewish philosophy was too narrow. It asserted that the universe has only three dimensions, but we now have reason to believe that it has many more. The time frame between the beginning and the end of everything is vastly longer than anything that the classical philosophers could imagine, even though they could say that the universe is eternal. Finally, the area of the universe is vastly greater than anything the classical philosophers could imagine.
Hence, the task facing modern Jewish thinking is to make intelligible, to the extent that it can, what kind of role is played by the history of a small nation (Israel) confined to a small speck in space (the earth) in the story of a deity who directs the entire universe. Furthermore, what can we say about this deity who relates beyond the vast universe in general to this little people in this little world, and how does God’s relationship to this speck reflect on God’s relationship to absolutely every other speck in the universe?
Even if we narrow our scope from the cosmos to just the planet earth, the world and life view of Jewish thinking remains too narrow. Jewish thought has thought about the world exclusively in terms of the lands where Jews have lived throughout history. However, there is far more to the planet earth than just the land masses where Jews have lived, and the God of Israel is not just the God of Israel but the God of everyone. Furthermore, the earth has a long history before any humanoids existed and the earth may have a long history after humanoids become extinct. Hence, the claim that God is the God of the universe entails that to understand who or what God is must include an understanding of God as the ruler of a reality devoid of humanity. Therefore, for Jewish thinking to be conceptually adequate thinking it must overcome its nationalist myopia while continuing to make sense out a faith commitment to the Jewish people. Similarly, intelligent Jewish thinking also must deal with its historic species myopia while continuing to make sense out of a special commitment to the survival and well-being of the human species.
Now let us assume these three lessons from our critique of modern Jewish philosophy—the cosmic dimension of divine history, the unity of reality, and the necessity of an interpretation of divine chosenness that transcends race, species, and planet—and move on to the constructive part of this book—a discussion of the distinct issues that should direct the birth of a new academic discipline whose subject matter is a conceptual dialogue between modern science and traditional Jewish philosophy in terms of the possible relations that hold between the temporal spaces of the universe and its inhabitants. I have organized this discussion into three parts, following the tradition in Jewish philosophy (classical and modern) of subdividing theology into the categories of creation (the origin of everything), redemption (the end of everything), and revelation (the course of everything between its origin and its end). In this excerpt, we will concentrate on the category of creation, presenting both the problem and a proposed solution.
Misunderstanding Physics and Astronomy; Interpreting Creation
What is at stake for Jewish philosophy in the question of the nature of space is once again the determination of what it means to believe that God created the universe. Here, however, we need to add the modifying clause “out of nothing.”
The early rabbis determined not only that God created the universe but that he created it from nothing. Furthermore, this negative action is what the scriptures intend. But the question is, what does nothing mean? For the classical Jewish philosophers the question of created nothing turned on their Aristotelian analysis of space and matter. However, as we have seen, modern astrophysics has radically different conceptions of both. Hence, only if Jewish philosophers first understand the nature of both matter and space can they make intelligible what the central rabbinic doctrine of creation out of nothing means. Without the science, the professed belief is (to paraphrase the Rambam in the first book of his Mishneh Torah) mere verbiage devoid of meaning.4
There is no greater difference than this between classical and modern intellectual life: Almost all world religions, including most expressions of Judaism, claim that the so-called plastic world, which means the universe that we perceive by means of our external senses (touch, smell, taste, hearing, and sight), is not all of reality; there is also something called the spiritual world. Furthermore, most of these religions (including Judaism) are more committed to the value of the spiritual than they are to the plastic.5 In contrast, it is almost universally agreed by most modern scientists that any claims about real spiritual entities are in principle excluded from the domain of science. This modern scientific dogma does not in and of itself entail that nothing real is spiritual. However, it does entail that any consideration of the spiritual is in principle not science unless it can be reduced to considerations of something materially positive. So, for example, modern science does not in principle discuss the existence of a soul, because it is a spiritual (i.e., nonphysical) entity, but modern science can admit such an entity into its domain of inquiry to the extent (and only to the extent) that it can be reduced to something physical. Hence, speculation about the nature and causal influence of minds becomes a subject of scientific inquiry when the mind is divorced from the action of a spiritual soul and is discussed as a kind of physical energy or as something else physical such as electrical-chemical impulses in the brain or in the nervous system.
Classical science posited the existence of substances as the occupants of space, and not all of them were physical (i.e., spatially extended entities). Most of these entities are what the classical scientists called forms. A form is something spiritual that accounts for what a substance is, and it functions in relationship to its associated substance as a defining and final cause. Hence, in an Aristotelian universe all things have a qualitative definition in relationship to which they have by nature ends or purposes. This kind of a universe is inherently a moral one, where good and evil can be judged scientifically by the determined ends or purposes that define all natural objects. In contrast, for modern science, there is matter but not form. Consequently, things have no natural qualitative ends or purposes. Things do have causes for what they do and what they are. But these causes are quantitative and mechanical. In no sense are they qualitative and purposeful. However, in principle creation came to be interpreted by the classical Jewish philosophers in terms of forms and final causes. In a world devoid of quality and purpose, this classical notion of creation is unintelligible.
With very few exceptions, modern Jewish philosophers have little to say about creation. Many affirm that creation is a central doctrine of Judaism, but they either do not discuss it at all or they discuss it in the same terms that the classical Jewish philosophers discussed it. However, by now it should be sufficiently clear how dependent that discussion is on a clearly obsolete (and untrue) understanding of reality. Hence, the doctrine of creation desperately needs reinterpretation. Here again the failure of modern Jewish philosophy to say anything intelligible about creation in light of modern science is a significant sign of the intellectual death of Jewish philosophy. To affirm creation or to explain it in terms of an understanding of the cosmos that is obsolete amounts to affirming and explaining nothing at all.
To summarize, the judgments in modern science about the nature of the entire universe are so radically different from the judgments in classical science about the cosmos that the traditional claims made by classical Jewish philosophy about God as the creator of the universe are not simply wrong; they are unintelligible. A major failing of those who call themselves modern Jewish philosophers is that they are so ignorant of modern science that they are not even conscious of how problematic is their professed theology.
In general, theology intends to clarify what religious people think about God the creator, but a theology that operates in ignorance of the nature of the created natural universe in principle clarifies nothing, and since it clarifies nothing, it has no positive value. Hence, ignorance of astronomy and physics is one significant reason why modern Jewish philosophy is dead. It is a field that thinks it can make claims about creation and the creator without any knowledge of what God created. These philosophers have no idea how large and varied the universe is, both in time and in space. They do not seem to know that the entire universe is governed by mathematical and material principles to the exclusion of final causes and so-called spiritual interventions. They also seem to take no cognizance of the fact that everything changes and ultimately dies, including the universe itself. Furthermore, we now (should) know that the universe existed for billions of years before there was a planet earth and a human race upon it. And it will continue to exist for many billions of years after both the planet and its last occupants are gone. Furthermore, the universe is so vast that even if life (let alone human life) can be found elsewhere, it is inconceivable that the existence of humanity played and plays any essential role in defining what God as the creator does.
Some of the other ways that classical Jewish philosophers explained who God is and how he relates depend directly on what is now clearly an obsolete understanding of the physical nature of the universe. The most rational of the medieval philosophers (notably Ralbag in his Wars of the Lord) used astrology to understand how and why the spiritually transcendent creator relates to his material creation, but it is now clear that astrology can explain nothing. There are galaxies, but there are no constellations, and the stars, while they are living entities, are mere gases devoid of intellect and consciousness. If there are angels, they are not the stars.
The most popular demonstrations of the existence of God proudly expressed by the classical Jewish philosophers (notably by the Rambam in his Guide of the Perplexed) turned on two physical principles, both of which are wrong. The first is the claim that a cause must have greater power than its effect, and second is the claim that a finite agent cannot cause an infinite effect. However, Newton’s second law of motion refutes both.6 Hence an object (even a physical one) that is set in motion (even by accident) will continue to move forever unless it encounters resistance from some other object. Consequently, the universe of physical objects set in the vast vacuum of space can move as they move forever without any nonphysical, infinitely powerful, morally and spiritually perfect, actor to set them in motion. Hence, there seems to be no reason suggested by the physical state of the universe that compels belief in a creator. Furthermore, should we have reason to want to affirm the existence of a divine creator (which certainly we do on the precedence of the history of Jewish philosophy), neither logic nor science compels anyone rationally to insist that our God (contrary to the Rambam) either is one or is incorporeal. Yet, primarily because of their ignorance of modern astrophysics, most modern Jewish philosophers are not conscious of this theologically critical problem.
Why Believe in Creation
Especially in light of the principle of inertia, is there a good reason to posit a creator of the universe?
In the old physics of the Aristotelians, a physical object moves only if something moves it. Furthermore, in the old mathematics, the infinity that physics presupposed was understood to be a process without a limit. Furthermore, in the old Aristotelian rational psychology, to know something necessarily involved determining a limit, so that in principle whatever was determinate could not be infinite and therefore was unknowable. Combining what was the best thinking in the old physics, rational psychology, and mathematics into a coherent conceptualization of the universe led inescapably to the conclusion that any reasonable person would believe that the universe had an origin, because it was generated by a generator, or, in the language of pre-modern science, it was necessarily moved by a first mover.
Yet none of these fundamental assumptions are accepted in modern natural philosophy. As for logic, the development of the conception of transfinite numbers out of set theory shows that infinity is perfectly intelligible to finite minds. As for mathematics, the study of infinite series in terms of limit principles demonstrates how even what extends indefinitely is intelligible in terms of numerable limits. Finally and most importantly, the principle of inertia, as Newton defined it, asserts that an object in motion will continue in that motion endlessly unless some external force acts upon it. This principle constitutes one of the most important ways that modern physics departed from Aristotelian physics. For pre-modern physics nothing moves without a cause; in contrast in Newtonian and even post-Newtonian physics7 nothing changes its motion without a cause. Conversely, in pre-modern physics there may but need not be an external cause for something to cease to change, but in modern physics there may but need not be an external cause for something continuing to do what it is doing. Hence, the universe may be characterized by sets of motions in time and space that extend endlessly into the past with no need for any external force to initiate the motion. To say the same thing in the language of the Abrahamic religions, whereas the kind of universe in which pre-modern philosophers and scientists believed logically entailed the existence of some kind of creator deity, the kind of universe in which modern philosophers and scientists believe has no such requirement.
Aristotle developed a set of demonstrations to show that necessarily God exists. He thought those proofs were absolute, that is, they demonstrate that necessarily a creator deity exists as the cause of any universe, be it this one or any number of other possible universes. However, he was wrong, not because his logic was faulty but because he assumed that no matter how possible universes differ, they must all be subject to the same laws of nature and logic that the Aristotelians also formulated along side of their physics. We know that this assumption is not true. Newton showed us a way to understand the universe that is every bit as reasonable as Aristotle, and the former (contrary to what Newton himself believed) is perfectly intelligible with respect to logic and physics, without positing the reality of a universal creative force. Given the principle of inertia, an intelligent person may reply to the question why the universe exists by saying because it just does. It just does, because motion and change require a reason to cease but do not require a reason to be.
The kinds of claims asserted in declarative sentences can be very different, but their truth-value is the same kind. Religious truths, Jewish truths, American truths, human truths, and logical truths are all just truths. The adjectives do not modify the truth of the truth claims; they only suggest ways to categorize the claims themselves and/or the people making the claims, but not the truth, that is, the epistemic value, of the assertions.
The differences in truth-value between different propositions are infinite, ranging from 0 to 1. Similarly there are a great number of different ways to determine a proposition’s truth-value. What counts as good evidence in a courtroom is not the same as what counts as good evidence in a math class, and the way to make a reasonable bet on a horse race is significantly different from the way to make a reasonable bet on the outcome of a physics experiment. Yet, there is only one kind of logic to all of these cases. Similarly, there are different standards for deciding whether or not a belief is reasonable, but the difference has to do with the nature of the question under consideration and not with the kind of logic appropriate to the case.
What is the logic involved in questions about the claims that the universe was created by a creator? Just what do creators need to be for belief in them to be reasonable? Let me suggest a strategy for deciding such a question. The kinds of events that require a creator are not necessarily true events9 but neither are they purely accidental events. If they occur necessarily then their only causes are natural laws. Conversely, if they are purely accidental, they have no relevant sufficient cause whatsoever. A created event is an event that need not occur, but its occurrence solely by chance, while logically possible, is, without evidence to the contrary, improbable. A rational belief in this context is a most reasonable belief, and a belief is most reasonable if it is more probable than any of its alternatives. This is the logical framework underlying most attempts today to defend theism against both atheism (the belief that the universe exists either by necessity or by pure chance) and agnosticism (the belief that both theism and atheism are equally probable or improbable).
I will defend a strong belief in theism in this chapter, but before I begin the argument, let me briefly respond to one form of atheism that is of particular interest because it is rooted in classical Jewish philosophy and because it actually presents itself as a form of theism. It is Kenneth Seeskin’s peculiar (in my judgment) discussion of the nature of God in Searching for a Distant God: The Legacy of Maimonides.10
As we discussed earlier, Maimonides’ specific version of negative theology is sufficiently radical that it in fact constitutes an argument against believing in the existence of God. It makes God so radically other that not only is it judged a logical mistake to believe that anything in the universe could be God but that any conceivable thought about God that has content could be true of God. Simply put, it is correct that a statement that is nonsense is not false, but neither is it true. In fact, a statement that it is false has at least the virtue of being intelligible. Declarative sentences that are neither true nor false are just unintelligible. Consider for example, the sentence, “xkclflkjg oxls tyslqr.” On a careful, logically rigorous interpretation of Maimonides’ own explanation in his Guide of the Perplexed, positive declarative sentences in which God is the subject, have the same logical value as “xkclflkjg oxls tyslqr.” Now, what is unique about Seeskin’s analysis of what Maimonides said is that he and (I believe) he alone believes that such an analysis of speech about God is intelligible. Of course it is if you really believe that there is no God and to claim there is a God is like affirming the existence of a nonexplained-away chimera (like a round square or a wise fool).
Jean-Paul Sartre comes close to doing what Seeskin does in Being And Nothingness when he asserts that the conception of God brings together two utterly incompatible Husserlian claims, namely, that God is pure consciousness (pour-soi) and that God is pure being (en-soi). However, for Sartre this analysis of the nature of God is clearly, as it logically should be, an argument for atheism (namely, that the probability of the existence of God is 0). Others in the tradition of Jewish philosophy at least saw the claim of negative theology to be problematic, so much so that no one before Maimonides (from Aristotle to Abraham ibn Daud) posited God’s equivocality in the extreme version presented by Maimonides, no one after Maimonides accepted the simple interpretation of Maimonides’ view (especially not Gersonides, and not even Immanuel Kant and Hermann Cohen), and it is doubtful that even Maimonides believed what he said.11
It is not surprising to read Maimonides’ theology the way that Seeskin does. Seeskin’s interpretations as an intellectual historian are not especially new. What is new and innovative is Seeskin’s defense of Maimonides’ assumed theological views as a defensible modern Jewish theology. What is not clear in Seeskin’s presentation is why he bothers at all with a conception of God. It is clear why other people like Kant and Cohen could have held such a position (although I seriously doubt that they did). They are living, after all, in times when so-called intelligentsia almost universally accepted belief in some notion of God. However, these are not the times of a Kenneth See-skin, a professor of philosophy in a secular North American university in the twenty-first century.
Modern astrophysicists have isolated at least five13 very specific numbers that serve as conditions such that if these numbers were even slightly different, either no universe would exist, or if it did it would be a universe that cannot sustain human existence. What is critical is that these numbers seem to be arbitrary. Here arbitrary means that they just happen to be true; there is no reason why they are true. They identify, in other words in the language of Gersonides in pre-modern astronomy, utterly contingent facts that nothing knowable about the universe necessitates. These five astrophysical numbers are called anthropic coincidences.
The first are the specific masses of the electron (0.511 MeV), the neutron (939.565 MeV), and the proton (938.272 MeV). Since mass is critical to defining energy and velocity, these numbers determine the critical properties of the atomic building blocks of all atoms, which in turn determine the critical properties of all compounds of atoms, that is, all kinds of being, including life forms, in our universe. Because of these numbers, the simplest single proton is hydrogen-1, from which is constructed deuterium, or hydrogen-2 (composed from one proton and one neutron), di-proton (composed of 2 protons), and di-neutron (composed of 2 neutrons), from which is composed helium-4 (from 2 protons and 2 neutrons). Different masses would have resulted in a radically different composition of this particular universe, which happens to provide an environmentally supportive stage for the emergence of human life.
The second number is 1/137, which is the fine structure constant. It defines one parameter that controls the strength of the electromagnetic force. It is one of four fundamental forces of nature that explain why particles are electrically charged (the electromagnetic force), why some particles are subject to radioactive decay (the weak force), why some particles attract or repel each other (the gravitational force), and why some particles bind together to form atomic nuclei (the strong force). If the strong force were slightly weaker, then no nuclei of atoms could be formed. Conversely, if this force were slightly stronger, all particles would collapse into their nuclei. In other words, a slight change in this seemingly arbitrary number would result in the nonexistence of this universe and or in a radically different universe that could not support the atomic compounds of this universe, including the existence of humanity.14
The third number is a constant, designated by the Greek letter nu (Ì), which is a specific energy that is an equally important parameter to, but is different from, the second number for describing the particle physics of our perceived universe. Fourth is the so-called cosmological constant, which is a different specific energy that determines the gravitational pull of empty space. Finally, the fifth constant is the curvature of space one second after the Big Bang. It is sufficiently small that expansion is almost in a straight line in all directions. But it is not in a straight line, and that very small difference gives our universe the unique shape that it has, a shape without which life, if there would be life at all, would be radically different than the lives we are familiar with in our present universe.
All of these contingencies that constitute arbitrary but necessary conditions for human existence have been used rhetorically by some theologians to constitute proof of the existence of a creator deity who loves humanity enough to create it. Note that I call the argument rhetorical, because its logically legitimate intent is to persuade and not to prove. In fact these coincidences do not prove the existence of God. It could be the case that these constants can in time be shown to be necessary conditions for the existence of a universe, in which case no intervention of an act of will is required.15 However, if these constants have no causes and they are simply inexplicable in principle, then two reasonable interpretations remain. The first is that this universe only seems to be arbitrary because if it didn’t exist there would be no humans to ask these questions. There may have in fact been, as the early rabbis hypothesized, many different universes in the past, there will be many more different universes in the future, and even now there may exist many (possibly an infinite number of) universes in the present, each exhibiting a significantly different kind of physics, each of which having one or more different parameters whose numerical constants are more or less than the constants of this universe, in which case there are no human beings to ask any questions about a creator. In other words, if there are cosmic occasionalists who, like the evolutionary mutationists, believe that everything happens solely by chance and not by either necessity or willful rational intervention, then there is no demonstration of the existence of God. Note, however, that this argument for atheism necessitates the existence of an infinite number of other possible worlds. If, on the other hand, this universe is the only universe and the origin of this universe is not due to causal necessity, then, as the Jewish astronomer Levi Ben Gerson argued more than six hundred years ago, the most reasonable belief is that a creator whom we identify as God created our universe.
That is all I want to say here in defense of the belief in the existence of the creator. It does not say that God necessarily exists and only a fool would deny it. What it claims is that with adequate reflection on the claims made in contemporary physical science about cosmogony and cosmology, it is more reasonable to believe that the universe was created than it is to believe either that the universe is eternal or that it just happened by chance to come into existence.
|Read the rest of Norbert Samuelson’s Jewish Faith and Modern Science: On the Death and Rebirth of Jewish Philosophy by purchasing the book at Amazon.com.
1 Let us call what it has been modern Jewish philosophy, and what it was before then classical Jewish philosophy. By the term modern I refer primarily to the world of Jews living in Protestant Christian, culturally European countries that understand themselves to be secular nations and that have extended citizenship to Jews and other non-Christians.
4 One way to explain creation out of nothing would be as follows: The vacuum is not the only nothing of which modern astrophysics speaks. There is also the pho- ton. For our purposes two of its characteristics are important. First, it is the field particle with which the phenomenon of light is associated. Hence, if Genesis is to be read as literally as possible, what God creates on the first day are photons. Second, photons have no mass.
Mass is the closest counterpart in the apparent ontology of modern physics to the matter of classical physics. Whereas classical physics deals with objects in motion, modern physics deals with motion. Matter is a state of moving objects, but mass is a measurement, namely, the measure of inertia, that is, to an object’s resistance to change in motion (i.e., to acceleration). Object-focused classical physics spoke about what an object is (its form) and what is its spatial-temporal location (its matter). In contrast, modern physics speaks about the energy, the velocity, and the mass associated with an object’s motion, but not about the objects themselves. If we treat these motions of moving objects as objects, then the mass of a particle would be comparable to the matter of a substance. However, in this case the mass of a photon is zero.
In other words, from the perspective of modern physics, when the scriptures say that God created light out of the darkness, it is saying that he created one kind of nothing (photons) out of another kind of nothing (empty space), but the initial work of creation created nothing positive. (If from nothing comes nothing, then the work itself is nothing.)
There are ways to explain the meaning of this interpretation of the biblical text, but they will all lead us even further from the classical understanding of the universe as a substance constituted by member substances.
5 Some modern religions may deny that the plastic is real at all. Other modern religions affirm that the plastic can be understood only within the framework of the spiritual. Most modern religions affirm that there is one deity worthy of worship and that this deity is a spiritual being.
6 Commonly called “the law of inertia,” it asserts that “the rate at which a body’s momentum changes is equal to the net force acting on that body,” where “the net force” is “the vector sum of all individual interaction forces” that may act on an object. In vector mathematics momentum is represented as the product of a mass moving with a numerically specific (i.e., scalar) velocity. See Richard Wolfson and Jay M. Pasachoff, Physics: With Modern Physics for Scientists and Engineers (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1999), pp. 95–96.
8 What follows is based largely on William P. Alston, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991). My view is explained with considerably more detail in Revelation and the God of Israel (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), in chapter 7, “The Challenges of Modern Philosophy—Rethinking God.”
9 Levi ben Gerson (Gersonides, 1288–1344) settled this question in his Wars of the Lord. There his argument rests primarily on claims that the observed facts about the heavens may but need not be true. (In his language, that the universe was created follows from the reasoned judgment that the heavens are contingent and not necessary.)
11 I am not here claiming that Maimonides was lying or that he was hiding some secret view. Rather, I am saying that everything else that Maimonides says about God in the Guide and his other writings makes it clear that Maimonides believed that there is some sense in which there can be legitimate affirmative declarative sentences in which “God” is the subject of the sentence. Herbert Davidson among other contemporary intellectual historians of Jewish philosophical texts have shown that Maimonides tended to write fast and that he was not always as careful a philosopher in his formulations as modern analytic philosophers would like him to have been, so it should not be surprising that on occasion Maimonides changes what he said without the change constituting a change of intended meaning. Maimonides’ discomfort with his claim about negative theology is apparent even in the chapter of the Guide where the claim is introduced in his discussion of the human moral implications of so-called God-talk.
13 Barr lists six anthropomorphic coincidences. The sixth is the claim that the space of the universe is three dimensional. However, there is at least the possibility that some form of string theory is true, in which case the space of the universe occupies many more than three dimensions.
14 If this force were stronger, protons and neutrons would coalesce to form heavier nuclei, so that light nuclei such as carbon and hydrogen could not exist. Without hydrogen there would be no stars; without stars no carbon; and without carbon no life.
15 For example, Richard Dawkins insists, in The Blind Watchmaker (Harmondsworth: Penquin, 1991, chapter 11 “Doomed Rivals,” pp. 287–320, especially pp. 304–316), that natural selection is a causal principle and not, as the mutationists argue, just a statement of the purely chance events that led to our particular kind of universe. This claim is critical to his argument for atheism over a William Paley–type theological argument from design.