Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Guest Post: Was Rabbeinu Avraham a Solipsist?

Copyright 2015 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

Was Rabbeinu Avraham a Solipsist?

Continuing [1A] with the Discourse's analysis of R. Ammi,  Rabbi Meiselman spots another contradiction.  The Rambam, in his Letter on Astrologylists three sources of knowledge: (1) sense data, (2) reason and (3) knowledge "that a man receives from the prophets or from the righteous." [1]  But, according to Rabbi Meiselman, the Discourse gives no validity to authority as a source of knowledge, hence a contradiction with the Rambam's third source of knowledge. [2]

The problem with this argument is straightforward: the Discourse make no such extraordinary claim (a claim that no one who visits a doctor or calls an exterminator could agree with). As we would expect, the Discourse explicitly embraces expert opinion as a source of knowledge and specifically grants Chazal authority in Torah. [3]   In invalidating some of the medical advice of Chazal, he remarks that the advice was not validated [4].  He does not say that he personally investigated them and found them lacking, but rather that there were not validated by contemporary medicine.  

Similarly, in confirming Chazal's health recommendations, he says that they are "essential to health as has been validated by investigation and the medical practice of the physician".  Here, Rabbeinu Avraham does attribute Chazal as the source of knowledge, as well as the confirmation by contemporary medicine.  Moreover, Rabbeinu Avraham nowhere tells the reader to embark on his own investigation, but to rely on what he himself writes in the Discourse. [5]

In claiming a contradiction, Rabbi Meiselman most likely refers R. Ammi's hypothetical rejection of Yehoshua.  By Rabbi Meiselman's argument, R. Ammi could not reject the authority of Yehoshua over R. Ammi's logical arguments, while simultaneously respecting Yehoshua as a source of knowledge.  However, we have already shown that the Chasam Sofer explicitly agrees with the Discourse's understanding of the Talmud. [6]  Yet, the Chasam Sofer certainly accepted knowledge from the righteous or a prophet as a source of knowledge.

Rabbi Meiselman may also refer to the following statement earlier in the Discourse (translation mine): 
You should know that anyone who desires to support a well-known opinion [7] and to give respect to its author and accept his opinion without any investigation into the matter as to its veracity, that this is an improper methodology and prohibited...
However, this statement does not claim that knowledge cannot be derived from a knowledgeable authority.  The statement merely emphasizes that one should not blindly accept such statements purely based on who said them "without any investigation" (for example by consulting with other authorities).  Hence, when the Jewish Sages claim that the Sun goes behind the sky-shell at night, we do not accept this view simply because of their greatness.  Likewise, in modern times, we don't accept geocentrism which was the near-universal opinion of both the ancient and medieval greats, both Jewish and Gentile.  Instead, we understand that the science of astronomy has made great advances since then and that these statements need to be re-examined.

Thus, Rabbi Meiselman sets forth a false dichotomy: either an authority is considered reliable in all that he says on a subject or no knowledge can be derived from him.  He makes a similar statement in TCS (pg. 225) in an attempt to prove that the Chazal's medical knowledge was received knowledge (ellipses mine):
Chazal, however, were not physicians...Why then should they be considered a "source" at all in this area [medicine]?  Why should they not be considered amateurs quoting hearsay? Evidently ... Chazal's advice was of a permanent nature because it was not based on experimentation but upon a Torah source. [7a]
To bring this misconception this into sharper relief, consider the field of ethnomedicine, the study of traditional medicine as practiced by various cultures.  One important aspect of ethnomedicine is the discovery of new drugs based on an understanding of traditional remedies. (For example, see this list of drugs derived from ethnomedicine).  In this case, traditional remedies are a important and irreplaceable source of knowledge, but such knowledge is not accepted blindly.  Rather it forms the starting point for research and verification [8].   We can simultaneously place a high value on a given source of knowledge yet retain a skeptical approach.

Perhaps Rabbi Meiselman's argument is a bit different:  Rabbeinu Avraham favors reason over authority, while the Rambam lists sense data, reason and authority as three sources of knowledge with no particular ranking.  Does the Rambam favor reason over authority as Rabbeinu Avraham implies?  The answer is clearly "yes".

To begin with, one can simply ask: if the only three sources of knowledge are sense data, reason and knowledge received from an authoritative figure, whence does the authoritative figure derive his knowledge?  In the Rambam's hierarchy of knowledge, the third source, authority, is derived from the other two (sense data and reason).   While the Rambam implies this hierarchy, do we find that he makes this explicit?  The answer again is "yes".

In his Treatise on Logic, the Rambam gives a slightly different categorization of the sources of knowledge: 
  1. Sense data (e.g. this object is black)
  2. First ideas (e.g. if a=b and b=c, then a=c)
  3. Conventions (e.g. it is important to thank someone that helps you)
  4. Traditions (e.g. knowledge received from trusted person or group)
The Rambam prioritizes the first two sources of knowledge as giving knowledge which is universally agreed upon and undoubtedly true.  In addition, knowledge derived from the first two sources plus "secondary ideas" (like geometric theorems) is termed "apodictic" or demonstrably true. [9]

In contrast, knowledge derived from conventions or traditions are not universally recognized and result in a knowledge with a lower level of certainty.  Knowledge derived from traditions form the art or rhetoric and may involve weaker forms of reasoning such as reasoning by analogy, which is disallowed in the art of demonstration. [10]

Thus, the Rambam does put reason above authority in the hierarchy of knowledge sources.  But we can ask: how does this apply practically to statements of Chazal?  Are their scientific statements to be treated in the same way, as described by the Discourse? 

The Rambam answers this quite clearly in his Letter on Astrology.  While most of the letter is devoted to rejecting the general accepted belief in astrology, at the end of the letter he addresses another difficulty: if the Talmud accepts astrology, how can we reject it?  He offers a number of possible grounds for rejecting such Talmudic statements, including the possibility that the Talmudic statement is simply in error.  He concludes with the following aphorism (discussed earlier), which asserts the priority of reason is such circumstances: "A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back". [11]

We see once again that Discourse aligns quite well with the Rambam.  In the next post, we'll address some other discrepancies claimed by Rabbi Meiselman between the Discourse and the Rambam.

Comments are both welcome and encouraged. I'll make every effort to address any questions or arguments posted in the comments.


[1A] After a short interlude far away from lions.

[1] Know, my masters, that it is not proper for a man to accept as trustworthy anything other than one of these three things. The first is a thing for which there is a clear proof deriving from man's reasoning—such as arithmetic' geometry, and astronomy. The second is a thing that a man perceives through one of the five senses—such as when he knows with certainty that this is red and this is black and the like through the sight of his eye; or as when he tastes that this is bitter and this is sweet; or as when he feels that this is hot and this is cold; or as when he hears that this sound is clear and this sound is indistinct; or as when he smells that this is a pleasing smell and this is a displeasing smell and the like. The third is a thing that a man receives from the prophets or from the righteous. (Letter on Astrology)

[2] It is unclear why Rabbi Meiselman needs to quote the Rambam here.   No human being can navigate the world without accepting, at least provisionally, knowledge obtained from others.   Any time that you consult, say, a doctor, an architect or or a plumber, you are relying on the fact that they have knowledge that you don't have through your own perception or your own reason.  Only a solipsist can claim to rely entirely on knowledge directly acquired through their own perception or reason.

In fact, the Rambam is not making any kind of novel or innovative statement here.  He is simply reminding the reader that any belief should have some source, either primary or secondary; the mere fact that some claim (in the case, the efficacy of astrology) is written in a book or is believed by the masses is not valid grounds for acceptance.  Thus he writes
The great sickness and the "grievous evil" (Eccles. 5:12, 15) consist in this: that all the things that man finds written in books, he presumes to think of as true—and all the more so if the books are old. And since many individuals have busied themselves with those books and have engaged in discussions concerning them, the rash fellow's mind at once leaps to the conclusion that these are words of wisdom...
Were it true that the Discourse completely rejects expert the expertise of others as a source of knowledge, there would be no need to find a contradictory statement from the Rambam. 

[3] We are not in duty bound to defend the opinions of the sages of the Talmud, concerning medicine, physics and astrology, as right in every respect simply because we know the sages to be great men with a full knowledge of all things regarding the Torah, in its various details. Although it is true that in so far as knowledge of our Torah is concerned, we must believe the sages arrived at the highest stage of knowledge, as it is said (Deu. 17, 11.) "In accordance with the instructions which they may instruct thee, etc.," still it is not necessarily so concerning any other branch of knowledge.

[4] "Since we find that the sages themselves had said, concerning nledical knowledge that the opinion of such and such a Rabbi did not prove to be true, as for instance, The eagle-stone (Sabbath fol. 66b), or other things mentioned."

[5] These two paragraphs should go without saying, but are included in the interest of thoroughness.  We can dismiss any author by interpreting what he says to be nonsensical.  And an author whow never relies on outside knowledge is being nonsensical.

[6] We showed that this was the view of the Rambam as well, but our reasoning doesn't depend on that argument.

[7] Perhaps instead "the opinion of a well known person".

[7a] Obviously, Rabbeinu Avraham's explanation is much more straightfoward: some of Chazal's medical knowledge was well-found and some not.

[8] For example, see J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. 2007; 3: 25. "The present zootherapeutic study describes the traditional knowledge related to the use of different animals and animal-derived products as medicines by the Saharia tribe reside in the Shahabad and Kishanganj Panchayat Samiti's of Baran district of Rajasthan, India. ... Further studies are required for experimental validation to confirm the presence of bioactive compounds in these traditional remedies and also to emphasize more sustainable use of these resources."   This is just a single sample found randomly using a google search.

[9] The same applies to ideas, first and second; by second ideas I mean such as geometric theorems and astronomic calculations, which are all true, because they may all be demonstrated by premises, most of which come close to the first ideas. In like manner, all the results of experience, e. g., that scammony is a cathartic and gall-nut causes constipation, are also true. Whatever becomes known through one of these three truthful channels the logicians call apodictic. After these preliminaries, you must know that every syllogism both of whose premises are apodictic, we call a demonstrative syllogism; and the making of these syllogisms and a knowledge of their conditions constitute what we call the art of demonstration.

[10] When, however, one or both premises of the syllogism belong to conventions, we call it a dialectic syllogism; and the making of these syllogisms and a knowledge of their conditions constitute the art of dialectics. When one or both premises of the syllogism belong to traditions, we call it a rhetorical syllogism; and the making of these syllogisms and a knowledge of their conditions constitute the art of rhetoric. [...] In general, however, the demonstrative syllogisms do not use analogy under any circumstances, nor do they use induction except under certain conditions; but the art of dialectics does use general induction; and the art of rhetoric uses the analogical syllogism.

[11] The summary of the matter is that our mind cannot grasp how the decrees of the Holy One, blessed be He, work upon human beings in this world and in the world to come. What we have said about this from the beginning is that the entire position of the star gazers is regarded as a falsehood by all men of science. I know that you may search and find sayings of some individual sages in the Talmud and Midrashim whose words appear to maintain that at the moment of a man's birth, the stars will cause such and such to happen to him. Do not regard this as a difficulty, for it is not fitting for a man to abandon the prevailing law and raise once again the counterarguments and replies (that preceded its enactment). Similarly it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden. Or there may be an allusion in those words; or they may have been said with a view to the times and the business before him. (You surely know how many of the verses of the holy Law are not to be taken literally. Since it is known through proofs of reason that it is impossible for the thing to be literally so, the translator [of the Aramaic Targum] rendered it in a form that reason will abide. ) A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back... (Letter on Astrology)


  1. Hi David~

    Thanks for your guest posts -- I find them just as cogent and often times as mindbending as those of R' Slifkin.

    My question relates to "first ideas" -- aren't they merely rules established based on data from the senses? For clarity's sake, it's really a subset. And I don't truly understand what you mean by saying that social conventions are sources of knowledge. These, too, are merely traditions.

    Distilled further, then, there's really two categories of knowledge: that which is based on (observing) objective reality and that which is based on (observing) subjective reality. And the latter is weaker than the former.

    Is this not so?

  2. Hi David~

    Thanks for your guest posts -- I find them just as cogent and often times as mindbending as those of R' Slifkin.

    You're welcome and thank you for the kind words.

    My question relates to "first ideas" -- aren't they merely rules established based on data from the senses?

    If you want to understand the Rambam in greater detail, it is worth reading that whole chapter in the Treatise on Logic. But it is important to avoid anachronisms: the Rambam's ideas will not align 100% with modern epistemology.

    The examples that he gives of first ideas are math and logic: "first ideas, as when we know that the whole is greater than the part, that two is an even number, and that things equal to the very same thing equal each other". These ideas, like any mathematics, that don't depend on sense data. In modern epistemology these would be considered "tautologies" and non-empirical, so that they cannot give you information about the outside world.

    For clarity's sake, it's really a subset. And I don't truly understand what you mean by saying that social conventions are sources of knowledge. These, too, are merely traditions.

    His examples of conventions are as follows: "as when we know that uncovering the privy parts is ugly, that compensating a benefactor generously is beautiful;". So these appear to be moral judgments. The are not base on any tradition, but directly perceived. "Theft is wrong" is a moral judgement, not really based on tradition.

    Distilled further, then, there's really two categories of knowledge: that which is based on (observing) objective reality and that which is based on (observing) subjective reality. And the latter is weaker than the former.

    Is this not so?

    I think that what the Rambam is saying (and is substantially correct in this) is as follows:

    1) You can measure the outside world and get empirical knowledge (this is either sense data or secondary ideas).

    2) You can use logic and math. These are first ideas.

    Based on those two ideas, we can do pretty much all of science.

    3) You have moral "facts". Murder is wrong, but not because of any sense data or logic.

    4) You have second-hand information that you can't directly verify yourself: I just witnessed A murder B. Or, better yet, George Washington was the first president of the United States. You are correct that you can treat this as a subset of #1 + #2 and treat history scientifically. But there is also the general acceptance of traditions that we can't verify particularly well. I think that in ancient times the lines would be been much more blurry here.

  3. R' Avraham never said that one should never accept something that an authority figure said. R' Avraham says that the authority is not guaranteed to be correct and therefore you shouldn't accept something incredulous just because of the person who said it. In order for the Rambam to be a קשיא on this, we would have to posit that the Rambam was saying that one must accept every statement of a navi or tzadik. If this is in fact what the Rambam was saying than it is a קשיא on R' Meiselman's position. To quote R' Dovid Kornreich (from the comments to http://slifkinchallenge.blogspot.com/2014/12/rabbi-gil-students-review-part-iii.html ):

    No individual opinion of an individual sage of the Talmud has the authority of Torah Sheba'al peh simply because he speaks -- unless he is conveying a received tradition. So any statement of a Tanna or Amora in isolation will not automatically have that quality. That is why his peers could argue with him.
    Only those statements which passed through the review process of Chazal through the centuries and were accepted definitively received the authority of Torah sheba'al peh.


    When Rav Yehudah and Rav speak it is not automatically a transmission of authoritative Torah sheba'al peh as they were speaking. They knew this. They didn't need to know about the future redaction of the Gemara. As long as they were not transmitting an unassailable Kabboloh from Moshe Rabbeinu, they knew implicitly that their statement would have no binding authority until it was debated and accepted by their peers.
    There is no lack of truthfulness in presenting your Torah opinion with confidence-- with the implicit understanding that it has no automatic authority and could be rejected in a future debate!

    But the un-rejected or undisputed opinions that are left standing in Shas after the review process of Chazal does become Torah Sheba'al Peh by default.
    If some of those opinions were not the result of the rigorous methodology of Torah sheba'al peh and did not truly have the authority of Torah Sheba'al peh but rather could be dismissed because they were ideas taken from contemporary science, then the ones who presented them as definitive Torah were lacking truthfulness.

    This means that one does not have to accept every statement of a navi or tzadik. Clearly, then, according to R' Meiselman/R' Kornreich the Rambam was not saying that every statement of a navi or tzadik must be accepted. Thus, the קשיא on R' Avraham doesn't start.

    1. The problem here is that Rabbi Meiselman doesn't spell out the purported contradiction. Based on you comment, we can look at the purported contradiction in two ways:

      1) Rambam holds that authority is a source of knowledge (but is not always accepted).
      2) Rabbeinu Avraham holds that authority is not a source of knowledge (never accepted)


      A) Rambam holds that authority must always be accepted.
      B) Rabbeinu Avraham holds that is a source of knowledge (but is not always accepted).

      The first part of my post analyzes the first version while your comment analyzes the second version. Of course, Rambam, Rabbeinu Avraham and everyone else in the world maintains that authority is a source of knowledge (but is not always accepted).

  4. I generally first print these posts and then read them later. As such I'm unable to click on the links to the sources you cite. Would it be possible to cite them in the text as well? Thank you very much.

    1. Thank your for your comment. I try to cite as much as I can in the footnotes without going overboard. If the source is in Hebrew, then I can't just cut and paste and I can only translate so much.

      Are there any particular sources that you feel that I didn't quote enough of to make the point?

    2. All I meant was that I would prefer if you said where you found something. For example, I printed up your previous post and had no idea where the Chasam Sofer that you were talking about was located. It was only when I clicked on it that I realized it was in his pirush on chullin and not in a teshuva.
      Sorry for the misunderstanding.

    3. You make a good point. I should provide the reference as well as the link. I'll try to do so in the future. Thanks again for reading and for your comment.


Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.

The Heresy of Noah's Crystal

Following on from last week's post about the ban on "Peshuto Shel Mikra," let's discuss an example of the purported heres...