Physician and human rights activist Kashif N. Chaudhry seems to have an awfully high opinion of his rhetorical skills. Indeed, Chaudry makes no less lofty a claim than to have demonstrated that “no conflict exists between science and faith”. Not content to rest in the shadows of this inimitable accomplishment, Chaudhry has decided to tackle the question of ultimate causation, insisting that atheists – rather than religionists – make the bolder of claims by suggesting that the universe simply sprang into existence, unfurling randomly out of cosmic nothingness.
Chaudhry is confident that science is on his side, but his argument in this regard is perplexing at best. After a careful reading of Chaudry’s argument, the thoughtful reader is left with two options for understanding his approach: either he does not understand the process of scientific discovery – the ways in which evidence is wielded to corroborate of falsify claims – , or he is being deliberately disingenuous, using a caricature of scientific practice to convince the credulous that faith, as oxymoronic as it might seem, bests reason when it comes to the problem of cosmic origins.
Chaudhry begins his bizarre attack on atheism by posing a question about causation. He asks his readers to picture a random chocolate bar and explain its origins. To simplify (or confuse – I’m still not sure which) the matter, he gives three options for potential explanations for the chocolate bar’s existence:
- Through the help of an external force or agency. Isn’t that common sense?
- Magically appeared out of “nothing”. Ever watch Disney cartoons?
- It could either have come into existence through an external force or have appeared “out of thin air”. We can never be wholly sure since we did not witness the exact moment when the bar came into existence.
His approach here is curious, but not altogether unprecedented. Axiomatically speaking, the clear answer is option three. This, however, flies in the face of all measures of practically and, indeed, scientific practice. The central thrust of his argument is that causation is a central component of all satisfactory explanations. This is “common sense”, insidiously deployed. No one is going to seriously argue that the chocolate bar did not have a maker, because that type of thinking is at the core of how we perceive the causal relationships between human artifacts and human agency. Chaudhry is attempting to guide the incredulous into a corner they can’t escape from without proclaiming something he can twist into acquiescence to faith.
What Chaudhry is missing, through deliberate obfuscation or excusable ignorance, is that science and common sense are not synonymous. Science, in fact, is a method for navigating around the traps common sense sets for us when thinking about complex phenomena. Causation certainly appears to be at the heart of everything, but – scientifically or axiomatically speaking – it’s difficult to get beyond the word appears. This is an insight that dates back to David Hume, who argued that causal relationships can be inferred, but never directly observed or – in colloquial scientific parlance – “proven”. Hume’s recognition is at the root of the so-called problem of induction, a problem with which both practicing scientists and philosophers of science have been grappling ever since.
To be fair, this is a point that is rarely made explicit outside the cloistered circles of scientifically oriented philosophers. But it is a recognition critical to understanding the rigorous practices that drive the process of scientific discovery. This is precisely where the sometimes tortured language of “failing to reject the null” comes from when testing hypotheses. The fact of the matter is that scientific certitude remains the strict province of falsification. Outside of that, science is a search for confidence, not proof – particularly as the word “proof” is colloquially understood.
What Chaudhry is getting at with his chocolate bar example (though I’m not sure he knows it) is a probabilistic understanding of evidence. And, in the case of the mysterious chocolate bar, this is not unreasonable. Chocolate bars did not exist before humans invented them. Every chocolate bar anyone has ever eaten has been a product of deliberate human action. It therefore makes good sense to think the mysterious chocolate bar is like all other chocolate bars, rather than a novel phenomenon deserving of novel explanation.
That Chaudhry’s understanding of proof is at best colloquial is amply illustrated when he springs his trap by replacing “chocolate bar” with “the Universe”, arguing that the Big Bang – the point at which the universe began what appears to be its perpetual expansion from an infinitely hot, dense point – must have some external cause. This may be true. It may also be true that causation is illusory, a product of humanity’s peculiar evolved psychology and insufficient knowledge concerning the inner workings of reality. But to insist that, because causation is a fundamental component of other scientific explanations, it must underwrite an understanding or, more pragmatically, acceptance of the Big Bang sets up a philosophical straw-man.
Chaudhry wants to get around the obvious problem of infinite causal regression by invoking a positively mystifying tactic, one that fundamentally undermines his entire position. Cause and effect relationships, he argues, are a product of the physical laws that characterize the post-Big Bang universe. Prior to the Big Bang, the notions of space and time in which we anchor our notions of causation become incoherent. Fair enough. Why then does he think it reasonable to insist that the Universe must have an ultimate cause and that to think otherwise is nonsensical? Having spent most of his essay arguing that the Universe must have an ultimate cause in the currently unknowable conditions preceding the Big Bang, he upends his defense of Islamic creationism by pointing out that causation, prior to the Big Bang, might very well be a completely erroneous concept.
Close inspection of Chaudhry’s argument reveals a clear discontinuity between the phenomena behind the presence of chocolate bars and the Big Bang. Theoretical speculation concerning the possibility of multiple (possibly infinite) universes aside, it is clear – from an empirical standpoint – that the Big Bang is a singular event. Consider another example for purposes of illustration. All life forms with which humans are familiar are the product of evolutionary processes, well-explained by neo-Darwinian theory. It therefore makes sense for a researcher, upon discovering a previously unknown organism, to feel very confident in believing that it is a product of those same processes, explicable in the same ways.
This is not the case with something like the Big Bang. Cosomologists do not have a plethora of big bangs to study, nor do they have solid information concerning what – if anything – preceded the Big Bang for which they do have empirical evidence. It is not even clear that what preceded the Big Bang is explicable using the tools of modern physics. As Chaudhry illustrates, our common sense understandings of causation might not even apply.
The fundamental point is that, scientifically speaking, when it comes to the conditions that preceded the Big Bang, it’s presently impossible to move beyond speculation. Consequently, the best way to greet the question of ultimate causation – of prime movers or ex nihilo spontaneous generation – is with resolute agnosticism.
And this is precisely the position adopted by anyone whose atheism is grounded in reason. Atheists who come to a position of disbelief or substantiate their disbelief through a process of rational inquiry tend to avoid making overly confident claims concerning what existed prior to the Big Bang. As far as I am concerned, the only argument against the sort of amorphous, hands-off prime-mover endorsed by milquetoast deists the world over is one based in superfluity. That kind of god has no explanatory merit – the universe looks the same whether you posit its existence or not.
However, Chaudry wants to go beyond the kind of soft spiritualism at the heart of deism. Not only was the Big Bang the product of some external cause, but he knows what it is. How? Well, I guess he just believes really, really hard. Spoiler alert: this ultimate cause is not only a god, but the God depicted in the Koran. How fortuitous that Chaudhry happened to be born into a family and culture that stamped that belief on him from birth. Shame for the rest of us.
This, I think, is where we get to the atheistic assertions that really trouble Chaudhry and stimulated his ill-conceived journey into the weeds surrounding ultimate causation, prime movers, and ex nihilo creation. Atheists do make strong assertions concerning the existence of particular gods, because the increasing specificity of elaborate religious beliefs inevitably leads to claims that can be tested against empirical reality. An ardent religious apologist, Chaudhry insists that there is no conflict between science and religion. That atheists think otherwise is what really irks him. He supports this claim through a very selective and highly imaginative reading of the Koran.
Chaudhry himself offers a number of illustrative examples of this point in a previous blog, “How Science Brought Me Closer to God”.
Chaudhry argues that the Koran preempted Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton in describing planetary motion, quoting:
And He it is Who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon, each gliding along in its orbit (21:33).
To begin, Chaudhry is selecting the translation that most closely comports with a scientific perspective, hoping his readers will ignore the fact that there are several others. Each differs – some subtly, some substantively – in the array of interpretations they can be taken to support. But more importantly, the verse seems to be suggesting a geocentric perspective. What, after all, is the sun supposed to be orbiting? Accomodationists – to borrow a term coined by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne – might respond with a pedantic parry, crying “surely the Koran is referring the barycenter of the solar system”. Maybe (extreme emphasis on maybe), but that is a mighty long leap that can only really be justified with a liberal sprinkling of imagination.
It certainly does not look like the Koran is offering a perspective that can be harmonized with scientific knowledge. Nevertheless, those still unconvinced might benefit from a further example, again plucked directly from Chaudry’s own arguments. According to Chaudhry, the Koran references the Big Bang:
Do not the unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were a closed-up mass, then We clove them asunder? (21:30).
Fascinating. The Koran must not only be true, but a scientifically accurate account of creation! Alas, Chaudhry has again chosen his translation carefully. More worrisome, however, is that he appears to have cropped the verse in a manner that reeks of duplicity. The full verse reads:
Do not the Unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together (as one unit of creation), before we clove them asunder? We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe? (21:30)
If you squint just right, you might be able to find the Big Bang prefigured in that verse. But it also contains the marvelous insight that every living thing is made from water. Apparently we can scratch elements like carbon, nitrogen, calcium, and potassium off the list of elements that comprise human bodies. So speaks the Koran.
The point here is unsurprising. All religious texts make claims that, interpreted literally, bring them into conflict with a scientific understanding of reality. Just read Chaudhry’s full blog for further examples. (Note the magnanimity with which I am avoiding the clearly perfidious and misleading use Chaudhry makes of quotes from Stephen Hawking – a self-described atheist – to supported his religious claims).
Some religionists take a softer stance, arguing that religious texts like the Koran are populated with metaphors and similes – stuff that can’t be taken literally and meanings that can only be accessed through subjective interpretation. That is certainly true, but brings up the thorny question of how one goes about finding an interpretation in accord with the design of the Creator. I would humbly suggest that the design of the Creator is hard to differentiate from the vicissitudes of culture and individual psychology.
In any event, theists that adopt the religious-text-as-metaphor stance frequently advocate for a more amorphous perspective on deity. Chaudhry describes his god as follows:
“The concept of God as explained in Islam is that of a Spiritual Being, a conscious Creator who provides for man’s needs, expects man to serve His creation, and to whom we are all accountable in the end.”
That certainly seems better than the atheistic straw-man Chaudhry is anxious to wash his hands of. Yet it still places the concept of deity in direct conflict with a scientific understanding of reality. Evolution is not the work of “a conscious creator that provides for man’s needs”. Such teleological thinking is antithetical to an understanding of a fundamentally directionless process clearly guided by nothing more miraculous than contingency. Three billion years of evolutionary processes did not unfold for the purpose of building humans – we do not occupy such a privileged place at the pinnacle of creation. Humans are, in a very real sense, an evolutionary accident, and the processes that built us will continue to operate long after we have gone extinct.
Science and religious faith are irreconcilable. That does not mean they can’t sit precariously together in the same mind. It’s just a trick that takes either a willful avoidance of critical thought, a lot of intellectual gymnastics, or – in Chaudhry’s case – a willingness to bend the truth. Religion can only coexist with science so long as people like Chaudhry run around frantically plugging the leaks in the partitions that prevent scientific reason from permanently dissolving blinkered adherence to ancient superstitions.