[3.8] Maimonides on Via Negativa and Attributes of God

Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides, 1138–1204) was the most important medieval Jewish philosopher, who, in his work “Guide of the Perplexed” defined God, as an entity with “one simple essence” with no pluarility “of faculties, moral dispositions, or essential attributes.”

From this perspective propositions, like “God is the wisest” can not be interpreted literally; more than that, they imply that God’s wisdom or power bears some likeness to ours, which Maimonides denies. 

To solve the contradiction between the absolute authenticity of the revealed text and, his philosophical view of God, he proposed three strategies for interpreting such propositions for the philosopher – readers:

  • interpret as concealed negation (via negativa)
  • interpret as an attribute of the created World
  • interpret as a metaphor

The UML Activity Diagram below depicts the usage of these strategies:

Mainmonides on via negativa
ACTIVITY/ActionDescription
Read and understand propositon about GodRead an understand revealed, biblical proposotion about God.
Interpret as concealed negationStatements like “God is powerful” are nonsense can be understood if one analyzes them as concealed negations: “Thus ‘God is powerful’ should be taken as ‘God is not lacking in power.’ Maimonides’ appeal to negation (GP 1.58) is often misunderstood because in normal speech a double negative usually indicates a positive. If I say that this dog is not lacking in the power of sight, you would be justified in concluding that it can see for the simple reason that sight is a power normally associated with dogs. What Maimonides has in mind is a more extreme form of negation. Thus ‘God is powerful’ means ‘God does not lack power or possess it in a way that makes it comparable to other things.’ Can God do something like move a book off a shelf? Yes, to the extent that God does not lack power but no to the extent that God does not have to move muscles, summon energy, or receive a supply of food or fuel. The power to create the whole universe is so far beyond that needed to move a book that any comparison cannot help but mislead.
From an epistemological standpoint, a statement like ‘God is powerful’ is objectionable in so far as it implies that we have insight into the essence of God. The advantage of the negative formulation is that it implies nothing of the sort. To say that God does not lack power or possess it in a way comparable to other things is to say that God’s power is beyond our comprehension. And similarly for God’s life, wisdom, unity, or will. Thus most of the terms we use to describe God are completely equivocal as between God and us. There is then no reason to think that every time we praise God, we are identifying a separate part of the divine persona and comparing it to something else.”
Interpret as attributes of the created WorldAccording to Maimonides, propositions like “God is merciful” or “God is angry” contain atributes in action, which should be interpreted as attributes of the created World: “we can say that God is merciful to the extent that the order of nature [World] (what God created) exhibits merciful characteristics and angry to the extent that it is harsh toward things that do not take proper care of themselves. The point is not that God possesses emotions similar to ours but that the effects of God’s actions resemble the effects of ours. Maimonides refers to these qualities as attributes of action” 
Interpret as methaphoreInterpreat the propositon as a metaphore, e.g. “God sits on a throne” is a methaphore for “God is powerful”.

Sources

  • All citations from: Seeskin, Kenneth, “Maimonides”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  • Ehud Z. Benor, “Meaning and Reference in Maimonides’s Negative Theology”, The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 88, No. 3. (Jul., 1995), pp. 339-360.

First published: 16/04/2020

[3.3.6] Ibn Sina on Scientific Method and Demonstration

In the UML Activity Diagram below, I propose a reconstruction of the scientific “business” process based on Ibn Sina’s (Avicenna, 980-1037 AD) ideas about scientific inquiry elaborated in his works Kitāb al-Burhân, Najâh.
Here are some highlights of his ideas:

  • Sense perception with the involvement of the 5 external and internal senses (see [3.3.3]) is the starting point of the scientific process.
  • Abstraction, Induction and Methodic Experience are the activities to acquire First Principles. Syllogisms (see [3.3.5]) and actualization of the Intellect with Forms provided by First Intellect (see [3.3.3], [3.3.4]) both have their roles in these activities.
  • After First Principles are available, new knowledge can be reached with deduction, using syllogisms (see [3.3.5]).
Avicenna on scientific process
ACTIVITY/ActionDescription
Obtain perceptibles of an object with Sense Perception“the universal premises of demonstration and their principles are obtained only through sensory perception…” (McGinnis (2008), cites Avicenna)
ABSTRACTION“by acquiring the phantasmata (خيالات) of the singular terms through the intermediacy of [sensory perception] in order that the intellectual faculty freely acts on them in such a way that it leads to acquiring the universals as singular terms and combining them into a well-formed statement…
[T]he essences perceptible in existence are not in themselves intelligible, but perceptible; however, the intellect makes them so as to be intelligible, because it abstracts their true nature (حقيقتها) from the concomitants of matter…
Thus [the speculative intellect] receives these accidents, but then it extracts them, as if it is peeling away these accidents and setting them to one side, until it arrives at the account in which are common and in which there is no variation and so acquires knowledge of them and conceptualizes them.
The first thing that [the intellect] inquires into is the confused mixture in the phantasm; for it finds accidental and essential features, and among the accidents those which are necessary and those which are not. It then isolates one account after another of the numerous ones mixed together in the phantasm, following them along to the essence. (McGinnis (2008), cites Avicenna)
“this is not Avicenna’s whole story concerning abstraction and acquiring first principles; for as he says later, acquisition of the first principles also involves “a conjunction of the intellect with a light emanated upon the soul and nature from the
agent that is called the ‘Active Intellect’” (McGinnis (2008)).
INDUCTIONAvicenna accepts Aristotle’s view on Induction (see [1.3.8]) however, criticizes it: “Induction has two elements: one involves the sensible content of induction and the other the rational structure of induction, namely, the syllogism associated with induction. If induction is to provide one with the necessary and certain first principles of a science, then the necessity and certainty of the conclusion of an inductive syllogism must be due either to
induction’s sensory element or its rational element or some combination of both. On the one hand, the purported necessity and certainty of induction cannot be known solely through induction’s sensory element; for in good empirical fashion Avicenna
recognizes that necessity and certainty are not direct objects of sensation. On the other hand, if the necessity and certainty are due to induction’s rational component, then the syllogism associated with induction should not be question begging. Yet,
complains Avicenna, in the scientifically interesting cases one of the premises of an induction will be better known than its conclusion, and so the induction is neither informative nor capable of making clear a first principle of a science.” (McGinnis (2008)).
METHODIC EXPERIENCE“Ibn Sînâ’s theory of experimentation is by no means modern, it does move one closer to a modern scientific approach; for it emphasizes both the need to set out carefully the conditions under which experimentation or examination have taken place, as well as the tentativeness of scientific discoveries in the face of new observations…
experimentation involves in part seeking falsifying cases…the exceptions [falsifying cases] would be extremely rare, perhaps observed only once or twice. These rare exceptions might indicate that there is not a causal relation, but they might also indicate that the causal circumstances were more complex than initially supposed…
Experimentation, with its accompanying syllogism, then, occasions certainty…
although experimentation cannot provide “absolute” principles, the natural scientist can use experimentation to discover “conditional,” universal principles, which can function as first principles in a science.” (McGinnis (2003)).
Check certainty condition (true/ real, necessary) “Avicenna’s ‘certainty condition’ (يقين),… includes both being true or real (الحقّ) and necessary (الضروري)” (McGinnis (2008)).
First Priciple AcquiredIf certainty condition is fulfilled.
DEDUCTION“A demonstration according to Avicenna is ‘a syllogism constituting certainty’. In other words, it is a deduction beginning with premises that are certain or necessary that concludes that not only such and such is the case, but that such and such cannot not be the case. Thus, demonstrative knowledge involves possessing a syllogism that makes clear the necessity
or inevitableness obtaining between the subject and predicate terms of its conclusion. In addition, Avicenna divides demonstrative knowledge itself into two categories depending upon the type of demonstration employed. Thus there is the demonstration propter quid, or demonstration giving ‘the reason why’ ( برهان لِمَ ) and the demonstration quia, or demonstration giving ‘the fact that’ (برهان لأن ).” (McGinnis (2008)).

Sources

  • McGinnis,  Jon, “Avicenna’s Naturalized Epistemology and Scientific Method”, chapter from: The Unity of Science in the Arabic Tradition: Science, Logic, Epistemology and their Interactions, springer, 2008
  • McGinnis, Jon, “Scientific Methodologies in Medieval Islam”, Journal of the History of Philosophy. 41. 307-327. 10.1353/hph.2003.0033., 2003

First published: 05/09/2019