Archive for the Science Category

Dear atheist

Posted in atheism, relationships, Religion, Science with tags , , , , on March 2, 2015 by shirhashirim

My wife was watching a video on her new smart phone the other day and from a distance I heard some of its text. So I jokingly yelled at her: ‘you’re not watching evangelical propaganda are you?’ Much to my surprise she wasn’t. It was this video:

Every time I find atheist propaganda, I can’t but sigh and think of Dostoyevsky’s dictum: ‘When I discuss faith with an unbeliever, he’s talking about something else.’ Still, as the Dutch protestant theologist Miskotte said: ‘Atheists are our natural allies, because they ask the right questions’ and at least some questions posed in te video are worth answering. So here I go…

Dear believer, have you ever stopped to consider why you believe what you believe? Have you ever thought about why you chose the religion you chose? Why do you believe in Jesus Christ as the only means to eternal salvation and not in karma, or reincarnation? Why do you believe that Allah is the one true God and Mohammed is His prophet and not in the four noble truths of the Buddha? Why do you hold the Thorah as the only revealed word of God and not the Baghavat Gita?

I’m perfectly happy to explain to you why I married my wife. I’m also perfectly happy that I’ve never been required to explain why I did not marry the 3,5 billion other women in the world.
In fact I do not expect anyone to oblige me to explain my choices – of spouse, of profession, of breakfast cereal even – in terms of an exhaustive list of reasons for excluding every conceivable alternative.
No Samaritan should be required to explain his rejection of the Baghavat Gita and all other holy writs in favour of the Thorah, before being taken seriously. Nor should any Muslim be compelled to first convincingly reject Buddha and all other religious founders before his viewing Muhammad as Gods prophet can be discussed.
Flooding people with an exhaustive list of alternatives to tackle first is – at best – an obsessive deviation and – at worst – a dishonest trick. In my language there’s a proverb for this: ‘One fool can ask more questions than a thousand wise men can answer.’

Dear believer, do you ever wonder why your heaven resembles a utopian earth and is composed of same base elements found right here on this planet? Do you ever wonder why your dede governs within a power structure that resembles that of the specific time and place in which your holy text was written? Do you ever wonder why your God looks just like you, or the animals with whom you share the planet?

My heaven certainly does not resemble a utopian earth, just as my hell doesn’t resemble a distopian earth, for the simple reason that I have no idea what the afterlife, in whatever form, may look like. I don’t even know whether it can ‘look’ or be ‘like’ anything we know. The same goes for other concepts, like – just to name a random example – God who does not ‘look’, nor is ‘like’ anything. That idea is common to an alarmingly large number of believers of whatever denomination.

Dear believer, is the faith you practice the dominant one within your culture? Do you not find it at least a little suspicious that the overwhelming majority of all religious believers adopt the religion of the society into which they were born, yet remain convinced they’ve locked out or been divinely admitted into the one true faith? Does it not make you at least somewhat apprehensive that allmost every person of faith chooses belief, not because of its virtues, supporting evidence, moral codes or expression of worship, but rather because it was what they were born into? Why out of the abundance of faith choices available does almost every believer on the planet choose the faith that’s within arms reach? Are you a Christian because you were born in America or Europe? A Muslim because you were born in Saudi Arabia or Indonesia? A Buddhist because you were born in Japan or China? A Hindu because you were born in India? Can it be that faith is, in almost every case, just an accident of geography? Do you sincerely believe that had you been born in another country, you’d undoubdedly still be practicing the same faith you now embrace?

And did you know that a vast majority of lovers out of an abundance of choices of partner, choose a spouse from the same country that they were born in? Even if they live in another? Even worse: most of them choose a spouse that speaks the same language, practices the same religion, grew up in the same social class and enjoyed the same level of education. In short: they choose a spouse that is within arms reach. Yet they remain convinced they’ve been – for some of us more or less divinely – admitted into a true and unique relationship. Does it not make you at least somewhat apprehensive that love is – in almost every case – an accident of geography, linguistics, education and social class? Yet the majority of couples live complete and fulfilled lives without ever being sure they’ve chosen the best spouse for themselves.
Most people are born into a religion that they stick to for the rest of their lives, judging by mere labels that is. But during their lives they have to regularly make the choice of remaining in there or changing their faith. Most do change it because they grow up, become adults, gather new life experiences, grow old and gather even more. Changing your faith however hardly ever requires you to change your religion. It depends a bit on the religion: in the white Anglosaxon and protestant corner of the world every disagreement about an iota or comma requires founding a new church, in the Hindu corner of the world, and many others, anything goes.
The point is: those that ultimately do not change their religion discover their faiths virtues, supporting evidence, moral codes and expression of worship in the course of their lives. So it is not correct to say people choose their religion because they were born into it at the exclusion of its virtues, supporting evidence, moral codes and expression of worship. Both are important, decisive even, at varying points in life.

Dear believer, is the faith you practice that of your parents and their parents before them? Is it the first to which you were exposed? Did you know that nearly all religious devotees end up believing what they were taught to believe by their parents? Why is it that we scoff at the idea of labelling a young person a Republican child or a Marxist child or a Keynesian child, understanding he or she lacks the intellectual discrimination, life experience and wisdom to make such a complicated and nuanced decision, but we do not raise so much as an eyebrow when a youngster is referred to as a Christian child? Surely a choice no less complex. Could it be that there’s no such thing as a Muslim child, just a child of Muslim parents?

I could not possibly answer your first question, as the faith of my dad differed vastly from that of my mom and mine again differs a lot from both, although by mere denomination we’re are all three Roman Catholics. So no, even though we share the same label, I did not ‘end up’ believing what my parents taught me to believe and I happen to know neither did they, even though all four of my grandparents shared the same label.
Everyone’s faith changes though life because people – and the world –  change: they grow up and grow old and meanwhile they gather the intellectual discrimination, life experience and wisdom that goes with their age – or so we hope – and faith cannot do anything else but change with that. It doesn’t ‘end up’, not if you look close enough, not if you look past the labels.
We scoff at the idea of calling a child Marxist or Keynesian because it is clearly nonsensical. Most of us get to know Marx and Keynes in our teenage years at the earliest, when our society thinks it’s time for our youngsters to learn about economical theory. But we get to know humanity – or the lack thereof – from the very first day of our lives, maybe even earlier. We get into contact with humanity though the filter that are our parents – in the first place – and our culture at large. Whether we like it or not, this is what defines us. So we rightly do not raise an eyebrow when a child is called Catholic or Muslim just as we do not mind calling it English, Arabic, Catalan or Kurdish or even ‘lower class’ or ‘nobility’.
Making choices with regards to faith is, in essence, as easy as dealing with other people. Adults do it, but kids do it too, both in their own way. It’s not like choosing a Marxist approach to economy, it’s more like choosing to smile. And that decision can be made as easy or as difficult as you want it to be.

Dear believer, you are supremely confident in your faith, you know it is the right one and all others are wrong. You are literally willing to bet your eternal soul on that very fact. And yet, have you ever stopped to consider that there are two dozen major religions and literally thousands of different faiths practiced on this planet? Did you know that within Christianity alone there are more than 45.000 different denominations, each claiming to understand ultimate truth better than all the others? Do you realise that each member of every faith practiced is just as devout, just as sincere and their conviction every bit as sure as yours? Did you know they too read infallible holy texts, have airtight apologetics, have experienced miracles, feel God’s presence, sense His still small voice, obediently follow His perfect will for their lives, love Him indescribably and can defend their belief with the same fervency as you do yours? (armed Israeli soldier pictured here) And yet, since every religion is mutually exclusive and contradicts the others in matters both large and small, they cannot all be right, right? You know, you just know, your faith is the exception and yet, if every member of every faith feels just as you do, what are the odds you’re right?

I am not supremely confident in my faith, nor do I think all other religions are wrong. Only a fundamentalist thinks like that and as everyone who reads a newspaper now and then knows, fundamentalists may be the group that manages to make the largest amount of fuzz, they are also a minority.
Among the 45.000 denominations in Christianity I know of a few that explicitly claim the very opposite of what you claim them to believe. And even on a larger scale you are quite wrong: Christianity – in whatever form – cannot consider Judaism ‘wrong’ by definition. It would undermine their own faith to do so. They can regard Judaism as incomplete, at most, but not as wrong. It’s even worse for Islam which cannot view either Judaism or Christianity as wrong, although here too ‘incomplete’ is an option.
Neither will you find that all Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and other monotheists reject Islam as wrong, and vice versa, for the simple reason that if you both believe in one God, it necessarily has to be the same One.
And with Islam we haven’t seen the end of this. Hinduism has a tendency towards syncretism to such an extent that my teacher of oriental history thought only one definition of a Hindu was valid: a Hindu was anyone who claimed to be a Hindu. Buddhism too turns out to be a religion that in some cases is perfectly compatible with other religions.
Then there are the ethnic religions of which there are many more than global ones. They have no missionary zeal whatsoever and lack any of the claims you describe: their religion is for their own group, and for nobody else. You couldn’t get in there even if you wanted to. They’re usually small and unknown and only get into the news when religious fanatics threaten their existence: Yezidi’s and Mandaeans for example.
Not all religions use holy texts, in fact, the majority doesn’t. And those religions which do use holy texts, do not always hold them to be infallible. They are generally held to be sacred, true, inspired or inspiring, or any combination of those, but infallible holy texts are the hallmark of fundamentalists, again.
And last but not least: when will atheists finally learn that 99.99% of all believers worldwide have never seen a miracle, never felt Gods presence nor ever heard His voice. For the love of God, get over this obsession with the supernatural, will you?

Dear believer, I’ve often been told that my unbelief is a guarantee of missing out on heaven and ending up in hell, but who’s heaven, who’s hell? I’ve often been told that I should – just to be safe – accept God, after all, what have I got to lose? But whose God? Given so many options, aren’t I more likely to choose incorrectly? Might not I be better off wagering on no God rather than on the wrong God? You put it to me: what if you’re wrong? But what if you’re wrong? What if, rather than Jehovah, Allah is the one true God, or Shiva or Wu Tan, or some God on the other side of the planet you’ve never even heard of yet? The truth is, you already know what it’s like to be an atheist in regards to every other faith, but your own. It’s clear to you that adherents to other faiths are mistaken, deluded or deceived. But they think the same of you. The way you view them is exactly the way they view you. Every devout Hindu has embraced his faith for the exact same reasons you have embraced yours, yet you do not find his reasons compelling, nor do you lose sleep at night, fearing that if you die, you’ll wake up in his hell. Given this, is it so hard to see why some of us just take our atheism one God further?

This is an easy one. See, the point is – to complicate matters further – you don’t have to choose among the many available religions, you can come up with your own faith. In fact: you have no other choice. Because the answer to your question: ‘whose God?’ is: ‘your God’ and the same goes for heaven and hell. As long as you stick to that you cannot go wrong, even if you are. There must be things, principles, values in your life that you hold sacred, maybe not in a religious sense, but still: you hold them to be somehow sacrosanct. Without them life as you see it would be hell (but not in a religious sense necessarily), with them, it could become heaven (ditto). And they may not be arguable or supported by empirical evidence or battle proven, but still, you prefer them over anything else. They may be as simple and irrational as ‘always be kind’, ‘if in doubt, choose life’ or ‘as long as it liberates people, it’s ok’.
If that eventually means you’ll be an atheist, chapeau to you, because it is always preferable to be a good atheist than a bad Amish, or any of the other 45.000 denominations.
The only thing I hope you’ll not end up with, is thinking that all others are mistaken, deluded or deceived, because that’s not what believers think, it’s what a fundamentalist thinks, or Richard Dawkins.

Dear believer, I wonder if religions aren’t just ancient constructs in which early humans attempted to both explain and control the chaotic world around them. Though irrational in content, their emergence certainly isn’t. We do not blame our ancestors for inventing religion. There is no shame whatsoever in stumbling when you are blind or failing to properly construct a puzzle in the dark. But we no longer live in the dark. Science is ablaze in our world and illuminates our way, dissipating shadows and exposing even the deepest of crevasses. We no longer live in a cave, we have crossed the valley, scaled the mountains and have begun to make out the magnifcent vista on the other side. We no longer require comforting stories to make us feel safe or valued. Is it not time that our beliefs match our discoveries? Is it not time that our ideas reflect our new perspective? There is equal, if not greater awe in reality than there is in fantasy. Perhaps it is time to stop telling ourselves that we are the reason the universe was made, that our culture is somehow better than other cultures, that our tribe was chosen over all other tribes (pictures of orthodox Jews here). It is time to learn how the universe really is, even if that deflates our conceits, wounds our pride, humbles our point of view and forces us to admit that we do not have all the answers.

Some religions may have originated that way, specifically the ones we tend to label ‘pagan’. But – contrary to a widespread misunderstanding – early humans were smart enough to realise that they really were not capable to control the chaotic world around them by whatever means. It took a bit longer to discover that the explanation part was just as impossible, but still, we found that out too.
As a result, most of the major religions on the planet developed into beliefs that were anything but comforting and reassuring. It questioned our deepest religious convictions and practices. It introduced us to uncomfortable concepts like human inadequacy, guilt, obligations and prohibitions. It taught us annoying things like law and obedience and just when we had gotten the message and had settled into our new habit, it taught us to question the Lawgiver and the value of disobedience. It also taught us to question our ideas about superiority, of our tribe, of our religion, our culture, even of ourselves. Most of all, it taught us the rather unpleasant idea that we might still be living in the dark, despite all the mountaineering metaphores.
Sure, we know about the beginning of the universe, but that does not help us to say sorry to our spouses. We can split an atom, but we cannot end a war. We can put a man on the moon, but we cannot end homelessness. And when our fellow man is dying, we are just as speechless and helpless as early humans were. For all our knowlegde and enlightenment, we still stumble as often as ancient man and we still suck at solving the puzzles life confronts us with.
Deflating our conceits, wounding our pride, humbling our point of view and forcing us to admit that we do not have all the answers; really, it was religion that got there first.

Believer, if you honestly value the truth of all things as you claim, as I truely know you do, you must confront these fundamental questions, ‘far better’, Carl Sagan said, ‘to embrace a hard truth than a reassuring fable.’

That, however, is not the choice: it’s between a reassuring truth and a hard fable. The faithful aim higher than mere reality.

Dear atheist, do you ever wonder why you get told by believers that you think like a fundamentalist? Do you not find it at least a little suspicious that this keeps popping up from people of various walks of faith? Because I know, I just know this has happened to you and if it didn’t, it should have.

In my answers above I’ve referred frequently to fundamentalists and I mentioned ‘white, Anglosaxon and Protestant’, because when listening from afar to your video I picked up texts that gave me these clues. The clues that at first made me think my wife was watching some televangelist.

In the way you adress us in your video, you sketch a picture of believers who hold their own ideas as the only correct ones, as the best possible understanding of the Truth at the exclusion of all other ways of understanding. You assume people of faith are supremely confident, would even bet their eternal souls on being right, and regard those who differ from them as mistaken, deluded or even deceived and destined for a rather unpleasant hereafter. You talk about the inerrant holy scriptures we have and the infallible truths we hold. But these are characteristics of just one tiny corner in the vast and caleidoscopic world of faith. It’s the corner roughly indicated by my clues I mentioned earlier: white, Anglosaxon, Protestant and fundamentalist.

Out there, in the real world, not all religions have gods or a God. Not all religions consider themselves revealed by the God or gods they believe in. Relatively few religions know a hereafter, let alone a heaven, even fewer know hell and those that do have a hell, don’t necessarily believe there’s anyone in it. Not all religions consider themselves infallible or their holy writ inerrant, if they even have a scripture. Only among white, Protestant fundamentalists will you find people who believe that their only true God condemns the souls of those who do not believe exactly what – according to them – is written in their inerrant holy scripture to an eternal stay in hell.

Outside of that cramped and noisy corner, you will find believers who are not so sure about their faith, who shrug at even thinking about the possibility that others might be barred from going to heaven for holding different convictions. Away from the bigots, wou will find Catholic parents who find peace with the conversion of their children, because it is better to be a good Muslim than a bad Catholic. You will find Muslims who’ll tell you they are Muslims, even though they do not believe the Koran, Protestant pastors that subscribe to atheism and are not barred from preaching in their churches. Away from the world that knows of no other shades than black and white, Hindu guru’s have no trouble preaching Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and even evangelical Christians still knock on wood.

Dear atheist, has it ever occured to you that your atheism is remarkably similar to your idea of what ‘faith’ is, with just one tiny difference: the word ‘not’? Might it be that you are actually – and maybe even for good reasons – criticising and rejecting a faith that is within your arms reach? Is the idea of religion you reject that of your parents? Have your dealings with believers been limited mainly to missionary televangelists, protestant fundamentalists or born-again Christians? Could it be that you idea of what faith is, was shaped by the outliers from the religious population?

Or do you find the world of faith away from where right is right and wrong is wrong too imprecise, too unclear, too blurred or fuzzy to have a meaningful discussion about it? Is grey too nuanced a shade for you to talk with those for whom black is never as dark as it can be, and white an unattainable form of purity? Because in the world of faith it is possible to find believers who are able to recogise thruth in a statement they consider wrong, and vice versa, people who – like the poet – manage to lie the truth. In the world of faith you’ll find paradoxes, contradictions and mysteries, people who’ll talk about their deepest thoughts not in terms of mathematical proofs, but in the stammer of people who are in love and basically incapable to express their feelings with the adequacy you seem to long for.

Dear atheist, all over the world you’ll be able to find believers who see that there’s more to be said for atheism even though they do not share your views completely. Believers who consider atheism a reasonable choice people can make, without seeing you as mistaken, deceived, deluded or hell-bound. Believers who still see you primarily as a fellow human being with whom they might have more in common that they’d expect.

It is those faithfull you might want to adress and listen too. As you so eloquently said: there’s a whole valley out there, beyond the cave.

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The down sides of research schools

Posted in Science with tags , on February 24, 2012 by shirhashirim

In the past few weeks I’ve been reading:

Ohlig, K.H. & M. Gross, 2009. Vom Koran zum Islam. Berlin (Hans Schiller).

It’s already the fourth volume published by the Inarah group. It’s a research school in which a group of scholars have gathered that have what you might call ‘revisionist’ views on the origins of Islam. These views are published regularly in articles that are gathered in volumes like the present one. Inarah are the people that are propagating the theory that Islam originated in present day Iran, as a branch-off from Christianity among Arabs living there. That’s a rough summary.

I am no expert in the field, but I do know something about science in general. A lot of their idea’s simply do not sufficiently fulfill requirements of scholarly rigour. Having reached their fourth volume, they are now getting attention and criticism. In the present volume I found some contributions adressing that critisicm that were quite confrontational. That’s not a good sign.

Let me illustrate my statement on scholarly rigour with an example I found in the fourth volume: Markus Gross’ Fruhislam und Buddismus, neue Indizien (pages 347-396). Gross claims in his contribution that the form of islamic hadith resembles that of Buddhist stories called Itivuttaka and Udana. Hadith are traditional stories that were gathered by muslim scholars for legal and historical reasons. They invariably start with a chain of transmitters, telling the reader who this story is from, who he heard it from and so forth. Ideally these chains go back to the prophet.

Gross has found out that Buddhist traditional stories start out with a comparable chain of transmitters. He supposes Islam has taken over the idea from Buddhism. This would make an origin somewhere in Iran more probable, as Buddism was widespread along the Silk Road. Gross supports his claim by stating that chains of transmission were unknown in Judaism and Christianity.

This however is demonstrably not true. To begin with, the Talmud is full of indications like this. I checked the tractate Sanhedrin, chapter 8 and noted down a few:

Rabbi Abiah b. Rabba b. Nahmani in the name of Rabbi Hisda (according to others in the name of Zeeli) said:
Rabbi Hisda in the name of Uqba (according to others Mar Uqba in the name of Rabbi Sakkai) said:
But did Rabbi Hana b. Mouldha in the name of Rabbi Huna not say that…

And then there are the christian apophthegmata, sayings of the desert fathers, that sometimes also indicate their origin more extensively:

Abba Poemen said that Abba John said…
Abba Poemen said about Abba John the Dwarf…
Abba Doulas, the pupil of Abba Bessarion said…
This is what Abba Daniel, the Pharanite, said: ‘Our Abba Arsenius told us…

I found all these on the internet. As I said: I am no expert, but it was a piece of cake to find evidence to the contrary that Gross should have dealt with.

It shows one disadvantage of research schools, especially if they represent ‘dissident’ views like Inarah. Huddling together with like minded scholars may have its advantages, but in cases like this criticism should be actively sought from outside. Inarah is isolating itself.

Tequilla Trap

Posted in Religion, Science, Society, World politics with tags , , , , , , on November 16, 2010 by shirhashirim

More and more people in the public realm are voicing the opinion that Islam is not a religion, but a political ideology. Some add: like communism or fascism. A Dutch politician has even dared to compare the Qur’an to Mein Kampf. Islam, as a political ideology, is alleged to strive for world domination, nothing less.

The nasty thing is: this is correct. You cannot disprove the idea that Islam is a political ideology. Not because Islam is more of a political ideology than any other religion, but because everything is political. Neither can you disprove the idea that Islam wants to take over the whole world, because every world religion either wants to or would at least prefer to convert the whole world.

A number of critics of Islam has added an idea to all this that has become increasingly popular. It is not only working in the political realm. Politicians have found support for it with scholars of Islam: in order to attain their political goals, Muslims may lie and cheat. It is a concept known in Islam as taqiyya, usually translated as ‘dissimulation’. The Dutch politician I mentioned has alleged this too in court, while on trial for his comparison of the Qur’an to Mein Kampf, among others.

Somehow this idea has so far only been unmasked as factually incorrect. Taqiyya is a concept from Shia Islam. Shiites are a minority of about 10% among all Muslims. They have not, and are not, always treated as equals by their Sunni coreligionists. In Shia Islam the concept of taqiyya was developed for those Shiites that had reason to fear for their lives if they would continue practicing their religion as Shiites among Sunnis. In cases of mortal danger Shiites are allowed to act like Sunnis. For the Calvinists among us: yes they are allowed to lie and cheat to save their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Naturally, taqiyya is loathed by Sunnis and Shiites are regularly criticised by Sunni clerics for being liars and cheats. They have an easy target, because it can be proven from their own writings. For ease, the critics forget that it is an institution that is intended at escaping death from persecutors, not an instrument to promote Shia Islam.

The theological-moral concept taqiyya plays no role in Sunni Islam, for the simple reason that Sunni’s have always been in the majority. However, Arabic being the language that it is, the word taqiyya is sometimes used in Sunni writings concerning a Muslim’s behaviour in war. It may come as no surprise that cheating is allowed in wartime. It has always been everywhere.

Unfortunately the western world has -through Christianity- become thoroughly unacquainted with halakhic religions, where even the simplest moral questions can become the object of lengthy theological debates. Like the question: may a Muslim general use deceit as a weapon?

The fact that it is easy to find writings on the allowed use of deceit in war by Muslims has nothing to do with Muslims being especially deceitful (they are not more that others) it’s just because Islam is a halakhic religion.

But combine the original concept of taqiyya with the (perfectly sensible) idea that deceit is a weapon in war, with the Islamic concept op the realm of Islam (dar al-islam) vs. the realm of war (dar al-harb) and with some qur’anic quotes about the early wars between the Muslims and their opponents (referred to as ‘unbelievers’) and it is easy to write a scholarly-looking piece that seems to prove taqiyya refers to a worldwide Muslim conspiracy to take over the world by deceit. It is in fact just one fallacy: a syllogism of the fourth term.

But besides being factually incorrect it is also nonsensical. That is an aspect of this idea that so far nobody has ever payed attention to. This is because it requires a lot of explanation and because it is thoroughly counter-intuitive.

It starts with Karl Raimund Popper who invented the first major shift in thinking about science since the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment taught us to look at nature and the world as it is in order to attain scientific knowledge about it. If we wanted to know what colour bears were, the only thing we needed to do is look at many bears and determine their colour. Every single new brown bear added credibility to our theory that all bears are brown.

Popper invented the idea that in order to prove us wrong, we only needed one white bear. No matter how many brown bears there were: one white bear would be enough. Instead, Popper proposed that the theory ‘all bears are brown’ did not gain credibility by finding more brown bears, but by the amount of attempts that failed at finding a differently coloured bear. Scientists, in other words, should aim at falsifying theories.

There are two beautiful advantages to this approach. The first is that you can try to falsify a theory in a methodical way. You can go look around for non-brown bears in the same way you’ve so far counted the brown ones, but that will not get you much further unless you are lucky. Instead you can refine your search. You might for example come up with the idea that a lot of mammals on the North Pole are white, for obvious reasons. You might then surmise that if there are bears up there, there’s a fair chance they will be white. This will make your search less random and much more aimed.

The second advantage is even bigger: theories need to be falsifiable. The theory ‘all bears are brown’ can be proven wrong as soon as a non-brown bear is found. This means that there is a specific set of theories that scientifically mean nothing: theories that cannot be falsified. This is not the same as a theory that has been proven right, although the general public tends to see it that way.

A good example of a scientifically nonsensical theory is one of the creationist views of the universe: it was created 6000 years ago, and anything that points to the contrary (fossils, isotope dating) was created with it. Any chance at falsifying this theory founders on the fact that every single counter-argument is already explained by the theory itself. Contrary to popular opinion, science cannot disprove this theory. Nor can it disprove the theory that the universe was created six minutes ago, and everything that points to the contrary with it.

This does not mean that the universe was created 6000 years ago, nor does it mean it was six minutes ago. The two theories are just scientifically nonsensical: they can neither be proven nor disproven, because they’ve been formulated wrong. They should be falsifiable.

The same goes for the theory that Islam is out to attain world domination: anything that might prove the contrary is the result of taqiyya, deceit that is part of the ideology that wants to take over the world. Any Muslim that gets caught up in a discussion about this idea is caught in a trap he cannot reason his way out of, unless he knows his Popper. And even then he’s not in the safe zone: because even if the idea is nonsensical, it might still be true, just like it might still be true that the universe was created six minutes ago.

Unfortunately, the people who divulge these theories are usually not the ones who have read up on theory of science, let alone Popper. They have worse things to do.

Crossroads to Islam

Posted in Arabic, Religion, Science with tags , , on August 11, 2010 by shirhashirim

This blogpost does not represent the view of a scholar versed in the subject matter it is dealing with. Although I am an archaeologist, and I happen to know quite a bit about Islam, I am in no way to be considered an expert on either Islam or the history and archaeology of the Middle East in Late Antiquity. Instead, this post is about how a scholar forms an opinion about works of scholarship not in his field, and how ‘scientific instinct’ and human intuition can sometimes force you to take a decision, before you can determine the merits of said work on pure, objective, scientific -and time consuming- grounds.

I’ve been reading ‘Crossroads to Islam: the origins of the Arab religion and the Arab state‘ by Yehuda Nevo and Judith Koren the past week. The book came out in 2003 and proposes a radically new theory about where Islam and the qur’an came from and when. In short: it did not originate in the Hijaz, but in Northern Arabia, and it did so during a slow process that only culminated in what we now call ‘islam’ at the end of the 8th century, not in the first half of the 7th.

To prove his theory, Nevo uses various archaeological sources: the results of digs in the Middle East, pictures and texts on early Islamic coins, early Arabic papyri and Arabic inscriptions from the first few Islamic centuries in the Middle East, most notably the Negev. Besides that he also uses non-Muslim contemporary sources. I say ‘Nevo’ because from the introduction it is clear that most of the work that went into the book was done by Nevo, and finished by Koren after his untimely death in 1992.

As I said, I am not an expert in early Arabic epigraphy, nor in any type of numismatics, nor in the archaeology of the Middle East, but still I get the strong impression that the book proposes a untennable hypothesis. One reason -and the only acceptably scholarly one- is that we now know the qur’an to be an ancient document that certainly predates the 8th century, thanks to the finds of very old qur’an fragments in Sanaa in Jemen. Nevo follows Wansbrough in his thesis that the qur’an in its present form dates to the end of the 8th, or the 9th century at the earliest. He may -like Wansbrough- not have been aware of these finds (they are certainly not mentioned in his book). But for all other reasons I have had to resort to intuition and gut feeling, rather than expertise.

Back in university I learned two useful concepts: ‘context of discovery’ and ‘context of justification’. The former refers to how you come up with an idea, the latter with how you scientifically justify it. The two are not necessarily the same!

As for context of discovery: throughout the book, actually already in the first chapter, I got the overwhelming impression that Nevo is into something very close to conspiracy theories. It was either that or his career as an archaeologist was secondary and he used to be a lawyer before he chose to be an archaeologist.

Now, I need to at least elaborate from a context of justification. To start with the point that got me thinking in the first place: Nevo proposes a hypothesis on the policy of the Roman empire towards its provinces in the Levant in the first chapter. The hypothesis boils down to this: the Arabs didn’t wrest this part of the world from Byzantine control, but simply took over because it had been the policy of the Roman Empire ever since Diocletian to give up these lands and install a satellite state there. This policy was pursued from the 3rd century to the 8th and entailed not only creating a local elite that could take over the new buffer state but also encouraging religious differences with the Byzantine state.

The first process is a known one in the western part of the Roman empire also: border provinces imported ‘barbarians’ from abroad, giving them land to live on in return for strengthening the border defenses. Eventually these people took over and the West was lost. It may be regarded as a conscious policy, but it’s generally seen as a way to preserve territory, not lose it.

Nevo’s thesis would be the first instance of a state in history that voluntarily chooses to delegate itself away in certain areas. Not only that, it amounts roughly to claiming that British foreign policy towards the America’s for example has been pursuing the same goals and using the same means to attain those ends ever since Henry VIII. It also assumes a Roman/Byzantine empire that was in control during half a millennium, playing it’s allies and enemies around like pawns and not suffering at any time from powerful dissidents or political or religious strife that could have spoiled their grand political strategy. That stretches the imagination.

All this got me in a sceptic mood, but it’s where Nevo starts explaining about the conscious encouragement of religious differences where I really started to frown. The Byzantine empire was characterised by many theological strifes in which the state took a great interest. Nevo assumes these strifes were also part of the grand scheme to decouple the Arab territories from the main empire. When the Christians in both the empire and their Arab satellites seemed to have found some kind of unity in accepting the idea of Monothelitism, the empire made a volte face by suddenly condemning it in 680, thus leaving the nascent Arab states with their own religious identity, as had been intended.

According to Nevo it was all purpose. An almost almighty state, controlling or at least successfully manipulating policy, local elites, religion both internal and external during half a millennium, without ever meeting a serious obstacle and with eventual success: the Middle East became a separate Arab polity. It’s too slick, too smooth, too much of a conspiracy theory to me.

After that, smaller things begin to attract attention. Like Nevo’s use of the writings of St. John of Damascus (676-749), who lived through the period Nevo describes and who used for what we now call ‘muslims’ the word ‘pagans’. Archaeologically it is an attested fact that paganism was all but dead in the 8th century. Nevo uses that and St. John’s terminology to prove the Arabs were still pagan -in a modern sense- in the 8th century. At no point does Nevo acknowledge that St. John may have used the word simply to indicate anything that was just non-Christian and non-Jewish.

Similar streaks of literal-mindedness permeate the book. Let one other example suffice. The same St. John of Damascus at one point mentions the Arab’s holy writ. Instead of using the word ‘qur’an’ or something that sounds like it, he mentions several titles of separate sura’s from the qur’an, like ‘the cow‘. He also mentions ‘the camel’, which is now not a chapter of the qur’an. Nevo concludes from this that during his lifetime the qur’an was not yet a fixed text and the holy writ of the Arabs was still composed of separate bodies of texts, known under their chapter name. We now know this to be incorrect, but even if we had not known this, Nevo should at least have dealt with a few issues before he could draw this conclusion. Was St. John not very well-informed? This does not seem to be likely as he was the chief administrator of the caliph, but it is by all means possible. Umayyads weren’t too much into religion after all. Nevo bypasses this whole discussion. Was St. John writing for an audience that was very well-informed and knew that ‘the cow’ was part of the qur’an, so any reference to the book by its generic name was unnecessary? May St. John have been mocking the type of titles of the sura’s? Was he referring to a known sura under another name?

Nevo’s book fails to convince me. It raises more questions than it answers and even a relative layman like me can come up with rather obvious counter claims, critical questions or -more serious- methodical shortcomings. The only thing that can be said in favor of it, is that it is a must-read for anyone following the scholarly debates on the origins of Islam.

Quote of the day (20)

Posted in Quote of the day, Science with tags on July 15, 2010 by shirhashirim

The plural of anecdote is ‘data’.

Quote of the day (13)

Posted in Quote of the day, Science, The odd post with tags , on December 30, 2009 by shirhashirim

A quick and dirty estimate is better than a long description.

Wolfgang Schlager

Quote of the day (12)

Posted in Quote of the day, Science, The odd post with tags , on December 26, 2009 by shirhashirim

Inertia: there’s a lot of it in the universe, even without dark matter.

Niall O’Reilly