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The Risale-i Nur on Naturalism

By Francois Tremblay

Posted July 7, 2002

Islam claims to be a "scientific", "rational" religion. It does not in itself attempt to refute atheism, however, only to rebuke them. But various Islamic commentators have written game attempts to do so.

The most popular attempt is that of Bediuzaman Said Nursi, an islamist apologetic who died in 1960 and wrote a 6,000 pages commentary on the Qur'an called the Risale-i Nur collection. The Risale-i Nur is an attempt, of the type popular in modern times, to reconcile the Islamic religion with science and reasoning - it is a major influential work in the Islamic community, especially in Europe. As such, it is a good representant of Islam for us to discuss here.

The whole collection is comprised of many types of writings, which are not necessary to describe here. Suffice it to say that it comprises, amongst other things, 33 Flashes (a word used in the Qur'an, analogical to parts), written to expound on the fundamental propositions of the Qur'an. It includes a famous Flash on naturalistic viewpoints: this is the one that interests us.

This is, then, a short rebuttal to the 23rd Flash in Risale-i Nur ("On Nature"), which was made to put "naturalistic atheism to death with no chance of reanimation, and totally shatters the foundation stones of unbelief". The text of this Flash can be consulted here.

The "Reminder" at the beginning of the Flash in question details how "[t]his treatise explains through Nine Impossibilities, themselves comprising at least ninety impossibilities, just how unreasonable, crude and superstitious is the reality of the way taken by those Naturalists who are atheists". High expectations indeed! We should expect serious problems for us materialists to answer to.

The introduction

The Introduction gives us three phrases that are supposedly commonly used and imply atheism. These three phrases are: "Causes create this", "It forms itself; it comes into existence and later ceases to exist" and "It is natural; Nature necessitates and creates it".

These phrases are rather anthropomorphic and not particularily atheistic (indeed, there is no reason either why an atheist could not uphold a supernatural cause, however irrational that proposition would be). We know that causes do not create, that things do not form themselves, and that nature does not create. We use these words as metaphors to simplify our explanations. Yet perhaps we can give Said Nursi the benefit of the doubt and assume that he means them as metaphors also.

Then it is assumed that only 4 ways exist for things to come into existence, as for example animals, which are:

  1. "it comes into existence through the coming together of causes"

  2. "that it forms itself"

  3. "its coming into existence is a requirement and necessary effect of Nature"

  4. "it is created through the power of One All-Powerful and All-Glorious"

The author then proceeds to opine that "[s]ince reason can find no way apart from these four, if the first three are definitely proved to be impossible, invalid and absurd, the way of Divine Unity, which is the fourth way, will necessarily and self-evidently and without doubt or suspicion, be proved true".

But it seems the foundation of the Flash, such as it is, has serious problems. The most obvious objection is that, even if a supernatural cause was found to be necessary, it would not have to be Allah, the "One All-Powerful and All-Glorious". The cause may be another god or gods, impersonal mechanisms, or something else. The Flash does not provide any argument for believing otherwise.

The second obvious objection is that way 2 is a strawman. No one acquaintanced with logic would think that it would be possible for something to form itself! To be formed implies a previous non-existence of the form, and non-existence cannot act. Finally, ways 1 and 3, those that are left to represent naturalism, do not seem different: they both represent the power of natural law. It seems dubious to separate them.

The attempts to prove that ways 1, 2 and 3 are contradictory occupy approximately 500 lines out of 720 lines in the Flash, and thus they are our main preoccupation. I will now examine the objections for ways 1 and 3 proposed in those lines. I will not examine in detail way 2 which is, as I explained above, a straw man.

* First Way

The first way is described more precisely as such: "the formation and existence of things, creatures, occurs through the coming together of the causes in the universe". As naturalists, we have no reason to not accept this point, and therefore we must answer to the objections. Three impossibilities are proposed against this way.

To explain the first impossibility, the author asks us to imagine a pharmacy which contains jars and phials filled with substances. A remedy is taken from the substances which compose those jars, with various precise amounts taken from various jars. The author says that, since it's impossible that a gust of wind spills those precise amounts in a jar to form this remedy - i.e. chance cannot effect the existence of the remedy, then the assumption that the jars can form the remedy is absurd.

Yet this analogy is itself absurd, since causes are not like jars. Jars are fixed entities which cannot effect change, but causes, such as natural selection, effect other entities. It is not unreasonable, as it is claimed, to say that causes have entailed a certain result. Unless the believer can prove that a given cause cannot entail a given result, he has no place to deny it.

Furthermore, causes need not be completely irrelevant, like a gust of wind is. For example, the result of natural selection is to push animal species towards greater adaptability. The example of the author reminds us of the famous 747 Creationist argument, that is, the idea that an organism cannot be assembled from irrelevant particle movements any more than a 747 can be assembled from a gust of wind moving parts of a plane around. Of course a gust of wind cannot assemble a 747 from scraps of metal : but that only applies if all causes are irrelevant to the problem at hand. Once again, that is for the believer to prove to us specifically.

The second impossibility starts by the premise that "many of the elements and causes present in the universe intervene in the being of every animate creature". It then proceeds to say that all these conflicting causes cannot come together of their own accord to form even the tiniest creature. But this is an absurd argument, since it presumes that causes are conflicting. No evidence of that proposition is brought to us: it is merely circular.

In nature, causes are not all conflicting in terms of results. For example, the water cycle produces rain, and the germination of a seed produces a tree. Are these contradictory causes of a tree? Unless the rain is so strong as to wash up the ground, certainly not. Likewise for the formation of nutrients in the ground.

Another sub-objection posited in this impossibility is that all the causes of the fly must be in the vincinity of the fly, and that this is absurd. Yet this is in itself an incredible statement: the forces of life which make the fly survive, do not have to be the same as the cause of its existence. For example, flies are determined by their DNA, but the fly is not dependent on its DNA to survive.

Also, it is difficult to understand why the causes of the fly must forever remain in its vincinity. Every organism has a metabolism, and it necessitates few things : a working mechanism to keep it working, and nutrients of a kind particular to the organism. No mystical relationship between the organism and the universe is necessary to establish this.

The third impossibility posits an "established rule" that "[i]f a being has unity, it can only have issued from a single being, from one hand". This is based on the assumption that causes are in conflict again :

"Particularly if it displays a comprehensive life within a perfect order and sensitive balance, it demonstrates self-evidently that it did not issue from numerous hands, are the cause of conflict and confusion, but that it issued from a single hand that is All-Powerful and All-Wise".

But this assumption is absurd, and since there is no evidence of such things, we cannot accept them. It is a circular argument - one must prove that specific causes are inevitably in conflict before using this as an argument.

The second way, "[i]t forms itself", is irrelevant. However, I will still briefly talk about the objections. They all basically boil down to the perfection of organisms, including our own body : to say that it was not created is the equivalent to say that each particle in our body is as intelligent and perceiving as we are. It is difficult to understand how this follows, however, and no explanation is given. Our body is regulated by natural law, just as every other organism there is, and so are all particles. Such an objection, especially in view of the obvious objection (which I talked about before), is laughable. No more needs to be said about it - the interested can go read it for themselves.

* Third way

The third way is, as mentioned, "Nature necessitates it; Nature makes it". There does not seem to be any functional difference between this and the first way, since we naturalists propose that causes are natural. In any case, we accept that statement. Let's now look at the three proposed impossibilities.

The first impossibility begins with the example of the sun. It is a fact that the sun's reflection appears on glass, and drops of water, on Earth. If those reflections are not from a real sun in the sky, then it is necessary that this image is inherent to all pieces of glass and drops of water. This assertion seems reasonable, although it is possible that the reflection comes from something else. In the same way, the argument goes, if creatures are not manifestations of Allah, then each being contains a force that sustains their power and will. This is decried by the author as an absurd statement, which disproves that nature could animate living beings.

Yet there seems to be no absurdity within it. It is a fact that each human, for example, carries the DNA necessary to form a child, and that each woman can bear children. Most living organisms have a metabolism, and access to food sources, which permit them to survive. To deny this goes against basic biology, and it is incomprehensible how a commentator from the last century could not know this. Once again the argument is circular, by attempting to deny the forces of nature by assumption.

The second impossibility is difficult to untangle. It basically states that without Allah, a flower cannot emerge from soil alone: "since air, water, heat and light also are each simple, unconscious and flow against everything in floods, the fact that the all-different forms of those flowers emerge from the soil in a most well-ordered and artistic fashion self-evidently and necessarily requires that there are present in the soil in the bowl immaterial, miniature printing-presses and factories to the number of presses and factories in Europe so that they could weave this great number of living fabrics and thousands of various embroidered textiles".

Yet this is again a circular argument of the same type than the last. There is no reason from this argument to assume that nature is impotent: it is merely assumed. A naturalist would simply reply that the flower emerges because of the laws of nature, and the nature of the flower. There is no supernatural required to explain it.

The third impossibility is a repetition of the old Watchmaker argument: therefore there is no need to explain it again here. Once again, to assume that the so-called order of nature must have been created is a circular argument, which has no evidence to support it. It is a mere supposition which denies all of the mechanisms which we know today as having made the universe and all its parts as we know them.. Natural law is a sufficient cause of everything we see, and to assume design, one must first specifically knock down that proposition.

It concludes by saying : "[i]s there any doubt about God, Creator of the heavens and the earth?". Yes, yes indeed there is. The only interesting question is why so many people believe a text full of circular arguments, and arguments from ignorance. If this is the best Bediuzaman Said Nursi can do to refute naturalism, he is even worse than christian theologians.

Conclusion

Said Nursi's work, as exemplified by his 23rd Flash, has failed to convince us that naturalism and atheism are incorrect. As I have already explained, even if he did, there would be no reason to attribute causality to a god.

His reasoning exhibits two main flaws. The first is ignorance of metabolism. A primitive who would not know about how living bodies work, could be excused in assuming that the causes of life might be exterior to the body, and crowd around it like spirits. However, this is not acceptable thinking in our modern age. We now know that there are chemical processes inside all of us that break down food into nutrients, and fuel the vital processes of life, while other necessary substances are synthesized. This occurs as well in cells as in entire human beings. Perhaps the Qur'an would beg to differ, but we should give no credance to it, if it goes against scientific understanding.

The other flaw is a circular assumption that natural causes are conflicting, impotent or irrelevant. But these attributes are not true for most causes, let along all causes. The believer must specify why, in a particular case, he thinks natural law is inadequate to explain something - grandiose statements are not evidence. If, for example, the believer claims that gravity is not a good reason to explain the spherical shape of the Earth, then we must ridicule him for his lack of education.

The rest of the Flash is dedicated to particular questions asked from a converted naturalist. These questions, for your edification, are of the sort of:

"We hear many lazy people and those who neglect the five daily prayers ask "What need has God Almighty of our worship that in the Qur’an He severely and insistently reproves those who give up worship and threatens them with such a fearsome punishment as Hell? How is it in keeping with the style of the Qur'an, which is moderate, mild and fair, to demonstrate the ultimate severity towards an insignificant, minor fault?"

(the answer? "God Almighty has no need of your worship, nor indeed of anything else. Rather, it is you who needs to worship, for in truth you are sick")

"Philosophers, who have made many advances these days, claim that nothing is created out of nothing, and nothing is annihilated and goes to nothing; there is only compostion and decomposition, and this makes the factory of the universe run. Is this correct?"

(the answer? "Yes, the Absolutely All-Powerful One creates in two ways He both originates, and He composes. To annihilate what exists and to make exist what does not exist is most simple and easy for Him")

One wonders what kind of ignorant convert these questions and answers are supposed to convince and educate.

The Flash ends with a praise in all caps: "ALL PRAISE BE TO GOD FOR THE RELIGION OF ISLAM, AND COMPLETE AND PERFECT BELIEF!". Hardly a rational way to end a supposed proof of the end of naturalism. For our part, we will remain content to praise reality, reason, nature, science, and to leave the superstitions to theologians.

Discussion