Is the universe deterministic or is it probabilistic? Do we have free will or are we just puppets in the hand of a Super Intelligence? These are questions that are not new.
The Greeks, the Indians the Muslims, all had their share in explaining this enigma. And now we have Quantum Mechanics. If there was just one thing we all need to know about Quantum Mechanics, it is: that Quantum Physics proves that the universe is probabilistic at the base level.
This to me as a Muslim is the best tool to understand what has been the most ambiguous part of Islam ie Qadr, which is wrongly translated as predestination or destiny and how to reconcile that with our free will. Again, Quantum physics will serve as just new language to articulate an old concept.
Medieval Islamic texts on predestination and free will always have references to the Islamic atomism.
Keep in mind that Western science did not accept the existence of atoms up until early 1900’s. In contrast earlier traditions like those of the Greeks, the Indians and Islamic Science already had concrete atomic theories. Muslim atomism had the distinction of quantizing everything. Matter, space and even time, 900 years before Quantum Mechanics.
To understand how QM explains our free will and Destiny have this we need two things:
Firstly a universe that is elastic enough to comply with our free will. If the universe is taken as a solid blob of matter and the full history of the universe from the Big Bang to the end is unchanging, etched in stone and deterministic, then even if the human being has free will, what use is that free will? I cannot change anything, I don’t have the power to change anything, then why have I been given a free choice. So for us to have true free will, the universe has to fully comply. It has to allow us to exercise our free will.
That means it has to have all possibilities, probabilities attached to everything, under the shadow of God’s foreknowledge.
Qadr is not preordainment. Dr Muhammad Iqbal the great scholar from the Indian subcontinent in his book writes preordainment is a Christian concept. The word Qadr means “a measure”. A measure of what? A measure pertaining of all the possibilities pertaining to the existence of that thing.
God says in the Quran, ”Inna kulla shayin khalaqnahu bi Qadr” (And all things We have created with Qadr) .
A measure of all the things that it can realize at any given moment of time, all the probabilities, all the possibilities it can realize over time. So Qadr has that time element. This in Quantum Mechanics language is the wave function that is associated with everything.
It was the Double slit experiment that showed that matter is a probability wave. By shooting electrons through two slits, after sometime a pattern on the screen showed that as if the electrons had gone through both the slits at the same time. If they were tiny bits of matter they would’ve gone through either one slit or the other one at a time producing two distinct bands on the screen. But that’s not what happens. Rather we see many bands on the screen. So this clearly shows that the electron is not a round particle of matter, but it is moving through both the slits just like a wave. The question arises then what are these waves of or in?
Is it just matter which is spread out or something else? It was Max Born who came up with the most brilliant answer.
These matter waves cannot be matter smeared out, because then we could separate a tiny bit and say this is 1/4th electron and the rest is 3/4th. No matter which part of the wave falls on the screen it materializes into one full electron. Then by observing the varying dark and bright bands of the pattern produced on the screen by the electron and using mathematics, it was concluded that these waves are waves of probability or possibility. So the bright bands are places where the electron has maximum probability of falling and the dark bands are places where there is zero probability that the electron will fall here. Lets imagine if I am an electron and I am inherently a probability wave, then what that means is that I don’t exist here in this location only, rather I have a probability ....or being here and there.... And this probability is not only in its location, rather in other properties as well, like speed, spin energy- in its entire existence.
The second thing that we need to reconcile God’s foreknowledge or destiny with our free will is something within us should have access to the universe at this fundamental level. The physical body should very much be included in the universe as it is made up of the same stuff that everything else is. So it is our essential self, our Consciousness that should affect the universe at this fundamentally probabilistic level. And this is the Observer effect of Quantum Mechanics. It is the consciousness of the human being that chooses one option out of the collection of probabilities represented by the wave function.
How was this conclusion derived from Quantum Mechanics? When a single electron double slit experiment produced an interference pattern and it was concluded that individual electrons are also probability waves the next question that arose was that why don’t we see this superposition of the electron? Why when the electron falls on the screen, it falls as a point particle. But we know that the electron went through both the slits at the same time. Because when we collected a number of electrons on the screen, after sometime, they made an interference pattern of alternate dark and light bands, just like a wave would. The answer to this difficult question was that it was something in our measurement or observation that made it behave normally and fall like a point particle on the screen. This is called the collapse of the wave function. Now the screen and the observer is made up of the same stuff- electrons protons etc. So the electron is a wave, the screen that detects the electron is also made up of the same particles that behave as waves, the observing human beings eye and brain is also made up of these particles that behave as waves. So even common experience we know that when multiple waves merge, it just produces a more complex messy wave. So this led some really smart people who won Nobel prizes like John Von Nuemann who is famous for writing the bible of QM, to conclude that there has to be something outside the system that is not made up of these particles. Something non physical and immaterial. This is the Consciousness of the human being. It is the consciousness of the human being that chooses reality out of the various probabilities.
An example to understand:
Because destiny and free will are mostly understood in the framework of morality, lets understand this by means of an example: There is ample evidence from Quantum Biology and works of award winning physicist Sir Roger Penrose, Dr Henry Stapp etc that our brain which is made up of atoms etc functions Quantum Mechanically. At a given time, we could have a superposition of electrons inside anyone of our microtubules inside individual neurons. This could correspond to two different actions, they could be moral in nature like saying yes or a no to a morally correct deed. So this electron is in a superposition, it has a wave function associated to it and the consciousness of the human being now will affect this quantum event, just like in the double slit. If it collapses the wave function of the electron in one way it would correspond to a particular synapse leading to the person saying yes or a particular synapse leading the person to say no. So this is the mind or the consciousness of the person, affecting the universe, this time being the very brain of the person at the fundamental level, thereby exercising the free will which is intimately attached to it.
What about God’s foreknowledge, how to understand that. Well, it so happens that if Quantum Mechanics is applied to the whole universe then you get an equation called the Wheeler Dewitt equation that has no time in it. And since we know how important the observer is in QM, what that actually is hinting at is an
Observer outside the Universe who is completely independent of time. Not only that, but theoretical physicist Lee Smolin in his book Life of the Cosmos, writes that it is impossible for a single observer inside the universe to have a complete description of themselves or the universe. Because we move forward in time, and the moment we try to make a complete description of ourselves of the universe and then record it in our memory, we have moved forward into the next moment and our description is of the previous moment and then we try again and try to record a complete description of our self in our memory, we again move into the next moment and our description is of the previous moment. Only an observer who is external to the universe and is independent of the flow of time and has an infinite memory can have complete knowledge of the universe. These are nothing but the necessary attributes of God, from the perspective of Islamic theology. From the point of view of this External Observer who is independent of the flow of time, everything that ever happened and everything that could ever happen, all the possible pasts and all the possible futures exist all together. So from God’s point of view the universe is superdeterministic, but from our point of view we have a free choice and both points of view are equally valid.
But there is more to the story than this. Qadr is associated with something called as Lauh al Mahfuz or the preserved tablet. To understand this, we will dwell into a fascinating concept of holographic universe and Quantum Entanglement in forthcoming articles (Insha Allah !)
Safiyyah Sabreen studied Mechanical Engineering and is currently pursuing her Master's in Philosophy. She is the Content Director for KNOW. Being interested in the field of Islam and Science and Islamic Eschatology, she produced a documentary on the Golden Age of Islam and directs the Second Golden Age series.