Taner Edis

So Steve Paulson asks Taner Edis how he would assess the state of scientific knowledge in the Islamic world.

Dismal. Right now, if all Muslim scientists working in basic science vanished from the face of the earth, the rest of the scientific community would barely notice. There’s very little contribution coming from Muslim lands…Especially in military and commercial areas, they have put their emphasis on applied science rather than basic science. So there are lots of medical doctors and engineers in the Muslim world. But the contribution to scientific research is much lower.

Does it matter? Can’t they just import basic science from the rest of the world?

It permanently locks the Muslim world into a subordinate position in those aspects of modern life that depend on creativity in technology and science. And this is a huge swath of modern life…This is not a controversial statement in the Muslim world. Even the most conservative Muslim realizes that the Islamic world is at a severe disadvantage right now in science and technology. The West has done a much better job. And somehow, Muslims are going to have to do better.

This bit is really interesting and suggestive.

It was harder for science to achieve intellectual and institutional independence. This was not restricted just to science. In the Western world, the institution of law achieved a kind of autonomy from religion early on. Some historians argue that this was really a precursor to science achieving autonomy as well. In the Muslim world, law was never entirely disentangled from religion. Islamic culture has not been as supportive of intellectual independence for different areas of life.

Intellectual independence…It’s probably hard to exaggerate the importance of that for both personal flourishing and for healthy public goods of all kinds.

One of the features of medieval Islamic science that some modern Muslim thinkers want to revive is the way of perceiving the universe as a spiritual, God-centered place. This tends to work against the independence of science from religious institutions. It’s precisely this autonomy that helped science make the breakthrough in the Western world. In the Muslim world, this is still a relatively controversial concept.

If you see the universe as a spiritual, God-centered place, then you can’t have real intellectual independence – not if you take that idea seriously. If the universe is a God-centered place, then God calls the shots.

They talk about the ‘scientism’ charge – “There are a lot of people in the United States…who also complain about what they call “scientism” — the idea that science explains all there is in the world.”

You can find Muslim thinkers making similar pronouncements. “Scientism” and “reductionism” have become stock accusations in religious circles. I don’t know if there’s much more content here than saying, “I don’t like naturalistic ideas.”

Snicker. Yeah.

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