Book Review: Thinking About Creation – Eternal Torah and Modern Physics; by Dr. Andrew Goldfinger
Dr. Goldfinger holds a PhD in theoretical physics and as Masters in counseling. Some people like to collect degrees. He is also a Torah observant chassidic Jew and writes a monthly column in Mishpacha magazine, a weekly family magazine geared towards Torah observant Jews. Though as I’m aware many of my readers are of different persusations, still, if you’re anything like me you might find it interesting to read magazines of different groups. Myself, I enjoy the occasional buy of magazines like “Muslim Girl” or “Christianity Today” just to see what’s going on in the rest of the velt.
Like myself, Dr. Goldfinger sees quite a confluence between what modern physics and the Torah have to say about creation. It was actually the study of physics that first seriously had me considering the existence of a Creator and all that entails (I wrote about that over here). Other physicists tend also to agree, such as this guy, but still others claim otherwise. To me, this is an example of free will in how the world is created. (I once took up this topic with atheists over here.)
Indeed, Dr. Goldfinger also discusses many of these subjects. He uses, for example, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to show that the world is such that there is uncertainly and will always be an appearance of free will to us. Even if there is not “really” one, since we will always have it from our perspective, that leaves choice. That is, Heisenberg’s principle tells us that one can never know the precise position and speed of an object, and the smaller it gets, the more our observations effect it making our measurement ability even less accurate.
Other topics such as Occum’s razor are discussed (arriving at the simplest conclusion) and putting everything together, ultimately, we hope in a single unifying force underlying it all. In Judaism, we call this . . . you know, the Creator. It’s all really simple, really, it’s just that after creation it burst forth into lots of complexity. The premise of the book is to examine what we know, or at least, what we have observed, from both sides of the coin and try and put it all together based on modern theories. It works … surprisingly well. It’s not perfect, and sometimes it requires taking a certain ancient scholar’s teaching over another (it’s possible for errors in the transmission of Torah learning) and sometimes the science doesn’t quite agree (because our observations often have bias or entire widely held theories may be based off of improper assumptions, unpopular papers may never get published, or the like).
Then, if we talk about the very beginning of creation . . . it all fits together very, very well. This deserves it’s own heading, so . . .
One of Iyov’s complaints [Job] is that one cannot know G_d and to examine, we look backwards to what people have observed before. The Rambam tells us that through science we can see an aspect of G_d. Creation itself is put into very few words in the Torah, though our ancient commentaries do tell us more. Dr. Goldfinger opens with an excellent exposition of discussions of tohu v’vohu, the beginning with void and darkness, and goes through how the commentaries describe the creation and how we read the very words in the opening of the Torah. Now, there is certainly some hindsight bias here (having the conclusion we want to draw), but Dr. Goldfinger is quick to point out in many places that with any observations, we are just trying to put things together in narratives that work. It’s not much different than other scientific narratives, e.g. the Big Bang and everything that went with it . . . the further back in time we go, say, to the first 1*10^-27 second, and the more conjecture and the more what we know of the physical laws break down. Dr. Goldfinger will tell you repeatedly – it’s not bad science . . . it’s just the best we can do.
It doesn’t always work out perfectly and we will still have further “kashas” (questions), but in large part, it works out really well. Take for example, the Hebrew word “bara” which is an usual term used for a new creation. For things which are truly new, such as the creation of the universe or of animal life, the word is used. For those things that could “evolve”, the word is not used. Further, generically we go back to a single person. Mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down directly, says it’s a fairly small number of generations, while the Torah tells us it’s 974. Random selection and gradual change should show us a lot more diversity than that.
Now, take it back to the beginning . . . red shift of stars shows us that the universe is expanding and goes back to a single point. The temperature, at creation, would be infinite and the size infinitesimal but this very quickly moves in the opposite direction. How? Why? We don’t know and it’s fairly doubtful we’ll ever be able to measure this and we cannot truly understand the infinite, but we can come closer and closer. In any case, after thousands of years of Hellenist philosophy telling us the universe just is and always was, and that an invisible ether permeated the universe and light came from matter, suddenly in the past 100 years it seems the Torah, written 3300 years ago, had it right all along. There was a chaotic void, there was a beginning, there was an observer to make it all happen, and so on we go.
One of the conclusions that I think Dr. Goldfinger is trying to bring out is that the universe is ordered and not an accident. (I take great issue with those who want to see the world in a negative light – that’s just silly. More about that over here.) I am just in awe reading the chapter about the physics at the beginning of the universe. If the theories are correct, there was a world immense heat which has fallen to an average of about 2.73 kelvin (just above absolute zero). In the beginning, it’s too hot and dense for molecules to form. Then, once you have atoms, then what . . . and at the end, it’s too spaced apart for anything much at all (if the theory is correct). Yet the universe is such that it’s not just the chaotic void it once was, or nothingness, or whatever it was. It’s such that not just atoms form, but complex atoms form . . . and it just “happens” to be that water has the properties it does, and carbon the properties that it does, and it all fits together to “allow” for self-replicating machines that we call life. What an amazing thing!
I can go on with thousands more such examples of the appreciation of what the world is. As such, there is no question that there is an omnipotent, infinite force . . . it seems from Occum’s razor and just the seemingly infiniteness of depth in which we can view the world, going smaller, bigger, or through dimensions of time and space that this must be a Creator. The only time for doubt is when I’m thinking narrowly about and being blinded by physicality. The Ramchal tells us that our senses are no help in coming to this reality – it is only our intellect which tells us. Thus, the only question that I find even worthy of debate is whether this omnipotent force who created us, cares about what we do, but that’s for another article (and partially discussed here as well).
Just a few things … it’s written for a very unsophisticated audience. As such, there are times when, say, the page about scientific notation, you might just want to skip. As such, it’s hard to say it’s written for those with even bachelors degrees in science, or even, who took high school physics. My other nitpick is with some of the more ‘far out’ things and incompleteness of certain discussions. For example, using “panspermia”, the idea that life came from another planet to make it fit in a Torah timeline seems pretty far out . . . and unnecessary. There are better ways to make it work. There are great discussions of relativity which makes a whole lot of things in Torah and creation work out and fit together quite well, but then, the author glosses over the difference between 6 days and 15 billion years. It seems he just didn’t know, at the time of writing, how best to fit it together. (Dr. Gerald Schroeder, another Torah observant physicist, I think, does a much better job of this over here.)
The book does, however, quite well describe many scientific theories and axioms using very simple and easy to understand analogies. For that, I feel that I learned a lot. It’s hard to write a book discussing what society today has deemed two very different topics, and generally speaking, he does it quite well. Where else do you find a glossary that defines “peruta” (tiny coin, used in Talmudic literature) next to “photon” (tiny amount of light)?
This book is a great starting point for exploration of the world . . . seeing how to approach questions on creation, examine the evidence, and put it all together. It’s a fairly easy read, yet discusses a wide variety of complex topics. I do recommend it to others, especially to those who think their religious beliefs should match their scientific beliefs.