8. Existence as an Act of Will
G-d's existence does not depend on anything else at all.
It is furthermore necessary to know that G-d's existence does not depend on anything else at all. His existence is intrinsically imperative.
In our last class, we began exploring the idea of G-d's "independence." We now understand that the very nature of our finite physical world is that it's dependent. It's an ongoing process of cause and effect, where, for everything that exists, there is a prior cause. So that when we try to imagine the act of G-d creating, we get stuck – we've never experienced, and can hardly imagine, the creation of "something from nothing." And yet, that's precisely what must have happened in G-d's original act of creation!
So where does the first primal "stuff" come from that evolves into everything else?
In order to take the next step, we'll have to draw on some kabbalistic sources. Rabbi Chaim Voluzhin, in his classic Nefesh HaChaim,1 describes the process not as G-d "creating," but rather "willing." Let's give an analogy: When the artist created – oops, formed the painting – he brought it to its current state, but like we said, it always had independent existence. Let's say that the artist, proud of his painting, holds it up in the air with his two hands. When we describe the painting – its colors, hues, frame, and the fact that it's now suspended in the air – there's a difference between all the adjectives on the list and the last one, its suspension. All the elements of the painting, like color and hue, are intrinsic to the painting and independent of the painter. The painting's suspension, however, is not an intrinsic trait of the painting.
The painting has many powers – it can fascinate, it can last for a long time, but, because of the laws of gravity, the painting cannot exert an ability to suspend itself in the air. Its ability of suspension is borrowed from the painter. And the painter can't imbue the painting with that ability. So we would say that while the painter formed the painting's ability to be beautiful, he is willing its ability to stay in the air.
So in light of this, how can we now understand the dynamics of G-d creating? It was the same process. G-d creates by manifesting will. If I want a cup of coffee, there are two necessary elements: 1) the will to have a cup of coffee, and 2) contending with the world around me and its laws in order to satisfy my will – i.e. wait for the water to boil, get a cup and a spoon, hope there's milk in the fridge...
G-d doesn't need to contend with the laws of nature. He's the one making them up! So for G-d to make a cup of coffee (even though He probably doesn't need one), all that's involved is an act of will. G-d wants a cup of coffee to exist, with one spoon of sugar, and His act of wanting it actually brings about the existence of the coffee.2
The Green Balloon
When we look at the act of G-d creating, we recognize that nothing other than G-d has a primal intrinsic existence. That was the main idea of 1.1.3. So now we see that nothing that G-d creates can ever exist independently of G-d Himself, because it never had its own existence to begin with. It's just a manifestation of G-d's will. When we look at the artist holding the painting, he's keeping it in the air constantly, in real time. So too, G-d's act of creation must be a continuous sustaining action. G-d does not create and then "step back."
Actually, there is one aspect of human experience that we can use as an analogy to understand G-d's act of creating/sustaining: our thoughts. Let's explore what happens when you imagine a green balloon in your mind. Poof! You just created something out of nothing!3 But think of how you created the balloon in your mind. You willed it in to existence. Your wanting it to be there is what brought about it's existence. Imagining things in your mind is an act of manifesting or expressing your will.
So let's explore the implications of this idea. The green balloon in your mind: How did it get there? You willed it. What would you have to do to make the balloon disappear: imagine a pin and prick the balloon? No. All you have to do is stop willing it! The balloon has no independent existence. It is only a manifestation of your will. The moment you stop actively and consciously willing its existence, it's gone. Where does it go? Nowhere! It simply returns to non-existence.
So too with G-d's creation. It is a constant act of will. When G-d created the first bit of energy, or light, or the particle that led to the big bang, He willed it into existence. How long will it be there? As long as G-d keeps willing it. One of G-d's properties as an infinite being is that nothing can exist outside of, or independently of G-d.4 When the Ramchal says "G-d's existence does not depend on anything else at all," he's try to show us how different G-d is from us.
We now have to radically alter our view of this whole world that we live in, and realize that it's really just a "pseudo-reality" compared to G-d's existence. We are living, so to speak, in G-d's mind! Inasmuch as this idea sounds very deep and mystical, The Torah actually states it explicitly in saying, "There is nothing but G-d."5
As much as this idea seems logically sound, it is actually counter-intuitive. This world does not seem like an illusion. When you bang into a pole, it sure seems pretty real! Why is that? Because our existence is on the same sub-level of reality. You are just as real as the pole, but neither you nor the pole is a reality in the context of infinite existence.
So in summation, we are saying that the dynamic of the relationship between G-d and the finite world is in many ways just like the relationship between you and your conscious thoughts.
Of course, this leads to many questions. If we are just living in G-d's thoughts, then how can we have free will? How do we understand the tragedies of the world if G-d is actively and constantly involved in every molecule of existence? If, for G-d, all of existence is just His thoughts, then why bother creating it and sustaining it? What does G-d get out of it?
Of course, the Ramchal foresaw all of these questions. We're just in the first chapter! The Ramchal will slowly and methodically build up a structure in our understanding of "the way of G-d" to answer these deep and ultimately relevant questions. As you can now begin to appreciate, understanding the nature of G-d is difficult, mind-bending, and it involves a whole paradigm shift in understanding ourselves and the world around us. But for these very reasons, it is what the Ramchal calls "the fundamentals of existence." Everything we want to understand about what goes on in the world around us – spiritually, existentially, psychologically, and even scientifically – will depend on us hanging onto this "fundamental" idea of an infinite being.
Are there "Laws" of Nature?
If we explore the analogy of imagining the green balloon a little more deeply, we will come to a startling conclusion. Let's tread gently in that direction. First, let's put the green balloon back in our mind. Okay, ready? Now the next step. Imagine the balloon is being held by a little boy, and he lets go of it. What will happen to the balloon now? Will it fly up because it's filled with helium? Will it fall down because of gravity? Who decides? You do. In fact, you can create a scene in your mind where the boy is holding onto the balloon, and when he lets go, it flies away horizontally! Or transforms into an aquarium! Why? Because there are no laws of nature that govern the reality of your imagination. You call the shots. You don't have to conform to any set of rules. You don't have to be consistent. Nothing "has to" work in a certain way.
So if we understand G-d's creating and sustaining the world in this way, we should see the same thing. Why is it that when I let go of a rock, it falls down – always? Any intelligent person would say that it's gravity – one of the laws of nature. But based on our new model of understanding creation, the answer is: the rock fell because of G-d's will! G-d could have just as easily willed for the rock to float up, as if it was full of helium. If this is so, then why does the world seem to run so consistently? We never see rocks floating up in the air by themselves. The only possible answer is that G-d is choosing to will things with a consistency.
As Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler6 asks, what's the difference between nature and miracles? We're accustomed to thinking of nature as a process that happens "on its own," and miracles as G-d "stepping in" and intervening. Based on our new paradigm, G-d doesn't step in to perform miracles, because He never left to begin with! G-d can't "step back" from creation, much like we can't step back from the green balloon in our minds.
The Talmud tells a story that illustrates this principle. One of the Talmudic sages, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, came home one Friday afternoon and found his daughter in distress. It turns out that, in her haste of preparing the candles to be lit for Shabbos, she mistakenly put vinegar into the containers instead of oil, and it was too close to Shabbos to change it. Rabbi Chanina wasn't worried at all. He said to his daughter "Do you think that the Creator, who can make oil turn into fire, can't also make vinegar turn into fire as well?" With that, she lit the "vinegar candles" and they stayed lit for the whole Shabbos! Most of us would call that an open miracle. But for Rabbi Chanina, who had a deep awareness that G-d is always making everything happen anyway, it wasn't a surprise at all. He probably didn't flinch.
In the commentary, we made the point that nothing can exist independently of G-d. Let's rephrase that to bring out its provocative implication. We're inferring that G-d cannot create something that has its own independent existence! That certainly sounds problematic. G-d is infinite. Presumably G-d can do whatever He wants. So how can we ascribe to G-d these kinds of limits?
Recall that the whole source for this conclusion was the analogy of creating in our imagination. Our line of reasoning went like this: The best way to understand G-d creating is to describe it as an act of will. When we think of human examples of creating by will, e.g. the green balloon in our imagination, we see a limitation. We can't make the balloon exist on its own. The moment we stop willing it, it goes back to complete nonexistence. And therefore, our reasoning goes, G-d must have that same limitation.
We have two possibilities to consider: Either G-d can make something exist on it's own that has independence, or G-d cannot. Why is it more fitting to go with the idea that G-d cannot? Because saying that G-d could would place an even greater limitation on G-d! By considering the idea that G-d could create something that can exist on its own, independently, that's saying that G-d is not all-encompassing, in total control, infinitely involved. When we say that G-d cannot make such a thing exist, what we're really saying is that G-d is so all-powerful that nothing can exist if it's not G-d's constant direct will that it be so.
In a certain sense, saying that G-d can't do something is really a description of just how infinite His powers are. Would we say that G-d can forget something, or that G-d cannot? Obviously, that He cannot. Of course, G-d could choose to consciously ignore something, but to actually forget is not possible. An infinite being doesn't have this limitation of memory. So the fact that I can forget things – does that mean that I have abilities that G-d doesn't? Just the opposite. I can forget things because I have a limitation in memory. My "ability" to forget is really just a disability.
Whenever we discuss G-d not being able to do something, we have to remember the semantic context that's being implied.
A Rock Too Heavy to Lift
The above discussion, "G-d can't," and the distinction we made between an ability and a disability, now gives us the tools to answer a classic conundrum posed by every aspiring atheist and freshman philosophy student. The "proof" against G-d's existence goes something like this: If G-d is infinite and all-powerful, then He can do anything. If so, can He make a rock that's too heavy for Him to lift? If he could make such a rock, says the atheist, then He can't lift it and He's not all-powerful. And if He can't make such a rock, then He's obviously not an infinite all-powerful being!
The response at this point should be obvious. The whole problem is with the question. Since either answer would conclude that G-d is finite (i.e. is not infinite), the question can be boiled down to saying: "Can an infinite being be finite?" That is a silly question. It has nothing to do with G-d. It's a fundamental misuse of logic. It's no different than saying "Can a square be a circle?" or "Can 1 equal 2?" Infinite cannot be finite.
Aha, says the atheist, there's something that G-d can't do. And the response is: There are many things that an infinite being can't do. An infinite being can't die, can't slip and fall, and can't become a human being. In other words, if G-d could do any of these things, that would be a sign of finite-ness. We can die because we depend on our hearts and lungs for life. We can slip and fall because we're subject to the laws of gravity.
When the Ramchal talks about G-d's independence, he's referring to this aspect of G-d being unaffected by any of the laws and conditions of the universe that He created.
- What is illogical about the notion that G-d created the world and then stepped back to let it exist and function on its own?
- In the Book of Genesis, why is G-d's act of creating described as "speech"?
- In the Jewish prayers, why do we typically describe G-d in the present tense, e.g. "Blessed are you... who creates the fruit of the vine."
- Can G-d make a rock too heavy for Him to lift? Whether we answer 'yes' or 'no' to this question, doesn't it imply that G-d has some limitations?
- Sha’ar Gimmel, ch. 2-9
- The Torah describes the act of creation as speech: "And G-d said, let there be light" (Genesis 1:3). Why speech? Because speech is a manifestation of will, and metaphorically we\'re attributing that process to G-d. When you say "Please turn on the light," you\'re using your power of speech to express your will.
- Sort of. Of course, you could only manufacture the balloon in your mind because you\'re drawing on other memories you have of balloons. I couldn\'t ask you to imagine a kertobawa if you have no idea what it is!
- Oddly enough, we are implying that G-d cannot create something independent of Himself. And although it sounds like placing a limit on G-d, the problem is really more semantic than it is logical. See Deeper Insights: “G-d Can\'t??" at the end of this essay.
- Deut. 4:35
- Michtav M'Eliyahu, Vol. 1. Rabbi Dessler was a 20th century writer on topics of Jewish philosophy and personal growth