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.

Conclusion

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.