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Torah, Dice and Free Will
By Morris Engelson
Anybody who has any familiarity with quantum mechanics (QM) knows that the stuff is weird. Niels Bohr, who is credited with leading the development of a unified theory, claimed that QM is "shocking" to anybody who tries to understand it. Most scientists agreed that, yes, it was shocking, but that is how the world apparently works. Some, including Albert Einstein, refused altogether to accept the implications of this theory, on the grounds that "G-d does not play dice."
The Torah agrees with Einstein about the dice. But Torah also agrees with Bohr that this is how the world works. To us, QM is like the random results from playing dice. The neat Newtonian deterministic world is gone. But that is only on our side of the universe, and with our limitations. Einstein, one of the greatest geniuses that ever lived, was still only a very smart person. A hundred Einsteins, a thousand Einsteins or a googol of Einsteins would still be only an extension in degree of the limitations of human possibility. But G-d is a change in kind. Our limitations do not hold. Let us take a closer look at this matter of human potential and human limitations, and how these are connected to Torah, dice and quantum mechanics.
In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking speculates whether what we perceive of the world, and especially time duration, is not an illusion, while the underlying reality is hidden from us. Torah says it explicitly. We have quoted extensively from Rabbi Dessler's work, Strive for Truth. Here is some more. "Nature has no objective existence; it is merely an illusion which gives man a choice to exercise his free will . . .What is real is the will of God and nothing else." Why then do we have a natural order with predictable cause and effect? So that people will have a stable environment in which to exercise their free will.
But "In the case where the event is hidden from human eyes . . . there can be no test for our free will and there is therefore no need for 'natural' cause and effect." The Torah specifically gives us a choice. Thus, "I have put before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; choose life . . ." (Deuteronomy 30:19). The conditions in which we find ourselves are not chosen by us - "I have put before you . . ."-- but how we react is up to us - "choose." Referencing the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Dessler states that we not only can "choose," but we also have been given "the capability to realize that will." We have both abilities, to choose and also to act to accomplish the choice.
The Torah absolutely insists that we have free will. The Torah also insists that God knows all, foresees all and can do or cause any result whatever. The resolution to the paradox is a world of apparent causality which we can apparently control by exercise of our free will, while at the same time the underlying reality is a world that we cannot fully predict or control. Both the apparent causality and resulting free will and the underlying reality, which is not under our control, are real and necessary.
Says Rabbi Dessler, "Someone who has no idea of the underlying purpose which these two different modes of perception serve, will see a conflict." But there is no conflict between the actual control of the world by God and the causality that we perceive. This is because "The perception of causality (not as an absolute, but within the bounds we have described) is also necessary so that we may discern the hand of G-d behind the causes." Torah is fully in line with quantum mechanics. One can even see, after the fact, how Torah predicts, or requires, QM effects. We need causality on our scale of existence so as to have a predictably stable environment in which to exercise free will. At the same time we need to understand that this causality is not "absolute," so that "we may discern the hand of G-d behind the causes."
The gift of free will, to choose and to act, was given to us. The Torah tells us in Genesis 1:26, "Let us make Man in Our (Tzelem) image, after Our (demut) likeness . . ." The meaning and implications of these words, tzelem and demut, is so important that this is the first item that Maimonides addresses in the first chapter in his Guide for the Perplexed. He makes it clear that the "image" of tzelem and "likeness" of demut is not related to physical appearance or any sort of body. It is because of the "intellect with which man has been endowed, [that] he is said to have been made in the form and likeness of the Almighty." We have many attributes which no other creature has.
Among these is the ability to understand and affect the apparently deterministic aspects of the world; to perceive and know of the existence of the apparently random aspects of the world; and to perceive and understand that there is a Power that ultimately controls both of these "natural" type phenomena. Also there is the freedom to choose what to believe; the freedom to choose what to do about our beliefs; and ultimately the ability to act upon our freely chosen intentions. For a long time, we thought that our powers were unlimited. We thought that given time and effort we could, in principle, become full masters of this world. That is no longer the case.
We have found that there are certain aspects of the world that are forever closed to us. We have tremendous potential, but ultimately it is only a likeness and an image. Tzel, as in tzelem, is a Hebrew word for shadow. "What is real is the will of God." All we have is but a shadow of the real thing. This is one of the lessons that comes to us from quantum mechanics.
This material is excerpted from the book The Heavenly Time Machine: Essays on Science and Torah.
from the November 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine