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Who's Painting the Leaves?

Who's Painting the Leaves?


During an autumn stroll, a mother and her school-aged daughter were admiring the beautiful array of colored leaves. They were discussing what lay behind this quietly spectacular transformation.

"Mom, why do the leaves change color?"

"Grandma says G‑d paints the leaves... one at a time"

"Well, dear, in the spring and summer, the leaves make food for the tree. Inside each leaf, there are millions of tiny green molecules called chlorophyll. The chlorophyll makes the food by collecting light from the sun, carbon dioxide from the air, and water from the ground. Then it puts them all together to make sugar and starch. In the autumn, the tree stops making food because it doesn't need any in the winter. When that happens, the chlorophyll breaks down, and with it goes the green color. By that time, the other molecules in the leaf become more obvious and they give off the red, orange and yellow colors that we see today."

"That's not what Grandma says," commented the little girl.

"No? What does she say?"

"She says G‑d paints them... one at a time."

Whom should the child believe? Mom? Grandma? Both? Neither?

Those who side with Grandma are to be admired for their piety. Still, it is unfair to totally reject Mother out of hand. Is it not possible that the scientific explanation has some truth and some value? If so, it is unwise to reject it out of ignorance. It would amount to saying, "Religion, I know and like; but science, I don't really understand. Therefore religion is better."

Sometimes people reject a scientific explanation because it seems to conflict with the religious view. True, there is nothing wrong with accepting one view over another, but on what basis? Can one rule out an explanation based on direct observations and plain logic? After all, one trusts observations and sound reasoning in other areas of life; why not here? Faith is fine, but here is a problem with "blind faith" that ignores the observed facts and rational deductions of science.

Rejecting religion out of ignorance is no better than rejecting science out of ignorance

Those who side with Mother are to be praised for their sophistication. Still there may be more to Grandma than meets the eye. One should at least know whether religion provides insights into the natural world, before rejecting it. It is unfair to say, "Science, I know and like; religion, I don't really care to understand. Therefore science is better."

Rejecting religion out of ignorance is no better than rejecting science out of ignorance. It's like the story of the rabbi and the scientist who wound up seated together on an airplane.

"You must be a rabbi," opened the scientist.

"Yes, I am," confirmed his neighbor.

"I know all about Judaism," quipped the scientist.

"Do you really?" the rabbi responded, a little piqued.

"Sure: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

"I see. And what, may I ask, is your occupation?"

"I am an astrophysicist."

"Oh, really?" The rabbi paused a moment, then countered, "I know all about astronomy."

"Come now, Rabbi. What do you know about astronomy?"

"Tvinkle, tvinkle little stah."

Some would reject the religious view in the leaf color debate because they imagine G‑d to have human dimensions and features. They envision Him as an invisible, bearded baritone holding a nylon paintbrush, a tin of latex paint and a stopwatch to make sure all those leaves get done on time. Of course they reject the religious explanation of natural events as a childish fantasy. On those terms, who wouldn't?

But what if "He" is an Absolutely Infinite Being using the brush of photoperiodically-induced cellular physiology dipped into pigments like chlorophyll and carotene? Surely if the Creator is capable of making something from nothing, He can also regulate existing chemicals and processes.

Neither science nor religion is as stiff and boxed-in as many people think. Science has room for the Creator, and religion has room for science. Individual scientist or theologians, or even whole sects of them, may be too biased or uninformed to recognize this, but authentic science and authentic religion are quite compatible and even complementary.

Science is concerned with how the world works... Religion addresses why the world works that way

It is important to articulate precisely the basic difference between scientific and religious explanations of events. Followers of either system accept the validity of our sensory experiences. So they will agree pretty much on what they observe in terms of temperature, weight, volume, brightness, duration, etc. They should also agree on the validity of sound, logical proofs and deductions. Where they differ is in the questions they answer.

Essentially science is concerned with how the world works, while religion addresses why the world works that way.

To explain how the leaves change color, science breaks the leaf down into its component parts and processes.

The first level of analysis seeks to explain leaf color in terms of chlorophyll. Essentially we want to say that the leaf is green because chlorophyll is green. But all this does is transfer the question from the leaf to the chlorophyll. To explain chlorophyll's coloration, we study what it does: photosynthesis. We want to say that chlorophyll is green because of how light is used in the manufacture of sugar by plants.

Superficially this is satisfying. Plants are green because photosynthesis needs red, blue and violet, but not green light. Problem solved. Or is it? After all, one may yet ask why photosynthesis requires precisely those colors and not others. This is just as legitimate as asking why leaves or chlorophyll look green. The plant physiologist will acknowledge the validity of the question, but will tell you that the answer is not found in physiology but in the branch of science which underlies it--biochemistry, the study of how complex molecules carry out life's processes.

Many volumes have been published on the molecular intricacies of photosynthesis. It is among the best documented of chemical processes. The mechanism is also quite well agreed upon by the experts. Thus it is reasonable to expect that here we could find out why leaves are green. But with all the details of the hundreds of different molecules and chain reaction, biochemistry has still not explained one whit why only those wavelengths are usable, and therefore we have not yet answered the question of why chlorophyll is green or why leaves are green. Thus we still do not have an explanation of why leaves change color. In addition to this, there remains the mystery of visual perception altogether, which leaves unanswered how vision takes place in a tight box of a skull where light neither penetrates nor is generated.

Another major question emerges form this whole story. The entire biochemical system involved in photosynthesis is an incredibly ordered process. Hundreds of chemical types, each comprised of a multitude of atoms, are matched and linked together with remarkable precision, and all these parts continually interact in a non-random way. In fact, not only is the biochemical system not random, but it is obviously all geared toward a single function--the transformation of light energy into chemical energy in the form of sugar.

The question is: What is organizing this system? What is keeping all these parts working together? Is it sugar? Obviously not. Is it light? Impossible.

It is unreasonable to think that any single part of the system can organize the behavior of all the other parts. For a while, many scientists thought to explain the control of cells and organs in terms of DNA. However, this view too is becoming less popular as leading biologists continue to discover more basic life processes that are quite beyond the control of the cell nucleus.

The chemical components are by nature independent, without power over each other, and quite unaware of their role in manufacturing sugar. Hence, it must be that the controlling factor is outside the chemical system and more powerful than any of its parts, since it guides the behavior of each part. The greatness of the "mystery factor" controlling photosynthesis is emphasized when one considers that the chemistry of photosynthesis in a leaf is just one aspect of a much larger, integrated picture. The behavior of these molecules is thoroughly interwoven with the rest of the plant as well as with sunlight, air, water, soil, other plants, animals and people. After all, photosynthesis provides food for virtually all life on this planet.

From the Torah perspective the answer is obvious. There is only one factor that can be beyond every system and yet control all the parts. But the hard-nosed reductionist keeps searching, hoping that maybe, when we take those molecules apart, the explanations to all these questions will surface. But alas, they do not.

The most basic of the exact sciences is particle physics. In fact, it is not nearly so exact as it used to be. There was a time when matter was hard, when space and time were fixed, and when there were only three basic particles: protons, neutrons and electrons. But with our refined instrumentation and experiments, many strange results have shaken our materialistic view of nature.

Now matter is just a special form of energy, space is curved and time passes at different rates in different reference frames. Matter is now made up of a multitude of unknowable particles (or waves, depending on how you look at them), including leptons, muons, gluons, mesons and quarks, having odd properties like spin, flavor and charm. Even more surprising, these "particles," which are the basis of everything physical, have the remarkable habit of continually disappearing and coming into existence at random locations and at random times.

Has particle physics answered why leaves are green or any of our other questions? No. Furthermore, we now have the new question of how atoms can be stable (and they do seem to be) while their parts are so ephemeral. Such problems led Paul Davies, a prominent physicist who is a self-avowed atheist, to remark in a New Scientist article that "the new physics…seems to demand some guiding influence located, as it were, above nature, sustaining all of existence."

It is here that science and Torah really converge. There is no difference between what Davies is saying in the name of physics and what Jews have been saying since Abraham… There is a Divine Providence that continually sustains and orders the entire universe, and not just at the cosmic level, or on the grand general scale. Modern physics sees supernatural guidance operating at the most minuscule subatomic level. Moreover many physicists believe in the anthropic principle which maintains that human awareness is actually the goal and reason for creating an orderly universe in the first place.

But beyond this point physics cannot probe, because no science is able to address why this awareness was desired.

Torah can.

For example, when one sees the precisely timed emergence of beautiful colors in autumn leaves, and when one considers all the microscopic and submicroscopic levels and processes that underlie this display, and that all the parts and processes are meticulously organized and integrated, and that no team of scientists could duplicate one iota of any of it…all this adds to the realization of the greatness and power of the One who could create, sustain, and coordinate all those zillions of parts.

Still the complexity is finite. How much greater, then, is the Almighty G‑d, before whom supernovae and atoms are equally minuscule and governed with equal skill and care. This awareness enhances our awe and appreciation of the Creator.

Modern science and Torah are both leading us to a Creator who cares for His creation. But only Torah takes the next step and explains why we were created: To reveal G‑dliness in the world through our well-chosen thoughts, words and deeds, that give purpose and meaning to our own lives and the world as a whole.

Dr. Arnie Gotfryd, PhD, is a chassidic Jew and environmental scientist, having earned Canada’s first doctorate in Applied Ecology. He designed and taught an accredited, award-winning undergraduate course called Faith and Science which has been the most popular offering at University of Toronto’s New College for many years.
He writes and speaks extensively on the interplay of science and faith, and what it all means for the individual and the world at large. You can visit his website for more.
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Discussion (13)
January 23, 2015
Asking why we are here is like asking what is the color of love. There answer is the same for both. Why have no divine purpose, nor is there a color of love.
Eli Asarch
February 12, 2014
Religion and Science
I fully agree with the author. Yet, to the phrase "Science is concerned with how the world works... Religion addresses why the world works that way", I would like to reformulate the later part to "...Religion addresses why were the Universe and human created and what he is supposed to do here"
November 8, 2009
Blind Rabbi VS Blind Scientist
.I did read this article and was very impressed I do love it when people can write like this. I often wondered thou who would come up with the answer in detail about this subject? On one hand you have the blind Rabbi and on the other hand you have the blind Scientist. In every day life we just can't count on having everything about our bodies working just right.Lets just think about this match up, who could come up with answer the fastest. I am just going to say the Rabbi because in life we sometimes must feel for our environment. Calculating nature is money job, but truly having a feel for our world can leave us blind but thankful. When it gets to the heart of the matter both human beings should come up with the same answer and agree with no doubt, A-men to that!
Richard Raff
BonneyLake, WA
October 23, 2008
who's painting the leaves
this is a brilliant article and very well written. it could be used as the opening statement for a debate. thank you very much
March 4, 2008
Does this mean Chabad is shifting its ground?
If Chabad is prepared to allow this article in its web site, where does it leave their usual idea that the earth is around 5000 years old?
Paul Caplan
Johannesburg, South Africa
November 2, 2006
The Religion Part of this Article
I liked your article but so much of it is spent on the "hows" of science, so little on the "whys" of Torah. You should have mentioned the Kabbalistic/Chassidic understanding of God's general desire for this physical world, His generosity in allowing us to participate with Him in its ongoing creation, the advantage to us & rewards associated with connecting to the higher than infinite God, an impossibility without His having told us how in His Torah, given in the presence of 3.5 million people, etc., etc. To just say that the why of creation is to be holy isn't appealing enough, at least to me.
The Torah's explanation (in Jewish mysticism) of why there's a creation is too relevant to the purpose of our own existence to overlook it within the context of an article specifically addressing this profound subject.
Being an ignoramus, however, relative to rabbis and great rabbis, my comments are submitted respectful of your superior knowledge.
New Hempstead, NY
October 30, 2006
Who's Painting the Leaves
My brother sent me the article. I want to publicly thank him for doing so. Though thoroughly enjoyable reading, I will remain an unobservant Jew, for now. I say "for now," because based on my brother's late in life transformation, anything is possible. Indeed, given how he lived his life up until a few years ago it is something of a miracle that he now studies Torah.
Sam Israel
Vancouver, Canada
October 29, 2006
The whole essay about the autumn colors was wonderful. As a retired chemist I wrote a presentation about global warming which showed the help from photosynthesis by plants to give us oxygen- thought I should mention this contribution of science to hope, which so often it fails to contribute. The burning of fuels takes oxygen and gives carbon dioxide. You mentioned the carbon dioxide making food! This is photosynthesis.
Most of the science in the article was pretty wondrous to me and helped me to see the hope and power of G-d. Thank you.
Milwaukee, WI
October 25, 2006
Torah and Science
What a beautiful article! It is unfortunate that more people do not understand that you don't have to discount science to believe in G-d. They are not mutually exclusive....
Jodi Lipsitz
Atlanta, GA
October 25, 2006
we are learning about this is bio class
Loser Buddy
Kansas City, Kansas