Friday, July 06, 2007

Science and Islam

I ran across an interesting book by Turkish-educated physicist Taner Edis: An Illusion Of Harmony: Science And Religion In Islam. Prometheus Books, 2007. It is well-reviewed on

The book asks why Islam has contributed nothing to modern science. The answer is simple, frightening, and perplexing. Muslim society is centered on literal interpretation of the Koran, and when scientific findings contradict scripture, science is rejected.

Unlike western societies, Muslim cultures did not experience a historical period like our Enlightenment, from about 1500 to 1650 and continuing to the present. Cultural attitudes about knowledge and truth changed radically in the west during that time. Instead of relying on the king, the church, and the ancients to define truth, the idea emerged that anyone could find out about the world by observing carefully and thinking critically.

The transformation from authoritarianism to empiricism did not always go smoothly, as when Galileo was imprisoned for insisting that his telescopic observations proved that the Earth was not the center of the universe. But over time, educated people in western cultures came to accept that empirical observation made by any suitably trained person produces truth about the natural world, regardless of pronouncements from crown or cross. That is the definition of modernism and of the modern mind.

None of that happened in Muslim history, for reasons that are not clear to me. Consequently, in today’s Muslim culture, religious authority still defines truth and there is no tradition of science. Engineering is well-advanced, according to Edis, but the mentality for questioning, experimentation, skepticism and reliance on empirical observation required for basic research is lacking. Islamic scholars try to reconcile scientific findings and principles with a literal interpretation of the infallible Koran, much as Christian fundamentalists do with the infallible Bible, and failing to find success in that effort, they turn to crackpot pseudoscience that is more compatible.

While western society was changing during the Enlightenment, Islamic cultures remained dominated by orthodox religious scholars who did not encourage “attention to knowledge that did not have any explicit religious purpose,” according to Edis. If one’s world view is totally defined by what’s in the Koran, then of course science would be a waste of time. But how could anyone live like that? What about natural curiosity?

It seems perfectly obvious to me that given the right population density, health and nutrition, with plenty of commerce to facilitate the exchange of ideas, the modern mind, and with it the scientific world view, would automatically flourish. People are naturally curious, they want to understand the natural world, and given the opportunity to explore, they would. But what is obvious to me is obviously wrong, since it did not happen that way in Islamic societies.

It’s a frightening contrast because it reminds me how totally alienated the two world views are from each other. We are never, ever going to resolve our differences in discussion over coffee! The historical differences have produced mind-sets that are too different to support much discussion.

But why can’t fundamentalists let it be? Why do they have to blow things up? If they prefer to live in a premodern state, why not do so quietly? What is the source of the animosity between us?

There are historical animosities, like the Crusades and the taking of Muslim lands by Israel. But there have been similar animosities in western cultures, including two recent world wars, but we worked it out. There is something else going on in the tension between western and Islamic cultures.

The obvious answer is that we want their oil, and they want our respect. Could it be as simple as that? I don’t think so. Such a simple trade could easily be worked out if that’s all there were to it.

Instead, I think each side wants the other to conform to its self. We want them to be secular democracies like us, with liberal, tolerant values and a modern, scientific outlook, like ours. But they want us to be fervent, unquestioning, literal believers of every word of the Koran, like them. Each side wants to recreate the other in its own image and is not content to let the other be different.

Why this mutually exclusive absolutism? Because each side believes its view of humanity, God, life and world is absolutely correct and that the other side’s is absolutely wrong. These unyielding positions are not just prideful postures. Their assumptions are so deeply ingrained into the fabric of each culture that it is not mentally possible to question one’s own position without a great deal of education and reflection.

We are modernists, products of the western Enlightenment and it is not actually possible for most of us to get free of that and think in premodern terms. It’s not a question of listening more carefully to the other side; we just can’t comprehend their assumptions about the world. Why not?

This is a perplexing mystery.