Increasing One’s Provision

8 Feb

Four things bring rizq (provision): Qiyām al-Layl, seeking forgiveness before dawn, commitment to giving charity, and dhikr in the morning and evening.

– Ibn al-Qayyim

A Response to Kate Smurthwaite’s Piece on Mehdi Hasan

29 Jan

Dear Kate,

Thank you for your…ermm…passionate article! Here is a response to some of your points from the perspective of a Muslim. If there are any points that I don’t respond to, it’s either because I actually do find those particular points to be plausible or I didn’t think they represented a particularly crucial argument. Here goes:

On the ability to disprove God, you wrote:

The only reason that it appears you can’t disprove God is because the definition of God is so vague and constantly being changed by religious folk!  If we take the approach of nailing down God (pun intended lol) it’s easy to disprove Him/Her.  So (1) if we can agree that “God” means a being who knows and cares about human life and has the power to change things on earth. Then look at the fact that child rapists continue to exist, that good people often suffer painful illnesses, that famine and drought affect whole communities indiscriminately. This proves that He/She either doesn’t care or can’t intervene. So that God doesn’t exist.

I agree that “God” is a loaded term for which a universally agreed upon definition is hard to find. You have invoked the problem of evil in order to disprove God’s existence, according to the definition that you provided. However, this argument can, at most, only disprove the so-called “God of religion”. It cannot disprove the idea that the universe was created by an intelligent being of some sort (even if this being is not necessarily the same as the God believed in by adherents of the Abrahamic religions) – a proposition that I assume you nevertheless assert is false. If so, why is the proposition that the universe was created by an intelligent being definitely false, as opposed to, say, perhaps true and perhaps false?

Even so, with regards to the problem of evil itself, there are compelling theodicies which reveal some of it’s unjustified assumptions. One of these responses can be found here: http://www.hamzatzortzis.com/essays-articles/philosophy-theology/a-response-to-the-problem-of-evil/

On the inability to scientifically test the statement that “The Nazis were evil”, you wrote:

Evil is fairly neatly defined as deliberate abuse of human rights. We can demonstrate that that occurred.

But by simply providing a definition of the word “evil”, you only push the argument a step back. For how can one scientifically establish what should constitute a “human right” in the first place, let alone that it is wrong to violate said rights? How can science possibly establish moral truths – what is right or wrong, good or evil? Science is not prescriptive, it is only descriptive. It is useful, but has limitations and is not the only way to form conclusions about reality.

You also wrote:

And nothing is unprovable, things may be unprovable with current methods and equipment, but science moves on.

It isn’t clear what you mean by “nothing is unprovable”. You wrote this in response to Mehdi saying: “science itself is permeated with unproven (and unprovable) theories.”

You have not contended the idea that science is permeated with unproven theories, so I assume that you accept this point. However, you appear adamant that none of these theories are unprovable. Yet, you have not presented proof of this very assertion! You don’t seem willing to accept even the possibility that some unproven scientific theories are unprovable and may never be proved. Can you prove that none of science’s unproven theories are ultimately unprovable? (Tongue twister, I know) Even better, can you scientifically prove that this is the case?

On the multiverse, you wrote:

Yeah it’s a theory. I don’t think Dawkins is suggesting it’s a fact.

I’m being charitable by engaging seriously with such a basic point, but you are mistaken if you believe that absence of evidence is a defining feature of a scientific theory. The theory of gravity is a theory too, yet it’s also a fact. When an atheist scientist proposes something for which there is no evidence, you say “Yeah it’s a theory”, thereby happily letting them off the hook. I doubt that you would afford religious people the same courtesy.

Anyway, here you appear perfectly content to accept the plausibility of a proposal for which there is no evidence whatsoever other than the fact that, if it’s true, it would explain the apparent fine-tuning of the universe’s fundamental constants. Another proposal that, if true, would explain the apparent fine-tuning is that the constants were set in such a way by design (which would imply the existence of a designer). There is no more evidence for the former (the plausibility of which you accept) than there is for the latter (which you adamantly reject as false). Why the inconsistency here? When there is no more evidence for the multiverse hypothesis than there is for design, why not even acknowledge the plausibility of design as an explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of the universe? Why do you view the multiverse as an acceptable explanation and not design, when design has at least as much explanatory power and no less evidence?

On the Kalam Cosmological Argument, you wrote:

But it’s a total nonsense. Firstly because the term “begin” implies there was a time when it was not here, and then a time when it was here. And that only makes sense if we think of time as something that already existed, before the universe. But time, without a universe, is meaningless. Time, and thus beginnings, only starts to exist as the universe comes into being.

I don’t personally base my belief in the existence of an intelligent creator of the universe solely on the Kalam Cosmological argument, and I accept that this may be a valid contention. Nevertheless, there are responses to this contention which distinguish between the A-theory and B-theory of time. William Lane Craig has written extensively on this, for example here: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/beginning-to-exist

I have not personally investigated this issue fully myself, so I’m not sure to what extent the responses successfully address the contention.

You also wrote:

Secondly this argument builds a huge huge HUGE paradox. The universe exists so something must have created it. Lets call that thing God. So if God exists something must have created God. Lets call that thing super-God. So if super-God exists…

As I said, I don’t personally base my belief in God solely on the KCA, but this is quite a weak objection. One does not even have to be a theist to be able to respond to this one. To recap on what the KCA is saying:

  • We know that the universe had a beginning
  • We know that things don’t begin to exist without a cause
  • Therefore, we conclude that something caused the universe to come into existence
  • We also know that there cannot be an infinite regress of causes, since, if that were true, we would never have gotten to the point where the universe began to exist. Therefore, although we know that the universe began to exist (and hence was caused), we must conclude that at some point in the chain of causes, there was a cause that did not itself have a cause and hence existed eternally. This must be the case by necessity since the only alternative is an infinite regress of causes which we have established cannot have been the case.
  • Applying Occam’s Razor, we assume that this original, eternal cause was the one that created the universe.

On the multiverse hypothesis, you also wrote:

If the universe wasn’t fine-tuned for life, we wouldn’t be here.  That’s like the person who wins the lottery saying “God made me win”, forgetting that many of the millions of people who didn’t win also prayed to a God.  In fact the fine-tuning of the universe is one of the reasons behind the multi-verse theory.

Firstly, your contention ignores the fact that there is an almost unimaginably narrow range of values that the physical constants could have taken on so that, collectively, they allow for the existence of life in the universe. And the constants in the universe take on values within that extremely narrow range. The chances of this are much, much, much slimmer than even a person winning the lottery. Moreover, I don’t see that the analogy with the lottery is a valid one. In this analogy, what do the “millions of people who didn’t win” correspond to? Other universes? Again, there is no scientific evidence for the existence of other universes. As I mentioned earlier, this is simply invoked as a way of explaining the apparent fine-tuning of many of the universe’s physical constants. In the interests of consistency, I would hope that, amongst your arguments against the existence of God, “there is no evidence” is not one of them, since you are clearly prepared to accept the plausibility of things existing without evidence. That’s not to say I agree that there is no evidence for the existence of an intelligent creator (I believe there is) – I’m just asking for you to be consistent.

Secondly, you contradict yourself with the last sentence in the quote above since, if there is nothing particularly remarkable about the universe being fine-tuned for life, there would be no need to come up with a multiverse hypothesis (for which, I repeat, there is no evidence) in order to try and explain it.

On evolution, you wrote:

Evolution definitely doesn’t show that human beings were created in stages by a deity.

The point was that evolution posits that human beings came about as a result of a gradual process i.e. in stages. The Qur’an also asserts that man was created in stages. Hence, the two are in agreement. The scientific theory doesn’t and cannot comment on whether this was controlled or set in motion by a deity.

I happen not to be convinced by attempts to reconcile the Qur’an with macroevolution, but at least I actually understand the arguments for it correctly.

You wrote:

Also you might want to be honest here and admit that the Quran also claims the old 6 day Extreme Makeover: Universe Edition version of creation.

Actually, the Arabic word used in the Qur’an – “ayyaam” – does not necessarily refer to 24-hour periods, but can refer to periods of any length of time, whether long or short. The singular, “yawm”, is also translated as: age, era, time. This is very clear from even a cursory look at authoritative Arabic-English dictionaries such as Lane’s Lexicon (used by academics) or Hans-Wehr.

In response to Mehdi saying: “Yet the theory of evolution, whether Muslims accept it or not, doesn’t explain the origins of the universe, the laws of science or our objective moral values.”, you wrote:

No, it explains the evolution of humans and other animals, plants, etc.  Hence why it’s called the theory of evolution.

Well, that was the point. Attempting to disprove the existence of an intelligent creator by invoking the theory of evolution (as some do) doesn’t work, since it fails to account for the other things that Mehdi mentions.

You wrote:

Other scientific theories explain those other things.

What scientific theory explains how the universe came to be? Perhaps you’re thinking about the theory of the self-creating universe? I find that one particularly amusing. Of course, by denying more obvious, intuitive and reasonable explanations, one is inevitably forced to resort to such absurdities!

Finally, about the infamous winged horse, this has been made out to be a much bigger issue than it really is. The whole point about miracles is that they’re supposed to be supernatural (i.e. beyond natural), extraordinary (i.e. not ordinary) occurrences. It’s comparable, for example, to the belief that Jesus healed the blind. Nobody is claiming that this is something that happens every day. In fact, the only thing that makes it significant is the fact that it cannot and does not normally happen. So yes, Islamic scriptures record that the Prophet rode from Mecca to Jerusalem (not to heaven) on a unique creature called al-Buraq. Calling this creature a “winged horse” was probably an attempt at ridicule from Dawkins, since that isn’t exactly how the creature is described in the scripture. Granted, there may be no good reason for somebody who does not believe that Islamic scriptures are divinely revealed to believe that this actually happened, but to believe that such a creature existed does not, as you claim, require that we throw out everything we know about zoology and evolution for the same reason that believing Jesus was able to miraculously heal the blind does not require that we throw out everything we know about medicine.