Monday, June 28, 2010

Pigliucci and the Islamic Civilization

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.
In my previous post, I reviewed Massimo Pigliucci’s new book about science and non-science (“Nonsense on stilts”), and in passing stated boldly that one of the big gaffes there is the woefully uninformed and brief treatment (dismissal) of the Islamic Civilization’s contribution to science during its history. I also stated that his attempt at tracing the emergence of modern science from older human endeavors failed as he could not show any link between the medieval thinkers, the Renaissance scholars, and the modern scientists. And I promised to come back to at least show the extent of the gaffe(s) committed by Pigliucci.
Just briefly on the emergence of modern science, first our author assumes that its roots are purely western and that they must be found somewhere in the late medieval ages (“What exactly happened during the late Middle Ages”, he asks himself at the start of the chapter titled “From Natural Philosophy to Modern Science”). That is why he focuses on important figures like Albert the Great (ca. 1200-1280) and Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225 – 1274), the latter’s disciple, even though he states “I do not wholly subscribe to what is sometimes scornfully referred to as ‘the great men theory of history’…”). But in the next paragraph, and without transition, he begins: “I will start my story with Francis Bacon” (1561-1626)…There are no transitional figures or ideas; somehow, the inductive method (largely attributed to Bacon – another hasty assumption) comes from somewhere, directly to or from Bacon’s mind… And there you have it: the emergence of modern science… according to Massimo Pigliucci!
In the chapter previous to that, and having spent many pages reviewing the Greek era (from the pre-Socratics to Ptolemy), Pigliucci remembers that before jumping to the early European universities (“before adjourning”, he says), he needs to deal with “the Arabs”, which he lumps with the Romans and the Medievals in a section he titles “intermezzo” (interlude), one which includes all the Romans (Galen et al.); he devotes a total of two paragraphs to “the Arabs”.
About these “Arabs”, our author tells us simply that “[t]he fact of the matter is, however, that once again we see little in the way of either conceptual advances or even genuine discoveries and much in the way or copying and translating other people’s work”! Well, that’s clear and definitive! On what basis does Pigliucci make this very strong statement? He footnotes David Lindberg (“The Beginnings of Modern Science”) who, he says, “claims that to ‘recount Muslim contributions to the various sciences would require volumes’ ([p.] 175) and yet is unable to cite much in the way of examples, except for disputes among Islamic scholars on detailed aspects of the Ptolemaic description of the solar system.” (Note the dismissive “disputes” and “detailed aspects”… Tell that to George Saliba and other specialists of that part of astronomy’s history.)
So, that’s it: because Lindberg didn’t list the scientific achievements of the Islamic civilization, Pigliucci dismisses it as nothing more than translating and copying “other people’s work”! He does not even know the simple facts and figures that have by now become standard acceptance among people who discuss science, its history, and its philosophy, for example that Algebra was almost single-handedly invented by Muhammad Al-Khwarizmi (ca. 780 – ca. 850), that Optics was revolutionized by Al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (965-1039), that major (pre-telescopic) observatories were built from early on (Baghdad, 827 CE) to very late (Istanbul 1577 CE), including the hugely important Maragha observatory, where Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201 – 1274) did his work, observational and theoretical, which included his “Tusi couple” idea, later adopted by Copernicus (though Kepler, rightfully, got rid of it when he replaced the orbital geometries with ellipses).
Note that I am limiting myself to the most major figures and developments, and only to the fields of Mathematics, Physics, and Astronomy. I don’t even want to get to Medicine (Avicenna/Ibn Sina, Avenzoar/Ibn Zuhr, Ibn al-Nafis, etc.) and other fields…
Let me for a moment, however, focus on Ibn al-Haytham both for the contributions he made to (real) science and for his truly scientific approach (empirical, theoretical, and naturalistic, as Pigliucci concluded, in 2010, is the true hallmark of science, while Ibn al-Haytham practiced it a thousand years before…).
In January 2009, Jim Al-Khalili, a British physicist and award-winning science popularizer of Iraqi origin, presented a three-part TV series on Science and Islam on BBC 4. Here’s how he introduced Ibn al-Haytham to his viewers: “Isaac Newton is the undisputed father of modern optics – or so we are told at school… Yet… in the field of optics, Newton himself stood on the shoulders of a giant who lived 700 years earlier… Without doubt, another great physicist, who is worthy of ranking up alongside Newton, [is] Al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham.” He added: “Ibn al-Haytham is regarded as the father of the modern scientific method… Most people in the West will never have even heard of him.”
While it may be exaggerated to declare Ibn al-Haytham as “the father of the modern scientific method”, there is no doubt that he was one of the greatest scientists of the Islamic era, if not in the history of humanity. Abdelhamid I. Sabra,  an eminent Harvard expert on Ibn al-Haytham, wrote an article on him in 2003 where he described the book Kitab al-Manadhir (known in the west as De Aspectibus, or more simply, Optics) as “monumental… combin[ing] experimental investigations of the behavior of light with inventive geometrical proofs and constant forays into the psychology of visual perception—all systematically tied together to form a coherent alternative to the Euclidean and Ptolemaic theories of ‘visual rays’ issuing from the eye.” If this is not “conceptual advances or even genuine discoveries”, I don’t know what it is.
And last but not least, it is clear that Pigliucci is totally unaware of the important high-level series of letters exchanged between Ibn Sina (980-1037) and Al-Biruni (973-1048) on issues pertaining not only to physics (and I mean to use that term) but to the philosophy of science, or at least the scientific method, where Al-Biruni defends his inductive approach and Avicenna sticks to the “more rigorous” (mathematical and philosophical) deductive method.
It would do well for Pigliucci (and others) to review the (whole) history of science carefully before making such pronouncements. On the Islamic Civilization, there have recently been some very good, general-public books; I would particularly recommend Jeffrey Lyons’s The House of Wisdom and Ehsan Masood’s short and easy Science and Islam, a history.


Massimo Pigliucci said...

I appreciate your double review of my book, but I do think you are being a bit biased and somewhat unfair. First off, Nonsense on Stilts is not a scholarly book, it is aimed at the general public, so simplifications and omissions are a necessary part of it (hence the fairly heavy footnoting throughout). It's a bit of a cheap shot to focus on one particular lacuna or another without acknowledging that the book isn't meant to be a comprehensive and scholarly encyclopedia.

Also, for instance, I don't just start with Bacon. As you point out yourself, I trace basic ideas of modern science all the way back to ancient Greece...

Second, like many historians of science who have sought to emphasize Islamic contributions, you seem to be confusing genuine scholarship in the ancient world (which undoubtedly did occur, not just within Islam, but in other non-western traditions) with the actual influence that such scholarship had on the development of ideas.

For instance, to say that Newton's work stood on the shoulders of giants whom Newton did not know and not many people have heard of is disingenuous. How do you build on the work of people you are unaware of?

This is a bit like historians (rightly) pointing out that North America was "discovered" by plenty of people before Columbus (including, of course, native Americans, but also Vikings). Yes, but it was Columbus' voyage that dramatically altered history on both sides of the Atlantic, and he didn't build on the previous discoveries made by the Vikings, for the simple reason that he was utterly unaware of them.

Ali said...

"First off, Nonsense on Stilts is not a scholarly book, it is aimed at the general public, so simplifications and omissions are a necessary part of it (hence the fairly heavy footnoting throughout)."

Even if the book is not a scholarly work, even if it is aimed at the general public, I think if you want to be a credible writer, it is important to get your facts correct.

"“[t]he fact of the matter is, however, that once again we see little in the way of either conceptual advances or even genuine discoveries and much in the way or copying and translating other people’s work”"

I have not read your book. But the above statement from you makes me too feel that you would be happier if you can rather ignore the works of Islamic Civilisation.

The works of Islamic scholars did not just bridge those of medieval and Renaissance scholars, but also helped to establish the foundations of various disciplines of human knowledge we have today. So, i think it is extremely sad if your necessary "simplifications and omissions" have to be such that they make these works appear undeservedly diminutive.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

No, Massimo, I was not unfair or biased at all in my review(s) of your book. First, I did not “focus on one particular lacuna”; I devoted a long post (over a thousand words) to reviewing the main themes of your book, which I praised repeatedly as “a very interesting book”, “a very good book”, “a very enjoyable read”, etc. But then I identified an important and striking lacuna, and this blog being to some extent interested in “Islam and Science” issues, I thought it would be relevant – and informative to many of the readers – to point out the errors in your brief treatment of the subject. On the contrary, I was totally fair and even generous in my reviews, taken together.

Secondly, in your reply to my post, you have changed your argument regarding the contributions of the medieval Muslim scholars: you have switched from “we see little in the way of either conceptual advances or even genuine discoveries and much in the way of copying and translating other people’s work” to “genuine scholarship in the ancient world… did occur, [but it didn’t have any] actual influence [in the west]…”. That’s a totally different argument, and if you had taken that position in your book, we wouldn’t be having this exchange, and my review would have been drastically different. I would have had some comments to make, but not the kind of stunned reaction I got.

Thirdly, the reference to Newton and his standing on the shoulders of a giant was not from me, it was from Jim Al-Khalili; you’ll have to take it up with him, especially since I hinted at my disapproval of his exaggerated characterizations of Ibn al-Haytham. (I think Jim meant that Newton benefited from the great Optics advances made by Ibn al-Haytham, whether he knew of him and his work directly or through intermediaries. In your analogy, this is like Columbus benefiting from people who previously improved ships enough to allow him to make his historic voyage; it doesn’t matter if he knew of them or not.) All I meant to point out was that there was, in the Islamic era, genuine conceptual and technical scientific progress, not just the “copying and translating…”

Finally, I surely realized that your book was aimed at a general audience and was not meant to be a “scholarly encyclopedia”, but that certainly cannot excuse the kinds of “simplifications and omissions” that were found in your treatment of the Islamic era, though – I repeat – other parts of your book were excellent. (Fair enough?)

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