Descartes, Rambam, Science and God (Cantor Cotler)

We find ourselves living in a time rife with scientific conflict. It seems that there are camps that believe in global warming or do not. There are those who believe in vaccinations, and those who find them to be ineffective, or even dangerous. As we approach our most austere, contemplative time of the year, I would like to examine two great thinkers who challenged conventions and innovated how we view the natural spiritual world.

My first serious foray into philosophy was sophomore year in college. I remember reading Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. In his third meditation, Descartes proved the existence of God. His ontological argument essentially stated that he knew himself to be imperfect, finite, and ephemeral. And yet, he could conceive of a perfect, eternal, immortal being which could create something else, like humans, and implant in them an awareness and consciousness. This seemed like a particularly dissonant idea when compared to The Description of the Human Body. In it, Descartes describes the body as a machine. Food was absorbed into the blood and fed the heart, which was the furnace of our body. Most of his writing was grounded in Rationalism and Foundationalism. I remember learning that his ontological argument for the existence of God was written to appease the church because so much of his writing was considered heretical. Surely, if Descartes had written his Meditations in 20th century America, he would not have had to appease the church. But because of the time and location in which he lived, his writing reflected something about himself and his environment. Descartes used his own belief system, his own style of arguing to justify the existence of God. And whether he really believed it or not, only he will know, but it certainly evolved into a popular argument for the existence of God.

Rambam, like Descartes, wrote the Mishneh Torah as a reflection of his beliefs, which were a result of equal parts nature and nurture. Rambam was raised as a traditional Jew. Proving God’s existence was never an issue. To Rambam God did exist. We know this because the first line of Chapter One of Fundamentals of the Torah states, “the fundamental principle and pillar of all science is to know that there is a First Being who has
brought everything that exists into being.” This is clearly a bold claim because if one were to refute it or disagree with it, the rest of the subsequent writing is null and void. To continue reading, to follow along with perfect faith is to accept that, “This Being is the God of the universe, the Lord of the entire world.” There is no room for questioning; Rambam makes his stance very clear, whereas Descartes started from scratch using  geometry and the ideas of perfection as a way to prove that God must exist. This implies that there is room to doubt the existence of God. Rambam does not give us that room.

Rambam continues with the following claim: “It is he who controls the celestial sphere with a power to which there is neither end nor limit, with a power that is never interrupted. For, the celestial sphere is always revolving, and it is impossible for it to revolve without someone causing it to revolve; it is God, blessed be he, who causes it to revolve without using a hand or physical force.” Rambam wrote this between 1170-1180 CE. It would be another 500 years before Galileo innovated the fields of Physics and Astronomy. What the reader  witnesses is Rambam’s personal theology which cannot be reconciled with the actual science of the effects of gravity because the discovery has not been made yet. However Rambam does make claims which were forward-thinking. The notion of the celestial bodies moving “without using a hand or physical force” is obviously gravity,
but Rambam likely does not know that. So the reader must make a huge leap of faith or completely buy into the first few lines of Rambam if they are going to follow his philosophical treatise. Rambam provides no deductive reasoning or arguments. It is his fervent belief in the existence of God which he knows to be true that the reader must also acknowledge to be true.

Another unique aspect to the philosophy of Rambam is how he does actually cite sources. Descartes would make his own observations and arguments, or he would cite the work of other humans. Rambam did not cite other Rabbis in this work, rather he cited God. And if we buy into his opening claim, then there is no need to cite humans when the divine, inalienable word of God is being used as a source. In chapter 1:8, Rambam uses
Deuteronomy, Joshua and Isaiah to describe God. Rambam uses quotes from the Torah and The Book of Prophets to justify his scientific claims. Simply put, Rambam’s logic is God is everywhere, and if matter cannot occupy the same space, God cannot be matter. He goes on to conclude, nothing is equal to God, thus, if God were physical, there would be no other substance like God. Again, Rambam does not go through the steps as
someone like Descartes would do. In Rational philosophy one cannot prove claims so quickly and easily. But Rambam’s case is different. We know that Rambam was writing to a specific audience. It was an audience with a similar background and upbringing as himself. So it is here we see the divergence of thought and prose that Descartes and Rambam possess. Descartes was trying to innovate and challenge, Rambam was trying to disseminate and teach.

Descartes’ work focused on the body and nature. Rambam also focused on the world around him. The difference lies in their philosophy of law. Descartes was originally going to be a lawyer but changed courses. Rambam was a lawyer and judge by trade. His epistemology was grounded in Torah which, again, comes from God. Thus, the interplay between laws, science, life, ethics and the philosophy which Rambam lived and wrote were completely interconnected.

The fundamental principle and pillar of all science is to know that there is some greater power than us which governs the universe. We cannot know what this power is. Whether it is a deity, conscious and sentient, or some other metaphysical force which we have yet to discover. But, I believe that there is something which operates the universe and all of its complexities.

It is plainly stated in the Torah that this force is God. And God is bodiless. Maybe God is the dark matter which occupies the spaces in between matter. Maybe not. If God were a physical substance He would be like other physical beings. Maybe we, all living creatures, are vessels in which fragments of this God dwell. Maybe not.

The Torah speaks the language of human beings. By this, I believe the Torah speaks truth and kindness and goodness. These stories, whether true or not, are rich with moral values and anecdotes through which we are reminded how to be decent human beings. As we approach the High Holidays, my sincere hope is that every one of us has the patience and focus to pursue truth and justice socially and scientifically.