Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Effects of Religion on the Scientific Method

Very interesting. I recently found the following two quotes, when reading two different books, one day apart from each other --

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From: Consilience (1998) by E.O. Wilson, page 31 --

"Reductionism, given its unbroken string of successes during the next three centuries, may seem today the obvious best way to have constructed knowledge about the physical world, but it was not so easy to grasp at the dawn of science. Chinese scholars never achieved it. They possessed the same intellectual ability as Western scientists, as evidenced by the fact that, even though far more isolated, they acquired scientific information as rapidly as did the Arabs, who had all of Greek knowledge as a launching ramp. Between the first and thirteenth centuries they led Europe by a wide margin. But according to Joseph Needham, the principal Western chronicler of Chinese scientific endeavors, their focus stayed on holistic properties and on the harmonious, hierarchical relationships of entities, from stars down to mountains and flowers and sand. In this view the entities of Nature are inseparable and perpetually changing, not discrete and constant as perceived by Enlightenment thinkers. As a result the Chinese never hit upon the entry point of abstraction and break-apart analytic research attained by European science in the seventeenth century." [italics supplied]

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From: The Black Swan (2007) by N.N. Taleb, page 47 --

"The third major thinker who dealt with the problem [of induction] was the eleventh century Arabic-language skeptic Al-Ghazali, known in Latin as Algazel. His name for a class of dogmatic scholars was ghabi, literally 'the imbeciles' ... Algazel wrote ... a diatribe called Tahafut al falasifa, which I translate as 'The Incompetence of Philosophy.' It was directed at the school called falasifah ... the direct heirs of the classical philosophy of [Plato's] Academy, [who] had managed to reconcile it with Islam through rational argument.

"Algazel's attack on 'scientific' knowledge started a debate with Averroes, the medieval philosopher who ended up having the most profound influence of any medieval thinker (on Christians and Jews, though not on Moslems). The debate between Algazel and Averroes was finally, but sadly, won by both. In its aftermath, many Arab religious thinkers integrated and exaggerated Algazel's skepticism of the scientific method, preferring to leave causal considerations to God (in fact it was a stretch of his idea.) The West embraced Averroes's rationalism, built on Aristotle's, which survived through Aqunias and the Jewish philosophers who called themselves Averroan for a long time. Many thinkers blame the Arabs' later abandonment of the scientific method on Algazel's huge influence. He ended up fueling Sufi mysticism, in which the worshiper attempts to enter into communion with God, severing all connections with earthly matters." [italics supplied]

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So there you have it. Belief that the world is an inseparable (nondual) whole that is constantly changing, wherein there are no true causes besides the will of God alone, was fatal to many early scientific endeavors. This may commend Christianity, whose belief in a God who "rules over you" may have other flaws, but in Western Europe facilitated the search for consistent determinable laws that order the world.

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