Last month’s Crescent International featured an excellent article entitled “Devolution” by Bilal Muhammad. The author argues that the scientific approach to biological history, sometimes referred to as “evolution,” produces valid (though limited and provisional) knowledge — but like all scientific discourse, it “says little about our quality of life, purpose of life, why we live, how we should live, where we come from, what it means to be human, the power of thought and conscious experience, and whether we are really ‘better’ or more developed than our ancestors. It gives the illusion of upward ascent, but I see a downward regression…”
The author convincingly suggests that the spiritual and cultural devolution so visible all around us is the result of what philosophers call a category mistake. Scientific approaches are mere tools for acquiring particular kinds of knowledge; they cannot provide answers to questions involving meaning and values. Yet scientism, the idolatrous worship of science, consists of mistakenly believing that the humble tools of scientific inquiry collectively amount to a sort of divine oracle that somehow supersedes all other approaches to knowledge, and makes other approaches — indeed any approaches — to questions of meaning and value obsolete. The work of new atheist Richard Dawkins exemplifies this idolatrous scientism.
Islamic tradition addresses questions of meaning and value in ways that have satisfied and stimulated further inquiry among billions of people during the past 14 centuries. Wayfarers who thirst after knowledge discover that Islam’s well of truth is deep, and the water it yields is pure and wholesome. And unlike cults that claim monopolies on truth, Islam encourages us to broaden our search for knowledge “even unto China,” that is, to the farthest possible reaches of our limited intellects.
In his article, Bilal Muhammad raises an interesting question: to what extent is the current evolutionary paradigm compatible with Islam? As Muslims, which if any aspects of it should we embrace, and which if any should we reject?
Muslims should have no problem accepting the apparent geological and genetic facts about the history of life on earth, keeping in mind the provisional nature of the knowledge thus acquired. It is always possible, indeed likely, that biological history as currently taught will be radically revised in the future; but that should not stop us from doing our best to try to understand the subject with the imperfect tools available to us now.
At the same time, we must emphatically reject the metaphysical certainties offered by the high priests of evolution-as-substitute religion: namely, the absurd notions that we live in a purely materialistic and utterly random universe. Evolution idolaters like Dawkins believe that existence is just matter and energy changing form in time and space according to completely random processes — and inexorably heading for entropy, or maximum disorder. They think that life has evolved purely by chance, from the earliest and most primitive organisms to vastly more complex ones (like us). So how could ultra-primitive organisms get so mind-bogglingly complex, purely by chance? The evolution worshippers think life’s march toward greater complexity — a paradoxical violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and its information theory analog — has been driven by random genetic mutations, usually caused by radiation damage to DNA, that somehow produced “fitter and fitter” (that is, ever-more-complex) genomes.
The neo-Darwinian claim that random damage to DNA has been the driving force behind the emergence of stunningly beautiful, complex, and meaningful life forms seems self-evidently absurd. It grows even more absurd when we consider issues of entropy in thermodynamics and information theory, and realize that the neo-Darwinians are telling us that sheer entropy (relentless randomness) is magically producing vast amounts of negative entropy (ever-more-complex life).
The materialist claim that all of existence is just matter-energy in space-time, moving ineluctably in the direction of randomness (that is, lower-energy and lower-order states) can be refuted philosophically and scientifically. More importantly for non-philosophers and non-scientists, who make up the vast majority of humanity, it is obviously unsatisfactory as the basis for any serious consideration of the quality, meaning, and purpose of life.
As Muslims, we know that the world of space, time, and matter — the dunya — is only a small part of the picture. There is also the akhirah, the next world, which is better and more abiding. And alongside ‘alam al-shahadah, the part of existence that is available to inquiry based on our senses, there is ‘alam al-ghayb, a much greater part of existence that is impervious to such inquiry. Since, from our perspective, Allah (swt) is in the direction of the akhirah not the dunya, and ‘alam al-ghayb not ‘alam al-shahadah, the dunyawi (this-worldly) concerns of contemporary scientific inquiry are actually addressing a relatively small and insignificant part of the larger picture of what it means to be human.
If existence is not primarily materialistic, neither is it random. On the contrary, it is unfathomably rich in order and meaning. Indeed, the very notion of “randomness” embodies a very dubious metaphysical assumption, one that the Qur’an suggests is wrongheaded, “Behold, Allah does not disdain to make a metaphor of a gnat, or of something [even] less than that” (2:26). This ayah suggests that the tiniest and seemingly most insignificant things are created to convey meaning. Indeed, in the Qur’anic view, all of existence is made up of ayat, the power demonstrations of God.
The materialist notion of randomness is a form of kufr; it is an ungrateful, truth-concealing lie. The truth is that randomness is purely relative to human knowledge; there is no such thing as randomness per se. We call a process random when we cannot predict its outcome. When we flip a coin, science tells us that the way the coin falls is entirely deterministic; if we knew the direction, spin, and momentum the coin had when we tossed it in the air, factored in gravity and air resistance, and so on, we would know precisely how it would land. Yet to us it seems random. All that means is that we don’t understand how the process is going to come out! In other words, what we call randomness is merely a measure of our ignorance. The reification of randomness is another of scientism’s category mistakes. It has produced a false and degrading worldview that drives the decadence we see around us.
So if existence is not matter/energy moving randomly toward entropy in space/time, then what is it? The Qur’an repeatedly tells us that all existence comes from Allah, who simply says “Be!” and it is, “The Originator of the heavens and the earth, when He decrees a matter, He only says to it, ‘Be!’ — and it is” (2:117). This ayah suggests that Allah brings forth existence through speech. So existence is a communicative process! That would explain why the created world is so rich in meaning: because everything in creation is an ayah, a sign of Allah (swt).
So who is Allah speaking to when he says “‘Be!’ — and it is”? Clearly existence is full of sentient creatures with minds created precisely to enter into dialogue with their Creator; that is what life, at the deepest level, is really all about.
Interestingly, that branch of physics known as quantum mechanics may have found a faint echo of this deep truth in its consideration of the wave/particle duality. According to physicists, our world is made up of sub-atomic quanta that can manifest as either probability waves or actual particles. It seems that they are mere probability waves until a mind perceives them, at which point they “collapse” into the actual particles that make up our matter/energy-in-space/time existence. The clear implication is that existence is created for the purpose of being perceived by minds, meaning our universe is an act of communication.
Those who worship (demonstrate conformity) at the idolatrous altar of secular materialism are confounded by the wave/particle duality. But as Muslims we should not be surprised. We always knew that existence is an ongoing communicative relationship with Allah (swt)… and that those who remain willfully summun bukmun ‘umyun (deaf, dumb, blind) to the words of their Creator are making a terrible mistake.