View Full Version : Causalty and Design - Cambridge Uni Debate

04-29-2010, 09:32 PM
by Hamza Tzortzis

When I was invited by the Cambridge University Islamic Society to participate in a debate at the Union Debating Chambers, I didn’t think that hard about accepting, because I knew they would provide a strong challenger thereby facilitating a good discussion. Once they confirmed that they had arranged my interlocutor to be Professor Simon Blackburn I jumped for joy because I recently found out that he was a huge fan of David Hume, after all he does advance neo-humean philosophy. You are probably wondering why the excitement, well it is because David Hume was not a self-proclaimed atheist like the hardliners Richard Dawkins and co. in contrast he was very subtle, much less militant, and more nuanced.

This leads nicely to introduce, more formally, Professor Simon Blackburn. But before I do, I would like to add that he was very polite, courteous, and he never made me feel out of place. Professor Blackburn is one of the leading academics in Britain; he is a Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University and is the vice-chair of the British Humanist Association. He has written many books and he is the former editor of the journal Mind. In light of this and his other academic achievements I approached Professor Blackburn just before the debate and thanked him for agreeing to participate in the discussion. I told him that I would bring no surprises to the table as I would be presenting a contemporary form of the cosmological ( argument, the teleological ( argument and the inimitability ( of the Qur’an.

After I delivered my arguments within the allocated twenty minutes, the Professor decided to include his rebuttal time in his main presentation. As a result he brought to light various contentions to my arguments, his main contentions included:

1. Causality doesn’t make sense outside of time
2. ‘Who designed the designer?’ & the flawed analogy of design
3. The explanatory power of the designer is weak

Causality doesn’t make sense outside of time

The Professor exclaimed that to posit a cause outside of the universe, and therefore outside of time, doesn’t make sense. However I argued that God's act of creation can act as a simultaneous asymmetric type of cause, which is not temporally, but causally prior to the moment of creation. His act of creation is thus simultaneous with the creation of the universe. So the universe is an effect produced by a cause in time, in other words the act of creation enters time and causes the universe to come into existence at the same moment, and there are no good philosophical reasons why this can’t be true.

I ended my response by concluding that there is no Philosophical consensus on the definition of causality (not to mention time itself!). Therefore, in the absence of a consensus the most basic definition should be used, and this definition doesn’t include time as a necessary factor. The basic definition is “something which produces an effect”.

Who designed the designer & the flawed analogy of design

The Professor’s next contention was the fact that even if we can conclude there must have been a designer for the fine-tuning that is apparent in the universe, this doesn’t stop us from asking “who designed the designer?”, in other words there can be a meta-metaphysical designer, and a meta-meta-metaphysical designer and so on. He continued that the design argument is a weak argument as it is a flawed analogy of design, this is because you can’t make an analogy with something that is apparently immaterial and outside of the universe, unless of course you have deeply help anthropomorphic views – something considered blasphemous in the Islamic tradition.

I responded to this contention in two ways, firstly I agreed with the Professor that if the design argument was an analogy it would indeed be a weak. However I continued by saying that the argument is much more than an argument from analogy, it is an inference to the best explanation, as Elliott Sober writes in response to David Hume’s contentions, which have obviously been mirrored by Professor Blackburn:

“Hume did not think of the design argument [as an inference to the best explanation]. For him… it [was] an argument from analogy, or an inductive argument. This alternate conception of the argument makes a great deal of difference. Hume’s criticisms are quite powerful if the argument has the character he attributes to it. But if the argument is, as I maintain, an inference to the best explanation, Hume’s criticisms entirely lose their bite.”

Secondly I argued that in the Philosophy of science the best explanation doesn’t require an explanation. Anyone with a basic understanding of the philosophy of science will conclude that in the inference to the best explanation, the best explanation doesn’t require an explanation! I used an example similar to the one that follows to illustrate this point.

Imagine 500 years from now a group of futuristic archaeologists were to start digging in on the moon only to find parts of a car and a bus. They would be completely justified in inferring that these finds were products of an unknown civilisation. However if some Richard Dawkins IV were to argue that we can’t make such inferences because we do not know anything about this civilization, how they lived and who created them, would that make the archaeologists conclusions untrue? Of course not!

Additionally I concluded this response by saying that even if we were to apply this type of question to every attempt at explaining the explanation, we would end up with an infinite regress of explanations. And an infinite regress of explanations would defeat the whole purpose of science in the first place, which is to provide an explanation!

The explanatory power of the designer is weak

Another one of the Professor’s main contentions included that the designer for the whole universe must be more complex than the universe, therefore the explanatory power of the designer is weak, and in other words it fails as an explanation.

I responded by saying that the supernatural designer, in other words God, is one of the most simple concepts understood by all, something the once atheist now turned theist Professor Anthony Flew testifies too. I argued that just because God can do complex things doesn’t make him complex. The Professor, like Richard Dawkins in his book ‘The God Delusion’, confused ability with nature, just because God can do complex things, such as creating the universe, it doesn’t make His nature complex. I clarified this further during the question and answer session by adding that we humans can design things which are more complex then ourselves, computers being one of them.

To conclude this note, what I found particularly interesting is that once I responded to the Professor’s main contentions there was a shift in the debate. The Professor started to focus more on issues related to sociology and not philosophy! In other words he argued that he didn’t really care about the truth claims of religion as long as what they teach is useful and morally in tune with the humanistic values he upholds. This I believe was an interesting change of discussion and a typical strategic move often made by atheists who run out of philosophical arguments, not to mention that it obviously had nothing to do with the nature of the question. What I think Professor Blackburn did do successfully is refute my main initial assumption, which was that in thinking he was a Humean, he would facilitate a more nuanced discussion!

Rhetoric aside, I sincerely believe that the Professor made me think harder about God’s nature, and how it is virtually impossible (although there are somethings we can know) to know who this God is, in absence for revelation. The Professor made an interesting argument that echoes Hume’s stance on this issue, he highlighted that if this God is immaterial, transcendent, and unlike anything we can conceive then we can never know who this God is or what He intends for humanity. I agree, and the Qur’an reflects this reality as it mentions “You have no authority for this. How dare you say things about God without any knowledge?” It is like we know there is a knocking on door, we are not expecting anyone so we cannot speculate who is behind the door, the thing behind the door has to tell us. This is the most rational position to take, and this position takes us to another discussion: revelation and Prophethood. Maybe the next debate, inshAllah, God willing.