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(Shaykh Surkheel Abu Aaliyah
Quantum Physics & the Meaning of Life
Niels Bohr, a founding father of quantum physics, is once said to have remarked that anyone who is not mind boggled by quantum physics, hasn’t really understood it.
So let’s have a stab at trying to be boggled:
In the quantum world, electrons in atoms jump orbit without travelling the space in between; a light particle will pass through two small slits simultaneously without actually splitting-up; photons, electrons and other sub-atomic particles know when they're being observed 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 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 isn't 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 differently, until it is observed, an electron can be regarded as being everywhere and nowhere!*
In what way does this help religious discourse? Gai Eaton once quipped after listing some of these weird, counter-intuitive, quantum oddities: ‘After this, no one has any excuse for obscurities or improbabilities in the higher reaches of theology and metaphysics.’**
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; or that human destinies have been pre-decreed, yet we still have free-will and can still choose what to do or not to do – shouldn't be that surprising. For if the quantum world defies being pinned down by language or rationalising, but instead leaves gaps unfilled, mysteries unexplained, and minds perplexed, then more so the paradoxes related to God and the nature of divinity.
This isn't to say Muslim theologians have shyed away from seeking to resolve these paradoxes or explain them through reasoned arguments. They have been relentless in this task. And yet, as fruitful and exacting as the labour has been, our theologians acknowledge that, at best, these are just glimpses into the true nature of God.
If science is bugged by quantum quirkiness, it faces other nagging concerns too – particularly 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 can't, by definition, be tackled by science (for it basis itself on emperical observation, and does not speculate about things beyond the observable, material, 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: it is in the nature of religion to put things together to see what they mean.
*A lively, non-specialist account of the birth, growth and weirdness of quantum physics is given in J. Gribbin, In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat (Great Britain: Corgi Books, 1988).
**King of the Castle (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1999), 147.