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.