As you are reading this article, you likely believe that you are awake and not dreaming. You are confident that you know who you are, and that you are present in the real world and not, for instance, simply connected to an elaborate computer simulation that makes your brain see, hear, and feel experiences that are entirely fake and conjured up by the machine. But of all this, are you 100% certain?
There are many possible ways that reality could be fake, and these have been explored in popular culture in the form of various films. Perhaps what we think is real life is a dream (Inception), or perhaps our memories have been replaced with false memories about who we are (Total Recall), or perhaps we are living inside a computer simulation (The Matrix). These imaginative ideas may make for captivating stories, but you wouldn’t entertain any of these ideas seriously. You don’t see any good reason to doubt that your life is real, or that you are who you think you are.
Shakk is the Arabic term for doubt, and epistemology is the term for the discipline which seeks to address the question: How do I know what I know? How would I know a true belief from a false one? What makes some doubts reasonable and others unreasonable? Should skepticism be our basis for establishing knowledge? The present article will explore these questions.
Skepticism is the term for using doubt as a methodology in belief and knowledge. It means that our default approach towards some claim should be to doubt it and demand proof before accepting it as true knowledge. One can, of course, apply skepticism to a broad range of things. The preceding discussion illustrating the case of the reality skeptic – one who doubts that he or she exists in the real world. One type of reality skeptic is the solipsist – someone who doubts the existence of anything other than one’s own mind.
In addition to reality skeptics we can have logic skeptics (someone who doubts that human reasoning gives any indication of the truth), we have history skeptics (including those who doubt that dinosaurs existed or that the moon landing occurred), we have political skeptics aka conspiracy theorists (at the most extreme end those who believe that our countries are run by ‘lizard people’), and we have morality skeptics (those who believe that good and bad are nothing more than culturally conditioned arbitrary human preferences). Finally, we have God skeptics, those who doubt the existence of God, who are conventionally termed atheists or agnostics depending solely on the degree to which they commit to the doubt.
All of these categories pursue the same epistemological attitude, whereby doubt is considered the default presumption and absolute incontrovertible philosophical proof is demanded to establish something as truth. However, in each of these cases, the skepticism is typically selective. In other words, someone who is a God skeptic may not be a reality skeptic – they won’t apply the same standards of proof and demand clear evidence that establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt that they do not live in a matrix. They most likely are not going to be morality skeptics and call upon human beings to abandon notions of good and evil as fictitious. Indeed, some have taken them to task for this.
Philosopher Richard Garner writing in an article entitled “Morality: The Final Delusion?”1 Garner, Richard. 2011. Morality: The Final Delusion? Philosophy Now (82): 18-20., chastises fellow atheists for their inconsistency in failing to apply the same evidentiary standards to morality that they apply to God. Garner writes:
“Just as atheists claim that the beliefs of theists about the objective existence of a god are in error, moral error theorists claim that the beliefs of moral realists about the objective existence of moral rules, prohibitions, virtues, vices, values, rights, and duties are also in error, and for the same reason – what they are talking about doesn’t exist.”
So for any skeptic, the first rejoinder seems to be, “Why are you only skeptical about that? What proof do you have to delimit your demands for proof to only one domain?” This dilemma is no lessened by attempting to draw an imaginary evidentiary line and saying, “I will accept only whatever I can see like the existence of the world around me, but I will deny whatever I can’t see like good/bad or the existence of God.” The reason this doesn’t work is because one is simply asserting a criteria for knowledge (in this case empiricism) without any proof, and thus violating the demands of one’s own professed skepticism.
At the end of the day, one is simply dictating arbitrary criteria that already conform with what they want to believe in the first place. The Qur’an identifies that the epistemic basis is ultimately groundless assumptions about what is or isn’t true: “Most of them follow nothing but assumptions, and certainly assumptions can never take the place of Truth” (Qur’an 10:36). Moreover, the Qur’an further describes this as a manifestation of what is fundamentally a psychospiritual dysfunction from those who never wanted to consider faith in the first place: “Those who will not even entertain the idea that they will meet Us will say, ‘Why aren’t angels sent down to us?’ – or – ‘Why can’t we see God directly?’ Rather, they are self-deluded with conceit and display insolent defiance” (Qur’an 25:21). It seems then that selectively deploying skepticism becomes a convenient ad hoc tool for people to believe what they already want to believe under the veneer of logical argumentation. Desires masquerade as rationality.
The problems with skepticism as an epistemology go well beyond this inconsistency in application, however. But before surveying the other problems we need to gain a better understanding of the nature of skepticism itself by tracing its history back to the Hellenic period (900BC – 323BC) and Hellenistic period (322BC – 31 BC) in Ancient Greece.
Socrates and skepticism towards non-definitional knowledge
The most famous philosophers of Ancient Greece are by far, Socrates (d.399BC), his student Plato (d.348BC), and Plato’s student, Aristotle (d.322BC). With Socrates, we already begin to see the significance of a broad form of skepticism in his thought. The most famous quote attributed to him, paraphrased from Plato’s Apology, is the statement, “The only thing I truly know is that I know nothing.”
Plato records in his works how Socrates would confront poets, politicians, and scholars in public and cast doubt upon whatever they were saying by exposing their inability to formulate rock-solid definitions, thus driving them to a state of aporia or ‘bewilderment’. Socrates presumes the primacy of definitional knowledge – one cannot say anything meaningful about virtue, or justice, or friendship, or courage, or piety without first establishing the definitions. Moreover, for Socrates, definitions are not only a fundamental requirement for knowledge but they are also fundamental for morality as well because we cannot be virtuous if we cannot provide a philosophically rigorous definition of virtue. Hence, Socrates views his efforts to confront, challenge and refute others in abstract philosophical argumentation as a fundamentally moral pursuit – nay, the ultimate ethical endeavour.2From Socrates’ own description of his daily activities, it is easy to see why others may not view his endeavors in the same positive moral light – the rich kids would follow him around Athens attaining ‘great delight’ watching as he would interrogate and humiliate every noblemen until they would become furious and declare Socrates to be “a most vile person who corrupts the youth”. (Plato’s Apology)
Socrates’ contention – that you can’t have knowledge without a definition – is taken head on by the Muslim theologian Ibn Taymiyyah in his critique of Greek philosophy entitled Naqd al-Mantiq (p. 149-161). Therein, Ibn Taymiyyah presents no less than 16 arguments in refutation, enumerating all of which would exceed the scope of this article. However, by way of example, two arguments will be recounted here. If you need a definition for everything, what about the person who came up with the definition? In order to come up with the definition, he had to already have a concept in his mind of what he wanted to define. And if he did, then he already knew the entity prior to defining it. Thus, it is illogical to claim that knowledge cannot be attained without first formulating a definition.
Secondly, if everything needs a definition, what about the words that make up the definition? Do they also need to be defined? If so, you will have an infinite regress of definitions. And since no one possesses an infinite number of definitions, it would mean that no one could ever know anything.
Thus, Ibn Taymiyyah demonstrates that Socratic skepticism towards non-definitional knowledge is unjustified. Certainly, Ibn Taymiyyah’s conclusion accords with our day-to-day experience. Do you need to come up with a philosophically rigorous definition of love, happiness, sadness, or fear to experience these feelings? Do you need to have a philosophical debate over what justice is in order to identify that racial discrimination is unjust? Ibn Taymiyyah argues that definitions are only imperfect verbal formulations of knowledge that arises from deeper sources (see article on the fitrah).
The Hellenistic roots of skepticism
1. Aristotle and the peripatetics
After Socrates and Plato, a diverse array of philosophical schools emerged in the Hellenistic period in Greece. One group was the followers of Aristotle known as the peripatetics (people who walk), given this name because of Aristotle allegedly had a habit of walking which teaching. Aristotle’s most salient contribution was the notion that knowledge must be established by means of a logical deductive argument, or syllogism. A classic example of a syllogism is the following: 1. Socrates is a man. 2. All men are mortal. 3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal. Supposedly, this is the only way to know something for sure and establish the truth of something without any doubt. Thus, Aristotelian rationalism entailed skepticism towards anything that could not be established via syllogistic argumentation (an idea to which Ibn Taymiyyah devoted extensive refutations in his works Radd ‘ala’l-Mantiqiyyin, Naqd al-Mantiq, and Dar Ta’arrud al-Aql wal-Naql).
Aristotle’s idea of the syllogism is perhaps the biggest influence on contemporary debates about God and religion – the feeling that we need to have a philosophical proof, in the form of a syllogism, in order to prove that God exists. For instance, the contemporary popularized version of the ‘Kalam cosmological argument’ offers the following syllogism: 1. The universe began to exist. 2. Everything that begins to exist must have a cause. 3. Therefore, the universe must have been brought into existence by a Creator.
But there are many deeply flawed aspects to adopting this line of argumentation. If faith is only soundly arrived at through the use of such philosophical arguments, what about the masses who possess no philosophical sophistication? Is their faith invalid? Once the premises of the argument start to be debated, all sorts of complex cosmology and astrophysics are thrown into the picture in order to keep the argument afloat. Do we really expect that every believer is required to sift through all this jargon about astrophysics before being able to attain certitude (yaqeen) in their faith? Isn’t there a more fundamental access that every believer has to the truth, not through the obscurity of philosophical jargon, but through the immediacy of what makes sense to their fitrah and allows them to see life as a meaningful journey with a purpose? Shouldn’t it be the message of Islam that captivates one’s convictions rather than the technicalities of the initial entropy in the universe and whether a beginning is implied by the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem? In our zeal to show others the truth of Islam, we’ve turned our conversations about Islam into arguments that have nothing to do with Islam.
Moreover, the approach of looking for philosophical proofs is not how human beings decide on truth in their daily lives. Nobody demanded philosophical proof to show that their parents truly love them. Nobody needed a syllogism to know that honesty is better than dishonesty, justice is better than oppression, or kindness is better than cruelty. Human beings naturally gravitate towards what gives their life meaning. That’s why we don’t need to be skeptical about morality, because we couldn’t make sense of how to live in the world without a concept of good and bad. We couldn’t make sense of our surroundings without a concept of cause and effect, and that’s why no one needs to demand a philosophical proof that causality is a real thing. Likewise, how do human beings make sense of the big questions of life’s meaning and purpose? The ‘why’ questions – why does anything exist at all? Why am I alive and conscious? What am I meant to do with this awareness and with my abilities? Why do people go through experiences of pleasure and pain – what’s it all about?
2. Empiricists – Stoics and Epicureans
Empiricism means using our five senses to decide what is real and what isn’t. Aside from the peripatetics who followed Aristotle, there were other schools in Greece that were staunchly empiricist, such as the Stoics and the Epicureans. Knowledge for the empiricists was to be constructed upon our observations and physical experiences, which naturally entailed skepticism towards that which is beyond direct human observation. This also has a manifest influence on contemporary debates; many people today uphold science as the ultimate criteria for truth. Whatever science can measure and detect is considered true, and whatever is beyond science is considered mere superstition. This approach – dubbed scientism – presents science as the explanation for everything, and declares that religion is outdated superstitions. We can’t see God or His actions in our telescopes or microscopes, therefore we cannot be sure that he exists, the followers of scientism proclaim. Sure, we could be entirely materialists and believe in nothing beyond the existence of the particles which make up everything around us. But what disappears then? Notions of good and bad become delusions, as these are nothing more than arbitrary preferences for different arrangements of the particles.
Moreover, the visual data that confronts us in our observations does not amount to knowledge without our act of interpretation. And how we interpret our observations into a meaningful understanding of reality is a process that depends greatly on how we have accustomed our minds to think and the insights we have gained through contemplation (refer to article Dhikr – Awakening from illusion). We may even fail to recognize the relevance of what we see, and be incapable of sorting mere stimuli from signs (refer to the article Ayaat – the Semiotics of Meaning).
3. Arcesilaus and the Academic Skeptics
The rationalists and the empiricists were collectively called dogmatists; both were groups that believed that the truth was knowable and that philosophical argumentation could be used to establish that knowledge in the form of dogma. Yet, another school emerged when Arcesilaus (d.241BC) took over as head of Plato’s academy, which focused on refutation of the dogmatists by disputing that certain knowledge could be attained about anything. The followers of Arcesilaus became known as the skeptics of Plato’s Academy, or Academic skeptics. If we claim to know something, it is either based on reasoning (rationalism) or observation (empiricism), both of which are not infallible, and therefore nothing can be known with full certainty. Cicero pointedly describes the impact of skepticism in Arcesilaus’s methodology:
Arcesilaus, the pupil of Polemo, was the first to derive this principal point from various of Plato’s books and from Socratic discourses – that there is nothing that the senses or the mind can grasp . . . He is said to have belittled every criterion of mind and sense, and begun the practice – though it was absolutely Socratic – not of indicating his own opinion, but of speaking against what anyone stated as his [i.e., the speaker’s] opinion. (De oratore 3.67)
The traces of this methodology are evident in many social and philosophical currents today, which seek not to construct any meaningful ideas or advance knowledge but are premised entirely upon rejection and skepticism towards the views of one’s opponent. Perhaps it is most poignantly manifest in social media conversations where those without educational background, qualifications, or credentials find ample opportunity and support in their attempts to criticize and refute scholars and experts, without offering any knowledgeable ideas or solutions of their own.
4. Pyrrhonian skepticism – when doubt takes over all
While skepticism dominated the methods of the Academic skeptics, and was subtly present in the ideas of dogmatists, none of the preceding groups took skepticism as far as the followers of a man named Pyrrho of Ellis (d.275BC). Pyrrho served under Alexander the Great and traveled to India where it is said he learned his radical skepticism and brought it back to Greece. Both the dogmatists who held something could be known, and the academic skeptics who said nothing could be known, were deemed to be in grave error. Rather, judgment on all questions and all matters was to be suspended. Pyrrho’s skepticism (termed Pyrrhonian skepticism) entailed doubting the qualities of everything one perceived. He distrusted his own senses to the extent his students allegedly had to prevent him from walking into wagons or walking off cliffs, and rescue him from walking into rabid dogs.
What would it actually be like to live one’s life as a Pyrrhonian skeptic? A thought experiment has suggested that upon awakening in the morning, an individual would first need to interrogate themselves: “Have I truly woken up or am I imagining it? Perhaps I am still asleep? How can I know that I even was asleep in the first place?” Arising from the bed, one would be confronted with another barrage of epistemological confusions: “How do I know this is my bed, or that it is even a bed, or that I have in fact gotten up and am not still lying in the bed while imagining that I have gotten up? How do I know I am looking at a bed or that I even posses eyes which are able to perform the action termed ‘looking’?”
It would quite literally be impossible for a human being to live a functional life under such skepticism. With one’s mind constantly occupied with obsessive doubts about anything and everything, one would be robbed of the capacity to have valuable thoughts that allow one to attain knowledge and construct meaningful construals of reality that assist in one’s intellectual, moral and spiritual development. Instead, one would be doomed to forever wander the barren mental landscape of skepticism, incapable of escaping the cycle of doubt. As the Qur’an describes: “Those who believe not in God and the Last Day and whose hearts have doubted, so in their doubt they will perpetually waver” (Qur’an 9:45).
The Qur’an on the futility of skepticism
There are ample passages in the Qur’an which describe the epistemic attitude of skepticism and delineate why it fundamentally fails. As alluded to earlier, the Qur’an demonstrates the arbitrary nature of what is demanded as proof. In a fascinating passage, the Qur’an enumerates all the nonsensical criteria the Quraysh came up with and demanded prior to affirming faith in Prophet Muhammad:
And they say: “We shall not believe in you (O Muhammad), until you cause a spring to gush forth from the earth for us; Or you have a garden of date-palms and grapes, and cause rivers to gush forth in their midst abundantly; Or you cause the heaven to fall upon us in pieces, as you have pretended, or you bring Allah and the angels before (us) face to face; Or you have a house of gold or you ascend into the sky. And [even then], we will not believe in your ascension until you bring down to us a book we may read.” Say, “Exalted is my Lord! Was I ever but a human messenger?” (Qur’an 17:90-3).
All of these purported standards of proof are entirely made up. And they didn’t end with the Quraysh. Even in modern times we have the likes of an Atheist who proclaims that a true holy book from God would delineate the details of germ theory3Craig, W., & Carroll, S. (2016). God and Cosmology: The Existence of God in Light of Contemporary Cosmology. In Stewart R. (Ed.), God and Cosmology: William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll in Dialogue (pp. 19-106). Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress. doi:10.2307/j.ctt17mcrwc.7, or perhaps it should have us told us the cosmological constants of the universe like the speed of light or gravitational attraction (as if this would be appropriate for a book of spiritual guidance intended for all times and places). Thus, the Qur’an illustrates that skepticism is self-defeating because one can easily turn it upon itself and ask: “What proofs are there for my assumptions about what constitutes proof?”
What proof is there for the preposterous assumption that a holy book is only from God if it tells us about bacteria and germ theory? Beneath all this rhetoric is an unmistakable sense of self-importance: truth should fit MY desires, I am the one who decides what should be considered true or untrue. The thought process belies the same cognitive composition of takabbur whereby one reaches arrogance through the self-aggrandization of one’s own whims and desires.
Similarly, in the story of Prophet Musa, his people said to him “O Musa, we will never believe in you until we see God directly…” (Qur’an 2:55). This is in essence, the slogan of skepticism and non-belief. We will never believe until… (insert made-up standards). And the biggest telltale sign of this being an elaborate excuse and contrived ruse is that when the demanded proof actually materializes, it still does not engender faith in the mind of the skeptic! The Qur’an states, “And even if We opened to them a gate from the heaven and they were to continue ascending thereto, they would say, “Our eyes have only been dazzled. Rather, we are a people affected by magic” (Qur’an 15:14-15).
One may be astounded by this passage – who could possibly be so obstinate that even whilst ascending up into heaven they would deny God and claim that it was all a hallucination? Well, as a matter of fact, this attitude persists. In a conversation between an Atheist and a psychologist, the latter asked the former what would he need to witness to finally affirm God was real, to which the Atheist replied, “I would need to see God myself.” The psychologist replied, “And if you did see that, would you then believe?” The answer of course was no. “Well, I would probably think that I was having a really bad hangover.”
So what point is there to all this skeptical pontification when at the end of the day, it amounts to nothing? If you’ve defined your concept of proof in a way that nothing could possibly convince you of something you don’t want to believe in, can this really be described as a rational or intellectual position?
This leads to the next point – skepticism as an epistemology fails because it is premised upon the rejection of ideas and can never lead to a fruitful increase in knowledge. We need to adopt a better epistemology if we are to be able to develop a meaningful understanding of the world and escape the perpetual cycle of doubt and skepticism (refer to this article on the concept of meaningfulness vs meaninglessness). The Qur’an advises us to seek not mere information, but rather guidance (hidayah) – that which contextualizes our knowledge into a meaningful understanding of how to achieve moral, spiritual and intellectual growth.
Indeed, science really only achieved it’s greatest advances when it was liberated from the epistemic philosophical baggage of being a branch of philosophy, shackled to demands for rigorous philosophical proofs. It was when science became about seeking the most meaningful explanation for observable phenomena that it was able to rapidly progress.
Indeed, as famous physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies wrote in a New York Times op-ed that ruffled quite a few feathers:
“Science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed.”4Davies, Paul. “Taking Science on Faith.” The New York Times. November 24, 2007. Tempe, Ariz.
Davies further writes:
“The very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way”.
So science works because it operates on the basis of our inherent cognitive inclination (i.e. our fitrah) that the universe should be comprehensible to us, it should be predictable and learnable, and governed by discrete rationally discernible principles. If we wasted time demanding proof for this inherent cognitive inclination, we would make no progress in learning about the natural world.
To summarize, the Qur’anic critique of skepticism, we note that:
- Skepticism is inconsistently applied (eg. an atheist is not a solipsist or moral error theorist when these positions are the fruits of the very same evidentiary principles).
- Skepticism is self-defeating and self-refuting.
- All forms of philosophical skepticism are premised upon some form of whimsical and entirely arbitrary assumptions about what is and is not proof.
- Skepticism as one’s default approach is a telltale sign that there are in fact deeper cognitive, emotional, and spiritual reasons why someone distrusts the message they are being presented with.
- Skepticism fails to lead to a growth in knowledge
When is skeptical reasoning and doubt considered reasonable?
It is apparent at this stage that it doesn’t make sense to adopt skepticism as one’s epistemological foundation or one’s methodology in approaching knowledge. Yet in spite of this, surely it wouldn’t make sense to throw skepticism out the window entirely? After all, on a daily basis each and every one of us may be confronted by ideas and notions that we are quite rightly skeptical about. So what determines what type of skepticism is common-sense and what type of skepticism is unreasonable?
Believe it or not, the answer to this question is actually an intuitive part of human psychology. Consider an example. You are sitting in the park reading this article. All of a sudden, a young child runs up to you and exclaims that the president of your country is in the park, riding a unicycle, and eating samosas.
The appropriate response is incredulity, but why? You don’t hear or see the expected fanfare one would expect if a celebrity or ruler was wandering the park – no security, no crowds. Your knowledge of the typical behavior and decorum of political figures suggests the purported story is highly improbable if not bizarre. And lastly, the one conveying the information is not known to be a reliable source, given that children enjoy make-belief games and pranks.
A questionable source has conveyed a strange report that conflicts with your experience-based and knowledge-based expectations and your observations. You rightly judge the report as dubious. But alter the scenario and things change – a police officer in uniform approaches you and informs you the president will be making his way through the park, and you see ample security personnel and a large crowd in the distance – now the report starts to gain credence.
This type of evaluation was historically formalized and systematized by Muslim scholars in the form of hadith sciences, whereby the chain (isnad) and content (matn) of a narration about the Prophet was scrutinized to separate reliable from unreliable, and distinguish between fact and fiction. But the basic operating principles are actually rooted in human psychology.
When one is confronted by a claim, the human mind instinctively tries to fit it in with an existing body of knowledge and psychological constructs. If it is deemed congruent with a meaningful construal of reality, the human mind assigns this claim credence, but if it doesn’t make sense based on the existing web of knowledge, the claim triggers cognitive dissonance and either the claim is treated with skepticism or the web of knowledge needs to be re-organized to accommodate the new knowledge.
So why does it make sense to skeptical about the existence of unicorns, UFOs, gnomes and goblins, and a host of other fictional entities? How do these differ from being skeptical about God? Well, to start with, these are physical entities posited within the material world which conflict with our experience and observation. If however, a leading group of scientists announced that they had discovered the remains of several equid or horse-like creatures which displayed a bony projection surrounded by keratin arising from the head, consistent with a horn – our skepticism towards the existence of unicorns would reasonably diminish.
On the other hand, it doesn’t make sense to be skeptical about the existence of good and evil (morality), cause and effect (causality), truth and falsehood, logic, nor does it make sense to be skeptical about the Divine. These are not physical entities, but rather ontological foundations upon which our very notions of existence and purpose are constructed and rendered meaningful. Take away one element and we no longer have a picture of the universe that makes sense, we no longer have a sensible story about who we are and why we are meant to be. We have instead a pointless sea of particles that exists reasonlessly and whose configuration into the present world around us is as meaningless as if the particles happened to be configured in a disorganized array. Ontological foundations are cognitive structures embedded in our human nature (fitrah) and which we use to filter our sensory experiences into meaningful chunks of knowledge that can aid us in our personal growth. It makes sense to doubt something that conflicts with our ontological foundations, but it doesn’t make sense to doubt the ontological foundations themselves.
Beyond skepticism – finding an epistemology that actually makes sense
The reality that should be apparent at this point is that the human mind has several cognitive processes and types of reasoning that it draws upon, with skeptical reasoning being only one of them. We also utilize analogical reasoning, numerical reasoning, spatial reasoning, predictive reasoning, emotional reasoning, social reasoning, introspective reasoning, and so on. In order for our thoughts to proceed in a coherent way, all of these forms of cognitive activity must operate in conjunction in a manner that makes sense of who we are, where we are, what’s going on, what must be done, and how to do it. To isolate one type of reasoning – like skepticism or deduction- and make it the basis for everything, is to construct a cognitive framework maladjusted for successful knowledge integration.
In order to know if one has the right approach to knowledge, one can ask oneself the following questions, “How does this approach enable to me to gain insight into myself and the world around me? What can it teach me? Where will it lead me? What does it imply about truth, what truth is, and where truth can be found? What does it say about how I should live my life?”
Taking the time to reflect on our lives, it becomes clear that there are several big questions about our lives that can be broadly grouped into three domains. There are the big questions that puzzle us intellectually: why is the world the way that it is? Why is it that the world is learnable and understandable to us? To what end is man’s probing the secrets of the universe intended? Then, there are those questions that confront us morally: how should we live our lives and what virtues should we strive for? In what circumstances is it better to be humble or proud, gentle or fierce, merciful or stern, patient or hasty? How do the experiences we endure during our lives prepare us and develop us in these virtues? Finally, there are those questions that relate to us spiritually: Why do we exist? Wy is my life worth living? What point does my existence accomplish in the broader scheme of things? These are questions of purpose and meaning.
Every single human being has to come to terms with these fundamental questions of life. And no matter how skeptical they are, eventually they end up adopting some form of value system that attempts to address these domains. Intellectually, they may subscribe to empiricism, scientism, logical positivism, post-modernism; morally, they may subscribe to liberalism, conservatism, secular humanism, utilitarianism, feminism; spiritually, they may subscribe to hedonism, consumerism, mysticism, transhumanism, materialism, etc. Ultimately, a person needs some doctrine, some conception of what’s true, what’s right and what’s wrong, and so they will end up committing to a particular world view or paradigm that addresses that. The only question to ask is whether or not the ideology to which they have committed can successfully and coherently address these dimensions of life in a manner that provides meaningful guidance. Certainly, the only system of values to date that can boast of comprehensively integrating all three domains into a single elegant foundation (i.e. Tawheed) is Islam. The unification of all of life’s ethical, rational, and spiritual pursuits under the singular aim of attaining nearness to God provides a firm foundation for true personal development in all spheres.
The Quran provides us with the appropriate epistemology of Truth necessary to escape the quandary of never-ending skepticism. Western philosophical notions of truth fall back to that which can be demonstrated through syllogistic Aristotelian logic (championed today by many philosophers), or that which can be proven through empirical investigation alone (championed today by many scientists). Both of these conceptions of reality have resulted in the modern conclusion that ultimate truth is inaccessible. Rather than the philosophical and obtuse definitions of truth, the Quran presents an intuitive, simple and elegant understanding of truth that renders reality as meaningful, unravelling all of the paradoxical knots of confusion. The term Haqq (truth), is used in the Quran to refer to what is real (Qur’an 10:32), but is also used to mean purpose (Qur’an 16:3), as well as rights and responsibility (Qur’an 30:47). The fact that the word for truth is used to mean purpose implies that there is a teleological dimension to truth. What is construed as real is meaningful because it serves a purpose – it brings together disparate realities into a single vision with clarity and focus. Truth becomes whatever is meaningful and justified from intellectual (truth), spiritual (purpose) and moral (rights and responsibility) perspectives. This is an intuitive concept and the spirit of Truth that humanity searches for. Viktor Frankyl, a holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, explains that mankind’s search for meaning is a search for responsibility in their life.5Frankyl V. Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press; 2006. It isn’t a pursuit that is achieved through philosophical debate or argumentation, but through a holistic engagement of the intellectual, spiritual and moral dimensions of the mind.
In effect, what the Qur’an does for us is reorganize and restructure our cognitive apparatus. Through its lessons, stories, parables, examples, dialogues, and exhortations the Qur’an recalibrates our epistemic settings to make sense of what’s important and what’s relevant in our lives, what to focus on to achieve true spiritual, moral and intellectual growth. The Qur’an actively reorganizes our conceptual architecture to build on the existing knowledge of the fitrah, identify meaningfulness, and successfully actualize Tawheed in our lives.
The psychological dimension of doubt will be examined more fully in the subsequent article.
|↑1||Garner, Richard. 2011. Morality: The Final Delusion? Philosophy Now (82): 18-20.|
|↑2||From Socrates’ own description of his daily activities, it is easy to see why others may not view his endeavors in the same positive moral light – the rich kids would follow him around Athens attaining ‘great delight’ watching as he would interrogate and humiliate every noblemen until they would become furious and declare Socrates to be “a most vile person who corrupts the youth”. (Plato’s Apology)|
|↑3||Craig, W., & Carroll, S. (2016). God and Cosmology: The Existence of God in Light of Contemporary Cosmology. In Stewart R. (Ed.), God and Cosmology: William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll in Dialogue (pp. 19-106). Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress. doi:10.2307/j.ctt17mcrwc.7|
|↑4||Davies, Paul. “Taking Science on Faith.” The New York Times. November 24, 2007. Tempe, Ariz.|
|↑5||Frankyl V. Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press; 2006.|