Maimonides’ Demonstrations: Principles and Practice
It is well known that Maimonides rejects the Kalam argument for the existence of God because it assumes the temporal creation of the world, a premise for which he says there is no “cogent demonstration (burhan qat'i) except among those who do not know the difference between demonstration, dialectics, and sophistic argument.” 1 By contrast, he claims to establish belief in the existence of God “through a demonstrative method as to which there is no disagreement in any respect” (I:71:182). Taken at his word, Maimonides’ proofs for the existence of the deity, like Aquinas’s five ways, have traditionally been read as models of medieval natural theology: of the power of human reason to independently establish revealed truth. In recent years, however, the same demonstrations have assumed a second kind of significance. For scholars, like myself, who argue that Maimonides holds severe views about the limitations of human knowledge of divine science and metaphysics, these demonstrations are the strongest conceivable counterevidence. 2 If Maimonides really held that humans cannot apprehend metaphysical truths about the deity, how could he have demonstrated (or even thought he could demonstrate) the existence of God? If he does demonstrate it, then humans evidently do have knowledge of metaphysics. As one distinguished scholar has recently protested, it is nothing less than “perverse” to interpret Maimonides as “meaning that the existence of God is unknowable when he in fact prides himself on having demonstrated the existence of God in four different ways.” 3
1 Moses Maimonides, The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), I:71:180. All references are to this translation; parenthetic in-text references are to part, chapter, and page.
2 The locus classicus for this view is Shlomo Pines, “The Limitations of Human Knowledge According to Al-Farabi, Ibn Bajja, and Maimonides,” in Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, ed. I Twersky, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), I:82–109. See also his “Les Limites de la Métaphysique selon Al-Farabi, ibn Bajja et Maimonide; Sources et Antitheses de ces Doctrines chez Alexandre d’Aphrodise et Chez Themistius,” Miscellanea Mediaevalia 13 (1981): 211–25; “Dieu et L’Etre Selon Maimonide: Exégese d’Exode 3,14 et doctrine connexe,” in Celui qui est: Interprétations juives et chrétiennes d’Exode 3, 14, ed. A. de Libera et E. Zum Brunn (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf [Collection “Patrimoines”], 1986), 15–24; and “The Relation between Maimonides’ Halakhic and non-Halakhic Works,” in Maimonides and Philosophy, ed., S. Pines and Y. Yovel (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987). Pines concludes, on the basis of the limitations of the intellect with respect to knowledge of metaphysics, that Maimonides, like Kant, gives priority to the practical over the theoretical. For arguments drawing different ‘skeptical’ conclusions, see my “Maimonides in the Skeptical Tradition,” ms.; “Maimonides on the Growth of Knowledge and the Limitations of the Intellect,” to appear in Tony Levy, ed., Maimonide: Traditions philosophiques et scientifiques médievales arabe, hébraique, latine; “Logical Syntax as a Key to a Secret of the Guide of the Perplexed,” (in Heb.), Iyyun 38 (1989): 137–66; “Maimonides on Language and the Science of Language,” in Maimonides and the Sciences, ed., H. Levine and R. Cohen (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000), pp. 173–226; and The Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide (forthcoming).
3 Herbert A. Davidson, “Maimonides on Metaphysical Knowledge,” Maimonidean Studies 3 (1992–1993): 49–103, 86. See also Alfred L. Ivry, “The Logical and Scientific Premises of Maimonides’ Thought,” in Perspectives on Jewish Thought and Mysticism, ed. Alfred L. Ivry, Elliot R. Wolfson, and Allan Arkush (Amsterdam: Harwood Publishers, 1998), pp. 63–97, 70.