Sunday, 16 November 2014

Objections against the Fine-Tuning argument-IV

Objection: A fundamental premise of the fine-tuning argument is that life is somehow special- and that's why fine-tuning for life stands in need of explanation. But what is the justification of this claim? Why would life, living beings, embodied conscious agents- however you put it- be "special" enough in order for the universe to be fine-tuned for it? If there were no life on this universe, could we still say that the universe is just-right for the stars and planets? If there were no stars, could we say the universe is just-right for subatomic particles, and so on? This shows that the argument from fine-tuning can "fit" itself around any fact one can come up with, and it's really not a good argument at all.

Response: This argument is common in the popular as well as the academic circles. Science commentator Neil Degrasse Tyson alleges the fine-tuning to be "anthropocentric" and simplistic on this ground. Bradley Monton proposes this objection as well.

The argument can be responded to in a number of ways, here are three.

1. Life's specialness isn't required for all forms of fine-tuning arguments. Even if the universe were not fine-tuned for life, one could make an argument for the fine-tuning for the existence of the universe itself. Similarly, one could make an argument based on the universe's fine-tuning for the existence of complex structures like stars and planets, the existence of chemistry which allowed these structures to come together, and so on. The point isn't life per se, but complexity and intricacy. Clearly something as complex as chemistry or stars and planets is more significant than no universe at all, empty space or a mass of subatomic particles. The more complex the universe's contents get, the more mysterious the fine-tuning for them get. If there were no universe, or just some subatomic particles with no earthly tie among them, we couldn't make the fine-tuning argument at all, and even if we could it wouldn't have been as fascinating and important- simply because they aren't much for the universe's initial conditions to be fine-tuned for. But they are complex, they are intricate, and as such if the initial conditions of the universe seem fine-tuned for their existence, it is deserving of an explanation.

2. Life is complex and intricate. This immediately suggests the next important response: living beings themselves are extremely complex and intricate, more so the embodied conscious agents (as opposed to, for example, insect life), and as such the universe's initial conditions being fine-tuned for their existence does call out for an explanation.

John Leslie, after considering this response, suggests (in his book Universes) that this is "double counting" of the evidence. Fine-tuning of the universe for life'e existence doesn't account for life's complexity, rather only permits it. The intricacy and complexity are explained either by Darwinism or biological design arguments. As such, pointing to the intricacy and complexity of life asn grounds for the fine-tuning argument seems like having your cake and eating it too- you explain life's complexity by other means (Darwinism or design), and yet invoke fine-tuning argument for it. He has a point, but my intuition says even the permission of life's complexity deserves an explanation. The fact that the universe is so ridiculously fine-tuned so that it would be possible for intelligent life to exist does seem like something that stands in explanation, whether or not we have an additional explanation for the complexity itself.

At this point, we might want to take a look back and talk about whether complexity- whether it be of life or otherwise- can serve as a basis for fine-tuning arguments at all, as I have suggested in the last two responses. There are multiple ways of making sense of it, but let's talk about William Dembski's explanatory filter just as an example- he argues that specified complexity is what requires explanation. To break it down, if the occurrence of something is very, very improbable, and it conforms to some sort of significant pattern, then we can and should invoke a designer to explain it. Of course, the initial conditions of the universe having any value at all is equally improbable, just as any run of tosses of coin is. What makes us suspicious of design is when this improbability conforms to a pattern. A hundred coin tosses landing heads is exactly as improbable as a hundred coin tosses landing a haphazard mixture of heads and tails, but the first one calls for an explanation (biased coin, for example) because it conforms to a pattern. Now extrapolate this in the case of life's existence: complexity or not, any sort of reality in the universe would have been improbable, given that the values of initial conditions of the universe are equiprobable. What makes our universe interesting, and needing an explanation, is the fact that the values result in the development of complexity and intricacy, which would not have happened on any other values. Doesn't that call out for an explanation? My intuitive understanding stands clearly with "yes".

3. God wanted to create life. This is a very interesting response made by John Leslie in his book, Universes. To understand this response, first consider this analogy: let's say someone keeps winning consistently (100 times in a row, say) in a game at a casino. The management has every right to get suspicious that he is cheating in some way, but why? Because they can glimpse a simple explanation for this data- people want money, and some people might want to cheat at casino games for easy money. Significantly, this line of reasoning yields not one, but two important facts:

a) The person is cheating,
b) The consistent winning spree has an explanation.

In other words, the management's ability to glimpse the simple explanation not only presents the explanation, but also the fact that the data in question needs an explanation, in an explanatory bootstrapping mechanism. Before we extrapolate the lessons of this analogy to the fine-tuning case, let's consider another scenario, again borrowed from Leslie: let's say Sally won in a lottery where a billion tickets were sold. No one thinks we should look for a deeper explanation here, other than that Sally got lucky. But what if we find out the following pieces of information: Sally has been going through some financial struggles and could really use some money fast, Sally's friend Mary is aware of her situation and is very much willing to help her, and Mary happens to work in the lottery company. Doesn't this tip us off that there should be a deeper explanation for Sally's winning the lottery? Absolutely. It seems more than a coincidence that Sally would just happen to win the lottery Mary had every means and motive to make it just that way. Now, apply this in the case of the universe: the initial conditions of the universe are just-right for life isn't worthy of anyone batting an eye. But let's say I add the following piece of information to the game: there is a benevolent being, God, who wanted to create life in the universe. This added fact does make it seem suspicious that the initial conditions would be just so the universe would be life-conducive- exactly what God would want. That's what makes life or the existence of conscious, embodied agents surprising and explanation-worthy.

Someone could object that this last response is way too convenient. Consider this analogy, borrowed from Robin Collins' essay on the topic in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology: I toss a coin ten times in a row, and end up with the following sequence: HTHHTTTHTH. It doesn't seem significant or explanation-worthy at all. But seeing this sequence, my friend suggests it is explanation-worthy, because a demon named Grout wanted this sequence of coin toss to come about. For all I know, I wouldn't take him seriously. However, let's say that ahead of the coin toss, my friend informed me that if I toss the coin ten times, I would end up with the sequence HTHHTTTHTH because Grout told him so in his dream last night. If the coin toss series does show that sequence, I would have much more ground to take him seriously, simply because his explanation isn't a post-hoc attempt at data accommodation. The same goes with the theism hypothesis: theists had held the belief much before the fine-tuning evidence came to light that a benevolent Creator exists and He created the universe so that we may exist. Now that the evidence of fine-tuning has become available, it makes much more sense to posit that life's existence given the bumper odds against it to be explanation-worthy.The universe's life-permitting character follows from God's motives to create life or embodied conscious agents. Robin Collins, in a footnote to this discussion, adds that there may be a difficulty to this position and suggests a remedy. To me, the argument presented seems intuitive enough.

The cumulative strength of all these considerations is sufficient enough to lay the objection to rest, I think.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Objections against the fine-tuning argument-III

Objection: The key thrust of the argument from fine-tuning is that it is very improbable that the universe's conditions be "just right" to allow for our existence, and as such it calls out for an explanation. However, according to the weak anthropic principle, the universe's basic features must be conducive for the evolution of observers in order for them to observe the universe. In other words, were the basic features non-conducive to our existence, our existence wouldn't even be possible. But here we are. The fact of our existence entails that the initial conditions of the universe would be able to accommodate our existence in it. That's why the fine-tuning of the universe needs no explanation.

Response: This is one of the most common responses to the fine-tuning argument out there, popularized by (among others) Barrow & Tipler and Elliot Sober. I'm sure there are smarter formulations out there, but the basic thrust of the objection is completely, completely wrong-headed (although I've had to think quite a bit about the objection to understand it (and the response)). According to the objector, the fine-tuning proponent believes that it is the mere conduciveness of a universe to the observers' existence that requires explanation. But it is trivially true that it doesn't! This is the objection formalized:

1. If we exist, the universe's basic conditions would be such that allows our existence.
2. We exist.
3. Therefore, the universe's basic conditions would be such that allows our existence.

Everyone will agree with this. But once again, the mere "fit" between our existence and the universe's basic features is not what the fine-tuning argument holds to be surprising and requiring explanation. Rather, it is the peculiar way in which the fit occurs. Put differently, the conditions could be conducive of life in an infinite number of different ways. Of all these ways, a very peculiar, precariously improbable set of conditions is what yields life. Isn't that fact surprising? The laws and conditions could have been such that even if one were to vary them, it would have little or not effect on life. But that's not how things are- the conditions are very peculiar, such that even if you vary them a little, we would not have existed. The mere conduciveness is not what should surprise us as the objector things, but the peculiar nature of the conduciveness that should.

To understand this, consider the following illustration borrowed from Richard Swinburne:

Suppose that a madman kidnaps a victim and shuts him in a room with a card-shuffling machine. The machine shuffles ten packs of cards simultaneously and then draws a card from each pack and exhibits simultaneously the ten cards. The kidnapper tells the victim that he will shortly set the machine to work and it will exhibit its first draw, but that, unless the draw consists of an ace of hearts from each pack, the machine will simultaneously set off an explosion that will kill the victim, in consequence of which he will not see which cards the machine drew. The machine is then set to work, and to the amazement and relief of the victim the machine exhibits an ace of hearts drawn from each pack. The victim thinks that this extraordinary fact needs an explanation in terms of the machine having been rigged in some way. But the kidnapper, who now reappears, casts doubt on this suggestion. ‘You ought not to be surprised’, he says, ‘that the machine draws only aces of hearts. You could not possibly see anything else. For you would not be here to see anything at all, if any other cards had been drawn.’ But of course the victim is right and the kidnapper is wrong. There is indeed something extraordinary in need of explanation in ten aces of hearts being drawn. The fact that this peculiar order is a necessary condition of the draw being perceived at all makes what is perceived no less extraordinary and in need of explanation.

The conditions set by the kidnapper is analogous to the fine-tuning of the universe. It's true that the victim's survival entails the fact of conditions for her survival, but that's not what the surprising thing is- the surprising thing is that those conditions for the victim's survival is so peculiar and improbable in the first place. That's what requires explanation here.

I understand that the objection cannot be treated on its own, it opens up other important questions like:

1. Anthropic principle or no anthropic principle, why is the conditions being fine-tuned surprising at all, since every single outcome is equally probable?

2. What if the anthropic principle was conjoined with the existence of infinite (or at least a very, very, very large number) of universes? Surely that would render the fact of fine-tuning unsurprising, since someone has to win the lottery.

As for the first question, I will deal with it in a future post in sha Allah. As for the second, I sympathize with the objection. The response I've provided only works if the number of actual universes is just one (or a few). If there are an infinite or very large number of universes, then the anthropic principle objection becomes relevant again. The only way to deal with this problem is to deal with the multiverse, which I plan to do in a future post as well.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Objections against the Fine-Tuning Argument-II

Objection: The fine-tuning argument states that a universe with just-right conditions for life is extremely, extremely improbable- almost like balancing a planet on a razor's edge. But we could only make probability judgments based on more than one event. We can only say that a fair coin has equal probability of landing on either side because we have observed countless coin flips. Surely we cannot make that judgment when it comes to the universe, simply because there is only one of it. As Hume argued, we can only know if the universe was improbable or not if we had multiple universes to observe. Therefore, it makes no sense to ask questions like "How (im)probable is it that the cosmological constant would have the exact value that it does?"

Response: The objector is equivocating between "statistical probability" and "probability in general". Statistical probability is the type the objector has in mind- when we make probability judgments based on induction and the past data available to us. However, and this is a crucial point- this is not the only sort of probability. Clearly, in modern scientific practice we have many events that are non-repeatable. Cosmology and evolutionary biology are filled with events that happened in the past only once. Does that mean we cannot draw scientific conclusions about, say, what happened immediately after the big bang, or how the dinosaurs went extinct? The entire enterprise of historical science deals with such one-time events.

Even without appealing to scientific practice, one can intuitively know that the objection is wrong. Consider this example (borrowed from John Leslie's book Universes)- you are given a large urn filled with a million balls, and you are told that the balls are either all white, or all black, or a mixture of the two of an undefined ratio. You are then asked to randomly pick one ball. If you observe the ball is black, it gives you strong reason to believe that the rest of the balls in the urns aren't all while. This is because it is very unlikely that you would "happen" to pick just that one black ball among a million white ones. Note that you can come to this conclusion even without repeating the procedure.

Finally, the objection proves too much. Even if the stars were arranged to explicitly spell out MADE BY GOD, the objector's logic would still have us say that since we have only one universe to observe, we can't really say if this is improbable or not. Or consider a more relevant example, this too borrowed from Leslie: Let's say scientists find that the ratio of the strengths of the strong and weak nuclear forces is exactly 0.0200102002010000121102020002221002200000102022000. Now it is clearly unlikely that working with the decimal system, the entire ratio would be made up only of 0's, 1's and 2's. So the scientists, suspecting the existence of a hidden message, converts the 0's, 1's and 2's into dots, dashes and spaces, upon which the ratio spells out the famous Qur'anic verse: "So which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?" (don't try this with the number I gave above, I pulled that out of thin air) Would it be at all sensible to say that we don't know how probable or improbable such a universe is? Certainly not.

To conclude: Statistical probability, which the objection hinges on, is just one type of probability, and we can clearly draw conclusions based on other conceptions of probability. We do this in scientific practice and everyday reasoning all the time. Additionally, strong reductio ad absurda can be provided against the objection, which demonstrates the reasoning of the objector is wrong.

One last question might be: What is the exact nature of this other kind of probability that I mentioned? The technical aspects of it have been discussed in some detail in the Robin Collins essay here. This short excerpt from the essay illustrates not only the need but also some basic concerns as regards the justification of epistemic (non-statistical) probability:

Now that we know what we mean by epistemic probability, it is time to consider how it is justified. In science, many times epistemic probability is determined by an appeal to intuition, such as many of the epistemic probabilities considered in the last section –for example, those arising in conjunction with the Thesis of Common Ancestry, continental drift theory, and atomic theory. These probabilities clearly were not justified by an appeal to statistical improbability – for example, we have no statistics regarding the relative
frequency of life on a planet having those features cited in favor of evolution either under the evolutionary hypothesis or under some nonevolutionary hypothesis. Indeed, these judgments of epistemic probability were never rigorously justifi ed in any way. Rather, after (we hope) doing their best job of looking at the evidence, scientists and laypersons made judgments of what kind of world we should expect under each hypothesis, and then they simply trusted these judgments. This sort of trust in our judgments of epistemic probability is a pervasive and indispensable feature of our intellectual life.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Objections against the Fine Tuning argument-1


Like 99.999999% of the universe is completely uninhabitable. Even on the sole habitable planet (earth), the vast majority of its surface is saltwater, volcanoes, arid deserts. Where is this "fine-tuning" you refer to?


The objector has equivocated "fine-tuning" with "perfection". The argument doesn't state that the universe is "perfect" for habitability, but just that it is enough for complex life to evolve. It's like saying the light bulb isn't designed because it gets too hot to hold, or that the wristwatch isn't designed because it doesn't cook me supper. The objection, therefore, is a complete straw man.
Additionally, one can think of adequate motivations on the part of the designer to create the universe the way He did. "Efficiency is the cost of regularity"- goes the engineering principle. So in order to create a regular, law-governed, understandable universe, some patches of it must display inefficiency. Now creating a regular, self-sustaining (to an extent) universe is a great engineering virtue. As the old parable by Henry Ward Beecher goes: If an oriental rug is evidence of the crafter's skill, then isn't the power-loom- which creates beautiful rugs of infinite lengths constantly- an even greater evidence of design? "Design by wholesale is greater than design by retail"- summed up Beecher. Think about how grand the system is- an entire universe based off of just a few fundamental laws of physics, which could be written down on just one page. Isn't that a great design achievement over a non-regular universe, where the Creator had to intervene every now and then to keep order? This is why Leibniz laughed at Newton's cosmology- which posited God as an efficient principle who would have to intervene in His creation in order to keep the planets in orbit. This is not an argument against Divine Intervention proper, however, just against the idea that an ideal Designer should constantly intervene in His creation to keep it from going off the rails.
There is another very significant motivation to maintain a seemingly self-sustaining universe on the part of the Designer- which is traditionally known as the doctrine of Divine Hiddenness. In a universe where God constantly interfered, His creative action would be so obvious that everyone would be compelled to believe. The "test" aspect of belief would be gone- which requires sincere seeking on part of the believer. No matter how virtuous or vicious, everyone would believe in God with the same certainty. In revealed theology as well, we see Prophets not performing miracles too explicit that the people will have absolutely no choice but to believe. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), for instance, while gifted with a number of miracles, never gave in to the desires of the people who asked for the desert to become green, or their dead ancestors to be resurrected, or mountains to be turned into gold (the major exception was the splitting of the moon). All of this is to preserve Divine Hiddenness, which allows for a coherent test to be attached to belief. This is why God most commonly acts through the instrumentality of nature, keeping His creative action veiled and non-obvious, as opposed to intervening all the while to break the regularity of the universe. Of course, the idea is that the sincere, contemplative seeker would be able to look beyond the veil and discover God.
In conclusion, the argument that the universe isn't "perfect" and therefore there is no fine-tuning is just misplaced, since the argument doesn't even make that claim to begin with. Even apart from that, we have independent reasons to believe why God would make an ostensibly "imperfect" (note scare quotes) universe. The objection is dead in the water.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Why do we need arguments for the existence of God?

I've dealt with this issue tangentially in (perhaps more than) one post on this blog, but on account of some recent comments on another post- I think it would be worthwhile to review.

The question in the blog title is absolutely legitimate- as Muslims, what we would want to do is establish the proof that Islam is true (or Islamic theism), not only just that there is a God (or mere theism). So why am I such a big advocate of arguments for the existence of God (or natural theology, as the enterprise is known in the literature)?

Here's my answer. A certain belief is generally acceptable to someone if she has a high prior probability for it. Example: say you wake up one morning, go to the garage to start your car, and discover it's not starting. You consider a bunch of explanations for this fact, of them two hypotheses are:

1. The spark plug is busted
2. A Brazillian demon is inhabiting your car.

Before you even open the bonnet to see why your car isn't starting, you know 1 is much, much more probable than 2. In other words, you assign a low prior probability for 2. Prior probability, then, is the probability you assign to a particular explanation or hypothesis even before examining the actual evidence for it (in the case of this example, the evidence awaits under the bonnet of the car).

Now the next question: what constitutes your prior probability for a certain belief? Among other things (like simplicity, but that's the topic of another post), a major factor here is your background knowledge. Let's go back to the car example again. Why do you think you assigned a low prior probability for 2? Because your background knowledge- given you are a normal person- doesn't include information about the existence of Brazillian demons, or their interest in inhabiting cars, thereby causing car malfunction. On the other hand, your background knowledge does contain information like a spark plug being an essential part of an automobile, and how it's malfunction may cause problems for the car itself. That's why 1 seemed much more probable than 2 to you even before you examined the evidence.

Now, extrapolate what we just talked about prior probability and background knowledge to the case of Islam. If you read the Qur'an and Sirah literature, the impression you get is this- there were hardly any such thing as "sincere disbeliever". People who rejected Islam did so on emotional, as opposed to intellectual, reasons. And this continued for quite some time even after the death of the Prophet (peace be on him). Why is this the case? Why was Islam considered to be so intellectually palatable? Well among other reasons, it was because people had high prior probability for it. People back then already believed in God, and that He sends Prophets, and that it is possible that there is a life hereafter (at least the Jews and Christians did). These facts, coupled with the miracles of the Prophet and the Qur'an, made the case of Islam almost obviously true at an intellectual level.

Fast forward to today's times. Although a vast majority of the people still believe in God and good majority believes He sends Prophets (or interacts with us in one way or other), there are quite a few people who don't accept either of those beliefs. With the onset of Darwinism and logical positivism, theism has hardly been considered an intellectually respectable position to hold. To many of the popular minds, faith in theism is held to be antagonistic to rationality and science. Now if people don't even think belief in God is at all plausible, much less true, then guess how highly they would think of miracles, or the prospect of an institutionalized religion for that matter?

Put differently, we find ourselves in a unique, unfortunate slice of history where people's prior probability about Islam is very low, owing to their background knowledge not containing the truth of theism, or the prospect of supernatural entities/events existing, or even the intellectual respectability of either (Islamically, these are supposed to be a part of someone's foundational beliefs about reality- a part of our noetic faculties, if you like- not to say these beliefs couldn't be canceled out or repressed by other beliefs, and that's what I think is going on here).

This is where natural theology comes in. If we can demonstrate that the existence of God- an ultimate, necessary, ever-existing, powerful and intelligent First Cause who created and designed everything apart from Himself- then clearly, the prospect of Divine revelation in general, and Islam in particular, becomes much more palatable. In other words, natural theology- if done successfully- can jack up the prior probability of Islam. If you don't believe in God or anything supernatural, Islam will be much harder to accept for you. Natural theology takes away that difficulty substantially.

This, again, is why a cumulative case is desirable. While proving the existence of at least one necessary cause and the existence of at least one designer of the universe and the existence of at least one designer of life on this planet would increase the prior probability of Islam- making a cumulative case where all of these features just point to one benevolent entity would be much more desirable.

But can we make do without a cumulative case, though? I'll discuss that at a future post in sha Allah.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Thoughts on the Cosmological Arguments

I'm convinced that cosmological arguments- especially the cosmological argument from contingency- are some of the most significant evidences for the existence of God. Besides having the run-on-the-mill empirical/explanatory virtues, it is completely immune to the "God of the gaps" pitfall, since the data it deals with- the fact of contingent existence- is something science assumes, but cannot explain. As Swinburne would say, this is something that is "too big" for science. Second, the argument is easy to intuit. There is a lot of complexity associated with the usual portrayals of it, but that is because they not only present the argument, but also contain rebuttals to potential counter-arguments. Were these counters not to exist and we had room to appreciate the argument in all its raw, intuitive appeal, it would seem extremely simple but very significant. Finally, one of the proponents of the arguments seem to be none other than God Himself (Qur'an, 52:35). God knows best.

In this post, I would like to clarify a very common but damaging misconception that just refuses to go away from public psyche. There is no "the" cosmological argument. Cosmological argument(s) are a family of arguments that argue from some large-scale, general, non-controversial feature of the cosmos- change, beginning, existence, movement, and so on. The cosmological arguments are different in at least two ways: in the data they use as premise, and the way they deal with objections. People don't understand this, which leads them to equivocate between the two. Incidentally, the second in the series of debates that took place in Australia between William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss exhibited just this fallacy- Krauss simply didn't have the mettle to understand how the argument defended by Craig was altogether different from the one he was attacking.

Consider, for example, the two most popular versions of the cosmological arguments: the Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Leibnizian Contingency Argument. The Kalam argument uses the "beginning" of the universe as a premise, while the LCA uses its very existence as a premise. As such, the KCA bears more burden of proof than the LCA. The proponent of the KCA, therefore, would have to prove based on science and/or philosophy that the cosmos had a beginning in order for his argument to go through. There are different strategies of doing that: philosophically demonstrating the impossibility of an actual infinity (e.g. by paradoxes such as Grim Reaper or Hilbert's Hotel), the second law of thermodynamics, appealing to data gleaned physical cosmology, and so on. Additionally, the KCA proponent would also have to establish the truth of the A-theory of time (the reality of temporal becoming), since "beginnings" only make sense given tensed time. The LCA seem to be on much better footing in these areas, it would seem, since it would work perfectly even if the universe didn't have a beginning- all it needs to work is the mere existence of the universe, not its beginning. It may be relevant here to note that some noted Muslim scholars didn't believe the universe had a beginning- Ibn Taymiyya, for example, believed in an eternal universe on the theological premise that God was perpetually creating from pre-eternity.

Another potential difference between the KCA (at least William Lane Craig's formulation of it) and the LCA (at least the formulations I've seen by Alex Pruss and Robert Koons) is that the former argues on the basis of the contingency (in the sense that their beginning requires a cause) of things, while the latter only argues on the basis of the contingency of facts. Upon arriving at a necessary fact, the latter fills up the gaps by stating a fact necessarily entails a being. The only significance of this distinction I can think of is in their response to counterexamples from Quantum Mechanics. The KCA proponent can easily argue against the non-deterministic interpreter of QM by saying the argument sits perfectly well with inexplicable (in principle) events, what it has an issue with is inexplicable (in principle) things. To be sure, the QM doesn't say the beginning of things are altogether non-deterministic, just that some events in the causal chain are (e.g. when exactly it happens, and at what position etc). This doesn't mean the LCA proponent is necessarily in a bad position, however- for at least two reasons. First, Pruss and Koons define causality in a way that is different from causal necessitation, in other words- they don't agree that X causes Y only if every aspect of Y's occurrence is explained by X. They invoke an explanatory principle much weaker than a strict version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, and perhaps this version is immune to the QM counterexamples (I would have to read up more on this). Second, maybe the LCA can be defined in terms of things just as easily.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Equivocating the two types of arguments to Qur'an's literary miracle

People who use argument(s) based on Qur'anic literature should keep in mind that there are actually two arguments the Qur'an uses, not one. These are:

1. The Qur'anic literature cannot be imitated by anyone, even if they get help from wherever they wish, in whichever circumstance they want to be. Even as much as three verses from the Qur'an cannot be imitated, period. There are many verses of the Qur'an which talk about this "inimitability" challenge, perhaps the most popular passage is 2:23-24.

2. The Qur'anic literature could not have been produced by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). In other words, the Qur'an is inimitable for anyone to be in the specific circumstances of the Prophet. There are numerous verses in the Qur'an which talk about this directly or indirectly. Examples being the verses where the Qur'an refutes the disbelievers who claimed that the Prophet was a poet, a madman, or someone else teaches him.

Now I do realize 1 is a stronger claim than 2, in fact 1 is inclusive of 2- but that doesn't mean they are the same argument. Why is this significant? Because people often tend to tie the premise of one argument with the conclusion of the other. Now that is a perfect recipe for a bad argument.

Consider for example the argument from precision of Qur'anic word choice- the Qur'anic word choice is so precise that along with imparting the obvious meaning, it also has layers of subliminal meanings, which are sometimes very powerful. And these are done in an extremely subtle way, using very little verbal economy. Now what does this prove- 1 or 2? I'd say it proves 2. The main purport of the precision of word choice argument is that the Qur'an is a verbal text, whoever was reciting it obviously didn't have any forethought or planning beforehand, so for him to make these connections between parts of the text that are so temporally apart requires supernatural intervention. Does that mean no one in any circumstance can mimic this particular rhetorical feature? Obviously not. Someone with enough time on their hands can easily install these types of subliminal messages. Does that consideration serve as a defeater for the precision in word choice argument? Again, it is hard to say how. The whole point of the precision in word choice argument is that since the Qur'an was an oral literature, and since it was revealed over a period of 23 years in so many different circumstances, it is impossible that someone would be precise enough to make such intertextual connections. Meaning- circumstances matter in this type of argument. In fact, the more circumstantial facts about the Prophet's life you load into this argument, the stronger it becomes- the fact that the Prophet was illiterate or at least had absolutely no knowledge of poetry, the fact that the Prophetic speech differed significantly from Qur'anic speech, the fact that the Prophet or his nearest companions didn't point these out meaning they were probably unaware of these literary gems as well, the fact that the prophet was sincere in his belief that he was receiving revelations verbatim from God and therefore it doesn't make sense that he would consciously put in so much effort in fabricating the Qur'an, the fact that the prophetic career was so busy that there was absolutely no time for him to achieve this- and so on and so forth. Point being- this argument is context/circumstance dependent, and hence it's number 2, not number 1.

The problem begins when one uses this premise to claim the Qur'an is universally inimitable. I believe this tendency is because of the overt focus among the people on argument 1 as opposed to 2. We need to understand that 1 is not the only argument the Qur'an uses, and although 1 is stronger than 2, 2 can establish the truth of Islam just as well. We've seen generations upon generations of Muslims base their faith on so-called scientific miracles in the Qur'an. If that worked for the Muslims, then 2 would most definitely work for them.

A case in point is Bassam Saeh's essay on the Qur'an's literary miracle, available here. The author tries to posit the literary miracle of the Qur'an. I believe what he misses is the simple fact that there are two, as opposed to one, arguments to literary miracles the Qur'an advances. This misunderstanding leads him to claim that the arguments of Qur'anic miracle advanced by the likes of Baqillani and Ar-Razi (arguments from literary precision and coherence) only proves that the Qur'anic literature is genius, but not miraculous. In reality, Ar-Razi and Baqillani's arguments do prove the Qur'an is miraculous, just in a context-dependent way. In other words, what they established was type 2 Qur'anic miracle, not type 1.

I personally think that the English-speaking world is more familiar with arguments of type 2, not type 1. Hence, I think it would be better for Muslim apologists to use the second argument. The first argument is strong all right, but do the English-speaking apologist community have enough knowledge about it to execute the argument authoritatively? I have to say no, but even if you think the answer is yes- I think it's beyond doubt that we are at least better equipped to present the argument of the second kind (here is an essay I wrote years back where I talked about some of the different types of arguments for Qur'anic literary miracle. Note that it was written quite a while back and the list is definitely not exhaustive, I have left out the argument from coherence which is, in my view, one of the strongest arguments for the Qur'an's literary miracle).

Also, note that the reason why it is difficult to defend the first type of argument for Qur'an's literary miracle is precisely because the claim it makes is so strong! Shouldn't the fledgling movement of Muslim apologists not get ahead of themselves, and try to establish more modest claims first? Especially since argument 2 on its own is a very good argument for the fact that the Qur'an is, indeed, a miracle!

Someone could ask- but isn't it so that the Qur'an itself makes use of the first type of argument? It does, I myself quoted a passage in the beginning of this article which gives that impression. But we would need to realize that as far as the English-speaking apologetics movement is concerned, we are in a process of unearthing good arguments for the Qur'an. All of the arguments that we use as apologists were not written in the sun- we had to get our hands dirty to develop them. Many of these arguments (the type 1 argument for literary miracle, for example) were very clear for the Prophet's companions or the early Muslims, but not so for us- because the years have buried the argument and it would take quite a bit of unearthing before we can recover it (some promising progress have been made, though- check the essay I cited above). Also, realize that all the arguments that the Qur'an uses are not readily available for us to use. The Qur'an claims that the Prophet could not have had access to the Judaeo-Christian material found in the Qur'an. But it is not easy to establish this, it would require quite a bit of study into the Arabic literary-historical milieu. The Qur'an's primary audiences didn't have to do this because they were the milieu! So while the Qur'an may use an argument, it would only be safe for us to use once we have properly unearthed and developed it.

So let's de-emphasize the "challenge" or "inimitability" rhetoric a bit, and focus on the more modest second argument, people- we cannot afford to be verbal sellouts. That's very damaging. Also- it's a good idea to always use multiple arguments at once, since the cumulative strength of the evidence is always stronger than just one lone argument.

Three possible ways to account for genetic similarity between apes and men

For those who have been following my blog as of recent, you would probably note I've been more concerned with the putative paleoanthropological evidences for human evolution (i.e. fossils and early human artifacts). While I think it's important to construct creation models to account for the paleoanthropological data, I recently realized the more potent challenge comes from genomics. Consider that we already have some models to account for the fossils (read the last post on this blog), all that's left to do is fill in the details and deal with potential defeaters. Substantial amount of work has been done in that region. On the other hand, the argument from genetic similarity is pervasive- regardless of which paleoanthropological model you choose, the problem of genomics would always be there. Also it is more impressive on the public psyche, because with molecules (as opposed to fossils) it's possible to speak with something of a mathematical precision (the all-too-popular 98% similarity idea) and there is lesser room for interpretation. So I thought I would dedicate one post to construct creation models to account for the genomic data. I should probably start off with a heads-up though: I haven't looked into the issue in any depth whatsoever. These are just preliminary meditations, and putting some proverbial flesh on them would require more study. As my study progresses, I will update this blog on the details of the three ways, possible defeaters and so on.

The problem

The argument from human-chimp genome similarity goes something like this: the vast amount of similarity between the genomes of the two species is better explained on common descent than on design. If the human species were created de novo without any evolutionary precursor, how would we expect our genome to look? Wouldn't it look markedly different from the precursors? Of course, some similarity is expected- like the all important housekeeping genes should be similar not only for humans and chimps but for all Eukaryotes. But the similarity is not confined to the essential housekeeping genes, they practically pervade the genome. What's more important is that a percentage of the human genome lacks function. For the parts that are functional, their function is not dependent on their sequence (i.e. they act as spacers between genes, form secondary structures for overall genome stability, act as buffers against mutations, and so on). The surprising phenomenon is that these regions too are similar between apes and humans. This is something that is clearly better explained on common descent.

The most popular creationist response here is common design- there is this much similarity because a common designer made both genomes. This is at best a partial solution to the problem. For the advocate of common descent, it is easy to say that the shared genes simply "picked up" these functions along their evolutionary journey. Think about an outdated car model- it may be completely useless for the function it was originally designed, but it may now have other applications (providing shelter in a rainy day for example). Similarly, a shared and seemingly non-functional sequence may have picked up a function along the way, but that doesn't make the similarity any less redundant. Another point is, the Designer could have made the human genome in a vast number of ways. For someone looking for a shelter, the designer could have given him an entire house- not an outdated car. This means the similarity between humans and apes are redundant. Even if these emanated from a design plan, they could have easily been different. But they're not. This is the fact that calls out for an explanation.

One of the key reasons why I think functionality of parts of the genome is thought to be a defeater to the chimp-human genome similarity argument is because this argument is confused with another, similar evolutionary argument- junk DNA. But it is crucial to understand the arguments are separate. The argument from junk DNA argues that the designer would not have filled the genome with useless matter. Simply pointing out the function of these putative junk sequences would suffice to silence this argument. But the argument from chimp-human genome similarity goes deeper- it appeals to the pattern in which humans and chimps have similar DNA, especially when it is reflected in the putative junk regions.

Notice the bottomline of this argument is not merely that the human and chimp genomes are similar, but that the similarity conforms to a certain pattern. It is this pattern of similarity that sits so well with common descent. For example- the similarity is not found only in functional but also in putative non-functional and/or non-essential regions of the genome, the similarity is more between the chimps and humans as compared to other lifeforms which underscores the trajectory of common descent, and so on. There are also specific instances of this similarity which sit quite well with evolutionary explanations, for example- the chimp chromosome 12 and 13 fusion, endogenous retroviral sequences found both in human and chimp genomes, and so on.

All of these problems are neatly summarized and talked about in creationist Todd Wood's brilliant 2006 paper "The Chimpanzee Genome and the Problem of Biological Similarity", available here.

The possible solutions

So, what are the possible ways to solve this dilemma? Here are three plausible ways.

1. Question the data. This is probably the most common approach among creationists today- argue that the chimp and human genomes are not "all that similar". The most intelligent defense of this line of reasoning comes from geneticist Jeffry Tomkins. You can access a number of his papers on the topic available here. Of course, this view isn't a complete solution of the problem, but it does take a substantial amount of wind out of the argument. An argument from common ancestry based on 99% genome similarity vs. one based on 70% genome similarity are markedly different.

Also check Tomkins' new book on the topic here.

2. Posit a different mode of de novo creation. When we say the first man was designed de novo, what do we mean by this? Do we mean that he was created completely out of the context of creation or the remainder of living systems? To me, this doesn't seem like the only choice. It could also be that the human beings are created in the matrix of the broader biodiversity brought about by evolution. Even though man was created de novo and all or most of biology's remainder was created through the instrumentality of evolution, it doesn't preclude that human design was based off of a broader "design plan". To see what I mean, consider this scenario. During the creation of the first man, instead of making his genome from scratch, the designer used the genome already available in the closest "relative" of man, and tweaked it just enough. As for the remainder of the genome which are either non-functional or non-essential, they were left as they are because, why not? Why would the designer want to create the rest of the genome from scratch when the one "cooked up" by the years of evolution works just as well? In this view, the human genome was created both through the instrumentality of nature as well as de novo. Much of the genome was "created" by means of guided evolution, while the remainder was "tweaked" by the hands-on Divine intervention to make us "human". In this view, the designer is both a "hands-off" creator when he acted through the instrumentality of evolution, and a genetic engineer when he intervened. In other words, much of the world is natural, while the creation of man is a miracle.

Is this view ad hoc? Why would the designer want to create the entire chain of being through evolution, stop at the tail end of history, and then choose to intervene in the creation of man? Consider some factors. Muslims and Christians believe the birth of Christ was a miracle. Does this mean the birth process of Christ didn't mimic that of the birth process of other children? Or more to the point, is Christ in any way "unrelated" to the rest of humanity because of this unique mode of creation? I submit no. Similarly, the creation of the first man was unique and de novo, but the evidence does give the impression that he is "related" to the rest of biological systems. As for why the designer chose to intervene- I wrote the following on facebook a few days back which is relevant (please try to ignore the "Islamic" elements of the post and focus on the point):

I was listening to lectures on Prophet Muhammad's (peace be upon him) biography. In the part on the Prophet's heavenly journey, the lecturer said that one of the main reasons why prayer is so significant is that the Prophet was brought to the presence of God to receive this commandment.
Now someone with materialist inclinations may ask: what was the reason for this routine? After all, (being very blunt here) God could have done gotten the job done just as easily by sending an angel with the commandment of prayer. The answer Muslims would give is: this is not a question of efficiency in terms of getting the job done i.e. choosing the easiest of the options. Because the spiritual significance of prayer is so much, God's perfect wisdom necessitated that this information be communicated to the Prophet in person.
I think this consideration has bearing on the evolution question as well. The theistic evolutionist may argue: why bother making the first human being in the heavens de novo, when it would have been possible just as easily on earth, through the instrumentality of natural processes? One could reply that there is more on the line here than merely choosing the easiest of the options. Creating a vicegerent on earth and endowing him with consciousness and knowledge is something so spiritually momentous, that God's perfect Wisdom necessitated that it had to be done by special Divine action, with his direct involvement, no matter how materialistically efficient creation through evolution would have been.
This is relevant to the discussion I was having with another brother the other day. My point was, theistic evolutionists may say- it seems ad hoc to create the first man supernaturally just to endow consciousness on him, or make other relatively minor changes. This could be one response.
Quite frankly, I don't see any reason why this view would be ad hoc. If the earlier design works just as well, why bother making another design plan from scratch? Human creation should be seen in the context of the rest of the evolutionary drama happening on earth. When one looks at things that way, the putative evidence for common descent seem to fit just as easily on a creationist hypothesis.

That's the strength of this view- one could accept the data hook, line and sinker- but interpret it differently. The debate then would shift to whether this way of interpreting the data is ad hoc or not, I find reason to believe it is not. 

3. Hope for new explanations to show up. Finally, one can take refuge in the ever-changing nature of the scientific enterprise. The way genomics is progressing, it is very hard to predict when and how the science stands in a few years or so, and maybe we will find there are other ways of explaining the data than common descent.

An interesting example is a recent paper by Liu and Soper on the retroviral elements common in human and chimp genomes, available here. Rather than summarizing the contents, I would forward the readers to Todd Wood's fantastic review here, and get to the point: this is a really interesting and novel way of interpreting shared ERV sequences among humans and chimps, and it doesn't rely on common descent. I'm not saying the authors of the paper are completely successful in their endeavor, but just that it is a promising avenue to explore. Additionally, there have been efforts to explain other molecular evidences for common descent (for example, this paper by Tomkins talks about another way of approaching the "fusion site" argument).

What this argument states is that it is too soon to decide whether the genomic similarity only being explained by common descent is compelling. In light of some of the promising ways of explaining the data alternatively, perhaps they can be explained on hypotheses at home with special creation as well.


These are just the basic, skeletal forms of some of the different ways how the chimp-human genome similarity problem can be solved. These are not the only ways, however- Todd Wood's 2006 paper cited earlier outlines a few other ways.

Also, one should keep in mind that these arguments are not mutually exclusive. A cumulative view that takes all of the above into consideration should, I think, ought to convince one that the evidence is not all that strong, and perhaps could be accommodated on a special creation hypothesis as well.

I hope to keep this blog updated on all things genomics.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Adam's creation from dust

As per orthodox Muslim belief, the "God created Adam (as) from dust" is referring to an actual material creation, not just metaphor. People try to rationalize God's decision to create Adam from dust in a number of ways. Such efforts are understandable, because if God wished, He could have created Adam from anything. So why dust?

Some anti-Islamic apologists go so far as to claim that the claim that God created man out of Adam is unscientific, since dust or clay is nothing more than sillica and aluminum, but we find such elements only in trace amounts in the human body. This argument however is easy to refute, since it's understandable that God didn't mean clay to refer to how clay is understood by the scientific community of today. Additionally, as it appears in the hadith- God asked Archangel Gabriel (as) to collect clay from different parts of the world. This means the clay that was used probably wasn't a homogenous, purified material, but a mixture of different substances commonly found in the earth's crust. It could contain degraded or semi-degraded organic matter, humous, other elements not found in pure clay but deposited by natural processes, and so on. The clay, therefore, could be carbonaceous, and carbon is the basis of all organic life. This aside, even if God created man from pure clay- a mixture or suspension of silica and aluminium in water- it doesn't pose a defeater for the Qur'anic creation account. After all, no one would claim that the Creation of Adam from was natural process. Predictions of finding a large amount of the starting material (clay) in the end product (man) are predicated upon natural creation, not special or supernatural creation. We only know that God started off with dust/clay/earth and water as a starting material, we have no idea what He did with it, how He modified it, and how that modification led to Adam. We have too little info to go anywhere with this.

We can think of a Creator-Engineer having two motives for choosing a certain material for his Creation. One is the obvious, commonsensical human motive of that material serving as the best material basis for the end product (which is why we use iron to make weapons as opposed to cotton). I believe this doesn't apply that much to God, since, well, He is God. We humans choose our raw materials for our products because this is more efficient. If we wanted to create weapons out of cotton, we could do it but it would be a lot more work- we would need to condense the cotton, solidify it, and still the end product wouldn't be as durable and user-friendly. Even if we choose to alter the molecular conformation of cotton to make it something else and then use it to make weapons, it would mean putting in a lot more effort for nothing, since we have a far more suitable raw material available i.e. iron. Making weapons out of cotton, in light of all this, is serendipitous at best. But these limitation/efficiency considerations are very human. God doesn't have to think like an engineer in terms of the "appropriateness" of a raw material for the product. His powers are limitless, and it is unlikely that such considerations would play any significant role in His reasoning.

But there may by another, more subtle motive for choosing a raw material. Sometimes, a raw material has a story of its own. An engineer may "underwrite" some message into his creation simply by choosing a particular type of raw material. William D. Barrick in the book Four Views on the Historical Adam (p. 134) puts the point thus:

...The Creator Himself purposefully chose the medium [raw material- Hassan] in order to convey a theological message beyond the historical account. Sculptors often intend a subliminal message by means of the material they form into an object of art- it is not merely a matter of the resulting statue's durability. A sculpture of Churchill in wood just does not send the same message about his character and significance that a bronze or stone statue of the British prime minister would convey. If a mere human sculptor can possess such thoughtful expression through his work, why not the Creator of all things and all life?

Barrick is exactly right- it is entirely too plausible to think God's choice of the material had to do with sending a message of theological importance. That message is all too well-known to the Muslim since it appears many times in the Qur'an and Sunnah- it puts man in his place because he is created from no more than dust of the earth, it tells him that there is no intrinsic value to his morphology except for the fact that God breathed the spirit into him and made him His vicegerent on earth, and thus does away with all basis for racism since racism is predicated upon intrinsic structural/morphological superiority, since we return to dust when our body decomposes it is a reminder of our death, and so on. My intention here is not to enumerate or repeat these reasons, however. The point though is this: God created man in a certain way, from a certain stuff- not because it was materially efficient, but because it sends a message. God wrote our humility in our creation process itself, and now we cannot part with it even if we tried. Our true identity is inseparable from us not only because God says so in His book, but because our very structure is testament to that fact.

Interesting way to think about it, eh?