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Understanding Natural Phenomena

By R' Boruch Yonah Lipton  

How can we explain natural phenomena? When I plant a seed and it germinates, is the growth a result of a series of chemical reactions that occurs whenever conditions are favorable? When the sun radiates light into space, is the light a result of a fusion reaction that takes place provided the temperature is hot enough? Are seeds, water, and soil the causes of grain growth and a fusion reaction the cause of the sun's radiation? Or is there another explanation for these phenomena?

Scientist Kenneth R. Miller writes that natural phenomena can be explained by material causes. When the sun radiates light, he says, the fusion of hydrogen into helium causes this light. He would likewise say that when a plant grows, the interaction of sunlight, water, and other inorganic and organic chemicals causes this growth. Kenneth Miller correctly notes that the idea that natural phenomena can be explained by material causes is an assumption woven into the heart of the scientific method.

The alternative explanation for natural phenomena is that they are miraculous. A natural phenomenon is miraculous if it occurs without physical cause. We are all familiar with open miracles in Tanach that were without physical cause. Take the splitting of the Red Sea. The splitting of the sea resulted from the will of G-d and nothing more. So says Ramban in his comment to Exodus 14:21. Although a strong east wind blew concurrently with the dividing of the water, wind cannot cause the sea to split. The wind was present, says Ramban, merely to mislead the Egyptians into thinking G-d was not behind the sea splitting so they would follow the Israelites into the sea.

Are the natural phenomena that we see occurring regularly equally as miraculous as the splitting of the Red Sea? Perhaps plant growth occurs not because of the interaction of molecules but rather because of a miracle. Perhaps everyday sunlight results not as a by-product of nuclear fusion but because of a miracle. Faced with a choice between nuclear fusion and miracle as explanations for sunlight, Kenneth Miller calls the case for fusion "obvious." But is it really so obvious?

A recent study concluded that young children who sleep with the light on are much more likely to develop myopia later in life. According to this study, sleeping with the light on was the cause of myopia. But a different study found the conclusion of the former study to be fallacious. The latter study found a strong link between parental myopia and the development of child myopia, also noting that myopic parents were more likely to leave a light on in their children's bedroom. The connection between sleeping with a light on and developing myopia turned out to be one of correlation, not causation.

Concerning grain growth, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler zt"l questions why seeds, water, and soil bring about the growth of grain. Rabbi Dessler concludes that we have no answer to the question of why the "effect" (grain growth) follows the "cause" (seeds, water, and soil). In truth, Rabbi Dessler states, the world has no other cause but the will of G-d. Thus, seeds, water, and soil are not the causes of grain growth. The relationship is one of correlation, not causation. It is G-d's will that causes grain to grow. Seeds, water, and soil merely need to be present before G-d wills that the grain grows. Plant growth is a miracle without physical cause. 

The same argument can be made concerning the production of sunlight. The discovery within the sun of hydrogen, helium, and a core temperature of fifteen millions of degrees leads scientists like Kenneth Miller to conclude that these factors interact to cause sunshine. But following Rabbi Dessler's reasoning, the scientists have got it wrong. Sunlight is not caused by hydrogen becoming fused at high temperature. Rather, sunlight results from G-d's will when these conditions are present. Sunlight is without physical cause and is, therefore, by definition, a miracle.

Is there any harm in believing that G-d set up in the natural world a system of cause and effect that operates independently of Him? According to Rabbi Dessler, believing that everything results directly from G-d's will is part of the obligation to believe in the oneness of G-d. All power emanates from G-d. What He wills, comes into being immediately without the need for tools, intermediaries, or "laws of nature." This is the meaning of what we pray in shacharis each day: "For He alone effects mighty deeds, makes new things, is Master of wars, shows kindnesses, makes salvation flourish, creates cures ..."    

Boruch Yonah Lipton is the author of The Sin of the Golden Calf According to Rashi and The Song at the Sea According to Rashi, both available from the author's email,

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