Monday, October 4, 2010

This Post is NOT about Quantum Mechanics

Herman Wouk, may he be ma'arich yamim ve'shanim, (who was kind enough to hand down his own childrens' baby carriage so that my wife could be proudly wheeled around the Lower East Side lo these many years ago,) has recently published a book titled The Language God Talks.  On Science and Religion.  He quotes the Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann as having said that "the gap between a person who understood quantum mechanics and one who did not was arguably wider than the difference between a human being and a great ape."    Dr. Gell-Mann is convinced that a person who knows the basic truth of reality is categorically different from one who does not.  
Assuming a bright line dichotomy between human and animal, there are two ways to understand his statement.  
  • Either he meant that only those few that understand Quantum Mechanics are truly human, and he thereby cruelly consigns more than ninety nine percent of mankind to a less-than-human state, 
  • or he meant that although the uninformed masses are human, those who understand Quantum Mechanics are vastly superior to them.
In any case, Dr. Gell-Mann was not making value judgments.  He was simply observing a fact: To be  Human means to understand; Homo Sapiens.  It is our specific function.  The most important truths that a human being must comprehend are those that underlie reality.  If you understand the deep truths of what the world is about, then you truly sapient.  

Even further: if you don't understand Quantum Mechanics, your world view is not merely deficient, it is delusional.  Your view of reality is not just imperfect- it is false.  

If you think you understand the basic truths of existence when you do not, if you merely skate along the two dimensional surface of the empirical evidence that can be perceived by the uneducated mind, then you have failed to fulfill the specific function of humanity, which is to comprehend truth.  You are certainly less sapient; perhaps you are less than sapient.

I don't think that Dr. Gell-Mann would say that the poor uneducated masses are less entitled to life, or that they don't deserve our love.  Although he is, nebach, a proud atheist, (whose incurable drive to assert his superiority and to demean any possible rival makes it impossible for him to recognize a Ribono shel Olam, as becomes obvious after watching this or reading this,) he is not, God forbid, a Nazi.  But he understands that Quantum Mechanics is so important, so essential, so fundamental to the meaning of reality, that those who fail to understand it are lesser beings, just as great apes are less than humans.

Also, I think that it is misleading to define "human-ness" exclusively on the basis of rationality.  There is a moral component as well.  I'm sure there are people who are conversant in Quantum Mechanics who are no better than those gentle giants of the jungle.


  1. The worst part of it all is that the apes are the ones running the zoo and the few who understand are viewed as being some sort of aberrant beings.

  2. this seems to be very much in line with RAMBAM ; specifically MN III 18 [475 in the Pines edition]

  3. 1. In private correspondence, Micha Berger points out that since Gell-Man does not believe in the soul, he would say that all animal life lies on the same continuum. Therefore, for me to ascribe to him the opinion that the difference between ape and man is a categorical difference is incorrect.

    I don't know if I agree with him; I think even an atheist can posit a categorical and therefore an ethical difference between ape and man.

    2. Dr. Nachum, I know that the post corresponds the Rambam you cited, perhaps more directly than what I posted it to mean. But my primary motivation was my brother's speech on Yomtov, which offended most of the listeners. When, later that day, I saw the line from Gell-Mann, I was happy to note that the rancor directed at my brother did not, for some reason, accrue against Dr. Gell-Mann. Ve'dai lechakima.

    3. Chaim, sometimes I think that the apes are the only ones who can possibly do the job.

  4. It is my experience that when people say "offended most of the people" it means "offended me."
    I happened to have been at the referenced speech and my observations were that it offended some of the ba'alei batim - particularly those with no yeshivishe shimush, and those from a modern-orthodox background. There were, however, many chareidi yeshiva people there [because it was yom tov], and they did not seem offended.

    You might ask your son-in-law, who was there, and is a talmid chochom in the classic chareidi sense, if he was offended. You might also ask him if the talmidei chachamim of his acquaintance would be offended. Also note that "da'as ba'alei batim" is generally lehepech from da'as torah.

    Of course, I think most of the audience was not offended because I was not.

    BTW, "rancor directed at [your] brother" is about as meaningful as a politician's promise unless it is backed up by solid sources. While this may be forgotten in Chicago, mobs do not determine Torah.

  5. Fine, you're right. I don't like the idea of dehumanizing anyone. And it doesn't make a difference whether x dehumanizes y, or x views himself as meta-human. Both lead to boxes of Soylent Green. And I stam don't understand the logic. When did this great rift take place? At the briyas ha'olam? I thought it was just an awareness that Avraham Avinu had, and a bris between Hashem and his people, that created a special relationship. Since when does a special relationship create a different neshama? And if it does, it should apply to anyone who is zocheh to ruach hakodesh, which is certainly possible for anyone.

  6. re b:
    You do not - to the best of my knowledge - know quantum mechanics. I, on the other hand, have a degree in quantum chemistry and read feynman for light entertainment. Therefore, by the dictum of the nobel laureate gell-mann, your philosophies are trivial and immaterial to any discussion among humans. Whereas mine, at least, are those of a human. Remember, that's the opinion of the 1969 nobel laureate in physics.

  7. Incidentally, the point of my last comment is that regardless of the intellectual achievement of the speaker, without sources in the Torah literature and Shimush Talmidei Chachomim, opinions are, at the very least, suspect.

    ...regardless of the emotional biases and/or intellectual brilliance backing up said opinions.

  8. Now that I understand what you mean, my heart no longer lies bleeding on the floor.

  9. BTW, for an excellent exposition of the infinite-universes postulate, see the first Mesech Chochmah in Beraishit

  10. I don't know Quantum Mechanics either, but I know a little more about the history of science -- enough to know that it is very probably false that "if you don't understand Quantum Mechanics, your world view is not merely deficient, it is delusional. Your view of reality is not just imperfect- it is false."

    This is because QM is sure to turn out to be so inadequate to account for the phenomena, both observed now and as-yet undreamed of, that we will deem it false and superseded by the science yet to come that will replace it, just as aristotelian-Ptolemaic science was deemed inadequate and false in the light of classical (Newtonian) physics, and classical (Newtonian) physics in its turn was (is) inadequate and false in the light of modern physics, including QD. To imagine that QD, or String Theory, or whatever, amounts to some Final Story of The World as It Really IS, is mistaken.

    Probably false, we can take its results as provisional, and use them to make our way in the world. But they are only models that explain why the dials read as they do, less real than the everyday commonsense world in which human beings who have learned to read look at dials. Because they may, for the time being, explain the phenomena to our satisfaction, it does not follow that the phenomena have been explained away.