Islam, Science and the “Decline” Narrative
How ironic to witness Richard Dawkins pseudo-scientifically prattle on about Muslims and Nobel prizes: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge” he said, undoubtedly with his nose turned up high in the air and a snobbish English accent.
Dawkins confidence in issuing such declarations is strengthened by knowing that he can rely on his devotees to have his back, dutifully Dawkins’ Twitter hoard repeated his equally snobbish retort to critics: “A statement of simple fact is not bigotry.”
The atheist-informed bias and worldview of White Privilege is evident in Dawkins statements as are the flaws in his literalist approach. In Dawkins mind, he is only relating an effect: “fewer Muslim Nobel Prize winners than Trinity College, Cambridge” to a cause: Islam.
Indeed, Dawkins and his followers have yet to respond when it is pointed out to them that if you substituted “Muslims” with “women,” “Hindus,” “Blacks” and “Chinese” his statement would also be a simple “statement of fact”; inconveniently for the brave New Atheists “Islam” can’t be bashed or linked to the dearth of Nobel prizes awarded to these groups.
Dawkins statements were never really about asserting facts but were all about which group one can still safely bash.:
The same reasons why Muslims are underrepresented in the halls of Western scientific achievement are also applicable to essentially every other group in the world besides white males living in Western countries. If there’s nothing bigoted about saying it about Muslims, Dawkins and his defenders should come out and make the same unqualified and context-free statements about other groups in society whom they see as not stacking up. The fact that they refuse to do so signals that this has little to do with courageously speaking the truth and more about picking out which minorities it is still safe to bash.
N N Taleb, the world renowned statistician now uses Dawkins’ bigotry as a teaching opportunity, publishing a video about what we can learn from Dawkins’ errors and misuse of probability. Dawkins, who really should know better, also continues to masquerade as if he is blissfully oblivious to the scientific awakening across many Muslim majority nations.
The “Decline” Narrative and the Fetishization of “Mutazili” Rationalism
We tweeted several times at Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) following his comments and though Dawkins didn’t respond other Twitterati took his “point” further; propagating the populist narrative that there was a “decline” in Muslim science after the Mutazilite theological school was defeated by “traditionalists.” Specifically, after the renowned medieval Muslim scholar al-Ghazzali’s blistering attack on philosophers in his famous Tahafut-al-Falsafa (popularly known as “The Incoherence/Destruction of Philosophy”).
This narrative is so powerful and ingrained in Western society that one regularly sees it posited as an explanation for the dismal contemporary record of science in Muslim majority lands, even science populizer Neil DeGrasse Tyson resorted to this crude narrative during a presentation to a group of scientists.
So it was good timing that allowed me to stumble upon an enlightening debate that took place between the Richard Dawkins of Pakistan, nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy and Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Asad Q. Ahmed. Dr. Hoodhboy presents the argument of decline and some anecdotes about silly Muftis and their fatwas and Prof. Ahmed responds by first acknowledging the dismal reality of contemporary rational sciences in the Muslim majority world and then immediately taking a Thor sized hammer to the rest of Hoodbhoy’s arguments.
I am familiar with much of the history that Prof. Asad Q. Ahmed presents through the seminal work ofDr. George Saliba, however I found Prof. Ahmed’s response to Hoodbhoy to be very instructive and a vital rejoinder to those still wallowing under the faulty “decline” narrative.
Prof. Ahmed’s presentation begins at 52:35:
Key points in Prof. Asad Q. Ahmed’s presentation:
The decline narrative:
In early Islam under enlightened Caliphs there was a translation movement, this movement leads to an appropriation of Greek, Persian, Indian and other sciences into the Islamic tradition and Arabic which absorbs and adds on to this work. Then there is a process of naturalization by Muslim scholars who are rationalists and philosophers until 1111 when the clash between rationalism and traditionalism reaches its climax in the figure of Ghazali who writes the Tahafut after which traditionalism, scriptualism and literalism overwhelms the Muslim world for centuries and we find ourselves in our present dismal state.
What did Ghazali actually write?:
Ghazali’s argument isn’t with science it is with the impossibility of logic proving metaphysics. He is arguing that when you use logical arguments to prove metaphysics you are going to fail. Your syllogisms are going to fail. Your premises aren’t going to lead to the syllogism and hence Tahafut is going to happen, i.e. the argument is going to buckle under the weight of its own contradictions and collapse.
“We have transmitted this story of the philosophers to let it be known that there is neither firm foundation nor perfection in the doctrine they hold. They judge in terms of surmise and supposition without verification or certainty, that they use the appearance of their mathematics and evidential sciences as proof for their metaphysical sciences, using this as a gradual enticement for the weak of mind.”
What he’s seeking issue with is the inability of the philosophers to prove metaphysical truths. He takes issue with the philosophers when they talk about the unity of God, His attributes, etc.
“Had the philosophers metaphysical sciences been as perfect in demonstration, free from conjecture as their mathematical they would not have disagreed about the former just as they have not disagreed in their mathematical sciences. The second part of their doctrine is one that doesn’t clash with any religious principle, it is not necessary for believing in the prophets and God’s messengers to dispute with philosophers, an example of the kinds of things philosophers say is the following: the lunar eclipse consists of the obliteration of the moon’s light due to the interposition of the earth between it and the sun, the earth being a sphere surrounded on all sides by the sky [he’s describing a lunar eclipse, this is what the philosophers say…he goes on to say,] This topic is also one to which we will not plunge since its refutation serves no purpose. Whoever thinks that to engage in a disputation for refuting such a theory is a religious duty harms religion and weakens it for these matters rest on demonstration (geometric and mathematical demonstrations) and they leave no room for doubt.”
He’s saying if you get into an argument with philosophers about eclipses you are harming religion.
On scripture and science, if they (appear to) clash:
“The greatest thing in which the atheists rejoice is for the defender of religion to proclaim that these astronomical demonstrations and their like are contrary to religion. The inquiry at issue with the world is whether it originated in time or is eternal. [He’s saying this is the metaphysical issue.]
Moreover once temporal origination is established it makes no difference whether it is a sphere, a simple body, an octagon or hexagon. It makes no difference what is the highest heaven whether it is 13 heavens, etc. metaphysics has nothing to do with these issues, they are investigated in other disciplines. As for metaphysics we will make it plain that what the philosophers set down as a truth for a condition of the syllogism is something they have not been able to fulfill in their metaphysical sciences.”
Ghazali is saying go out and do your sciences, make as many models of the universe as you like, this will do nothing to your religion. All you need to do when it comes to metaphysics is don’t try to prove matters related to metaphysics, what he is doing is creating a seperation between science and religion.
Ghazali is affirming the principles of logic, stating they are sound in and of themselves.
The failure of the philosophers is in metaphysics not in medicine, physics, mathematics, etc.
Demonstrations based on reason in all sciences except metaphysics must be accepted, in fact we see that when there are transmitted texts that clash with these demonstrations they must be rejected as unsound. Science has a higher authority than religion.
The failure of the rationalists is grounded in their inability to be true to their own rational principles.
What the other sciences deduce about the world doesn’t make a difference in the matters of religion.
Cause & Effect vs. Regularity:
Hoodbhoy’s theory of what science is and what the scientific method is, is also deeply problematic. Hoodbhoy’s idea that Muslim concepts regarding causality will destroy science is also problematic because while the Muslim Sunni tradition says there is no causality per se there is definitely something called secondary causality. In other words it’s a domino effect that you can accept.
The other thing that they say is that even though God is interfering in the world He does it according to a habit. All you need for science is regularity, the commitment that there is a cause and effect relationship does nothing for your scientific enterprise. As long as you assume that there is a regularity in nature, it may be God intervening or it may be something immediately effecting a change; a concomitance of events. It’s a metaphysical commitment to say something is a cause and effect.
Science through the centuries:
Muslim contribution to the sciences continued to prosper and advance in different fields throughout the centuries after Ghazali. One example: it is a near certainty amongst scholars today that the 14th century Muslim scholar Ibn al-Shatir directly influenced Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system.
[Update] On a tangential note, I want to point out that Richard Dawkins continues his parlay with Islamophobes. Just a few days ago he was propagating an article by the anti-Muslim “Counter-Jihad” rag Dispatch International: