A Book Review of God, Nature, and the Cause: Essays on Islam and Science by Basil Altaie
In the past, our respected ‘ulamā’ have developed ‘ilm al-kalām to rationally explain the various arguments of ʿaqīdah (Islamic creed). This discipline was further classified into jalīl al-kalām and daqīq al-kalām. The former deals with basic questions of Islamic creed and the latter deals with natural philosophy. Daqīq al-kalām can be said to be our scholars’ best achievement in explaining the natural world under the tenets of Islamic worldview.
However, for various reasons, kalām (especially daqīq al-kalām) is largely neglected in the Muslim world today. At the same time, theological and philosophical understandings of nature have shifted into the scientific understanding of nature. The explanation of nature no longer requires metaphysical assertions, as the late Stephen Hawking put it: “God may exist, but science can explain the universe without the need for a creator.”
In today’s setting, is it possible to develop a modern Islamic worldview of natural philosophy? How does it address our latest scientific understanding of nature? How will it resolve science-religion conflicts? These are some of the topics covered in Basil Altaie’s book God, Nature, and the Cause: Essays on Islam and Science. A professor of quantum cosmology, also familiar with the Islamic tradition (especially kalām), Altaie tries to utilize kalām in answering these questions with the aid of modern science. He also proposes a neo-kalām that can contribute positively to the development of modern Islamic thought.
Chapter one tries to situate kalām in the overall development of Islamic thought. The mutakallimūn differ from the philosophers in that the former take the truth of Islam as a starting point while the latter start from Greek philosophy and try to reconcile it with Islamic teachings. Altaie also summarizes the main principle of daqīq al-kalām: 1) temporality of the world; 2) discreteness of natural structures; 3) continual re-creation and an ever-changing world; 4) indeterminism of the world; 5) integrity of space and time (p.17-18). Furthermore, in an attempt to resolve philosophical challenges with physics and understand the natural world and its relationship with the divine, he claims that daqīq al-kalām “can provide a strong basis for developing a consistent and viable philosophy which acknowledges modern science” (p.22).
In chapter two, the laws of nature are differentiated from the laws of physics. Many scientists equate the two despite their differences. A law of nature refers to “a regular phenomenon that occurs once certain conditions are present” (p.29) whereas a law of physics is “a well-stated relationship by which parameters affecting the happening of any phenomena are identified clearly in conjunction with other parameters” (p.31). For instance, a stone falling from our hand is the law of nature in the act, but Newton’s description of it being a function of two masses and their distance is the law of physics.
This is important because, in the law of classical physics, the world is described as deterministic. Consequently, God is deemed unnecessary in explaining natural phenomena, exemplified in Thomas Hobbes’ and Pierre Laplace’s thought. However, this view is being challenged by the findings of modern physics such as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which points to the indeterministic and probabilistic nature of the world . A re-examination of the philosophy of nature is needed, since “a deterministic world may not need God if the laws operate independently, but an indeterministic world would surely need an external agent to decide the results and coordinate the actions of different, sometimes conflicting, laws” (p.48).
The next four chapters examine in detail several recurring topics in science-religion debates: causality, divine action, space and time, and the size of the universe and the fate of the Sun. Causality is an important topic, since many Orientalists blame traditional scholars like al-Ghazālī for denying causality and causing a setback in Islamic scientific development (p.52). However, al-Ghazālī and the fellow mutakallimūn did not deny causality, they denied its determinism. Altaie summarizes the mutakallimūn position on causality and causal relations as follows: 1) they denied the action of any sort by intrinsic nature of things; 2) they denied causal determinism, assuming that the regularity of causal relationships is only a sort of custom; 3) they acknowledged the law and order observed in the behavior of the world, but allowed miracles to happen through the infringement of custom (p.69). This is actually in line with quantum mechanics where the occurrence of natural phenomena is probabilistic rather than deterministic (p.74).
This is linked with the topic of divine action in chapter four. Altaie introduces one important aspect of daqīq al-kalām, re-creation, as a possible interpretation of indeterminism. He further argues that while all physical properties of microscopic systems are subject to continuous re-creation, its frequency is proportional to the total energy in the system (p.105). This is why on a macroscopic scale the world appears to be deterministic, since the re-creation frequency is very high such that the measurements only capture the average values. On the other hand, in microscopic systems, the alternative quantum states are revealed (p.107).
In Newtonian physics, time is considered absolute and independent of body and motion. This old view has since been replaced by the theory of relativity, in which space and time are considered one complex entity (p.125). In Islamic kalām, space, time, and motion are considered to be discrete in nature, following the re-creation doctrine previously mentioned. Altaie then addresses the concept of space and time according to Ibn Ḥazm and al-Ghazālī. According to Altaie, it is interesting that al-Ghazālī seemed to consider “space and time to be on an equal footing and was able to envisage the relationship between them in a way that perceived their relativity in the sense of how it is accounted for by the observer” (p.138).
The debate between al-Ghazālī and Ibn Rushd about the size of the universe and the degeneration of the sun is presented in chapter six. In answering whether the universe could be made bigger or smaller than its initial size, al-Ghazālī remarked that space and time must be treated on an equal footing (p.150). Ibn Rushd followed Aristotelian cosmology and rejected the possibility of an expanding/contracting universe. He also denied the degeneration of the sun because according to Greek philosophy, the heaven is made of a non-corruptible element called ether. Al-Ghazālī affirmed the possibility of such degeneration in the overall scheme of non-eternity of the world. In fact, he even conjectured that the sun might be diminishing at a very slow rate, as now confirmed by our knowledge of stars (p.156-157).
Finally, in chapter seven, Altaie discusses the possibility of a neo-kalām that can transform Islamic thought. He briefly addresses the historical roots and prerequisites of this neo-kalam, and its potential obstacles and plans to overcome them.
The author is much appreciated for his attempt to re-contextualize kalām in the age of modern science. Not only that, he also applies kalām to modern science and philosophy, resolving some of the recurrent themes within the debate of science and religion. This can only be done by a person who has an extensive knowledge in both the Islamic tradition and modern science, and Altaie surely fits such a criterion.
The book successfully synthesizes the natural philosophy discourse, from Hellenistic thought to quantum mechanics, and frames it within the Islamic perspective. However, though the book is subtitled “essays on Islam and science”, it’s scope is mainly limited to cosmology. A similar attempt in general physics or other fields such as biology (especially addressing the Darwinian discourse in Islamic perspective) is also necessary. Taking lessons from this book, one must understand both Islamic tradition and contemporary knowledge in order to construct a genuine Islamic view on science. This is a challenging, yet promising and oppurtune, task awaiting Muslim intellectuals all over the world.
Photo by NASA
About the Author: Juris Arrozy is an Indonesian currently living in The Netherlands to pursue his doctoral degree in Electrical Engineering. While not too busy reading papers and doing experiments in the lab, he also spends considerable time in following and analyzing the discourse between Islam and the modern world, with the emphasis on modern science & technology. You can find him on Twitter here.