Why the Rambam Would Not Recommend the Study of Modern Science

by Mordecai Plaut

The Rambam is commonly cited as enjoining us to study science. With his customary clarity, the Rambam writes at the beginning of his Yad Hachazakah (II:2): "And how is the way to love of Him? When one contemplates His deeds and His great and wondrous creatures, and one sees from these the wisdom of G-d — that it is immeasurable and unbounded — immediately (miyad), he loves and praises and glorifies and has a huge desire to know Hashem Hagodol, "the great name." Rambam continues saying that one will immediately also shrink backward and fear G-d, after realizing what a small creature he himself is.

The Rambam continues (II:3): "In accordance with all this, I will explain important generalizations [taken] from the deeds of the Master of all Worlds, so that they can serve as an introduction for one who tries to understand to love Hashem." The rest of the next three chapters is a short summary of the cosmos as seen by the Rambam and apparently also by educated people of his time.

It is usually assumed without any argument whatsoever that, were the Rambam writing today, he would substitute a summary of the cosmos as seen by the educated people of our time — meaning the secular scientists. However this assumption is based on a woeful lack of appreciation of how utterly, radically different was the picture of the world that was shared throughout the educated community of the Rambam's time.

How many today would not agree with the statement of William Harvey (the English physician credited with describing accurately the function of the heart and the circulation of the blood) writing in 1649: "There is inherent in Nature's works no prudence, no artifices, no intelligence . . ."? "Everyone" knows today that, "the purely physical has no meaning; it just is." (Barzun, p. 194)

But in the 17th century when Harvey wrote, this was radical. Even Harvey went on to say that his assertions were reality but not appearance: ". . . but these only appear to our thinking to be there because we judge of the divine things of Nature according to our special faculties and peculiar manners of thought."

In retrospect Harvey's position was transitional. Today no one even thinks that "prudence" or "artifice" is particularly apparent in the world at all. Yet we must remember that not long before his period, the entire natural universe was seen as completely saturated with qualities such as prudence, artifice and intelligence.

All of Aristotle's physics relies on the active operation of the power of purpose. All motion in the world is derived from the original actions of unmoved movers who strive for perfection in the only way available to them: circular motion (See Physics VIII:9; Metaphysics XII:7). The workings of the physical universe — mechanical motions — are the products of their unceasing efforts. That love makes the world go around is thus not a metaphorical statement that is debatable as it is nowadays, but rather, for Aristotle, it is a fundamental physical truth of the physical world.

The full state of the mind of the ancient intellectual is somewhat inscrutable to the modern thinker. As Peter Gay points out (TRoMP, p. 124): "[T]he coexistence of such mental habits, which later ages would call contradictory and separate into `scientific' and `superstitious' elements, defined a coherent style of thinking in antiquity. All styles of thinking are composite, but they appear congruent to those who live with them — that is why they live with them. It may seem surprising that astrology and astronomy cohabit peacefully in one thinker, ritual observance and detached skepticism in another. But it is not enough for the historian to record what he is pleased to call these contradictions. He must penetrate to the center that made them appear organic parts of a single way of thought in its time."

Easier said than done, of course. It must be remembered, for example, that the world itself was more unified for the ancients. They had no concept of a professional scientist who can practice his profession in his laboratory in a fashion that is independent of his personal convictions.

The universe for them was animated by purpose. Those who studied it also had a clear goal in mind. They sought to read the Book of Nature the better to understand its Author and His ways. They were not trying to make a new discovery in order to win a Nobel Prize or to found a new hi-tech company.

The very idea of using knowledge of the world to subdue it and to improve the physical well-being of man, the most high-minded way of describing the thrust of modern science and technology, was totally absent from the intellectual perspective of thinking people until about 400 years ago.

For several centuries now, the study of the world has proceeded on its own. It has proposed, evaluated and advanced based on its own internal principles. To be sure a religious scientist might find in his professional work much that was of interest and benefit to his religion, but it is incidental to the science and totally absent in his professional work. He may firmly believe that the world has a purpose, but he will not refer to it in his published scientific papers. The world is the way it is, inert matter governed by laws that the scientist tries to discover. Everything is referred, ultimately, to the matter of the world.

How different was the approach of medieval and ancient man! The divine is central to their physical and intellectual life. All intellectual activity, especially, was focused on reaching the divine in one way or another. "Space, time, and purpose were all part of a gorgeous fabric spun by the divine artificer . . . " (TRoMP, p. 242)

In their study of the world, the true payoff was coming closer to the divine. Additional and deeper insight into the working of the physical world was most valued because it gave that much more familiarity with the way G-d had constructed the world and explained how He works.

Thus was the world approached, and what was found there was not the impersonal, inert world of brute matter that characterizes the world of modern science, but a world that instantiated and expressed divine wisdom, a world that was replete with the presence of the spirit. "The heavens were seen as a series of spheres ascending to G[-]d . . . (TRoMP, p. 242)

As Gay points out (p. 246) "the history of scientific progress is the history of liberation from teleology." The Rambam lived well before even the first stirring of this "liberation" (if that is the appropriate word) usually credited to Roger Bacon who was born about eleven years after the Rambam was niftar.

In the scientific world that the Rambam knew, teleology was rife. Everything was seen to have purpose, discovering the purpose of things was of vital concern and consequences were drawn from these studies. This view of the world, strongly saturated in teleology, was almost certainly one of the important elements that led the Rambam to recommend the studies that he cites for achieving love of G-d. A world that has purpose, pulls those who contemplate it and its purpose towards its end, which is G-d.

Everywhere that one turned, in the world as pictured in the Rambam's time, one was confronted with the purposive. The purpose of the world, and its "prudence, artifices and intelligence" pointed students of those days constantly away and above the world to the Author and Spirit that animates the world.

This is very different from the situation today, where science is (proudly) confined to the material and observable, and jealously — almost fanatically sometimes — refuses to consider anything above and beyond this.

The restriction to the empirical has been very fruitful in terms of material knowledge. It is probable that most of the achievements of modern science and technology were enabled by this important limitation.

Yet the result is that modern science is entirely unsuited to helping us to fulfill the very basic commandment to love G-d.

Bibliography ——————

TRoMP - The Enlightenment, An Interpretation: The Rise of Modern Paganism (volume 1), by Peter Gay, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1977.

Barzun - From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, by Jacques Barzun, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 2000.

Note: To try to truly grasp the scientific world of the Rambam's time, to "penetrate to the center" of the worldview that prevailed then, is not a casual matter. Speaking from personal experience, it took years of intermittent effort from the time that I first realized the intellectual truth of the above position until I achieved the personal insight that allowed me to write it as above.

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