Mishneh Torah

Is a diamond forever? – Reflections on Rambam Yomi ch. 4

To illustrate the general scientific and philosophical principles of this chapter, the Rambam gives numerous examples. However, from a purely scientific standpoint there are too many examples. For example, there is no relevant scientific difference between precious gems and other rocks, yet the Rambam gives both in his list of examples.

The Rambam is not only trying to teach us philosophy, but also to change our view of the world and remove our fantasies about it. To actually impact our world view he needs to address distinctions which are important to regular people, even though they are unimportant philosophically.

Two examples of physical principles which are also important for removing our fantasies are: 1. the impermanence of all physical things and 2. the fact that all physical things are made of the same basic elements.

This is illustrated in the example of precious gems which we treat as special and important.

1. Precious gems feel permanent. They (due to masterful marketing) have come to symbolize an unbreakable relationship. However, in reality they are temporary and eventually break down. Shattering the image of their permanence helps shatter our fantasy of permanence.

2. We think of precious gems as special materials. But in truth, like all material objects they break down into the same fundamental components. For example, diamonds are shiny and valuable, yet they are made out of carbon, just like coal. At the level of elemental composition there is no difference between a diamond and a piece of coal (ignoring trace elements).

Response to a comment

Of course the Rambam didn’t know about Carbon and throughout the chapter speaks in terms of the 4 elements.

But when he emphasizes that even gold and rubies will eventually break down into their components, it addresses a fantasy that exists in our time as it did in his. I chose to switch the example to diamonds (instead of rubies) because they are a better intuition pump for us (due to marketing). But the presence of fantasies surrounding precious gems has not changed.

As I mentioned in the post, the purpose of this post was to emphasize the role of science in challenging our imaginative view of the world. In other words the Musar significance of science, rather than the science itself. From this standpoint the relevant questions are whether things are permanent and whether they are made of a special material different than regular things. The specifics of that chemical makeup (or for the Rambam, elemental material cause) isn’t important and therefore it can legitimately be translated into familiar science (which, of course, the Rambam didn’t know) using loose analogies.

If I were interested in the details of modern science I wouldn’t have focused on Carbon, rather I would have focused on subatomic “particles”. But, again, this distinction isn’t central to the purpose of challenging fantasies about the good, even though it is crucial to science and any metaphysics built upon it.

In general, my interest in studying Rambam’s outdated science is in those principles (usually ethical or methodological) which are still valid, and not the outdated theories which are of merely historical interest. But I agree that a full commentary on the chapter would need to explain his system, and whenever making analogies with our science identify the differences.

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