Thursday, December 25, 2014

Islam or atheism?

This is a debate between Hamza Tzortzis, an internationally known lecturer and debater from the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA) and Ed Buckner, who was president of American Atheists at the time (2010).

No, I haven't watched the whole thing - not even close. Heck, this video is almost two and a half hours long! I didn't listen to Buckner at all, in fact. But I thought I'd comment on the opening statement by Tzortzis (in the video, from 6:30 to 33:25 - which was plenty long enough, I assure you!)

Note the question here: Islam or atheism? To their credit, this was sponsored by iERA - one of The Big Debates they promote. I've watched many other debates where the question was Christianity or atheism? - sometimes, even Catholicism or atheism? (if not specifically in the title, definitely in the arguments made by the Christian apologist).

So I was interested to hear what this argument would be like. (As it turned out, it was very similar to Christian apologetics - too similar, in fact. I was quite disappointed.)

To begin with, Tzortzis claims that "critical thinkers" must base their decisions on reason and common sense. But note what he's left out: evidence. Reason and common sense are not enough by themselves. In particular, common sense does not work at all when dealing with questions outside our normal everyday lives. (Try using "common sense" to understand quantum mechanics!)

Do you remember when you first learned, as a very young child, that the Earth was round? I do. I still remember how odd that seemed to me. We were standing on a giant ball spinning rapidly in empty space? How weird was that? That very definitely violates common sense. (If you don't believe me, try standing on a spinning ball sometime.)

It's not at all surprising that our distant ancestors thought the Earth was flat. Why wouldn't they? Both reason and common sense would indicate so. It took evidence to change our minds (and that was long before we had any idea of gravity, any real explanation of it).

Reason and common sense, without evidence, would tell us that the Earth was flat and that we'd come to the end of it if we traveled far enough. Well, nothing is infinite, right?

As it turns out, the Earth is not infinite, but we could still travel infinitely far in one direction without coming to the end of it. The surface might be two-dimensional, but it's stretched over a three-dimensional globe, so endless doesn't really mean infinite, as they assumed. Common sense failed them.

I'll get back to that in a minute, but first there's that bizarre story about Superman in his red underpants, come to check your gas meter. Now, why would you have a problem with that? Obviously, it's because you already know something - quite a bit, in fact - about utility workers (and about Superman, for that matter).

But what does Tzortzis say? "I would argue today that to support the atheist worldview would be equivalent of allowing someone in their red underpants to come and check your gas meter."

Well, OK, he can claim that. But what does he mean by the "atheist worldview." We atheists have a variety of worldviews. The only thing we have in common is that we don't accept the claims of theists (who can't even agree among themselves, note). You can be an atheist without claiming anything at all, yourself.

I'm an atheist because theists like Tzortzis simply haven't made their case. That's a "worldview"? If you told me that a man dressed in red underpants, like Superman, came to check your gas meter, I might very well be skeptical of that story, without evidence. So maybe skepticism is my worldview, but not atheism. Not all atheists are skeptics, sad to say.

(Note that Tzortzis says he's going to wait for Ed Buckner to "provide a good case for the atheist worldview." Obviously, he's simply trying to shift the burden of proof - just like I've heard from countless Christian apologists. Buckner doesn't have to prove that Allah doesn't exist. As an atheist, he doesn't even have to make that claim. Theists are the ones making a claim. If they can't support that claim, we are fully justified in saying so.)

When he finally gets to the "positive case for the Islamic worldview," he's at least getting to the real issue here. But he fails pretty badly, I'd say.

"God makes sense of the origins of the universe," he claims. "Why does something exist rather than nothing?" But even if you had good evidence that your god, or any god, actually existed, you'd still have that same question, just in a slightly different form: Why does God exist rather than nothing?

'God did it' doesn't answer the question, not even close.

"How did the universe come to be?" Well, how did God come to be? Again, it's the same question. He's just added a god in there, for no apparent reason.

"Or do they think that the heavens and the Earth, the whole universe, came out of nothing?" But that's exactly what theists like Tzortzis think. They think that their god created the whole universe out of nothing, and they've still got the question of where their god came from.

Scientists don't claim to know where the universe came from. But that doesn't mean you can just pick whatever explanation you want, without evidence. Scientists don't know, but you don't, either. And your explanation doesn't even answer these questions. It just pushes them back a step.

Keep in mind that the word "universe" means different things. It can mean our universe, which apparently started with the Big Bang (how, we don't know). Or it can mean "everything." Those aren't necessarily the same thing, but it's very typical for theists - Islamic and Christian alike - to conflate the two.

Tzortzis now claims that atheists say that "the universe is just eternal and uncaused." Well, maybe some do, I don't know. (He quotes Bertrand Russell, who was born in 1872 and wasn't a cosmologist, anyway.) Either way, it doesn't matter, because atheists don't need to make a claim about the universe. "I don't know" doesn't mean that you can claim anything you want, without evidence.

But Tzortzis continues, "If we scratch the surface on this statement, we will conclude that it is absurd and irrational, because that would mean that the universe never had a beginning, which would then mean that our history is infinite, that the universe has an infinite history of past events. ... The infinite does not exist in the real world."

Again, this whole argument is meaningless. Even if Bertrand Russell did think this, it has nothing to do with me. But it's ridiculous, too. First of all, if we're talking about this universe, modern scientists do think that it had a beginning. If that was also the beginning of time, it could still be infinite, from what I've heard (time slowing down near the singularity). But I'm no cosmologist, so I'm not going to argue that one way or another.

Remember, our ancestors thought it equally ridiculous that they could travel endlessly far in one direction on the Earth without ever getting to the end of it. But they were wrong. They could. The Earth isn't infinite, but you would still never get to the end of it, traveling on the surface.

They used common sense, but the evidence proved them wrong.

If Tzortzis is using "universe" to mean "everything," then why would there need to be a beginning for that? After all, he thinks his god was eternal and uncaused, so he clearly accepts that possibility. If infinity is "absurd and irrational" as he claims (without backing up that claim, note), then it's equally absurd and irrational when applied to his god. You can't have it both ways.

Maybe it is "absurd and irrational," I don't know. But he doesn't either. He has no more idea of the universe (meaning "everything") than anyone else. Even cosmologists - the experts in that field of study - don't know. Religious believers claim to know, but they can't even agree among themselves, let alone provide any evidence backing up their claims.

Tzortzis continues with some examples of how infinity violates common sense. I agree. It does. But that doesn't mean, necessarily, that it doesn't exist. Nothing in our everyday lives would make us comfortable with infinity, whether the universe is infinite or not. That's just one of the limitations on common sense.

And again, Tzortzis does believe in infinity himself. He thinks that his god is infinite. He doesn't think that his god had a beginning. His god is eternal, right? So if he is right about eternity, his own faith is wrong.

Infinity doesn't matter to me, to my atheism, one way or another. Tzortzis's argument simply doesn't hold up, either way.

So, OK, Tzortzis insists that the universe had a beginning. He's talking about our universe now, I assume, so he doesn't really need all that infinity stuff. If I understand correctly, cosmologists are pretty much in consensus that our universe did have a beginning (in the so-called Big Bang). But now he insists that the universe had a cause.

"Therefore, the number of past events can't be infinite, therefore there was a beginning to the universe, and it logically follows there was a cause to the universe." Well, not necessarily. For one thing, note that "cause" also has different meanings. It certainly doesn't follow that the universe was deliberately created.

But even if he's just talking about cause and effect, that's still not necessarily true. Cause and effect is a common experience in our lives, so common sense expects it. But it doesn't have to be true everywhere. I don't know much about quantum mechanics - no one does who's not a theoretical physicist - but I've heard that cause and effect breaks down (or seems to, at least) at the quantum level.

Furthermore, even if cause and effect was always valid in this universe, we have no way of knowing about any other universes. Note that, in modern cosmological thinking, the Big Bang was the beginning of space-time. Time has to exist before you can have cause and effect (and "before the Big Bang" would seem to be a meaningless concept).

There is so very, very much we don't know about all of this - so very much we may never know. It's just impossible to tell. But Tzortzis claims that he does know,... somehow. He has yet to say how, though.

"Does something come from nothing?" This is another argument which is very familiar to me from Christian apologists. Indeed, so far, I haven't heard anything which doesn't sound like Christian apologetics. Muslims vehemently disagree with Christians, and vice versa, but their arguments sure sound identical!

Can something come from nothing? I don't know. From what I've heard, physicists have a different concept of "nothing" from how we laymen commonly use the word.

Frankly, I don't even know if "nothing" is possible. Have you ever seen "nothing"? How would we recognize "nothing," anyway? Can "nothing" even exist? If you can't answer those questions - with good evidence to back up your claims - how can you assume anything at all about "nothing"?

The really funny thing is that, just like religious believers think that their god is infinite, they also think that he created the whole universe from nothing. Thus, if something can't come from nothing, then their god didn't create the universe - and if infinity isn't possible, then their god can't exist at all. In both cases, they use the logical fallacy of special pleading.

Anyway, Tzortzis goes back to the universe's "cause" again, telling us what we know about it. The fact is, we don't know anything about it - not even, as I noted above, that the universe had a "cause." What he's trying to do, though, is to set up the circumstances by which his faith in his god can be exempted from everything he's said previously.

Keep in mind, too, that - despite his quotes from past philosophers and scientists (David Hume died in 1776, for chrissake, so how would he be an expert today?) - modern cosmologists overwhelmingly reject his argument. What does it tell you when the people who know the most about a subject completely disagree with you?

Similarly, as I've noted before, when you use philosophy to push your religious beliefs, how do you explain the fact that most professional philosophers - you know, the people who know the most about philosophy - are atheists?

People like Tzortzis try to use science and philosophy to convince people who don't know very much about science and philosophy. And they even fail at that, really. They don't convince anyone by these arguments. The people who accept them already believe (almost always, because they were raised from infancy to believe), just like Tzortzis himself.

His arguments didn't convince him. He already had his faith. He's just using them to try to convince others - and again, they're the people who know the least about science and philosophy, not the people who know the most about those fields.

I'm not going to bother much with his claims about the "cause" of the universe. It's just the standard stuff that Christian apologists claim, too - with absolutely zero justification. All he's done is set up his special pleading fallacy.

Yeah, something can't come from nothing, thus it must be his god who created something from nothing. Nothing is infinite, except that his god is infinite. The universe has to have a cause (again, he's careful not to define what he means by "universe"), but his god doesn't need to have a cause. It has to be one god, because,... Occam's razor? Really? That's what he's going with? He either doesn't understand Occam's razor or he thinks his audience won't understand it.

Again, he's using philosophy in a way that the vast majority of philosophers don't accept. But the whole thing is just really disappointing. These are the same tired old arguments we've heard from countless Christian apologists. I was really hoping to hear something new.

I was at least hoping for something better than: it has to be a personal god, because,... how else? "How else can an eternal cause bring into existence a finite effect?" Um, you just said that eternal was impossible? Have you forgotten that already? Or just hope that your listeners have?

And the universe (our universe, he's talking about now) must have been a choice, because time didn't exist yet? Why does that follow? And how can you make a choice without time? How can anyone even think without time? Certainly, cause and effect can't work in the absence of time (which is a good reason to think that our universe did not have a cause).

This, too, is very similar to Christian apologetics. He takes a long time setting up his argument. Heck, he used three different examples to demonstrate how infinity was ridiculous (and then made his god infinite, anyway!). But when he finally gets to his argument, he just rushes through the whole thing with one claim after another. Well, if you think about it very much at all, it falls apart.

It's just a series of claims - some of which directly contradict what he said previously - without anything to back them up. I wish he'd spent less time on the setup and more on his conclusions. But then, if he'd done that, we'd see how flimsy they were.

It's different on paper, because you can go back and check every detail. In a debate, especially when you don't have a video to rewind, it's easy to be convincing to people who already want to believe what they want to believe.

Eventually, he goes right into the cosmological argument, just like so many Christian apologists. The only difference is, he starts explaining how the Koran is divine, rather than the Bible. The arguments are very similar. He just chooses a different book, the book he was raised to believe.

His argument? Muslims like the Koran better than other books. Oh, it's just so eloquent! Well, maybe so. I've never read it. But I've heard a million similar claims about the Bible made by Christians, for identical reasons. (And I've read the Bible, some of it, at least. It's crazy as hell.)

Oh, and because China exists, therefore the Koran must be miraculous. Seriously. That's exactly what he says. And Muslims agree that the Koran couldn't have been written by a human being. Heh, heh. Yeah, that's persuasive, huh? Believers believe in what they believe.

Scholars don't all agree that Mohammed even existed as a historical (rather than fictional) person, yet the Koran is an "evidential miracle," according to Tzortzis.

This just got completely ridiculous. The best explanation for the Koran is that it's a divine miracle. Uh, huh. Well, keep in mind that his entire argument to this point was identical to what many Christian apologists claim. But Tzortzis is Muslim, not Christian, so he has to make some kind of claim to back up his own religion.

Well, I suppose it sounds reasonable to other Muslims, huh? After all, it's always easy to believe what you want to believe, what you were raised from infancy to believe. But I think I can guarantee that it won't convince anyone else.

Finally, he goes back to Christian apologists for his argument that Mohammed was a prophet - the prophet. In fact, he borrows from C.S. Lewis (whose argument wasn't valid even for Jesus, let alone Mohammed): Mohammed was either a liar or he was deluded, or he was both a liar and deluded, or... everything he said was the exact, perfect truth and that exact, perfect truth is exactly what you find in the Koran today.

Maybe Mohammed was just mistaken? Or maybe he didn't exist at all, outside of fiction? There are many other alternatives. Apologists - Christian and Muslim alike - try to ignore that.

Throughout this, Tzortzis keeps talking about "critical thinking" - as he defined it at the beginning of his talk. But there hasn't been the slightest interest in, or concern about, evidence. Much of what he says here could be said about Harry Potter, too. Just because it's written in a book, and just because plenty of people have been raised to believe in that book, that doesn't make it true.

Yeah, it's an old book, and that just makes it worse. Do you believe everything written in the Iliad and the Odyssey? I doubt it. But you probably would if you'd been raised to believe it was true.

As a debate, I didn't like this format. The opening statement was much too long, and it would be impossible for his opponent to point out every problem with it. But a half hour of this - hours, by the time I finished this post - was more than enough for me. I don't know what Ed Buckner said, but I don't need to listen to people who agree with me. What would be the point of that?

OK, I enjoy listening to these debates, and most of my enjoyment comes from the atheist response. But I'm always hoping for something new from theists. After all, my lack of belief isn't going to be tested by an atheist.

Of course, Tzortzis didn't test me much, either. At all, really. I've heard the same thing many times from Christian apologists, and it wasn't very convincing then, either.

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