The Ten Commandments of Astronomy: Rambam’s Mistake

1. Stars are made out of gas

2. Gas cannot predict my future

3. My personality is not defined by what star, constellation or day I was born on

4. Constellations are an arbitrary way to group stars.

5. I know all astrology is silly

6. Stars are not spiritually better than me, nor will they ever be

7. Stars do not literally praise the Lord every day

8. Stars are good to gaze, but bad to ask to intercede on my behalfe

9. I am not better than my predecessors, but I do know some things they did not about gas

10. Stars are not holy, although, thank God, I could be

Leibniz sought to create a system of logic that could solve any problem: whatever the question, you could plug in the variables, and logic would do the rest. Finally, those questions that have loitered about for millennia would be answered, once and for all. Sadly, Leibniz never succeeded in actualizing his dream. As formal logic today cannot adequately take into account quantum mechanics or the problem of the naturalistic fallacy, he unknowingly sought to overcome an insurmountable hurdle. And even if we put these technical issues aside, he had a larger obstacle obfuscating his judgment and crippling his logic: unconditional reliance upon and respect for his master. Leibniz was smart enough to independently construct the foundations of Calculus and to create a metaphysical world never before put forth (and never again believed!), but like so many before us, he could not see past the silhouette of his mentor. Aristotle, the father of philosophy and the sciences, cast such a shadow over Western Civilization that, over two thousand years later, it was still recovering from the shade.

The starting point for the Enlightenment and Modernity, on the other hand, is the rejection of many of these old assumptions. Occam’s razor and the scientific method became the new fundamentals. Indeed, in many ways, scientists took the place of philosophers of old. Not because they proffer correct opinions on metaphysical issues, but because they have successfully dispelled countless false conceptions formulated by metaphysicians since time immemorial. They accomplish this by employing inductive logic and by proposing new theories that they believe best explain the facts. They hope their theory works without any unnecessary or unjustified assertions and pray it continues to best explain the facts, in spite of the fact that they lack any assurances that the same physical rules will continue ad infinitum. This is the nature of science, for better or worse; all the same, our present age is living proof of the benefits that such an approach to the world reaps.

While people experiences the advances of practical science and technology every time they visit their local Radio Shack, the impact of science on the philosophical world lags well behind. No where is this made so clear as in the field of astronomy.

Nicolaus Copernicus had the gall to stand up against a scientific fact that was literally clear as day to bring about the Copernican Revolution. Looking back, it does not seem like such a crucial point: is the universe geocentric or not? Only once we realize that this physical fact laid the cornerstone of his contemporaries metaphysical world do we understand why Copernicus in fact lead a revolution. Bertrand Russell explains:

Round this apparent scientific fact, many human desires rallied; the wish to believe Man important in the scheme of things, the theoretical desire for a comprehensive understanding of the Whole, the hope that the course of nature might be guided by some sympathy with our wishes. In this way, an ethically inspired system of metaphysics grew up, whose anthropocentrism was apparently warranted by the geo-centrism of astronomy (Mysticism and Logic p. 76).

But with the Copernican Revolution, this warrant withered away. No longer could Man justify his metaphysical beliefs based on the physical location of the earth in the universe. Now, the philosopher needed to search high and low for better, more accurate information – whether scientific, philosophic or other – to found his theories upon. No longer could he simply look towards the Heavens to buttress his way of viewing life.

For the Jew, on the other hand, the search for ethics’ foundation has never been as pressing a matter. The Jew looks towards the Sinaitic revelation for his own ethical  foundation and the Shulhan Arukh for the practical way to implement that ethic. But, this does not mean that Jews have not exploited these geocentric assumptions of old. The Church was not the only one body who thought a heliocentric world was blasphemous: such famous Jewish personalities as the Maharal (Nesivos Olam, Nesiv HaTorah 14), R. Yonason Eybeshitz (Ya’aros Dvash), and the past/present Lubavitcher Rebbe (Mind over Matter p xlvi) have upheld such convictions. So while the Jewish world may not need to re-evaluate their worldview from an ethical perspective, they definitely need to re-evaluate their astronomical assumptions.

Indeed, along with the Copernican Revolution came certain indisputable facts about the Heavens, stars and the spheres (as the medievals called it). Before Copernicus, most if not all, religious folk thought that the stars were spiritual beings. The Psalmist himself asserts:

Praise Him, all his angels; praise Him all his legions; praise him, sun and moon; praise Him all bright stars; praise Him the most exalted of the heavens and the waters that are above the heavens. Let them praise the Name of God, for He commanded and they were created. (Psalm 148:3)

While one might be inclined to proffer a rational understanding of the Psalmist’s words when he says that inanimate objects praise God, the greatest of the Jewish rational philosophers, Maimonides himself exclaims:

As for the assertion that spheres are living and rational, I mean to say endowed with apprehension, it is true and certain also from the point of view of the Law; they are not dead bodies similar to fire and earth – as if thought by the ignorant – but they are – as the philosophers say – living beings who obey their Lord and praise Him and extol Him greatly. Thus Scripture says: “The heavens tell of the glory of God,”… For the terms speaking and telling are applied together in Hebrew only to a being endowed with intellect (II:5).


They [the Sages] have said explicitly that the heavens are living bodies and not dead ones like the elements. Aristotle said likewise with regard to the spheres being endowed with apprehension and mental representation corresponding to the dicta of our prophets and of the bearers of our Law, who are the Sages, may their memory be blessed (II:5).

While the Maimonides-lovers might not think that he actually meant this gut wrenching error literally, they need look no farther than Maimonides’ second book of Guide for the Perplexed where he puts forth Aristotle’s argument to buttress this unassailable fact:

Know that the opinions held by Aristotle regarding the causes of the motion of the spheres – from which opinion he deduced the existence of separate intellects – are simple assertions for which no demonstration (logical proof) has been made, yet they are, of all the opinions put forward on the subject, those that are exposed to the smallest number of doubts and those that are most suitable for being put into a coherent order (II:3).


That the sphere is endowed with a soul is clear upon reflection.

And after a convoluted argument that only a medieval scientist could espouse, he says:

In consequence this circular motion [of the spheres] can only come about in virtue of a certain mental representation, which determines the sphere’s moving in that particular way. Now there is no mental representation without an intellect… Furthermore, it follows necessarily from this that the sphere has a desire for that which it represents to itself and which is the beloved object: namely, the deity, may His name be exalted (II:4).

Similarly, Maimnides believes that stars are higher on the spiritual hierarchy than their human counterparts.

All this indicates to you that they apprehend their acts and have will and free choice with regard to the governance committed to them, just as we have will with regard to that which from the foundation of our existence has been committed to us and given over to our power. Only we sometimes do things that are more defective than other things… whereas the intellects and the spheres are not like that, but always do that which is good, and only that which is good is with them (II:7).

He also thinks that:

The governance of this lower world – I mean the world of generation and corruption – is said to be brought about through the forces overflowing from the spheres” (II:10).

We are not better because we are closer to the truth; we simply have a different form of scientific inquiry. What we mustn’t forget is that this was their science and it justified their metaphysical beliefs about Man’s position in the universe, God and the spheres. It was their best explanation given the information.

Today, we know with complete certainty that stars are luminous balls of plasma composed of hydrogen and helium formed within molecular clouds; they are gas balls. You could be sure that anyone who denies this, you would not want to have a conversation about science with, let alone about God. The metaphysics (Maimonidean science) of stars has been replaced by the science (astronomy) of stars, but like most fields of philosophy in which science has had an impact, the metaphysical implications (or lack thereof) of a star’s position and rank in the world has not yet been fully appreciated by the religious community. Of course, they may fall back on the 23rd chapter of tractate Shabbos and stand strong in the name of God, truth and Zoroastrian astrology. But, for some reason, no one seems to tell them that God (along with His good Name) left the building a good four hundred years ago. Most people cannot believe that their holy religious texts are wrong, and even if they could, find it difficult to separate themselves from their juvenile notions of religion and science; but whatever the reason the religious community is so stiff-necked, I feel obligated to play my part in the formal decimation of propaganda and erroneous ideologies. I feel that I could best accomplish this by putting forth a short list of proclamations that every sane person would do well to accept and possibly recite every morning if necessary:

1. Stars are made out of gas

2. Gas cannot predict my future

3. My personality is not defined by what star, constellation or day I was born on

4. Constellations are an arbitrary way to group stars.

5. I know all astrology is silly

6. Stars are not spiritually better than me, nor will they ever be

7. Stars do not literally praise the Lord every day

8. Stars are good to gaze, but bad to ask to intercede on my behalf

9. I am not better than my predecessors, but I do know some things they did not about gas

10. Stars are not holy, although, thank God, I could be

And by the way, astronomy is the field of science that has been MOST accepted by frummies of all the conclusions postulated by the scientific community.


Leave a comment

Filed under Rationalism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s