We must believe in free will; we have no choice – an old saying
Is the universe indeterministic or deterministic? Random or designed? Are our lives predestined or not?
At first glance, one would assume that the answer to these questions is dependent on belief in G-d. Acceptance of G-d as Creator of the universe would seem to imply that the universe was created with design and purpose. If however, one does not accept that premise, than existence could very well be a result of a random set of circumstances, with no particular plan and direction.
Religion too would appear to be predicated on a clearly defined and even absolute structure: Immutable laws that define and regulate human behavior. By contrast, many secular schools of thought embrace a more relativistic approach, e.g. moral relativism, which rejects rigid guidelines.
Yet, upon further thought the lines are not that clearly drawn; both approaches overlap. Even according to the circumstantial argument, the universe is clearly driven by an extraordinary inflexible order. From the physiological to the cosmological, we live in a world of fundamental systems ruled by defined and unwavering laws (the so called “laws of nature”). Conversely, belief in G-d and religion dictates the concept of free will, that our choices are not predestined, allowing for surprises and an unexpected future.
Indeed, a strong argument could be made that a world controlled by “natural law” is airtight with no room for spontaneity. As French philosopher Laplace and others have written in advancing the probability theory, if we were to know all the data about any phenomenon we could accurately predict all the events that were yet to come. Since we live in a causal world, defined by cause and effect, there is no room for true randomness. In other words, randomness and probabilities are not an objectively measurable phenomenon but rather just a measure of our lack of knowledge. A coin toss, for example, is not necessarily characterized by randomness: if we knew the shape and weight of the coin, the strength of the tosser, the atmospheric conditions of the room in which the coin is tossed, the distance of the coin-tosser’s hand from the ground, etc., we could predict with certainty whether it would be heads or tails. However, as this information is not available to us, it is convenient to assume it is a random event and ascribe probabilities to heads or tails.
Yet, paradoxically there are those that use this same scientific approach to see all of existence as random. It would seem logical that thinkers who leave no room for randomness in existence should also embrace the fact that existence itself was put in place by a Grand Designer…
Ironically, a G-d based approach to life allows for indeterminism based on free will more than a scientific approach does.
So how do we make sense of these contradictory approaches? What part of our lives is predetermined and what part is determined by our choices?
The question most relevant to us, of course, is whether we are victims of circumstances or whether we can control the destiny of our lives.
Purim provides us with the fascinating answer. Purim – the name of the holiday – is so called because Haman cast lots to determine the date to kill the Jews. “Pur” in Persian means “lot.”
Strange name to call a holiday: Lots. Is there anything more random than a lottery? Why would we give such a name to a holiday that commemorates the salvation of an entire people from genocide?
It is because Purim teaches us a radical message.
Not order but indeterminism is the essence of existence. G-d, Creator of the cosmic order and of all rules of nature, is not bound by these or any laws and structures. On His essential level, G-d transcends any form of structure and definition. Yet, this same G-d and His inherent indeterminism chose to create and manifest in a highly deterministic universe. Indeterminism chose a very determined set of laws. The essence of G-d is beyond determinism and indeterminism, and therefore can combine both.
There is randomness and there is randomness. There is a randomness that is beneath structure and laws – when things get out of control and result in an arbitrary type of existence, directionless. This is what we call being a victim of circumstances – circumstances have taken control of your life and you are left lost and aimless. But then there is a randomness that comes from a “place” that is not bound by laws, a place that transcends and is beyond structures.
The structure of existence, the mystics tell us, originates from the Essence of Reality that is beyond any structure. Sometimes our own structures block us from seeing that essence. Our plans, schedules, organized systems can get in the way of experiencing the core. Our challenge is to discover the transcendent within the systems.
Purim embodies this power. Purim reaches a place that is “beyond our structured perception” (“ad d’lo yoda”). Logic and the rules of existence should have dictated a tragic end for the Jews in Persia. After all Haman was in power and he had persuaded the King Achashveirosh to annihilate the Jewish people. Yet, it doesn’t work out that way. Despite all odds, defying all logic, the tables are turned and instead of tragedy the day becomes one of great celebration, with Haman hung on the gallows he built for Mordechai. Suddenly, unexpected, darkness is transformed to light.
Purim is the true story of life – as it is behind the scenes. Not man-made plans but a Divine hand is at work. Amidst the seemingly random events of life, underlying forces are the true shapers of destiny.
The same Purim force has been working throughout history. Many great nations have come and gone. They had great plans, powerful armies, super wealthy coffers, breathtaking culture – each empire in its heyday thought that it had it made. Yet, not one has survived. Not the Egyptians, not the Assyrians, not the Babylonians, not the Persians, not the Greeks, not the Romans, not the Byzantines, not the Spanish, not the Portuguese. What happened with all their structures, systems and plans for permanent world dominance? Man-made mortal plans can only create mortal, impermanent structures. Survival, eternal survival is dependent on a force that originates from a place that is beyond logic, beyond the odds, beyond defined structures.
The consequences of this idea are far reaching. No matter how your life has been shaped, no matter how you may have been scarred by parents, peers and social attitudes, no matter what experiences have defined you – you are never a victim of circumstances; you always have a window to a place that defies structures. With all the determinism of life, with all its causes and effects, there is no conclusive, airtight determinism that controls your life. You always have an opening to an indeterministic place that opens you up to new possibilities.
Purim tells us that it is not our logic and plans that runs the world. It is a higher force that may manifest in random experiences, but within the randomness lies the greatest power of all.
Yes, we live in a world of structure. Yes, we are bound by its rules. But, at the same time when we learn to navigate we can use the structure to transcend structure. We must do everything we can within the laws of nature, within our parameters. Yet, simultaneously we must remember that the essence within is beyond our plans. When we do everything in our natural power, the deeper essence emerges.
That’s what Purim is all about: Take your structures, take your defined reality and turn it inside out and upside down, and see new things emerge.
Your life is dark, truly dark. Purim teaches us that in one moment darkness can be transformed to light.
You feel limited, locked. Purim opens up new opportunities.
You feel hopeless. Purim suddenly gives you hope.
You have a great life, but you wonder how high can you reach? Can we mortals touch the sky? Can we achieve immortality, create eternity? Purim tells us we can.
All this – because within the inflexible structure lies a fundamental indeterministic freedom, that is not bound by any structures, laws and definitions.
This paradox has now become recognized in modern physics. According to quantum mechanics a fundamental indeterminism exists on the microscopic level. On that level entities don’t have shape or form, they are in a “state of probability,” with the potential to go different ways. This probability or uncertainty is not a result of lack of knowledge, but it has been proven to be an inherent probability.
What makes this even more fascinating and strange is the fact that, while the basic, subatomic structure that comprises all of existence is fundamentally indeterministic, simultaneously macroscopic existence is fundamentally structures and deterministic! How is it possible that an indeterministic core should produce such deterministic results? A key component, for instance, of computer chips is driven by the uncertainty principle of subatomic indeterminism. Yet, the computer chip produces absolutely deterministic results that we depend on daily.
Where do the two worlds of determinism and indeterminism meet? Science has yet to find out.
What science does not yet know, Purim has always known.
So where does indeterminism meet determinism? At your doorstep. And on Purim the door opens between these two realities.