October 22, 2018

The Greenberg hurdle

Irving (“Yitz”) Greenberg is an American orthodox rabbi, known for critical thinking and reaching across denominational lines.  In 1977, writing about the Shoah (the Holocaust), Greenberg argued that in the future, “no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” A few years later, Greenberg repeated that proposition in a seminal essay entitled “The Third Great Cycle in Jewish History.”

Let’s call this principle the Greenberg Hurdle. It is, and perhaps should be, an obstacle that is hard to overcome. And while it may be construed to suggest, if not require, silence on certain fundamental issues, we should reject that temptation. Conversation should not cease just because it is difficult.

When he announced his principle, Greenberg did not do so in the context of a discussion of science and he does not appear to have had any general or specific concern about science in mind. Nevertheless, the Greenberg Hurdle does seem applicable to issues at the heart of the interface of science and faith.

Religion in general and God in particular once functioned, among other things, to explain the origin and evolution of the universe and our place in the scheme of things. Today what once was totally mysterious and inexplicable, can, though still wonderous, be described to a reasonable degree of certitude, without primary or, for some, any reference to a supernatural force.

As University of Michigan astrophysicist Fred Adams discloses in detail in Origins of Existence, the evolution of the universe can be described from the age of 10-43 seconds.  If 10-1 is a tenth of a second and 10-3 is a thousandth of a second, then Professor Adams can bring us back to less than a millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the birth of the known universe, that is, after what most of us think of as the Big Bang.

And, based on several independent methods, Vanderbilt astronomy professor David Weintraub places the age of the known universe, however it began, at 13.7 billion years old, give or take. (See, How Old is the Universe?)

Further, with mathematical theory now confirmed by experimental observation, we also know, among other things, the relative abundance of the lightest elements, the nature of the radiation footprint from the time of creation and the rate of expansion of the universe.  We can understand how galaxies coalesced and organized, and how stars formed and died, in the process spewing into space those heavy elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen which formed the building blocks of life.

The Greenberg Hurdle presents a challenge to those who talk, especially in traditional terms, about God as the creator of light and life. What kind of deity had what kind of role in the universe described by Adams and Weintraub and others? And how do we address or relate to it?

Of course, faith, by definition, is not dependent on a fully confirmed factual foundation. One does not need faith to hold to that which is proven. Rather, faith concerns the unknown. But if a faith is to be worth living for, worth dying for, it should at least account for and be consistent with what we do know.

At the same time, while mathematical models and recent observations have taken us on quite a journey, we have not yet reached the end of the inquiry. Scientists have not discovered what existed or occurred prior to 10-43 seconds, nor, importantly, how it existed or why it occurred. And this failure, while understandable, is, nevertheless, crucial.

As Columbia University physics professor Brian Greene acknowledges, the standard Big Bang theory tells us “nothing about what banged, why it banged, how it banged, or, frankly, whether it really ever banged at all.” (See, The Fabric of the Cosmos (at 272).) A model with a pre-existing inflation field provides an explanation for a repulsive push, a bang if you will, but raises other troublesome issues. (Id. at 272-303.)  Without more knowledge, to claim that as does Professor Adams (at 3) that “(i)n the stark simplicity of the beginning, there was only physics” (emphasis supplied), may not be quite accurate. 

Moreover, while there is convincing evidence that Earth is close to 4.5 billion years old (Weintraub, supra, at 16-39), and further evidence that primitive  biological life arose within the first billion years after Earth was formed, how living cells emerged from the chemical stew remains a puzzlement. 

For over fifty years we have known how to synthesize amino acids, which are key to the formation of proteins, from basic inert chemicals. And we have identified possible environments that might have been conducive to the emergence of biological life. But science has not yet been able to create autonomous, self-replicating organisms.

To the extent that science seeks to explore and explain root causes, it, too, must confront the Greenberg Hurdle. It, too, must be credible. In recent years, astrophysicists have attempted to resolve some of the remaining questions identified by Greene with reference to string theory and membranes and spatial dimensions more than the three we know well. But strings and membranes and multiple dimensions, however elegantly they may be justified by mathematics, have not yet reached the required level of credibility.

From their different perspectives, science and faith can react with amazement at the universe we know and our place in it. And whether the universe burst forth by some quantum fluctuation or by the word of God, humility, as well as awe and wonder, is in order.


Note: Another version of this post appeared previously at www.judaismandscience.com.