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Question 1: Determinism

Question 1: Determinism


Isn’t everything predetermined by the mechanics of the universe?

The Short Answer:

G‑d generally delivers in rather predictable patterns. Spring follows winter. Horses give birth to horses. If an object moves unimpeded at 60 centimeters per minute, it will transverse 120 centimeters in two minutes. A baby born of two blonde parents will likely be blonde. But, since the whole thing stems out of His unbridled imagination, within those patterns, G‑d has unlimited flexibility. And, of course, He always reserves the option to do the totally unexpected.

A Little Longer Answer:

Determinism was an idea that evolved over many ages, reaching its pinnacle in the 19th century. The universe was seen as a big machine functioning along the same principle of cause and effect as a Swiss clock. It was married to another idea called Reductionism, which states that if we know what the basic particles of the universe are doing, we will be able to explain the behavior of all the big things that are made from those particles. That would include chemicals, plants, animals, and even us human beings.

Determinable systems had been observed and measured for millennia — and more precisely since the time of Galileo. The assumption that all systems, including the most complex, are determinate was never demonstrated. Neither was reductionism. Neither was the assertion upon which it rested, that the universe is built of irreducibly small particles with predictable behaviors. These were all no more than assumptions made on the basis that, well, they sounded nice. Machines made by humans work this way, so why shouldn't the universe? Call it "creating G‑d in our image".

When scientists developed tools precise enough and methods rigorous enough to examine the universe close up, they discovered to their amazement that not one of these three assumptions had any basis to it. On the contrary, the uncertainty principle has been universally accepted by physicists. A popular interpretation of this principle — with increasing evidence — is that human consciousness plays a major role in determining reality. There are even respectable scientists who state categorically that things happen because we observe them to happen. (See Eugene Wigner, Symmetries and Reflections, chapter 13; See also Dr. Naftali Berg's article in Bor HaTorah Vol. 9, pp. 34-49.)

Those who work in the field of chaos theory and complex systems point out that a small change in a single atom can ripple through the cosmos, effecting major impact on the macrocosm. Since electrons are currently understood to be indeterminate, the state of the cosmos must be as well. We can provide general predictions, but the details will always escape us. Not because they are too difficult to determine, but because they simply are not determined by their precedent.

Of course, there is far from a consensus on the nuances of these matters. But throughout the panorama of positions, all will agree on the following: If anyone wishes to believe that the universe steps along a single, predetermined path, he must do so as a matter of faith, not of science.

Why don't I just let the mechanics speak for themselves? These words were spoken before a representative gathering of scientists in 1986:

"I have to speak on behalf of the broad global fraternity of practitioners of mechanics. We collectively wish to apologize for have misled the general educated public by spreading ideas about the determinism of systems satisfying Newton's laws of motion that, after 1960, were to be proven incorrect." [1]

The Torah view is clear and unequivocal: It is not the laws and state of the universe that determine what will be next, but a Supreme Consciousness that transcends all this scheme. It is just that this Consciousness generally prefers to get His way within the boundaries of consistent patterns. That consistency is what appears to us as the Laws of Nature.

Furthermore, this Supreme Consciousness is not to be viewed as some outside force who happened to come across a universe and decided to muck about with it. Rather, that Consciousness is the perpetual origin of all that is. At every moment, all matter and energy is regenerated into being out of the void, something like a movie being projected onto the screen — except that in this case, time and space are also perpetually renewed. In the words of Maimonides, "If He would cease the state of being, all else would not be." And as Rabbi Schneur Zalman further explains, "If the forces G‑d uses to bring the cosmos into being would cease for a moment and return to their source, the entire cosmos would be absolute nothingness, just as though they had never been, returning to the void that preceded the six days of creation."

Today, this view as well has been adopted by many respected scientists. In the words of an outstanding astrophysicist, Professor William Stoeger, "The act of bringing something out of nothing (as long as the something is contingent) is needed at every temporal and spatial point. The primary cause cannot cease to act in support of secondary, contingent causes, processes, or entities — cannot cease to be influential and effective — without the universe, which is contingent, slipping back into absolute nothingness." (Cosmos, Bios, Theos, pg. 259, ed. Margenau and Varghese, Open Court, Chicago, 1992)

The practical difference between this scheme and the mechanical view of the cosmos is twofold: First of all, there is nothing stopping this Original Consciousness from bending or even breaking the rules of consistency on occasion. Secondly, the so-called Laws of Nature (i.e. rules of consistency) are not so rigidly linked — any situation can branch into any one of a wide range of consequences. Its up to the Big Consciousness to choose at every point. Fundamentally, it comes down to this: The world is not an artifact of blind, dumb laws. It is a continuously deliberate act of will and intelligence.

How does He choose? According to how we choose. This is what the Torah repeats over and over: "G‑d says, If you do like this, then I will do like that." As King David described the relationship, "G‑d is your shadow."

Not everything is in the hands of our free choice. Winter will follow fall, the sun will rise in the east, some will be born smart and others with more limited talents. But the things that matter in life — meaning, what you do with what you've been given, and what will come as a result of that — that's left up to you.

On to the next question: 

G‑d knew just what I was going to do when He made me this way. I'm just a programmed machine. How can I be blamed for being what I am?

The Paradox of Free Choice - Six Questions

1) Determinism: Isn't everything predetermined by the mechanics of the universe?

2) Robotism: G‑d knew exactly what I was going to do when He made me this way. Im just a programmed machine. How can I be blamed for being what I am?

3) Prescience: Since G‑d knows the future, what choice do we have in it?

4) Omnipotence: G‑d wants something to happen and it happens. So how could I possibly choose to do something He doesn't like? Who's more powerful, after all?

5) Oneness: Since there is nothing else but His Oneness, what room is left for us to make any difference?

6) Primal Cause: If G‑d is the Primal Cause, doesn't the buck stop there?

[1] J. Lighthill, The Recently Recognized Failure of Predictability in Newtonian Dynamics, in Predictability in Science and Society, edited by J. Mason et. al., a special issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society, A407, 35-60 [1986] (back to text)

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Steven Richards Carmarthen, UK March 4, 2010

Science As a lay person I am not all that convinced by science. As humans it is impossible for us to observe the substance of which we are made. You can only truly observe that of which you are not.
Since we do actually observe the world, we cannot therefore be it. Our spirit if you like, non dependent on space-time is that which observes and experiences it.
It follows then that the world as we see it is just a means of interacting. Our spirits can interact with each other and G-d can interact with us through this medium we call space-time.
In this comment you can determine with experience which letter follows which in a given word and even determine to some degree which words are coming next, you cannot tell just by looking from them that they were created by a writer. That cannot be scientifically proven, it can only be inferred by logic. However, I have used it to send a message, even if it may not make sense to all!
(Sorry, got a bit carried away) Reply

Tzvi Freeman (author) October 13, 2007

Re: Wait a second "The uncertainty principle simply states that *humans* can only calculate the positions of particles with a limited degree of accuracy."

This is a common misunderstanding of uncertainty. It's certainly not how Heisenberg or Von Neuman or any quantum physicist understands it. The equation pq≠qp means quite simply that there is never an absolute discrete value to both velocity and position of a particle at once. For an excellent exposition of quantum theory, see Gibbin, "In Search of Schrodinger's Cat." For a fun and educational video, watch Dr. Quantum at:

In truth, its not necessary to resort to the world of quantum weirdness to demonstrate that the world is not deterministic. Determinism relies on measurement of the world in rational numbers. However, there really isn't anything in the universe that can be described with rational numbers. The study of complex systems (chaos), demonstrates that irrational values throw determinism out the window very rapidly. See Davies & Gribbin, "The Matter Myth" for a wonderful exposition of this and many other ways that determinism fails. Reply

Billy Joel Atlanta, Ga October 12, 2007

Wait a second "When scientists developed tools precise enough and methods rigorous enough to examine the universe close up, they discovered to their amazement that not one of these three assumptions had any basis to it. On the contrary, the uncertainty principle has been universally accepted by physicists."
These lines suggest that quantum events are random. The uncertainty principle simply states that *humans* can only calculate the positions of particles with a limited degree of accuracy. It in no way proves that events in the real world occur at random. Reply

Alex Boston, MA December 21, 2005

Alexander Flyax responds: What I was trying to say to begin with is that consciousness and conscious will are phenomena arising on the level of deterministic, even if chaotic world, not on quantum level. Neurons and the brain are a deterministic system. It does not matter what's going on on quantum level -- that's not where a higher-order phenomena such as free will appears.

Reductionism does not work when you try to explain consciousness or free will, because it is a phenomena that arises only when the whole complex system is in place (and not just any complex system; the particular human brain). Besides, there is now scientific evidence that brain is a deterministic, though chaotic, system.

The point is: free will is not going to make sense from this world's point of view. Human behavior seems to be causally closed, just like the whole universe! It is only expected that we won't find scientific proof of G-d or free will in this world, because this is how G-d and his Malchut created the world.

As to quoting scientists: I believe that the quoted scientists should be specialists in the discussed area, and the quoted ideas should be scientific (and published in peer-reviewed scientific publications). Eccles is not a specialist in consciousness. His idea, that "mind" influences "matter" by influencing quantum probabilities of neurotransmitter release, is not scientific, as it cannot be tested. It is merely a religious idea of a person, who happens to be a scientist. I am not saying, he is necessarily wrong (I believe that Tanya is right, even if it cannot be tested), but you should not say "hey, here is a scientific opinion!" just because a scientist said that. The same applies to the Rebbe. His degree was in Aquatic Engineering, I believe, not in Neuroscience (with concentration in neural correlates of consciousness). I will believe in his authority in that and in Torah.

Science is full of conflicting opinions. Citing any one of them is fine, but it has to be scientific! Reply

Elliot Pines, Ph.D. Los Angeles, CA May 31, 2005

Hijacking? The author understates his case! With all due respect to the previous poster, I believe that Rabbi Freeman has been overly modest in his claim. Spacetime and causality disappear at the quantum level, but at the macroscopic, everything works like Newton. Yes, true, though curious at least, is it not?

I know of another fellow who lives in such a world where information disappears when you pick up a magnifying glass, but at a distance, bridges follow Newtonian Mechanics. And he knows it indeed. For that is how Mario manages to cross all those bridges at different game levels to save Princess Peach!

So enjoy the classical mechanics view, but mind the quantum pixels now so you don't trip! -- And maybe, late at night when all is still, and one lays back in their soft, continuous looking bed, one's mind may drift and ponder: Where is the information really stored? Who determines the next frame? Why is it allowed to all seem internally deterministic -- usually? [Welcome to the Twilight Zone] Reply

Tzvi Freeman April 19, 2005

Author's Response Mr. Flyax hasn't specified who the "dubious" scientists I refer to are,
making it difficult to respond.

The view Mr. Flyax expresses is one valid view among many. Others will respond that in a complex system--such as the weather--quantum-level subtleties can make a big difference. As Richard Feynman pointed out, an atomic explosion begins with an atom.

One scientist I did not quote is the Lubavitcher Rebbe in a letter in 1971: " the face of scientific hypotheses, that Heisenberg's 'principle of indeterminacy' has finally done away with the traditional scientific notion that cause and effect are mechanically linked, so that it is quite unscientific to hold that one event is an inevitable consequence of another, but only most probable. Most scientists have accepted this principle of uncertainty as being intrinsic to the whole universe. The 19th century dogmatic, mechanistic, and deterministic attitude of science is gone... The current and universally accepted view of science itself is that science must reconcile itself to the idea that whatever progress it makes, it will always deal with probabilities; not with certainties or absolutes." Reply

Alexander Flyax New Orleans, LA April 4, 2005

Hijacking quantum mechanics for poor illustration Unbelievable! Simply unbelievable! The author uses misinterpretation of quantum mechanics and statements of dubious scientific authorities to illustrate a very interesting indeed idea. I think this is more damaging than otherwise! In short, to refute what you said about determinism: we see undetermined behavior on quantum level, where -- though bound by constraints -- quantum particles/waves do not behave according in a deterministic way. This is simply because time becomes blurred at a certain level and such phenomena as 'causality' or 'event' do not trully exist. The fact that we cannot imagine this is merely a consequence of our distance from that world and poor adaptation of our senses and imagination to the world of quantum mechanics.

On our level, however, world functions quite predictably. You better use Newtonian physics if you want to build a bridge! And consciousness and decision-making do not occur on quantum level, whatever some "respectable" scientists may tell you. Reply

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