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Science and the Modern Scientific Approach


By way of explaining why I have given such a lengthy introduction to subject, let me note here the conflicting attitudes prevalent in Muslim world about the relationship of Islam and science. For many years, swayed by western dominion over their lands, a dominion attributed to superior science and technology, some Muslim intellectuals accused Islam itself as the cause of the backwardness of Muslim peoples. Having forgotten the eleven centuries or more of Islamic supremacy, they thought and wrote as if the history of Islam had only begun in the eighteenth century. Further, they made the deplorable mistake of identifying the relationship between science and religion in general in the specific terms of the relationship between science and Christianity. They did not bother to make even a superficial study of Islam and its long history. In contrast to this, some other contemporary Muslim intellectuals who, after seeing the disasters-atomic bombs, mass murders, environmental pollution, loss of all moral and spiritual values, the 'delirium' which modern man suffers, and so on-science and technology have brought to mankind and the shortcomings and mistakes of the purely scientific approach in seeking the truth, as well as the failure of science and technology to bring man happiness, follow some of their Western counterparts in condemning science and technology outright, and adopting an almost purely idealistic attitude. However, Islam is the middle way. It neither rejects nor condemns the modern scientific approach, nor does it 'deify' it.


It is true that science has been the most revered 'fetish' or 'idol' of modern man for nearly two hundred years. Scientists once believed that they could explain every phenomenon with the findings of science and the law of causality. However, modern physics destroyed the 'theoretical' foundations of mechanical physics and revealed that the universe is not a clockwork of certain parts and working according to strict, unchanging laws of causality and absolute determinism. Rather, despite its dazzling harmony and magnificent order, it is so complex and indeterminate that when we unveil one of its mysteries, as many more appear before us. In other words, the more we grow in ignorance of it. Experts in atomic physics say that no one can be sure that the universe will be in the same state a moment later as it is in now. Although the universe works according to certain laws, these laws are not absolute and, more interestingly, they do not have real or material existence. Rather, their existence is nominal, that is, we deduce them from observation of natural events and phenomena. Also, it is highly questionable to what extent they have a part in creation and working of things. For example, scientists say that a seed, earth, air, and water bring a tree into existence. However, these are only causes for a tree to come into existence. The existence of a tree requires exact calculations and ratios and the pre-established relations of the seed, earth, air and water. Science should also explain the beginning of this process and the diversification of seeds into different kinds. What science does is only to explain how things take place; it thinks it has got out of the difficulty of explaining the origin of existence by attributing it to 'nature' or 'self-origination' or 'necessity' and 'chance'.


Nature is, evidently, a design, not the designer; a recipient, not the agent; a composition, not the composer; an order, not the orderer; something printed, not the printer. It is a collection of laws established by the divine will, laws (which our minds can grasp but) which in themselves have no power or material reality. Attribution of existence to self-origination or necessity and chance is sheer delusion. For we evidently see that existence displays absolute knowledge, absolute wisdom, absolute will, and absolute power. Chance, self-origination and necessity are only concepts without such material reality that we could attribute to them knowledge, wisdom, will and power.


Modern Scientific Approach


The modern scientific approach is very far from finding out the truth behind existence and explaining it. Truth is unchanging and beyond the visible, changing world is like that of the spirit and the body or the divine laws of nature and natural things and events. For example, the force of growth, which is a universal divine law, is innate in living things. While this law is unchanging, a tree or a man undergoes incessant changes. Likewise, human beings, no matter how their dress or dwellings or means of transport have changed during the course of history, remain unchanged in respect of the essential purposes they serve and the impact of those purposes on their lives and environment. As human beings, we all share certain general conditions of life and value: we are all born, mature, married, have children and face death; we all possess some degree of will and common desires, we share also certain values-we all know the meaning of honesty, kindness, justice, courage, and so on.


Despite this fact, the modern scientific approach searches for truth in changing nature, and in its search it bases itself on the impressions of senses. However, these impressions are relative, changing from person to person, and deceptive. Also, people defer in respect of their capacity of reasoning. So, it is impossible to arrive at one certain conclusion by deductive or inductive or analytical reasoning of the data received by senses. It is because of this that the modern scientific approach resorts to experiment to arrive at facts. However, without pre-established axioms or 'premises' it is not possible to establish a fact through experiments. Since David Hume, it has been generally accepted that it is not inevitable that, because an event has happened twice or a million times in two or a million different places, it must happen again. For this reason, since the collapse of classical physics, Western epistemologists speak not of seeking approximations to it. Kari Raymond Popper says that we consider the theories of both Newton and Einstein as science….both of them cannot be true at the same time; rather, both may be false.


Through empirical methods, science will not be able to find the truth which concerns the essence of existence. Therefore, as Guenon puts it, science or scientists have two alternatives before them: either they will acknowledge that the findings of science are of no value other than as suppositions about truth and therefore not recognize any certainty higher than sense-perception, or they will blindly believe as true in whatever is taught in the name of science. Doubting the findings of science, modern scientists try to find a way out in agnosticism or pragmatism, thus confessing the inability of science to find truth.


Science should recognize its limits and concede that truth is unchanging and lies in the realm above the visible world. When it can do that, it will find its real value. Evidently, without the absolute, it is impossible for the relative to exist; what is changing can be possible through the existence of the unchanging can be possible through the existence of the unchanging, and multiplicity is impossible without the existence of unity. It is only when any knowledge reaches the point of immutability that it acquires permanence and stability. What is unchangeable and permanent is above the human realm. Truth is not something the human mind produces. Truth exists independently of man and man's task is to seek it.


Conflict Between Religion and Science?


Seeing religion and science or scientific studies as two conflicting disciplines is a product of the western attitude towards religion and science. In order to understand the background of the historical conflicts between science and Christianity in the west, we should first discuss the main reasons why sciences have developed in the west in recent centuries.


Christianity and Changing Western Way of Thinking


When, after years of struggle and the lives of thousands of martyrs, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, it found itself in a climate where epicurean and naturalistic attitudes prevailed and human knowledge was sanctified.


The teaching of Jesus, which would later be called Christianity, won the victory in its struggle with the Roman Empire but unfortunately at the expense of losing its original identity and purity. Besides, deviating from being a middle way as a God-revealed itself to love and condemned nature as a very separating man from God. Also, influenced by Near Eastern religions like Mithraism and Manichaism, it turned to be a completely mystical religion. However, the earth or nature is seen in Islam and, of course, in God-revealed religions, as a realm where God's Most Beautiful Names are manifested, a realm on which minds should reflect in order to reach God Almighty, and which is itself a reflection of Paradise.


Certainly, it was the Church which, having announced itself as the body of Christ enjoying his authority, shaped Christianity in the mould explained above and later campaigned to seize, besides its spiritual, the worldly power also. In the centuries during which the West was under the dominion of the Church, a magnificent civilization flourished in the Muslim East. As a result of west's contact with this civilization through the Crusades and by way of Andalusia, the west had also the opportunity to learn about antiquity. Greek philosophy, especially Aristotelianism, Roman naturalism and also Greek epicurism and hedonism found their way to the westrn awakening to antiquity through the translations from Arabic and by the way of the Muslim centers of learning in Andalusia and Sicily, was united with western envy of the prosperity of the Muslim East, the ground was prepared for the Renaissance.


Western ways of thinking changed greatly. The 'iron wall' between western attitude and Islam which the Church had built up over centuries, caused this change to evolve against religion. Having feared that it would lose its worldly power, the Church severely resisted this change. The corrupted Bible was no longer able to answer the questions that arose in inquiring minds about creation and the order of the universe. The Old Testament had been lost long centuries before during the Assyrian invasion of Jerusalem. The texts to hand were written down by Jewish scholars, who certainly had in mind the problems of the Jewish community at that time. None of the Gospels, which had been chosen out of hundreds and accepted as canonical, was the original one which God sent to Jesus, upon him be peace. Besides, none of them were written the apostles or disciples of Jesus. So, the symbolical language of divine Scriptures-symbolical because they addressed every level of understanding at all times and in all places-was lost. As a result, for example, in the description of creation, the Old Testament mentions seven days like the days of the world. It says: 'And there was evening, and there was morning-the first day.' Whereas, the conception of a day of morning and evening belongs to us, who live on earth. The Qur'an also mentions days and that God created the universe in six days. But it never mentions mornings and evenings and presents 'day' as a relative period whose measure is not known to us. For example, in the verses: The angels and spirit ascend to him in a day whereof the span is fifty thousand years(70:4), and they will bid you hasten on the doom, and God fails not his promise, but a day with God is a thousand years of what you reckon(22:4), and he directs the affair from the heavens unto the earth; then it ascends unto him in a day, whereof the measure is a thousand years of what you reckon(32:5).


The failure of Christianity and the Bible to answer the questions put by inquiring western minds caused the direction of scientific developments to be opposed to religion. However, the great scientists such as Galileo or Bacon and others were not irreligious at all. They favored a new interpretation of the Bible. Certain scientists and theologians tried to do that. For example, Roger Bacon was in favor of experimental methods in scientific investigations but he also defended the notion that one could attain knowledge of heavenly things through spiritual experience. Thomas Acquinas, whom some introduce as the Christian counterpart of Imam Ghazzali of the Muslim East, tried to reconcile Christianity with Aristotelianism. Another theologian, Nicolas de Cusa, opposed the astronomy of Ptolemy but emphasized the profound meaning of the limitless universe whose center is everywhere and peripheries nowhere. Nevertheless, the efforts of such theologians and scientific developments for fear of losing its power, and partly because of the western awakening to a material life.


Truly, as Professor Tawney says, quoted by Small is Beautiful by Schumacher, in the medieval period, people usually aimed at eternal happiness in economic activities and enterprises. They feared economic motives that appeared in the form of strong desires. A man had the right to gain enough money to lead a life according to his social status but to try to gain more meant greed for money and was a grave sin. Wealth and property had to be obtained through lawful ways and circulate among as many people as possible. However, the Renaissance changed social or even moral standards prevalent in the Middle Ages, or, we might say, changes in those standards gave birth the Renaissance. Even a superficial glance at the arts of the period suffices to reveal this fundamental change from the moral and spiritual to the material. For example, sculpture-in the view of Sokorin, the product of the desire to escape death and the mental 'disease' of representing mortals in the shape of young, immortal deities-used the female body to model passionate desires pleasures, deceit, sexuality and physical beauty. In Renaissance art, Virgin Mary was no longer an image of modesty and chastity, inspiring respect and compassion; instead, she began to be painted as a woman with physical charms. The David Michelangelo is a powerful, muscular youth, an image representing bodily perfection.


The man of the Renaissance desired to be like Odysseus, well-built, comely, intelligent, powerful and skillful in oratory. He was convinced that to become like Odysseus was possible through knowledge. Nevertheless, as will be seen in the following verses, 'God' of the Bible was jealous of man and had forbidden him to eat of the fruit of knowledge:

The Lord of God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.

And the Lord God said, "(by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), the man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever." So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden of work the ground from which he had been taken.


These verses of the Bible which would certainly be antipathetic to the feelings of a typical man of the Renaissance and remind him of the Greek deities who forbade man the sacred fire. Therefore, what fired the imagination of the Renaissance man was to become a Prometheus, who rebelled against the gods and stole the sacred fire from them. This change of attitude towards religion and life is one the foremost points to emphasize if we are to understand the conflict between science and religion in the west.




According to Max Weber, the development of science and technology in the west not independent of religion. He maintains that Protestanism was one of the main factors behind scientific developments in the west. As everybody knows, Protestanism developed against the authority of the Catholic Church, although it has not any radical difference from Catholicism.


According to Weber, Prostesanism is fatalistic in its attitude towards history and man's destiny. Everybody is born stained with original sin and no one can be saved from eternal condemnation by his own acts. Both Luther and Calvin were of the opinion that whatever man does, he cannot be saved unless he is among those whom God pre-determined to be chosen and saved is that one works tirelessly and is continuously active to overcome one's feeling of weakness and helplessness. The more one earns and the more successful, the more he means to be loved by God. Weber asserts that the grudge of the middle classes against the rich and aristocracy roused them to further and further earning and accumulation of wealth. Earning incited consumption, consumption caused the rise of endless needs and needs stimulated further work. According to Weber, this never-ending spiral played an important role in the development of sciences and technology. However, it is also behind the egotism, individualism and self-centeredness of modern Western man.


Geographical Discoveries and Colonialism


United with the authority of the Church, the despotism of kings and feudal lords suffocated people. Besides, the continent no longer seemed to meet their increasing needs and the seas surrounding it invited them to overseas adventures. Needs urge people to investigate and learn new things, and the abundance of natural ways of transportation like rivers and seas as against the smallness of the land enable them to make frequent contact with both surrounding and overseas areas. The Europeans of the Renaissance period made much use of this privilege they had to increase their knowledge and reach remote lands.


The Europeans went in pursuit of gold in remote parts of the world. Finding gold only increased them in avarice which made them cruel and opened way to a ruthless colonialism. The slave trade and the eradication of the native peoples in continents like Amercia and Australia became the trade mark of the rising capitalism and colonialism. It was only after the transportation of the treasures of the newly invaded countries to the west that the industrial revolution became realized. All historians are agreed that James Watt invented steamship after the coals of Bengal in India were carried to England after the Battle of Plassey. As everybody knows, the invention of steamship marked the start of the industrial revolution.


Today, the USA, whose population forms only 6percent of the world population, consume 40percent of the paper pulp, 36 percent of the coal, 25 percent of the steel, and 20 percent of the cotton, produced in the whole of the world. The developed countries together form only 16 percent of the world population but consume 80 percent of world resources.


In sum, it should not be forgotten that colonialism and geographical discoveries are two of the main factors behind the scientific and technological advances in Europe.


Posted by Science And Islam at 12:01 AM  


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