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The Cult of Coincidence

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RELIGION AND SCIENCE

I had the pleasure this week of fulfilling my (first ever) civic obligation of jury duty and was one of the first people interviewed to sit on a case involving an auto accident. The pleasant, lightly bearded judge asked each of us 16 questions, each aimed at determining if we could adjudicate the case without bias. It was, I realized toward the end, with good reason.

Most people readily believe that they themselves are essentially fully independent thinkers, and that closed-mindedness, intellectual inflexibility and an irrational commitment to pre-conceived thinking dwells only in the feeble minds of others. Think about it: When was the last time in the course of discussion that someone admitted to you something like, "You're right, I have just blindly swallowed all of the positions and cultural mores of my milieu" or, "Yes, I agree that no amount of oppositional information will ever dissuade me from the beliefs I hold?" No one is immune from this state of affairs, and it requires courage and perpetual vigilance to even venture outside of the intellectual echo chamber that most of us inhabit.

There are those who believe that the scientific community is uniquely positioned to avoid these pitfalls. They suggest that the system of peer review is inherently self-critical, and as such is structurally quarantined from bias. Some scientists think otherwise and note that science, in as much as it is conducted by human beings, is subject to the same partiality as every other endeavor. As the (secular) scientific philosopher David Berlinski, author of "The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions," has suggested, the peer review process itself is often a rubber stamp of certain designated culturally acceptable positions. Berlinski writes that, "like the communist party under Lenin, science is [in its own eyes] infallible because its judgments are collective. Critics are unneeded, and since they are unneeded, they are not welcome." The mere mention of non-doctrinal positions frequently elicits (unscientific) histrionics and name calling. Words like "creationist," for example, are readily bandied about to silence dissent and are designed to assign idiocy to those people (even secular) who dare note that modern evolutionary and cosmological theories are fraught with gaps, inconsistencies and fragmentary evidence. Tellingly, this is done by people who have a predilection to embrace randomness and who tenaciously proclaim the coincidental nature of anything and everything in science or theology.

A classic example of this endemic bias at work is illustrated through Einstein. He was disturbed by the implications of an expanding universe. For thousands of years it was assumed -- outside of some theological circles -- that matter was eternal. The notion that it came into being at a discreet point in time naturally implied that something had caused it and quite possibly that that something had done it on purpose. Not willing to accept this new information, Einstein added a now famous "fudge factor" to his equations to maintain the solid state universe that he was comfortable with -- something he would later describe as "the greatest blunder of my career." Similarly, earlier in his career Stephen Hawking had posited that the universe originally began as what he had termed a "singularity," a point where the curvature of space-time is infinite, or, in other words, possesses zero volume and infinite density. Perturbed by its eerie Divine overtones (Hawking himself has written that "so long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator") and heavily invested in maintaining a coincidental option of the origin of the universe, he set about creating his own fudge factor in the form of the multidimensional "M-theory." Utilizing certain axioms (assumptions) and creative math, he succeeded in inventing the theoretical structure of a theoretical reality -- one that could have occurred coincidentally. As Mathematical Physicist Frank Tipler has written, "Hawking has pinned his hope of eliminating God on M-theory, a theory with no experimental support whatsoever, hence not a theory of physics at all."

If there is great resistance to notions of design and causality in science, it is exponentially greater when it comes to theology. There are times when theists point out unlikely instances of purpose and design within religious texts. For instance, I recently posted a piece that outlined a derivation of Pi that was embedded in the Hebrew Bible. Here's how it works: In Kings I 7:23 (which describes the construction of a large, circular water basin for the Temple) the word for "line" is spelled "kaf-vav" in Hebrew, which has a numerical value of 106. In Chronicles II 4:2 the same word, in the same context, is spelled "kaf-vav-heh," which equals 111. (The extra letter makes no sense in this context so it is assumed to be purposeful). So here's the calculation -- keep in mind that the circumference was 30 cubits and the diameter 10. Therefore 30/10 = 3 x (111/106) = 3.141509. Was that clearly placed there or would you just chalk it up to coincidence?

Another well known example concerns the inter-calculation of the lunar cycle. Though the calculations are more involved, starting with the first letter of the Torah (bet) and counting out equidistant letter skips of 42 yields a formula of 2, 5, 200 and 4. These numbers were used (as was outlined in the Talmud 2,000 years ago) to derive the exact duration of the lunar cycle to within five parts in a million. Meaning, thousands of years before NASA did it, the text of the Torah was used to conclude that the lunar cycle is 29.530594 days. Is this a coincidence as well? Were these sages just tossing thousands of these equations off the wall and happened to just hit a couple of them? There is no evidence to suggest that that is the case, and the Talmud states clearly that they simply had the formula as a tradition. Clearly, these examples are not falsifiable. The question is, as in a court of law, where the evidence is also not falsifiable, just how many examples of this type would be required for one to conclude that there is a) a clear pattern of purposeful design in the Torah (and in life) and b) that some of those designs by all accounts should not have been possible given the scientific knowledge of humanity at the time.

Note that Jewish theology is in no way anti-science. It views exploration of the natural world to be a logical and worthy endeavor (when performed with noble goals in mind) and one that actually enhances one's sense of spirituality. The preceding were but two examples of many by which the sages utilized scientific thinking to assist with their transcendental aims. For many more examples, have a look at Bar Ilan University professor Haim Shore's work "Coincidences in the Bible and in Biblical Hebrew."

There is a phrase that is used in a courtroom when it is no longer logical to assume coincidence: "beyond a reasonable doubt." Imagine a jury's reaction to the defense claiming that the DNA evidence, multiple witnesses, probable motive and admission of guilt on the part of their client were all circumstantial. Though it is always possible, through our bias, to rationalize away all countervailing information, at a certain point -- just as in legal proceedings -- a decision must be made. The truly rational mind, presented with sufficient evidence (to convict, or of design in nature or Torah), will observe, with its unbiased objectivity, and conclude: guilty as charged. This did not happen by accident.

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