Posted by: Steve Coplan | July 24, 2008

The Principle of Uncertainty

When I was in London a few weeks ago, I spent a wonderful evening in the company of my cousin wandering the halls of the British Museum (which I might note is free, which both appeals to my hereditary parsimonious instincts and damningly contrasts with standard practice at New York museums.)

Moving from the Egyptian hall to the Assyrian, then the Babylonian remains of Nimrud and Nineveh, Greek, Roman and then the ancient Middle East, we started discussing the idea of God, and our experience of the conception within Judaism. I didn’t feel I like I did the Rambam’s approach enough justice, so after some thought this is what I came up with:

In the realm of the divine (what you call the supernatural), we can only speak of assumptions not facts. This is the implication of the conclusion that humanity’s capability to assimilate knowledge (to grasp the fundamentals) is limited – and why we have to depend on purely logical entities we call computers to function as a technological society.

But, for the purposes of constructing a coherent religious system and ensuring its continuity, we take the assumptions as fact. This is a conceit – a conscious but tacit agreement to ignore our limitations in order to establish a consensus, a point of common ground.

The aim of religious behavior in Rambam’s terms is not defend the conceit that our assumptions are facts.

Rather, to honestly recognize that they are not facts and constantly challenge them to build a wider and wider systematic set of relationships between the assumptions. This process is not solely intellectual – it involves what Rambam calls the imaginative faculty, or what we might call simply inspiration, to extend the assumptions so that we can form an understanding of God. One of the issues that Rambam clashed mightily over with the defenders of tradition is the persistence of divine corporeality, the idea that God has physical, tangible aspects. Why was he so adamantly opposed to it. Because it led to a deficient understanding of God, essentially nullifying the purpose of Judaism.

The Rambam’s may be undergoing a cautious revival in mainstream Orthodox Judaism but is literally anathema to more conservative elements. Ironically enough, it is far more of a sustainable argument from theological perspective than to deny that the Hebrew prophets who have pretty divergent ideas of God and Judaism were deeply influenced by time and place, as Biblical criticism increasingly demonstrates.

It’s also ironic that Rambam’s mode of inquiry and idea of inspiration probably contributed (via Thomas Aquinas) heavily to the scientific method of matching observable data to a set of assumptions and attempting to develop a theory to reconcile discrepancies.

And on the subject of public cultural institutions, Raphael, the New York Public Library up the street from my office has not one but two copies of The Sacred Mushroom and The Cross (although somebody seems to have absconded with one copy.

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