Monday, April 09, 2012

‘Cosmology and Qur’an’ panel at the University of Iowa

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
A panel event titled “Creation of the Universe: Qur’anic Concepts and Scientific Theories” was organized this past Wednesday, April 4, 2012 at the University of Iowa. This was put together by the American Islamic Congress and the Nur Project, which is conducting a ‘Science & Islam’ series of panels over the next couple of years.
This first event gathered Salman Hameed and John Farrell as panelists, Ali Hasan as moderator, and me as “keynote speaker”. Dr. Hasan is a professor of philosophy at the University of Iowa; he specializes in epistemology but clearly has solid interest and knowledge in science topics in relation to philosophy and theology/Islam. John Farrell is a writer and producer working in Boston; he is the author of ‘The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaître, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology’ (which I’ve reviewed here at Irtiqa); his blog, Progressive Download, I highly recommend.

The main objective of the panel, at least from what could be gathered from the event’s brochure, was: “to understand interpretations in the Islamic tradition as it regards the creation of the universe and where this interpretation conflicts or is compatible with concurred theories on the birth of the universe from the scientific perspective.” A related idea was:Exploring where the strongest harmony and serious tensions between scientific cosmology and Islam lie.” There was also the question of “Qur’anic cosmological descriptions and their relative accuracy from the scientific perspective”, and of course the role of God in cosmology, from both the scientific perspective and the theological/Islamic viewpoint.
In my talk, I attempted to emphasize the following main points:

  • Cosmology used to consist of myths describing the world around us, its origin, and our place in it; it invariably put the earth and humanity at the center of everything; cosmology used to be part of philosophy and theology, or “culture” more generally.
  • Modern Cosmology, which has only existed for a century or so, has turned the subject into a scientific discipline; it is now able to describe with great precision not only the history of the universe but its content (although some aspects, e.g. dark matter and dark energy, are still a matter of ongoing research); the main point is: cosmology is now part of science.
  • What place then for theology/Islam or even philosophy? Here I argued that although cosmology is produced by science, humans still need to construct a “worldview”, which cannot violate or disagree with the scientific findings, but which interpretation can be open to fit one’s philosophy or theology; in particular, it can be theistic or materialistic. I gave examples of how contemporary thinkers have taken one route or another in this way.
  • What “cosmology” can one draw from the Qur’an? Actually, one must talk of a Qur’anic “worldview”, not “cosmology”, as argued in the previous point. And here, looking at various Qur’anic verses, I drew the following conclusions: a) the Qur’an always relates the cosmos to God; b) it uses the ‘Argument from Design’ quite repeatedly, either in its old formulation or in its more modern (fine-tuning) formulation; c) several Muslim thinkers have insisted that the Qur’an uses an ‘Argument of Providence’ (that humans have been particularly well taken care of through the creation of the cosmos and the various objects and phenomena therein, what I call an “ultra-anthropic principle); d) the Qur’an seems to be formulated for humans, as it keeps referring to Earth (“the heavens and the earth”) in a particular way.
  •  What constraints and challenges does modern cosmology pose to theology/Islam? Here I argued that cosmology forces us to construct a theology which must take the following ideas into account: a) the staggering size and age of the universe; b) the fine-tuning of the cosmos (design? centrality of life, intelligence, and consciousness? multiverse? are we one among zillions?); c) the discovery/confirmation that other earths/worlds are more than common in the universe and perhaps other species too (are we just one “unimportant” planet/world?)

Salman followed up with his own views on the subject, which I’ll let him summarize. John Farrell recalled that Lemaitre, the father of the Big Bang, was both a first-rate scientist and a catholic priest, and it was interesting to see that he was very clear that one should not be tempted to find confirmation in science for one’s theology: in particular, he resisted the pope’s explicit identification of the Big Bang with the Genesis story.
A good discussion followed, particularly since a number of philosophers (Dr. Hasan’s colleagues and students) were in the audience. The questions revolved around the fine-tuning issue, as well as around the extent to which one could take scientific results from cosmology as definite, and the role and place of theology in constructing a worldview around cosmology.


Asad M said...

Salam Nidhal,
It must have been an interesting event. I read your points above and also referred to relevant chapters in your book (very enlightening book which I want to finish reading). Islam does not give much choice but to accept the fine tuning/design argument if one has to reconcile one’s faith with science. Islam surely gives humanity a special position (‘ashraful makhluqat’ or ‘finest living being/creation’) and on various occasions in the Quran, ‘man’ is also the purpose of all creation since humanity is created to worship Allah.

Someone once said to me that the fine tuned universe (a scientific observation), design argument, anthropic principle (esp. the ‘strong’ version) or even intelligent design (ID isn’t scientific so I won’t pursue it any further) are but a repackaging of the old cosmological argument (prime mover/first cause). You have explained in the book that the anthropic principle has many versions and how one must distinguish between all of these theories as separate arguments, however; still they all seem to be modern versions of the God-of-the gaps reasoning (I may be wrong here but this is how it appears).

The fine tuning, design argument and anthropic principle are all useful scientific principles. Yet we know that the universe is so immensely vast and so old, and we on the other hand have just arrived and evolved consciousness only so recently that surely it doesn’t seem to be created just for us. As Carl Sagan puts it eloquently, “We have examined the universe in space and seen that we live on a mote of dust circling a humdrum star in the remotest corner of an obscure galaxy. And if we are a speck in the immensity of space, we also occupy an instant in the expanse of ages”.

The fine-tuned universe is a reality but there are many scientists, probably the majority, who do prescribe to the ‘absurd universe’ explanation for the fine-tuned universe, as you have quoted Paul Davies, ‘It could have been otherwise . . . Had it been different, we would not be here to argue about it . . . The fact that it exists, seemingly against vast odds, is attributed to an extraordinary accident’.

Also, Victor Stenger (particle physicist) argues in opposing fine tuning: “We have no reason to believe that our kind of carbon-based life is all that is possible. Furthermore, modern cosmology indicates that multiple universes may exist with different constants and laws of physics. So, it is not surprising that we live in the one suited for us. The universe is not fine-tuned to life; life is fine-tuned to the universe”.

The above seem useful lines of reasoning against the fine-tuning/design arguments that Islam seems to espouse. How then in the light of the above can one manage to reconcile his faith with science? Does it eventually boil down to a leap of faith?

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Salam Asad,
Many thanks for your thoughtful comments.
On the distinction between the cosmological "prime mover" argument and the design/fine-tuning argument, here's what I had written in response to Hawking's "non-God needed" book in Aug. 2010 (
... one should not mix the “cosmological argument” and the “design argument” for God, whatever value one may find in either one. The first one argues that the existence of the universe/multiverse (which is described by science) can be interpreted in reference to God, whereas the second argues that the precision and harmony of “creation” (all objects, including but not limited to earth and humanity) can be interpreted as a sign (not proof) of a God behind it. These arguments are subjective, optionally left for humans to accept or reject; they are not part of science and should not be placed in opposition to scientific theories and progress in our objective knowledge.

Now, the fact that the universe's laws and parameters are "fine-tuned" for complexity, life, consciousness, etc. is incontrovertible. Stenger's point is moot, for he can't say "complexity is fine-tuned to the universe", can he? Stenger, an arch-atheist, is just trying hard to oppose the theists' enthusiasm for the FT. However, as I've been insisting, there is a difference between FT (a set of observed facts) and the Anthropic Principle(s), which is/are interpretations, and one is free to construct such interpretations to accord with science and one's worldview, so you can have materialistic viewpoints as well as theistic ones.

No intelligent thinker is saying that FT necessarily implies a creator, but theists say that faith in God is fully consistent or even meshes well with FT.

Last but not least, yes Islam/Qur'an argues for design (of various kinds), but as I've been trying to insist, the fact that the Qur'an addresses humans (not aliens) and always refers to "heavens and earth", clearly implies that this is an argument for humans, not for the whole universe. So we are not necessarily the highest creatures in the whole universe, just on earth.

Hope this makes sense to you.
Best wishes.

Ali said...

Salam, Asad.
My 2 cents ....
There are signs for men of understanding, there are signs for people who are wise, and other such verses are there in the Qur'an for a reason.
The universe is replete with signs of God. One has to be blind not to see them.

Faisal Irshad said...

Signs for men of understanding? Absolutely! But in the opposite direction! Quran or other religious books can not even say correctly about the creation of the mountains. Why the hell should anyone search for more deeper questions of existence in these books?

Asad M said...

Thanks Nidhal, I needed some clarifications for these lingering thoughts for & against the design/FT arguments and appreciate your response.

I wouldn’t disagree with you here; FT is a fact and there can be various explanations as to why the universe is the way it is (e.g. absurd universe etc) and none of these accounts satisfy the ultimate ‘why’ question (except perhaps God-designed one), and therefore the concept of a God is not being easily eliminated.

Science has guided us to find our place in the universe and also helps in interpreting the Scriptures in a way that doesn’t contradict known facts nor forces us to lose our faith. It has also helped reinforce the view that if there is a God then it is surely a primeval, metaphysical force (call it God, Allah, god of the gaps etc.) and not the anthropomorphic or micro-managing super-natural deity.

@Ali…. yes there are signs in the Quran, but one shouldn’t ever stop questioning even if it is religion.

Ali said...

@ Faisal Irshad
"Quran or other religious books can not even say correctly about the creation of the mountains. Why the hell should anyone search for more deeper questions of existence in these books?"
What a pity, Faisal.
you certainly have not looked into how mountains are formed or what they are like.
If you had, you would never say this.

Ali said...

I am not asking you to stop questioning.
I am asking you to search for the meanings in the verses of the Qur'an. From what I know, the universe bears signs that tell us that God created the universe. The Qur'an, at several places, asks us to search for these signs.

FT and argument from design, in my opinion, are valid arguments. But materialism try to dowplay their significance in what ever way it can.

By the way, i will be publishing my book, Insha Allah very soon.
In my book I argue about these issues. I hope it will be of interest to people like you.

Faisal Irshad said...

@ Ali
My dear fellow i have extensively checked the mountain creation and the stupid "peg" analogy. By the way Quran also claims that they prevent the earth from shaking which obviously false because earthquakes happen in mountainous regions as well.