Finally, on 8/10/14, we recorded a discussion on a work from the Middle Ages: Guide for the Perplexed (1168) by Moses Maimonides, aka Mosheh ben Maimon, aka RaMBaM, which is a pretty awesome super hero name.
Maimonides is smack in the middle of the tradition wherein many of Aristotle’s (and Plato’s, and other Greek) works were translated into Arabic, commented on by guys like Al-Farabi and Avicenna, and then after Maimonides the mantle was picked up by Thomas Aquinas and became the Scholastic tradition against which the founders of “modern” philosophy like Descartes were reacting.
The Guide is all about how to reconcile the Judaic tradition, more specifically the actual Bible itself (as opposed to the Talmud and other subsequent commentaries), with reason, i.e. with the science (i.e. natural philosophy) of his day, and much of the book (the parts we didn’t read) is about how to interpret particular scriptural passages and Hebrew words so that they make sense.
What does “making sense” mean here? Well, Maimonides’s key concern is to make sure that in thinking about God, we’re not engaging in inadvertent idolatry. If we think that God is a body, that “the hand of God” or us being “in God’s image” or talk of prophets seeing God is a literal account, then you don’t get it. While images of an angry God or a God who loves us are nice images to keep the unsophisticated on the right path, Maimonides thinks that we have to read such passages allegorically. To thoroughly cleanse monotheism from polytheistic elements, God has to be understood as a unity, as “simple,” in that He doesn’t have parts. Anything physical has parts, so God is not physical.
What makes this more complicated is that Maimonides buys into an Aristotelian metaphysics that says that the world is made up of substances and properties (“accidents”). Properties aren’t just something in our minds, but are real parts of the object. So if you say that God has characteristics, you’re actually saying that God has parts. So again, “God is good” or “God is powerful” are technically not true. Even calling God by the term “God” (or “Lord” or “Father”) puts Him in a category, which necessarily compares Him with other things. If you say that God is all-knowing, you’re taking this concept “know” that we’re familiar with from people knowing things, and trying to extend that to something greater, but whatever kind of “knowing” God does, it’s really nothing like how we know, given that He doesn’t have sense organs. When we act, we have to move our arms or mouths or whatever; when He acts, He does no such thing, not having a body.
The end-point of these kind of arguments is negative theology, where you can’t say that God has any particular property, but you can make claims about the absence of some property. So you can’t say He’s good, but you can say He’s “not bad,” where this really means that, just as if I said that the words I just spoke were not green, that God is not the kind of entity to which such a word could possibly apply. So you can’t strictly speaking even say that God is a unity (the premise of his whole argument); you can just say that He’s “not plural.”
Of course there are big problems with this view, but Maimonides at least represents a serious attempt to conceive of a notion of God that makes sense. A question like “can God create a boulder heavier than He can lift?” shows, I think, that the notion of “all powerful” is simply self-contradictory; it has absurd consequences. Maimonides’s solution is to say that there really is no such property, that imputing power to God is really another form of anthropomorphizing Him. In episode 44, we discussed Dawkins’s view that a creator of the universe would have to have at least much complexity as the universe itself (given what we know about processes of creation we observe), but Maimonides gives us a view of creation that explains why Dawkins’s intuition doesn’t apply. Now, you might just say that Maimonides is, like all theologians, simply throwing up his arms and saying “He’s too great for us to understand, so we must just have faith,” but Maimonides’s meticulous style has little in common with that of moderns who make the faith move. There’s scholarly debate about whether Maimonides was ultimately a rationalist philosopher or a Jewish apologist (this is the view of Leo Strauss, for one, whose 1960 lectures on Maimonides are available for download here).
We chose a selection to read based on what had been excerpted in the collection Philosophy in the Middle Ages: The Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Traditions, ed. Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh. Leaving out chiefly some of the chapters from that on prophecy, we were left with:
Book 1 Ch. 51-53, 57-60 (On God’s lack of characteristics)
Book 2 Ch. 13, 16 (On the eternity–or not–of the world; this is one place where he ultimately goes against Aristotle, who thought that the world was eternal… for Maimonides, this would imply that God is not really One, that there was something else hanging around in eternity with Him. Thus there had to have been creation ex nihilo, though this can’t be proven.)
Book 3 Ch. 26-28 (On the purpose of scriptural law, which he thinks has a rational reason behind it even when it doesn’t look like it)
We spent probably just as much time talking about Maimonides’s overall project as about the specific bits of text we read. This involved a lot of my regurgitating information gleaned from reading the Stanford Encyclopedia on Maimonides and from podcasts such as History of Philosophy (who did several eps on him), the In Our Time panel discussion of him, the above-mentioned Strauss lectures, The Philosopher’s Zone, and the recent New Books in Philosophy interview with Josef Stern.
Also, our guest participant was Danny Lobell, host of the Modern Day Philosophers podcast, who recently released an episode featuring some talk of Maimonides with comedy legend Carl Reiner. Danny grew up in an orthodox Jewish community and brought a lot to this discussion with Mark and Seth.