Friday, April 19, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5773–Revisiting Schrödinger’s Cat

A dozen years ago, I wrote about how Erwin Schrödinger’s “cat” thought-experiment helped me to deal with what we might normally call Incongruities in the Torah. Today I’m revisiting the topic.

Twice in Kedoshim we are reminded to not become involved with ghosts, or any kind of divination. And the stern warnings against following the practices of others, or worshipping idols or other gods is emphasized repeatedly here and elsewhere in Torah. Yet in Akharei Mot we have this crazy goat "l'azazel" business. The folks at "Torah Tots" jokingly call it a sort of "X-File" - a great mystery of the Torah. And if we go back a bit, there's always good ol' Umim and Thumim! (Say, why didn't they just use the Urim & Thumim to decide which goat was for G”d and which was “for Azazel?”)

Seeming incongruities (like these) abound in the Torah. Incongruities often get me thinking. They nag at me. Two sides of my brain argue. One saying these are incongruous and one arguing that there are no incongruities whatsoever-that the idea that things are incongruous is a human-imposed layer of thinking upon the Torah.

I used to find myself very troubled by these seeming incongruities. Slowly, though a process of discovery which involves both knowledge of Judaism and of human physical science, I have come to realize that there really aren’t incongruities at all. The Torah is simply in line with the physical properties of the Universe-and of course, that would not be surprising for those who believe the same entity created both!

What brought me to an understanding that apparent incongruities are not a problem? It was no other than dear old Schrödinger's cat.

For the non-physics-minded among you, Erwin Schrödinger, a physics professor, created a thought experiment to demonstrate a primary principle of the understanding (at that time) of quantum mechanics. Schrödinger postulated that observation interacts with quantum reality-that is, it is the observation of an uncertain event that causes the event to resolve into a definitive form. In his thought-experiment, a cat is placed in a sealed box, together with a radioactive atom. If the atom decays, and a geiger-counter detects an alpha particle as a result of that decay, a hammer hits a flask of prussic acid (HCN), killing the cat. Before the observer opens the box, the cat's fate is tied to the wave function of the atom, which is itself in a superposition of decayed and un-decayed states. Thus, said Schrödinger, the cat must itself be in a superposition of dead and alive states before the observer opens the box, "observes" the cat, and "collapses" its wave function.

Don't worry if you don't get it. The point is that, for those serious about understanding quantum mechanics as it was understood at that time it was necessary to accept that matter or things can be in more than one state, that things than cannot logically co-exist can must co-exist at the same time (that is, until they actually interact with an observer) if you accept the basic premises of quantum theory. Quantum mechanics and physics have progressed somewhat beyond this understanding (although there are those who still find it a valid thought experiment.)

Torah can be seen in the same way.That is, the mitzvot of Torah, the lessons of Torah, the words of Torah don't resolve themselves into a definitive concept until someone interacts with them. And each interaction, just as with Schrödinger's cat, can be random and different. Coming to this understanding of the Universe and Torah, I see now the futility and foolishness of pursuing apparent incongruities in the Torah. There aren't any until we read it. And for some, the act of reading will make an incongruity, and for others not. so it's not what's in the's what we do, how we interact, how we respond, how we interpret!

And doesn't that put a whole different spin (forgive the physics pun) on "naaseh v'nishma," "we will do and (then) we will listen."

Is this a liberal or traditional interpretation of Judaism and Torah? I say it's both..and remains so...until you encounter it and make it one or the other.

So don't let anyone tell you Torah and science don't mix well. The more we "discover" about our universe from a scientific standpoint, the more we come to realize that the Torah has an amazing understanding of it .

Now, I offer a caution here. There have been attempts to mix physics and science in a new-age/renewal-ish way. The film “What the Bleep Do We Know?” and its updated and expanded version in “What the Bleep Do We Know: Down the Rabbit Hole” are examples of this. Initially, I was quite intrigued, even enamored with the film and its suggestion that quantum physics gives great power to us as observers, in effect giving us the power to control and affect reality with thought. The mystic in me likes the idea that somehow religion and science are really connected, perhaps even different sides of the same coin.  I’d love to believe that the elusive unified field theorem, the theory that ties together all of science’s disparate theories into one grand vision, might be found in religion, in G”d.

The idea that human thought can control physical reality has become pervasive in self-help culture, and I have come to see it as just an attempt to give scientific support to the basic concept of “positive thinking.”

If you wish to believe that you have the power to will the universe to be a certain way, be my guest. I recognize my ability to affect my life, but to physically alter the universe with my thoughts, I’m  little more skeptical. Will my thinking only happy, positive thoughts really make my flowers grow better and be happier themselves? I don’t need to believe that to be someone who is willing to accept mystery and embrace religion and spirituality.

Just as bad things happen to good people, not everything goes well for those who engage in positive thinking. I’m sure that sometimes it helps (or appears to help.) Yet I do not believe that positive thinking alone is enough. My Judaism teaches me to look for the opposing forces, the things that need to be balanced. My Judaism teaches me that sometimes negative thinking may be necessary as a balance to positive thinking.

While I am happy to entertain science and religion informing each other, and even willing to allow for mystical things, my own studies in the last few years are urging me to be cautious when it comes to using science to support religion and vice versa. Yes, there is clear evidence that, in some cases, we can use the power of our minds to influence physical things – particularly in the area of human health. However, What the Bleep (and other films and books I have encountered before and since)  present pseudoscience and do a disservice to serious efforts to engage science and religion in meaningful dialogue.

Life certainly has mysteries. I’m perfectly open to idea that science has mysteries, and that there are things in this universe that are mysteries. In fact, I want there to be mysteries, and part of me really wants religion to be part of understanding them. Understanding human thought and consciousness still eludes science, and, even if the science underlying it is fully understood at some point, it won’t change the fact that it is wondrous and amazing. We can analyze Shakespeare all we want, it won’t change the beauty of his poetry and prose.(I have always been someone for whom understanding something does not automatically remove the “magic.” As someone educated and trained in the technical theatre arts, I understand how the amazing feats we see on stage are created – yet I still find myself amazed by them. As a religious person, I do not fear science, for it does not threaten my sense of wonder and awe. As A.J. Heschel famously said “Wonder, rather than doubt, is the root of knowledge.”

Too many of us assume that science is all about the doubts, and not the wonder. Yet how can one be a scientist (or even a mathematician) without an incredible sense of awe and wonder?

In reviewing what I have written, I see that, typically, I am conflicted. But that makes sense. I am seeking a balance between different ideas, different forces, different understandings. I have to find a way to make room for science and faith in my life.

We should recognize the power that we do have. Until we open that cover or unroll that scroll, what's inside can be many things at once. But once you encounter and start reading, you collapse wave fronts all over the place and turn uncertain words into a concrete interpretation. Just remember your concrete interpretation may not be the same one that some else creates when they have the same encounter. Maybe this is the “many worlds” interpretation of Torah? Yet, even if each of our individual encounters with Torah creates its own little universe, we’re all living together here in this one, and we have to make it work. Torah is one guide that can help us do that. It’s not perfect, and it is subject to differing interpretations. We can all discuss our differing interpretations, and hopefully, through this dialogue, we can help bring about tikkun olam.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 (parts ©2001) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5772 - Don't Forget That The Goat Goes Free
Akharei Mot-Shabbat Hagadol 5771 -  Ultimate Tzimtzum
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5770 - Redux 5762 - Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5769-Schroedinger's Cat 5769 (Redux 5761 w/new comments)
Akharei Mot/Shabbat HaGadol 5768  - Why Wait for Elijah?
Akharei Mot-Kedoshim 5767 - Insults Don't Weigh Anything?
Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5766-Redux 5761 & 5762
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5764-Whither Zion?
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5762 - Dis tinct Unities and United Dis junctions
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5761 - Schroedinger's Cat & Torah
Akharei Mot 5765-The Ways of Egypt and Canaan (revised)
Acharei Mot 5763--Immoral Relativisms?
Acharei Mot 5760-The Ways of Egypt & Canaan

Kedoshim 5768-Unfamiliar Spirits
Kedoshim 5771 & 5763 - Oil and Water
Kedoshim 5760 & 5765 - Torah for Dummies


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