Faith and Reason: Islam and Modern Science

by Professor Abdelhaq M. Hamza

Roger Penrose, in a series of three lectures delivered at Princeton University in October of 2003 under the title “Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe,” was very likely one of the first scientists to start describing the crisis modern physics has been going through. Criticizing the string theory fashion, suggesting faith in quantum theory, and fantasizing about theoretical modeling, were the themes of Penrose’s lectures, which in many ways constitute the building blocks of a scientific creed; a creed that can no longer be held because the solutions proposed by this very science violate the very essence of this science.

It is firmly believed in scientific circles that modern science is facing a deep crisis, an epistemological as well as an ontological one. Modern ‘western’ science can no longer sustain the claim that it is centered on the discovery of facts, for “facts are theory-laden” as the postmodernists would argue.  Over the past century, theories have come to play a central role when it comes to determining what is and what is not recognized as fact. Indeed, in the West, one can trace  the role played by ‘theory’ and the definition of ‘fact’ to treatises by Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. To illustrate the role of theory in the establishment of facts we use the recent discovery of the Higgs-like boson at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva in the summer of 2013. The Standard Model (SM) provides the theoretical framework through which predictions can be put forward to be tested experimentally; it is within the paradigm of the SM that the Higgs-like boson has become a fact. A paradigm is, according to the historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, first and foremost, an object of consensus; it can therefore be discarded and replaced by a new paradigm whenever a crisis occurs. Modern science is stuck within its paradigm, just like thought never gets “outside language” according to Wittgenstein.

In a recent article published by Paul Wells in Maclean’s, Niel Turok, the director of the Perimeter Institute in Canada, and one of the proponents of the ekpyrotic model of the universe, describes in his welcome speech to the 2013 Perimeter Scholars International the crisis in modern physics as follows:

Theoretical physics is at the crossroads right now …In a sense we’ve entered a very deep crisis… You may have heard of some of these models … there’ve been grand unified models, there’ve been super-symmetric models, super-string models, loop quantum gravity models … Well, nature turns out to be simpler than all these models. If you ask most theorists working on particle physics, there’re in a state of confusion. The extensions of the standard model, like grand unified theories, they were supposed to simplify, but in fact they made it more complicated. The number of parameters in the standard model is about 18. The number in grand unified theories is typically 100. In super-symmetric theories, the minimum is 120. And as you may have heard, string theory seems to predict 10 to the power of 1,000 different possible laws of physics. It’s called the multiverse. It’s the ultimate catastrophe: that theoretical physics has led to this crazy situation where the physicists are utterly confused and seem not to have any predictions at all.

In fact the technical literature available through the Internet is like a Pandora’s box where one can easily witness the emergence of science trends and science cults; from blog discussions to formal technical lectures, all is available for the critical mind to evaluate. The message is loud and clear: Physics has reached a state of confusion; a crisis has been diagnosed and a remedy is nowhere to be found.

In a very recent paper published in Nature, and following the premature announcements of the BICEP2 experiment, Paul Steinhardt, an expert on inflation theory from Princeton University writes:

The BICEP2 incident has revealed a truth about inflationary theory. The common view is that it is a highly predictive theory. If that was the case and the detection of gravitational waves the ‘smoking gun’ proof of inflation, one would think that non-detection means that the theory fails. Such is the nature of normal science. Yet some proponents of inflation who celebrated the BICEP2 announcement already insist that the theory is equally valid whether or not gravitational waves are detected. How is this possible? The answer given by proponents is alarming: the inflationary paradigm is so flexible that it is immune to experimental and observational tests. First, inflation is driven by a hypothetical scalar field, the inflaton, which has properties that can be adjusted to produce effectively any outcome. Second, inflation does not end with a universe with uniform properties, but almost inevitably leads to a universe with an infinite number of bubbles, in which the cosmic and physical properties vary from bubble to bubble. Scanning over all possible bubbles in the multiverse, everything that can physically happen does happen an infinite number of times. No experiment can rule out a theory that allows for all possible outcomes. Hence, the paradigm of inflation is unfalsifiable … Taking this into account, it is clear that the inflationary paradigm is fundamentally untestable, and hence scientifically meaningless. Cosmology is an extraordinary science at an extraordinary time. Advances, including the search for gravitational waves, will continue to be made and it will be exciting to see what is discovered in the coming years. With these future results in hand, the challenge for theorists will be to identify a truly explanatory and predictive scientific paradigm describing the origin, evolution and future of the Universe.

What Steinhardt seems to omit is the fact that, even the ‘truly explanatory scientific paradigm’ that he anticipates will have to stand the test of falsifiability in the Popperian sense, if one accepts the general and philosophical principle of falsifiability, and henceforth to no end. This goes a long way to showing the depth of the crisis that modern science in general and cosmology in particular are facing.

So where do we stand as Muslims in general, and as Muslim scientists in particular, with respect to this modern science that wants to sweep away a traditional heritage that has survived the waves of materialism for more than four centuries. As an active theoretical physicist, I should point out that I have no problem with asking questions and working out problems defined within a given framework knowing that physics, as a physical science, operates within the limited horizontal plane of the material. Frithjof Schuon, in one of his letters described concisely the limitations of modern science when he wrote:

Modern science is only partially wrong on the plane of physical facts; on the other hand it is totally wrong on higher planes and in its principles. It is wrong in its negations and in the false principles derived from them, then in the erroneous, hypotheses deduced from these principles, and finally in the monstrous effects this science produces as a result of its initial Prometheanism. But it is right about many physical data and even about some psychological facts, and indeed it is impossible for this not to be so, given the law of compensations; in other words it is impossible for modern men not be right on certain points where ancient men were wrong; this is even part of the mechanism of degeneration. What is decisive in favour of the ancients or traditional men in general, is that they are right about all the spiritual essential points.

And in Understanding Islam, Schuon also writes:

Imagine a radiant summer sky and imagine simple folk who gaze at it projecting into it their dream of the beyond; now suppose that it were possible to transport these simple folk into the dark and freezing abyss of the galaxies and nebulae with its overwhelming silence. In this abyss all too many of them lose their faith, and this is precisely what happens as a result of modern science both to the learned and to the victims of popularization … But what we would chiefly emphasize here is the error of believing that by the mere fact of its objective content ‘science’ possesses the power and the right to destroy myths and religions and that it is some kind of higher experience, which kills gods and beliefs; in reality it is human incapacity to understand unexpected phenomena or to resolve certain seeming antinomies which is smothering truth and dehumanizing the world.

In the aphorisms of one the most influential scholars of the 13th century, Ibn Ata Allah, we read:

The Cosmos is all darkness. It is illuminated only by the manifestation of God in it. Whoever sees the cosmos and does not contemplate Him in it or by it or before it or after it is in need of light, and is veiled from the sun of gnosis by the clouds of created things.

We have witnessed over the past decade the emergence of a new ‘breed of Muslim neo-modernists’ like N. Guessoum, Z. Sardar, P. Hoodboy, S. Hameed, U. Hassan and E. Abouheif, to name a few, who have challenged the traditional Muslim worldview; modern science is their creed. The members of this group, who have followed in the steps of their forefathers and inundated the net with pseudo-scientific and pseudo-journalistic pieces, which reflect but the lack of erudition and scholarship, propose no reform and reject some of the basic pillars of the Islamic belief system; they do not believe in miracles and claim that the Qura’n is a book of metaphors. These pseudo-modernists of the twenty first century have hijacked and monopolized the electronic pulpit in order to mesmerize a generation that has been pacified by a tap on a tablet or a twit on the net, a virtual action, a new acquired reflex, which persists and tries to fold the sacred dimension of learning. This emerging modern Sandman phenomenon has been beautifully captured in an essay by Dorothy Bishop, a professor of Developmental Neuropsychology at Oxford University, where she lays down six golden rules to follow in order to become a celebrity scientist: the trade of the day for some, non-Muslims and Muslims alike, indeed. The neo-modernists are in fact following the steps, and are carrying the moulds of their western Christian colleagues who have been facing the waves of scientism for more than four centuries, and who have had to address a wave of new atheism more recently (see John Lennox, for a thorough analysis of the problems faced by Christians in the debate on Science and religion and a thundering response to people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris to name a few). In fact, the arguments used by the Muslim neo-modernists in the ‘Science and Islam’ dialogue are homomorphic to those used by the Christians in what they have initiated as the ‘Science and Religion’ debate when it should have clearly been called the ‘Science and Christianity’ dialogue. This is as if Muslims have to rub themselves with the Christian ointment in order to be baptized into the Science and Religion dialogue.  Indeed, it is interesting to read in an article published by Guessoum in Zygon, where he spills the beans of his worldview, the cut and paste arguments he put forth, which coincide exactly with the point just made.

In a paper I wrote few years ago, which appeared in French in a collective book, I wrote:

Physics belong to the small family of “hard core” sciences, which have enjoyed an unprecedented level of empirical accuracy, and which have unveiled unconceivable levels of details of the world we live in. The impact, these sciences have had, expressed in the language of these very sciences, is clearly measurable. What we call today basic technologies could have easily been described as miracles in a past not too distant; they provide a validity check for the proponents of these ‘hard-core’ sciences, which have made these very technologies possible. These sciences have cultivated the culture of certainty and authority, a culture where exotic quasars and clusters of galaxies, quark-gluon plasmas and black hole singularities, mathematically elegant superstrings, branes in hidden dimensions are undeniable mathematical facts, which must be reckoned with.

However, it is important to point out that facts alone do not constitute a reality and do not reflect any truth unless interpreted within a philosophical framework. In other words, built into modern science are empirical techniques as well as a hidden philosophy that addresses the fundamental questions of being and knowledge, i.e., ontology and epistemology. We have been brainwashed by a process of quantification with many empirical layers each veiling the one before. And when these layers fail to hold together and slip, empiricism is exposed and the philosophical framework that sustains it crumbles. Yet one is reminded that philosophy is not subject to empiricism. Moreover, modern scientists have not been trained to question empiricism and have had very little exposure to the philosophical framework through which interpretations are put forward.  As John Haught of Georgetown University pointed out, “Some of the most prominent scientists are literally unable to separate science from their materialist metaphysics.” This reminds me of the ‘arrogant’ comment made by Lawrence Krauss at a panel discussion held at Arizona State University in 2010 when he denigrated philosophy and claimed that in the sciences we only look at literature that is one year old and ignore the rest, and that scientists have no reason to pay attention to what was said five hundred years ago, and who cares about what Hume said. The reply from the expert on Hume, and Cambridge University philosopher Simon Blackburn, a member on the panel, was clear: “Lawrence Kraus is probably right, he should not read Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Aristotle or Hume or Darwin, as these are all over a century old, and of course they have absolutely nothing to tell us about life!!! …” He then mentioned the moral philosopher Bernard Williams and said: “There is a holy grail that some people have, to find the “argument that will stop them on their tracks when they come to take you away,” Hume thought there was no such argument. I believe you can know as much sciences as could be found out, you will still not find the argument that will stop them when they come to take you away … that is the argument you cannot derive morals from reason”.

Malek Bennabi writes in “Le Phenomene Coranique”: “Let it be known that we are not trying to compare two sciences, but rather two faiths: one that venerates matter while the other brings forth God. … It is only epochs of social trouble and moral disequilibrium that oppose science to religion …” In a recent book entitled "Programming the Universe" Seth Llyod writes (pp76):

This book contains a few million bits of information. The millions of books in the Library of Congress contain some million million of bits. All the computers of the world at present contain some billion billion bits. All the bits of information generated in written or electronic form by the human species as a whole still falls short of the amount of information registered by the atoms of Helium in a balloon.

What profane science has accumulated, in terms of knowledge, does not even come close to the amount of water sipped by the bird in the story of prophet Moussa (Moses (AS)) and el-Khider (AS) on their journey on the boat. The Muslim neo-modernists ought to understand that modern science does not provide the “argument” as suggested by Bernard Williams, and it is not with veiling science with a theistic mantle that we will become enlightened, as suggested by Guessoum.

I will close this paper by citing a story told by Djamshid Mortazavi in which he relates one of the fundamental pillars of the Muslim creed:

Le cheikh Abou Sai’d Abul Khayr raconte: “Un jour que je me trouvais aupres du cheikh Abul Abbas Qassab, il me dit: “Ce que l’on peut dire de l’unicite divine n’est que la designation. En fait, la realite de l’Etre ne peut etre expliquee ni definie.” Puis il ajouta: “Si quelqu’un te demande: “Connais tu Dieu?” ne reonds pas: “Je le connais,” car ce serait du Shirk (associer quelque chose a Dieu), et ne dis pas: “Je ne le connais pas,” car ce serait de l’incroyance, mais dit: “Dieu nous a fait connaitre Son Existence et Sa Divinite, par Sa Grace.”” (“What we can say about divine unicity is but a designation. In fact, the reality of Being can neither be explained nor defined.” Then he added: “if someone asks you: “Do you know God?” do not answer: “I know Him,” for it would be association (associating something to God), and do not answer: “I do not know Him,” for it would be unbelief, but say: “God has made us realize His Existence and His Divinity, through His Grace.””

Wa Allah ‘Aa’llam.

Fredericton, NB


— Professor Abdelhaq M. Hamza

University of New Brunswick

August 2014