Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Kabbalah at Harvard

Dr. Howard Smith is an Harvard astrophysicist.  His areas of research interest, according to their website, include: massive star formation in galactic and extragalactic environments; luminous merging galaxies with normal, starburst and /or AGN activity and infrared and submillimeter spectroscopic datasets.  Ya know, basic stuff.  How unexpected and refreshing that he is also a student of Kabbalah and believes that the two disciplines have a natural affinity.

Last month's Octavian Report ran an engaging interview with him in which he lays out his perspective on (among other things) the synthesis of science and Jewish mysticism.  Here are some ideas that stood out:

First, he has some critique for religious types who seem to fear scientific knowledge:

Maimonides says religious people who have no awareness of science — he talks about astronomy in particular — are like people walking around the palace of the king who can’t find the gate. You really need science to enter the gate. In that context, I also tie it to Psalm 92. That’s the Psalm for the Sabbath Day, and it goes something like: ma gadlu ma’asekha, how wonderful are your works; ish-baar lo yeda, a simple-minded person doesn’t understand them. It continues in that vein. The import of that psalm is that these are the works of creation and a person who doesn’t appreciate these works, like the uneducated person, misses out on that splendor, the wonder of the universe. Those are tied together.

No surprise there, that's Rambam's position.  It's good to be reminded of it again though by a person of Dr. Smith's level of accomplishment.
He then goes on to lay out the current state of the conflict between the "Anthropic Principle" - the discovery of the extreme precision that nature requires in order for life to exist and atheistic science's attempt to explain it in the form of the Multiverse Theory.

There are constants like the speed of light and Planck’s constant that control how the world works. We have no idea why these constants take the particular numbers, the values that they do. Why is the speed of light 3×1010 centimeters per second? We don’t know why. It could be anything — much bigger, much smaller. What we do know is that if these many values changed by a little bit — a tenth of a percent, even less —  then intelligent life couldn’t exist.

Intelligent life relies on carbon. Carbon is the only atom that can form complex chains, and no matter what strange lifeform you might imagine out there, I think everybody would agree that if it’s going to be intelligent, it’s going to have to be complex. It’s going to have to be able to make complicated chains of molecules. Right now, only carbon does that. Carbon is essential, and probably any life form will be carbon-based for that reason.

Carbon is made in stars. If the strong force had a slightly different constant, then the protons that come together to form the nucleus of the carbon atom wouldn’t hold together. That’s just one instance of many. Or consider the universe itself. If the universe when it expanded in the Big Bang had expanded more slowly than it did, then eventually the gravity from all of the matter in the universe would have slowed it down and made it collapse. Life takes time to evolve; it took us several billion years here on Earth. If the universe had not lasted a few billion years, life wouldn’t form. On the other hand, if the universe had expanded much more quickly than it did, then in those first moments after matter was created from energy things would have moved apart so quickly that atoms would not have been able to form and neutrons would not have been able to form. The universe that we see, of course, is expanding at a rate that seems to be just right. How perfect is that rate? It seems to be something like 1/10120 — fantastically perfect, much more perfect than any of the other things that I mentioned.

This is also well-known.  The fact is that there is simply no way to scientifically explain this level of perfection.  All parties involved tacitly agree that it looks like a setup - like it was designed to be that way.  There are those who hope to skirt this problem by proposing what seems like a scientific answer (but is really a philosophical one in that it's untestable) that there are a massive, or infinite number of universes and that we just happen to find ourselves in the one with these particular parameters - otherwise how could we even be here to speculate about it.

Dr. Smith is unimpressed by this gambit:

What I say is: what do you think is more rational? That we live in an infinite multiverse or that we live in a purposeful universe? I think that the idea of a multiverse is actually a rather irrational thing to imagine. I tell my scientific colleagues, “You believe in a multiverse in order to explain this fine-tuning of the anthropic principle. You believe in a multiverse, but recognize it’s an irrational belief. You only do it because you don’t want to recognize the alternative — and there’s only one alternative. Namely that it’s not an infinite universe, but that it is a single universe, and it’s purposeful.”

I say that what we’ve learned in the last 20 years — about exoplanets, about quantum mechanics — shows rather the opposite. That it’s much more rational to imagine that we live in a purposeful universe, that we are special, that the Earth is special. That we are not random accidents, and our neighbors are not random accidents. We all have some kind of purpose.

I'm always pleased to discover scientists who don't harbor a hostile and dismissive animus towards theology.  Dr. Smith takes it a step further with this full-throated embrace of what I agree is the most correct and intuitive position - that science and mysticism are simply two sides of one coin - and that the more we are open to both the more we will ultimately discover and understand about the true nature of ourselves and our world.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Secret Life of Nonsense

It's commonly believed that along with whatever kernels of wisdom the Talmud (and other Jewish scriptures) may contain is a whole mess of silly old folklore and superstition.  On the surface, this assumption is not without merit for the Talmudic Sages apparently believed things like:

"For a fever that strikes daily, one must take a white zuz (coin) and go with it to a salt evaporator, and weigh against it its weight in salt.  He then must tie the salt by the neck opening of his shirt with a strand of hair.  This will cure him of fever."  Or,

"He must sit at the crossroads and when he sees a large ant carrying something he must take the any and place it into a copper tube.  He must then close the tube with lead and seal it with 60 different types of seals.  He must shake the tube and then say to the ant 'your burden upon me and my burden upon you!'"

Seems like a lot of trouble but what do you expect from such ancient and whimsical people?  To those who have a bit of background in Talmudic and mystical exegesis it may be possible to discern the traces of code-words in these "toil and trouble" formulas.  Could it be that they are actually teaching more than they seem to be?  According to several of the great mystics they are doing just that. According to Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer of Vilna, aka the Vilna Gaon:

"It was decreed that the holy secrets of Moses's teachings would be desecrated by being clothed and hidden in forms such as these strange sounding expositions of the rabbis, rather than being clearly evident.  This is turn, would make it possible for the scoffers of each generation to belittle them."

Why that should be is a longer story but suffice it to say for now that "on the surface the 'Aggadot', the exposition of the rabbis, appear as wasted expressions, God forbid, yet all the secrets of the universe are concealed within them."

How about other discredited beliefs of theses sages such as the belief that the stars are fixed in great spheres that rotate around the Earth or that wine is good for pregnant women or that vermin spontaneously generate?  Doesn't that all call into question everything that they believed?  Actually no, and for three reasons.

The first is that these sages never claimed to possess the totality of human knowledge - rather, they only claimed to have the fundamental tenets of Jewish spirituality.  As such, to have accepted the science of the day (much as we do) or commonly held folk-remedies simply isn't a theological problem.  Had more updated beliefs existed, they would have recorded those.

Secondly, their interest in natural phenomena (science) was largely driven by what baring it had on Jewish law.  Just as everyone knows that there's no such thing as a sunset (as the sun remains still) but doesn't care since it seems to be setting, so too, in a case like spontaneous generation of vermin, inasmuch as it looked to the naked eye that they just sprang up from nowhere, that was enough to base Jewish law off of - the actuality of the matter has no applicable relevance in this case.

Lastly, there is the teaching (along the lines of the Vilna Gaon) that the science of the day that was recorded in the Talmud was actually only intended as a vehicle to teach deeper wisdom.  Consider the words of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto:

"The sages recorded much of the esoteric tradition that they had received in matters relating to nature or astronomy.  In other words, they utilized the knowledge of nature and astronomy that was accepted among gentile scholars of their time in order to transmit something else.  Thus, they never intended to teach physical 'facts' concerning these phenomena, but rather to utilize these facts as vehicles for Kabbalistic secrets.  One should therefore not think that they were wrong because a particular model which they used is no longer accepted.  Their intention was to clothe the hidden tradition in the accepted knowledge of their generation.  That very tradition itself could have been clothed in a different garment according to what was accepted (as scientific fact) in other generations."

Like the music of Schoenberg or the writing of Joyce, to the uninitiated it can all come across as so much gibberish.  Those who have the humility to suspend judgement and have taken the time to investigate beyond a superficial first reading may just discover an unforeseen world of surprising order and insight.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Heisenberg, the Tao and the Unbreakable One

We've all heard it said that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" but what if the reality is even greater than that - what if there are no parts to begin with and that most mistakes that we make in trying to understand the nature of things result from an inability to accurately perceive reality for what it truly is?

One of the most fascinating aspects of Quantum Mechanics is known as Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. The principle essentially states that there is a limit to the precision with which we can know "complementary physical variables" of a particle such as position and momentum. The more we know about the one the less we seem to know about the other. It almost appears to be that the very act of measurement somehow affects the particle and makes it less knowable. One of the fathers of Quantum Physics, Neils Bohr once made the surprising observation that "it is a mistake to think that a particle ever existed prior to our measurement...isolated material particles are abstractions."

So if the particle didn't exist before we measured it, what exactly was it before? According to Werner Heisenberg it was "a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality." Oddly, prior to measurement, the particle is said to exist everywhere, in a state of "superposition" - up until the time that we attempt to locate it - at which point we are able to discern certain qualities that it has but not others.

Some scientists go so far as to suggest that these particles don't exist at all. In an essay entitled "Particles Do Not Exist" by physicist Paul Davies, we find that "the particle concept is nebulous and ideally it should be abandoned completely." John Gribbin agrees and writes that "we call those objects particles, for want of a better name, what they really are, we do not know...the particle concept is simply a crutch ordinary mortals can use to help them toward an understanding of mathematical laws."

Perhaps we can posit that the reason for the strange particle phenomena and our inability to describe what they are is a consequence of attempting to reduce an unbroken whole - a unity - into parts. Particles are what we believe we perceive when we try to grasp a portion of the whole and hold on to it. Fortunately or unfortunately, this is impossible - and always will be. To truly apprehend the All we would need to be that All ourselves. A subunit can never discern the all-encompassing totality of the whole.

C.S. Lewis has suggested that a similar dynamic is at play with spirituality and morality in general. Any attempt to isolate any particular facet of morality or goodness off from the comprehensive unity that it came from will ultimately be self-defeating. Much as trying to make sense of one square millimeter of the Mona Lisa must necessarily limit our ability to see "the big picture," so must cherry-picking certain preferred moral practices thwart our appreciation of the context from which they were drawn. In "The Abolition of Man" Lewis referred to this comprehensive morality as "the Tao."

"This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one of a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory."

According to Lewis there is no way for this moral system to evolve and that any effort made to critique it can only be attempted using elements drawn from the system itself. Once we declare a thing to be right or wrong we are tacitly admitting the existence of an actual right and wrong by which we are able to judge that thing - indeed the terms "right" and wrong" themselves are borrowed directly from the "Tao." Only a full-scale rejection of the system (of the very notions of right and wrong) could suffice to dislodge any particular aspect of it. The only disadvantage of that approach is the necessity of forfeiting the ability to make moral declarations of any sort. As he wrote:

"There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) 'ideologies', all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess."

In Judaic Tradition this concept finds expression in the practice of the twice daily recitation of the "Shema" prayer - which is essentially a meditation on the concept of the ultimate oneness of the Creator. The first line is said while the practitioner covers his or her eyes with the right hand - an indication that it's necessary to stop seeing with the eyes and rather with the mind's eye to block out the apparent (and false) perception of the multifariousness of the universe in favor of the true, unified oneness that it is.

From the search for a "Unified Field Theory" to the creation of the UN to the emergence of holistic medicine, human beings possess a natural drive towards and craving for unity. Perhaps this drive is indicative of an innate ability - to divine within complex systems the true, One, indivisible whole that underpins reality itself.

Monday, December 28, 2015

She Blinded Me: the Limits of Scientific Inquiry

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking alongside a real scientist - Harold Gans - formerly a senior cryptological mathematician with the NSA.  His talks on the improbability of the origin of life and a mathematical argument for God's direct intervention in human affairs can heard here.  My presentation on the limits (and of the manifold achievements) of the scientific endeavor can be found at the same link.


Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Religious Scientist - Lo and Behold

The most interesting thing (to me) about MIT professor Jeremy England is that he's so "out" religiously.  With the atmosphere in the academy so toxic for those of the spiritual persuasion it seems remarkable that he survived it - and is even getting positive press! Check out this profile in OZY optimistically entitled "The Man Who May One Up Darwin."  Considering the esteem that Darwin is held in materialist circles it strikes me a doubly remarkable that this piece simultaneously questions the durability of the Darwinian principle while admiringly exploring the musings of an Orthodox Jew - who's research could upend it in time.

For those of us who believe that science and theology are just two sides of one coin - methods of exploring and making sense of the world that we find ourselves in - its awfully refreshing to hear a contemporary scientist reflect on the study of Torah and remark "that studying the Torah provided an opportunity for intellectual engagement that he says was 'unlike anything that I had ever experienced in terms of subtlety and grandeur of scope.'"  Yep.

He has also drawn the correct conclusion vis a vis the inherent limitation that science is subject to - that it cannot tell us anything about the meaning of the discoveries that it makes.  As the article notes "for his part, England believes science can give us explanations and predictions but it can never tell us what we should do with that information.  That's where, he says, the religious teachings come in. Indeed, the man who's one-upping Darwin has spent the past 10 years painstakingly combing through the Torah, interpreting word by word much the way he ponders the meaning of life."

It remains to be seen if Professor England will have the scientific impact that many are predicting for him, but I sincerely hope that he blazes another trail within the scientific community - one that once again makes it scientifically acceptable to take metaphysics as seriously as the physical sciences.

Monday, August 24, 2015

6 Arguments For the Existence of the Non-Physical

I often hear materialists suggest that there is "no proof" for the existence of anything immaterial. Leaving aside the fact that the smaller material things get the less "material" they actually seem, is there no other way to evidence the non-physical?

We can begin by trying to define what actually constitutes physicality.  By and large, what we mean when we say that something is physical is that it exists a) in time and space or b) in a mind. To discover the immaterial, therefore, is simply a matter of demonstrating the existence of that which is nether a nor b.  To explore this I am drawing from the work of my favorite theological philosopher, Edward Feser in his superb book, The Last Superstition. Here are some examples:

  1. The "one over many" argument.  While there may be very many examples of triangles such as scalene, obtuse and isosceles and many shades of blue such as cobalt, turquoise and ultramarine, "triangularity" and "blueness" are not reducible to any particular triangle or blue thing.  Indeed, even if there were no physical examples of any triangle or anything blue, they would still be truths that could come to be exemplified in the future.  They also can, and many times are, exemplified even when no human mind is aware of them.  Hence, triangularity, blueness and many other "universals" are neither material nor dependent on a human mind for their existence.
  2. The argument from abstract objects.  Geometry deals with perfect lines, angles, circles, etc and discovers objective facts about them.  As the facts are objective, we haven't invented them and they could not be altered (like material things).  Clearly then, they do not depend of our minds. Also, no physical objects have the perfection that geometrical ones do so clearly they do not depend on the material world.
  3. The argument from mathematics.  Like other universals, math is necessary and unchangeable - exactly the opposite of material things.  2+7=9 was true before there was a physical universe or any mind to apprehend it and would be true even after both were long gone. Another interesting twist with this one is though there is an infinite series of numbers, there is only a finite amount of physical things and mental events.  Therefore, the series of numbers can't be equated with the physical or the mental.  Take 10 minutes to listen to mathematician David Berlinski discussing this here.  
  4. The argument from the nature of propositions. A proposition like "Kurt Cobain is a member of the 27 Club" would remain true even if the entire world and all the minds in it suddenly went out of existence.  Interestingly, even if no mind or material world had ever existed, the proposition "there is neither a material world nor any human mind" would still be true - proving that it is neither material nor mental.
  5. The argument from science.  Science is the business of discovering objective mind-independent facts (though that often is not really the case).  As such, to accept the results of science is to accept the notion that there are such things as mind-independent universals.  Here's an interesting video of MIT physicist Gerald Schroeder discussing the implications of the laws of nature as universals.   
  6. The argument from words and concepts.  How is it that I understand what you mean when you say "puppy?" Clearly, there is a universal understanding of a word that is shared over and above our various utterances of it.  If one were to argue that there is no standard conception of what various words mean then we would run into some serious problems, such as the fact that it would render all communication impossible since we would never be truly using the same words - even, perhaps, when speaking to ourselves!  Would it be possible to suggest that I think about my own Pythagorean theorem and you think about yours (which is different from mine)? Obviously not.  Rather, we are sharing one universal notion.  One that is neither physical nor mental.

Granted, all of this is a tad heady and it should be acknowledged that there is a good deal of philosophical back and forth about this approach - which I think doesn't at all defeat the premise.  I strongly suggest picking up The Last Superstition and giving it a careful read.  Each chapter builds on the previous in a deep but accessible presentation that lays out what I consider to be as air tight a case as can be made for something.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Modern Science: The Best Evidence for God To Date

A reader on this post which outlines some of  the issues posed to the materialist world-view due to the "Fine Tuning" of the Universe argument kindly linked a series of posts on the website called God vs. The Multiverse.  The four posts take a few minutes to read and absorb but I think that they're well done and outline the issue (and its implications) in its fullness.  

They start off by defining their terms and their goal:

In the proof, we will use inductive reasoning from the fine tuning of the constants in nature and the initial conditions of the big bang, to infer an Intelligent Designer of the universe.  What we mean by 'proof' is that a reasonable person would logically draw the same conclusion after understanding the arguments.  We do not mean 'proof' in the sense of a mathematical proof or deductive reasoning, but rather in the sense of a rational argument.

Our main objectives are to show a path in studying the deep wisdom in the creation as revealed by modern science, and also to present a proof of God from the constants and initial conditions. Because of this dual objective, we will be including many interesting ideas from modern science that are related to the proof, even though it is not contingent upon them.  We will try to be clear about what is necessary for the proof, and what is only to provide a direction to understanding the great wisdom in the universe, as revealed through modern scientific knowledge.

They then go on to explain what is meant by a "Cosmological Constant."  They are the numerical ratios that govern "how heavy an electron is, how fast light moves, how strong gravity is, etc.  All these things are finite quantities, which have particular, unchanging values that we only know through measurements and observations. These quantities are called constants."

Scientists have long wondered at the values at which these ratios are set.  They seem to be quite random.  Where do they come from and why are they so utterly precise that if they were the slightest bit different then the universe as we know it could not have formed and life would not exist?  This has given many scientists sleepless nights.  Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman emoted about this conundrum, saying:

Immediately you would like to know where this number for a coupling comes from: is it related to pi or perhaps to the base of natural logarithms? Nobody knows. It's one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say the "hand of God" wrote that number, and "we don't know how He pushed his pencil." 

They give some good examples of the mystery of these constants:

Stars produce energy by fusing two hydrogen atoms into a single helium atom. During that reaction, 0.007 percent of the mass of the hydrogen atoms is converted into energy.  If the percentage were 0.006, the universe would be filled only with hydrogen.  If it was 0.008, the universe would have no hydrogen, and therefore no water and no stars like the sun. Bingo!

There are about 25 of these constants and simply put, they refute the notion that life as we know it is random. On the contrary, they demonstrate clearly, scientifically, that the universe is the result of design.   Materialist scientists recognized this, and didn't much like it.  But instead of owning up to the overwhelming brute fact of design, they did something rather brilliant - they pushed the problem back - so far back, in fact, that it can never be proven or refuted.  They posited the existence of the "Multiverse" - a hypothesis that posits that perhaps there are an infinite number of interconnected universes, all with different properties.  With that being the case it's not remarkable at all that our particular universe has all of these fine tuned peculiarities - but rather to be expected!  Problem solved.  Or is it?

There are quite a few issues with the Multiverse theory, such as:

  • It's non-scientific.  In as much as it is impossible to test, it cannot officially fall within the purview of science.  Yet the same folks who insist that theology must provide testable, scientific proof are generally content accepting this un-provable notion.
  • It's incoherent.  Belief in an infinite number of universes sets up necessary logical contradictions.  For instance, in as much as a God is a logical possibility, in one of the universes there must exist an infinite God who actually created the Multiverse itself (and in another there would not be).
  • It doesn't follow Occam's Razor - the problem-solving principle created by William of Occam in the 14th Century.  Occam encouraged us to select the least complex of competing hypotheses. The preceding two points highlight the unnecessary complexity introduced by the unsubstantiated belief in a multiverse. 
So there you have it.  As things stand, either there is a Designing Agent (that some of us choose to call God) or there are an infinite number of universes - one of which contains an Infinite God in any event.

Which way do you prefer?