Friday, March 08, 2013

More bad science invoked in claims about Mecca

by Salman Hameed

It seems that faith as faith is not enough. There is a huge temptation to "prove" one's religion based on science. What these individuals don't realize is that such efforts devalue religion and often makes a mockery of faith (also in the literal sense of the word, faith).

The trend of seeking science in sacred scriptures in not unique to Islam, but it is certainly quite popular in the Muslim world (see this post on: On the futility of finding science in the Quran and other scriptures). Some of this has to do with the loss of intellectual prestige. The argument is that "you" (meaning the West) may have the science, but that very science validates the faith of Muslims. The problem is that these claims are always based on awful understanding of science. But then the point often is not curiosity about how the world works - but rather just to have a confirmation of one's own faith from a method whose power is recognized the world over.

There are many examples of this matter. Some of these relate to Mecca. Two years ago, there were calls to replace GMT with Mecca Time. One of the reasons provided was a "scientific" claim that Mecca is the center of the Earth. Yes, even apart from the logical problem of the lack of center on a surface of a sphere, there were a number of other problems. I had three posts on the topic and if interested, you can check these out: a) The problem with peddling pseudoscientific claims regarding Mecca Time, b) Move over GMT, here comes a call to adopt Mecca Time, and c) Mecca Clock: Seeking prestige via borrowed science.

Unfortunately, there is more pseudoscience in this matter. I recently came across this website that provides a "scientific" reason of why the Tawaf around Ka'aba in Mecca is done in a counter-clockwise direction. Here are the claims on the website:

Worshipping Allah in one direction. Praising Allah in one direction.
When we revolve around the Ka'aba we are orbiting in the same direction as the whole universe and all the creations of Allah from the tiniest particles, to the largest galaxies, along with the human race unite in praise of Allah.
When we go around the Ka'aba, we are travelling in the land travelled by all the prophets of Allah, from the prophet Adam (alaihis salaam) to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW)
The Ka'aba in Makkah is never free from circumbulators.
The Blood inside the human body begins its circulation "Anticlockwise"
The electrons of an atom revolve around its nucleus in the same manner as making Tawaf, in an anti-clockwise direction.
the moon revolves around the earth anti-clockwise.
The earth rotates around its own axis in an anti-clockwise direction
The planets of the Solar system revolve around the sun in an anti-clockwise direction
The Sun along with its whole Solar system orbit in the galaxy in an anti-clockwise direction.
All the galaxies orbit in the space in an anti-clockwise direction
Tawaf around the Ka'aba is "Anticlockwise"
Truly Islam is from Allah
Now - sure one can talk about the sacredness of the Ka'aba and its centrality to Islam. But, as you can imagine, to tie the counter-clockwise direction of Tawaf with physical processes in the universe might be a bit of a problem, especially when the claims are just simply wrong. At worst, these claims are based on gross misunderstandings. What is shocking for me is that this website (and its claims) came up in a positive way in an academic discussion!

So lets take a look at some of the examples. First of all, there is a fundamental problem of logic when ascribing direction of motion in space. This is because there is preferential frame in space. For example, a counter-clockwise motion from the "top" would appear clockwise from the "bottom" (and there is no absolute top or bottom). Astronomers ascribe a direction for the Solar system by using Earth north's pole is "up". But as our friends in the southern hemisphere know, that there is nothing absolutely unique about picking Earth's north as the reference point.  

But apart from the logical problem, there are also factual errors on the website: 
a) The universe - as far as we know - is not revolving around anything. It is expanding - and the rate of expansion is accelerating. But there is no axis of rotation, as there is no "center" of the universe. 
b) There is no preferential rotation directions for particles. The orbit of the electron can only be described in terms of probabilities (because of quantum effects). Textbooks usually simplify diagrams to show an atom like a solar system. But to say that electrons orbit in a plane - let alone in a counter-clockwise direction - would be wrong (see here for the visualization of electron cloud model).
c) The orbits of stars in most galaxies are not systematic (for example, elliptical galaxies are dominated (and supported) by random orbital motions). Even in spiral gales, only the disk stars can be said to have
systematic orbits. The bulge stars and halo stars do not.
d) On the largest scale, there are no generalized orbits around which galaxies are orbiting. As mentioned earlier, there is no preferential plane is space, so it is impossible to come up with a general direction of the motion of galaxies. But all galaxies are moving. But they are moving in the direction of their nearest strong gravitational tug. Here is what we have measured with respect to the Milky Way (remember, Milky way is not at the center of the universe, but since we are making the measurements in all directions, we appear to be at the center):

And there have also been attempts to present galaxies with respect to their distance from us. Here is how the wedge looks like (these are positions of galaxies within 2 billion light years of us): 
From the press release of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS): The SDSS is two separate surveys in one: galaxies are identified in 2D images (right), then have their distance determined from their spectrum to create a 2 billion lightyears deep 3D map (left) where each galaxy is shown as a single point, the color representing the luminosity - this shows only those 66,976 out of 205,443 galaxies in the map that lie near the plane of Earth's equator.

Also see: What does the universe looks like beyond our Galaxy. And if you are interested seeing how it would be like to fly though the universe, here is a 3D simulation of the universe:

As you may have guessed by now, there is no sense of making a connection between the direction of Tawaf and stars or galaxies. But such claims serve as a good warning sign of the folly of using modern science to support one's faith. Let's keep faith as a matter of faith alone. But lets also ponder about the workings of the universe from a scientific perspective. 


Gul Agha said...

Excellent, informative blog.

Salim Tarik said...

Dear Salman,
I'm sure you have noticed that these sorts of ideas that couple religious to secular in hopes of finding extra legitimacy or verification for their faith are mainly due to pedestrians who are grounded neither in religion nor in science. Hence, what these people synthesize is neither a good religious thought nor a good science. However, we need to keep in mind that these people must be feeling insecure against science and despite their childish arguments and quasi-methodologies, they are trying to defend their faith maybe with sticks and stones against tanks.

Who got the tanks: Those who make science on daily basis, yet occasionally turn their expertise into an arsenal to attack beliefs and believers. As a professional physicist, I personally think that scientists who attack religion by using good science are more sickening than religious people who use bad science to protect their faith.

Yes, we are tired of those who oppose evolution, cognitive science, pre-Big Bang physics etc. on the basis of religious arguments, but aren't we also sick of inverted-religiosity of scientists who try to convince us why we do not need a "necessary being/God"? Isn't invoking quantum fluctuations, multiverses, evolution, randomness or complexity to kill the idea of "necessary being" at least as silly as making connection between electrons and Kaba?

I'd like to see your criticism also directed to the other party who abuses science in a different way than the other.


Salman Hameed said...

Dear Salim,

Thanks for your comment. I actually agree with you that those who are making these claims are insecure about their religious beliefs and that many of them are unfamiliar with both science and religion. That, in fact, was the point of my post - and to stress the separation of science and religion. Incidentally, this "counterclockwise" claim was brought up a professor on an academic listrserve - and that raises the stakes of addressing such claims.

Your second point about scientists attacking religion is also valid. I think people like Dawkins, Sam Harris, PZ Myers etc. have a simplistic understanding of faith (they often focus on the epistemology only) and have problematic views on Islam (especially as they paint all "Muslims" with the same broad brush). I have a chapter coming up on Islamic creationism in Europe where I look at the negative impact of people like biologists Steve Jones and Richard Dawkins in creating a particular narrative of Islam.

That said, I disagree with you on the connection between an argument about the necessity of God and the problematic claims of electrons and Ka'ba. Those are two very different types of arguments. In the former case, we can go back to Laplace about a naturalistic explanation. That doesn't mean that there is no God - but that the data is neutral on this matter - be it from quantum fluctuations, multiverses, or randomness in evolution. This is the difference between methodological and philosophical naturalism - and the latter position is a matter of belief. The electrons and Ka'aba claim would be similar if one argued that one can see the workings of God from the electrons to the Ka'aba. This statement would be consistent with science and yet would preserve the faith.

What do you think?


Salim Tarik said...

I have not put a philosophical/theological argument on the necessity of God on an equal footing as a spurious connection between electrons and Kaba. Yet I would regard the claim that says collection of more and more data may rule out the necessity of God one day as absurd - someone you know actually said this. Seriously, if this is science, why don't I see these claims in the preprint server let alone peer reviewed articles. I don't think any educated person would categorize these claims into philosophy or theology. In fact, the physicist who made that claim disdained philosophers rudely. We physicists are proud of knowing quantum physics that philosophers never understand completely due to its technicality and mathematical prerequisite. However, this should not give us too much self-confidence to start giving religious speech on the lack of necessity of God.

You mentioned Richard Dawkins and the likes of him. Honestly, each time he opens his mouth to throw about a few words from physics, I feel pity for him deep down in my heart. He seems he truly believes that physicists have already figured out a "natural" explanation of the workings of nature that does not necessitate God. I am really not against those people who use ideas like multiverses etc. to deal with the ultimate question "why is there something rather than nothing?" I am against the fake "Approved by Science Department" sticker on these records. Previously, I was referring to people like Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss who actually know physics, make physics but also abuse physics at times by making comments in favor of atheism.

As for Laplace and the naturalistic explanation, I agree he did not need God as a source term to the differential equations describing heavenly bodies. On the other hand, it does not make sense to say "No, it is not God, it is gravity which holds heavenly bodies together." In the religious context, only God is the real cause of the things whereas in the scientific context it may be spacetime curvature, gravitons or strings; you name it. Think about this: Do you need God to fix a car? Well, in the context of religion, sure; if God does not give you power, you won't be able to even lift a wrench. In the context of car maintenance, however, obviously no; there is no divine wrench or something. So, my point is that physical and metaphysical explanation of any phenomenon can be valid at the same time without interfering with each other.

I think we are on the same page regarding the demarcation of science and religion. I just wanted to point out that scientist who abuse science to attack beliefs have a big share on creating a distorted image of science in minds of ordinary believers.

Salman Hameed said...

Dear Salim,
I more or less agree with you here - and Lawrence Krauss did get hammered by philosophers for his claims. And I also agree with you that physical and metaphysical claims can co-exist (we see that in our work on medical doctors as well). However, sometimes when scientists say that "collection of more data may rule out the necessity of God" - they are talking in the same way as Laplace was. They are focusing on the necessity (not the possibility) of God for physical explanations. For example, the formation of the solar system doesn't necessitate God, but cannot eliminate God as well (per your point of physical and metaphysical). Both of these approaches can be consistent with science.

Salim Tarik said...

I have realized that, although we are using the same words, we are speaking from two different cultures. I should have made this clear before: When I mentioned the "necessity of God," I did not mean a necessity that may possibly arise in the context of physics. The western thought has investigated every corner of this field and some examples may be the idea of First/Prime Mover, fine tuning and intelligent design. The necessity I spoke was more in line with the idea of waajib ul-wujood, or, the "necessary" from the context where "necessary being" and "contingent being" are compared. The latter can be found in the works of Muhyiddin ibn Arabi as well as Augustine of Hippo in different flavors. So, the necessity I speak is more of a top-down one rather than the bottom-up approach in western thought. To reiterate, God is as necessary in an extremely fine tuned universe as in a universe where nothing special forms to decrease entropy locally. So, I talked about the religious necessity. You must know the mainstream Islamic wisdom regarding the primary/secondary causes and continuous creation: Allah is not a first mover or a creator who set up the rules once and for all and later turned into a mere spectator. On the contrary, Allah is creating and destroying at every moment ("aan", atom of time). In other words, the universe/matter needs continuous sustenance from a greater being (references: Imam Ghazali, Ibn Arabi, Ashari school of kalaam). Once this is established, the God becomes necessary to the same extend in any of the cases where biological evolution, abrupt creation, cosmological evolution (Big Bang, inflation etc) or steady state universe model. From this angle, I do not see how accumulating data regarding the Higgs particle or any other particle/physical process would weaken or strengthen the idea of necessity of God. (I definitely agree that a better physical understanding of the universe may undermine any theological argument that is motivated by contemporary physics, particularly motivated by the temporary _gaps_ in our _physical_ understanding of the universe.) I've tried to approach to the demarcation line from the side of religion this time just to tell you how I personally see that these two oceans do not mix.

I sympathize with Laplace given the historical conjunction that he lived in. The demarcation between religion and science was not so clear back then, the religious clergy were pushing their explanations as an _alternative_ to the natural/mechanical explanations rather than being complementary. However, at the end of the day, I feel that what Laplace said was unnecessary if not provocative. If I were Laplace, I would say "Look, God is not a constant number or a function to enter my equations. The purpose of my model is to explain the _physical/mechanical workings_ of the celestial bodies, not the religious or philosophical _quiddity_ of them." (Then there wouldn't be any fun as this would kill the possibility of future religion-science discussions.)