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17.02.2019 18:58    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  shemot  ki tissa  michael  avraham  

Moses and Kantian Philosophy


In this week’s reading Moses stands in a cleft of the rock and engages in a dialogue with the Holy One, blessed be He (Ex. 33:18-23):

He said, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!”  And He answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show.  But,” He said, “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.”  And the Lord said, “See, there is a place near Me.  Station yourself on the rock and, as My presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by.  Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.”

This is a perplexing dialogue.  Did Moses not know that one cannot see G‑d?  Why can the back side of G‑d be seen?  What difference is there between seeing His face and Presence and seeing His back?  I would like suggest an explanation, by connecting these issues with a fundamental question in epistemology.

Let us begin with a hackneyed question that might sound a bit silly:  If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, can we rightly say there was a sound?  It seems one should answer in the affirmative.  The presence of a person there does not create the sound, but at most experiences it.

This answer seems to be mistaken.  In the world there are physical manifestations, such as acoustic waves (motion of the air as a result of changes in pressure).  When such an acoustic wave hits our eardrum, electrical impulses are formed that pass from the ear to the hearing center in the brain, where these electrical impulses are changed into the mental phenomenon that we call “sound.”

Sound does not exist in the physical world, but only in our internal consciousness.  It is not a physical manifestation, rather a mental one, which is brought about by physics.  Thus we arrive at the understanding that if there is no human being present listening to the falling of the tree, indeed there is no sound.  What does exist is an acoustic wave, but without the presence of a human eardrum that this wave can hit, the manifestation we call sound does not come into being.

The same is true of light or colors.  The world itself has no such thing as light—yellow, red, or otherwise.  In the world there are electromagnetic waves of various frequencies which when they hit our retina produce electrical impulses that pass to the vision center, where they are translated, creating what we refer to as “light” or “color.”  Light and color, like various pitches of sound, are mental representations of physical phenomena, but not the physical phenomena themselves.

These notions have been becoming increasingly clear as modern research into the brain advances.  However, by the eighteenth century the philosophy Emanuel Kant understood that a person cannot know reality as it is (the world in and of itself, the nuomenon) but only as it is reflected in his consciousness (the phenomenon).  Reality has objects and manifestations, but we have no direct access to them.  What we can conceive is only their characteristics as they appear in our consciousness, or actually their representation in our minds.

Human consciousness functions with the aid of certain tools (eyes and ears, the nervous system that conducts the signals received by the nerves to the brain, and the brain which processes them), and these shape and create the picture of things that emerges in our cognitive faculty.  If our consciousness were structured differently, we would experience the world in a totally different way.  For example, if we were to connect the nerves going out of a person’s ears to the vision center in his brain, he would “see the thunder” rather than hear it.  Likewise, a person whose eyes were connected to the hearing center would hear the color of the flowers, not see it.  Such a person would not be disabled or in any way inferior in to any other person we know.  He would simply be built differently.  This is not an issue of being right or wrong, since we are dealing with different representations of the same manifestations and the same objects, like two accounts of the same content in different languages.

This Kantian picture is perceived by many as describing human limitation:  since we are human beings, we are limited in our ability to know things in the world, for we are bound by our human tools of consciousness and therefore have not the ability to know the things themselves.  On second consideration, however, we can see that this is not so.  If we had other tools, we would indeed perceive a different world (see sounds or hear sights, or perhaps we would present these things in some other manner which is not even known to us), but it is quite clear that the world cannot be conceived without any tools at all.

The tools of perception are not a limitation of our perceptive ability, rather a built-in condition of the way our cognitive faculty functions.  There is no consciousness without the tools of consciousness.  I do not mean to say that our senses are not limited.  Our eyes are limited to certain wave lengths and a certain distance, likewise our ears.  But the very fact that we represent physical events and translate them into our own subjective language is not a limitation.   A creature devoid of the tools of consciousness will observe something without sensing or perceiving anything.

Thus, if I ask what color a flower is, I am not dealing with the flower but with the picture of it which we have in our consciousness.  There is an implicit assumption here that the person to whom the question is directed is also observing the flower with his eyes (since color is the representation of a message sent by the eyes).  The flower in and of itself does not have any color, but rather a specific crystalline form that creates in us the sensation of color.

Similarly, any question about the characteristics of an object assumes the existence of some sort of system observing the object.  The answer to the question will also be given in terms of the same system of consciousness.  This leads to a far-reaching conclusion:  the “limitation” of Kant is not a limitation at all.  Perception always means creating a representation of things, and this is how we encounter the things themselves.  There is no such thing as seeing or hearing the thing itself, not because we are limited but because hearing or seeing means creating a representation of the thing.

In the passage from this week’s reading which we cited at the beginning of the article, Moses asks to see the Lord’s Glory, ostensibly with the intention of forming a visual representation of Him.  But G‑d has no visual or other sensual representation.  Why?  Because He does not emit light rays or sound waves, and therefore our sense cannot receive any information that can be processed and form a representation of G‑d.  We can perceive various actions or manifestations of Him in the world, with which our sense can interact.  This might be what is meant by seeing G‑d’s back side:  perceiving some impact of Him that is accessible to our senses.  The mental representation that is formed might be some sort of sight or sound, but of course it is not a representation of G‑d Himself, rather of some consequence of His (“His back”) which is perceptible by our senses.

The conclusion that follows from the picture presented by Kant is that for the matter at hand there is no difference between human perception of a physical object, such as a table or a cloud, and our perception of the Holy One, blessed be He.  In both instances we cannot see the thing in and of itself, for seeing always involves mental representation and not the thing itself.

Nevertheless, there is a difference between the two cases:  a table is a physical object that sends visual information to the eye, which in turn produces a mental representation of it in our consciousness.  In contrast, the Holy One, blessed be He, is not perceived through our senses, or by making representations of Him.  For us to conceive Him, He has to create an impact on the physical world which our senses can encounter and from which they can form a mental representation.  But consequences that can be perceived by the sense cannot be a part of Him, but at most things that He creates.

Indeed, prophets can perceive the abstract consequences of the Holy One, blessed be He—what we call His names and attributes.  When Moses asked to see the Glory of the Holy One, blessed be He, he was refused.  This was not necessarily because he was not deserving, but because it was not feasible.  As I have suggested here, this is the meaning of the words, “you will see My back.”  What can be “seen” of the Holy One, blessed be He, is at the very most His “back side,” that is, His name and attributes, and even this, so it seems, is not sensory seeing, but perception that is only accessible to someone who has reached the level of prophecy.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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