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Religion in the Eyes of Philosophy: The Quest for Certainty of Knowledge
Kamran Bashir Sheikh

For any individual, whether a common man or a scholar, one question that usually confronts him during his life is about the true source of his knowledge in different spheres of life. How we determine reliable knowledge is often a great problem for everybody whether he addresses the issue seriously or takes it into consideration subconsciously. In the beginning, an ordinary person absorbs ideas and notions about different things from the surroundings and environment in which he lives. He embraces many concepts from his family, friends, and relatives and so on. But then he comes to face a different reality. He discovers that all the ideas and concepts he revered and held dear are not agreed upon by all people. He sees people arguing for different position on a certain issue. This is the very juncture where his uneasiness starts. He begins to question the ways through which people obtain knowledge; he initiates his quest for true and correct knowledge; he endeavours to know the right way or the criteria to judge and evaluate a particular piece of information. This question is common for an ordinary individual as well as a scholar of any discipline; difference may be of the approach and level at which each addresses it. Like in any other field, our knowledge of religion is often subjected to the certainty test. If we limit our discussion to basic religious concepts, we can term religion to stand for the essential concept of God, the Hereafter and established moral values. For the western and Muslim societies, this triad of concepts is the very basis of their religious feeling. Anybody who believes in these concepts enters the realm of religion. But an all important question arises as to what really is the basis of our belief. Why do we believe in God when we haven’t seen Him? How can we ascertain that God is there when He is beyond our sensory experience? What is the correct method to approach knowledge is the question that concerns us in our religious journey. How can we be certain that what we believe in is the truth? In the backdrop of the aforementioned discourse, we would try to analyze what philosophers have argued for or against religion. We refer to philosophers because they are the group of intellectuals in history who made it a subject to study the basic questions of our existence and knowledge objectively and without the aid of divine revelation.

These questions also kept preying the philosophers throughout the centuries of human intellectual journey. Philosophy, a non-religious discipline, in finding the answers to the ultimate questions of our existence and this whole universe, addresses this issue quite comprehensively. Among the Greeks, Aristotle endeavoured to lay down the basic principles of correct reasoning. He established the principles of logic and argument. It essentially involved forming basic premises and thereby deriving conclusions from them. Aristotle tried in his capacity to form the guidelines of correct argument regarding propositions in different aspects of life. His work remained influential throughout the later centuries till today. But intellect wanted more to get satisfied in its quest for reliable knowledge. The philosophers’ search for knowledge took a quantum leap with the beginning of modern science. Starting with Copernicus and taking a leap ahead with the help of Galileo’s discoveries, it assumed its enduring shape in the form of Newtonian laws and methods. Newton was the person who gave a certain scientific outlook to our view of the world. John Locke and others spelt out the underlying implications of Newton’s work which had to shape the course of our intellectual knowledge in the ensuing three centuries. What his discoveries vehemently stress is the scientific way to address knowledge. It meant that only scientific evidence, in the form some laboratory test, some observation or any sensory experience, can make something certain for us to know. Therefore questions like ‘what is your evidence for that?’ or ‘what is the proof for that?’ thereby formed the basis of philosophers’ evaluation of various concepts including religious ones. The consequences of all this for traditional thought-structures and authorities were cataclysmic. There began a rapid spread of disbelief in the existence of God that conspicuously characterizes the West over the following three centuries.

In the coming centuries after Newton, his approach towards knowledge remained central to the understanding of the world. Rationalist philosophers, like Descartes and Spinoza, and the renowned empiricists, like John Locke and Hume, all favoured this style of reasoning in addressing the issue of true and correct knowledge. Scientific rigour was considered the essential ingredient of reliable information or statements, over and above other logical arguments that Aristotle worked on. At the turn of the twentieth century, the attraction for scientific evidence remained convincingly attractive for the intellectuals. Patronized by Bertrand Russell and refined by the Vienna Circle of intellectuals, Logical Positivism was the dominant force in arriving at the correct knowledge. It rejected traditional philosophy insofar as it did not possess scientific rigour. Metaphysical, ethical and religious pronouncements were branded meaningless because their truth or falsity was unverifiable. Religion was under fire because of this terrible onslaught.

If we accept the principles of Newtonian science and the rules advocated by logical positivists, we can see for ourselves whether religion can answer the questions raised against it or not. In this regard, it is not the Muslims only who pleaded their case for the truth of basic religious concepts. There were also many great non-Muslim intellectuals who attempted to put forward logical arguments for their position as believing religious people. For example, in case of the concept of God, different arguments have been put forward in support for the existence of God. The most important among these is the teleological argument which argues that since the whole universe exhibits certain design so every design must have a designer behind it, and since there exists certain purpose behind everything in this universe, so God is the grand purpose. The other one, called cosmological argument, says that the very existence of this universe per se means that someone must have created it – it could not just have come into existence all by itself, out of nothing. Still another, termed ontological argument, stressed that the greatest, most perfect possible being must exist, who is none other than God. In all such arguments, the line of reasoning behind was the same. It either tried to find some scientific evidence or attempted to lay the foundations on deduction or induction. (Although criticized for their limited application, the principles of deduction and induction remained attractive for intellectuals, parallel to the scientific evidence in discovering true knowledge.) Despite all these arguments for religious concepts, these could not settle the argument with the philosophers because of the criticism on these arguments and the fact that these are devoid of instances of observation or sensory experience.

From the Muslim circles, the scholars also fought the case with great effort but in doing this, the underlying principle for reliable knowledge remained the same which was either to base their conclusions on certain established premises or look for some scientific evidence behind their beliefs. But despite their considerable efforts, they could not change their image in the deigning eyes of the contemporary philosophers. Their futile efforts resulted in the doctrine of blind faith. Religion, be it Islam or Christianity, began to be seen more as a matter of faith than of beliefs supported by reason. Masses were called upon, in an apologetic fashion, to have faith in their religion and not to find reasons behind that.

In the backdrop of all this discussion, the question of reliable knowledge in the sphere of religion is an astronomical one. It is the query which, if not replied to convincingly, can shatter the very foundations of our belief. On the face of it, there seems to be a genuine reason to get skeptical if our religious beliefs cannot be verified. If the existence of God cannot be verified, then it is high time that we got rid of this belief. This is what our subconscious says in such a situation. However, one thing we can do in the wake of so popular reasoning style of positivism is to look for some convincing arguments in our Holy Book, the Qur’ān. When the criteria for reliable knowledge seem so correct apparently, not only to us but to a range of giant philosophers of the centuries, then a book which is firmly attributed to God must have the most valid and solid arguments in support of the existence of God and other age-old religious concepts. But much to our surprise, this exercise of referring to the Qur’ān or other so-called divine scriptures will not do any good. The most unfortunate and stunning thing in such a situation for a Muslim or a Christian will be to find no such argument, in the accepted reasoning style, in support of religious concepts. Unlike popular philosophers, the Qur’ān nowhere establishes certain premises and draws conclusions from them. It nowhere mentions observation or sensory experience behind the beliefs it asks of its followers to rekindle. In the face of so powerful an endorsement of certain criteria for reliable knowledge by philosophers, and in the absence of any existence of such reasoning in the divine scriptures, an ordinary believing human, particularly Muslim, sees himself in a great dilemma. On the one hand, he believes in certain concepts from his very birth and cherishes them throughout his life, but on the other, he finds no proof behind them. His restlessness remains there even if he discards all his cherished beliefs because the question of his very self and its purpose of creation, the question of this universe and the question of his future do not disappear; these thoughts continue to prevail and perplex him after renouncing the religion. The most tragic thing is that philosophers only question his religious beliefs; they do not provide satisfying answers to his fundamental questions. Even the greatest scholastic Muslim philosopher, Imam Rāzī, could not satisfy himself on religious concepts, after arguing in the western style, and instead uttered on the death-bed that all his efforts to find the scientific argument behind his beliefs were meaningless and he was dying on the belief of his mother. In such a situation, an ordinary individual finds himself in a maze of perplexing notions and ideas.

Going through this philosophical journey and the feelings of a common man in his quest for religious truths, we may find ourselves in a labyrinth of existence. We come across no ray of hope to change our direction in its light. But studying all this, we can see that the real problem is the line of reasoning that we are so accustomed to. We are not willing to think of any other method of approaching correct knowledge, On the contrary, if we just change our lenses and study the Qur’ān and divine scriptures for their own particular style and method of reasoning behind the beliefs they profess, we may get out of this upheaval we have just experienced. If we study the Qur’ān with changed lenses and attempt to find answers to our mind-boggling questions, it will come to our utter surprise that the wonder-filled divine scripture not only reasons for its concepts and premises but its line of reasoning and method is totally different from the one we are aware of and which the philosophers have urged us to use. It is not the logical positivism on which the Qur’ān lays the foundations of correct knowledge, but a combination of tradition and true criticism. It does not favour the notion of accepting or believing a statement which is proven correct. On the contrary, it asks us to believe in the tradition we have and continue to believe and act according to it till it is proven wrong. It implies that scientific evidence is not the cause of the development of knowledge but it is true criticism – the criticism that is done to evaluate certain traditional statement – which fosters the development of human knowledge. The true source of our knowledge is the tradition we inherit - tradition in religion or tradition in science. And the true reason behind the development of knowledge is the criticism – the evaluation, the appreciation – that is levied on the tradition we start our lives with. In the light of premises laid by the Qur’ān, let’s evaluate how weak or strong is the argument of the divine book.

If we study the whole system of our society and the various disciplines in which human beings make their efforts and work, we will come to know that the entire fabric of our existence rests on one thing and that is called tradition. Whatever we teach in our schools, whatever we perform at our workplace, whatever we do in a scientific laboratory, all takes its footing on a certain tradition. It is the mere confidence in tradition – confidence in traditional knowledge – in a particular sphere which drives us in our daily routines. We continue to believe in these traditional thought-structures and act according to them until these are proven wrong. We never ask for evidence behind everything we do in our life whether at home or at the workplace. What we do is to continue to believe in the tradition we inherit from our forefathers. Even in a scientific laboratory, we continue with the traditional knowledge in a scientific discipline and perform our daily functions with a confidence on the scientific principles which our forerunners had outlined until some new discovery proves them wrong. We never perform our duty by disregarding all the current principles because we have yet not discovered the scientific evidence behind them by ourselves. It is crystal clear that doing this will jeopardize the entire fabric of our existence. We will have nothing to do if we get skeptical on every concept we inherit, whether scientific or religious. The notion that gaining scientific evidence is the real basis of the development of knowledge is incorrect per se because this never happened throughout the centuries of human history. The actual source of knowledge is the tradition that we inherit, whether in the field of astronomy or social sciences; physics or religion. And the real basis of the development and refinement of our knowledge is the criticism on the tradition we cherish. If the tradition withstands the criticism, it gets established. If it is shown fallacious and proven wrong, it results in a new discovery. The role of our sensory experience, observation or solid logical argument comes into play when we criticize a certain tradition. The world was breathing in the Ptolemaic concepts of astronomy for centuries until these were proven wrong by later astronomers and scientists. Medicines which were prescribed some fifty years ago with great confidence by physicians were proclaimed dangerous for human health by later researchers because of certain facts, which came to surface and recommendation of these medicines was checked. The world was run by the monarchs in our history because monarchy was the popular form of political arrangement. But today democracy reigns supreme as the much more improved form of government. The real tragedy occurred in philosophy when the great philosophers encouraged a certain criteria for reliable knowledge in religion which they never used in any other discipline. In all the other spheres, they started their lives with traditional ideas and kept criticizing for any flaw in them, but for religion, they set a different criterion. Instead of finding any flaw in the concept of God, the hereafter and moral values, they got rid of them right at the very outset, because they would not accept them unless proven correct. They however would still continue to accept premises of other disciplines until proven wrong.

Having assimilated the underpinnings of true criticism, let’s see what meaningful criticism basic religious concepts have faced in the centuries of intellectual thought. Regarding the concept of God, firstly, the Qur’ān says that all the human souls, before coming to this world, were made to pledge an oath before their Lord that He is their Lord and the Creator; secondly, it pronounces that our ultimate progenitors, Adam and Eve had the very sensory experience of their Lord; and thirdly, it argues that God is the Light of the heavens and earth – His concept gives meaning to this otherwise elusive and fleeting world – He has made this world for testing them and all souls have to return back to Him one day for justice. This is the very tradition with which, the Qur’ān says, humans were sent to this world. And this is the very tradition that has been shared throughout the centuries by mankind. Now what the Qur’ān essentially welcomes is the search for any flaw in this tradition, any criticism that makes it meaningless, any scientific fact that comes up with more improved light than the concept of God, any discovery that proves that God does not exist. But despite all the efforts during the centuries of human existence, nothing meaningful could be presented against these concepts and the challenge of the Qur’ān remains unanswered. The Qur’ān and other divine scriptures didn’t need to bring arguments for the existence of God because it was an established concept. It was for people to evaluate this tradition and come up with something contrary to the tradition – the way they came up to refute the concepts of Ptolemy in the field of astronomy. What the Qur’ān did was to refute the concept of polytheism and brought arguments against it, but it didn’t present any support for the existence of God or monotheism because it was already a cherished tradition, free from any criticism.

This magic formula of true criticism, which unfolds the mystery of certainty of what we know, may look like an ordinary concept in the first place, but it will come as a stupendous fact for a student of philosophy that it took an Einstein to prove its importance and validity. At the turn of the 20th century a scientific genius came on the scene who was comparable to Newton, a German Jew called Albert Einstein and he produced theories incompatible with Newton’s. Not surprisingly, these theories were highly controversial at first; but virtually nobody who was knowledgeable in the field could deny that they deserved the most serious consideration. And the fact in itself had disconcerting implications because if Einstein was right then Newton was wrong – and in that case the whole method of reasoning for correct knowledge was objectionable. Crucial experiments were devised to adjudicate between the two sets of theories; and as the empirical evidence mounted, it unmistakably favoured Einstein. The consequences of this for philosophy were earthquake-like. Ever since Newtonian science gained popularity, Western man believed that he had found the methods by which that knowledge was carefully codified and it guaranteed the validity of reliable knowledge. And yet now it turned out that his premise was utterly inaccurate. All this presented an absolutely baffling situation. It meant that the very method to evaluate knowledge which philosophers had been endorsing for centuries was not reliable. In such a situation, a renowned philosopher, Karl Popper carried out the task and built on the Einsteinian revolution to answer the confusing minds all around the world. He impressed upon the fact that criticism is the chief means by which we do in fact make progress. He further highlighted that we can test general statements by searching for contrary instances. He even accepted the reality, in his non-religious fashion, that the existence of God cannot be falsified. He realized the flaw in the line of reasoning that had been following since centuries. In short, he almost professed the same principle which the Qur’ān was depicting for centuries. The time demanded a complete surrender before established religious teachings.

Now when we have traversed this mind-blowing journey of philosophical quest for the certainty of knowledge, we can well imagine how confident we can be on our religious tradition which is in fact the tradition of whole mankind. The real problem occurred, on the one hand, when Western philosophers disregarded the very principle, which had given the West a tremendous development in every discipline of life, while examining the religious truths. And on the other hand, Muslim societies had generally regarded criticism as something negative for their religious feeling. For them every religious tradition, whether true or untrue, should remain sacred and stand over and above any true criticism. And that is the very reason that made them apologetic in their stand against Western onslaught. Intellectually, they still love to cherish the mythical notion that earth is standing on the horns of a bull despite the stupendous discoveries in the field of astronomy.


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