Question:

I'd like to ask you a question that has really bothered me now for a while. You see, I have become aware through much deep thought that we certainly cannot prove many basic things about the world. For example, I cannot know with certainty that anyone other than myself really exists! Yes, I see people and talk to them, but that could all just be a product of whatever is making my mind run — it could be my own simulated universe, so to speak. My senses might be utterly lying to me, when the truth out there is really an entirely different reality, or perhaps no reality at all...

I could go on and on, but I'm sure you get my drift. What I am basically getting at is that anything is possible — there is utterly no way whatsoever to know anything with certainty about this universe!

If that is the case, how can we know that G‑d exists? Yes, we can provide mountains of evidence that some being created the world and revealed the Torah at Sinai — but all that evidence is from a "reality" that we have no way of knowing exists at all!

How then is it possible for us to have a meaningful relationship with a being of whose existence we cannot be certain, in a world of whose nature we cannot be certain, etc., etc.... It just doesn't seem possible! All this is a great source of frustration to me.

Adam G.

Answer:

Dear Adam

You pose some very good questions. Allow me, then, to counter with some questions of my own.

Did you eat breakfast this morning? Did you drive to work? Did you keep the dentist appointment you had for 4:00 pm?

I'm going to assume that the answer to all three questions is "yes." I'm also going to assume that the reason that you ate your breakfast was that you knew that the toast, eggs and juice would satisfy the hunger you felt in your stomach and provide you with the nutrients and the energy to keep you going for the next few hours. And I'll also assume that you knew that your car hasn't been rigged with explosives that your dentist is not a serial killer.

You see, Adam, we use the word "know" in two different ways. We use it one way in philosophical discussions like the one in your question. And we use it in a different way in day-to-day life. In philosophical discussions we play with words, take their definitions to their extremes, and come up with mind-boggling conclusions. In day-to-day life we use a combination of intelligence, experience, common sense and intuition to know certain things. Whether we know these things "absolutely" or "certainly" in the philosophical sense is irrelevant: we know them enough to live by them and make our choices — including life-and-death choices — with this knowledge. With all due respect to philosophy, that's as "absolute" and as "certain" that knowledge can get.

So why this double standard? Why deny you inner life that which you freely and naturally extend to your external life? At the very least, give your knowledge of G‑d and of your purpose in life the same credence that you extend to your breakfast (which you eat based on your knowledge that there's food and not silicone on your plate), your car (which you drive based on your knowledge that it won't explode), and your dentist (in whose chair you allow yourself to be put to sleep based on the knowledge that he's not Ted Bundy).

If it's truly knowledge that you desire, then I can think of no truer definition and criteria for "knowledge" than that which works for you in your everyday existence.

Intellect, by definition, is never sure of anything. Plenty of things that make perfect sense are completely wrong. Plenty of absurdities are true. That is why Torah law goes by experience over logic. But even experience can be misleading. That's where intuitive faith, emunah, comes in. Emunah is a power higher than intellect. Intellect tries to figure out the truth. Emunah is the truth that you already know, the truth inside you.

Ultimately, none of the three, on its own, can serve as a truly functional guide to life — we need all three. We need experience to recognize the patterns along which our lives run, whether or not they can be logically "explained." We need intellect to challenge our knowledge, expose its contradictions, and help us figure out how to apply it. And we need faith to recognize the truth, to open ourselves to that which we intrinsically know simply because that is what is.

Tzvi Freeman

Question:

Can you give me an example of a "truth that you already know, the truth inside you"? I've never experienced that. So are we not back to square one? How may we prove to ourselves we have this inner faith?

Answer:

If you had a gun pointed to your head, you would know very clearly, 100% clearly, that you want to live. That's not an intellectual conclusion. That's just raw truth.

There are other things, beside that will to live, of which we have that clear, 100% knowledge. We call that emunah, "faith."

Throughout our history, countless thousands of our fathers and mothers were told, "Deny the oneness of G‑d or die!" Including many who may have not been very "religious", or even very "Jewish" in their daily lives up to that moment of truth. Still, their faith was 100% — even more than their belief in life. That's inside of us as well, whether we are aware of it or not.