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Parashat 09/28/2010

Parashat Bereishit
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

First an erratum — I said that the Torah readings for Sukkot had to do with the offerings of each day.  That is strictly true only for the Intermediate Days (Chol haMoed).  The readings for the two days of Sukkot and Shabbat of Chol HaMoed have to do with the holidays in general.

The great physicist Stephen Hawking has just announced that Gd did not create the universe.  According to what I could garner from published reports his reasoning is as follows.  It used to be argued that since the evolution of human life requires a very constrained set of parameters (a planet with liquid water being a major one), it must be the case that a Creator designed the earth to have these parameters, as the chances of their coming about by chance are astronomically small.  Once we began to discover exo-planets (planets orbiting around other stars) this argument doesn’t stand up, as even a small chance multiplied by an astronomically large number of planets leads to an almost certainty that some planet will be found that is suitable.  Now the argument has been made that even if this is the case, the evolution of the universe itself, that is, the creation of stars and planets and galaxies, is itself the product of the laws of nature, and if these laws were changed ever so slightly (i.e. the mass or the charge of the electron were slightly different from what we observe them to be) there would be no stars or planets, and therefore no platform for evolution.  Therefore, since there is only one universe, it must have been designed by a Creator with the right laws of nature to give rise to sentient, Gd-knowing organisms.  This is called the “strong anthropic principle.”

Now Hawking’s point appears to be that some theories of modern physics (e.g. string theory) posit the existence of multiple dimensions of space and time, and in those multiple dimensions there is the possibility of multiple universes, with different laws of nature.  Our universe, like our earth was earlier, has been demoted from a unique occurrence to being one instance of a possibly infinite class of universes.  If we find ourselves in this particular universe, that is not because it was the One Designed Especially For Us by a beneficient Creator, but because it’s the one out of an infinite number that is suitable for us.  There may be others, or there may not be, but out of an infinite number of possibilities, it is far from unlikely that one universe will be suitable.  We just happen to inhabit that one, simple because the others are not suitable!  (This is called the “weak anthropic principle.”)

Over the past few years, Christian fundamentalist creationists have tried to get their religious teachings into the public schools in this country and in Europe.  They have taken the approach that their teachings are “scientific” and should be taught as such.  I’d like to consider the nature of Torah and Revelation, and its relation to science, especially in the context of our Parashah, as that appears to be the nexus of the argument.  For the sake of full disclosure, I was trained as a physicist, and I believe Gd revealed Scripture to us through Moshe Rabbeinu.  I use the conjunction “and” and not “but” very advisedly.

It should be clear from the vociferous nature of the debate over evolution that a simple, literal reading of the Bible (especially in English, or any other, translation) is not consistent with the findings of modern science.  For example, it is not possible to explain the diversity of life on earth, nor the structure of the earth, nor what we know about stellar and galactic structure, if the universe is 5771 years old.  In fact, we have written records from India that predate that time.  It is not possible to predict where we will find oil if we assume that the geology of the earth was molded by Noah’s Flood, yet using scientific methods we can, in fact, invest our oil-exploration resources on more than a crapshoot.  So-called Creation Science has actually added to the debate by proposing a great number of explanations for reconciling their reading of Torah with the scientific record.  All of these proposals have been found lacking in scientific merit – ultimately they do not explain the observed facts.

Many people in the modern world resolve this conundrum by simply discarding Torah.  Since it is not “scientific” it is ipso facto not true.  The result is that they are left with scientific truth only.  Now science is the study of objective creation – that means, scientists study objects as if they have existence independent of the subject doing the studying.  This is a well-known problem for psychology, where the “objects” of study are other peoples’ “subjective nature.”  Even modern physics deals with this problem when it comes to measuring quantum systems, but nonetheless, science deals with “the world out there.”  In particular, science uses the method of measurement as the basis for its conclusions.  That is, when we do science we are always comparing the properties of the objects we are studying with standards of length, time, mass, electrical charge, etc.  This process reduces the relationships of objects and their properties to the relationships of numbers – i.e. mathematics.  This process can be continued to subtler and subtler levels of manifest creation, as physics has done, yet it always, by its nature, remains in the realm of the finite, and the finite can never be self-sufficient.

I believe that herein lies the crucial difference between the entire scientific approach to knowledge and the Torah approach.  To phrase it as a jingle: science approaches knowledge beginning from the creation; Torah approaches knowledge beginning with the Creator.

All arguments from physics about the structure of the universe and the course of its evolution must start with the existence of the universe.  But where does this existence come from?  Why must we assume that today’s existence implies infinite, uncreated, eternal existence?  This is as much a philosophical presupposition as the existence of a Creator.  It is perhaps at this point in the argument that Torah has something very unique to add to the discussion.  When we say Torah is Gd’s revealed wisdom, we are claiming that there is another way of gaining knowledge about creation that is distinct from and complementary to the objective, scientific method.  We might call this a subjective way of gaining knowledge, a knowledge that comes to us through in-tuition, that is, internal knowledge that is innately structured in our own consciousness.  I believe that this is the type of knowledge that is expressed in Torah.  And since, on its ultimate level, our consciousness is infinite and unbounded, so the knowledge that we can have by bringing our individual mind in tune with that infinity, can also be infinite.

Finally, just as the language of science is mathematics, the language of revelation is the language of Scripture.  It is one thing to declare one’s faith that the Bible is Gd’s Word and is absolute; it is quite another thing to be able to read it properly.  Does the story of Creation begin “In the beginning Gd created heaven and earth.”  Or “When Gd began to create heaven and earth … Gd said ‘Let there be light!’ etc.”  In other words, depending on how the first word is parsed, either light is the first thing created, or heaven and earth are the beginning of creation.  Or perhaps, like poetry, both meanings are included.  Furthermore, if, as modern physics tells us, time itself is part of the created universe, what does it mean to say “in the beginning”?  Was the creation as described in chapter 1 of Bereishit a sequence?  Was it a temporal sequence?  Presumably not.  Was it a logical sequence?  Perhaps, but perhaps we are not privy to the logic.  What level of existence is being described in these verses?  We know, again from modern physics, that logic and intuition can change as we go from level to level of creation.  How much more so might the logic of infinity differ from the logic of the finite.

The late paleontologist and NY Yankee fan Stephen J. Gould described science and religion as two great domains of discourse that provided separate and complementary descriptions of reality.  They each ask and attempt to answer different questions – science asks “How?” and Scripture attempts to teach us “Why?”  And just as we must work hard to master the language of mathematics in order to understand the scientific, objective approach, so we must “toil in Torah” to understand the language of Scripture, the language of prophecy, the language of Gd’s Revelation, if we are ever to understand our world from the level of our infinite Creator and outwards.  Thus our Sages tell us that there are many great things we can, and must do, but Talmud Torah k’neged kulam – the study of Torah outweighs them all.
Editor’s Note: for further discussion of the issue of Creation as understood by Intelligent Design vs. Scientism, and the resulting impediments to free inquiry, see the Ben Stein film, Expelled.