Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Asadullah Ali al-Andalusi's Argument Against Atheism & Naturalism

This piece is a response to a discussion I had on the Facebook page Analytic Philosophy.

At first I simply responded to a post by Sufian Moin which presented Asadullah Ali al-Andalusi's argument. Later, Andalusi himself joined in the discussion and defended his position.

Asadullah Ali al-Andalusi is described (in The Andalusian Project) in this way:

Asadullah Ali al-Andalusi is an international speaker for the Muslim Debate Initiative and Intellectual Wisdom Malaysia on the subject of Islamic thought and civilization. He holds a B.A. in Western Philosophy, an M.A. in Islamic Philosophy, Ethics, and Contemporary Issues, and is currently pursuing his PhD on the topic of the misapplications of Shariah Law in the modern world. He has lectured primarily on the phenomenon of contemporary atheism and has pioneered new arguments against atheists’ central tenets and beliefs. He also specializes in topics related to the philosophy of science, Islamic political thought, Liberalism, terrorism, and other issues regarding the current struggles of the global Muslim community.”

In terms of the specifics of the debate on naturalism, atheism and theism, Andalusi can be seen and heard discussing these issues in his 'Understanding Atheism' videos.


Sufian Moin presents Asadullah Ali al-Andalusi's argument in the following way:

A supposedly new argument that makes theism rational and renders naturalism false has been formulated by a Muslim philosopher whose name is Asadullah Ali Al-Andalusi. This is his argument:

P1) If meaning (and explanation) can only be derived from the natural world, then all conceptions of reality are derived from the natural world

P2) If all conceptions of reality are derived from the natural world, then they must be a coherence of meaningful experiences

P3) People believe that there is a meaningful transcendental reality (God) that shares no properties with the natural world

P4) “If P1 and 2, then P3 is a conception of reality derived from the natural world, which content is a coherence of meaningful experiences

P5) “No number of meaningful experiences can direct one to consider the possibility of something meaningful beyond said experiences

C) “Therefore, P3 is not a conception of reality derived from the natural world

This argument was presented in a lecture series that Asadullah gave in Malaysia...”

Sufian Moin goes into more detail by explaining the above in this way:

P1 and P2 simply state the naturalistic worldview. 'Coherence of meaningful experiences" simply means meaningful experiences that are logically consistent. An example of a "non meaningful experience" is that of a round square, or a married bachelor.

P3 just states a belief people hold (note: the argument is not arguing for the existence of God, so there is no presupposition here).

P4 follows from P1 and P2.”

Naturalist/Empiricist Combinatorialism

Combinatorialism is usually seen as a philosophical position which refers to the combination of universals or elements/parts (e.g., resulting in a possible - rather than an actual – molecule). In other words, it's not usually taken to be about the combination of different experiences or different concepts (as in Andalusi's argument). However, it can indeed be applied to – or used in – this discussion.

So what does it mean to “imagine” the possibilities in Andalusi's argument? When people imagine such things, what, exactly, are they imagining?

When Andalusi says that the 

“mind is capable of imagining and conceiving of possibilities that the external world does not offer through direct experience” 

that means virtually nothing until I know what it is he's imagining and why he takes it to be an imagination of something real/actual and not simply an imaginative act.

Al-Andalusi says that “the mind is not constrained by concepts”; and yet he doesn't explain what that means. It's simply a statement as it stands and there's no reason for anyone to accept it. (It is like me saying “the body moves beyond the physical” and leaving it at that.)

In any case, there are naturalist (as well as plain old empiricist) explanations of the “mind [being] capable of imagining and conceiving of possibilities that the external world does not offer through direct experience”. The fact is, the mind doesn't really move beyond experience in these instances (though it may in others). It simply plays with experiences and juxtaposes them to create something that doesn't itself exist in experience.

All sorts of philosophers have tackled this issue. 

Take D.M. Armstrong's paper 'The Nature of Possibility' (1986). He sums of what happens with a single word: 'combinatorialism'.

He states, for example, that “all mere possibilities are recombinations of actual elements”.

However, I don't need to rely on this naturalist or empiricist position. My questions come before that. These are the questions:

i) What does it mean to imagine Allah existing in a place beyond time and space?

ii) What constitutes that act of imagination? Was it its content? What is being imagined?

The basic fact is that Allah and a place beyond time and space may not be imagined in the first place. Some x's are imagined, sure; though there's absolutely no reason to believe that what's imagined are actually Allah and a place beyond time and space.

Simply repeating the mantra that the “mind [being] capable of imagining and conceiving of possibilities that the external world” doesn't get us anywhere.

Andalusi himself expresses a perceived limitation with the combinatorialist position:

The idea of something being 'beyond' is not the result of direct experience from the natural world -- rather it is a projection.”

If by "going beyond" Andalusi means that such composite entities don't actually exist, then that's correct. However, what makes up the composites aren't beyond anything. The composite is exactly that. Indeed the word 'composite' itself suggests that it doesn't actually exist in the natural world (or perhaps anywhere else).

Empiricists or naturalists have no reason to reject composites or combinatorialism.

Conceiving Allah in a Place Beyond Time and Space?

Sufian Moin explains Andalusi's argument by stating the following:

It's P5 that Asadullah really defends. Imagine you're a fish in a fish tank. Can you, with your little fish brain, come up a concept of the universe as we humans have?”

The fish analogy doesn't work because fish probably don't think at all. Or, at the very least, they have no imaginative capacities. Human beings do have imaginative capacities: hence the Ontological Argument; which Andalusi's argument seems very indebted to.

We don't need to apply a British Empiricist position to Andalusi's argument. We can simply ask:

What do you mean when you say you imagine Allah and his being beyond time and space? What is it, exactly, that you imagine?

There's no need to give Asadullah Ali al-Andalusi the benefit of the doubt. That is, if we assume that he does imagine Allah and his being in a 'place' beyond time and space, then how do we account for that? Why not simply say? -

He doesn't imagine or conceive such things in the first place. Sure, he conceives something. Though what he conceives is not an x outside time and space.

Now we could say (if we wanted to) that what al-Andalusi conceives is entirely determined by his experience. Though we don't even need to go that far.

Andalusi puts what he deems to be one aspect of the naturalist position:

I can't think of a better way to make it clearer, but the claim is in effect like saying if my experiences determine everything I believe, then I would never be wrong about what my experiences commit me to.”

In Andalusi's case, experiences may well determine everything he both believes and conceives. However, that doesn't stop him from being committed to believing that he conceives of Allah and his being in a place beyond time and space. What he conceives is a x and he takes that to be Allah existing outside time and space.

Andalusi writes:

.... we shouldn't be able to think of infinity or limitlessness, because both these concepts do not exist in our surroundings.”

These are all very familiar arguments.

Do people really “think of infinity” or imagine it? What does that mean, exactly? You can use the word “infinity” and even tackle the notion or concept [infinity]. However, since this argument depends on conceivability, I can ask the questions I asked earlier. 

What does it mean to “think of infinity”? What are you thinking of? Are you thinking about George Cantor's statements, a set of equations, a visual image of vast space, etc.? 

Perhaps; though none of these things, strictly speaking, capture infinity; let along imagine it.

In terms of infinity as tackled in mathematics, this can't be what this writer is talking about because that wouldn't deliver what he wants. You can't get infinite space, (non-mathematical) infinity or Allah out of mathematics alone.

And, in a similar vain, he writes:

We can think of Allah being outside time and space (to an extent) and being beyond merciful and beyond kind, et cetera.”

So what was said about infinity applies to that statement as well.

What does it mean to “think of Allah being outside time and space”? It doesn't by definition mean that we do think of an actual Allah and an actual 'place' (which word can I use?) outside time and space. All we may be doing is simply using the words “I imagine Allah outside time and space” and that's it! Just because we utter the words that doesn't mean that something must match the words we utter.

I can utter the words "round square". A round square is logically impossible; though I still uttered those words. What about the words “I imagine Allah outside of time and space”? That situation isn't logically impossible (as such) – though that doesn't mean my words refer to anything specific. And if they do refer to something, it may not be to an x and that x's being outside of time and space. Whatever goes on in this writer's (or mystic's) mind when he says he can imagine “Allah outside time and space”, that doesn't mean that he has literally imagined Allah and his being outside time and space. His might have simply imagined what he deems to be Allah outside time and space.

Andalusi backs up his argument by saying:

But, responding to the contention, a unicorn is just a combination of things that do exist in the real world.”

Yet you could say more or less the same about the locution “I imagine Allah outside time and space” as you would say about statements which refer to unicorns.

One, that imaginative act may indeed include things which “do exist in the real world”. Anything over and above that (such as a place or an existence outside time and space) isn't imagined at all – it's only spoken about. Either that, or some proxy is imagined instead.

My point is blatantly simple: 

It may be that no one “travels beyond the limits of the external world”. 

People may believe that they do so; though believing that you do doesn't mean that you do x. That is, no one conceives or imagines Allah beyond time and space. That which they do imagine will be proxies for Allah and a place beyond time and space. And those proxies may well be derived from their experiences of the natural world.

This isn't Andalusi's attempted proof of Allah's existence as such. If anything, it's an attempted proof that we have knowledge of Allah and Allah's existing beyond time and space – beyond the natural world. Yet there's no such proof because it all depends on the assumption that people do conceive of Allah 'in' a place beyond time and space. It is that which must be tackled.

Conceiving Allah Beyond Time and Place?

Andalusi now makes a distinction between the words 'conceive' and 'imagine' He wrote:

Let's not reduce my argument to only one of the terms I used: 'imagination'. I also used the word 'conceive'.”

They may not be synonyms. However, everything that's been said about Andalusi's use of the word 'imagination' can also be applied to his use of the word 'conceive'. Exactly the same problems arise.

Despite that, Andalusi explains the distinctions which can be made between conceiving and imagining. He writes:

Imagination is the the result of experiences and the minds ability to mold them into different forms or to conclude connections between them. It takes two to tango in this regard. Conception is more abstract and doesn't require external experiences at all.”

Nonetheless, imagination may still be required to juxtapose or 'tango' with one's 'conceptions'. If conceptions (does Andalusi mean concepts?) are abstract entities, it will still require the imagination to juxtapose or use them. And Allah and a place outside of space and time aren't deemed to be abstract entities or concepts themselves.

Terms used in the Argument

Now I'll make some very short points about the (philosophical) terms Andalusi uses in his argument.

So let's take each premise one at a time:

P1) “If meaning (and explanation) can only be derived from the natural world, then all conceptions of reality are derived from the natural world.”

Meaning isn't derived from the natural world. I believe that Andalusi means significance (at least in this context) when he uses the word 'meaning'. However, let's take it that he's using these words as (near)synonyms.

Conceptions of reality aren't only derived from the natural world – they are applied to it. Though conceptions themselves can be seen as being part of the natural world.

What is meant by 'conceptions' anyway? Here again I believe that Andalusi means concepts by 'conceptions'. Concepts can be seen as abstract entities or mental items. Conceptions are usually seen as the result of mental acts. For example, you can form a conception of the concept [liberty] or [truth].

P2) “If all conceptions of reality are derived from the natural world, then they must be a coherence of meaningful experiences.”

Again, does Andalusi mean significant experiences when he says “meaningful experiences”? What does he mean by “meaningful experiences” anyway? Is Andalusi doing ethics or theology or is he talking about the semantic content of experiences regardless of what he calls 'meaningfulness'? (I think the former is the case.)

P3) “People believe that there is a meaningful transcendental reality (Allah) that shares no properties with the natural world.”

Andalusi uses the word 'believe' here. That is, he says that “people believe that there is a meaningful transcendental reality....” He doesn't say that “people conceive a meaningful transcendental reality”. He's talking about people believing in a “meaningful transcendental reality”.

I can also add the Kantian point that if something is truly transcendent, then it can't be either conceived or imagined. (As with Kant's noumena; which are “beyond experience”.) I also believe that Andalusi means transcendent when he says 'transcendental'. These two words have different meanings in philosophy. For example, in Kant again, the transcendental concepts or categories of the mind determine what is transcendent. More succinctly, things that are transcendent are beyond experience. The transcendental in Kant, on the other hand, determines experience; though, in other philosophies, it can determine or delimit other spheres.

P4) “If P1 and 2, then P3 is a conception of reality derived from the natural world, which content is a coherence of meaningful experiences....

P5) “No number of meaningful experiences can direct one to consider the possibility of something meaningful beyond said experiences Therefore, P3 is not a conception of reality derived from the natural world.”

If you ignore all these philosophical and definitional problems, then of course P5) follows from the rest. Yet you can't have a logical argument if some of the language is confused or can't be accepted as it stands. In other words, before you follow through from P1) to P5), I believe that there's a bundle of assumptions and mistakes in between. Indeed P1) only follows through to P5) if we don't see those assumptions and mistakes.

So, sure, if you ignore all that, then P5) "logically follows" from the rest.

The other thing that can be said is that Andalusi doesn't really have a position on naturalism as such (in the above argument) other than to hint that naturalism may well (or does) explain things up to the point that 

“people believe that there is a meaningful transcendental reality (Allah) that shares no properties with the natural world”. 

That could be an acceptance of naturalism up to Allah and the transcendent realm. Thus the argument isn't itself an alternative theory of naturalism.

Against Scientism

Andalusi says that his “main target is scientism”.

If the main target is scientism, it would have helped if he had said that. The original argument (of five premises and a conclusion) doesn't (in itself) read like an attack on scientism at all. It may be an implicit or tangential attack on scientism; though the central thrust of the original post is that we can move beyond the natural world. That is an attack on naturalism. Unless, of course, Andalusi is using 'the words scientism and 'naturalism' as synonyms. (They aren't synonyms.)

Now we have what amounts to Andalusi's definition of the scientistic stance:

“It is the belief that 'science is the only way to know anything' or in the very least that 'science is the most reliable form of knowledge about anything'.”

Here we almost have a conflation of two things which are very different; though Andalusi does seem to acknowledge the difference.

One can happily believe that “science is the most reliable form of knowledge about anything” without also believing “science is the only way to know anything”. How can even hardcore scientists believe the latter?

For example, what about maths and logic? (Unless logic and maths are seen as science.) What about knowledge of past events? The additional point here is that all these modes of knowledge have naturalistic explanations and will therefore be acceptable to 'scientistic' philosophers and scientists.

I would say that most scientists and even scientistic philosophers would express their position this way:

Science is the most reliable form of knowledge about "most things". However, science isn't “the only way to know anything”.

Clearly, if we paint our opponents as saying extreme things, then they will seem extreme.

One further argument offered by Andalusi - against what he calls 'scientism' - is this:

.... the Verification principle, it became a full blown ideology that is still expressed today among the lay masses and even scientists themselves....”

The “lay masses” certainly do not adhere to verficationism. The reason for that is that it's a philosophical notion; it doesn't belong to any kind of "folk theory" (as it were). So this is like saying that the lay masses adhere to eliminative materialism or to transcendental realism. Of course there may be some vague analogies between what non-philosophers believe and verificationism; though it can also be said that there are vague analogies between anything and anything. Indeed even the scientists who accepted verificationism will have needed to have done so explicitly. And I doubt that there are any philosophers around today who do so.

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