Ordering Chaos Daily
Visual and verbal explorations of how Islam and Physics meet
at the intersections of patterns and creativity, energy and order.
by Tessa Cook
Imagine someone who is engaged in a study of physics and who finds, to her surprise, that it helps her understand Islam. Or imagine someone who is engaged in a study of Islam who finds that it helps her understand physics. She is bringing two domains of the intellect and spirit into conversation, forming what Whitehead calls a contrast in her mind. A contrast is like the yin-yang diagram. Two things are different but they flow into one another and help illuminate one another. In process theology we see something spiritual in the creation of contrasts. We believe that the divine mystery at the heart of the universe, who has so many different names, is present as an invitation to create and explore contrasts. Imagine further that the person who creates and explores contrasts between physics and Islam gives us new and appreciative eyes for both of them. This is what a young college undergraduate, Tessa Cook, offers us below. Along the way she introduces a sub-theme, obsessive compulsive disorder, from which (so she has been told) she suffers. She finds herself anxious in the midst of disorder and fascinated by patterns, almost to an obsession. In process theology we believe that there can be a spiritual side to this, too. Obsessions with patterns can be creatively transformed into constructive passions which add beauty to the world. For us, patterns are in life and life is in patterns. If we have a gift for pattern recognition, our very capacity can be a means through we better understand the divine mystery, who in process theology is both a reservoir of patterns (the primordial nature) and a receptacle for life (the consequent nature). This mystery is the counter-entropic lure within our universe, by means of which entropy never quite has the final say. But we ourselves must do work and struggle -- a little jihad of our own -- to help bring the patterns to life and life to the patterns. We must order chaos daily, praying five times a day, for example, and serving the poor. In our work there is a surrender to something deeper than life yet on the side of life's flourishing. If Islam means surrender, Tessa Cook helps us understand it.
-- Jay McDaniel, Editor of JJB
-- Jay McDaniel, Editor of JJB
Begin by watching Video I
The world has a natural tendency to go to a state of higher disorder, or to fall into chaos. I should begin by explaining that last summer, in the middle of a chaotic meltdown, I was told that I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I get fixated on finding patterns in my environment and those patterns multiply exponentially when I take more in. I also get anxiety when I cannot comprehend my surroundings. This anxiety became present at an alarming level around September of 2012. The plethora of consequences I have faced due to this anxiety are still not enough for me to medicate my obsessive-compulsive disorder. What a beautiful paradox. The following bouncing-back-and-forth is an example of the motion my attention follows as I move along in my studies of Religion and Physics. I have a natural tendency to go to a state of higher disorder, or to fall into chaos.
In my high school Physics course, Mr. Trawick taught us that this natural tendency is accounted for by the second law of thermodynamics; this law, in other words, describes that the popularized term "entropy" increases over time.
"The change in entropy [with respect to time] is greater than or equal to zero." There are ways to describe this fundamental, natural tendency besides this equation; after all, the first physicist to describe this law did so in order to explain the phenomenon that a reverse steam engine does not exist in nature. In other words, you put energy into a system (fuel) to get work out; a steam engine also produces a by-product of heat. The second law states that there can never be a system where all of the energy put into it returns the same amount of energy as work, some of it must be a bi-product, like heat or sound (which are tangible ways to say "energy"). This law is embodied most simply by simple systems, which we (and, therefore, our communities and communities of communities) are not; therefore, the application of the second law of thermodynamics that I am about to make is a leap that should be taken metaphorically. It is supposedly true that the law holds for more complex systems, but we are far more complex than we know. At the peak of complexity in my undergraduate Physics career, I was learning to describe a Hydrogen atom with Physics concepts. So, if Organic Chemistry (carbon atoms) is many magnitudes more complicated to describe with Physics than a Hydrogen atom, but tangible in a very large scope, then the same analogy can be applied to organisms. The logic behind this argument is the same fashion as a congruity statement describing triangles and their angle sizes.
An entropy-based examination of a person would, therefore, reveal that the work done by the person is lower in magnitude than the fuel that the person started with; there would be a bi-product of magnitude greater than zero. The more efficient the person, the lower in magnitude the bi-product. What does this mean in dog-years? This means most literally that caloric intake does not equal the mechanical work done by the person; the person produces heat, the person produces waste, etc. More figuratively (and, ironically, more usefully), this means that what I contribute to a project, let's say an interview for a job, is naturally going to be less than the preparation I received for the interview. I cannot be 100% efficient.
One leap up from one organism to a community of organisms would reveal an analogous natural tendency. All of the original energy put into the system cannot be converted to the work done without a by-product. This could be represented figuratively by a group of friends, with the intention to stay close, losing touch with one-another over time.
Now think bigger scale. We as a people are going to naturally flow into chaos. Our order will keep losing efficiency over time. A few people lose that order. A few more lose it. Eventually, as Huston Smith described the world Muhammad was living in at the time of his revelation, we become "ignorant."
But what would a literate world look like? If naturally time leads to ignorance, what was at the beginning of the system? What literacy did we lose? We forgot the fitra. We forget it, rather. In the fitra, lies the "understanding of tawhid," Murata and Chittick's account states (pg. 338). The following are definitions related to this literacy lost in a natural system (as defined by Murata and Chittick in The Vision of Islam, pg. 345):
tawhid: "Literally, 'asserting unity.' The affirmation of God's oneness, which is the first principle of faith and the ruling idea in Islam. It is given its most succinct verbal expression in the first formula of the Shahadah. Perfecttawhid involves simultaneous affirmation of both tanzih and tashbih."
tanzih: "God's incomparability with his creatures; his transcendence."
In a Physics/Mathematics term, tanzih would represent the "curl" of God's existence, where God's existence is mapped by the arrows below and the circle would represent us "creatures" while God's circle would be bigger than ours, say the outside circle of arrows, and would thus encompass us. The circles measured by the "curl" would not touch; the "curl" points to God's incomparability.
tashbih: "The similarity of God with his creatures; his immanence within creation."
In a Physics/Mathematics term, tashbih would represent the "divergence" of God's existence, where, again, God's existence is mapped by the arrows and the circle is us. If the arrows were drawn touching, it would be clearly shown that God permeates the circle that defines us creatures. God would be within us.
Thus, a 100% efficient world would be born with fitra, would remember that God is immanent among us, and would surrender (as muslims by birth) to this transcendent God. In both of the depictions above, the curl and divergence are mutually exclusive; in the "curl" image, the divergence would be measured as 0, while in the "divergence" image, the curl would be measured as 0. To understand the unity of God, tawhid, we must understand that God has both curl and divergence. The picture below is a depiction of tawhid:
Notice tawhid shows that we are centered along the x and y axes with God.
Something beautiful lies in fitra, which Huston Smith mentions. He says (page 238) "first, the world of matter is both real and important... Second, being the handiwork of Allah, who is perfect in both goodness and power, the material world must likewise be good."
My Physics interpretation of Islam is that by remembering fitra, we can overcome entropy. If ignorance is letting entropy lead us to a state of higher disorder by forgetting our understanding of tawhid, then Islam is the way to remember that understanding and maintain our order. How do you remember? The five pillars, the patterns in every day, the patterns in every thing. In the midst of the natural tendency to fall into chaos, we are awakened to God through patterns.
How can I remember when this overwhelms my attention?
Watch Video II then listen to Video III
(Disclaimer: video II is graphic)
In Islam, in order to describe how to live as a muslim, there are five pillars described as follows:
1. The Shahadah- the profession that there is no god, but God and that Muhammad is the messenger, themalak of God
2. The Salat- the action of praying five times a day
3. The Zakat- the giving of alms, a percentage of one's income to those less fortunate (2.5%)
4. The Sawm- the fasting during the month of Ramadan
5. The Hajj- the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in one's lifetime
The Call to Prayer, or the adhan, is recited five times a day at specific times by a specific person. People across the world have their day pierced by this sound. It requires work placed in a system to attempt to overcome entropy. People have rules to follow in their prayers. Morning, noon, afternoon, evening, night. Standing, bowing, standing, prostrating, sitting, prostrating. Everyone is connected by time and practice in this ordering of people.
Following the five pillars are more-or-less ways to remember our surrendering to God. If we are surrounded by reminders and rules to follow, we are organizing our lives into an order defined by Islam and shared by fellow muslims. But we are people and we are forgetful and we are living in a universe that follows the 2nd law of thermodynamics.
There is a consequence of my saying this. It is that Islam graces the free will of humanity. We are all muslims by birth, including all life, including all organic. If natural order dissipates into chaos by tendency, without remembering, then Islam utilizes the ability humanity has to remember in order to give us the power to overcome a law of nature. This requires, in Physics-related and figurative terms, continual input of work by us.
Interestingly, I never understood a line in one of my favorite movies, until my study of Islam was juxtaposed with a friendship I have with a fellow Physics student.
Please watch Video IV
You see, he explains, why would I do work when I could just let nature run its course? Why would I fight the equilibrium of a system of lower energy?
Islam already addressed this in saying that we are important and good, that we are born surrendered to God, and that God exists within and transcends us.
On a bad day, Physics does not place this responsibility in humanity. To my friend, "nihilism is the dissipation of difference, a kind of moral leveling-out through entropy (Smith, 237)."
However, something lies in lived experience of many nihilistic physicists; it is in the heart of a child looking into the night sky at the expanse or looking into a microscope at a grain of sand. What is this? Perhaps it is the desire to increase our understanding; perhaps it is the desire to increase our fulfillment of life. Certainly these two things are not mutually exclusive. If we are all born muslims, these two things are mutually inclusive.
If I follow the way of grace, I place priority in people, in increasing the energy of the whole system, in increasing my obedience to God. If I follow the way of nature (in the definition described by the above video), I forget people, I forget God, and, without knowing it, I forget myself.
Please watch Video V from 1:24-2:51
If scientists remember that drive they all had as children (I am taking the liberty of assuming, perhaps hoping, this drive exists) and that Fred Kavli expressed above, then surely I would be dancing between two fields that were inherently good.
I go to class. I read about the irrational physicists of the past who found the dogmas erroneous and who urged for humility so that the future could lead to more discoveries. Humility is something I already have come to love. I read about conservation of energy. Energy is always conserved. Energy goes into a system and the same amount comes out.
Please watch Video VI
This does not defy entropy. Entropy merely states that the final energy consists of the work done and a by-product. In other words, I know that bowling ball will lose energy to its surrounding environment and will come to rest over some time.
I take what I learn in Physics and expand it to abstract ideas. I read about energy in everything. I feel energy in everything. I walk outside in the sun and feel good from the energy my skin is receiving as heat and light. I think about the interactions we have on macroscopic levels with other organisms. I can see the energy between us. I watch as each of us, different from the other, find order together in the same energy. This is why following the way of grace leads to increasing my energy as well!
Please watch Video VII (it begins around 0:17)
Physics can bring people together if they all have the same positive goals! Brilliant! Imagine that each of the pendulums at their different lengths represents people of different paths or different perspectives. We all have patterns hidden in us in our energy that show up when we come together. Why would a physicist ever be suffering from depression steeped in nihilism??
I wonder this. I also stop wondering this whenever I forget the beauty, the patterns.
STEM education is undoubtedly the most funded. Why? On a bad day, I would tell you that research leads to technology which leads to money which leads to power. On a good day, I would tell you that research is for knowledge and understanding. In our reality, one's research can be filled with passion and interest in understanding, but funding is needed. In the words of a wonderful woman physicist, "you always have a customer."
The goal is no longer to be humbled as we come together discovering the order of the universe. The goal becomes competitive marketing. It is a game. I find the rational; I see the patterns; I get the goal. Sometimes the client wants you to tell them that they are right; unfortunately, there exists research published that fits some previously held model that may not be correct, just because the client wanted confirmation.
Science, in our natural society, has lost efficiency. Immediately after I listened to that talk by Fred Kavli, I looked at the research done by other undergraduates in the field. I spoke with them about their interests.
Their eyes get big when they talk about dark matter, black holes, neutrinos. I see kids, like myself. They turn into professionals with no energy when they present their research. I am afraid that STEM funding has caused them to let go of that interest. What is that interest? Did I lose it?
I tell myself I haven't. I love my research. And it is true, I really do love my research. I am looking at infrasound that we collect from our ring laser at Hendrix downstairs in MC Reynolds.
Infrasound is sound that has a frequency below 20 Hz (the lowest frequency we, humans, can hear). The way we store infrasound is complicated, actually beautiful. We detect mechanical waves (sound waves in the ground) that perturb the ring laser that is sitting on the ground in the basement. These waves are at a certain frequency that is encrypted in the disturbance of the lasers' beams. Through programming (kind of like picking a lock), we can receive the data that shows all of the frequencies that the ring laser encounters in its home. It just so happens that the ring laser is acquainted with all sorts of sound: from students walking around upstairs causing vibrations to the vibrations from volcano eruptions in Japan.
I am specifically looking at this infrasound and trying to find out if we can "hear" tornados. This involves solving puzzles. I have to find out the time of the tornado's touch down, determine the distance from its location to our basement, find an approximate travel time for the sound waves to reach our soil, then run programs to extract the frequencies that perturbed the ring laser at that time. I found frequencies, but a lot of them. Tornados are not the only things singing at lower frequencies than we can hear. The world is loud. I have to figure out the voice from the tornado. I find its voice and it turns out that it starts singing hours before the funnel forms and it maintains its frequency the entire time. How about that? The world works around laws. As I look at more data, things get more complicated. How do I explain all of that? How do I hold on?
Please watch video VIII (it starts around 0:49)
In the midst of letting go, of forgetting, religion has lost relevance. I remember that a tornado has a center.
Islam introduces its followers to that center and doesn't let them forget it. If we let go, we join the equilibrium. We will all be part of the top spinning that eventually comes to a halt after losing its peaceful spin to a chaotic nature.
Please watch Video IX (it starts around 0:36)
Sufism introduced me to the concept of staying centered without losing energy. It takes work to maintain the cyclical motion. In the spinning, one surrenders to the guide, because we have the desire to abhor entropy. As a whole, we can overcome chaos by working together.
Please watch Video X from 0:13 to 0:30 s
This is true. One leak will eventually drain the system of its energy.
But we have hope. Islam (and, I suppose many more traditions) has a history of loving patterns and seeing beauty in them. Islam doesn't stop with experiencing these patterns through common practice. Islamic architecture places the beholder in a world of patterns.
I watched this lecture from a Harvard Physics graduate student and I realized something greater than I imagined. He explains that the original developers of the mosaics and tile-work in mosques knew about mathematical concepts that we have only found again in recent times. These concepts are patterns of crystallization. To fit a pattern around a dome takes enough knowledge of tessellations to be too complex for the patterns to be developed in the making of each mosque; instead, tiles were developed to already encompass this crystallization. As we have continued researching the "quantum" levels of patterns in all aspects of the material, we have discovered that inside of atoms are these quasi-crystals that are encrypted in the patterns of the mosaics in Islamic architecture. This means that the organic lies in the concrete.
This reminds me of Physics. Physics relies on the concrete, mathematical patterns that exists in the universe. Religion is not juxtaposed to this, you see. Islam is a perfect example of relying on patterns in aesthetic and practice.
It just so happens that the concrete becomes alive with patterns and the organic becomes organized with patterns.
Please watch Video X again, this time from 0:57 to 1:20 s
I have surrendered to finding my patterns.