God & Science

In this week’s Parsha video, “Va’era: Seeing God in Science,” Rabbi Fohrman talks about God’s name and how we can understand it in light of modern cosmology.

Watch the video, then consider this dialogue between Rabbi Fohrman and a physicist viewer, Larry Smith.

{It’s a bit long, but so so interesting and worthwhile!}

Here’s Larry’s contention with Rabbi Fohrman’s explanation:

Larry Smith 

I applaud Rabbi Forman for giving us the sages interpretation of the name “shin daled yud” as “He who said to his world enough”, and attempting to relate this to modern cosmology. But, speaking as a physicist, I think his explanation
was not successful.

Rabbi Forman suggests that it was necessary for G-d to “reign in” the Big Bang. But the expansion of the universe leads naturally to the formation of galaxies and stars and planets, and life itself. There is no need for G-d to “limit” this natural evolution by saying “enough”; it would be quite counterproductive. Regarding the
flatness and smoothness of the universe, and also the relative magnitudes of
the four physical forces: these are examples of what is known as the Anthropic
Principle, which is that the fundamental physical constants seem to have just
the right values (i.e., are “finely-tuned”) to support life. The problem for scientists is to come up with natural explanations for why they have these values. For the cases of the flatness problem and the smoothness problem, these are now explained by the theory of inflation, which posits the exponential expansion of space in the very early universe. That still leaves the relative magnitude of
the four physical forces, as well as other physical constants that seem to have
just the right values to support life. One idea is that these might be explained by the concept of the “multiverse”.

A couple of other technical corrections: (1) the formation of hydrogen atoms had
nothing to do with gravity; it was a result of the electromagnetic attraction
of the electrons and protons once they had cooled down sufficiently. (2)
the big bang should really be thought of as an expansion of space
itself, rather than as an explosion.


And here is Rabbi Fohrman’s response:

I think that you may have misunderstood me regarding my interpretation of God’s name here. Let me clarify:

I am not suggesting that the universe was reeling ‘out of control’ like an out-of-control 18 wheel truck, and God had to step in at the last minute and try to steer it from careening over the cliff – and, shouted: enough! It would be inelegant of God to be involved in such a haphazard way. If God is indeed involved, would it not be more elegant for the Master of the Universe to ‘reign in’ the universe by setting the initial consonants precisely so that things unfold as they must, from the beginning? In doing so, God is essentially acting as a limiting force on what otherwise would be chaotic – hence, my ‘modern’ take on the Sages’ expression: “The one who said his world: enough!”.

With that in mind, let us consider ‘inflation’ as an “explanation” for the smoothness and flatness problem. Yes, physicists have proposed a short period of hyperinflation in the very early universe as the only way of “explaining” the extraordinary smoothness and flatness of the universe. But that “explanation” does absolutely nothing to detract from the wonder of it all. For still, the statistical improbability persists: Who saw to it that the short burst of hyperinflation was just precisely long enough to create a universe that was just smooth enough to allow for stars but not too bumpy to create a universe of black holes? The margin for error here is still 10 to the -51 power. And we only got one try.
Surely, if you’d like to invoke luck to explain the fine tuning inherent in hyperinflation, that is your choice. All I’m saying, is that as a religious person, these phenomena that we’ve only come to understand the last 10 or 20 years, seem to give new meaning to a very old explanation of the name of God.
A final point: you mentioned multiverse as a possible explanation for this phenomenon. This is essentially the theory that perhaps there are trillions and trillions of other universes out there with different constants, and we just happen to live in the one suitable for life. The lure of this theory is that it does not need to  invoke some sort of intelligent, ordering forces such as God.
John Leslie, in his book Universes, which I quoted in the video, deals with this point. (Leslie, by the way, is not a religious man). The essence of his argument, as I understand it, is this: You can, if you wish, hypothesize about the existence of many trillions and trillions of universes that exist beside our own – universes we cannot see, nor ever prove exist - as a way of “explaining” the fine-tuning present in our universe. But is that really the simpler, more elegant explanation?
Imagine you were to wake up one morning, and you find a quarter on your bedside dresser. You flip the quarter, and it lands on heads. Your flip it again and it lands on heads. You spend the week doing nothing but flipping that quarter, and every one of the 3,400,097 times you flip it, it lands on heads.
What’s the best explanation for what happened here?
Explanation one: Something fishy is going on here. Someone, or something, is making sure that it always lands on heads.
Explanation two: it was all a product of blind chance. You see, next door, maybe there is another person who found a quarter. And next-door to him, another person who found a quarter. Maybe there are 5 quadrillion people who found quarters and spent the week flipping them. If there are indeed 5 quadrillion people doing this, it is not remarkable that for one of them, the coin would’ve consistently landed on heads. That one person just happened to be you.
That, is essentially how I understand what the multi-universe theory is trying to do. If we invoke trillions and trillions of other unseeable, unprovable universes, then the fine-tuning in this one is not so remarkable anymore.
But is that really the simplest explanation?
What do you think?
Get involved in the conversation by adding your comments under the video, or add your comments here!
Shabbat Shalom!
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