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Predicting Modern Science: Epicurus vs. Mohammed

In our 2004 Michigan debate, where Dan Barker and I debated Michael Corey and Hassanain Rajabali, our opponents claimed the Koran miraculously predicted certain claims now established by modern science (an audio recording of the debate can be heard at ShiaSource). I made the observation that nonprophetic humans had made similarly prescient ‘predictions,’ such as Thales first having the idea that all life came from water, and that the Koran can’t claim to be prophetic if its ideas come from a previous nondivine source (or if someone else could clearly come up with the same idea without divine help). Dan added that if you make enough claims, some will be true even by accident, while any opportunity for a real miracle of scientific prophecy in the Koran was evidently squandered. For example, who needs to know about the Hubble expansion? Wouldn’t hearing about the germ theory of disease be far more useful?

This is not new, of course. I have written on this kind of argument before. On the failure of the Koran to get science right, see my essay “Cosmology and the Koran: A Response to Muslim Fundamentalists” (2001) and the resources linked there. But several others have written on this who have first-hand expertise in the subject of Islam: Taner Edis, “‘Quran-science’: Scientific miracles from the 7th century?“; Avijit Roy, “Super-Scientific Religious Scriptures!“; Denis Giron, “Islamic Science: Does Islamic literature contain scientific miracles?“; Paul Martin, “The Qur’an and Science: Do They Agree?“; Syed Kamran Mirza, “Ambiguity of Human Embryology: Science in Quran“; and the resources at Answering-Islam.org.

The central point at issue in the debate was Michael Corey’s claim that the Koran predicted the expanding universe. I was unfamiliar with the relevant verse so could not respond directly. But now that I have investigated the claim, I can honestly say it is inaccurate in two respects: it is actually the Hebrew Bible, not the Koran, that ‘predicted’ this–the Koran is effectively paraphrasing Isaiah 51:13 and 42:5; and I think the verses in question, in Isaiah and the Koran, are too ambiguous to be taken as any sort of prediction. Denis Giron has addressed this claim in expert detail in “Expansion of the Universe in the Bible and the Qur’an: Comparing Isaiah to Soorat az-Zaariyaat,” and so has Dr. Abdul-Kalaam Pangloss in “The Qur’an and the Big Bang.” In short, the relevant word also means ‘enrich’ and in fact the only other time it is used in the Koran it means ‘wealthy,’ hence most translations of the Koran in print translate the verse in just that way:

From Translations of the Qur’an:

Yusufali: “create the vastness of space”
Pickthal: “make the vast extent” of heaven
Shakir: “makers of things ample”
Khalifa: “we will continue to expand it”

Only Khalifa renders it as “we will continue to expand it,” even though there is no future tense in the verse, nor the word ‘continue.’

In Isaiah (and therefore the Koran, which appears to paraphrase Isaiah) it is likely the reference is to when God divided the heavens, by placing the firmament between the waters of heaven and the waters of earth, and then “expanding” the heavens into seven (per Koran 41.12, and Jewish legend, e.g. 2 Corinthians 12). At least, that this was Isaiah’s meaning is suggested by the fact that “heavens” is plural, and by his other uses of the same concept (see: Is. 40:22, 45:12, 48:13; see also: Job 9:8, Ps. 104:2), and the lack of any other creation event he could be referring to. Certainly, no one ever understood it in any other way until after the Hubble expansion was discovered. And since, in my observation, the Koran otherwise gets cosmology entirely wrong, we have no reason to believe it was saying anything miraculous here. In the same fashion, the following verse (51.48) says, in parallel structure, that the same God who ‘expands’ the heavens also ‘spreads out’ the earth. So to interpret 51.47 as meaning God is even now expanding the universe entails interpreting that he is even now spreading out the earth, too, which of course is not happening (the earth, even the continents and continental plates, remain, on average, the same size).

By the same trick, I can make almost any lengthy ancient text predict something amazing. Michael Corey said he would be “amazed” if someone thousands of years ago had predicted scientific facts that would not be proven until today–implying this would be evidence to him of divine inspiration. Well, let’s test that principle. Are there any nondivine texts in antiquity that make amazingly prescient predictions of scientific facts, facts that would not be proved until the modern age? Certainly. The best example is a famous Latin poem summarizing Epicurean philosophy, which far outdoes the Koran in both clarity and quantity of marvelous scientific predictions.

Epicurus predicted (as reported by Lucretius in his poetic summary De Rerum Natura) the existence of the atom and the molecule (the binding of two atoms to produce a different chemical); the law of inertia (unless retarded by a blow, objects are in constant motion–not proved until Galileo); the principal of universal natural law (the same principles of behavior that apply on earth apply the same everywhere in the universe–a theory denied by Aristotle, and by the Christian Church until Galileo challenged the Church’s view and Newton proved him right); the rain cycle (that rain comes from water that has evaporated from seas and lakes, due to the heat of the sun and the motion of the air, and is stored in clouds, then falls when those clouds are heated or saturated); that sound is a pressure wave of air molecules whose shape determines the sound; that light is comprised of particles; that the sense of smell is caused by the shape of molecules fitting the shape of receptors in the nose; that lightning is caused by friction between storm fronts and consists of rapidly-moving particles (which we now call electrons) that are smaller than the atoms that comprise visible matter; that earthquakes are caused by slipping fault lines; that the Nile rises every year because of snow melting at its source; that animals, including humans, evolved by natural selection; that matter is mostly empty space; that magnetism is the result of a constant discharge and absorption of particles between magnetic objects; that fire is not an element; that there is no center of the universe but many different solar systems with their own planets; and that the speed of light is finite. He also predicted relativity, arguing that motion is relative, and time does not exist except as the relation of objects and events to each other, and hence time is also relative to the observer.


Mention in De Rerum Natura

(1) The Atom


(2) The Molecule

2.100-108, 2.581-588

(3) Law of Inertia

2.62-166, 2.184-332

(4) Principle of Universal Natural Law

2.718-729, 2.1067-1078

(5) Rain Cycle


(6) Sound as a Pressure Wave in Air


(7) Light Composed of Particles

2.144-156, 4.183-216, 4.364-378, 5.281-305

(8) Sense of Smell Caused by Shape of Molecule Fitting Shape of Receptor in Nose

2.414-417, 2.680-683, 4.673-705

(9) Lightning Caused by Friction between Storm Fronts


(10) Lightning Composed of Tiny Particles


(11) Earthquakes Caused by Slipping Fault Lines


(12) Nile Rises from Snow Melting at its Source


(13) Animals & Men Evolved by Natural Selection

2.1150-1156, 5.790-836

(14) Matter is Mostly Empty Space

1.329-397, 6.936-997

(15) Magnetism Caused by Exchange of Particles


(16) Fire is not an Element


(17) No Center of the Universe


(18) Other Planetary Systems


(19) Speed of Light is Finite

2.144-156, 4.183-216

(20) Theory of Relativity

1.459-463, 2.308-332

(21) Quantum Indeterminism


(22) Brownian Motion


Lucretius wrote the epic poem De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”) between 100 and 50 B.C., dramatizing the theories of Epicurus, who wrote hundreds of books on naturalist philosophy between 310 and 270 B.C., none of which survive (except fragments recovered from volcanic ash at Herculaneum). The above references are to book and line number from the Lucretian poem, the only complete summary of Epicurean philosophy that survives.

I don’t think the Koran comes anywhere near such a long list of dead-on predictions. One might draw up longer lists of far vaguer or more dubious predictions in the Koran. But nothing like this. For Epicurus declared all of these facts in far less ambiguous terms than anything purportedly prescient in the Koran. So the conclusion must be that mere human reason is better than divine inspiration at predicting the truth about the world. Epicurus beats Mohammed. Man beats God. Epicurus wasn’t divinely inspired. He was just a clever man. After all, like the Koran, he got a lot wrong, too. But he got a heck of a lot more right–in part by using the same trick: if you make enough guesses, some will turn out right just by chance, and if you ignore all the misses, you can make Epicurus look miraculously prescient. Likewise, just as proponents of the Koran do, we are liberally “interpreting” things he said in a manner more in agreement with modern facts than Epicurus may have intended. But in the main, we need no tricks: Epicurus really did get many things right, by making some intelligent guesses, and reasoning things out from there. Very much unlike the Koran.

Let’s take one other example for our concluding point. Epicurus predicted quantum indeterminism: he said atoms will sometimes randomly swerve, which is the same thing as saying that they sometimes randomly change their momentum or location, which has been confirmed. Was Epicurus therefore inspired by God? No. He just got lucky. He knew nothing of Wave Mechanics, the Compton Radius, or Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. He was simply trying to solve what he perceived to be the problem of free will, drawing on the empirical observation that particles suspended in a medium appear to move at random (which would also later become a proven scientific theory called Brownian Motion). So, too, Isaiah was simply trying to state what was obvious to him: that God is the one who made both the earth and the heavens so vast, and separated them from each other, and he alone keeps them that way.

This is quite probable, since neither Isaiah nor Mohammed knew anything about the difference between stars and galaxies, for example, and yet only the latter are expanding away from each other. The stars within our galaxy, which comprise by far most of what Mohammed and Isaiah would have imagined as the visible ‘heavens’ (and hence what they would have understood by that word), are not expanding, but are held in place by gravity. Just imagine the lost opportunity here: Allah could have given Mohammed the most incredible proof of scientific prescience by having him describe the difference between star systems and galaxies, or even stating Hubble’s Law of expansion, perhaps with exact figures or at least the added point that this rate of expansion is accelerating. But no, all he gave him was the incredibly vague ‘we are the ones who make it vast.’ There is nothing scientific about that.

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