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Sep 11 2012

In Which I’m Not Convinced to Follow Islam, Part 1

By way of a conversation on Twitter, I was introduced to a gentleman, Tariq, who proposes that The Quran is a miracle in itself which is “proven” by scientific evidence. Those who use logic and reason, he infers, have little choice but to accept these facts and to follow Islam.

Tariq was kind enough to send me a brief document explaining some of the details behind his reasoning. I’d like to spend some time here on my blog going through some of that document, and explaining my reactions to it. Block quotations below which are outlined in green indicate sections of Tariq’s document.

Allow me to preface this with the following: Tariq’s strategy doesn’t work the way it’s intended. Sure; it might convince some people who really don’t understand the scientific concepts he’s trying to use, but when examined in detail, it fails. This tactic has been attempted time and again by theologians of various flavors for many centuries. It doesn’t work because it isn’t based on reason. It isn’t logical. If it were, then Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman and many others certainly would have become followers of Islam (or whichever religion happened to be making the claim). The fact that theologians tout the logic and veracity of their religions and scientists do not, might be indicative of the failure of such tactics in the first place.

Is There A God?

The document starts off with a rather direct question:

Is There A God?

My own answer to this question is, as usual, “Probably not.” Tariq’s document takes us to the beginning of our own Universe to get his answer.

Well for this question we can go to the creation of the Universe. Science says the Universe was created by a Big Bang. This theory originates from the discovery that the Universe is expanding, and if it is expanding then if we go back in time far enough (about 13-14 billion years), then it must have been joined together, in one mass.

This isn’t really a very good explanation of currently understood cosmogony, but it isn’t as bad as some of the others I’ve seen.

Tariq’s use of the term “creation” to describe the origins of our Universe hints at his motive to find a “creator.” To say that our Universe was created by the Big Bang is simply wrong. The Big Bang wasn’t the cause of our Universe.

What is usually thought of as the Big Bang Theory is actually a description of the expansion and cooling of our Universe after the “bang” itself. The theory really doesn’t even describe the physics of the “explosion” that preceded that expansion. Alan Guth’s inflationary universe theory is a more apt model of that event.

Tariq goes on to present some information from the Qur’an:

The Qur’an says about the expansion of the Universe, ‘And the Heavens, We constructed with power and verily We are expanding it.’ (51:47 – Interpretation of the Meaning) (the word heavens in Arabic does not mean paradise). The Qur’an also says, ‘Have not those who disbelieved known that the heavens and the earth were one connected entity, then We separated them?…‘ (21:30 – Interpretation of the Meaning).

One phrase in particular stands out for me immediately: “Interpretation of the Meaning.” My first question is, “Who is doing the interpreting?” The first two English translations of Sura 51:47 that I found were these: ‘With power and skill Did We construct The Firmament: For it is We Who create The vastness of Space and ‘And We have built the heaven with Our own hands, and verily We have vast powers.’

One English translation I found (Sahih International) does use the term “expander.” Here it is in context with the preceding and two following suras:

51-46 And [We destroyed] the people of Noah before; indeed, they were a people defiantly disobedient.
51-47 And the heaven We constructed with strength, and indeed, We are [its] expander.
51-48 And the earth We have spread out, and excellent is the preparer.
51-49 And of all things We created two mates; perhaps you will remember.

For some reason, I just don’t see that as a reference to the expansion of our Universe. Perhaps Tariq wanted to see such a reference in the first place, and that’s the only reason he seems to see it. This is sometimes called confirmation bias.

The phrase “the earth We have spread out” certainly isn’t a very accurate description of our planet’s coalescence from our sun’s accretion disk. Sura 51-49 seems to indicate that their god didn’t create things like liverwort that reproduce asexually. I guess I just don’t think the Qur’an is all that scientific.

I thought it odd that the second Sura referenced by Tariq was not presented in its entirety. The full text reads, ‘Have those who disbelieved not considered that the heavens and the earth were a joined entity, and We separated them and made from water every living thing? Then will they not believe?‘ Now it makes more sense that Tariq left it unfinished. It wouldn’t be prudent to try to bolster the scientific validity of the literal content of your holy text by including a statement that your god created every living thing from water. Again; it doesn’t seem terribly scientific to me.

Tariq continues with this impressive statement:

So the Big Bang Theory does not disprove Islam or the existence of God.

FACEPALM - Because expressing how dumb that was in words just doesn't work.

What the fuck is that even supposed to mean? The Big Bang Theory has nothing at all to say about Islam, and nothing at all to say about the existence of a deity. That statement might as well have said, “The Theory of Gravity does not disprove The Lord of the Rings or the existence of Orcs.” The Big Bang Theory is a name used for the cosmological model that currently best explains the evidence we have about the early development of our Universe. It does not disprove anything, nor is it meant to.

That particular statement tells me something about the author: They’re either ignorant about what scientific theories are, or they really do understand and they’re simply being dishonest.

Tariq continues:

However, this Big Bang, if we say that it occurred without a God – then where did this mass of energy come from to begin with? If it is infinite, then that means that time is infinite also and thus there has been an infinite series of past events. But that is impossible; for example, if you are a soldier, and to fire your gun you need permission from another soldier who needs permission from another and so on… If this goes on infinitely, you will never fire your gun. If there was an infinite series of past events, nothing would ever happen – there has to be a first event. For 11pm to occur, 10pm must occur, for that to occur, 9pm must occur. If this goes on forever, then how will anything ever occur? So with an infinite series of past events, the Universe never comes into existence.

Contrary to what most of us have learned about the beginnings of our Universe, modern cosmogony does not require that our Universe came from a singularity. This means that the infinite mass and infinite energy that most people think are prerequisites for the Big Bang, are not. This doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen that way, but it’s not required.

Ethan Siegel has written a wonderful series of posts about the history of our Universe. Near the end of the first of those posts, “The Greatest Story Ever Told — 01 — Before the Big Bang“, he makes the following remarks:

And all of this happened before the big bang ever took place. Was it for the first 10-35 seconds of the Universe? Possibly, but it’s also possible that the Universe existed for billions of years before inflation, or not at all. It’s also conceivable that time didn’t have the same meaning that it does now back then. Regardless of what happened, inflation prevents us from knowing right now; it wiped out any information about the Universe that existed before inflation! Siegel, Ethan R. “The Greatest Story Ever Told — 01 — Before the Big Bang.” Starts With A Bang. Science Blogs, 8 Jan. 2010. Web. 11 Sept. 2012. [http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2010/01/08/the-greatest-story-ever-told/].

The period of inflation that happened before the Big Bang wiped out information about its beginnings. We don’t know how long the Universe existed prior to that, or if it existed at all. Our ability to understand and collect the evidence relevant to the inflationary period is limited. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” when you really don’t know. The laws of physics are applied in very different ways at extremely high energy states like those which existed in the early stages of our Universe. The concept of time itself is almost without meaning at such a point, at least at our current stage of understanding.

So did it just come from nothing? Well, the Law of Conservation of Energy in Physics shows that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only morphed from one form to another. So in our Universe, by our laws of physics, energy cannot be created, and logic states that something cannot come from nothing. So, if it was not eternal, and it did not begin to exist by itself, then something must have created it. If that which created this energy was itself created, then we would have the same problem of an infinite series of past events, with an infinite series of creators. So that which created this energy must be uncreated and eternal.

Most people have a very limited understanding of nothing. Empty space isn’t completely empty. A quantum fluctuation is the temporary appearance of energetic particles out of empty space. Conservation of energy can appear to be violated, but only for very brief periods of time.

The assertion that there must be a creator simply isn’t true. The evidence we have does not rule out the existence of a creator, but it does not require one, either. Such claims of the necessity of a deity for the existence of our Universe simply aren’t supported by the science.

If That Doesn’t Work, Try The Fine-Tuning Argument

Tariq later goes on to use the Fine-Tuning Argument:

Also, according to the Big Bang Theory, the chances of the Big Bang occurring the way it did, so perfectly and fine-tuned so that the Universe would occur in a way that would allow life, are 1/10^10^123 according to Sir Robert Penrose, British Mathematical Physicist at Oxford University, and friend of Stephen Hawking. To put that probability in perspective, 1/10^50 in mathematics is considered ‘zero probability’, and there are an estimated 10^78 atoms in the universe. That means there are more 0’s on the end of the denominator of this fraction than there are atoms in the Universe! So in fact it is more likely for you to win the lottery every single week of your entire life, than for the Universe to have come into existence by pure chance. The only logical explanation is that it was created by an Intelligent Creator, with an intended purpose.

Incorrect.

The figure quoted (1:1010123) comes from Roger (not Robert) Penrose’s “The Emperor’s New Mind“. This number does not have anything to do with whether or not our Universe is conducive to the existence of life. What it represents is Penrose’s calculation regarding the probability that all of our Universe’s constants (the speed of light, the Planck constant, the electric constant, etc.) would be the specific values which we observe.

This does not mean those values are the only ones which permit a Universe which could give rise to intelligent life. What it more accurately represents is our Universe’s position among the group of all possible Universes. Given that we (as yet) have no way of knowing the probability densities involved in the existence of other Universes, it is meaningless for us to make assumptions based on them.

It is quite likely that our Universe is not fine-tuned at all. In “Is The Universe Fine-Tuned For Us?” by Victor J. Stenger, University of Colorado, the author points out that variations in many of the physical constants we know of would not render our Universe incapable of supporting intelligent life.

I do not dispute that life as we know it would not exist if any one of several of the constants of physics were just slightly different. Additionally, I cannot prove that some other form of life is feasible with a different set of constants. But anyone who insists that our form of life is the only one conceivable is making a claim based on no evidence and no theory. Stenger, Victor J. “Is The Universe Fine-Tuned For Us?” University of Colorado, n.d. Web. 11 Sept. 2012. [http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/vstenger/Cosmo/FineTune.pdf].

Why does our Universe support life? If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be here to wonder about it. If there are multiple Universes in existence, it’s quite probable that a great number of them do not support life of any kind. Other than tiny pockets, our own Universe is extremely hostile to life as we know it. If it were truly fine-tuned for intelligent life, shouldn’t that life be flourishing everywhere we look? Until we have evidence to point us in the proper direction, such speculation is futile for anything other than providing fodder for science fiction novels.

Tariq continues:

Similar to the above point, why would we even think that the Universe would explode and create such an intricate and complicated design? Every species has a male and female in order to reproduce – why? We have the perfect conditions for us to live – why? Since when do explosions result in this kind of perfect order? If you were walking in the desert and found a mobile phone, you would not say that the sand and oil and materials here must have combusted over and over and eventually formed themselves into a mobile phone – it is completely illogical. You would assume the phone has a creator. The same way the Universe is so fine-tuned, that it is impossible for it to have been created by chance.

A shorter version of this paragraph could be, “This is too complicated for me to want to take the time to understand, therefore it’s not possible unless god did it.” Complexity does not imply design. A pile of tangled driftwood on a beach is a rather complex structure. Was it designed? No.

Tariq asks, “Every species has a male and female in order to reproduce – why?” As I mentioned above, not every species requires a male and female in order to reproduce. Asexual reproduction is a rather well-understood biological process.

Tariq asks, “We have the perfect conditions for us to live – why?” Why would anyone assume that we have “perfect conditions” in which to live? The overwhelming majority of the points on the surface of our planet are not naturally habitable for humans. Our planet, whose axis is tilted over twenty-three degrees from vertical, varies in distance from its star by over 3.1 million miles during its orbit. The bulk of our Universe is composed of environments that would almost instantly kill us. How does one conclude that these things add up to “perfect conditions?”

This is often called the teleological or design argument. The fine-tuning argument used above is simply another version of the teleological argument. Variations of the teleological argument have been used for centuries (at least as far back as Plato, 2400 years ago). Many theologians haven’t learned anything new over the intervening years, it seems.

Tariq says, “The same way the Universe is so fine-tuned, that it is impossible for it to have been created by chance.” Tariq seems to have a propensity for the word ‘impossible.’

You keep using that word...

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Therefore, God

Tariq completes the first section of his document with this:

If the Universe has a Creator, as I said earlier this Creator must be uncreated, or we would have an infinite series of creators. The Creator must be Intelligent, as to have created this Universe in such a perfect manner, would otherwise be impossible. The Creator must have a will, as They intended to create the Universe in such a manner. This Creator must be self-sustaining and independent of all needs since the Creator existed before the Universe, and before all Creation. This Creator must have the power to create the Universe. As this Creator created the Universe and the Laws of Physics that it lives by, this Creator is not bound by those same laws. So, the Universe has to have a beginning and a cause, by the Laws of Physics, but the Creator does not need a beginning nor a cause, as He is the Creator of those laws.

All these attributes and others put together in a single being, we call this being God, or ‘Allah’ as we call God in Islam.

I should make the first word of that quote show up in 200 point type, because that’s a mighty big “if.” In Tariq’s view, having an infinite series of creators is illogical and impossible, but having a complex, intelligent, powerful uncreated creator is logical? Again, Tariq uses the word ‘perfect’ to describe our Universe. Perhaps that’s another word meaning he’s not quite clear on.

Our Universe, Tariq states, has to have a beginning and a cause. Tariq’s “creator” is conveniently not bound by the laws of our Universe, and thus does not require these things.

To the list of things I have encountered in my lifetime which I would call illogical, I must now add Tariq’s ideas regarding our Universe’s necessity for a creator god.

What’s Next?

Tariq’s document continues. Having thoroughly explained the absolute necessity for a creator god (and all other options being impossible), Tariq intends to convince me that Islam is the only logical choice for a religion. Tune in later for my next post to find out if I’ve accepted that there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet!

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