Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Evolution and God's Existence

Q: Hello Rabbi,

Until last night, the idea that life originated by itself without any of Hashem's guidance seemed very unlikly, considering that only to randomly assemble the proteins (enzymes) in a functioning bacterium, from already existing set of amino acids is a 1 in 10^40,000 chance (this is taken from "Origins: A Skeptics guide" by Robert Shapiro). However, my very good and skeptical friends, who would never pass a chance to argue, said that... he agrees with me that this is very unlikly however there is still, as small as it may be, a chance... and since the universe is endless (i agreed with him that the universe is endless), even the least likely things can occur. my question is- what do I tell a person who claims this, and tries to disprove, like you have said: "that the existence of matter and its lawfulness is the result of God's design"?

Thank you very much and Shabbat Shalom!


A: Dear RS,

First of all, I must say that I am impressed with your sincere pursuit of truth. Many people are satisfied with simple faith in God. Others will accept incomplete or flawed answers to their questions in order to avoid facing difficult realities. You, however, seek a solid rational basis to support your beliefs. This is not only an admirable characteristic, it is also a tremendous mitsvah.

Living organisms are remarkably complex entities that certainly appear to be purposefully "designed." The elegance and efficiency of their anatomy and physiology - the intricate systems, from the molecular level upward, that must operate in harmony with one another to sustain even the simplest creature - seem to bear the signature of a Creator. Indeed, the very phenomenon of "life" and the circumstances of its emergence are still poorly understood by scientists, and are ranked among the most tantalizing mysteries of nature. This is probably the reason why philosophers from time immemorial have regarded the "miracle" of life as the most compelling evidence for the existence of a Deity.

We may add that the genesis and evolution of life through a combination of random mutations and natural selection would have required a lot more than one fortuitous accident. The number of "accidents" that would have had to occur is practically incalculable. Consequently, the amount of time that would have been necessary for these accumulated mutations - slowly sifted through via the mechanism of natural selection over countless generations - to bring forth the species as we know them today makes the theory of evolution seem unrealistic, if not incredible. This fact leads many people to the conclusion that Creationism is a more parsimonious solution to the riddle of life than Evolution.

I would have to agree that, from our vantage point, the likelihood is slim that life came into existence by pure chance and then developed into the diverse forms we now observe. It is hard to imagine that the fantastically complicated and highly specific set of preconditions that are necessary for even the most primitive life form to emerge simply fell into place by coincidence, without the involvement of Divine Providence of some sort. It is similarly remarkable that the exact combination of physical conditions and constants that are required to sustain life on our planet "just happen" to be incorporated into the fabric of the cosmos. It is almost as if the Universe were "expecting us." In his book The Rediscovery of Wisdom: From Here to Antiquity in Search of Sophia, Professor David Conway addresses this issue briefly, in the course of an insightful discussion of the Argument from Design. You might also find The God Hypothesis, by Michael Corey, an interesting read.

Nonetheless, it is ultimately a bad idea to try and prove Hashem's existence from the presence of inexplicable and mysterious phenomena in nature. When we do this, we end up positioning ourselves against science and fiercely resisting intellectual progress. The reason for this is clear. If we base our belief in God on the fact that there are still things we are unable to comprehend, then the more things science can rationally explain, the less "room" is left for belief in Hashem. The truth is that matters that are incomprehensible to us today may appear perfectly reasonable in the future in light of new scientific discoveries and intellectual breakthroughs. It would be foolish for us ignore these developments or to go out looking for new "unexplained mysteries" each time science advances further.

For this very reason, in Judaism, we do not depend on the "unexplained" to justify our belief in God. On the contrary, it is precisely the intelligibility, beauty and sheer elegance of the Universe that commands our respect and points to the infinite wisdom of its Creator. The graceful consistency of the natural world, directed by scientific law of the utmost depth and precision, testifies to Hashem's existence more than any "miracle." As King David wrote, "the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament recounts His handiwork." The intricate order of creation, with its unfathomable subtlety, reflects a Mind far greater than any of ours. Although physical events may be attributed to mere chance, the exquisitely formulated principles that govern our world cannot possibly have been the result of an accident. The laws of nature clearly emerged from a "Lawgiver" Who crafted the Universe in accordance with them. For more on this and related subjects, you might enjoy reading God and The Astronomers, by Robert Jastrow, or The Mind of God, by Paul Davies.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention one last important point. Scientific evidence of God's existence is extremely valuable, but it remains beyond the grasp of many ordinary people. This is why the Torah provides us with universally accessible "proofs" of Hashem's presence and providence - the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. These unique events in human history were witnessed and recorded by an entire nation of men, women and children and, as such, could not possibly have been fabricated. Our knowledge of Hashem is firmly established upon the testimony of our ancestors who stood at the foot of Sinai, heard the voice of God, received His Torah and commandments, and transmitted a faithful account of their experiences to their children and grandchildren after them. I have posted briefly on this topic on my other blog, http://vesomsechel.blogspot.com.

Incidentally, I am not in favor of the idea that the Universe is endless. Although it is impossible for us to measure its dimensions at the present time, even something as vast as the Universe is still a physical entity which is by definition finite and thus limited in size. Our minds cannot really handle the concept of infinity anyway, so, in my opinion, trying to utilize it in thinking about the material world can only be counterproductive!

Best wishes for success in your quest for true knowledge of Hashem.

Rabbi Maroof


Anonymous said...

What do you think of Rabbi Slifkin's latest book "The Challenge of Creation"?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I posted on that very topic last week on my other blog, http://vesomsechel.blogspot.com. Take a look and feel free to comment.