Monday, September 5, 2016

Smile - the Universe Has a Cause!

I used to have some rudimentary theological discussions back in college. In retrospect, they seem about as clear as the air in which many of these enlightened forums occurred.  Back then, I found it impossible to overcome the seemingly obvious logic of statements like "in an infinite universe there are an infinite number of possibilities."  What this meant was that any point someone was making could potentially be true since the universe was infinite and thus would logically contain every possibility. What I have since come to understand is that while the universe is very very big, it is decidedly not infinite, nor could it be logically, and as such, there are not an infinite amount of possibilities.

I had been wanting to read William Lane Craig's book "The Kalam Cosmological Argument" for a long time and finally got around to it.  I am quite partial to the Cosmological Argument for God's existence in the various forms that it takes and find the logic to be simple and compelling.  Dr. Craig's book was written in 1979 but considering that the thinkers he explores (al-Kindi, Rav Saadia Gaon, al-Ghazali) wrote roughly 1000 years before that, I don't think that much has occurred to dislodge the argument in the intervening years.  It basically works like this:

First Premise - Everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence
Second Premise - The Universe began to exist
Conclusion - The Universe has a cause of its existence

Dr. Craig spends all of eight pages discussing Premise One - why?  Because the point is essentially self-evident.  All of our experience and intuition tells us that all that exists has a cause of its existence. No one, no matter how intellectually muddled, ever responds to a question like "where did that raspberry danish come from?" with a response like "why need it come from anywhere?  Perhaps this danish is simply un-caused!"  Yes, David Hume famously went on about this very point but as Elizabeth Anscombe has pointed out "I can imagine a rabbit coming into existence without a parent rabbit, well and good...but from my being able to do that, nothing whatever follows about what is possible to suppose - without contradiction or absurdity - as holding in reality."

He spends 75 pages on Premise Two.  This one is harder given the difficulty in trying to justify how nothing (literally nothing, not "quantum fluctuations, laws of nature, etc) gave rise to something.  He advances two lines of reasoning - one philosophical and one empirical.  Each is rather technical and challenging to follow for a non-philosopher/non-mathematician but I do think that the broad strokes are readily understandable.  The philosophical argument works like this:

1.  An actual infinite cannot exist
2.  An infinite temporal regress of events is an actual infinite
3.  Therefore an infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist

Many people mistakenly believe that the brilliant German mathematician Georg Cantor demonstrated the possibility of the infinite through his work in "Set Theory."  However, like the musings of Hume, his ideas could only ever exist in the world of the mind.  As another great German Jewish mathematician, Abraham Robinson, put it "Cantor's infinities are abstract and divorced from the physical world." All this just goes to say that although we can dream up many fanciful ideas of various infinities, in the real physical world, none actually exist.  Hence, the universe is not infinite - it began to exist.

He goes on to point out that "even if an actual infinite can exist, the temporal series (the flow of time) of events cannot be one, since an infinite cannot be formed by successive addition as the temporal series of events is."  What he's saying is that since we can always add one more second, minute or hour to the series that has passed, we can never have an actual infinity of time.  This implies our conclusion - that time itself had a beginning.

The empirical argument that strikes me as most interesting is the argument from thermodynamics. In a nutshell, physics teaches us that all systems have the tendency to pass from a more ordered to a less ordered state and from a state of lower entropy to one of higher entropy.  Things become more disorderly and more uniform as time goes on.  As such, if the universe has been around for an infinite amount of time we would already have expected it to have reached a state of maximum entropy and uniformity.  It would be the same everywhere and essentially dead.  Inasmuch as it's obviously nothing like that we can again conclude that the universe began to exist.

Well, so what?  You may ask.  Why does it matter that it can be shown that the universe has a cause of its existence?  In Dr. Craig's words:

"We ought to ponder long and hard over this truly remarkable conclusion, for it means that transcending the entire universe there exists a cause which brought the universe into being ex nihilo (from absolute nothingness).  If our discussion has been more than a mere academic exercise, this conclusion ought to stagger us, ought to fill us with a sense of awe and wonder at the knowledge that our whole universe was caused to exist by something beyond it and greater than it.  For it is no secret that one of the most important conceptions of what theists mean by 'God' is Creator of heaven and earth."

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.