(Draft Article) The Proper Mindset concerning Islam and Science

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بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم

by Hadiyawan Syaiful Imam, Doctoral student in (Theoretical) Physics, with slight editing and comments by MuslimAnswers.net Team

 ”The key to understand science, is to think like a scientist…”

 In the past few days, some people questioned me about why I study science but at the same time still hold a religious belief. One even asked me what do I think about the book entitled ‘Grand Design’[1] which claims that God is not needed in this universe, hence denying the basic idea of every religious belief on earth that we know.

 My first response is of course ‘people have the right to think in any way they like’.[2] Then I told them that in principle ‘I took no offense if people would like to think that God does not exist, although I pity them’, and finally I said ‘whatever they say will not affect me because I can do scientific endeavors in any way I like without compromising my belief in any way it might be possible, because I believe that I have a proper mindset about science, and I understand my own religion which is Islam, in general’..

 However, I feel some kind of responsibility to spread knowledge and truth (as per my perspective), and to fix any wrongdoing including to correct the way people think about the scientific approach and why it is actually fine to study and work with the idea of biological evolution[3] and the conformity of the universe including the concept of randomness and statistical chance (probability) without the need to deny the existence of God. So here are my explanations. You are free to ask me any questions, if you like.

1.     Postulates/Axioms

 The first thing that we have to realize about science is that most sciences are built mainly on the existence of postulates or axioms. What is a postulate? The simple definition is that “a postulate is a logical statement that holds (and is accepted) to be (absolutely) true without any proof, to establish future arguments”. I highlight here that a postulate stands firm without any kind of proof whatsoever in any form. Which means, we are never sure whether a postulate is absolutely correct or not, we just simply assume that it is absolutely correct and live with it. We use postulates as fundaments of a theory to explain a system’s behavior. 

Usually we keep a postulate because it works, or it helps us in describing physical phenomena in a logical way, so we can predict the future condition of a system within a tolerated margin of error.

 Examples of important postulates are:

1.     Energy/mass in the universe is conserved, which means total energy/mass remains constant. Energy/mass cannot be created nor destroyed,

2.     All physical properties of a system can be represented by a vector in a complex vector space (Hilbert space) spanned by orthonormal basis vectors. The space representation of this vector is a wave-function which represents the wavelike behavior of physical objects,

3.     The absolute square of this wave-function of a particle can be interpreted as the probability for this particle to exist in a certain position,

4.     It is not possible for one to exactly measure the momentum and position simultaneously. This is the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

If we consider the first example, indeed that anyone can formulate a mathematical description or devise an experimental apparatus and settings, to see that the total energy/mass between a system and the environment remains constant. But this essentially does not prove that the conservation of energy is an absolute truth! They simply tell us that the conservation of energy in this universe is a viable assumption and could be responsibly used to describe thermodynamics processes within the universe, either analytically or via experimentation. Since there have never been any experimental results so far violating the principle of energy/mass conservation, it becomes generally accepted and stands strong until now, but still must not to be seen as an absolute truth.

The second, third, and fourth examples are very important postulates in quantum mechanics. Again, although these postulates are very strong and supported by experiments, their status will remain forever as postulates and cannot be proven.

2.     What is meant by Proof?

After reading the first point, one should naturally ask that if mathematical formalizations and supporting experiments are not ‘proof’, then why do scientists keep referring to them as ‘proof’?

The problem is that the term ‘scientific proof’ is not something that should be accepted and understood indisputably. In one scenario, proof could be equivalent to stating the truth based on evidence, but we have to know that proof for scientists is actually a generic conception that may include several levels of truth. Even a mathematical formalism without experimental evidence can be accepted as a proof, if the experimental setup is not possible or not readily available. It really depends on the problem. Usually (to make things simple), the generic criteria for ‘proven’ concepts are that they fit into the generally accepted logical structure within the respective body of knowledge. That’s why there are many evidences which are discarded or kept away only because they do not fit into the stronger and generally accepted theories, at least until they are supported by many other evidences that make it no longer possible for scientists to keep denying the not-properly-fitting evidences. This is something practical for science and essentially not wrong, so we have to know this.

3.     Theories and Experiments

Having explained about postulates and the different levels of proof, we continue to discuss about the implication of theory and experimental results. First, it is very important to realize that a theory will remain distinct from the phenomena it describes. What is meant by ‘distinct’? It means theory is only something that exists in mind or on paper (or in a hard-drive, as now is the age of computers). Theory is devised to understand, explain, or describe phenomena, and used as a tool to predict future behaviors, but they should never be put in the same rank as the phenomena themselves.

Take one simple example. It is a natural fact (truth) that any dropped physical object will fall to the ground. People (or Newton) say this phenomenon is caused by ‘gravity’. Then he constructs the (now classical) theory of gravity. Nowadays people think about gravity wave and graviton. However, these theories will remain distinct from the described phenomenon in the sense that only the falling object can be considered as fact, while theories are not. Scientists know about this, so we should know about this as well.

So how about experiments? Frankly speaking, experiments are not meant to prove a theory. They can be used to disprove a theory but not to prove a theory. This statement is very important, and we should put a deep thought about this. This is why experiments are done to find evidences, and not proof. Evidence and proof are not the same.

Because scientists know that theories and natural phenomena are distinct, and that experiments are only meant to support a theory (or vice versa) and not to prove it, they never stop in devising new experimental techniques and developing new theories or modifying old theories. Therefore, the use of a theory is sometimes only based on acceptance level. In my view, absolute theories never exist. What does exist are generally accepted theories supported by a large cluster of evidences, while at the same time these theories may also not conform to another large cluster of evidences. 

4.     A Major Assumption

I would say that the limitation in measurement (which points to the limitation of knowledge that can be gained) is the only thing that is absolute. Why is that? Because scientific data are never perfect. All experimental results involve certain degrees of error. This is important and this statement wraps up preceding explanations about the ‘cannot be proven’ scientific concepts.

If this is the case, then how can we validate and verify our knowledge?

It is a generally accepted assumption that the universe is a conformal place. The universe is (assumed to be) isolated. Energy and matter will never escape. All objects and their interactions in the universe are strictly confined in the universe. This implies that information is also strictly confined inside the universe and never lost. The information about the past and the future is here, in this universe. All knowledge exists, and we only need to retrieve and elucidate them. So, we should not worry that we will lose information, since all information is contained and confined in the universe. This is a major assumption (and again, can never be proven). However, this does not imply that we can know all information. This assumption simply states that the information exists, whether we can retrieve them or not is another problem.

These statements will not change even if multiple universes exist. Why? Because even though energy and matter are exchanged between universes, the information about the exchange will stay. Of course the information about the matter that escapes to another universe will be lost along with that matter, but the information that we had lost this matter (along with its information) will remain, and besides, actually they are not really lost, they are simply displaced to another universe. 

Therefore, scientifically, it is correct that the universe does not need something else since it conforms to itself.[4] Nature does not need something more to create something more since it already contains everything enough to create something more. Although in fact there are no such thing as something more, since the number of entities are fixed. Only the form might change and evolve, but not the amount. This is the main principle of conservation and this assumption is a must. 

5.     Limit of Mind

So now I can say that human knowledge is limited and will never reach the point of perfection.

 6.     How to make a decision?

 Statistical reasoning is the only way to define true and false upon experimental datasets. The use of statistics covers up our limitation in knowledge and measurement ability. Our decision is simply a matter of trust in different levels of acceptance. Variances are as important as the expected (average) values. But still, whatever the results are, you must realize that they are all ‘lies’, they are not the absolute truth, but still useful. And this usefulness is what is actually important for our life.

In spite of this, we human beings are advancing. We are moving forward. So statistical methods have grown very well to the point that in some cases, the degree of error becomes very small to the point that it becomes negligible. The accuracy of measurements also keeps on increasing, which is so good that scientists today have much higher comfort level than their predecessors years ago (try to imagine the life of researchers when lasers and computers were not yet invented, it’s just terrible).

7.     Central Limit

Since we are actually holding on to our own postulated conservation principles to hold our knowledge of the universe together, and at the same time we know that we cannot know everything except some things that lie within our measurement ability, so how can we be sure that our (statistical) measurement results can be accepted? Or, to put it in a direct question, how can people accept lies from statistics?

The answer for that relies on a very important theorem. It is something that mathematicians call the central limit theorem. This theorem states that despite the complexity and randomness that a system possesses, they always have a tendency towards an average value, which is enough to represent the system. This also validates the use of a pseudo-random number generator in a numerical simulation.

Let’s take a look at an example, the temperature in a room. Temperature is usually measured as a constant entity for a large space. But physicists explain that measured temperature is actually coming from heat as a form of energy transferred to the environment due to tiny oscillations of atoms (lattice). These oscillations are of course so ‘random’ and so small to make it impossible for us to measure the oscillation energy one by one. To a very good approximation, sometimes our model is sufficient by only considering the neighboring oscillations to later describe the whole system. So now you should be able to appreciate the meaning of randomness (that inherently contains the concept of probability or chance), which may lead to uniformity (in our scientific framework of course, I do not know what really happens in nature, since they just look so random). Of course this theorem can only hold if we assume that nature conforms to itself (boundaries exists).

8.     Paradox of Infinity

What is infinity? Actually, to be really honest, infinity is a formal symbolic representation to express a statement of ‘I do not know’ in measurement. When scientists talk about ‘infinity’, it needs to be realized that he/she actually does not know what is happening in this limit.

However, the concept of infinity is really important. Why? Because it covers up areas that nobody knows about. And yes, the concept of infinity is really related to our decision (or interpretation) concerning experimental datasets within statistical limit. Since infinity can be considered as a limit, scientists may put a mathematical formulation and get values (or other formulas) at this limit. The easiest way to visualize this is to imagine a continuous line. You should know that a line is drawn with so many points that the number of these points reach to the limit of infinity. A circle can also be considered to be made up from an infinite number of triangles. But yet a line can be drawn with a finite length, and a circle can be drawn with a finite area. So where do the infinite number of points and triangles go? This is one of the most intriguing questions in mathematics. How to mathematically prove that infinity is finite?[5] But we will not talk about this.

Usually this paradox is not explained very well in a standard textbook. Most of the time, teachers just say to the students that infinity is not defined, or that it is not a number (NaN). It really is a pity, because understanding and appreciating this limit is actually very important to be realized by any serious scientist in any field.

Related to this paradox, in every measurement, one will always put a range of tolerance during measurements (no matter whether he/she is aware of this paradox or not). So this is the relation between infinite limit with measurement and the use of statistics to validate our results.[6]

As a side note, one of the formulations of quantum mechanics that is called path integral (first formulated by Feynman) is defined within this limit of infinity (I personally would recall the Lie-Trotter formula). So, the idea of ‘infinity’ is really a useful and important concept.

9.     Conclusions

So, what are the conclusions?

1.     Scientific endeavor is an approximate effort of human beings to approach the absolute truth. We will get closer and closer to the absolute truth, but we will never reach the point of perfection[7].

2.     Since scientific results are approximate in nature, you must never believe them without questioning even if the proposer is a Nobel Prize winner. Think by yourself and use our thinking ability wisely.

3.     Again, since scientific results are approximate, it actually does not make sense to do direct comparison with the God-given religious divine information, because the latter should be accepted as absolute information (although of course I am not saying that there can’t be any dispute related to religious texts’ interpretation, but then, these argumentations should not be approached by comparison to scientific arguments).

4.     Therefore, the attempt to verify and validate religious information with scientific results is actually impetuous. How can we compare divine information from God with scientific information that is based on assumptions?

5.     Of course I am not saying that one must not at least be a little skeptical with his/her religion. It is a natural tendency to be skeptical.[8] However we have to know our limits and boundaries. Remember, human beings will never know about everything; so never act as if we (will) know everything.

6.     There is actually no scientific basis that can tell you that God does not exist. While to think that God exists also will not harm our effort in following a scientific endeavor. So why bother with religious belief? If you want to do science, just do it! If you want to study evolution, then do it. It really does not matter if the theory of evolution says that the first human came from evolution of a crocodile, or a bunch of monkeys, or a group of ants.[9] Since they’re simply scientific deductions, and thus should not be seen as an ultimate conclusion or absolute truth.

7.     We have to realize that cause and effect is a must[10] and so an evolving process is obvious. How the process works, is the scientific question, and not whether a time-parameterized evolving system (time-evolution) exists or not. Evolution exists for all systems, not just biological systems, but also physical systems, which means all systems in the universe are evolving to a different state with time as the parameter. I have to highlight that in essence, there are no differences between a biological system and a physical system. Biological system is simply a more complicated version of a simpler physical system. There should be no difference between them. And indeed the language of physics is applicable to describe a biological system. For example, thermodynamics of a biological metabolism should not violate the laws in phase transitions. Currently, Biophysics is a growing field. Many research topics have arisen, and it is actually important for Muslims to take part in this field, especially with a strong foundation in theoretical Physics.

8.     It is totally unreasonable for one to think- in a scientific framework- to put God as an extra element. Within scientific framework, it is true that an extra element is not needed, since we already made the assumption that everything is contained and confined within the universe and nothing can be lost. But this does not mean that science denies the existence of God. There is no reason to think that way. There is no reason to consider God’s actions[11] in a scientific framework and in the same time, there is no reason to consider that God does not exist based on scientific deduction.

9.     Therefore, in the end, God will be the only one that is distinct from the rest. And I really love how the Four Imams describe Allah, that Allah is different from His creation. Allah is not part of creation. Allah is distinct and the rest are Allah’s creation.

10.  Of course by studying natural phenomena, a Muslim should appreciate more about their religious belief, and this is what is explained in Surah Al-Imran, (Verse) 190[12] where Allah ordered all people who have Iman (belief) in their heart to think about the nature, environment, and everything surrounding them. In that way, we can have a better appreciation of how great and how graceful Allah is as the One who creates the universe from the state of non-existence.

Therefore, to be honest, I really do not understand why a scientist and let alone a non-scientist would have to throw away their religious identity over a scientific theory, which cannot be proven in a universal way. Of course if someone wants to become atheist it is their choice, but don’t ever think religious people are inferior. Religious people could be smarter than an atheist person, and religious people could cleverly manage their life so they can achieve many things without losing their religious identity.[13]

That’s why, if you are a non-scientist, before you ever accept or even think about a scientific result, try to think like a scientist for a while, in the correct way, not in the way that the atheistic propaganda wants you to think. Then make your decision based on your own thought, not theirs. They are also human, so they can be wrong and so can I…

Thus, if you really put some thought on what I wrote, you should see that the way I use the word ‘correct’ never advocates that absolute correctness can be gained by relying only to our mind. Why am I doing this? Because the only thing that is certain for human beings in their mind is the uncertainty itself.[14] Even I cannot be sure whether what I wrote is correct or not. But still we have to believe in ourselves, otherwise, who else? Our weakness is the only thing that assures our humanity. But from this weakness, we are evolving, we are advancing, we start to know and understand about things that are happening around us little by little, so let us be grateful for that. Our tiny little brain is doing something good to us. Absolute information can only be gained from Allah (which is why the coming of a Messenger (Rasul) in this world is a must).

Studying nature within the scientific framework should not hinder our Iman in Allah; instead it should strengthen our Iman, even though some results differ from Al-Qur’an’s divine message. But even if they are incidentally the same, we also must not use these scientific results as proof for the correctness of Al-Qur’an.

 


[1] Reference is made to ‘The Grand Design’, the book co-authored by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, where it is claimed that God is not needed to explain the origins of the Universe. Even though this claim is much used among the modern scientists, Hawking’s categorical assertion –outside of this book- that he does not believe in “a personal God” very much helped the publicity of his book.

[2] The author means that in this earthly world, the people have the apparent free choice to choose whatever belief they like. It does not mean that all beliefs are the same, or that they will be judged the same in the next world, since the Muslim belief is that only Islam is acceptable for the one who truly knew and heard about the existence of Islam.

[3] Islam does not necessarily reject the explanations of biological evolution but does reject it when applied to Adam (Alayhi Salaam), the very first human. This is analogous to us accepting that generally the rule is for a child to be born from the union of a male and a female, but we reject this when it comes to ‘Isa (Alayhi Salaam), as it is our firm and necessary belief that he was born from Maryam (Alayhi Salaam) without the intervention of a male. Thus, our holding on to the belief that ‘Isa (Alayhi Salaam) was born miraculously does not negate the general observations we see in respect to how children are born in this world.

Thus, in effect we say that a large number of observations cannot establish an immutable law which would then drive us to reject the miraculous revelation- of course, this enters into the realm of the nature of miracles and the Islamic concept on causality, things that we cannot discuss in this short article, but our readers should be aware that Islam does possess a solid view on such matters.

(New Note: There have been some observations about the need to attack the underlying assumptions of evolutionary theory in the sense of it being merely the elaboration of a mechanism espousing strict empiricist naturalism, and that this underlying assumption of naturalism is what needs to be considered first and foremost. Perhaps in another work we can consider this matter, as it is important)

 

[4] In this section, the author is speaking about the assumptions of science and the “apparent causes” for phenomena to occur in the natural world. In Islam, it is a primary belief that the real reason why all things come about is ultimately Allah the Exalted, and that He creates and recreates every action, phenomena, etc. that we see around us, and the laws that we have derived based on our observations are only correlations, not metaphysical truths.

 

[5] The author in here is probably asking this as a rhetorical question, since infinity cannot be finite. Thus, when it is theoretically said that something consists of infinite points or shapes, this remains in the realm of theory, but it has no practical application to how we draw our shapes or carry out our measurements, since no one will count the number of points a line has in order to ascertain that they are an infinite number, which by the way would be a futile process since infinity cannot be counted.

[6] Because the “absolute true” length of an object (for example) could be theoretically extended to infinite decimal places, but there is no practical reason to do this, and we accept a certain margin of error (a tolerance) and we live with that imperfect result since this result works for us in our daily lives.

[7] It could be said that it is not known what substantial paradigm shifts will come up as more and better experiments are carried out, to the point that the knowledge we have accumulated in the past, while still valid, will have to be radically rearranged as each new paradigm shift is encountered. Thus, the accumulation of scientific knowledge is not a linear progression towards an ‘approximation of absolute truth’, but more like an accumulation of knowledge without a fixed trajectory.

[8] For Islam, we would use the term “inquisitive” rather than skeptical, in that the Muslims who seek to know the reasons behind things and gain in-depth explanations should seek the company of a qualified ‘Aalim for that field (be it ‘Aqeedah (belief), Fiqh (jurisprudence), Islamic History, Hadith (classification and study of the Prophetic narrations), etc.), just as those who wish to become proficient in a scientific field go to an institution to learn what there is to know in that field.

[9] The Muslim doing research into evolution should be very careful about this matter when studying it from sources that do not pay attention to Islam. This is because the fact that all of humanity has come from Adam (Alayhi Salaam) is an indisputable matter of Islamic belief and is what has been defined as “absolute fact”. So even if the scientific data and evidence seems to come closer and closer to the conclusion that humans have biologically come from a non-human ancestor, this “approximate truth” cannot override what the Qur’an and other sources of Islamic belief have asserted as certainty. Even though it is mentioned in the body of the article itself, it is important to reiterate it for those who may have not easily understood this point.

[10] The author is mentioning in here the assumption of material causality in order to make sense of any scientific experiment.

[11] The author by “consider” means to try to study and decipher such actions using the same methods used to study natural processes. This is impossible, since Allah’s actions are totally unlike any action we may see in the Universe, as He (Exalted be He) is not constrained nor described by any of the observable dimensions.

[12] “Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding. Who remember Allah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], “Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You [above such a thing]; then protect us from the punishment of the Fire.” (Surah al-Imran, Verses 190-191)

[13] The author refers in here to being smarter and achieving more things in the worldly life. As far as the life after death is concerned, the believing Muslim is many ranks above the atheist, even if he was not as “smart” as the atheist in this world and even if the Muslim achieved nothing of repute in this world.

[14] In Islam, one of the primary sources for gaining certainty about something is through the use of the rational or sane mind, which is why Islam does not advocate the existence of real contradictions or mutually exclusive characteristics concerning the Essence of Allah (for example), something which is unfortunately seen with other religions. However, the author in here is alluding to the fact that even with the use of the sane mind there are many things that we would not be able to conclude and could only guess at, except with the advent of a Messenger who would inform us about them. Thus, we know about the existence of angels, previous revealed books, previous Prophets, the Day of Judgment, the obligations and forbidden things in Islam, and many other matters only through correct information as given to us by this Messenger. Otherwise we would be unaware and unsure of these things even with the clearest and most piercing intellect.

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