Category Archives: Science and Torah Articles

Quantum Genesis and the First Cause

Since the dawn of humanity mankind has gazed at the stars in wonder, contemplating our place in the cosmos. As the holiday season draws to a close and the dancing and celebration of Simchat Torah comes to an end, we recommence our routine Shabbat Torah reading with the story of Genesis. These verses raise the most fundamental questions about the nature of our Universe, both physical and metaphysical.

One of the most influential minds that ever graced the ancient world is that of the Greek thinker Aristotle, whose ideas continue to play an important role in modern philosophy. Yet Aristotle is also credited with the epithet of being the first empirical scientist whose assertions caused great consternation to Jewish thinkers.

In particular, Aristotle believed that the Universe was eternal, contradicting the explicit statement relating God’s creation of the Universe at the beginning of Genesis. Dismayed that simple Jews could be seduced by Aristotle’s provocatively secular ideas, the Medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides railed against them in his Guide for the Perplexed.

By the mid-20th Century, astronomers such as Edwin Hubble had noticed that galaxies and stars were moving away from Earth at a velocity proportional to their distance. This was the first indication that the Universe was expanding and by logical extension, had had a beginning. In contradiction to the Aristotelian view, everything: space, matter and time, came into being at the same moment and that before that moment there was literally nothing.

In 1964 two scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson working at the Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, recorded a consistent level of background microwave radiation across all sections of the sky. This turned out to be the ancient echo of the Big Bang, yielding the hard evidence that the Universe had a beginning. While this appeared to vindicate a theological explanation for a created Universe, it simultaneously spawned a cosmological conundrum of galactic proportions.

The physical world appears to be deterministic; every event from the atomic to the cosmic has a prior cause or set of causes. The inevitable question is: if the Universe had a beginning (the Big Bang), what caused the Big Bang in the first place? What changed nothing – no space, no matter and no time – into something? Could there be a scientific explanation as to why there is something rather than nothing?

Quantum mechanics, the branch of physics which deals with physical phenomena at the sub-atomic level is the one area of science that appears to be non-deterministic.

Just as magnets are governed by the strengths of magnetic fields, quantum particles are governed by quantum fields which permeate the Universe. One prediction of quantum field theory is that in a perfect vacuum, where nothing exists, quantum particles will inevitably pop in and out of existence due to the rearrangement of these quantum fields.

Based on this observation the American physicist Laurence M. Krauss published a book called ‘A Universe form Nothing’ with a promise to be an ‘antidote to outmoded philosophical and religious thinking’ by explaining the beginning of the Universe ex nihilo from a purely scientific basis by analysing quantum effects in a perfect vacuum, our equivalent of nothing.

Yet Krauss assumes that the concept of ‘nothing’ in our post-Big Bang Universe is the same as the ‘nothing’ prior to the Big Bang. Professor of philosophy at Columbia University, David Albert succinctly points out that Krauss rather undermines his argument by redefining the word ‘nothing’ to mean almost nothing.

For quantum particles to come in and out of existence, one requires relativistic quantum fields. Where did they come from? Indeed, where did the laws that govern relativistic quantum fields come from? He also fails to explain how any sort of fluctuation (something changing over time) could occur in the absence of time.

Krauss has many followers, usually of the atheist persuasion. Most notably Professor Richard Dawkins writes in his approbation that “even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ shrivels up before your eyes.”

I humbly beg to differ. Faith is not, as Dawkins would have us believe, predicated on being unable to answer such mysterious and apparently unfathomable questions. Faith is much deeper.

Maimonides implies that even if Aristotle could be proven correct, faith in God and His Torah would continue unaffected even though hard scientific evidence might persuade us to modify our understanding of those seminal verses.

For the time being though, science cannot answer the question of a First Cause. Nevertheless, Krauss and Dawkins have convinced me of one thing: scientists should stick to science and not colour their conclusions with personal ideologies, whether atheistic or religious. Questions of theology and philosophy are probably best left to theologians and philosophers.

A version of this article appeared in the Jewish Chronicle on 15th October 2014 under the title ‘Simchat Torah and the limits of Science’

In Search of Reality: False Dichotomies and the Stumbling Block of the Literalist

Those who are trained in the art of philosophy can spot logical fallacies a mile off. From politicians to talk show hosts, debates will often be peppered with the most deceptive and disingenuous language dressed up to look like meaningful argument.

One of the classic fallacies is that of the false dichotomy in which the provocateur presents two alternative positions as both exhaustive and mutually exclusive. Take for example George W. Bush’s famous “you’re either with us, or against us” speech in November 2001. While this was an understandable and persuasive comment in his efforts to garner support for the fight against terrorism, it deliberately left no room for the likely possibility that some of those being addressed held neutral positions which neither sided with terrorists nor supported his response to them.

The nature of a false dichotomy is that it oversimplifies complex issues, which in turn hinders meaningful debate. This has been especially problematic regarding the debate between scientists and theologians.

Since the dawn of time mankind has tried to understand the workings of the Universe. During the last millennium, this insatiable quest for knowledge has yielded the greatest minds known to mankind. Against the backdrop of an ever growing enlightenment, those minds have forged their theories in the crucibles of our greatest academic institutions, which stand like temples to philosophy, mathematics and the sciences.

From Galileo to Darwin, the immutable dogma of religion has been scrutinised and disputed, whittling away at the intellectual monopoly of these ancient doctrines. While the battle between science and religion is centuries old, in more recent years the front line has often been fought in the courtroom with both sides struggling over the right to educate our children in their own way.

From the Scopes trial in the 1920s to the landmark ruling in the Kitzmiller trial in 2005, this has only served to polarise the discussion even further. There is little choice; we are forced to either submit to an evidence-based scientific view of reality with its decidedly anti-religious aftertaste or subscribe in faith to religious dogma.

While both sides partly bear responsibility for the current climate, modern thinking has at best relegated religion to the status of a curious lifestyle choice to be tolerated but not encouraged and at worst casts religion as a sinister and often dangerous source of division, propagated by those whose backward thinking minds have not yet caught up with the enlightened intellectual elite.

By drawing on their academic credentials, some scientists who also advocate a rambunctious form of secularism have adopted deeply strident positions against religion. Presenting themselves as the Sultans of Sense, their writings have been highly popular and influential. Yet while their erudition and expertise in regards to science is indisputable, their failure to grasp the complexities of religion and philosophy lead to the schoolboy errors which result in this false dichotomy.

Their arrogant declaration, rooted in the dogmatic adherence to scientific materialism, maintains that since God does not exist, religious texts must have been written by man to record his primitive way of trying to explain the world. While this is understandable given that the scientific process demands evidence, it is not necessary or correct to dismiss God simply for lack of a means of detecting Him.

In addition, centuries of biblical commentary have shown that a literal understanding of the Torah which only engages with the plain reading of the text does not convey the depth of meaning hidden in the subtleties of the Hebrew language, further obscured by successive translations. Consequently, the intended messages which have nothing to do with science are often lost. Incidentally, many Christian proponents of Intelligent Design have also failed to grasp the intricacy of the Torah and lack the Jewish tradition to fathom it.

The latest offering guilty of these mistakes is a recent book by the renowned geneticist Professor Steve Jones called ‘the Serpent’s Promise’. He writes:

“Science is its [the Bible’s] direct descendant and the factual, if not the spiritual, questions asked long ago can be explored with the latest technology. This volume is an attempt to do just that, to scrutinise the biblical pages from the point of view of a scientist.”[1]

The Torah narratives are not there to teach us about science, nor are they mere fairy tales about talking snakes and magical trees. Each element of Torah conveys the most profound observations about the human character; our interpersonal relationships and our relationship with God. As the late Chief Rabbi JH Hertz[2] put it, The Torah is “not to serve as a textbook of astronomy, geology or anthropology. Its object is not to teach scientific facts; but to proclaim highest religious truths respecting God, Man, and the Universe.”

When science appears to contradict the Torah, it does not inevitably imply that the Torah itself is wrong, but that perhaps our interpretation of it requires further thought. Far from being a fly in the religious ointment, in the right hands modern scientific discoveries can help to stimulate a deeper understanding of the Torah’s timeless message, bringing greater understanding and deep satisfaction from our own intellectual honesty.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.

[1] The Serpent’s Promise page 3

[2] Rabbi J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, p. 195

Butterflies, Providence and the Story of Esther

In the summer of 1666, the English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton is said to have pondered the falling of an apple while in the gardens of Woolsthorpe Manor, his family home in Lincolnshire. This apocryphal story describes the seminal moment which prompted him to realise that there must be a force acting on the apple which draws it to the centre of the earth.

After publishing his universal law of gravitation together with his three laws of motion in 1687, Newton was able to not only explain the fall of an apple, but also the orbits of the moon and other celestial bodies with incredible accuracy. This discovery heralded a revolution in scientific understanding which resonated with the beginning of the enlightenment period. The cosmos was no longer mysterious; epitomised by William Blake’s painting of Newton as the divine geometer, God could be replaced with the rational scientist as master over a measurable, knowable and predictable clockwork universe.

This strengthened the concept of causal determinism which implies that every physical event has a physical cause or group of causes. In any system, given one set of specific initial conditions, only one physical outcome is possible.

Yet almost 300 years later in 1961, the American mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz was running a computer algorithm designed to model weather systems. Each variable such as temperature, wind speed and atmospheric pressure, had to be entered manually. After running the model and generating a normal but sophisticated weather system, Lorenz decided to repeat the experiment but rounded one variable of 0.506127 to 0.506.

As the algorithm started to run, it began to produce the same results. Yet in a short time it had deviated from the original model and ultimately generated a completely different weather system.

When Lorenz went to present the work, his colleague Philip Merilees devised the title “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Texas produce a tornado in Brazil?” Lorenz’s most famous observation soon became known as the ‘butterfly effect’.

The flap (or non-flap) of the butterfly represents a tiny change in the initial conditions comparable to Lorenz rounding up the initial variable to 0.506. Although compatible with a deterministic universe, unlike Newton’s celestial orbits, complex systems such as the weather are not predictable for long periods due to the immeasurable number of influencing variables and the unforgiving sensitivity to initial conditions.

By implication, the butterfly effect must be true for every complex system; traffic flow, a football match or even the countless interactions we have each day. At every moment of our lives, the decisions we make and interactions we have will affect the future; the chance meeting with an old friend, missing the train or a social introduction by a mutual acquaintance. In fact, every decision that we make, consciously or subconsciously affects a myriad of interconnecting factors that make up our lives.

Each year on the festival of Purim, we read the story of Esther which describes how the Jewish people were saved from schemes of the wicked Haman. Yet while we recount the miracles which God performed at that time in our prayers, there is no reference in the story to any miracle. In fact, God is not mentioned once.

Yet miracles in which God can influence our lives do not have to break the laws of nature. In our prayers we thank God al nisecha sheb’chol yom imanu – for the miracles that are with us each day.

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (d. 1746) explained that God uses natural phenomena to influence His creation, triggering the hidden miracles which guide our lives. Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezer (d. 1760) described God’s interaction with the physical world extending to even the most mundane natural phenomena, such as a wisp of straw blown from a thatched roof or a the path of a falling leaf. While we cannot see God’s guiding hand directly, the butterfly effect resonates with the notion that God can intercede in the running of the world without being noticed.

In simple language, Megilat Esther means the scroll of Esther, but the root of the word Megillah is גלה from the verb לְגַלוֹת – l’galot, meaning to reveal and Esther is from the root סתר, from the verb לְהַסְתִּיר – l’hastir, meaning to hide something. Megillat Esther therefore means ‘revealing that which is hidden’: God’s guiding hand.

This is why we dress up on Purim, symbolically hiding our true identity. As we drink wine, the real self is slowly revealed – in vino veritas, or as the sages of the Gemara put it, nichnas yayin, yetzei sod – as the wine goes in, the secret comes out.

Our celebrations on Purim therefore convey the deepest expressions of our faith in Divine Providence and the hidden, yet ever-present hand of God. The challenge for us is whether we choose to bolster our faith and recognise the Divine influence in our lives, or submit to the cold randomness of a Godless world.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.

Test of Faith: Can Science Detect God?

It was early February 1971. The three man Apollo 14 crew had just completed their mission and were returning home. Edgar D. Mitchell, the Lunar Module Pilot gazed out of the window of the command module Kitty Hawk as it hurtled towards its landing target in the Pacific Ocean. As he stared at the Earth suspended in the immense cosmos, Mitchell experienced an extraordinary epiphany.

On his return he said “When I went to the moon I was a pragmatic test pilot. But when I saw the planet Earth floating in the vastness of space the presence of divinity became almost palpable and I knew that life in the universe was not just an accident based on random processes.”

This inspiration convinced him that reality is more complex and mysterious than conventional science had led him to believe. The 18th century psychologist and philosopher William James[1] described this type of mystical state as having a ‘noetic’ quality, from the Greek noēsis meaning inner wisdom.

Rather than viewing his scientific background as a threat to this encounter, Mitchell hoped to reconcile conventional science with his new-found spirituality and established the field of noetic sciences. Today its researchers aim to scientifically substantiate a wide range of supernatural phenomena, such as extra-sensory perception, precognition and mind-matter interactions.

The noetic sciences were recently popularised in Dan Brown’s 2009 novel, ‘The Lost Symbol’ in which one of the leading characters, Dr. Katherine Solomon claims to have used noetic science to categorically prove that ‘human thought, if properly focused, had the ability to affect and change physical mass[2].’

If it is indeed possible to apply scientific methods to verify or falsify supernatural claims such as the power of prayer, then perhaps these studies could remove the need for faith which, from a scientific perspective is an anathema to rational thought. ‘Faith,’ as Professor Richard Dawkins put it ‘is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.’[3]

Since the late 19th century, scientists have made a number of attempts to test the efficacy of intercessory prayer by assessing whether praying for the recovery of an ill patient has a measurable effect. In 2003 the American Psychological Association concluded that while there was some statistical evidence to support the success of intercessory prayer, given the absence of a plausible physiological mechanism which could have been influenced coupled with contradictory studies, the researchers remained predictably sceptical of their results.

This should not be surprising. The Torah relates that after leaving Egypt and arriving in Massah, the Jewish people complained of thirst and dissatisfaction with the manna that God had provided. They claimed that if God could not provide water in the desert, it would prove that He was not with them.[4] Later the Torah recalls this episode and explicitly prohibits this sort of behaviour: ‘You shall not test God as you tested Him at Massah’.[5]

Many commentators explain that the problem is less to do with testing God, and more about the erroneous presumptions that will inevitably be made. Whereas a treatment or medication is both scientifically explainable and can be assumed to act through a mechanism of cause and effect, prayer simply does not work that way. Since the veracity of scientific research is only as reliable as the pre-experimental assumptions, when those assumptions are mistaken then no matter what the results, the inferences drawn will be wrong.

Does this mean that we must rely simply on faith? Are we left to bamboozle ourselves into ‘believing’ in God no matter what?

While science cannot engender faith, it is wrong to suggest that it must therefore have no rational source. Many draw on the unique revelation at Sinai as a foundation of their belief in God. For generations of Jews to assert that the entire Israelite nation witnessed God firsthand is such a unique and all-encompassing claim, it would effectively be impossible to fabricate. While individual claims of personal revelation found in other religions are neither falsifiable nor verifiable, it is unrealistic to suggest that Moses was able to convince the entire nation that they had collectively experienced revelation when they had not. Although it is impossible to authenticate such a claim scientifically, it is at the very least rational and perhaps even reasonable to believe that God exists and revealed the Torah to our ancestors at Sinai over 3,000 years ago.

Jewish faith does not require the sort of epiphany described by Edgar D. Mitchell to comprehend God, nor can the supernatural be detected through scientific research. For the Jewish people the real test of faith cannot be resolved in the laboratory, but must be played out within the confines of our hearts and minds.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.

[1] James writes ‘Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of, truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.’ From The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902) Pages 380-381

[2] The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown, page 85.

[3] Professor Richard Dawkins on Inheriting Religion, from The Nullifidian (December 1994)

[4] Exodus 17:7

[5] Deuteronomy 6:16. This concept is reflected by later sources, in particular the Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 9a.