Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Is it true that you cannot use logic to explain/understand Islam?

In my last post on fate, destiny and pre-ordainment, a commenter left an interesting remark: You cannot use logic in religion. This is an interesting comment which got me thinking. Some part of me says, yeah he is right, but somehow the other part of me would like to challenge this notion. So this entry is a discourse analysis (without much time to think) on the relevance of logic in religion. The word religion is extremely broad as it covers so many different religions, and somehow I don't really fancy the word religion as I am still trying to understand what it means by “religion”. Since my last article was quite Islam centric so I can only assume that the commenter was referring to Islam specifically. So the question that will form the basis of my thought process is: Is it true that you cannot use logic to explain/understand Islam?

For starters, we need to understand what logic actually means. In our everyday English use, it would simply mean “a particular way of thinking, especially one which is reasonable and based on good judgment”. This is the definition provided by Cambridge dictionary. In the study of philosophy, logic is a field on its own. Gensler, in his book Introduction to Logic, defined Logic as the “the analysis and appraisal of arguments” and he continued to say “when you do logic, you try to clarify reasoning and separate good from bad reasoning”. So essentially logic is about good reasoning. Logic is about coherent argument. It is about forming the right premises to support your conclusions. A logic can be flawed if it is either not based on valid reasoning (i.e. premises don't support conclusions) or that the reasoning is not sound (i.e. premises are false).

However I personally believe that logic is also a function of our exposure, knowledge and experiences; and as these can evolve with time then so do our ability and perspectives of logic. For example, centuries ago when many believe that the world is flat (and not spherical), the use of such flat world theory as premises to support your arguments back then could be seen as a sound argument. But today, if I were to present the same argument when we know for sure that the Earth is spherical, I would be perceived as being illogical! What this says is that logic evolves as we get wiser and have more insights. It is human tendency to classify things that we don't know as being illogical.

One could still argue that there are things that we don't know but there are also things that we know for sure. And the line separating this is, arguably, quite clear. So if we know something does not make sense (i.e. false!), then it must be illogical. I still wish to challenge this notion as I feel that our knowledge of nature is still at its infancy.

In our modern day thinking, when we think of something as being common sense, very often, knowing or unknowingly, we are basing this on scientific principles. If you were to ask a non-science based person what would happen if I were to jump off a building, then he would tell you for sure that you would fall down. This is science, even if there is no mention of gravity and Einstein!

Many people seem to think that science is absolute and deterministic, and therefore must form the basis of our everyday logic. But actually it is not necessarily the case. So what is science?

Science is not about a novel creation. Science is about explaining an observation using ab initio methods. The only novelty in this is the formulation of new theories for an old observation, or the application of existing theories to explain new observations. So the evolution of science and the discoveries of new principles are driven by observations. As an example, Newton observed an apple falling off a tree to the ground and he formulated the concept of gravity. Assuming that we live in space where there is no knowledge of gravity and its effects on earth, I doubt Newton or anyone else would have conjured such a fancy concept that easily, and even if he did, it would probably have been deemed illogical by many. The essence of this is that scientific discoveries are being driven by what happens in nature and things that we do not observe frequently is often seen as being unnatural and perhaps even illogical. And scientific discoveris, like many other outcomes of mankind thinking process, has severe limitations. Please don't misconstrue this as a call for us to stop thinking. This is a call for us to not immediately dismiss an idea on grounds of illogicality since our logical aptitude is restricted.

In 1927, Heisenberg (see image) published a scientific paper which revolutionized the way scientists view science. It was later known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Essentially the implication of his arguments was that no phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon. But the act of observing a phenomenon, in some cases, is a function of the observation methodology which could temper with the originality of the phenomenon such that it is no longer natural (I will not bore you with the details of this). So effectively what it means is that science may not be absolute after all!

It is also worthy of note that most scientific predictions (such as weather forecasts) are based on probabilistic functions- i.e. how likely for an event to occur, or how likely for it to be a real observation. In any cases, these probabilistic functions are based on a non-deterministic model, which means that it depends critically on the initial assumptions. Heisenberg has shown that it is not possible to know something with the greatest certainty. So any infinitesimally small deviation (i.e. error) in the initial assumptions would accumulate error rapidly and make the final prediction useless. This is why weather prediction beyond a few days is typically not reliable. This is known as the butterfly effect- a non-significant event somewhere could render the scientific predictive power futile.

I am in no way saying that science is flawed. I am just saying that it has its own limitations. Even the simplest question of “is light made up of waves or particles” have yet to be fully resolved (I hope to write more on this someday).

So coming back to the key question at hand, can logic be used to reason Islam?

The guiding principles of Islam are written in the Quran. In some cases the Quran does provide the premises for certain principles. But in other cases, the Quran provides the guidelines for living life without the underlying premises, and if we wish we could try to reason it but do not fault God if we fail to do so logically.

I personally believe that the answer to this question is: Yes and No.

Yes, if you know the science behind the logic. No, if we haven’t broken the limitations of logic (i.e. newly acquired knowledge, new perspectives on logic etc). But that does not mean to say that Islam is not logic. It is merely saying that we don't know enough to form a valid and sound logic. Logic evolves. I believe that Islam does not. Logic may catch up with the Quran, or it may not…. No one knows.

Historically Einstein had repeatedly said this: “God does not play dice”. Indeed, it’s just that sometimes He throws the dice in places where it cannot be seen. It is our duty to seek these dices to reveal the logic.

12 comments:

  1. A very interesting post, i must say =)

    What i would like to add, is the common practice of Muslims (myself included) to simply attribute, or resort to the word "faith" when the rulings of the religion cannot be justified using logic and sound judgment.

    Which brings forth the question, will mankind, in his lifetime (say up to 60 years of age), ever be able to justify with logical arguments, on the accuracy of the rulings of Qur'an, the reasoning behind every act that we do, which we say with absolute certainty, are the rulings from God Himself?

    Personally, i wish to be able to utilize my logical capabilities and justify EVERY aspect of Islam. I would most certainly try to. But in the mean time, would we resort to the word "faith", or do we simply disregard whatever we can't justify logically?

    Can we equate the word "logic" and "faith"? Is the word "faith" which we impose in our religion, used to ensure the loyalty of followers to a common teaching, which by the way, can't seem to be justified logically? Or are these words simply not meant to be used in the same sentence, ever.

    It has been thousands of years since Islam was introduced (by Prophet Muhammad). Some of the greatest scholars have roamed the discussion on religion. Mankind have yet to denote a logical explanation (or assign a premise) to every aspect of Islam. So do we go on faith till we get there? Will we ever get there? How many Qur'an-justifying discoveries have been made in the last 20 years? How many more would be made in the next 20? Do we rely on faith for the time being? And the most disturbing question, is faith alone enough? (i hope i am not out of line by bringing up this particular question. I am merely thinking out loud)

    Just some of my thoughts which were never really answered.

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  2. 1. The fact that we have to ask the question: whether reason can be used to understand Islam? – must mean that it has become an issue. Why?

    2. The alternative will be: “Islam cannot be understood or explained by reason”. What does this mean – that Islam is not consistent with reason?

    3. The efficacy of reason and logic is if course dependent on the quality and quantity of facts and knowledge available at a particular time. It also depends on the mental ability of the analyst. While these are obvious limitations, it does not diminish the importance of reason and logic in our lives.

    4. Faith is too often said to be the antithesis of reason. It is often overlooked that faith maybe be devoid of reason OR faith may be derived from logic and reason. One is blind faith, the other, a considered conviction. From example, it is our reasoning and logic that makes us believe that total deprivation of water and food will inevitably cause death. Total blind faith will not be able to stop the impending death.

    5. Of course one has the liberty to believe that lions fly and goats have 4 wings – in the past or the future - and become people of faith. On the available information, these things are not possible and nonsensical.

    6. Religions, in general not only cover the “natural” but also the “supernatural”. Supernatural, by definition is not comprehensible with existing knowledge or it could probably be purely fantastic. Do we look upon a specific thing as “supernatural” because it is forever beyond our comprehension or because we are unable to comprehend it for the moment? This distinction is important because most often, the result of the inquiry is determined by the quality of the inquiry. Ask the wrong questions, you get the wrong answer.

    7. Islam as I understand it is implores reasoning, inquiry, research, thinking and self reflections. The Quran clearly makes the minds, and the “hearts” accountable. (Quran 17:36).

    8. You may want to view some of my views related to the topic at:

    http://jahamy.blogspot.com/2009/11/antara-taksub-dan-berfikir-boleh.html

    http://jahamy.blogspot.com/2009/05/is-your-belief-personality-disorder.html

    http://jahamy.blogspot.com/2009/05/religion-or-ad-deen-way-of-life-part.html

    http://jahamy.blogspot.com/2009/05/how-did-you-become-muslim.html

    Peace !

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  3. Are You Gonna Go My WayJuly 4, 2010 at 9:11 PM

    what comes after logic is explanation. When things cannot be explained, here comes the reason why they said "you cannot use logic in Islam", just a way to hide their deficiencies.

    Islam is physical and spiritual.Visible and invisible (ghaib, which is wajib percaya). To understand ghaib part, you have to prepare your self spiritually ie zikir bertafakur etc.. After your spiritual being has got all its nutrients it needs to grow spiritually...then only a person will understand and it will become part of logic.

    All religions are the same not in practice but in the goal of searching for the Al Mighty( Allah)...

    Being a Muslim is not the end but just the beginning..of searching ..and once you've found who,what Allah is...it is not the end but the beginning of religion (awal agama adalah mengenal Allah)

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  4. fikh, munakahat, muamalat, tasawwuf etc full use of science, logic, hypothesis and reasoning.

    tauhid, at certain point is beyond humans' logical and comprehensive thinking.

    in conclusion, yes agree with you, yes and no.

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  5. Dear Jahamy,
    i think it is a very important question to ask for someone who is just starting a journey towards discovering Islam since a big part of the discovery process relies on the critical analyses of the Quran. So it is important to know up front what MIGHT be the limitations, where in this case i believe that our mental capacity is severely restrictive simply because we depend too much on our everyday physical observations to define logic. If we break free from this narrow definition of logic, then i feel that we are enhancing our capability of reasoning everything much better. Supernatural things may sound illogical because we dont have experience researching this. Imagine if we never knew of the nature of birds, would we have ever believed that there is a living organism that could fly?

    I fully agree that Islam and the Quran implores thinking, reasoning and researching.

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  6. Farid,
    An important point to make is that we need to differentiate between faith and conviction. Faith without reasoning is blind faith. Faith with reasoning is conviction. If we cant understand something, it doesnt make it illogical forever. If we dont understand something and we still practice it because we are told to do so by someone who apparently knows better, then it is blind faith, which is dangerous. I think if you wanna follow something that is in the Quran, but dont yet fully understand it, its fine as long as you are convinced of the source of the information itself, i.e. the Quran. Slowly you can try to figure out the reasons for a particular act. Anyway, this is just what i currently believe in.

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  7. Are You Gonna Go My WayJuly 11, 2010 at 1:34 AM

    Mac,

    Al quran is the map to find the real quran....there is no guessing game in al-quran. You follow the map to reach your destination. Its about finding Allah...

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  8. Mac,

    If our mental capacity is severely restrictive to understand the Quran, may I ask, restrictive relative to what? And what is beyond our mental capacity? Ans: Like what the uncertainty principle suggests, nothing.

    Let's take the example of a caveman's first encounter with a computer. We might say, the computer is something supernatural to him, but not to us today. Are we implying that his mental capacity is restricted relative to ours? What about the caveman's instinctive knowledge of hunting or food-gathering (i.e how to hunt animals; edible plants and fruits). Note: instinctive. Surely they didn't have to sit for exams to learn how to survive in the jungle, and yet they did. Are survival skills something supernatural to us? So our minds are more restricted than theirs?

    It's useless to measure the limits of our mental capacity, simply because to be able to do that requires an examiner who is mentally superior than his subjects. If we were to do that ourselves, it's like asking students to write their own exam questions and mark their own paper at the same time.

    Just be thankful for what we can achieve with our current understanding of the Universe. But if anyone insists on subverting logic for the supernatural, then I wish him/her all the best in his/her life.


    K

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  9. K,
    1) i am not sure how you use the uncertainty principle to come to that conclusion.

    2) Our mental ability to do logic is function of our experience. Taking the same caveman example that you gave, he would probably think that it is illogical to use such a machine (i.e. the computer) to communicate with someone faraway without any physical connection in between. But for us, it is perfectly logical because we have had the oppoturnity to experience and research the computer. Our capacity to do logic is different from the caveman's. But it does not make one superior than the other. Logic, i feel, is subjective. There is no right or wrong.

    3) Our mental capacity is restricted relative to the availability of knowledge in the world. We build upon our mental power by researching on the things that we can observe. For example, if i were to be isolated from the natural environment since childbirth (i.e. not had any exposure to the outside world at all), and then suddenly someone tells me that there is an organism called bird that could fly, and naturally i would think that this is silly. BUT it is silly only because i have not seen what a bird looks like and i have not had the experience of observing a flying bird. What i have no experience in is deemed as illogical. Our experiences have been very limited. We have no experience beyond what we can see, touch, smell and imagine...

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  10. Mac,

    Thanks for your kind response. This is what I think:

    If there is something beyond our senses, it is simply insignificant to our process of reasoning.

    OK, let me concede that my experiences are limited, relative to the sum of everyone else's experiences. But I can only reason with those experiences I have so far.

    To say that my mental power is limited because I haven't experienced 'everything' yet, could only mean either one of two things:

    1) that I'm subjected to submit into blind faith - why? - because there are some things that I don't yet understand, hence I must simply believe what the gurus say.

    Or (2) that I must strive to seek an explanation, exhausting all resources before I reach a conclusion about something I don't yet understand.

    I hope we can agree to settle for the latter.


    K

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  11. And oh, by the way, I've discussed 'Believe vs Knowledge' here:

    http://adropfullcup.blogspot.com/2010/03/belief-vs-knowledge.html

    In short, there are things that we could only 'believe' to be true, while others we can 'know' that it's true for sure.

    Cheers!

    K

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  12. Salam Mac.

    Thank you for commenting on my blog. Interesting discussion in your blog. Do drop me an e mail at ali.syedakbar@gmail.com

    Salam. Syed Akbar

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