The Humble I

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Look! And Ye Shall See: On Science & Meaning

quantum_corral_niseOne may often hear Muslims say how it is understandable for someone to not believe in Islam, but not how one can disbelieve in God. For we have, the Qur’an states, all the evidence for God’s existence we need in our immediate experience, and that it is only a deliberate refusal to look that’s responsible for atheism of any shade or colour: We shall show them Our signs in the creation around them, as well as in their ownselves, till it becomes manifest to them that this [Revelation] is the Truth, proclaims God in the Holy Qur’an [41:53].

Science prides itself at “looking”. For science is the attempt to understand our world through observation and reason. In other words, the scientific method works through the rational examination of evidences (which involves: observing and collecting data; forming a hypothesis or initial explanation from that data; performing experiments to test the hypothesis; working out a theory to account for the experimental results; then making predictions based on that theory; and finally testing out the theory by devising further experiments).

Science (Galileo) looked at Jupiter through a telescope and noticed moons orbiting it, thus revolutionising our understanding of the solar system.

Not long after, science (Newton) looked at how objects fell to the ground, giving us the theory of gravity.

Science (Faraday) looked at a magnetic field around a conductor carrying an electric current, offering electromagnetic induction.

Then science (Einstein) looked at the nature of light, gravity, space and time and gave us the time-bending theory of relativity.

At about the same time, science (Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Planck, Pauli, Dirac) looked at the wave-particle duality of light and shimmering truth of the sub-atomic world, bestowing upon us the mind-boggling, mystifying theory of quantum physics. The more science looked, the more we marvelled at its brilliance and authority.

Contrary to popular notions, modern science, rather than laying to rest belief in God once and for all, has actually invigorated it. The cheerful atheism which characterised much of the twentieth century (at least, as far as Western Europe was concerned), has given way to an aggressive atheism. For it was assumed that with the progress of science and the technological revolution it birthed, faith in cold reason, and in man being the measure of all things, would outgrow faith in God.

For a time, these augries of atheism seemed to be correct. Religion retreated; progress continued. The 19th century English Poet, Mathew Arnold, penned what’s possibly its most memorable imagery when he describes in his Dover Beach the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of the retreating ‘Sea of Faith’. Yet as offensive as it was to atheists, by the end few decades of the last century, it was clear the Sea of Faith had returned: the religious tide was roaring back in (many contend that the tide hadn’t really ever gone out).

Although the factors for the persistence of religion are multi-faceted,1 as far as its link to science is concerned it may be whittled down to two reasons. The first is related to what modern science has revealed to us about the quantum or sub-atomic realm. The other has to do with the things science is silent about concerning the Big Questions.

The first. By the 1930s, science had established a new branch of knowledge: quantum physics. This was unlike anything that had preceded it – not even Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. For the first time, scientists had encountered an area of the universe which our brains just aren’t wired to understand. Or as Brian Greene stated about quantum physics, ‘it undeniably shows that the universe is founded on principles that, from the standpoint of our day-to-day experience, are bizarre.’2

Niels Bohr, a founding father of quantum physics, once remarked that anyone who is not stupified or boggled by quantum physics, hasn’t understood it.

So let’s have a stab at trying to be stupified:

In the quantum world, electrons in atoms jump orbit without travelling the space in between; light particle will pass through two slits simultaneously without actually splitting-up; photons, electrons and other elementary particles “know” when they are being observed or not, and then adjust their behaviour accordingly; pairs of particles fired in opposite directions at near light speed instantly know what the other is doing, even when separated by significant distances; and some elementary particles need to turn, not 360 degrees, but 720 degrees, so as to come “full circle.”

In the quantum world we learn that photons, electrons and other subatomic particles are not actually particles; yet neither are they waves. Instead, they behave as waves, or as particles, depending upon the circumstances. This wave-particle duality allows us to talk about wavelengths of light and light particles: yet they are neither and they are both. (In fact, experiments have been carried out which show that a single photon can behave as a wave and as a particle at the same time.)

In the quantum world, uncertainty (or indeterminacy) rules the roost. Here we may know the path an electron takes through space, or may know where it is at any given instance; but we cannot know both. To be clear, this is not a matter of needing better measuring instruments, it is a built-in feature of the quantum universe. In practice, this means that you can never pin-point where an electron is at any given moment in time. You can only point to the probability of its being there. Put slightly differently, until it is observed, an electron can be regarded as being everywhere and nowhere!3

In what way does this help the religious discourse? Well, Gai Eaton once quipped after listing some of these counter-intuitive, weird quantum oddities: ‘After this, no one has any excuse for obscurities or improbabilities in the higher reaches of theology and metaphysics.’4

In other words, the paradoxes we encounter in Islam’s monotheistic theology – God is transcendent beyond the confines of creation, yet immanent in it; God is omniscient, omnipotent and all good, yet there exists the presence of evil in the world; that human destinies have been pre-decreed, yet we still have free-will and can still choose what to do or not to do; or that being God’s servants demands passive acceptance, while being His vicegerents (khalifahs) requires actively working for social justice and also battling tyranny – should not be that surprising. For if the quantum world defies being pinned down by human language and rationalising, but instead leaves gaps unfilled, mysteries unexplained, and minds perplexed, then moreso the paradoxes related to God and the nature of divinity.

This is not to say Muslim theologians have shyed away from seeking to resolve these paradoxes or to explain them through reasoned arguments. They have been relentless in this task.5 And yet, as fruitful and exacting as the labour has been, our theologians acknowledge that, at bottom line, these are only glimpses into the true nature of God. La tablughuhu’l-awham wa la tudrikuhu’l-afham – ‘Imaginations cannot conceive Him, nor can comprehensions understand Him’ – is what Muslim orthodoxy holds.6 As for the role of reason in religion, I hope to discuss it in a future posting, God-willing.

If science is bugged by quantum quirkiness, it faces other nagging concerns too – in particular, about the bigger picture; the deeper questions. Human consciousness, for example, and what gives rise to it? Why there exists what some term, “the moral law:” an intuitive knowledge about the basic rules of right and wrong shared by all people (our voice of conscience, so to speak)? And then there is the grandest conundrum of them all. Life on Earth aside, how did the universe come into existence, and so finely-tuned in a form hospitable to life?

The fact that these issues cannot, by definition, be tackled by science (for it basis itself on emperical observation, and does not speculate about realities beyond the physical, observable, measurable cosmos), is a significant cause for more and more people, who once erringly put their faith in science to answer the big issues, to recognise its limits. Instead, people are increasingly turning to religion to engage with questions which lie beyond the scope of the scientific method – such as God’s existence, the meaning of life, and why the universe is here; why is there something rather than nothing? For it is in the nature of science to take things apart to see how they work, while it is in the nature of religion to put things together to see what they mean.

1. For an exploration into the reasons behind Religion’s resiliance to secularisation, cf. Jonathan Sacks, The Persistence of Faith (New York: Continuum, 2005); Wooldridge & Micklethwait, God is Back (London: Penguin, 2010); McGrath, Why God Won’t Go Away (Great Britain: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011).

2. The Elegant Universe (Great Britain: Vintage, 2000), 108.

3. A delightful, lively, non-specialist account of the birth, development and weirdness of quantum physics is given in J. Gribbin, In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat (Great Britain: Corgi Books, 1988).

4. King of the Castle (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1999), 147.

5. One can see the Muslim theological project at work, with all its attendant theatre, in Winter (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Classical Muslim Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

6. See: The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2007), §.8.

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21 thoughts on “Look! And Ye Shall See: On Science & Meaning

  1. SubhanAllah. Superbly explained. Truly amazing, but how far more amazing is God Almighty. Allah, Allah, Allah.

    Thank you yet again.

  2. Likewise my Seven year old recently asked a famous resident astronomer at the Greenwich Observatory if he believed in God. After a lengthy answer he said he did because there was room for God where no one could resolve the biggest equation of all and that is the moment just before the big bang to explain the rise in temperature. He said ” If God wanted to stick his oar in it would be there.” Interestingly enough he also said the concept of heaven being ” up there” would not be the case because of there being no gravity! he believed that it would simply be all around you. The subject of quantum physics is truly amazing and along with your article truly humbling, j.a. Amy

    • Jazakallahu khayran for sharing. We ask Allah to gift us all with hearts that can be enchanted and in awe of His creational “signs”, and be led by them to humility and loving submission of Him.

  3. charlotten2 on said:

    “the sun of the cosmos sets every evening, the sun of hearts never sets” 4evr x

    • … But the sun of hearts can become obscured and eclipsed by dense clouds of disbelief and divine disobedience – except if the Source of all existence bestows His grace and guidance.

      • charlotten2 on said:

        I never saw this comment from you..Thank you! I agree ‘if the Source of all existences bestows His grace and guidance’ that the ‘sun of hearts’ could never be extinquished…. if strong its 4 it is that complete connection that cannot be severed….evr x

  4. Abdur-rahman on said:

    Great article . Keep them coming this blog is warming up. MashaAllah

  5. ummaadam on said:

    Jazak Allah kher Sheikh

  6. Brilliant. I love reading this sort of heart of the matter, the ‘real physics heaven’..the truth if you will. Thank you, and may God help you in your efforts.

  7. Muhammad Saleem Anwar on said:

    Another great piece, Abu ‘Aaliyah!

    Quran is the word of Allaah whereas Science is the work of Allaah. There could be no discrepancy between the qawl and fi’l.

    I must however point out that mere knowing the truth does not help much unless one has a sound heart – the one free from arrogance and ready to accept the truth when and wherever it comes from. One needs complete submission and total consignment to the Divine commandments. Perhaps a tenth or even a hundredth of sayyiduna Siddique RA would do.

    • Thank you for that reminder Dr. Saleem. That the whole cosmos is an open book to be read, requires that we not just point to the book itself, but that we read it, marvel at its meanings, and understand the demands of its content.

  8. Even if there were no Prophets or Scientists or Scholars or Microscopes to figure out an electron or a proton; just the rising of the sun, the veins in the leaf, the eyes better than cameras etc etc etc…….and the mind the brain that controls and functions the body and the perfection of the entire earth and that little ant and big those huge mountain pegs that we see; Is enough for a human mind to understand that there has to be a ‘Master Designer’…..

    For those who do not believe Allah has challenged us to ‘create a fly’….?

    JazakAllahu khairun for the article.

    • Absolutely right. As the Arab poet of old put it:

      Fa fi kulli shay’in lahu ayatun/Tadullu ‘ala annahu wahidun – “For in everything there is a sign; By which His oneness stands testified.”

  9. Hyde on said:

    Assalamu Alaikum,
    It is exhilarating to see advanced theoretical physics discussed from a muslim let alone a sheikh’ s point of view.

    There are not too many stars that one can visibly see on a regular night in brooklyn, but in winter when I use to go to work early, I used to see scatters of stars in the bluish-blackish morning sky, and then wonder
    “The Lord that created me from a drop of sperm created that up there ?
    Alhamdulillah, indeed, indeed”

    I guess we are indeed made up of star stuff, since it is one and same that created all one and the same.

    My death wish is that when I die and I have not accumulated too many sins, I get a shot, a trip across the milky way before the next life in the grave begins.

    Please write a second follow-up on this blog.

    P.S. You forgot J.C. Maxwell in your list!

    • Hyde on said:

      Oh I forgot, my de Broglie wavelength is t 8 times 10^-36 m standing still. I have a knack yours would be around the same ? LOL

    • There are even fewer stars one can see here, in London’s night sky. Nonetheless, one who seeks enchantment, shall find it inshallah. To course through the universe (or even the Milky Way), and see its splendour – subhanallah!

      Yes, I did forget Maxwell and his unifying theory of electromagnetism: an incredible achievement mashallah.

      As for a follow-up piece, please make du’a.

      Ps. De Broglie. Lol. I’ll have to give that a wave!

  10. J Wills on said:

    The characterisation of science is not accurate.

    The analogy between quantum physics and religion (or any variety at all) bears no weight.

    Science is about telling a story. The story told must be able to _predict_ something; the existence of the Higg’s boson being but one example. There is no judgement.

    Religions – all of them – derive from a credo: a judgement on what is good, what is bad. There is no prediction.

    There is no necessary conflict between religion and science. But the simple truth is that science supports no religion.

    • Abu Aaliyah on said:

      Thank you for your comment.

      Undoubtedly, science is neutral in the sense that, in itself, it does not support religion or non-religion. Whoever follows the scientific method will arrive at what is right concerning how the cosmos and the natural world operate – regardless of whether it’s an atheist or a believer that is doing the science. The article was not trying to characterise science itself as being religious or irreligious.

      What the article was advocating, however, is that science has boundaries and is not equipped to answer the more existential questions of life. It was also intimating that science (particularly the Big Bang and the fine tuning off the universe) does seem to point to a theistic understanding of things – i.e. the universe and life in it being created by God best fits the findings of science.

      I hope that clarifies things.

      • Muhammad Luqman on said:

        SubhanAllah, the only reason why the universe and life in it being created by God best fits the findings of science, is because Allah created us in His image.

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