Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Playing Dice With Einstein and God

Playing Dice with Einstein, God and Suffering


I’ve never been interested in hearing whether one person or another claims to believe in God, or is or is not religious. As Thomas Merton noted, ‘our idea of God tells us more about us than Him.’[1] Neither question seems to offer insight into how a person might face a world in which bouquets and brickbats fall both on those who claim faith and those who deny it. Rather, in search of a central religious – philosophical way of understanding the world I have always been more interested in this question; how do you understand the relationship of order and chaos? Do you look at the world and see a universe basically in order, with the occasional challenge, or mystery, like an unfilled answer in a crossword puzzle that will eventually all make sense perfectly? Or alternatively do you look at the world and see an unpredictable, unknowable chaotic pit with any semblance of order we might encounter no more than a veneer stretched over a nihilist chasm, a fig leaf over an existential vacuum?


It’s hardly a new way of posing a foundational theological cum philosophical question, but, perhaps surprisingly, its most passionate and articulate respondents are neither professional theologians nor philosophers, but particle physicists. In this paper I want to look at one of the most significant debates in twentieth century science and suggest some implications for those of us who are struggling to articulate a relationship between order and chaos in our own lives.


Physics, Cause & Effect


Until the 1900s, physicists believed it would be possible to reach a precise understanding of the relationship between cause and effect. If you dropped a weight from a certain height it would take a certain amount of time to reach the ground — that sort of thing. As long as a physicist had enough information about a system they expected to be able to work out precisely how any part of that system would respond at any given time. The doyen of all modern physicists, Albert Einstein, was an archetypal classical physicist in that he believed in this type of approach. He was a self-defined ‘determinist;’ a passionate believer in strict rules of cause and effect. He didn’t have the arrogance to believe he understood all these rules, indeed his humility when confronted by the majesty of the world was the prime source of his special kind of religiosity — but he believed such rules did exist and that they applied to every element of the Universe, ‘for the insect as well as for the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible player.’[2] 


Then came quantum mechanics. The discovery of quantum mechanics in the 1920s was built on the foundations of Einstein’s own discoveries, but Einstein never fully accepted the single most provocative truth of the field of studies his own work begat.


It is possible to ‘charge up’ a cloud of atoms by pumping electricity into it. This results in some of the atoms in the gas absorbing energy and emitting photons. As long as one doesn’t wish to look too closely it is possible to use these emitted photons very precisely — this, after all, is how lasers work. But while an applied physicist might be content working out how to focus a laser beam to perform any particular task a theoretical physicist, as Einstein was, has to grapple with how this stream of photons is produced. And this is where the science becomes murky.

The problem is that atoms in a gas do not emit photons according to precise laws of cause and effect. There is no way to determine which atoms in a gas will emit a photon at any given time and there is no way to determine which direction any particular emitted photon will travel. In general terms the majority of atoms will behave in a particular way, and that is fine for practical applications, but on an individual basis no amount of information about the system of gas and charge can allow a physicist to predict which atom will behave in which way under any given set of circumstances. Three identical atoms could go through identical experiences and two could emit photons in totally different directions while the third atom would emit nothing. While classical theoretical physics speaks in terms of ‘causality’ and predicts certainty, quantum theoretical physics speaks in terms of ‘indeterminacy’ and predicts only probability. Quantum mechanics is not nihilism. It doesn’t reject order, but rather the attempt to pin down the precise nature of this order. As long as one is content to generalize, a certain order can be predicted, it is only when the individual explanations are sought that clear-cut answers are impossible.


Einstein doggedly refused to accept what experiment after experiment seemed to prove — that, on an individual level sub-atomic matter failed to behave according to laws of cause and effect. ‘I find the idea quite intolerable that an electron exposed to radiation should choose of its own free will not only its moment to jump off but also its direction’ he wrote to his colleague Max Born. ‘In that case, I would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee of a gaming house, than a physicist.’(p.324) Indeed it is another letter to Born that contains the first appearance of the now-famous aphorism. ‘Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing,’ wrote Einstein, ‘but an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but it does not really bring us any closer to the secrets of the Old One. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not play dice.’(p. 335)

Does the world operate according to strict causality or is there another ordering power? This is the essence of the argument between Einstein and the school of quantum mechanics led by Niels Bohr. It is no minor detail; it threatens not only the determinist position of classical physics but also the central claim of anyone who, like Einstein, believes that the Universe is, at its essence, a place of order and regulation. The philosopher C.P. Snow suggested, ‘no more profound intellectual debate has ever been conducted.’[3]


Turning the clock forward some seventy years Bohr seems to have won. Despite the best efforts of Einstein, and classical and quantum physicists since, physics – at a quantum level – has abandoned the absolute ordered determinism that was the marker of Einstein’s world view. The jury has returned. The universe, at its core, is uncertain, not without structure, not chaotic, but aloof and unwilling to be bound down. The Universe is unknowable not merely as a fact of our current state of knowledge, but essentially, irredeemably and ultimately so.


Rabbinics, Cause and Effect


This scientific reality impacts on what is surely the greatest challenge to faith, a challenge articulated perfectly in words the Talmud reports as coming from Moses in the aftermath of the Golden Calf debacle.


Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, why is it that there are righteous people who do well, righteous people who do poorly, wicked people who do well and wicked people who do badly? (TB Brachot 7a)


The problem is, of cause, an enquiry into the nature of cause and effect. If a person does good they should get good back and vice versa. While this approach to life is often equated with a somewhat simplistic notion of God sitting like some Divine accountant keeping track of our various existential credits and debits, the belief in a connection between the good we do and the effect we expect to see in our lives need not involve any deistic intervention at all – this after all is what non-deistic Eastern  faiths call karma, or what the determinist scientists might be tempted to consider an application of doctrines of cause and effect.[4] The challenge comes when available evidence appears to contradict such claims as to the ordered nature of life.


There are two possible approaches to this challenge. On the one hand we can reject the apparent evidence, so preserving the nexus connecting cause and effect. On the other hand we can reject the nexus, and accept the evidence. It’s worth unpacking a little more gently these two possible approaches.


Rejecting Evidence, Preserving the Nexus


Rejecting the evidence means either rejecting that the suffering good person before us is genuinely good, or alternatively rejecting that the suffering they experience is genuinely bad. Both approaches have Rabbinic precedent. Rabbi  Yosi suggests that when confronted with Moses’ question God responds by suggesting that the suffering righteous person is really suffering a cosmic hangover brought on by their wicked and unpunished parents, ‘the righteous one who does badly is the righteous child of a wicked one,’ and vice versa. (loc cit). In other words the evidence presented at first instance is set in a broader context whereby the causation merits suffering rather than reward, contrary to what an observer might have originally thought.


The other nexus-preserving approach, the approach which denies that the suffering is indeed bad, finds its locus classicus a few folios earlier (5a-b) where the Rabbis suggest that un-explainable suffering, suffered in this world, will result in ever greater reward in the world to come – these are the yisurin shel ahavah – sufferings of love – which, it is suggested should be accepted with grace and even delight.


Rejecting the Nexus


Rejecting the nexus, rejecting the relationship between cause and effect seems, if anything, even more terrifying than rejecting the evidence that not all good causes result in good effect. Rejecting that there is a necessary connection between reward and punishment, begs the question, ‘why be good?’ Though, of course, there are by-ways in our tradition that suggest just such a rejection (the conclusion of the yisurin shel ahavah passage suggests that a suffering person should reject not only their suffering, but also any possible reward), rejecting the operation of a nexus of cause and effect feels if not immoral, then amoral. It threatens personal morality and even the fabric of society.


The Lessons of Physics


Initially these two paths seem mutually exclusive; one might think one is forced either to preserve the nexus of cause and effect, or reject such an ordered system of earthly and/or heavenly operation. But this isn’t the message of quantum mechanics. Neither Einstein nor Bohr rejected the generalised operation of doctrines of cause and effect. Neither denied that cause and effect is, in general terms at least, the operating default of the Universe (the example of the laser), it is only when one is forced to look specifically at individual cases that the holes in the generality are exposed. This, perhaps, is the approach of Rabbi Meir, again responding to Moses’ great question to God. Rabbi Meir held that God gave no answer to this question;


As it is said: And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious…, although he may not deserve it, And I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy’ (Ex 33:19), even if they do not deserve it. (loc cit)


It’s not that Rabbi Meir should be considered a nexus-anarchist, but rather that he seeks to preserve God’s ‘wiggle-room’ in specific cases; the twin doctrines of reward and punishment and cause and effect both apply and remain aloof, unknowable and beyond our lepidopterist’s desire to pin every specimen down for microscopic examination.


The question of whether the Universe operates, on an individual basis, with or without cause and effect is of pastoral, as well as theological, significance. If we suffer but feel the Universe is ordered along determinist principles (per Einstein), we will, consciously or otherwise, attempt to fit our pain into a mechanistic system. This, in turn, often leads to a search for causation; why did this happen to me? While for some this kind of questioning can provide instruction or comfort, it’s not a path I tend to offer those who turn to me for guidance in their suffering. Searching for answers where none exists is thankless at best and can lead only to more pain, guilt and/or recrimination. On the other hand if we are prepared to accept cause and effect are ultimately indeterminate, if we accept that, ultimately, there may be no reason why one small baby died, and another lived it might be easier to return to the real world, leaving some of the existential pain behind.


The Jewish Approach


Many Jews (especially those who are distant from religious study) assume that, on the question of causation of suffering, Judaism sides wholeheartedly with the determinist Einstein, but that is incorrect. A more nuanced and accurate representation of the tradition should acknowledge precisely what Bohr suggests – at a certain level we can predict order but when it comes to individuals we need to acknowledge an absence of causation. Nowhere is this common fallacy and accurate reality better expressed than in the first verse of the Hebrew Bible. The opening of the Bible as translated in the Christian King James Version reads ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.’ It’s a beautifully balanced, ordered reading of Genesis 1:1. It’s a translation that might make a person think the Hebrew Bible believes that everything in the world is in order, determined, but as a translation it is wrong. It fails to communicate a clear element of the original Hebrew. The Hebrew suggests a far less ordered creation and the Jewish JPS translation is more accurate when it translates, ‘When God began to create heaven and earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water — God said, “Let there be light.”’ In other words at the first moment of creation there is a void — tohu vavohu.


Mystics from Isaac Luria to Nahman of Braslav have understood this emptiness — also referred to as a place of tzimtzum or the hallal hapanui — as the primordial location of indeterminism  In the beginning chaos and order stood side by side, each competing for the upper hand, just as we find in the argument between Bohr and Einstein.


There are, in these encounters between Judaism and physics different ways of framing very similar perspectives on the Universe and everything in it. The science acts as a testing ground for the religious claims — if it fails the test of science it cannot be claimed as ‘true,’ while the religion provides a broader framework for the claims of science — a way of setting scientific claims against broader theological, pastoral and psychological canvases. At the very least engaging seriously with Einstein’s dice playing (or otherwise) deity has to be an improvement on arguments about whether God does or doesn’t exist and, if he does, whether he gave dictation on Sinai all those years ago.

Jeremy Gordon is Rabbi of New London Synagogue.[5]


[1] T. Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions, 1972) p.  15

[2] W. Isaacson, Einstein (London, Simon Schuster, 2007) p. 391-2. Subsequent references to Einstein’s quotes, followed by a page number, refer to this work.

[3] In Einstein: A Twentieth Century Volume (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1979) ed A.P. French p. 3.

[4] Though it is odd to see literalist theologians and determinist scientists lining up on the same side of an argument.

[5] The author is grateful to Professor Louis Lyons, University of Oxford, for looking over the physics discussed in this paper.

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