The Limits of Knowledge: 1 Chapter 31

Rabbi Tuvia Berman – Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi

“There are genuine mysteries in the world that mark the limits of human knowing and thinking. Wisdom is fortified, not destroyed, by understanding its limitations. Ignorance does not make a fool as surely as self-deception.”  — Mortimer Adler

Of all Jewish thinkers, Rambam is the most well-known advocate for a rational and logical approach towards Torah and religion. His critique of what he saw as irrational approaches towards both Tanach and Rabbinic Aggadah are as famous as they are biting. Yet, Rambam, was well aware that the human mind has its limitations and hence any religious philosophy must go beyond logic.  Rambam makes this concept clear stating:

KNOW that for the human mind there are certain objects of perception which are within the scope of its nature and capacity; on the other hand, there are, amongst things which actually exist, certain objects which the mind can in no way and by no means grasp: the gates of perception are dosed against it. Further, there are things of which the mind understands one part, but remains ignorant of the other; and when man is able to comprehend certain things, it does not follow that he must be able to comprehend everything. This also applies to the senses: they are able to perceive things, but not at every distance: and all other power; of the body are limited in a similar way. A man can, e.g., carry two kikkar, but he cannot carry ten kikkar. How individuals of the same species surpass each other in these sensations and in other bodily faculties is universally known, but there is a limit to them, and their power cannot extend to every distance or to every degree.

All this is applicable to the intellectual faculties of man.

Furthermore, people differ in their aptitude and potential:

There is a considerable difference between one person and another as regards these faculties, as is well known to philosophers. While one man can discover a certain thing by himself, another is never able to understand it, even if taught by means of all possible expressions and metaphors, and during a long period; his mind can in no way grasp it, his capacity is insufficient for it.

Armed with knowledge of his mental limitations, the religious seeker is actually empowered to approach Torah with new caution. He is aware that he can’t grasp everything and that others may likely be in better position to understand God.

However, not only does the limitation of human intellect pose a major hurtle in understanding God and Torah, but being locked in old paradigms also serves as a stumbling block. Thomas Kuhn, in his novel and controversial work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, charged scientists with theorizing while blinded. Held back by their training, almost canonical text books, and traditional thinking, most scientists are locked in a paradigm, to use his phrase, from which they cannot envision new understandings of the world. Stymied, as it were, by their own education, scientists ignore models which more successfully solve problems with which they grapple. Rambam predates Kuhn’s position by over 750 years:

Alexander Aphrodisius (c. 200 c.e.) said that there are three causes which prevent men from discovering the exact truth: first, arrogance and vainglory; secondly, the subtlety, depth, and difficulty of any subject which is being examined; thirdly, ignorance and want of capacity to comprehend what might be comprehended. These causes are enumerated by Alexander. At the present time there is a fourth cause not mentioned by him, because it did not then prevail, namely, habit and training. We naturally like what we have been accustomed to, and are attracted towards it.

Truth is hard to find and for several reasons we lie to ourselves. Rambam, based on classical thinkers, acknowledges that people often prevent themselves from pursuing truth because of arrogance or ignorance; however, what we are used to or trained to see can be a brick wall blocking us from seeing the world in a new way.

To find God and seek his truth, we must approach humbly, recognize our own limitations, and break free of our past biases. HaShem calls, but we have to open ourselves to his voice.