Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Significance of Man ; Torah, Physics and
- Dr. John Wheeler

A young man, raised as an orthodox Jew, troubled with cognitive dissonance, wrote to Dr. Gotfryd concerning his inability to appreciate traditional behavior, mostly because he sees man as insignificantly irrelevant to an all-powerful Creator of this grand universe. [I did the highlighting]

Dear Shalom,

Although I don't know you, I hear your problem and I feel your pain.

You mention thinking out of the box. The way you see things, Faith is in the box and Reason is out of the box. I question that.

Let's take, for example, a famous discovery by a brilliant 20th Century mathematician, Kurt Gödel. It's called the incompleteness theorem and it has two parts. Simply put, Gödel proved that any logical system is incomplete, and that any complete system must be illogical.

Let's put this in context. Here we have a fellow, whom historians call "one of the most significant logicians of all time", making the most famous pronouncement of his illustrious career and what does he say? That logic itself is always inside the box and if you want to get out, be ready to embrace the irrational.

Let's take another example, this time from the world of Physics. Physics is a good subject for people who embrace logic such as you and here's why. Logical people generally want things demonstrated to them empirically. Empirical things are those that can be observed, measured and analyzed rationally. Science is the pursuit of knowledge using empirical methods, and physics is the most basic of all natural sciences.

Scientists often work by analyzing, which means to break something down into its component parts to see how it works. For physical objects that means decomposing it into atoms and even smaller bits. The branch of physics that deals with tiny stuff like that is called Quantum Physics and it is absolutely weird. Or to be more exact, its methods are very sensible but the facts about nature it has uncovered are absolutely weird.

The discoveries of Quantum Physics are so bizarre that Albert Einstein called them "spooky" and only accepted them after 25 years of trying to disprove them. Erwin Schrodinger, the scientist who earned the Nobel Prize for writing its equations said, "I do not like it and I'm sorry I had anything to do with it." Even Niels Bohr, who was the first champion of Quantum Theory said, "If you think you have understood it, you most certainly haven't."

The piece of the puzzle I'd like to present to you, Shalom, is a quantum concept called observership and it was developed by John Wheeler, arguably one of the greatest minds in physics of all time. Four of his students earned Nobel Prizes; his book, "Gravitation," is still the standard text on Einstein's theory; he was a co-founder of nuclear energy; and he invented the concept of a "Black Hole" in space.

Observership is the idea that there must be a conscious human observer for physical reality to emerge from a potential to actual state. Observation makes things happen. In Wheeler's unrefuted view of the quantum, people are co-creators of reality and not only now but reaching back into the past, all the way to the beginning of time.

He validated this notion with "delayed-choice" experiments, where a quantum goes through a two slit barrier and then the observer decides to observe it as either a particle (in which case it went through only one slit) or as a wave (in which case it went through both). The observer, acting in the present, determines not only what things are, but also what they were in the past!

This addresses your central question: Does the Creator care about us? Observership is His way of saying, "Yes, I do. And if you look closely, you will see how you make all the difference in the world."

I had a written correspondence with John Wheeler you might enjoy reviewing. That story is online at He wrote me about his respect for and interest in the Chabad Rebbeim and their works and included a photocopy of an article he wrote for scientists and philosophers that has a surprising Torah twist.

Wheeler, addressing a joint meeting of the Royal Society and the American Philosophical Society, tries to come to terms with the surprising fact that human beings are just as important for the universe's existence, as the universe is for our existence.

To explain it, he found nothing better than a Midrash - that's right a Talmudic legend - about a dialogue between Avraham Avinu and Hashem. And to clarify he includes a 40-line footnote with a dozen more Talmudic discussions and references, all reviewed by a panel of Jewish scholars (most of whom have Nobel Prizes of their own).

Shalom, I think this story has a special significance for you. You, like Avraham Avinu, have decided to take an individualistic path. Not satisfied with what family and society was telling him, he needed to figure things out his way. He too started with a logical approach - that's how he negated idolatry and asserted there was one invisible and all-powerful force.

But what exactly was his logic? You can explore it in my blog under the Abraham Principle, in the left panel of my website. There I trace Avraham Avinu's cognitive journey back to one singular concept and then apply that at many levels with some amazing results. I invite you to follow those blog posts one by one if you truly want to have a logical point of view.

The idea is that whenever there are parts A and B that together form an organized structure or system, and A has no intrinsic control over B, nor does B have any intrinsic control over A, there must exist some coordinating entity C external to them and more powerful than them, since it has the capacity to hold them together in some unified way.

This bit of logic alone can elevate you step by step from a hodge-podge random world, to an orderly one with a hierarchy of material causes, to the possibility of polytheism, to the necessity of monotheism.

Then the same logic takes you to various conclusions within this Being. First, it cannot have a form. Next it cannot be limited in any way. That leads to the kabbalistic notion of "tzimtzum lo kepshuto", which means it is logically impossible for the Creator or First Cause to be somewhere in the heavens above without simultaneously being right here as well. This Cause conceals Its existence from us while not concealing anything from It.

That in turn leads to the necessity that the Creator made a world in order to hide and then be found, and that the finding must be by a human with enough intelligence to understand the Abraham Principle. Knowing the Creator made the world in order to be discovered by man, Avraham set about to let others know, for after all, they too were here for ostensibly the same reason! Hence he started teaching this even before any revelation had been made to him.

It also explains why there was a revelation of The Being to Avraham, and why he spent a lot of money feeding people in order to promote the message. The Abraham Principle is a subtle philosophical concept and not everyone is so intellectually inclined. On the other hand, everyone likes to eat and Abraham's "Chabad House", with its feed 'em and teach 'em outreach style, attracted those types to his mindset as well.

Another implication of the Abraham Principle is that material reality is constantly dependent on a flow of creative energy, the Chassidic doctrine of continuous creation. In modern physical terms that's referred to as the vacuum fluctuations in a transcendent, formless "field" that all mass depends on.

That makes the universe a constant miracle in a world made for man, a pretty major sociological and cosmological outcome considering the simplicity of the logical rule that generated it.

Shalom, we used to live in a society that painted a thick red line between Faith and Science and very few dared cross it. That situation really lasted only about 200 years and in principle it ended about a hundred years ago.

Still there are relics, throwbacks to 19th Century materialism and rationalism, pseudoscientists who claim that if it's not physical it doesn't exist; if it's not sensible it isn't relevant; if it skips across time and space it didn't happen. These people are out of touch with today's science and you should be aware of that.

You should also be aware it's not only a few eggheads who talk like this. The whole theme has hit mass media with a raft of books and movies like The Secret, What the Bleep, and the Matrix.

At this point you might be thinking, "Fine, there is a G-d, logic and science bring us to that, but then what?" Which religion, and which style within the religion, and how much must we do?

You mentioned your quest for truth. I believe if you honestly analyze your options regarding religion and lifestyle, your quest for truth will lead you right back to where you started from: Chabad. But people are not only motivated by lofty philosophical goals. They also want happiness and peace of mind, an easier life and personal freedoms.

I know two young men, friends, who were both dissatisfied with the rabbinic Judaism in which they were raised. One was considering becoming a Christian and the other simply stopped observing. They were having a discussion and the drop-out got really angry at the wanna-be convert. I asked him what makes him think he is any better.

He said, "Look, I may be lazy, I may be rebellious, but at least I'm honest. I'm telling G-d, 'Sorry I'm not interested in keeping all these mitzvos, it's too much work.' He's saying to G-d, 'You aren't interested in the mitzvos anyway, and Christianity agrees with that.' That's how he thinks to justify himself."

If doubts drive you from your faith, that's one thing. If it's the burden of Torah and mitzvos driving you to doubt, that's something else. Don't cover yourself with a skeptical philosophy. If you do, you will always be stuck. If you just say, "Not right now Hashem, I'm busy," it's not ideal but it's more honest and the path to teshuvah is clear.

I'd like to switch subjects and close on the subject of deeds. You are obviously very anxious over your turn of mind and mood and I am frankly worried for your mental health and stability. It's for that reason I suggested to you on the phone you take up some small chesed project for a half hour once a week. Call a sick relative. Visit a senior. Help a kid with homework. Clean up your mother's kitchen.

Stepping outside your mental misery will give you a breather and allow fresh ideas to sink in. For you thinking out of the box means to relax your logic and let life flow. Doing a chesed will attach you to something higher than yourself, but without feeling religiously pressured. Let me know how it goes.

Sincerely, Aryeh Gotfryd

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