A Compatibility of Convenience? Science and Islam

There is a lot of talk about science and religion, in the particular, Islam and science’s so-called ability to “co-exist.” As to whether this is ultimately true is not my main concern here but rather I wish to highlight some important differences between the way Islam “processes reality” and that of science (in particular the scientific method).

In Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research (published in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, ed. Imre Lakatos, Alan Musgrave), Thomas Kuhn wrote on what he called the “revolutionary process by which an older [scientific] theory is rejected and replaced by an incompatible new one.” He continues by adding, “both [he and Sir Karl Popper’s theories] deeply underscore the role played in this process by the older theory’s occasional failure to meet challenges posed by logic, experiment, or observation.” The key word here I feel is “incompatible.” In this way, science, as it progresses (or perhaps better said here as “processes”), scrubs away past findings, abrogating all that proceeds current observations.

This manner of proceeding differs widely from Islam in that Islam (or perhaps better articulated as interpretive efforts of Muslims), while certainly being capable of producing judgments and attitudes that may differ from those produced before it, is capable of producing new possibilities (fatawa) without needing to entirely wipe the proverbial tablet clean. To be certain, scientific methodology and Islamic thought have had to mutually alter their courses as they have encountered various challenges in modernity, the main philosophical difference is that judgments of previous generations of Muslims are not rendered false, incompatible or irrelevant to current efforts or realities of Muslims living today. In fact, Muslims seem to constantly draw significance and guidance from their intellectual heritage, differing not in spirit even if new judgments part ways in substance.

I say all of this not to thwart those who seek to make connections of significance between Islam and what can be roughly dubbed as science but rather to complicate and challenge the convenience of those connections and to ask the question, can they be considered so easily compatible or perhaps the bonds that hold these presumptions together may not be as strong as previously thought.

Modernity and Technology-What Does Islam Have To Say?

The follow are some notes from a Chaplain Chat I delivered at the University of Pennsylvania on April 3rd, 2012, on the subject of technology and religion, specifically asking what does Islam have to say about it.

“It is an extraordinary era in which we live. It is altogether new. The world has seen nothing like it before. I will not pretend, no one can pretend, to discern the end; but every body knows that the age is remarkable for scientific research into the heavens, the earth, and what is beneath the earth; and perhaps more remarkable still for the application of this scientific research to the pursuits of life. The ancients saw nothing like it. The moderns have seen nothing like it till the present generation…. We see the ocean navigated and the solid land traversed by steam power, and intelligence communicated by electricity. Truly this is almost a miraculous era. What is before us no one can say, what is upon us no one can hardly realize. The progress of the age has almost outstripped human belief; the future is known only to Omniscience.” – Daniel Webster

Modern life presents a significant challenge to people, Muslims being no different. One of these challenges is the proliferation of technology. Technology is often pitched as a panacea that will cure all of our sicknesses and leave us with an abundance of leisure time and yet, studies increasingly show us to be more unhealthy than before (especially if one includes mental health issues) and more and more people are succumbing to stress as they have less and less free time. Not only has technology not delivered on its promises of increased free time, but has actually played a part in it: people increasingly spend their free time engaged with technological devices and interfaces instead of “detaching” (present post excluded of course). As is discussed in the chat above, I make the claim that Islam has something positive to offer in the definition, application and production of technology in our culture. Yet despite this claim, we find the vast number of Muslims who are involved in this production of technology woefully silent? Why? Do they feel that their Islam has nothing to offer or is it that they do not know how to engage the dialog?

Another fly in the ointment of technology’s promises is to whom it is promised? When, particularly in the West, technology is extolled, it is often done so in abstract rhetoric that seldom if ever includes an honest critique in how technology has failed to make everyone’s lives better, such as the poor, the economically disenfranchised, the socially marginalized and so forth. I am reminded of this in Gil Scott Heron’s spoke word piece, Whitey On the Moon:

A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey’s on the moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bills.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon)
You know, the man jus’ upped my rent las’ night.
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
I wonder why he’s uppi’ me?
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon?)
I wuz already payin’ ‘im fifty a week.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Taxes takin’ my whole damn check,
Junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck,
The price of food is goin’ up,
An’ as if all that shit wuzn’t enough:
A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face an’ arm began to swell.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Was all that money I made las’ year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon)
Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon)
I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills,
Airmail special
(to Whitey on the moon)

For me, Heron’s poem brings to light the false assumptions about technology’s neutrality. And that while great leaps for mankind are often the justification points for technology’s application, seldom does the trickle down effect seem to affect that whom, in my opinion, would be best positioned to benefit from it.

Extra Reading

Technology as Knowledge by Dennis R. Herschbach.

Techno-Euphoria and the Discourse of the American Sublime by Rob Wilson.

The Role of Technology in Society and the Need for Historical Perspective by A. Hunter Dupree.

Influence of the Past: An Interpretation of Recent Development in the Context of 200 Yearsof History by A. Hunter Dupree.

Information and the Muslim World: A Strategy for the Twenty-First Century (Islamic Futures and Policy Studies) by Ziauddin Sardar.

A BBC article on magnetic bacteria that will produce the machines of the future. My response to it.

Preventing & Reversing Diabetes Naturally – a documentary.