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Letting Go of Reality

"People think that science is based on firm, clear rules. You perform an experiment, collect the results, interpret them and then lo – you have the reality. But the truth is that the scientific process is as human and controversial as anything else." This is a summary of the teachings of one of the world's leading physicists, Dr. Leonard Susskind of Stanford University.

Dr. Susskind is one of the architects of the theories that physicists use today to understand the deepest levels of reality: String theory, multiple worlds, black holes. Despite his deep understanding of physics, or perhaps because of it, Susskind argues that perhaps we will never be able to truly grasp the nature of reality, because we are trapped by the neuronal architecture of our brains. We are only able to imagine things within certain parameters, and there are certain concepts that we cannot form a mental picture of at all. We are not equipped biologically with the ability to think in a purely abstract form, and so our sense of reality is imperfect. That's why Susskind recommends that we remove the word "reality" altogether from our physical lexicon. Instead, we should just address the question of which events are predictable or reproducible, and which are not.

This newfound scientific humility is something unique to the past century. Up until then, scientists believed in the deterministic model, that every future event in the universe could be predicted based on perfect knowledge of present conditions. The only limitation, in the mind of the determinists, was our imperfect knowledge of the initial conditions. If we could only hone our instruments to a perfect degree and collect all available data, we could predict everything.

Scientists of today have moved away from that theory and have instead embraced indeterminism. They have come to understand how much uncertainty is built into the universe, and even with perfect instruments transmitting perfect data, we still cannot predict what will happen the next second, let alone the next year or the next century. We have acknowledged the central truth upon which the Torah is based: "The ultimate knowledge is that we do not know."

At the same time, thought, the Torah gives a promise unique to our times. There will come a time when we will know, and will understand. We will understand the universe and its workings not because of a profound change in the human brain, but because G-d will strip the world of the coverings that conceal Him from us, and we will finally be able to behold His greatness, as Maimonides concludes: "The sole occupation of the world will be to know G-d."

 

 


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