shirenomad: (philosophical)
[personal profile] shirenomad
Cross-posted to Facebook and Livejournal:

Last weekend I watched a for-the-most-part fascinating discussion of science history on YouTube. The speaker was Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist who you may be familiar with (he's host of NOVA scienceNOW and has made two appearances on The Daily Show in recent memory). The history he told was well researched, applicable to the present day, and I absolutely agree with the conclusion.

...Not the conclusion he actually made, mind you, but the conclusion I thought he was going to make, because it was the one that logically followed from everything he said.

You can watch the video for yourself here, but here's a summary, combined with my own research on the matter:

The Muslim world was, from roughly 750 to 1200 AD, the center of science in the world, taking the knowledge of the Greeks and building on it dramatically. Al-Khwarizmi's development of algebra revolutionized mathematics. Astronomy hit such a boom that Arabic names such as Aldebaran and Altair still dominate the sky. Al-Razi wrote a medical textbook that remained the authority in medical schools, in both the Middle East and Europe, for nearly a thousand years. And Ibn al-Haytham was likely the first to conceive of what we now call the scientific method.

And then, in the late 11th century, came al-Ghazali, an imam who denied the very idea of cause and effect, save for the Ultimate Cause: every event happens because and only because God wills it. (His famous example was that fire does not burn cotton, God burns it.) While God usually behaves the same way, creating what appear to be laws of nature, He can do something else any time He likes. Therefore, he concluded, science is meaningless... even blasphemous, because it says that God will always behave the same way and therefore has no will.

The idea, sadly, caught on, despite attempts to refute by other Muslim scholars. By the 14th and 15th centuries, Muslim science was in serious decline, and by the 16th century it was all but non-existent; only recently has it begun to recover. Christians and Jews began their own domination of science and culture (Tyson's analysis, not mine) and the Western World, not the Middle East, remains in the lead today.

Tyson, having told this tale, mourned what could have been had Islam remained pro-science. He then compared it to the present day, with the tendency of some Christians to deny discoveries and theories such as the Big Bang and evolution. And I am in total agreement. God has clearly set laws in effect over the universe. God gave us brains. And the fate of Muslim science should be a warning to us. I have been a big fan of a saying of a Christian and physicist I know: "the Bible is infallible, and science is infallible, but fallible man can misinterpret either." I also know that the Catholic church, no liberal bastion, never quick to reject tradition, interprets the Bible such that there is no contradiction with evolution (read Cathecism 283, or the words of the past five popes on the matter, or just walk into any Catholic private school and hear evolution taught by nuns). So absolutely, Dr. Tyson, I agree that Christians should not poo-poo science just because it appears to conflict with an image of God we've developed that isn't necessarily accurate; that we should instead embrace it...

And now I'll directly quote the last 30 seconds of Tyson's speech, and we'll see if you can spot the moment where he abruptly forgets everything he just said:

"I am concerned about what lost, what brilliance may have expressed itself, and did not, in [the Muslim] community over the past thousand years. And so, what I want to put on the table is -- that's the end of my talk, but I want to say -- I want to put on the table, not why 85% of the National Academy rejects God. I want to know why 15% don't. And that's really what we've got to address here, otherwise the public is secondary to this. Thank you for your attention here."

Whoa. Did I understand him right? He had just spent ten minutes telling us how the Muslim community had made huge contributions to science, and could have continued to do so had it not fallen into the lie that faith and science are incompatible. But Tyson now appears to conclude not that scientists should encourage the faithful to return, but that they should automatically assume that any belief in God is a burden to science. In short, he's saying that faith and science are incompatible.

How dug in are scientists against what they perceive as the savage and superstitious, that one can both see and recite evidence that faith and science can work side by side, and still walk out believing that belief in God will always be an anathema to his cause? And if Tyson believes that science requires leaving such silly religious beliefs behind, then should he be surprised that some believers think that science must be wrong?

The faithful need to be making overtures here as well. What I said before holds; we do not leave our brains at the door when we enter the family of God. God can trump the rules He set in place if He likes, but for the most part He does not; this is why science has been such a marvelous success. And when an examination of the universe's history shows that not only does something in scripture generally not happen under these rules, but it clearly did not happen, then we need to at least put on the table the possibility that we've been misreading scripture.

But to the scientists: when we make these overtures, you need to be ready to welcome us.

Tomorrow: Things get even more counterproductive.
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