By: Nidhal Guessoum; Member of Muslim-Science.Com’s Task Force on Science and Islam
“Perhaps more than anything else, the discussion between theology and science today is concerned with the presumption of naturalism; where it is not, it perhaps ought to be.”
Philip Clayton (1997, 172)
How does the world really function, in its most fundamental way? And what is God’s role in it?
These are two “big questions”, among the biggest that there are, and one may wonder whether we
humans could possibly reach any satisfactory and consistent answers that would not just be “sophisticated views” but have solid ground underlying them. After all, humans deciding what God’s role is supposed to be, what He can and cannot do, will certainly seem presumptuous, as one may recall the well-known Qur’anic verse: “He cannot be questioned concerning what He does, and they shall be questioned (for theirs).” (Q 21:23)
The first question, however, about how the world functions, seems much more within reach of human effort and purview, and indeed, on one level at least, that is what science has been doing, to greater and greater success. Science has identified many (most?) of the essential processes underlying phenomena in nature. Most importantly, it has identified “laws of nature”, or at least “laws of science”, that seem to regulate the observed order and regularity in the world. And the huge progress that humans have made on that first question is indicative of the validity of that quest. This then lends encouragement to the pursuit of the second one.
Critics or skeptics might promptly retort that this line of thinking is tantamount to “jumping the gun”, for it implies that nature follows some “laws”, that the latter are “real”, that in the previous paragraph God was not even mentioned or been given any place or role in the scheme of things other than perhaps to have created the world and its laws. Thus the two questions above are actually intimately related: we won’t be able to describe how the world really functions without deciding what God’s role is, and vice versa.
Moreover, looking down into our agenda, we won’t be able to say something about divine action and miracles without having addressed the concept of naturalism, as presupposed by modern science. We thus understand why Philip Clayton (in the above quote) regards this as the central issue in the mutual dialogue and quest for harmony between theology and science.
The concept of methodological naturalism (MN) is a crucial and largely under-appreciated pillar of modern science, one which explicitly or implicitly leads to conflicts, or at least to difficulties, in the “harmonization” with Islam/Religion. It is important to distinguish it from “philosophical” or “metaphysical” naturalism, which is the atheistic claim of non-existence of supernatural entities altogether, what is often referred to as “materialism.” The latter is a position that many philosophers and scientists adopt, but it is not a principle of Science.
As Phil Stilwell explains, “MN is a provisional epistemology and ontology that provides a framework upon which to do science… MN [entails] that science begin each particular inquiry with the assumption that any explanation will fall within the existing matrix of established material definitions and laws… MN also implies that, if a natural explanation does not immediately emerge from the inquiry, we do not default to a declaration of a supernatural cause.” (Stilwell, 2009, 229)
MN has become a pillar of modern science for reasons of pragmatism and efficacy: MN has proved itself efficient in advancing scientific exploration and discoveries, and it is a reasonable, minimalist assumption, in accord with “Occam’s razor”, which then makes it superfluous to call upon supernatural agents when material causes can explain the phenomenon. Indeed, supernatural explanations were soon identified as “science stoppers”, an end to the explanatory process, thus a non-productive or even counter-productive approach for progress in finding further truths about nature and devising useful applications.
Clearly such a framework for Science poses a challenge to at least some Islamic conceptions of the world and nature, as Muslims often claim and insist that God acts physically and directly in the world, in cases of miracles or in everyday events, either at large scales (earthquakes, floods, etc.) or small, individual, personal scales (in responses to prayers, in particular). More generally, methodological naturalism keeps God “out of the picture”, looking at the world and nature as if God does not exist or does not act. This “cutting off of God’s hands” is indeed the main issue that Seyyed Hossein Nasr has regularly brought forward in rejecting the current naturalistic philosophy of modern science.
Other thinkers, however, from Ibn Rushd to Polkinghorne, have insisted on the regularity that God has put in the world (God’s “faithfulness”, or “reliability” or “consistency”), without which we cannot make predictions, nor even trust any knowledge we construct.
Even opponents of methodological naturalism, most notably Alvin Plantinga, have seen in its universality an important advantage for science (common to all, regardless of anyone’s beliefs, thus permitting more progress). None of the critics and opponents of methodological naturalism propose its full rejection. Draper (2005, 296) tells us that “even William Dembski (1994, 132), a leading critic of methodological naturalism, claims that one should appeal to the supernatural only when one has [very strong] reason to believe that what he calls one’s ‘empirical resources’ are exhausted.”
It thus becomes clear that Muslims, in attempts to harmonize Islamic theology today with modern science, must either fully take methodological naturalism onboard or present solid proposals that go beyond it. I, for one, have made the first choice – with its consequences.
Indeed, is there a contradiction between adopting both a theistic worldview and a thoroughly naturalistic methodology for science? I believe not. Methodological naturalism, as explained above, is a neutral standpoint and approach, and it has proven to be fruitful, appearing to correspond to how the world functions. Theologies that are fully consistent with modern science and methodological naturalism are far from trivial and require some sophisticated work. But they can be constructed.
The question of divine action is essentially another side of the same issue: does God act in the world if we claim that all phenomena in the world have natural explanations? Critics often retort that only deists believe that God’s role is limited to the creation of the world, and that theists believe that God does act… somehow. But if God does indeed act in the physical world, does He do so only through the normal processes of nature or, at least sometimes, by some direct interventions, going beyond the laws of nature?
Indeed, many thinkers make the important distinction between “direct” and “indirect” divine action (Draper 2005, 281), the former being ones where God “acts outside of the ordinary course of nature” (i.e. “without using natural causes to do so”), and the latter being ones where God “uses natural causes to bring about an effect.” Thinkers also make the distinction between “General Divine Action” (GDA) and “Special Divine Action” (SDA), the former being God’s general “sustaining” of the universe (laws and phenomena only working through His presence and permission), and the latter representing actions at specific points/moments, whether directly (“interventions”, suspending the normal laws) or “indirectly” (by using “openings” in the laws of nature). (See Saunders 2002, for detailed and lengthy discussions of various ways to consider GDA and SDA, particularly the latter.)
I should note that SDA, particularly of the direct type, has elicited critiques of capriciousness or uncaringness on the part of God: why didn’t He stop the holocaust and other genocides if he can and does sometime intervene, why does He favor some people over others, etc. (Wiles 1999, 16-17).
Searching for ways by which God could act using natural causes, observers have long noted that the intrinsic indeterminism of quantum mechanics could be a doorway for God’s action in nature, since one would normally assume that God (the Omniscient and Omnipotent) is able to set the outcome of the “wave function collapse process” to any preferred choice from among those that the physics of the situation allows. God could then “steer” events in one direction or another, provided that He acts on each and every particle/atom/molecule in a “coordinated” manner. However, acting in this way, God would look too much like the infamous ‘God of the gaps’.
The second proposal of physical divine action is through the non-linear processes that lead to chaos: tiny effects in the initial conditions of a system, whether microscopic or macroscopic leading to hugely amplified results. Here again, since tiny interventions and changes are essentially impossible to notice, God could take such an approach for His actions, but he would still be a ‘God of the gaps’. Saunders (2002, 177) notes that the “underlying deterministic nature of chaos theory raises insurmountable problems for non-interventionist action.” A perfect application of this chaos effect would be the parting of the Red Sea by the “strong east wind” (the Bible’s words). However, this would also be grounds for believing in God’s intervention in natural catastrophes, which many lay people believe are God’s punishing acts, but a viewpoint which raises concerns.
On the Muslim side, there have been very few, if any, fully argued proposals for viewing God’s action in the world, perhaps due to its high sensitivity. One article that has tackled the subject is Abdelhakim Al-Khalifi’s “Divine Action between Necessity and Choice” (1998), exploring the views of key classical philosophers (Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina) and theological schools of Islam (Mu`tazilism and Ash`arism). The author contrasts the Ash`arites’ views that God’s action is totally free and unconstrained with the Mu`tazilites’ position that God’s act of creation was free but that God has constrained himself by being Just and Good and rewarding/punishing for following/disobeying divine directives to us to be just and good.
Indeed, the Islamic heritage can be constructively tapped in; for instance, the old rationalist Mu`tazilite theology, which insists on the concept of divine laws, could be revived to help resolve this area of tension. Similarly, M. Basil Altaie has found in Ghazali’s views some richness and fruitfulness that could be exploited (Bigliardi 2014, 72-76), and it would be very useful to see those ideas unpacked (using Ghazali or other sources).
I had previously suggested an alternative viewpoint: that God acts only on minds/spirits, but I have not elaborated on this idea. In the western world, this idea has been expressed and elaborated upon, whether one adopts a dualistic or a monistic conception of mind and body (see Polkinghorne 1998, 54-5). In the Islamic tradition, there is a general understanding that the spirit is the communication channel and connection between God and humans as well as the fundamental “driving force” that God infused in humans. More recently, with debates of reductionism in relation to mind and consciousness, the idea that a top-down causation from mind/spirit to the brain, leading from ideas to physical acts which carry on into nature, has become quite reasonably acceptable. George Ellis (1995) has also supported this approach, adding that top-down causation from mind/spirit to the brain could be envisioned via the afore-mentioned quantum processes.
Miracles constitute one of the most contentious issues in the debates of Religion and Science. Miracles are not as fundamental to some religions as to others, but in their direct connection to the more important issue of divine action in the world, they are essential to address.
One must start with fundamental questions to define and delineate the concept of miracles and the extent of their manifestation: 1) Are miracles “violations of the laws of nature”, or are they simply striking events that may point to God or supernatural agents but are scientifically only improbable? 2) Do miracles occur only at the hands of prophets, or do they also happen with saints and even with ordinary people (today)? 3) Did Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) perform physical miracles? What about those that the Qur’an relates for other prophets (Abraham, Moses, Jesus)?
A number of thinkers have proposed interesting ideas w.r.t. miracles. Terrence Nichols (2002) views them as events that are “consistent with, but transcend, natural processes.” He suggests two approaches for dealing with miracles: a) the phenomenon may be an extreme, singular case of natural processes, akin to black holes (with gravity) and superconductivity (with electricity); b) the event can only be explained by divine action/intervention, and for this he invokes processes from quantum mechanics or chaos theory. Nichols speculates that “in some extreme circumstances, such as the presence of great faith, the laws of nature, while not changed, behave differently from the way they do in ordinary contexts.”
Keith Ward (2002) adopts a similar position. He suggests that “laws of nature… are best seen not as exceptionless rules but as context-dependent realizations of natural powers.” But he leaves open the possibility that miracles may not “fall under formulable scientific laws”; he adds that “there is every reason for a theist to think that there are higher principles than laws of nature.” He concedes, however, that “it is for competent scientists in the appropriate field to say whether a given event transcends the normal operation of the laws of nature. If it does not, however statistically improbable the event may be, it is not a miracle.”
Indeed, the question of miracles cannot be addressed without full reference to modern science. One must be totally cognizant of conservation principles (energy, electric charge) and other principles, as well as of the (in)determinism of various theories of science, all assuming that causality is fully upheld.
In modern times, several famous Muslim scholars and thinkers have adopted rationalistic or even naturalistic views w.r.t. miracles. Muhammad Abduh’s modernist exegesis of the Qur’an is famous for presenting naturalistic explanations to events that were often considered direct interventions by God; Shibli Nu`mani proposed scientific interpretations of miracles; Sir Seyyed Ahmad Khan is famous for having rejected miracles (as violations of natural laws) because God has established a covenant (or “trust”) with human by having set up laws in the entire universe; Muhammad Asad’s commentary on the Qur’an coherently included rationalistic reinterpretation of miracles; etc.
Recently, a few Muslim thinkers have also expressed interesting views on the question of miracles.
Mehdi Golshani (Bigliardi 2014, 57-60) considers “miracles” as only specific occurrences that fall under different laws, or a combination of laws (a magnetic field cancelling out gravity and making an object float in the air, in the example he gives). There is no violation or the laws of nature. However, even though he regards “miracles” as not central to our religiosity, he does not advocate metaphorical interpretations of any of the Qur’anic miracle stories, keeping open the possibility of their being explained in the future by new knowledge about nature.
A similar view is adopted by Altaie, who first insists that “God does not rule this world miraculously but according to well-defined laws” (Bigliardi 2014, 81), but further stresses that the quantum world has shown that extraordinary events (a person going through a door without opening it) can happen albeit exceedingly rarely. He thus considers “miracles” are extremely rare events that fall under the laws of nature, even though in some cases we may not yet have the knowledge to explain them.
Bruno Abd-al-Haqq Guiderdoni distinguishes between “divine providence”, events that are extraordinary coincidences but violate no laws, and which Muslims consider as divine “intervention”, a “small miracle”, so to speak, and between the events that are described in the Qur’an as apparently supernatural (e.g. a clay bird becoming alive and flying off), and which he proposes to interpret spiritually (Bigliardi 2014, 145-146). For instance, the famous splitting of the moon he interprets as “the splitting of the heart of the believer”, the unveiling of the secrets hidden in one’s heart on Doomsday. He concludes that “the laws of nature are constantly valid” because seeing God as an actor simply “lowers our idea of God.”
I think that one important element in dealing with Qur’anic miracle stories is the full consideration that the Book, as Ibn Rushd (and others) had (have) stressed, speaks differently to people of different intellectual capabilities and different eras. Thus the idea of “real” miracles may (or must) be upheld for the commoners, while the philosophers and the scientists must ensure that causality and the laws of nature are never violated, lest we lose our ability to understand the world and to ascertain knowledge.
Modern science has forced us to reconsider some aspects of theology. We cannot ignore new, important results and robust understanding of the world/nature and keep to old-style theology. Occasionalism, while dominating Islamic mainstream theology for many centuries, now seems like a strange conception to most people, so ingrained has the regularity and law-like nature of the world become. Indeed, Murphy (1995, 332) rejects occasionalism because it makes God the “sole actor” in creation and turns the natural causation that everyone unconsciously takes for granted into nothing but an illusion…
The concepts of methodological naturalism and causation, and their consequences on one’s consideration of divine action and miracles, are key theological issues that Muslim thinkers must address squarely today. Hopefully the rich intellectual tradition of Islam will provide us with much valuable material to work with, along with the extraordinary knowledge that modern science and philosophy have developed.
 Of course, this verse has been interpreted in various ways…
 A distinction is often made between “laws of nature” and “laws of science”, for science can only hope to approach (as closely as possible) the “real” or “ontological” laws that regulate nature, but at no point, certainly not now, can humans claim that the laws they have “discovered”, or actually “formulated”, are identical to the actual ones of nature (or what Muslims sometimes call “the laws of God”).
 For example, if a doctor explains some mental disorder as the work of demons, s/he will not be able to understand the deeper brain processes at work there, nor will any medication be found, one which will alleviate the troubles of the patient…
 This is most clearly expressed in Q35:41: It is Allah Who sustains the heavens and the earth, lest they cease (to function): and if they should fail, there is none – not one – can sustain them thereafter: Verily He is Most Forbearing, Oft-Forgiving.
 Divine action through quantum processes became a favorite of a number of western thinkers, most notably the physicist-theologian Robert J. Russell (1997, 2006, 2009).
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Bigliardi, Stefano. 2014. Islam and the Quest for Modern Science: Conversations with Adnan Oktar, Mehdi Golshani, Mohammed Basil Altaie, Zaghloul El Naggar, Bruno Guiderdoni and Nidhal Guessoum. Istanbul: Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul.
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Nidhal Guessoum M.Sc, P.hD. is an Algerian astrophysicist. He is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.