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.