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Scientist & Mystic

Scientist & Mystic

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Imagine yourself in the scientific hot spot of the twentieth century. At the vortex of a revolution in science such as never had occurred before, and more radical than anything that has occurred since. A small group of scientists, most of them under thirty, are rewriting the laws of the cosmos. Time and space have already been demoted from their absolute primacy, and now cause and effect are on the block.

The universe, once a collection of globs of matter following neat, well-defined paths has become suddenly much more mysterious. It is beginning to look more like an idea than a thing, more like a process than a collection of objects.

You’re at the University of Berlin from 1919 until 1932, where Max Planck, Ernst Schrodinger, Albert Einstein and other giants of modern physics hold lecturing posts. Nihls Bohr and his flock of protégés visit regularly for heated debates. One of those visitors, a young scientist named Erwin Heisenberg, has only recently extended Einstein’s revolution past the point Einstein himself is willing to go. But the younger scientists are a dominant force after the attrition of the First World War, and their ideas swiftly gain the upper hand.

In the midst of this revolution, just as the storm has reached its climax, there enters a brilliant student in his mid-twenties, forced to flee Stalin’s Russia for his counter-revolutionary activities. He is a gifted mathematician with an astounding memory, well versed in philosophy and science. He also is fluent in the entire gamut of classic Jewish thought and he is a mystic. He studies in the department of science until 1932, after which he and many of his teachers are forced to flee Germany.

In many years from now, he will become the Rebbe of Lubavitch.

To better understand the Rebbe’s concept of science, a little history comes in useful. Basing myself on his letters on the topic, this is how I believe the Rebbe might tell it:

Beginning in the latter part of the nineteenth century, scientists began to be concerned about their rigor in separating physics from metaphysics. Physics is a study of those phenomena that can be observed, measured and verified. Metaphysics is anything beyond that realm. George Mach, in particular, taught that nothing that cannot be verified in the laboratory should enter into scientific theory.

In the bag along with all the other unverifiable concepts went two rather central ones: Absolute time and absolute space. Later, cause and effect were challenged, as well. This is how it happened:

Until Albert Einstein, scientists painted their theories upon the background of these canvasses. All activity of the cosmos was assumed to be occurring within this realm, and so science had to account for them, as well.

Einstein’s breakthrough was to realize that absolute time and space were, as well, outside the realm of science. We measure space in terms of how far one thing is from another, We measure time in terms of the movement of objects in space. Whenever we measure, however we measure, it can only be in relative terms. But the framework of that movement, the absolute background, that, he understood, is metaphysics.

Contrary to what most populists and even many naïve scientists write, neither Einstein nor any of his colleagues believed they had done away with absolute time and space. They simply realized that to be real scientists, they needed to bow their heads and submit to the reality that these are things that are out of their ballpark. As, Herbert Courant, a great mathematician of that era, wrote, it was the realization "that science is not about comprehending ‘the thing itself,’ of knowing the ‘ultimate truth,’ of unraveling the innermost essence of the world that was one of the most fruitful turns in modern thinking."

Eventually, the revolution Einstein spearheaded escaped beyond borders he was willing to cross. In 1928, Werner Heisenberg, at the encouragement of his teacher, Nihls Bohr, and with the mathematical help of Max Born, published a paper describing his "Principle of Uncertainty." In it, he presented a mathematical model of the atom in which there are no determined states. An electron can be said to have either a specific velocity or a specific position, but not both at once.

Obviously, there is no point in talking about the present determining the future if the present itself is innately indeterminate. Science was now relegated to concern itself with probabilities rather than certainties. The solid chain of predictable cause and effect that ran through all scientific thought would have to be loosened to make way for mathematical matrixes that allowed for almost anything to happen.

Of course, every scientist must have some frame of reference to an underlying entity, a "thing in itself" that is not an object of direct physical observation. So scientists develop cosmologies, concepts of what the universe really is, as a background to explain that which can be observed. But the old materialist cosmology, previously accepted as indisputable fact, was forever gone. The very concept of matter, of tiny petrified globs of indivisibly dense primordial stuff, just didn’t seem to fit into anyone’s observations. Slowly, scientists became aware that it never did. All along, it was no more than a secular catechism, an assertion of faith.

A prime scientist and philosopher of the time, James Jeans, remarked that the universe had begun to look "much more like a great thought than like a great machine." Later, physicist David Bohm settled for defining matter as, "that which unfolds, whatever the medium may be." Karl Popper summed it up saying that in the 20 century, "matter has transcended itself."

Ironically, it was that old materialist catechism that had been the principal ammunition against the teachings of the ancient sages. By abandoning faith, science had opened the doors to explore faith. Nobody could say any longer that Science had relieved G–d of His duties. In fact, with a universe looking like a thought, a decent position for Him had just opened up—the Master of the Mind that thinks that thought.

o, what really lies under the ocean of observable phenomena? What causes all this to be? What is time? What is space? While the scientist has a right to present his conceptions of that which is not observable, he has stepped out of the bounds of science in doing so. He may as well be a plumber discussing medicine. True, the plumber may need medicine, but that doesn’t make him an authority.

It turns out the only one way we can know "what is there" is if What Is There comes and tells us Itself. This is the Kaballa, a revelation into the human mind of the inner cosmos and beyond. That’s why Kaballa means ‘received’—it is a wisdom that cannot be attained through intellectual pursuit alone. It must be received from Above. It starts with the first intellectual being on earth, whose mind was tuned to the heavens. It was charged with greater depth at Sinai, and came into the realm of human comprehension through the Kaballists and Chassidic mystics of the past five hundred years.

To whom the Rebbe was heir. And a scientist to boot.

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Jurgen Beck Canada February 5, 2014

Scientist & Mystic Vedanta ...Kabala...we must give credit to G-D , understanding and insight is given to us based on culture , time frame , and our own spiritual level...
great article Rabbi ... Reply

Kenneth Rubenstein Goleta, California September 1, 2012

Scientist and mystic Surely this received wisdom came into human comprehension prior to Kaballah and Chassidism through several other religion traditions (e.g., Vedanta, Tibetan Buddhism). Perhaps even the Sufi mystics received their wisdom independently of Jewish influence. Reply

Christina Venter Cape Town, South Africa May 7, 2012

Scientist and Mystic Thank you Rabbi Tzvi. It was fun reading this and makes perfect sense to me. Reply

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