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.

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