Dear Rabbi Fried,
I’ve been following your treatment of the parallel universe theory in physics as it relates to Judaism. What I see as a real problem with relation to Judaism, or any religion that believes that God created the universe, is the uncertainty principle in physics; how could there be uncertainty on the part of God?
Your question is an excellent one, and was first raised by none other than Albert Einstein, as I will explain.
For the readers, Rick is referring to a principle first elucidated by Werner Heisenberg in 1927. It states, based on the mathematics of quantum mechanics which govern subatomic particles, that we cannot know both the position and the velocity of a subatomic particle. If you know its exact position, you will not know its exact direction or speed.
This principle is based in mathematics and is not to be confused with another principle of quantum mechanics, known as the observer effect, which notes that the very measurement of a system affects the system. This effect is worthy of discussion in its own right. It is, however very different from what Heisenberg, and after him Niels Bohr, stated, that even if we could develop a mode of measurement which would somehow not affect the system, it is a deeply-rooted fact of our universe that there is uncertainty in the knowledge of a particle because every particle acts in an uncertain way. All we can know is the likelihood of a certain number of particles to act in a certain way; we can never know exactly how any given particle is acting by its very nature.
Einstein’s famous reaction to Heisenberg was, “God doesn’t play dice!” Einstein, although not an observant man, was a believer in God, and could not accept that there is inherent uncertainty in His creation. It must be that God created the world with certainty and we are simply missing the appropriate equations, just as there is certainty in the macro level as elucidated by his own theories of relativity. Einstein, over the course of years, attempted to disprove uncertainty with a series of thought experiments, but, alas, experimentation proved him wrong and uncertainty triumphed. Uncertainty remains (in various forms) a pillar of quantum mechanics with tremendous ramifications on a practical level besides in its understanding of the universe.
Your question, Rick, which was the question inherent in Einstein’s “dice,” remains for us a profound theological question. How do we, in fact, reconcile uncertainty with a universe created by God?
I think the answer is precisely the opposite of what was bothering Einstein. God created the world with inherent uncertainty to relate to us humans the profound message that we are not in charge and ultimately only He is in charge! Uncertainty for us doesn’t spell uncertainty for Him, it just limits our control.
There are scientists who have further theorized that uncertainty is the scientific source of the concept of free choice, which is a core Jewish belief. Absolute determinism would present a challenge to free will; uncertainty could be its foundation.
This relates to another area of science which we have discussed in past columns, that of the determination of weather. Many scholarly articles have been written on our inherent inability to predict rain with true accuracy. We explained this with the Talmudic statement that rain is one of the areas for which God didn’t “hand over the keys” to man. The intrinsic nondeterministic nature of rain is actually a God-given quality. This is explained in the deeper sources of Judaism that rain is the physical example of how all of life receives its sustenance, physical and spiritual, from Above. That is why, in Hebrew, the entire physical world is referred to as the olam hagashmi, or the “world of rain.” In order to keep the message alive and well that the existence of the universe depends upon the will of God, He created rain and the entire weather system to be innately nondeterministic.
So too, as mankind forges forward boldly in the understanding of the inner workings of the universe with the massive intellectual achievements of quantum mechanics, we may have come to the point that we would truly feel we are the ultimate controllers of the cosmos and life itself. So at the point that we are nearly there, God winks at us through the equations of Heisenberg, letting us know that Someone else is in charge!
Human uncertainty simply 1 of God’s tools
Dear Rabbi Fried,