ISLAM AND SCIENCE - (III)
Certain Modern Views of
Matter and the Universe
By Dr. M. H. Durrani
I have been trying to suggest certain reasons which, at the present moment, seem best able to justify us in gaining or, at any rate, in maintaining our belief in God. Men have come to believe in God in many different ways, in many different centuries. The reasons which satisfy men of one generation may quite rightly fail to satisfy men in another generation. Every age has its own outlook, based largely upon the best thought of the day, or rather upon the best thought of the day so far as it has filtered through from the prophet and the thinker to the mass of mankind. Modern journalism and the wireless hasten this process today, but hitherto it has taken about twenty years, and by the time it has happened that interpretations of the best thought of the prophet and the thinker has often changed again to something better than the former best. The result of this is that ordinary men and women have faith in God for many years upon grounds which are a little lower than the best possible. Meanwhile a thinker, perhaps the same thinker, has been driven to expound and adopt another theory by which his own rest is disturbed again. Then, in years to come, this theory also filters through to the man in the street and he becomes doubtful for a period, although the disturbing element may have been yet once more thrown off in higher circles.
There is today a very wide unsettlement of faith, and not without apparent reason; but I want very definitely to suggest that the grounds upon which the less cultured public doubt today have very often ceased to perplex the leader of thought. I have tried to suggest that the outlook of the orthodox today should be very much more hopeful than it has been for something like a quarter of a century.
The field of scholarship in modern times is a very broad one. Physical science today covers an enormous ground. It has made unique discoveries. It has arranged those facts in systems which suggest quite new theories, and these theories have provided the philosopher with new matter upon which to form his conception of the universe, of man, and of God. In an almost unbelievably short time, some of the most expert physical scientists have almost completely altered their outlook, and this alteration is largely making it easier for the scholar to believe in God. Physical scientists themselves have largely abandoned the materialistic explanation of the universe, and are prepared to accept a view which is idealistic and even spiritual.
Although it is probably true that the actual scope of physical science is so distinct from the scope of theology that we need never have been as disturbed as many of us have been for twenty-five years by the materialism of certain physical scientists of the last generation, it is particularly reassuring that physicists of today, of even greater authority than those of the past, have combined with their knowledge of philosophy, and have been led if not driven, to abandon positions hostile to religion. Mathematical researches, indeed, have led to idealistic philosophy, and a more thorough biology has found itself unable to be satisfied with mechanical theory. It must not be taken for granted that skeptical theories advanced by scientists of the Abbasi period may not be advanced again; and anyway, we must not pin our theology to any system of physical science or philosophy, however favourable; but we may be thankful for a respite in some of the attacks made upon our faith.
One of the most remarkable features of modern physical science has been the discovery of the immensely great and the almost infinitely small. People have always spoken of the world and the universe as great - now we know the universe to be almost infinitely greater than we supposed. At the other end of the scale, by the use of the microscope and other instruments, science has brought to our knowledge the structure and the movement, and even the life of the very minute creatures, invisible to the unaided human sight. Investigations into the infinitesimally small have revealed many wonders, complexities and beauties hardly dreamt of before. These present, I think, very few fresh difficulties for a theist whilst they enhance his conception of the wonder of universe, which he regards as the creation of the God in whom he believes. The study of the immensely great, on the other hand, has suggested difficulties - somewhat unnecessarily, in my opinion - to many modern minds. The earth is no longer the centre of the universe, we are told, and is altogether insignificant both in size and age compared with some other bodies. Again, the total number of stars is something like the total number of specks of dust in our Earth. The sun is something less than a single speck of dust, and the earth is less than a millionth part of such a speck. Yet again we are told that man has existed on earth, not 6,000 years, but 300,000 years; that the lower forms of life have existed for some 300,000,000 years, and the earth itself 2,000,000,000 years. Such figures are sufficient to make the brain of man reel. To some they suggest that mankind is insignificant, so insignificant, in fact, as to make it almost incredible that man should be specially cared for by the Creator, if there be one, or that he should make any kind of revelation to Man. It does not affect me personally in this way at all. Immensity and minuteness alike only enhance my idea of a God in whom I am already, and on other grounds, a believer. Indeed, the vastness of the universe only makes God all the greater to my mind, and helps prepare me to believe in other attributes of the Divine which might be otherwise difficult to accept. There are still some who seem to believe in a geocentric view of the universe, abandoned long ago by the cultured world, but it does not seem to me that it matters much for theism either way. Nothing of very great importance seems to be affected by it. Mere magnitude may be striking, but it is scarcely a criterion of worth. I do not feel that what has been called "astronomical intimidation" need cause us to fear.
A God who can make big things may well be able also to enter into detail, and to love the individual person or cell. The abandonment of geocentric phraseology need only cause a very temporary embarrassment to theology. In the nineteenth century, a good deal of ridicule was thrown upon Christianity because it was supposed almost to stand or fall with the geocentric idea and with a conception of the universe as manageably small enough for the Creator to take a providential interest in. But if the Creator of a small universe can take an interest in its details, surely the Creator of a greater universe can, not unreasonably, be supposed to have a relatively greater capacity for details also.
But whilst theology need not bother very much as to whether or not man is at the hub of the universe (A.S. Eddington, "The Nature of the Physical World" pg.165), it is precisely some of the very astronomers who dazzle us with the size and the age of the universe who also point out that there is, after all, something somewhat unique in the poor old earth in which theology had made herself at home for many centuries. In his fascinating book, "The Universe Around Us", Sir James Jeans tells us on pg. 332-35 that:
"we know of no type of astronomical body in which the conditions can be favourable to life except planets like our own revolving round a sun. Now planets are very rare. They come into being as the result of the close approach of two stars, and the stars are so sparsely scattered in space that it is an inconceivably rare event for one to pass near to a neighbor. Yet exact mathematical analysis shows that planets cannot be born except when two stars pass within about three diameters of one another. As we know how the stars are scattered in space, we can estimate fairly how often two stars will approach within this distance of one another. The calculation shows that even after a star has lived its life of millions of years, the chance is still about a hundred thousand to one against its being a sun surrounded by planets. Even so, if life is to obtain a footing, the planets must not be too hot or too cold..."
"All this suggests that only an infinitesimally small corner of the universe can be in the least suited to form an abode of life. Primeval matter must go on transforming itself into radiation for millions of millions of years to produce a minute quantity of the inert ash on which life can exist. Then, by an almost incredible accident this ash, and nothing else, must be torn out of the sun which has produced it, and condense into a planet. Even then, this residue of ash must not be too hot or too cold, or life will be impossible."
"Finally, after all these conditions are satisfied, will life come or will it not? We must probably discard that at one time widely accepted view that once life had come into the universe in any way whatsoever, it would rapidly spread form planet to planet and from one planetary system to another until the whole universe teemed with life; space now seems too cold, and planetary systems too far apart. Our terrestrial life must in all probability have originated on the earth itself. What we would like to know is whether it originated as the result of still another amazing accident or succession of coincidences, or whether it is the normal event for inanimate matter to produce life in due course, when the physical environment is suitable. We look to the biologist for the answer, which so far he had not been able to produce... there is no definite evidence of life, and certainly no evidence of conscious life, on Mars - or, indeed, anywhere else in the universe."
After all, then, there is something a little remarkable about the earth, and man is not quite such a very common thing in the universe, and his ethical capacity may be worth many Milky Ways.
Professor Eddington, writing on man's place in the universe and referring to the researches of Sir J. H. Jeans, says:
"The Solar System is not the typical product of development of a star; it is not even a common variety of development; it is a freak. A solar system would only be formed if at a certain stage of condensation an unusual accident had occurred - the close approach of another star casually pursuing its way through space."
"This star must have passed within a distance not far outside the orbit of Neptune; it must not have passed too rapidly, but have slowly overtaken, or been overtaken by, the sun. By tidal distortion it raised big protuberances on the sun, and caused it to spurt out filaments of matter which have condensed to form planets... Even in the long life of a star, encounters of this kind must be extremely rare. The density of distribution of stars in space has been compared to that of twenty tennis balls roaming the whole interior of the earth. The accident that gave birth to the solar system may be compared to the casual approach of two of these balls within a few yards of one another. However doubtful this conclusion as to the rarity of solar systems may be, it is a useful corrective to the view too facilely adopt which looks upon every star as a likely minister of life. We know the prodigality of Nature. How many acorns are scattered for one that grows to an oak! And need she be more careful of her stars than of her acorns? If indeed, she has no grander arm than to provide a home of her greatest experiment, Man, it would be just like her methods to scatter a million stars whereof one might haply achieve her purpose. I do not think that the whole purpose of the Creation has been staked on the one planet where we live; and in the long run we cannot deem ourselves the only race that has been or will be gifted with mystery of consciousness. But I feel inclined to claim that at the present time, our race is supreme; and not one of the profusion of stars, in their myriad clusters, looks down on scenes comparable to those which are passing beneath the rays of the sun." (Eddington, "The Nature of the Physical World", pg.176).
This is enough or more than enough to enable the atheist to carry out a system of experiments in faith without being charged with irrationality. He can believe in a God who exercises providence over the universe and the individuals within it. Depend upon it says Sir Oliver Lodge, in "Modern Scientific Ideas" pg. 77:
"There is some Mind that really comprehends the whole, that can attend to the smallest detail - to every human being, to every bird, every sparrow - and can yet feel at home in the infinitude of space. Nothing too small, nothing too big, for that infinite Mind's understanding and fostering care. No one looking at the self-acting machinery in the workshop, however automatic the working may seem, could do otherwise than infer a mind which had designed and constructed whole. Still more do the splendours of observation and inference, now possible to man, speak of an all controlling all-designing Mind. There is no chance, nothing haphazard, in any part of the universe. It is a manifestation of law and order and beauty which appeals to our highest faculties and in moments when we can realize even one aspect of that revelation, overwhelms us with wonder, love, and praise."
The ultimate nature of matter is another subject upon which theologians and philosophers have often been at daggers drawn, whereas today they are often in agreement. Materialists have sometimes regarded the universe as self-existing and eternal, at any rate so far as the matter of which it has been thought to be composed is concerned. The thought of the world as "created out of nothing" had been hotly disputed. Some theologians have felt that the idea is fundamental. Some scientists and philosophers have regarded it as unthinkable. Anyway, to affirm or deny it lies outside the lawful domain of physical science. As to the eternity of the universe, modern astronomers and physicists have affirmed that it is, rather, like a clock, wound up and running down, that it must have had a beginning and that it must have an end. This is distinctly interesting to the theologian. A universe which is not eternal seems to make it necessary for us to postulate a God who is, although it may not tell us much of what sort He is. With reference to the idea of creation of matter it was pointed out in the nineteenth century that we have no experience of anything coming into existence but events happen. The more modern view of matter as a mode of force might suggest that matter is an event rather than a thing.
If our experience of matter is really an experience of an event, it must have a beginning and a cause one would imagine. Some twenty years ago I prepared some notes for open-air lectures, and I used these words:
"Some scientists and philosophers have recently held that matter is only a form of force. Let us think about force. The energy of the world seems to demand a cause - its force in operation - life, electricity, chemical action, etc. whether or not matter demands a cause, energy - power in motion - does" etc. ("Straight Talks to Men", 1910).
I do not wish to lay undue stress upon these words, but I was conscious at the time that the thought was rather suggested to me by what I had read of Aristotle, who 2,300 years before, was led by metaphysical study to postulate the need of God as the Unmoved Mover, or, as we should say the First Cause of a series of events... a First Cause outside the series, the originator of motion, but Himself unmoved. Aristotle's cosmogony and physics are not acceptable to modern thought, but why should not the argument, in an adapted form, help us to think of God as winding up the universe in some such sense as the modern astronomer and physicist thinks it must have been wound up? Professor A.N. Whitehead, in his book "Science and the Modern World" (pg.216), argues that a problem something like that for which Aristotle brought in his conception of a Prime Mover exists for us in metaphysics today, and that to solve it we require God as the Principle of Concretion by which the possible becomes actual the abstract concrete. I must not pause on this. I use it principally to illustrate my contention that theological doctrines must not be so wedded to the science or the philosophy of hour as to be inseparable from them when they no longer represent the best intelligence of the day. I think it is also worth while noting that when a phase of scientific or philosophic thought ceases to be completely valid at a later date, it does not necessarily follow that theological ideas which happen to have been enshrined in the language of that phase of scientific or philosophic thought are necessarily destroyed also. They may live again in another form of expression, as I think Aristotle does today. His conception of the Unmoved Mover has been for many years to me, at least, a ground for rest in God. It need not be wholly discarded today, I think, though it may have to be adapted.
The opposition between science and faith that we hear about so much today is only apparent. It originates either in the errors of scientists who put forth unprovable hypotheses as undoubted facts or in the mistakes of theologians who teach their own false thinking as Qur'anic truths.
In fact, reason and faith are helpful to each other. Reason gives faith a solid foundation, so that we are not asked to give blind assent to truths absolutely unknowable, and it also furnishes us strong extrinsic proofs of the content of divine revelation. Faith, on the other hand, furnishes facts to other sciences, which those sciences left to themselves would never reach, and it invalidates apparent facts which, left to themselves, they would imagine.
A moment's reflection will convince you that we are surrounded by mystery in this universe. Mystery is in no way peculiar to religion. Science may make continuous progress and tell us countless new and marvelous things but the how and wherefore of them are utterly beyond its ken.
For example, science tells us that the earth without support of any kind circles around the sun once a year at the rate of sixty-five thousand miles an hour, and yet it never departs from the imaginary line traced for it by a divine geometry; that the sun is over three hundred and fifty thousand times as heavy as the earth and one million, four hundred thousand times more voluminous; that the moon is held to its orbit by the earth's attraction, thereby being constantly brought back to the circular course that it constantly tends to leave; that a ray of light from the star Capella, travelling at the speed of one hundred and eighty six thousand miles a second, takes seventy-two years to reach the earth; and that gravitation on the surface of the sun is twenty-eight times greater than on the surface of the earth. But when science attempts to explain these facts, it can do nothing but coin phrases which only veil the ignorance of their framers. As honest Newton put it:
"I know the law of attraction, but if you ask what attraction is, I really cannot tell."
In fact, man only comprehends what he has made himself. He can understand perfectly the mechanism of a watch, because it is his work. But his finite mind cannot comprehend the mysteries of God's world, either of nature or of grace. Perfect comprehension and intelligence belong to God alone.
Scientists deal with ascertained facts, which it compiles, classifies and attempts to explain by some working hypothesis that may or may not be true. Once, Huxley declared a certain chemical compound to be an organized, living thing, but when called to account, he at once acknowledged his mistake. Islam has no quarrel with the proved facts of science. It is not in the world to teach men the distance between the earth and the sun, the action of nitric or sulphuric acid, or the composition of the rocks on the earth's surface. Of course, Islam teaches plainly that faith cannot contradict reason. Faith and reason are of mutual help to each other, by reason well applied the foundations of faith are established, and in the light of faith, the science of divinity is built up. Faith, on the other hand, frees and preserves reason from errors, and enriches it with knowledge. Islam, therefore, far from hindering the pursuit of the arts and science, fosters and promotes them in many ways. Since materialism, atheism and positivism are not observed facts by systems of philosophy, inferences from facts and inferences which, properly speaking, fall within the province not of science, but of metaphysics, as such, are not the authoritative judge.
As one very famous scientist puts it:
"A little science leads away from God: more science leads back to Him."
When we see the corn ripening in the field and begin to understand the mystery of its growth, we see God Himself at work, giving His children their daily bread. When, by patient enquiry, we find out the way in which vitamin does its job inside the human body, we not only see what God has done in creating a delicately balanced and intricate biochemical mechanism, we also see in God revealing Himself in the care with which He sustains the world He has made. That is how science becomes one form of revelation in which God reveals Himself to us. Of course it is not a complete revelation: there is a lot more which science cannot deal with. But when we look at science like this, it becomes one of the ways to God, a help and not a hindrance. It is a kind of message in which heavenly things are seen and expressed in terms which earthly people can understand. This does not mean that our difficulties are all resolved. That is not true. But at least we begin to see through the power and pattern shown by science something of the person behind them. That is why, so far from disproving God, science helps us to see Him. And that is why I want to say to myself:
Thank god for the scientists, His messengers, through whom, sometimes unknown to them, He speaks, and in whose discoveries He Himself can be seen.
It is not true that the majority of scientists were atheists or agnostics. Many of them find no difficulties whatever in being loyal to both natural and supernatural truth. They have achieved satisfactory success in finding out certain truths. They can see very clearly, but they are handicapped by the humiliation of their scope which has made them powerless to render any wholesome or substantial benefit to mankind in the ordinary business of life. Hence we have to fall back upon religion, i.e. the Islamic way of life to make our life a success. Let us try harder than ever the experiment of finding God in experience, trusting the Light that He gives us, and committing ourselves with all our hearts to the work He gives us to do.
Continuation from: Part I & Part II.