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August 30, 2015 / 15 Elul, 5775
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Does God Ever Play Dice With the Universe? A Jewish Response.

Dice

Dice

Einstein once said upon being confronted with the rising dominance of the Quantum Theory which asserts certain absolute uncertainties in the universe: “I cannot believe God plays dice with the universe.” This phrase has often been repeated, insofar as Einstein had a way with engaging phases sometimes rivaling his way with engaging ideas. The issue, moreover, is one which I believe not simply has philosophical relevance for science but one which has vital practical and philosophical relevance for religion. It is an issue, moreover, where Judaism provides some illuminating core responses.

Firstly, the suggestion that chaos was originally included in creation is conveyed in Genesis where it is asserted that when earth was created “the earth being unformed and void” (Gen: 1:2). The latter term given in Hebrew is “tohu and vohu,” generally translated as “formless and void” and more specifically as waste and chaos. This is linked with the ancient associations of “chaos” and when followed by a reference to water i.e. “a wind from God sweeping over the water” may be understood as a containing a “formlessness” or “randomness.” This randomness is supplanted by the introduction of “order” through light i.e. God said “ Let there be light “ (Gen: 1: 3).

The question then arises as to whether this “randomness” is entirely replaced by order or whether there is some residual aspect where certain randomness prevails. The Talmud asserts and the Rambam poignantly reminds us that “All is in the hands of God except fear of God” (Ber. 33b; Niddah 16b) Consequently there is the suggestion that some residual randomness that may be allocated to “free will” which is first represented in the garden when Eve and Adam choose to consume the forbidden fruit.

The “exception” here outside the realm of order is therefore is within the framework of human choice .It may be observed that the randomness here does not apply to what should be followed but rather by what is followed by humankind. In short it is a descriptive randomness rather than a prescriptive one. It is randomness, however, not in the sense it is arbitrary, but rather in the sense that within the framework of time it is unpredictable. The “fear” that remains is the fear of humankind ; it is not an accidental happening. God has endowed humankind with a choice. As stated in the Torah, Gen: 11:26.”See, this day I have set before you blessing and curse, blessing if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, curse if you don’t obey the commandments.” Here we also offered the profound insight of the Jewish mid-evil philosopher Gersonides, who maintains (within “Wars of the Lord , iii, 6) that at least within the framework of time (note: outside time is another matter which only God can transcend) that the choice itself is allowed to be unpredictable and left up to humankind.

Further, what may be called “luck” or “chance” in human events may also fit well into this perspective. In the Torah we find human choices leading to circumstances where what appears as “luck” or “chance” presents events that allow a favorable outcome although not determining it. Further Jewish history supplements this with an abundance of such developments, such as Joseph ending up in Egypt, Abraham’s servant Eliezer returning with Rebecca etc.

The events of the purim (which significantly means lots) story provides a paradigmatic example of such developments. In such instances, human choices are coupled with unexpected opportunities that allow a favorable outcome if further correct choices are rendered. The king Ahasuerus after approached by Esther and a bout of insomnia his scribes read the royal log and learns of Mordechi’s rescue. Consequently we may speak of a kind of destiny in these developments, but it is a destiny that emerges from opportunities rather than guarantees, and where human interaction with God’s granted opportunities is needed to complete the formation of a positive picture. It is, moreover, a destiny that requires an unpredictability and in this sense may be described as a “soft destiny” as opposed to a “hard destiny” devoid of human decision making. Chaos is required here, but it is a chaos where creation is ongoing and through God’s benevolence, is shared with humankind.

One other aspect that may be noted is the in the world of nature a certain indeterminacy exists by quantum theory and one may ask what benefit this generates. A response that may be offered is that this opens the door to a more open universe, and hence one which cannot be fully grasped and in this sense filled with more possibilities. Humankind is not completely at sea here since probabilities matter, but the indeterminacy means more diversity and with it a more interesting place. This becomes a prelude to the most significant area where indeterminacy matters, namely, within the realm of human decision making. Further, this capacity of humankind without complete external determination to affect the universe appears unique and consistent with some kabalistic writing such as that of Rabbi Moshe Nachman (12 century Kabalist) who upon his interpretation of the Zohar, writes that only humankind (not even angels) are endowed with this capacity.

It is significant that Psalm 104:24 glorifying the diversity of creation is immediately preceded by the role of humankind in its decision making capacity (104:23: Man goeth forth with his work and doeth his labors until evening.” This follows the order created by God and revealed in such verses as “ He makes springs pour water into ravines, it flows as between the mountains.” (Ps 104:10).

It is, therefore, the decision making aspects where randomness is most significant and where God has granted us through the “nefesh ha chaim)” a creative role in shaping the future. In response to Albert Einstein’s comment about God playing dice in the universe we may answer, “ Yes, God does play dice with the universe , but only with humankind as a player in his image by granting opportunities in the holy enterprise called life. This provides new meaning to the phrase “as luck may have it,” imbuing it with religious significance.

About the Author: Howard Zik is the author of Jewish Ideas. Creator of the Blog: Encountering Holiness and Philosophy


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