Version 0.6 February 2013
Note: The aim of this article is not to reject the science related to evolution. Its aim is to evoke thinking about the scientific method and the philosophy of science. We look forward to criticism, feedback and requests for clarification. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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“In questions of science the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” Galileo Galilei
Over the past few decades there has been a growing discourse on science, evolution and its compatibility with Divine revelation. This discourse can be summarised in the following way: the theory of evolution has been established as a scientific fact therefore a believer in a particular revealed text, such as the Qur’an, must reconcile evolution with their holy book. If there is no hope for reconciliation there are three main outcomes: the religious text is discarded, evolution is renounced, or a hope for a better understanding of the religious text and evolution in the future. However, in this growing discussion there is a hidden premise. This premise is that science produces certainty, evolution is fact and science is the only way to establish or verify truth claims. This premise is assumed in the popular discussion amongst many religious people, popular scientists and even the media, and by not bringing this premise to the forefront of the debate many Muslims (and fellow theists) have been left confused and disheartened.
It is not the scope of this article to enter into a discussion concerning the various approaches taken by scholars and thinkers to reconcile evolution with revelation. What will be discussed is what can be described as a foundational approach to the discussion or what is sometimes referred to as an epistemic approach. We believe that this approach exposes the false assumption that the theory of evolution is a fact, or is certain. Therefore, the need for reconciliation is not entirely necessary. By understanding the scientific method and the philosophy of science, and applying the concepts and principles to evolution, it will be evident that it is not a fact, and thus does not reach the level of certainty. This is also true for many of the intellectual outputs of science.
It must be noted that science can reach a level of certainty – but this is very rare – and although highly effective, it has severe limitations. People need to understand this and limit it to its sphere. There are many areas of knowledge that science is de-scoped, in other words, it has no say. Therefore, people must be aware of the fanatics in this debate masquerading as bastions of truth and beacons of light for all to follow. These fanatics are the science fundamentalists who advocate a narrow and dogmatic approach to science. They presume and propagate naturalism, empiricism and scientism, all of which are incoherent and lead to philosophical absurdities. We strongly believe that people should beware of these popularisers, and understand what science really is – a blessing from God with limitations and unresolved problems concerning some of its claims to truth.
A Note on the Definition of a Fact and Certainty
The words fact and certainty in this article are going to be used interchangeably. In the context of the discussion they will mean the representation of a state of affairs (reality). The level of accuracy is affected by the type of assumptions and metaphysical presuppositions used to try and described the state of affairs. The words fact and certainty do not mean a workable theory or the best theoretical model that has yet to be proven false; this is a scientific and pragmatic approach which doesn’t take into consideration the epistemic value of a particular theory. What is meant by epistemic value is a particular theory’s level of accuracy in describing reality, a theory may be a fact from a scientific perspective, but it may have a very low epistemic value. In scientific terminology evolution is a fact, but this use of the term means confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent. To deconstruct the term ‘fact’ from a scientific perspective the key term to understand is ‘confirmed’. In the context of evolution this confirmation is achieved with certain assumptions and metaphysical presuppositions. It is the purpose of this article to expose what these are, therefore, by understanding these assumptions and presuppositions it will allow the reader to think outside of the box, and appreciate that evolution is not certain, in other words it does not yet fully represent reality, even though it may be confirmed scientifically. This is why the terms fact and certainty used in this article will refer to guaranteed conclusions such as the conclusions from deductive arguments (to be discussed later). To confine ourselves to a definition of fact and certainty based on the assumptions and presuppositions of science would be incoherent because they are not established truths either – in reality some of them have been exposed as incoherent, problematic and baseless in this article.
The Epistemic Approach
The epistemic approach that we will use can be summarised in the following way; Since this whole discussion rests on the premise that evolution is a fact and has reached the level of certainty, then the easiest way to provide an intellectual response is to readdress the hidden premise. Is evolution a fact? What epistemic status does revelation have? By answering these two questions, the problem is solved. This approach follows the subsequent logical structure:
i. Evolution is an intellectual product of science.
ii. Science is made up of a process and a philosophy (the logic through which we build scientific knowledge, also known as the philosophy of science).
iii. The scientific process is limited.
iv. The philosophy of science – most of the time – does not produce certain knowledge (this type of non-certain knowledge in Islamic thought is known as al-‘ilm adh-dhann). When the philosophy of science is understood and applied to evolution, the conclusion is that it is not a fact and has not reached the level of certainty.
v. Divine revelation is certain knowledge (this type of certain knowledge is known as al-‘ilm al-qat’i) which can be proven using deductive arguments.
- Science is a limited method of study with its own scope and sphere.
- The philosophy of science brings to light a whole range of issues and problems concerning the theory and study of knowledge (epistemology).
- The philosophy of science, when applied to evolution, exposes it as not reaching the level of certainty.
- Revelation is a source of certain knowledge.
- In situations where science and Divine revelation are irreconcilable, revelation supersedes science.
A detailed analysis and justification for the above statements will follow.
i. Evolution is an intellectual product of science.
This is generally true, and does not require justification.
ii. Science is made up of a process and a philosophy (the logic through which we build scientific knowledge, also known as the philosophy of science).
Science is commonly thought to just involve a method or a set of steps that one has to take to ensure the results of an experiment or theory are scientific. While this is true, the philosophy of science – which is the way in which we reach conclusions from the results of a particular experiment – is often a neglected topic of popular science and rarely discussed in the public domain.
So what is the scientific method and the philosophy of science?
The scientific method
The word science comes from the Latin word scientia, meaning knowledge. A concise definition of science has been accurately stated by the philosopher Bertrand Russell,
The attempt to discover, by means of observation and reasoning based upon it, … particular facts about the world, and the laws connecting facts with one another.
To elaborate on the above definition, the scientific method can be described in the following way. The scientific method:
- Focuses on the physical natural world. Science can only answer in terms of natural phenomena and natural processes. When we ask questions like, what is the meaning of life? Does the soul exist? The general expectation is to have answers that are outside of the natural world — and hence, outside of science.
- Aims to explain the physical natural world. Science as a collective institution aims to produce more and more accurate natural explanations of how the natural world works, what its components are, and how the world got to be the way it is now.
- Only accepts ideas that can be tested. For an idea to be testable, it must logically generate specific expectations – in other words, a set of observations that we could expect to make if the idea were true and a set of observations that would be inconsistent with the idea and lead you to believe that it is not true.
- Relies on the evidence from testing a testable idea. Ultimately, scientific ideas must not only be testable, but must actually be tested – preferably with many different lines of evidence by many different people.
So where does the philosophy of science fit it?
The philosophy of science focuses on deriving and building knowledge from the evidence gathered from testing a testable idea. For that reason, it concerns itself with the implications of the data collected from an experiment, the metaphysical assumptions used to interpret the data, and the thinking processes used to form conclusions based on scientific evidence.
iii. The scientific process is limited.
The limitations of the scientific process are rarely discussed. One key reason for this is that science has become a social enterprise. A social norm has developed that exclaims that science has replaced religion and is now the new gospel truth. Rupert Sheldrake, one of the world’s most innovative biologists and writers, who is best known for his theory of morphic fields and morphic resonance, highlights this point in his new book The Science Delusion,
Yet in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when science and technology seem to be at the peak of their power, when their influence has spread all over the world and when their triumph seems indisputable, unexpected problems are disrupting the sciences from within. Most scientists take it for granted that these problems will eventually be solved by more research along established lines, but some, including myself, think they are symptoms of a deeper malaise…science is being held back by centuries-old assumptions that have hardened into dogmas.
It must be noted that the Islamic spiritual tradition does not reject science, it is quite the opposite; Islam is pro-science. According to historians of science, it was the Muslim intellectuals and scientists that were the pioneers of the scientific method. For instance, the Muslim physicist and scientist Ibn al-Haytham used experimentation to obtain the results in his Book of Optics published in 1021 CE. He combined observations, experiments and rational arguments to support his intromission theory of vision. Also, the Islamic influence on the renaissance – via the establishment of Islamic Spain – was unprecedented, as Professor Thomas Arnold in his book The Preaching of Islam writes:
…Muslim Spain had written one of the brightest pages in the history of Medieval Europe. Her influence had passed through Provence into the other countries of Europe, bringing into birth a new poetry and a new culture, and it was from her that Christian scholars received what of Greek philosophy and science they had to stimulate their mental activity up to the time of the Renaissance.
It is therefore fair to conclude that Islam has not been at odds with science, and this article does not intend to belittle science. In actual fact, science is seen to be a great blessing from God and a sign of His Mercy.
The scientific method is limited due to:
George Gaylord Simpson, the renowned evolutionist of Harvard, wrote,
It is inherent in any acceptable definition of science that statements that cannot be checked by observations are not really about anything—or at the very least they are not science.
This means that what cannot be observed is outside the scope of science. For example, questions such as does God exist? and is there a soul? are outside the realm of the scientific method. This does not imply that such questions are meaningless, rather it exposes the limitations of the scientific process, as there are other methods that can provide answers to the above questions. The philosopher of science Elliot Sober verifies this limitation of science, he writes in his essay Empiricism,
At any moment scientists are limited by the observations they have at hand…the limitation is that science is forced to restrict its attention to problems that observations can solve.
It is important to note that to claim that conclusions which have not been established via observation – and by extension science – are meaningless or false, is making the inaccurate assumption that science is the only method to verify claims to truth. This false assumption, known as scientism, will be discussed later.
Science cannot explain the past or the origins of things. For instance questions such as, what was before the Big Bang? and how did the first living cell emerge? are technically outside the realm of the scientific method. Enno Wolthius explains this in his book Science, God and You:
Science seeks to explain the behavior of that which is, and to check its explanation by means of experiments. But this experimental requirement can be met only in the present time. The past, and especially the beginning of things, lies beyond the grasp of this method, and so science can only speculate about the origin and history of the world.
In other words science is amoral. It cannot provide detailed answers to the following questions, how must we act? and what should we do? Science also removes any true meaning to our sense of objective moral obligation. If science were to be relied upon concerning this, the conclusions would lead to absurdities. Charles Darwin thought about this point in 19th century,
If…men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering.
What Darwin seems to be pointing out here is that our values would have no objective meaning from a scientific perspective, as we are just a by-product of a set of socio-biological circumstances. This is why the oft repeated statement you cannot get an ought from an is, is true. Science can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what ought to be. This sense of ought is best explained outside of the scope of science, Professor of Theology and Ethics Ian Markham comments on this:
Embedded in the word ‘ought’ is the sense of a moral fact transcending our life and world…The underlying character of moral language implies something universal and external.
iv. The philosophy of science – most of the time – doesn’t produce certain knowledge (this type of non-certain knowledge in Islamic thought is known as al-‘ilm adh-dhann). When the philosophy of science is understood and applied to evolution, the conclusion is that it is not a fact and has not reached the level of certainty.
What this statement means is that – most of the time – the conclusions or implications of theoretical models and experimental data do not provide levels of knowledge that can be described as certain. The inconclusive, or non-certain nature of science is due to major metaphysical assumptions used to interpret scientific results. This includes theoretical and experimental bias, which exposes the relative nature of scientific conclusions. When these assumptions are understood and applied to evolution the conclusion will be clear – it is not a fact and has not reached the level of certainty.
There are a whole range of conceptual, logical and philosophical issues in the philosophy of science that highlight the approximate and tentative nature of science:
The problem of Induction:
Induction is a thinking process where one makes conclusions by moving from the particular to the general. Arguments based on induction can range in probability from very low to very high, but always less than 100%.
Here is an example of induction:
I have observed that punching a boxing bag properly with protective gloves never causes injury. Therefore no one will be injured using a boxing bag.
As can be seen from the example above, induction faces a key problem which is the inability to guarantee the conclusion, because a sweeping generalisation cannot be made from a limited number of observations. The best it can provide are probabilities, ranging from low to very high.[A] In the aforementioned example the person who made the statement could not logically prove that the next person to punch a boxing bag will not get injured.
Therefore, the problem with induction is that it can’t produce certainty.[B] This issue was raised by the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume in his book, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Hume argued that inductive reasoning can never produce certainty. He concluded that moving from a limited set of observed phenomena to making conclusions for an unlimited set of observed phenomena is beyond the present testimony of the senses, and the records of our memory.
From a practical scientific perspective, generalisations made for an entire group or for the next observation within that group based on a limited set of data, will never be certain. For example, a scientist travelled to Wales and wanted to find out the colour of sheep (assuming he does not know the colour of sheep), and he started observing the sheep and recording what colour they are. Say after 150 sheep observations he found that all of them were white. The scientist would conclude based upon his data, using induction, that all sheep are white. This basic example highlights the problematic nature with the process of induction as we know sheep can also be black. Certainty using induction will never be achieved.
Professor Alex Rosenberg in his book Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction explains the problem of induction and he concludes that this is a key problem facing science; he writes,
Here we have explored another problem facing empiricism as the official epistemology of science: the problem of induction, which goes back to Hume, and added to the agenda of problems for both empiricists and rationalists. 
Since evolution is based on inductive generalisations from data, including direct and indirect observations, the conclusions from these will never be certain.
The problem with empiricism:
Empiricism claims that we have no source of knowledge in a subject or for the concepts we use in a subject other than sense experience. Philosopher Elliot Sober in his essay Empiricism explains the empiricist’s thesis,
Empiricists deny that it is ever rationally obligatory to believe that theories provide true descriptions of an unobservable reality…For an empiricist, if a theory is logically consistent, observations are the only source of information about whether the theory is empirically adequate.
Empiricism suffers from limitations and logical problems. One form of empiricism – which we will call strong empiricism – is limited to things that can only be observed. This form of empiricism faces a whole host of logical problems. The main problem with strong empiricism is that it can only base its conclusions on observed realities and cannot make conclusions on unobserved realities. Elliot Sober explains this problem,
Empiricists need to address problems in the philosophy of perception. The most obvious first stab at saying what seeing an object involves is to describe the passage of light from the object into the eyes, with the result that a visual experience occurs. However, the invisibility of white cats in snowstorms and the fact that we see silhouettes (like the moon during an eclipse) shows that this is neither sufficient nor necessary.
Further exploring Sober’s example, imagine you observe a white cat walking outside of a house towards the direction of an oncoming snowstorm; you can see the cat walking up to the snowstorm and then you can no longer see the cat. A strong empiricist’s account would be to deny that there is a cat in the snowstorm, or at least suspend any claims to knowledge. However, based on other intellectual tools at your disposal you would conclude that there is a white cat in the snowstorm regardless of whether or not you can observe one.
The problems faced by strong empiricism have not gone unaddressed by empiricists. They have responded by weakening their definition for empiricism by redefining empiricism to the view that we can only know something if it is confirmed or supported by sensory experience – we shall call this weak empiricism. Others have dogmatically maintained the view that the only way to truth is via direct observation and being supported by observation is not good enough. These responses have created an unresolved dilemma for the empiricist. The Philosopher John Cottingham exposes this problem in his book Rationalism:
But what about ‘all water at a given atmospheric pressure boils at 100 degrees Celsius’? Since this statement has the form of an unrestricted universal generalization, it follows that no finite number of observations can conclusively establish its truth. An additional and perhaps even more worrying problem is that when we reach the higher levels of science…we tend to encounter structures and entities that are not observable in any straightforward sense. Atoms, molecules, electrons, photons and the like are highly complex theoretical constructs…here we seem to be very far removed from the world of direct ‘empirical observation’…The positivists tended to respond to this difficulty by weakening their criterion for meaningfulness…it was proposed that a statement was meaningful if it could be confirmed or supported by sensory experience. However, this weaker criterion is uncomfortably vague…Statements about God or Freedom, or the nature of Substance, or the Absolute, may not be directly checkable against experience…The positivist thus seems to be faced with a fatal dilemma: either he will have to make his criterion so stringent that it will exclude the generalizations and theoretical statements of science, or else he will have to weaken his criterion sufficiently to open the door to the speculations of the metaphysician. The dilemma has remained unresolved to this day…
In light of the above, since empiricism is used as a metaphysical assumption to justify evolution then it cannot claim certainty, as there is the main problem of the unobserved. It can be assumed that our observations do not encompass all phenomena therefore evolution is tentative, in other words it can change based upon future observations. For evolution to be certain, all phenomena related to the change in the inherited characteristics of biological populations over successive generations must have been observed. Including observing all evolutionary processes that give rise to diversity at every level including species and individual organisms.
A priori and Causality:
Empiricism is exposed as an incoherent metaphysical assumption because it claims that knowledge must be dependent on experience, known as a posteriori in the language of philosophy. If it can be shown that there are truths that are independent from experience, known a priori, then the empiricist’s thesis breaks down.
There are many truths that are known independent of experience and are necessarily true and not merely products of empirical generalisations. These include,
- Mathematics and logical truths
- Moral and ethical truths
- From semantics (deductive logic – discussed in detail later):
- All bachelors are unmarried.
- All bachelors are male.
- Therefore all bachelors are unmarried males.
The innate knowledge of causality is an interesting way of exposing the empiricist’s worldview. Many empiricists in the field of quantum physics have rejected the idea of causality, known as determinism, for an indeterministic view. This contention has arisen due to the apparent observations in the quantum vacuum, that sub-atomic events behave spontaneously without any causes. From a philosophical perspective it is extremely difficult for these empiricists to justify their conclusions. This is because without the concept of causality we will not have the mental framework to understand our observations and experiences.
As mentioned above, causality is a priori, which means knowledge we have independent of any experience or observations. We know causality is true because we bring it to all our experiences, rather than our experience bringing it to us. It is like wearing yellow-tinted glasses; everything looks yellow not because of anything out there in the world, but because of the glasses through which we are looking at everything. Take the following example into consideration[C]; imagine you are looking at the White House in Washington DC. Your eyes may wonder to the door, across the pillars, then to the roof and finally over to the front lawn. You can also reverse the order of your perceptions. Contrast this to another experience, you are on the river Thames in London and you see a boat floating past. What dictates the order in which you had these experiences? When you looked at the White House you had a choice to see the door first and then the pillars and so on, as well as the ability to reverse the order of your perceptions. However, with the boat you had no choice as the front of the boat was the first to appear.
The point here is that you would not have been able to make the distinction that some experiences are ordered by yourself and others are ordered independently, unless we had the concept of causality. In the example of the boat you would not be able to understand the logical causal connection between the front of the boat and the back. In absence of causality our experiences would be very different from the way that they are. It would be a single sequence of experiences only: one thing after another. So to accept that sub-atomic events do not correspond with causality would be tantamount to denying our own experience. Philosopher John Cottingham summarises how observations already presuppose causality,
But on Kant’s argument we would not be able to recognize the…event in the first place, unless there were a rule that makes it necessary that the order of our perceptions should be thus and not otherwise. In short, the very experience of an external event already presupposes an understanding of causal necessity.
From this perspective, empiricism is faced with a huge problem. Either they accept that knowledge can be achieved outside of sensory experience or they reject causality and by doing so reject their own perceptions, which would be tantamount to rejecting empiricism itself.
Since empiricism is a key metaphysical assumption used to justify evolution, it then weakens the view that evolution is based on certainty, because empiricism faces many philosophical problems.
Popper’s Falsification, Kuhn & Feyerabend:
The philosophers and thinkers Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend radically changed our view on scientific theories. For instance, Karl Popper understood that the problem of induction will never be resolved and developed “falsification” to show which scientific theories were genuine and which where pseudo-science. Popper’s falsification states that theories cannot be proven to be true but they can be proved false. If a theory claims that something will be observed under certain circumstances, and it is not observed, then the theory is proved false.
Conversely, Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend rejected the empiricist model of science but also Popper’s view that notions can be falsified by having their consequences checked against experience. Kuhn argued that ‘normal science’ is practiced within a framework of assumptions and agreed practices, in other words it has its own paradigm. Data or experimental results that do not fit within that framework (known as anomalous results) are “routinely dismissed and explained away“. Feyerabend argued that no theory can be completely consistent with the facts. He saw the use of improvised concepts to save the paradigm as essential to the progress of science. Feyerabend took examples from the history of science and argued that scientists regularly deviate from the scientific method when they use improvised ideas to explain observations that are only later justified by theory.
The key points of Kuhn and Feyerabend can be summarised in the following way:
- A so-called observation may (and probably will) have observation bias.
- New theories provide different conceptual lenses which will produce new ‘data’ – a new way of seeing things.
- If observations depend on a theory and theory in some sense determines how we read the world, then there is no way of objectively deciding between two theories.
Robert Sheldrake, one of the world’s most innovative biologists and writers, aptly summarises the above contentions,
Anyone who has carried out scientific research knows that data are uncertain, that much depends on the way they are interpreted, and that all methods have their limitations.
Considering the perspectives on Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend, it is obvious to see that scientific theories cannot be proven in a way that gives them status of certainty. Applying the concepts developed by Kuhn and Feyerabend, we can see that evolution also faces some theoretical problems, and therefore cannot be considered as certain. For example, language acquisition in human beings has caused theoretical problems for evolution. It is not the place to discuss this at length. However, the fact that human beings seem to have an innate ability to take meagre linguistic input and develop knowledge of language that extends far beyond anything that he has learned, cannot be explained by evolution. Noam Chomsky a proponent of this perspective on language acquisition argues the difficulty evolution has in providing an adequate explanation,
…it is quite pointless to speculate about the ‘evolution’ of human language from animal communication systems.
Simon M. Kirby the British Computation Linguist also raises the challenges evolution faces concerning the development of language,
This highlights an important and difficult challenge facing the study of language evolution: the need for cooperation between different disciplines and between researchers working on different aspects of the problem. Without this cooperation a satisfactory account of the evolution of human language, and therefore of human language itself, is likely to be elusive.
Naturalism is the view that the super-natural does not exist. The universe is like a box, a closed system, nothing outside can interfere and natural laws are an adequate account for all phenomena. Naturalism is the ontology of most atheists and scientists. They believe that plain cold matter is the source and nature of reality. It has to be made clear here that naturalism is not an epistemological thesis – it doesn’t tell us how to obtain knowledge – it is an ontology, it is the lens with which some people use to describe the source and nature of reality. Therefore, having a naturalistic presupposition is obviously going to skew the way scientific facts and experimental data are interpreted.
Philosophical naturalism faces many issues and therefore should not be used as the lens in which scientific theories are developed. These problems are called ‘recalcitrant facts’. A recalcitrant fact is a fact that resists a theory. For example, if Joe Bloggs was charged with murdering his wife on Sunday 6th January 2013 at 6PM but he could show that he was at a football game outside of the country at the time, the very fact that he was not at the murder scene is a fact that resists the theory that he murdered his wife. So the theory is incoherent and fails. This is true for naturalism. There are many recalcitrant facts that indicate the incoherence of naturalism, some of them include:
- Language acquisition
- Objective moral truths
- “Big Bang” cosmology
- Free Will
Consciousness is an interesting and powerful topic to expose the incoherence of naturalism. For example, a naturalistic ontology cannot explain intentionality which is a product of consciousness. One of the pioneers in the field of Neuroscience Wilder Penfield, explained how when the cerebral cortex of a subject was probed, the subject’s hand would move. The subject was subsequently asked who moved his hand, and he would reply that he didn’t do it, that the neuroscientist did it. If the physical brain was the cause of all conscious activity such as the subject intending to move his hand, then by probing the brain it should also cause the subjective phenomenon of intending to do something. But this wasn’t the case; the subject clearly knew that he did not intend to move his hand. Penfield concluded that there is no place in the cerebral cortex where electrical stimulation will cause a patient to decide.
Although the topic of consciousness requires volumes to be explained and to respond to materialistic objections, the point that to be noted here is that naturalism cannot fully explain consciousness, especially intentionality. The philosopher J. P. Moreland in his essay The Argument from Consciousness explains that there is no plausible naturalistic explanation for the emergence of consciousness,
The truth is that naturalism has no plausible way to explain the appearance of emergent mental properties in the cosmos. Ned Block confesses that we have no idea how consciousness could have emerged from nonconsious matter: ‘we have nothing – zilch – worthy of being called a research programme…Researchers are stumped’.
Evolution is a naturalist’s project. Therefore interpretations of the relevant data and observations will be filtered via the metaphysical assumption of naturalism. Since naturalism is incoherent and faces its own philosophical issues, then it follows that evolution – which has been formulated via a naturalist ontology – cannot be certain.
Scientism claims that a proposition is not true if it cannot be scientifically proven. In other words if something cannot be shown to be true via the scientific method, then it is false. There are a few problems with scientism, some of which we have already discussed, for instance:
- Scientism is self-defeating. Scientism claims that a proposition is not true if it cannot be scientifically proven. But the proposition itself cannot be scientifically proven! It is like saying “there are no sentences in the English language longer than three words” or “I cannot speak one word of English”.
- Scientism cannot prove necessary truths like mathematics and logic. For example, If P, then Q. P. Therefore, Q and 3 + 3 = 6 are necessary truths and not merely empirical generalisations.
- Scientism cannot prove moral and aesthetic truths. For example love, beauty, right and wrong.
- Science cannot prove other sources of knowledge. For example justified beliefs via ‘authentic testimony’.
A major problem with scientism is that truths can be established outside the scientific paradigm. As aforementioned, authentic testimony is a valid source of knowledge in which epistemologists have argued at length to explain that the say so of others can – within certain criteria – provide a basis for truth.
The epistemology of testimony is the branch of the theory of knowledge “concerned with how we acquire knowledge and justified belief from the say-so of other people“. Therefore, one of the key questions it tries to answer is “how we successfully acquire justified belief or knowledge on the basis of what other people tell us.“
Many truths that we hold are on the basis of authentic testimony, because we trust the statements of others and we have no good reason to reject what they have said. This is especially so when we have multiple people telling us the same thing via different chains of transmission (known as tawattur reporting in Islamic thought). Professor C. A. J. Coady highlights some of the truths we accept on the basis of testimony, he writes,
Many of us have never seen a baby born, nor have most of us examined the circulation of the blood…
Assistant Professor Benjamin McMyler in his book Testimony, Truth and Authority, explains that some of the things he knows are due to testimony,
Here are a few things that I know. I know that the copperhead is the most common venomous snake in the greater Houston area. I know that Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo. I know that, as I write, the average price for gasoline in the U.S is $4.10 per gallon. And I know that my parents recently returned home from a trip to Canada. All of these things I know on the basis of what epistemologists call testimony, on the basis of being told of them by another person or group of persons.
Although this is a vast topic, there is a general consensus that authentic testimony is a source of knowledge. However, there are disagreements amongst epistemologists on how we validate the transmission of knowledge via testimony. Even scientists require testimony as a source of knowledge in order to understand science itself. For instance, there are many assumptions in science that are purely based on the say so of other scientists.
Whatever discussions there are around testimony, the key point to raise here is that it is a valid source of knowledge. Therefore, the view that science is the only way to establish truth, is false. Professor Keith Lehrer summarises the validity of testimony as a source of knowledge,
The final question that arises concerning our acceptance of testimony is this. What converts our acceptance of testimony of others into knowledge? The first part of the answer is that we must be trustworthy in our evaluations of the trustworthiness of others, and we must accept that this is so. Moreover, our trustworthiness must be successfully truth-connected, that is, the others must, in fact, be trustworthy and their trustworthiness must be truth-connected. We must accept this is so. In short, our acceptance of their testimony must be justified in a way that is not refuted or defeated by any errors that we make in evaluating them and their testimony. Undefeated or irrefutable justified acceptance of the testimony of others is knowledge.
Although scientism – as an issue in the philosophy of science – does not seem to provide problems for evolution, it is useful to highlight that non-scientific sources of knowledge may also play a vital role in our understanding of who we are and where we came from. It logically follows that since science is not the only way to reach conclusions about things, then we should entertain the possibility of other routes to knowledge.
v. Divine revelation is certain knowledge (this type of certain knowledge is known as al-‘ilm al-qat’i) which can be proven using deductive arguments.
If Divine revelation is from God, then by definition its knowledge claims are true or certain. There is the obvious caveat that this depends on our understanding of what the revelation says and if we have come to the correct interpretation, however, the point here is that since it comes from the Divine – who is the All-Knowing and transcends our limitations – then what the revelation says is going to be true. An important point to highlight is that there are some unequivocal verses in the Quran and some that are open to interpretation. It seems contradictory to make this claim about the Qur’an when some of its verses will be uncertain from the perspective of what they imply and mean. However, interpreting the Qur’an has been made an intellectual endeavour between suitably qualified exegetes. What we are saying here is that the proposition here concerns the ontology of knowledge – its source and nature. Therefore, if the Qur’an is from the Divine it follows that its knowledge claims are true, regardless if we understand what these claims to knowledge are, because by definition God is the All-Knowing and His knowledge transcends human knowledge. With respect to evolution we are assuming that if the verses in the Qur’an cannot be reconciled with the science, then the Qur’an takes precedence due to its Divine nature.
The article does not intend to present a detailed case for how the Qur’an is from God; however it is important to note that using methods outside of the scientific paradigm, it can be rationalised that the book cannot have come from a human being. In other words there are no naturalistic explanations to explain the authorship of the Qur’an. There are various arguments to justify the above claim. For instance, Muslims can rely on deductive arguments to explain the miraculous nature of the Qur’an. Deductive arguments are arguments which the premises guarantee the truth of the conclusion. If the premises of a deductive argument are true then it is impossible for the conclusion to be false.
Here are some examples of deductive arguments:
1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause
2. The universe began to exist
3. Therefore the universe has a cause
1. Stockholm is in Norway or Sweden.
2. If Stockholm is in Norway then it is in Scandinavia.
3. If Stockholm is in Sweden then it is in Scandinavia.
4. Therefore, Stockholm is in Scandinavia.
1. All men are mortal.
2. George is a man.
3. Therefore, George is mortal.
The above are examples of valid and sound arguments. A deductive argument is valid if the conclusion follows from its premises. It is sound if its premises are true and it is valid. With regards to the Qur’an there are many deductive arguments that can substantiate its claim of being a Divine book. For example, there is a well known deductive argument concerning the literary miracle of the Qur’an,
1. A miracle is an event that lies outside of the productive capacity of nature (there are no causal links between the event and the nature of the event).
2. The Qur’an’s literary form lies outside of the productive capacity of nature (its literary form cannot be logically explained using the Arabic language).
3. Therefore, the Qur’an is a miracle (a miracle is an act of God).
This deductive argument is valid because the conclusion logically follows from its premises. It is sound due to an overwhelming amount of evidence to substantiate the premises claims. However, it is not the place to justify and explain this argument here, for more information please read the chapter The Challenge in the Qur’an from the book The History of the Magnificent Qur’an published by Exhibition Islam.
The point that needs to be understood here is that the Qur’an can be shown to be Divine revelation, and therefore its claims to knowledge are certain and factual.
In light of the above it can be concluded that not only have many people misunderstood evolution, but they have misunderstood science itself. Evolution may be a coherent explanation based upon its own metaphysical assumptions, theoretical limitations and philosophical presuppositions, but it is not certain knowledge. This is because the scientific method is limited and the intellectual tools used to understand the results and data from scientific experiments do not – most of the time – produce certainty. Since revealed texts are certain and science cannot produce certain knowledge, revealed texts will always supersede science if there is a need for reconciliation and if there are irreconcilable differences. For the Muslim, this revealed text is the Qur’an, and this text can be established as a Divine book outside of the method and philosophy of science using deductive arguments.
The irony of this evolution debate is that majority of the people who believe in evolution do so out of the testimony of others, namely our teachers at school or the books we read, because we haven’t done the experiments ourselves. This is no different than a new form of priesthood – the scientific priesthood! But we must be wary, teachers and scientists and priests are human beings, and humans err. For example Marc Hauser, a Harvard professor of biology, was found guilty of misconduct as he invented and falsified data in experiments on monkeys. This was not detected by peer reviewers but by a student whistleblower. Hauser, an atheist, authored the book Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong in which he claims morality is an inherited instinct and that atheists are just as ethical as churchgoers. The point being made here is that although we must respect scientists and teachers, we should not do so blindly. Rather, we must always understand knowledge and claims of truth from an epistemological perspective, meaning does this knowledge have the right to claim certainty? By understanding the scientific method and its philosophy we can easily conclude that it is a blessing and mercy from God, but it does not – most of the time – produce certain knowledge.
This brings us to briefly address scientific consensus. Many people who claim that evolution is certain do so on the say-so of others. They cite the scientific consensus on the issue as a defeater to anyone who claims otherwise. However, if we look into the history of science this position is unsound. There are many examples to show that when the scientific and academic authorities of the time thought something to be 100% certain, they were later proved to be wrong. For example in 1843 Oliver Wendell Holmes published work on the contagiousness of puerperal fever but the scientific community attacked his conclusion. Just a few years prior to Wendell in 1775 Dr Alexander Gordon published a paper on contagious nature of puerperal fever. His paper highlighted the importance of the correct hygiene as a means to prevent the spread of the disease. Nevertheless, his paper faced harsh criticism and immense opposition. Many lives would have been saved if the scientific consensus was less dogmatic and open to the fact that a consensus should be there to be broken, all of which is in the spirit of the scientific process. There are many similar examples in the history of science, and if we can learn anything from them, is that a scientific consensus on an issue doesn’t necessarily make it the truth.
Interestingly there have been intellectual exchanges and debates concerning philosophical issues in evolution. For example, in the academic volume Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology, that was written to highlight the conceptual issues that arise in the theory and practice of evolutionary biology, its editor writes,
Evolutionary biology is a living, growing discipline, and the same is true of the philosophy of evolutionary biology. One sign that a discipline is growing is that there are open questions, with multiple answers still in competition.
Even from an experimental and theoretical perspective there are many academics that have published peer reviewed work that still questions the coherence of evolution. For example a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Bioremediation, Biodiversity and Bioavailability, written by Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig, Kurt Stüber, Heinz Saedler and Jeong Hee Kim, entitled ‘Biodiversity and Dollo’s Law: To What Extent can the Phenotypic Differences between Misopates orontium and Antirrhinum majus be Bridged by Mutagenesis’ concluded that the debate continues whether mutations and selection alone will be sufficient to produce all the new genetic functions and innovations necessary for the cytoplasm, membranes, and cell walls.
On a final note, this reminds me of a personal conversation I had with Richard Dawkins. I once questioned the answer he gave to an audience member at the World Atheist Convention in Ireland, which was “why did you tell them not to study the philosophy of science and ‘just do the science’?”, his silence really spoke volumes. Once you study the philosophy of science you will start to appreciate science for what it is; a useful evolving tool (no pun intended). It is not the only way to justify claims to truth, and it does not necessarily give you certainties, especially if it is laden with assumptions, theoretical presuppositions and limitations.
Footnotes & References
[A] There are two main types of induction, strong induction and weak induction. Strong induction moves from the particular to the general in a way that makes a conclusion for the whole group. Weak induction moves from the particular to the general in a way that makes a conclusion for the next observation.
An example of strong induction is the conclusion that all ravens are black because each raven that has ever been observed has been black.
An example of weak induction is that because every raven that has ever been observed has been black, the next observed raven will be black.
[B] Induction can reach certainties but not in the form of generalisations. For example,
I observe an instance of A with the quality B.
Therefore, the nature of A allows B.
If you have observed Crows that are black you can conclude with certainty that some Crows are black. But you could not achieve certainty if you concluded that all Crows were black based on a limited set of observations. This type of induction that produces certainty doesn’t apply to evolution as inductive reasoning in the form of generalisations is not certain.
[C] This argument has been adapted from the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s book Kritik der Reinen Vernuft (A Critique of Pure Reason).
 Bertrand Russell. Religion and Science. Oxford University Press. 1935, p. 8.
 Adapted and taken from Understanding Science: How Science Really Works http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/whatisscience_03
 Rupert Sheldrake. The Science Delusion. Coronet. 2013, p. 6.
 D. C. Lindberg. Theories of Vision from al-Kindi to Kepler. University of Chicago Press. 1976, pp. 60–7.
 Thomas Arnold. The Preaching of Islam, p. 131.
 George Gaylord Simpson. The Nonprevalence of Humanoids. 1964. Science, 143:769, Feb. 21.
 Elliot Sober “Empiricism” in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Science. Edited by Stathis Psillos and Martin Curd. 2010, pp. 137-138.
 Enno Wolthius. Science, God & You. Baker Book House. 1963.
 Charles Darwin. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Second Edition. New York. 1882, p. 99.
 Ian Markham. Against Atheism: Why Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris Are Fundamentally Wrong. 2010, p. 34.
 David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, p. 108.
 Professor Alex Rosenberg. Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction. 2012, p. 198.
 Elliot Sober “Empiricism” in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Science. Edited by Stathis Psillos and Martin Curd. 2010, p. 129.
 Elliot Sober “Empiricism” in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Science. Edited by Stathis Psillos and Martin Curd. 2010, p. 131.
 John Cottingham. Rationalism. Paladin. 1984, pp. 109 -110.
 Ibid p. 88.
 See Karl Popper. Conjectures and Refutations. Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1963, pp. 33-39; from Theodore Schick, ed., Readings in the Philosophy of Science. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company. 2000, pp. 9-13.
 Rupert Sheldrake. The Science Delusion. Coronet. 2013, p. 297.
 See Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Paul Feyerabend’s article “Explanation, Reduction and Empiricism”.
 Rupert Sheldrake. The Science Delusion. Coronet. 2013, p. 298.
 Recent Contributions to the Theory of Innate Ideas, p. 123.
 Noam Chomsky cited in A. Denkel’s “The Natural Background of Meaning” p. 108.
 [Prefinal Draft] Kirby, S. (2007). The evolution of language. In Dunbar, R. and Barrett, L., editors, Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, pp. 669–681. Oxford University Press.
 See Mystery of the Mind: A Critical Study of Consciousness and the Human Brain. Princeton University Press. 1978.
 J. P. Moreland. “The Argument from Consciousness” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. Edited by William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland. 2009, p. 340.
 Access the following link to understand what this means http://www.philosophy-index.com/logic/forms/modus-ponens.php
 Benjamin McMyler. Testimony, Truth and Authority. Oxford University Press. 2011. p. 3.
 The Epistemology of Testimony. Edited by Jennifer Lackey and Ernest Sosa. Clarendon Press: Oxford. 2006, p. 2.
 C. A. J. Coady. Testimony: A Philosophical Study. Oxford University Press. 1992, p. 82.
 Benjamin McMyler. Testimony, Truth and Authority. Oxford University Press. 2011. p 10.
 Keith Lehrer cited in The Epistemology of Testimony. Oxford University Press. 2006, p. 158
 To purchase the book please access the following link http://www.exhibitionislam.com/books.aspx?ID=28
 Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology. Edited by Elliot Sober. The MIT Press. 2006, p. ix.
 Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig, Kurt Stüber, Heinz Saedler, Jeong Hee Kim, “Biodiversity and Dollo’s Law: To What Extent can the Phenotypic Differences betweenMisopates orontium and Antirrhinum majus be Bridged by Mutagenesis,”Bioremediation, Biodiversity and Bioavailability, Vol. 1(1):1-30 (2007).