Author’s note, Feb. 2006. In July 2004, Dr. Gerald Schroeder came to speak on this topic. While the lecture itself was delivered 18 months or so ago, its relevance remains immediate. We are yet born, we yet die – and continue to wonder at the first event and fear the second. Dr. Schroeder’s lecture increased my wonder at the second event as well.
Most of the presentations at the Root & Branch Lecture Series deal with politics or religion. This presentation dealt with nuclear physics. It filled the house with people. The staff of the Israel Center had to bring fifteen extra chairs. The topic was “Life After Death; Scientific Evidence for Death as the Beginning of a New Stage of Life.”
Some of us are interested in politics. Some of us are interested in religion. But all of us die. And the vast, vast majority of us want to continue to live. Maybe that’s why there was a full house that Thursday night.
Dr. Gerald Schroeder is a physicist whose particular specialty is studying the convergence of science and religion. In his previous works, he explained how Creation as described in Torah and interpreted by Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (Nahmanides) was very similar to the description of the Big Bang by nuclear physicists. In the book “The Science of G-d”, he expanded on this notion, pointing out the weaknesses in the theory of evolution as described by Darwin and what the geological record actually does show. He went on in this book to describe “six ages of Creation,” each one roughly half as long as the previous one, all of them adding up to about 15 billion years, which coincide with what the geological record shows. He pointed out how Jewish scholars trying to figure out the age of the universe, who knew nothing of quantum mechanics or nuclear physics, who worked hundreds of years ago without the aid of a computer or even a calculator, and who worked from hints found in the text of Torah came up with – fifteen billion years.
The person who has done this work is tall and skinny, a modest man, used to large crowds. He came directly to the front of the room carrying a bag with some markers and a whiteboard. He desired that the podium be upon the stage, rather than the table, so I began moving things about as any good master of ceremonies would. He had a distinct preference for doing things by himself so after helping him lift the podium onto the stage, I stepped back and allowed him his way. He set the whiteboard upon a chair, so that others could see it. He set his notes on the podium and began writing a formula on the whiteboard. I wished I’d had a notebook with me. My puerile attempts to describe what I heard do not do justice to the dispensing of wisdom by a genius. Dr. Schroeder was kind enough to refresh and to clarify a couple of the points I missed in my original description.
The formula he wrote was E > M > Life > Brain > Emergent mind.
Most folks are familiar with Einstein’s formula for the transfer of energy to mass: E=MC².
The E in Dr. Schroeder’s formula was the familiar “energy,” the M was the familiar “mass.” The rest was evidently where Dr. Schroeder was taking us in this lecture.
He pointed to the E on the whiteboard, saying that when the universe began in the Big Bang, it was all light waves – energy. Some of the energy converted to mass M – planets, rocks, stars, plants – and what was remarkable was that a large portion of that energy developed intelligence – animals and people.
He emphasized that we are all energy – energy that had been created during the Big Bang.
He then observed that even though things seem solid – he knocked the podium with his fist to make the point – it really consisted of whirling electrons around a nucleus and a proton; that if you took the nucleus of an atom and made it the size of an orange, the electron cloud around it would be four miles away. There was that much empty space in supposedly solid matter. He pointed out that steam and ice are just variants of water. They don’t look like water, but they are water. He returned to his basic point – that we are all light waves.
Dr. Schroeder approached the subject of death by referring to how the Torah describes the death of the patriarchs. He pointed out a pattern in the descriptions. First, the person expires and then he is gathered to his people and only later is he buried. He indicated that this order of events suggests that reality might be something distinctly other than what we normally perceive it to be. The following are quotes from the Torah, translated into English. The translations are from the Stone Edition Humash:
Dealing with Jacob:
Genesis 49:33. “When Jacob finished instructing his sons, he drew his feet onto the bed; he expired and was gathered to his people.”
Genesis 50:1-3, 5 “Then Joseph fell upon his father’s face, he wept over him and kissed him. Joseph ordered his servants, the physicians, to embalm his father, so the physicians embalmed Israel. His forty day term was completed, for such is the term of the embalmed, and Egypt bewailed him for seventy days…… ‘”My father had adjured me, saying ‘behold I am about to die, my grave, which I have hewn for myself in the land of Canaan – there you are to bury me.’ Now I will go up if you please, and bury my father, then I will return.” (Jacob was buried at least two months after he died.)
Dealing with Abraham:
Genesis 25:8-9 “And Abraham expired and died at a good old age, mature and content, and he was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite facing Mamre.”
Dealing with Isaac:
Genesis 35:29. “And Isaac expired and died and he was gathered to his people, old and fulfilled of days; his sons Esau and Jacob, buried him.”
Dr. Schroeder then turned to an article that had been published in the magazine Lancet, the British equivalent to the Journal of the American Medical Assn. This article had been published in 2001, and the reason he used it was that it was “peer reviewed.” This means that scientists had reviewed the article before publishing it and agreed that it was not nonsense, and therefore worthy of publication in a serious scientific journal. Peer review is the scientific and academic equivalent of “kosher.”
The article was a compilation of “life after death” experiences, where a person had expired on the operating table and had been brought back to life.
Of the 300-odd events where this had occurred in the study, about 60 or so of the people remembered the event in one form or another, the familiar “white light,” the deep contentment and the experience of relatives sort of pushing them back, saying to them “it’s not your time yet.”
The immediate implication that came to my mind was that if it had ‘been their time’ the relatives who were pushing the individuals back would have welcomed the soul or mind or whatever it was of the dying person into their midst – that the dying person would have been “gathered to his people.”
There are strong arguments put forth to explain that the phenomenon of the “white light” that people that are brought back from death experience is nothing more than the chemical reactions of a brain in crisis. The arguments point to the fact that while a person is dying, the brain is extremely busy attempting to deal with the business of closing down. Part of this involves shooting various chemicals that induce or that can induce hallucinations of contentment.
What evidently got noticed in the article in Lancet was that if these arguments were true, since all brains have similar chemistry, the “white light” experience would have been far more common than it was in the study. There was a quote in that magazine, as far as a magazine of that nature could go, essentially suggesting that the relation of the mind to the body should be re-examined.
Dr. Schroeder moved on to a branch of physics called quantum mechanics. According to him, if you haven’t seen how illogical quantum mechanics is, then you haven’t really studied the subject. He gave the example of an electron moving from one place to another by instantaneously transferring from one spot to another. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but he said that nonsensical as it seemed, the laws of quantum mechanics work because if they didn’t, it would be impossible to turn on a light switch or a car.
In quantum mechanics you deal with a world of sub-atomic particles that you can’t ever seem to find, but whose existence you can infer from the evidence they leave – tracks of sorts. It’s kind of like seeing the skin of your hand being pressed in, feeling it pressed in and being unable to find what is doing the pressing. You can calculate the amount of the pressure and even infer the size and possibly the shape of the object applying the pressure, but there it – isn’t.
You can take a sonoscope and hear the sound that a brain makes – essentially the gurgling of blood rushing from cell to cell – but you will not see the memories or hear the sounds heard by the person’s brain you are investigating. You can, with an electrode, stimulate the person to recount events from his childhood or smell smells or what have you – but you cannot yourself access the smell with a machine to measure it.
You may see a house, a garage with an open door and a car parked within the garage. Your eye picks up the vision of the light waves and transmits it using the optical nerve to go to the brain to interpret the house, garage and car. But where does the actual picture go? Nobody seems to know where. They know where they can go to put an electrode to get you to describe the house, garage and car in excruciating detail. But the actual image itself nobody – except the owner of the brain being tested – can reach.
This has an implication. The implication is that the brain is kind of a radio picking up the data of the mind. The implication is that the mind is separate from the brain. Scientists can go only so far in this description, but Dr. Schroeder quoted scientist after scientist, most of whom were Nobel Prize winning physicists and biologists, indicating in one way or another that the universe had the characteristic of thought rather than matter, that the materialistic view of the universe was in some way not explaining the data at hand. He pointed out that some scientists had a lot of trouble embracing the idea that the universe was thought – that’s metaphysics. But there was the data.
Dr. Schroeder then turned back to his whiteboard. He said that in the Kabbalah there were indications of pre-Creation activity by G-d. He then wrote the word “wisdom” in Hebrew and drew an arrow to the E on the whiteboard. According to the Kabbalah, it was with “wisdom” that G-d created the universe. He then turned to the opening verse of the Torah, “B’reishít bará Elo-ím et hashamáyim v’et ha’áretz”. First he debunked all the common translations of this line. He said that it doesn’t mean “In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth.” He pointed out that grammatically, the word “b’reishít” just doesn’t work in Hebrew. The proper word to get to the usual translation of the fist line of Genesis is “b’rishoná” which means “in the beginning.”
So what does “b’reishít” mean? He used the 2,100 year old Jerusalem translation into Aramaic (a sister language to Hebrew) translation to get to the actual meaning. The “b” in “b’reishít” means “with”. Reishít is a first cause, something from the head (rosh) – wisdom. Therefore the actual translation is “With wisdom, G-d created the heavens and the earth.”
This was where Dr. Schroeder was leading us. We access wisdom – the mind – with our brain. This process, he called “emergent mind,” the last word in his formula. This “mind” is what scientists have been sensing as they try to make sense of the data the universe seems to offer. This mind is what we access with our brains, which are mere material to accomplish the access. Dr. Schroeder gave the example of the impossibility of fish discovering water.
Assuming that fish did have the mental sophistication of humans, they wouldn’t discover water – it’s all around them. For them to discover water, they would have to either emerge from the water, so as to see it outside of them, but not entirely dominating their universe, or comprehend something which was beyond the physical – metaphysical – to be able to postulate the existence of water and other things around it. Either they would emerge physically from their surroundings to see it for what it was, or mentally emerge from their surroundings to perceive that there was something beyond it. We perceive a reality, he said, but never think that that which is perceived is the full reality.
The following is what I understood Dr. Schroeder to be leading up to, though he did not say this himself at the lecture.
We are emerging from a false perception of the universe to finally begin to perceive its true nature – the Thought of G-d. This is the point of the word “b’reishít” at the beginning of the Torah. This is why we can’t seem to find so many sub-atomic particles whose presence are sensed and detected. They are products of Mind, of the Thought that brought us all into existence 15 billion years ago with a Big Bang. If this is so, our brains are physical tools to access this Thought, which we add to with our own experiences in the lives we lead. And then once we pass on, hopefully we are gathered to our people with an opportunity to understand more of that Thought and move on to the next stage.