The Ideological Underpinnings of Modern Science
Many in the da’wah field have at some point attempted to use science to show Islam’s progressiveness, openness to “advancement” and inquiry. But is modern science ideologically neutral? And if it isn’t, is it something to be proud of if someone proved Islam to be true through science, or that Islam brought “science”, in the way it is meant today? Brother Shafiul Haq explores.
Many of us, especially those in the da’wah scene, attempt to reconcile Islam with science. In fact, we even go as far as to prove the truth of Islam through science. I have perhaps done the same on many occasions.
I remember once during a discussion with a few brothers, one of them said something along the lines of Islam “placing restrictions on science”. I argued that science is universal, neutral, objective. Hence, Islam does not restrict scientific inquiry. The brother then asked if Islam would allow us to scientifically investigate the origins of the universe. I was stumped.
I didn’t know (and still don’t know) the answer, but one thing is for sure. Whether or not Islam allowed such investigations, they definitely cannot take the form that they do today. Today, in order for an enquiry to meet the standards of science, one has to, at least ostensibly, be objective, which basically means setting aside one’s faith and personal convictions.
But how can I ever, as a Muslim, set aside my belief that Allah created the universe and embark on this “objective” scientific study of the origins of the universe? As Shaykh Yahya Rhodus says, “all knowledge is contextualised by sacred knowledge”. For me, revelation is a more certain form of knowledge than science. That, in itself, is enough to contradict the most fundamental tenets of modern science, which reserves for itself an exclusive claim to truth and knowledge.
However, the brother’s question not only pointed out to me my own ideological commitment, but also that science, as practised and understood today, is a far cry from the neutrality that it claims for itself. Science, after all, is also an ideology.
Regarding the question of the origins of the universe, for example, scientists, by default, look for “natural causes”. Uthman Badar, in one of his articles, quotes Lawrence Krauss to show how ideology, in this case, is passed off as science:
[Krauss] wrote, “…in science when one is trying to explain and predict data, one tries to explore all possible physical causes for some effect before resorting to the supernatural.”
Yet one should not ‘resort’ to anything when undertaking sincere inquiry…
In doing so, to preference natural explanations over supernatural ones is ideology plain and simple, and reveals the materialist and naturalist underpinning of much of modern science. Ironically, materialism and naturalism cannot be substantiated scientifically.
However, the problem with science runs deeper. In explaining Lyotard’s criticism of science, Professor Kenneth Allan says that science rests on a couple of meta-narratives that form the defining features of modernity.
- The idea that science releases the individual from oppressive systems built around myths and superstitions and frees them for the pursuit of knowledge.
- The idea that science supposedly provides a rational basis for political institutions to govern the people.
By playing such a role in governance, science is meant to help modern nation states bring freedom and equality for all.
As we can see, both these meta-narratives are bound up with hopes of freedom and emancipation. Yet, in reality, today’s science produces its own form of tyranny; upon humanity’s search for truth, and as justification for very real transgressive violence upon people in wars, politics and industry.
Firstly, science lays an exclusive claim to truth such that any other claims to knowledge not based on the scientific method are regarded as myths. Such exclusion of other forms of knowledge is, according to Allan, “the complete antithesis of scholastic freedom”.
For example, science can hardly accommodate any insights drawn from revelation unless they can be empirically tested. In fact, if something does not meet the criteria of the scientific method, it is dismissed as mere myth, or purely blind belief. This is because the scientific method is based on positivism, which Allan describes as below:
The most important tenet of this method is that the universe is empirical. Something is empirical if it is based on direct sense experience or observation. In its time, this assumption was radically critical and formulated in opposition to religion. Religion assumes that the true reality of the universe is spiritual. The physical world is perceived as temporary or illusionary, something that will fade away and has no real substance. Positivism assumes just the opposite: The only reality that we can know with any certainty is physical, and knowledge about that universe is acquired through observation.
Secondly, as opposed to pre-modern forms of “narrative knowledge” (knowledge passed on from generation to generation through narrative forms), which created social bonds, science is an abstract, isolated system of knowledge that creates a gap between factual statements and ethical ones. As per Lyotard’s own example, there is no relationship between the factual statement “the door is closed” and the proscriptive statement “open the door”.
Due to this inherent gap that science creates between knowledge and ethics, it can lend itself to quite oppressive ends, contrary to the Enlightenment ideal of freedom from tyranny that science was meant to help deliver.
Thus, in the modern age, with the advancement of science, we saw biology being used to justify slavery, and physics being used in the development of atomic bombs, holding the world under the constant threat of total annihilation, to this day.
However, this gap between factual questions and moral ones is created merely because of the way science sees and describes itself. In reality, however, modern science has been ideologically infested from very early on and has, therefore, also corroborated certain ethical positions specific to today’s generally held common-sense, or modernity.
Charles Lemert powerfully explains this point in the following words:
The worlds in which we live are what we make of them. Whether one approves of the idea or not, worlds are, thus, made-things. The world we live in, for better or worse, was definitely made in the form we live in it today more or less about the time Darwin discovered, then proved to a majority’s satisfaction, that the world of human things is certifiably not truly different from the world of natural things pure and simple. The theory of natural selection which in its sociological after-life came to be used as a justification for the excellent prospects of human progress was, in its original form, a dark scientific theory that required the people of mid-nineteenth century England, Europe, and the Americas to rethink, hence to remake, their worlds.
Lemert then quotes Janet Browne on Darwin’s world construction project:
Darwin faced the arduous task of reorienting the way Victorians looked at nature. He had to show them that their generally received ideas about a benevolent, near perfect natural world, in which insects and seeds were designed to feed birds and birds to feed cats, and beauty was given to things for a purpose, were wrong – that the idea of a loving God who created all living things and brought men and women into existence was at the very least a fable…The world steeped in moral meaning which helped mankind seek out higher goals in life was not Darwin’s. Darwin’s view of nature was dark – black…
What most people saw as God-given design [Darwin] saw as mere adaptations to circumstance, adaptations that were meaningless except for the way in which they helped an animal or plant to survive. Much of this was perhaps familiar to a nation immersed in competitive affairs: Darwin had transformed the generalized entrepreneurial ethos of English life into a biological theory which, in turn, derived much of its support from these all-pervasive commitments.
Lemert then finally asks, “Is it then a postmodernist fad to believe…that scientific truth rests on human trust in others who share their well-made world?”.
Whatever its usefulness, modern science is definitely not ideologically neutral. And so I’m not exactly sure if it is something to be proud of if someone proved Islam to be true through science, or that Islam brought “science”, in the way it is meant today, to the world.
That is of course not to say that Islam is against knowledge, or that it discourages attempts to better understand our world and the universe. But given the cultural rootedness of modern science, any attempt to reconcile Islam with science inevitably lets Islam be subsumed in today’s grand scientific discourse. And the truth of Islam would then only serve to prove some other greater truth of the ideological meta-narratives of modernity.
Shafiul Huq is a Melbourne-based activist. He is also a student of Classical Arabic and Cultural Studies.
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