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The Greenberg Hurdle

Friday, July 8, 2011 @ 09:07 AM
posted by Roger Price
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Irving (“Yitz”) Greenberg is an American orthodox rabbi, known for critical thinking and reaching across denominational lines.  In 1977, writing about the Holocaust, Greenberg argued that in the future, “no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” A few years later, Greenberg repeated that proposition in a seminal essay entitled “The Third Great Cycle in Jewish History.”

Let’s call this principle the Greenberg Hurdle. It is, and perhaps should be, an obstacle that is hard to overcome. And while it may be construed to suggest, if not require, silence on certain fundamental issues, we should reject that temptation. Conversation should not cease just because it is difficult.

When he announced his principle, Greenberg did not do so in the context of a discussion of science and he does not appear to have had any general or specific concern about science in mind. Nevertheless, the Greenberg Hurdle does seem applicable to issues at the heart of the interface of science and faith.

Religion in general and God in particular once functioned, among other things, to explain the origin and evolution of the universe and our place in the scheme of things. Today what once was totally mysterious and inexplicable, while still wonderous, can be described to a reasonable degree of certitude, without primary or, for some, any reference to a supernatural force.

As University of Michigan astrophysicist Fred Adams discloses in detail in Origins of Existence, the evolution of the universe can be described from the age of 10-43 seconds.  If 10-1 is a tenth of a second and 10-3 is a thousandth of a second, then Professor Adams can bring us back to less than a millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the birth of the known universe, that is, after what most of us think of as the Big Bang.

And, based on several independent methods, Vanderbilt astronomy professor David Weintraub places the age of the known universe, however it began, at 13.7 billion years old, give or take. See, How Old is the Universe?

In addition, with mathematical theory now confirmed by experimental observation, we also know, among other things, the relative abundance of the lightest elements, the nature of the radiation footprint from the time of creation and the rate of expansion of the universe.  We can understand how galaxies coalesced and organized, and how stars formed and died, in the process spewing into space those heavy elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen which formed the building  blocks of life.

The Greenberg Hurdle presents a challenge to those who talk, especially in traditional terms, about God as the creator of light and life. What kind of deity had what kind of role in the universe described by Adams and Weintraub and others? And how do we address or relate to it?

Of course, faith, by definition, is not dependant on a fully confirmed factual foundation. One does not need faith to hold to that which is proven. Rather, faith concerns the unknown. But if a faith is to be worth living for, worth dying for, it should at least account for and be consistent with what we do know.

At the same time, while mathematical models and recent observations have taken us on quite a journey, we have not yet reached the end of the inquiry. Scientists have not discovered what existed or occurred prior to 10-43 seconds, nor, importantly, how it existed or why it occurred. And this failure, while understandable, is, nevertheless, crucial.

As Columbia University physics professor Brian Greene acknowledges, the standard Big Bang theory tells us “nothing about what banged, why it banged, how it banged, or, frankly, whether it really ever banged at all.” See, The Fabric of the Cosmos(at 272). A model with a pre-existing inflation field provides an explanation for a repulsive push, a bang if you will, but raises other troublesome issues. Id. at 272-303.  Without more knowledge, to claim that as does Professor Adams (at 3) that “(i)n the stark simplicity of the beginning, there was only physics” (emphasis supplied), may not be quite accurate.

Moreover, while there is convincing evidence that Earth is close to 4.5 billion years old (Weintraub, supra, at 16 -39), and further evidence that primitive  biological life arose within the first billion years after Earth was formed, how living cells emerged from the chemical stew remains a puzzlement.

For over fifty years we have known how to synthesize amino acids, which are key to the formation of proteins, from basic inert chemicals. And we have identified possible environments that might have been conducive to the emergence of biological life. But science has not yet been able to create autonomous, self-replicating organisms.

To the extent that science seeks to explore and explain root causes, it, too, must confront the Greenberg Hurdle. It, too, must be credible. In recent years, astrophysicists have attempted to resolve some of the remaining questions identified by Greene with reference to string theory and membranes and spatial dimensions more than the three we know well. But strings and membranes and multiple dimensions, however elegantly they may be justified by mathematics, have not yet reached the required level of credibility.

From their different perspectives, science and faith can react with amazement at the universe we know and our place in it. And whether the universe burst forth by some quantum fluctuation or by the word of God, humility, as well as awe and wonder, is in order.

Roger Price

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2 Responses to “The Greenberg Hurdle”

  1. Bob Magrisso says:

    I have been thinking about the Greenberg hurdle, as you termed it and its connection to the Big Bang, Genesis and so on. It is not obvious to me how the moral challenge that Greenberg makes is connected to physics and the standard scientific view of creation because there is no place in physics for God or theology.

    However, I think you on to something very important and confounding and I hope you write more about why it is important to you.

    The late evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould famously argued that science and religion have eliminated much conflict by mutual recognition of that each has teaching authority or professional expertise over non – overlapping domains: the empirical constitution of the universe is the professional expertise of science while the search for proper ethical values and the search for spiritual meaning is the domain of religion:

    The net of science covers the empirical universe: what it is made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value and these two [domains] do not overlap…

    To put it more simply, the turf has been divided. The scientists have the physical world, the material world and randomness as a basic (and useful) assumption. Questions of meaning and purpose are not considered to be scientific. In science, teleological questions, questions with a “Why” before them, are generally considered inferior questions. Religions have the turf of meaning and values. So if you want to know ‘why’, don’t go to a scientist, go to a rabbi.

    However, Gould goes on to say:

    …these two [domains] bump right up against each another, interdigitating in wondrously complex ways along their joint border. Many of our deepest questions call upon aspects of both for different parts of a full answer – and the sorting of legitimate domains can become quite complex and difficult.

    I think it is great that you are going right into that borderland!

    • Roger Price says:

      Referring to the late Stephen Jay Gould, you have questioned the applicability of what you have called the “moral challenge” of the Greenberg Hurdle to physics and the science of creation. It’s a good question. In fact, it is so good that it deserves two responses, one here and one in a subsequent post.
      As you know, Gould was an inter-disciplinary scientist, working primarily in the fields of biology, zoology, evolution, geology and paleontology. In essays and ultimately and more fully in his book Rocks of Ages–Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (1999), Gould did not so much originate as explicate the position you referenced, i.e., that science and religion each occupied separate domains or areas of authority, each valuable in its own way. These domains, which he called magisteria, were and were to be separate and non-overlapping. The natural world belonged to science and the scientists, and the moral world to religion and believers and clergy. One result of this approach is that science and religion and their adherents and advocates could not only avoid conflict, but coexist peacefully.
      Of course, not everyone agrees with Gould on the propriety of this division. For instance, Richard Dawkins, a scientist and prolific author, argues in his book The God Delusion (2006) that even a non-interventionist God “though less violent and clumsy than an Abrahamic God, is still . . . a scientific hypothesis.” (Emphasis supplied, at 85.)
      When I wrote about applying the Greenberg Hurdle beyond the area in which Rabbi Greenberg initially discussed his principle, it is true that I was moving it outside of its original context, and I said as much. But I did not seek to apply it to all of science. I thought, instead, that it would be useful to consider in the limited, but vital, areas “at the heart of the interface of science and faith.” One of those areas is at the time of creation or, perhaps, the creation of time.
      Those like Dawkins, who assert that science can speak about God or who invoke, consciously or not, religious language about ultimate origins subject themselves to the challenge of the Greenberg Hurdle. That is, when they enter this particular arena, they assume, willingly or not, an obligation to speak with due regard for what we actually know and with care and caution with respect to what we do not truly know. That obligation may have a moral component, but it is really about intellectual honesty.

      Roger Price

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