On Time

Before reading this post, please bear in mind that this post is not about physics. It is rather a philosophical reflection on the concept of time, as defined by physics.

With regards to time, my views are similar to those of Leibniz and Kant, who, according to Wikipedia, consider time as “part of a fundamental intellectual structure (together with space and number) within which humans sequence and compare events.”

My reasons for believing time to be more of an intellectual structure rather a part of the physical world much as chairs, tables and lamps stems, primarily, from my propensity for philosophical thinking as well as the definition of time provided by modern science.

For example, the SI definition of a second is as follows:

the duration of 9192631770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom.

According to this standard definition, a second is defined in terms of “duration of a fixed number of periods” making the whole definition of time extremely circular. What is a period? Nothing but time. The definition, therefore, according to my understanding, defines time in terms of time and fails to provide an independent physical referent for time.

Einstein said that “time is what a clock measures.” What does a clock measure?

A simple, analog clock measures time down to the smallest unit of a second. Each second is, in turn, measured in terms of the movement of the sweep hand between two second tick-marks on the face of the clock.

So, what becomes evident is that time is measured in terms of the observable movement of an object, be it the shadow on sundial, hands in analog clock or cesium atoms in an atomic clock.

It would seem erroneous, from the perspective of physics, to equate time with motion for motion is measured in terms of time. Time appears to have a physical correspondence with motion but is not the motion itself.

Time, itself, therefore, appears more of an intellectual construct having a physical correspondence with the movement of objects characterized by their change of position/state/spatial coordinates.

It is a useful intellectual construct insofar as it is used by humans to order and manage their lives. It definitely lacks a physical form similar to objects in the physical world such as trees, cars and buildings.


Debating Hamza Tzortzis

Hamza Tzortzis is one of those Muslims, who truly believe in the heavy use of rationality and logic to “prove” the veracity of Islam. I had heard him before debating Dr. Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy and recently came across another one of his debates with Lawrence Krauss.

Even though I have some knowledge of contemporary theoretical physics (through pop-science documentaries, articles and books), I usually do not prefer to talk or write about physics. This is because theoretical physics is extremely technical and unless one truly knows the subject inside out, one has a fat chance, I believe, of making a complete fool of one’s self. Hoodbhoy and Krauss both suggested that Hamza Tzortzis did not understand physics well enough to be speaking about it.

So, instead of speaking about physics, I’d like to talk about certain philosophical shortcomings that I believe exist in the arguments set forth by Hamza Tzortzis in his debate with Krauss called “Islam or atheism: which makes more sense?” (Hamza Tzortzis’ part starts from 7:12)

Whereas there are a lot of points presented by Hamza Tzortzis that I do not agree with, I will, in this post, address only a few of them.

Hamza Tzortzis starts off by saying, from 7:14 to 7:21:

If we use our reason, our rational faculties we will definitely come to the conclusion that Islam makes more sense.

Hamza Tzortzis goes on to make the following two claims:

  1. Islam makes sense of the origins of the Universe.
  2. Islam makes sense of the nature of the Qu’ranic discourse.

In order to discuss his first claim, Hamza Tzortzis says the following around 8:15:

If the Universe is eternal, it implies it has an infinite past. Can we have an infinite past? Does the infinite make sense in the real world.

Hamza Tzortzis then goes on to speak, quoting a number of thinkers, about how infinity does not exist in the physical world and exists only as an abstract idea. He concludes his points with the following statement, around 9:50:

The mathematicians Kasner and Newman said “the infinite certainly does not exist in the same sense that we say there are fish in the sea.”

Around 10:10, Hamza Tzortzis says:

To deny a valid and sound deductive argument is equivalent of denying reality.

Now that I believe is a huge claim. To deny a valid and sound deductive argument is tantamount to denying the so-called rules of logical reasoning i.e., those of deduction. It’s nothing more than that. Reality is much greater and more complex than deductive arguments and incorporates all sorts of reasoning methodologies as well as irrationality and emotions. So, to equate the whole of reality to deductive reasoning is a bit too naive, if not outrightly wrong.

In fact, recent advances in paraconsistent logic and dialetheism seem to suggest that there are true contradictions. This view opposes the traditional, so-called Law of Non-Contradiction, which seems all too obvious and intuitive. The bottom-line is that human knowledge and experiences are much more than just deductive reasoning.

Around 10:18, Hamza lays down the premises for his deductive argument as follows:

  • Premise 1: An actual infinite cannot exist.
  • Premise 2: An infinite history of past events is an actual infinite.
  • Conclusion 1: Therefore, an infinite history of past events cannot exist.
  • Conclusion 2: Therefore, the Universe is finite.
  • Conclusion 3: Therefore, the Universe had a beginning.

This first premise is itself highly problematic since it is based on induction (which is something Hamza Tzortzis heavily uses to dismiss science).

Hamza Tzortzis seems so opposed to inductive reasoning that he states the following between 20:21 and 20:29:

You’d never take an inductive argument over deductive one. Only someone intellectually challenged will do that in my humble opinion.

I believe Hamza Tzortzis went too far with this claim. We, as humans, for all practical purposes, live our lives on the basis of induction rather than deduction. For instance, when one feels thirsty, one drinks water or any other beverage of liking, to quench the thirst. Now, from the perspective of someone who argues against induction (such as Hamza Tzortzis), one has not encountered an infinite number of events of feeling thirsty to conclude that water will quench one’s thirst.

However, every sane and rational person will drink water or some other fluid to quench his/her thirst simply based on prior experience with water (which is based on induction). 

So, even though the inductive reasoning is highly empirical, let’s just consider its philosophical shortcomings, for arguments sake, and move on. If we accept the problem of induction, we can clearly see the flaw of Premise 1. Just because we have, so far in Nature, not encountered an actual infinity does not mean that an actual infinite does not exist.

The second flaw, I see with the first premise is with Hamza Tzortzis’ treatment of time. From a purely philosophical perspective, there is no reason to believe that time cannot be infinite because time is not a physical entity like an apple or a chair or a table. It is, crudely speaking, a “measure of durations of events and the intervals between them.”

Defining time without circularity of definition and with ample precision and clarity, is extremely problematic and there seems to be no universal consensus in philosophy on what time really is.

However, if, from a philosophical perspective and following the footsteps of Leibniz and Kant, we treat time as “fundamental intellectual structure” rather than a “fundamental physical structure,” I see no reason why time cannot be viewed as infinite.

Why would I argue for time to be a intellectual structure is the subject of another blog-post I have written.

Suffice to say that if time is conceived to be infinite, then one can surely argue that the Universe might have existed forever albeit in a form/configuration/state that we don’t truly know of prior to the so-called Big Bang.

It is, therefore, more intellectually honest to acknowledge the possibility of the existence of such a Universe rather than to completely deny its eternal existence.

I will not elaborate on Premise 2 and Conclusion 1, 2 and 3 for, I believe there is no need to talk about them, if the appropriate contentions about Premise 1 have been properly articulated.

I will end this post here. I will also try to contact Hamza Tzortzis to see if he can respond to the objections I have raised. Let’s see if he replies back or not.

Graphing the belief in Allah

The blog-post by charles about using Bayes theorem and evidence from evolution to evaluate the probability of believing in God, which I also re-blogged, was interesting. As a scientist, what captivated me the most about the post was to “discover” some general trends between the prior and posterior at various values of likelihood.

I’m sure people may have done this sort of calculation before but I wanted to do it for my own personal understanding and for (yet) another blog entry.

In the true spirit of algebra (and following the reasoning of charles), I am replacing God with Allah and evolution with simply evidence. Here, evidence can be treated as any theory and/or observation that may be used as an argument, by the Muslims, to prove the existence of Allah. So, in this case, Bayes theorem can be stated as follows:

P(Allah|Evidence) =\frac{P(Evidence|Allah)P(Allah)}{P(Evidence)}

With the above equation in mind, I thought about checking how varying levels of likelihood affect the posterior. I, therefore, decided to plot a posterior vs. prior graph with varying levels of likelihood. The denominator of the right hand side of the above-stated equation i.e., P(Evidence), which also known as the normalizing constant, is often the most difficult to estimate. 

However, just to replicate the results of charles, I’ve decided to keep the analysis simple. The denominator can be re-written as:

P(Evidence)= P(Evidence|Allah)P(Allah) + P(Evidence|NoAllah)P(NoAllah)

Even though I am a scientist by training, I’ve decided to put on a philosopher’s hat for this exercise and assumed that the probability for any theory and/or observation that can be considered as evidence, given Allah does not exist, is 0.5. This is P(Evidence|NoAllah). 

With these settings and assumptions, I produced the following graph:


Few interesting conclusions can be drawn from the graph:

1: Increasing the value of prior causes increase in the posterior.

2: The posterior always remains less than the prior when the likelihood is less than 0.5. At likelihood of 0.5, posterior and prior have same value. The posterior always becomes more than prior at likelihood of > 0.5. (Thanks to charles for pointing out this fact).

3: The higher the likelihood, the higher the posterior.

4: If the probability for evidence is 0, provided Allah exists, then no matter how strong the belief in Allah maybe, the posterior ends up being 0.

5: When the prior is 1 and likelihood is 0, the posterior cannot be calculated (as seen by incomplete red line on the graph). This is because P(Evidence) becomes 0 and dividing by 0 is undefined.

6: Prior value of 0 gives posterior value of 0 at all levels of likelihood. Likewise, prior value of 1 gives posterior value of 1 at all levels of likelihood.

This, I believe, nicely complements the blog-post by charles and summarizes some key relations between various variables in Bayes theorem.

And, finally, for the more curious and technical-minded, following is the code in R programming language I used to produce the graph in this blog-post:


bayes_theorem <- function(pg,peg,pegn){
	pgn = 1 - pg
	pge = (peg*pg)/((peg*pg)+(pegn*pgn))
	return (pge)

graph_data <- function(prior){
	allvals <- c()
	for (x in prior){
		allvals <- append(allvals,bayes_theorem(prior,x,0.5))
	df <- data.frame(x=rep(prior,length(prior)),val=allvals,variable=rep(paste0("P(Evidence|Allah)=", prior), each=length(prior)))
	names(df) <- c("x","val","Likelihood")
	g1 <- ggplot(data=df, aes(x=x,y=val)) + geom_line(aes(colour=Likelihood))
	g1 <- g1 + ylab("Posterior") + xlab("Prior") + ggtitle("Posterior vs. Prior with P(Evidence|NoAllah) = 0.5")

prior <- seq(0,1,by=0.1)

In the name of Allah

The incident I am about to narrate happened almost five and a half years ago. However, it is of extreme relevance now as it was during the time it occurred. This post will, in my opinion, give my readers an idea of how slowly but surely, liberty and tolerance are vanishing from the Pakistani culture due to the spreading of the more extreme version of Islam, a point I highlighted in one of my earlier posts.

This happened on the beautiful morning of February 14, 2009- Valentines Day. I was sitting with a group of friends (a guy and 3 girls, to be precise), around the canteen area, next to the Department of Physiology, University of Karachi, Pakistan. We were enjoying ourselves, cracking jokes, gossiping and chatting away the time before our laboratory session started.

I had my camcorder with me. I took it out and started filming, digitally capturing the moments to cherish in the days to come. Oblivious of the surroundings and lost in the moment, we celebrated and enjoyed all that life had to offer. The celebration, however, was short-lived.

A hand reached from behind and took hold of my camcorder as a stern voice commanded: “Band karo issko!” (Shut this down). I thought it was a joke by one of my friends. But as I turned around, I saw a group of guys, about 6-7, getting off from two motorcycles. These people were no campus clowns and they surely hadn’t come to join us in our fun. 

They meant business and failure to comply with their demands meant broken bones and body stitches. They were the terrorists of the campus. They were students of Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba Pakistan, which is the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami.

I got to my feet and turned off my camera and then asked them, politely, what the matter was. They, however, were in no mood to talk. They just wanted to break my camera and, possibly, my bones to pieces.

One of the guy took my sunglasses and broke them. Another guy asked me to show him my student ID card as a proof that I am legitimate student of the University. When I showed him my ID card, he simply pocketed it and refused to return it.

Meanwhile, my female friends had left the scene quickly, and perhaps rightly so, as their safety was in jeopardy.

They were adamant that I should delete all the video footage. I tried talking my way out of the situation but the more I tried to negotiate, the more violent they became.

Finally one of the guys (perhaps the leader of the gang) said to his fellows, “Yeh aisay nahin man-nay ga. Toro isska camera!” (He won’t listen like this. Break his camcorder!)

He then snatched the camcorder from my hand and just as he was about to smash it, I gave in. It was, after all, a very expensive camcorder and I was left with no option but to comply with their demands. I deleted all the video recordings. After that, Jammati workers (as they are called), finally left. And I was left- broken and hurt…

One of the workers, who was a passive observer and, perhaps, the most sensible of the lot stayed back and had a proper chat with me. We sat down and I explained to him my viewpoint in detail. I said something on the lines that violence and forceful coercion is NOT the way to make your point. If you, from your ethical standpoint, believe that what I have done is wrong, then please talk to me about it in a cool, calm and collected manner. We are educated, university-going students, not ignorant savages.

I also mentioned that what I did was not unethical or morally unacceptable primarily because I did what I did with due permission of everyone. I never forced a girl to sit with me and crack jokes or threatened her to be a part of my video. They all did what they did, willingly. Therefore, as sensible and mature human beings, we must provide room for self-expression and understand that we must not force people to live their lives according to our own perceptions. Individuals should be free to do what they feel like doing provided their activities are not harmful to general well-being and stability of the environment. Surely, there is no rule in the University charter that prevents boys and girls to have some fun at the campus, during free hours. Hence, my actions were not unlawful or unethical.

Fortunately enough, he was able to see through the thicket of his beliefs and understood my point. He apologized. He also offered help in getting back my ID card, which his more belligerent party members had taken away. He left with a handshake.

This wasn’t the end. Even though I was able to get my ID card back from a friend who knew the higher ups of the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, I ran into trouble with Jamiat again exactly two weeks later. That was an even more elaborate incident, which will be the subject of a new blog entry.

Unfortunately, the situation has only gotten worse in Pakistan. Prof. Dr. Shakeel Auj, who was the Dean of Islamic Studies at the University of Karachi (my alma mater) and a really close friend of my wife’s uncle was shot at point blank range all because of his liberal views.

His death came as a shock for all of us and I have no words to describe on how I felt. At the same time, his untimely demise did strengthen my belief in the principles of peace, liberty and tolerance. It has motivated me now to be more vocal of what I truly believe in and live my life according to my views. It’s a long, hard road to freedom of expression and I have, in the words of Frost, “miles to go before I sleep.” The struggle must continue…

Oh Allah, but why create?

To the best of my knowledge, there is only verse in the whole of Qu’ran which speaks about the purpose of creation of human beings. The following table shows a handful of translations of the the specific verse:

Translator Translation
Sahih International And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.
Muhsin Khan And I (Allah) created not the jinns and humans except they should worship Me (Alone).
Pickthall I created the jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me.
Yusuf Ali I have only created Jinns and men, that they may serve Me.
Shakir And I have not created the jinn and the men except that they should serve Me.
Dr. Ghali And in no way did I create the jinn and humankind except to worship Me.

It’s the 56th verse of Surat Adh-Dhāriyāt, which is the 51st chapter of the Qu’ran.

At the same time, the following is stated in Surat Fāţir, Chapter 35, Verse 15:

Translator Translation
Sahih International O mankind, you are those in need of Allah , while Allah is the Free of need, the Praiseworthy.
Muhsin Khan O mankind! it is you who stand in need of Allah, but Allah is Rich (Free of all wants and needs), Worthy of all praise.
Pickthall O mankind! Ye are the poor in your relation to Allah. And Allah! He is the Absolute, the Owner of Praise.
Yusuf Ali O ye men! It is ye that have need of Allah: but Allah is the One Free of all wants, worthy of all praise.
Shakir O men! you are they who stand in need of Allah, and Allah is He Who is the Self-sufficient, the Praised One.
Dr. Ghali O you mankind, you are the poor (in relation) to Allah; and Allah is The One Who is The Ever-Affluent, The Ever-Praiseworthy.

Now, I feel utterly perplexed. Allah created us humans to serve/worship Him. At the same time, Allah is Free of all wants. Why does Allah *want* us to serve/worship Him when He is clearly Self-sufficient and Free of all wants?

To say that Allah wants us to serve Him only for our own sake/benefit does not make much sense. It does not make sense primarily because if Allah is Free of all wants to begin with, why did He, in the first place, *wanted* to create human beings? Why bother creating when Allah is Free of all wants?

I still haven’t found a satisfactory answer to this question during my search. Let’s see what turns up in the days to come.

On the attributes of Allah

Historically, there have been three major philosophical arguments to prove the existence of God. They are known as:

1) The Ontological Argument (From a priori reasoning)

2) The Teleological Argument (From Design)

3) The Cosmological Argument (From First Cause)

I do not propose to go into the details and/or critiques of these arguments, in this blog. There is already sufficient literature available about these arguments.

In this post, I’d rather like to focus on a problem that remains unresolved even if these arguments are accepted in toto. The problem basically pertains to the attributes of Allah as defined in Islam.

According to my understanding, these arguments take us only as far as proving the existence of fundamental power of creation that has created this cosmos. These arguments provide no evidence of the more humane and emotive attributes of God, which are a quintessential part of God’s being.

Just for arguments sake, let’s assume that the three traditional arguments for God’s existence are true. Even though we may conclude that there is a fundamental force that sustains and animates this cosmos, it is difficult to imagine what the true nature of such a force is. Specifically, we do not know if such a force is conscious of human existence and suffering. We do not know if the force truly has some advice to offer to humanity. We do not know if the force is just blind, indifferent to human condition. We do not know anything about such a force. It’s all metaphysical speculation at best.

Such a force, even if it is proved to exist, does not bear resemblance to the Allah as described in the Qu’ran. The Allah described in the Qu’ran is not only the Creator and Sustainer of this Universe but is also like a Supreme Consciousness that appears to have a lot to say to humanity on how humans ought to live their lives. Deriving a proof for the existence of such a God from rational arguments relying upon the experimental findings and mathematical models of contemporary science is no trivial task.

To rationally demonstrate the existence of Allah, one needs to essentially demonstrate the existence and unity of the 99 names of Allah as derived from the Qu’ran.

However, to begin with, we do not even know how to properly speak about the attributes of Allah in a language other than Arabic. For example, one of the attributes of Allah is Al-Bari. Now, different English translations of the Qu’ran translate this word differently. In Surah Hashr, Chapter 59, Verse 24, we find different translations of the word ‘Al-Bari.’ The following table provides various translations of the attribute ‘Al-Bari.’

Translator Translation
Sahih International The Inventor
Muhsin Khan the Inventor of all things
Pickthall the Shaper out of naught
Yusuf Ali the Evolver
Shakir the Maker
Dr. Ghali The Initiator

Even though these translation may seem somewhat similar, they appear different upon philosophic scrutiny. For instance, “the Shaper out of naught” seems to suggest creatio ex nihilo whereas “the Evolver” has more naturalistic flavor to it. It may well be possible that Allah creates out of nothing as well as evolves existing creations into different ones.

A well-crafted teleological argument may be able to prove the attributes of Allah pertaining to creation such as Al-Khaliq (The Creator), Al-Bari (The Evolver) and Al-Musawwir (The Fashioner).

However, using such an argument to demonstrate other attributes of Allah may be extremely difficult. For example, consider the two most well-known emotive attributes of Allah: Ar-Rahman (Most Beneficent) and Ar-Rahim (Most Merciful).

I have thought about it since quite sometime. How can a fundamental power that creates and sustains the entire cosmos, also be beneficent and merciful at the same time?

As a student of biology, we are taught that the forces driving evolution are blind. They are blind insofar as there is no consciousness inherent in those evolutionary forces. There is no evidence to suggest that selection, mutation, genetic drift and founder effects are driven by a conscious power that is beneficent and merciful. In fact, and on the contrary, the whole process of evolution as exemplified by the survival of the fittest comes nowhere close to being beneficent and merciful. It’s brutal and ruthless in weeding out the less fit individuals from the population.

Furthermore, beneficence and mercy are just two of the many other apparently anthropomorphic attributes of Allah. Allah is also Al-Alim (The All-Knowing) [7], As-Sami (The All Hearing) [8], Al-Basir (The All-Seeing) [9], Al-Khabir (The All-Aware) [10].

The theists who argue for the existence of Allah on the so-called “rational grounds” also have to prove that the Creative Power of the Universe they call Allah is also All-Knowing, All-Hearing, All-Seeing, All-Aware along with several other attributes. I wait to see what the New Age Muslims have to say about Allah.