This question was asked by Maimonides,
the great rabbi and philosopher who lived in the eleventh and twelfth
centuries. Perhaps his experience led him to ask it: his family were
important people in the important Jewish community of the important
Spanish city of Cordoba, then ruled by Muslims — the people the
Christian Spanish called “Moors”. When Maimonides was seven years old,
Cordoba was taken over by a new wave of fundamentalist Muslims from
Africa, the people called the Almohades. One of the terrible things
that happened was that the synagogue was burned down — and the really
terrible thing was that most of the Jewish community was taking refuge
in it, and they were killed.

The family of Maimonides escaped,
and lived the life of exiles, refugees, for a number of years, passing
through North Africa, and through the Christian kingdoms of the Holy
Land, disguising their religion, until they found refuge in the
peaceful and tolerant Muslim land of Egypt, which was the ruled by the
great Saladin. Maimonides then lived in Cairo for the rest of his life,
a figure revered by the Jewish community and respected by the Muslims
of the court.

At one point in his writings, then, Maimonides
asks “Is there anyone in charge here?” — or perhaps a more accurate
translation would be “Does this city have a king?” And Maimonides says
that there re two ways of giving an answer to that question. You might
say “Yes, the king is the tall handsome man on a white horse who you
can see riding out of the palace every morning, when he goes to sit on
the throne in the law-courts where he judges the people of the city who
bring their concerns to him.” Or you might say, “Yes, just look here at
this obscure corner of the market-place. You can see here a big strong
man, a beggar, asking for alms from a trader at his stall — a little,
puny man, who nevertheless could give the beggar something if he wanted
to. But he doesn’t give him anything, just tells him to go away,
perhaps using offensive words. And the big strong beggar does go away.

says Maimonides, is an equally good way of getting to the answer “Yes,
there is a king in this city”. If there weren’t a king who gives laws
and sees to their being enforced, the big beggar could just take what
he liked from the feeble trader We may think that the trader is not a
very nice person, if he refuses to give to beggars and then insults
them, but though that’s probably correct, it’s irrelevant. We know that
there’s a king in the city even if we haven’t seen the handsome man on
the white horse.

In the same way, says Maimonides, in this city
of the world, we know that there is a King, God, even though we’ve
never seen him — we know it by working it out from the things we have
seen. What we need is to be smart enough to see the things that count
as evidence — like the trader and the beggar in the story — and then,
as people say. “do the math”.

Christopher Martin teaches philosophy at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas