“Ever since the beginnings of modern science, four or five hundred years ago, scientific thoughts seem to have moved humankind and consciousness further from the centre of things. More and more of the universe has become explicable in mechanical, objective terms and even human beings are becoming understood by biologists and behavioral scientists. Now we find that physics, previously considered the most objective of the sciences, is reinventing the need for the human soul and putting it right at the centre of our understanding of the universe!” (Rae 2004)
The last century has witnessed a new scientific approach with the development of the quantum theory. The theory has been tested to such a degree that it has become the scientific theory on which the most experiments have been carried out of all time. Probably this is partly due to the fact that it is the most mind-provoking theory to date. Nevertheless, the new theory has passed all these tests and has been confirmed as being more complete in explaining the cosmos than any previous theory. The quantum theory has shown that the old approach of a mechanical universe was an oversimplification employed to explain the physics of the universe. One of the most important consequences of this is that the quantum theory refutes the main foundations of positivist philosophy. This philosophy sees the universe consisting of what we can observe or measure, with everything beyond not being real. This denial also applied to knowledge that came from religions, and this resulted in the present conflict between religion and science. However, today even modern science says that the universe cannot be limited to what we observe. The very basic principles of quantum physics show the possibility that the vast majority of life or the states of life are beyond the scope of our observations and that we have no way of knowing about them via physical means.
Although positivist philosophy dates back to the 16th century, it was August Comte who defined it in a systematic way in the mid-19th century. The Harper-Collins dictionary defines Positivism as “the view that all true knowledge is scientific.” Positivism includes the view of reductionism which claims that everything in the universe, including astrophysical systems, complex biological systems, social movements, cultural values, and belief systems can all be reduced to simple physical and chemical events. Probably one of the most unfortunate outcomes of this approach was the questioning of belief systems with the tools of the scientific method. In one of his articles Fethullah Gulen says:
"The massive influence of positivism and materialism on science and on all people of recent centuries makes it necessary to discuss such arguments. As this now-prevalent “scientific” worldview reduces existence to what can be perceived directly, it blinds itself to the far vaster invisible dimensions of existence."(Gulen 2006)
Such arguments against religion that spring from materialism have gone worldwide, and all religious faiths have been questioned. Even the faithful has been confused by these arguments, consciously or unconsciously. Although scientific knowledge should be only one source of knowledge, it was considered to be the only source. In Huston Smith’s words, this was a “blank check” to science to make decisions (Smith 2001).
It should be clarified that the early founders of both classical and modern physics did not perceive science in a positivist way. Copernicus and Newton at the birth of classical physics and Einstein, Dirac, and Planck at the birth of modern physics, all had religious convictions and envisioned science as a part of knowledge. Einstein was even accused of being a theologian in disguise by some scientific historians. It was the positivist philosophy which took advantage of the scientific developments and used it against religion, resulting in the apparent conflict today. However, new developments in science have proven that the basic assumptions of positivism are no longer valid from a modern perspective. Thus positivism should be nothing but an outdated ideology.
From quantum physics to metaphysics
Quantum mechanical behavior emerges when one observes phenomena at microscopic scales. One of its novelties can be seen in that it offers a more comprehensive atomic model. The new atomic model has very important applications to our life, ranging from making lasers to producing computer chips. The early understanding of an atom was that there was a nucleus at the center and electrons circulating around it, like in the planetary systems (the Bohr model). Although this was a great achievement at the time it was proposed, later scientists realized that classical physics cannot explain the circulation of the electron around the nucleus. In such a model the electron should lose energy and eventually collapse into the nucleus.
In the quantum mechanical definition the electron is more like a wave around the nucleus than a particle. So the electron is not really a particle orbiting around the nucleus, but rather more like a cloud that is spread evenly around. Sometimes the electron is called a particle because it acts like a particle in some experiments. As seen in this example, in a quantum mechanical measurement we cannot find an answer to “what the electron really is,” but rather we find an answer to “how it responds to a particular setup.” The actual stuff is a neither a particle nor a wave. We are rather measuring one form of its behavior which is compatible with our experimental system. Then according to the quantum theory, there is no a way to completely understand this actual stuff with measurements.
Above we gave the famous measurement problem, which forms the heart of the quantum theory. Although what we are dealing with looks like a physical problem, “the measurement problem” has far reaching philosophical consequences. The basic problem is that we need to know what this actual stuff looks like so that we can have an answer to the question of “what it really is.” However, any explanation should be able to explain the transition from a quantum physical system into the macroscopic system in which we live so that we can have a meaningful model. Otherwise, paradoxes are inevitable (you can read about the famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment if you are interested.)
The most complete and satisfying answer comes from the Copenhagen interpretation (Frayn 2000). It was proposed by Neil Bohr, one of the prominent figures in the development of the theory. Debates lasting for months or longer, especially between N. Bohr and A. Einstein, ended up with the victory of Bohr’s ideas. According to the Copenhagen interpretation, the actual stuff is neither a wave nor a particle but is something not physical; rather it exists only in knowledge. This knowledge collapses into a physical state when somebody measures it. So the new theory suggests a very abstract approach to the universe as opposed to the old mechanical model. The famous astrophysicist Sir James Jeans wrote,
“The stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the Universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Human mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter.” (Jeans 2002)
Scientists think that the true picture of the actual stuff can never be completely understood in this physical universe because we are limited by our physical tools. There may be other states, but we have no tools to understand them or get to know about them since we are limited by the tools of this universe. This is the point where the new physics talks about other dimensions which are beyond the observable and measurable universe. But this is exactly what philosophy calls “metaphysics.” So we see that the new physics not only accepts the existence of other metaphysical realms, but it even says that they must exist for completeness!
The necessity of human consciousness
A concern comes to mind about what is unique in this measurement process that results in the ultimate transition from a knowledge system into a physical system. How can the detector in an experiment result in this transition? The answer from the Copenhagen interpretation is very surprising. The detector cannot be the cause for this transition, because it does not make any changes in the system before or after the measurements are carried out. That is, these tools we use to make the measurements do not change anything in the nature of the system. Not even the eyes of the observers or the brain that is making this measurement can do this, as they are no different than the experimental apparatus, except that they are more complex. They are just part of the experimental system in this chain, like mechanical detectors. The chain continues until it ends up in the human consciousness, which is something non-material as any physical identification would put it in the same category as the previous members of the chain. Then the unique role of the human action enters the system; measurement is part of the knowledge in the mind. With this measurement, the human consciousness becomes aware of it. This is the unique property that the human being has which cannot be attributed to any other objects and it plays a central role in the interpretation of the quantum theory.
We infer that human consciousness is something immaterial and behaves quite differently than any other entity in the universe. Interestingly, the distinction of the physical and spiritual side of human beings is found in the teaching of religions, which we now see in the context of modern physics. This is a very important reconciliation between science and religion and it is also reassuring that we are not like any other objects in the universe!
Is materialism coming to the end?
With the new developments in physics, a materialistic worldview seems to be a simple look at life and existence. We remember the classic statement of materialistic philosophy “I only believe what I can see or measure in the laboratory.” Quantum physics would respond to this by saying: “it is not that simple!” We see that there are no contradictions between the new physics and the teachings of religions. We do not know how God creates life in hereafter, hell, and heaven. But one thing we do know is that their existence does not contradict the modern scientific worldview. Also the realms of invisible creatures (like angels and the devil) and their interactions with our physical world cannot be understood with science. Modern physics says we should not seek knowledge of these through science. They can only be known by what is told to us in our holy books and by the prophets.
The extreme approach of materialism to the human being is that the human is the most complexly evolved biological mechanism in the universe and in theory its consciousness and other feelings can be reduced into chemical reactions. This approach is in complete contradiction with modern physics. Modern physics says the human being is totally distinguished from other beings with their non-material consciousness. So we see that modern science removes the human being from the ignorance of materialism and puts it into the center of the universe. This is the same thing that religions have been saying since the creation of Adam and Eve!
As people of the 21st century, we can see that the discoveries of modern science does not contradict faith. We see that modern science is widening its horizons by identifying metaphysics as being part of the reality. In the words of the 20th century scholar Said Nursi, “…the light of conscience is religious sciences. The light of the mind is modern sciences. Reconciliation of both manifests the truth. The student’s skills develop further with these two (sciences). When they are separated, from the former superstition and from the latter corruption and skepticism is born.” A similar statement by Einstein is “…I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
- Rae, Alastair. Quantum Physics: Illusion or Reality, Cambridge: 2004.
- Gulen, M. Fethullah, Questions and Answers about Islam, The Light, Inc., NJ: 2006.
- Smith, Huston. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, HarperSanFrancisco: 2001.
- Frayn, Michael. Copenhagen, Anchor:2000.
- Jeans, Sir James. The Mysterious Universe, The Macmillan Company, 1932.
- Henry, Richard Conn. “The Mental Universe,” Nature, 436, 7 July 2005.