Every person on earth has what amounts to thousands of beliefs, unproven assumptions and axioms which allow him or her to navigate in the world. We make judgments about other people we may have never seen before all the time. This allows us to anticipate their actions and reactions and to act appropriately. These judgments are really assumptions and are based on our experience, on the context in which we meet them and on our basic beliefs about whether people are essentially good or evil.

Picture walking down the street and hearing footsteps behind you. Most times you won’t do anything about it. You will presume it is a friendly or neutral person. But there is actually no proof that this person is not about to hold you up or attack you. Perhaps in Rio de Janeiro or in Johannesburg, you would break out into a cold sweat. The truth is that you don’t know anything more about the person in Jerusalem or New York than the person in Rio or Johannesburg. You have built up a certain set of beliefs and projected it onto the stranger behind yourself.

If someone knocks on the door in Jerusalem many people say, “Enter” without even finding out who is there. If someone knocks on the door in Brooklyn, most people say, “Who is there” and then look through the key-hole (or the modern equivalent: the security camera), to confirm that the person is not hostile. If someone knocks on my door on the southern side of Chicago, I may take a machine gun, fire a few rounds into the door and then see who was there. What causes the different reactions are my beliefs about human beings in those areas.

Every human being has thousands of such beliefs which guide him or her through the day and which allow him or her to anticipate other people’s reactions. Beliefs are a basic fundamental tool used by man to orientate himself within his environment. This has nothing to do with religion. Believing in God is simply taking that natural human capacity and applying it to an Ultimate Being. The capacity itself, however, is basic to our ability to function as human beings.

In fact, scientists also rely on this trait of believing on a daily basis. Sciences are very dependent on a set of axioms in order to be able to function. These are unproven assumptions to which all members of the scientific community adhere. They represent the underlying deep beliefs held by scientists, based on the idea that there is order and harmony in the universe. As physicist Gerald Holton put it: “A few simple themes – unspoken assumptions and intuitively held prejudices that originate outside science – underlie all scientific thought.” Bertrand Russel put it stronger still: “The scientific credo: the system of beliefs and emotions which lead a person to become a great scientific discoverer.”[1]

It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is the underlying religion of science, a religion which has served the scientific exercise very well. “Emotions” and even what Russel called “undemonstrated faith”[2] – all combine to help the scientist discover what Albert Einstein described as God’s world. “In judging a physical theory… Einstein would ask himself if he would have made the universe in that particular way, were he G-d.”[3] “I want to know how G-d created the world,” he stated. “I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details.”[4]

This does not mean that science is not a rational exercise, and does not try to prove its theories. It does mean, however, that the axioms which let it do this are unprovable. Science’s fabulous track record is based on increasing approximations of the truth based on these axioms.

And what are these axioms? Let’s look at three big ones: unity, simplicity and beauty.

Scientists believe that the more unifying a theory – the more elements it embraces and explains – the more likely it is to be true.

For the last forty years, thousands of scientists have invested their lives and billions of dollars to show that the four basic forces of nature (the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force and the force of gravity) are really one force.[5]

But, there is no reason why scientists should feel that all forces are really one force. Why could scientists not have simply accepted that there are four forces rather than one? Instead, they embarked upon a search that has involved a massive effort, super-colliders and enormous resources over four decades.

The answer is that the possibility of finding a comprehensive, total explanation for all of nature is a deeply-rooted vision of the scientific paradigm or belief system. All scientists believe this. The search for, and the belief in the possibility of finding, a unified field theory “testifies to the triumph of the old idea that all creation might be ruled by a single elegantly beautiful principle.”[6]

Quantum physics gave confirmation to this idea of the essential unity of the universe. “Subatomic particles [in fact] have no meaning as isolated entities … Quantum theory thus reveals a basic oneness of the universe. … We cannot decompose the world into independently existing smallest units. … Nature does not show us any isolated ‘basic building blocks’, but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole.”[7]

It matters not for our argument that this belief is highly consistent with a belief in an Ultimate Creator. Scientists do not readily make that connection. The point is that no endeavor in life can be made without basing it on certain axioms, assumptions or beliefs.

Another axiom of science is the idea that the more simple the theory, the truer it is likely to be. Pure logic might dictate that since the universe is endlessly complicated, the theories which describe it should be so as well. Yet, scientists believe that everything in the universe can be reduced to a simple formula. They believe, as an unproven axiom, that the simpler a scientific theory, the truer it is.[8] And this belief has served them well.


Scientists also believe that the theories which describe the world (including some very abstract mathematical ones) should be beautiful. It is an axiom of science, that there is a relationship between truth and beauty. Logic might tell us that scientific theories might just as soon be ugly as beautiful, but this is not so.

The physicist Bondi stated: “What I remember most clearly was that when I put down a suggestion that was most cogent and reasonable, Einstein did not in the least contest this, but he only said, ‘Oh, how ugly’. As soon as an equation seemed to him to be ugly, he rather lost interest in it and could not understand why somebody else was willing to spend much time on it. He was quite convinced that beauty was a guiding principle in the search for important results in theoretical physics.”[9]

As with Einstein, so with Paul Dirac, who declared that “It is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit the experiment.”[10]

As physicist A. Zee put it: “Some physics equations are so ugly that we cannot bear to look at them, let alone write them down. Certainly the Ultimate Designer would use only beautiful equations in designing the universe! We proclaim: “Let us worry about beauty first and truth will take care of itself… Aesthetics has become a driving force in contemporary physics… Physicists have discovered something of wonder: nature, at the fundamental level, is beautifully designed.”[11]

As with the axioms of unity and simplicity, the axiom of beauty has worked very well for scientists. Zee again: “As we examine nature on deeper and deeper levels, she appears ever more beautiful; why should that be?”[12]

Simple symmetries are seen everywhere in nature. Things shaped in a circle or a square, snowflakes, reflections, etc. are all symmetrical. It was the discovery of deeper symmetries in nature which helped unlock many of the secrets of higher physics. As Paul Davies put it, “Forces are simply nature’s attempt to maintain various abstract symmetries in the world.”[13]

There is even a remarkable symmetry called supersymmetry (a deeper symmetry not obvious on the surface) which allows the different sub-atomic particles which make up the world (bosons and fermions) to look like each other – i.e., to be more unified – when they are swapped.[14] Supersymmetry even predicts a whole lot of new particles. They have not been found yet, but the scientists labor on – believing that truth lies in the hidden recesses of beauty.[15]

The beliefs of scientists extend even to theories that contradict each other. This is the case of the two mega-theories of science, quantum physics (which explains matter at a micro level) and the theory of relativity (which explains matter at macro level). They cannot both be true – one of them or both of them have to change or be overthrown. And yet, for now, scientists accept both theories and they both, in fact, have practical applications. Scientists are not bothered by this because both theories are the best possible explanations we have to date to explain the world. Scientists are not bothered by this because they know that they cannot (at least at present) come up with a final theory to explain the world. They are just coming to approximate reality as closely as possible. Or, as Sir Karl Popper said, “The most we can say about a scientific theory is that it has not yet been disproven.”

How do scientists close the gap? They take a leap of faith.  Theoretically, if scientists would find a contradiction in any theory, that would be the end of the theory. But, that is not what happens. For example, recently scientists thought they had found neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light. This contradicts the theory of relativity. However, scientists didn’t get too excited, because the theory of relativity has proven to be robust enough to outlast a single contradiction. Scientists believed in the theory more than they believed in the contradiction.
But what if it proved true? Could it be that the speed of light itself may not be a constant. No scientist was even willing to suggest this. “Relativity’s spell is so strong that the constancy of c (the speed of light) is now woven into all the mathematical tools available to the physicist. “Varying c” is not even a swear word; it is simply not present in the vocabulary of physics.”[16]

In the end, the whole thing proved to be a false alarm. So once again, scientific belief served science well. But it is important to note that the belief came first.

It goes further. Scientists don’t just believe in a set of discrete axioms; they operate within a set paradigm – a pre-existing framework which tells scientists (without them realizing it) which types of questions are considered legitimate and which are not.[17] This will mean that only certain types of answers are going to be given.

Thomas Kuhn, in his The History of Scientific Revolutions states that these are essentially puzzles, problems that do not bring the overall paradigm into question. A paradigm is therefore not simply a scientific theory or set of theories; it is rather a whole way of looking at the world.

It is very difficult for scientists to imagine anything outside of their paradigm. This is why scientific revolutions are usually made by someone quite young (as Einstein was when he discovered relativity) who is not yet fully trained in the paradigm.  Even then, the old paradigm is not just discarded. The new paradigm has to battle the old, and in fact, a correct theory may initially be rejected by the majority of the scientific community who find it too radical for the thinking of the time. Examples of such new theories include Thomas Young’s wave theory of light; Pasteur’s fermentation; Mendel’s theory of genetics; Louis Pasteur’s germ theory of disease; Joseph Lister’s discovery of antisepsis; Ignaz Semmelweis’s washing hands before examining patients!

Young scientists usually propose and accept the new paradigm while older ones adhere to the old paradigm. Max Planck, one of the discoverers of quantum theory, claimed that the old ideas die only with those who hold them!

According to Judaism, the mental part of man is divided into the sechel – intellectual – and dimyonot– his imaginative side.[18]

(Dimyonot is sometimes translated as someone’s illusions or even delusions.)

The word “dimyonot (דמיונות)” comes from the same word as man, “Adam  (אדם)”, from the word “Adameh (אדמה)” –  I will be like – i.e. I will be God-like, imitating His actions.  And how? I will take a leap of imagination (from which the word dimyon (דמיון) comes).

This is very ambitious.

Imagination is vital to the capacity to believe in God. The only way that we can imagine a being that cannot be seen, heard or felt is by a leap of imagination. The ability to take that leap is basic to the human condition. As scientists or as Monotheists, it takes us to areas that we might never have visited before. As every day citizens of this earth, it allows us to make assumptions about our environment and to react accordingly.

At some point, the capacity of our imagination takes us into the world of doubts –the realm of sofek(ספק). We move beyond the realm of faith and axioms into an uncertain world.

Doubts reflect the horizon of a person’s imagination – things which he has not yet resolved. In Judaism we embrace these doubts, because that’s the way in which we will stretch the horizons of where we are to new territories. Every yeshiva student does his best to find a difficulty – a kushyah – in the text he is solving.  And, if, there is no immediate answer to this difficulty, he is infused with joy.

The reason for this is that, without these doubts and intellectual conflicts, we would never explore. We would never go further than where we are. Doubts stretch the possible range of our experience.  Resolution of those doubts brings us into faith. And faith, as we have explained, is the tool we use for most of what we do. Yes, we use it for religion. But we are believers all, for we all have to make leaps of faith just to get through our day.
What we want is for our beliefs to be rational extensions of what we know. We want to be scientific in our beliefs. We want to be honest and rigorous in asking ourselves questions – in creating the kinds of doubts that will force us to keep on growing.  Every time we resolve a doubt in the realm of faith, we need to stretch our horizons by developing new doubts and questions.  And then we shall be very happy, because then we know that we’re going to grow.

[1] Bertrand Russel, The Will to Doubt, pg. 62.

[2] Bertrand Russel, The Will to Doubt, The Wisdom Library, pg. 61 “The scientific creator, like every other, is apt to be inspired by passions to which he gives an intellectual explanation amounting to an undemonstrated faith without which he would probably achieve little.”

[3] A. Zee, Fearful Symmetry p. 6.

[4] As quoted in A. Zee, Fearful Symmetry p. 8.

[5]  To date, scientists have managed to combine the weak and the electromagnetic forces into the electroweak force, and that in turn with the strong force into a grand unified theory. What they are struggling with is the unification of gravity with these three.

[6] Timothy Ferris in PBS science special. (Ferris is author of The Red Limit – The Search for the Edge of the Universe, Bantam, 1981).

[7] Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics, page 78.

[8] Ironically, in fact, the Church argued with Copernicus that the fact that his theory was simpler (and more elegant) was no indication that it was more true. (Copernicus had proposed a heliocentric system of planetary motion in contrast to the Church-accepted doctrine of Ptolemy’s ingenious and accurate but very complicated system of circles and sub-circles, with different radii, tilts and different amounts and directions of eccentricity.)

[9] H Bondi in A. Zee, Fearful Symmetry,  p. 3.

[10] Paul Davies, Superforce, pg. 54.

[11] A. Zee, Fearful Symmetry, p. 3.

[12] ibid. pg 4. See also Paul Davies, Superforce, p. 68, last paragraph.

[13] Paul Davies, Superforce p. 7; see also p. 112-116.

The discovery of these hidden symmetries is all the more remarkable given that, on the surface, everything in nature seems to demand the opposite, that things be slightly asymmetrical. In Lucifer’s Legacy, Frank Close writes that if Creation had been perfect and its symmetry had remained unblemished, nothing that we now know would ever have been.

A perfect Creation, with its symmetry untainted, would have led to matter and antimatter in precise balance and a mutual annihilation when in the very next instant they recombined: a precisely symmetrical universe would have vanished as soon as it had appeared.

[14] If two identical fermions are swapped (for instance, switch two electrons), the total quantum state of the collection is inverted. (Imagine crests and troughs of a wave being interchanged.) Swapping two identical bosons, in contrast, leaves the total state unaltered.  Yet somehow in the mirror of supersymmetry, standoffish fermions look magically like sociable bosons, and vice versa. Figuratively, you might say it is a symmetry that lets you compare apples and oranges. Hold up an apple to the supersymmetry mirror, and its reflection looks and tastes like an orange.

[15] Jan Jolie, Uncovering Supersymmetry, Scientific American, July 2002.

[16] Joao Maguijo, “Plan B for the Cosmos” in Scientific American, January, 2001.

[17] Thomas Kuhn, The History of Scientific Revolutions.

[18] 2000 years later, modern man was to discover that these are reflected in the left and right sides of the brain respectively.



One Response to “Faith Is Not A Religious Idea”

  1. Yaacov Deyo


    Thank you for posting the article.

    In reference to your statement … “At some point, the capacity of our imagination takes us into the world of doubts –the realm of sofek(ספק).”

    It would seem to me that the moment at which that point occurs is the moment of experience of circumstance. For instance, consider a circumstance in which an employee hears his boss say: “The report you wrote needs to be rewritten.” If the employee is identifying with their goof at that moment — a condition a priori to the statement — then they will likely experience that statement as “causing” them discomfort, and imagine that perhaps their status as an employee is at risk. They animated the statement with a speculative dimyon driven by their low (perhaps persistently anxious state). All this occurs before bechira kicks in.

    The truth is that the boss’s comment is just a statement the meaning of which is relatively clear, but whose consequence is as yet unknown.

    It may actually be that the project became more expansive based on the high quality of the initial report, and that is why the report needs to be rewritten. A person in a higher state would have experienced that statement without negatively animating it in advance of clarification. They would either have just remained calm while hearing it, or have a positive experience of anticipating constructive rebuke or a chance to improve their work generally.

    The constructive use of dimyon you refer to then appears only to be operative at the level of nefesh or higher, levels where the belief that there is a necessary coupling between a circumstance and the experience of circumstance is understood to be an illusory belief.

    It is in that space where an embrace of the unknown is rewarded with an insight into a deeper truth, or to a place “we might never have visited before.”

    However, if dimyon is made use of in a lower state — with the belief (dimyon as well) that what I see in that state is true — then isn’t that basically why people “start doubting” and then go off the derech? Do you know of many cases of people in a very high state of consciousness who went off the derech? It usually happens when they are low and bothered.

    The scientist’s first job then is to place themselves in a high state, for it will be there that he or she will have the best chance of making constructive use of the co’ach hadimyon we’ve been given.

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