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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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