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August 13, 2007

A Reply To Eugene Volokh, As Wel As Readers, Disputing My Reading of the Salon Article on Islamic Science

Over at Volokh Conspiracy (link now points to actual post), Eugene Volokh disputes my characterization of the Salon interview with Taner Edis. He finds it to be a fair interview, just asking questions and that sort of thing. (Incidentally, I don't actually see the piece on his blog, and am replying to the piece as it appears in my email... maybe I'm just missing it.)

My response follows. One thing I didn't mention in my email reply, which I now concede: In fact, the interviewer does not make any sort of statement or argument which is explicitly supportive of a creationism, so long as it's of an Islamic sort.

That is my gloss on the article, and perhaps an unfair gloss. However, given the rather obvious sympathies the author has for "Islamic science" -- obvious to me, at least -- I would argue the interviewer is arguing on behalf of a a "science" which incorporates important articles of faith (as well as morality). Perhaps it's an unfair reading -- certainly some readers think so -- but I read the interviewer in being open to such ideas, and even arguing in their favor. So long as they're coming from a privileged nonwestern, nonchristian culture, of course.

So that's a partial point to Volokh. Only partial, though, because I think that is the general thrust of the questioning.

Note that I've added to my initial response to Volokh. Apart from a spelling correction, I've put the new bits in brackets.

My Bad! Volokh actually hadn't posted yet-- he was awaiting my response before publishing. So, like a dick, I actually jumped ahead of his response to get my response in first.

But his response should be up now, or will be shortly.

What can I say? I believe in unilateral preemptive attacks. I cannot abide waiting around for an attack my intelligence-gathering tells me is on the way.

You made a deadly mistake, Volokh. You betrayed me but you left me alive.

Thanks, Eugene. Some of my commenters also took issue with my characterization. While I take your point, I disagree with you. I've interviewed people (as I'm sure you have) and it's my opinion this is an argument in Q&A format.


But those things were also mixed together in Europe's scientific revolution several centuries later. Isaac Newton was fascinated by alchemy and astrology.

Many historians would disagree with your assessment that what Muslim scholars did during the Golden Age wasn't real science. They point to major discoveries in mathematics, physics and chemistry. And they say later European discoveries owe a direct debt to Muslim scientists. For instance, didn't Copernicus use the mathematical work of Iranian astronomers to construct his theory of the solar system?

What isn't asked here is the obvious "explain the distinction you're making between real science and proto-science," which I imagine is the distinction between Greek "science by pure reason" (also known as not-science or philosophical inquiry) and modern European-created empirical science. He skips over this opportunity to ask the interviewer to define his terms in favor of arguing against him (before establishing precisely what his point is).

[Volokh seems to believe that the interviewer is suggesting that Islamic science is way back at the time of Newton and that therefore this question is critical of Islamic scientific progress, rather than arguing in favor of the Islamic scientific tradition. I'm sorry, I think that's just an absurd interpretation.

When you say that one of the greatest -- perhaps the greatest -- scientific thinker in Western history subscribed (partly) to the pseudoscience practiced by many Muslims, I cannot see how this can be read as anything other than a claim that "Islamic science" can be just as fruitful as, you know, real science.

This fun fact is offered as a bit of apologism -- "Even the greatest scientific mind of the West gave credence to these ideas..." I don't see how it can be read in any other fashion.

I just find this assertion by Volokh to be verging on Devil's Advocate in its facial erroneousness. You don't claim that Islamic science is similar in some ways to Isaac Freakin' Newton to denigrate it, for crying out loud.

Let me ask this: Precisely how much weight does your average MSM secular liberal give to the well-publicized (by creationists) fact that Watson or Crick (forget which) disputes the theory of evolution? Creationists themselves are fond of offering this in their defense, of course; but how frequently does one hear an NPR reporter offering this fun fact in order to suggest that believing in creationism is not incompatible with practicing sound science?]

Didn't Western colonialism also contribute to the decline of science in the Islamic world? Colonial rule often marginalized Muslims and dismissed the value of Islamic culture. In Indonesia, the Dutch even closed Islamic institutions and banned Muslims from universities until 1952.

No disrespect meant, but I find it hard to believe you don't think this is a question with an agenda and the "answer" already contained within it.

[And, like a later question, this one seeks to argue the fault lies with things other than Islam's basic antiscientific impulse.]

But this is complicated. Everyone agrees that Western science has been successful at what it does. And yet I'm willing to bet that many Islamic thinkers would say the price of scientific success in the West has been too high. Once science was divorced from religion, you could argue that it was only a matter of time before secular values would triumph, atheism would become a viable option, and the modern world would end up with the rampant materialism and consumerism that we have today. A lot of Islamic thinkers don't want that version of Western science.

Mr. Volokh, this sort of argument could easily be offered on behalf of fundamentalist Christians who see science displacing their faith. But I imagine you'd be hard-pressed to find an NPR science writer, of all people, arguing that such a belief is simply a matter of personal preference.

You may say he's not arguing. I say he is. Because I cannot imagine him asking this sort of question with regard to any other group holding to decidedly anti-scientific beliefs.

How does this play out in schools? Ultimately, doesn't this come down to what is mandated by governments, either at the national level or the local level?

This one seems like a clear argument to me. The interviewee lays this antiscientific impulse upon fundamentalist (or even nonfundamentalist) Islam generally -- the philosophy/ideology itself retards scientific progress. Here he insists that it is merely transitory governments responsible for this. Again, arguing with his interviewee's thesis, which is his right, but it is still arguing with him.

There are some Muslims who talk about the need for an "Islamic science" that's quite distinct from Western science. They say we shouldn't separate knowledge of the physical world from knowledge of the spiritual world because they are interconnected. And they often argue that science should have an ethical dimension. We shouldn't just do science for the sake of knowledge. We should always be concerned about the moral outcomes. Does it make sense to talk about an Islamic science?

I'm assuming most scientists would say science is science. If it's done well, it doesn't matter who does it.

You don't read this follow-up as suggesting that an "Islamic science" would still be science so long as it's "done well"? Because I do. How do you read it? What is the purpose of this follow-up? It seems to be rather absurdly obvious point to make if not for the purposes I assume.

The London-based writer and critic Ziauddin Sardar has argued that "Western science is inherently destructive and does not, cannot, fulfill the needs of Muslim societies." He says Western science has become an ideology that's highly efficient but is also dehumanizing.


There are a lot of people in the United States -- liberal Christians, Jews and Buddhists - who also complain about what they call "scientism" -- the idea that science explains all there is in the world. It obliterates the spiritual life. These people also tend to be fully supportive of evolution, but they say science can only explain so much.

Again, agree to disagree. You apparently read this as simply pitching out alternative points of view. I again find these alternative points of view rather antithetical to my own. But more importantly, I know that secular liberals who pride themselves as being members of the Reality Based Community find them antithetical. I find it curious that multiple questions are offered which question, essentially, the very heart and foundation of the western empirical scientific tradition, and ask, implicitly, whether "we have as much to learn from them as they have from us."

You are free to disagree, of course. But i doubt very much you'll find an interviewer so determined to offer the arguments of those who would merge science and religion *out of his own mouth.*

Perhaps you see this as simply being an interview which is meticulously fair to "the other side" of the religion vs. science controversy. In which case I need to ask you: When have you ever before seen an interviewer being so meticulously fair to the other side in this debate?

Another Newton Analogy: In discussing quantum theory and Heisenberg and Schroedinger and all the myriad bizzare ways our universe acts on a nano-nano level, writers are fond of noting that "Even Einstein refused to accept such strange and inelegant behaviors lay at the heart of physical existence."

The intent behind such a statement is perfectly obvious. It is to excuse people who either cannot grasp or refuse to accept the truly goofy weirdness that occurs on the quantum scale by noting that even a great thinker like Einstein had trouble with all this.

Certainly it is not offered as a criticism! Surely in all the thousands of times this has been noted, it was never the writer's intent to suggest "If you don't understand or believe in quantum mechanics, you are merely at the rather low level of scientific achievement that that idiot Einstein was at. You really need to start cracking those books to advance further than this nitwit neanderthal patent-clerk managed."

Please. Such constructions -- "Even Einstein could not accept Heisenberg's uncertainty principle...", "Even Newton was taken with astronomy..." -- are offered only to excuse away antiscientific thinking (as in Newton's case) or trouble accepting what is now utterly uncontroversial in science (as in Einstein's case) by, in either case, offering an indisputably brilliant figure who either believed things we now know to be bunk or disbelieved things we now know (?) to be correct.*

It is never intended to suggest backwardness, as Volokh suggests it was meant.

* Actually, I'm kind of with Einstein on this one, though I don't know why. I used to have a theory that time was itself quantum, and that could somehow explain most of the quantum strangeness... I've read other people suggesting this too, though whether they know what they're talking about or are complete maniacs I don't know.

All I can say in my defense is: "Even Einstein had problems with this..."

And note that is in my defense, and certainly not offered to denigrate myself as being an all-around moron on the level of Albert Einstein.

One Last Point... I find it a point in my favor that the interviewer spends so much time asking, essentially, whether or not a uniquely "Islamic science" can be as good as (if different than) real science. He spends a fair amount of time addressing the fact that Islamic science is woefully behind western science -- hardly the sort of thing that could be argued against.

But while he is interested in why this is so, he is eager to offer other explanations for the sorry state of Islamic science other than Islamism itself -- colonialism, transitory Muslim governments.

Further, he asks what is to my mind an inordinate number of questions suggesing the possibility of a successful scientific tradition based partly on the western (real) scientific tradition and partly upon Islam's distinctive "demon-haunted" (as Carl Sagan would say) religious culture. Several questions -- at least one or two more than needed -- postulate that perhaps there could be a "fusion science" incorporating genuine science and Islamic religiously-shaped not-science.

Again, maybe it's just me, but I tend to think someone who was scientifically minded would not bother asking more than one question about this rather far-fetched proposition.

Could a type of Islamic-Western "fusion science" actually produce advances like real Western science?

I think the answer to that was offered by a scientist answering the question "Could our universe be teeming with advanced intelligent life-forms capable of long-range communications and even travel?"

His answer to that? "Sure. But in that case, where are they?"

This is why I think it is so unproductive to keep asking if a more mature form of a uniquely "Islamic science" could produce the miracles of real science.

Sure, it could. But in that case, where are they?

The fact that they -- in this case, the advances and breakthroughs of Islamicized science -- have not yet shown up is good evidence that perhaps we shouldn't keep postulating their arrival.

People who talk too much about aliens are dismissed as cranks.

Why shouldn't this guy be dismissed as a crank for his idee fixe of the just-around-the-corner Islamicized Scientific Revolution?

Ask one obligatory question about it, sure, why not. But ask repeated questions about this?


Does he similarly hold open much hope for a fusion "science" blending genuine science with Christian Biblical literalism? Allow me to play mind-reader and say No, he definitely harbors no such hopes whatsoever.

If this is "scrupulous fairness," fine, but I'll note it's a sort of scrupulous fairness which I have never before seen from the liberal secular MSM in such issues. In which case I'd have to ask -- why is such scrupulous fairness of such a highly selective nature?

This is far more characteristic of media fairness as regards political/scientific disputes, non?

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posted by Ace at 03:20 PM

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