The Exploration of the Cosmos: an endless Quest ?
Modern cosmology is exploring the universe with increasing success. Several of its spectacular breakthroughs have some significance with respect to the meaning of the human presence in the cosmos : the fine-tuning in structure formation, the intelligibility of the universe, the attempts of quantum cosmology to describe the « beginning », and the discovery of exoplanets around nearby stars. The Islamic doctrine provides us with a broad metaphysical background that can help us give « meaning » to some of the discoveries of modern cosmology. The articulation of science and religion cannot be found in a struggle for a new science founded on religion, or in a mere concordism, but in a metaphysical convergence of the different routes to knowledge. According to Islamic mysticism, the cosmos is one of the loci of God’s self-disclosure, and new phenomena are continuously put into existence. I will emphasize the significance of gratefulness, fear and perplexity, as three modes of the everyday bewilderment that accompanies the quest for knowledge.
The crisis of meaning in cosmology
There is a commonly-acknowledged idea that science deals with « facts » whereas religion deals with « meanings ». If science attempts to answer the « how » and religion the « why », there should not be any conflict between them. Unfortunately, the situation is not so simple. It is true that science deals with efficient causes and religion with final causes, to use the technical words of Aristotelian philosophy. But the general trend in the development of sciences is that the efficient causes push the final causes backwards and eventually eliminate them.
This has been happening in the West since the Renaissance. In the Middle Ages, the Jews, Christians and Muslims shared the same prospect on the world, even if there were already long-lasting controversies and hot debates on cosmological issues. The men and women of faith of the Middle Ages did not see only things and phenomena around them : they primarily contemplated symbols and looked for spiritual unveiling through their study of the cosmos. The epoch of the medieval synthesis between Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology and the teachings of the Holy Scriptures has passed away, and the development of modern science has led to a profound spiritual crisis in the West.
Man has lost its central place in the cosmos and has been rejected onto a standard planet orbiting a standard star in a standard galaxy located somewhere in the dull immensity of space. Reality has been reduced to matter, then matter to atoms located in space and time, and finally atoms, space and time to mathematical quantities submitted to symmetry and conservation rules. The material cosmos is considered as self-consistent and does not require a Creator, a Demiurgos or an Architect as a necessary explanation for the apparent order that shows up at all scales from the cosmological to the infinitesimal one. Modern science does not refer to Transcendence, not to speak of a personal God such as the One who reveals Himself through His messengers in the monotheistic religions. This uprooting of the link to Transcendence affects even the apparent effectiveness of mathematics which are not considered any more as being the archetypes of things in a Platonic way, but rather the mere products of our mind in a Kantian and Darwinian prospect. Such a science is value-neutral and devoid of any meaning.
To quote it with the words of Claude Levi-Strauss, « The universe has meaning only with respect to Man, and Man has no meaning ».
The war between science and religion has ceased in the West, because religion has admitted that is has nothing to say on cosmology. The fields simply do not overlap because science has colonized the whole of « reality ». To do so, it has defined reality as being only what can be studied scientifically. Western theologians now have to explain why God appears to be hidden under the phenomena. Old ideas such as those of kenosis and tzimtzum that flourished respectively in Christian and Jewish theological thinking have undergone a fascinating revival, and are now used by these theologians to explain why God retires to let the cosmos apparently be ruled by its own laws, without any sign of direct divine intervention. The emphasis is put on the relative independence granted by God to the laws of nature, and on the relative freedom granted by God to Man.
Knowledge and Truth in Islam
The question arises to know whether a synthesis similar to the medieval one would still be possible now. After all, the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmos was not born within the religious prospect of monotheism. It was incorporated and re-interpreted later. Would it still be possible to newly interpret the data of modern cosmology so that they could get meaning ? Or is the loss of ingenuity that affects our outlook at the cosmos so radical that our situation is now hopeless ? Must we accept that the things only point at themselves and have lost their spiritual transparency, because such a loss is the unavoidable corollary of our freedom ?
For a Muslim cosmologist, the loss of meaning that occurred in the West is not acceptable. According to the constant teaching of the Islamic tradition, faith is intimately linked to knowledge. A famous Koranic verse prescribes : « Worship your Lord till certainty », and many Prophetic sayings strongly recommend the pursuit of knowledge (`ilm), as a « religious duty incumbent to all Muslims, Male and Female ». Since useful knowledge brings back to God, the Koran strongly recommends to ponder and meditate upon God’s creation to find the traces of the Creator in its harmony. Hence the so–called cosmological verses (ayat kawniyyah) which are frequently quoted as one of the many miracles included in the Koranic text : « Will they not ponder upon the kingdom of the heavens and the earth, and all that God created ? » Science and religion must articulate because there is only one Truth, as God Himself is One. The part of reality that is present in the scientific description of the world must be connected in some way to the broader prospect proposed by Revelation.
As it is well known, the Islamic tradition has always taught that God is nearby and continuously acts in Creation. « Each day some task engages Him. » So it seems difficult to follow the path of Western theologians in the direction of a Deus absconditus who would let His creation behave by itself. God is hidden, but He is also apparent, according to His beautiful Names azh-Zhahir wa-l-Batin. The Creator is so Great that His creation has no flaw. So what kind of signs does He let in the cosmos ?
The issue is to define the level of articulation between scientific and religious truths. Clearly, two paths lead to dead-ends and have to be avoided. The first dead-end is struggle. This is the idea that science has to be completely re-founded on religious grounds, with the dangerous consequence that the refoundation be more ideological than genuinely religious. The second dead-end is concordism. This is the idea that the Holy Koran speaks about science, and that these teachings are miracles addressed to the « Men of the last times », with the dangerous consequence that the spiritual and ethical meanings of the Koran be hidden behind a new exaltation of science. To avoid those dead-ends, we must be aware that Man is called to a knowledge which goes much beyond rational knowledge.
As a matter of fact, there is in man a « faculty of knowing » that is described in the Koran according to a threefold aspect : « And it is God who brought you forth from your mother’s wombs, and He appointed you for earing, and sight, and hearts. » Earing (as-sam`) is our faculty of accepting and obeying the textual indications, that is, the Koran and the Sunnah which are the two sources of religious knowledge ; Sight (al-basar) is our ability to ponder and reflect upon phenomena, and is closely related to the rational pursuit of knowledge ; The inner vision (al-basirah) symbolically located in the heart (qalb, or fu’ad) is the possibility of getting knowledge directly from God, through spiritual unveiling. This is why the Koran orders the Prophet (Peace and Benediction be upon him) to repeat : « Lord, increase my knowledge. » As a consequence, knowledge can be acquired following three routes : first, the study of the Holy Scriptures and the submission to the revealed Law, second, the investigation of the world and reflection upon its order and marvels, third, inner unveiling granted by God to whom He wants among His servants.
These three routes to knowledge are necessarily convergent because they help Man find God. But their convergence cannot be rational, which would mean that knowledge is limited to rational knowledge. Convergence takes place in the Hereafter, that is, in God Himself who is the Gatherer of all opposite aspects of reality. Rather than contradiction or concordism, we would like to advocate this type of metaphysical convergence, so that truth can be defined in this world as the ability of knowledge to bring the knower closer to the Truth (al-Haqq), which is one of God’s most beautiful names.
The only knowledge which should be avoided is useless knowledge, according to another Prophetic saying : « I seek refuge in God from a knowledge which has no use. » Knowledge is only a mean, and not an aim by itself. God can deceive men with a sort of knowledge that closes their eyes to the treasures of their own spiritual vocation. They then become this arrogant people mentioned in the Koran, who « learned what hurt them, and did not profit them. » No doubt modern science has led many scientists to this type of situation.
The Connection of Faith and Reason
The way the Islamic tradition regarded the connection between science and reason can be briefly illustrated by the debate between al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd on this issue.
The first point to make is that there is actually a field where religion has nothing to say, according to the Prophet Muhammad’s well-known comment after he gave technical advice on agriculture that led to failure in the crops : « You are more knowledgeable [than I] in the best interests of this world of yours. » The Prophet also taught his companions that he was an « expert » in sheep-farming, as all prophets were. This teaching is also developped, for instance, by al-Ghazali in his intellectual and spiritual autobiography al-Munqidh min al-dalal. Al-Ghazali enumerates the list of « sciences » practiced by Islamic philosophers (falasafah) in the wake of Plato’s and Aristotle’s works. Among these sciences, « arithmetics, geometry and astronomy have no relationship whatsoever, positive or negative, with religious matters. They rather deal with issues submitted to proof, which cannot be refuted once they are known and understood. » Al-Ghazali quotes a Prophetic saying : « The Sun and the Moon are two of the divine signs. They get eclipsed neither for the death nor for the birth of anybody », and he comments : « In what measure should these words lead one to reject arithmetics which compute the trajectories of the Sun and Moon, their conjunction and opposition ? »
As al-Ghazali writes, there is a « double risk » in the practice of these sciences. On the one hand, because these scientists are too proud and too sure of themselves, they often adventure beyond the field where reason can validly apply and make statements on God and religious matters which happen to contradict textual indications. According to al-Ghazali, wherever astronomy apparently contradicts textual indications, it is the fault of the astronomers who have surely made errors in their scientific works as far as they have been led to erroneous conclusions. Al-Ghazali quotes, among the three most serious errors defended by Philosophers in his time (and qualified as « infidelity », kufr) : « Their statement about the pre-existence of the cosmos and its eternity, that no Muslim has ever claimed. » In his book Tahafut al-falasafah, al-Ghazali attempts to revisit the proofs given by philosophers and to demonstrate where their errors lie. On the other hand, al-Ghazali writes, the common believers, after seeing the excesses of these scientists, are led to reject all sciences indiscriminately. Al-Ghazali condemns « those who believe they defend Islam by rejecting the philosophical sciences », and « actually cause much damage to it. »
Ibn Rushd, in his Kitab fasli-l-maqal wa taqrir ma bayna-sh-shari`ah wa-l-hikmah mina-l-ittisal, examines again the issue addressed by al-Ghazali. Ibn Rushd was a judge (qadi) and his text is indeed a juridic pronouncement (fatwa) to establish « whether the study of philosophy and logics is allowed by the revealed Law, or condemned by it, or prescribed, either as recommended or as mandatory. » As the enforcement of the revealed Law requires the use of the juridic syllogism (qiyas shar`i) in Islamic jurisprudence, knowing Creation and meditating upon it require the use of the rational syllogism (qiyas `aqli), that is, the philosophers’ works that Ibn Rushd prudently prefers to call « wisdom » (hikmah), by using a Koranic term, instead of « philosophy » (falsafah). Now, « since this revelation [i.e. the Koran] is true and prompts to practicing rational examination (nazhar) which leads to the knowledge of truth, we Muslims know with certainty that examination will never contradict the teachings of the revealed text : because truth cannot contradict truth, but agrees with it and supports it. » As a consequence, Ibn Rushd explains that wherever the results of rational examination contradict the textual indications, this contradiction is only apparent and the text has to be submitted to allegorical interpretation (ta’wil).
This is clearly what happened in the West. Ibn Rushd was a man of faith, but many scientists in the West are not. The allegorical interpretation of the Holy Scriptures and the appropriation of reality by science has led to the « absence of meaning » we noted previously. What is forgotten here is the following. Because the necessity to solve the apparent contradictions between science and religion rationally, for sake of a unique truth understood only as logical non-contradiction, has led to a spiritual crisis, it must be replaced by a broader vista. The solution of the discrepancies can be found completely in al-Haqq, who will satisfy our need. We must accept to live with this tension towards the Truth, that requires the continuous existence of puzzles pointing at the fundamental mystery that sustains the world. The most relevant one deals with our own salvation, as Ibn ‘Arabi alluded during his well-known interview with Ibn Rushd, when he clearly teaches that some questions have no solution.
Modern Cosmology in a Nutshell
We know focus to modern cosmology to illustrate how recurrent puzzles point at the nature of reality. We live in a very peculiar epoch for the understanding of the structure and history of the cosmos. In the last decades, there have been spectacular breakthroughs mainly due to the extraordinary development of observing techniques. The astronomers now have large telescopes with high collecting and resolving power. The quantum efficiency of many classes of detectors is now close to unity, meaning that they actually register all photons that come to them and reach unprecedented levels of sensitivity. The development of ground-based radio astronomy and of satellite observatories in the gamma-ray, X-ray, ultraviolet and infrared spectral ranges has opened the way to a panchromatic view on the universe, and the discovery of many phenomena that are invisible at optical wavelengths. Data processing uses powerful computers and high storage capabilities. As a consequence, we have acquired a treasury of images we are the first generation to contemplate : the image of the earth in the darkness of the sky, the wide diversity of appearance of the surface of other planets and satellites in the Solar System, the mapping of our Galaxy at all wavelengths, the discovery of very energetic phenomena such as star explosions, or the potential census of billions of distant galaxies in deep surveys. We now have access to distances, epochs and structure sizes that were simply unthinkable at the epoch of the Middle Ages when the Arab astronomer al-Farghani computed the distance to God’s throne from the assumptions of Ptolemaic cosmology, and found a value of 120 million km. These new images have deeply changed our awareness of the cosmos.
The second point is that, to understand the structure of the universe, we must track its history. This history is theoretically reconstructed from the data by means of elaborated mathematics. No doubt there is a good deal of bold speculations and crazy ideas in the interpretation. But reality resists, and not all theories are in agreement with the facts. On the contrary, the standard theory now appears as a powerful tool to guide new discoveries. To cut a long story short, cosmologists now think that the universe is expanding, and that the expansion phase started from a dense, hot stage called the Big Bang. During the expansion, the matter/radiation content of the universe dilutes and cools, and the relative abundances of various species of elementary particles change. About 100 sec after the Big Bang, light nuclei begin to form. About 1 million year after that, the universe becomes neutral and transparent, and the light emitted by the so–called last-scattering surface at that epoch is observed as the 2.725 K black body radiation of the Cosmic Microwave Background. Cosmologists also think that there is more matter in the universe than luminous matter. Dark matter, that is probably not similar to the baryons and electrons we are made of, and constitute more than 90 % of the mass density of the universe, is the dominating source of gravity. It collapses and assembles to form small, relaxed structures called « haloes », then still larger and larger haloes, in a process of hierarchical clustering. The small amount of normal matter that is present among dark matter can cool down and collapse in the potential wells of these haloes. Stars form from this cold gas and extract their energy from the nucleosynthesis of heavier nuclei such as carbon and oxygen. At the end of their lifetimes fixed by the amount of nuclear supply, they reject heavy elements into the interstellar medium. New stars and planets form in this gas once it is enriched in heavy elements.
The third point is that, even if we think that the universe is infinite, the observable universe is finite, because of the finite duration of the expansion phase (15 billion years) and finite value of the speed of light. Our Galaxy is located at the center of a 15 billion light-year sphere that is the patch of the universe we can observe. What is beyond the surface of this horizon is not observable. We are not able to move instantaneously to remote space because of the finite value of the speed of light. The travel to distant galaxies is unfeasible. But, for exactly the same reason, we have access to the remote past of the distant regions of the universe, which gives us an image of our own past. So cosmological theories can be tested with observations. We are not at the center of the universe (which has no center), but we are at the center of our observable universe, exactly as any other galaxy is at the center of its observable universe. In some sense, we have recovered a position that was lost with the Copernican revolution.
Modern cosmology also attempts to make a census of matter in the universe. But this census is far from completion. Young and old stars in galaxies are detected through deep optical fields till the edge of the observable universe. However, much of the content of the universe appears to be elusive : most of the young stars appear to be buried in dust shrouds and their energy heats up dust grains and is released at far-infrared wavelengths. There are dark baryons that emit little or no light in the halo of galaxies (brown dwarfs and/or white dwarfs). We also know that neutrinos are massive but there is only a lower limit on the mass. We still ignore the nature of dark matter that is detected through its gravitational effects in galaxies, groups, clusters and large-scale structures. And a cosmological constant with a repulsing effect in Friedman-Lemaître equations, that can be due non-zero vacuum energy, is now measured, without any clear interpretation.
Finally, the description of the structures that appear in the universe requires an increasing level of sophistication from the large scales to the smaller ones : At the largest scales, only gravitation is at work. Galaxy formation involves not only gravitation, but thermodynamics, radiation transfer… The formation of stars is a very complicated issue. And the description of planet formation and evolution seems to be intractable. Here we reach the limits of the cosmological prospect.
From Puzzles to Metaphysical Issues
This quick survey of the view of modern cosmology shows how quantitative the approach is. However, there are several fields in which our incapacity to solve recurrent puzzles probably points at the metaphysical structure of reality. In the following, I mention four of these puzzles.
Fine tuning in structure formation
Regions that are separated by more than 1 degree on the last-scattering surface have never been in causal connection before, and should have widely different temperatures, in contrast with the remarkable isotropy that is actually measured. This is the so-called « isotropy problem ». Moreover, the density of the universe is close to unity, and the spatial geometry is almost flat, whereas all values for the density parameter are a priori possible. This is the so-called « flatness problem ». As a result, our observable universe seems to have emerged for a very peculiar set of initial conditions. In parallel, it is now clear that these patterns are necessary conditions for the appearance of complexity in the universe. For instance, a very large density parameter would have produced a fast collapse in a timescale much lower than the stellar lifetimes that are necessary for the chemical enrichment of the interstellar medium (and the subsequent formation of planets), whereas a very low density parameter would have resulted in a very diluted universe, with low mass structures that are unable to retain their gas. A philosophical explanation in terms of final causes can of course be introduced to give meaning to this type of fine-tuning (and other cosmic coincidences gathered under the term of anthropic principle. It can be divine intervention in a religious prospect, or a natural trend of matter towards self-organization, in a pantheistic prospect. But this is unacceptable for modern science. The current explanation of the isotropy and flatness problems (and other related puzzles) is that the universe has undergone a stage of exponential inflation that has inflated a small, causally-connected patch beyond the size of the observable universe, and has erased spatial curvature. This explanation avoids the introduction of any argument on final causes about the set of initial conditions the universe started from.
By the same token, the origin of the inhomogeneities that will produce the large-scale structures after gravitational amplification are explained by inflation : they are simply quantum fluctuations inflated to macroscopic scales. The problem is that the current theory is not able to predict the amplitude of these fluctuations, which are measured at the relative level of Q=10-5 on the last-scattering surface. When a complete theory of inflation emerges, it will have to predict this value, which now appears only as a free parameter. But it is now clear that this value is also a necessary condition for the appearance of complexity in the universe. With Q=10-6, gas cannot cool in the potential wells of haloes and no stars can form. With Q=10-4, galaxies are so dense that frequent stellar encounters hamper the existence of stable planetary orbits, which are a necessary condition for the existence of life ecosystems drawing their energy from stellar radiation. Again, our observable universe seems to have emerged for a very peculiar set of initial conditions.
We now have a new theory that avoids the introduction of final causes : it is called chaotic inflation. In chaotic inflation, inflation eternally takes place and makes new patches of exponentially-inflating space-time that causally decouple one from each other. Subsequently, the inflationary stages will turn into the normal expansion phase. In this context, the laws and constant of physics are fixed by symmetry breaking and get different values in the different patches. Consequently, with an infinite number of realizations, we must not be surprised that there is at least one patch of the universe that has the values suited to the appearance of complexity. The question of knowing whether this theory is testable is still open. But this is not our concern here.
At the current stage of explanation, the apparent fine-tuning in the universe is not due to a peculiar set of initial conditions, but to the exploration of a range of possible values in various patches of the universe. We simply live in a patch that has values suitable to the existence of complexity. But this type of explanation ignores the « power » allotted to the principles of quantum mechanics and the fundamental field theory. When an over-arching field theory is developped (maybe some kind of super-symmetric string theory), it will turn out that it has the possibility of generating patches where complexity is possible. But it is dubious that this theory will include its own necessity, that is, why this is it and not something else. On the contrary, it will likely be incomplete (since it uses arithmetics which are incomplete). So we shall have to push our explanation back again to another broader theory. This quest appears to be endless. The irony is that, when cosmologists try to evacuate final causes, they make new theories and discover new phenomena, but they always face the same type of puzzle. The existence of fine-tuning in the universe surely tells us something about reality. But what ? Man can readily understand that this is a divine sign. If he does not, the door is open to an endless exploration of the cosmos that displaces and magnifies the puzzle, till he finally acknowledges it. « Whithersoever you turn, there is the Face of God »
The intelligibility and universality of the laws
Some cosmologists use the word « universe » for each of these causally-disconnected patches, and the word « multiverse » to name the ensemble of all these patches generated by chaotic inflation. Of course, there is some ideology in the choice of the names. According to its symbolical etymology, the universe is a sign that is directed « towards the One » (unum versus). In the mind of some of those who promote the multiverse, new cosmology is more sympathetic with polytheism than with monotheism. Do many worlds suggest many gods ? However, all these patches of the universe are actually linked by the fact that they are ruled by the same principles of quantum physics and the same over-arching field theory. For that reason, there is actually a single universe. Why are the laws of quantum physics so universal ?
Those who want to evacuate finality and explain the coincidences by selection principles and observing biases (the possibility of existence for observers) have also to explain how Man is able to design quantum mechanics and field theory with his finite mind. The usual argument is that Darwinian evolution enhances our ability to detect symmetry because predators/preys are symmetric. This explanation means that, in the patch of the universe that happens to have the correct values for the macroscopic properties, the genes (or gene packages) that rule the appearance of symmetry in evolved forms of life were also selected (by selection pressure) at least on one planet, with the outcome that one of the species on this planet is able to understand enough mathematics to design fundamental explanations about the cosmos. This is clearly another remarkable coincidence that is somewhat neglected by its supporters.
Here again, modern cosmologists do not wonder enough about the continuous validity of the laws. It is well known that the Ash`arite theology strongly questions the very existence of causality. The position is that there are no secondary causes, simply because God, as the « primary » Cause, does not cease to create again the world at each instant. In this continuous renewal of creation (tajdid al-khalq), the atoms and their accidents are created anew at each time. As a consequence, the regularities observed in the world are not due to causal connection, but to a constant conjunction between the phenomena, which is a custom established by God. This principle of the Islamic theology should be primarily understood as an emphasis on a metaphysical mystery : the continuous validity of the laws. God’s permanence makes creation behave regularly in spite of the continuous renewal : « you will not see a flaw in the Merciful’s creation. Turn up your eyes : can you detect a single fissure ? »
There is even more now. Quantum cosmology attempts to address the issue of the singularity. It requires a still-to-come theory of quantum gravity, and is far from being complete, but several routes have been explored so far. The interesting point here is the philosophical consequences of the works in this field. For instance, the Hartle-Hawking theory evacuates the singularity. According to Hawking’s comment in A Brief History of Time, this theory does not give God any place or choice in a cosmos without beginning. Vilenkin’s theory explains the universe by tunneling effect from quantum vacuum. This theory is sometimes misunderstood as the scientific version of the appearance of « being » from « nothingness » promoted by the existentialist philosopher Heidegger. A random process in quantum physics here replaces non–sense in philosophy. In both cases, the interpretation explicitly attempts to close the route to meaning. However, quantum vacuum is far from nothingness, and is surely part of the universe. Works are in progress to use the last developments of super-symmetric string theory to make pre-Big-Bang cosmology. However all these theories start from « something ». By getting closer to the origins, they simply accentuate the need for metaphysics, and approach Leibniz’s metaphysical question : « Why is there something rather than nothing ? »
In 1995, the first exoplanet orbiting a nearby star has been discovered through its perturbative effect on the velocity of the star. Since this pioneering work, more than 50 exoplanets have been detected, through the perturbation of stellar motions or transit in front of the stars, though none of them has been imaged yet. The surprise is the broad range of masses, distances to the central star and ellipticities that are displayed by these new objects. Most of them have masses comparable to a Jupiter mass or more, and it is still unfeasible to detect earth-like planets. However, such earth-like planets are becoming a major target for forthcoming satellites. There is no doubt that a significant fraction of the 10 22 stars in the observable universe actually have such planetary systems. What is the meaning of this huge population ? From our experience in the Solar System, where space probes have surveyed planets and their satellites, we suspect that there is a large diversity of histories, properties and appearances among these planets. Suddenly, cosmology has opened a new window on an unexpected richness and complexity of the cosmos. Each of these planets, as well as the comparison of their properties and the elaboration of general rules about their formation and evolution, will be potentially a new field of investigation for science with the forthcoming improvement of observing tools, in particular with space interferometry. The existence of extraterrestrial life, and maybe the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, now become scientific issues. The new « planetary cosmology » has an endless agenda of exploration. However, the possibility that other forms of life exist on other planets should not be interpreted as an argument against the spiritual importance and vocation of Man, as it is so frequently.
The Structure of Reality
What is the spiritual lesson we can draw from the scientific pursuit of modern cosmology ? It seems that, in spite of its program to find a definitive explanation, and in spite of its success in exploring new phenomena, cosmology especially illustrates the endless nature of the universe and of the quest for knowledge. Reality is not exhausted by our exploration. This lesson can find interesting resonance in Islamic metaphysics.
First of all, we must always recall that modern cosmology only describes one of the levels of universal existence, with the peculiar language of mathematics. Creation is much larger than the physical cosmos, all the more than the mathematical description of the physical cosmos. There is one physical universe, in a creation that has many « worlds » (alamun) or levels of reality. The human intellect has to be dismayed by the vastness of the universe, which is a symbol of the immensity of creation. And the immensity of creation itself is a symbol of God’s Might.
According to the school of Ibn ‘Arabi, creation is God’s self-disclosure to Himself through the veils and signs of the creatures. This school often quotes the famous tradition in which God says, « I was a Treasure but was not known. So I loved to be known, and I created the creatures, and made Myself known to them. » There is only God in being (wujud). So the things « are » not. They only show God, through their properties which are the manifestation of a given « preparatedness » (isti`dad) to receive some of God’s qualities. However, one cannot say that the things are only an illusion, or nothingness, since they show God to us under their properties. The paradoxical nature of creation, between existence (wujud) and nothingness (`adam), hampers any systematic statement on its nature.
Only God is present, but He discloses Himself according to different « levels ». The « five Presences » (al-hadarat al-khamsah) are al-Hahut (the level of the unknowable Essence), al-Lahut (the level of the personal God who speaks to Man in history, and reveals His names and acts), al-Malakut (the intellectual world of meanings and spirits), al-Mulk (which encompasses both the physical cosmos, and the psychical world), and al-Jabarut (which makes the conjunction of meanings and bodies possible, that is, the conjunction of « intellectual laws » with physical matter and « psychical entities »). God’s Presence in the Jabarut is the world where meanings take bodies, and bodies are reconnected to their meanings. This is the locus of the mystery of regularities in the cosmos. The word Jabarut stems from the root « jabr » which means « constraint ». Through the great « miracle » of the Jabarut, the laws of nature (and all the other laws which are necessary for our very existence) are continuously enforced.
God’s clemence gives being to all possibles entities (mumkinat). The Sufi Abu Talib al-Makki quoted by Ibn ‘Arabi, used to say « God never discloses Himself in a single form to two individuals, nor in a single form twice. » So God’s self-disclosure is endless. Ibn Arabi describes this as the « sanctified Effusion » (al-fayd al-muqaddas). New creatures and events are continuously put into disclosure. So knowledge is endless.
The Role of Bewilderment
The philosophical definition of scientific truth is a debated issue. Apart from theories which are not self-consistent and should be either rapidly eliminated, or re-elaborated, it is difficult to define philosophically the conditions for a theory to be true, probably true, wrong, or probably wrong, even if we can keep, and must keep, the every-day definitions of truth and falsehood for practical purposes and convenience in our exchanges. But what we can define with great accuracy is the method which leads to the development of scientific knowledge. The philosophical « truth » of science lies it the fruitfulness of its method. So cosmology, as well as the other sciences, is mainly an open process.
We must reflect about the meaning of impossibility in science. Some of the major discoveries of the XXth century deal with the identification of fundamental limits to our knowledge : Gödel’s incompleteness theorem in mathematics, quantum uncertainties in physics, unpredictable behaviours of systems ruled by non-linear equations in physics, biology or even economics and sociology. Reason is able to grasp its limits from within reason itself : this a major success for rational enquiry, perhaps the most important result in an age when the notion of scientific truth has vanished. Science goes ahead not only with cataphatic, or positive knowledge, but also with negative, or apophatic knowledge. This is also a sign of Transcendence.
The Greek and Medieval philosophers (Jews, Christians and Muslims) used to distinguish two aspects in the human intellect (Greek : nous ; Arabic: `aql): (i) the faculty of pondering (Greek : dianoia ; Arabic : fikr, tafakkur), which allows us to use syllogisms as a valid procedure to produce true statements from other true statements. This is the algorithmic power of human mind, what we call reason; (ii) intellectual intuition, that is, the possibility to grasp truth immediately (Greek : noêsis ; Arabic : hads). In their spiritual commitments, scientists should look for recovering this contemplative aspect of truth, so that their `aql becomes aware of the limits of their fikr. Abu Bakr, the first caliph, used to say that « incapacity to attain comprehension is itself comprehension. » By fighting against himself to proceed towards a higher idea of God, the believer answers to God’s words (in the hadith qudsi) : « I am with My servant’s opinion of Me. » The situation is not much different in science provided the scientist is able to recognize the nature of his intellectual pursuit, and avoids to transform it into an ideological struggle against meaning.
Because of our spectacular progress in the scientific understanding of the universe, we have forgotten contemplation, which is necessary to Man. This is this awareness that can help reconcile science and religion, and not a low-level concordism. We would like to mention three qualities which seem to be relevant for all those who, as scientists and believers, keep a continuous tension towards Truth. These are gratefulness (shukr), fear (taqwa) and perplexity (hayrah). Gratefulness is for the marvels of the cosmos, fear for the sense of Transcendence it inspires, perplexity for the continuous existence of unsolved puzzles that points at more fundamental mysteries. These qualities are known in religious and mystical knowledge. In the Islamic prospect, we can add that gratefulness refers to the « Names of Beauty » (asma’ al-Jamal), and fear to the « Names of Majesty » (asma’ al-Jalal) that show up in the worlds, whereas perplexity refers to the coexistence of opposite qualities that can be solved only in Allah who is the « Name of the synthesis » (ism al-jami’), and by nobody else. The spiritual pursuit is not limited to the intellectual contemplation of truth, but it aims at salvation, which is the ultimate meaning of Man. Gratefulness, fear and perplexity are three modes of the fundamental bewilderment that is produced by the contemplation of the cosmos. This bewilderment is a way of worshipping God. Such an attitude should lead scientists to an increasing sense of responsibility in the technological applications of modern science.
By Bruno Guiderdoni, in The Exploration of the Cosmos : an endless Quest ?