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