Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The best answer to this question is we don't know.

Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post UK and a contributing writer for the New Statesman. The New Statesman published an article on December 19 Why is there something rather than nothing? by Mehdi Hasan in which he argues that his theistic belief in prophets and miracles is properly evidenced. He begins by saying that evidence is not proof, therefore faith is not belief in something without evidence.

One of the recurring problems with this discussion is the introduction of everything or nothing, faith or proof, ignorance or knowledge, and other similar false dichotomies that confuse and obscure the real issue, which is belief justification. Our beliefs do not need to be proven, or appear in science textbooks, or qualify as knowledge, to be properly justified. But that doesn't mean that there are no standards at all and every belief is equally, or even properly, justified. Nor does it mean that a belief is properly justified by citing faith. Beliefs are properly justified by evidence, not by faith. Therefore, the word "faith" shouldn't even appear in an argument for a belief.

So when Richard Dawkins publicly asked Mehdi Hasan ‘‘You believe that Muhammad went to heaven on a winged horse?”, he was asking a fair question. Certainly he wasn't thereby guilty of claiming "the likes of Descartes, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Rousseau, Leibniz and Locke were all unthinking or irrational idiots". Very intelligent people can profess beliefs that are poorly justified, and religious beliefs in particular have a tendency to have this role. Therefore, we cannot properly justify particular beliefs merely on the grounds of esteeming the intellects of people from the past who held similar beliefs.

Mehdi Hasan then makes three arguments, starting with the cliche "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I can’t prove God but you can’t disprove him. The only non-faith-based position is that of the agnostic." This notion that the only way to properly anchor a belief in the overall available evidence is to refuse to take a side and remain undecided is mistaken. On the contrary, anyone who takes an evidence first approach to justifying their beliefs is compelled to take sides and prefer one conclusion over competing conclusions whenever the evidence favors that conclusion. Proof in some absolute sense has nothing whatsoever to do with properly justifying beliefs because such proof is impossible (we are not omniscient and omnipresent) and unnecessary. Also, whenever a particular conclusion implies the presence of supporting evidence, and such evidence is absent, the absence of that evidence is itself evidence against that particular conclusion. So, contrary to what Mehdi Hasan asserts, that tired cliche (absence of evidence is not evidence of absence) is sometimes false.

Mehdi Hasan then begins his second argument by citing four examples of statements that "cannot be scientifically tested or proven" yet are reasonable to believe to be true: "1) Your spouse loves you. 2) The Taj Mahal is beautiful. 3) There are conscious minds other than your own. 4) The Nazis were evil." In fact, it is both possible, and wise, to follow the evidence when deciding whether or not your spouse loves you, whether or not other minds are conscious, and whether or not some ideology was evil. Statements about objects being beautiful also have some evidence based content, but such statements about feelings and sentiments are distinct from statements about historical events or existence claims. Atheists are not making the unreasonable claim that all possible statements require evidence to be properly justified when we insist that factual statements about historical events, or about existence claims, or about how the world works, require evidence to be properly justified.

Mehdi Hasan continues his second argument by noting that "science itself is permeated with unproven (and unprovable) theories. Take the so called multiverse hypothesis." Mehdi Hasan asks "How do we 'prove' that these “billions and billions” of universes exist?" A multiverse is not a theory, it is a prediction of scientific theories which are well evidenced and accepted. There are four theoretical categories of multiverse, called levels. Inflation naturally produces the Level I multiverse, and if you add in string theory with a landscape of possible solutions, you get Level II, too. Quantum mechanics in its mathematically simplest ("unitary") form gives you Level III. If theories are scientific then it's legitimate science to work out and discuss all their consequences even if they involve unobservable entities. Evidence need not be direct, indirect evidence is also evidence. The notion that there is no evidence for the prediction that there is a multiverse, and therefore a multiverse is believed merely on faith, is a misunderstanding, which a minority of accommodationist scientists, such as Templeton Foundation prize winner (1995) Paul Davies, have unfortunately promoted.

Mehdi Hasan's third argument is that there is evidence for God, citing the Kalam cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, and "the late Antony Flew, the atheist philosopher who embraced God in 2004, did so after coming to the conclusion that 'there had to be an intelligence behind the integrated complexity of the physical universe'." Mehdi Hasan then concludes that God is the best answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?"

However, the Quran, like the Bible, depicts a universe where humans are central to what the universe is all about and why it exists, while the overall empirical evidences much better fits the conclusion that humans are inconsequential and unimportant. We are a primate mammal on a small planet orbiting one of the more than 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. Given the failed track record of arm chair theologians and philosophers, citing logical puzzles as evidence for a God, let alone for the God of Islam, is not particularly persuasive. No one predicted the theory of relativity and quantum chromodynamics, or the number of stars, from logic alone. A better answer to Mehdi Hasan's question is that the quantum vacuum state is unstable and the multiverse is eternal. Since the multiverse always was, it didn’t have to come from anything. Beyond that, the best answer by far is that we do not know. Existence could be a brute fact that has no further explanation. Some people convince themselves that with this one word, God, they have answers which they actually don't have and don't need.

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