"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Science in the Quran? Maybe if you squint…

Zakir Naik
My youngest daughter appears to have inherited my scepticism of religion yet succeeds in maintaining sincere believers, both Christian and Muslim, as her closest friends. This is an admirable trait of which she should be justifiably proud, as indeed am I, and she achieves this even while having challenging theological debates amongst them. Recently a Muslim friend suggested my daughter and I watch a YouTube debate between Islamic and Christian apologists Dr Zakir Naik and Dr.William Campbell on "The Quran and the Bible in light of modern science" which was supposed to convince us that the Quran is a reliable source of timeless scientific knowledge. Now I have been exposed to Dr Naik before as he is the go-to-guy for Muslims wanting to defend the Quran as a perfect revelation by pointing to Surahs that pre-sage modern scientific theory but although I have read some of his thoughts online this was the first time I had watched him in action. The first thing to say is that the link we were given is an egregiously biased edit of the actual debate with William Cambell's responses amateurishly curtailed to make his arguments fall literally and philosophically short and make Naik appear a better debater than he actually is. This is not surprising as theists of all denominations have been guilty of this tactic, but for the purposes of this post it is irrelevant because neither of the participants actually engaged the real problem, the purpose of that debate being to pitch the Bible against the Quran as to which is defensible through science: but neither are. From my perspective Naik does a pretty thorough job of debunking Biblical claims to scientific integrity, better in fact than many atheist debaters I've seen. But that proves only that Naik is a competent theologian and logician with enough knowledge of science to recognise absurdities when he wants to. However when it comes to defending the Quran his critical faculties desert him and his intellectual dishonesty becomes manifest. Before what appears to be a gender segregated and predominantly supportive audience, Naik cites Surah upon Surah to support what are actually very weak eisogesic arguments for scientific "signs" in the Quran. For example he lists Surahs giving "detailed accounts of the water cycle" but only selectively quotes from them. Consequently if you actually research the Surahs he cites you get the following.
“We sent down water from the sky, blessed water whereby We caused to grow gardens, grains for harvest, tall palm-trees with their spathes, piled one above the other – sustenance for (Our) servants. Therewith We gave (new) life to a dead land. So will be the emergence (from the tombs).” [Quran 50:9-11]
“We sent down water from the sky in measure and lodged it in the ground. And We certainly are able to withdraw it. Therewith for you We gave rise to gardens of palm-trees and vineyards where for you are abundant fruits and of them you eat.” [Quran 23: 18-19]
“We sent forth the winds that fecundate. We cause the water to descend from the sky. We provide you with the water – you (could) not be the guardians of its reserves.” [Quran 15:22]
“Allaah is the One Who sends forth the winds which raised up the clouds. He spreads them in the sky as He wills and breaks them into fragments. Then thou seest raindrops issuing from within them. He makes them reach such of His servants as He wills. And they are rejoicing.” [Quran 30:48]
“(Allaah) is the One Who sends forth the winds like heralds of His Mercy. When they have carried the heavy-laden clouds, We drive them to a dead land. Then We cause water to descend and thereby bring forth fruits of every kind. Thus We will bring forth the dead. Maybe you will remember.” [Quran 7:57]
“Hast thou not seen that Allaah sent water down from the sky and led it through sources into the ground? Then He caused sown fields of different colors to grow.” [Quran 39:21]
“Therein We placed gardens of palm-trees and vineyards and We caused water springs to gush forth.” [Quran 36:34]
Seven 'divinely revealed' verses that say in no uncertain terms that...it rains...sometimes water comes from the ground...and stuff grows.
This is not science, this is observation which fair enough is where science starts, but science is supposed to be explanatory and none of this is. It may be descriptive of the water cycle but that's as far as it goes and only proves that seventh century Arabs weren't stupid, which nobody is suggesting.
Naik also defends the Quran's description of embryology which is often ridiculed by Christians and atheists alike as being a woefully naive description of the actual process of fertilisation and development of the human embryo.
The truth is that as a descriptive narrative it is not far off. If talks of mixing fluids, a clot of blood, a leach like structure, a formative muscular/ skeletal phase all of which as descriptions are not obviously wrong. But, none of this is miraculous nor was it unknown. Women had been having miscarriages, foetuses had aborted and pregnant women had been mutilated for millenia enough for all of those things to have been observed and described. Again this is not science and in the absence of clear references to meiosis, eggs, sperm fertilisation etc is not explanatory. If indeed these had been explicit the divine provenance of the Quran would not be in doubt.
On most other areas, particularly cosmology and geology, Naik either misunderstands or is just plain lying about the science. His explanations of plate tectonics and mountain formation are laughable as is his characterisation of the big bang. Although, a Quranic reference about "an expanding universe" did give me pause enough to search my own copy for the context of which I'll give you a few Surahs.
51:44 But they were insolent toward the command of their Lord, so the thunderbolt seized them while they were looking on. 51:45 And they were unable to arise, nor could they defend themselves. 51:46 And [We destroyed] the people of Noah before; indeed, they were a people defiantly disobedient. 51:47 And the heaven We constructed with strength, and indeed, We are [its] expander. 51:48 And the earth We have spread out, and excellent is the preparer. 51:49 And of all things We created two mates; perhaps you will remember. 51:50 So flee to Allah . Indeed, I am to you from Him a clear warner.
Now, leaving aside the fact that like much of the Quran this is actually incoherent it demonstrates entirely how taking one verse out of many in a completely unrelated context can in retrospect be made to say something apparently meaningful. As I pointed out to my daughter on this standard of evidence you could pick any random sentence from any book and draw a parallel to any fact you chose. As a demonstration I linked the current cold snap in North America to this from A.A Milne
The more it snows (Tiddely-Pom) The more it goes (Tiddely-Pom) The more it goes on snowing (Tiddely-Pom) And nobody knows (Tiddely-Pom) How cold my toes (Tiddely-Pom) How cold my toes are growing (Tiddely-Pom Tiddely-Pom Tiddely-Pom Tiddely-Pom)
Which is a clear prediction of the counter-intuitive but scientifically explainable recent effects of global warming. Clever old bear...
There is no doubt that Dr Naik is an excellent debator and skilled theologian. His mastery of presuppositional and (mostly circular) logic is enough I suspect to convince the faithful, indeed it must be given the frequency with which I am directed towards him, but the fact that his title is medical and he is not a science PhD shows painfully to anyone with some grounding in science and frankly no sceptic would take him seriously on the strength of this debate with a Christian apologist also lacking scientific credentials.
He did however give my daughter and I a very entertaining and highly amusing evening as we laughed together at his transparently flawed science and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend his website as a resource for atheists looking for ammunition to use in similar debates.