Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
This article demonstrates the truth of the prophecy of the Holy Quran that the humans have been given, but a little knowledge, about soul or consciousness. The prophecy continues to be true after centuries of research in biology and will be true forever. This article brings contemporary scholarship and research to the commentary of the well known verse of the Holy Quran:
And they ask thee concerning the soul. Say, ‘The soul is by the command of my Lord; and of the knowledge thereof you have been given but a little.’ (Al Surah Al-Isra’ 17:85/86)
For the purposes of this article for reasons detailed later the terms human soul, consciousness and mind will be used interchangeably. We will start off with confessions of the leading experts in the field as to how little we know about consciousness. Sir Roger Penrose OM FRS (born 1931) is an English mathematical physicist and Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford and Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College. He has received a number of prizes and awards, including the 1988 Wolf Prize for physics which he shared with Stephen Hawking for their contribution to our understanding of the universe. He is renowned for his work in mathematical physics, in particular his contributions to general relativity and cosmology. He writes:
A scientific world-view which does not profoundly come to terms with the problem of conscious minds can have no serious pretensions of completeness. Consciousness is part of our universe, so any physical theory which makes no proper place for it falls fundamentally short of providing a genuine description of the world. I would maintain that there is yet no physical, biological, or computational theory that comes very close to explaining our consciousness and consequent intelligence.
Thomas Nagel (born 1937 in Belgrade, in present-day Serbia) is an American philosopher, currently University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, where he has taught since 1980. His main areas of philosophical interest are philosophy of mind, political philosophy and ethics. He is well known for his critique of reductionist accounts of the mind in his essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974), and for his contributions to deontological and liberal moral and political theory in The Possibility of Altruism (1970) and subsequent writings. He argues that two radically different perspectives on the world exist side by side. One is essentially subjective, tied to a particular point of view. The other is an objective perspective, essential to science: the ‘view ‘from nowhere.’ Because consciousness is essentially subjective, it is one entity objective science will never be able to explain. Although objectivity is a major conceptual achievement, Nagel thinks it is not the whole story. There is more to reality than objective reality. Could an objective science of subjectivity be possible? Even if the answer to this question is yes Nagel thinks it is not possible for centuries to come:
The strange truth seems to be that certain complex, biologically generated physical systems, of which each of us is an example, have rich non-physical properties. An integrated theory of reality must account for this, and I believe that if and when it arrives, probably not for centuries, it will alter our conceptions of the universe as radically as anything has to date.
Daniel N. Robinson (born 1937) is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Georgetown University and a Fellow of the Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford University. Robinson has authored more than seventeen books and edited over thirty volumes in a wide variety of subjects, including moral philosophy, the philosophy of psychology, legal philosophy, the philosophy of the mind, intellectual history, legal history, and the history of psychology. He has held academic positions at Amherst College, Georgetown, Princeton and Columbia University. In addition, he served as the principal consultant to PBS and the BBC for their award-winning series “The Brain” and “The Mind.” According to him Rene Descartes’ Dualism, meaning that physical and mental are two separate realms, is given an unduly bad press, the contribution of philosophers of the past to mind-theory is not properly appreciated by their descendants of today. He has spelled out his criticism of Physicalism or Materialism, which deny Dualism, in an effort to unify the physical and the mental, in his book, Consciousness and Mental Life. Sam Coleman, University of Hertfordshire writes in the review of this book:
Robinson’s central thesis is briefly as follows: There is far less to be gained from modern philosophy of mind and its interplay with the mind-sciences than is widely thought, especially when one properly examines the work on these issues carried out by great historical philosophers. Robinson’s list includes Plato and Aristotle, up to Reid and James, but it is above all Descartes, he opines, who either foresaw current ‘advances’ in mind-theory, or else presented considerations powerful enough that, properly understood (as presently they are not), prove fatal to most every current analysis of mind. For Robinson, physicalism’s falsity is quite clear, and Descartes — read aright — has already had more or less the final word on the mind/body problem.
In other words Thomas Nagel and Daniel Robinson believe that Rene Descartes will continue to be right as far as the eyes can see! I do not intend to make a case akin to ‘God of the gaps,’ banking on lack of scientific knowledge at a given time. I will make a positive case for limitations of human knowledge based on quantum physics and Godel’s incomplete theorem. It is one thing to be a dog another to be a bat, each has its own limitations and therefore it is not inconceivable that human knowledge and concepts may have limitations. After all we are only better evolved mammals.
Christianity has been under constant attack by science for the last few centuries and has been constantly retreating. First came the astronomers and the physicists and exposed the inaccuracies of the Bible and played havoc with the influence of the clergy. Next came the biologists, being led by Sir Charles Darwin and showed that our sins cannot be inherited and that Adam and Eve were not the first human couple, so the whole of institution of Original Sin and vicarious atonement is hocus pocus. One can choose to continue to believe in whatever one chooses, but, the rational foundation for Christianity as seen by earlier Christians like Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, has completely disappeared in thin air.
Islam and the Holy Quran have not only shown resilience under attack of science but have actually been lifted and buoyed by new scientific discoveries. But, there is yet a last crusade to be fought by pen and new discoveries between the atheist scientists proposing strict Materialism and Muslim apologists and the frontier is the human soul. One may ask how come? If scientific Materialism is true then human consciousness or human soul, as the atheists understand it, is no more than a brain state and vanishes with the death of the brain. Human consciousness is the final test? If scientist can have complete understanding of human consciousness and free will and can create robots with similar capabilities, then human soul, free will, accountability and hereafter turn out to be fairy tales. According to believers of Materialism, human’s final accountability takes on the form of fairies or witches, which exist only in the minds of naïve and disappear in thin air in the light of day and science. This is why this is the final frontier!
Now, let me describe work of Descartes and his proposed Dualism, by quoting, Professor Patrick Grim from his lecture series, Philosophy of Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines:
In 1619, the young Rene Descartes envisaged a new science in a series of dreams. He dreamed of a philosophical unification of all the sciences, grounded in certainty and the solidity of mathematics. The core of that science was a radical distinction between minds and bodies. According to Descartes, the world is composed of two fundamentally different kinds of substances. Mass, energy, and the motion of atoms in the void belong to the physical substance of the universe. Feelings, ideas, and the taste of pineapple belong to the mental substance of the universe, as does Descartes’ dream. Descartes’ Dualism gives us the mind-body problem.
With success of science in so many spheres of life, many scientists have been leaning towards Physicalism or strict Materialism and consciously or unconsciously giving up Dualism of Descartes. But, when it comes to real arguments against Dualism and in favor of Materialism, hardly any ground has been gained in the last four centuries. Daniel Robinson states, “Despite the tremendous growth of knowledge over recent decades, the problem of mental causation, nonetheless, is pretty much where it was in the time of the ancient Greek philosophers.” All of us have experienced in the last decade or two that a Microsoft word file can be opened in countless computers, which have the word program or one compatible with it. In other words there can be countless substantiations of any file and if it be a popular book, like Harry Potter series, made available on the web, within minutes we could have millions of copies of the file, being read on personal computers and iPADs all over the world. Likewise, if Functionalism be true, the consciousness of individual humans with all their memories, experiences, ambitions, morals, thoughts, their free will and their regrets can be downloaded in form of a digital file and then uploaded on countless robotic machines, creating clones of individual humans in the fullest sense of the word and making accountability and free will a joke. If human consciousness and personality is like a software file running on hardware of brain and if it can be downloaded to run on other hardware then the concept of soul and accountability would have been falsified.
The atheist scientists like Daniel Dennet are hopeful that victory is at hand. One of my friends a learned physician and insightful computer programmer has predicted that computers or robots that can be described as a person are coming soon, possibly within the next three decades. But, I beg to differ, on the authority of the verse of the Holy Quran about soul and its teachings about free will and final accountability. I am not presenting a case for God of the gaps, where the religious zealots bank on areas, where science has not succeeded yet, to make their case for God or religion. I am making a positive case for the unknowability of soul and limitations of human knowledge based on several centuries of history of science, since Descartes, on quantum physics and Gödel’s incomplete theorem. The track record of science in the field of consciousness has been an abysmal failure in the last four centuries since the time of Descartes. You do not think that your best desktop or laptop has a personality, free will or consciousness. What about the world’s best computers? Deep blue, which defeated the celebrated international chess champion and other most powerful computers still are glorified automatons and calculators and are not ‘persons’ with an attitude. Islamic claim about soul is still winning after several centuries of research since Descartes. Yet, apologists for Materialism do not refrain from making tall claims because of their atheistic ideology. Similar tall claims of a deterministic world were made once before also by the generation of Pierre-Simon Laplace and many more that followed until the discovery of quantum physics.
Laplace Determinism denied Free Will or Providence of God
Eighteenth century leaders of thought were persuaded that no problem was inaccessible to the methods and perspective of physics. They thought that physics is complete and full knowledge of each nook and cranny of our universe was just a matter of time. Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) summed up the confidence of his age when he claimed that if we had complete knowledge of position and velocity of every particle in the universe, the direct application of Newton’s laws will allow us to predict perfectly every future events. If this were true it would not only have taken mystery out of the future but at the same time by making every event deterministic and physics complete, in a manner of speaking, would have made our free will and Providence of God unreal. But, this was not to be! The world awaited not only Einsteinian physics but was to be blessed with quantum physics as well that Einstein himself could not ever come to terms with.
Quantum physics was a missing piece of information in physics that restored free will and Divine Providence. It became an interface between the material and the immaterial, profane and sacred, the tangible and the intangible and of course a meeting point of the knowable and the unknowable. The scientific and physics aspect of quantum physics can be best read in a scientific treatise but to appreciate the mystery and aura about it, one should bank on quotes of the leading experts in the field, until one becomes an expert in ones own right. So, here I reproduce a few from QuantumEnigma.com!
“[T]he atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.”
“Anyone not shocked by quantum mechanics has not yet understood it.”
“Observations not only disturb what is to be measured, they produce it.”
“When the province of physical theory was extended to encompass microscopic phenomena through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again. It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness.”
“The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment.”
“Nobody understands quantum mechanics.”
And last but not the least:
[I can’t accept quantum mechanics because] “I like to think the moon is there even if I am not looking at it.”
Professor Daniel Robinson concisely lays down the relationship of quantum physics and consciousness for us when he writes:
The prospect has been raised that consciousness and quantum physics are in some bizarre way interdependent. One of the most influential schools of quantum physics, the so-called Copenhagen school, has argued that the results of experiments at the micro level can be understood only in terms of the influence of the act of observation itself. Niels Bohr’s model of the atom restricts the locations that electrons can occupy when moving from one orbital plane to another; they are entirely probabilistic, as are the energy¬level transitions themselves. Further theoretical developments, driven by experimental results, present a microcosm in which the particles occupy multiple states and multiple locations at the same time. The very act of measurement ‘collapses’ these to a single state, namely, a now specifiable single location and state. David Bohm (1917-1992) furthered the speculations of Eugene Wigner (1902-1995) on the connection between quantum physics and consciousness, applying the theoretical and observational aspects of quantum physics directly to the functions of the brain and to the problem of consciousness. Bohm, with his student Yakir Aharanov, showed that an electromagnetic field could have effects in spatial regions otherwise fully shielded (the so-called Aharanov-Bohm effect, which violates the core canons of classical physics). Bohm later advanced the thesis that the brain at the micro (quantum) level is an informational system such that the mental and the material merge.
Suppose the Copenhagen interpretation is correct, namely, that it actually is the case that only by way of observation and measurement, by way of the introduction of some element or derived product of consciousness, that quantum uncertainties ‘collapse’ into determinate states. The influence that consciousness or its derivatives might have is not by way of contact but by way of that dimensionless entity, information. The very nature of consciousness remains still unaddressed.
In other words, quantum physics is the seat of consciousness, human soul, free will and Providence of God and by its very nature will remain unknowable to a significant degree, for all times to come, in accordance with the verses of the Holy Quran about soul and God Himself, revealed by the Omniscient and the Omnipotent Allah:
And they ask thee concerning the soul. Say, ‘The soul is by the command of my Lord; and of the knowledge thereof you have been given but a little.’ (Al Quran 17:86)
Eyes cannot reach Him (Allah) but He reaches the eyes. And He is the Incomprehensible, the All-Aware. (Al Quran 6:104)
Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems
Gödel’s incompleteness theorems are two theorems of mathematical logic that establish inherent limitations of all but the most trivial axiomatic systems capable of doing arithmetic. The theorems, proven by Kurt Gödel in 1931, are important both in mathematical logic and in the philosophy of mathematics. The two results are widely, but not universally, interpreted as showing that Hilbert’s program to find a complete and consistent set of axioms for all mathematics is impossible, giving a negative answer to Hilbert’s second problem.
The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an “effective procedure” (e.g., a computer program, but it could be any sort of algorithm) is capable of proving all truths about the relations of the natural numbers (arithmetic). For any such system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system. The second incompleteness theorem, a corollary of the first, shows that such a system cannot demonstrate its own consistency. These theorems indeed define the limitations of human knowledge.
Why use the terms soul, consciousness and mind interchangeably?
“And by the soul and its perfection—And He (Allah) revealed to it what is wrong for it and what is right for it—He indeed truly prospers who purifies it, And he who corrupts it is ruined.” (Al Quran 91:4-8)
In these verses, soul is our very being in this life or our consciousness, which can be polished or corrupted by our actions. I will make the bulk of my case for using these terms inter-changeably and why consciousness is the best contemporary term for our understanding of soul by quoting the Messiah, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani, the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. He describes the creation of soul in mother’s womb in the following words:
It is absolutely true that the soul is a fine light which is developed inside the body and is nurtured in the womb. In the beginning it is hidden and imperceptible, and later it is made manifest; but from the very beginning its essence is present in the sperm. It is related to the sperm in a mysterious manner by the design and command and will of God. It is a bright and illumined quality of the sperm. It cannot be said that it is a part of the sperm as matter is part of matter, nor can it be said that it comes from outside, or falls upon the earth and gets mixed with the sperm. It is latent in the sperm as fire is latent in the flint. The Word of God does not mean that the soul descends from heaven as a separate entity, or falls upon the earth from the atmosphere and then by chance gets mixed with the sperm and enters the womb with it. There is no basis for such a notion. The law of nature rejects it. [Islami Usul ki Philosophy, Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 10, pp. 322-323]
There is conclusive evidence that the male and female sperm have the capacity to generate the soul without its falling from heaven like the dew. When the two sperms unite the capacity is strengthened and grows till when the framework of the embryo is ready the soul is activated from the framework by the power of God Almighty. This is the creation of something from non-existence, because the soul is not anything material and yet it is generated from the same matter which grows into a framework after the union of the two sperms in the womb. It is not necessary that the soul should fall like dew on some vegetable and should be generated in this manner. The matter from which the soul is generated can be formed out of a piece of meat or fish, or from clay from the depths of the earth from which frogs and insects are generated. Undoubtedly it is a Divine mystery that He creates from the body something which has nothing of the body in it. It is clear that the soul does not fall from heaven but is a new creation which is produced from the compound sperms by the Power of God as Almighty Allah says in the Holy Qur’an: ‘Then We fashioned the sperm into a clot; then We fashioned the clot into a shapeless lump; then We fashioned bones out of this shapeless lump; then We clothed the bones with flesh; then We developed it into another creation. So blessed be Allah, the Best of creators.’ (Al Quran 23:15) That is to say, when the human framework is ready in the womb God completes it with a new creation, meaning the soul is created out of the matter from which the framework was prepared. [Chashma-e-Ma‘rifat, Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 23, pp. 123-124]
In the following detailed excerpt, the Messiah draws some metaphors from human sleep and talks about the continuity of human soul into the next life. The metaphor about sleep certainly highlights that human soul is synonymous with human consciousness:
A Soul Bereft of its Qualities is Dead It may be said that if the soul is created it would follow that it is mortal in the sense that a condition in which something is bereft of its qualities may be described as death. When a medicine loses all its effect it may be described as dead. In certain circumstances the soul is bereft of its qualities and undergoes even greater changes than the body. At such times it can be said that it has died, inasmuch as when anything gives up all its essential qualities it is described as dead. That is why in the Holy Qur’an only those human souls have been described as being alive after their departure from this life which retain those essential qualities which are the purpose of their creation, that is to say, perfect love of and perfect obedience to God Almighty which is the life of the soul. When a soul departs this life full of the love of God and having devoted itself to Him, it is alive and all other souls are dead. A soul bereaved of its qualities is dead. During sleep both the body and the soul die, that is to say, they are bereft of the qualities that they possess during wakefulness and suffer a sort of death, inasmuch as anything that is bereft of its qualities cannot be described as being alive. Death does not only mean non-existence; being bereft of essential qualities is also a sort of death. For instance, when a body dies its material still survives. In the same way the death of the soul means that it has been bereft of its qualities, as happens during sleep, when both the body and the soul are bereft of the qualities that they possess during waking hours. For instance, the soul of a living person meets a dead person in a dream and does not know that that person had died. It forgets this life altogether as it sinks into sleep, and discarding its garment of life puts on a new garment forgetting all its knowledge and all its memories of the world except that much as God may keep alive. It suspends all its activities and truly arrives before God. All its movements and words and emotions pass under the control of God Almighty. It loses all choice and it cannot be said that anything that it does or says or hears in a dream is by its own choice. It exhibits all the signs of death. During sleep the soul suffers an even greater death than does the body. If people were to reflect upon their condition during sleep they would realize that if the soul had been exempt from death it would have continued to enjoy that exemption in sleep also. Our condition during sleep is a mirror for the purpose of our comprehension of our condition in death. He who seeks true comprehension of the soul should reflect deeply on his condition during sleep. Every mystery of death can be resolved through one’s experiences during sleep. If you will reflect deeply on the mysteries of sleep and dreams and will contemplate how the soul suffers a sort of death during sleep when it is bereft of its knowledge and qualities, you will realize that death has a great resemblance to sleep. Thus it is not true that after its separation from the body the soul continues in the condition which it enjoyed in this life. Under God’s command it suffers the same kind of death which it had experienced in sleep, only that condition is intenser than its condition in sleep and every one of its qualities is reduced to nothing. That is the death of the soul. Thereafter those alone are revived who used to work for life. No soul possesses the capacity to continue alive on its own. Have you the capacity to control your qualities and circumstances and knowledge during sleep as you are capable of doing in your waking hours? As soon as you sink into sleep your soul undergoes a change and suffers a type of non-existence whereby God Almighty has said about the soul in the Holy Qur’an: ‘Allah takes away the souls of human beings at the time of their death; and during their sleep of those also that are not yet dead. And then He retains those against which He has decreed death, and sends back the others till an appointed term. In that surely are Signs for a people who reflect.’ (Al Quran 39:43)
This means that at the time of death the souls pass wholly under the control of God and lose all choice and self-consciousness. That is to say, they are deprived of the qualities of life and become as if they were nonexistent. Such of them as do not die in fact, but pass into a condition resembling death in a state of sleep, also pass under the control of God Almighty and undergo a change in which they lose all worldly consciousness and feeling. Thus, both in death and during sleep, God takes possession of the soul in such manner that it loses all choice and consciousness which are the signs of life. Then such souls upon whom death has in fact been imposed are retained by God, so that they cannot return to the world, and He restores to the world those souls upon whom death is not imposed. In this phenomenon there are signs for those who reflect. This verse shows that the soul undergoes death as well as the body. But the Holy Qur’an indicates that the souls of the righteous are revived within a short period—some after three days, some after a week, and some after forty days—after death and are bestowed a second life of comfort and ease and delight. That is the life for the achievement of which the righteous servants of God approach Him with the utmost sincerity and put forth all their effort in order to emerge from the darkness of their egos and adopt a hard mode of life in the search of God’s pleasure, so much so that this condition resembles death. As the verse cited above indicates, there is a death for the soul as there is for the body, though the hidden circumstances of that state do not become manifest in this dark world. Yet the state of dreams is an illustration of that state which resembles the state of death of the soul in this world. It is our experience that as soon as we sink into sleep all the qualities of our soul are upset and we forget our waking hours and our spiritual qualities, and all the knowledge that our soul possesses becomes non-existent. We experience such scenes in our dreams as show that our soul has lost all the qualities that it possessed in wakefulness and has become something very different. This condition resembles death and is indeed a sort of death. This shows conclusively that the death which is imposed upon the soul with the death of the body resembles the death which the soul experiences in sleep but is very much heavier. [Chashma-e-Ma‘rifat, Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 23, pp. 160-164]
Prof. Joseph Levine earned his PhD from Harvard and now teaches in University of Massachusetts. The back cover of his book, Purple Haze: The Puzzle of Consciousness states:
Conscious experience presents a deep puzzle. On the one hand a fairly robust materialism must be true in order to explain how it is that conscious events causally interact with non-conscious, physical events. On the other hand, we cannot explain how physical phenomena give rise to conscious experience.
In this wide ranging study, Joseph Levine explores both sides of the mind-body dilemma, presenting the first book-length treatment of this highly influential ideas on the ‘explanatory gap,’ the fact that we can’t explain the nature of phenomenal experience in terms of its physical realization. He presents a careful argument that there is such a gap, and after providing intriguing analysis of virtually all existing theories of consciousness, shows that recent attempts to close it fall short of the mark. Levine concludes that in the foreseeable future consciousness will remain a mystery.
He concludes his book with the lines, “I hope to have established that, at least with respect to traditional attempts to understand the place of conscious experience in the material world, we really do continue to face a genuine puzzle. The mind-body problem is still a problem.”
The Holy Quran predicted that humans will have only limited understanding of soul or consciousness, but, how limited is limited? Rene Descartes after a series of dreams coined this limitation in the scientific arena. His dreams were pivotal in setting the scientific revolution on the right footing. In the subsequent centuries by focusing on physical stuff we have had our Newtonian and Einsteinian physics which has indeed given us wonderful technology. But, mind-body problem continues to be real and Descartes’ Dualism continues to be right, even though in view of remarkable success of science and technology, this issue has been pushed away from general consciousness. According to several experts in the field of consciousness, including Daniel Robinson and Joseph Levine, ‘in the foreseeable future consciousness will remain a mystery!’ I will go a step further, I predict on the basis of the Quran that soul or human consciousness will always remain a mystery. And now I define the limits of the mystery, in the last paragraph of the article.
If mankind can sufficiently demystify human consciousness and mental experiences, then it will be able to substantiate each individual human mind in multiple clones in robotics, making hereafter and accountability a joke. If the Holy Quran is the literal word of All Knowing God and is right on this issue, humans will never have such a complete understanding and human free will shall continue to stand. Actually the Holy Quran suggests that our afterlife will be a new substantiation of our worldly mind or consciousness in a new body, a spiritual one, as also hinted to in the excerpts from the writings of the Messiah quoted above.
1. Roger Penrose. Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness. Oxford Press, 1994. Page 8.
2. Prof. Patrick Grim. Philosophy of Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines. The Teaching Company Course Guidebook, 2008. Page 120.
3. Prof. Patrick Grim. Philosophy of Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines. The Teaching Company Course Guidebook, 2008. Page 122.
5. Prof. Patrick Grim. Philosophy of Mind: Brains, Consciousness, and Thinking Machines. The Teaching Company Course Guidebook, 2008. Page 6.
6. Prof. Daniel N Robinson. Consciousness and Its Implications. The Teaching Company Course Guidebook, 2007. Page 21.
7. Prof. Daniel N Robinson. Consciousness and Its Implications. The Teaching Company Course Guidebook, 2007. Page 31-32.
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