How do our mental states fit into the workings of the world around us? If physics can boil down the nature of the universe into series of actions, reactions and instructions, who’s to say that this doesn’t extend to humans? The complexity of the human condition, expressed through both deep religious traditions and scientific investigations, seems to refute this. But what if classically-called “determinism” actually helps us feel a greater connection to the forces that drive the world around us, and the elaborate processes that go into our choices and our humanity?
So, does physics negate free will? Professor Peter Saulson explored these topics and more as part of an event at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, RI on February 26, 2023.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Dr. Peter Saulson is Martin A. Pomerantz ’37 Professor Emeritus of Physics at Syracuse University, and also a former member of Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas in Jamesville, NY, a previously-selected synagogue).Read Transcript
Michael Fel: Good morning, everybody. How’s everyone doing today? So pleased to be this morning for our Worldwide Wrap presentation. Now we make our next morning experience the second of our lecture series “What Makes Us Human?”, a partnership between Temple Emanu-El and Scientists in Synagogues, run by Sinai and Synapses. This morning’s presentation is entitled “Are You Just a Machine? Perspectives From Physics,” from Peter Saulson.
Some interpretations of physics claim the world is deterministic, that is everything behaves like a machine once set in motion. Things have to happen the way mapped out by the laws of nature. Taken to an extreme, this claim would make their brains, and thus our minds, simply machines; thus, we could not make free choices. Professor Peter Saulson will explore these topics and much more in his presentation. For those who don’t know Peter, you can come to morning minyan, you’ll see him there quite often.
But if you haven’t seen him at morning minyan, Peter Saulson was the Martin A. Pomerantz Professor of Physics at Syracuse University, until he retired in 2019. His physics career was devoted to developing the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, although most of us just call it LIGO, which in 2015 discovered gravitational waves coming from the collision of two black holes. A Providence resident since 2020, he now works on linking the theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel to scientific understanding of the universe. Let’s give Peter Saulson a big round of applause. Thank you. He is a tefillin mentor and on top of that, he very generously allows us – and his wife Sarah allows us – to cut through his lawn so we can get to my in-laws’ house much faster on Shabbat afternoon.
Based on some feedback we got from our initial lecture, Peter and I are going to present for about an hour or so, 40 minutes, 45 minutes to about an hour or so, and then we’ll have 15 minutes for a public Q&A, and we’re hoping to wrap up around 12:15. Give me a thumbs up if that makes sense. Once again, a big round of applause for Peter Saulson.
Peter Saulson: Thank you Rabbi Fel, and thanks to all at TE, and thanks to all of you for being here this morning. I’m really excited about this whole Sinai and Synapses Scientists in Synagogues program. How many of you all were here for Victoria’s talk? Okay, I’m glad to see so many hands. If your hand didn’t go up, it’s okay. You don’t need her material as background. But the three talks in the series – Victoria’s, mine today, and in two weeks, Professor Dennis Gilbride’s from Georgia State – are, I think, nicely thematically related around various versions of the question that we’ve called “What makes us human?” And my version today – as a physicist, I’m interested in particular in “Are you just a machine?”
Sometimes crisp formulations of a problem are kind of scary. So I’ve drawn out my “Are you just a machine?” question and rephrased it as “Can everything about you be explained as if you were only a very complicated machine?” And this question will turn on what we mean by “everything.” And so I want you to be alert to possible interpretations of “everything.” But to make the question vivid, I put on this slide pictures representing the two extremes of a view, and maybe a lot of people in the room will end up not at either extreme. At one extreme on the left is one of my favorite toys from my childhood, Mr. Machine. Anyone else have one of these when you were a kid? I see a few other people who were similarly warped by playing with this wonderful wind-up toy. And to represent the idea that we’re nothing like a machine, I’ve got this picture of some kids having a great time in the summertime, which hopefully will come in another few weeks here in Rhode Island.
So yet another way of framing the question “Are you just a machine?” is this quote that I found from my favorite Jewish thinker, the 20th Century theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel. And in one of his essays, he framed the question as: “What am I, a mass of protoplasm, a complicated robot, a tool-making animal? Am I anything more than just a physical being?”
Now, I’m going to use Heschel as a touchstone at several points in this talk, because he is a touchstone in my thinking. Another person who’s a touchstone in my thinking maybe is a little more surprising – this is a non-Jewish writer, Marilynne Robinson. She is most well-known as a novelist. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Housekeeping, I believe. She’s written a whole series of wonderful novels using the same set of characters in the rural Midwest early in the 20th century. She’s less well-known, but I think she should be at least as well known as a thinker about science and religion. And you can find her specifically science and religion thoughts not so much in her novels, but in her essays, which are collected in several books. And she gives a warning that goes along with Heschel’s question. She warns anyone who wants to to glibly assume that we are in some sense like a machine – she says it’s an error of much scientific thinking to exclude much that we do know about the vast fabric and the fine grain of the cosmos.
So, Heschel’s question and Robinson’s warning are going to be framing my thinking about this question that I want to share with you today. Now, let’s look back at what we learned from Victoria Templer Rotkow last week, in a fabulous talk that I enjoyed a great deal. And I think most of you all who are here enjoyed it as well. She showed how much of who we are can be mapped on to parts of our brains, and showed in a beautiful way that taught me a lot. I didn’t know before how much the brain is the basis for huge portions of our lives. But, as I think she indicated towards the end of her talk, and as I want to emphasize even more today, there’s a real open question before you go full-on-neuroscience we-are-meat-machines-all-the-way, there’s really an open question: is everything about us determined by the laws of nature as applied to the brain, or is there any room for free human agency?
So what I’ll be talking about today is one version of the framing question, the question “Is determinism true?” Now, determinism is a technical term from physics. But don’t worry, I will explain it so that everyone will know what I’m talking about.
So first I’ll explain what is meant by determinism in its strictest form. It’s the idea that you are, in fact, just a machine, and in fact, the universe, as a whole, is just a machine. And once we all agree on what it means, and why you might even frame the question that way, I will show you why, in fact, the claim that determinism applies to the whole universe and/or to your mind cannot be true.
But having set that up, there’s another version, a less strict and therefore much more plausible version of “Are you a machine?” And that’s an idea that goes by the term “naturalism.” So I’ll explain what’s meant by the term naturalism, give some reasons to think that it might be plausible, and then the last part of my talk will be showing how, depending on how strict or how open-minded you are about your understanding of nature, and what therefore naturalism would include, you may or may not think that there’s good scientific reason to believe that we’re machines.
And by the end I will be making a full-throated argument that “No, in any important sense of the term, we’re not machines.”
Okay, so there’s my tip-off now. Here is why it might be a problem to believe that we’re machines, when you think about us, not necessarily as objects of scientific study, but as human beings instead. You realize that a lot of what makes us human are things like our creativity, our ability to make moral choices, or even the ability to say “I” and “you.”
And one way of seeing why this might be the intention with physics is that all of these things involve aiming at a future goal. It’s something that doesn’t exist yet. But when I am thinking with my physics hat on only, I’m thinking, “Well, here’s what physics teaches us”: that the way nature works is that it obeys laws of nature that have built into them the way the whole mechanism of how physics functions. If we are thinking we’re applying laws of nature to explain something, we are predicting the future based on the state of the universe as it was in the past. And goals play absolutely no role in physics. So the question is: are we, as people who are loyal to science – I assume most of us are in this room – but also loyal to our humanity, can we believe that goals are real features of the world?
So another way of framing the whole question of this talk, even in terms of those two extreme pictures, Mr. Machine or the kids playing, is: can goals be real features of the world? So before I get into the rest of my formal presentation, I’d like us to do a personal check-in. So I’m going to propose five possible beliefs that each of you as individuals might have about where you stand on the question of “Am I a machine?” So I’d like you to look into your soul and ask: which of these five potential beliefs best describes your own beliefs about who you are, and how you work? At one extreme, you might believe, “My body does stuff and that’s all there is,” full stop, or “I seem to make choices, but actually I realize that I’m at the mercy of machinery behind the scenes or urges that I can’t control.” You might think, “I try to do what I want to do, but I often don’t succeed – something else is taking over.” Or you might be at stage four, “Although I often struggle, I’m usually able to do what I hope to do.” Or if you’re lucky, you might be in the category of, “I’m able to figure out what I ought to do and almost always succeed in doing it.”
So take about 30 seconds, reread these off the screen, think about which view of how you work best describes your own belief, and then I’ll come back and ask you all about it. So think for a moment, maybe turn to your neighbor if you need some advice on how you might think.
Okay, so I just want to do a completely unscientific poll. I want to ask you to raise your hand right now if something like position #1, “My body does stuff and that’s all there is to it,” best describes your own feeling of how you work as a human being. How many people are at position 1? How about closer to 2 than any of those other positions? Raise your hands. How about somewhere in the vicinity of 3? Okay, a lot of hands are up. How about position 4? All right. Oh, that is great. And how about position 5? Nice.
Okay, for people who couldn’t see, for people on Zoom who couldn’t see in the room, almost nobody raised his or her hand for number 1, very few for 2, and I would say that 4 was the most popular choice, 3 maybe second, and 5 was more represented than I would have hoped for. That is great. So if you answered 1, maybe there were a couple of you here, then you are a determinist. Any answer 2 or higher, certainly 3 onwards, you have serious doubts about determinism. And I will confess that I probably would have raised my hand somewhere in the 3 or 4 range myself, just to let you know what’s going on.
So that’s a way of giving you a preview of where you’re likely to come down in this discussion, and maybe in the question and answer period we might revisit the question of whether you thought I stacked the deck on these questions, or made it fairly. But I thought that would be a helpful exercise.
All right, so let’s go back to understanding what determinism is, and why it might be that some people believe in it, before we come to see what the problems are.
So going back to my roots as a physicist – we know, as physicists, that our subject was founded in 1687. We know the exact year because Isaac Newton, in that year – of course he’d been thinking physics thoughts for a long time – but that’s the year when he published the first great textbook on physics, the Principia Mathematica. And this cartoon is a reminder of what we all know about the source of Newton’s inspiration – he was sitting, thinking, trying to figure out how the world worked, sitting under an apple tree, an apple fell. And of course he wasn’t the first person to discover that apples fall, but he was the first person to realize that he could see a way to explain an apple’s falling with the same concepts as he could use to explain the fact that the moon orbited the earth, and that the moon raised tides in the ocean. And that’s when he knew that he was on to something.
Now, I do not aspire to offer a physics class today, but I do aspire, in one slide, to teach you everything you need to know about physics. And honestly, when I taught freshman physics, anyone who really understood that one equation I’m displaying would get at least a B, okay. This really is the essence of physics. Of course, what a physicist has to really understand is how to find solutions to those equations, and that’s kind of hard. But anyway, so Newton’s most famous equation – for some reason, he wrote it in the wrong order. It means the same thing. Raise your hand if you ever heard the equation f = ma. Okay, about half of y’all, that’s pretty good. I prefer to do a little algebra and write it in the form a = f/m, because in the grammar of mathematics, we like to have the result on the left-hand side of the equal sign and the cause on the right-hand side of an equal sign.
So let’s take this equation apart, just enough to know the story. So a is Newton’s symbol for acceleration, for change of motion, because one of Newton’s starting points was that motion doesn’t in itself need an explanation. Anything that’s moving ought to continue to move in a straight line at constant speed. That is the natural state of the world, unless there is an influence on some object that we call a force that pushes, pulls, tugs, you name it. There are lots of English-language synonyms for force. If there’s a force applied to some object, that can speed it up, slow it down, turn its motion in some way. And so motion itself doesn’t need an explanation, but changes in motion do. And Newton gave the explanation for a change in motion: it is the total of all forces applied to an object and the “divided by m” is just there to make the numbers come out. Mass is actually an interesting concept that Newton clarified, but never mind – the basic idea is that changes in motion are caused by forces.
Now, for centuries we “knew” that this was all there was to the world. I want to complicate that five or ten slides down, but let me say, as a physics professor, I would teach this equation. And I would sell it for many semesters before we had to get to a point where we saw why this wasn’t 100% correct. This is really a profound idea.
Okay, so now you know physics, and even though I’ll eventually show you where this might break down a bit – I mean, this is fabulous. Physics teaches us what things are out there, how they go, what makes them go, what makes change happen in the world. And I’m showing you a couple of diagrams of some of my favorite physics problems: how far a cannonball moves when you shoot it at different angles and with different amounts of gunpowder in the cannon, how shooting an object out horizontally from a tall tower might make it just go really far on the earth, or might put it into orbit like an artificial satellite or like the moon.
So this slide already encapsulates Newton’s story, that the way objects are affected by gravity on the earth, like falling objects – it’s just another version of how the moon goes around the earth. And in fact, among the greatest triumphs of physics, as Newton taught us about it, are its account of how the solar system works and how the larger universe as a whole works.
And this is one of my favorite pictures of the solar system, which is precisely to scale in terms of the sizes of the individual planets and the sun. Here’s the big sun over here. Mercury, Venus and Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and – I have to stop myself from saying Pluto, because we no longer consider Pluto a planet, it’s only a minor planet. Physics is fabulous at explaining how this goes, and why the solar system is around at all – so much so that it occurred to a number of Newton’s followers that you might really think of the whole universe as some kind of clockwork. That was the 17th and 18th centuries’ profoundest metaphor for a complicated machine.
And the picture I put on this slide is an image of one of the coolest high-tech toys of the 18th century. This is an orrery, which is to say a clockwork model of the solar system. All these things on these stalks up in the upper part of the orrery represent the individual planets, and down here in the bottom is the hidden clockwork that makes them all turn at the right rate and show you where the various planets are in their orbit around the Sun at any given moment. And if you have a little astronomical imagination, you can imagine putting your eyeball on the model of the Earth there and looking around and seeing where you would see the various planets in the sky at night. That takes a little bit of extra work. This is one of the most beautiful orreries ever made. It’s from the 18th century.
So this metaphor of the universe as a clockwork had a lot of basis in what Newton explained, so much so that there’s a perhaps apocryphal, but nevertheless it ought to have been true – this thing ought to have happened, whether it happened or not exactly this way. This was a dialogue between the then-Emperor Napoleon in 1802 and one of the leading lights of France. He was a Senator and also one of the great physicists to sort of like one rank below Newton, Pierre-Simon Laplace. And we think they spoke about a really profound question. Emperor Napoleon is supposed to have remarked after having read the latest book by Laplace, “You’ve written this huge book on the system of the world – that is to say, the solar system – without once mentioning the author of the solar system.” And Napoleon thought that this was a great dig at Laplace. And what Laplace is supposed to have said is, “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.”
And the reason people want this to be true, whether this dialogue actually happened, is that “I had no need of that hypothesis” became the slogan of the physics movement – not physics as a science, but of the philosophical belief that physics teaches us everything that we need to know. Now, what did Laplace actually mean by that remark, assuming that he said it? At a minimal level, he might just have meant that Newton’s laws of nature were enough to explain the motions of the planets around the sun. That was the main topic of his book. But maximally, of what many people hoped it actually meant was that all motions of everything everywhere, throughout physical existence, could be accounted for by that same paradigm of a = F/m.
And if that were true, it raised a really profound philosophical question, namely: would there be anything left to be understood about anything in the universe – not just the motions of the planets in the solar system perhaps, even including human life? So, what’s at stake with this maximal interpretation? Well, quite a bit, and let’s just flesh it out a little more. Our bodies are made out of things. Therefore, our brains are made out of things – small material things. Newton didn’t know this, but they’re made out of atoms. And so it raises the question: if we could know all the forces on every atom and we think we know the laws by which atoms interact, shouldn’t we be able to predict what they would do? And if our brains are our minds, as many people believe, doesn’t that say that if our brains are predictable then our minds are predictable. And so it raises, yet again the question: are you just a machine? Is this amazing piece of living material, which we know is made out of material objects, is it in some sense just a more complicated version of this?
So what would it take for this Laplacian idea to have been correct? And this is the idea that has come to be called determinism. So what it would have involved is to apply the deterministic paradigm, you need to know precisely all of the forces on every object in the universe. And you need to know, at least at some instant of time, where everything is, and how those things are moving at that moment, because Newton’s laws just tell you, then, how the motions change. So we could rephrase the question that Napoleon asked, namely: can you really explain the motions of the planets in the solar system with this paradigm?
Now, if you go out and buy an orrery – and you can go on eBay, or at your favorite site, and buy one today – is it really representing precisely what’s going on? Well, that orrery you’re going to buy is probably going to have eight or maybe nine planets in it. But if it’s the real solar system, we’re talking about – we now know that those planets have, altogether, at least 200 moons. And if we include all the minor planets, including the asteroids, there are over 600,000 of them. And nobody is able to, with complete precision and accuracy, predict all of those motions. We can do it pretty darn well.
But even with the most amazing super computers, there’s still some slop to the issue, because the standards are really high. You have to know exactly where everything is, exactly how it’s moving, and know the precise forces on everything. And in fact physics has, for better or for worse, often for better, but in this case for worse, gotten a little more complicated since Newton and Laplace’s time. We know that there’s a lot more to understanding reality than Newton knew. And among the things we know are more complicated things like chaos, relativity, quantum mechanics – I’ll have a little more to say about quantum mechanics in a moment. And we know that giving an exact account of everything that’s out there in the universe – we don’t have it yet. We think there’s this stuff called dark matter, we think there’s something else called dark energy, and we’re pretty sure that we don’t really know all of the forces on everything.
So let me just expand on our level of uncertainty a little bit, and point out two reasons that you should be suspicious of any intuition that you might have about how reality works. The most recent Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded this past fall, was given for experimental proof of an amazingly bizarre phenomenon called quantum entanglement. I don’t have time to explain in detail what it means, other than to say it’s unbelievably cool, and it’s cool because the way the universe actually works as shown by these experiments makes a mockery of any simple intuition you have about how space works and how time works.
Now, here’s another reason to suspect that your intuition about how reality works may not be the whole story. Time is a lot more subtle as we live it than as I taught it as a physics professor. If you ask me how time worked, woke me up in the middle of the night and say, “Tell me about how time feels,” I would say, “Well, it’s now, and now a moment later it’s now, and now a moment later it’s now…” That’s not what I taught my physics students. That’s not how physics handles time or even can think of time. To physics, every moment of time in the entire history of the universe has equal reality to it, and there’s no such thing as “now.” There’s no such thing as “waiting.” There’s no such thing as the flow of time. That’s a pretty big disjunction between our best scientific description of things and how we actually feel the universe works.
So what I would like us to take from this is that we have lots of good reasons from our more advanced physics knowledge to suspect – in fact, to be darn sure –that we can’t treat the brain as a clockwork. It really does not work that way at all. But now, what if you were incautious enough – that’s a polite word – to try to predict how the brain, and then perhaps your mind, worked as a machine? What would be involved in carrying out the Laplacian, Newtonian program of knowing the positions and motions of everything in a brain, as well as the forces on it?
Well, here are some things I learned. I think Victoria told us some of these facts, and I double-checked them by looking them up. Each of our brains contains about 100 billion neurons. Those are the individual cells, out of which your brain is made, and they are interconnected in an intricate enough way that there are actually 100 trillion connections between – from one neuron to another, and the wiring diagram, which is to say, that which would tell us which neuron influences which other neuron, we have the vaguest ideas. I shouldn’t say Vicky’s talk was vague – we learned a ton of really interesting stuff – but remember, she said, “Okay, here’s a part of your brain called the – excuse me, fill in the blank – okay, the prefrontal cortex.” All right, that’s fabulous. What she taught us about it was fabulous, but did she give us a 100-billion element diagram with 100 trillion lines connecting all the parts? No, no.
And it’s a good thing too, because it was tricky enough to follow what she had to say. And even we don’t even have that, let alone we don’t have or are close to having precise laws that teach us exactly, oh, if one neuron does something, which other neurons that it’s connected to are going to do precisely what? We have lots of good indications, but we’re far from understanding it in detail. And I want to think a bit about those numbers. Okay, physics is a lot about numbers. So 100 billion neurons – 100 billion is a number that I’m familiar with from when I taught astronomy. It’s the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, a “big number.” It’s also the number of galaxies in the observable universe. 100 billion is a big number. 100 trillion is a much bigger number. I can’t come up with any example from astronomy where I use the word “100 trillion.” Okay, this is a hyper-astronomical idea. So before you think that you can account for how your brain functions as a very fancy clockwork, you need to confront these numbers. And the lesson that I draw is: not only don’t we know enough physics, but there’s no way we could know enough neuroscience in enough detail, no way that I could possibly imagine to ever carry out the program of treating your brain like a machine. We can learn tons, and I know Victoria could come back here in a couple of years and teach us new cool stuff, but it’s not going to be the complete account.
So determinism is dead; however, many of us would wave the flag, “Long live naturalism.” So let me explain why, even though I have hopefully buried determinism for good, there’s something that’s maybe almost as as interesting, that we have to think, again, “Is this a good description?” So even though we can’t ever carry out the program of accounting for our brains as machines, can’t we at least think and believe with some conviction that in principle, our brain is a machine, and that it’s merely a question of we “don’t have big enough computers and we don’t quite have enough knowledge yet”? And that’s the idea that goes by the name of “naturalism.” So, naturalism is one word that you can have in your head, and if you want a definition of naturalism in one sentence, it is “the belief that nature is all there is.” And when you say it that way, it seems almost unexceptional, but let’s think about it carefully and raise the question: does this idea of “nature is all there is” tell us enough to know what the world includes and what it doesn’t – how it works and whether the future is determined by the past?
So, naturalism, anything that you can define in one sentence, you should already already be concerned that maybe it’s got some subtleties to it. So I’ve put on this slide three different interpretations of what the sentence “nature is all there is” might mean. At one extreme, the idea that nature is all there is might mean, “We are just machines made of atoms, get used to it, I can’t prove it to you and I can’t carry out the program, but that’s still how it works, so suck it up.” Other people who claim to subscribe to naturalism, to the view that “nature is all there is,” would say, “No, what it really means is there’s nothing ‘spooky’ in the world, but nature itself is pretty darn remarkable.” And then maybe at the other extreme – but it’s an extreme I take seriously – is the idea that nature is so astonishing, so fruitful, so pregnant with possibility, that we really need to expand our concept of what “nature” is. And for that idea, I put the word “nature” in quotes, because when you think about it, really the question of naturalism hangs on what you think “nature” is.
But I want to actually show you that this set of ideas that are different possible interpretations of the idea of naturalism actually come back to the most profound question about whether the paradigm of physics is applicable to how we function as human beings, because physics, in whatever form, any version of the “machine” idea applied strictly, is based on the idea that if you know the universe at one moment, then that determines everything into the future.
On the other hand, I’ll speak just personally – I kind of feel like I decide things, and I get up some days, and a few days in my life, I’ve really, you know, added a little bit to the world, all right. So rather than feeling all the time like the past determines everything, I feel like there are some moments where a better way of understanding existence is to say “We can create a better future than exists today, and we create it through actions that we take, not just as the working out of the consequences of how the universe was in the past.”
So it really comes down to this question: does the past determine everything, or do we have the capacity to be active in creating a future? So we want to compare the strict form of naturalism with less strict forms. I hear a few chuckles. The strict form – this is, I think, in diagrammatic form, what adherence to strict naturalism means. Most people who will say, “I am really a naturalist, a strict naturalist,” then give you the list of everything it tells you not to believe in. The “supernatural” – just the word tells you that it’s the thing that we naturalists don’t believe. Of course, not knowing exactly what’s in nature, it’s hard to know what the word “supernatural” means as well. But “let it go.” Usually people say. I’m a naturalist, a strict naturalist. That means “I don’t believe in God.” Usually it means “I don’t believe in the soul.” There’s another word that is easier to say than to understand, exactly, what it means. But now we come to some things where at least we think we have some ideas what they might mean. Strict naturalism usually is taken to mean, “I don’t believe in a mind that is anything other than the meat in your skull.” And sometimes it also means “we don’t believe in free will.” But I would say, as a physicist, that you really can’t just extrapolate from that dialogue between Napoleon and Laplace, because we’ve learned a lot more about the world since then. And if you really force people to explain the reason for their belief in strict naturalism, if that’s what they believe, you’ll find that there is no scientific basis for the strictest form of naturalism. If you adhere to it, you adhere to it, because it seems right.
And let me now close with a few thoughts about what’s entirely left out of most discussions that start from the position of naturalism: the question of ourselves and our values. I’d like to assert that ourselves, and our values, are parts of nature. And here’s a picture of my favorite Jewish thinker, Abraham Joshua Heschel, again. He stressed that there was a whole set of phenomena that we believe in that are, he would claim, impossible to reduce to scientific categories: the feeling of being myself, my interiority or yours, our participation in the world, our ability to make choices and do things, and our values, how we guide the choices and our participation in the world.
And this cluster of things Heschel (to have a single word to attach to it) called the ineffable – the hard to describe, the hard to say, but the really true. And by framing that, he was really setting out a challenge to the strict naturalists. He asked: can strict naturalists believe in the correctness of justice? Does that idea even make sense to naturalism? Can a strict naturalist believe in the reality of love, or in the requiredness of compassion? Can a strict naturalist believe in the reality of goodness, or in the validity of truth, or the compellingness of beauty?
And with that challenge, we need to respond. Marilynne Robinson responded by the assertion of her belief that values like beauty, wonder and truth have absolute reality. And I love this quote of hers: “If through our minds and senses we participate in absolute reality, then beauty is an active element in creation. Beauty is a conversation between humankind and reality, and we are an essential part of it.” Or Heschel, who said, you know, we’re not even on the same page, free will is so important that “the opposite of free will is not determinism at all, it’s hardness of heart.”
So most days, I want to be a naturalist, but I want to be the kind of naturalist who is able to see and accept that nature includes human agency. Nature must be more than things that are made out of atoms. So I want to just about wrap up by proposing the “bumper sticker test.” Is this the best view of the world, the bumper sticker that says “Stuff happens!” Or is the better bumper sticker “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty?” Which bumper sticker do you want on your car?
And I’d like to close by advertising that my good friend Dennis Gilbride will be here two weeks from today, and he will be speaking on “What does it mean to be a person? Views From Psychology.” So thank you very much for your attention.
Michael Fel: And now the rebuttal (laughter). Now, I confess that my slideshow is nowhere near as nice as Professor Saulson’s, but the information contained within I hope will be just as meaningful.
About a month ago I bought a Fitbit. Shayna asked me “Which version of the Fitbit do you want, the basic model or the more advanced one?” And I said, “Well, I’m going to get the more advanced one, obviously.” And she asked why, and I said “Because the more advanced one can tell me how many not only how many steps have I taken, but it tells me my oxygen saturation in my blood, it tells me how I’m sleeping, it tells me all these other data points about my life.”
And she looked at me and said, “Do you really need a watch to tell you that you’re not sleeping well?” Right, do you need to be able to quantify that you’re feeling tired? Like, does it make a difference to you if you are seven units tired, or 12 units tired? If you’re tired, you’re tired. And more importantly, if the Fitbit told you you slept well but you woke up tired, what is reality, right? And so it causes me to question sort of, like: what is measurable in life and what is not measurable? And if the things that are not measurable, does it make it any less real?
And so for that, I want to share a couple of slides, a couple of things from the Jewish perspective that perhaps can shed some light on this topic, or sort of have this topic in a Jewish perspective. The first – this slide will be recognizable to you if you come to our daily z’man kodesh session, and that is the juxtaposition of two of the blessings which are said one right after the other. The first is a recognition that we are, in fact, stuff made up of atoms, and that part of the way we navigate through this world is really physical. It’s this bracha, Asher Yatzar, which says, “Thanks, God, for the gift of our bodies,” in which we say, “Blessed are you, God Sovereign of time and space, who crafted the human body with wisdom, creating within it many openings and passageways. It is known and revealed to You that should even a single passageway rupture or a single opening close up, it would no longer be possible to exist and stand before you. Barukh atah Adonai, healer of All Flesh, who creates wonderously.”
This bracha forces us each and every morning, and as codified in the Shulchan Aruch, every time you use the bathroom, to remind yourself what a gift it is to have a functional body that does what it needs to do, right, that can be measured and healed and can be damaged, depending on how we take care of our bodies. And lest we think too quickly that that’s all there is to who we are, the next bracha is Elohai Neshama, which says, “Thanks, God, for the gift of the neshama.” Now I’m going to use the word neshama, but as Peter and I discussed, neshama has all this alternative thinking with it, right. So let’s just say there is a part of us that is not physical, a part of us that is not of this world, a part of us that does not obey the laws of physics, but is still part of this world. And so when I introduce this in the mornings, you’ll chuckle, because the same way, almost every time, it’s the part of us that is divine, the part of us that is eternal, the part of us that is pure, the part of us that we can’t quite measure, but is still there. And that bracha says, “My God, the soul that you have given me is pure” – we can play with language and translation – “You created it, you formed it, you breathed it into me, you watch over it when it is in me, and in the few tree will take it from me, but then you will restore to me in the world that is coming, as long as this soul, this neshama, this non-earthly part, is within me, it’s my job to recognize you God, the God of my ancestors, master of all souls, Barukh atah Adonai, who restores the soul to the lifeless form.”
And so this is a central idea in Judaism, right, that who we are isn’t just bones and synapses and neurons, but there’s a part of us that once our body stops working – and that’s the language we use in my house to describe death, “your body stops working” – there is a part of you that continues on. Don’t ask me how it works, don’t ask me how to measure it, don’t ask me to touch it, don’t ask me to, like, point to it, but for me it is real, right.
And many of us, so many of our traditions are based on this concept that a part of us does indeed live on forever. It’s why we say kaddish, it’s why we do yizkor, and there is a tendency, I think, to want to say, you know, you live on in people’s minds and in people’s hearts, and your fingerprints and your words echo through the world, right. And I think that’s a part for those of us who are more on the low-grade naturalist resonates with us, but there’s also a part that our tradition pushes us to say, “Yeah, we don’t exactly know. And so we’re going to sort of – here’s insight into how the world works.”
You see this reflected, and I think it’s really neat, whenever we say the word “Olam,” as in “Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha’olam,” we tend to think of Olam as a world, the world that is coming. But you can just as easily connect the word Olam, right, to the future: “‘L’olam va’ed,” right. And so our translation does a beautiful job of connecting time and space by translating it as “time and space,” Barukh atah Adonai, “Our God, sovereign of time and space,” right.
And as Peter mentioned in his presentation, time doesn’t work necessarily the way that we think of it, right. Space, I would argue also, maybe we don’t fully understand – does that work? Can we talk about that or no? Time’s trickier, all right. But space, right, we can play with those terms, it’s not what we actually see only in front of us.
And so I want to share a couple of ideas, and one more piece with time about the trickiness of time. And I don’t know if I shared this last week or two weeks ago – even God’s name, YHWH, contains within it all the different tenses, past, present and future. And I don’t know if I shared this, the Shulchan Aruch teaches us whenever you’re praying, one of the things, if you can’t think about everything, just think about that there was a world before you, there’s going to be a world after you, and you’re living in it, but for right now – and so that alone sort of changes your understanding of reality. Our tradition is comfortable with accepting the unknowable, and in fact it’s a pet peeve of mine whenever you look at religious texts which go into granular detail explaining that we know everything, because I think part of what our tradition is meant to teach us is to feel comfortable not knowing everything, right. So if you look at the creation story, “When God began to create the heavens and the Earth” – I love it, no, it adds to it, adds to the mystique of what’s happening, right.
That was meant to happen, right. So when answering the question, “Why does the Torah begin with the letter bet in Beresheet, because you would think the Torah should begin with the letter aleph?” And the rabbis have a field day explaining why the Torah is created with the letter bet. Rabbi Yonah says, in the name of Rabbi Levi: why was the world created with the letter bet?” It says, “Just as the letter bet is closed on both sides, on all sides, right. You can’t know what’s above, below (representing sort of an ancient understanding of how the world was built), and what came before.” In Hebrew we go this way. So it sort of says, “We can understand only a part of reality, but not a reality in its entirety.” Rabbi Yehudah ben Pazzi says when the creation story, the story according to Bar Kapparah: “Why was the world created with a bet? To teach you in fact that there are two worlds. “Bet” is the number two in Gematria. There’s the world that we see, this world, and there’s also the world to come, Olam ha’ba.”
Now, whenever someone tries to describe what the world to come looks like, and they say “It’s like a banquet, with all delicious foods, and we all sit and learn Torah side by side,” my question is: in that world, do we have bodies? Do we have mouths? Do we eat because we’re hungry? What happens if we eat too much in Olam ha’ba? Like, what happens in that context, right? But it’s just to teach you that there’s something beyond what we see in this world.
Another interpretation why a bet, it’s because bet starts the word Berakhah, “blessings” and not aleph, because that word is associated with curses. And so it’s this idea that we don’t fully understand the world, but one thing that we do base our world on is that this world is full of berakhot – this world is full of blessings and goodness. And it’s our job to try to seek it out.
Another one again, this idea that “you have to see the world as a blessing and not a curse for it to endure”. So then if that’s the case, what makes us human? To go answer this question, as Professor Rotkow pointed out last week, part of it is the ability to decide what it is that we want to do, to have choice, to say, “I want to try to do this,” or “I want to change this.” And so in the creation story, at least the first creation story, it says, “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish and the seed, the birds of the sky, the cattle and the whole Earth, all the creeping things that creep on the earth. And God created Humanity or the Earthling in God’s image. In the image of God they were created male and female. God created them.” Right?
And so what does it mean to be created in God’s image? Does it mean two eyes, a nose and a mouth? Does it mean that, you know, we have two hands, two legs? And certainly there are parts of the Hebrew Bible which heavily rely on anthropomorphism to describe how God operates. But our tradition really doesn’t focus on the physical. The things that make us God-like or that make us human aren’t really physical. Here’s a text from Sanhedrin where it says, “God created Humanity with the first Earthling to show the greatness of the Holy One. Blessed be God, for if a man strikes many coins from one mold, they all look exactly the same, but the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, made each person in the image of God, yet no one looks exactly the same way,” right. There are these beautiful Hasidic stories which say, “You know, we’re all created in God’s image – what does it look like?” And so it tells the story of looking at people and trying to find God’s image in each of us.
If you’re looking for a physical answer, the closest I can get is eyes, right. If you want a physical answer, you look at someone’s eyes, and you imagine everything they’ve seen, right, their understanding of the world, their experiences – it sort of opens your mind to what it could be. And that’s if you’re looking specifically for a physical explanation. But the truth is there are many, many more rabbinic texts, which say “What makes us human?”, right, or “How do we identify that part of us which is divine and ineffable?”, right – it’s the way that we behave and the way we conduct ourselves.
There’s a text in Sotah which says, “You should try to walk like God.” And so what does that mean? For those who are Mel Brooks fans, it means “Walk this way,” right. But what it really means, to walk in God’s ways, right – does it mean that just as God takes care of the naked, as he made clothes for in the Garden of Eden, so too we should take care of and provide clothing for the naked? Just as God visits the sick when he visited Avraham after his circumcision, so too we should visit the sick and take care of them?
And finally, Rambam says that what makes us human, that special unique quality we have, is that we have the ability to make choices. And as Professor Templer Rotkow shared with us, right, in her research, I think I’m quoting you correctly – yes, right, that we can make choices, whereas animals maybe respond strictly to instinct, or to stimulus, or habits, we can decide what our habits are actually going to be.
And so as I look at this text and I think about your presentation, it can be scary, because we base so much of our lives on physics, right. We base so much of our lives on saying we know everything, we understand everything. It makes us feel comfortable, and, I think, sleep well at night. But our tradition, I think, forces us, wants us, to recognize that maybe we don’t know everything. There is a part of us that we can’t fully articulate, fully describe, but yet is very, very real. And I would argue a lot of what we’ve done for the past 2,000 years as Judaism is really trying to cultivate an awareness of the world that fully recognizes the things that we are responsible for, discover how this world works, but also leave a little bit, reserve a little bit, to recognize that maybe there is something beyond this world that we don’t fully understand, and try to cultivate an awareness, an appreciation, of that in our lives, and bring that more and more into the world. Thank you.
Just brilliant! I envy students who Dr. Saulson taught physics.