Measuring miracles

Ehsan Masood
18 April 2006

At university, my passion was to probe the physics of the very small. I wanted to discover more about what scientists mean when they say that there is no such thing as being a neutral observer – at least at the sub-atomic level. The idea that you change something by observing it is common to both physics and philosophy, and it continues to excite as well as to fascinate.

A big draw for budding scientists is the chance to chip away to get to the core of questions such as this. Ask a cosmologist why she chose cosmology, and the answer is likely to include a sense of awe and wonder at the mystery of the cosmos. Ask an evolutionary biologist, and the answer may well be along the lines of a desire to discover the origins of life.

For all the talk of science and religion presenting competing worldviews – trenchantly promoted by scientists like Richard Dawkins – the chance to investigate such big, unanswered questions means that mainstream science will always be interested in the study of religion and much else besides. The harder the question, the greater its attraction. Scientists these days can be found sinking their probes into alternative systems of medicine (such as acupuncture or homeopathy) that are difficult to explain using the rationalist's standard toolbox. And scientists have always wanted to shine a light on aspects of the outer reaches of religion, such as miracles.

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He is the editor of two books published in 2006 – Dry: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press) and How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press). He also writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network.

Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:

"The Hizb-ut-Tahrir equation"
(August 2005)

"British Muslims must stop the war"
(August 2005)

"The globalisation of Islamic Relief" (November 2005)

"Why the poorest countries need a WTO" (December 2005)

"Doing the maths" (January 2006)

"Bush’s 'war on science' through the microscope"
(January 2006)

"A post-Satanic journey"
(February 2006)

"Alexandria’s bridge" (February 2006)

"The Islamic world’s United Nations"
(March 2006)

"Language: a toolkit for life on earth"
(March 2006)

"The rocky road to citizen rule"
(April 2006)

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Divining the real

The latest issue of the Journal of Paleolimnology (reconstructing the history of lakes) contains a paper – timed no doubt to coincide with the Easter festival – suggesting that the Sea of Galilee may have contained an isolated patch of floating ice around the time that the prophet Jesus is believed to have walked on water. The researcher at the centre of the claims is Doron Nof, professor of oceanography at Florida State University. Nof's new theory challenges the current leading candidate for explaining how Jesus might have walked on water, namely the basilisk lizard – also known as the "Jesus lizard" which can scurry across water on two legs without piercing the water's surface (see "Is There a Paleolimnological Explanation for 'Walking on Water' in the Sea of Galilee?", Journal of Paleolimnology, 35/3, April 2006).

Doron Nof is a scientist who likes to dabble occasionally in the science of the history of the Old Testament (in 1992 he put forward a theory to explain how Moses might have parted the Red Sea). He told journalists that he wants to "leave to others the question of whether or not our research explains the biblical account".

What Nof refers to as "others" are in fact some very serious researchers. Take for example Mitchell W Krucoff, a cardiologist at Duke University, North Carolina. Krucoff leads a team of researchers investigating the effect that praying to God has on patients with heart disease – the findings have been mixed, but on balance the evidence suggests that praying for the health of a chronic heart patient does not seem to have much effect.

At Columbia University, New York, Yuval Neria is part of a group of psychiatrists in Israel and the United States who are exploring why anyone would want to kill themselves in the name of religion. In their search for clues, Neria and colleagues recently analysed the text of al-Qaida's final instructions to the 9/11 hijackers (see "The Al Qaeda 9/11 instructions: a study in the construction of religious martyrdom", Religion, 35/1, January 2005).

The engagement with religion extends to philosophers of science such as Daniel Dennett, whose new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, attempts (among other things) to explain religion as a product of evolution by natural selection.

Science as questioning

In developing countries, too, much energy and expense is devoted to the study of science and religion – though often with a different end in mind. In the Muslim world, for example, a lot of attention is paid to what are considered to be "scientific miracles" contained in verses of the Qur'an. The internet heaves with websites reproducing Qur'anic verses on embryology and cosmology, and suggesting that these could only have come from a divine source because they appear to correspond with the findings of modern research.

I once interviewed a leading scientist from Pakistan who, using blackboard and chalk, patiently derived a mathematical equation, which, in his view, "proved" the presence of a supernatural force in the room we were in. What struck me most about this encounter was the anomaly of someone who believed God to be the all-powerful creator of the universe, yet who needed the reassurance of a scientific test to prove to himself that God does exist.

One of the principles underpinning good science is being open to the idea that you could be wrong. For any scientist, progress in research is impossible without acknowledging that yours will not be the last word on the subject of your investigations. Others will come to challenge your cherished theories, and some might even overturn them, just as Albert Einstein followed Isaac Newton in being better able to explain the behaviour of moving objects, and just as some of Einstein's own ideas are today under siege from a new generation of physicists.

In the realm of investigating God this means that if today I have an equation that proves God (does or does not) exist, I need to be open to the idea that tomorrow a group of scientists may come along and demonstrate that I am wrong. For a scientist, this has to be the default position when embarking on any research.

Today, both theists and atheists are employing science to validate a view they both consider to be the ultimate truth. Yet what they both fail to acknowledge is that science by its nature is incapable of providing irrefutable answers to questions such as whether God exists.

A scientist who uses the tools of his trade to disprove God needs to be open to the suggestion that a supernatural creator might just be lurking in the symbols of a mathematical equation. In the same way, using scientific methods to "prove" that God exists has to include the possibility that the universe and everything within it is the result of random processes, chance and circumstance.

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