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Something from Nothing - By Professor Yakov Brawer

Something from Nothing - By Professor Yakov Brawer

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By Professor Yakov Brawer

 

It is not easy to understand how a world view that leads nowhere and ultimately explains nothing became so rooted in the human psyche

 

Ever since our father Abraham first recognized the Creator and established a personal relationship with Him, his descendants have been in conflict with the rest of the world. This discord has assumed a wide variety of formats throughout history. The Jews have been in conflict with idol worshippers, Hellenists, Christians, Moslems, communists, secularists, and so on. Indeed, it would appear that the only limit to the number of clashes is the number of identifiable non-Jewish, or more accurately, non-Torah world views.

 

Given the numerous and varied expressions of contention between the Torah perspective and other views of reality, it might be assumed that there are many grounds forcontroversy and that the nature of each dispute is determined by a unique set of conflicting suppositions. For example, one might assume that the roots of the conflict between the Torah and Christianity are fundamentally different from those underlying the incompatibility between Torah and the concept of biological evolution.

 

If such were indeed the case, it would seem to indicate that the Torah Jew is in an intellectually untenable position and that it is only stubbornness, perversity, and a debilitating isolationism that spur him on in his endless war on multiple fronts. How is it possible for the Torah Jew to maintain an immutable, unique view that is in conflict with so many systems of thought, produced by so many great minds throughout history?

 

The answer is that the situation is far more simple than it appears at first glance. There is really only one bone of contention and there are really only two conflicting viewpoints: Torah Judaism and everything else. The bone of contention is the principle of something from something. which is the unifying, fundamental premise on which each of the many components of the "everything else" category is based. The antithesis of something from something is the principle of something from nothing, which is the foundation of the Torah view of existence.

 

What does this really mean? Does a single, simple generalization accurately describe the essence of Jewish, as opposed to non-Jewish, thought; and does it really explain everything?

 

To begin with, something from something is indeed an all-encompassing presupposition that ultimately explains everything that goes on in the world. Simply stated, it is the assumption of cause and effect. Everything has an antecedent cause to which it can be directly related. The antecedent to a chicken is an egg. The antecedent to a house is lumber. The antecedent to the lumber is a forest, and so on. Everything and every event is the product of a progressive developmental sequence of causes. Everything comes from an identifiable something; hence the process of something from something. The chain of somethings may be very long and the last link may look very different from the first. There is, for example, no obvious similarity between an apple seed and an apple tree. Nevertheless, the tree is a distant link in a long chain of cause and effect from the seed. Moreover, it is the inevitable and predictable outcome. The apple seed cannot, for example, produce a goldfish, nor, for that matter, a peach tree. The features expressed by a distant something in the chain (a tree) are limited by the features that define an earlier something (the seed).

 

The concept that everything comes from something seems obvious, logical, and pragmatic. It provides a continuity in time and space without which we could not relate to our natural circumstances. Since everything is a consequence of an evolutionary continuum of related events, everything has a history of which it is the product. On this basis, one can interpret the past and predict, and hence respond to, events in the future. Thus, the process of something from something serves as the rationale for diagnosing and treating disease, playing the stock market, or negotiating a treaty with a foreign government.

 

If this description of the principle of something from something is accurate, it is hard to see much wrong with it. There seems little here for Torah Jews to get riled up over. On the contrary, when it comes to daily life, or professional activities, Torah Jews operate on the assumption of something from something just like everyone else. Moreover, both the theoretical and the applied aspects of Torah law are replete with examples of deductive and inductive reasoning, characteristic of the something from something mode of thinking. Torah law, in most cases, deals with natural circumstances and assumes a natural, interpretable order of events. It presumes nature to be real and to behave in a predictable, continuous way.

 

Thus far, there is no argument. The source of the trouble is at a far more fundamental level. It involves those events or beings for which, according to Torah, there are no precedents, such as Creation and the Creator. To put it another way, the controversy is not over nature, but rather over the nature of nature.

 

Even those who are able to ignore the Creator by claiming that He does not exist are stuck with the problem of how and why the universe (including themselves) carne to be. Although there are many approaches to the subject, they all share the common underlying assumption of something from something. So, since the universe currently consists of a vast number of entitieswith measurable physical properties organized in a unique way, its ultimate source must likewise, in some way, be bound by physical characteristics and dimensions. The current appearance of any particular aspect of Creation is the product of a history, or of an evolutionary chain of events that progressively molded a previous something into a contemporary something. For example, animals, including humans, are made out of chemicals. It follows, then, by something from something, that the origin(s) of all animal species must be simpler, less processed collections of chemicals, which in the course of time, and in response to natural events, developed in a stepwise, sequential fashion into what they are at the moment. It matters not at all whether the changes constituting the steps in the chain occurred individually or in clusters. The governing principle of something from something is the same. Indeed, there are as many variations of the something from something theme as there are scientific and philosophic disciplines.

 

The same fundamental principle is invoked to explain why the continents look the way they do, why there is a universal background of microwave radiation, why mitochondria contain DNA, and so forth. In short, as stated previously, something from something is used to explain everything. This does not imply that every explanation is simple or that here is necessarily a linear relationship between any set of causes and their effects. On the contrary, the relationship may be so complex as to defy elucidation. Turbulence or chaotic behavior, for example, is unpredictable due to the complexity of elements that feed into the system under observation. Moreover, as propounded in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, it may be impossible to simultaneously determine all the physical properties that define a system. This does not weaken the something from something law; it simply indicates that we can't know all the somethings.

 

It is not easy to understand how a world view that leads nowhere and ultimately explains nothing became so rooted in the human psyche. The principle of something from something is, after all, the downward spiral path of infinite regress. No matter how far you extrapolate back on the chain of cause and effect, there is yet a prior cause which shares the same fundamental limitations as its progeny (i.e., it is defined by physical properties).

 

An objection could be raised. It could be argued that the principal of something from something is by no means a globally accepted axiom. On the contrary, it is rejected by many if not most people, whose concept of reality necessitates the existence of G‑d. Many people see an expression of intelligence and purpose in nature. This in itself is as logically valid as the perspective of the scientific secularist who sees no purpose in the chain of cause and effect from which the universe presumably evolved. Actually, considering the stunning discoveries of the past decade in physics and cosmology, one could easily argue that the assumption of intelligence and purpose in Creation is the intuitively stronger view.

 

The problem is that despite the many diverse conceptualizations of G‑d, underneath it all, He looks disconcertingly familiar. In fact, He looks, more or less, like us. It seems that although the recognition of purpose and intelligence in Creation supports the concept of a purposeful and intelligent Creator, this recognition alone is not enough to overcome the seemingly inescapable gravitational attraction of something from something.

 

Our grasp of creative intelligence and our sense of purpose is derived from observations of ourselves, since we are the only entities in Creation (to which we have access) who possess these qualities. Our notions of "creating" are likewise acquired by seeing how we do it. There is, after all, no other model to learn from. So, assuming ourselves the template, we extrapolate out to G‑d. The kind of god you end up with, of course, depends on the length and direction of the chain of something from something. A short chain of extrapolation would produce something like the pantheon of Greek gods, which hardly differ from the human paradigm. A longer extrapolation will produce a more sophisticated, refined, and less limited concept of Divinity. Also, as is necessarily the case in a something from something progression, the kind of god you generate depends upon the characteristic features of the human template serving as the first link in the chain. The god of Ayatollah Khomeini is obviously very different from that of Albert Schweitzer.

 

Thus, whether a god has (had) a body or whether he (she, they) exists in a purely spiritual state is a matter of no consequence. He is a "he", a bigger and better version of man. He is wise, not like man, but very x10 to the one hundredth power wise. Not only is he good, he is orders of magnitude better than the best human. In short, he is defined by qualities or properties, and is, therefore, a something. The extent to which we cannot know him simply reflects the magnitude of the properties that define (limit) him.

 

If the Creator is a somebody/something, then the law of something from something necessarily would govern the creative process. The universe, for example, is also a something, the ultimate cause of which is G‑d. According to this line of thought, the universe exists as well as He does.

 

There exist, therefore, many things—the totality of whatever is found in the universe (stars, neutrons, petunias ... )—as well as G‑d Himself. He is the biggest and best something, responsible for all the other somethings, all of which He can manipulate at will. Nonetheless, they share with Him the property of independent existence.

 

The similarity in thinking between the scientific secularists and the Christian fundamentalists is one of the most fascinating ironies of our times. Considering, for example, the magnitude and bitterness of the much publicized battle between evolutionists and creationists, one would naturally suppose that each side embraces a unique doctrine, antithetical and inimical to the other. In fact, both schools adhere to classical something from something orthodoxy. The creationists are no less evolutionary in their thinking than the evolutionists, and the evolutionists exhibit no less faith in their selection of initial assumptions than do the creationists. The differences between the two sides are essentially semantic. The creationists constantly invoke miracles to get over the rough spots in their doctrine, whereas the evolutionists conjure with events the probabilities of which are less than 10 to the negative thirtieth power.

 

The Torah view of existence predicated on the principle of something from nothing is somewhat more difficult to explain than something from something for the obvious reason that "nothing" defies description and can, therefore, only be appreciated by means of analogy. One very useful, albeit imperfect, analogy is creative human thought, an example of which is a daydream.

 

It is not uncommon, at a particularly boring faculty meeting, let's say, for one's mind to wander. One may, for example, begin to contemplate an upcoming international scientific meeting. In the mind's eye, one envisions the convention center and the mobs of participants. One sees oneself delivering a spectacular presentation. The applause is overwhelming. Hostile journal editors and Medical Research Council members are chastened. As the dream progresses one can, at will, insert sequences in which competitors are exposed as frauds or incompetents. In short, you can fashion reality any way you like.

 

Indulgence in such pleasant little reveries is common enough, and we don't give them much thought. The act of daydreaming or imagining does, however, contain some interesting parallels to the process of creating something from nothing.

 

The imaginer, for example, is a creator who has originated a world that did not exist prior to his thinking it up. He has produced a place, populated it with people and things, and provided a time scale for the action. The objection to this analogy is, of course, that the imaginer has, in fact, created nothing. It is only a thought. It has no existence independent of himself, and it exists only as long as the thinker/creator actively chooses to think about it. That, however, is precisely the point. It is a something that is made out of nothing.

 

Moreover, all the objects, people, and events which characterize this world are made out of the same thing, namely thought. The only antecedent to their existence is the desire of the thinker to think them. The beings who inhabit the thought world have no independent reality and no intrinsic stability since they must constantly be brought into existence and animated by the will of the thinker. If the thinker/creator is bored with imagining a particular character, he does not have to devise circumstances in which the offending individual dies (although he may certainly do so). He simply ceases to imagine him. Similarly, the thinker/creator is not bound by any necessities, laws, or causes. He can just as easily create a world in which things fall up as one in which things fall down. He can assume anything he likes. Shakespeare dreamt up King Lear. In order to get King Lear where Shakespeare wanted him, namely as a foolish old man, Shakespeare did not have to imagine his birth, weaning, adolescence, and middle years. Shakespeare's King Lear is not the product of a series of somethings, e.g., an indulgent, permissive mother, poor social skills as a teenager, and so on. Rather, he is the product of nothing: Shakespeare's unfettered creative intellect.

 

The metaphor of creative human thought correlates nicely with many, although by no means all, aspects of universal creation. The Torah Jew does not see intelligence and purpose in the design of the universe, but rather, intelligence and purpose are the stuff of which the universe is made. People may reasonably expect that unless something very unusual occurs, the sun will exist five minutes from now. The Torah Jew knows that unless something unusual happens, the sun will not be here five minutes or even five seconds from now. The singular event is that the sun's Creator must trouble Himself to invest it with existence and endow it with definitive properties by thinking it. The facts that the sun has a long history and that its present existence is mandated by natural law are irrelevant since time and natural law are likewise "thoughts" which require constant attention.

 

As in the case of the creative thinker, the Creator of the universe is alone, and the existence of the universe in no way compromises his "aloneness". Moreover, just as thoughts are united with and dependent upon the will of the thinker, so are the Creator and His "thoughts" one. The great statement of Jewish faith, the Sh'ma ("Hear, 0 Israel, the L-rd is our G‑d, the L-rd is One", Deuteronomy 6:4), which is generally known to be the ultimate expression of G‑d's unity, is understood by many to mean that there is only one G‑d. Although this interpretation is not incorrect, it is trivial, and is, furthermore, entirely consistent with the something from something doctrine explained above. The thrust of the Sh'ma is not that there is only one G‑d, but rather that He is all there is. G‑d is the only reality. All else, from the totality of space to a dead leaf blowing around in a backyard, are His "thoughts" and are absolutely subordinate, in form and content, to His conscious Will.

 

Among the many implications of the creation of something from nothing, perhaps the most important is the tremendous significance that it confers upon our natural circumstances. Since even the most paltry events require constant animation by G‑d's willed thought, they are obviously of great importance to G‑d; otherwise He would not continually trouble Himself to actively think them. In addition, given the infinite, unrestrained, transcendent range of His creativity, the fact that He chose to create our finite world, with all its minutia, is nothing short of astounding. Nothing, therefore, is trivial. The existence of a speck of dust requires the same attention as a galaxy. It follows that the speck of dust is as essential to the fulfillment of G‑d's supernal plan as is the galaxy. There is G‑dly potential and an absolute, transcendent purpose in everything. Obviously, there is no such thing as happenstance.

 

Another ramification of the principle of something from nothing relates to the phenomenology of miracles. There has been much agonizing over the "problem" of miracles. All sorts of contrived arguments have been proposed to reconcile miracles with natural events. Such arguments claim that Mount Sinai was really a volcano, the splitting of the Red Sea was the product of a tidal wave, and so on. Even more distressing are the tortured apologetics of religious Jewish scientists who attempt to reconcile miracles with the natural order by invoking the Uncertainty Principle, quantum indeterminacy, and the like. These mental gymnastic are, of course, demanded by adherence to a something from something world view. From the something from nothing perspective, however, natural law is constantly brought into existence by Divine free will. Therefore, natural law is not intrinsically more logical or compelling than a supernatural event. The Creator can imagine water standing as a wall just as easily as He can endow it with what are considered its natural properties. In other words, natural events are no less supernatural than miraculous events. They are simply much more frequent.

 

The analogy of creative human thought is only a starting point for the discussion of universal creation. The analogy is seriously limited. It does not, for example, address the apparent dissociation between nothing and something. The world does not look like a collection of thoughts. People and things appear to be independent realities. Furthermore, according to the argument developed thus far, G‑d's unrestrained creative intellect is termed the "nothing" by means of which all somethings exist. Why should such an exalted emanation from the Creator be called nothing? On the contrary, it is a very big something, since it is the very life of Creation.

 

We call G‑d's volitional creative intellect "nothing" because we have no direct access to it and, therefore, it is outside the realm of our experience. We can't see it, feel it, detect it, measure it, or even imagine it. Something that one cannot relate to in any way is empirically "nothing". A person could spend a lifetime in this world without it ever dawning on him that all is G‑dliness. The fact that G‑dliness is inaccessible to us does not, of course, in any way compromise its objective reality. It is nothing only with respect to us.

 

As it happens, Divinely willed thought is nothing with respect to the Creator as well, but for a very different reason. Let us look, once again, at the daydream metaphor. Given a lifetime of experience and learning, as well as unlimited imagination, how much of the totality of the daydreamer is reflected in the daydream? Clearly the "amount" of the individual's creative intellect invested in the daydream is so miniscule as to be nothing. Once again, however, this analogy is inadequate because the Creator is not a human. The extent to which a person transcends a daydream is truly incomparable to the infinite extent to which the Creator transcends His Creation.

 

All of this leaves us with a very disturbing question. If the Creator's thought is so far beyond our grasp as to be nothing, and if it is so infinitely beneath His essence as to be nothing, does not this preclude any relationship between Him and us? Between His Being and our being is an endless and bottomless sea of nothing.

 

Indeed, from our side, He is completely beyond reach. Whatever relationship we have with Him can only be established from His side. We can only know of Him what He chooses to reveal to us, and remarkably, He has chosen to reveal quite a bit. This is the miracle of Torah. Torah bridges the immeasurable distance between the Creator and the Creation.

 

How and why His infinite, essential Will (which reflects Himself) is enclothed in Torah, is unknowable. How a five year-old child studying Chumash (Bible)with Rashi commentary is able to grasp the ungraspableessence of his Creator cannot be explained. How the binding of tefillin (phylacteries) on the head and arm unites the essence of the Jew with the essence of G‑d cannot be understood. How seemingly trivial objects such as matzah (unleavened bread) or an etrog (citron) can serve, at specified times, as vessels with which to capture Divinity and reveal it in time and space is unfathomable. It is, after all, His Torah.

 

The Torah, then, is at the heart of the something from nothing position. All the something from something theorists approach causality from their own perspectives and on their own terms. Judaism, which is at odds with everyone and everything else, is based on the truth that G‑d is not a something, and therefore if He is to be approached at all, it must be from His perspective and on His terms.

 

 

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