16 Strategy 6: Critical Thinking

Recall that shubuhāt only resemble the truth but are not the truth in and of themselves. As such, they do not have any real intellectual foundational basis.  One way to expose the fault lines of destructive doubts is by way of critical thinking.  Critical thinking is the proper utilization of one’s cognitive faculties such that one is able to identify fallacies in reasoning when issues or concepts are presented.  To put it simply, critical thinking is the proper use of one’s mind.  When we use our minds properly, we protect ourselves from falling into errors in reasoning, such as logical fallacies.  Our sixth strategy, therefore, is about how we can use our cognitive faculties to uncover the intellectual weaknesses of destructive doubts.

 

The importance of critical thinking as a strategy in dealing with shubuhāt should not be underestimated.  Some years ago, a person contacted Hamza Tzortzis, the founder of Sapience Institute, about a doubt they had been exposed to related to the Higgs Boson. At the time, the Higgs Boson had recently been discovered and there was much clamor about this ‘God particle’. Basically, the idea is that if there was no Higgs Boson, then nothing would exist since it is the Higgs Boson that gives all  particles (with the exception of the photon) their mass. Without this mass, particles would aimlessly be floating around everywhere and nothing would exist.  The implications of this discovery among the general populace was that we now had a basis for all of material reality.  Hence, the particle was touted in the media as the ‘God particle’. 1

 

Tzortzis was contacted by a person who said that this discovery of the Higgs Boson had shattered their faith and that their īmān was “on the edge of a cliff” because how could we now believe that God exists?  This person needed to take a step back, think critically, and ask the question, “how does this negate the existence of God?” The discovery of this particle that makes up this field is indicative of the power and will of God.  In fact, any physical phenomenon, whether it’s the Higgs Boson or it is a chair, a table, or a mountain, can serve as a rational proof for God’s existence since all physical phenomena are contingent .  By ‘contingent’ we mean that they did not have to exist and as such they are not ‘necessary’. It is logically possible for them to have not existed.

 

In the Islamic intellectual tradition these items are called ‘mumkin al-wujūd’ or ‘possibly existing’ since it is possible that they could have not existed.  Now, the mark of a rational mind is to question that which did not have to be.  Any physical phenomena, whether we are talking about the Higgs Boson, chairs, mobile phones, energy fields, particles, did not have to exist and they could have existed in a different form or not existed at all. Therefore, these physical phenomena require an explanation external to them because they don’t explain their own existence and they don’t explain their own limited form.  This explanation external to them ultimately has to be ‘wajib al-wujūd’ or ‘necessarily existing’.  To state it in a different way, God necessarily exists since you cannot have an infinite chain of items that require an explanation external to themselves. 2

 

This application of the contingency argument is possible when one thinks critically about the ‘challenge’ that the Higgs Boson presents and once one does so, they can come to the conclusion that not only does the discovery of the Higgs Boson not negate the existence of God but in reality, it affirms the existence of God.

 

Critical Thinking: An Introduction to the Art of Using Your Brain

 

Definitions of critical thinking correspond to generating, defending, and challenging arguments or claims. So to critically think, you should be able to generate strong arguments, defend arguments, and challenge weak or false arguments. In the context of generating good arguments we should avoid errors in our reasonıng, and these errors in our reasoning are typically referred to as ‘logical fallacies’. In the context of challengıng weak arguments we should be able to recognize logical fallacies.

 

As an introduction, it is important to keep in mind that an argument consists of premises (or statements) and a conclusion. The premises are the reasons people provide as to why they believe something or not. Fallacious arguments often have false premises. Premises can be challenged as there may be false assumptions behind them.  Conclusions can also be challenged if one finds there is no logical link between the premises and the conclusion.

 

Safaruk Chowdhury explains these concepts as follows:

 

“In a debate, the debating parties make knowledge claims. These claims are justified by articulating arguments. An argument in the technical (philosophical) sense refers to a set of statements that serve as premises leading to a conclusion.  So, we have

 

CLAIM: justified by an argument

 

ARGUMENT: a set of premises that lead to a conclusion.

 

Here is an example:

 

Argument #1:

 

  1. If the Qur’an is the inimitable word of Allah, then the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ spoke the truth.
  2. The Qur’an is the inimitable word of Allah.
  3. Therefore, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ spoke the truth.

 

Sentences 1 and 2 are the premises and sentence 3 is the conclusion. If the premises are true, the conclusion is true.”3

 

To put it simply, an argument consists of a set of statements (premises) that lead to a conclusion.  When analyzing an argument there are generally two types of logical fallacies that can occur: formal fallacies and informal fallacies.

 

Formal fallacies concern errors in logic i.e. a flaw in the structure of the argument which renders it invalid. These types of fallacies occur when the conclusion does not logically follow from the premises or is not supported by them.  The premises may be true, but do not spawn the stated conclusion. For example,

 

Premise 1: All cows are omnivores

Premise 2: All rabbits are omnivores

 

Conclusion: Therefore, all cows are rabbits.

 

Informal fallacies have to do with errors in reasoning. These fallacies have a flaw in the content of the argument rather than the logical form of the argument. Most often they involve irrelevant information or assumptions related to the premises that are weak, unjustified or false. When you examine the information or the assumptions and show them to be weak, unjustified or false, it breaks down the whole argument.  Let us take some examples of informal fallacies.4

 

Example 1: Appeal to accomplishment

 

This is when an argument or claim is advanced (mainly to silence the opponent) based on merely the credentials of the one making the argument and not on the merits of the argument or claim.  It takes the following form:

 

  • – p is true because the person making the claim that p is impeccably accomplished.
  • – Therefore, p is true.

 

Example: Look, I have a PhD and published many papers, so believe me when I tell you that God doesn’t exist.

 

Explanation: The truth of that claim does not depend on the credentials or achievements of the one making the claim. Otherwise we will have to say that someone with more credentials entails they make more truthful claims, which is clearly false. The person’s claims have to be independently established with evidence.

 

Example 2: Appeal to consequences

 

This is where the speaker highlights a negative consequence of a particular proposition in order to try and show that the proposition in question is false. It takes the following form:

 

  • – belief in p has negative consequences.
  • – Therefore, p is false.

 

Example: Religion leads to disunity and war that is why I reject religion and this is exactly why it is false.

 

Explanation: Arguing that a belief is false because it leads to negative consequences is irrelevant to the truth claim of that belief. The consequences of a belief do not alone determine the truth value of that belief. Is my belief that atheism leads to nihilism (that life has no ultimate meaning or purpose, and that it can lead to rejecting objective morality) a valid argument to show that atheism is false?

 

Example 3: Hypothesis contrary to fact

 

This involves a speaker trying to prove something in the real world by invoking an imaginary or hypothetical example in the past. It takes the following form:

 

  • – if A did not happen, B would have not happened

 

Example: If you were not born in a Muslim household or country, you would have not been Muslim.

 

Explanation: Perhaps. But it is equally possible that a someone being a Muslim is due to other factors, such as the evidence for Islam. Using imaginary hypotheticals is misleading because they do not establish anything about the real world.

 

Example 4: Notable effect fallacy

 

This occurs when a person asserts the truth of some claim purely based on someone’s effort to explicate that claim.  It takes the following form:

 

  • – X has made considerable effort to prove that p.
  • – Therefore, p is true.

 

Example: How can you deny this claim is true? Shaykh X wrote a whole book on the idea trying to show how it’s valid. Therefore, it’s a correct claim or idea!

 

Explanation: The fact that someone went to great lengths to expound on some idea, view or claim is not a reason to make that idea, claim or view true. What if a person went to even greater lengths to defend a contrary view, e.g. by spending their whole life on a claim and not just a few years on a single tome? Does that make their claim truer? No. Truth (or falsity) is not dependent on a person’s effort or duration of effort but evidence and strength of justification.

 

Hopefully, with these examples, the concept of informal fallacies is clear.  If you are interested in more about identifying fallacies, how to proceed in a debate, etc., please refer to Safaruk Chowdhury’s book on the topic5 as well as his course on the Sapience Institute online learning platform.6

 

 

Qur’anic Encouragement to Think Critically

 

The Qur’an encourages its reader to use their God given rational faculties.  It encourages us to use our intellect, to ponder, to reflect,  and to use our common sense. Not only is there encouragement to do so, but also the Qur’an rebukes people with regards to their errors in reasoning, and it exposes these errors in a very eloquent manner. This is very important to understand, because it would provide for us a theological, spiritual and intellectual motivation to take critical reasoning very seriously. Let us elucidate this with a few examples from the Qur’an (and there are many) followed by brief explanations of each.

In the 21st chapter of the Qur’an, it states:

“He rebuked ˹them˺, “Do you then worship—instead of God—what can neither benefit nor harm you in any way?” “Shame on you and whatever you worship instead of God! Do you not have any sense?”7

 

These are very powerful verses. It is as if Allah is trying to say to us, “it is an error in reasoning to worship other than Allah, since nothing other than Allah can bring you ultimate benefit or bestow ultimate harm”  In order to truly appreciate these verses, we need to take a brief foray into the meaning of the term ‘worship’.  ‘Worship’ means to know Allah, to love Allah, to obey Allah and to direct all acts of worship to Allah alone, whether we are referring to the internal acts of worship or the external acts of worship. These acts of worship include extensive praise and ultimate gratitude.  Now something that is praised, one does so by virtue of its intrinsic attributes.  If these attributes are deficient, then our extensive praise and ultimate gratitude is misplaced.  The implication in the verse is that anything other than Allah is not maximally perfect and is therefore, deficient in some shape or form. In other words, it doesn’t have perfect attributes. It is limited, it is lowly, and it is contingent. That thing that cannot benefit you or harm you is not the cause of your existence. It cannot give you anything, it cannot answer your supplications, and as such, it is not worthy of extensive praise or ultimate gratitude i.e. not worthy of worship.

So, this powerful verse is exposing an error in reasoning related to worshiping other than Allah. This phenomenon, known as shirk, is fundamentally one of the greatest errors in our reasoning and Allah exposes this very eloquently in this verse.

 

Another example of the encouragement to think critically from the Qur’an is found in the 23rd chapter:

 

“God has never had ˹any˺ offspring, nor is there any god besides Him. Otherwise, each god would have taken away what he created, and they would have tried to dominate one another. Glorified is God above what they claim!”8

 

Allah is exposing an error in the reasoning of the polytheists because they claim there is more than one God. Our focus will be on the end of this verse, which is very powerful when Allah says that had there been more than one god, they would have tried to dominate one another. This provides the basis for a powerful argument for the oneness of Allah, which is the argument from exclusion.

Before unpacking the argument from exclusion, it should be noted that Allah is talking about the error in reasoning of the polytheists who are claiming that there is more than one God and Allah is saying if that was the case, they would want to try to dominate one another. This is a correct assumption about God, because God, by definition, is a being that has an absolute will.  In other words, there is nothing external to God that limits His will.

This verse is the basis for the argument from exclusion which can be stated as follows. Imagine that, as the polytheists claim, there were two gods and they wanted to move a rock.  This gives rise to three possible scenarios. In the first scenario, one god wants to move the rock to the left while the other god wants to move it to the right.  If one of them dominates and moves the rock in the direction they want this means one of their wills is dominant and the other is lacking.  Thus, in this scenario, the result is one God with an absolute, dominant will.

In the second scenario, both gods who want to move the rock just cancel each other out.  This is not possible since we have creation existing which means something has been willed.

The final scenario is that they both move the rock in the same direction all the time.  They both will everything exactly the same, always.  In reality, this is just one will since there is nothing to tell one will apart from the other.  Hence, the conclusion is one God.

Now that we have looked at critical thinking vis-à-vis logical fallacies and via the Qur’an, let us proceed with a practical example of how to use critical thinking in dismantling shubuhāt. If you recall, in the section where we discussed sources of doubts, we presented a tripartite categorization of the sources of doubts into 1) philosophical/scientific doubts, 2) moral/social doubts and 3) trauma.

One of the oft repeated, outdated, clichéd philosophical doubts is, ‘If the universe needs a creator, then who created God?’ While this doubt is presented as a question, the doubt is basically stating that since the universe requires a creator then God also requires a creator.  In making use of our critical thinking skills, our first step is to expose the false assumptions behind the stated doubt.  There are three false assumptions.  The first is that it makes the universe and God the same.  The universe began, God did not begin. Things that begin to exist require a cause, a creator or an explanation. God is eternal and He is not finite.  Therefore, He was not caused or created.  In essence, the claim being made is paradoxical since it is equivalent to asking, “Who created the uncreated Creator?” Such a question lacks meaning and has no logical value.  It would be as meaningless as a married bachelor since by definition, a bachelor is unmarried.

In a conversation, your interlocutor might object to this assumption being false. They may state that since everything has a cause, God must have a cause as well. This leads us to exposing the second false assumption. This assumption misapplies the principle of causality. In other words, it is NOT whatever exists has a cause rather it is whatever BEGINS to exist has a cause. God never began to exist and therefore does not require a cause.

Your interlocutor at this point might object to the very notion that God did not begin to exist. They may state that God indeed could have a creator.  This assertion is where we uncover the third false assumption, the absurdity of an infinite regress of causes. To understand this fallacy, imagine creator X created the universe, and creator X was created by Y, and Y was created by Z and Z by ZX, and ZX by ZY, and that went on forever. Would this universe ever come into existence? It would not because in order for the universe to exist there would have had to be a completion of an infinite regress of causes.  If we assume an infinite regress of causes, it means it is never complete. In other words, it would never end. And if the regress of causes never ends, the universe would never come ınto existence.  However, the universe does exist and therefore, there must be an uncreated creator by logical necessity.

 

 

1 It seems the physicist who was writing a book about the discovery of the Higgs Boson, Leon Lederman, had titled his book, “The Goddamn Particle” indicating the enormous difficulty in actually finding the particle.  His publishers, however, changed the title to “The God Particle” since this was thought to incite more interest in the book and by extension, lead to increased sales.  See Dickerson, Kelly. “Here’s What Scientists Really Wanted to Call the World’s Most Famous Particle.” Insider, May 20, 2015. https://www.businessinsider.com/why-the-higgs-is-called-the-god-particle-2015-5.

 

2 For a detailed explanation of the contingency argument, see Tzortzis, Hamza Andreas. The Divine Reality: God, Islam and The Mirage of Atheism (Newly Revised Edition). London: Sapience Institute, 2019., chap. 6: The Divine Link- The Argument from Dependency.

3 Taşköprüzāde, Aḥmad B. Khalīl. A Treatise on Disputation and Argument: Risālat Al-Ādāb Fī ʿIlm Al-Baḥth Wa’l-Munāẓara. Translated by Safaruk Z. Chowdhury, 2020.

 

4 Examples taken from Taşköprüzāde, Aḥmad B. Khalīl. A Treatise on Disputation and Argument: Risālat Al-Ādāb Fī ʿIlm Al-Baḥth Wa’l-Munāẓara. Translated by Safaruk Z. Chowdhury, 2020.

 

5 Taşköprüzāde, Aḥmad B. Khalīl. A Treatise on Disputation and Argument: Risālat Al-Ādāb Fī ʿIlm Al-Baḥth Wa’l-Munāẓara. Translated by Safaruk Z. Chowdhury, 2020.

 

6  “The Art of Debate and Disputation” https://learn.sapienceinstitute.org/courses/the-art-of-debate-and-disputation/.

 

 

7 القرآن الكريم. “Surat Al-’Anbya’ [21:66-67] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed March 27, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/21/66-67.

 

8 القرآن الكريم. “Surat Al-Mu’minun [23:91] – The Noble Qur’an.” Accessed March 27, 2022. https://legacy.quran.com/23/91.

 

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