An excerpt from The Science of God by Gerald L. Schroeder

 

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“To be or not to be.” Choice is the fundamental and continuous characteristic of our lives. Within the possible range for our choices we wrestle with Shakespeare’s most basic quandary: “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep” (Hamlet 3:1).

The bible, three thousand years before Shakespeare, defined our alternatives in the same terms: “I set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse, therefore choose life that both you and your children may live” (Deut. 30:19). The contest is between the body’s desire for the ease of eternal sleep and the soul’s striving for worldly and spiritual excellence.

Before we enter an examination of why choice is between life and death and not, as we might superficially suppose, between good and evil, or how we might choose life over death, we first should know the limits of our free will. We live in a world governed by the laws of nature. Perhaps these laws predetermine our future path. Our genetic code, the DNA of our cells, might control our emotions and our actions. And beyond the constraints which the physical world may place on freedom of choice, theology seems to obviate the potential of free will. We are told that our Creator knows the future. If our future is foretold, our freedom may be an illusion.

The paradox can be divided into three aspects:

 

  1. Is the world deterministic? Do the laws of nature, cause and effect, determine all future events?
  2. Are we so completely programmed by our genetic code, our DNA, that our future desires are beyond our control?
  3. If God knows the future, does it matter that physics or biology might allow us choice?

 

If we get beyond these questions, we can deal with the Hamlet within us and how we decide whether “to be or not to be.”

 

 

 

THE PHYSICS OF FREE WILL: THE UNPREDICTABLE FUTURE

At the outset of this investigation we must lay to rest the once-popular concept that the future is predicable.

For 150 years, classical philosophers had a love affair with the theory of determinism. Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749-1827) used arguments of the purest simplicity to demonstrate that the future is predictable and therefore predetermined. He based his thesis on a most fundamental law of nature: that of cause and effect. A given cause always produces the same effect. This seemed so obviously true that the surprise was not that the future was predetermined but that no one had discovered this “determinism” before.

On a macro-scale we observe predetermined fate continually. If we release a ball on a smooth slope, it rolls down the slope and never up. The causal force is gravity; the effect is the downward motion of the ball. If we leave a cup of hot tea unattended in a room that is at a normal temperature, the tea cools, always. It never hearts up. The cause is a law of nature found in thermodynamics which directs systems always to evolve from states of high energy (hot tea) to lower energy (tepid tea).

Laplace argued that what we take for granted on the macro-scale actually functions everywhere. Causality, the ubiquitous law of cause and effect, directs the flow of all events in all types of environments. Living systems are not different from inorganic systems. The chemical reactions within our bodies, be they related to the digestion of our food or a nerve-muscle reaction to a mosquito bite, are all definable by the same laws of physics and chemistry which govern not only Earth, but also the entire universe.

 

If this is the case, there is no room for free choice. The chain of events that led a person to choose a particular fork in the road may be long and complex, but each link in that chain of decisions was formed by the events that preceded it and each of those preceding events was governed by unchanging, all-powerful law of nature. Extend this logic to the entire universe and it is but a small step to see that all events everywhere are predetermined by the events that precede them.

In 1927 revolutionary concept pulled the rug from beneath the logic upon which Laplace had built his theory of determinism. In that year Werner Karl Heisenberg published his principle of indeterminacy, the uncertainty principle. This defined a limit to the precision by which the position and momentum (mass times velocity) of any particle could be measured. The more closely one determined the momentum of an object, the less precisely one could measure the object’s position. The exact value of both can never be measure. It is not a matter of waiting for a better “ruler” or a better “speedometer.” The best of these instruments, even in the world of theoretical fantasy, will always affect the condition of that which is being measured.

For the first time, the scientific community admitted that there was a limit to scientific  knowledge. Not being able to know the present exactly obviously meant that the future could not be foretold.

Heisenberg’s theory was rapidly developed by such giants of physics as Wolfgang Pauli, Max Born, and particularly Niels Bohr into what became known as the Copenhagen interpretation of the uncertainty principle. In essence, they saw the uncertainty principle as leading to a realization that there is no one specific reality in the physical world. All the possibilities for existence that fall within the uncertainty of the measurement might actually exist, and only when we make an observation at one specific point do the other possibilities vanish.

According to this theory, which forms much of the basis for quantum mechanics, objects in the universe have extended, fuzzy boundaries. Being fuzzy, there are no exact edges to measure. Recent experimental data indicate that the fuzziness is real. In this research, when the fuzzy extensions of several particles overlapped, the particles actually merged into a single large entity. 1 This confirmation of QM theory is not surprising. Quantum mechanics has a sixty-year track record of predicting correctly the outcome of experiments.

We are reluctantly being forced to abandon our concept of a world built of classical subatomic particles (protons, neutrons, electrons, etc.) – classical in the sense of entities having distinct edges like microscopic ping-pong balls. Subatomic particles are better understood as being quantum objects, infinitely extended through all of space by some currently unknown and immeasurable phenomenon that possibly resides in a dimension outside of time and space.

(If you are content to accept the claims of QM, and wish to avoid the complexities of its proof which I am about to present, I suggest that you skip a few pages forward to the section on The Biology of Free Will.)

 

 

THE FALL OF ABSOLUTE CAUSALITY

For free will to exist, causality – the thesis that identical causes produce identical effects – must not be universally true. There must be some slack in the laws of nature. A classic experiment which demonstrates this intriguing (and according to Schrodinger “worrisome”)quality of nature, that causality is not universally true, is the double slit experiment It rests on the observed fact that electromagnetic radiation (microwaves, radio waves, light rays, X rays, gamma rays) and the subatomic matter (electrons, protons, neutrons, etc.) of which we and all the universe are composed exhibit properties that can only be described as arising simultaneously from waves (fields of energy) and also from particles (discrete entities). This wave-particle duality is a paradox of nature with which Einstein grappled unsuccessfully during the final decades of his life. How can something be both a wave and a particle?

In an attempt to investigate this phenomenon, we need to learn a bit about waves. A basic concept taught in elementary oceanography is the behavior of ocean waves. A wind blowing steadily over a large open expanse of water adds energy to the water and as a result produces a series of waves moving in parallel. Upon encountering an artificial harbor made of two vertical walls with a central passage for boats, the waves will proceed directly through the passage, provided that the opening of the passage is wider than two wavelengths (a wavelength is the distance between two consecutive wave crests or two consecutive wave troughs).

If, however, the passage in the breakwater is equal to or smaller than the wavelengths, then the waves will “feel” the edges of the narrow harbor opening as they pass through. Instead of moving straight ahead, they will bend to produce wave fronts that propagate into the harbor in semicircles. The line of the breakwater forms their diameters, with the center of the breakwater opening at the center of the diameter. This phenomenon is known as diffraction and is a basic characteristic of all waves. (See Fig. 8)

If there are two narrow entrances to the harbor then as the semicircular waves spread from each opening, at some places crests from the two entrances will coincide. There they will combine to produce a relatively high wave. At other locations, about half a wavelength away from these peaks, a crest and a trough will coincide, canceling each other and producing a spot of calm water.

 


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Thomas Young, in 1803, demonstrated that light behaved in the same manner as these harbor waves. It is the kind of experiment you can repeat on a sunny day with a razor and some aluminum foil.

Young allowed sunlight to shine on an opaque plate in which two slits had been cut. A meter or so beyond this plate was a screen onto which shone the light passing through the slits. Slits that were wider than the wavelength of light produced an image on the screen that had the shape of the two slits. However, as the slits were made more narrow, the light diffracted and the shape of the projected image changed. Since wavelengths of visible light are between 0.4 thousandths of a millimeter (rather than the meter or so wavelength of water waves), the opening must be accordingly narrow for light to produce a diffraction pattern.

 


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When only one of the narrow slits was open, a band of light with fuzzy edges appeared on the screen (Figure 9, top). This could be the result of diffraction (if light indeed propagated as a wave) or it might be that light was a particle but the narrowness of the slit somehow affected the particles as they squeezed by the slit edges.

When both narrow slits were opened, the wavelike nature of light was proven. Instead of having a pattern on the screen that was the sum of two fuzzy bands of light, there appeared a series of alternative light and dark bands (Figure 9, bottom). Young correctly interpreted these as being the result of light waves passing through the adjacent slits, diffracting, and then adding or canceling as the diffracted waves overlapped on the screen. Just as in the harbor, when two crests met, a peak was formed (here a bright band). When a crest and a trough met, a calm spot appeared (here a dark, lightless band).

Since only waves produce such banded diffraction patterns, Young had demonstrated that the nature of light was that of a wave. The proof was conclusive. Or was it?

 

 

THE DISCOVERY OF WAVE-PARTICLE DUALITY

In 1905, a century after Young’s conclusive demonstration, Einstein came along and upset the cart. In that year he published the results of experiments that demonstrated what has become known as the photoelectric effect. In 1921 Einstein was awarded the Nobel prize for this work.

Light, shining on certain metals, knocks free a stream of electrons which if collected produces an electric current. This is exactly the effect used in the photoelectric switch that keeps an elevator door from closing on your leg. Einstein demonstrated that the rate at which electrons are emitted from metal is related not only to the intensity of the light beam but also to the “color” of the light. If the color of the light was kept constant but the intensity of the light changed, the energy of each emitted electron remained constant but the rate at which the electrons were emitted from the metal changed. Holding the light intensity constant but changing the color of the light produced a stream of electrons constant in number but with energies that varied with the color of the light, red producing the lowest energy electrons and blue producing the highest. With some metals an intense red light did not liberate any electrons, while even a dim violet light liberated many.

Einstein interpreted these results as a demonstration that the light was arriving not in waves but in packets of energy (to be called photons). A high-intensity light beam had more photons than a dim light beam. However, the energy of each photon had nothing to do with the light intensity. Photon energy was related only to the color of the light. Red (the longest wavelength and lowest frequency) is the lowest energy photon i visible light. Blue or violet (the shortest wavelength and highest frequency) is the most energetic visible photon. That is why even a weak violet light might knock electrons free while a powerful red light could not liberate any. The individual photons are what hit the electrons. Each individual photon must have at least a required threshold or minimum energy to liberate an electron.

If light is composed of particles, called photons, how did Thomas Young observe that light passing through narrow slits in a plate produced an interference pattern, a pattern associated only with waves and never with particles? A particle is a discrete entity. It may be able to bounce off another particle, but how can it cancel another particle (to produce the observed dark bands)? The photons do just that when the “crest” of one passes through the “trough” of another. Since when do crests and troughs related to particles? They are characteristics of waves.

Ninety years after its discovery, this discrepancy has yet to be resolved. And to complicate matters even further, the double slit experiment has been performed using classical particles such as electrons and even such relatively massive items as atoms, as well as photons. All behave as waves and as particles, notwithstanding the fact that this is patently impossible! In theory all matter, even you, has this same duality.

Bohr pointed out that this paradox of duality has strong implications relative to our knowledge of the subatomic world. If we measure an entity in a way that assumes it is a wave we find a wave. If we measure the same entity and assume it is a particle we find a particle. We see the world as we assume it exists.

 

 

CAUSALITY DEFEATED

The  experiment about to be described can be performed with any of the wave-plus-particles of the universe. Electromagnetic radiation (microwaves, radio waves, light, X rays, gamma rays), electrons, protons, and possibly even hammers or elephants are suitable (though it is considerably easier to perform it with small particles). Here we use a maser, a gun that can fire one atom at a time.

Suppose the gun fires an atom toward a plate that has the traditional two slits in it. Beyond the plate is a screen with photographic emulsion. If an atom hits the plate, it is stopped and seen no more. If it happens to pass through one of the slits, it continues and strikes the emulsion, producing a spot on the film.

With only one slit open, we continued to fire the gun, one atom at a time. After a large number of spots accumulate on the emulsion, we notice that they have produced the expected fuzzy diffraction pattern described in Figure 9, top, above. Now we close the first slit, and open the second slit. Repeating the firing produces the same pattern (Figure 9, top), but offset by the distance that separates the two slits. The atoms are producing the diffraction pattern characteristics of waves passing through a narrow harbor opening.

Now we open both slits and again fire one atom at a time. The individual atoms no longer land randomly within the diffraction pattern (Figure 9, top). Instead, they fall only within the specific “allowed” regions where the light bands of the interference pattern appeared and never in the dark band regions (Figure 9, bottom). Seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

But wait! This cannot be. We fire a single atom at a time. There is no other atom, be it wave or particle, with which to interfere and cancel. Yet the interference pattern occurs and the dark bands appear. A single particle can only go through one of the slits. We already noted that atoms going through the single slit fall everywhere within the diffraction pattern with none of the alternating light and dark bands that result from the interference of waves at the screen. Although we have opened both slits, we are still firing only one atom at a time. It must travel to only one of the two slits and go through that slit. If the other slit is closed it lands anywhere within the diffraction pattern. If the other slit is open, it never lands in the dark (forbidden) regions originally seen in the interference pattern which developed when we had the two slits open.

The atom is a single entity, with a fixed locality. In its passage through one slit, why should opening or closing the other slit have any effect upon its passage? How can it “know” if the second slit is open or closed? But it does know! Somehow it is aware of its environment.

The identical results are obtained when firing single photons. Photons are particles of light that travel at the speed of light, the maximum speed attainable in our universe. Even if the photon is infinitely extended, in the time it travels from the photon gun to the open slit it cannot have “felt” the second slit, checked to see if that second slit was open or closed, communicated that information to the portion passing through the first slit and then decided where on the screen it was permitted to land and where it was forbidden. There was no time for the feeler to make the round trip.

This is bizarre. With only one slit open, the particle could land anywhere within the fuzzy region marked on the screen (Figure 9, top). With two slits open, this is no longer true (Figure 9, bottom). There are forbidden regions, the dark bands. Ah, you might say, but that is because the wave property of the particle has canceled out those particles that might have landed in the dark region. Each wave crest, you claim, coincided with the tough of a second wave coming through the other slit and that produced the dark band.

When we were shooting millions of photons or millions of other particles a second, then we could imagine that many particles were passing through each slit essentially simultaneously and therefore many were arriving at the screen simultaneously. A 100-watt light bulb emits about 200 million million million (2×1020) photons each second. They were able to arrive simultaneously and cancel or add their wavelengths.

In our present experiment this is not the case. We are shooting one particle at a time. It alone flies toward the screen. It passes through only one of the slits since it is only one particle. For some reason these single particles are unable to force their way onto the “forbidden” locations.

Two questions arise. If it is interference (adding or subtracting wave crests and wave troughs) that causes the alternating light-dark pattern, with what is the particle interfering? Only one particle is fired at a time, and we wait an hour between shots. (It is a very long experiment, but it gets the point across!) Only one particle at a time passes through the slit and arrives at the emulsion, yet that particle is somehow interfering with itself!

And equally puzzling: how does the particle know if the second slit is open or not? No one knows how or why the particle knows. But it knows.

There is a modification of the double slit experiment that could drive a particle physicists to become a carpenter or a biologist or anything other than a particle physicist. Put a particle detector near one of the slits and leave the other slit entirely unchanged. Continue to shoot one particle at a time. Now we can tell through which slit the particle traveled. If detected, it passed through the monitored slit. If not detected, it passed through the other slit.

The first thing we notice is that a whole particle always arrives at the monitored slit. A part of a particle never arrives. This means that the particle is not splitting into two half particles during its flight and trying for both slits. It goes discretely to one or the other slit.

With the detector in place, something very annoying happens. The pattern that accumulates on the screen as the experiment proceeds is the sum of two fuzzy patterns as if the first slit was open and the second closed, and then the second slit was open and the first closed. (Figure 9, top, plus this figure slightly offset). There are no dark “forbidden” regions even though both slits are now open and the banded interference pattern should appear.

One could argue that the detector alters the course of the particle passing through the monitored slit. Perhaps. But if it is true that the detector affects the monitored slit, what effect can the detector have on the other unmonitored slit? Particles passing through the second slit (the one with no detector) should follow the usual two-slit pattern. But they don’t. They too somehow know about the detector at the other slit.

Not only do the particles know if the second slit is open, they know if someone is looking over their shoulders with a detector!

These experiments marked the end of the line for causality. In classical physics, causality requires that if the initial conditions are identical, the outcome must be identical. In these double slit experiments the outcome was arbitrary. A particle traveled at a given speed through a given slit toward a given screen. Where it fell on the screen was affected by a second lit through which it did not pass. As far as the particle was concerned, the identical conditions produced non-identical results.

The uncertainty principle demonstrated that we cannot measure the present exactly. Quantum physics, and particularly the double slit experiment, demonstrate that even if we could measure all aspects of the present with an error margin of zero, the future would not be predictable. Contrary to all we learned in high school physics, the law of nature known as cause and effect is not a law. It is only a theory. And now, at the quantum level, it is a theory that has been proven to be wrong.

Since identical initial conditions do not produce identical results, the present condition of the universe does not determine the future of the universe. Notwithstanding the ever-present possibility that we may discover the causes underlying phenomena such as these, as we currently understand the world, free will has physics on its side. Does biology also allow us the freedom of choice?

 

 

THE BIOLOGY OF FREEWILL

Every cell (with the exception of a very few highly specialized cells) of every body has information within it to reconstruct an entire body. That information is packed in the double helix of DNA. The efficiency of DNA as a carrier of data is so great that if all the information held within all the libraries of the world (about 1018 bits of data) were programmed onto DNA, that information would fit on about 1 percent of the head of a pin.2 Each cell of our bodies has approximately three billion bits of data coiled within DNA weighing trillionths of a gram.

The DNA of our bodies contains a massive amount of preprogrammed biological information. Though the physics of the universe is not deterministic, what of our biology? Our DNA is a fixed package. We cannot choose the color our our eyes or the color of our skin. Can we choose our emotional temperament or our sexual orientation? Perhaps these characteristics are also controlled by our genes.

The comprehensive role of our genes in our social disposition is a topic still open for debate. However, certain conclusions are absolute. Genes present tendency. They do not dictate our actions.345

Fraternal twins have in common the same fraction of genes, about half, as do all biological siblings. All develop from a separate egg and separate sperm. When one of a pair of fraternal twins is homosexual, there is a 20 percent chance that both twins are homosexual. If genes dictated this trait, the percentage would be the same for both fraternal twins and non-twin brothers since both types of siblings have the same fraction of identical genes.

The occurrence of identical twins is a fortunate quirk of nature. Identical twins form when the egg during its initial divisions following fertilization separates and produces two embryos. As such, identical twins start life with genes from the same egg and same sperm. If genes are dictators of our social tendencies, identical twins should be socially identical. But hey are not. In the trait of sexuality, if one of a pair of identical twins is homosexual, there is only a 50 percent chance that the other will also be homosexual.

It is not certain if the 50 percent sexual concordance for identical twins and the 20 percent concordance for fraternal twins are the result of nature (their DNA) or nurture (their social environment). From these data, however, it is certain that while DNA may produce a tendency, DNA does not dictate.

The concept of tendency is what biblical morality is all about. Wherever there exists a natural human propensity to an act that is counterproductive either to the individual or the society, there is a biblical command regulating that aspect of life. People have the inclination to cheat in business. Cheating comes in many forms. The bible forbids them all, describing cheating as an abomination (Deut. 25:13-16). A person may smile at being a workaholic, but the Bible says that one day in seven the drive to transform the material world must be put on hold, and in its place we are to confront the act of simply being, focusing on self and family. If these trains were biologically determined and not alterable, there would be no biblical injunctions to regulate them.

 

 

THE THEOLOGY OF FREE WILL

Physics and biology allow us the right to free will. Ironically, it is theology that seems to present the ultimate stumbling block. Among the most ancient biblical writings we are told the God knows the future. Twice in the Talmud67 we read that everything is foreseen by God; nonetheless God grants free will.

If the omnipotent God indeed knows the future, then how, the skeptic asks, can we have free will? The end is already known to God even if we poor mortals do not know it.

The “believer” replies with the reserve of a saint: “Why, how very simple it all is. You see, God is outside of time.” That is the kind of statement that pleases the believer but raises the hackles on the neck of a skeptic.

The centuries-old debate was never neatly resolved. Science has finally provided the solution to this theological paradox.

Creation of the universe from absolute and complete nothing marked the beginning of space, time, and matter. Theology has held that position for over three thousand years. Cosmology in the last decade or so has come to agree. These three parameters are characteristics of our universe, not of the Creator. Just as the biblical God is not composed of space or matter, God is also not bound by time. God is outside of time. And being outside of time means to exist in an “eternal or unending now,” an eternal present that includes past, present, and future simultaneously.

It is my goal to investigate just this reality: that in one reference frame, all times and all events that pass during those times exist simultaneously  while in another reference frame, those same events are separated by time with a past that has occurred and a future that is yet to come.

There is a bit of graffiti quoted by the renowned physicists John Archibald Wheeler and Edwin Taylor that summarizes this thought nicely: “Time is nature’s way to keep everything from happening all at once.”8

The freedom with with we chooses our future is neither absolute nor equal. If we are born handsome, rich, and brilliant we have many more options open to us than if we are born ugly, poor, and stupid.  The slings and arrows of fortune, the chance that puts us in a certain environment at a certain time defines the frame from within which Hamlet, and all of us, act out our individual lives.

Yet many prophetic passages in the Bible seem to contradict the concept that the future even to a limited extent is ours to choose: “And the Eternal said to Abraham: Know for certain that your progeny shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs and they shall serve them and they shall afflict them four hundred years…” (Gen. 15:13).

The text claims it is “certain” Abraham’s progeny will live as exiles. From Genesis through to Deuteronomy, implications of a foreseen future are repeated: “And the Eternal said to Moses: Behold you are to sleep with your fathers but this people shall arise and go astray after gods of the strangers of the land to which it goes” (Deut. 31:16).

Was four hundred years of abject slavery inevitable for Abraham’s progeny, or was idol worship indelibly written into the Israelite future as they were about to enter the Promised Land? Apparently not. Those predicted events occurred only in accord with the actions of the people. Hence it is written: “And now, if you will hearken to My voice…” (Ex. 19:5). And again “And again, “And it shall be if you fully hearken to My commandments…” (Deut. 11:13). The course of events is always conditional on the “if,” the choice of the people to follow or abandon the requirements of God. Biblical chronology and ancient commentary disclose that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt for just over two hundred years. Where are the missing two hundred additional years of servitude?

Four hundred years passed from the birth of Isaac, Abraham and Sarah’s child (Gen. 21), to the Israelite exodus from Egypt (Ex. 12). The land of Canaan, where Abraham and his progeny lived, suffered severe famines both in the time of Abraham and of Isaac (Gen. 12:10; Gen. 26:1). This forced them to journey from Canaan in search of pasture. They stayed but did not settle in these foreign regions, always returning to Canaan after the famine ceased. When famine came to the land of Canaan (Gen. 41:54) during Jacob’s (the son of Isaac) old age, the entire clan left Canaan and settled in Egypt: “And Israel settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen, and got possessions there and were fruitful and multiplied greatly” (Gen. 47:27).

God had sent Abraham out of Mesopotamia to settle in Canaan (Gen. 12:5-7). All the time that his progeny remained true to that charge, they were strangers in the land of Canaan, a land not yet theirs, but they were free from bondage. Jacob’s children changed the pattern, abandoned Canaan, and “settled in the land of Egypt.” In doing so they set the stage for their eventual enslavement in that foreign land. Had Abraham or Isaac settled in the lands to which they journeyed during famine, much more of the four hundred years might have been spent in bondage.

The example, par excellence, of choice determining the future is found in the biblical book of Esther. The Persian king, Ahashverosh, has chosen Esther to be queen of his vast realm. Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, having discovered that the king’s first minister has planned the destruction of the Jews, tells Esther to inform the king of this heinous scheme. Esther protests that no one, not even she, is allowed to go to the king without first being called for. Mordecai replies: “Do not think in your heart that you shall escape in the king’s house any more than all the other Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, then relief and deliverance shall arise form another place and you and your father’s house will be lost” (Esther 4:13, 14).

Esther obeyed Mordecai and so the book of Esther is read today on the holiday of Purim as celebration of the redemption. Had Esther chosen to remain silent, we might be reading the book of Yael or Hadas or Hannah. Esther would be forgotten.

The Bible makes it clear. Our choices affect our futures.

 

 

THE MEANING OF GOD BEING “OUTSIDE OF TIME”

We have proven that neither the physics of nature nor the genes of our bodies fix the future. We have seen that the Bible itself confirms that choice shapes the flow of events. If this is so, how does the Creator know our future even before we choose it?

The subtlety in the argument is that we are dealing with two frames of reference, one within and one without the flow of time. For the Creator, being outside of time, a flow of events has no meaning. There is no future in the sense of what will “eventually” happen. The future and the past are in the present. An Eternal Now pervades, like a cloud containing all times, not in a linear progression, but in simultaneity.

The concept of an Eternal Now is implied in the explicit four-letter name of God (Ex. 3:14). In the Hebrew, the spelling includes the letter of the verb “to be” in its three tenses: I was, I am, I will be. The past, present, and future are all contained within the Eternal.9

Einstein’s discovery of the laws of relativity revealed the astonishing fact that dimensions of space, time, and matter are ever changing and always dependent upon the way in which they are observed. The only constant in our universe is the speed of light (approximately 300,000,999 meters per second in a vacuum).

Einstein theorized and later experiments proved that the faster one travels relative to another object, the slower time flows for the travelers relative to the flow of time measured by the stationary observer. At the speed of light (the highest speed attainable in our universe), time ceases to flow altogether. The time of all events becomes compressed into the present, an unending now. The laws of relativity have changed timeless existence from a theological claim to a physical reality.

For millennia, the stars have been a subject of fascination. Astronomers map the seemingly unchanging positions of the constellations, measure the characteristic of stellar light, and photograph the clusters of galaxies held motionless as if stopped in the midst of a graceful dance. With these data, they formulate theories which describe the history of our universe.

At the Las Campanas Stellar Observatory atop an 8,000-foot mountain in northern Chile, the night of 23 February 1987 started in routine manner. Ian Shelton and his assistant, Oscar Duhalde, were using the observatory’s telescope to photograph stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud a galaxy seen only in the southern hemisphere. By three in the morning, Shelton was about to call it a night. A final photographic plate that had been exposed to the stars for an extended period was to be developed and the night’s work would be done. The long exposure allowed the photographic film to accumulate faint light from distant stars not visible to the unaided eye.

As Shelton watched the images appear on the developing negative, an exceptionally large spot, one not present on any of the previous  plates, appeared. Was it a flaw in the film? A spot of that magnitude would be visible without the aid of a telescope. He went outside to see for himself. And there it was. A bright star where only a faint speck of light had been. A distant star had exploded producing a spectacular burst of light, a supernova. Its glow had just reached Earth. It was to be designated supernova 1987A.

The star that had exploded was familiar to astronomers. It was located 170,000 light years from Earth. That seems far and it is. But in astronomical terms, it is barely around the corner. It was the closest supernova that had occurred since the development of large telescope. This burst of light, during the years since 1978, has provided a unique opportunity to study the making of the elements within the residue of that star. We and all our solar system are composed of elements found in star dust such as this.

The light of that exploding star had started its journey through space 170,000 (Earth) years before Ian first saw it. For all those 170,000 years, the secret of the explosion was locked in this burst of photons. Objects closer to the supernova than Earth “learned” of it before we did as the pulse of light passed by them. Had there been intelligent creatures closer than we, they could not have raced ahead of the light and informed us of the supernova, for nothing can travel faster than light.

For 170,000 years, the light of the supernova sped silently through space, bursting out in all directions, a part of it heading toward the place where the Earth would be at three in the morning on 23 February 1987.

At the moment of the explosion, had a Neanderthal hominid gazed at the heavens, he would have seen nothing unusual. The light of the supernova was 170,000 light years distant. After 150,000 more years, Cro-Magnon creatures were making tools and burying their dead, but information of the supernova had yet to reach Earth. Almost six thousand years ago, the neshama, the spirit of human life, was instilled in humankind. The image of the Eternal Creator was now present on Earth. Writing was invented and for the first time history was recorded in the form of pictographs. Civilization bloomed. But still there was no knowledge of the event. Through the frigid depths of space the exploding light continued its silent journey.

Some five thousand years ago, the early Bronze Age began. Another fifteen hundred years passed and the alphabet was invented, just one century before the Torah was to be written down at Sinai. For those who searched the skies, there was no sign of the star’s explosion. The Israelite exodus from Egypt, the building and destruction of two Israelite temples in Jerusalem, the industrial revolution, the Holocaust, all passed, and the age of space travel and the information revolution dawned. And still the light of the supernova sped silently and secretly through space. And then without warming, on the night of 23 February 1987, it arrived.

On Earth 170,000 years had passed. Tribal villages had become metropolises and the progeny of shepherds had learned to walk in space. Had an imaginary you, not the you here on Earth, but a consciousness devoid of all material aspects, traveled through space in an imaginary mass-less space ship racing at the speed of light, traveling alongside those photons of the supernova for the 170,000 Earth years that were required for the light to reach us, how much time would this ethereal you have experienced? How many ticks would your clock have made?

The startling, almost incomprehensible answer to this question is: zero. No time would have passed. Not a few years, not a few hours, or a few seconds. Zero time. The difference in the perception of the flow of time at the speed of light is not a quantitative difference from a lot of time (170,000 years) to a much shorter time, how ever short that period might be. The difference in the flow of time is a qualitative difference, the difference between our existence where all events occur through an unceasing temporally linear flow and an existence in which time does not exist. From that perspective, all the developments that took place during the 170,000 years occurred simultaneously. Past, present, and future had blended into an eternal, ever-present, unending Now. Light, you see, is outside of time, a fact of nature proven in thousands of experiments at hundreds of universities.

I don’t pretend to understand how tomorrow and next year can exist simultaneously with today and yesterday. But at the speed of light they actually and rigorously do. Time does not pass.

The biblical claim that the Creator, existing outside of time, knows the ending at its beginning is not because the future has already physically occurred within our realm of time, space, and matter. Einstein showed us, in the flow of light, the corollary of the Eternal Now: I was, I am, I will be.

 

 

LIGHT: THE LINK WITH A TIMELESS ETERNITY

It is highly significant that the light was the first creation of the universe. Light, existing outside of time and space, is the metaphysical link between the timeless eternity that preceded our universe and the world of time space and matter within which we live.

Light, as with all light-like radiations (the photons of gamma rays, X rays, light, microwaves, etc.), can abandon the ethereal timeless realm of energy and become matter. In doing so, it enters the domain of time and space. Einstein’s famous formula, E=mc2, teaches that light and matter are two forms of the same thing – energy. Photons are the ethereal form of energy and matter is the tangible, condensed form. An analogy might be steam and ice being two forms of water.

This link between the eternal and the temporal finds its parallel in the biblical Sabbath. The first holiness in the Bible is neither a place nor an object. It is the intangibility of a time, the Sabbath day, made separate by rest (Gen. 2:3): As Erich Fromm wrote in The Forgotten Language, “Rest is a state of peace between man and nature.”

 

Shakespeare concludes Hamlet’s famous soliloquy: “To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay there’s the rub. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil… that dread of something after death, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of. Thus conscience does make cowards of us all” (Hamlet 3:1).

As Shakespeare’s Hamlet so eloquently insists, the grave may offer no refuge. Although the Creator may know the future, we are responsible for our choices and the actions that result therefrom. Even the most callous of us senses that responsibility.

 


 

Notes

 

  1. P. Yam, “Coming In from the Cold” Scientific American, August 1995.
  2. W. Gitt, “Information: The Third Fundamental Quantity,” Siemens Review 56(6): 1-7, 1989.
  3. J. Horgan, “Eugenics Revisited,” Scientific American, June 1993.
  4. S. LeVay, D. Hamer, and W. Byne, “Is Homosexuality Biologically Influenced,” Scientific American, May 1994.
  5. L. Wright, “Double Mystery,” The New Yorker, 7 August 1995.
  6. Talmud Chapters of the Fathers, 3:19
  7. Talmud Sanhedrin 90B
  8. Copied from the men’s room wall of the Pecan Street Cafe, Austin, Texas, and quoted in E. Taylor and J. A. Wheeler’s classic textbook Spacetime Physics, W. H. Freeman, San Francisco 1996.
  9. Nahmanides, commentary on Ex. 3:13.
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