Part I: Saadia Gaon and Schrödinger’s Cat
What is everything made of? This is a question that has inspired discussion and sparked debates between scientists, philosophers, and religious minds since ancient times. One of the central ideas of Judaism is “creation from nothing” (creatio ex nihilo). A number of Jewish philosophers, including Saadia Gaon, Maimonides, and Nachmanides, discuss this idea extensively in their works. However, on closer examination, the concept of creatio ex nihilo is enormously unclear and raises many questions, some of which I will attempt to answer in this article.
Saadia Gaon provides one of the most detailed descriptions of the concept of “creation from nothing” in his Book of Beliefs and Opinions. He presents a series of proofs for the idea of creatio ex nihilo and refutes eleven other creation theories, one of which we will focus on here.
Saadia Gaon demonstrates the idea of creation from nothing by using the ad absurdum (“contradiction”) argument. The principle of this argumentative strategy is simple and goes as follows: If statement A leads to a contradiction, then the correct statement is not A. Note that proof by contradiction leaves the phenomenon of the A event unexplained. Saadia Gaon’s reasoning is as follows:
- If everything is created from something, that “something” also has to be created from something. We therefore have an infinite regress, which, in Saadia Gaon’s view, is an absurdity.
- If we adopt the idea that everything has been created from something, and that “something” has not been created, then that “something” is beyond “God’s jurisdiction”, which is also an absurdity.
However, any attempt to understand the concept of creation from nothing also meets with insurmountable difficulties. We cannot ask “What is Nothing”? We also cannot ask, “Where is Nothing?” We cannot even say that Nothing is the absence of Something, because that would mean attributing a category of absence to Nothing. We cannot say that Nothing does not exist, because saying so would give Nothing the category of existence in our informational space. Indeed, we can’t even put the words “nothing” and “is” together.
I believe that the only possible approximation would be a negative statement: “Nothing is not something”.
We must remember that there is no emptiness in our physical universe. The presence/absence of emptiness in our universe stirred debates between the ancient Greek philosophers — namely, between supporters of the continuum hypothesis and atomists. Aristotle, who supported the continuum theory, insisted that “nature abhors a vacuum”. Atomists, on the other hand, claimed that the world was composed of atoms with empty spaces between them. Modern science has clearly proven that the emptiness, or vacuum, in our universe is subject to categories such as time and space; it has energy and therefore mass, and is filled with quantum fields. In that respect, the universe is often regarded as a single whole object with differing distributions of the density of matter. Even seemingly intangible objects such as shadows, holes, and cracks have their spatio-temporal boundaries.
When trying to describe the concept of creatio ex nihilo, Kabbalah and the kabbalists had to face tremendous difficulties. One of the basic concepts of Kabbalah is that the Creator completely transcends human understanding. The kabbalist Isaac the Blind and his disciple Azriel of Gerona introduced the term Ein Sof (“Infinite”) to refer to the Creator. The term Ein Sof only allows for negative attributes — the unending, intangible, etc. Note that, as demonstrated above, the term “Nothing” can also only be described with negative statements. Maimonides agrees with this approach, as well.
Before we proceed with kabbalistic opinions, the reader is invited to take a quick trip into the world of philosophy where the subject of positive and negative statements has been discussed for a long time. One of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, Bertrand Russell, dedicated considerable time trying to reduce negative statements to positive ones. Russell’s studies led him to the conclusion, which he announced during his famous lecture at Harvard University, that there were non-reducible negative statements. It meant that negative truth was more fundamental than positive truth. We can now see that the opinion of the 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell is the same as the opinion expressed by 12th century kabbalists and Maimonides who only allow negative descriptors for Ein Sof.
Returning to the subject of Kabbalah. Taking into consideration one of the key concepts of Kabbalah suggested by Azriel of Gerona that “nothing can be beyond Him”, we are left with a paradox which can only be resolved by equating the concepts of Ein Sof and “Nothing”. According to Gershom Scholem, one of the key modern Kabbalah researchers, many kabbalists secretly believed in this. But Kabbalah’s opinions on this subject are numerous and often contradictory.
In their attempts to explain the concept of Nothing, some kabbalists resorted to the principle of relativity, which tells us that creation manifested to us and creation from the Creator’s point of view are two different things. Based on that, they claimed that the concept of “Nothing” as the origin of Creation is only “nothing” from the perspective of our existence, rather than reality from the Creator’s perspective.
Some kabbalists suggested that the definition of Nothing was the sefirah of Keter. I find this formulation difficult, as I fail to understand how nothing can be anything. Other kabbalists suggested that the concept of Ein Sof and the sefirah of Keter are identical. The more established understanding in Kabbalah, however, is that Keter is one of the “emanated” sefirot, which would be inconsistent with its identification with Ein Sof as the Emanator. In the book Etz Chaim (“The Tree of Life”), which contains the teachings of Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria) as transcribed by his disciple Rabbi Chaim Vital, the concept of Ein Sof is equated with zero, which in contemporary mathematics is described as the concept of “empty set”. In the Arizal’s teachings, the sefirah of Keter is considered an intermediary between Ein Sof and the emanated sefirot.
In his commentary on the Torah, Nachmanides suggests that the only act of creation “something from nothing” was God’s creation of the primordial matter (hyle), and that everything else was shaped and formed by the Creator from the primordial matter. Nachmanides’ works contain suggestions and hints that make it apparent that he was inclined to equate the terms Ein Sof and “Nothing”.
Nachmanides’ suggestion regarding the primordial matter is incredibly important, because it can serve as the basis for deducing the lack of multiplicity in creation, as well as for assuming that everything that has been created — including everything we call spiritual and material — has the same foundation, so there is no fundamental difference between those things.
Based on the above, we can conclude that there is much that still remains unclear about the idea of creation from nothing and that the concept prompts more questions than answers.
As mentioned above, Saadia Gaon refutes eleven theories of creation in his Book of Beliefs and Opinions. Let us delve into one of them. This theory was proposed by sophists and aroused particular indignation in Saadia Gaon. Their idea went as follows: Reality is fully dependent on what people think about it. Saadia Gaon was evidently referring to the statement of a prominent sophist Protagoras who had claimed that man was “the measure of all things” and therefore everything that one believed to be true was actually true. Saadia Gaon asked numerous questions regarding this theory, some of which are being discussed by scientists and philosophers to this day. He was convinced that nothing could exist and not exist at the same time. He also believed that opinions were derived from objects, not vice versa. Saadia Gaon ends his reasoning with a strong argument that refutes the theory of sophists: a person cannot be considered dead and alive at the same time.
Questions raised by Saadia Gaon essentially became the key subject of discussions in 20th and 21st century science — the theory of relativity and quantum physics. When answering the question of whether or not something can exist and not exist at the same time, we need to ask “For whom?”, and divide reality into the absolute (for God) and relative (for us). For example, if there has been a flash of light on planet A, that flash of light will assume the category of existence for an observer from planet B situated one light-year away from planet A only a year later. If we take an observer on planet C, two light-years away from planet A, the same flash of light will assume the category of existence for that observer only two years later, due to the fact that the speed of information dissemination (the speed of light) is finite. This raises a question: for whom did the flash of light exist when it happened? Who is the objective observer? There is only one possible answer to that: God.
Here’s another example. Modern science is aware that there are parts of the universe that we will never discover because the expansion speed of the universe is higher than the speed of information dissemination (the speed of light). The question is, if something exists in those areas, for whom does it exist? The answer is once again unambiguous: for God. These questions are valid for any events and phenomena separated from us by the highest value of the speed of information dissemination.
Answers to the second and third questions of the sophist theory have been discussed in numerous works of philosophers and religious writers, which cannot all be covered in this article. The main point is that we are not objective observers neither in our universe, nor in creation as a whole. We are parts of the system (remember the Kabbalah’s principle of relativity). As a result, what we perceive is not the reality, but the result of interaction between us and the reality. We cannot see the true essence of reality, or the “thing-in-itself” as Immanuel Kant expressed it. We will discuss this in more detail in the final part of this article.
Let’s talk about Saadia Gaon’s life and death example. A similar example was given in the 20th century by one of the founders of quantum mechanics, Erwin Schrödinger. Here’s what he wrote. A cat is penned up in a box along with an ampoule containing a deadly poison, such as cyanide. The glass capsule could be broken as a result of spontaneous radioactive decay of one of the atoms inside the box. According to the laws of quantum mechanics, the state of the atom is determined only through observation. Hence, for an observer outside the box, the cat is in a superposition — both dead and alive at the same time, which is absurd from a logical point of view. The observer will only see the cat in a specific state, dead or alive, when he opens the box.
Another prominent quantum physicist, Eugene Wigner, expanded on Schrödinger’s thought experiment by providing it with another participant: an observer’s “friend” in a different room. Therefore, until the box is opened, the cat is in a superposition (both dead and alive) for both the observer and for his friend. However, the observer will obtain information about the state of the cat upon opening the box, but the cat will remain in superposition for the observer’s friend — either dead or alive.
The numerous explanations of this paradox can be divided into three groups. The first group is Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation, which states that all possible outcomes occur during the measurement process, but they all take place in different worlds. According to this theory, the cat can be alive in one world and dead in another. Obviously, there is currently no way to prove this theory.
The second group includes the theory of decoherence, which explains why macro objects do not follow the laws of quantum mechanics. It essentially states that reality is formed during the exchange of information with the environment (the act of continuous measurement) and the cat is a macro object which does not follow the laws of quantum mechanics. The third explanation seems most interesting. It is based on the assumption that the concept of linear superposition is incompatible with human consciousness, and that any measurement gives us different, but unambiguous answers.
The problem of how our consciousness affects reality remains one of the key questions in modern quantum physics and does not have a clear answer. Here we need to highlight the views of one of the greatest physicists of the 20th–21st century: John Archibald Wheeler. Wheeler believed that the nature of reality is described in a quantum language, which assumes that a quantum particle remains in a superposition until measurement is done, and collapses into one specific state only as a result of the measurement. Wheeler went further with his reasoning to state that an event is not a real event until it becomes an object of observation. He introduced the Anthropic Participatory Principle, which implies that we take part in creating the reality not only right here, right now, but in the past and across long distances as well.
At first, the scientific community deemed Wheeler’s ideas “crazy.” But Wheeler suggested a thought experiment to support his theory, which was put into practice in 1984–the Wheeler’s delayed-choice experiment.
One of the main experiments of quantum mechanics is the double-slit experiment. It involves a plate with two slits, a sensor screen behind the plate, and a source of singular photons in front of it. Without a measurement, a photon passes through both slits simultaneously, causing a typical interference pattern on the screen, made up of alternating light and dark bands. When a detector is added to one of the slits, the photon’s behavior changes drastically. It passes through that slit only, and leaves a dot on the screen as the trace from the particle. The question is, how can a photon tell that it’s about to be measured? A kabbalistic answer to that question is provided in my book From Infinity to Man, and it will be reviewed in more detail in the following parts of this article.
In the experiment suggested by Wheeler (the delayed-choice experiment), the detection device was not added to the slits, but installed between the plate with the slits and the screen—i.e. the measurement was taken after the photon had passed through the slit. To the amazement of those conducting the experiment, the results remained the same. There are two explanations of this paradoxical, but clearly proven fact: the photon either changed its behavior in retrospect, or it somehow “knew,” as it was coming out of the source, that it would be measured after it passes the slit.
I believe that although the backward time flow is not against the laws of physics, the kabbalistic concept of creation excludes this phenomenon (as I will explain in my subsequent articles in this series). Therefore, the only remaining explanation is that the photon “knows” that it will be measured. The mechanism of that knowledge from the perspective of Kabbalah is partially described in my book From Infinity to Man.
Thus, the questions raised by Saadia Gaon remain pivotal to our understanding of reality and creation. My opinion on those questions will be provided in the following parts of this article.
In conclusion, it is worth mentioning that with his life and death example, Saadia Gaon, perhaps unconsciously, divided our reality into absolute and relative parts. The fact of death, in that case, is an invariant reality for the observer. Nevertheless, another interesting fact is that the invariance of the maximum speed of information dissemination (i.e. the speed of light) has eliminated the concept of simultaneity, which is the key idea of Albert Einstein’s special relativity theory. It can lead to a paradoxical situation in which one’s moment of death, as perceived by a close observer (i.e. relatively motionless) will not coincide with the same moment for an observer moving farther away at near-light speed.
It is only the Almighty who has absolute invariability. As prophet Micah put it, “I shall never change.”
Going back to the question raised at the beginning of this article, “What is everything made of?” I will attempt to explain my own answer to that in the following parts of this article.