Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Bereshith 5762

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Parashat Bereshit 5762

Faith and Science in the Third Millennium

Prof. Moshe Kaveh

(President, Bar-Ilan University)

(published in Hebrew Tishrei 5761;
prepared for the English daf for Tishrei 5762)

Judaism is the world's most ancient monotheistic religion. The introduction of monotheism was the greatest revolution in ideas that the world has known. The transition from paganism to belief in a G-d "who is incorporeal and has no bodily form," was more revolutionary than the transition from classical to modern physics. G-d cannot be defined in terms of human reality, and therefore He stands above science, which describes the laws that govern reality.

According to this approach, there cannot be a contradiction between science and belief in G-d, for science only describes physical reality, and therefore cannot describe G-d. In addition, Judaism introduced two principles into the tenets of religion: G-d is the creator of the universe, and G-d extends His providence over the world. These two principles were subsequently adopted by Christianity and Islam.

These two assumptions, which give G-d the specific functions of Creator and Sustainer of the world were strongly attacked during the classical era of science in the 18th and 19th centuries, but they withstood these attacks and even received further support in the scientific twentieth century. What can we learn from the conflicts that took place between science and religion?

If we define the laws of science as expressing the "will of G-d," there can be no contradiction between science and religion. Even though the laws of nature belong to the realm of science, every natural law is confirmed by scientific criteria must be accepted by religion as a divine law coming from the Creator of the Universe. Despite this, throughout the generations religious figures have been strongly critical of various laws of nature, as we shall see below.

On the other hand, from time to time scientists have launched attacks on religion, even though such contradictions cannot exist according to the fundamental definitions of each discipline. As I have said, although the conceptual separation of science from religion should have brought about co-existence between the two, the course of history has proven their relationship to be far more complex.

Before moving on to the twentieth century, let us review the great confrontations between religion and science in preceding centuries. Before the 17th century, in addition to the two fundamental religious principles noted above, it was generally believed, particularly among Christian clerics, that Man stood at the center of Creation. This approach placed the Earth in the center, and dictated that all the stars and planets revolve around it. Along came Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, who stated that all the planets, including Earth, revolve around the sun.

Instead of accepting this scientific assertion as a new understanding of the laws of nature and an expression of the will of G-d, the Church viewed this approach as heretical. Because of the Church's hegemony, Galileo was imprisoned. Without doubt this was the low point in the Church's confrontation with science. It was not until the end of the twentieth century that the Pope proclaimed the wish of the Church to ask forgiveness of Galileo.

Today every child knows that Man is not at the center of the universe, nor is this an article of faith in any religion.

Let us look at the opposite case, in which science sought to dictate to religion. In the 17th century, when Newton calculated the orbits of the planets around the sun, it was not clear why the solar system should be stable. Most remarkably, Newton's answer was that "G-d keeps watch over the system" so that it remains stable.

Such an answer could only have been given by a scientist who believed science had reached the "ultimate theory" and that the role of G-d was to fill in the gaps. This is undoubtedly a mixing of science and religion; indeed, such an answer is surprising from someone of Newton's caliber, held to be the greatest scientist of the 17th century and one of the great scientists of all time.

What happens when a scientist believes he has attained the ultimate theory and that, unlike Newton, the gaps need not be filled in? This is precisely what happened to the great scientist Laplace. In the early 19th century, Laplace succeeded in applying Newton's law of universal gravitation to describe the orbits of the planets as mathematical equations. When Laplace showed his theory to Napoleon, the latter asked him, "Where is G-d in your equations?" To this Laplace gave the haughty answer for which he is known: "There is no need for G-d in my equations".

Laplace's time is considered the century of determinism, when scientists attempted to deny the two fundamental tenets of monotheistic religion. The thesis that there exists a Creator of the Universe went through difficult times. Clearly, in the case of Laplace, one could also argue that G-d created the world according to Laplace's equations, which describe the planetary orbits as we observe them. The difficulty lay in how to reconcile scientific determinism, which held that the laws of science also unequivocally determine the future, with the belief that G-d intervenes in the world and can change the future. Many leaders of the world's three monotheistic religions maintained that one could not have natural laws that contradict the tenets of faith, such as divine providence and free choice.

In addition to all this, Judaism had introduced the notion of Creation as a religious tenet, as expressed in the first verse of the Torah: "In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth." In the 19th century the universe was perceived as infinite, fixed and unchanging, and the notion of Creation, especially ex nihilo, seemed scientifically impossible. Most of the answers given in the 19th century in an attempt to reconcile these contradictions satisfied neither the philosophers, nor the scientists, nor the clergy.

Towards the mid-19th century Charles Darwin expounded his theory of evolution, that weak animals become extinct and strong ones survive through a process of natural selection. According to this theory, human origins go back to an evolutionary process taking billions of years, from the microbe through Man. This theory evoked a frontal attack from all religions. Not a single religion was willing to claim that these were divine laws; in other words, a situation had emerged in which laws of nature had to obtain approval by the clergy.

Apparently religious leaders also learned a lesson, for when in the twentieth century Penzias and Wilson showed that the universe was created by the Big Bang, they accepted the assertion, explained by believing scientists as proof that "In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth," that is, that one could equate the Big Bang with G-d's laws and that the Big Bang equals Creation.

Despite the aggressive stand that science took towards religion in the 19th century, religion survived that century to enjoy the scientific revolution of the twentieth century, which proved once more (for whoever still needed such proof), that we are very far from having reached the "ultimate scientific theory." The twentieth century appears to have made both camps somewhat more tolerant, as attested by the number of endowed chairs and centers for the study of religion and science in universities throughout the world attests.

The twentieth century is characterized by greater humility than the classical science of previous centuries, which had viewed itself as omnipotent and capable of predicting all. Some religious leaders even claimed that science in the twentieth century had "repented" and returned to belief. Two surprising laws in our time took science down from the level of the "divine" to that of the human.

According to the notions of modern physics, nothing is absolute and everything (except the velocity of light) is relative, even time! This is Einstein's theory of relativity. Second, Quantum theory holds that nothing is certain. The fundamental law is Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which states that the location and the velocity of a particle cannot be predicted simultaneously.

These two theories are not intuitive, and the world they describe is not what we see or feel! The transition from a world of determinism to a world of probability, governed by quantum theory, actually elicited the unflattering remark from the greatest scientist of all time, Einstein, who said of probability: "G-d does not play dice".

If all this were not enough, "the Messianic Era" had almost arrived when Science discovered Creation. The twentieth century came close to acknowledging and understanding that the universe had been created by the Big Bang - that moment when the universe was born. Since according to Einstein, space and time are linked, the beginning of the universe geometrically also marks its beginning temporally. Before the existence of the universe, time did not exist. In other words, what we have here is creation ex nihilo. Creation of the universe, according to the theory of relativity, is also the "creation" of time. Thus Bereishit, "In the beginning" of time, is a most accurate description for the inception of the universe.

The most brazen remark of the twentieth century belongs to Stephen Hawking of Cambridge University, who maintained in his book, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, that if time did not exist before the Big Bang, there could be no cause for creation of the universe (because there existed nothing before Creation), and therefore he asked, "Where is there place for a Creator of the Universe?" This remark calls to mind the haughty words of Laplace in the 19th century. Science now recognized Creation yet still had its doubts whether G-d was its cause.

Clearly if we ascribe to G-d characteristics which belong to the world of reality embodied by our universe, then these characteristics did not exist before the Big Bang, because then there did not exist any reality as we know it according to the laws of nature. But there is no such problem in Judaism, which defines G-d as abstract - He not only "has no body," He even "has no bodily form." The notion of space cannot be ascribed to such a being, and therefore neither can time. The name of the Holy One, blessed be He, attests that He "was", "is", and "will be", as we say in the liturgical poem, Adon Olam. In other words, He is independent of the notion of time.

In like manner Maimonides explains the paradox between "G-d's knowledge," which covers the past, present and future, and the idea of free choice. Therefore, G-d in Judaism is not tied to physical existence, the absence of which before the Big Bang or the presence of which thereafter could change the fact of His being. This is attested by the words of the wonderful poem, Yigdal: "Primal to all that was created / First, with no beginning to His beginning."

What has the present century to say about the idea of man having been created and there being a "G-d who extends His providence over him?" Our new understanding of creation has not solved the problem of faith. Science will never be able to prove religious tenets, and likewise religious tenets must not negate the laws of science.

Even though there is consensus among scientists that the world was created, there is still controversy over who created the world. The natural religious response is that G-d created the world. But there are scientists who maintain that one need not come to this conclusion; that the world could have created itself spontaneously (by quantum fluctuations, for example).

Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in physics, made the following atheistic statement: "The universe seems pointless". According to such a view, there is no Divine Providence.

Weinberg's view is based on the uncertainty of the end of the universe. If gravitational forces turn out to be sufficiently strong to halt the expansion of the universe, then at some time in the future the universe will collapse to a geometric point! If gravitational forces turn out not to be strong enough, then the universe will continue to expand forever and will die for lack of "nuclear fuel," e.g., the sun and all the stars that provide light as a result of thermonuclear reactions will cease to do so in another few billion years. According to this theory, we will reach a universe that has burned up all its energy, a "dead universe." This is the pessimistic view of the future.

In contrast to this approach, there is an optimistic view that is known as the anthropic principle, from the Greek anthropos, meaning Man. According to this approach, the laws of the universe were determined for the benefit and well-being of mankind: truly Divine Providence. This view maintains that the creation of Man was accompanied by so many rare occurrences of such low probability that Man could only have been created by miracle. The key remark is that of Freeman Dyson, who said, "It appears that the universe knew we were coming." In other words, the universe was planned in such a way as to make the creation of Man possible.

According to the anthropic principle[1], it can be shown that if the slightest changes had occurred in the parameters of the laws of the universe, such as the nuclear force or the gravitational force, or the radius of Earth's orbit around the sun, or in the chain of events that preceded the creation of Man, such as the force of impact of the meteor which struck Earth (causing dinosaurs but not mammals to perish), a universe with human life would not have been possible. As the famous physicist Sir Fred Hoyle put it, "The universe was planned in a very intelligent way."

One of the surprising things about the anthropic principle is that scientists are now trying to predict new laws that will be consonant with this principle, namely laws of nature that make human existence possible. In 1990 Fred Hoyle hypothesized that the carbon nucleus must have an energy level of 7.7 million electron-volts, otherwise human life (which is made of carbon chains) would not have come about on Earth.[2] Following Hoyle's hypothesis based on the anthropic principle, it was indeed experimentally shown that the nucleus of the carbon atom has precisely this energy level, known as the "resonance energy of carbon." Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate and one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, remarked on this finding, "If one can make such successful predictions, it is a sign we are beginning to understand the universe."

Clearly the anthropic principle buttresses the religious approach that believes in Divine Providence. Opposing this is the atheistic approach, which maintains that an almost infinite number of universes may have been created, but none of them, save for ours, was able to survive. Not only does such a thesis come closer to mysticism than to science, its shortcoming lies in requiring almost infinite energy in order to create a single successful universe; the atheistic approach must go to all this effort simply in order to avoid acknowledging that there is a Creator who planned the most successful universe from the outset. Moreover, if we accept the approach that numerous universes were created, that of course does not negate the existence of a G-d who created them. This idea, incidentally, is reminiscent of the well-known talmudic statement that G-d created many worlds and destroyed them, until He finally created our world.

The anthropic principle has been accepted by a large part of the scientific and clerical communities of the world, which points to the amazing affinity between religion and science, the former using the term "Divine Providence," and the latter speaking of the "anthropic principle". In this sense we can say that today numerous scientists either consciously or unconsciously hold by "Divine Providence."

In conclusion, we see that the Jewish religion has entered the third millennium stronger than ever. Without doubt, we have reason to be proud. Scientific theories have come and gone, civilizations have arisen and fallen, views of the world have changed, but the Jewish faith has stood strong, ready to face the challenges ahead.

In every generation science will undoubtedly continue to seek the "ultimate theory." Since the laws of nature are expressions of the will of G-d, it is the role of scientists to seek to discover them. These laws will also give order to religious thought, invaluable to religion, as Maimonides wrote: "Knowledge of the Divine cannot be attained except after [mastery of] the science of nature". In other words, understanding the laws of nature can lead to knowledge of the Lord.

The converse is also the case; in the third millennium, science will need religion more than ever. The discovery of the genetic code, genetic engineering, cloning and the possibility of understanding the beginning and end of life have all raised moral questions and can once again cause science to be overly haughty and as a result want to "play G-d". In this millennium, religion will have a weighty role to play in maintaining the delicate balance between the "omnipotence" and the morality of science.


* Prof. Kaveh is the President of Bar-Ilan University and director of the Resnick Institute for Advanced Technology (Dept. of Physics).

[1] Several articles and books have recently appeared on the Anthropic principle. For example, J.D. Barrow and F. J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford 1986. C. Domb, "Religion and Science" (preprint). N. Aviezer, B.D.D. Journal Vol. 5 (Bar-Ilan U. Press); S.J. Gould, Wonderful Life, New York 1989.

[2] C.f. his research on nuclear reactions in very high temperature stars.