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Does Science Point towards God or Atheism?

IMG_-os7cg1‘Atheism,’ writes John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, ‘is on the march in the Western world. Noisily. A concerted attempt is being made to marshal the atheist faithful, to encourage them not to be ashamed of their atheism but to stand up and fight as a united army. The enemy is God.’1

If New Atheists are to be believed, science has dispensed with [belief in] God. Atheism is, its high priests and sermonisers tell us, the only viable intellectual position for the modern thinking person. Science and religion cannot be reconciled, they say. In fact, the following has become part and parcel of New Atheism’s central dogma: ‘Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.’2

Indeed, the above claim (that science is the only way to the truth and that it can, in principle, explain everything) is the third of three core arguments in New Atheism’s march against God. The first one being: that science explains how things work, so we don’t need to invoke God as an explanation. The second one: that there is nothing but nature. It’s a closed system of cause and effect. There isn’t a realm of the divine or the supernatural. There is no ‘outside’. This, in a nutshell, is the crux of the science versus religion debate.

Richard Dawkins, who continues to lead New Atheism’s assault on theism or belief in God, has a rather appropriate maxim in this regard. He states: ‘Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “what kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think carefully before you believe a word they say.’3 So let’s take each of these three beliefs of New Atheism and explore just how grounded in evidence or proof they really are:

1. Science explains how things work, we don’t need God as an explanation: Undoubtedly, the achievements of science have been remarkable; utterly astounding, even. Science has improved lives and living conditions, eliminated countless diseases and unveiled the mechanics behind how our universe works. It has also helped put to rest a lot of superstitious fears. For example, people need no longer fear that an eclipse is caused by a terrible demon, or is a bad omen of sorts. Interestingly, during the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ an eclipse occurred, coinciding with the death of his infant son, Ibrahim. To waylay peoples’ superstitions, the Prophet ﷺ announced: ‘Indeed, the sun and the moon are two of God’s signs. They do not eclipse for the death or birth of anyone. If you see an eclipse, hasten to remember God and to prayer.’4 My overall point being is that we have so much to be grateful to science for and to its wonderful conversations and conclusions.

Unfortunately, the very success of science has led many to believe that merely because we know the mechanisms of how the universe works without needing to bring God into the equation, they can confidently conclude there is no God. Now it’s true theists have often been intellectually lazy and invoked God as an explanation for all sorts of phenomena they couldn’t understand or explain. The upshot of this ‘God of the gaps’ strategy is that, as science uncovered the inner workings of these natural phenomena, it pushed belief in God further into the background. And yet, just because science has revealed a mechanism for how the cosmos or any other natural phenomenon works, it doesn’t rationally disprove or deny God’s agency in those natural phenomena. Let me elaborate with the following example:

Take, for instance, an iPod. Now just because one deciphers the inner workings of an iPod, iPhone or iPad, does not mean that it is impossible to believe in the existence of Steve Jobs as the designer of such culturally altering tech. This would be a failure to distinguish between mechanism and agency. ‘Because we know the mechanism that explains a phenomenon, there is therefore no agent that designed the mechanism’ is a logical fallacy; in philosophy, an elemental category mistake. Lennox writes that when Newton discovered the laws of gravity, he didn’t say: ‘I’ve discovered the mechanism that describes the motion of planetary bodies, therefore there is no agent God who designed it.’ In fact, it was quite the opposite. Precisely because he had fathomed the mechanics behind planetary motion, he was moved to even greater admiration for the God who had designed it that way.5 In fact, what animated many towering figures of science, like Newton and Galileo, was that they expected laws in nature because they believed in God the lawgiver.

For Muslims, as with Jews and Christians, we do not believe that God is an alternative to a scientific explanation – as Dawkins et al. wants people to believe. He is not just a God of the gaps. On the contrary, He is the very ground of all explanation; indeed, of all existence. He is the agent behind every single act, occurrence or phenomena in the universe – the ones we know the mechanics of, and the ones we do not. The Qur’an says: God is the Creator of everything. [39:62] For the faithful who believe God’s hand is behind all things and that all things bear the mark of His handiwork, and who know not to confuse mechanism with agency, explanations and conversations of science are to be welcomed, pondered over and celebrated; not nervously anticipated or narrow-mindedly ignored.

2. There is nothing but nature, there is no realm of the divine; there is no “outside”: All well and good as a claim. Now let us apply the Dawkins litmus test: ‘Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “what kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think carefully before you believe a word they say.’

So what’s the evidence for the claim? As it turns out, there really isn’t any! It might be an atheistic hope. It might be an anti-theistic conviction. But it isn’t grounded in any scientific proof. Naturalism – the view that nature is all that there is, and that there is no transcendence or divine realm – is a philosophy that is brought to science. It is not the outcome of science, nor something science necessarily entails. Given that science proceeds by inference from observed data, how can anyone be so scientifically certain that the natural order is all that there is?6

In 1980, in my mid-teens, I was one of millions of viewers utterly enthralled by Carl Sagan’s breathtaking and ground-breaking TV series, Cosmos. The series opened with Sagan saying: ‘The cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be.’ These words of this charismatic astrophysicist and populariser of science were, undoubtedly, the words of a scientist. But they were not the words of science. Sagan’s naturalistic/materialistic worldview was not derived from his science. It was a priori; an assumption about the cosmos that he presupposed. Whether Sagan in his personal beliefs was an agnostic, atheist, or deist is beside the point. The point is that if scientists commit themselves a priori to a materialistic worldview, then the old proverb is likely to apply: ‘To the man who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’

Of course, there is another reason to keep it all materialistic – as the geneticist and atheist, Richard Lewontin candidly wrote: ‘It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept material explanations of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.’7

This frank admission has sort of let the cat out of the bag. What Lewontin is saying is that scientists cannot, must not allow room for anything other than purely natural, materialistic explanations. For to do otherwise would run the risk that God might get a look in. This is the blind faith in materialism that so typifies New Atheism, as well as feeds into the fiction that science is the only tool to understand life and its deepest questions (as opposed to being a tool that works wonders in some places and not so well in others). And this brings us nicely on to the third and final belief:

3. Science is the only way to the truth and can, in principle, explain everything: Evidence? In many ways, this fails the litmus test more pitifully than does the above. Again, this is more a statement of faith and hope than it is hard science. The belief that science is the only path to know the truth objectively and that it can, in theory, deal with every aspect of existence, is also known (pejoratively) as ‘scientism’. Richard Dawkins claims that: ‘Scientists [are] the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe.’8 While Steven Hawking states that ‘philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.’9 Ironically, the degree of faith now placed in science is uncannily religion-like.

Be that as it may, it’s been pointed out often enough that scientism is actually a self-refuting belief. The assertion that only science can deliver true knowledge hasn’t been arrived at by scientific methods. Instead, it’s a personal conviction-cum-dogma. Thus, if the assertion is true, then it is false; if false, then true.10

Between Hawking and Dawkins, not only has today’s philosophy been denigrated, but at a single stroke they’ve disparaged many other disciplines of knowledge too. For the evaluation of philosophy, art, literature, music, or even ethics lies beyond the scope of science. How can science tell us when a piece of music or art is a masterpiece, or just a cacophony of sounds or colours? How can science determine what is morally right or wrong? As the biologist and Noble Laureate, Sir Peter Medawar, has so deftly written: ‘There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and upon his profession than roundly to declare – particularly when no declaration of any kind is called for – that science knows, or soon will know, the answers to all questions worth asking, and that questions that do not admit a scientific answer are in some way non-questions or pseudo-questions that only simpletons ask and only the gullible profess to be able to answer.’ He then states: ‘The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things – questions such as: “How did everything begin?”; “What are we all here for?”; What is the point of living?”.’11

Francis Collins, geneticist and Head of the Human Genome Project, hits the bullseye when he writes: ‘Science is the only legitimate way to investigate the natural world. Whether probing the structure of the atom, the nature of the cosmos, or the DNA sequence of the human genome, the scientific method is the only reliable way to seek out the truth of natural events … Nevertheless, science alone is not enough to answer all the important questions … The meaning of human existence, the reality of God, the possibility of an afterlife, and many other spiritual questions lie outside the reach of the scientific method.’12

In 1988, Hawking announced to an entire generation in his best-selling A Brief History of Time that our universe was describable and explainable by a single unified theory in physics – a Theory of Everything. It was a dream Einstein had hoped to achieve or see come to fruition in his own lifetime. On the back of this hopefulness, Dawkins wrote: ‘I am optimistic that the physicists of our species will complete Einstein’s dream and discover the final theory of everything before superior creatures, evolved on another world, make contact and tell us the answer.’ He concludes by pushing the triumphant mood even further, declaring: ‘I am optimistic that this final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions.’13 The last fall of Religion, as signalled by a Theory of Everything, would soon became the gospel of New Atheism.

Professor Hawking, meanwhile, pondering over the implications of Gödel’s Theorem in mathematics, wrote a paper in 2002 where he retracted his view about a Theory of Everything, saying it was unattainable: ‘Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory, that can be formulated as a finite number of principles. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind.’14 In his latest book, The Grand Design (2010), he seems to have gravitated to a grand unified theory once again, this time offering the highly controversial “M-theory” as the most likeliest candidate; as ‘the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find.’15

To conclude: We saw how the three key proofs New Atheism employs to attack belief in God are nowhere near as robust or as categorical as they’re made out to be. Indeed, two of them have no evidence from science whatsoever to support their conclusions: merely aspiration, hope and dogma. So as Dawkins aptly put it: ‘Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “what kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think carefully before you believe a word they say.’

Atheists insist, and New Atheism does so far more pugnaciously, that naturalism and science are joined at the hip. But as we’ve seen, that’s not based on evidence. Instead, it’s a philosophical commitment individual scientists bring to bear upon science. And whilst it’s true naturalistic or materialistic assumptions don’t really figure at all when scientists are studying how things work, they have a more bullish role when studying why things are as they are or how things came to be in the first place. Science, rather than “bury” God, has actually given theists further reasons to deepen confidence and conviction in Him. The universe had a beginning that begs explaining, is one of them. Another is the Fine Tuning of the universe; of just how suited to the emergence of life our cosmos actually is. There’s also the question of why there’s something rather than nothing? Or why the universe is so highly intelligible to us, in terms of mathematical and physical laws? All of these point, not to naturalistic causes, but to a Divine Cause. Yet, due to the bias that shows itself in an entrenched pre-commitment to naturalism, the theistic voice is routinely undermined or muffled in today’s scientific circles.

As Professor Lennox says, it shouldn’t really be a case of science vs. religion. Rather it boils down to this: which assumption does science support – atheism or theism?. Do the findings of science best square with the belief that consciousness and rationality arose via unguided, random natural processes working upon the basic materials of the universe? Or does the theistic belief best fit the evidence – that we were put here by an intelligent Creator-God, who created an intelligible universe, finely-tuned, that we might discover His laws, marvel at His handiwork, and bend our will to His purpose for us? That’s the real issue at stake.

As said before, science on the how questions has done tremendously well. It’s when it attempts to do the why questions that it steps beyond its remit and enters the highly dogmatic zone of scientism. In a delightful illustration to help clarify the distinction, Lennox gives us the example of his Aunt Matilda’s cake. He asks us to imagine that his Aunt Matilda has baked a delicious cake, which the world’s leading scientists wish to analyse. The nutritionists start by telling us about the number of calories in the cake; the biochemists inform us about the structures of proteins and fats in it; the chemists about the elements and compounds used in its formation; the physicists analyse it in terms of its fundamental particles; and the mathematicians offer up an elegant set of equations to describe its composition and the behaviour of the particles in it. Having offered their thorough analysis of his Aunt’s cake, Lennox then asks, ‘[C]an we say the cake is completely explained?’  He says that we have certainly been given knowledge of how the cake was made, but not why it was made. In fact, he insists that no amount of scientific analysis will shed light on the purpose behind the cake; in other words, the why question. The only way we’ll ever know the answer is if Aunt Matilda herself reveals it to us.16 The point, as Francis Collins made earlier, is that science deals with the material aspects of life; religion, the meaning aspects. Science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean.

Must science and religion arm wrestle each other? Or can they clasp hands as partners in understanding man’s material reality and meaning? There’s no intrinsic reason why the latter shouldn’t be the case.

1. Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists Are Missing the Target (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2011), 9.

2. Bertrand Russel, Religion and Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 243.

3. Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain (London: Phoenix, 2004), 291.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.1041; Muslim, no.911.

5. Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2009), 45. Much of the material for this article has been quarried and adapted from the first four chapters of this book.

6. Close to this is the philosophy of Materialism – the view that all existence is matter, that only matter is real, and that all occurrences are reducible to material processes. The difference between the two philosophies is that materialism makes a claim about the ontology of the universe, while naturalism takes that ontological premise to make an argument about how science should function.

7. Lewontin, ‘Billions and Billions of Demons: A Review of Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science is a Candle in the Dark”‘, New York Review of Books, 9 January 1997 – cited in Lennox, God’s Undertaker, 35-6.

8. A Devil’s Chaplain, 242.

9. Hawking & Mlodinow, The Grand Design (London: Bantam Books, 2011), 13.

10. A similar, though simpler self-refuting statement is the following: ‘This statement is false.’ So if the statement is true, then it is false. But if the statement is false, if it is untrue, then it is actually true.

11. Medawar, Advice to a Young Scientist (London: Harper and Row, 1979), 31.

12. Collins, The Language of God (Great Britain: Pocket Books, 2007), 228.

13. Contribution to the online magazine Edge – as quoted in John Cornwell, Darwin’s Angel (Great Britain: Profile Books, 2007), 63.

14. Stephen Hawking, Gödel and the end of physics, July 20, 2002.

15. The Grand Design, 228.

16. God’s Undertaker, 41.

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Was the Universe Expecting Us?

tarantula-nebula_01_2560x1600-1Freeman Dyson, one of the world’s foremost theoretical physicists, wrote: ‘The more I exam the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense knew we were coming,’1

Today scientists don’t hesitate to acknowledge this wondrous fact of how tailor-made to life our universe is. Or, as Anthony Flew declared in There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, that ‘the laws of nature seem to have been crafted so as to move the universe towards the emergence and sustenance of life.’2

And what precisely is the cause of this enchantment? Or on what grounds do so many cosmologists believe that the universe is compelled, in some sense, for conscious life to emerge in it? Well, it all has to do with our universe’s remarkable fine-tuning of its most basic, fundamental forces. Let me elaborate:

I

Cosmologists tell us, for instance, that had the force of gravity been a fraction weaker than it is: by 1 part in 1040 (that is, one followed by forty zeros), matter couldn’t have clumped together to form galaxies or stars. The universe would have been a lifeless sea of drifting gas of interminable darkness.

Had gravity been ever so slightly stronger, the universe would be radically different than it is now. Matter would clump together more aggresively. Stars could still exist, but they would be far smaller and burn out much more quicker than the time needed for complex planetary life to evolve. If it did manage to evolve, even insects would need thicker legs to support themselves because of the increased gravitational tug; indeed gravity would crush anything as large as ourselves. And that is assuming that planets could be stable. For in a strong-gravity universe, stars will be packed far closer together, making stellar collisions frequent. Planetry existence would thus be very unlikely, or extremely unstable.

So precisely-tuned is the force of gravity in relation to the other forces which operate throughout the universe that, had the initial explosion of the Big-Bang differed in strength by as little as 1 part in 1060, then the universe would have either collapsed back on itself or expanded too rapidly for stars to form. This incredibly slim margin is likened to firing a bullet at a fifty pence coin at the other side of the universe, billions of light-years away, and actually hitting the target!

II

A similar story holds true for the force binding protons and neutrons together in an atom: the strong nuclear force. Had it been a tad weaker, only hydrogen atoms could have formed; nothing else. If the strong nuclear force had been slightly stronger, the nuclear furnace which rages within the centre of stars would not be able to produce heavy elements like carbon, which is critical for all biological life. Again, the nuclear force appears to be tuned just sufficiently for carbon atoms to form.

Another example of such cosmic coincidences is the electromagnetic force: the force that causes the interaction between electrically-charged particles. If it was a tiny bit stronger, electrons would be bound to atoms so tightly that no chemical interactions could take place between atoms, which essentially means no life! On the other hand, if it were a fraction weaker than it is, electrons could not be bound to the nucleus of atoms, and thus no molecules could even form to give rise to life.

III

That our universe seems uniquely tuned to give rise to life; more specifically, human life, is known as the Anthropic Principle. And it remains a source of intense wonder, debate and speculation among scientists, philosophers and theologians since it was fullly appreciated a few decades ago.

All in all there are fifteen cosmological constants which, because they have the values and parameters they have, allow the emergence of a universe capable of supporting complex life.

Some have imaginatively likened the anthropic principle to a series of radio dials, with each instance of fine-tuning representing one dial. Unless all the dials are tuned to exactly the right settings, life would be utterly imposible. In his Just Six Numbers, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, states that such finely-tuned cosmological constants, ‘constitute a “recipe” for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be ‘untuned’, there would be no stars and no life.’3 ‘The chance,’ says Francis Collins, head of the human genome project, ‘that all these constants would take on the values necessary to result in a stable universe capable of sustaining complex life forms is almost infinitesimal. And yet those are exactly the parameters we observe.’4

IV

McGrath tells us that the first few decades of the twentieth century were dominated by a scientific belief that the universe had always existed, and so for most scientists of the time, there was no good reason to deliberate upon what brought it into existence. Religious language about creation was seen as backwardness: mythological nonsense incompatible with cutting-edge scientific knowledge. By the 1960s, though, it became increasingly apparent to the scientific community that the universe did have an origin; a starting point – the Big Bang. Although the idea was initially met with fierce dismissal by some atheist scientists of the day, such prejudice was overwhelmed by the evidence in its favour.5

Both the Big-Bang and the growing realisation of how the universe is finely-tuned for life have seriously altered the tone of the debate in terms of God, science and reason. Nonetheless, as suggestive as fine-tuning may be, its explanation continues to stoke intense debate in scientific, theological and philosophical circles.

V

Three explanations are offered for the remarkable fine-tuning of our cosmos. The first is a sort of shrug of the shoulder response. That is, things are what they are, or we would not be here to discuss them. We are just very lucky. To this “it’s just the way things are” attitude, Rees writes the following: ‘Many scientists take this line, but it certainly leaves me unsatisfied. I’m impressed by a metaphor given by the Canadian philosopher John Leslie. Suppose you are facing a firing squad. Fifty marksmen take aim, but they all miss. If they hadn’t missed, you wouldn’t have survived to ponder the matter. But you wouldn’t just leave it at that – you’d still be baffled, and would seek some further reason for your good fortune.’6

The second continues to attract a growing number of advocates: There are multiple universes parallel to ours, each governed by different laws and defined by different values. Our universe is simply a result of trial and error in that it is one wherein all the anthropic constants act in concert to allow life. A setback with the “multiverse” hypothesis, its incredulity aside and its seemingly opportunistic reasoning, is that it only postpones the crucial question. Instead of asking how our universe came about, we now must ask how these multiple universes emerged. Another drawback with it has to do with Ockham’s Razor. This is the rule that insists, ‘All other things being equal, simpler explanations are generally better than more complex ones.’ Invoking an infinite number of universes lacking empirical testability or observability, because they are in a different spacetime framework, is indeed extremely complex.

The last invokes divine providence. This is the belief that a wise, omnipotent Maker made the universe, endowing it with purpose, meaning and remarkable beauty for the specific intention of producing man. Stephen Hawking remarked in A Brief History of Time – in what seems like a moment of epiphany: ‘It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.’7

Indeed!

The Qur’an insists: And We created not the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in vain. That is the opinion of those who disbelieve; so woe to the disbelievers because of the Fire! [38:27]

1. Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, 250 – in Barrow & Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Calarendon, 1988), 318.

2. Antony Flew, There is a God (USA: HarperCollins, 2008), 114.

3. Just Six Numbers (Great Britain: Phoenix Books, 1999), 4.

4. The Language of God (London: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 74. Cf. the account of the anthropic principle by physicist and Christian theologian John Polkinghorne, Beyond Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 80-92.

5. Why God Won’t Go Away (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011), 84-5.

6. Just Six Numbers, 164-66.

7. A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Press, 1998), 144. I am not suggesting by this statement that Hawkins is a theist. But simply showing that the universe having a wise, omnipotent Maker is more than within the scope of reason and sound logic.

Look! And Ye Shall See

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.

The Qur’an & Science: Match Made in Heaven?

blue-binary-code-jigsaw-puzzleMuslims are quick to point out that the Qur’an is remarkably free of the scientific inaccuracies found in other religious texts. Many go one step further and point out how astonishingly in tune the Qur’an actually is with modern science. And while it is true that some believers have thrown caution to the wind in their zeal to wed Muslim scripture to the scientific cause, there is cogent reason to believe that signficant passages in the Qur’an are in fact addressing the scientific mind in modern man. Seeking to be as dispassionate as possible, let me illustrate the point with a few such verses:

(1) The Qur’an is silent about the age of the Earth and, for that matter, when life first appeared on it; although it does say: And We made from water every living creature. Will they not believe? [21:30] Is this a reference to the primordial soup in the Earth’s early waters, perhaps? Or to the evidence which suggests that life first emerged onto dry land some four-hundred million years ago, from sea-creatures and other aquatic life forms?

(2) Another intriguing verse declares: We built the heaven with might and it is We who are expanding it. [51:47] This does seem like a highly probable pointer to cosmology’s modern belief that galaxies are flying apart from each other as the universe expands.

(3) The fact that galaxies are flying apart from each other, say cosmologists, there must have been a time when galaxies were closer together; and a time earlier still when all the galaxies and material in the universe was crunched-up together into an incredibly small space. This infinitely-compact universe, for some reason, suddenly expanded, in an event cosmologists call “The Big-Bang”. Interestingly, the Qur’an insists: Do not the disbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were at first joined, then We split them apart. [21:30]

(4) The final example is the vivid Quranic account of how a human embryo forms in its mother’s womb: We created man from a product of clay. Then We placed him as a drop in a safe lodging. Then We fashioned the drop into a clot of blood that clings, then We made the clinging clot into a chewed-like lump, then We turned the lump into bones, then We clothed the bones with flesh, and then produced it as another creation. So blessed be God, the Best of Creators! [23:12-14]

What is significant here, as in the previous three examples, is that at the time of their revelation these Quranic assertions ran completely counter to the science of the day. In fact, science was only able to uncover the truth of these claims within only the last century or so!

One must not be tempted by these verses into thinking that the Qur’an is a text-book on science or a catalogue of scientific facts. These verses are primarily asserting the i‘jaz, the “miraculous” and “inimitable” nature of the Qur’an, thereby demonstrating it truly is the Word of God. Turner, I think, captured the essence of the matter when he wrote:

‘The Koran describes God, the principles of belief and the fate of man in the world to come, but it is no work on theology; it contains accounts of past prophets and faith communities of old, but it is no history book; it contains invocations and words of inspiration; but it is no book of prayer.

Legal issues are discussed in it, but it is no book of law; it tells us how the Creator fashions the cosmos and makes the world turn, but it is no treatise on cosmology; it describes the alternation of day and night, and the development of the foetus in the womb, but it is no compendium of natural science.

It examines the heart and mind of man, and the existential dilemma of being human but longing for the divine, yet it is no work on popular psychology.

It is all of those things and it is none of those things: more than any other book can it truly be said of the enigmatic Koran that it is far more than simply the sum of its com- ponent parts.’1

1. Collin Turner, Islam: the Basics (London & New York: Routledge, 2006), 41.

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