Tuesday, 31 December 2013

(Fun post) How's this for a science fiction plot?

Thomas Kuhn believed scientific revolutions (e.g. events when large-scale assumptions about science are replaced by new ones, examples being the shift from geo- to heliocentrism, classical physics to quantum mechanics, common design to common ancestry, caloric theory of heat to vibrational energy of the molecules...and so on) are not triggered so much by new evidence coming to light, but rather by psychological motivations of the scientists and people of that time.

I know his view smacks of postmodernism, and I myself don't agree with it fully- but let's say its true. In fact, let's take it one step further and say there are no scientific "facts" per se, but only different versions of science. Geocentricism is by no means less true than heliocentricism, and Aristotelian science is just as much of a "science" as inductive science...and so on. If such a world were to exist, the purpose of science would be something other than knowing truths about reality, perhaps entertainment, perhaps something else- I leave that open to speculation.

NOW. In our world, we travel to different areas in the world to pursue higher studies in science. However, let's say that in a world with no scientific truths and only different versions of science- people have the privilege of actually traveling to different *times* for pursuit of scientific "knowledge" and training. If someone doesn't like 21st century science, s/he would have the opportunity to travel to the 18th or 19th century to learn Victorian science, or even medieval science, or even Greek science under the tutelage of Aristotle. Unlike people nowadays who get PhD's from universities of different countries, people in that alternate world would get PhD's from different *times*. Next to your name, there would be mentions of degrees like "PhD under Charles Darwin, 1863" or "PhD under Aristotle's Lyceum". In such a world, there would need to be an universally recognized degree (I used the example of PhD).

With this backdrop, here's how the plot might work. A young budding scientist realizes the futility or idleness of doing science in such a world. He doesn't know where the problem lies, however. His discomfort may be fueled further by the effects of downright bad science, such as Eugenics theory or blaming demons for diseases. One day, he chances upon writings of the likes of, say, Bacon, Hume or Reichenbach- and becomes aware about the existence of the discipline of philosophy of science. He realizes the Kuhnian assumption is not inherent to science, but it was a metaphysical add-on. He also becomes aware of the heated debate across the centuries among philosophers of science who tried to articulate the structure of the scientific enterprise. Armed with this knowledge, he realizes that the beauty of scientific knowledge lies not in mere entertainment, but rather learning about true facts. Scientific progress is a reality.

He starts leading an intellectual scientific revolution of his own against postmodernism. He is joined in this revolution by some of the greatest minds of history, such as Al-Ghazzali, Thomas Reid, Francis Bacon, Richard Owen, Isaac Newton, Ibn Rushd- and so on. He also gains support from famous science popularizers such as T. H. Huxley, Richard Dawkins, John Lennox, Carl Sagan- and all these people from so many different stripes come together in one common goal to overthrow the Kuhnian paradigm, and establish science for what it is.

After this mission succeeds, however, it would be necessary to bring time-travel to an end, at least for this purpose, to avoid messing with the fabric of history.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

The "Everything you ever wanted to know about Islam and Science" project

While showering earlier today, this idea of a super long-term perhaps even lifelong project hit me: a project of covering all research relevant to interaction of science and Islam. This is the crude structure in my mind at the moment:

1. Introduction- Defining what we mean by science-Islam interaction, addressing some superficial misconceptions about how science and religion are supposed to interact (i.e. the laws and rulings of a religion should be determined on the basis of scientific investigation, and the like) and zero in on the points of interaction that really and truly matter. Providing an outline for the remainder of the project.

2. Philosophy of science- A detailed section delineating the different issues caught in POS. This would be divided into two sub-sections: development of the scientific methodology, and different forms of antirealism adopted at science. Would be useful to provide the narrative in a historical framework: from Aristotle to Bacon to Hume to Popper to Kuhn in methodology, and the Vienna Circle and their logical positivism to Bas van Fraassen and other modern proponents of antirealism.

3. Natural Theology- Would discuss all the different bits and pieces of natural theology (arguments related to the existence or non-existence of God) related to science. Subsections:

a) Constructing a Natural theology on rigorous Islamic and Logical foundations. Would include much epistemological discussion, views of classical and modern scholars on Qur'anic epistemology and argumentation, a developed and fine-tuned version Richard Swinburne's construction of the project of natural theology, or other models if they are available.

b) Cosmology and the Kalam Cosmological Argument- relevance of Cosmology with the Islamic Creation, and delineating the Kalam Cosmological Argument.

c) Fine-tuning argument

d) Argument from biological complexity- origin of life, other features of biodiversity.

e) Teleology or Design in nature being directly understandable by means of the Fitrah as opposed to any specific argument, would discuss Fitrah models of Ibn Taymiyya and Alvin Plantinga among others

f) Bad designs- Negative apologetics, how to understand examples of bad/imperfect/suboptimal designs in nature, especially biology. Kinda like a scientific version of the problem of evil.

g) Argument from scientific intelligibility of the universe- alternatively called argument from reason, an epistemological argument for the existence of God based on the reliability of scientific methods in determining truths about nature

h) Argument from Consciousness- Argument for the plausibility of the existence of soul and free will in spite of advances in neuroscience and behavioral psychology. Will also contain a survey of cases relating to "religious experiences" like Near-Death Experiences because these can be used to martial empirical support for the soul. These surveys will form the premises for a scientific argument for the soul. Also, explores if an argument for the existence of God can be made using the existence of consciousness as a premise.

(Not all the arguments have to be rock-solid or even valid, "this is a bad argument" is still a valuable conclusion)

i) Plausibility of miracles given a scientific (not naturalistic) worldview.

4. Interactions between science and Islam- Would step specifically into Islam from the generalities of Natural Theology. Subsections:

a) Methodology- Two sub-subsections:

i) Interpreting Qur'an and Sunnah in the face of ostensible scientific difficulties- general guidelines
ii) Establishing a coherent argument on the premise of scientific prescience in the Qur'an and Sunnah.

b) Instances of scientific prescience in the Qur'an and Sunnah. Not only science, historical issues would need to be considered as well to see if the Qur'anic knowledge of this fact was found in prior history and if so, if it was possible for the 7th century Arab culture to have access to such information. Sub-subsections:

i) Embryology
ii) Cosmology
iii) Miscellaneous

(Not all sections may yield positive cases for Islam, but they still need to be discussed to address popular misconceptions about them)

c) Resolving ostensible contradictions between science and Islamic Scriptures. Sub-subsections:

i) Evolution (was there any doubt?)
ii) Anything else (geology- the mountain verse, scientifically problematic ahadith)

5. A big conclusion, wrapping all of this up. Every section would have its own mini-conclusion as well, though.

Although I wrote it all up in book form, this would definitely require several books. Or tomes.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Islamic epistemology

Exam the day after tomorrow, so I'm being as concise as possible on some thoughts on Islamic epistemology. Most of them resulted from a conversation with a friend.

As I see it, there are five things are relevant to acquiring knowledge (defined as justified true belief) about the truth of Islam:

1. The natural human constitution or Fitrah
2. Rational laws embedded in human psyche
3. Observation
4. Scriptural evidence
5. Guidance from God.

This is one way the five of them could interact.

Because of his fitrah, a person is able to know the existence and Lordship of God even prior to any evidence being presented to him. The fitrah doesn't enable one to come to know about the details of the Islamic creed (much less law), however. That's the function of the messengers: to delineate these concepts to people. Men with clear fitrah would recognize these truths on face value. Does this "pure fitrah" scenario preclude the use of observation or rationality? That's a tough question, I think. Ibn Taymiyya was probably of the view that fitrah works even without instigation from external signs (observations, rational proofs about God and His religion). Or maybe, the pure fitrah works on the instigation of external signs and evidences, in which case rationality and observation would not only be relevant but serve as a premise for the fitrah's functionality.

However, things are rarely this simple in the real world, because most of the time the fitrah is corrupted by this or that factor, most common of them perhaps being ignorance (this is equivalent to the epistemological results of the Christian doctrine of The Fall, I think). This is why God sends Messengers to make people know about the existence of God and proofs of His existence, as well as the proofs for the specific religion. This is where the rationality and observation really comes in. For someone with clouded fitrah, it may not be intuitively obvious that God exists and Islam is true straight off the bat. However, after some sincere rationalizing and observation, he would definitely come to this conclusion.

In the case of Islam, the proofs for the existence of God are chiefly the allusions to the cosmological and design arguments in the Qur'an, while the proofs for Islam are the Prophet's sincerity complexed with the Qur'an's literary inimitability, among others. So someone with working rational faculties, upon being exposed to these rational evidences would be expected to become a Muslim.

However, expectations often go contrary to reality, and this is where the hidayah factor comes into play. There is no such thing as "sledgehammer apologetics", when we're talking about truths of a worldview. What I mean by this can perhaps be illustrated with an example. Abu Jahl saw the moon being split as a miracle of the Prophet (pbuh). Now this is as strong as evidence gets. Did he accept Islam, or even feel somehow rationally compelled to do so? Nope, he just added an extra assertion to his anti-Islamic worldview- magicians are also able to do it. Truth to tell, one can never refute a worldview, one can only show that worldview X has better explanatory scope than worldview Y. Was the Aether theory ever "refuted" conclusively? No, we just found a far superior intellectual substitute and thought it rational to go along with that. The point being, just the evidence and callings of your fitrah cannot "force" you to become a Muslim. That would run contrary to the whole idea of this life being a test. You need to have a degree of sincerity to choose the true hypothesis over the false one. This is perhaps the level at which Allah's guidance steps in- it creates additional motivation for the sincere person to accept Islam. In this way, it is made sure that the people Allah guides to Islam are not only intellectually capable people, but are good, virtuous, sincere people.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Response to CaptainDisguise's post about verse 4:82

The original article can be accessed here.

Here's Abdel Haleem's translation of verse 4:82 of the Qur'an:

Will they not think about this Qur'an? If it had been from anyone other than God, they would have found much inconsistency in it.

CaptainDisguise (hereafter, CD)'s argument can be summarized thus:

1. 4:82 to claims that any text which is not from God would contain inconsistency or error
2. It is possible to produce non-Divine texts without inconsistencies or error
3. Therefore, 4:82 is wrong.

I have two overlapping responses to this argument, both responses take issue with premise 1 above.

Response 1. The verse's meaning does not have to be restricted to external/internal contradictions alone.

Crucially, CD's argument seems to rest on the assumption that 4:82 is only talking about external contradictions (Qur'an contradicting with extra-Qur'anic facts) and internal (Qur'an containing internal factual inconsistensies) contradictions. Given that rendition of the verse, it's understandable why premise 2 above would be uncontroversial. However, there is no reason to restrict the challenge of 4:82 only to these two classes of inconsistency. Since the Qur'an itself doesn't place any restrictions on what kind of consistency it characterizes that no other text does, it is not improbable that the Qur'an was talking about a different kind of consistency altogether, one that cannot be feasibly achieved by non-Divine means.

As an example, some apologists have argued for a specific type of linguistic consistency that the Qur'an displays which would have been impossible to maintain by a human being. A more precise formulation would look somewhat like this:

4. Were the Qur'an a human product, we would expect the ups and downs of the life of its purported author (Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him) to be reflected in its literature.
5. The Qur'an's literature is consistent throughout, and no level of correlation can be established between its themes and the Prophet's life's events.
6. Therefore, the Qur'an is not a human product.

Here's one way how this argument can be tested: isolate the Surahs which were revealed during the periods of the Prophet's life when he experienced extreme grief (through, say, the loss of a loved one). Then see if these Surahs are significantly different from the remainder of the Qur'an (for example, if they are of a gloomier nature). If not, then this makes it less probable that the Qur'an was a human product. With the accumulation of such evidences, one may reach a point where it would be more plausible to conclude that the Qur'an is not a human product that to conclude that it is.

That's just one possible formulation of the challenge of 4:82, doubtless others can be constructed as well. Another example from the top of my head: the Qur'an was equivocating between "consistency" and "perfection of theology". The fact that any non-Divine book will demonstrate a less than perfect theology renders it inconsistent in this sense. The Qur'an, however, contains the perfect theology, and hence it's consistent. One would need a host of other premises to establish this conclusion, however. If either of these two "consistency" arguments are consistent (no pun intended) with 4:82- and CD has given us no reason to think otherwise- then CD's conclusion doesn't follow.

This leads us to my next response.

Response 2. The verse's challenge is only specific to a text produced in the context of the Qur'an

Even if we understand "inconsistencies" to mean external and internal inconsistencies, notice that it's not clear if the verse entails premise 1 i.e. it's impossible for any old non-Divine text to contain inconsistencies. Rather, it's talking about a more precise counterfactual- on the event that this Qur'an was constructed by someone else it would contain inconsistencies- meaning, given the specific contexts of the Qur'an's revelation and given the range of topics it covers- it would be impossible to avoid error. This could be construed as a variant of the popular scientific/historical miracles argument- the author of the Qur'an, if human, simply had no way of knowing some of the things it talks about e.g. future events, Judaeo-Christian narratives, scientific/historical facts, and so on. On such a counterfactual, it would be exceedingly probable that the Qur'an would contain external and internal errors. The fact that it doesn't, tells us the source of this information is Divine.

Now whether the Qur'an is consistent in either of these ways is of course debatable, the way things are looking we would never get to agree on much about religion anyways. But the specific claim of CD- that 4:82 is wrong- doesn't seem to hold water.

Further thoughts

As regards response 1, I don't think we can blame CD that much for construing the verse's interpretation in that restricted way. After all, it was the Muslim apologists themselves who popularized it, without adequately qualifying the nature of the challenge. Many reasons can be given for this. First, one of the problems of current Muslim apologetics is the implicit "Islam is true because Christianity is false" approach. An apologist who works with this assumption in mind would expect all pro-Islamic argument to be judged in contrast to how Christianity has lived up to that challenge. So when the Muslim apologist talks about Qur'an containing no inconsistencies, there are chances that she is expecting you to judge the merit of this claim while keeping in mind that Biblical inerrancy is outdated (at least the more radical versions of it). Seen in that context, the Qur'an's claim of having no inconsistencies does seem impressive- miraculous, even. This, of course, doesn't justify the apologist's position, but that's one psychological explanation of where the Muslim apologist is coming from.

CD also tangentially talks about the Qur'an's ambiguity near the beginning of his post. It's indeed true that the Qur'an- especially when talking about natural phenomenon- almost as a rule of thumb speaks in open, multifaceted language. The Muslims wouldn't say this is a flaw, for a number of reasons. First, these appeals to natural phenomena are meant to be a vehicle of the original message and not the message itself, and hence it's understandable that the Qur'an speaks about them in allusive, non-precise terms. Second, the Qur'an is not a chronicle of scientific or historical facts, rather it's a literary piece, and so it's understandable why a degree of flexibility would characterize it. For example, literature almost invariably appeals to human phenomenology- and Qur'anic passages are no exception; so phenomenological interpretations may be warranted of verses that talk about the motion of the celestial bodies (not implying the literal readings are untrue, however). Third, the openness of the Qur'anic language is consistent with Muslim theology. The Qur'an isn't meant for people of any given time or place, and hence to reach its addressees across space and time and civilization- it may contain multi-layered expressions, the idea being different expressions would appeal to different minds. Muslim apologist Hamza Tzortzis, in his recent essay, defends this understanding of Qur'anic verses that concern natural phenomena.

Bassam Saeh makes the following comments on the Qur'an's open language in his essay:

The Qur’an surpassed the poetry and literary language of the age in which it was revealed. Thus, it brought the Arabs a new language that could respond meaningfully to the changes through time, continuing events, differing personalities and the development of human thought, culture and science and their associated discoveries over the centuries. Therefore, people living in different times, places and surroundings are able to take from the Qur’an whatever they are able to grasp, given their particular cultures, needs, levels of understanding and ways of thought and whatever is suitable for the age and location in which they live. Meanwhile, no conflict arises between the message and overall spirit of the Qur’an and Islam and these people’s levels of understanding, whatever their disparity.
The numerous discoveries being made in the Qur’an’s astonishing compatibility with modern scientific knowledge and its insights into the physical realities of the universe—insights that had remained hidden for long centuries within the recesses of the Qur’an’s open, multifaceted language—are only one fruit of this distinctive linguistic feature of this Book.

So the open language ("spectacular ambiguity", in CD's terms) of the Qur'an isn't necessarily a flaw on its part. However, I would sympathize with CD's view if he meant that Muslims on one hand pose a naive challenge using 4:82, but takes shelter in the Qur'an's ambiguity when any such attempt is made. Given the literary style of the Qur'an, there really isn't much prospect of falsifying Islam based on external or internal contradictions, as I argue here. This also means such a falsification challenge is uninteresting and doesn't help the Muslim apologist's case.

Since no specific interpretation of 4:82 can be given, does it mean the Qur'anic challenge is meaningless?

As I argued above, some interpretations of 4:82 are uninteresting, while some others show promise. As long as an interesting interpretation of 4:82 can be reasonably maintained (in other words, as long as Islam has evidential value), the Qur'anic challenge would persist. The Qur'anic challenge would become meaningless if and only if Islam loses all its evidential value. This is precisely what I argue here and here.

Or we could argue that the specific challenge of 4:82 was only applicable for the Quraysh. But that's no fun.

Update: Someone seems to have already addressed CD's argument here. The brother is making the same argument I did under response #2.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

How to 'falsify' Islam

Disclaimer: This post may seem to endorse re-interpretation of scripture, but this does not mean it endorses non-orthodox theology or interpretation. I keep the nature of "acceptable" re-interpretation open for discussion by theologians and academics. So re-interpretation here should be understood only as a loose principle and not relating to any particular (especially modernistic) school of thought.

How effective are so-called 'contradictions' at disproving Islam?

A more or less common trend especially prevalent among the internet non-theistic intelligentsia is this: refuting a religion is easy, just one or two supposed internal/external contradictions in the literal/apparent reading of the scripture spells its death sentence.

Not to mention that even given the truth of this claim, many of the attempts to establish contradiction claims are wrong headed (see this series of articles for example, where the author takes apart a series of claims about so-called internal contradictions in the Qur'an), the claim itself, I think, is overly simplistic. If an apparent/literal reading of scripture appears contrary to fact, can't the believer adopt a phenomenological/metaphorical interpretation instead?

The critic at this point may say this is ad hoc, and the only reason to attempt such "alternative interpretations" is for face-saving purposes.

Now I don't think this is true at all. To understand my point of view, consider what it takes to disprove a scientific theory. The following excerpt is taken from the introduction section of "The Soul Hypothesis: Investigations into the Existence of the Soul" (available online) by Stewart Goetz and Mark Baker:

How does one normally detect that the leading idea of a theory is (probably) false in scientific and philosophical research? Not just by showing that one preliminary version is false, but rather by showing that every version that has been seriously proposed is false. It can happen that an idea is proposed, then refuted, then rescued by adding auxiliary hypotheses, then refuted again, then rescued by adding still more auxiliary assumptions on top of the first set, only to be refuted once more. Once a hypothesis has been discredited through an extended process of this sort, it could be reasonable to give up on it, even if a few zealots still cling to it.
This paragraph makes a crucial point. When we find that one version of a theory (relevant to our discussion, one interpretation of scripture) is wrong, this shouldn't warrant disbelief in that theory (or scripture). Rather, auxiliary hypotheses should be introduced to try and "save the phenomenon". Why is this warranted and not ad hoc? Because the theory in question has a lot of other explanatory virtues, which would be lost were we to abandon it. Only when the evidence against the theory outweighs the evidence against it, or when the explanatory virtues of another theory becomes more than those of the previous one, do we consider abandoning it. Consider the shift from the geocentric to heliocentric model of the solar system: we only abandoned geocentricism when the calculations required to maintain it became too hairy and complex. Heliocentricity, on the other hand, provided a relatively simple and workable hypothesis. In other words, the explanatory virtues of the latter hypothesis became more than the former. This provided ground enough for geocentricism's rejection.

When this principle is applied to the case of Islam, the "quick refutation" theory of the anti-Islamist seems to evaporate. A (genuine) contradiction in the literal reading of the interpretation gives us a choice between the following two options:

a) Declare the Islam hypothesis to be false
b) Re-interpret Islamic scriptures to fit the data.

The reason (b) is not ad hoc, I think, is because Islam as a hypothesis has certain explanatory virtues no other worldview-hypotheses can explain, e.g. the conjunction of the evidences for existence of consciousness and God with the evidences specific to Islam, Islamic religious experiences, the multiplicity of world religions (to an extent), and so on.

Here's a different way to look at it. Scripture can be seen as analogous to nature, and exegesis can be seen as analogous to science. When a scientific theory gets it wrong, it's no reason to say nature is somehow incoherent (if that even makes sense), rather we read nature wrong to begin with. Similarly, if scripture seems to be in genuine conflict with established facts, it's perfectly plausible to assume we read the scripture wrong to begin with, rather than saying the scripture is wrong.

The take-away point of the discussion thus far is this: it's insensible to be hasty in our judgment in religions. "Inconsistencies" in religion should always be treated in the broader context of the religion's other explanatory qualities, and a decision should be made with this broader context in mind. As such, there is no quick-and-simple falsification test for Islam as the critics would have it.

What's the falsification test for Islam?

That brings us to another question: what would constitute a defeater for Islam? In other words, what would falsify Islam?

It does seem like an explanatory virtue for Islam to be falsifiable- as Karl Popper said, the key virtue of a hypothesis is that it makes risky and novel predictions successfully. The Qur'an itself opens itself up to the possibility of falsification numerous times- by saying it can never be surpassed (in terms of literary superiority, among other things), the Qur'an could not have been produced by the Prophet (saws) and answering relevant objections, claiming that there is no "inconsistencies" in it, and so on. So how could a falsification test for Islam be developed?

To get the proverbial ball rolling, consider the following verse in Surah Nisa:

Do they not consider the Qur'an (with care)? Had it been from other than Allah, they would surely have found therein much discrepancy. [Qur'an 4:82]

The popular interpretation of the verse is that it is referring to external contradictions i.e. the Qur'anic information clashing with established facts. To my mind, this interpretation of the verse doesn't present a very impressive falsification test. First, the Qur'an, unlike some parts of the Bible, rarely narrates events in a systematic, chronological manner. The key feature characterizing almost all Qur'anic discourse is allusion- it alludes to scientific facts and past narratives without fully expounding them. So there is precious little "information" that is to be gleaned from the Qur'an to see if it matches with reality. Second, the Qur'anic literary style (it's openness of language, among other things) often allows a multiplicity of interpretations. Some verses of the Qur'an depicting descriptions of natural phenomena may be understood to be literal as well as phenomenological, and in their case the falsification in terms of possibility of contradicting external facts doesn't seem at all interesting. So I think the interpretation of 4:82 is less restrictive than popularly made out to be in order for the challenge to be meaningful (it may include literary inconsistencies, for example, as Laurence Brown suggested in his God'ed). While I don't think the lack of external contradictions in and of itself provides a good enough falsifiability test, maybe a degree of falsifiability can be gathered from Qur'an's agreement with established facts about reality as well. Cases in point here are the putative arguments from Qur'anic prescience about science, history, or future events in general.

But that's not the main (or most productive) route to falsify Islam. I think the main falsification test for Islam, or any religion for that matter, is whether it has evidence or not. The fact that a religion doesn't have any evidence is enough to suggest, to my mind, that it fails the falsifiability test. Consider the aether or the geocentricism hypotheses for example: none of them were really disproved. I like the point this link makes:

Did these experiments "disprove the ether"? I wouldn't put it that way. None of these, or any other experiment could disprove the general idea of an all-pervading ether. The point is that there is simply no experimental evidence for the ether, and no need for it in any of our physical laws or theories.

This seems about right to me, the evidenceless-ness of a hypothesis seems to imply superfluousness, and superfluousness implies lack of justification*. Hence, Islam is falsified if and only if there is no evidence for it, and it passes the falsification test provided there is evidence for it. More precisely, Islam passes the falsification test if and only if the evidence for it outweighs the evidence against it. In other words still, Islam passes the falsification test if and only if it is more probable to believe in Islam than not.

If you agree with this definition of Islam's falsifiability, it seems to merit more discussion than we may have thought. After all, whether a given hypothesis has any evidence or not, or what counts as evidence and what does not- are deep and discussion-worthy questions. Included in this discussion would be things like the Qur'an's literary inimitability, the Prophet's sincerity, the Qur'anic prescience, explanatory superiority of the Islamic hypothesis over other ones, alleged arguments against Islam, and so on. These can be read in terms of what Popper called "novel predictions", in ways like the following: "if Islam is true, we should expect to find evidences X, Y and Z for it".

I think this analysis of Islam's falsifiability is more productive and avoids unnecessary confusion.


*Notice I said "irrationality" and not "falsehood". The falsification test we are talking about is a test of a hypothesis' justification, not it's falsehood. For all we know, aether may as well exist and dinosaur bones may as well have been buried by demons. Whether these beliefs are true isn't the interesting question. What is more interesting is what contemporary philosopher Alvin Plantinga calls the de jure question: is it justified to hold such beliefs? Likewise, an interesting falsification principle would try to prove or disprove the justification of a belief, not its truth per se.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

On reading Hamza Tzortzis' "Does the Qur'an Contain Scientific Miracles?"

Muslim apologist Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, Senior Researcher of the iERA, has recently come forward with his new essay:

Since its very recent release, discussions over it have already broken out in popular social networkiing sites and forums, especially among Muslims. Upon a cursory glance at these discussions, however, it is clear that most people have not even bothered to read it in full, or even if they have, they have not understood the key idea of the essay. This brief review is meant to clear at least some of the misconceptions and spell out the essay's purport in explicit terms for public benefit.

Due presumably to the first few sections of the essay, some have assumed that it is denouncing all efforts at estabishing arguments from scientific foreknowledge in the Qur'an. This is simply not the case. If one was asked to summarize the essay's thesis in one sentence, it would be this: given the status quo of the scientific miracles discourse, the Muslims need to be more cautious in constructing arguments from scientific miracles. The essay can be broken up into two halves with this thesis in mind:

1. Describing the status quo and its problems,
2. Solutions to these problems and towards a mature case for scientific miracles in the Qur'an.

The essay opens by noting that much of the scientific miracles discourse is characterized by intellectual naivete. The impetus behind this movement is not intellectual considerations exclusively, rather hype fueled by popularizers play a discernible role.

The essay then proceeds to spell out the problems with the status quo. The problems can be classed into two categories, namely that the scientific miracles narrative:

a) Does not hold up to close intellectual scrutiny, and
b) Is not consistent with the Islamic scriptures.

Problems under (a) elucidate some fallacies associated with the movement: the scientific information in the Qur'an is not really "foreknowledge" since it was mentioned prior, almost no effort is made to demonstrate how there can be no naturalistic explanation to the purported scientific "miracles" and hence the arguments are non-sequitur, etc. Problems under (b) has to do with bad exegesis: the interpretations adopted by the scientific miracles narrative are either too stretchy, or betray the key function or teleology of the verses. Although some of the arguments under both (a) and (b) can be taken with a grain of salt, the overall point made is perfectly sober, and it is hard to see how someone would disagree with it.

After acknowledging these problems, the essay proceeds to spell out some directions to correct the wrongs. A climactic point in the essay is reached when it proposes that instead of fixating interpretations of the "scientific" verses of the Qur'an, one should adopt a less limiting hermeneutic. This can be achieved by assuming that the scientific verses in the Qur'an are capable of accommodating multiple layers of meanings. The author provides quotes by scholars in the field of Qur'anic studies to support his claim.

In the second section, the author lays down some stringent criteria which must be met by any purported scientific miracle. In my view, this is the missing ingredient in the popular narrative. An argument from scientific foreknowledge in the Qur'an, in order to be valid, must accommodate a study into the history of the science in question, adherence to solid rules of exegesis and probability analysis, among other things. Again, one may or may not agree with all the criteria here, there may be room for improvisation in context of specific cases of scientific foreknowledge due to the very nature of the study.

In conclusion, the claims made in this essay are novel, interesting and in my opinion, valid. People may disagree with isolated points here and there, but the central idea of the essay is no more than a call to intellectual honesty- something no sincere person can dispute. Due mainly to anti-Islamic internet activists, the intellectual depravity of the scientific miracles enterprise is acting as a catalyst for doubts in the minds of Muslims. In other words- the current status quo is doing more harm than good. Against this troubling context, the essay's central idea emerges as entirely too significant.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

"Old" arguments for theism

Not to generalize, but I've come across quite a few atheists/agnostics/postmodern theists who disregard theistic arguments just on the grounds that they are old/popular/talked about. I think the indignation stems from the fact since these arguments are old, a lot has been said against them, and hence a sort of "been there done that" mentality in their regard is justified.

In the above cases, it seems the theistic arguments are being regarded as static in nature, in that they don't undergo any develop at the hands of different proponents. This is clearly contrary to fact. The only thing about these arguments that remain static is the basic, core intuition. Other than that, almost everything else is improved upon with time. As such, there is no such thing as the argument from design/teleology, simply because of the fact that there has been many proponents of it, and hence many formulations. The teleological argument proposed by William Paley is clearly different from that which proposed by Aquinas, and the one proposed by Aquinas is different from the one proposed by Aristotle. All these versions of the teleological are markedly different from the more modern formulations based on newly discovered scientific facts, e.g. the argument from fine-tuning or the argument from biochemical complexity. The merits of each formulation of the argument, therefore, need to be judged as a case-by-case basis. Surely, someone who has read Aquinas' Five Ways or Paley's Natural Theology and found them to be unconvincing cannot conclude that the teleological argument is misguided, simply because there are far more sophisticated formulations available today. The same goes for almost all other arguments, e.g.:

- Different versions of the Cosmological Argument was formulated by Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Abu Hamid Muhammad Al-Ghazzali, Gottfried Wilhelm Von Leibniz, Stuart Hackett, William Lane Craig among others

- The Ontological Argument- St. Anselm of Canterbury, Descartes, Godel, Alvin Plantinga, Robert Maydole among others, etc.

Also, we need to realize that the static intuitive nature of concepts isn't only endemic to natural theology. The same problems and possible solutions persist in a broad form throughout history regardless of which discipline we consider. It's not that entirely novel concepts are introduced with every turn of the year, which is precisely why in textbook narratives, a historical discussion of the idea's development often precedes the idea itself. Ironically, this argument can be turned on the atheist herself. One of the key anti-theistic arguments- the problem of suffering- also happens to be extremely old, tracing its history back to Epicurus if not earlier. Would it not be considered naive if the theist were to disregard this argument just because its old? Certainly not, like all other arguments or concepts in any major discipline, it has underwent numerous revisions and re-formulations, and one would need to consider the most current and sophisticated version in order to rest her case. There is no one problem of evil and there is certainly no singular theodicy.

This problem becomes very prominent in context of debates about evolution, possibly due to emotionally loaded nature of the debate. Due to the nature of the topic, the key arguments for and against it would retain a broadly similar shape- existence of transitional forms, arguing for evolution on the basis of similarity, and so on. Just because the concept is old, doesn't mean new formulations cannot and are not made.

New formulations of these arguments are in a way necessary, because since these arguments appeal to our knowledge of reality, it is small wonder that as our knowledge in the fields of science and philosophy increases, the formulations might need to take into account the newly discovered features. The role of science in shaping the course of some arguments, for example, is prominent in the Teleological argument and the Kalam Cosmological argument.

The tendency is noted in popular discussions, and not in academic ones (at least not prominently); because the academic literature does make an effort to deal with each new formulation of an argument independently.

I guess the takeaway point here this: we should be careful when we speak about our familiarity with an argument, much less passing judgments on whether it's true or false. Just because someone heard a refutation of some- possibly early- formulations of an argument doesn't at all mean the argument is invalid; rather what it proves at best is that particular formulation is invalid. So maybe a more useful way of talking about such arguments would be not in reference to the argument themselves- that being too broad- but specific formulations. It would, for example, be more useful to say "I found Aristotle's formulation of the teleological argument unconvincing" as opposed to "I found the teleological argument unconvincing." The spirit of this counsel applies equally well to the theist as it does to the atheist, of course.

Atheistic counters to theistic arguments

This is an useful way of thinking about naturalistic counters to theistic arguments.

In order for the naturalist to counter a theistic argument which uses p as a premise, she must do one of the following:

1. Locate p within naturalist ontology (Reconciliation),
2. Eliminate p by denying its independent existence (Error), or
3. Admit that the naturalist cannot account for p, but nor can the theist (Inadequacy).

I found this in Victor Reppert's essay on the Argument from Reason in the Blackwell. He mentioned this in reference to a particular family of arguments, but maybe it can work for other arguments as well. It's obvious that it would work for the Argument from Consciousness, in fact J. P. Moreland uses this in his essay.

I think it works well for the Moral Argument as well. The theist proposes objective morality (p) as a premise for her argument. The naturalist has to respond in any of the following ways:

1. By locating morality within naturalist ontology e.g. by explaining it in terms of desires, utility etc;
2. By denying the existence of objective morality e.g. by appealing to a radical form of ethical relativism;
3. By admitting that naturalism has no place for objective morality, but then again neither does theism e.g. Euthypro's Dilemma.

Maybe it works for Fine-tuning as well:

1. Reduce fine-tuning to naturalist explanations (e.g. multiverse, weak anthropic principle, life isn't special etc),
2. Deny fine-tuning (Victor Stenger),
3. Claim theism does no better in explaining fine-tuning than naturalism (Sean Carroll I guess).

Kalam Cosmological Argument (uses the beginning as a premise):

1. The universe's beginning can be explained in natural terms (it didn't require a cause),
2. The universe never had a beginning (showing the plausibility of actual infinites, denying the truth of temporal becoming etc),
3. Theism does no better than explaining the beginning (I saw an interesting example in a blog: while creation by nothing and from nothing is impossible, but so is creation by something but from nothing. A cabin spontaneously appearing in the middle of the woods is just as impossible as a lumberjack making the cabin appear without any material cause)

Leibnizian Cosmological Argument (uses contingent facts as a premise):

1. Contingent facts need not be explained (PSR is false, infinite regress of causes etc)
2. There are no contingent facts (weird)
3. Theism does no better in explaining contingent facts...

I noticed the more controversial the premise p is, the easier it is to apply the 3-pronged counter approach. KCA and LCA deals with more or less uncontroversial large-scale facts (beginning of the universe/existence of contingent facts) and the application becomes a bit problematic.

Maybe this can be improved by conjoining it with other modes of countering theism, like the four-pronged counter Alex Pruss suggested in the context of cosmological arguments (Glendower problem, Regress problem, Taxicab problem and Gap problem); and also with the earlier post I made about the two broader ways of knocking down theistic arguments (demonstrating some general fallacy with theistic arguments or critiquing each individually).

Friday, 2 August 2013

Qur'anic Argumentation

Given how human beings and there societies are, the message of the scriptures could have been in either of the following ways:

1. A very general message not constrained by any "contexts" of revelation or anything of that sort.

2. A general but context-constrained message, whose mode of addressing the people is anchored in a specific time and place.

The Qur'an is clearly of the second type, it's discourse molds itself around the society and cultural practices it found itself in. Therefore, the message of the Qur'an is more inclusive than merely the text itself- it could rightly be said that the context of the Qur'anic injunctions are part of the message of the Qur'an. Tangentially, I think this is a debilitating, if not fatal, argument against the radical "hadith rejectors" who insist on a sola scriptura approach to the Qur'an. Our degree of understanding of the Qur'an would be reduced to very little if we were to insulate it from the socio-cultural context.

Now many people have problems with this idea of revelation: if Qur'an's message is universal, why isn't its mode of expression so? Why does it only talk about natural signs (mostly) pertaining to the desert? Why does it not mention "ice" even once? Why does it adopt a particular way of argumentation and rhetoric, which only appeals to some people but not others?

A feasible solution to these dilemmas would come in two distinct packages: one part which argues for the justification of (2) above (1), and the other part which argues for the justification of the specific type of (2) that the Qur'an adopts.

The first it pretty easy. Knowing what we do about human cognition, it would be absolutely implausible for God to use a mode of expression which would appeal to everybody. Either that would be a series of straightforward propositions, and hence not very persuasive; or else it would be too ambiguous to be of any practical benefit to anyone (e.g. "believe in yourself", "conserve your resources", "be nice to people").

I think the fact that the Qur'an anchors its expression to a specific spatio-temporal context is actually an upside for its message. Rather than trying to appreciate a given injunction in isolation, we can try and judge the effect this injunction would have in the context in which it was revealed, which is more poignant. An example from the top of my head: when Qur'an denounces any particular crime, the point is strengthened by looking at the specific criminal's offenses and overall character analysis. Same goes with Qur'anic description of nature, it makes much more sense when we try to appreciate them in the context of 7th Century Arab phenomenology. Thus, the message+the context conjoined fortify the general message, which is more or less universal. So I definitely think the context-laden mode of expression is much more impressive than a simple general approach.

Now for the more pressing question, is the specific type of Qur'anic communication effective?

Let's talk about the type of argumentation the Qur'an adopts, for example. The arguments in the Qur'an are authoritarian in the sense it doesn't really encourage dissent, appeals to emotion and authority are frequently made, truths about theology are (as a rule) simply stated as opposed to argued for. How does this mode of expression appeal to the general audience? Normal people may be persuaded by, say, appeal to emotion. But there are some aspects of Qur'anic communication which is difficult to understand. For example, it introduces the concept of God as if it's absolutely obvious and there can be no honest disagreement about it. Contemporary discourses regarding Natural Theology seems to provide at least an ostensible defeater for this position. Also, it spends too much time on concepts like explicit polytheism and plausibility of resurrection, which doesn't have much appeal in the modern world where radical polytheism is outdated.

One answer to these questions is the direct audience of the Qur'an are given preference in Qur'anic expression. This response is accurate, albeit insufficient.

I have not researched this issue in any depth. This book seems like a really good start: http://www.amazon.com/Logic-Rhetoric-Legal-Reasoning-Quran/dp/0415554195

Monday, 15 July 2013

Inimitability vs. Miracle

"And if you are in doubt about what We have revealed down upon Our servant, then produce a surah like thereof and call upon your witnesses other than Allah- if you should be truthful. But if you do not- and you will never be able to- then fear the Fire, whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers." [Q 2:23-24]

This and similar verses represent how the Qur'an introduces its miracle: in the form of a challenge to humanity which would remain forever uncontested. The claim of inimitability.

A miracle, simply and simplistically (for our purposes) defined, would mean an event which cannot be accounted for by referring to the natural causes relevant to that time and place. The parting of the Red Sea, for example, couldn't have been accounted for by the conjunction of all the relevant natural causes e.g. waves, air current, force of the staff etc, and as such would count as a miracle.

A claim of inimitabilty, on the other hand, seems stronger than a miracle claim, at least in the following way. The fact that thing X is inimitable presents itself to someone's mind only after she realizes that thing X is a miracle. In other words, the chronology of her thoughts would look something like this:

Consideration 1. Thing X couldn't have been produced by the relevant natural causes.
Consideration 2. Thing X is a miracle.
Consideration 3. Thing X is impossible to imitate by me or anyone else for that matter.

One may rightly argue that consideration 3 is logically implied by consideration 1. But the above three considerations aren't premises of an argument, rather they are the chronology of thoughts as they present themselves to someone contemplating a miracle. It would be weird for someone witnessing the parting of the Red Sea, for example, to immediately ask herself: would I be able to do that? That consideration comes a bit later, after the realization that she is witnessing an impossible event. In fact, one could even argue that the consideration of inimitability doesn't arise spontaneously, someone has to point it out. And that's why it's stronger than a "mere" miracle claim, the question of inimitability arises only after one is convinced that X is miracle. Note that an inimitability claim isn't epistemically stronger than a miracle claim, it's stronger in the sense that it has a greater psychological impact.

With the above in mind, it becomes easy to see why the Qur'an argues for its inimitability as opposed to its miracle: it's smart rhetoric. In presenting its arguments- any argument- the Qur’an almost consistently chooses the rhetorically stronger way to do it (e.g. instead of stating “p is true”, the Qur’an would say “isn’t P true?”). Hence inimitability, and not miracle. Also, this formulation is strategically useful to the Qur'an's purposes: since the inimitability claim has the connotation of challenge, the arrogant disbeliever can be intimidated and put to his place by this.

So in apologetics or proselytizing discourses, which term/concept would be favored- inimitability or miracle?

I guess context here is key. In apologetics or academic discussions where rhetoric is to be kept to a minimum, it makes more sense to use the concept of miracle to formulate our arguments. As argued above, inimitability and miracle are epistemically parallel concepts, and miracle ensures easier communication. This is especially the case if inimitability is treated as some irreducible feature of the Qur'an: the proof that the Qur'an is inimitable is that it is inimitable and that's all there is to it, there isn't any feature in the Qur'an which contributes to its inimitability, it's irreducibly inimitable. Consider the following conversation:

Muslim: The Qur'an is from God.
Non-Muslim: What's the proof?
Muslim: The proof is you or no one else can imitate it. Go ahead and try.

I know, arguments like this wouldn't really be common in smart apologetics discourses. But popular usage of the term inimitability might connote things in the vicinity of this. Therefore, arguing that the Qur'an is a miracle would be easier on both sides: the Qur'an is a miracle because it has such-and-such features which cannot be accounted for by the natural causes relevant to the time and place of its revelation. Then it would be easier for both sides to argue for and against this proposition: the Muslim would claim that feature X is indeed beyond natural causes while the non-Muslim would claim the opposite.

Also, it's embarrassing to see Muslims making a strong rhetorical claim without substantiating it (this was how things were played out about Qur'an's literary miracle until very recently). This could be avoided if we stuck to the more modest (rhetorically, not epistemically) miracle claim.

One may argue against this by saying that we are shying away from Islamic Qur'anic vocabulary. But the Qur'an is much more than its vocabulary: it only makes the strong rhetorical claim it does because it provides sufficient evidence which warrants it. Until Muslims can demonstrate such evidence to a substantial epistemic degree, we may want to cut down on the rhetoric.

For proselytizing purposes however, where the point is not necessarily to make a better intellectual case but to convince the prospect (psychologically or intellectually, any way that works), using the inimitability claim is more warranted.