Thursday, May 03, 2007

Quantum Physics and Parallel Universes: These and These are the Words of the Living God

I love quantum physics.

Ever since I was introduced to the idea at North Shore, I've been fascinated by string theory, dark matter, dark energy, parallel universes and time travel. There's good reason for this fascination; everything breaks down on the quantum level. :D

There is an excellent introduction to Quantum Mechanics available here. It's meant for the layperson and is very clear.

I want to address the idea of parallel universes, multiverses, MWI (Many Worlds Interpretation) or Everett theory, whichever you prefer.

    Hugh Everett's "Many Worlds Theory" is the belief that for every possible outcome of an uncertain event a new universe in which that outcome occurs is created in some parallel yet utterly unreachable dimension. Thus the paradox of the ghostly simultaneous existence of contradictory outcomes until an observation is made is avoided. A good example is the paradox of Schrodinger's Cat, in which a cat has a 50% chance of dying of cyanide poisoning. The Many Worlds Theory bypasses the unfathomable concept that the cat is in a limbo-like state of both life and death until human observation by stating that the cat either dies or does not die in our reality. If the cat dies in our reality, it lives in another reality. If it lives in our universe, it dies in another, parallel universe (Now you know where Star Trek got all its plots).

    (From the aforementioned layperson's resource)
There's loads of material on this, but I particularly enjoyed Max Tegmark's and John Archibal Wheeler's "100 Years of the Quantum."

I also enjoyed (but certainly don't pretend to understand all of it) Max Tegmark's article "Parallel Universes."

Today I want to discuss the "Level Three" multiverse in which "a different kind of parallel universes/timelines is generated, based on slight differences in decisions and actions made by each realm's inhabitants. A single particular universe at the Big Bang over time multiplies into an infinite number, branching like a tree to incorporate every different possible outcome (source)."

The reason this approach is fantastic (other than its innate attraction for all those of us who enjoy magic and fantasy) is that it explains the very common idea of "these and these are the words of the living God."

This quote is from Eruvin 13b:

    יצאה בת קול ואמרה אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הן והלכה כב"ה וכי מאחר שאלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים מפני מה זכו ב"ה לקבוע הלכה כמותן מפני שנוחין ועלובין היו ושונין דבריהן
And here's the translation:
    For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the former asserting, 'The law is in agreement with our views.' and the latter contending, 'The law is in agreement with our views.' Then a bat kol (a voice from heaven) announced, ' Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim ‘these and those are the words of the living God, but the law is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.'

    Since, however, 'both are the words of the living God', what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the law fixed according to their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and were even so humble as to mention the words of Beit Shammai before their own.(Eruvin, 13b)
Now, in this situation "eilu v'eilu divrei Elokim hayyim" is not problematic because the controversy is over a matter of halakha, that is, legal ruling. The problem arises when this quote is used in the Chumash when warring commentaries directly contradict one another. In this case, commentaries are stating that historical events happened in completely different ways. (Of course, if one does not read the Torah as containing accurate historical events, but states that many or most of the events are allegories, this problem does not arise.)

Well, cries the impatient reader, which is it? What actually happened? It's a historical event, isn't it; how can there be innumerable interpretations of what went on?

The most famous example is probably this one: Did the Phaorah of Egypt die? Or was it the same king, and he simply pretended not to know Joseph?

But you could ask this question on any event that is interpreted in various fashions, especially those where there are direct contradictions. (And when you get into Midrashim, all hell breaks loose...did Isaac die by the Akedah? The Midrash says yes; the literal commentary says no. How can they both be true- they directly contradict one another!) In school, the teacher will invariably answer with "Eilu v'eilu divrei Elokim hayyim." Don't know about you, but this answer always bothered me. But what happened? I wanted to ask. When Moses gave the Jews the sotah water to drink (after the sin with the Golden Calf) how did he do it? Ramban alone brings down four different ways he could have done it, but I want to know how it happened. Because it could only have happened in one way, right?


I was sitting in Forbes' class at North Shore Country Day and he had us watch this fantastic scientific film which addressed the idea of parallel universes, time travel and the grandfather paradox. Then I took Skal's class, where I learned about wormholes, black holes, dark matter and dark energy. As soon as I saw the movie, my immediate thought was,

This could explain everything!

If parallel universes do exist, and if they exist on the third level, then everything happened and continues to happen. Pharoah died; Pharoah lived and forgot Joseph. Moses ground the gold into powder and threw it into the lake streaming down the mountain, a natural act; the act was unnatural and there was a miracle involved in this. Even rationalism and mysticism exist at once- Rambam's Moreh Nevuchim and everything he disagrees with and attacks could both have happened. Miracles could be natural; miracles can be unnatural. Everything depends on choices and events at a crucial juncture at time (or even not-so-crucial; even everyday choices.) Every single commentator (except those who are interpreting based on faulty manuscripts) could be correct and events could have proceeded exactly as they claimed.

Indeed, "these and these are the words of the living God."

Everything happens, happened and continues to happen in this world of all possible realities.

Parallel universes, my friends, account for the differences in the commentaries and the fact that they are all correct. It's a beautiful concept.

I just hope it's true.


ilan said...

Chana, I usually agree with what you on the whole, but this one bothers me a bit. My approach is entirely different: Yes, the historical events could have happened only one way - either the Pharoah of Yosef died in the beginning of the Exodus story or he didn't - but the commentaries were no more meant to determine historical fact than the Torah is a history book. In fact, as a purely historical record, the Torah is highly difficult to understand and terribly inconsistent. Hashem gave it to us to learn from it; the lessons are true even if the events hadn't happened at all. Now, granted, certain events (e.g. Yetziat Mitzrayim, Har Sinai) established new realities and new relationships which have implications even today, but those are not debated by the classical commentaries. Their historicity is certain across the board of classic commentaries. The things that are debated reflect different understandings of the world, of Judaism, that gives Torah, and by extension, Torah-based Jewish life, its vitality.

Chana said...


No problem! You should absolutely disagree if you like. For after all, we can both be right... ;)

I agree with you that the rich backgrounds and lives of the commentators come through to "reflect different understandings of the world, of Judaism" in order to give Judaism its vitality. I think it's fantastic that the Torah allows for so many facets of interpretation.

At the same time, it seems to me that at least part of the Torah is historical (or we are lead to believe it is historical.) Certainly the average reader would think that part of the Torah is a history of the Jews, how they became a nation, etc.

If that is the case, how to understand commentators who directly contradict one another? If this didn't really happen, there would be no problem, obviously. That's the beauty of characters in a work of fiction; you and I and several others can read the book in entirely different ways and we can all be correct in our own personal reading- what the book means to us, how we see the characters.

But that becomes different in nonfiction. Sure, I can read Running with Scissors and see Augusten very differently from someone else. Augusten himself, however, is the true authority as to what happened, how it happened and how it made him feel. He knows. We can surmise and guess, but we are not right.

Therefore, to say that the commentators are all right and all correct when they clearly differ poses a tremendous problem. I think that parallel universes can potentially offer one answer to that problem...if, as you choose, you do not see the Torah as a primarily historical document, it will not be as much of an issue; that I absolutely grant you.

Chana said...

Ah, didn't see this the first time.

"Hashem gave it to us to learn from it; the lessons are true even if the events hadn't happened at all."

Oooh. That's a very strong statement. I personally know quite a few people who would not agree. I know that if I absolutely knew the events had never happened, I would take the Torah to be good advice- almost like Aesop's fables, with valuable morals- but I wouldn't feel compelled to follow every law down to the last letter. After all, why should I? The entire text would be a fable...

I guess we've reached the broad question: Is accurate historicity important to the Torah? If it is absolutely proven that there was never an Exodus, for example (no historical data backs it up, no archeological remains are found, etc), would that reflect upon one's belief in Judaism?

And then, since you said (and I agreed) that everyone agrees that the major events happened; the differences occur over lesser issues, what if it were a minor event that were disputed/ proved not to have happened? Not sure what I would classify as minor, but...

Anyway, here are our big broad scary questions. Excellent. Let's have at them. :D

ilan said...

Ok, so allow me to backpedal a bit here. While I could still see the case for a historically inaccurate Torah being relevant due solely to its nature as the Word of God, that isn't what I meant to argue, and yes, is a very strong statement.
Here's what I meant to say:
The Torah itself is one document. Assuming it records historical fact is no issue (ignoring scientific/archaeological/[pick your own] arguments) as it is the only source we're dealing with on that level. The commentaries, however, are multiple and often contradictory. And here, I think, we have to look at the purpose of the commentaries. Are they trying to hammer out the facts or to understand the Word of God? The two are similar, and do overlap, but are not the same thing. Why don't we, as religious Jews, delve into archaeological studies with the same fervor we (ought to) have when learning Torah? I would argue that we should do so, if our goal was to describe the historical record accurately. (Of course, archeology can enrich and inform Torah commentary, but it does not constitute it.) Our goal here is not to arrive at the facts, but to understand what God is telling us in His recounting of the facts. And I think you'd agree, He's telling us many different things. Some may even contradict each other. Eilu V'Eilu and all that jazz.
(I hope that was coherent. It's now 3:30AM on this side of the pond.)

Erachet said...

"Hugh Everett's "Many Worlds Theory" is the belief that for every possible outcome of an uncertain event a new universe in which that outcome occurs is created in some parallel yet utterly unreachable dimension."

Welcome to the world of Chrestomanci! Now I know where DWJ got it from! I thought she just made it up. I also happen to be fascinated with all this stuff. I got really into tesseracts while reading A Wrinkle in Time.

I don't know if we can safely say there is such thing as a parallel universe, though. If we do, then we have to ask ourselves if there is a chosen nation in each universe? Is there another me, another you, another Moshe Rabbeinu? Is there a different Torah in each universe? I don't know, it's a bit of a stretch, maybe.

The other reason why I might not say there is a parallel universe is because, in my limited knowledge of science, I don't believe time or history is made of matter, and if something is not made of matter, then how can it split off into another thing? I don't know, it doesn't really work for me. It works in magical worlds because magic has matter and so it can be done, but in this world?

The other thing is, I've learned that the Torah is not supposed to be read like a history book. It doesn't tell us about people or events that we don't specifically need to know about. Therefore, if something is ambiguous history-wise in the Torah, I don't think it's supposed to bother us because, according to whoever said this (I don't remember who), that isn't the purpose of the Torah anyway.

Great post, though. It's food for thought.

Larry Lennhoff said...

The moral/ethical problem with parallel universes is that they take away free will. If I have an opportunity to embezzle some money, the many worlds interpretation says that I will steal it - and also that I won't. So in a larger sense I have no choice - all the possible outcomes must be fulfilled.

haKiruv said...

It's an interesting bottom-up approach of looking at things which also have a lot of implications.

I think the Torah though, is bigger than just the written Torah as given to Moshe. If one believes that the word of G-d is Torah, then to me, written Torah (five books of Moshe) is just the revealed Torah (even though it has hidden layers to it), and the rest of the world is concealed Torah, which takes more energy to find truth in.

If the written Torah wasn't received, the sages say that we'd have to look at creation in order to deduce Torah (or something like that, I forgot how it's put).

Plus, in the beginning G-d spoke, and things came into existence. Could this speech be the very vibrations of the energy we call "strings"?

Also, if there are multiple worlds, then the objects that exist in them are separate entities. The only reason we'd call them separate worlds, is the fact that we as humans have a hard time comprehending existence past 4 dimensions. In actuality though, it is all one world, and the words of G-d that condensed into these entities that branched out, don't really exist apart from G-d's word. This is what the second book of Tanya talks about. I'm currently having issues with Tanya using Zohar to assume that the words of G-d are G-d. If that were the case, then we're all one entity, much like our body's atoms are sub-atomic particles that are shared by everyone in a room.

haKiruv said...

I forgot to mention:

The "These and these are the Words of the Living G-d"...

I think this has to do with relativity. For instance, if two people are looking at a cube in the middle of the room...

one person sees the cube head on and thinks it's only a square

the second person sees the cube at a skewed angle, and thinks it's a trapezoid.

Which is it? Is it a square or a trapezoid?

It's both. It's just that both people see an something that is absolute (the cube) as being something that is relational, since all things are perceived relativistically.

And I think that's why it's called the Words of the Living G-d, because it's emphasizing the dynamics of the situation, in which both perceptions, given there relativistic contexts, are correct.

the only way i know said...

I've always been fascinated with this sort of thing..
but aside from letting my imagination run loose,
I can't say I'd have an easy time discussing the prospects of it in 'real terms'
('it' being something like parallel universes) -

It would be wonderfully interesting to have a discussion like this with a talmid chacham well versed in these studies (preferably the Vilna Gaon! )

Chana said...

Thanks and I do agree with you. However, I also know of many people who would like nothing better than to have archeological evidence support the Torah's claims (with very good reason!) and so I would very much like it if things would add up...

There absolutely could be parallel worlds. If you want to get into details of how or why, here are the experiments to look at:

The Double Slit Experiment that proves wave-particle duality.

Here's an explanation of why this means there could be parallel universes.

Namely, "When two electrons meet each other, you see, they stop behaving like particles and start behaving like waves. This means that they produce an 'interference' pattern. These interactions are analogous to those that occur between two water waves or two sound waves. When an individual electron is fired at the two slits, an interference pattern still emerges almost immediately on the screen.

"If you have not heard of this experiment before, the result should be surprising. How can one electron produce a pattern that can only form when two electrons mix? The answer is that the electron interferes with itself – that is, it has existed in two places at the same time. But more precisely, what has happened is that the universe has given birth to a new universe, one where the electron goes through the other slit. The electron in one universe interferes with the electron in the other."


I think that morality would have to be decided by the universe in which you are aware that you exist. As in, I know that I exist in this universe here, hence my actions here must be moral because I am responsible for those. Even if my double in another universe is a mad-axe murderer, I cannot control her actions; I am responsible for what I can control.


What you're saying sounds very interesing but I can't claim to have understood all of it (I figured I'd have to learn the Tanya to know what you're speaking about.) I disagree with your suggestion that the differences in what we see are due to perception, though. If I look at an object and see a square, while you see a trapezoid, the object mathematically only has one form, not both. Also, in the Torah's commentaries, it's more like they are looking at objects and one sees a circle; the other sees a square. Hence impossible and frustrating...

the only way I know,

Yes, it is fascinating (mostly because of all the magic books we've read on the subject, I'm sure.) But it could also be true, and that is the really fascinating part. How fun would it be if one day we did see signs for shiurim on 'Ethical Morality in Parallel Universes.' :D

Erachet said...

Chana - it's actually very cool. When I was little, and I mean, really little, like around four years old, I remember wondering if I was really the only one in the world and if everyone else was a robot or a figment of my imagination or just some creation that wasn't really a person like I was, because I wanted to know how I could be sure of everyone else if the only person I could feel, the only person I was awareof, was myself. So maybe, if what you're saying is true, that there are multiple universes but people are only aware of themselves in one, maybe I wasn't SO wrong. Maybe there are people on this earth who aren't as aware as they are in a different universe.

MAYBE, it is those people who become the axe murderers, who give in to their temptations, because they aren't aware enough to gain control of themselves. Just a thought.

smoo said...

Having different universes is fine but we can’t access them. So shouldn’t our commentators stick to what is true of our universe rather than occasionally and haphazardly throw in a theoretical alternate reality? What benefit is there to deviate from our own reality?

Chana said...


Oh, I don't think the commentators thought there were parallel universes. I think each was firmly and absolutely convinced of the truth of his interpretation. I think, however, that for those of us who are literal-minded, when we are told that all of these things are equally true, even those that are events and either happened or didn't, it'd be easier to grasp if they actually potentially all did happen. :D

Larry Lennhoff said...

As in, I know that I exist in this universe here, hence my actions here must be moral because I am responsible for those. Even if my double in another universe is a mad-axe murderer, I cannot control her actions; I am responsible for what I can control.
That is certainly how it seems to me, from my limited perspective. From another perspective though, I have no choice at all - I decide to kill someone with an axe and I decide not to. The laws of parallel universes require it - somewhere I am killing someone with an axe right at this moment. So why blame them, any more than blaming a rock for falling on my head?

ilan said...

My last 2 cents on this issue (I think): Ultimately, I think that the quantum physics approach is kind of silly because it misses the point here. As you said, the commentators themselves didn't believe this whole parallel universe thing. Well, then how did they reconcile these things, do you think? I mean, if you read, for instance, Ibn Ezra, you'll see that he clearly thinks that those he disagrees with are simply wrong. But the point of "eilu v'eilu" isn't about who's correct in the factual sense; it's about what is a part of the Truth with a capital T. In fact, the full quote there is "eilu v'eilu divrei elokim chayim, v'halacha k'beit Hillel." - "These and these are the living words of God, but the law is according to Beit Hillel." The first part acknowledges that when we talk about Torah, there are multiple perspectives, and even if they cannot coexist in a pratical way, they do coexist categorically as 'Torah'. However, when we need to
have consistency, as in psak halacha (and, I would argue, when discussing the historical record), well then we narrow it down, and say "v'halacha k'beit Hillel."
The quantum model could be used however, as an intriguing metaphor for "eilu v'eilu," and I'd be interested if you know of anyone who's explored this - maybe in a kind of a post-modern Orthodoxy, if you will.

Chana said...

I'm entertained that you accept the model as worthy of metaphor but not worthy of being true.

The sages didn't necessarily need to reconcile "eilu v'eilu" with the Torah; they generally disagree with each other and think they alone are right! Ramban, for instance, although he engages in quite the apology and praise for others, definitely says "And in my opinion...this is correct" and suggests the others are very wrong.

See, like you said "eilu v'eilu" comes up by Halakha and yes, halakha k'bais Hillel, it's when "eilu v'eilu" shows up as an answer to the Chumash that it's problematic and no, the commentaries there don't seem to have believed in it.

But you're allowed not to agree. It's all good.