- On faulty questions and the need to agree on meanings of words
The more things change, the more they remain the same. This is especially true of discussions on metaphysics or religion, which, through the centuries, have remained amazingly stuck at a point. The result is that every generation goes over the same old arguments and reaches the same old stalemates. Very often, much like in a situational comedy, the two sides have completely different things in their minds although they are using the same words for them. That such debates often fail to yield any results at all is then partly because the parties don’t bother to agree on what precisely they mean by the terminology being used.
For example, many a philosophical/religious debate tends to take this predictable turn: One party will sooner or later demand triumphantly (as though it has spectacularly settled the issue once and for all) how it’s possible for human beings to have free-will if God already knows what they are going to do in future. This is supposed to be enough to demolish belief in an omniscient God or human free-will, if not both. There’s nothing wrong with the question from the point of view of the questioner, of course. But by assuming God to be subject to time (a belief probably not shared by the opposite party, unless its concept of the deity is an equally crude one), it confuses God’s ‘prescience’ with His constraining humans to behave like automatons. An agreement on definitions usually makes for a much more meaningful discussion, because many questions that have a potential to derail the discussion can then be shown to be faulty in the context of the discussion. This process of agreeing on what key words mean in a particular discussion very often gets skipped – whether by negligence or by design.
Perhaps the best example of this sort of thing is the ultimate debating equivalent of George Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ on board USS Abraham Lincoln, when one of the debaters will cockily ask: ‘So who created God?’ This is a challenge even the great Bertrand Russell thought was an unanswerable one. Well, there’s a well-established Quranic tradition that no question is a foolish question, and this one is no exception. A question may very well be faulty however, and that can be demonstrated; but no question merits being dismissed by merely being labeled as silly. In fact, a significant part of the way the Quran educates its readers is by quoting every apparently silly question and then answering it or showing how it’s faulty. They key here too is to be on the same page about the word ‘God’.
The Quran very much addresses the question of the ‘ancestry’ (in modern terms, the source) of God. Somebody asked the Prophet (PBUH) where God had come from. As was his wont, by way of an answer, he recited verses of the Quran – on this occasion the 112th chapter. This little chapter (four verses only) contains a wealth of material. It gives at least four hints regarding the answer to the question; or more precisely, how it’s faulty – each verse explains what’s wrong with it.
Being the Absolute (or the Source), God doesn’t depend on anything. And that includes time and space. There’s no distinction then between past, present, or future as far as He is concerned
1. Say: He is God, the Unique.
2. God is the Absolute.
3. He begets not, nor is He begotten.
4. And there’s none that is equal to Him.
Being the Absolute (or the Source), God doesn’t depend on anything. And that includes time and space. There’s no distinction then between past, present, or future as far as He is concerned. He is Unique, for everything else depends on something outside it for its existence, whereas God alone is Self-Sufficient. Ultimately, the whole universe depends upon God for its existence. He owes His ‘existence’, His Divinity to nobody: He was not born, nor was He created. Divinity is not something that can be acquired any more than it can be given away. Therefore, the issue of God’s coming into being doesn’t even arise – for God Himself is the Source.
‘Who created God?’ is therefore a faulty question as it aims at putting the opponent in a double bind, where he is expected to accept that either there’s no God, or else somebody (or something) must have created Him. The tactic of rejecting the concept of God altogether by attacking and successfully debunking particularly attackable versions of god is an old one. It’s a common trick employed by many atheists because it’s very easy to successfully attack a deity that instead of being absolute, depends on something else (a very poor god indeed). But to be fair, atheists are not the only ones to blame here. Many theists are also guilty in that they so easily allow atheists to lead them around by their noses.