Culture

A Cosmic Puzzle Best Left Unsolved: A Review of Harold Gans’s New Book

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Ben Rothke

 

Science as a proof of God

In an interview on 18Forty, Sara Susswein Tesler (a former teacher at SAR High School in Riverdale, NY, who is currently a Torah lecturer based in Efrat) says that she was once walking in the Old City of Jerusalem and happened to pass by Yeshivat Aish HaTorah (where I was fortunate to study for several years). She noticed that they were hosting a seminar and decided to join, and she soon discovered that the topic of the seminar was the proof of God. When she found out what was being taught, her initial thought was: you just took away all of my emunah

The lecture she sat in on may have been given by Harold Gans, author of The Cosmic Puzzle: A Scientific Investigation into the Existence of God (Feldheim Publishing, 2020). In this work, the author uses the scientific method and evidence from science to prove God’s existence. As a former senior cryptologic mathematician with the United States Department of Defense, Gans is a person who understands and thrives on the beauty of numbers in particular and science in general. 

Make no mistake; this is a fascinating science book. Gans writes of the most significant perfect storm that occurred when, at the time of creation, everything came together just right, and the world came into being. He notes countless various effects that were coalescing just right, which led to a world that could sustain life. Moreover, if all of these just-right ingredients for life did not come together in a perfectly timed sequence, down to the nanosecond, life as we know it would not exist. In fact, everything is so fine-tuned and perfect for existence here on Earth that Gans tells us it is statistically impossible for this to have happened without a Creator. 

A few more of the voluminous just-right events include that Earth has just the right amount of atmospheric pressure for liquid water at our surface, we are at just the right distance from the Sun so that temperatures are conducive to life, organic ingredients mix just right in that there is the correct balance of organic molecules and heavy elements to have life created, and countless more. Yes, there is a whole lot of just right here on planet Earth. 

Gans also attempts to investigate God’s existence statistically, and his premise is that if we believe things in the physical world at a certain statistical level, then when approaching the question of God’s existence, those same statistical levels should be used to create an acceptable level for belief.

And in the physical world, there are many instances where we do accept statistical evidence as conclusive. For example, American pharmaceutical companies spent about $1 billion to bring each of their new drugs to the market between 2009 and 2018, according to a recent JAMA analysis. These drugs are released after a tremendous amount of testing and analysis have been performed, but these analyses only establish a statistical likelihood that the drug will be safe and effective, rather than complete certainty. In aviation, too, airplanes are declared safe using statistical evidence. To gain airworthiness certification, proposed airplane models are put through tens of thousands of hours of testing, from wind tunnels to computer simulation and more. However, this certification does not mean that it is impossible that the aircraft is unsafe, just that statistically, it is extremely unlikely. Gans argues that if we accept that statistical levels are sufficient to deem a drug or an airplane safe, then we should accept the existence of God at roughly that same statistical threshold.

But even with all of the mesmerizing science that Gans details here and the dizzyingly massive numbers he mentions that stretch the bounds of scientific notation, can an understanding of science indeed transform a person’s atheistic non-belief to a theistic belief? 

For the most part, when it comes to science and religion, there is an observer bias. It is said that for the believer, there are no questions, and for the heretic, there are no answers. For the former, The Cosmic Puzzle will undoubtedly strengthen their beliefs. For the non-believer, their response will be closer to “meh.

And to that point, Dr. Jeremy England writes in Every Life Is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things that there are some intelligent people who behold the awesomeness of chromosomes, galaxies, and everything we can understand about the universe and feel confirmed in the idea that this is the handiwork of a transcendent Creator. But clearly, there are also plenty of intelligent people who behold these very same things and reach the opposite conclusion.

Gans writes of the unlikelihood that our universe could have been created by chance, without a first mover. But, how to connect the first mover to the God of the Torah is left to the reader. Gans covers various topics, including the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the wisdom that went into it, and more. When reading of the spectacular nature of creation, a believer will consider what King David wrote in Psalms 104:24: “How many are the things You have made, O LORD; You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations.” The non-believer will take that same evidence and perhaps argue from the point of non-overlapping magisteria.

The first sentence of the book states that “the gold standard for the inquiry into the natural world is the scientific method.” With that, a critical reader might suggest that the book stops there, as a theistic Deity is not within the science of the natural world.

What troubles me about bringing God into the scientific method is that one can argue that Gans is in fact opening something of a theological Pandora’s box. If science can be used to prove God, then it can be used to disprove God. Moreover, for those who use science as proof of God, that means they must be open to the possibility that it could also be used to disprove God, which begs the question: would anyone want their belief in God to be based on something that could be scientifically disproven?

And more than that, even if one accepts the fact that God’s existence is necessary due to science and statistics, Gans does not indicate that there is anything to prove that God commanded us to keep mitzvot. While science might be able to bring one to deism, there is no way science can prove Judaism’s most sacred fundamentals, such as the revelation at Sinai and the observance of mitzvot.

And the next logical step would be, if science can be used to prove God, could it also be used to poke holes in God’s law? If such were the case, that would open Shulhan Arukh to the scientific method. With that comes the unintended consequence of removing several sections from Shulhan Arukh that conflict with science. Some examples include the laws of tereifot, where contemporary veterinary science does not jive with particular assumptions within the laws of kashrut. When it comes to hilkhot niddah, what does a believer do when a fertility specialist tells a couple that the blood is non-uterine when the rabbi says the opposite? There are countless more examples to which science and religious law at times can be strange bedfellows.

The argument Gans uses, one which is compelling for a believer, is that our world and existence point toward a divine Creator who brought everything into being. As he articulately writes here, science has shown that there are so many conditions required for life to exist on Earth that it is scientifically impossible that all of these could have happened by chance. However, that knowledge alone will not necessarily translate into belief in a divine Creator. 

When it comes to weather, people do not realize that a 100-year flood can occur next year. Furthermore, a non-believer, when faced with the fact that the statistical odds of everything working just right may be 1 in 104928 of happening, would reply that statistical unlikelihood does not mean it could never happen like that. 

Can the mathematics of the Torah Codes prove God wrote the Torah?

Google “Harold Gans” and the first few pages of results will be of his efforts to promote the Torah Codes. It’s not surprising, then, that this book has a chapter on the codes, but I found it to be the least compelling section.

There are numerous websites and countless articles written on the Torah Codes. The Light of Torah Codes site presents the essence of Torah Codes, summarizing the research from the pioneers of the field from 2002 through 2019. In contrast, academics such as Dr. Brendan McKay (emeritus professor of computer science at the Australian National University) and mathematical physicist Dr. Barry Simon take a much more skeptical and dismissive approach to the codes.

In The Cosmic Puzzle, Gans writes of the Great Rabbis Experiment, carried out by Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips, and Yoav Rosenberg. Their claim is that biographical information about certain rabbis is encoded in the Torah. One example given in the book is that the name “The Gaon of Vilna” can be found in the Book of Genesis.

However, the finds made by proponents of Torah Codes often incorporate assumptions that make their examples cherry-picking at best, and not statistically meaningful at worst. The Vilna Gaon example, for instance, illustrates assumptions that are often made regarding spelling and transliteration from non-Hebrew languages. For example, the city name Vilna is generally spelled ending with the letter aleph in Hebrew and Yiddish, but in Hebrew, it could also be written ending in the letter hey. While the convention is to write it ending in an aleph, there is no reason it cannot be written the other way. Furthermore, why is it that the English version of the city name is used? The city name is Vilnius in Lithuanian. If one could expect the English pronunciation of Vilna to be found in the text, should Spanish, Hindi, and other versions be found as well?

Gans shares with us a Torah code for Osama Bin-Laden, and these same issues apply. This name is one that can be written in Hebrew in scores of different permutations. The challenge of transliterating foreign names in general, and Arabic names specifically, is quite tricky. In fact, during the hunt for Al-Qaeda (alternatively spelled al-Qaida and al-Qa’ida), different U.S. intelligence agencies spelled Osama Bin-Laden’s name differently, which caused significant information-sharing issues. But I digress. 

The main critique of the Codes, though, is not spelling issues. Instead, the main critique is based on the law of large numbers, meaning that the same results can be found in any text containing enough letters.

As British statistician David J. Hand writes in The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, where there is a large amount of numbers or letters, one who attempts to search for hidden messages will inevitably find one. He notes that “with a large enough number of opportunities, any outrageous thing is likely to happen.” This is due to the fact that people tend to focus on specific instances instead of the broader context and fail to recognize the real probability of an event.

For example, Michael Drosnin, author of The Bible Code, challenged his critics to find a message about the assassination of a prime minister encrypted in Moby Dick, claiming that the Bible was uniquely able to be used for such predictions. In response to this challenge, McKay, in fact, found links in the novel for the assassinations of Indira Gandhi, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and others.

The Bible Codes, in fact, may find themselves going the way of the Codes in the Book of Esther. The Book of Esther is said to contain a hidden prophetic allusion to the Nuremberg trial, in addition to many other historical events. But as Emmanuel Bloch writes in “The Code of Esther: A Counter-Investigation” (Hakira vol. 28), “In the final analysis, the supposed prophecy (i.e., codes) of the Book of Esther seems very ill-founded. Amongst its constituent elements, there is none that can long withstand a serious critical examination based on an in-depth study of facts and texts.”

So, what is one to do with the Bible Codes? While they are cute and can be used as a milta de-bedihuta,[1] like science itself they should not be used to establish the existence of God or the veracity of Judaism’s fundamentals.

Can one really use science to prove God exists?

There have long been numerous arguments for the existence of God. They span the gamut from logical arguments, empirical arguments to subjective arguments, and more. The nature of the arguments is often based on the times and culture in which we live. These arguments are often indicative of the milieu in which the believing Jews lived.

For the last few decades, the challenges against the existence of God have often been in the area of reconciling certain scientific beliefs with religious beliefs. Today, scientific arguments seem to reign supreme. Books have been written on the topic from a wide diversity of authors.

In his paperIs There Science in the Bible? An Assessment of Biblical Concordism,” Rabbi Dr. David Shatz writes that “some distinguished scientists, for some reason mostly physicists, push for concordist readings. Other intellectuals, for example, those immersed in the humanities, are as a rule wary of, or put off by, such interpretations.”

Based on Shatz’s observation, it is therefore not unusual to find physicists such as Gerald Schroeder in Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery Of Harmony Between Modern Science And The Bible and Nathan Aviezer in one of the earliest works on the topic, In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science, as well as in Modern Science and Ancient Faith, attempting to square the circles of Biblical texts and modern science.

The list continues with books from science teacher Daniel Langer’s Six Days of Cosmology and Evolution: A Scientific Commentary on the Genesis Text with Rabbinic Sources, to Member of House of Lords of the United Kingdom and former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s ztz’l The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, to Gans’s The Cosmic Puzzle: A Scientific Investigation into the Existence of God.

The difference between these books and Gans’s is that these are an attempt to reconcile science and the Torah, showing that there is harmony between the world of science and the world of Torah truth. Gans takes a more daring approach to use science to prove the existence of God.

Science and faith can exist in perfect harmony

And that gets back to Sara Susswein Tesler’s observation: what about faith? Science answers so much about the physical world in which we are enmeshed, but science is powerless in this area and can answer nothing about that which is non-physical. Should one’s faith be based on equidistant letter sequencing? Furthermore, what if a Fields Medalist comes along and disproves the Torah Codes? To which emunah comes to our rescue. 

Habakkuk wrote over 2,500 years ago that “the righteous man is rewarded with life for his fidelity.” This was long before the scientific revolution. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard calls Avraham Avinu, the knight of faith par excellence. Furthermore, I am pretty sure Habakkuk would stand by his observation today, and Avraham Avinu would remain the knight of faith, even post-scientific revolution.

Conclusion

As a science book and a conduit to straighten one’s faith, The Cosmic Puzzle is certainly a fine achievement. But this is a book that should be in the popular science section of a bookstore, not necessarily in the Judaica section.

To conclude with the words of the late great mathematician Amir Aczel, which is consistent with what R. Sacks writes in The Great Partnership: science and religion are two sides of the same deep human impulse to understand the world, to know our place in it, and to marvel at the wonder of life and the infinite cosmos we are surrounded by. Let us keep them that way and not let one attempt to usurp the role of the other.


[1] Aramaic term for humorous remark. The Gemara (Shabbat 30b) relates that Rabbah would start his lectures with a milta de-bedihuta, opening his students’ minds for learning with a humorous statement.