Monday, November 9, 2009

Order and Uncertainty
Random Thoughts on A SERIOUS MAN

This rambling piece of writing is an attempt to bring together various and disparate thoughts on A Serious Man. A month after the film's release it is, as the classic cliche states, a day late and a dollar short. Its position is clear enough, here on this blog, but its momentum, if any, cannot be determined with any degree of certainty.


Understanding physics is easy. I've been studying it as a layman since childhood and have found it fascinating, enlightening and useful. Where there are questions it provides answers. Where there are answers it provides questions. Like I said, it's easy. It's the math that's hard.

Religion works along the same lines. My father was a Brother in the Carmelite Order in the 1950s. He renounced his vows and left, which in turn allowed me to enter the world. While my father remains a believer he realized his belief ran in a more moderate direction and the strict seclusion of monastic life did not suit him. That life, he thought, provided too many rigid answers. He had too many questions that required more shades of gray than the black and white world of monastic life could provide. Besides, he found the strict adherence to ritual offputting. He never tires of telling me how strange it was to be told to be quiet when not a sound was being made. The head of the order would pass by his cell while he was engaged in the required contemplative prayer, stop, look in and say, "Brother Ferrara, please keep it down." That kind of bizarre ritualistic existence wasn't for him. But it is important because it represents the math, the nuts and bolts of the devotion to the monastic lifestyle. Trouble is he didn't want the math. He wanted the stories.

But do the stories mean anything? Do the parables of the Bible, the illustrative stories given in physics, the legends we create for our everyday lives - Do they mean anything, provide guidance in any way or are they just a way to comfort ourselves with eternal questions knowing if we ever arrived at an answer it would all be over? There are so many stories, so many examples, so many illustrations. How can solace be derived from such a confusing labyrinth of tradition, history and age old wisdom?

Let us approach this from a different angle.

Carl Sagan once illustrated how much reading one can do in a lifetime by using a row of bookshelves in the New York Public Library. He went by an average of two books a week for around seventy years. Were that the case one could hope to read 7,280 books in one's lifetime. This number took up only a few bookcases in the New York Public Library, a library that contains more books than one can read by factors of ten. Thus the library houses more books than anyone could ever possibly read. Even reading constantly for decades a person will come up extremely short given how much there is out there. No matter how hard one tries, no matter how much one reads, one will never read everything. "The trick," said Sagan, "is knowing which books to read."

But which books, or stories, do we read?

A Serious Man, the latest cinematic effort by Joel and Ethan Coen, is one of those illustrative stories in physics. It provides answers by asking questions and asks questions by giving answers. It takes the thought experiment of Schrödinger's cat and presents it in cinematic form. The characters are both dead and alive in the end and will only be one or the other if we the viewers open the box. Until we do, and we cannot, they will be both.

Or take the possible dybbuk of the prologue, a "dybbuk" being a wandering or evil spirit. A man is helped by a neighbor but his wife tells him the man who helped him died long before and that he was in fact a dybbuk. When the man/dybbuk shows up at their cottage and engages in polite conversation she stabs him with an ice pick. He continues to talk for a short while but soon after begins to bleed. He leaves before the couple can determine if he were a real man who would die from his wounds or indeed an evil spirit who would simply vanish. He is gone and his outcome is uncertain.


Larry Gopnik, the protagonist of the film, teaches physics and early in the film argues with a student about the very idea of uncertainty and how it can be understood through math, while stories only exist to help illustrate the math. The student says he understands the stories but not the math and doesn't think he should fail. Understanding the stories should be enough. Larry understands the math but not the stories even admitting as much to the student. Since the purpose of the class, and of physics, is the math, he must fail the student if in fact the student doesn't understand the math. The student leaves and an envelope of money appears on Larry's desk. Did the student leave it as a bribe? He says he didn't, Larry says he did. Schrödinger's cat is now in play as the envelope itself becomes the cat, both existing (alive) and not existing (dead) according to which observation one goes with.

None of this, none of it, is helpful to Larry. At the moment of our story Larry's life is falling apart. The problem for Larry is that he teaches math and the math of his own life - his wife leaving him, his brother's employment, physical and legal problems, his children's wandering existence - doesn't form a coherent equation. It does not follow that this decision or that experience equals this crisis or that tragedy.

Larry Gopnik needs a story to illustrate the math of his life. In an effort to find one he visits three Rabbis to speak of his troubles and hopefully receive an answer. The first visit provides simple-minded questions asked by a junior Rabbi who has not yet experienced enough of life to go beyond that parking lot outside his office. What would those cars look like to someone unfamiliar with them?

The second Rabbi provides an amazing story of a mystical experience that has no conclusion, no climax, no payoff. It just... ends. But that story isn't about an ending. It's not about payoff. It's about looking for an answer to a riddle and realizing there isn't one and that once that is accepted, one can move on. This is entirely unsatisfactory to Larry. He can only move on with an explanation. Without one the mysteries of life become overwhelming. Larry cannot accept that an equation can be formed but not produce an end product of rational design.

The third Rabbi has the answer but Larry never gets to hear it. The third Rabbi, Marshak, has the wisdom to help Larry but the answer that Larry needs from him will take too long to explain, on the order of decades. There's an old adage in the fitness world that says there is a magic pill that can help one lose weight and get in shape, the only catch is it takes thirty minutes to swallow. It's called exercise. Rabbi Marshak has the answer that Larry needs but can't tell him. Larry has to provide the answer for himself and can do so with the only catch being that it takes decades to provide it. It's called life.

But what if Larry dies before that answer comes?

That's why he has to know which books to read. He has to know and he has to find out now with the only problem being that he can only find out by exploring each possible outcome, none of which provide certainty.

And there are so many outcomes.


The most wonderful thing about physics and religion is that they provide stories to illustrate the nuts and bolts of equations and life but the stories are so simplistic as to render them pointless as adequate descriptions. The complexities of scientific and theological thought usually produce the unfortunate by-product that stories designed to explain them actually lead the student down an entirely different path. Take Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. It states that an the momentum or velocity of a particle and its position cannot be known simultaneously with certainty. Its momentum can be determined dependent upon how well defined is its wavelength but if its wavelength is not well-defined its position can be accurately measured but not its momentum. Essentially it is simply this: the requirements necessary to determine one run counter to the requirements for knowing the other. Thus, one can know with certainty only one at a time, never both simultaneously. And yet from this theory we get popular culture interpretations such as those found in Larry Gopnik's own class that we can never know anything. Heisenberg would be amused at how general and sweeping the explanations for his principle have become. His intricate model for stating the uncertainty in determining the position and momentum of a particle has been transmogrified into a nihilistic philosophy of life. So it goes.

Larry and indeed all of physics is as guilty as anyone for this oversimplification of the laws that order the universe. He too has come to believe that the stories provide more logic and understanding than the math. But they don't. Math provides the answers and in religion those answers come from the very mechanisms rejected by my father. It's the dull stuff, the rigid ritual, that gets one to a satisfactory conclusion. This is this. All else is masturbation.

But my Dad is no fool. He didn't want a pat sum to a pre-ordered equation. He wanted vagaries and ambiguities and all they can offer. He could only get this as a layperson, not a monk. The physicists and the Rabbis know the math. For them it's about measuring position and momentum. For the layperson it's about not knowing anything. From that position the layperson can then begin exploring their life and searching for answers that have no predetermined sum.

The Coen brothers know the stories of physics. They know the philosophies that have been born twisted and flipped around from what was originally a thesis filled with symbols and numbers, illustrative of nothing more than the laws of nature itself. They know that people look for answers that have soft edges and blurred lines. They don't like answers with visible definition. Tell the average Larry Gopnik that A + B = C and he's likely to want to know why it does and beyond that, what does it mean? Of course, it means nothing. It means that A + B = C. That's all. To find any further meaning requires a story, one that can illustrate why A and B come up with a C. And this quest for a story to explain the math is what tradition is all about. And this need to hear a story and tell a story is the meaning. It is the answer.

Carl Sagan was no fool either. He enjoyed playing the lay ideas of physics against the canonical ones of the experts in the field. He was often looked upon with resentment and suspicion by members of the physics community because it was felt he approached physics from too philosophical a position, one that played into the desires of the public to hear stories that illustrate the ideas because the math was simply too bewildering. But he knew that was how you got people interested in the math, by telling them a story. His illustration of how many books one can read in a lifetime was really a lesson on life. His remarkable conclusion that states, "The trick is knowing which books to read," is a paradox and Sagan knew it. One cannot read every book so one needs to know which books to read but one can only know which books to read by reading every book, which one cannot do. Thus one can never know which books to read. So live your life, and the answers you need will come and their meaning will be provided by you, exclusively. Who knew a physicist could be such a fine Rabbi?

And who knew a movie could so confidently illustrate a complex notion like uncertainty so concisely and so eloquently as does the last few minutes of A Serious Man? Position and momentum. Uncertainty and precise measurement. Actions with consequences, and actions without. Like the dybbuk in the prologue A Serious Man exits before an outcome is certain and that is what gives it all of its meaning. And beauty. And of that I'm certain.