Saturday, August 16, 2014

Unintended Consequences

I would like to introduce this post with a picture of a smiley face:

What is this funny face? We'll get to that later, but first, let us return to another question that I posed in an earlier post: Why did God create lizard-eating plants? In the post, I suggested that the question is not necessarily valid. God may not have purposefully created the plant; instead, it may be nothing more than a by-product of the evolutionary process that God decided to employ in creation.

This claim caused some consternation. One person protested that "certainly the Rambam believed each plant and animal has a purpose." But I would disagree.

Even when it comes to Torah, Rambam believed that there are unintended consequences. In the Guide for the Perplexed 3:34, Rambam explains that while each mitzvah serves for the betterment of mankind, that is only from a general perspective; there could well be individual cases in which the mitzvah turns out to be detrimental. The Torah must be absolute in its binding nature, which is why exceptions can't usually be made, but this necessarily means that it will not always be beneficial to everyone. Rambam does not see this as presenting any limitation in God's wisdom and power; it's just an inherent drawback of any universal system.

Certainly, then, the same can be true with the natural world. Assuming that God desired to use a naturalistic process that would result in intelligent life, this may result in all kinds of byproducts that were not God's intention. (This is not to say that He did not know that these would result.) As such, it is not necessarily valid to presume that there is a Divine purpose in any given aspect of the natural world. (Note that Rambam also says that various aspects of non-literal Torah stories do not all need to have deeper meaning; they may simply be written to flesh out the story.)

Thus, following Rambam's view, we do not need to presume that there was specific Divine intent and purpose in the development of lizard-eating plants. Or dinosaurs. Or in the smiley face pictured above, which was on the back of a spider that I photographed this week:



  1. Intent not for the sake of what is seen but to make intelligent beings would be a form of intent and control concerning everything coming into being. As long as we have Hashem being in control of everything and not having one person place him in charge of pineapples and another make into the god of volcanoes all Jews will have the same religion.

  2. Presumably, by tweaking the initial conditions and laws of the universe, God could have made an almost identical universe but one lacking pitcher plants (a sadder world, in my opinion, even if those plants are sort of disturbing). He chose not to. That doesn't mean that there is some direct deep purpose to us for having those plants, but on the other hand, that is the way God set up the world. He presumably did so for a reason. It may not be the sort of purpose that we could ever consider though - humans love to put meaning in things where it doesn't exist.
    But to say that God couldn't have made an almost identical universe but one lacking pitcher plants is to limit the power of God.

  3. Cogent and well put, as usual, Rav Slifkin. Though somehow I doubt it will satisfy/silence the protestors...

  4. I strongly disagree with this. If you believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient, you must believe that all things are possible for him. Therefore God could just have easily have created a world identical in every way, including in the structure of all natural laws, but without the presence of lizard-eating plants. Therefore he made a deliberate decision to *include* lizard-eating plants in his world. (The same is true for anything else in the world - if Random Molecule moves to the right or to the left, you have to assume it's a deliberate decision made by God when he created the world, because nothing prevented him from creating an identical world in which Random Molecule moved in the other direction.)

    Of course, that's not to say that we have any ability to *guess* as to God's intentions in creating such a plant. For all we know, the plant is only there so that you can write a couple of posts about it and so the air currents caused by me typing out this response to those posts will reverberate and cause a hurricane ten years from now, and that is literally its only purpose in the world. In the chaotic system that is this world I find any attempt to state "God created X because Y" to be ridiculous. But an omnipotent and omniscient being must have created X because *something*, because he could have just as easily not created X.

  5. Rabbi Slifkin, Seeing that Maimonides comments in the Guide that:"[One] should not make the mistake of thinking that [the whole of] what exists is in existence only for the sake of him as an individual…[nor should it] be believed that all the beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of something else… I see no reason to assume, as you seem to, that the lizard eating plant is purposeless. Your thoughts?

  6. If Hashem knew a certain consequence would come about (which you seem to suggest with your disclaimer) and then went ahead with his plan anyway, how does it make logical sense to say He didn't intend that consequence? There is a logic to say that consequence doesn't have meaning per se, but how was it not intended?

    Also, when one looks at the natural world, how does he decide what aspects have meaning and which ones do not? How can any of us possibly know?

    Thank you.

  7. I'd also like to note that you use the phrase "unintended consequences" in a misleading fashion in this post. Certainly an outcome detrimental to the performer of a mitzva is "unintended" from the point of view of the person performing that mitzva. But who says it's unintended from God's perspective? Who says that, in creating the world, God didn't intend outright that Bob Cohen should lose a lot of money on a business deal because he didn't answer his phone on Shabbat? It's a very different thing to claim that *Bob* didn't intend for that outcome than it is to claim that *God* didn't.

  8. What you're saying definitely makes sense, but I think you slightly misunderstood my comment. I was referring to the Rambam in his introduction to Peirush Mishnayos, at the beginning of his discussion of the maamar Chazal "ain l'Hakadosh Baruch Hi b'olamo Ella dalet amos Abel halacha." Now, it is true that the Rambam doesn't say that each species has a purpose based on theological considerations, but rather claiming that this was the consensus of the "chokrim". My point was merely that since your argument is against the stated opinion of the Rambam, it should require more than just a cursory mention but instead a whole post, including why you think the Rambam would agree with you if he lived now.

  9. You are still confusing things and dancing around the main issue. Let's start with the most glaring that you ignore. God uses naturalistic process right? Mutations, environmental pressures, etc etc. These things are prevalent in all organisms right? A wasp, an octopus, a lizard-eating plant AND a human all went through this. So then how do you arbitrarily say a human was intended, but a lizard-eating plant was not? What's your methodology? It's a simple question actually. Why is that plant a byproduct of a long process but a human undergoing that same long process not?

    The next issue you ignored in the comments was why you feel this particular plant is a byproduct but not a lion, for example? Both are carnivorous. Or, do you feel a lion and all species are byproducts?

    And lastly, I believe the fallacy you make here is in regards to what you say here:

    "(Note that Rambam also says that various aspects of non-literal Torah stories do not all need to have deeper meaning; they may simply be written to flesh out the story.)"

    True, but in the end, God intended for those stories to be included. In the end, whether something has some deeper meaning (i.e. our lizard-eating plant) is irrelevant. Nobody cares if it has some deeper meaning. The question is whether God intended for that plant to exist or not? The question of "deeper meaning" is secondary.

    >Assuming that God desired to use a naturalistic process that would result in intelligent life

    Why assume that? Why isn't intelligent life not simply an unintended byproduct like everything else? Again, you seem to be arbitrarily decided what God intended and what he didn't. And I notice you simple put "intelligent life" there. Well, what SORT of intelligent life did God want? Would He simply have been content with an intelligent porpoise?

    It seems to me that you are falling back on the same theology of the likes of Kenneth Miller; a Catholic and Theistic Evolutionist, but has a hard time agreeing that God actually intended for anything in particular to arise, but instead, threw the cosmic dice to see what would evolve. It's actually theology like this that leads to either hardcore atheists (because who really cares for a god that had no involvement in anything?) or die-hard young-earth creationists.

  10. I notice a small change in wording. In the original post, you wrote: "I would wonder why Hashem made such a thing, but according to the rationalist perspective, there is really no such question." But in this post, you write: "it is not necessarily valid to presume that there is a Divine purpose in any given aspect of the natural world."
    You had originally worded it in a way that can be interpreted in different ways. If you had written originally: "there might not really be such a question", you might have faced less resistance.

  11. > It's actually theology like this that leads to either hardcore atheists (because who really cares for a god that had no involvement in anything?

    That's not what "atheist" means. If someone accepts that there is a god, he's at least a deist.

    Is this a variation on "Everyone really knows that there's a God, but atheists just say they don't believe because...?"

    1. I think the intention is something more akin to, "If we're positing a god that has no involvement in anything, then why are we positing a god at all?".

    2. Exactly Yerushalmi. That is what I meant. Deism is not exactly a growing theology for that specific reason.

  12. I don't understand the alleged problem of an insectivore plant. Why is such a plant more of an issue than carnivorous animals? A traditional answer to the latter is that animals changed their nature during the time leading up to the flood. If so, then plants (fruit trees) also changed their nature at the outset according to a traditional view. Then the existence of carnivorous plants is no more problematic than carnivorous animals. The fact is, however, that carnivorous animals have a digestive system that requires meat consumption, i.e., they can't live in the wild without hunting and killing. Humans, too, kill animals and consume their flesh. But, why 'blame' it all on some divine directive and therefore question its purpose? It just developed that way, either due to evolutionary adaptation or cultural influences. The question is premised on an assumption that everything is divinely controlled. A more rationalistic approach is that only some things are supervised, and the fate of a particular insect or animal is not included in the 'watchlist' (the Rambam's hashgacha clalit view expressed in his Moreh). Moreover, having established the basic laws in nature and overseen the formation of the first living cell, the divine role could be seen as more watchful and patient than controlling, i.e. life was allowed to develop and evolve with only occasional interventions.

    Y. Aharon

  13. It is possible to describe something as an accident but not theologically an accident since theology can take into account a reason unseen. I can say by accident I saw a cure for a friend on the internet or I can say Hashem caused me to see it. You don't have to have theology be boxed in by language from other fields. Indeed what you have actually done with his post is argue against saying there is no purpose behind the carnivorous plant. Whatever purpose you give there does have to be a purpose as Hashem does rule the world according Judaism with plan and purpose.

  14. The plant functions as a predator of the lizards and predators play a role in the control and health of their victims' populations. Perhaps anything that affects a system and the way it operates suggests a "purpose". Where things get confusing is when we try to interpret such based on our limited, myopic, understanding of what may be "good" or "bad" for that system.


  15. You never mentioned what kind of spider this is?

  16. I don't understand why God comes into the picture at all. Just seems like naturalistic processes all around, right? How about Occam's Razor here?

  17. "God may not have purposefully created the plant; instead, it may be nothing more than a by-product of the evolutionary process that God decided to employ in creation."

    It also may be nothing more than that you've been socially conditioned to beleive in that very suspect stuff. Be that as it may, God or no God, Nihilo or Ex -Nihilo you're going to be hard-pressed to convince me that a rational and reasonable God desires me to wear fringes on a four-cornered garment or refrain on the Sabbath from wheeling my 3 year old daughter to his house of prayer and supplication.
    Call me old fashoned, but I'll trust in the overwhelming probability that I'm right.

  18. I disagree with your view. I take a Kabbalistic and Midrashik view which believes that every detail has a divine purpose and and angel behind it. According to Kaballa, which is Torah from Sinai (sod), Rambam made a mistake.

    I will argue even on rationalistic grounds: According to the Butterfly Effect (I don't know much about chaos theory theory but I always intuitively believed in this logical idea), even tiny changes in nature can effect the world at large and people in way we don't realize right away, therefore, even if you are theoretically correct, when it comes down to it in actuality, everything has a divine purpose because it effects Adam one way or the other.

    Also, as for your point on Rambam saying that parts of Torah are not essential. That is not true. Rambam in no way believed that, and if he did, it was a mistake. Many things written in Moreh were to answer the heretics and not true per say. Also, even if he is right on a pshat level, there is still remez, drash, and sod hidden in every letter and crown of the Torah, including the Prophets which are considered the Word of God (this is shown in Chazal all over the place). The Talmud in Sanhedrin (Chelek folio 90 something) says that King Menashe was a heretic because he held that certain verses in the Torah were unnecessary. There is no way the holy Rambam held like that. Hashem yechaper!


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