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A Voyage into Stephen Hawking’s Godless Universe: With Javed Ghamidi, John Lennox, Alan Guth, Paul Davies, John Polkinghorne, Wolfgang Smith, David Albert, Stephen Mumford & other experts on-board (1)
Reflections
Dr. Junaid Hassan

 

 

‘Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.’ (Hawking and Mlodinow 2010, 180)

 

Self-pride – presupposing that all with a different viewpoint to ours are simpletons or wrong; ego-satisfaction – ridiculing stereotypes of an opposing school-of-thought; self-deception – blind faith or evading the evidence opposing our views; self-consolation – getting false reassurance by the like-minded; submission to in vogue views in the name of ‘enlightenment’; or know-it-all disposition after a superficial survey of our opponents’ views, unfortunately, are still ubiquitous attitudes of ‘seekers’ and ‘bearers of truth’ in the modern world. Theism and atheism discussion, even at the academic level, is no exception to this. Here, however, we shall go into this discussion differently. Stephen Hawking[1] – one of the finest physicists of our time and an epitome of fortitude – and Leonard Mlodinow[2] have argued for science-based atheism, as apparent from the above conclusion of their 2010 book ‘The Grand Design’ (TGD). TGD contains scientific as well as philosophical arguments. We shall try to understand these arguments like an inquisitive learner who, before agreeing or disagreeing, will critically analyse them in light of the views of other experts, reason, and evidence.

To represent the religious discourse, the Quran will be used because it is the only book, out of the texts believed to be revealed by God, whose historical authenticity is beyond doubt. It is transmitted through the most reliable mode of historical transmission: unanimous consent of and continuous mass-transmission by all generations of Muslims (Ghamidi 2012a, 18).

The conclusion of TGD quoted above raises several important questions with direct or indirect implications for theism/atheism debate. These questions may be summarised as follows:

1)    What is a law of nature?

2)    Do fixed laws leave any room for free will and miracles?

3)    Where do laws come from?

4)    How could the law of gravity necessitate a universe out of nothing?

5)    Is it time to celebrate/mourn the theistic God’s death?

For each of these questions, TGD’s answer will be presented first, followed by a critical commentary on it. Let us embark upon this challenging but fascinating journey now.

 

1) What is a law of nature? 

This question may seem irrelevant to our topic of discussion, but it has such profound implications for atheism/theism discussion that without an explicit answer thereof, this discussion will always remain prone to confusion and misunderstanding. 

TGD’s Position

Prevalent definition in science: TGD (27-28) says that most scientists today take a law of nature as a rule derived from an observed regularity. Based on this understanding, ‘the sun rises in the east,’ for example, is a candidate for a law because it is a rule derived from the regular rising of the sun in the east, witnessed for thousands of years without exception. Because a law consistently holds, it is expected to provide predictions; for example, we predict on the daily basis that, ceteris paribus, the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. TGD further qualifies the definition of laws as follows.

Definition of TGD: TGD (28-29) says that all observed regularities cannot be put into the category of laws. Seemingly, it says so in the wake of the problem of induction[3]. A law, it argues, is more than just a description of what is commonly observed to happen, for it is based on unavoidable or necessary regularity, such as ‘all uranium-235 spheres are less than a mile in diameter’. The statement is not based on induction, but on our nuclear physics knowledge that if a uranium-235 sphere approaches a diameter exceeding ~6 inches, it will inevitably explode with a nuclear explosion[4]. TGD accepts Newton’s laws of motion, although they need to be modified for objects moving at a speed approaching that of light because these laws consistently hold in our everyday world, where people, trains, or cars etc. do not move at the speed of light. As per TGD’s definition, therefore, a law must precisely or approximately hold universally or, at least, ‘under a stipulated set of conditions’. Finally, TGD reminds that a law generally exists as part of a system of interrelated laws and that in contemporary science, laws are generally expressed in the language of mathematics.

Governing Laws: At several places, TGD (32, 54, 58, 72, 87, 134, 171 & 181, for example) talks about natural laws governing the universe, which ‘is to say, its behavior can be modelled’ (i.e., mathematically expressed). To elucidate the point, let us consider, for instance, Boyle’s law, which can be simply put like this: Under constant temperature, the pressure an ideal gas exerts on the walls of its container decreases proportionally with increase in the volume of the container (expansion of the gas). Mathematically, Boyle’s law can be modelled as P = k/V, where P is the pressure of a gas, V volume, and k is a constant equal to the product of volume and pressure. Once we have established this law or mathematical model by reasoning and observation, we can say that a gas will obey or be governed by this law under the stated conditions.

Commentary

The term ‘laws of nature/science’ is misleading. The problem with this term is that it creates a misleading picture in one’s mind as if there are powerless passive particulars[5] in the universe, which are controlled and governed by laws external to them (See Mumford 2004, 204). The problem worsens when, for example, TGD (8-9) says that out of nothing ‘multiple universes arise naturally from physical law’ or the eminent physicist Paul Davies[6] says (as quoted by John Lennox[7] 2011, 41) regarding the origin of the universe and life that ‘for me it is much more inspiring to believe that a set of mathematical laws can be so clever as to bring all these things into being’. Such discourses seem to presume that laws existed when there was nothing, with powers to bring into existence everything. To make plain flaws of such presumptions, we need to consider an alternative view to that of laws, namely ‘lawlessness’.

No external laws, but inherent powers of particulars ‘governing’ their individual and collaborative behaviours/effects  

Rather than invoking the rule of (external) law, Stephen Mumford[8] in his book ‘Laws in Nature’ (2004) correctly traces regularities and necessities[9] in nature to tendencies, capacities, or causal powers in action, which particulars in the universe inherently possess.[10] To illustrate this view, let us turn to Boyle’s law again. It is an inherent power of gas molecules to diffuse away from each other, and it is an inherent power of a solid material, of which gas containers are typically made, to resist anything trying to diffuse through it. Thus, any gas molecules in a container will necessarily hit the walls of the container and, thereby, produce force per unit area, i.e., pressure. Suppose a container with gas having pressure = 5 newton per each square meter (m2), where the total area of the container = 20 m2. If we increase the volume of the container, its area will concurrently increase too. Suppose an increase in the volume, such that the internal area of the container increases from 20 to 40 m2. Now if everything else remains constant, the pressure of 5 newton per 1 m2 of total area = 20 m2 will necessarily reduce to 2.5 newton per 1 mof total area = 40 m2. This negative relationship between pressure and volume of gas is what Boyle’s law describes. To say, then, that Boyle’s law governs the behaviour of gas or gas obeys it can be grossly misleading. Boyle’s law, rather, is only a description of how gas is predisposed to behave due to its inherent powers. Hence, it would be erroneous to assume that Boyle’s law could exist prior to the existence of gas itself and even more erroneous to assume that it could, somehow, create gas.

Same is true for all other laws. The so-called laws of nature are nothing but descriptions of certain consistent behaviours, coactions, or phenomena that particulars in the universe are predisposed to produce due to their inherent tendencies, capacities, or causal powers. Since these powers are dispositions or properties, there is no question of them (what to speak of laws) without a prior existence of particulars (essentially, matter, energy and/or space). So, for a law to be there, there has to be three things first: 1) a particular with 2) consistent power(s), producing 3) a fixed behaviour or outcome (regularity); to describe this regularity, eventually, a law can be formulated. We shall further discuss and make use of these concepts later, but for now it is time to turn to the problem of free will and miracles.

 

2) Do fixed laws leave any room for free will and miracles?

Chapter 2 of TGD is devoted to the discussion whether fixed laws can be suspended through miracles and whether these laws leave any room for free will. We shall first discuss the problem of free will and then move on to miracles.

TGD’s Position

From Laws to Scientific Determinism

TGD (30-34 & 171) assumes scientific determinism[11]: Since science has discovered laws that hold without any exception, ‘there must be a complete set of laws’ that fully determines how the universe would behave in the future from any time onwards. This implies that there is no room for miracles – God’s intervention in the universe – and free will.

As for free will, our bodies and brains (with all their thoughts) are governed by biological processes. These processes, ultimately, are governed by fixed laws of chemistry and physics, compelling us to adhere to them. Therefore, ‘it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion’ (ibid., 32). As evidence against Descartes’ (1596–1650) idea of a volitional agency (mind or soul) within us which is not subjected to any physical law, TGD (ibid.) refers to modern experiments in neuroscience. In one such experiment, brain regions of patients going through awake brain-surgery were electrically stimulated. This produced ‘desire’ in them to move various parts of their bodies, including lips, and encouraged them to talk. Such experiments indicate that ‘it is our physical brain, following the known laws of science, that determines our (thoughts and) actions, and not some agency (having free will) that exists outside those laws’ (Parentheses mine). Furthermore, if there is anything like free will, TGD (31) asks its proponents to show where it developed in the evolutionary tree.

Quantum physics (due to its probabilistic nature) seems to weaken the idea that the universe is governed by laws with fixed outcomes, hence challenging scientific determinism. Regarding that, however, TGD (72) maintains that ‘it leads us to accept a new form of determinism: Given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various futures and pasts rather than determining the future and past with certainty’.

Commentary

No human being or society can function without a firm belief in free will.

If there is no free will, courts of law have no right to punish criminals, employers cannot hold their employees responsible for their actions, a student cannot be admonished for bad grades, Hitler cannot be blamed, and Martin Luther King, Jr. does not deserve any appreciation.

The Quran (75:14-15) proclaims that ‘man (upon doing something wrong) himself is a witness against his own soul, no matter how many lame-excuses he may invent’. This claim implies that we are well aware of what right/wrong is, and we very well know that we can make choices with so much freedom that we can be held responsible for them; there is a ‘judge’ within each of us, who appreciates us whenever we do good and testifies against us whenever we choose to be evil (Islahi 2009a, 75-84). However, religion as well as human societies do generally acknowledge that, sometimes, a person’s will is impeded by circumstances beyond her control, is not employed in her unintended actions, or produces results other than that intended. Hence, the Quran (24:33), for example, does not consider blameworthy (but sympathises with) the bondwomen who were forced to prostitution in the Arabian Peninsula. The Quran (5:89 & 33:5) also explicates that man will only be held answerable for his wilful actions, not unintentional mistakes. Similarly, our law-makers do not prescribe any punishment for crimes committed by, for instance, minors and mentally disabled persons. This is our collective wisdom regarding free will, which all of us employ with full confidence in our daily lives.

As soon as anyone tries to challenge this wisdom verbally, he necessarily creates a contradiction between his words and actions. Thus, on the one hand, he denies free will but, on the other, shows no hesitation whatsoever in blaming people for their misconduct. Hawking, of course, cannot be an exception to this; hence, the Guardian (2017) reports that ‘Stephen Hawking blames Tory politicians for damaging NHS’ (National Health Service, the UK). But if the free will of these politicians is just an illusion, how can they be blamed for the choices they have made? The same goes for all murderers, terrorists, rapists, child abusers, and other horrendous criminals. In real life, however, no sane person will be ready to accept the justification that it is not their fault, for just like robots all of them were forced to ‘dance to their DNA’s music’, as Dawkins[12] (1995, 155) puts it. Thus, scepticism regarding morality or free will has no place whatsoever in real life, but only in philosophical wanderings or narratives against religion (Ghamidi 2013).

Furthermore, the proposition that we have no control over our thoughts and behaviours tends to take away what we humans cherish the most: the will to take control of our evil temptations and bad habits to evolve ourselves into better individuals. But does this idea, after all, have sound arguments and scientific evidence at its back? Let us see.  

Naturalism and religion on evolution and free will

TGD (31) is justified in asking where free will developed in the evolutionary tree for, in a naturalistic/materialistic worldview, it seems rather difficult to argue for free will. That is because whether we are purely a physical-product of the so-called fixed laws of physics or probabilistic (lawless) events, neither case makes us free in our decision-making (Mumford and Anjum 2013, 45). For example, it does not matter if pumping of adrenalin is an outcome of strict laws or certain physical probabilistic-processes; once pumped, it may incline us to be violent. To overrule that inclination and act civilly, we need willpower. But if our willpower, again, is at the mercy of fixed laws or probabilistic behaviour of molecules that make us up, then one has to wonder whether there really is any room for free will! Such a view is called ‘reductive physicalism’ wherein ‘every mental property is identical with some physical property’ or activity in the brain (Plantinga 2011, 18). Francis Crick[13] (1995, 3) put it this way: ‘”You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve-cells and their associated molecules.’ Thus, as TGD has indicated regarding free will, all subjective perception in this view is an illusionary, inconsequential by-product of physical events in the brain (See Ward 2008, 142-145).

Compatible with naturalism, however, there is a view which supports free will. In this view, called ‘non-reductive physicalism’, ‘humans are purely physical beings, but thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are higher-level emergent properties of brains that have causal effects on the complex physical systems that are human beings’ (Ward 2008, 156). Quoting a proponent of this view, Warren Brown[14] (2004), Ward (156-157) further writes: ‘”Conscious decisions and will are real phenomena that are effective in exerting a top–down (or whole–part) causal influence on the neuro-physiological processes of the brain” (63). The patterns that emerge from complex physical systems have genuine causal powers. There are no new “entities” or physical forces involved, but there are new “levels of causal efficacy” (65).’ In this view, the higher-level properties of the brain (thoughts, perceptions, and feelings) emerge naturally, with the evolving complexity of the brain and synthesis of its physical processes.

Religion’s viewpoint, by contrast, is as follows (Quran 32:7-9, 37:11 & 91:7-8): Human creation was initiated from the constituents of sticky clay; thereafter, it went through various evolutionary stages until a to-be-human animal was accomplished, capable of reproduction. Like other animals, this animal was conscious (aware of its existence) and possessed instincts, emotions, will, and so on (Quran 32:8; Ghamidi, pers. comm). Into two such animals[15] (Adam/Eve), God blew His subtle breath[16], thereby, bestowing upon them capacities which distinguished them from other animals. These capacities include intellect, aesthetic sense, moral sense, and the willpower to choose between right and wrong  (Islahi 2009b, 161). This willpower (equipped with reason and aesthetic/moral awareness) is such that it makes humans responsible for their deeds and answerable to God for the choices they make. According to the Islamic tradition, the same divine breath is blown into every human foetus [i.e., animal-form (al-Bukhari 1997, no. 3208)], which transforms it into a totally new creation [i.e., a human being (Quran 23:14; Ghamidi, pers. comm)].[17]

According to religion, a human being, therefore, is a combination of a 1) physical body, 2) basic animal-like consciousness, and 3) mentally and spiritually-rich divinely-infused consciousness. We do not know what 2, as such, is[18] and how it is produced. Regarding 3, it is not explicated whether it is infused as a distinct, non-physical being/person, which overlays 2 and very much takes control of 1 & 2 (as in Cartesian dualism). In this worldly life, such a mind would be dependent upon the brain as much as, say, a driver is dependent upon the car he/she must drive. At the time of death (but not before that), the driver will be able to leave the car, taking away all the experiences and memories of the drive with him/her.

However, 3 might not be such a separate person, but only a part (although an integral one) necessarily requiring 1 & 2 to form a human person. If so, then 3 would basically be awareness/knowledge necessary to produce moral, aesthetic, and intellectual capacities in the to-be-human animal, already possessing 1 & 2. We cannot say with certainty if this knowledge exists in physical or spiritual form and how 1 & 2 relate to it. The ‘soul’, ‘spirit’, ‘self’, or the ‘real human being’ in this case is, practically speaking, the total continuous, conscious experience of spiritually and intellectually-rich human life in such an integrated form. This experience is basically information, which we know can be stored, transferred, expressed, and embodied in many ways. So, resurrection or life after death – an important tenet of religious worldview – does not pose a problem for this view. To facilitate further discussion, we can refer to this view as ‘divinely-integrated dualism’[19].

As for TGD’s question where free will developed in the evolutionary tree, its answer according to both these views will be that free will, at least as experienced by humans, is not a product of evolution or any other natural process. Considering the other products of evolution, i.e. animals[20], this answer seems plausible because the mental/spiritual difference between animals and humans is so huge that something additional and unique must take place to produce humans.

Rejection or acceptance of free will depends on one’s worldview, not science.

Dualism and divinely-integrated dualism are not in conflict with science per se. It is not science alone, but science done with or interpreted in light of naturalistic/materialistic worldview that, by definition, makes any immaterial reality unacceptable.

However, if dualism is true, science will have to deal with a non-physical, subjective, immeasurable decision-maker (mind) enclosed in our physical body. And if integrative or divinely-integrated dualism is true, science will have to deal with subjective spiritual/mental-experience (mind); for example, the experience of liking/disliking someone. But science can only deal with observable, objective, measurable, and testable phenomena. This implies that mind in both these senses can hardly be the topic of scientific inquiry, just like many other questions pertaining to, say, music, art, literature, or even the very philosophical assumptions on which the scientific method is based (Ward 2008, 142). This, however, does not imply that dualism is unnecessary or false, or that mind in the sense of integrated consciousness is an illusion.

Because it is inherently difficult for science-proper to deal with subjective mental-experience, psychology – starting as introspective psychology – turned out to be a futile exercise. It had to be replaced by behavioural psychology because behaviour can be publicly observed and somewhat tested. More recent fields, like cognitive psychology and neuroscience, correlate the behaviour as well as conscious experience (e.g., that of pain) to brain functionality. Here, rather than publicly inaccessible experience of pain itself, its corresponding observable and measurable brain activity becomes the primary subject of scientific inquiry (Ward 2008, 142-143 & 160).

Since scientists (because of the very nature of science) are predisposed to explain things in physical terms, physicalism naturally becomes the default position for most of them. However, neuroscience, biological psychology, evolutionary psychology, and related fields turn out to be intrinsically difficult and highly controversial when it comes to the problem of consciousness and free will.[21] Firstly, it is a daunting task to design an appropriate experiment to confirm or falsify hypotheses regarding these. Secondly, for some experiments, it becomes necessary to rely on subjective statements/reports of the subjects, which compromises objectivity. Thirdly, the experimental results are prone to many interpretations, depending upon the philosophical presumptions or perspective with which they are viewed (i.e., naturalism, physicalism, dualism, and so on). The evolutionary biologist Jeff Coyne, a Jewish-born atheist, thus writes:

‘The problem is that evolutionary psychology suffers from the scientific equivalent of megalomania. Most of its adherents are convinced that virtually every human action or feeling, including depression, homosexuality, religion, and consciousness, was put directly into our brains by natural selection. In this view, evolution becomes the key – the only key – that can unlock our humanity.

Unfortunately, evolutionary psychologists routinely confuse theory and speculation. Unlike bones, behavior does not fossilize, and understanding its evolution often involves concocting stories that sound plausible but are hard to test. Depression, for example, is seen as a trait favored by natural selection to enable us to solve our problems by withdrawing, reflecting, and hence enhancing our future reproduction. Plausible? Maybe. Scientifically testable? Absolutely not. If evolutionary biology is a soft science, then evolutionary psychology is its flabby underbelly.

But the public can be forgiven for thinking that evolutionary biology is equivalent to evolutionary psychology. Books by Daniel Dennett, E. O. Wilson, and Steven Pinker have sold briskly, and evolutionary psychology dominates the media coverage of research on evolution… In view of the scientific shakiness of much of the work, its popularity must rest partly on some desire for a comprehensive "scientific" explanation of human behavior. Evolutionary psychology satisfies the postideological hunger for a totalistic explanation of human life, for a theory of inevitability that will remove many of the ambiguities and the uncertainties of emotional and moral life.’

Next, we shall look into some typical science-based criticisms that can be levelled against divinely-integrated dualism and dualism, respectively. We shall also look at some new empirical findings that support these views and go against reductive physicalism.

Divinely-integrated dualism

Some philosophers and neuroscientists claim that nothing else is required to produce human consciousness except the nervous system. Divinely integrated dualism would agree because, in this view, our nervous system comes already equipped with the spiritual/intellectual element. This element is experienced, whereas its corresponding physical element can be observed in the functional nervous system. Here, one may claim that it is superfluous to believe that, to achieve a person with moral/intellectual element, God equips our physical being with some potential awareness/knowledge (by means of divine breath). If this claim were true, then human-like morality and reasoning should have been there or could have been taught to several animals, too. The non-existence of human-like consciousness in animals with seemingly equally sophisticated nervous systems points to the need of something additional to achieve a human being – something which is not an outcome of evolution that both humans and animals have gone through (See Ghamidi 2012b).  

More radically, reductive physicalists claim, like TGD, that our consciousness is nothing more than physical events in the brain and, thus, personal spiritual-experience (including that of free will) is just an illusion. No matter how confidently such assertions are made and how credible the asserter is, they are at best hypotheses, which may not even be verifiable or falsifiable. The brain is still very much a black-box, but such melodramatic claims give an impression as if the brain is an open book, science has unravelled what consciousness really is, and how it is produced in the dead matter. None of this is even remotely true. We scientists do not hesitate to label others ‘arrogant’, but we must not forget to be a little humble ourselves, too.

When TGD (32) says that ‘it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion’, it assumes that causation only goes one way, i.e., from the brain (governed by fixed physical laws) to fixed thought and behaviour. But there is ample evidence that causation goes in the opposite direction too, i.e., from behaviour as well as mental element to physical changes in the brain (See Ward 2008, 153-158). An example of this is the placebo effect, known for ages. Recent studies have shown that it works because ‘non-physical mental expectations’, encouragement, or subjective meanings ‘translate into bodily responses via real physical changes in the brain’ activity (See Andrews 2012, 257-259 and references therein).[22] Not only this, but the brain can be physically altered by subjective mental activity. Mason et al. (2017), for example, indicate that talk therapy, a thoughtful process used to help treat various psychological disorders, works because it alters the brain wiring. Similarly, evidence accumulated over the past two decades shows that meditation increases the brain’s grey-matter volume (E.g., see Hölzel et al. 2011).[23] Such studies show that mental activities are not merely an illusionary, inconsequential by-product of physical events in the brain; on the contrary, these activities can not only influence the brain but are capable of taking control of it. Therefore, the experiment TGD has alluded to wherein the electrical stimulation of brain regions produced ‘desire’ in the subjects to move their body parts is half the story. In the full version, a conscious brain can choose to reject that desire by manipulating the brain activity.

Cartesian dualism

The empirical evidence discussed in the preceding paragraph is compatible with both divinely-integrated dualism as well as dualism. Although it does not necessarily imply that dualism is true, it clearly wards off a common criticism against it that ‘there’s no possibility of something non-physical like a soul affecting what happens at the physical level’ (Law 2006, 69).

TGD’s (32) allusion to the electrical stimulation of brain regions, producing ‘desire’ in the subjects to move certain body-parts, does not have any implications for the Cartesian mind or free will. That is simply because such a mind, if not rejected a priori, can easily choose to follow or reject that desire.

Rather than a mere desire, however, our brain is also known to compel us to behave or act in a certain manner. For example, consider obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): A psychological illness wherein the patients experience persistent, unwanted, and uncontrollable thoughts (obsessions). To cope with them and relieve the anxiety caused therefrom, the patients are compelled to repetitively perform certain mental/physical rituals or actions, for instance, handwashing, double-checking things, or habitual tics. According to biological theories (backed by evidence), OCD is caused by imbalances in certain brain chemicals, other physical abnormalities, or damage to the brain. Thus, all we see is the physical brain at work, obstructing the free will of OCD patients. Does this mean that mind is unnecessary or, more so, non-existent? Not necessarily. That is because the brain can be thought of as a screen on which mind’s ‘sight’ depends. As dirt, damage, too much sunlight, scratches, or other issues with a vehicle’s windscreen may seriously hinder the driver’s ability to see the road ahead, mind’s functions can also be seriously hindered by problems with the brain and its functions.

Some argue that after a brain injury, tumour, or the like, people have been repeatedly observed to lose their mental abilities, like memory or even moral awareness/control (See Choi 2002), suggesting that the brain is all there is. A similar analogy to that of a screen may help here as well, where we can think of the brain as the information source for mind, just like a computer serves as the source through which information on the web becomes available to us. A damaged or malfunctioning hardware or the software may make such information inaccessible to us, but that obviously does not negate our existence – the recipients of that information and controllers of the computer. Similarly, damage to some brain region making it impossible to, say, recollect a thought or maintain moral sense, does not negate the existence of mind.

The analogy presented in the preceding paragraph is wrong in the sense that a malfunctioning computer does not make a person lose his/her mental abilities, but a problematic brain can and does sometimes takes away all mental experience. That is not surprising because in the dualistic view, as mentioned earlier, mind or soul is incarcerated in the physical body and cannot leave or function independent of the brain in this worldly life. Moreover, for mind to function properly and govern the body effectively, a healthy brain is required. As for free will, this means that it may be fully or partially impeded by an abnormal brain, as we saw in the case of OCD. Such an observation, however, does not falsify our collective wisdom regarding free will. That is because, as indicated earlier, it is already acknowledged therein that a person’s free will can, at times, be impeded or is not even employed in certain actions, e.g., involuntary ones. And, in such cases, our collective wisdom does not hold a person responsible for his/her actions.

It seems that science may not be able to falsify dualism (or divinely-integrated dualism), but it can certainly show that the idea is superfluous. That can be done by, for example, achieving human-like consciousness in complex computers or machines, as an emergent property. More than half a century ago, practitioners of artificial intelligence thought that it was an easy task, but so far even animal-like consciousness has not been realised in machines.

To conclude, although neuroscience and related scientific disciplines are highly controversial (at least regarding the problem of consciousness and free will), modern science can certainly correct many of Descartes’ false ideas regarding the anatomy and physiology of the brain. But as for his principle distinction between the body and mind (latter being the bearer of free will), modern science as yet does not have a verdict to pass (See Ward 2008, 142-161).

Religious determinism: Before discussing miracles, perhaps, we should also touch upon the idea referred to as religious determinism: because God is omniscience (having knowledge of all future events), it implies that everything is predetermined; hence, it is an illusion that we have a free will. This argument does not hold water because knowing something in advance is one thing and to impose something on someone is another. If I somehow foresee a murder in, say, a dream, how could my advance knowledge of the murder impede the free will of the murderer? Similarly, what God knows in advance is that we, employing our free will, shall act in a certain way tomorrow.[24] Then, why does God not intervene and stop evil things from happening? So that we can freely exercise our will in this fleeting world, such that the righteous can be separated from wrongdoers. Then, God will finally intervene and do justice between the two: wrongdoers will meet an ill-fate after they are left with no excuse to defend themselves on the Judgement Day, and the righteous will reap God’s eternal Kingdom of Heaven. In other words, God is selecting individuals to inhabit His eternal Paradise, on merit. Such is the grand scheme of God, disclosed by revealed religion.[25]

Have regularities in nature rendered God’s intervention in the universe (miracles) impossible? First, rather than adopting the misleading view of laws in nature, we should go back to Mumford’s (2004) view that regularities in nature are an outcome of inherent properties/causal powers of natural existents. When these existents exert their specific powers on each other, a fixed outcome (the so-called law) manifests. For instance, because the earth is heavy due to its mass and the spacetime fabric has the power to substantially warp in the presence of heavy objects, the interaction of these powers necessitates gravity[26]. For simplification, let us refer to it as the gravitational attraction of the earth. The earth, possessing this power of attraction, causes an apple to fall towards it. So, the earth and the apple are predisposed to mutually produce a certain behaviour/phenomenon, ceteris paribus. But this does not put any restriction whatsoever on an agent to intervene in this process and stop the apple from falling (Lennox 2011, 86-87). Therefore, the idea that the so-called laws of nature can somehow restrict an agent like God to intervene in the universe is simply false. God should not only be able to intervene but exploit those powers of things, too, that are hidden or not yet obvious to our science.  

Miracles and their purpose: Miracles, by definition, are exceptions and, as per the Quran (54), were performed to empirically establish the veracity of God’s messengers. The idea, however, is often misused by religious people. Francis Collins[27] (2007, 51-52) thus warns, ‘The only thing that will kill the possibility of miracles more quickly than a committed materialism is the claiming of miracle status for everyday events for which natural explanations are readily at hand.’ Perhaps, it is this misuse to which many scientists rightly show antipathy; if miracles begin to take place daily, science would become difficult, if not impossible.[28] (For a detailed discussion on science and miracles, see Lennox 2009, 193-206 & 2011, 81-95.)

 


[1] Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical CosmologyUniversity of Cambridge

[2] Ph.D., theoretical physics 

[3] Induction is a form of reasoning in which a generalisation is inferred based on a few or many observations that support, but do not necessarily guarantee that generalisation. For example, after experiencing a few or many miserly people from a country, one can make an inductive generalisation that all the people of this country are misers. In science, induction may go somewhat like this:

Premises

A liquid x1 evaporated when heated at 1000 °C at times t1, t2, t3

A liquid x2 evaporated when heated at 1000 °C at times t4, t5, t6

A liquid x3 evaporated when heated at 1000 °C at times t7, t8, t9

.

.

.

A liquid xn evaporated when heated at 1000 °C at times tn1, tn2, tn3

Conclusion

All liquids evaporate on heating.

The above premises are actually a set of observational statements that are generalised in the form of a law in the conclusion. The premises do not necessarily lead to the conclusion because only some liquids are regularly observed to evaporate at 1000 °C, but the conclusion talks about all liquids. Since there are countless kinds of liquids (and many more are possible through theoretical chemical reactions), we cannot rule out the possibility that there may exist a liquid that will not evaporate when heated at 1000 °C. Similarly, a liquid which has been repeatedly observed in various laboratory settings to evaporate at 1000 °C may not do so under some conditions not yet tested.

[4] In philosophy, the view that physical necessity is a property of laws of nature is termed ‘nomological’ or ‘nomic necessity’ (Swartz 2009).

[5] ‘Particulars’ is used synonymously here with ‘objects’, ‘existents’, or ‘entities’.

[6] Professor at Arizona State University

[7] Professor of Mathematics at Oxford

[8] Professor of Metaphysics and Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Nottingham

[9] That is, something necessarily causing another, as the diameter of a uranium sphere approaching 6 inches will necessarily cause an explosion.

[10] Mumford, however, is not the first one to propose this idea. For a brief and well-articulated summary of this view and an overview of other useful resources, see Chalmers 1999, 217-221 & 225.

[11] The idea is credited to the French mathematician and philosopher Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827).

[12] Prof. Richard Dawkins is a British evolutionary biologist, known as one of the ‘Four Horsemen of New Atheism’.

[13] Prof. Francis H. C. Crick (1916–2004) was a British physicist, molecular and neurobiologist; a joint Nobel laureate (1962) for the identification of DNA’s structure.

[14] Warren S. Brown is a Christian; Director of the Lee Edward Travis Research Institute (Clinical Psychology) and Professor of Psychology at the Fuller Theological Seminary, California.

[15] There might only be two, many, or several generations of such animals.

[16] ‘Blowing of divine breath’ is a metaphor, used to communicate an event whose reality is beyond human knowledge, reason, and imagination (Ghamidi, pers. comm).

[17] Here, I find it necessary to mention that the aim of religion is to purify human beings morally, so that they can render themselves eligible for an eternal life with God (Quran 87:14-17). With this aim in view, various topics related to science, philosophy, history, and other fields come under discussion in the Quran, indirectly. Examples of such topics include prominent events in the human evolution and the means through which rich spiritual element is bestowed upon humans, as mentioned above.

Such information is not accepted as a matter of blind faith, but after establishing, through compelling evidence and reason, that there is an immensely intelligent/wise God (a), who has communicated with and guided His sentient creatures through revelation (b). (b can be falsified, for example, by pointing out contradictions within the Quran or between the Quran and scientific facts. a is difficult to falsify but can be seriously challenged by showing that our universe is self-explanatory and, thus, does not require God to explain its existence.)

[18] I.e., for example, a separate person (as in dualism) or an emergent property of the physical nervous system (as in non-reductive physicalism) etc.

[19] This view is similar to what is called ‘integrative dualism’, held by two popular Anglican priests, the senior theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne (2010, 41-43) and the Oxford theologian Keith Ward (2008, 134-161). However, they view all of human consciousness (i.e., 2 as well as 3) as an emergent reality, not a product of divine intervention.

In non-reductive physicalism, too, all of consciousness (including the experience of free will) is viewed as an emergent property of the physical brain-activity. The difference, however, is that herein this emergent property is not considered a ‘new entity or physical force’, but only ‘a new level of causal efficacy’, as Brown (2004, 65) puts it. In contrast, integrative dualism holds that ‘consciousness and its contents, though generated by the physical brain, are distinct kinds of existent entities’ (Ward 2008, 160). In divinely-integrated dualism, this latter view shall be assumed.

[20] Regarding the consciousness of animals, however, it is only a speculation that it is a physical (reductive or non-reductive) outcome of evolution. In fact, no one knows what it really is and how it came/comes to be.

[21] For a quick overview of controversies, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroscience_of_free_will.

[22] or a reductive physicalist’s explanation of the placebo effect, see Yasushi 2013, 346-349. As Yasushi does, we also consider physical mechanisms, working in response to the mental/conscious element, to produce results. However, what Yasushi does not and cannot deny is – and here is our point – the case of mind over matter, where subjective meaning or expectation (even if generated by the physical brain activity) feed back to cause a physical response. For an extremely interesting case clearly demonstrating this, see Mr. Wright’s story on p. 342 in Yasushi’s article.

[23] Comprehensive critical peer-evaluations of the positive studies are available, confirming that meditation does induce structural changes in the brain; see, e.g., Fox et al. 2016.

[24] The problem of religious determinism can also be dealt with by appealing to Boethian conception of God’s eternal (timeless) cognition, discussed under Question 5 (no boundary condition). In that view, it is denied that the past/future (or time) exists for God, hence, rendering the question of foreknowledge of people’s future actions senseless. Here, we have not taken that route because even if this question is supposed to be valid, it has a straightforward answer.

[25] Certain things in this world, however, seem to be predetermined, for instance, our time and place of birth, family, skin colour, and so on, but in such matters religion does not hold anyone accountable (Ghamidi 2013).

[26] To visualise this idea based on Einstein's theory of general relativity, see https://spaceplace.nasa.gov/what-is-gravity/en/.

[27] A physician and geneticist, who led the Human Genome Project to completion; currently Director of the National Institutes of Health, USA 

[28] In regard to miracles, TGD (29-30) refers to Newton’s belief (in what it calls a sort of miracle) that God had to periodically adjust the orbits of planets. If Newton were alive, I am sure he would have happily accepted naiveté of his assumption and would have been even more humbled to know that God works in much more sophisticated ways than he anticipated.

   
 
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