Home News Discussing Scientific Facts and Richard Dawkins in Sydney

Discussing Scientific Facts and Richard Dawkins in Sydney


By Hamza Andreas Tzortzis

Australia Trip Update:

In this update I will summarise the answers to some of the questions that were raised at the “Islam and the Secular Mind” event in Sydney.

On Wednesday I participated in the “Islam and the Secular Mind” event hosted by a coalition of Muslim Student Associations. The event was quite unconventional because I did not deliver a presentation or a lecture. Rather, the format of the event was to respond to questions posed by the presenter and the audience. Some questions were based on general themes and other questions were based on video clips taken from my debate with Professor Peter Simons and my interview with Richard Dawkins.

Before I provide some of the answers to the questions raised, I just want to add that I was so pleased to have seen so many students attend the event. Their enthusiasm, questions and seriousness were indicative of the correct mind-set and psyche required to articulate a compassionate and intelligent case for Islam to the wider community. I was humbled to see how so many students have been influenced and affected by our work. All praises are due to Allah.

Below are my answers to two of the questions raised during the event. I have shared this with you as I believe you will find the questions, and the answers, interesting. To find out about the other questions and answers you’ll have to wait for the video.

Question: “You make a distinction in your writing of the use of the word ‘fact’ in the discourse of science. Could you please expand on that point?”

The key distinction I make concerning the concept of a fact in science is that it is not a truth that is written in stone. We cannot claim 100% certainty or that it is a truth that will never change. Do not misunderstand me here, there are some facts that probably will never change, like the electromagnetic force and gravity. However, the term fact gets thrown around quite loosely in popular discourse and we assume that it means an unchanging and undeniable reality. In other words we assume a scientific fact is 100% certain. This is simply false. A fact in scientific discourse is the best explanation we have that comprehensively explains the observations we have made.  This doesn’t make it 100% conclusive. Why is this the case? Simply put, there are two areas in the philosophy of science that, when understood, will explain this assertion.

The first area is induction.

Induction is a thinking process where one makes conclusions by moving from the particular to the general. It takes a limited set of observations and concludes for the next observation or entire set of observations. Arguments based on induction can range in probability from very low to very high, but always less than 100%. Here is an example of induction:

‘I have observed that punching a boxing bag properly with protective gloves never causes injury. Therefore no one will be injured using a boxing bag.’

As can be seen from the example above induction faces a key problem. This problem is the inability to guarantee the conclusion, because a sweeping generalisation cannot be made from a limited number of observations. The best it can provide are probabilities, ranging from low to very high. In the aforementioned example the person who made the statement could not logically prove that the next person to punch a boxing bag will not get injured. Therefore, the problem with induction is that it can’t produce certainty.

This issue was raised by the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume in his book, ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’. Hume argued that inductive reasoning will never produce certainty. He concluded that moving from a limited set of observed phenomena to making conclusions for an unlimited set of observed phenomena is beyond the present testimony of the senses, and the records of our memory. Take the following in to consideration:

A scientist travels to Wales and wants to find out the colour of sheep (assuming he does not know the colour of sheep), and he starts observing the sheep and records what colour they are. After 2000 observations of sheep, he finds that all of them are white. The scientist using the data he has observed concludes that all sheep are white. This basic example highlights the problematic nature with the process of induction. We know sheep can also be black. Certainty using induction will never be achieved.

The key point that summarises the problem of induction is that there will always be the possibility of future observations negating what we consider to be certain or a fact, because we based these on limited observations.

The second area to discuss is empiricism.

Empiricism is a theory of knowledge that claims that we have no source of knowledge in a subject or for the concepts we use in a subject other than sense experience.

The main problem with empiricism is that it can only base its conclusions on direct or indirect observations and cannot make conclusions on unobserved realities.  There is always the possibility of not observing phenomena due to not having access to other levels of perception. Let me explain this point using the history of science. Prior to the 15th century we did not have access to the level of perception we have now because we did not discover the microscope. Therefore, our understanding of the world based was not 100% true even though we had observations to justify our conclusions. Things changed when we discovered the microscope because we could not experience what was once unobserved. We had a new level of perception that helped us form new scientific conclusions that contradicted previous ones. In this light, it is not possible to claim that something is an absolute fact or 100% true just based on empiricism. We may not have the access to other levels of perception and we cannot experience what is unobserved that maybe observable in the future.

The key point to understand is that we can never claim certainty using empiricism because we have not observed all the possible observations for a particular phenomenon, and we may be unable to observe what is currently unobserved at the present time. In one of the previous trip updates, I explained how to speak about science and revelation, and what to do if they seem to contradict each other.

Question: “In your discussion with Richard Dawkins it seemed that the Professor denied that God is the best explanation for the apparent design in the universe. He argued for the multiverse theory and that postulated that God cannot explain the design in the universe, because He must be more complex that the universe. You cannot explain complexity with even more complexity. For an explanation to be sound it has to be simple yet comprehensive enough to explain the data.  According to Dawkins The God explanation fails.”

I can split this question in two parts. Firstly, I need to address the multiverse theory being an adequate explanation for the apparent design in the universe. Secondly, I need to respond to Dawkins’ contention that God is complex, therefore not the best explanation for design in the universe.

Let’s start with the multiverse. Essentially what Dawkins was referring to was that according to the multiverse theory there are an infinite (or many) number of universes with different laws and physical constants. This theory explains that the universe we live in happens to be one of a sub-set of universes that are conducive to the appearance of complexity and life. If this theory were true, the design in the universe would not be improbable or surprising. If you have enough universes there will eventually be a universe fit for complexity and life. In summary, the multiverse theory explains away any improbability of having a universe with the right set of laws and physical constants to permit life.

There are a few variations to the multiverse theory, however I will address the most popular version. The most popular version of the theory – as advocated by Andrei Linde, Alexander Vilenkin and Martin Rees – is that the many universes are generated by some physical process or law.  There are a few of problems with this theory. Firstly, it is not scientific. There is currently not empirical support for the multiverse theory. Luke A. Barnes a postdoctoral researcher at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy explains this point well,

“The history of science has repeatedly taught us that experimental testing is not an optional extra. The hypothesis that a multiverse actually exists will always be untestable. The most optimistic scenario is where a physical theory, which has been well-tested in our universe, predicts a universe-generating mechanism. Even then, there would still be questions beyond the reach of observation, such as whether the necessary initial conditions for the generator hold in the metaspace…Moreover, the process by which a new universe is spawned almost certainly cannot be observed.” [http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1112/1112.4647v1.pdf]

Secondly, it takes more faith to believe in some physical process producing universes than God! The philosopher of science Professor Swinburne asserts, “It is crazy to postulate a trillion (causally connected) universes to explain the features of one universe when postulating one entity (God) will do the job.” [Cited in There is a God. HarperOne. 2007, p.119.]

Thirdly, where did this physical process or law come from?  The laws do not explain themselves, they need an explanation as there is nothing necessary about these set of laws. They could have been different, therefore, why are they the way that they are?

Fourthly, the physical process itself would need to be well designed to produce a single life-sustaining universe. So the multiverse theory explains design with something that is also designed, which in turn also requires an explanation. In summary, the multiverse theory doesn’t explain anything. It seems to be a convenient replacement for God.

Now let me turn my attention to the “God must be more complex” contention.  The false assumption behind Dawkins’ objection is that God must be physically complex. In other words He is made of complex physical parts. This is a misrepresentation of Islamic theology as God in Islam is uniquely One, and He is distinct from the material universe. Therefore, describing God as physically complex is untenable. Professor Anthony Flew also disagrees with Dawkins, “This strikes me as a bizarre thing to say about the concept of an omnipotent and omniscient Spirit, an idea so simple that it is understood by all the adherents of the three great monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?” [There is a God. HarperOne. 2007, p.111.]

Dawkins obviously dismissed this point because he argues that if God can answer prayers and forgive sins He must be complex. This brings to light Dawkins’ second false assumption. Dawkins’ incorrectly assumes that something that has complex ability must be physical complex. Think about the concept of a conscious mind. It can do complex things but it is very simple. A good analogy to highlight the problem with this assumption is the example of a razor and an electric shaver. The electric shaver is a complex piece of machinery and the razor is a simple blade. If Dawkins’ assumption were correct you would expect the complex electric shaver to have far more abilities than the razor. However the opposite is true. The razor, although simple, can do what the electric shaver can do: trim, cut and shave hair.

In light of the above, God remains the best explanation for the design in the universe.

“The Mirage of Atheism” course has now reached full capacity.  This shows that Muslim students have a keen interest in explaining Islamic theism to others, and it highlights the need to provide answers to contemporary intellectual challenges that students face on campus. Tomorrow I will meet some students to work on some filming and the manual that I spoke to you about in the last post, insha’Allah.