“Science cannot give you the smell of chicken soup’, declared Albert Einstein. Cambridge physicist Jeremy Butterfield quoted the legendary scientist to illustrate the cognitive gap between subjective human consciousness and the physical, objective world which science investigates. It is to the credit of the Cambridge Muslim College that it organised an exciting day conference 8th September 17 to delve into such mysteries.
The subject matter was not for the faint-hearted: ‘What is Consciousness and Why Observers Matter in Quantum Theory.’ A challenging title but appropriate for university whose glories include scientific geniuses like Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawkins. College Dean Dr Tim Winter, a.k.a. Sheikh Abdul Hakim Murad, in the opening address stressed that the purpose of the gathering was not to advance solutions but to establish a serious conversation between science and faith. He invoked the Cambridge Platonist thinkers and the great Islamic philosopher and physician Ibn Sina’s doctrine of the soul as pertinent predecessors.
The Conference panel offered ten presentations by physicists, neuroscientists, mathematicians, a psychotherapist and a philosopher. There was no attempt to assert a crude link between religion and science. Rather, each speaker set out some of the key problems involved in quantum theory. You could say it all goes back to Werner Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle, one of the cornerstones of modern physics. Formulated in 1927, that revolutionary discovery fractured the certainties of previous deterministic, Newtonian science. Because at the subatomic level there are no certainties about the path of physical particles, only probabilities, as Heisenberg’s experiments showed. Such uncertainty has deep implications for the scientific worldview. Could it be that, while science succumbs to uncertainty, the bracing certainties of faith introduce a more attractive alternative?
Rationalist and atheistic thinkers like Daniel Bennett, Dr Winter reminded us, have argued that consciousness and free will are strictly the results of physical processes. There are no thoughts, Dennett claims, only units of information. Others, however, respond that personal introspection means a mode of knowing not reducible to matter. Philosopher Thomas Nagel’s ground-breaking paper ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ shows how merely materialist, reductionist theories of mind omit something essential: what it is – or feels – like to be a particular conscious being, like a bat (pity we cannot ask the bat, its answers may be surprising). Nagel does not believe in a Creator but his reasoned views about the unique status of consciousness are a challenge to materialists like Dennett.
Professor Anam Anzak’s expertise in neurology and neurosurgery enabled her to study the phenomena of consciousness from an empirical and experimental standpoint. An expert on the neural basis of paradoxical kinesia in Parkinson Disease patients, she did not confine herself to the medical dimension. Indeed, she also produced stimulating snippets about a ‘neuro-theology’. By invoking the Qur’an – specifically Surah Yusuf – she suggested that valuable insights can be gathered from sacred texts bearing a tantalising relevance to brain research and psychopathology.
Ausaf Farooqi, another neuroscientist, also implied a rejection of any vulgar materialist theory of mind-brain identity. The point is that there seem to be no specific areas of the brain that can be correlated with consciousness. Nor indeed is there any location within the brain that is active at all times. Where is consciousness then? A question, materialists cannot answer.
Suzanne Gieser, an analytical psychologist from Stockholm, gave a fascinating paper. It was about the exchanges between psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung and physicist Wolfgang Pauli, all explained in their jointly-authored book, The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche. Jung’s concern was with the human experience of synchronicity, those extraordinary coincidences apparently not causally related yet strikingly meaningful. Pauli, for his part, was fascinated by the astronomer Johannes Kepler, the way the latter’s scientific achievements relied on alchemy, mysticism and religion. Reading Kepler persuaded scientist Pauli that to find the deep, universal laws of the universe one must go beyond science as hitherto narrowly defined. Their discussions led Jung to study quantum physics, while Pauli was drawn into Jung’s own theories about the archetypes, myths, ESP and the meaning of dreams.
In 1920 Pauli had discovered the notorious Exclusion Principle of quantum mechanics – another nail in the coffin of scientific certainties. The discovery had caused Pauli much anxiety. Jung showed Pauli how symbols drawn from alchemical and esoteric traditions, such as Islamic mysticism, could enable him to overcome his angst. Not only that, the symbols also disclosed to Pauli the deep, subconscious way by which he had arrived at his conclusions. For the great physicist, it was a real Eureka moment, an illuminative realisation. Henceforth he saw his own work through the perspective of Jung’s ideas. Could Jung and Pauli’s interchange perhaps present a model of how science and religion may learn from each other?
Dr Asim Islam’s concluding remarks were stimulating. Latest researches in quantum mechanics suggest the crucial, active role of the human observer – human consciousness, or indeed the soul – in physics. Thus, ultimately science produces a picture of reality consistent with classical theological views. Reason and faith can be harmonised. Wonderful! I came away from the conference feeling really uplifted. I hope the Cambridge Muslim College will make the text of the papers available soon. Thoughtful believers should find them of great interest.