Free Will (Part 2): Understanding and Defining ‘Knowledge’ in Regards to Both Man and God

We begin at the start of Rambam’s discussion of Free Will in Yesodei HaTorah:

Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 2:10:

הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַכִּיר אֲמִתּוֹ וְיוֹדֵעַ אוֹתָהּ כְּמוֹ שֶׁהִיא.

The Holy One, blessed be He, recognizes His absolute existence and knows it as it is.

God, explains Rambam, has total comprehension of His absolute existence. The term “absolute,” however, is not something that humans can relate to in its true essence. Humans exist only within a relative reality. Everything we know is relative or causative, and we are thus relative to our cause. There is nothing in the totality of human experience that is truly an absolute existence. Naturally, everything deteriorates with time, and is dependent on something else in order to exist. The only thing that always was, always will be, and has zero dependency on anything else in any way whatsoever — God — is therefore something that humans cannot truly comprehend. The only thing that could possibly understand such a supremely unique existence is that Thing itself. This is all to say, God is the only One that can really understand Himself.1

וְאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ בְּדֵעָה שֶׁהִיא חוּץ מִמֶּנּוּ כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָנוּ יוֹדְעִין שֶׁאֵין אָנוּ וְדַעְתֵּנוּ אֶחָד אֲבָל הַבּוֹרֵא יִתְבָּרַךְ הוּא וְדַעְתּוֹ וְחַיָּיו אֶחָד מִכָּל צַד וּמִכָּל פִּנָּה וּבְכָל דֶּרֶךְ יִחוּד.

He does not know with a knowledge which is external to Him in the way that we know, for ourselves and our knowledge are not one. Rather, the Creator, may He be blessed, He, His knowledge, and His life are one from all sides and corners, in all manners of unity.

Now, when we speak of “knowledge” what do we mean? To briefly summarize a much longer philosophical discussion, knowledge is, in short, the internalization of external phenomena. The sensations one experiences via the five senses are then processed, internalized through the mind, and filtered through the totality of a person’s existence, with all of his or her personal inclinations. A person can now be said to “know” whatever external phenomena he has just internalized. The more experiences a person has, the more knowledge he has as well. The more a person experiences and internalizes, the more reference points he has for the future. The more one does and experiences, then, the smarter he or she would be considered to be. All human knowledge is the internalization of external phenomena.

Rambam here makes the point, though, that God’s knowledge is specifically not like human knowledge. God does not “know” things through the internalization of that which is external to Him, as humans do. Indeed, this point should be quite obvious for, should it not be so, we would be forced to conclude, rather ridiculously, that God was only capable of knowledge at all after His Creation of something else besides for Himself, since prior to Creation there was only the infinite Divine, and nothing external to said Divinity to be internalized. Thus, we must logically conclude that when we speak of “knowledge” in reference to God, we speak of something qualitatively different than when we speak of knowledge in regards to humankind.

God’s knowledge being different than our own does not simply mean that God knows a whole lot more than we do, but that the way in which He knows is fundamentally different, and is the very reason why He knows all. God’s knowledge is not the internalization of external phenomena, but rather the expression of His inherent self. All of existence is merely an expression of God. When we speak of God “knowing” something, it is merely euphemistic, for there is nothing external to God that forms His knowledge. To illustrate our point, an example: When a person has a thought about, say, the sky, this thought cannot be said to be rooted in this person’s inherent self, but rather in the sky itself. This person sees the sky, processes that which he is seeing, and has a thought in relation to said sky. Indeed, the source of any human thought is something external to the self. God, however, Whose knowledge is not rooted in something external to Him, is the very source of His thoughts. This is not something possibly truly comprehended by the human mind, for in the human experience such a thing does not exist. Whereas humans perceive external phenomena and add it to their personal encyclopedia of knowledge in their brains, God’s thoughts are Him. Frightening as it is to say, God and His knowledge are One (as Rambam shall explain at greater length shortly).

שֶׁאִלְמָלֵי הָיָה חַי בַּחַיִּים וְיוֹדֵעַ בְּדֵעָה חוּץ מִמֶּנּוּ הָיוּ שָׁם אֱלֹהוּת הַרְבֵּה הוּא וְחַיָּיו וְדַעְתּוֹ, וְאֵין הַדָּבָר כֵּן אֶלָּא אֶחָד מִכָּל צַד וּמִכָּל פִּנָּה וּבְכָל דֶּרֶךְ יִחוּד. נִמְצֵאתָ אַתָּה אוֹמֵר הוּא הַיּוֹדֵעַ וְהוּא הַיָּדוּעַ וְהוּא הַדֵּעָה עַצְמָהּ הַכּל אֶחָד.

Were He to live as life is [usually conceived], or know with a knowledge that is external from Him, there would be many gods, Him, His life, and His knowledge. The matter is not so. Rather, He is one from all sides and corners, in all manners of unity. Thus, you could say, "He is the Knower, He is the Subject of Knowledge, and He is the Knowledge itself." All is one.

If one were to say that God’s knowledge derives from something external to Him, we would also be forced to conclude that there is a duality in existence, that there is not an infinite God. If we want to believe in one, infinite God (which, as Orthodox Jews, we surely do), we cannot propose that God knows from things outside of Himself, for this would mean He is not truly infinite. If we separate God’s knowledge from His Self, we would now have a multi-layered God, so to speak, not the infinite God that Judaism believes in. God is infinite and pure Oneness, not multi-layered and divided.

וְדָבָר זֶה אֵין כֹּחַ בַּפֶּה לְאָמְרוֹ וְלֹא בָּאֹזֶן לְשָׁמְעוֹ וְלֹא בְּלֵב הָאָדָם לְהַכִּירוֹ עַל בֻּרְיוֹ…

This matter is beyond the ability of our mouths to relate, [or our] ears to hear, nor is there [the capacity] within the heart of man to grasp it in its entirety.

Just as when we speak of “infinite” we can understand it only in the sense that we can say it means “without limits” — namely, that we can understand it only in the negative; we can understand only what it is not — so too, we cannot truly understand what it means that God and His knowledge are One. We can say that God’s knowledge is not the internalization of external phenomena (as all human knowledge is), but what actually is it then? We simply cannot know, though Rambam does elaborate just a little bit…

…לְפִיכָךְ אֵינוֹ מַכִּיר הַבְּרוּאִים וְיוֹדְעָם מֵחֲמַת הַבְּרוּאִים כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָנוּ יוֹדְעִין אוֹתָם אֶלָּא מֵחֲמַת עַצְמוֹ יְדָעֵם. לְפִיכָךְ מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהוּא יוֹדֵעַ עַצְמוֹ יוֹדֵעַ הַכּל שֶׁהַכּל נִסְמָךְ לוֹ בַּהֲוָיָתוֹ:

Thus, He does not recognize and know the creations in terms of the creations as we know them, but rather He knows them in terms of Himself. Thus, since He knows Himself, He knows everything, for the existence of everything else is dependent on Him.

Since God does not “know” anything via that which is external to Him, we must say that He “knows” from Himself — whatever that might mean. God, it must be said, does not know all that exists because of all that exists. He does not perceive that which is in existence and thereby come to a knowledge of it, as humans do. He knows Himself, and therefore knows all. God does not know so-and-so’s thoughts, for instance, because so-and-so thinks them — that would be the internalization of external phenomena. God does not know a person because of the person. He is not dependent on anything external to Himself for His knowledge. His knowledge of humankind is not because of humankind. Rather, he knows all from Himself.

It emerges, then, that God understands humankind because He understands Himself. This is a powerful and heavy statement at many levels, the full implications of which is left for the reader to contemplate.

In the next installment we will turn to dealing with the seeming contradiction between “Divine foreknowledge” and Man’s Free Will based on all that we have developed above.

Read the other installments in this “Fundamentals” series here.

1. A lonely existence, to be sure.

Rav Shagar on Being Religious as Being Weird and Avant-garde, with A Note About Academic Bible Scholarship

Free Will (Part 1): A Brief Introduction