The Impact of Islam on Science
(An edited version of a talk presented at a conference on Dialogue of Cultures in the University of Kaiserslautern, Germany for translation into Arabic)
Department of Mathematics, Quaid-i-Azam University
There had been a common belief, which is still prevalent among non-scientists, that science is the process of “discovering” hidden “laws of Nature”, which exist in themselves. According to such a view, there can be no significant effect of any cultural attitudes or religious beliefs on science. All that can happen is that the “discovery of the laws” can be accelerated or retarded by societal support or opposition. The current view of science is a different one, which allows for science to reflect social norms and attitudes. Would it be valid to regard the current view as correct and ignore the previous one? May it not be that the earlier view was correct, or that both are wrong? I will argue that the present view, while it may not be “correct”, is at least better than the previous one. For this purpose it is useful to place the present view in historical perspective. As such, I would like to trace out, in broad outline, the development of the current view of science. As will be seen, there was one phase in the development of science when the Muslim civilization played an important role in the view of what science is. I will go on to discuss why, in my opinion, it was the world of Islam, and not some other civilization, that played this role.
One may wonder whether it is reasonable to take any one view if there remain disagreements on what science actually is. Many “anti-scientists” (who actually argue that science is not correct and, in any case, is not relevant) harp on the disagreements between the philosophers of science to decry the whole scientific enterprise. Our admission that there is no absolute agreement on it, and that the view has been changing, lends colour to their arguments. The point is that at any one time there is a general consensus with minor differences. Philosophers, of course, focus on those differences.
2. The Ancient View of Science
The origins of science, religion and mythology are not separate. In ancient times they started out as one and the same. Some phenomena had obvious explanations, when things were made to happen by some living being. At other times there was no observed cause for the occurrence. It was natural to suppose that there were unobserved “living” beings responsible for the occurrence. These were designated as “spirits”. The proliferation of spirits led to a need to find some order among them. The order was assumed, again quite naturally, to be similar to that of tribal human societies. There would be stronger and weaker spirits. Some would be more important than others. There would be a chief of the spirits. As society developed in complexity so, too, did the spirit world postulated. At some stage some of the spirits were given a higher status than others as “gods”. Ordinary human proclivities were attributed to these gods and spirits and stories were woven round them. This was the primitive religion and mythology. What was the primitive science? Why --- exactly the same! The same, because science is the attempt to explain observed phenomena. The spirits and gods were the “science” of ancient times. The “technology” of the times was that practiced by the priests and the shamans --- the attempt to get the forces as understood by them to do the will of the person trying to manipulate them for human purposes.
Even in ancient times there were attempts to find a rational systematic order to occurrences. For example, heavenly objects were seen to generally move in perfect circles about a point in the sky, more or less where Polaris is at present. Tides were seen to rise and fall regularly. Solar and lunar eclipses were predicted. The floods of the Nile were predicted by the priests, using an early warning system. Similar developments are claimed for the same period, or shortly after that, in China and in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. However, there is no clear documentation of those claims and there are no clear remains that show the use of devices for purposes like the Egyptian flood predictors.
3. Greek Science
The first properly recorded attempts to provide explanations for phenomena that were not based on the arbitrary action of “living” beings come from the Greeks. Recall that there was no single Greece but a number of independent Greek states. Correspondingly, there was no single Greek attempt at science but a number of independent attempts. However, there was one approach to science that survived through the ages as the “accepted” view. The others, of which the records still exist, can be regarded as “minority views”. The main view is that epitomized by the philosophers of Athens, and especially by Aristotle.
There is much to be said about the Aristotelian view of science but we would not have the time for it here, nor is this the appropriate place to discuss it. As an over-simplified statement of that view, let it suffice to say that the Greek view of science was based on the assumption that there are “self-evident truths” and all phenomena can be explained in terms of these truths. To make this view more concrete, it is necessary to give an example, which I now proceed to do.
There are five solids that can be made from regular figures stuck together --- the so-called “Platonic solids”. It is a “self-evident truth” that the elements must be different Platonic solids. Thus there are five elements: earth; water; air; fire; and aether in increasing degrees of “perfection”. Since it is also a self-evident truth that the heavens are perfect and the Earth imperfect, the heavenly bodies must be made of aether and the terrestrial bodies of the other four elements. It is another self-evident truth that the circle is the most perfect figure. Thus heavenly bodies must move in perfect circles. However, if some heavenly body is very close to the Earth, it can be contaminated. In that case it is a self-evident truth that the path of the body will develop epicycles (a circle whose centre moves in a circle about the Earth, or one whose centre moves about a centre that moves in a circle about the Earth, etc.). The more imperfect the body, the more epicycles its path develops. This explains why the planets move as they do. They are contaminated by their closeness to the Earth.
It is worth noting that according to this view of science there is no need to observe or experiment so as to understand how the world works. All one needs to do is to “contemplate one’s navel” as they say. In other words, introspection will provide all the insight needed and there is no necessity to observe the external world, or interfere with it, to understand its functioning. Further, science tries only to “explain” phenomena in the sense of fitting them into the scheme of self-evident truths. Consequently, many of the explanations would be what we now regard as circular. Thus, we can tell that the closer objects are more imperfect because they follow more imperfect paths. How do we know whether they are closer or more distant? Because they follow more imperfect paths. The point is that in this view there is no conception of testing the “explanation”, or quantitatively determining any of the parameters appearing in the explanation. In the Athenian culture observation and experiment were menial activities unworthy of patricians. The true philosopher/scientist would only provide the observer with the “obvious” explanation in terms of self-evident truths.
As I said before, this was not the only view of science. There were those who brazenly observed. For example, by observation and inference Eratosthenes had obtained a remarkably accurate estimate of the size of the Earth before 300 BC. His followers had a (slightly low) estimate of the size and distance of the Moon and a (substantially low) estimate of the size and distance of the Sun. Most scientists regarded the estimates as ridiculous, as they were in contradiction to the self-evident truths and so-called “common sense”. For that matter Archimedes (horror of horrors!) actually performed experiments. Of course, he pretended that the Archimedes principle had been an accidental discovery --- hence the apocryphal story of his running naked through the streets shouting “Eureka!” He did the work of an artisan when he burned the ships attacking Syracuse, but that was regarded as acceptable since he thereby saved his cousin, the King.
There may have been other views of science developed of which there is no record. In the absence of any evidence, we can assume that there were only these two views --- observation forbidden or allowed, but no experiments, and the former prevailed.
4. Muslim Science
By the time Islam came on the scene the Greek civilization had already been conquered by the Romans. There were pockets of Greek learning still extant, for example in Alexandria. Even those pockets had not entirely withstood the ravages of time. Therefore, the Muslims had to try to piece together what the Greeks had developed so much earlier. There was a concerted effort to reconstruct the books by the Greek masters, such as Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, Hippocrates and Galen. However, the spirit of the Greeks was lost in the process --- perhaps due to the problem of translating across languages, cultures, and times; perhaps due to the poor preservation and inadequacy of the available manuscripts; perhaps for some other reason.
As so often happens when attempting to reconstruct old ideas, one does not manage a complete reconstruction. However, by the same token, one does get some new innovations. The spirit of appealing to pure reason was, indeed, lost. It was replaced by an appeal to observation and later experiment. There was no taboo against experiment as working with one’s hands was encouraged. There were a number of scientists who started building on the previous knowledge of the Greeks with new knowledge. This knowledge was not hampered by having to be the fruit of pure thought, but could derive from the way the world actually is and the way it works.
Thus was the Islamic empirical approach to science born. It came naturally as a response to the sudden burst of new information being collected without enough time for proper collation and assimilation. This led to the development of the encyclopedists --- people who tried to put together all the knowledge that had been collected. Procedures were required to reduce all the separate pieces of knowledge into an integrated body of knowledge. Such procedures were developed by some scientists like Al-Beruni, Ibn-Al-Haytham, Ibn-e-Khaldun, Omar Khayyam, Al-Khwarizmi, Abu-Sina and many others. However, they covered only some areas and not the others. As a general approach to science the Muslim view lacked cohesion. I will later explain why this approach arose naturally among the Muslims and will then assess its impact on science more fully.
5. Renaissance Science
After the decay and collapse of the Muslim civilization, science and culture were born again in the West --- the renaissance. The start of this period dates as far back as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries AD, when scholars from the West went to the seats of learning in the East. They brought back the science of the Muslims. There was the inevitable reaction to that new knowledge, which the clergy of the time regarded as threatening the establishment. Consequently, all such ideas were declared heretical and their proponents were regarded as heretics. There were regular witch-hunts to eliminate the harbingers of change. It was unsafe for citizens to pursue the new ideas brought from the East. The practitioners of the new science were taken to be sorcerers and alchemists. The attitude to them may be seen in Goethe’s book on Faust or the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (Of course the books mentioned are written much later but may be regarded as a hangover from the earlier attitudes rather than as newly developed attitudes.)
Paradoxically, the introduction of the new science into the mainstream of Western civilization, owes much to the Christian monasteries. Monks were entrusted with the task of preserving old manuscripts by making fresh copies and translating them into Latin, the language used by the Church. In the process they learned much of the lore of the Greeks, passed on through the Muslims and much of the new Muslim-generated knowledge. A famous example is that of Nikolaus Copernicus. He was able to put together the various arguments for a heliocentric view of the universe, starting from the Greek sun-worshippers, on through Aristarchus and Eratosthenes and their followers, to the work of Ibn-al Haytham. There were some innovations in the development of the argument and it was not totally a summary of previously existing reasoning. Similarly, the work of Abu-Sina, was propagated under the name of Avicenna, of Al-Khwarizmi, under the name of Algorizm (later changed to algorithm and shortened to logarithm and log --- as in Captain’s log star-date xxx), etc. This thrust of new, Muslim, knowledge brought about a reaction and a tendency to identify with and adopt the Greek science, being Western, as embodying the Christian knowledge. Ironically, Aristotle became its epitome.
6. Classical (Newtonian) Science
It is unfair of me to call the science of the seventeenth century “Newtonian” science. There was so much more to it than was covered by Newton. There were all the developments of Chemistry and Thermodynamics, for example. There was the taxonomic approach to Biology followed by Darwin’s theory of evolution. Putting all of these developments into Newton’s bag smacks of reductionism in the extreme. However, it is no more unfair than crediting Aristotle with all the Greek developments. In fact there is a very real sense in which it should all be credited to Newton in the context of the philosophy of science.
The point is that the view of science changed with Newton’s formulation of his laws of mechanics and gravitation and his use of calculus for explaining the orbits of planets and motion of bodies on the Earth. It must be admitted that not all the laws were due to Newton. His first law of motion was discovered by Galileo. His law of universal gravitation is an extension (without giving credit) of the law of celestial gravitation proposed by Robert Hook and the law of terrestrial gravitation propounded by Al-Kindi. The calculus was invented by Leibniz and not by Newton. (He did have a strong tendency to grab credit with both hands.) Nevertheless, it was his formulation that brought all the different ideas together and he did unify apparently very different concepts. Also, he stated his ideas without any doubts or provisos. This led to the belief in some pre-existing “laws of nature” awaiting discovery. It may take a Newton to discover them but without any doubt they existed. This is brought out in the epitaph written for Newton:
Nature and her laws lay hid in Night
God said, “Let Newton be!” And all was light.
I shall, later, be discussing the modern view of science and will give a later addition to this epitaph then. Here I want to bring out the fact that this total faith in Newton’s laws warped the view of the world of physicists at the time, of many scientists till considerably later, and of the general populace to this day! The modern view of science has yet to be absorbed by the common person.
This attitude led to the modern dichotomy between the “natural” and the “supernatural”. The impression one gets from these terms is that the former are phenomena that occur in nature and the latter are those that do not. This is not actually the sense in which the terms arose. The former were those phenomena that fit in with “the (Newtonian) laws of nature” and the latter were those phenomena that do not. It was assumed that all “natural laws” must be derivable from Newton’s laws, at least in principle. Even those areas that seem far removed from the physical arena which Newton addressed, should be obtainable from the laws of Mechanics. This view gained further credence when James Clerk Maxwell showed how the science of thermodynamics could be obtained from Mechanics and when he almost managed to fit the phenomena of electricity and magnetism into that scheme. In fact, the very discrepancies that arose became further cornerstones of the faith in Newton’s physics, when it was found that the attempt to fit in with Newton’s physics gave correct predictions. The same validity was found in the celestial motions predicted by Newton’s laws. The discrepancies had to be interpreted as undiscovered planets, and subsequent observations validated those expectations.
“Understanding” any phenomenon came to mean that it could be explained in terms of Newton’s laws. The “scientific attitude” came to mean an absolute, dogmatic, faith in Newton’s laws and a refusal to admit the possibility of any phenomenon occurring that deviated from those laws. When one came across some phenomenon that did not fit in with the perceived requirements of Newton’s laws, one had to label it as “supernatural”. This is why the Westerners who came across the so-called “primitive” cultures found them more at one with nature. The “primitives” did not try to mould nature into their perception of the rational. To those cultures there was nothing “supernatural” about the occurrences that the Westerners found unbelievable. I am by no means claiming that the understanding of those cultures about nature was “better” than the Newtonian view. In fact, in most cases the views were untenable at the time and become absurd in the light of subsequent developments. I merely want to stress here that this Newtonian attitude is not the modern attitude to science.
7. Modern Science
The modern view of science can be traced practically totally from the developments of the turn of the previous century, i.e. just about 1900. At the time, a famous scientist had said that everything in science was understood and except for “two clouds on the horizon” science would only involve fitting facts into the known framework of theory. The “two clouds” developed into quantum theory and relativity. The former, particularly, changed the way we think of science. The latter is commonly, though mistakenly, regarded as having been responsible for this change of view. There is another, largely ignored, development that is even more crucial for changing our views on science. Before going on to these developments, I want to spend some time on ideas that were developed in the 19th century but are actually more consistent with the modern view of science.
First is the idea of evolution as embodied in Darwin’s biological theory of the origin of species. In the Greek world-view there is a general tendency for systems to degenerate. The belief is of ideals having been created by the gods (or God) and then the effects of Earth and humans making them less perfect. The physical theory of thermodynamics, and especially its second law (of entropy), endorses this belief in degeneration as a principle of nature. In Darwin’s theory systems actually develop in complexity from simpler (more primitive) forms to much more advanced forms through the process of natural selection. It is often misunderstood as leading from “lower” to “higher” forms of life. This value judgment of “lower” and “higher” is not justified by the theory or the facts. What is actually claimed is that those forms survive that are better adapted to the environment prevalent at the time. The new forms will generally be more complex. The idea of increasing complexity should actually be taken much more generally. It is developed in what is called the science of complexity. It applies to the development of physical entities, to chemical development, to the development of the brain, consciousness and the mind. It applies to the development of societies. Its implications for the other natural sciences are still being explored and to the social sciences have yet to be explored.
The other idea is of “fields” as in the case of magnetic fields. Newtonian physics depended on the concept of a “cause” and “effect”. However, what is regarded as a “cause” for one purpose may be regarded as an “effect” for another. In this way, an “effect” may, to some extent, turn out to be its own “cause”. A better description is not to have “causes” and “effects” but to provide all the information at one instant and then see what the physical laws say should be the situation at a subsequent time. As such, one cannot take some small part of the whole and work out what will happen to it in the absence of information about the rest of the world. It is necessary to take a holistic view of the development of any part of a system. This attitude is diametrically opposed to the Newtonian philosophy, where one assumed that one could neglect all other aspects of the system and look at only one part to the exclusion of all else.
I now come to the events at the turn of the century. Many things happened at more or less the same time. For one thing, the motion of the Earth through the aether, which was assumed to be there, was not seen. For another, Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetic phenomena had run into snags of internal consistency and fit with observation. Then again, energy was found to be produced through some new process --- called radioactivity --- that could not be understood. When the particles emitted by radioactivity were used by Rutherford to bombard thin sheets of gold, he found structure inside the supposedly indivisible atom. The observations suggested that many light, electrically charged particles are going around an oppositely charged nucleus. Now accelerated charges should radiate energy and so the light particles should fall into the heavier nucleus. But then the atom would take the shape that had been expected to start with, and had to be excluded by observation. Additionally, there were problems with the behaviour of electromagnetic radiation. The dependence of the intensity of the high and low frequency radiation was found to be nearly opposite. Further, it was found that light falling on metal plates could cause currents to flow and the voltage depends on the frequency of the light while the current depends on the intensity of the light. None of this fitted with Newton’s physics, or even with Maxwell’s field theoretic extension of it. It is easy to say with hindsight that these “little clouds” should have been taken as an indication that there was something seriously amiss with the previous theory.
The resolution of the many problems besetting physics came in two major sweeps. One was Planck’s postulate that electromagnetic radiation is emitted and absorbed by matter in discrete quanta. This was followed by Einstein’s insight that the reason for this fact is that light and other electromagnetic radiation can be thought of as consisting of discrete quanta. This was followed by Bohr’s realization that light is not either a wave or a particle, but both! Using the new ideas he constructed a model of the atom, which fitted with observation and explained the chemical properties of atoms. This new understanding led to the requirement that things cannot be talked about without reference to the context in which they are observed. If we look at the wave properties of light we see it as waves and if we look at the particle properties we see it as particles. Further, not all physical quantities can be simultaneously determined with arbitrary precision. The most dramatic aspect of the new theory was that it has no Newtonian basis or analogue. As such, “understanding” had to be given a new meaning.
The other sweep came from Einstein. He resolved the problem of the absence of motion relative to the aether by removing the aether and legislating that light has the same speed for all observers moving with constant velocity, regardless of its magnitude. This led to the understanding that there is no universally defined instant of simultaneity for all spatially separated observers. Simultaneity is relative. This theory entailed that we no longer think of space and time as separate, but rather as a single spacetime continuum. On extending the theory to deal with arbitrary velocity, in the possible presence of gravitational fields, it was found that we can no longer think of matter as existing in spacetime without affecting the spacetime, but must rather think of the spacetime and the matter as affecting each other. To understand this point more fully think of the spacetime as a stage and the matter and energy as actors on the stage. That is the classical picture. The relativistic picture is to make the stage of rubber. As the actors move on the stage, it changes. That causes the actors to move in a different way, which changes the stage. This interaction between the spacetime and the matter and energy in it has profound implications. For one thing, it means that we cannot think of spacetime existing without matter any more than we can think of matter existing without spacetime. For another, it further destroys the definiteness of Newtonian science.
8. The Modern Philosophy of Science
The rapid changes of world-view in going from Newtonian definiteness to the uncertainty of quantum theory and interaction of the observer and the observed entailed by both relativity and quantum theory, necessitated a change in what was thought to be “science”. In fact the ideas needed to be formulated precisely. What emerged, barring minor differences is what I refer to as the modern philosophy of science. It can be put in the form that Karl Popper put it. (Many would argue that Popper is not the final authority and not everybody agrees with him. They would be right but not relevant. For our purposes the differences are minor and I am following the same procedure that I have been doing, of picking one view to represent a whole class of slightly differing views.)
“Science”, in this view is the activity of formulating and “testing” “scientific theories”. A scientific theory is a collection of axioms that lead to predictions that are, at least in principle, falsifiable. “Testing” is the process of trying to prove the theory false. So long as it is not proved false, it is tentatively regarded as “true”. However, there is implicit in the formulation, the presumption that it will sooner or later be superseded --- either because it is found incomplete or because it is found to be insufficiently general. It is worth noting the contrast, not to say direct opposition, of this view and the Newtonian view of science.
An important development of the 1930’s was Gödel’s theorem of non-derivability of arithmetical statements. It says that in a formal arithmetical system, consisting of an alphabet, words and a grammar for putting words together, given any finite set of axioms, grammatical statements can always be constructed that can not be derived from the given set of axioms. This was later extended to other formal systems. Though it does not rigorously follow, it can be argued that Gödel’s theorem would also apply to the system of axioms constituting a scientific theory. In that case any scientific theory must necessarily be incomplete. In other words, there will always be phenomena that could be either consistent of inconsistent with the given scientific theory. This lack of completeness, certainty and definiteness is totally at odds with the Newtonian view.
9. The Impact of Islam on Science
I now return to a discussion of the impact of Islam on science in the light of our current philosophy of science. From the Aristotelian, to the Muslim, to the Newtonian, to the modern, philosophies of science may be viewed as swings of the pendulum. In some ways the Muslim philosophy is much closer to the modern philosophy of science than the Newtonian philosophy. The Muslims took an empirical approach to science rather than refer to some self-evident truths (as did the Greeks) or laws of nature waiting to be discovered (as taken by Newtonian science). This is the modern view as well. As Einstein put it “scientific theories are free creations of the human mind” which are constrained only to fit with observation. In principle there could be two equally valid sets of laws based on different descriptions of nature. The choice of how to describe nature is arbitrary and based only on providing a convenient description for one’s purpose. Further, there is a strong inter-relationship between the types of questions asked, the way one is going to find the answers and the theory based on the resultant findings. This philosophy, which many saw as the consequence of relativity as formulated by Einstein, is mainly the consequence of quantum theory as formulated by Neils Bohr. Both theories do include the inter-relationship of the “stage” and the “actors”.
To what extent is the similarity between the Muslim and the modern philosophies of science accidental? Or is there a causal connection between them? To address this question we need to see why the Muslim philosophy of science came out the way it did. Islam enjoins on the believers that they look at the Universe to appreciate the wonders of creation. As such, observation is given great weight in Islam. This is not said merely by some commentators or philosophers of Islam, but is stated in the Quran, the book that Muslims believe is the word of God as stated through the agency of his messenger, the prophet Mohammad. It is a religious duty! This certainly explains why the Greek approach of looking for self-evident truths should be overturned by the Muslims. But is this all or is there some further reason why observation and experiment should take precedence over pure thought? In fact, as one might expect, there are social and economic reasons as well.
One of the main reasons why this philosophy should have developed among the Muslims was the abolition of slavery in Islam. For example, one of the great Muslim saints, Bilal, was a slave who was freed by the Prophet. As such, requiring menial work of others was frowned upon and people had to do their work for themselves. Consequently, the Greek ideal of the “patrician” philosopher-scientists, who got others to do their work for them, was changed. The taboo against working with one’s hands was broken. If direct observation did not provide the desired information, there was no reason why conditions should not be created in which observations would provide it --- i.e. conduct experiments. I would argue that this is why it was natural for observational and experimental science to develop and flourish among the Muslims.
It could have been argued that slavery was equally forbidden in Christianity. As such, one might have expected science to develop along experimental lines among the Christians. However, this argument does not hold, as there is one glaring difference between the two religions, which is crucial for the development of science along the lines followed by the Muslims. Christianity encourages hermitage. The ultimate in piety is to live a monastic life far from the rest of humanity. Not so in Islam. Hermitage and celibacy are discouraged. Muslims are required to live as part of, and contribute to, society. Science cannot be expected to issue from hermits as it needs many people working together. Further, science was developed with a view to its utility for the Muslim community (the ummah as it is called). There was, then, a strong emphasis on the technological applications of science. This, again, encourages experiment so as to optimize the use of science for society. Additionally, Christianity extols suffering and misery as a means to obtaining rewards hereafter. This is not conducive to developing technological means of alleviating misery. To the contrary, Islam gives no credit to suffering needlessly. Where possible suffering is to be avoided and what God has provided for the use of humans is to be availed to the maximum. It is regarded as impious to do otherwise.
There was also an indirect impact of Islam on science. This is the economic reason. Trade was encouraged in Islam as a desirable alternative to living off the work of one’s forebears. This, in turn, encouraged exploration, which gave rise to a technology related to travel. It also led to exposure to new ideas and beliefs in different societies that the Muslims came in contact with, which in turn led to a breaking of preconceived dogmas as regarded the working of nature. It is this break that led to the development of a theory of Chemistry allowing for more than Aristotle’s elements. At this primitive stage there was no clear demarcation between metals and minerals and it was not clear which metals were elements and which may be composites. Again, the modern distinction between compounds and amalgams had not been made. The subject acquired ill-repute in the Middle Ages in the West because it was regarded as going against Nature and hence God, since it tried to violate Aristotle’s laws.
It must be admitted that this was not the only attitude to science and its development. Despite the fact that there is explicit prohibition against a clergy in Islam, a clergy did develop. This section of society, as could be expected, was strongly set against any new ideas, and hence against science, as weakening the faith of the Muslims. Inevitably, the clergy repeatedly declared many of the most eminent scientists to be heretics. Quite often the rulers (Khaliphahs or Caliphs) patronized the sciences and the scientists, but very often they sought support from the clergy and, in turn, supported them. This gradually led to a decline in the science and culture generated from the Muslim civilization. It may be mentioned that such a decline could have been predicted by applying the analysis of one of our social scientists, Ibn-e-Khaldun. He had contended that the Quran should not be taught to young children, as it would dull their creative capabilities to be confronted with a book that was to be accepted as complete, perfect and unalterable. This led to charges of heresy. He went on to investigate the rise and fall of civilizations and concluded that they all followed a pattern. The Islamic civilization had entered the stage of decline and collapse. By the sixteenth century the last of the candles burning in the Islamic world had dimmed and been extinguished. There was no further impact of Islam on science.
10. Summary and Discussion
We have seen how the view of science has been changing over the ages. Though there is no exact definition of science that is agreed-upon, there is a general consensus on most aspects of it. Another way to put it is that people would agree, by and large, on what is or is not science. The disagreements are negligible compared with the agreement. In one way of looking at it, the philosophy of science has been going through the swings of a pendulum. One extreme is that there is one true theory, which can be apprehended by sufficiently profound thought and insight. The other is that theories are only convenient ways of compressing a lot of data. There are views of all shades between them. The majority view of the Muslim scientists (who made significant contributions) and the modern view of science are closer to each other than they are to the Greek or the (Newtonian) classical views from this point of view.
There was another Muslim view of science, which has not been mentioned here, that was very important and was dominant in the later Muslim times. This was the view of the mutakalamun. They believed that all knowledge that was relevant and valid was already given in the Quran. Thus all the science that was done by the other scientists was either irrelevant or incorrect. This suited the self-styled clergy that had developed, and this group became the dominant force in the Muslim world. Many of us would regard them as responsible for the death of science among the Muslims of the time and for its dearth in the modern Islamic community. There can be no doubt that this was a very negative impact that Islam had on science. Many would cite it as the impact of Islam on science. This is at most half the truth. I would argue that this is not the impact of Islam on science, but rather of its moribund phase. Religions evolve over time. Any dogma, which may start off as reasonable, must go out of phase with the developing world in due course. When that dogma is a religious faith there is no room for revision, and its adherents will fight tooth and nail to defend the dogma in its pristine form. The majority might pay it lip service but would not take it too seriously. When a revival movement starts, and start it must, it is viewed as heresy by the orthodox and witch-hunts begin. Even though Islam has ijtehad (revision in the light of developments) built into it, the clergy ignore it.
The fifteenth century of Christianity saw witch-hunts that arose as a reaction to new ideas brought in from the Muslim world. It saw the revival movement of the Protestants. We should not be very surprised when we see much the same scenario unfolding in the fifteenth century of Islam. Some renaissance scientists argued that physics based science is inherently Pagan and alchemical science is Christian. They even adopted Greek names, Paracelsus and Heracles, so as to be identified with the Christians and not the Pagans.
The modern view of science combines the data gathering of the Muslims with the attempt to fit it in with pure reason, as was appealed to by the Greeks. Even the Muslim scientists developed theories to present all the facts in a manageable form. Current attempts go much further. The modern view rejects the certainty and definiteness of Newtonian science and replaces it with a relativity of the truth, depending on the observer, quantum uncertainty and the role of chance in physical laws, an inherent lack of completeness, dependence of the laws on the type of description one chooses, tentativeness about the truth of a theory and lack of uniqueness of laws and description of nature. In the popular mind all these changes were associated with Einstein (though he was one of the major critics of many of the more radical aspects of this revolution in thought). This is most clearly seen in the addendum to Newton’s epitaph:
But not for long. The Devil howling “Ho!
Let Einstein be!” restored the status quo.
In fact the laws of nature are not returned to hiding in the night, but have been further clarified. All that has happened is that science has shed its dogma. This fact has not really seeped into the “common man’s” mind. People still see science as dogmatic and scientists as rigid in their views. They still see mathematics as consisting of incontrovertible truths. As people say “In Mathematics a thing is either true or false. Right?” Wrong, I am afraid. It may well be neither true nor false but our choice whether we take it to be true or not.
The more enlightened view among the Muslims was based on a philosophy very closely related to the modern view. However, it would be wrong to take that to mean that they are basically the same, or that modern science was already there in embryonic form among the Muslims. In substance modern science is much closer to Newtonian science. It is only the philosophies that are similar --- and even they are only similar, they are not by any means identical, leave alone the same.
11. After Word
There are many points that have not been discussed and need further discussion. I will indicate some of them. Perhaps the most glaring is the neglect of all mention of Thomas Kuhn in an area that many may identify totally with him. He is probably the first of the modern philosophers of science to bring out the fact that science does not exist in isolation from society, but rather takes its character from there. I did not mention his contributions because they were not germane to my task, of assessing the impact of Islam on science. It is not that I am unaware of Kuhn, or that I want to detract from the credit that is his due.
To the best of my meager knowledge in this matter, nobody before me has really investigated the topic I am talking about. Consequently, there are many ramifications that need to be explored more fully. I have merely sketched the bare outlines. One of these is the Islamic theory of knowledge. It recognizes three sources: deduction; inference/ observation/experiment; and intuitive knowledge coming straight from God, or in other words faith. The former are what I stressed and the latter is the base for the mutakalamun, whom I mentioned earlier. The social impact of the change from the earlier view of knowledge to the intuitionist view would be worth exploring.
The Newtonian view did not allow for the social sciences. It is worth investigating to what extent they are indeed sciences. In the Aristotelian view they were the sciences. It was the science of rhetoric, of poesy, of aesthetics, etc. Inevitably, as they derived from Aristotle’s self-evident truths. In fact, the status of the natural sciences was suspect, but acknowledged since some justification had been provided for them. Since there are no “immutable laws” to be discovered for the social sciences, the Newtonian philosophy does not accommodate them. However, the modern view of science does, since one can formulate testable theories for them. Their place in the Islamic view of science needs to be explored further. (As I mentioned, Ibn-e-Khaldun had discussed various aspects of the social sciences as sciences.)
It seems odd not to go into some detail about the insights obtained from quantum theory and relativity; especially in view of my preoccupation with these topics. However, the purpose of this paper is not to delve into modern science but to deal with its philosophy. There is a lot more to be said about the philosophy of science driven by quantum theory and relativity. I have left even that out, except for some glancing references to it. The reason for this omission is that I have concentrated on the impact of Islam on science. It cannot be said that these areas fall within the arena of that discussion. Nevertheless, there is some part of it to be discussed in the context of Islam.
The essential question is whether things exist in themselves or only in the context of being observed (or even as answers to questions asked). This matter was discussed by religious scholars over the ages. For example, Bishop Berkeley had held that things could only exist if they are observed and not otherwise. He then assigned God the role of the Universal Observer. This point is brought out by the following limerick:
There was a young man who said “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
That this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the quad.”
and its addendum:
“Dear Sir, your astonishment’s odd
Since I’m always about in the quad.
And that’s why this tree
Continues to be”
Since it’s seen by Yours faithfully, God.”
This is echoed in Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, especially as formulated by John Wheeler: “No phenomenon is a phenomenon unless it is an observed phenomenon”. On my pointing out the problem of defining “observation”, Wheeler modified it to “No phenomenon is a phenomenon unless it is a registered phenomenon”. On the other hand, Einstein and his followers believed in the existence of a physical reality independent of the observer. Some of the Muslim philosophers had entered into this debate as well, assigning God the role of the Observer. It would be worth exploring this matter in the context of the Islamic philosophy in more detail.
The effect of the observer in modifying the observed arises in both quantum theory and relativity. The discussion of observer participation in the phenomenon being investigated is reminiscent of the modern anthropological approach. One starts by admitting that there will be a bias introduced by the scientist. Instead of trying to achieve an unattainable objectivity, one works with an admitted subjectivity that can be taken into account. This is part of the modern view of science. As a test of the claim that the modern and Islamic philosophies of science are similar, it would be pertinent to ask about the extent to which this view is contained in, or at least consistent with, the latter.
A related question, though not directly relevant for the topic I am talking about, is the question of the meaning of “scientific laws” applied to conscious beings. The point is that stating a law about the behaviour of an electron will not change the way the electron behaves. It is only the process of measuring any property of the electron that can change its behaviour. This is not true for the social sciences, where the statement of laws has changed the behaviour of the beings for whom the law is stated. Thus, when Adam Smith stated how a “rational man” will behave, it determined the behaviour of future generations. The law did not describe the behaviour but generated it. Similarly, the statement of Marx’s economic theory (and its misinterpretation) led to the communist revolutions in Russia and China, it did not predict them. How far is this fact consistent with the Islamic philosophy of science?
I am most grateful to all those who made comments on the manuscript for this talk. I would particularly like to record my thanks to Prof. F.M. Mahomed and Mr. Ali Qadir for very useful comments and suggestions. I would also like to thank Dr. G. Kurtz, Prof. H. Neunzert, Dr. Falk Triebsch and the University of Kaiserslautern for inviting me to present this talk and DAAD for support to visit Germany to present it.
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