Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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18 Sivan 5766 - June 14, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
Age of the Universe

by R' Dovid Kornreich

Why is everybody else so sure?

It is an unquestioned ikkar of science that the universe is billions of years old. To deny it in scientific and academic circles is tantamount to denying the law of gravity. (Wait a minute. Quantum theory doesn't accommodate a law of gravity! So let's say it's tantamount to denying the necessity of cause followed by an effect. No, no — that isn't good either. Quantum theory claims that nature does not operate in a strict cause and effect relationship.) In any event, you will undoubtedly be buried under a heap of scorn and ridicule for being even ever-so-slightly skeptical of this fundamental tenet of rational thought.

What makes everybody so sure?

We see a ratio of radioactive decay present now in igneous rocks. We see tree rings, thin varves of lakes and ice cores with layers upon layers. We measure starlight coming from galaxies that are millions of light years away. These cumulative processes — decay, layers, light travel — all take time, a long time. The scientist asks himself, "How long must this process have taken in order to look the way it does now?"

It's simple logic. Measure how long it takes today to form one ring, or a dozen. Measure how long it takes today for a certain percentage of isotopes to decay. Measure how fast starlight travels today.

Then you simply work backwards. You extrapolate from what you currently consistently observe, to then assume that this process has always taken place in the exact same way since it started. Then you can calculate mathematically when it must have started. That is what gives you ages that run into the billions. It's as simple as that.

Fortunately, it is equally as simple to throw one big monkey wrench into this perfectly logical construct. Just take away the right to assume that what we see today is how things have always been into the indefinite past.

"But waitaminute!" says the rational scientist. "I have a right to extrapolate! By what authority can you take this right away from me?"

And his complaint is quite valid. What logical basis do nice frum Jews like us have to deprive the dendrochronologist, geologist, physicist and cosmologist of their scientific right to extrapolate?

"If you aren't willing to extrapolate back into the past," reasons the scientist, "then you shouldn't take any risks about the future either!"

This means we shouldn't get on airplanes because we should worry that the way things work today won't necessarily be the same way they will work tomorrow and the plane could crash unpredictably in mid-flight. If there was no consistency in nature in the past, why should we expect consistency in the immediate future? Aren't we undermining the basic principles of experience that we ourselves take for granted in our daily lives?

So we need a good reason to deprive the scientist of the right to extrapolate and arrive at those billions of years of pre-history and still support our own everyday extrapolations. Do we have any?

Yes. Its called Ma'aseh Bereishis. Let's go step by step.

Opposing World Views

All things have a beginning. Even the scientific community came around to this deep, subtle idea about fifty years ago when the evidence for the expanding universe became overwhelming.

The truth is that science doesn't have a clue about how or why the beginning "began." They all realize logically that we have no human way to relate to a process of nonphysical existence coming into physical existence. So they don't claim to be able to describe that transition (yet).

The problem is that science is committed to the belief that once that transition was finished, the result was an underdeveloped state of matter whose development was completely and utterly subject to the natural laws of physics. It is this assumption of the natural formation of the universe which allows unhindered extrapolation from the way the universe works now, backwards.

How long did this developmental period last? Now from purely hypothetical considerations (read: their imagination of what the beginning of a physical universe should look like), cosmologists have relegated the emerging of matter from energy to a very, very, very small period of time. They assert that the intense energy release subsequent to the super-hot big bang, quickly faded into history, never to tamper with the behavior of matter ever after.

This assumption conveniently eliminates the messiness of a longer emergent period which, lacking the familiar forces of nature, could easily wreak havoc with all their neat orderly extrapolations which claim to arrive at reliable ages of various natural processes.

Now I can sympathize with that. After all, the scientist would rather claim he can know something about the origins of the universe and try to describe its details instead of remaining with a big question mark. He wants to have a job that pays him to construct realistic mathematical models of how the universe could have developed naturally from the very beginning. Poor chap.

In our terminology, we would say that this guy "has to say a shiur" on the formation of the universe within the parameters of natural law. No mysterious periods allowed.

But as believing Jews, no such commitment to finding natural ways for the universe to develop exists. We say this mysterious transition from nonphysical to physical lasted for six full days which resulted in a fully formed world.

Many midroshim tell us that this six day period obeyed laws of quite a different nature than the physical ones that the world obeys now. After that, we can basically assume consistency in nature (with a few notable exceptions) just like the scientist. Why?

"Ki vo shovas mikol melachto asher boro Elokim la'asos" (See Ramban to Bereishis 2:3 and his droshoh to Koheles on page 187 in Kisvei Ramban, Chavel ed. Vol. I)

More explicitly, both the Rambam and Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, who are otherwise known as being quite "science friendly," limit the parameters of theoretical scientific investigations to the present and the future. Not the past.

First the Rambam: "The essence of the matter is what we have mentioned: What is observed in a state of wholeness and completion does not provide instruction about its state before its completion." (Moreh Nevuchim II chap.17)

Over 600 years later, we have HaRav Hirsch echoing the same concept in Collected Writings (Vol. VII page 265): "Judaism is not frightened by the hundreds of thousands or even millions of years which the geological theory of the earth's development bandies about so freely. Judaism would have nothing to fear from that theory even if it were based on something more than a mere hypothesis, on the still unproven assumption that the forces we see at work in our world today are the same as those that were in existence with the same degree of potency, when the world was first created."

But alas, those unnatural six days will ruin everything for the scientist.

Isn't that a shame?

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