Sunday, July 27, 2008

Can We Say That God Exists?

Someone told me that he heard a recent deep conversation in which someone said to a rabbi that God exists and the rabbi, after thinking about it, agreed that we can say that. I don't know for sure what the rabbi's hesitation was about, but I doubt that it was whether God exists. I think he was probably considering the following.

Click here to read moreMedieval philosophers were very concerned with the issue of attributing characteristics to God. This was deemed problematic because it implies a defect in the unity of God. For example, if you say that Shimon is good you are implying that there is an independent trait of goodness that Shimon has, thereby distinguishing between Shimon and goodness. However, God is indivisible into components and cannot contain a separate trait of goodness.

Charles Manekin (On Maimonides, p. 27) explains the problem with the following example:

For example, if Jake describes Samantha as "lively," "clever," and "forceful," we may infer that Samantha's personality is complex and multifaceted. But if we describe an absolutely simple God as "living," "knowing," and "powerful," how can we avoid the same implication?
Some rishonim follow the view of the Kalam (medieval Muslim philosophy) and distinguish between two types of attributes: accidental attributes and essential attributes. Accidental attributes are properties that an object may or may not have. An apple is green, a person is happy, a cup of coffee is hot, etc. These can all change and are not necessary for the object. An essential attribute is a property that an object's definition depends on. Dr. Manekin's example of descriptions of Samantha are all accidental attributes -- clever, lively, forceful.

R. Bachya Ibn Pakuda (Chovos Ha-Levavos, sha'ar ha-yichud ch. 10, p. 42 in Feldheim/Kafach edition, tr. in R. J. David Bleich, With Perfect Faith, p. 126) allows for three essential attributes of God -- existence, unity and eternity. R. Sa'adia Ga'on (Emunos Ve-Dei'os 2:1-2, Kafach edition p. 82ff., tr. in With Perfect Faith p. 115ff.) states that we can describe God with three essential attributes -- living, powerful, wise. The essential attributes are part of the definition of God and therefore, according to R. Bachya and R. Sa'adia Ga'on, do not imply multiplicity or divisibility in God.

However, the Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 1:52, Kafach edition pp. 77-78, With Perfect Faith p. 135) opposes even essential attributes. He divides essential attributes in two -- a description that fully defines an object and a partial definition. He rejects the former because it implies that there is a cause that precedes God. Kenneth Seeskin (The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides, p. 84) explains:
The problem is that, once God is defined by any concept, the essence of God would be dependent on something else and limited in exactly the way the concept is limited.
Rambam rejects the latter type of essential attribute because by being a partial definition, it implies that God is made up of multiple parts. In 1:57, Rambam says that God's existence is different than any other being's existence, and therefore that attribute cannote be correctly applied to him: "הוא מצוי שלא במציאות He exists without possessing the attribute of existing" (Kafach p. 90; cf. Ramban on Ex. 3:14).

Therefore, the Rambam concludes that we can only speak of God in negatives. When we say that God is powerful we mean that He is not weak.

It would seem, then, that according to R. Bachya and R. Sa'adia Ga'on we can legitimately say that God exists. According to the Rambam we can say it but we can only mean that God must exist and His existence is always absolute. R. Chasdai Crescas (Or Hashem 1:3:3, Fisher edition p. 110) rejects the Rambam and agrees with the earlier philosophers that God has essential attributes, such as existing and unity.

Of course, this whole discussion has nothing to do with whether or not there is a God. It is about whether we can attribute the property of existence to God.

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