Thursday, August 23, 2012

Quantum Physics and Tasawwuf

Yours truly wanted to comment on this article for a long time. This got unduly delayed. The lesson is that finish the routine tasks routinely. Here is the deconstruction. The original is in blue and the comments are in black.

Tasawwuf (Sufism) and Quantum Physics

Dr. Ibrahim B. SYED
Tasawwuf (commonly known as Sufism) and quantum theory have several things in common.
Tasawwuf is about spirituality. Quantum Physics is about inanimate matter. Between two of them there are various stages of difference. From inanimate to animate there is a big jump. In animate matter also there is a big jump from rest of the animate matter to human beings. In humans spiritual aspect is the upper most. Thus any existence of resemblance between Tasawwuf and Quantum Physics can be only deceptive.
For example, Sufis and physicists have very similar views of the world. In contrast to the West’s mechanistic worldview, Sufis consider all things and events perceived by the senses as interrelated and connected, different aspects or manifestations of the same ultimate reality.
See Dr Syed started talking about contrast - yours truly could rest his case here and now!
For them, enlightenment is the experience of becoming aware of all things’ unity and mutual interrelation, transcending the notion of an isolated individual self, and identifying themselves with the ultimate reality.
Enlightenment is a western world and we need not make any attempt to find its Tasawwuf equivalent. In Islam we have guidance from Allah (SWT) and that is much more than enlightenment. European enlightenment in itself is not a journey from darkness to light - it is in reality the opposite. Through enlightenment Europe moved away from religion.
An exact science is expressed in the highly sophisticated language of mathematics, whereas Sufism is based on meditation and insists that the Sufis insight cannot be verbalized.
This too is contrast.
Reality, as experienced by Sufis, is completely indeterminate and undifferentiated.
 Tasawwuf is Irfan. That is highest level of achievement to call it indeterminate gives the impression that we are talking about illusion - that is far from the truth. Tasawwuf is Ihsan, the refined state of Islam, that is clearly differentiated as is clear from the Tradition of Gabriel where Islam, Iman and Ihsan are differentiated.
They do not see the intellect as their source of knowledge, but merely use it to analyze and interpret their personal experience.
The parallel between scientific experiments and Sufi experiences may seem surprising due to the very different nature of observation. Physicists perform experiments involving elaborate teamwork and highly sophisticated technology; Sufis obtain their knowledge purely through introspection, without machinery, and in the privacy of dhikr (meditation). Repeating an experiment in elementary particle physics requires many years of training; deep Sufi experience generally requires many years of training under an experienced master. The complexity and efficiency of the physicists technical apparatus is matched, if not surpassed, by the Sufi’s consciousness, both physical and spiritual, while in deep dhikr. Thus scientists and Sufis have developed highly sophisticated methods of observing nature that are inaccessible to the layperson.
Both require long planning. That is superficial. Both have complexity. That too is superficial. Both have sophistication. That too is superficial.
Dhikr seeks to silence the mind and shift awareness from the rational to the intuitive mode of consciousness.
To calm down mind will be a better phrase but that too misses the target. Tasawwuf is the process of perfecting your Islam and that is it. Journey from rational to intuitive is by and large right thing to say but not the complete truth - rational to spiritual is the actual direction in Tasawwuf.
This is achieved by concentrating on one item, like breathing or focusing on the sound of Allah or la ilaha illa Allah. Even prayer, which is considered dhikr to silence the mind, leads to feelings of peace and serenity that are characteristic of dike’s more static forms. These skills are used to develop the meditative mode of consciousness.
In dhikr, the mind is emptied of all thoughts and concepts and thus prepared to function for long periods through its intuitive mode. When the rational mind is silenced, the intuitive mode produces an extraordinary awareness, for the environment is experienced without the filter of conceptual thinking. This meditative state’s main characteristic is the experience of oneness with the surrounding environment, a state of consciousness in which fragmentation ceases and fades into undifferentiated unity.
This is bit qualitative. To compare anything with Physics one has to be very precise. To compare anything with Tasawwuf one has to be very spiritual. It is not easy to make these two ends meet.
Insight into reality
Sufism is based on direct insights into the nature of reality; physics is based on observing natural phenomena in scientific experiments. In physics, models and theories are approximate and basic to modern scientific research.
Quite reasonable representation.
Thus Einstein’s aphorism: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality” (1) ...
We got to dissect this a bit. Einstein was not a Sufi, of any kind. He did have a religious inclination and that contributed to his popularity. Above statement is problematic in the following sense. He is primarily a scientist and his job stops there. His personal opinion decidedly falls on the boundary where he should not tread - religion.Religion is for all, including scientists, but religious authority is different from scientific authority. He is talking about limitations of science in above fragment and that is how we should take it.

It is true that science has limitations and it is true that Sufis in particular and religious people in general talk about human limitations. But just because we have limitations at two places the two things do not become equivalent.

True, there is no preposition in the present article about equivalence of Sufism and Quantum Physics but there is a serious suggestion about a close connection and that is troublesome enough. We have to be on alert about superficiality getting promoted to profundity - as best as we can.
whenever the intellect analyzes the essential nature of things, it must seem absurd or paradoxical. Sufis have always recognized this, but it has recently become a problem in science.
If science is taken as a complete paradigm for life then there will always be problems. Science is a mere part of life, Islam and hence Tasawwuf is a way of life - it does not have the corresponding limitations.
A great variety of natural phenomena belong to the scientist’s macroscopic environment and thus to the realm of their sensory experience. Since their language, images and intellectual concepts are abstracted from this very experience, they are limited to describing natural phenomena. But since the atomic and subatomic worlds lie beyond our sensory perception, knowledge of them is no longer derived from direct sensory experience. Thus our ordinary language, with its images from the world of the senses, is no longer adequate to describe the observed phenomena.
Nice pinpointing of a dilemma.
As we penetrate deeper into nature, we have to abandon more of the images and concepts of ordinary language. By probing inside the atom and investigating its structure, science transcended the limits of our sensory imagination and thus could no longer rely with absolute certainty on logic and common sense.
Still very close to the truth.
Quantum physics provided scientists with the first glimpses of the essential nature of things. Like Sufis, physicists now deal with a nonsensory experience of reality and encounter the paradoxical aspects of this experience.
Now is the time to add a few comments. In case of science one has to learn to live with these paradoxes. Quantum Physics is comment on man's arrogance born out of his expertize in science. The science establishment has not realized that. In Tasawwuf the situation is opposite - they, many a times, provide solution to the paradoxes. One example should suffice. Allah (SWT) has a pait of attributes that are contradictory on their face. One is Az-Zahiru and the other is Al-Batinu. The Manifest and the Hidden. How can both of them be true at the same time? Simple - whatever is manifest it is because of Him and hence He (SWT) is the Manifest. We have not seen Him in His Being in this world so He (SWT) is Hidden. Problem solved.

One more point is in order. The direct sensory perception has limitations even before Quantum Physics.
As a result, the models and images of modern physics are akin to those of the Sufis.
This is the analogy that yours truly has trouble with. Quantum Physics is part of Physics that is a sore reminder of universal human limitations. Tasawwuf is a happy reminder of the possibility of some human beings reaching the level of Ihsan. Tasawwuf is an assertive preposition while Quantum Physics is a prohibitory preposition. Just because Tasawwuf is not everybody's cup of tea it does not mean that the statements of Tasawwuf are vague to everybody. Tasawwuf is also called Mysticism for too many of its statements look mysterious to many people. It does not mean that they are mysterious to all.
The problem of communication
Scientists realized that our common language cannot describe atomic and subatomic reality. With the advent of relativity and quantum mechanics in physics, it became clear that this new knowledge transcends classical logic and cannot be described in ordinary language.
Scientists describe the reality very well. What the author is referring to is that many scientists find it difficult to accept the reality they have discovered. In Quantum Mechanics you can not measure both the position and velocity of a particle simultaneously. This shatters the classical  confidence because in Classical Mechanics we can measure both. For a Muslim this is perfectly alright that we can not measure position and velocity at the same time. For an atheist it is not. His certainty and surety and confidence is being snatched away from him. A believer is an 'Abd, a slave and a slave is never arrogant about his abilities - he accepts his limitations.

In Special Theory of Relativity the concept of simultaneity takes the beating. Luckily this one is usually accepted by the majority scientific community as a legitimate human limitation.
Sufis have always realized that reality transcends ordinary language and were not afraid to go beyond logic and common concepts. The problem of language faced by both Sufis and physicists is the same: Both want to communicate their knowledge, but when they do so with words their statements are paradoxical and full of logical contradictions.
It is true that Quantum Physics has thrown the logical approach to winds but the same was already the case when empiricism came to the fore. What Quantum Physics is saying that empirical materialistic reality itself is beyond our control. Sufism too tells about our limitations but the main focus there is on spiritual reality. This is the gist of the story of Hazrat Khidr (AS) and Hazrat Musa (AS) in Surah Kahaf in the Noble Qur'an. For example, Hazrat Khidr (AS) killed a child and Hazrat Musa (AS) feels the revulsion. But Hazrat Khidr (AS) tells that this child was destined to be a very bad person in future. So we do not know part of the reality - we have limitations. Quantum Physics says so but that is about mechanistic aspects of life. Tasawwuf tells us about limitations of human knowledge but that is about spiritual realm.

One warning must be issued here - going to the interface of materialistic and spiritual aspects of life is the precise realm where we can not clarify this issue.
The duality of light
In quantum physics, many paradoxical situations are connected with light’s dual nature or, more generally, with electromagnetic radiation. Light produces interference phenomena, which is associated with waves of light. This is observed when two sources of light are used, for the end result is bright and dim patterns of light. On the other hand, electromagnetic radiation also produces the photoelectric effect: when short wave length light (e.g., ultraviolet light, x-rays, or gamma rays) strike the surface of some metals, they can knock off electrons from the surface. Therefore, the surface must consist of moving particles.
One technicality here - the photoelectric effect proves the particle nature of light not the particle nature of the particles on the surface.
In the early stages of quantum theory, physicists were puzzled by how electromagnetic radiation could consist of particles (entities confined to a very small volume) and waves (which spread over a large area in space) simultaneously. Neither language nor imagination could deal very well with this kind of reality.
This is the wave-particle duality in Quantum Physics. In some cases light behaves as if it is a wave while in some others it behaves as if it were consisting of particles which are now called photons. Same was true for electrons. Now classically the two entities are quite different from each other. How can light be both a wave and a particle? How can electron be both a particle and a wave? Well for a Muslim it is not much of a problem - he is ever ready to accept his limitations - he is an 'Abd, a slave. Indeed this wave-particle duality is an argument for belief in God but it can not be promoted to the level of having a consonance with spiritual limitations focused in Tasawwuf. There are limitations and there are limitations. All limitations are not the same. Limitations of Quantum Physics are materialistic while those of Tasawwuf are of spiritual nature.
Sufism has developed several ways of dealing with reality’s paradoxical aspects. The works of Attar (d.1299), Hafiz (14th century), Ibn al-Arabia (d. 1240), Rumi (d. 1273), Basmati (d. 875), and others are full of intriguing contradictions. Furthermore, their compact, powerful, and extremely poetic language is meant to throw the reader’s mind off its familiar tracks of logical reasoning.
Good observation. In fact one can say that a mind thrown into turmoil by Physics or Quantum Physics  can be brought back to peace and tranquility by Tasawwuf. So the relation between Quantum Physics and Tasawwuf will be of problem and solution respectively and not of similarity.

In an earlier phase Tasawwuf gave solace to the soul perturbed by the vagaries of logical predilection - Mutazila. People were trying to reach truth through logic and reasoning - scholasticism and Tasawwuf saved them from doom. On the materialistic side people went to empiricism and soon found themselves, in modern times, that they have again hit the wall. We have seen two major examples above, wave-particle duality and Heisenberg's Uncertainty of not being able to measure both position and velocity. The materialist has again hit a wall and Tasawwuf is the way out.

Heisenberg once asked Bohr: “Can nature possibly be so absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments (2)
This is simply the statement of the problem - reality does not make sense without Islam.
Our sensory experiences, whose realm is the macroscopic world, allow us to draw images and intellectual concepts and express them in a language. This language was sufficient and adequate for describing natural phenomena. The Newtonian mechanistic model of the universe described the macroscopic world. In the twentieth century, physicists verified the existence of atoms and subatomic particles, the ultimate building blocks of nature, through experimentation. As these particles are beyond our sensory perceptions, our knowledge of them is no longer derived from direct sensory experience. Thus we face the problems mentioned earlier when dealing with the essential nature of things.
Again science is stumped because of our limitations that are universal. Tasawwuf is talking about limitations that are not universal. No one can decide whether electron is basically a wave or a particle. That is universal limitation. That is what  Quantum Mechanics is telling us. Tasawwuf is telling slightly different things. It is telling us that some spiritual aspects require high spiritual abilities. Here we talking about possibilities and not universal limitations.
Modern physics
Sufis say that the direct mystical experience of reality is a momentous event that shakes the very foundations of one’s worldview, that it is the most startling event that can happen in the realm of human consciousness, and that it upsets every form of standardized experience.
And Quantum Physics has no such claim. (True, science pursuit is not everybody's cup of tea but the limitations its talks about are universal.) So the disparity between Tasawwuf and Quantum Physics is rather stark.
Some Sufis describe it as “the bottom of a pail breaking through”.
True - the spiritual insight many times comes in a whole bundle. A bundle in Quantum Physics is called a quantum! And here one could again jump that there is a similarity but the similarity again is superficial. For nth time we would assert that one is materialistic bundle, the quantum,  and the other is spiritual bundle, the insight, guidance. Materialism and spirituality are two disparate realm of our existence and these combine to make our life. Western society took a materialistic turn and developed science. We eastern people did not pursue science in its latest phase but have managed to save the spiritual world. If there is any perception of commonality then it is in the nature of problem (that is present in the western outlook and Quantum Physics is merely a manifestation of that) and solution (that is present in Tasawwuf, Islam).
Physicists in the early part of the twentieth century felt much the same way when this new atomic reality shook their worldview’s foundations. They described it in terms that often were very similar to those used by Sufis. Thus Heisenberg wrote: “Recent developments in modern physics can only be understood when one realizes that here the foundations of physics have started moving; and that this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science.”
I suppose my point has been made, repeated and re-repeated. So I'll add one more layer here. Thomas Kuhn, a Marxist physicist and philosopher of science, asserted that transition from one paradigm to another via revolution is the usual developmental pattern of mature science. What Heisenberg is talking about is the phase between two paradigms - the classical paradigm and the quantum paradigm. Quantum revolution, the phase where the ground beneath your feet moves, took the scientific world from one paradigm, the Classical Physics, to another, the Quantum Physics.

This observation is relevant here. Marxists tried to apply the same paradigm shift philosophy to other aspects of life, arts and social sciences, and gathered a lot of flack for that. We Muslims should learn a lesson from their mistakes and should not commit the higher mistake. Marxists applied mechanical paradigm shift theory to social realm (human realm) and ended with a pie in the face. When we are talking about Quantum Physics and Tasawwuf we are trying to apply the same paradigm shift to spiritual realm. Mistreatment of social and personal matters leads to  problems while mistreatment of spiritual matters will lead to disasters.
The discoveries of modern physics necessitated profound changes in such concepts as space, time, matter, object, and cause and effect.
Sure. These are scientific matters. Allah (SWT) gave us, in advance, a complete way of life that includes personal, social, economic and spiritual matters and has in it the inherent possibilities to explore science.
Any scientific breakthrough has the possibility of throwing light on some aspects of life but it has no ability to shake the truth revealed in the Wahy.
Since such concepts are so basic to our way of experiencing the world, those physicists who were forced to change them felt something of a shock. Out of these changes, a new and radically different worldview was born and continues to be formulated. Quantum theory implies the essential interconnectedness of nature, thus forcing us to see the universe not as a collection of physical objects but as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of a unified whole. This is how Sufis experience the world.
Sufis seem to attain nonordinary states of consciousness that allow them to transcend the three-dimensional world of everyday life and experience a higher, multidimensional reality. In relativistic physics, if one can visualize the four-dimensional space’s time reality, there would be nothing paradoxical at all. Sufis have notions of space and time that are very similar to those implied by relativity theory.
In Sufism, there seems to be a strong intuition for the “space-time” character of reality. Sufis experience a state of complete dissolution in which there is no distinction between mind and body, subject and object. In a state of pure experience, there is no space without time and no time without space, for they are interpenetrating. Physicists base their notion of space-time on scientific experiments, whereas Sufis base it on Sufism.
Modern physics relativistic models and theories illustrate the two basic elements of Sufis worldview: the universal oneness and intrinsically dynamic character. Space is curved to different degrees, and time flows at different rates in different parts of the universe. As our notions of a three-dimensional Euclidean space and time’s linear flow are limited to our ordinary experience of the physical world, they have to be abandoned when we extend this experience.
Sufis talk of extending their experience of the world in higher states of consciousness, and affirm that these states involve a radically different experience of space and time. They emphasize that they go beyond ordinary three-dimensional space in meditation, and, even more forcefully, that they transcend the ordinary awareness of time. Instead of   a linear succession of instants, they experience an infinite, timeless, and yet dynamic present. The spiritual world contains no time divisions such as past, present, and future, for they have contracted themselves into a single moment of the present, where life quivers in its true sense.