Science and Health
Existence and Illusion

 [From the Nuradeen magazine, Vol. 4 No. 2, Spring 1984]

By: Ibrahim Abdal Malik Stokes

Man's knowledge of the universe and the world around him has increased only very slowly over the many millennia of recorded history. Even though early ideas were mostly quite faulty, the application of that knowledge served well enough for daily life. Natural philosophy or what we might call physics followed a simple notion of the composition of matter to sustain the earth and provide food; this notion was quite sufficient to serve man in his daily life.

As so often happens, the knowledge of the day became the specialized study of the few. Men able to comprehend the sum total of the sciences in their day wrote works on the subject which became the "last-word" on the matter. Thus, false notions based on their incomplete knowledge and their speculations and theories, became preserved in books that men would study for a thousand years, before someone bold enough to question the matter more closely would realize that the notions were little more than an illusion; even at direct variance with evidence of the senses.

The astonishing thing is that this process continues today but on a far greater scale than before. In fact, the number of learned and abstract articles in science has been increasing exponentially for the past fifty years. The belief that all this ever-expanding effort is moving man towards what is called Truth is amazing. Implicit in this strange belief is the peculiar assumption that the "Truth" can be known without any parallel change in the man himself and the way he perceives things.

Let us take for example the way in which we believe the world about us is solid, substantial and seemingly everlasting. It was the Greek thinker Democritus who asked the question, "what is matter?" If you take a stone and crush it to dust, and grind the dust to powder, and then crush the powder into smaller and smaller particles, does there not remain at the core of the matter some ultimate building block, which is solid and immutable? Democritus concluded that there must be such an ultimate particle, and he called this the atom. He then imagined that matter in all its varied forms was made up of some indefinite number of such atoms joined together in various proportions, to account for the widely different things we know.

This Greek knowledge came down to the Arabs and then into European schools, unchanged for more than a thousand years before it was discovered that the atoms of Democritus were not unique. There are yet smaller particles that are the building blocks of matter, and these were named "subatomic particles", appropriately enough. These were seen as the basis of the observable universe and yet they were not many in number. The most massive were called protons and neutrons, and these make up more than ninety-nine percent of the weight of matter; the lighter particles were called electrons. These sub-atomic particles account for the density of matter; its density being due to the great distance of the electron from the comparatively massive central nucleus. At this point of our knowledge everything seemed to be properly accounted for, everything was weighable and the ultimate building blocks of the universe were known.

Then, in a very short time these basic building blocks were seen quite differently. First, they appeared to be not solid matter at all, but were best regarded as packets of energy localized in an exceedingly small volume of space. Then, even more surprising, it was found that solid weighable matter could be converted into energy, and matter and energy were actually completely interchangeable.

This however was not the end of the discoveries. It was soon demonstrated that matter has its counterpart, or opposite: anti-matter. When these opposite-pairs are brought together there is immediate annihilation and the spontaneous release of prodigious quantities of energy, in amounts far greater than that produced in a nuclear explosion. And nothing whatever remains! In the world of science the notion of antimatter was both startling and absolutely necessary to a proper understanding of nuclear physics. Yet, this has been in existence since the beginning of the world.

And things do not rest there. The numerous sub-atomic particles that have now been demonstrated, and which account for what we call solid matter, seemed for a while to be capable of indefinite multiplication. Exploring the sub-atomic world in nuclear physics was becoming as complex as exploring the gross-atomic world of chemistry.

Where now is the solid matter we were so sure existed? This seeming solidity is an almost perfect illusion that has held man in servitude from the beginning of time. There is no ultimate building block as Democritus visualized it, there is no solid core at the heart of matter, nor anything we can truly call solid. There is only this ceaseless flow of energy and time. There is only this illusion of solid matter which is really matter and anti-matter its opposite pair, and what prevents their mutual destruction is the exchange of energy between them.

So, the seeming solidity of things is a beautiful illusion brought about by the One Who created it and to Whom it will return. And it is regulated exactly according to immutable laws, as science affirms.

See how easy it is to return all the matter of the universe to the nothingness from which it came. Remove all the energy that maintains matter in a state of separation, (and Allah is Powerful over all things) and immediately matter and its opposite pair anti-matter are in mutual annihilation and the entire Cosmos vanishes away.

Everything upon it is perishing, And the face of your Lord goes on, the Possessor of Majesty and Honor. (Surat-ur-Rahman:26-27)

[Added March 21, 2004]