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Friday, January 19, 2007

Islamic anti-science philosophy?

I am not an expert in the subject of this post, which is the result of an hour or so of searching and reading in the Internet. The subject is important, and was an eye-opener to me.

Steven Weinberg, author and Nobel Prize-winning physicist, supports the atheism of Richard Dawkins, except that Dawkins' attacks on Christianity are misplaced, he says -- he really should be attacking Islam, because Christians don't usually act as if they really believe what they say they do. (If they did, they would be making more of an effort to convert him, he writes.) Weinberg says that, in the twelfth century A. D., an Islamic philosopher named Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (there are variations on the name -- Weinberg used Ghazzali) did away with the foundation of science under Islam (which had, a few centuries earlier, been the center of developing science) by saying that there could be no laws of nature, because these would tie the hands of the deity. See here for al-Ghazali's website.

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Added Jan 30th, 2007. See the comment below by Jeremy Pierce, which casts grave doubt on Weinberg's main thesis.
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Weinberg seems to be correct about one thing, namely that al-Ghazali was an important philosopher. (The Wikipedia article on him says that his influence has been compared to that of Thomas Aquinas in Christianity.) He is also mostly, or entirely, correct about another idea, namely that al-Ghazali attacked the very foundations of science (although he really seemed to have broader aim, at philosophy, or even more fundamentally, at reason itself). Here's what the al-Ghazali web site says about his The Incoherence of the Philosophers (this book has other names):

The so-called necessity of causality is, says al-Ghazali, simply based on the mere fact that an event A has so far occurred concomitantly with an event B. There is no guarantee of the continuation of that relationship in the future, since the connection of A and B lacks logical necessity. In fact, according to Ash‘arite atomistic occasionalism, the direct cause of both A and B is God; God simply creates A when he creates B. Thus theoretically he can change his custom (sunna, ‘ada) at any moment, and resurrect the dead: in fact, this is 'a second creation'.

This web site goes on to affirm what Weinberg stated about al-Ghazali.

This article, in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, presents a more complex picture of al-Ghazali.

The history of the development of science is a complicated subject, and opinions vary. However, it is possible to argue that Christianity has been, at least at some times, and in some ways, friendly to the development of science. (So was Islam.) To me, belief in a God of order and pattern is crucial to the development of science, although perhaps that is a simplistic view. If I really believed that there was no meaning in the universe, no fundamental laws, why try to uncover them? For example, Isaac Newton, although he would probably be classified as belonging to a Christian cult today, believed that science was an enterprise that, by showing what God had done, glorified God. Although the roots of Western Science pre-date Christianity, it grew and matured among civilizations that were, at least nominally, Christian, and I don't think that was an accident.

It seems likely that al-Ghazali really did undercut science for Muslims. If so, he did them a great disservice.

I will not go into the coherence of Weinberg and Dawkins, or that of the late Francis Crick (who is mentioned favorably by Weinberg) except to say that they have denied what I believe to be the source of the laws of nature.

This post is not meant as an attack on Islam.

I write as a Christian, and too much of what Weinberg says about the lack of certitude in Christians rings true.

Thanks for reading.


Cody Thomas said...

This has nothing to do with this post. I just wanted you to know that I left a comment to the one you left me. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I really appreciate your input.

Jeremy Pierce said...

David Hume was as pro-science as you can be, and he didn't think we had any way of knowing laws of nature. In fact, as far as we can tell, there are none. All we perceive is one thing happening before another with great regularity. But we have no access to anything making it so, and we have no reason to expect it to continue that way. But we're constructed in such a way that we don't have much choice but to believe things will continue this way, and so we do expect laws to be governing things. He didn't think that expectation was rational, though.

I should note that Dawkins absolutely loves David Hume. Hume was one of the heroes of the Enlightenment idea that science has taken over religion and that religion is irrational. Theists in my philosophy classes tend to see Hume as the enemy, not realizing that Hume said enough to put science on whatever bad footing he wants religion to be on. Dawkins just doesn't see that.

I've never read al-Ghazali, but there's nothing necessarily Muslim about it. The Jansenist Nicolas Malebranche, a follower of Augustine and Rene Descartes, held pretty much exactly the same view. He was a Catholic monk. It's strange to think of this view as the Muslim view anyway, because Ghazali was just one several prominent Muslim philosophers, and I don't think the others held this particular view. Medieval philosophy was rich with all manner of views, and that tendency has little to do with whether the philosopher in question was Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.

I do want to say one further thing that minimizes this point also. According to my Cambridge Companion to Medieval Philosophy, there is some dispute as to what Ghazali's view even was. Some scholars think he didn't consider ordinary causes (as we call them) as causes in any sense. Only God causes things. Some think he did call them causes in a secondary sense but only because God uses them to cause things. They're causes but dependent on God. The latter approach allows for some notion of laws as a secondary element. The former approach doesn't. The scholars who specialize in al-Ghazali interpretation don't agree on this issue. But it seems to me that the point made by Weinberg depends in part upon the former approach. If that's not true, his claim can't even get going.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Jeremy. As I said, I'm anything but an expert in this area. Clearly, the relationship between science and religion is a complex matter.

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Anonymous said...

The relationship of science to religion is difficult. Most atheists seem to think they know science and do not. Most religionists claim to know what faith is and do not. Reason must mediate any claim of faith or reason that is made and there are limits to both. But the most ardent believers ( and atheists are this too) do not credit the other enough with having real concerns. The atheist has a contempt for faith as superstition and the religionist sees the atheist as sterile and disconnected. Science or religion is only as deep as those who practice either.

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you, Anonymous. You are right, the relationship has been, and is, difficult, and there's plenty of blame for that to go around.