Islam: Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai on the Knowledge of Allah (2)

In my previous post on Islam I began to address the attempt that Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai (ASMHT) makes to argue for the necessity of his god Allah through natural theology (123). ASMHT offers a rational argument that takes the subject of knowledge as its most basic assumption and speaks of three objects of knowledge in the very first sentence of his argument for Allah which are human beings, god, and the world. In order for him to make a successful argument, ASMHT must connect the subject of knowledge with these objects of knowledge.

I asked the readers to picture a triangle where the bottom left point represents the subject of knowledge, the top point represents god, and the bottom right point represents the world. I suggested that there is no reason to think that the points of the triangle can be connected in ASMHT’s view. Not only is the subject of knowledge disconnected from the objects of knowledge which include, in this illustration, god and the world, but the subject of knowledge is disconnected from other subjects of knowledge. ASMHT provides no arguments for his assertions that some connection exists between the three points of the aforementioned triangle. But more than that, there are reasons for doubting his assumption that there is such a connection. ASMHT has decided to start with the self in attempting to think about and know the world and god, but the external world and god cannot be known in an epistemology that begins with the self.

ASMHT has gathered an indefinite number of concepts in his mind which he believes represent the external world. These concepts are arranged with one another to form a sort of picture of the world. This picture helps ASMHT get around in the world, or so he thinks. This picture might be called a conceptual map or scheme. Even if ASMHT is able to create an entire “map” of concepts in his mind, there is no real guarantee that it maps onto the external world. A conceptual map of the world in the mind does not at all guarantee that the map actually matches the world and describes it as it really is. How does ASMHT know that his conceptual map matches the external world? How does he know that there even is an external world? ASMHT cannot step outside of the self. There is then no real way to determine or measure whether or not the conceptual scheme of the subject accurately describes the external world at all, and this is assuming that there even is such a thing as the external world. In starting with the self, ASMHT cannot get to the objects of knowledge. There is no known connection between the subject and object of knowledge. Arguments for knowing objects which start from the subject will end with the subject. There is similarly no way on this approach to knowledge to get outside of the self as far as cognitive and sensory tools go in order to make judgments concerning those cognitive or sensory tools.

The senses are often thought of as a way to escape the self. Perhaps the subject can transcend the self through sense experience. Unfortunately, all that one has through such experience is experience itself which is internal and says little if anything about the external world. Of course we would like to think that our senses are a reliable guide to the truth about the external world, but we might call this into question.

We all know how fallible the senses are. They are easily affected by emotions, health, alcohol, distance, etc. The senses are often impaired. How do we know that our senses are keen enough to gather information that we need from the world? Dogs can hear things that humans cannot. How do we know that we even have enough senses to understand the world? There are animals with no eyes that appear to live happily everyday without a worry of what they are missing. What if we are missing important senses that we need to truly understand the world? How do we know that we are not?

We must be careful to draw the distinction between appearances and reality. Skepticism regarding the senses is not in relation to appearances, but in relation to whether or not appearances can be trusted as evidence of the way that things really are.

Sometimes the senses differ from one another in the way that “an object” is experienced.  It is often the case, and perhaps always the case, that what a person has by way of different senses not only differs but does so in contradictory ways. For example, a surface may appear through sight to be rough and full of texture, yet when felt it seems flat and smooth. A decision must be made between one and the other appearance if we take one or the other to actually be the case, but this decision looks rather arbitrary.

Alleged position of external objects also affects the appearance of objects such that being “closer” to an object may drastically affect the appearance of the object. The tower is the size of a sewing needle until we are nearby. The train may appear stationary to the person in the car getting ready to cross in front of it, while another viewer in a different location sees that the train is moving over seventy miles per hour. One might propose that the various angles on an object only provides a fuller grasp of what that object is like in reality, but then perhaps it is the case that we have not had a sum total of such angles and still do not sense the object as it is in reality.

Even the state of the subject affects what the subject experiences through the senses. The drunken man sees two telephone poles while the sober man sees only one. Someone will respond that the senses obviously do not give reliable information about the way that things really are when the senses are not functioning properly. Surely the senses deliver reliable data regarding how things really are if they belong to a normal and healthy individual in normal circumstances.  But why assume that the experiences of “normal” and healthy people in “normal” circumstances should be thought of as reliable sources of information regarding how things really are?  It seems just as plausible that those who see the world through “abnormality” see it truly while others do not.  Besides, how can we be sure of when we are healthy and normal and in normal circumstances?

When the oarsmen place their paddles in the water we say that the paddles only appear to be bent, but here we come to an appearance with our assumptions already in place. Perhaps it is the case that the oars are bent and when they are dipped in the water their true nature is apparent. Perhaps it is when the oars are out of the water that they appear to be other than what they are.

It is said that the light which reaches us from stars does not give us a true knowledge of what those stars are like at this time. The reason we are given to explain this alleged fact is that it takes a significant amount of time for the light from the stars to reach our eyes. So it is with everything else we experience then. There is a time that it takes for light, sound, smell, etc. to come off of an object and reach our sensory organs. Then there is even more time that it takes any given sensation to make its way through our sensory organs to our brain. Who knows what can happen to the data in that amount of time? Perhaps by the time we receive sense data concerning the external world it is no longer even there, much like we are told we currently see stars that no longer exist. Perhaps our sensory equipment is jammed up with old data.

If we cannot assume that we are the products of something other than an evolutionary “time plus chance plus motion” who is to say that our senses are even “programmed” properly? Of course here we speak of programming only through an allusion to design where there is none. Would you climb aboard an airplane with computers programmed through setting a hundred keyboards outside during a hail storm? ASMHT has not posited his god at this point of his proof, but presupposes the self. There is no god brought into his scheme from the beginning, and so there is no way around the concern above.

We have seen that appearances are contradictory and yet decisions must be made between these contradictory appearances if we are to accept any of the appearances as revealing how the world is in reality. How is it that we know finally whether or not appearances can be trusted as evidence of the way that things really are?  We have seen that there is a good possibility that the data we obtain through the senses is tainted by the time it reaches our brains. We have seen that an evolutionary scheme of development gives us precious little to hope for by way of trusting the senses. There is finally the question raised concerning our conceptual schemes properly representing the external world. Here we must ask about whatever sense data we assume we have gleaned from an external world. Lest we venture to defend our senses through appealing to the information we have gleaned from our senses we should remember what we have already stated with respect to the subject of knowledge becoming stuck in self. ASMHT has excluded divine revelation from the equation of knowledge from the outset of the discussion. This is one of the main reasons for his subsequent failure.

To be continued…


4 Comments

Peter O

Chris so when we are asked we would be starting at the top of the triangle with the Christian God. Would this be a good point to remind us how important our starting point is to try and obtain true knowledge?

C.L. Bolt

There is a little more to it that I hope to get to, but yes.

Reasonable doubts Podcast

Chris,

Are you still planing on a rebuttal to the main criticisms of TAG we presented in episode 98 of Reasonable Doubts or is that no longer in the works? If it is, can you give us an estimate as to when it will be posted? It’s been a few months since it came out and we were wondering if your plans to decimate them have changed or not.

Regards,
RD

C.L. Bolt

I’m sorry to say that I do not have a rebuttal to the Reasonable Doubts material in the works right now, and I definitely do not want to hold you guys up.


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