Question:

How do we reconcile our religious belief in Divine Providence with the mechanistic world we seem to live in?

For example: In the present day we enjoy longer life-spans and are freed from many of the illnesses in a way that previous generations did not merit. What changed? Are we really better than them?

Also in today's world, people living in developed countries experience less pain and suffering than those living in third-world countries. The Torah teaches that we are called upon to make appropriate endeavors, and this will merit divine blessing if G‑d sees fit. In other words, success is dependent on the degree of the endeavor and the worthiness of the doer, but not on the specific nature of the endeavor. Following this reasoning, a doctor in Africa and a doctor in New York should have the same success rates—unless you assume that the citizens of New York deserve this higher success rate for some reason.

What I'm getting at is that the technological advancement of a society seems to have a far greater impact on the quality of life it enjoys than the moral worthiness of its members. How is this to be reconciled with the traditional religious idea of Divine Providence?

Answer:

As far as the difference between us and previous generations is concerned, we can look at this in two ways:

a) Technology follows social change. When slavery fell out of favor in Europe, windmills and watermills were developed. As the concept of the innate value of human life began to become appreciated, medicine and hygiene advanced, saving and lengthening human lives. We saw this happening in our own time as well: The revolution of consumer media, mobile phones and the internet were much more the result of a shift in social attitudes toward individualism than any technological breakthrough. So in a sense, yes, with the times we became more deserving of these divine blessings.

b) As we move closer to the messianic times, the world is preparing itself. This preparation does not have to be in a miraculous way—on the contrary, the world itself, within its own parameters need to change.

But your question, especially as it pertains to today's world, touches on a greater question: How do we reconcile belief in providence with an apparently mechanistic world?

G‑d created a consistent interface for His world—we call it "natural law". But as we Jews have always understood it, natural law is not something separate from its Creator; rather it is simply G‑d in a mode of consistent action. Exceptions to this mode are called miracles, when G‑d relates to us in a way that is not consistent to common observation.

Within the consistent mode of natural law, G‑d could also get His way—without even bending those laws in the slightest. After all, He's "the infinite light," unlimited in any way. We call this hashgacha pratit, often translated as "divine providence."

My point is that you should not be surprised when the world appears to be functioning as though it's just "running on its own." If it would not, it would not be a world. The point of creation is to have a real world that will nevertheless be a vehicle of G‑dly expression.

There's a verse in the Psalms, "How awesome are Your works! They are so mighty that Your enemies deny You!"

In other words, King David is saying that G‑d outdid Himself. He created such an amazing world that those who want to keep Him out of their lives can believe He does not exist.

Those, however, who look at the world objectively, see that it is anything but mechanical. Here's one of my favorite quotes from a British scientist, J. Lighthill, 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 proved incorrect."

I'm not sure the type of reading you might enjoy, but here's a fun but thoughtful link: The Shushan Files.