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At the Center of the Universe: Essays on Western Intellectual Space



This collection of eight essays plus Introduction challenges many of society's most fundamental ideas about the world and ourselves with reasonable, original alternatives. Written from an unapologetically Jewish viewpoint, these essays will be of interest to any intellectually inquisitive person. Is economic gain a universal drive? Is it reasonable to say that the world is the result of chance occurrences? Does humanism understate the value of humanity? These questions and others are considered.
ל"ז ןמהל םחנמ םייח
who aided and encouraged the investigations
that resulted in this book.
Copyright © 1983, 2014 by M. Plaut
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or
mechanical, including photocopying, recording, xerography, or
any information storage and retrieval system, analog or digital,
without permission in writing from the author or his heirs.
Original print edition designed by Susan Bishop
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 83-90172
ISBN 0-9612088-0-5
Mordecai Plaut
7 Maagalei Harim Levine Street
Jerusalem, Israel 97707
email: mр789 “at-sign” ϲоlumbia “dot” edu
A misconception, widely held, is that Judaism is a
covenant of actions, rather than beliefs. Nothing can
be further from the truth. The recognition of the
reality of the Creator's existence and of his
relationship to Israel, man, and the universe is the
essence of the covenant. The action mitzvot
(commandments) are the gateways to those
commitments of the mind and heart.
The direst contamination of our time, to the Jew, is
the contamination of the mind: the prevalence of
assumptions, beliefs, axioms, values, attitudes that
are false and are the source of so much that is evil
and destructive. These pose a constant threat to
civilization in general and Jewishness in particular.
It is as a breath of fresh air to read and study these
essays of Mordecai Plaut. If he offers no solutions, he
does spark a mental alertness. He makes us aware
that positions generally held need a healthy dose of
cleansing skepticism. Sacrosanct intellectual
positions are viewed from somewhat different
perspectives and meaningful new insights are
It seems to me to be a rewarding experience to go
through these stimulating and thought-provoking
writings. They can serve well to help clear away
“agnostic” clouds and to open vistas for serious
We owe the author a debt of gratitude for sharing
with us some results of his years of concerned
thought. An aware and original thinker, Rabbi Plaut
has produced a unique approach to problems of
matter and mind.
Baltimore, Md. Yaakov S. Weinberg
5774-2014 NOTE
This edition of At the Center of the Universe is very
close to being an exact reissue of the book published in
1983. The significant intentional changes are the
explanatory material added to the Table of Contents and a
note added to the essay, “A Sound Mind.” Aside from
that, the pagination is slightly different for technical
reasons and the text is only justified at the left to make it
easier to read.
Table of Contents
Introduction : Where are We? 1
Notes on an Outmoded World View 8
It is (mechanically) true to say that the earth goes
around the sun and also to say that the sun goes
around the earth. It is all relative. But really, the sun
goes around the earth.
The Rise of the Science of Economics and the
Idea of Gain 33
Modern economic theory and the use of markets to
regulate production and distribution of goods and
services rest on some big assumptions, and they are
not necessarily universal patterns of human behavior.
How to Succeed in Knowing without Really
Seeing 59
A solid tradition is a logically valid way of knowing
things. Much stronger than empirical evidence, it has
the power of mathematical induction.
Reason and Random 77
If the world is fundamentally random, it is not
reasonable. It may not be unreasonable to suggest
that the world is a result of random processes, but it
is deeply hostile to reason itself.
A Timely Note 91
Based on an analysis of the essentials of a
measurement system, in particular a measurement
system for time, this essay argues that the days
mentioned in Genesis cannot be the same as our
days. They must be measures on a different basis. It
shows how the error of scientists is "reasonable,"
and does not really support any attacks on the Bible.
A Look into Proofs of G-d 108
A Sound Mind 140
The Scientist as Poet; the Baal Mesorah as
Scientist 153
Science, at its best, is poetic fiction – mythmaking.
Torah is truth.
Introduction: Where Are We? Notes on an Outmoded World View The Rise of the Science of
Economics and the Idea of Gain How to Succeed in Knowing without Really Seeing Reason and
Random A Timely Note A Look into Proofs of G-d A Sound Mind The Scientist as Poet; the
Baal Mesorah as Scientist
Introduction : Where are We?
Introduction: Where Are We
In the Talmud is found the advice not to rely on
unlearned, nonobservant people in matters which
could affect personal safety.1 Such people may very
well include those who try to "live life to its fullest"
and even those who deeply feel that nothing is more
important than human life. Nonetheless, the Talmud
considers them unreliable when it comes to matters
of life and death, since "if they do not care for their
own lives, how much less would they care for the
lives of others."
It is clear that the reason such people are accused of
not caring about their lives is related to the fact that
they do not accept the system of Talmudic law and
study – at least not in its entirety. One might be apt
to dismiss the charge of the Talmud as a general
condemnation of the person who does not listen to
what it advocates, but not one familiar with the ways
of the Talmud. Generally the Talmud is unabashedly,
legalistically precise in its charges. If the entire
content of "they do not care for their own lives" were
the fact that they do not accept the Talmudic Torah,
then there is reason to think that a more direct
statement would have been made. If it wants to
accuse someone of lax observance, the Talmud is not
reluctant to do so explicitly. Something more specific
must be bothering it about that person's values.
Although the charge is made from the basis of the
Talmudic system, its force would be felt even by
those who do not accept that structure. All civilized
people recognize a duty to properly value humanity,
and all "unlearned, nonobservant" people are here
charged with dereliction of that duty. One doesn't
have to be Talmudic to squirm at that charge.
The basis for the charge is, however, obscure. Even
someone who fully accepts and practices what the
Talmud preaches may not see the grounds for such a
charge. It is not clear how the Talmudic teachers who
assert that there are things which transcend man, can
accuse those whose very highest value is man of
undervaluing humanity. Though they can clearly be
accused of failing their duty as Jews, how can they
be charged with sins against humanity? Unless they
are completely corrupt and perverse, how do they
fail their duty to humanity when that is all they have
and all they feel responsible to? Surely in putting
man at the top they do more for him than the
Talmud, which leaves him somewhere in the
The answer lies in a comparison of the scales
themselves. When the material aspects are
overvalued, the result is that the whole enterprise is
trivialized. It is only by leaving intellectual and
spiritual components of man and the world out of
consideration that a system can be contrived with
man at the top. But at the top of what! Instead of
being at the focus of the cosmos, man is merely king
of a piece of space dust. Instead of a handicraft of the
Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, he is merely a
chemistry lesson. Instead of being endowed with
Divine attributes and a noble mind, he is a
maladjusted neurotic. Instead of using his mind
toward elevated and noble ends, he merely produces
products to leave him in a stronger stupor. "Top" and
"middle" are relative terms.
We can think of ourselves as the top only if we refuse
to look anywhere but down. If we were to open our
eyes and our minds and look all around we would
see ourselves as the center.
It is vitally important that we see and comprehend
all that there is. Lewis Mumford has compared the
universe without the interpretive capacity of man to
a handless clock.2 Even if we look at it, its ticking
tells nothing. however, even a clock with hands
count for nothing if it is never seen. We might ask
about the sound made by a falling tree in the
wilderness, but there is no question of any meaning
to that fall if it is completely out of sight and out of
mind. No one would deny that the vastness of space
is awesome, but it is we who supply the awe.
The eight other essays in this book are largely
concerned with various aspects of ourselves:where
we see ourselves in relationship to the physical
world and to our ideas, and what we see in
One of the oldest pieces of secular wisdom is the
advice to know ourselves. We would speculate that
the importance of this advice lies in the need to have
a sharp, clear understanding of what and where we
are so that we may have an Archimedian platform
from which to work further. One of the most deeply
felt and strongly emphasized teaching of the Jewish
Mesora is that the learning of Torah is of prime
unending importance. Together they exhort us to
study and understand ourselves.
1 Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 49b.
2 Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Human Development: The Myth
of the Machine (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1967),
pp. 29-35.
Notes on an Outmoded World View
I think that no one looks at the sky anymore.
Astronomers watch the skies, of course, and an
occasional poet may still experience the sublime
aspect of the heavens, but no one else regards the sky
as anything more than a crude predictor of the
weather. Simple observation of the heavens, more
than a glance yet less than rigorous contemplation, is
an archaic pursuit these days. Those who can, may
watch the earthly limits of their gardens, but
precious few attend their heavenly extremes. How
many, even among the educated, can discuss the
attitude of the skies through the seasons or the
changes in the rising and setting of the sun, and how
few, even among those who are aware of the
phenomena, have attended to the events themselves?
An Outmoded World View
Once people notice the daily procession of the sun,
the yearly procession of the stars, and the
relationship between these two. No more.
We might speculate on the reasons for this decline.
We might list as factors the shift in the focus of life in
the past century or so from a rural, agrarian
orientation with its heavy dependence on events of
skyward origin to our urban society with its
concomitant preoccupation with the effects of our
own actions, or the grand achievements of science
which have mitigated, somewhat, the mystery which
formerly attached to the workings of the celestial
spheres. We might note, however, that our modern
view of the sky provides as more forbidding reason
for ignoring the skies. How can we watch the
apparent diurnal of the sun across the heavens and
its meanderings across the zodiac when we firmly
believe that things do not happen that way? How
can we bring ourselves to engage in an activity
which continually provides apparent evidence
against the picture that we have of the solar system?
The Copernican cosmology, which is responsible for
the general way in which we view the universe, has
proven to be of considerable value. With a clear,
An Outmoded World View
fairly simple model it has been able to account for all
observations of the relative motions of the planets.
Historically, the assumption of the sun as stationary
relative to the earth allowed the replacement of the
ponderous Ptolemaic system of epicyclical motions
with the familial ellipsoidal motion in a structure
that is childishly simple in comparison.
The story is usually told as a classic tale of scientific
progress. The earth had been accepted as the center
of the universe from the time of the Greeks. Working
in the fourth century, Ptolemy had given a complete,
detailed account of all that was known of planetary
motion in his time, using the earth as the primary
center of all celestial motion. His Almagest was
accepted for over a thousand years as the definitive
work on astronomy, although subsequent
refinements in observational techniques required
some compensating changes in the system that
Ptolemy originally elaborated. It is maintained that
these changes eventually resulted in a system which
became uncomfortably ad hoc until Copernicus'
proposal allowed the assimilation of all that was
known in one sweepingly elegant structure. This
account has recently been exposed as something of a
fairy tale by writers on the subject, notably Professor
An Outmoded World View
Thomas Kuhn. They note that Copernicus' own
system was hardly more accurate than other
contemporary systems and, although such things are
difficult to measure, that there is no obvious scale
upon which his own system could be found simpler
than its rivals. Our own modern representation owes
much to the refinements of Kepler who was born
about a generation after Copernicus' death. Although
Kepler owed much to observational data, his works
abound in religious symbolism and mystical proofs
of a decidedly unscientific character. We mention this
only in passing, for our concern is not so much with
the causes of the acceptance of Copernicus' ideas as
with their effects; not so much with the past as with
the future.
The gains which have resulted from the
simplification that heliocentrism ultimately allowed
have been vast and fundamental. As a leading
astronomer of his time, Copernicus had been
consulted on the topic of calendar reform, the need
for which had been becoming increasingly obvious,
but he advised that such changes be postponed, as
the calculations could not be done with sufficient
accuracy for a permanent calendar. The Gregorian
calendar that was adopted about forty years after the
An Outmoded World View
publication of Copernicus' monumental work was
based on his innovations. To take a modern extreme,
travel and research in space were, to some extent,
simplified and perhaps in some degree suggested by
the use of our heliocentric system. As vicarious
participants in that adventure, we may all be said to
have gained from that four-hundred-year-old
innovation of Copernicus.
Man's flights of fact into space are possibly the
greatest and certainly the most dramatic technical
achievements that may be credited in part to the
Copernican system. The Copernican system's effects
in science are equally important, though the drama
has dissipated in the course of time. Before
Copernicus, and for a considerable period after him,
the objects visible in the heavens were thought to be
completely different from the everyday things we
encounter, and subject to laws of their own. Some of
the properties they were said to have were attributed
to them for reasons having little to do with their
observed behavior, but there was – in those times –
definite empirical evidence that the laws which
governed the activity of the stars and the planets
were radically different from those which bind
earthbound objects. One had only to make a crude
An Outmoded World View
log of their motions to see that their regular paths
implied a movement unlike any that can be observed
in natural bodies on earth. From the perspective of
the time, with the earth as the stationary center of the
universe (as it does actually appear), the "fixed" stars
trace regular circular paths, while the sun and
planets move in daily circles with some gross
irregularities against the background of the fixed
stars. From the reference frame afforded by those
fixed stars, the sun, in addition to its daily
progression across the sky, changes its relationship to
those stars in a constant direction in its yearly circuit
within that portion of the stars known as the zodiac.
The planets (wandering stars), in addition to their
individual versions of this motion through the
zodiac in one general direction, periodically move in
an opposite (retrograde) direction vis-a-vis the other
stars. The complicated system of epicycles which
was used by astronomers to account for the
retrograde motion of the planets was intended to
display the universal order of the heavens, in that all
bodies were shown to move on paths based on the
ideal geometrical figure, the circle. This ideal circular
motion, even such as it was in the heavens, is not
common on the earthly sphere and was, in fact,
thought to be largely limited to the heavenly bodies
An Outmoded World View
because of their greater perfection. It is still clear that
if the motions of the objects in the heavens are
described in terms of epicycles, then they are
governed by laws which are substantially different
from those which determine the behavior of the
more immediately familiar terrestrial bodies. In
contrast, within the later scheme with the sun as
center and the planets describing more or less
regular elliptical orbits around it, the way was clear
for Newton's astounding (at the time) unification of
terrestrial and celestial mechanics. In that system,
especially with the laws Kepler was able to formulate
within it on planetary motion, there was no longer
any obvious reason for supposing that heavenly
bodies were at all different in any essential way from
those we encounter on earth. Their behavior was no
longer described from the ideal circular basis, with
the ironic result that it could be represented as a
simpler and more regular motion. Subsequently,
Newton was able to demonstrate that the
characteristics of all motion, in the heavens and on
earth, were deducible from a few simple laws. If the
earlier system is used to describe planetary motion,
the planets' paths are grossly incompatible with
what would be expected under Newtonian laws –
although those laws retain their full utility for
An Outmoded World View
terrestrial objects. This is an important source of
value for the Copernican system to science: that it
allows the laws of motion of all observable bodies to
be subsumed under one set of laws, a synthesis
which remained unchallenged in the Einsteinian
critique of Newtonian physics. Before leaving this
topic we might point out that the Copernican
cosmology removed the obvious distinction between
terrestrial and celestial at the price of a nonobvious
description of the motion of the latter. The laws
which govern familiar objects can be extended to
cover heavenly bodies only by supposing that we
should observe them differently. We have little
choice with earthbound objects since they are given
fully to us in situations which we are able to control,
but we can (and do) claim that the perspective from
which we view the heavens is not the best one and
does not show us planetary motions the way they
really "are." We will return to this point later. For
now we will merely note the contrast between the
Ptolemaic and the Copernican systems. The latter
allows an obvious explanation of celestial motion
though it is forced to use a distinctly unobvious
description of that motion, while the former
describes motion in the heavens in the obvious way
though it provides no obvious explanation of that
An Outmoded World View
There is no question that, in the four hundred years
since it was first presented, the Copernican theory
has proven quite valuable to technology in
simplifying the calculations of astronomers and
astronauts, and to science in simplifying the theories
of scientists. However, there is an additional burden
that this system bears. Professor Kuhn notes that our
civilization is unique in its requirement that our
“cosmology supply both a psychologically satisfying
world-view and an explanation of observed
phenomena” (emphasis his).1 In view of the
alternatives, there is little room to criticize our
cosmology in its fulfillment of the latter function, but
we would like to suggest that the same perspective
finds it wanting in the former area. It must be
remembered that the two tasks are completely
distinct and fully independent, especially in this case
as we will show below, and that success and failure
in supplying a "psychologically satisfying world-
view" is not as easily judged nor as obvious as
success in technical and even scientific endeavors.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, we hasten to
note that we do not intend to advocate any double
standard, with truth for scientists and some other
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sort of "truth" for popular consumption. Such a
proposal would be condescending and, worse,
superfluous, since the features of the case in point do
not require any compromise.
Perhaps a few remarks about truth are in order.
Although it is a fundamental notion, truth is not a
universal criterion of value. In technology, for
example, rules are evaluated for expedience rather
than truth. Confronted with a rule of technology we
try it out. If it works, it is valuable and should be
preserved for future reference; if not, it is to be
discarded. In science, truth is still the main test for
propositions, but even there, the relationship
between science and truth is not thought to be what
it once was.
The accessibility of truth to scientific investigation
has been seriously questioned in recent years, and
many of those who concern themselves with such
issues now claim that, although truth is still the goal
of science, there is no good reason to suppose that
any piece of purported scientific knowledge has
attained that end; that all that can be reasonably
hoped for is a progressively closer approximation.
There are also some who would even attack the very
An Outmoded World View
notion of progress in science as an upward motion
along a continuum. They argue that each age works
within a paradigm of its own. What were
conventionally seen as periods of scientific progress
are now said to be merely shifts in the prevailing
paradigm of scientific research, comparable more to
an experience of religious conversion than to orderly
scientific advance. It should be pointed out that these
issues have been the subject of much debate and we
have given here only a superficial (and a bit
sensational) account of them, which should not be
taken as necessarily representative of any
individual's current view. It is interesting that the
aforementioned Professor Kuhn is one of the leading
critics of progress in science, and he has used the
result of his investigations into the process of the
Copernican revolution as supportive evidence.
However he is not associated with the suggestion
advanced here that there may be more to the
Ptolemaic position, for what meets the eye.
Whatever position one takes on the general question
of truth in science, there are special considerations
that apply to descriptions of motion, which is the
issue here: a complete and accurate description of
the motion of all heavenly bodies. With the rise of
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Einsteinian physics went the fall of the Newtonian
concept of absolute space. Today it is as firmly
established as anything could be that there is no
general, absolute system of coordinates that define
space. Rather, all systems, chosen from whatever
arbitrary reference points, are equally valid. Since
there is no absolute way to determine position in
space, there is no absolute way of describing change
of position in space, that is, motion. One cannot say
of an object simply that is moving up or down or in
any direction, or with any particular speed, and be
informative. For any object we may choose, and any
direction and of motion and velocity, constant or not,
there is a reference frame within which that object is
moving at that speed and in that direction, so that if
no reference frame is specified or at least implied, the
statement has no value. What one can do, even
without specifying an overall reference frame, is to
define the motion of some object relative to another
object. This relative motion will remain substantively
invariant in any choice of reference system, so that
such a description will be valuable no matter which
coordinate system is ultimately used.
However, this information on the objects' relative
motion cannot be used to decide if either or neither is
An Outmoded World View
stationary. That question can only be resolved by an
arbitrary choice (a doubtful resolution), or in a
relative way with reference to a third body or some
general inertial reference system. What is true of two
bodies applies equally well to an arbitrary number.
We can accurately portray changes in objects'
positions relative to one another and also determine
which objects are relatively stationary (if any).
However, though we may not be able to pick more
than one as stationary, we can always choose any
single body as fixed. As far as the reality of their
motions is concerned, there is absolutely no reason to
choose any one in particular.
To make the point in a more obvious way, an
interesting number of bodies for which these
observations hold is ten, the number of major objects
in the "solar" system. We would in no way be
misrepresenting reality were we to choose any one of
these and to describe the motions of the others in
relation to it. All frames of reference have equal
status, including, we might add, all those which do
not coincide with any body.
To say that all of the various alternatives serve
equally well as true representations of reality is not
An Outmoded World View
to imply that they are all the same. In general they
will differ radically. Some may have an internal
simplicity or elegance; others might tie in well with
knowledge or beliefs in different areas. Many, in fact
most, will be frightfully complex with no apparent
connection to anything else we know or believe.
Nonetheless, no observation of any kind of the
various motions, nor (as far as we know) any a priori
speculation, can decide between any of these various
proposals. Put another way, we can say that the
reality of the motions does not itself determine a
choice from these descriptions.
It might be thought that this situation precludes the
selection of any descriptive system for special
treatment, but actually this is not so. Quite the
contrary, for instead of being depressed into
passivity by the wealth of simultaneously acceptable
choices, we are free to choose as we please. Our
freedom for action is enhanced rather than retarded,
for we may devise any criteria, even whimsical or
arbitrary, by which to single out a particular way of
describing motion. Our problem lies in a choice of
these guiding principles and not in our selection of a
representation for motion, for any of the latter is
guaranteed acceptability within a wide range. These
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criteria must be picked with utmost care, for we are
involved in a situation which has a potential for true
moral responsibility. Furthermore, we must not
overlook the option to set up different, possibly
incompatible, sets of evaluative criteria for diverging
ends, and we need not, nay cannot, worry if they
produce different pictures of the motions. A
description of a system of motions may only be
evaluated to see if it can be made to fit with
observation. Having passed that test, no conclusions
regarding truth may be drawn from it. We are
always free to choose the system which we decide is
most desirable in view of the ends we are
considering. The only dimensions along which
alternative descriptions of motion will be distinct are
such arbitrary ones as aesthetics, simplicity
(mathematical or psychological), psychological
comfort, and maybe even ethics. We call these
dimensions "arbitrary" because they are not tests
which are mandatory for scientific statements, as is
the test of truth.
There are many purposes for which it is important to
describe the relative motions of the bodies of the
solar system. Among the most practical are the
pointing of telescopes and the calculating of
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trajectories for interplanetary vehicles. For the
accomplishment of ends such as these, the most
important virtue that a descriptive system can have
is simplicity of the mathematical kind. By this
criterion the Copernican system rates far above any
other system yet proposed, though there is doubt
that if some simpler yet accurate alternative were
advanced it would be enthusiastically received by
astronomers and space experts no matter what
picture of the solar system resulted. Simplicity in
these areas results in economy of energy and toil at
no cost whatsoever. Tradition counts for little in the
realm of expediency and rightly so.
Another reason for describing planetary motion is
that we find it important to understand, and as much
as possible comprehend, the world in which we are.
Toward this end, the Copernican system has allowed
the formulation of powerful and fairly simple laws
which we may represent as governing mechanical
interactions. This alone is no mean feat and is
certainly a step in the direction of our understanding
of the universe and yet . . .
It is accomplished at significant cost. As we noted
earlier, the picture of the universe given in modern
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science presents things to be not as they seem. We
are no longer shocked to find that things in public
life are not as they were made to seem. The events
leading up to the end of the Nixon administration
disclosed a situation more frightening than the acts
actually performed (though less remarkable than
they because of the subtlety of the matter) in that the
relationship between what was said and what was,
was almost nonexistent. A prominent figure of the
time actually advised us all to watch what they did
rather than what they said, and although that course
ultimately led to the exposure of the illegal activities,
the statement itself indicates a situation that should
be taken as a danger signal for society. The recent
behavior of international figures and institutions
indicates that this is a circumstance not limited to
America, but that there is a general tendency to
allow the link between the way that we describe the
world and the way that we know it to be, to weaken.
We do not mean to suggest a direct causal link
between modern cosmology and social relationships,
and we can say with certainty that there was no
intent on the part of those who originated modern
theories that any similar techniques be used in other
areas. But it is also evident that there is a deep
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parallel in the methodologies and results of modern
public figures and scientists despite their opposite
intentions–the former divorced what they said from
what they saw to obscure truth; the latter, in an
attempt to expose it.
The use of the Copernican system, then, sets up a
constant and pervasive undermining of the evidence
which we receive from our senses. Tension is a result,
for our senses continually provide information – we
cannot think it away – and the belief in heliocentrism
is very firmly entrenched. A qualitative description
of our immediate neighborhood in the universe (the
assertion that the earth and planets revolve around a
central and relatively stable sun) is assimilated very
early in a child's development. It can almost be said
that it is in general learned at one's mother's knee.
The early incorporation of these beliefs into our
personal cosmologies is beneficial in that we
encounter what would otherwise be a severe shock
at an age and stage when we are best equipped to
absorb it, but it is unfortunate in that this move
becomes a basic component of our approach to the
world, so deeply buried that its effects are not likely
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to be traceable. Traceable or not, a conflict between
the gross evidence of appearance constantly received
and our basic beliefs about the "true" picture of
things, cannot fail to have some effects, the most
benign being a tendency away from skywatching at a
popular level.
To avoid misunderstanding, we should emphasize
here that we do not represent tension as something
to be avoided at all costs. There is no doubt that it is
uncomfortable, but it is not necessarily bad. In any
case in which we are convinced that the world is in
fact different from the way it is perceived through
our senses, a concern for truth dictates that we
unhesitatingly accept such proposals and cope with
the resulting tension. However, we have earlier and
at great length pointed out that the heliocentric
system is no more true than a geocentric one.
This same point guarantees that there is no element
of condescension. There is no suggestion of two
standards of truth, one for science and one for the
"masses" embodying some alleged limitations. Such
undemocratic thoughts need not even be entertained,
for the geocentric system passes any scientific tests
for truth as easily as the heliocentric. As a result we
An Outmoded World View
can and should consider other aspects of the
alternative theories, and that is where the
uncomfortable effects of the Copernican theory count
against it.
In fact, we may look to the seminal location of these
issues to account for the fact that they rarely trouble
us. Instead of taking that as an indication of their
incidental nature, it can be seen as a reflection of
their basal position in our thoughts. As such they
would be disposed of early and at so deep a level
that it might rarely occur to us to reopen those
questions. Despite the generally intensive efforts at
analysis in our times, the issues we would like–or
perhaps fear–to use as our bases are those we often
discuss, not those we actually use.
The location of the tension in question is not its only
worrisome aspect; its nature is at least an equal cause
for concern. Strained by it is what would in any case
be a delicate connection: the link between what we
see (through the senses) and what we say and
The fact that we have been able to link the world of
An Outmoded World View
our experiences with language is certainly central to
most of our achievement, and may itself be the most
important one. Language is necessary to coordinate
our activities and to preserve previously gained
knowledge, both of which are crucial to human
culture and technical achievement. Although
heliocentrism cannot be said to have hindered
technical advance – on the contrary – we might
wonder if there was not some price paid in the area
of culture. Our perceptual universe is unchangeably
geocentric. Yet our intellectual world, where our
culture is stored and developed, uses a heliocentric
system. The effects of such a conflict are bound to be
extensive and profound.
We will confine our discussion to one example of
what might be seen as a development of our having
to cope with this tension. It is no longer strange to
hear a work of fiction praised as being true. The
notion of truth has usually been that what was said
or written corresponds in some sense to reality, but
on the face of it this is not a claim that can be made
of fiction. No doubt, the claim is made primarily of
the message or insight which we take with us from
the work. But this cannot be the whole scope of the
claim, for the message is often uncontroversial and
An Outmoded World View
unoriginal, and in order for it to constitute praise of
the work, the claim of truth must apply also to the
work itself. Why not? Just as in regard to the
physical world we are willing to apply the truth
predicate despite appearances to the contrary, so too
in the literary world we might take similar liberties.
Such supply twists can only be the product of long
"athletic" training which began at a very early age,
perhaps the age at which the Copernican theory was
first presented as the picture of reality.
The reference system necessary in order to take the
sun as stationary is literally inhuman. No one, not
even the astronauts, has even been in a frame which
remotely approaches it, nor is anyone likely to do so
in the foreseeable future. (It is not easy even to think
of a practical reason for anyone to do so.)
Furthermore, the point from which the common
models of the solar system, a staple of the science
museums, is even less accessible, located some
astronomical distance outside the plane of the solar
system. To apply these models to the world around
us, we must move, in our imagination, to a point
incredibly beyond any of our experience. The result
is a perspective which can be called ours only in a
most tenuous sense.
An Outmoded World View
Conversely, the fact that if we observe the skies we
cannot but see all the objects in it as circling us is not
a consequence of some "special" limitation on our
part. It is the result of the fact that we observe the
skies only from an inertial reference frame which is
fixed with respect to the earth. The geocentric system
is ours in simple, yet important sense: it is the one in
which we live.
We might say that one of the functions of science is
to fill the void that was once occupied by myth, to
help us come to grips with the world around us
(hence the earlier term "scientific myth"). Professor
Kuhn refers to a feeling of "at homeness" in the
universe, for which we seem to have a need. It is
difficult to see how a theory which trivializes the
relationship between us and what is, after all, our
home can be satisfying in this respect. We live on
earth. We are born here; we die here. We contemplate
the unmeasured heights of the heavens and the
fathomless depths of our fellows, all on earth. We
have been witness to the growing possibility, are
witnessing the increasing necessity, and, it is to be
hoped, will witness the developing actuality, of a
planetary consciousness. This could only be
expedited by a growing recognition and acceptance
An Outmoded World View
of the fact that, for all practical purposes, as far as we
are concerned, we live at the center of the universe.
1 Kuhn, Thomas, The Copernican Revolution (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1957).
The Rise of the Science of Economics and
the Idea of Gai n
There are two kinds of Jews with Western
antecedents ("Ashkenazim") living in Israel:
Yerushalmis (Jerusalemites) and everyone
else.Yerushalmis have been in Israel even well before
the advent of political Zionism in Europe. Those who
are now properly considered the scions of that stock
maintain a mode of life that is strongly reminiscent
of the style and substance of previous times despite
the assimilation of modern technology and, in some
cases, even modern knowledge.
Economics and Gain
There are two kinds of Yerushalmis: those who study
Torah intensely and those who don't. (Comparable
groups in Western society divide themselves into
those who study and those who work.) Although
they tend not to subsist on charity, those who do not
study nevertheless are no more involved in any
regular work than in regular study. They typically
dabble at a number of pursuits. Among their
activities, those that supply their sustenance are not
necessarily the most prominent ones, often being
shunted aside in favor of a more satisfying task such
as performing an act of kindness for someone. Even
when they work regularly, they rarely exert
themselves at their work. When they study, however,
they often display remarkable achievement. Why
does this ability not carry over to their work? Why
the lack of industry? And, most maddening to a
Western sensitivity, why, at least, do the not worry
about making a living?
If we would understand at least something of the
Yerushalmi approach to life, we must understand
more about our Western one. In particular, we must
consider the following question: Why is there no
science of economics before the eighteenth century?
The situation in economics is not to be confused with
Economics and Gain
that in other sciences such as physics and chemistry.
Although those disciplines did not exist in anything
like their present forms in earlier times, yet they still
had antecedents stretching at least to the ancient
Greeks. In those areas, the questions were not new,
just the type of answers which people began to give.
In the case of economics even the questions
themselves were new: What is the true value of a
commodity? How are the means of production in a
society "best" organized and managed? What
controls and ensures that everyone gets the resources
he needs and uses for his body?
To be sure, societies and individuals had always been
"practicing" economics. In all ages peoples' needs
were provided through one mechanism or another.
In most times there was even a surplus left over for
such nonessentials as public works, monuments and
wars. However, this aspect of life, the production
and distribution of material goods, was never
considerd a subject for serious thought or discussion.
Goods were always used by theoreticians, but they
were seldom mentioned. People usually had what
they needed, but those who thought, thought about
other issues.
Though it was not completely unprecedented, The
Economics and Gain
Wealth of Nations, published by Adam Smith in 1776,
is generally reckoned as the beginning of economics
as a science quite aside from the particulars of its
approach. It is well known that there were many
profound changes in science and industrial art over
the last two to three hundred years. Few of these
changes are as profound as that which is indicated
by the founding and practice of the science of
economics. Few changes have worked so
fundamental a reorientation of our picture of the
world as the introduction of the idea of gain on a
broad scale. An indication of the fundamental nature
of the change is the fact that we rarely realize that the
issue of gain is an issue anymore. We assume it to be
a constant of human nature. Evidence of this
assumption is the fact that we are surprised that
economics had its origin in the eighteenth century
and not with the earlier great thinkers. We wonder
why they had not already considered these
questions. Finally, few changes have been more
narrowminded, shortsighted, and just plain wrong
than this introduction of this idea of gain as the
common motivator of humanity.
It is often said that modern man is excessively
concerned with things for his flesh. It is a
fundamental fact about man that he has a body as
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well as a spirit. This body has always had material
needs and has always used material things.
Nonetheless, the modern approach has found a way
to be innovative in this area too. Materialism figures
prominently in the modern intellectual space, but it
also defines it. Not only does materialism permeate
the space of the being of modern man, it actually
defines the bounds of that being. This is new.
Naturally, man has material needs and these must be
given their want and due. This side of man has no
less Divine potential than his spirit. However, in
order for all of man's potential to be actualized, each
of his parts must be allowed–but restricted to–its
natural function, using its own natural tools and
abilities, and in its own natural area.
Before discussing the content of the science of
economics, some further remarks are in order on the
fact of its foundation. We reiterate that economics
was founded in the eighteenth century and has
virtually no history in any form prior to then. While
the physical sciences date back to the Greeks under
the title of Natural Philosophy, no one before the
time of Adam Smith had thought it proper to think
about the production and distribution of the needs
and wants of the body. It was maintained that if one
Economics and Gain
were to think, he should not think about the body. If
man is to use that part of him which transcends his
body and in general sets him apart from the rest of
the physical world, he should not use it merely to
enable him to better satisfy his physical wants.
Properly focused, all of a person's powers should be
directed at approaching and getting closer to G-d. It
has been constantly recognized that the higher
faculties of man should be directed to higher ends,
and that the body should serve the higher parts of
man. A body is not an end in itself. However, worse
than simply considering bodily gratification as an
end is an inversion of the proper hierarchy to have
the mind serve the body. To practice a science of
economics is to do precisely this: to exert the mind to
an understanding whose sole end is the benefit of the
This is undoubtedly the reason that thoughtful men
of early times did not think about economic issues.
Though the mention of morality in our jaded time
usually suggests problems of a cruder sort, the
project of a science of economics is one that can
easily be called morally perverse. To apply the mind
in an intense and disciplined manner to the
contemplation of the mundane instead of the
sublime is not an innocuous act. Civilized man had
Economics and Gain
always considered his body an integral part of
himself (at times even a dominant part of himself),
but never, in all recorded history until about two
hundred and fifty years ago, did he consider the
provision of his bodily needs to be an object of
intellectual study. Thus the questions of economics
never arose in his thinking. The explanation of this
lapse, which seems to us so surprising, is that he
always considered the copulation of the powers of
the mind and the wants of the body to be an
unnatural act.
An important prerequisite to the practice of
economics as a science is the isolation of its object of
study. Although privately an economist may be
interested in the higher parts of man, he cannot let
that interfere with the practice of his profession. In
the study of economics it is essential that the material
part of man be conceived as a whole, but distinct
from the rest of him. Such an abstraction is necessary
in most modern sciences, especially the more
quantitative ones. Only through laboratory-
controlled experiments and theoretically abstracted
objects have they been able to develop to their
current state. Mechanics deals with idealized point-
Economics and Gain
masses, pneumatics with ideal gases and so on.
Economics is no different.
However, while there is nothing important lost in
abstracting mass from a billiard ball, if one takes the
body from the rest of man his most important parts
are left behind. Furthermore, the very idea of
applying the power of abstraction to man allows for
a damaging and debilitating fragmentation in
thinking about him. Man is body and soul; to think of
one without the other is already a mistake. In the
final analysis, it is probably impossible for man to
fully abstract any one part of himself. Nonetheless,
the conceit that he has done so can cause some
unusual results.
Perhaps the most salient feature of the physical
world is that it is obviously limited. (If it is not
limited, it is only in nonobvious ways. Our
perception is certainly limited.) There are definite
bounds to what our bodies need, and there are
bounds even to what we can want if we are to benefit
physically. When Aristotle Onassis died, his fortune
was estimated at $450 million, and he was far from
the richest man of modern times. The richest
nowadays have fortunes in the tens of billions of
dollars. Those are fantastic sums. It is probably not
possible for one man to spend that much money in
Economics and Gain
any way in which he could get direct benefit from all
of it. Even if he were to make spending it a full-time
occupation, he would not find it an easy task. It
would not seem to be an onerous task, but it would
be a challenge. What, then, could be the motive for
accumulating such vast material wealth? What
motive could distinguish between $200 million and
$450 million – and $100 billion? 1
In the realm of mind and spirit there are no bounds.
Knowledge, understanding, concepts, ideas, all have
no limits. There is no end to their number and no
end to their depth. There is no level of learning
which can be characterized categorically as enough
or too much. We can, should, and must learn more
and more and more. Our need for understanding is
minimal, but the more we gain, the better off we are.
The proper approach to the material is to use what
we need of it. The proper approach to the spiritual
and the intellectual is to gain as much as possible. An
approach which aims at unlimited gain is natural,
appropriate, and, ultimately, possible when applied
to the realm of the mind. The founding of a science
of economics brought the problems of the body into
the realm of the mind. The result was that the
Economics and Gain
methodology of the mind–a desire for unlimited
gain–was introduced into the realm of the body. Not
only did economics introduce this idea and make it
respectable, it made it the foundation of its system.
The idea of the "invisible hand" as the regulator of
economic activity through the marketplace is well
known. Less well known, and even more poorly
understood aside from economic historians, is the
mechanism that Adam Smith articulated as the
driving power of the economy, namely, individual
self-interest. What is to motivate each individual to
produce, is his own economic interests. The
economic resultant of these separate pursuits will be
the production of the full complement of goods
needed and wanted by everyone when they are all
regulated on a grand scale by the invisible hand of
the market. Smith writes: "It is not from the
benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker
that we expect our dinner, but from regard of their
self interest. We address ourselves, not to their
humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to
them of our necessities, but of their advantages."2
Nor, we might emphasize, of their necessities, but of
their advantages. It is not just the introduction of
self-interest, but of the definition of self-interest in
Economics and Gain
terms of advantage and gain that marks this passage.
"The great chariot of society . . . now found [that]
transactions, transactions, transactions, and gain,
gain, gain provided a new and startingly powerful
motive force." 3
There are two coordinate mechanisms here: the free
market to regulate production and individual gain to
motivate people to produce. Though neither
originated two hundred years ago, both were
assigned new roles and vastly expanded areas of
application and power. Neither is universal in
humanity or in human society.
Free markets, in the formal sense of a centralized
area in which suppliers and consumers meet for the
purpose of exchange, have long been present in
human society. However, their purpose and function
was not as an organizing institution for economic
activity. As Karl Polanyi notes: "Market economy is
an institutional structure which, as we all too easily
forget, has been present at no time except our own." 4
The sole purpose of markets, up until our time, was
to serve as a mechanism for the distribution of goods
from producers to consumers. They had only minor
effects on what was produced and how much. Smith,
Economics and Gain
and many others following him, wrongly projected
the existence of market-controlled economies into the
past, and, as Polanyi puts it, "no misreading of the
past ever proved more prophetic of the future." 5
In their new role as the regulating mechanism for the
production and distribution of all material goods, the
markets were to be based on the idea of individual
gain. The efficient regulation that the market
provided was the emergent result of the private
pursuit of gain of all the participants. Individuals
were to be motivated, not by the compulsion to fill
their needs nor by a desire to use things. Rather they
were to be driven by the effectively unbounded
possibility of gain. Investors were to use their capital
in the way most advantageous to them, regardless of
their need for that advantage or even the possibility
of its use. Gain was to be pursued, material wealth to
be accumulated, with the voracious energy derived
from the compulsion shared by all bodily creatures
to fill their needs. The end was merely greater and
greater gain. This goal, natural and appropriate in
the realm of the spirit, is expropriated for the realm
of the body as the fuel and lubricant of the economy.
People were to be driven by the fear or the reality of
material want toward no end but gain, gain, gain.
Economics and Gain
It is important that the participants in a self-
regulating market which is to function effectively be
motivated by gain to provide the extreme flexibility
such a system demands of the factors of production.
Everyone must be, more or less, willing to do
"anything for a buck." If there is undersupply in one
area, all resources must be willing to switch there for
the increased profit that will result. One who makes
pins, for example, must be willing to shift his
production to needles if that would increase his
profit, even if his needs are already fully satisfied
from his work in pins. If the lure of higher profit is
not sufficient to move him from his position of
sufficiency, there will be a chronic undersupply of
needles. This would be failure of the system. If it
occurred on a broad scale it could easily cause
widespread dislocations and serious problems.
To put it in a general way, all factors of production
must remain within the market in order for it to
function properly. If the pin maker is unwilling to
shift his production from pins once they supply him
with what he needs, then he has, in effect, removed
his capital from the market. It is no longer "for sale."
Clearly the market cannot regulate productions if the
productive means are withheld from it. If the
Economics and Gain
participants are driven mainly by their needs for
material goods or even mainly by a desire to use
material wealth, they will reach the limits of these
motives and withdraw their land, labor, or capital
from the control of the market. Only the motive of
gain can ensure that factors will not be withdrawn,
because it has no limits.
It is important to realize the novelty of this
mechanism of a self-regulating market and the
ubiquitous pursuit of economic gain.
Earlier economic systems in the West, and existing
systems of more primitive peoples who live in
isolation, do not show markets in any prominence
and hardly use them at all as the method of
organizing production and distribution.
More common mechanisms were reciprocity,
redistribution, and householding. Exchange was
often made on the expectation of reciprocity. One
supplied another's need for fish knowing that his
needs for agricultural produce eventually would be
forthcoming. No accounting of equality of supply is
made. What is important to both sides is just equality
of satisfaction. Also, the compulsion to exchange is
not just the ultimate economic reciprocity, but the
Economics and Gain
immediate fulfillment of social, political, and
religious obligation.
Another common mechanism is the collection of
goods by a central authority such as a king or
chieftain and their subsequent redistribution to
retainers and soldiers. When the taxes or tribute is
collected as goods or labor, its subsequent
distribution serves the economic function of
providing for the needs of those who do not
themselves produce goods. Finally, some economies
are organized by households often consisting of
large, extended families and even including slaves,
peasants and others. In such cases, all members of
the household produce for themselves and the rest of
the group. The head allocates resources and
Many early and primitive societies had markets, but
these were small, local affairs. They were regular and
stable institutions. Sometimes they had elaborate
rituals or superstitions attached to their operation.
Their aim was not the advantage of their participants
but the efficient exchange of goods. They remained
small scale affairs with a limited circle of attraction.
The Talmud, a work completed about 1,500 years
Economics and Gain
ago, speaks of rewarding residents of small villages
by allowing them to fulfill a certain obligation on the
regular "market" day rather than the day of the week
on which residents of the larger cities discharged
their obligation, in consideration of their servicesin
"supplying their brethren in the large cities with
water and food." 6 This indicates that it was clear at
those times that the institutional purpose of the
markets was mainly the supply of provisions. Also,
the provision for a reward for the market activity of
the small-town food producers indicates that the
market itself did not provide sufficient reward,
hence that those participants could not have been
motivated by hope of gain.
Although we might impute a motive of gain to an
individual in any of these other systems, nothing
about the system itself suggests that we should. In
many cases, there were strong institutional
limitations on the accumulation by many of the
individual participants. One driven by hope of gain
would find himself continually frustrated. On the
other hand, markets cannot regulate an economic
system properly if all the people are not driven by
hope for gain.
Economics and Gain
It is very important to realize that the descriptions
given above do not fully characterize any institution
as it actually functioned. The descriptions emphasize
the economic aspect of those systems, as people have
been wont to do for the last 200 years. In practice, all
these mechanisms were embedded in social, political
and religious institutions of one kind or another. Life
was not compartmentalized in either thought or fact.
Custom, law, authority, tradition, pride, concern, a
desire for social approbation, and other such
noneconomic motives were what ensured that men
labored and produced. The motive of gain was not
prominent or powerful. Even today, there are many
people for whom issues of honor or emotion are
much more important than pecuniary gain. Notable
examples are people of some Middle-Eastern
cultures for whom matters such as honor are much
more important than money. Even more notable
examples (although they are getting harder to find)
are "non-working" women in the West. Managing a
household was always work performed for social
and emotional motives, not monetary gain.
The ascendancy of economics and its emphasis on
material production has influenced many other
fields. About a hundred years ago, archaeologists
Economics and Gain
began to define man as a tool-using animal. Ignoring
other more unique and significant aspects of his
development such as language and social
organization, scientists concentrated on man's
capacity for material manipulation. Lewis Mumford
writes: "The description of man as essentially a tool-
making animal has become so firmly embedded that
the mere finding of the fragments of little primate
skulls in the neighborhood of chipped pebbles . . .
was deemed sufficient by their finder, Dr. L. S. B.
Leakey, to identify the creatures as in the direct line
of human ascent, despite marked physical
divergences from both apes and later men." 7 Not
only economists came to believe that man had
always been concerned with making a living.
It is interesting to note that gain can only be a
motivator when money is involved. Before the use of
money became widespread and common, when all
people dealt mainly with consumer goods
themselves, they were not as likely to turn towards
gain. When one deals with the stuff itself, it is very
obvious that, beyond a certain point, there is little
reason to have more grain or wine. Money is in a
sense an abstraction relative to the goods it
represents. As such it is unlimited, as are all
Economics and Gain
abstractions. Thus, the pursuit of unbounded gain is
enabled and suggested by money. Until modern
times, money was not in widespread use for daily
In order for the market to be able to regulate
effectively, all the elements necessary for production
must be for sale in the market. This includes not only
the regular commodities and manufactured goods,
but also "pseudo" commodities, namely, land, labor
and money. It is well established that land had to be
removed from its feudal matrix in the military,
administrative, legal and political spheres. Until land
could be traded on a purely economic basis, the
market could not be fully successful. Similarly, labor
must be for sale to the highest bidder and not bound
to a particular lord, locale, or pursuit by law, custom
or superstition. Money too must be for sale on the
market. Whatever is not sold in the market can
certainly not be regulated by it.
The price of land is called rent, the price of labor is
called wages and the price of money is called
Interest had always been perceived as a gain. This
perception can be understood in at least two ways.
Economics and Gain
Aristotle writes that interest is unnatural. A natural
increase in wealth is one which comes from wealth
which naturally increases. Examples of a natural
increase include the multiplication of livestock,
plants and other living things. He explains that
money does not increase of itself. When money
begets money through interest, there is no real
increase in real wealth, only a gain to the lender.
With animals and land, there is a natural increase in
real wealth from their employment. Interest paid on
a loan is just a loss to the borrower and a gain to the
lender. No real increase is represented by the
Modern economists, speaking from the viewpoint of
a modern economy where money can be used to
purchase productive plant and machinery, reply that
the interest is, in fact, a share in such production
resulting from the investment of the money by the
In Aristotle's time, money was associated with
commerce. Capital did not play such an important
role in production then as it does now.
This consideration, however, only applies to loans
made for productive purposes, and does not by itself
Economics and Gain
justify taking interest from consumer loans.
Economists say that in case he would borrow, the
consumer must pay for diverting the money from
productive uses. This argument is no justification for
the practice but merely a restatement of the fact that
there is a single market for all monies. Whereas in
the case of loans made for productive purposes the
interest may be justified on the ground that it
represents a share in the real increase in wealth
resulting from the use of the money, in the case of
loans to consumers there is no such thing. The
interest there is pure gain to the lender, even today.
The fact that it is necessary to the market system of
economy is just another manifestation of the
importance of gain to that system.
There is another, more radical reason for considering
interest to be pure gain. Let us consider the
fundamental case of lending, when one individual
loans money to another. Clearly the money that is
being loaned is a surplus. Perhaps sometime it will
be needed for use, but insofar as it could be lent and
inasmuch as it is lent – that is to say, at least for the
time that it was actually borrowed – it must be
surplus. One who starts with a surplus and would
further increase it, is after nothing but gain. To be
Economics and Gain
sure, there are justified in considering a standard
case to discover the standard meaning of interest.
In our modern economy, not only are individuals
motivated by gain, but our productive institutions
are geared towards gain alone, namely, the
accumulation and acquisition of wealth for no
material reason. By far the larger part of the wealth
which is generated nowadays is produced by
organizations which are legally incorporated.
Although there is no distinct, well defined entity
which corresponds to the corporate body, the
corporation is considered a legal individual which
can enter contracts, sue in court, incur liabilities and
so on. To some extent the interests of a corporation
are those of its employees and to some extent those
of its stockholders. The interests of a corporation can
certainly conflict with those of its employees (for
example, if they should be fired), and they could
certainly conflict with the interests of some of its
stockholders. Perhaps they could conflict with the
interests of most of its stockholders, too, as in a case
where the corporation is worth more in liquidation
than as a functioning enterprise. In any case, it is
certainly possible for a corporation to have interests
which are other than those of anyone else but itself,
Economics and Gain
so to speak. Many large organizations can become
quite distant from their constitutive elements.
However, a corporation per se has no real need; it
needn't even be. Thus all productive effort on its part
is, at least technically, nothing more than gain.
In modern life, there is scarcely an area which is not
touched by the motive of gain. It forms an essential
part of our theoretical description of our economic
system. It is the inevitable goal of our productive
organizations and the inevitable result of our
financial structures. There are individuals –
important and economically significant individuals –
whose actions can only be understood if they are
presumed to be the result of a desire for pure
acquisition and accumulation.
Although it is only some of the people, all of whose
motive is gain all of the time, yet it seems that for at
least most of the people, some of their motive is gain
most of the time. In other words, although it is the
minority for whom gain is always the overriding
consideration, nearly everyone sometimes has gain
as at least part of his or her motive. Most people are
sophisticated to the point that rarely do they do
anything purely for a single motive.
Economics and Gain
The pervasiveness of gain in our culture and its full
legitimacy suggest that it enters into many decisions.
The extremes and the ambiguous middle are carried
over into the material goals people set themselves:
Some of these are pure need, some are pure
extravagance and gain, and most have elements of
both in differing proportions.
Although it is difficult to isolate it, it should be clear
now that it is demonstrable that gain is a motive in
modern life – and an important one.
Another, more personal way to demonstrate the
presence of this motive in ourselves is by monitoring
our reactions to others who lack this motive. Having
made a deliberate choice to isolate themselves from
these aspects of modern culture, the Yerushalmis
mentioned earlier are largely insulated from artificial
desires. The bounty of the modern economy is such
that few lack the necessities of life even if (not
surprisingly) many still suffer from want.
Concerned, as they mainly are, with what they need,
it is easier for those Yerushalmis to be happy with
what they have, to appreciate the essential limits of
the flesh, and to channel their longing for increase
towards Torah, the are of spirit, intellect and
Economics and Gain
1 This is not meant to imply that there is no such motive, but
only that it is not obvious what it could be, and that it certainly
could not be for any physical end.
2 Smith, Adam, The Wealth of Nations (New York: Modern
Library, 1937), p. 14.
3 Heilbroner, Robert, The Worldly Philosophers (New York: Simon
and Schuster, 1966), p. 20.
4 Polanyi, Karl, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press,
1944), p. 37.
5 Ibid., p. 43.
How to Succeed in Knowing without Really
The central pillar of Judaism is its Mesorah
(tradition), which is a transmission-of-knowledge
from generation to generation. This tradition, it is
often emphasized, has two distinct parts: a written
part and an oral part. Even in modern times, when
much of what was once oral has been committed to
writing, there remains a part which is transmitted
directly from teacher to student without textual
mediation. It is pointed out that even a text, strictly
speaking, pragmatically presupposes an oral
tradition. 1 One could not begin even to read a text,
much less interpret difficult passages, without oral
instruction in reading.
The Mesorah is an encyclopedic collection. It includes
material for the social, moral, and intellectual
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development of a person, as well as a vast amount of
information on diverse subjects ranging from
commerce to agriculture. It is undoubtedly sufficient
unto itself to produce people who are fully educated
in the sense that they are socially aware, morally
sensitive, and intellectually capable.
In its 3,500 year history, the Mesorah has proven itself
a capable veteran of virtually every imaginable kind
of attack. It has suffered deliberate, direct
questioning and vehement, violent polemics. Its
people have been tempted by solid gold carrots as
well as threatened by the sticks of torture–at times
even in combination–to leave it. Sometimes the
people have been burned; sometimes the books.
Against all this the people have stood fast with the
Mesorah. The conviction and commitment of all its
people–the masses as well as the elite–to the Mesorah
has withstood every conceivable adversity, including
the passage of time.
The explanation is simple. Those who carry on the
tradition know that they have the truth, the whole
truth, and nothing but the truth, with, as we will see,
the help of G-d. They are secure in the vast body of
knowledge they receive which allows them to
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comprehend the world and to guide their actions.
We can think of knowledge and belief as
relationships of people to propositions (facts). If we
order them and call knowledge a "closer"
relationship between a person and facts than is
belief, then we could confidently say that the
relationship of the people to their Mesorah is
demonstrably as close as it could be.
If confronted with the claim that the participants in
the Mesorah know their stuff, a modern philosopher
would probably say, with aggressive pride, that he
could make no sense of this claim. It is a point of
honor with modern philosophers that, as Professor
Chisolm writes, they "say that an ostensible item of
knowledge is genuine if, and only if, it is the product
of a properly accredited source. Thus, it is traditional
in Western philosophy to say that there are four such
sources: 1. "external perception" 2. memory 3. "self-
awareness" ("reflection" or "inner consciousness") 4.
"reason." 2 The Mesorah is not obviously a product of
any of these sources.
Also, matters like the theory of kedushah (sacredness)
and taharah (purity) are clearly questions of fact and
thus the last three sources are not available. The
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modern view is that, as Russell wrote unequivocally,
"questions of fact cannot be decided without appeal
to observation." 3 No one asserts that phenomena like
kedushah are observable in an empirically satisfactory
way. Furthermore, many of the matters of which the
Mesorah treats lie in areas which our philosopher
would proudly say are "beyond him." Such subjects
as the theory of kedushah and taharah have no relation
to the sensible world, yet they are not issues which
can be decided by reason. Of such metaphysical
subjects, he would argue, no one could advance a
meaningful claim to real knowledge. It might seem
that the people of the Mesorah, for all their fervor,
cannot even make a claim of knowledge that is
intelligible to modern philosophy, let alone defend it.
Our aim here is not to defend the Mesorah or to
discuss its defense but merely to explicate its claim to
knowledge and to interpret it in modern terms. We
hope to show that, while the knowledge itself may
be "metaphysical," the claim is emphatically not. The
epistemological foundations are such as can be
understood even by one who rejects traditional
metaphysics. Perhaps after understanding them he
may even find that they command at least a respect
which is due not solely to their age.
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Although the problem of making sense in modern
terms of the epistemological claims of the Mesorah is
most acutely felt in reference to nonphysical topics,
what we have to say really applies to all the material.
There are many who attempt to show how parts or
the whole of the Mesorah meet some of the
conventional criteria used in Western epistemology.
We will show an entirely different basis for the
knowledge claims of the recipients of the Mesorah
that is quite strong, even according to the criteria of
modern philosophy.
Nowadays, logic is broadly conceived of as the
formal study of the transferral of various properties
of statements or sentences, from one to the other.
Thus the classical logic dealing with syllogisms is
thought of as a part of truth functional logic, the
logic which deals with how the property of truth can
"pass" from some sentences (the premises) to others
(the conclusions). The relationships described are all
formal, that is, they depend only on the formal
relationship between the sentences or on the form of
the sentences, but not on the particular subject
matter. Thus symbols are often used to represent
sentences or parts of sentences.
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In addition to truth, there are other attributes of
sentences (or statements) which have been described
in this way. There is modal logic, which treats of
necessity and possibility, and the logic of
propositional attitudes, such as obligation and
knowledge and belief. The description of the way
knowledge and belief can be transmitted on the basis
of formal properties alone is called epistemic logic.
In epistemic logic, the following is a theorem:
(I) Ka[Kb(p)] -> Ka(p),
where "Kx(p)" means that x knows that p.
In words, the theorem says that if a knows that
another (b) knows something, then the former (a)
also knows that thing. It does not mean that a
understands it as thoroughly as b or that a knows all
the details. All it says is that in a very basic way, a
knows p to be true. It also ignores completely the
question of how a and b came to know what they
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originally knew. It says only that if b knows
something p, and a knows that b knows p, then a
must also know p. Let us also just note that this
theorem does not say that the way to become a
virtuoso pianist is to befriend a pianist.
In his book Knowledge and Belief, Hintikka gives a
proof of this theorem.4 His argument is somewhat
technical. However, we will first summarize his
proof and then attempt to give a more informal,
intuitive presentation.
Hintikka's argument uses the reductio ad absurdum
type of proof that he relies on so heavily. If we were
to assume that a knows that b knows that p but that a
does not know p, then it must be possible, for all a
knows, for p to be false and for b still to know p. But
if b knows p then p must be true (because this is
included in the definition of knowledge), so p cannot
be false. Thus our original assumption is wrong, and
it is not possible for a to know that b knows p and
also for a not to know p.
Actually, Hintikka would substitute "there exists an
alternative model set with respect to a" for "it must
be possible." Also, the discussion following should
refer only to model sets. The conclusion is that there
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can be no such alternative model set.
Informally we can present the argument more
directly. It is acknowledged to be a necessary
condition for someone's knowing p that p be true. It
is not correct to say that someone knows something
false. Someone might think he knows something
which he later discovers to be false, but he would not
say that before he knew p and now he knows not-p.
Rather he would say that he was mistaken before.
Objectively, too, we would not be inclined to call
something knowledge if we knew it to be false. We
might concede that it is strongly held belief, but we
would not call it knowledge. (Belief can be false.)
Thus, if b knows p then p must be true. If a knows
that b really knows p, then a should reason that p is
true and hence should know p himself. It might be
said that knowing that p is true is included in the
knowledge (of a) that b knows p.
The standard definition of knowledge in modern
epistemology is "justified, true belief." There are
many problems with the requirement for
justification, but the discussion here is based only on
the specification that it be true belief. This much
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about knowledge is uncontroversial, and whatever
the outcome of the work on justification, this
theorem will still stand.
Carefully speaking, however, there is the problem
raised by the medieval Pseudo-Scotus. He argued
that a person might not always deduce what he may
from what he does know. Even though our theorem
shows that a person could know p from the
knowledge that another knows p, we might be rash
to conclude that he does know p himself. Hintikka
has avoided this sort of problem by speaking of the
theorem as being self-sustaining rather than true. A
statement is said to be self-sustaining when its
negation is indefensible. This approach is what leads
him to use the reductio form of proof.
For our purposes it is sufficient to construe the
theorem as a license for inference. If one knows that
another knows something, then he may infer that he
also knows it. If he does infer then, of course, he
really does know it. We will find use for the theorem
in support of some who do infer knowledge of p
from their knowledge that another knows p.
If there is ever a need to provide it, this theorem
could serve as a formal basis for accepting G-d's
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word. One suspects that direct reception of
communication from G-d might provide some sort of
experiential foundation in support of His word.
However, lacking the experience, we can objectively
evaluate the formal support provided by theorem (I),
and understand clearly what basis there is for such
It is clear that the only relationship that G-d could
have to any information is knowledge. An all good
G-d would hardly lie, and it is hard to see why an
omniscient being would want to. Thus, G-d knows
what he talks about. So, if He were to tell us
something, we would know that He knew what He
told us. By theorem (I), we would also know that
which He told us.
Just as the theorem provides a basis for accepting the
word of G-d, it also provides a basis for accepting the
word of a person who is godlike in the relevant
aspects. The person would have to be a veritably
formal being, one whose general areas of interest and
whose motivations in general were as clear and
pristine as the realm of format logic. Such a one
would make only unassailable claims. If we knew
some such one, in virtue of that knowledge we
Knowing without Seeing
would also know that he knew anything of which he
claimed knowledge. This would prove another
instance in which our theorem would prove handy.
With this in mind, it is interesting to note the
requirement that the Talmud imposes for the choice
of a teacher. The requirement is:
(II) If a Rav is like an angel of the G-d of hosts, one
should seek teaching from him, and if he is not (like
an angel of the G-d of hosts), one should not seek
teaching from him. 5
In Talmudic law, a condition is legally incorporated
in a contract only if the results of both the fulfillment
and the nonfulfillment of the condition are spelled
out. If only one of these is specified, then the contract
is enforceable regardless of whether the condition is
fulfilled, that is, unconditionally. It would seem that
the only reason that there is for such an elaborate
specification of the idea in this passage is to give it
the force of a contractually binding clause. This
indicates that the requirement imposed in the
Talmud is intended seriously and not as poetic
hyperbole of some sort.
Though he may have other desirable properties as
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well, an angel certainly knows whereof he talks. An
angel is a completely abstract, formal being who
could have no relation to facts other than knowledge,
nor would he have motivation, inclination, or ability
to say anything but what he knows. Thus an angelic
instructor would know what he talked about (and
taught) and, by (I), so would his pupil or so could his
There are two kinds of reasoning which are called
"induction": informal induction and mathematical
induction. The similarity between them does not go
much beyond their name.
What we have called "informal induction" is the basis
of all scientific knowledge of the physical world,
such as there is. It is a principle of reasoning which
starts with the specific, observed instances and leaps
to general laws. Science likes to think of itself as
accruing knowledge through applications of this
type of reasoning operation. Its use was seriously
questioned by the English philosopher David Hume
over two hundred years ago. Notwithstanding that
the areas of science which rest on it have developed
prodigiously since then, no adequate rationalization
for its use has yet been found. The scientists who use
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it daily must rely on a faith that it is good. So far, it
would seem that this faith has not led them astray in
their practice of science.
In contrast, mathematical induction is on as firm a
foundation as is arithmetic. It is really a theorem of
logic which says that if a collection is sequentially
organized (well ordered), then we can show that the
entire collection has a given property (P) by
(IND) P (Xn) -> P (Xn+1)
(ORG) P (X1)
where Xn is an arbitrary member of the collection
and Xn+1 is its successor, and X1 is the first or initial
member of the collection as it is organized.
In other words, this means that if we show that,
granted an arbitrary member of the set has the
property in question, then that implies that the next
one in succession also has the property (IND) and
also that we show that first member of the collection
has the property (ORG), then these two things
together imply that the entire collection has the
Knowing without Seeing
It may sound a bit complicated, but a little reflection
will probably make it intuitive. First we establish
that if a given member has the property then that
implies that the next one has it too. If we can then
determine that the first member has the property, we
can show that the second has it too. But once the
second is known to have it, we can easily show that
the third has it too. Intuitively, we can continue this
way ad infinitum, or until we have exhausted the set.
It might seem like an artificial theorem, but it is a
result of the basic properties of what are among the
most basic logical and mathematical structures. It has
also proven extremely useful in formal
investigations. Among the results that it gives are the
commutative (a + b = b + a) and associative [(a + b) + c
= a + (b + c)] properties of addition. If we keep all this
in mind and return to our original topic, we can
easily see that the transmission of knowledge via the
Mesorah has the support of a structure which is like a
mathematical induction!
Actually the people in the Mesorah form a treelike
structure, since a teacher may have more than one
student. However, if we pick a particular branch, we
can show by mathematical induction that all have
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knowledge from the Mesorah.
First we consider the "induction step" (IND), above.
If we assume that a particular (arbitrary) member
has knowledge of the matter of the Mesorah then we
must show that the next member also has
knowledge. By hypothesis of the Mesorah, (II) holds.
This is so because (II) is the precondition for there to
be a successor. That is, it is necessary that the
successor (pupil) has satisfied himself that his
(prospective) teacher is as an angel. Hence the
successor does know that his predecessor (teacher)
knows whereof he speaks. Therefore, by (I), the next
member (student) also has knowledge of the Mesorah
he receives.
It is also clear that the first element in the Mesorah,
Moses, had knowledge. Since Moses received the
material of the Mesorah from G-d, he would either
have knowledge of it by (I), as we showed earlier, or
perhaps experientially. Thus, we have shown that the
first element has the property in question
(knowledge) and that – according to the stipulation
of the Mesorah itself – if a given member has
knowledge then so does the next one. By the
principle of mathematical induction, the entire
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Mesorah collection has knowledge, and this is what
was to be demonstrated.
These considerations would seem to give the
Mesorah an epistemological foundation which is
readily understood within the Western tradition. In
fact, an empiricist may find that the solidity of the
justification of his own "true beliefs" suffers by the
comparison. He may have plenty of ideas, but he
certainly doesn't know what he is talking about.
It remains to observe that the mathematical
induction which supports the Mesorah is not
available for use by other systems such as the
religions, for a variety of reasons. Although they may
claim knowledge on the part of the initial element,
they usually cannot establish the induction step.
More fundamentally, however, those systems are
typically based on belief, dogmatic authority,
paradox, and/or mystery. None of these is at all
adequate to support a structure similar to the one we
have elaborated in this essay. For this task it is
necessary to have knowledge such as that provided by
the Mesorah. 6
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1 Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 31a
2 Chisholm, Roderick M., Theory of Knowledge (Englewood
Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966), p. 57
3 Russel, Bertrand, Logic and Knowledge, Marsh, Robert C., ed.
(New York: Capricorn Books, 1971), p. 367
4 Hintikka, Jaakko, Knowledge and Belief (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1962), p. 60ff
5 Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 15b. The passage is an exegitcal
comment on the verse from Malachi: For the lips of the cohen
will keep knowledge, and wisdom and teaching, they should
seek from his mouth, for he is an angel of the G-d of Hosts.
6 The argument here is perfectly general. Any system with a
similar or equivalent origin and transmission structure would
have available the support of mathematical induction. This
essay is about the claim of the Mesorah and it is not interested in
exhaustive comparisons. Suffice it to note that it is a contingent
truth that there are no other such systems that are in a position
to advance such a claim, and that the dynamics of induction
make it unsuitable to use retroactively.
Reason and Random
Nowadays, it is often argued that the thesis that the
world as we know it originated in chance and chaos
alone, spontaneously, is compatible with reason. It is
not unreasonable, we are told, to suppose that in an
infinite universe, changing all the time, even a
rational sequence is generated. It is not impossible,
and perhaps not even improbable. In the long run,
even order should appear in chaos. Perhaps six
monkeys would type all the books in the British
Museum eventually. We will call this position, that
order may come from chaos, the Random
Reason and Random
We intend to show that the compatibility is only
superficial. Deep down, the Random Hypothesis is
opposed to reason. It was traditional to say that it is
repugnant to reason to assert that the evident
organization of the world arose by chance. While
that assertion may not sound unreasonable to the
modern ear, we intend to show that it is opposed to
the very essence of reason.
From the viewpoint of information theory there is a
difference between random and nonrandom. 1 A
nonrandom sequence has less information than the
size of the sequence since its information can be
compressed into a description of how to form it. A
random sequence, on the other hand, cannot be
reproduced from anything shorter than a full listing
of itself. Thus the random sequence has as much
information as its size.
However, this definition gives only the ability to
discriminate among existing things, to determine
which are random and which are not. It does not
answer the question of origin.
Given a sequence, the definition of randomness from
information theory is adequate to classify it as
random or not, but it cannot be used to determine if
Reason and Random
the sequence originated in a random or nonrandom
event. This suggests that, although the discovery and
elaboration of the laws of nature make it clear that
the world as we know it is definitely not a random
process as information theory defines it, its origin is
still left as an open question. While we do not claim
to offer a complete resolution of the question, we will
suggest that some answers are in deep conflict with
what a reasonable man would expect.
First it is important to understand the different levels
on which there may be conflict. In some cases, the
conflict may be only between peripheral aspects of
things. In other cases, the conflict may be deep and
essential, given the natures of opposing sides.
As examples we can use ideas and nations. Two
concepts might have gotten along, but perhaps the
contexts in which they are put bring them into
conflict. Similarly two nations may have excellent
relations until they both happen to need a particular
On the other level, sometimes there are ideas which
are opposed in their essence. They are antithetical;
each cannot suffer the other to exist. Two nations
may also decide that the world isn't big enough for
Reason and Random
both of them.
The history of the Jewish people provides illustration
for both of these possibilities. Many times Jews were
threatened because of beliefs that they held. They
were offered safety and even rewards if they would
abandon their position. Although the beliefs which
were at issue were deeply held and bitterly contested
on both sides, this sort of conflict would still be
considered superficial relative to other threats which
were leveled against Jews qua Jews. A few times,
even as recently as sixty years ago, Jews were
attacked without any quarter and without any offer
of escape. It was clear that the persecutors were
unwilling to tolerate – or even allow – Jews to
persist. They searched them out and sacrificed
themselves to destroy Jews. In such a case it is clear
that it is not some accidental Jewish trait or even a
belief but rather the essence of the Jew itself –
"Jewishness" – which was under attack.
It is possible to speak of an even more basic conflict
than this. A more basic conflict cannot really exist,
but the idea of such a conflict is describable. The
deepest conflict is when something is opposed to
itself. Clearly if something is at odds with itself it
Reason and Random
cannot long persist. One side or the other will win
out, and it will soon self-destruct. Such a conflict is
called a contradiction. The condition that a
contradiction cannot be, defines the limit of the
possible. Anything that is not a contradiction is
logically possible. Pure logic is the elaboration of this
principle of contradiction. It studies the limits of
what is possible.
To find out about what is actual, we have to return to
reason. It is reason that studies reality, analyzes it
(describes it), and prescribes it. According to the
Oxford English Dictionary, reason is "that intellectual
power or faculty which is ordinarily employed in
adapting thought or action to some end; the guiding
principle of the human mind in the process of
thinking." The central idea is that of planning,
"adapting... to some end."
We call people reasonable if we see that their actions
are the result of planning, and are directed towards a
goal. If someone's actions are disconnected one from
the other, if they seem to be going nowhere and
coming from nowhere, then we say that there is
something wrong. That person is not being
reasonable, or is being unreasonable. In some cases,
Reason and Random
we could call such a one mad.
To try to make this more intuitive, let us consider
what we would think if we saw someone we knew in
the process of selling all his property. Certainly that
would make us suspicious. However, if we found out
that he thought he had a once-in-a-lifetime
investment opportunity and was trying to put in as
much as possible, then we might be reassured. At
least, we would say, he was acting reasonably given
his expectations about that opportunity. In this
context, "reasonably" clearly means that his actions
are according to a plan which follows from his
To sum this up, we would say that the essential idea
of reason, that which makes it reasonable to use
reason, is the fact that things can and do follow from
other things. If the states of affairs in the world were
all disconnected, with one having nothing to do with
what preceded it or followed it, and if the states of
the world were unrelated to the prior thoughts that
we have, then there would be little motivation to
plan. It is essential to the validity of reason that
reasoned thought lead to reasonable actions which in
turn lead to reasonable states of affairs in the world.
Reason and Random
If the things which are, are not influenced by what
was, then there is no way to argue, and even no basis
to assert, that there is any reason to reason.
Try to imagine, if you will, the following scene:
entering a house, you see a tastefully arranged and
beautifully furnished, coordinated living room decor.
Everything goes perfectly with everything else: color,
materials, texture, etc. One piece particularly strikes
your fancy as you await your host in an armchair.
Thinking that it might also fit well in your own
home, hoping that it is not too expensive, after your
host comes in and you exchange pleasantries you ask
him where he got that particular piece.
With apparent sincerity he replies: "Lovely, isn't it? I
agree it is a marvelous piece. Unfortunately I cannot
tell you where to get another. This one is merely a
fortuitous random arrangement of molecules that I
happened upon one day – down to the
manufacturer's label."
Would you take this man seriously? I think not. I
suspect that, as Leibniz put it, "no sane man would."
However, one who asserts that the universe is merely
a "fortuitous" result of blind chance is asserting that
Reason and Random
everything in the world, including these words, your
thoughts, and all the everyday objects that are before
you, in short, everything, is the result of blind
chance. On this view, all our living room furniture is
a product of chance.
There are two ways in which an adherent of the
Random Hypothesis could react to this argument.
He might reply that the order that is so clearly
manifest in the world as we experience it is merely a
pocket of localized order within the broader chaos.
In some "mysterious" way the world arose, but that
does not mean that that is a common or likely
occurrence. Thus, although he would reject our
poker-faced friend's claim on probabilistic grounds,
he would maintain that the concept of probability
does not apply to the formation of the universe,
which was a singular event.
Another tack he might use is to grant that we should
take seriously the assertion that a living room piece
is a direct product of chance, at least on logical
grounds. Our reluctance to do so, he would argue, is
not because of an objection to the claim but because
we are unused to such occurrences. Such objections
are of a pragmatic nature. They refer to previous
Reason and Random
experience and expectations about similar cases. In
the case of the whole universe, since the event in
question is of such a unique and global kind, it is
entirely removed from the realm of the pragmatic.
Thus he is justified in using pragmatic grounds to
reject our friend's claim, while still proposing a
similar hypothesis for the whole world.
We maintain that both these replies are merely
attempts to avoid the real issue. Whatever is true of
the origin of the whole is equally true of the origins
of its parts. If the whole universe arose
spontaneously from chaos, so did all its parts.
The reluctance on the part of rational beings to take
seriously the claim that a part arose spontaneously
from chaos is the result of the innate repugnance that
the whole idea holds to reason. The attempt to force
the discussion into the realm of logical possibility
and global, cosmological considerations has as its
effects mainly distraction and confusion. We would
maintain that the unwillingness to accept the
Random Hypothesis comes not from an inherent lack
of experience with events such as the origins of the
universe but from the mass of experience we do have
with the true power of reason.
Reason and Random
At best, even if these defenses of the Random
Hypothesis do find some favor, all they can hope to
show is that the Hypothesis is compatible with
reason. When we say a hypothesis is unreasonable, it
is because something in it is not compatible – or at
least difficult to reconcile – with experience or with
some generally accepted statements. Although for
that hypothesis the conflict may be at its own
deepest level, reason itself would usually have no
vested interest in either the hypothesis or its
opponent, and would be as willing to forgo the
opponent as the proffered hypothesis. One who
advocates the hypothesis would be called
unreasonable only to a relatively superficial degree,
since it is only the perspective that happens to prefer
the opponent which objects to the hypothesis.
Reason, per se, finds nothing particularly
objectionable in the hypothesis per se.
When evaluated in this way, the Random Hypothesis
does not fare badly. It is not incompatible with
experience or inconsistent with itself in any way. It
may be difficult to reconcile with common
experience – a bit absurd – but this is easily
explained away by the singularity of the event. These
observations are generally through to provide an
Reason and Random
adequate defense against the charge that the
Random Hypothesis is unreasonable.
However, even if the Random Hypothesis cannot be
called unreasonable, it is certainly not reasonable: it
is fundamentally at odds with reason itself. Though
there may be no conflict between Random and
reason at superficial levels, there is still a very deep
The Random Hypothesis of the origin of the universe
says that order can, and did, follow from chaos. This
is nothing less than a rejection of the idea which we
earlier argued is essential to reason itself: that things
follow! To say that something followed from chaos is
to say that it did not really follow from anything.
Chaos by "definition" (though chaos really has no
definition) cannot lead to anything. To say, as the
Random Hypothesis, that order follows from chaos
is to deny to the concept of following the power
necessary to support reason.
It is well known that order can lead to chaos. This is
the basic idea of the Second Law of
Thermodynamics, known as the Principle of Entropy.
If it were also true that chaos can "lead" to order,
then there is no basis for planning. Why choose a
Reason and Random
particular course of behavior when there is no saying
what will be the actual result? Irrational acts might
lead to rational world-states; rational acts may lead
to madness. This is not to argue an ethical relativism,
that there is no reason to act one way over the other,
but to point out that if things were as the Random
Hypothesis conjectures they are, then there is no
reason, no reasoning, no reason to reason. If the
world were founded that way, then our notions that
if we plan and evaluate what we do then we are
acting rationally, humanly, and in some sense
properly, are all exposed as a gigantic fallacy, and a
most elementary one: post hoc ergo prompter hoc (after
the fact, therefore because of it). Really, we would
have no basis for preferring reason to madness.
Hold the Random Hypothesis up to the evaluation of
reason, and it may pass. Reason will not find
inconsistency or incoherence, and perhaps the
Hypothesis may even avoid the appearance of
absurdity. However, the compatibility is a facade
which masks a deep, subtle attack on the roots of
It is true that the world was once chaos, void, and
darkness (tohu, vovohu, vechoshech), but order did not
Reason and Random
emerge from this spontaneously. Mineral, vegetable,
animal, ape and man, nature and all its laws, are all
expressions of the spirit from G-d (ruach E-lohim).
1 Chaitin, Gregory J. "Randomness and Mathematical Proof,"
Scientific American 232 (May 1975).
A Timely Note
There are some issues that are resolved through
some brilliant insight which comes quickly,
dramatically, and satisfyingly. These are issues that
turn on some genuine problem which is accounted
for through the discovery of some unknown or
unnoticed point, or through some significant
reorganization of the previous orthodoxy.
There are other issues that arise because of some
general confusion. Their resolution is achieved only
through a deliberate, mundane, and tedious process.
A Timely Note
Such, unfortunately, is the nature of the task that
confronts us in dealing with some of the questions
which cloud much popular discussion of the
compatibility of two methods of determining the age
of the universe: the general (scientific) method,
which yields a result of billions of years, and the
traditional Torah method, which gives a result of less
than 5,800 years at the time of this writing.
Our current understanding of the methodologies
involved allows for a definitive resolution of the
discrepancy between the results of these two
methods. A word of caution is in order, since the
remarks here do not resolve all aspects of the so-
called conflict between the scientific and the Torah
accounts of the history of the world. In particular,
there are many (particular) events in the scientific
account which are not included in the Torah one, at
least in any obvious way. In a general way, these
discrepancies can also be resolved, but that is not the
topic of this essay. Here I will deal only with the
problem of assigning a number to the age of the
It is well known that a correct statement of a problem
is often an important step toward its solution. The
A Timely Note
case at hand is no exception. The latter phrase, in
particular the phrase "assigning a number," will
prove the basis for the resolution, but obviously
some elaboration is in order.
Though most of us experience few problems in use,
the concept of time has proven to be awfully subtle
and complex. There are really a few distinct ideas. A
critique of one part of this complex, simultaneity, is
central to Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity.
There have also been many deep discussions aimed
at determining a physical basis for the irreversible
aspect of the time ordering, that is, that in time, one
can get from here to there but not back again.
These problems should not detain us here for we are
concerned only with two aspects of time: the
comparative (topological) measurement of time
intervals, and the assignment of an origin. This will,
it is hoped, become clear from the subsequent
When we set up a system to measure any
quantifiable stuff, like disance, weight, or
temperature, the procedure is to set up some
reference standard and then to compare subsequent
A Timely Note
collections of the stuff to that standard. Such a
process will tell us when we have an amount of stuff
which is as much as our reference standard.
We will skip some intermediate steps and now
assume that we have a full system of comparative
measurement: that we can tell when we have as
much as our reference standard, and also whether
more or less than it, and how many times as much as
that standard (two times as much, three times as
much, one-half as much, and so on). As an example,
we can consider the standard meter in Paris, which
was long used as the reference standard for length.
(There was an attempt to make it a "natural"
standard by making it equal to one ten-millionth of
the length of the arc from the equator to the North
Pole, but that was rather accidental to the process
from our perspective.) If we concluded that a
particular wall was three meters long, that was
tantamount to saying that the length of the wall was
three times the length of the standard meter in Paris,
that if one were to directly compare the two, three of
those reference standards would occupy the same
length as that wall.
In ordinary talk of measurement of spatial quantities
A Timely Note
such as length, few problems arise, since we can
easily isolate several different quantities, compare
them, and abstract the common factor (spatial
We are not in the same happy position with respect
to time. We cannot isolate chunks of it and abstract
what is common to them. In fact, we cannot in any
way directly experience a chunk of time at all. We
experience time one instant after the other, in the
present, but we are unable to aggregate these
Thus it is necessary and worthwhile to clarify what it
is that we are measuring when we measure time. It
should become evident that in measuring time, we
are really measuring the amount of global change.
When we set up a system for measuring time, we
select a process which we believe proceeds at a
regular rate. This is to say that we pick some process
within which the amount of change is fixed across
different equivalent time intervals. We then compare
the amount of change in the reference process to the
process to be measured and arrive at a result.
This may not be so obvious since we use a
A Timely Note
standardized unit for measuring time, the second.
This makes it appear like any other measurement of
stuff. However, if we use a standard wall clock in the
US to measure a process, the basis for our saying that
a particular process took three seconds is really that
the electric current powering the clock we looked at
reversed itself 360 times, while if we use a digital
timepiece our basis is usually that a quartz crystal
has vibrated 100,000 times (approximately). Our free
use of "seconds" in both cases is the result of careful
standardization. Someone reliable has carefully
determined that 100,000 vibrations of a quartz crystal
span the same amount of change as 360 current
reversals do, in the standard American electrical
system for most practical purposes. (In most of the
world it is 300 current reversals since they use 50
hertz current unlike America which uses 60 hertz ac
For a long time, the motions of heavenly bodies were
the obvious standard of time measurement. There is
no other natural process directly accessible to man
that even approaches these motions in its regularity.
Thus the celestial changes were the best choice for
standard units of change, whether that choice was
the day, the month, or the year. These standards are
A Timely Note
no longer used for many applications in modern
technology, for various reasons, but they still form
the basis for most of our personal measurements of
time, that is, for most purposes which apply directly
to our persons.
The important thing to remember is that when we
say that some process took three seconds, what we
are saying is that the amount of change in that thing
is the same as the amount of change in three seconds
worth of the standard. We are only comparing the
amount of change in two process, and not in any
way declaring something about the amount of some
absolute entity which we call "time."
For convenience let us take the year to be the amount
of time between recurrent appearances of the sun at
either solstice, and the day as the amount of change
subtended by two successive appearances of the sun
at one of the horizons at one of the solstices. These
are said to be definitions of convenience only
because others could have been chosen. What is
convenient about the ones we picked is that they are
definite and familiar and that they are simple relative
to some of the others – but all are practically
A Timely Note
Now, when we say that something took ten years,
what we mean is that the amount of change in that
process is equivalent to the amount of change
subtended by ten successive appearances of the sun
at one of the solstices. As we have explained above,
the term "day" would be applicable even if there is no
sun present. Since in saying that something took one
day what we are trying to do is to measure the
amount of change–rather than merely to state that
some event took place over the same time as our
reference process–it makes sense to attempt to apply
the term even when on sun is present.
As a result, we can evaluate the truth or falsity of the
sentences at the beginning of the Bible that describe
the events of the early days of creation (before there
was a sun) as having taken place in one day. The
somewhat surprising result is that they all turn out
to be false, since the full description of the amounts
of change which took place in the early days (and the
later ones) is clearly far more than is subtended by
successive appearances of the sun at the horizon.
Faced with this unsatisfactory result, we are forced
to revise an unstated hypothesis, namely, that "day"
is always an accurate translation for "yom," as it
A Timely Note
occurs in those Biblical sentences. The contradiction
that we generated by assuming "day" as the
translation for "yom" was generated at the level of
pshat (the first, basic level of meaning), and we
cannot thus be accused of a departure from the pshat
of the text if we discard that hypothetical translation.
Thus, we may grant that the events described in the
Torah account of creation took many (perhaps
billions of) days, though we insist on retaining the
application of "yomim" in the original manner to the
events described there. Scientific theories of the
formation of the solar system, since they are merely
backward extrapolations, yield only measurements
of the amount of change which took place, and it
would seem that anyone must agree that there are
many, many years worth of change in those events.
This in no way affects the accuracy of the Biblical
account which is in terms of yomim rather than days.
There is, however, the disturbing problem of the
meaning of "yom," since in all subsequent cases it
translates nicely as "day." This is a problem we pass
over for the moment to some other observations.
It will prove interesting to note that the basis for the
calculations that result in the figure of 5,774 as the
A Timely Note
current age of the world is the beginning of Adam's
life. To calculate the elapsed time from the creation to
the Flood we add the nonoverlapping lifetimes of the
people in the genealogical tables that are included in
the Bible. This is the only way we have of assigning a
number to the age of the world based on the Bible.
According to the most commonly accepted version,
the world was created in Tishrei, which is the view of
Rabbi Eliezer. 1 In his detailed account, Rabbi Eliezer
says that Adam was created on the first day of the
first year, with yom echod (day one) on the twenty-
fifth of Elul, five days previously in the "zeroth" year!
2 This means that our count of the age of the world
does not start from the beginning of the creation, but
rather from the appearance of man. 3
When one sets up a system of measurement, besides
fixing a unit which we have already discussed, it is
necessary to assign a point as the origin, the "zero"
point. Choosing an origin is a task which is
essentially arbitrary, that is, there is no essential
difference which point is chosen. For example,
whether we pick the freezing point of water (such as
in the Centigrade system) or some lower level (such
as in the Fahrenheit system) as our zero point for
A Timely Note
measuring temperature, there is nothing true about a
statement that the temperature of some substance is
122 degrees that is not true of a statement that its
temperature is 50 degrees, as long as the reference
point (and unit) is chosen appropriately.
In the case in point, 5,774 is completely
unobjectionable as the number for a particular year –
once it is made clear that the origin of the numbering
system is the creation of man. One could as easily
assign 2,014 or 1,434 or 2,325 as the number of the
year if one is inclined to pick other years as reference
points. The result is that we assign 5,774 as the
number of years from (noninclusively!) creation.
It is worth noting that in addressing G-d in the Rosh
Hashanah service we apply the phrase "beginning of
Your deeds" (techillas ma'asecha) to that day. 4 This is
clearly in line with the view of Rabbi Eliezer, and, at
the level of pshat, it would seem that the creation of
man is thus called the origin (an alternate
explanation is given by the Tosafot).
Thus, to point out that 5774 counts only from the
beginning of human activity rather than the entire
physical world would seem an alternate and
independent way to resolve the discrepancies
A Timely Note
between our traditional dating and that assigned by
the general scientific method, though we might
express some reservations about it too, since it leaves
our number with an air of the arbitrary.
However if, notwithstanding that each of the two
proposals is independently adequate to determine
5774 as a correct number for a particular modern
year in relation to the beginning of the world in
harmony with alternative approaches that may give
radically different numberings, we rather view these
as two complementary parts of a single framework,
then we have a powerfully complete view of this
aspect of the beginnings of the world. We have found
man to be the central measure of the world. His
appearance serves to fix the origin of our measuring
system, and it is our knowledge of his subsequent
history which gives us the essential parameters for
our calculations. When we talk of the age/Age of the
world we are also talking, in effect, of the age/Age of
In view of all this we suggest that perhaps the yom
unit is not a purely quantitative measure as is the
day unit, but that it also includes a qualitative
component. It has, in fact, often been suggested that
A Timely Note
many of the terms in the Torah are in some sense
primarily to be interpreted as essences, and that it is
a Divinely engineered "coincidence" that more
particular, concrete interpretations are materially
Time is generally measured as a purely quantitative
entity, though we often experience it in a qualitative
way. The common phrase "the minutes seemed like
hours," which describes a feeling many of us have
experienced, is an indication that a quantitative
measure fails to capture all the aspects of time that
are part of our experience.
Furthermore, there is a more objective sense of
qualitative change too. There are often situations in
which a small change has enormous importance,
which is to say, in our terms, that though the
quantitative change is small, in qualitative terms the
change is large. The opposite situation is, of course,
also possible. That is, there can be a large amount of
change that is not too important.
In the conventional terminology used in the analysis
of measurement this is expressed in the fairly
obvious observation that the qualitative aspect of a
unit of measure is wholly independent and thus
A Timely Note
capable of taking on virtually any value, regardless
of the quantity involved. The fact that quality and
quantity are independent does not mean, however,
that they can never coincide. Within a particular
system, it may even be that they almost always
coincide, that usually a quantitative unit subtends
also a qualitative unit. In such cases we are likely, as
a matter of convenience and habit, to come to
assume them always to coincide, yet we must be
alert to recognize those cases in which they diverge.
In the case at hand, it is suggested that particular
attention be directed toward the relationship
between "day" and "yom."
Our suggestion here is that "yom" is applied
primarily as a measure of qualitative change, and
that along this dimension, the change within the six
units mentioned at the beginning of the Torah is
equivalent to the amount which is subsequently
subtended by two successive sunsets. This is to say
that once man is an active participant in the world
and thus lends it the significance infolded in his
participation, the conventional day becomes a
substantial unit, especially in view of the fact that
man's activity is naturally segmented into (periods of
activity in the) daylight and (periods of rest in the)
A Timely Note
Without the presence of man, when natural
processes are of a completely material nature, a
much larger amount of change is necessary for it to
be spoken of as a qualitative equal to a human day.
We do not mean to imply that these parts of the
world are in any way unimportant in themselves, but
only that a purely quantitative comparison to the
works of man is misleading.
For example, though the organizing of land and
water (third yom) is a process of awesome
magnitude, we might be able to accomplish things of
equal importance, say, before lunch.
1 Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah, 10b f.
2 Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer, Chap. 8. Note that a date is first mentioned
in connection with the creation of the sun and moon. See also
the commentary of R. Dovid Luria.
3 Actually there are three origins used for the counting of the
years of the world in tradition, with a total of two years'
difference between the two extremes. One counts the first day
of Adam's life as the beginning of the year two, counting the
first five days (or the first six months according to Rabbi
A Timely Note
Yehoshua) as year number one. The second counts that sixth
yom of creation as the beginning of year one. And the third
counts the years of the world exactly as we count the age of
people and does not assign the number one to the age of the
world until Adam's first birthday.
Thus, at the first anniversary of Adam's creation, the world is
three years old according to the first version, two years old
according to the second version, and one year old according to
the third version. All rely on information about Adam's age to
calculate the world and all take his creation as the focus of the
numbering system.
I have adopted the one which is, I think, most commonly
assumed to be the one in use by any who make such
assumptions at all, though it is not necessarily the one which
gives the result we use. Adoption of the method (the first
mentioned above) which gives the result which we use would
not change the essential argument, though it might change the
presentation somewhat.
4 See Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah, 27a. The explanation
offered here is intended as complementary to the one given by
Tosafot. One would expect the origins of din to be linked to the
beginnings of its most important object, i.e., man.
A Look into Proofs of G-d
There are a number of arguments which may be
grouped together under the family name of Proofs of
the Existence of G-d. Some of the arguments are very
old. We have detailed evidence of the existence of
these arguments over 2,500 years ago. Much has
changed since versions of these arguments were first
presented, and in order to evaluate their validity it is
important to note the relevant changes.
For our purposes, it is convenient to distinguish two
mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories of
arguments: those which start with some feature of
Proofs of G-d
the world and trace a path to G-d, and others which
talk solely of some (purportedly) purported feature
of G-d.
The first category includes such arguments as the
Teleological Argument, from Purpose or Design. It
observes that the world is too highly structured, too
magnificently coordinated, and too elegantly
elaborate for it to be the consequence of chance
combinations. As it is usually presented, this
argument claims not the compulsion of logical
necessity, but the sweet persuasion of reason. Also
included in this group are those demonstrations
from the notion of causation, known as Cosmological
Arguments. The basis here is the fact that in our
experience everything which is, was within the
potential of some antecedent cause. Snow falls today
because it was precipitated in the atmosphere earlier
when that air mass was in some other place. In turn,
the air was moist because it had picked up water,
and so on. A child is here today because of his
parents, who are here in turn because of their
parents, and so on. In a strict sense of the term, there
are two logical possibilities for the state of things: the
causal series continues backward infinitely, or it
stops at some First Cause. Since we are finite beings
Proofs of G-d
with finite, though large and unbounded, mental
faculties, we cannot at all imagine the presence of a
completed infinite series. To be sure, we can write or
speak about it, and even, in modern set theory,
elaborate principles which apply to it, but this does
not mean we can grasp it mentally. (This was one of
the important stimulants to the intuitionistic
approach to logic and mathematics.)
One need not understand the referent of a word in
order to use that word correctly. On the other hand,
though we may not be able to imagine the First
Cause if it is something utterly removed from our
experience, yet the notion of an unprecedented cause
itself presents no difficulty. That is to say that the
reality (phenomenon) is in both cases inscrutable and
the idea (noumenon) which corresponds to the
infinite chain is similarly inscrutable, but we can
easily grasp the idea of a First Cause. The argument
merely notes that an infinite causal chain is
unimaginable as a natural possibility, leaving a First
Cause as the likely reality. Just like the Teleological
Argument, this argument is read as showing only
that its conclusion is more reasonable than the
alternative, but not that it is certain.
Proofs of G-d
The second kind of argument, the major version of
which is the Ontological Argument, begins only with
certain ideas of being and perfection. In the
Ontological Argument, the key observation is that
the ideas of perfect existence we already have are
such that we cannot talk or think of them without
associating some object to them. Put another way, if
we would characterize G-d solely and simply by the
fact that His existence is not contingent as ours is,
but is necessary, or by saying that His being is not
imperfect as ours is but is perfect, then He must
"actually" be because that is what perfect being is. It
is an oxymoron to say that necessary existence
doesn't exist and a verbal tautology to say that
perfect being is, so to speak. This argument is
generally evaluated as if it claimed logical validity.
It is useful to consider the context in which these
arguments were proposed before passing any
judgment on them. There are two aspects of the
whole issue of the existence of G-d that are not
properly appreciated. One has to do with the intent
of the questioner, the other with the context of the
question, to which we will turn first.
It is often said that asking a question properly is
Proofs of G-d
important in finding an answer, as the correct
question will at least point us in the direction of its
answer. This is so at least in part because aspects of
the way a question is formulated can place it in a
particular field from which we look for our answer.
If the words in the question are changed, it might
also change the field in which the answer is
researched, and it may be that the new field includes
the resources for a successful answer while the
original field does not.
Logically, Is there a G-d? should be considered the
same sort of question as Is there a wine store at
Broadway and 73rd Street? Is there someone in that
car over there? and Is there life on the Moon? In
philosophy, these questions are known as ontological
questions, which is to say, questions about being. As
one may suspect from our examples, this kind of
question is usually answered through empirical
investigation rather than by formal proof, rational
argument, or philosophical investigation. The basic
way to answer such questions is to go and see by
subway, foot, or rocket, though we also often might
accept the testimony of some reliable person. There
is no way to demonstrate the existence of a wine
store (for example) solely through language or
Proofs of G-d
thought. Our knowledge of its existence or
nonexistence must be based on our experience
through our senses – empirical observation. If we
sense the store in the appropriate conditions, then
we conclude that it exists. If the appropriate sensing
conditions are present and we do not experience the
store, then we conclude that there is no such store.
Such is the "logic" of most ontological questions.
G-d, however, does not lend Himself to sensory
observation. We cannot specify any appropriate
conditions for sensing Him. Thus it would seem that
we cannot answer the question of G-d's existence the
same way in which we answer all other ontological
queries. In recent times, people have considered the
question Does G-d exist? to be one for which they
expect reason to be the primary tool for providing a
good answer, whether that answer is negative or
affirmative. This is apparently the result of the
observation above, that G-d is an essentially abstract
entity, and, in that respect, is similar to logical and
mathematical entities such as a number or a set.
Since interaction with G-d is more directly through
the mind than through the body, it is usually
assumed that the way to consider His existence is by
using the tools of the mind, namely, formal proof,
Proofs of G-d
rational argument, or philosophical investigation.
Arguments for His being are invariably interpreted
by both sympathetic and unsympathetic critics as if
they were arguments about a formal entity, and they
then are subjected to a formal analysis. The premises
are laid out explicitly, and the arguments are put into
syllogistic form. Then the premises are carefully
analyzed and evaluated for consistency, missing
premises, elegance, and so on.
One of the most important differences between
formal questions and the usual ontological questions
is the demands they make on the evaluator. It was
the goal of a considerable effort among
mathematicians and logicians about fifty years ago to
develop the tools to enable argumentation in their
disciplines to be mechanized. These arguments have
been made objective in the most extreme sense: they
can be evaluated by a machine (an object) without
any need for human intervention (a subject). Thus
the demands that a formal argument makes on an
evaluator are quite minimal. All one must do is to
put the argument into the machine. In the usual
ontological issue, the situation is quite different.
Since the "argument" in that case is a set of
instructions aimed at promoting an experience of the
Proofs of G-d
object in question, the evaluator is very much a part
of whatever action there is. He must attempt to
participate as fully as he possibly can if he is to give
the "argument" an honest chance to "prove" itself. If
he merely contents himself with evaluating the
instructions on their clarity or lack of it, or their
redundancy, in short, if he merely inspects the formal
aspect of the instructions, he is clearly missing the
whole point. The point is not the argument itself, as
is the case with a formal proof, but the results of the
instructions: do they lead to an experience of the
object in question or not. In the formal case, when
one comes to the end of the text he has reached the
end of the argument; in the ontological case, when
one reaches the end of the text it is only the
It may be instructive at this point to recall the radical
shift that has taken place over the past hundred
years or so in the intention behind the question, Why
believe in G-d? A why question is always a request for
a cause of something. In general, Aristotle was able
to distinguish four kinds of why questions
corresponding to the four types of causes: the
efficient cause, the final cause, the material cause,
and the formal cause. The latter two deal with the
Proofs of G-d
form and matter of objects and are thus not
applicable to beliefs.
We can see the difference in the first two kinds of
questions by considering the acceptable answers.
Often when we ask why of someone's beliefs, we
expect as a reply some sort of publicly accessible
evidence that at least points toward the belief as a
conclusion. This is what we call here (perhaps
somewhat loosely) asking for the final cause of the
belief, since the holder is said to believe what he does
because of the objective evidence. Sometimes,
however, one who questions a belief might accept an
answer that refers to attributes of the holder rather
than aspects of the belief (for example, his
psychological state, his neurotic needs, or his
material benefit). In such a case, one is asking for
what we call the efficient cause of the belief, that is,
what causes this person to hold this belief, which
may be completely independent of any evidence.
With regard to beliefs, the final cause is almost
always of greater interest than the efficient cause.
There is only one exceptional case. If one presumes a
belief to be false, then he presumes it to have no final
cause. This is reinforced by the fact that in the case of
Proofs of G-d
a false belief, the efficient cause will usually be much
stronger than it is in the case of true belief. In the
latter case, the efficient cause may be trivial or not
accessible since the final cause does most of the
work. For false belief, the final cause is impotent, so
the efficient cause must be the active one. Thus, if
one wants to go "beyond" any evidence to examine
the personal motivation of adherents to a belief (as is
often done nowadays for belief in G-d), it is probably
because one assumes that the belief is false and so
the efficient cause is more interesting. Ever since
Marx introduced efficient causation into his
socioeconomic analysis of religion ("Religion is the
opium of the masses"), the efficient causes of belief in
G-d have always been part of the discussion, thus
importing some presumption of falsehood. In this
vein, it is important to observe that one should not
make the fallacious inference (affirming the
consequent) that if there is a strong efficient cause
then the belief is false, for example, even if religion
functions as the opium of the masses, that does not
imply that it's false.
In the past, arguments for G-d's existence were
largely propounded in other circumstances than
those in which they are most often evaluated today.
Proofs of G-d
Such arguments were commonly given to clarify and
deepen one's ideas and perception of G-d. They
could elucidate some aspect of Him or, perhaps,
throw light on some part of G-d's relationship to His
world. Since, as we have already mentioned, G-d is
not perceptible through the senses, one can only
acquire further knowledge of Him from activities of
the mind. Understanding the way in which G-d is, or
at least trying to do so, can contribute importantly to
one's knowledge of G-d. This is not to imply that the
task of proving the existence of G-d was not
considered earlier but only that it had the character
of an intellectual exercise rather than the challenge it
is today. Even Descartes, who worked formally from
the position presumed nowadays, could be confident
of an audience sympathetic to his conclusions, rather
than the hostile or indifferent one he would face
today. Discussions on the nature of G-d were either
light or seriously enlightening, and in either case one
could count on the eager participation of any
audience in evaluating any argument.
Rather than argue-as we do in this essay-for the
involvement of their audiences, those who earlier
would demonstrate G-d's existence could assume
such involvement as a matter of course and argue the
Proofs of G-d
issue. In most cases too, they were granted the
sympathetic judgment of many succeeding
generations. It is only in the past hundred years or
so, when the framework of discussion shifted from
sympathy to antipathy and, lately, to apathy toward
the existence of G-d, that people have become
unwilling to "really get involved" in such
discussions. Recently, the arguments for G-d's being
have all been interpreted in formal terms, a
procedure which has had two results: (1) they have
come out as formal proof structures, which do not
require the involvement of a judge (one of the most
important qualities of formal arguments we
mentioned above), and (2) they have been weak and
unconvincing – to say nothing of their formal
It is not surprising that the arguments have proven
failures when cast in formal molds. Considering the
question of G-d's existence – and any attempt to
answer it – as a formal issue is a mistake. The fact is,
G- d's being is a fact (or, some would say, a putative
fact). This is not to say that it is a contingent or a
material issue, but it is to say that it is an empirical
issue! It is a question which is closer to being a part
of zoology (though clearly distinct from it) than
Proofs of G-d
mathematics. To resolve it, we must look to
observation and experience.
So, how could one attempt to verify that there is a G-
d? It is fairly easy to see that it is impossible to verify
conclusively that there isn't G-d, though one might
be able to conclude that there is one. This is not
because of any of the unique properties of G-d but
because of the well-known properties of singular
existential statements (that is, statements such as,
"there is an X"). One cannot test all of reality for the
presence of G-d – which is what would be necessary
to decide conclusively that there is no G-d. On the
other hand, if one once has some appropriate
experience it does provide final evidence for the
presence of G-d.
Yet, what sort of experience is appropriate? G-d
clearly cannot be sensed in any of the usual ways.
This does not rule out other kinds of perception,
such as "seeing" G-d with one's mind as one "sees" a
mathematical proof or an abstract explanation.
Noting the zoological connection we mentioned
earlier, we could certainly accept a mass "sighting" of
G-d as conclusive. However, there have been no
reported mass experiences of G-d for several
Proofs of G-d
thousand years, so this may have no practical effect.
What is needed is some way each individual could
experience G-d. What is wanted is some laboratory,
some instrument, some procedure whereby everyone
could observe G-d. Of course, it is not essential that
everyone actually do so, but only that it be obvious
that they could if they are willing to do what is
necessary. To provide such a procedure is, we
maintain, the correct way to "prove" that there is a G-
d, and attempting to do this, we submit, is precisely
what the traditional arguments are all about.
This is most clearly seen in the case of the
Cosmological Argument. As we interpret it, the
possibility of infinite causal regression is not an
issue. The Argument asserts that such infinite causal
chains do not exist, whether or not they might.
Furthermore, it says nothing of the general principle
of universal causation (though it does presume it)
but rather talks about a particular causal chain,
though it may be any one we like. The Cosmological
Argument guides us along such a chain, which, it
promises, is a path to G-d. As we explain it, the
Cosmological Argument begins by asking us to take
some part of the world. We may take ourselves, our
Proofs of G-d
family, a garden, or a city; a scene, a sequence, or
history itself. Starting wherever we choose, we are
then told to discover the cause of that, and, in turn,
the cause of that of that cause, and the cause of that.
If we persist and trace this chain back far enough, we
will eventually arrive at the First, Ultimate Cause,
which has no prior cause.
The Argument, such as it is, is mainly an exhortation
to follow a causal chain back to its source. At the end
of our efforts we will find G-d. The argument does
not design to show that G-d is at the end of all causal
chains, but rather to show G-d at the end of any such
chain. It attempts to point us in the proper direction
so that we may ourselves experience G-d.
It is easy to see how all other arguments in the first
category are similarly understood. The Teleological
Argument finds G-d as the end of the world (its final
cause) rather than as the beginning. It invites us to
consider the focus and structure of the world,
asserting that G-d is behind that, too, for us to
experience. This was probably more effective in
earlier times when the world in which people lived
was so much simpler. Now, we might experience
considerable difficulty getting started along this line
Proofs of G-d
of thought. Nonetheless, it is clear that G-d may be
found in that area. Everyone should grant that if
there is a G-d, the structure and purpose of the world
is an area in which we would find Him. Whether or
not we have sufficient grasp of any such structure to
use it toward that end is a separate matter.
These arguments all start at some observation about
the material world that is familiar to us, and thereby
make up one of the general categories we originally
started with. The other sort of argument has no such
familiar beginning. Turning on points made about
the necessity and/or perfection of G-d's being, these
arguments, we interpret, are attempts merely to
elucidate the matters of which they treat and thus to
expose G-d (or some important aspect of Him) to our
contemplation. When interpreted formally, these
arguments are viewed as attempts to characterize
some property of G-d or its consequences. But we see
them as attempts to explicate an idea.
What G-d is–or is purported to be–is not easy to
grasp. He is simple, but so much so that He is quite
removed from any other part of our usual
experience. Yet he permeates it. It is important to
know what G- d is "supposed" to be so that one
Proofs of G-d
would be able to recognize an encounter with Him. It
is not as easy to do this as one might imagine. In fact,
it is the conviction of many – including, we submit,
all those who advance this kind of argument – that if
one only knew what to look for one would have no
trouble finding G-d.
The notion of necessary being is essentially beyond
human reach (according to all views on the matter),
but progress toward its understanding can always be
made. To paraphrase Kenneth Burke: Given the
resources of language, what might one say about
Perfect Being, even if Perfect Being is not? The main
point can be put succinctly: It is absurd to say that
necessary existence doesn't exist. This is the central
idea, though it is often developed more carefully. The
best known is as follows: As we contemplate the idea
of Perfect Being, saying and thinking what we can
about it, we find that it certainly contains no
contradiction and hence that it has at least a potential
actuality. However, turning again to the idea itself of
Perfect Being, we are forced to observe that to be
actual is better ("more" perfect) than not so. If we are
serious about contemplating Perfect Being, we must
include actual existence under those things we say
about it. Hence it is, Q.E.D. This is the end of the text
Proofs of G-d
and the beginning of your work.
The point here is not so much whether this is an
unexceptional piece of reasoning or a linguistic
flimflam. Rather, as we interpret it, it is an attempt
by those who have some substantive concept of
Perfect Being to show those who lack such a
recognition what it is they are conceptualizing. It is
more statement than argument: Perfect Being is that
which it is absurd to deny. Anyone who would
expend the substantial effort required to construct
for himself the required concept of Perfect Being
would finally confront G-d.
And, finally, we again paraphrase Burke: Given the
limitations of language, how inadequate must all our
statements be, if Perfect Being is? Language can only
represent and communicate the formal aspect of
things (though this is indeterminate). Nonetheless'
there are some issues which are too important, too
basic, and much too broad to be solved by and with
language alone. Though language is our most
important tool, there are things to which it is
inadequate. We must face our Creator alone.
Proofs of G-d
A number of important consequences follow from
our reinterpretation of the arguments for G-d. The
most important of them has to do with the practical
aspects of the compulsion to actually believe in Him
and act as He would have one act.
In the past, people either accepted the existence of G-
d or not – and most accepted it. Recently it has
become fashionable to suspend judgment on the
issue. Finding the traditional arguments (in their
traditional interpretations) uncompelling, yet finding
no arguments against the presence of G-d, many
people dignify their doubt by adopting the agnostic
Of great comfort to agnostics in their cautious
rejection of proffered arguments for G-d's being is
the feeling that theirs is the "safe" position. They
reason that they cannot be charged with holding a
wrong opinion, and their rejection of the proffered
evidence for G-d's presence can at most be an honest
mistake, which they found no way to avoid. 1 It is
notable that, while emphasizing the distinction
between an unintentional error and deliberate
Proofs of G-d
wrongdoing, such reasoning tends to obscure the
more important distinction between right and
If there were no G-d, of course, it would matter little
if they chose as they did or otherwise. In fact,
however, agnostics are likely to find their position to
be painfully void of G-d. Certainly the most
fundamental fact about G-d (as far as we are
concerned and insofar as we can make such
distinctions) is His being, and the most basic way in
which He relates to us is by His presence in our
being. This presence gets no welcome from an
agnostic, and that is a serious matter. He fails to
fulfill the first commandment of the Decalogue. His
only "safety" lies in the fact that he did not violate the
second. Though the agnostic's mistake is not as
serious as it could have been, it is still woefully
distant from the truth.
There are, of course, reasoned justifications for the
agnostic position. It will, however, be shown here,
convincingly I believe, that these arguments are
clearly insufficient to support such a position.
The simplest one is that which attaches to the
simplest position. It is maintained by some that they
Proofs of G-d
have made an exhausting (though certainly not
exhaustive) attempt to arrive at some conclusion but
have been unable to discover any conclusive
evidence for or against G- d's existence. Hence they
despair of finding any such evidence and throw their
hands up in the air (and, subsequently, their lives
too). For many of these people, their lives are
completed before their investigation.
A second, firmer commitment to doubt is the
position which maintains that no conclusive proof
exists, either asserting this unreservedly or at least
arguing that it is highly probable. This is supported
by a sort of inductive argument: The proponent may
take any one of the traditional arguments (in its
usual interpretation) with which he is familiar and
then show it to be ineffective or inconclusive.
Thinking that his effort compromises all proofs and
arguments for G-d's being, or at least that his past
success indicates a trend, he leaps to the conclusion
that no final answer on the matter is available to
Perhaps the strongest position is the "objective" one.
Proponents purport to rise above the arguments on
both sides, for or against (against the "for," that is).
Proofs of G-d
They claim that at best the arguments for the
existence of G-d only lend support to their
conclusion, but do not themselves provide complete
justification. They then argue that regardless of
whether G-d is or not, the lack of a clear and forceful
argument for His presence means that one cannot be
held accountable for denying it. They claim that
there is no proof extant which can make any demand
on one who would simply reject it. Such proofs as
there are, always rest on an unjustified judgment or
on self-contained principles and are thus deniable,
they maintain without penalty. Thus, they conclude,
they may reject the arguments and fail to conclude
that G-d is, without fear of punishment by G-d. Since
G-d is just, He could not hold them accountable for
their actions if they had no good reason to believe
that they acted wrongly in behaving as they did.
Their position does appear the strongest but only
because it is the most complicated.
To those who would maintain either of the first two
agnostic positions, we recommend a continuing
effort. The issue is central to the human condition; it
affects the most basic premises on which one leads
his life. It burns for an answer. It is difficult to see
how anyone could adopt a position which consists
Proofs of G-d
entirely of doubt and questions on an issue as
important as the existence of G-d. If someone has not
resolved the problem to his satisfaction, he ought to
be consumed with the effort to do so. Furthermore,
G-d's existence is a fact which is independent of any
proof. Any "proof" can only serve to inform one of
this fact. It does not establish it. As we will show
later on, there is in fact a proof which, if "valid," is
necessarily accessible to all too. Thus, ignorance is no
We may analyze the remaining agnostic position into
two assertions: 1) that a clear and forceful proof of G-
d's existence does not exist and 2) lacking such a
proof, one who fails to acknowledge G-d's existence
cannot be held accountable for that failure.
As to the first point, many would say that there are
numerous such proofs, among them those given by
Maimonides, Descartes, Leibniz, and Newton. In
fact, most of the acknowledged great thinkers
maintained that everyone should know that G-d
exists. Clearly the existence of such a proof is not a
settled issue, and one who fails to find one, or who
finds the proofs less than convincing, has no grounds
for confidence in his conclusion in the face of such
Proofs of G-d
distinguished opposition.
Furthermore the assertion that there are no good
proofs of G-d's existence is only a matter of opinion.
The demand for a convincing, clear, or forceful proof
has no objective content. It comes down to a demand
for an argument which will command assent, with
no a priori or objective specifications such a proof
must meet. A proof is convincing if it convinces;
there is no standard more subjective than that.
Everything is left up to each individual. He is free to
decide if a particular argument convinces him or not.
Some would ask for a logical proof as an objective
standard to be met. We have pointed out that this is
not the kind of proof one would expect to find, based
on the kind of question we are dealing with, namely,
an ontological question. 2 Furthermore, even such
proofs, when they deal with objects (and are not just
argument forms) are open to objections; for example,
see Lewis Carroll's "What the Tortoise Said to
Achilles." 3 Even logical arguments require an
unsubstantiated assent to the use of certain forms of
reasoning. If one refused to accept a logically valid
argument, the logic might "take you by the throat
and force you to (accept) it," but such attacks have
Proofs of G-d
never been known to be fatal. 4 Thus it is not clear by
what standard one could confidently say that a good
proof of G-d has not been proffered.
As to his accountability for failing to accept G-d, we
should like to recall that the agnostic's "position" can
in no sense be called the true one. If he will not be
punished for denying G-d, neither can he be
rewarded for accepting Him. According to the more
sophisticated views of the relationship between man
and G- d, reward and punishment are not separate
consequences but rather locations on a continuum.
An agnostic may not find himself at the lower end of
the continuum, but he would certainly remain
distant from the higher end. It is not what many
would see as a safe position.
The nature of the proofs for G-d as we have
interpreted them should further erode the
complacency of an agnostic. As we have explained
them, many proofs demonstrate G-d by suggesting
methods whose result is to actually experience Him.
Such arguments, when successful, have some
remarkable properties.
They are conclusive. If one has direct personal
experience of G- d there remain no further questions
Proofs of G-d
as to His existence. As well as we know anything, we
know that G-d is. Perhaps better. The "perception" on
which these proofs rest is basic to all human
knowledge. It is prior to sensory perception and is
the faculty which we use to evaluate all knowledge –
even analytic a priori knowledge. It might be
understood as direct intellectual perception
(unmediated by the senses). That which is perceived
in this way cannot be doubted because there is no
more reliable means to knowledge against which it
may be tested. This is all a more or less academic
discussion. In practice, one who has such a
perception will be at ease about G-d's existence.
The proofs can be honestly denied. It is not hard to
believe that someone has not perceived G-d though
he made some effort. One whose attempts at
perception proved unsuccessful is unfortunate but
perfectly reasonable and understandable. We
maintain that anyone who makes a serious,
unprejudiced attempt will be successful, though
considerable effort may be required. Moreover, some
of the arguments themselves are clear and simple
and should be accessible to almost anyone. Though
the arguments are clear and conclusive, yet an
agnostic is within his rights to point out that it didn't
Proofs of G-d
work for him. Within his rights maybe, but right he's
They are universally accessible. Some may find one
particular argument easier to work with than
another, yet the basic idea must be accessible to all.
G-d is life; He permeates Creation. One would
suspect that it is not difficult to perceive Him, and
some effort, if it's in the right direction, would
confirm those suspicions. It must be remembered
that everyone (including those who follow G-d's
precepts but have not yet had conclusive experience
of His being) has a very strong vested interest in
avoiding this perception. Confrontation with one's
creator is an intensely humbling experience. It makes
one nakedly aware of his or her most fundamental
limitations. Overcoming this entrenched prejudice
against meeting the Creator, even if one is convinced
that He is around, is the source of much of the effort
required to meet Him. Another difficulty may be in
seeing the unfamiliar, G-dly aspects of so much
which is so thoroughly familiar in other aspects.
Nonetheless, all this has its origin in the human
psyche and as such may be controlled by us.
If we would meet Him, we will.
Proofs of G-d
On the Objections Raised by I.
Kant to the Ontological Proof
The ontological proof, with many variations, has
been used by many philosophers. Among those who
seemed to have accepted it were Descartes, Spinoza,
and Leibniz. Others have accused it of circularity, but
none as thoroughly and carefully as Immanuel Kant
in his Critique of Pure Reason. Since his analysis, it is
often thought that the ontological proof has been
finally exposed as a petitio principii.
Kant's objection is summarized popularly with the
slogan, "Existence is not a predicate." The proof in its
strongest form asserts that existence is essential to
the nature of G-d, hence we cannot deny His
existence without contradiction. Kant answers this
with a very careful discussion of the difference
Proofs of G-d
between existence and other predicates (such as
color, or height, or omnipotence). Existence, he
points out, is not something which at all determines
the nature of a thing. If we give a full definition of
something, and then we say that it exists, we have
added nothing by this last assertion. Although many
things do exist, this condition is not a part of their
He argues that a hundred real coins are no more
than a hundred possible coins. The only difference
between real and possible coins is the presence of the
object in the case of the real coins. But these coin
objects which are added to the concept of the coins
already present when the coins are just possible,
must be completely separate from the idea of the
coins itself. It is what makes the coins and but it is
not what makes them coins. Furthermore, if the real
thing were in any way different from the concept of
its possibility, we would not say that that possible
thing really is. The fact that we consider the possible
thing to be realized shows that they are the same,
that what was added to the idea to produce the real
object is not part of the idea itself but something
separate from it. As people commonly say, "Just
because we can think of a thing doesn't mean that it
Proofs of G-d
also exists." This is the gist of Kant's argument.
Kant's analysis is very forceful and very clearly
articulates the unease felt by most upon hearing the
ontological proof. In general his remarks are, of
course, correct. However, there is one case (and one
case only – the case of the One) in which his analysis
breaks down. G-d's existence is of a wholly different
kind than ours and all with which we are familiar.
His existence is necessary and essential; ours,
contingent and accidental. Kant's analysis amounts
to the assertion that existence is accidental. For us
and the material objects which populate our lives,
this is true. For G-d this is false.
In fact, this distinction constitutes the heart of the
proof. Acceptance of the proof is dependent on
understanding that G-d exists necessarily, not
accidentally. G-d is the one being whose reality is a
part of His essence. The existence which is attributed
to Him by those who advance the ontological proof
not the same kind as that which we "attribute" to
other objects. The latter sort of existence is not in fact
a predicate of its objects. To use it as such is a true
confusion of a logical and a real predicate, as Kant
complained. However, when we say G-d is, we mean
Proofs of G-d
He is necessarily and essentially – and it is a
contradiction to deny such being. To be sure, this sort
of being is not familiar and the concept is extremely
difficult to grasp but it most definitely is. To
paraphrase Maimonides: He, may His name be
elevated, and His existence are one. Man's mind
cannot grasp this completely. Just as man lacks the
ability to grasp and understand G- d's mind, as it
were, so man lacks the ability to grasp and
understand the truth of the Creator (Himself).
1 It is definitely a mistake, since, at the least, they judged the
proposition that the world could have come about by chance to
be true, when it turns out to be false.
2 Note: This should not be taken to imply that there is no such
argument, unexpected though it may be.
3 Newman, James R., The World of Mathematics, vol. IV (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1956), pp. 2402-2405.
4 Ibid, p. 2404.
A Sound Mind
One of the interesting things about the Mesorah is its
homogeneity. It is all one unit, without a central
creed or favored part. This, of course, does not mean
that all parts will affect a person in the same way, but
that with respect to importance it is all the same. For
example, the Decalogue is not said daily lest it come
to appear more important than other things which
are left out. 1
In this context it is somewhat surprising that
Rambam (Maimonides) would formulate thirteen
A Sound Mind
particular principles that he maintained are the main
part of the belief system. 2 In what way these are
singled out is not clear. Their function, how they are
to be used, is far from obvious.
There was much opposition to the idea and to the
formulation. It was protested that Torah cannot be
divided or condensed. In general, there are two
senses in which principles might be considered
essential for a system. In a positive sense, a set of
principles could be considered the core of the
structure, so that acceptance of them is considered
acceptance of the whole, as if these statements were
axioms which in some sense “contained” the entire
system as consequences. In a negative sense, a set of
principles could have the character that a denial of
one of them is considered a denial of the main part,
or tantamount to the denial of the whole, as if the
statements were all columns necessary to support the
entire system. These, at least, are the obvious reasons
one would call statements essential to a system.
The assertion that these thirteen are uniquely
essential in the negative sense was questioned by
Rabbi S. R. Hirsch. He argued that a principled
rejection of any of the commandments is legally
A Sound Mind
sufficient ground for excluding one from the
community. Furthermore, the rejection of any part of
the text of the Torah as being of Divine origin is also
considered denial of an essential. This is in fact the
content of one of Rambam’s thirteen (number 8).
From this point of view, thirteen seems an excessive
On the other hand, there are some who have argued
that thirteen is just excessive. Looking at the positive
aspect of essential principles, the Ikarim includes a
long argument that the thirteen are not
independent.3 The number suggested there is three,
on the grounds that the other ten can be deduced
from them. It is not clear that Rambam would argue
with that claim. He does not say that his thirteen are
rationally independent. However, if they can make
no claim to exclusive essentiality, and if they are not
even rationally independent, then what is it that is
claimed for them?
Every person is a world apart. Everyone is a
complete system, body plus mind, adequate for
persistence. A given body and the contents of the
associated mind form a complex that is sufficient to
A Sound Mind
allow it to maintain itself in the larger world.
On this basis, it would be proper to call the contents
of a person's mind a theory of the world. Every one
must construct an abstract, theoretical representation
of the world, such as he interacts with it in a rational
manner. This theory will be very broad, including
ideas about everyday objects as well as more lofty
principles of action and belief. It will be integral to
planning and memory and similar operations
involving mental manipulation of objects not present
We are not here interested in general analysis of
these theories or in making claims for or about them.
It is worth pointing out, though, that such thought
worlds have been discussed quite extensively. We
can point to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics
and anthropology, 4 and to the work of Quine on the
indeterminacy of translation and background
theories, 5 among many other works. The existence of
such personal thought worlds is recognizing by
many, and is easily seen with a little personal
reflection. They are, however, difficult to talk about
since they are so private and individual. Everyone
has a particular and unique theory, although there
A Sound Mind
may be enough similarities and points of contact
between those of persons with similar environments
to construct theories of these theories. Nonetheless,
these points of contact will be difficult to locate and
discuss meaningfully. As Quine puts it, “radical
translation begins at home,” and not just in trying to
translate exotic tongues. 6 We are all essentially
The kinds of theories that people will construct are
conditioned by the parts of the world with which
those people interact with the world. For example,
the Argentinian gauchos regularly use about two
hundred expressions for the various colors of the
hides of horses, yet in their usual speech only four
plant names occur. 7 Clearly too, the report of a
botanist and of a civil engineer after a routine visit to
the same site may have very little in common. They
each may not even have noticed objects that the other
considered important.
A more subtle, but by that same attribute more
instructive, example may be had from a fairly well-
known passage in the Mesorah. Among the things
Hillel is reported to have said are, “If I am not for
me, who is for me? And if I am for myself, what am
A Sound Mind
I?” 8 Modern readers have almost invariably seen
these two as thesis and antithesis, and worked at
enunciating the synthesis. The usual result is that
one must look out for oneself because no one else
will, but that we should not overdo it. However, as
they were read by Luzzato about 250 years ago, they
had a different tone. 9
Luzzato interprets the first question as an answer to
one who pays no critical attention to his deeds from
a moral point of view. This is one who might well
behave with due regard for his material interests, yet
would rely on G'd's benevolence to take care of the
moral issues in his life. The import of Hillel's reply is
similar to “G'd helps those who help themselves”:
one should not expect G'd to ensure the moral health
of one who shows no concern of his own. This sense
of self-concern is similar to that which we have
discussed in our preface. This heightened
consciousness of one's moral responsibilities has
nothing to do at all with concentration on self, which
is the point of the second rhetorical question.
Using this framework, we can interpret Freud (with
a dash of Levi Strauss) as arguing that certain
questions and problems have a privileged position in
A Sound Mind
the thought worlds of people. These questions may
be generally characterized as issues of origins and
parenthood (Oedipal-type stuff), and the power of
some basic human drives. However, the material
which is considered material to the questions of origins is
entirely material (in the sense of physical). In other
words, the world of the mind, as described by Freud,
is constituted entirely of questions of the body:
Where does the body come from and what is it to do
about its wants. Physical issues dominate
overwhelmingly and condition all mental operations.
It is an analysis which can fairly, almost literally, be
called subsolar narrow-mindedness.
The easy criticism of the Freudian analysis of the
human mind is that it leaves out the intellectual and
spiritual parts. We have referred to related issues in
“The Rise of the Science of Economics and the Idea of
Gain,” and in “The Scientist as Poet; The Baal
Mesorah as Scientist.” Freud may not have been
original in the undersight, but the problem is more
sharply felt in his task of analysis of our mental
universe. One would think that the mind, being
much more immediately present to itself than is the
body, would occupy some important place of
interest. It would seem reasonable to expect that
A Sound Mind
mental matters would be the material about which
the mind would meditate, at least some of the time.
To confine the mind to the body is to leave it with a
much narrower range than it really has. One is
naturally led to suspect that this approach is “born of
same,” that is, of an unduly narrow mind.
This limitation has deeper consequences too. The
question of origin identified by Freud are important,
and they do insist on answers. The pervasiveness of
attempts to answer the question of our origin is
enough to indicate its place in our thoughts,
recognized or not. Without entering into the question
of whether the whole discussion of human origins is
adequate or effective, we protest that the origin of
intellect is not even mentioned. Since our intellect is
certainly no less an important part of us than is our
body, this is not a slight oversight. Since too, it is our
intellect which is engaged in the search for sources, it
is not likely to be a forgettable nor a forgivable
In the Mesorah, the higher parts of man are not
overlooked. While, in the Western tradition, man is
commonly defined as the rational animal, in the
Mesorah, Adam is a “speaking spirit.” 10 The animal
A Sound Mind
of man is valued but not part of the essence. Thus,
the issue of the origin of the spirit is most seriously
felt, addressed, and answered within the Mesorah. It
is this concern which is the stimulus which elicits the
thirteen principles.
1 Babylonian Talmud, Brachos 12b; Mishnah Tamid chapter 3:1.
2 Commentary on Mishnah, Sanhedrin, Introduction to Chapter
3 By Rabbi Joseph Albo.
4 Sapir, Edward, Culture, Language, and Personality (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1964), e.g., p. 69.
5 Quine, W. V., Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1968). Especially the title essay, and
“Epistemology Naturalized.”
6 Ibid., p. 46.
7 Steiner, George, After Babel (London: Oxford University Press,
1975), p. 87.
8 Pirkei Avos, Chapter 1:14.
9 Luzzato, Harav Moshe Chaim, Mesilas Yeshorim.
A Sound Mind
10 Bereshis II, 7. With Targum Onkelos.
11 Bereshis Rabbah, 68:10.
Note Added to the 5774-2014 Edition
I have found that anthropologists have a technical
term that I can use to state very succinctly what I
want to say about Rambam's Thirteen Principles:
they are a normative thick description of Torah
What are thick descriptions? According to Clifford
Geertz formulating them is the occupation of a social
anthropologist and, in an essay entitled, “Thick
Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of
Culture,”1 he writes that they attempt to capture, “a
multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many
of them superimposed upon or knotted into one
another...” that make up the “webs of significance”
that man himself has spun and in which he is
suspended throughout his life.
A Sound Mind
Many things that we do have meanings that are not
captured in the “thin description” of the raw action.
For example, someone may have contracted his
eyelid. This describes the act itself, but does not
include the information that he was winking at
someone. To say that he contracted his eyelid is to
give a thin description. To say he winked is to begin
to give a thick description. It is only a beginning
since it does not include, for example, the further
information about why he was winking, what he
hoped to accomplish by doing so and who his
audience was, among other potentially relevant
In our characterization of Rambam's Thirteen
Principles we have added another adjective,
“normative,” to capture the fact that these ideas are
not only descriptive but also prescriptive. Yet the
value added by that term is not really so great, and
comes more from the context of the Rambam's
writing. Much is already included in the
characterization of the Principles as thick
description. Developing his characterization of his
discipline as describing culture, Geertz quotes Ward
Goodenough: “A society's culture consists of
A Sound Mind
whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to
operate in a manner acceptable to its members.”
Geertz goes on to say, “And from this view of what
culture is follows a view, equally assured, of what
describing it is--the writing out of systematic rules,
an ethnographic algorithm, which, if followed,
would make it possible so to operate, to pass
(physical appearance aside) for a native.” This is
remarkably similar to what the Rambam says of his
Principles: “When someone believes all these
Principles, and they clarify his belief in Hashem, he
enters into Klal Yisrael... but if any one of these
Principles is messed up for him, he has left the group
and denied the essence...”
It is also worth noting that a similar characterization
of the Thirteen Principles was argued by HaRav
Moshe Shapira in his sefer Re'eih Emunah, which
collects a series of lectures he gave on the Thirteen
The Scientist as Poet; the Baal Mesorah as
Is there anyone who does not acknowledge that — if
nothing else — we should be grateful to science for
all the modern devices that make life easier for
everyone? Yes.
Although most people assume that modern
technology is merely applied science, this has been
challenged by a group of scholars who specialize in
the history of technology. 1 While we do not propose
to give a full discussion of all the issues, we do wish
to summarize the basic points.
For these purposes, science is thought of as the
The Scientist as Poet
knowledge and understanding of the world per se.
Technology is the knowledge and understanding of
how to do things, whether it be to calculate the stress
load of a member of a proposed structure, to design
a working irrigation system, to build an apartment
building, or to design a computer. Thus, science is
concerned with developing an understanding of, say,
the human body, while the corresponding
technology is concerned with changing the
operations of portions of the body.
In the classical view of things, these pursuits were
clearly distinct and separate. Artisans were
concerned with doing things, and philosophers with
understanding. In later times, when certain skills
were considered important for educational
development, these became known – separately but
in a single phrase – as the arts and sciences. In the
past two hundred years or so, people have come to
think of technology as applied science and of science
as theoretical technology. It seems that many who
have studied carefully the relationship between the
two argue that the classical view is more accurate.
In both of these enterprises, it is necessary to analyze
existing material and to synthesize it in new ways.
The Scientist as Poet
However, the emphasis is markedly different. In
technology, the goal is primarily new solutions,
different ways of synthesizing existing knowledge.
For the scientist, on the other hand,it is sufficient to
achieve a new or more exact analysis of some
phenomenon. 2
If we think of many of the things that really changed
life, such as indoor plumbing and improved
transportation and communication, it is evident that
they are not the results of the application of an
understanding of the laws of nature. The railroad
and its engines, the automobile, and even the
airplane were the products of tinkerers – technicians
– rather than scientists. In an extremely trenchant
observation, Braudel points out that the
improvements in transportation of 150 years ago
were the results of developing technology that had
already been available for hundreds of years. 3 The
construction of improved roads, the maintenance of
the vehicles used for transportation, and the
proliferation of staging posts, all of which resulted in
vastly improved and swifter transportation, were not
the result of new knowledge of any kind. It is
interesting that the development of the older
technology to its limits of possibility occurred only
The Scientist as Poet
about twenty years before it was replaced by the
In only a few cases, such as the chemical industry, is
there any clear application of basic research. In fact,
in many fields the benefits flow in the opposite
direction: from technology to basic science. In
physics, astronomy, and even medicine,
breakthroughs are often the result of the
development and construction of new machines and
the use of new techniques. Larger telescopes, more
powerful particle accelerators, and electron
microscopes are all technical advancements that led
to knew theoretical knowledge.
Furthermore, many inventions have occurred before
there was any theoretical understanding of the
reasons for their effectiveness. Sahal cites the
invention of the steam engine and the gas-filled
electric bulb. The trial and error of the search for a
practical electric light bulb has been retold many
times. 4 Smith notes that art and amusement often
have been the earliest applications of new
techniques. 5 A good example of this is the design
and manufacture of electronic computer chips,
which found early applications in games and
The Scientist as Poet
consumer goods such as watches and calculators.
A striking difference between science and technology
is the attitude of the respective practitioners toward
publishing their work and reading about the
research of others. This has been detailed by Price. 6
Scientists are interested in producing papers to
publish. There is pressure on them to produce
regularly. This is not only because their professional
advancement is dependent on their publications, but
also because scientific papers are the real end
product of their work. The appearance of the paper
establishes their claim to ownership of the work and
also enters it into the permanent archive of
cumulative scientific achievement. Technicians, on
the other hand, are concerned with producing things
rather than papers. They are typically averse to
publishing their findings. To do so gives advantages
to others more than to themselves. They reap the
largest reward for themselves when they are able to
prevent others from learning the details of the
innovations they develop.
This divergence in approach is, incidentally, carried
over in their attitudes toward reading professional
literature. Technicians are eager to read as much as is
The Scientist as Poet
available so that they may benefit from the work of
others. Scientists are different. They "seem to have
considerable resistance to reading more than they
absolutely must... To put it in a nutshell, albeit in
exaggerated from, the scientist wants to write but not
read,and the technologist wants to read but not write." 7
(The original is emphasized. Scientists get their
information about recent developments mainly
through direct personal contact.)
On the whole, science cumulates mainly on the basis
of previous science, and technology advances on the
results of previous technical work. Except in a few
cases, their progress is substantially independent.
Also, as Price argues, science is concerned with
intellectual and literary achievement while
technology is aimed at material achievement.
Thus we must return to our starting point and raise
the question that – if not for the modern devices that
make life easier – is there anything for which we
should be grateful to modern science? And
furthermore, since science does not put bread on
most of our tables, what has it done for us lately?
A hint may be had from the literary nature of science
described by Price. As Thomas Kuhn notes, there is a
The Scientist as Poet
universal human desire to have a psychologically
satisfying view of the world in which one lives. 8
Every civilization and culture known supplies its
participants with some theory of the larger context in
which man finds himself. In cultures other than the
modern Western one, this task was never combined
with the task of describing the observable world.
One of the important distinctions between modern
science and the theories of early cultures is certainly
that science holds itself bound by the constriction
that whatever it says be compatible with observed
phenomena. This, no doubt, makes of science a very
powerful system and also helps make the
atmosphere congenial for the flourishing of
technology. Technology returns the favor by
providing enormous amounts of phenomena about
which modern science can theorize.
It is its orientation toward experience, and its success
in describing and organizing it that is continually
stressed – almost flaunted – by modern science. Yet
the riddles of the observable world can hardly be
called the prime movers of scientific research. In
virtually all fields of scientific inquiry, the central
problems have long left the realm of the readily
observable. Scientists are largely concerned, strictly
The Scientist as Poet
speaking, with explaining the readings of
instruments which are thought to respond to the
effects of increasingly subtle events. It is not only
that the problems of, say, quantum chromodynamics
are not stimulated by the things we encounter in a
day at the office or on a hike, but even the solutions
are difficult (to say the least) to connect in any way
to the macroscopic, man-sized world. 9 All that there
is under direct observation are digital readouts, lines
on scopes, and such "phenomena." These are related
to physical phenomena only through sensory
mechanisms, amplification circuitry, and interpretive
systems (such as filters). All this must be supported
by theories on the operation of the components of
the instrumentation, and only then can it be used as
data in the construction of further theories. 10 Since
science is practiced at such a remove from everyday
experience, it is clear that understanding our familiar
world cannot provide a credible motive for the
practice of science as it is now done.
The why of science can only be understood along the
lines of the human imperative to grasp coherently
the larger context in which people function. The
scientist works to achieve for himself of herself and
for the rest of society a "psychologically satisfying
The Scientist as Poet
world-view." 11 By constructing deeper and more
comprehensive models he hopes to succeed in
making sense of the world. This emphatically
subjective motive has a decidedly unscientific
character to it. Although science prides itself on
being the result of a dialogue between logico-
mathematical theory and experience, and scientists
do deal with numbers and abstract structures, yet the
motive behind it all is reminiscent of what drives
poets and creative writers. This is the literary motive
of scientists in a deeper sense.
The material which remains of the efforts of other
cultures to answer this need we call myths. It has
been a constant theme of Levi Strauss that myth is
the attempt to deal with the larger questions that
confronted the authors. 12 Modern science is really a
modern mythology, though it speaks mathematics
and sees the world. Though these latter features
sharply distinguish the recent from the early efforts,
the similarities remain. Some of the excesses of
modern scientists are easily understood in this light.
In particular, for example, consider the enormous
interest in black holes and extraterrestrial
intelligence in recent years. Both are long range
extrapolations from established theory and, though
The Scientist as Poet
they may eventually turn out to be real, for the
moment the excitement they generate cannot by any
stretch of our senses be construed as empirically
based. The primary favorable "basis" for both is
speculative reason. All available evidence, especially
for extraterrestrial intelligence, or even
extraterrestrial life, is negative. There seems an
obvious parallel here between these discussions and
early tales of mythical places and beasts.
There is another similarity between modern science
and earlier mythologies: both are not directly related
to truth. This is not to suggest that scientific models
are in the same class as myths, which have been
falsified by observation, or, if not falsified, at least
opened to ridicule. The latter were not as concerned
with the empirical as is modern science and do not
always stand up to the test of experience as well as
modern theories, which were invented with
empirical constrains in mind. Although the ancient
myths are absurd, if not false, there is no reason to
think that modern scientific answers are true. As
modern philosophy of science has attempted to
clarify the differences between physics and
metaphysics, the logical relationship between
theories and the data which are said to support
The Scientist as Poet
them, and the observational meaning of theoretical
terms, it was found that a direct relationship between
scientific theory and truth is lacking.
It seems clear from the work of Kuhn, 13 Popper, 14
and Quine, 15 among others, that the values of truth
and falsity are not directly applicable to individual
statements of the sciences, and that even for larger
theories they remain more like distant guiding lights
rather than strict immediate standards. Quine's
argument – on logical grounds – is that any given
experiment really tests the whole system rather than
any individual statement, since it is always possible
to make suitable systematic changes to preserve any
particular point. The system that is tested is the
whole fabric including the broader scientific theory
and even the logic and language in which the
theories are formulated. He also argues, again on
logical grounds, that it is always possible to have two
theories which account for a given body of data that
are otherwise equivalent in every respect except that
they are logically incompatible with each other.
There is no way to determine any preference
between them, and it is certainly impossible to
declare either true. A handy example of this can be
found in the basic positions taken by Galileo and the
The Scientist as Poet
Church in their discussions about the structure of the
solar-terrestrial-planetary system. Galileo
maintained that it is heliocentric and the Church that
it is geocentric. The current view is that
heliocentrism and geocentrism are nonexclusive
alternative descriptions (since everything is relative,
see "Notes on an Outmoded World View"), but in
those times the theories were seen as two mutually
exclusive competitors. Although the exclusive
versions of the two theories are probably not
"equivalent in every respect," yet they are both
unquestionably empirically adequate as we know
since Einstein. Thus they are adequate to provide a
crude illustration of two acceptable though
incompatible theories, and they are more familiar
than other, more technically correct examples are.
Thus the product of science cannot be said to be
universal truth or even the truths of the universe. Its
endeavor cannot be to produce a synthesis of
experience; as we have known since Hume,
induction does not work. Science aims rather at
literary creation. It tries to produce a mythology for
modern man. The scientist does not merely read the
book of nature. From nature he draws the inspiration
to compose a poem for man.
Baal Mesorah As Scientist
There is a well-known saying, often cited in
connection with Galileo, that the Bible teaches how
to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go. 16
The Mesorah is not the Bible. It certainly includes
more, but it is not even clear if the portion of it which
is commonly identified as the Bible is, in fact,
identical to the Bible referred to by Galileo or his
contemporary. In any case, it would be misleading to
substitute "Mesorah" for "Bible" in the saying
mentioned in the preceding paragraph.
Galileo thought that the book of nature could be read
through observation and experimentation to provide
unambiguous knowledge of how the heavens work.
As we have pointed out above, this is now generally
seen as a somewhat naive enthusiasm born of the
freshness and power of the genuinely new
methodology which Galileo used. Empirical data can
only rule out some systems. It cannot make any
positive determination of theory. The only truth and
falsity that is available to systems which would call
themselves "empirical" is that which is within a
theory of choice. "...there is no extra-theoretic truth,
no higher truth than the truth we are claiming or
aspiring to as we continue to tinker with our system
Baal Mesorah As Scientist
of the world from within." 17 Science can not teach
how the heavens really go.
If the Mesorah does not teach how the heavens go, it
is mainly because it does not care. The facts and laws
of the physical universe, such as they are, concern it
only insofar as they relate to its other concerns.
Astronomy, for example, is discussed only to the
extent necessary to calculate and resolve the
differences between the lunar and the solar years and
to construct a stable calendar. Incidentally, it is worth
noting that the calendar which is included in the
Mesorah predates the Gregorian solar calendar in
common use by over one thousand years. Though it
is more cumbersome since it uses a true lunar month
rather than the approximate one of the common
calendar, its accuracy is at least comparable. Aside
from a few issues of this kind, such general questions
as an accurate theory of Mercury, the nature of the
observed astronomical objects and their composition,
and the cataloging of observed objects, which are
typical of the concerns of professional astronomers,
are not of interest to the Baal Mesorah. The material
world, vast, complex, and interesting though it may
be, is the lowest part of reality. It enters into the
sphere of concern of the Mesorah only on a need-to-
Baal Mesorah As Scientist
know or an incidental basis.
There are higher parts of what there is which are no
less vast, no less complex, and no less interesting, no
less amenable to creative analysis, and much more
satisfying to study. Our potential to explore these
parts is only latent unless it is properly developed. It
is the prime concern of the Mesorah to develop this
potential and to actualize it. (It also gives guideposts
and information about them).
It is worth noting that the structure of these areas is
no less elegant and no less logical than modern
scientific theories. This should not be surprising
since, after all, there is only one Architect.
G-d looked at the Torah and created the world. 18
Scientists look at the world and create their theories,
and the world they look at is only a relatively
insignificant part of what G-d created. The theories
they propound can be no better than what they see,
and are often only approximations of even that
(usually called "idealizations"). 19 The Mesorah
contains the original blueprints, the Axioms from
which the whole world was deduced.
The Mesorah aims to develop our capacity to
Baal Mesorah As Scientist
investigate and understand the higher parts of the
world. When it wants to refer to the material world
the Mesorah often describes it as that which is under
the sphere of the sun. Thus, for example, when
Koheles (Ecclesiastes) writes: "There is nothing new
under the sun," he means to include the entire
physical universe but not the higher realms in his
disparaging comment. 20 Similarly, when Rambam
(Maimonides) characterizes the contemporaries of
Moses by the fact that "all their investigation did not
pass the sphere and its powers and actions because
they had not gotten away from the sensible nor
achieved intellectual development," he also means
that they were all concerned solely with the material
and empirical and had not perfected their capacity to
deal with higher things. 21 Part of the Mosaic task, as
reported in the Mesorah, was to change that.
If we are willing to identify science with technology
we can paraphrase the earlier saying to read: Science
tells how to go to the heavens but not how the
heavens go, but the Mesorah tells how to go to
Heaven by telling us how Heaven goes. Science is
the thoughts of man on the world. Traditional
theology is the thoughts of man on G-d. The Mesorah
contains the thoughts of G-d on man. 22
Baal Mesorah As Scientist
1 Much of the work has been done in relative obscurity. As a
result, it might be worthwhile to identify some by the positions
they have held. Derek J. DeSolla Price was Avalon Professor of
the History of Science at Yale University, Cyril Stanley Smith
was Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, Devendra Sahal teaches at New York University.
2 Sahal, Devendra, Patterns of Technological Innovation (Reading,
Pa.:Addison Wesley, 1981), p. 30.
3 Braudel, Fernand, The Structures of Everyday Life (New
York:Harper and Row, 1981), p. 27.
4 Sahal, Technological Innovation, p. 32.
5 Smith, Cyril Stanley, "On Art, Invention, and Technology,"
Technology Review, June 1976.
6 Price, Derek J. Desolla, "Is Technology Historically
Independent of Science? A Study in Statistical Historiography,"
Technology and Culture 4 (1965). Part of a symposium entitled
"The Historical Relation of Science and Technology."
7 Ibid., p. 562.
8 Kuhn, Thomas, The Copernican Revolution (Cambridge:
Baal Mesorah As Scientist
Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 7.
9 Zimmerman, Chaim, Torah and Reason (Jerusalem: Tvuno,
1979), p. 230f. See also critique of Russell's work.
10 Duhem, Pierre, "Physical Law," Danto, A. and Morgenbesser,
S., eds., Philosophy of Science (New York: The New American
Library, 1960), p. 184.
11 Kuhn, Copernican Revolution.
12 Levi Strauss, Claude, Structural Anthropology (Garden City,
N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1967).
13 Kuhn, Copernican Revolution; idem., The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
14 Popper, Sir Karl, Objective Knowledge (London: Oxford
University Press, 1972).
15 Quine, Willard V., Theories and Things (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1981). Especially essays 1, 2, 4, and 7. Most of
Quine's arguments and opinions on the relevant matters are
recapitulated here: idem., "On Empirically Equivalent Systems
of the World" Erkenntnis 9 (1975), 313-328; idem., "Two Dogmas
of Empiricism," From A logical Point of View (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1961). Also, Hanson, Norwood
Russell, "Number Theory and Physical Theory: An Analogy," in
Cohen and Wartofsky, eds., Boston Studies in the Philosophy of
Science, vol. 2, 1965, pp. 93-119. The analogy is that both are
Baal Mesorah As Scientist
without foundation.
16 Gingerich, Owen, "The Galileo Affair," Scientific American 247
(August 1982), 120.
17 Quine, "Empirically Equivalent Systems," 327.
18 Bereishis Rabba, I, 1.
19 Hempel, Carl G., Aspects of Scientific Investigation (New
York: The Free Press, 1965), p. 116.
20 Koheles I, 9.
21 Rambam, Guide to the Perplexed, Kapach, Y., trans. (Jerusalem:
Mossad Harav Kook, 1977), Chap. 63.
22 Hirsch, Samson Raphael, Gesammelte Schriften, quoted in
Introduction to Horeb by I. Grunfeld, p. xlix.
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The “structural method,” first set forth in this epoch-making book, changed the very face of social anthropology. This reissue of a classic will reintroduce readers to Lévi-Strauss’s understanding of man and society in terms of individuals—kinship, social organization, religion, mythology, and art.