Friday, February 16, 2007

De Chardin on Islam

I came across the following quote while reading Christianity and Evolution, by the esteemed Jesuit Pierre Teilhard De Chardin (1881-1955). The religious response to Darwinism is something to examine. I've read other Catholic responses to the notion of evolution and the origin of life, and I cannot help but find them lacking in method and conclusion. They are not much better than the contemporary feebleness of proponents of “intelligent design” and their often conflicted ramblings. But today’s entry is about a note that Pierre included in his text. In a section entitled “Religion Put to the Test” he leaves the following words on the bottom of the page: “Islam, in spite of the number of its adherents and its continued progress (in the less evolved strata of mankind, we may note) is not examined here, because to my mind (at least in its original form) it contributes no special solution to the modern religious problem. It seems to me to represent residual Judaism, with no individual character of its own: and it can develop only by becoming either humanist or Christian.” To include something so blatantly obtuse is one thing, but to admit to the existence of "strata" among humankind (a species of sorts) in a book that attempts to debunk evolution is eye-rubbingly hypocritical. The need to explain Islam has been an obsession with many in Christendom, and to flippantly reduce Islam to a "residual" of anything is as small-minded as one can get. The reasons are obvious and can wait for another post. I mention this now for those who wonder about the roots and cultural ether that provoked Pope Benedict’s choice of "readings" last year.

10 Comments:

Blogger mohammed said...

Salaam 'Alaykum Ibrahim,

You said in the course of your post: They are not much better than the contemporary feebleness of proponents of “intelligent design” and their often conflicted ramblings.

I was wondering what about ID makes you feel this way. Very often I feel like ID is misrepresented and unduly dismissed. The central theses of ID as I understand it, seems to be the following: Design exists in biological systems (this seems to be agreed upon, though darwinists would say it is illusory). The best inference for a design of irreducible complexity are the actions of an intelligent agent. This to me seems compatible with verses of the Qur'an that ask man to observe the exquisite order in nature.

A common example used to explain this reasoning is discovering written language on a wall. One wouldn't explain the existence of such writing using chemical and physical laws that describe in detail the ink, its properties and also its trajectory up until it reached the wall. The writing on the wall can't be reduced to the ink of which it is made, and to ignore the "design" of the ink, would be to miss the point. To speak in islamic terms, it is to deny the ayaat. It makes much more sense to infer the actions of an intelligent agent in this case, as we do whenever we see language written on a wall.

I think ultimately there is a metaphysical principle that has long been discarded, and that is that "Only intelligence can beget intelligence, only life can beget life, only language can beget language." That's why traditionally speaking, all of these things are associated with Heaven not with Earth.

Sorry for the long post, however, I only post because admire much of your writing here. (I particularly enjoyed the "Postmodern Gardener"). Insha'Allah you are well.

2/16/2007 10:03 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

My reaction to ID is really a reaction to ID proponents. They are often crusading in their tone and tend to have "scientific" arguments that are informed by spiritual insecurity and disconnected religious paradigms. I know that statement needs explanation. But the short of it is: to discuss or debate the evolutionary explanation of the origins of life and to attempt to debunk it requires credible scholarship in the sciences and the raising of the issue to the level of epistemology. What are the limits of scientific knowledge and method? Can science be applied to something like “origins,” which seems to be a metaphysical question? Then what are the sources knowledge? Is empirically derived knowledge the only source acceptable? What about revelation? What about intuition? And so on. And if empirically derived knowledge is considered the only source of knowledge, then provide a rational scientific explanation as to why that's the case, and it needs to be air tight.

Your statement: "I think ultimately there is a metaphysical principle that has long been discarded, and that is that ‘Only intelligence can beget intelligence, only life can beget life, only language can beget language.’ That's why traditionally speaking, all of these things are associated with Heaven not with Earth" is actually quite good. I like it a lot.

Well, thanks for your comment and your remarks about the blog. JZK.

2/16/2007 10:23 PM  
Anonymous Kareem said...

Dear Mr. Abusharif,

Salam alaykum. It is unfortunate that the argument called intelligent design is mostly misrepresented in the media. It is actually quite interesting from a purely empirical and scientific perspective. Putting biology aside, let us pose this question to ourselves: if we look at anything, any system or arrangement of things, can we tell if it occurred randomly or not? Obviously, this is the same as asking: can we know if it was designed by an intelligence or not?

This same question was asked decades ago in the context of communication theory with regard to the transmission of data. The question was how to differentiate between noise caused by electric interference and the data that was intended to be transmitted. Is there a way to "check" the data and remove the randomly generated noise? As you can see, the question has very practical implications and in fact many mathematical models (see Shannon Information Theory) are used to do just this everyday, rather, every nanosecond. It is a matter of quantifying information and determining mathematical criteria for randomness versus non-randomness. So if rigorous mathematical models can be and are used to determine if electronic bits are arranged randomly or by design, why cannot the same mathematical theory be applied to biological arrangements and systems, DNA included? This is what certain scientists and mathmatecians such as W. Dembski did and found that the arrangement of biological information simply cannot be attributed to random events, no matter how many occur and no matter how long the time span.

What is important to note is that intelligent design is not a baseless theory conceived by fundamentalist Christians parading as pseudo-scientists. Even the layperson who has no background in mathematics or advanced probability should at least see that it ought to be possible to determine if a particular system occured randomly or not and to do this with the rigour of mathematics. The problem is that the protagonists of Darwinism do not allow for any other theory or perspective to be given the legitamacy that would allow for more research and debate amonst scientists (since one might lose their job or at least their funding).

For further reading (and a much better explanation than the one I have offered), please see:

1) Michael Behe, Darwin’s Black Box

2) Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis

3) W.A. Dembski, The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities

For a more interesting view of the subject from a renowned pysicist and author on traditional philosophy, see the relevant chapters in Wolfgang Smith's The Wisdom of Ancient Cosmology. The title might be misleading for some but in any case the essays in this book on Information Theory/Intelligent Design are excellent.

Wassalam,
Kareem

2/20/2007 10:04 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Salams, Kareem. You're right, there's a lot more to Intelligent Design than what we hear from its popular supporters, those who have basically high jacked it for political purposes, to the point that America's political leadership is applying it for the benefit of their base. The points you bring about communication theory are new to me, and I'm glad to have at heard of them. It's something to pursue further. I'm very interested in the sciences as they pertain to such questions as cosmology and origins. I have an undergraduate degree in Zoology and have seen Darwinism thoroughly weaved through out the natural sciences, such that it's not a separate theory but an assumption.

Well you offer a lot to think about, and I appreciate the sources you recommend. Got some reading to do. But one thing that nags me is the use of scientific arguments to refute the conclusions of Darwinism, while its conclusions are not really scientific, but more metaphysical or its antithesis. To apply science to disprove Darwinism is to honor the subtle underlying (but highly questionable foundation) of Darwinism itself, namely that science has the puissance to debunk metaphysical paradigms or has a conclusive say otherwise. The idea that science may “prove” the highest of religious tenets doesn’t seem right. If that were the case, instead of rites of worship (the experiential proofs), then we all be obliged to become scientists. Science does offer a great deal to the welfare of humanity and our awareness of our surroundings and deep profound insights into the “signs” of God in nature and in our own selves. But it is not an arbiter of high truths, especially as they pertain to the Unseen, which, again, science is completely averse to, not only in methodology but the possibility thereof.

Thanks for your note. I enjoy conversations like this.

2/20/2007 3:42 PM  
Blogger mohammed said...

"But one thing that nags me is the use of scientific arguments to refute the conclusions of Darwinism, while its conclusions are not really scientific, but more metaphysical or its antithesis."

The approach of several ID proponents has been to show the paucity, and also the conflicting nature of much of the alleged evidence for the evolutionary narrative. The usefulness of this approach, I think, is to challenge the pervasive assumption that evolutionary theory is factual, and self-evident. Once that is established I think people are more inclined to look at the philosophical assumptions at play that guide the theory and also the views of many of its most outspoken proponents.

Perhaps first we have to breakdown the epistemological monopoly of empricism and positivism, before we can consider more generally the limitations of reason, particularly inference, and finally move on to consider other means of acquiring knowledge.

2/21/2007 12:55 AM  
Blogger mohammed said...

ID theorists do argue that evolution is not falsifiable, and this perhaps addresses your concern best. The work of Stephen Meyer, a philosopher of science, and also David Berlinski, is very helpful in this area.

2/21/2007 12:59 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

Well said, Mohammed. Good points and original. My eyes are open. But I still do believe that to resoundly object to the role of science as an arbiter in metaphysical realms and religious tenets is important but not addressed by ID. Reduced to parts, ID does have its place, as you suggest. Thank you.

2/21/2007 6:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But the short of it is: to discuss or debate the evolutionary explanation of the origins of life and to attempt to debunk it requires credible scholarship in the sciences and the raising of the issue to the level of epistemology. What are the limits of scientific knowledge and method? Can science be applied to something like “origins,” which seems to be a metaphysical question? Then what are the sources knowledge? Is empirically derived knowledge the only source acceptable? What about revelation? What about intuition? And so on. And if empirically derived knowledge is considered the only source of knowledge, then provide a rational scientific explanation as to why that's the case, and it needs to be air tight."

Salaam,

Could you suggest any books that deal with some of the epistemic issues you mentioned above? Thank you.

8/14/2007 6:07 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

One comes to mind now, a book that the late Fazlur Rahman (of the University of Chicago) once recommended: "From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again" by Etienne Gilson (translated by John Lyon, published by Notre Dame Press).

8/14/2007 9:56 AM  
Blogger Ozair said...

Salaam,

Thank you very much! Any other recommendations would, of course, be greatly appreciated.

8/14/2007 5:45 PM  

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