Sunday, August 28, 2011

On the futility of finding science in the Qur'an and in other scriptures

by Salman Hameed

I have an article in today's Express Tribune. It is unfortunately titled The Science of Scriptures - but in actuality it is a critique of those who try to find scientific miracles in scriptures (I'jaz - in the particular instance of the Qur'an). Nidhal also had an excellent post about it last year: Critiquing I'jaz - The claim of 'scientific miracles in the Qur'an' and he also has a chapter in his book Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition with Modern Science. Here is my take on the relation between science and religion and on the topic of I'jaz (read from the Express Tribune directly)

Science, Religion, and the Building of Scientific Culture in Pakistan
Salman Hameed

What is the relation between science and religion? This is an important question. The world we inhabit today is shaped by modern science and its practical applications. The way we perceive nature is deeply informed by our understanding of the vastness of the cosmos and the complexities of the sub-atomic worlds as revealed by science. At the same time, religion is an integral part of Pakistani society, and shapes the identity of millions of its citizens. For a place like Pakistan, both science and religion are essential.

It is no surprise then that the question of the relation between science and religion often comes up in conversations. From a historical perspective, there is no single narrative that defines this relation. There have been times when religious authorities  stymied science. On other occasions, holy books have provided the inspiration, and religious institutions the support, to help discover the secrets of the universe. There have been religious scientists: Ibn al-Shattir was a muwaqqit at a mosque in Damascus, Mendel was a priest. And there have been scientists who have been vocal in their opposition to religion. Thus, it is hard to define the relation between science and religion in any other way than complex.

In Pakistan today, there seems to be consensus that science and religion are not opposed to each other. This signals a positive approach, as Pakistan needs to develop a strong scientific culture to meet the challenges of the 21st century. However, for a large majority, this view is shaped by the pseudoscience of finding scientific miracles in the Qur’an (also known as I’jaz). This is neither good science nor good religion! If many of our bright, young minds are being introduced to science this way, then the practice of I’jaz is perhaps a major impediment to the development of a vibrant scientific culture in Pakistan.
Science is driven by curiosity about the natural world. Unsolved problems attract the attention of its practitioners. The harder the problem, the more attention it gets.

For example, one of the hottest areas in astronomy today is exploring the nature of “dark matter” — we know it exists but we cannot see it, nor does it interact with ordinary matter. Some of the brightest minds are searching for dark matter in the largest particle accelerators in the world as well as in observatories looking for evidence in large galaxy clusters. We do not know when or where we will find the evidence. It is also possible (though unlikely) that someone will show that dark matter does not exist and that our inference about its existence was deeply flawed. Science will go wherever evidence will take it.

On the other hand, those who are seeking scientific miracles in the Qur’an are driven neither by curiosity about the natural world nor by the desire to find explanations of unsolved problems. Instead, they know that they already know the answer. For them, the primary goal is to seek validity of one’s own belief through the authority of science.

This search for science in scriptures is a relatively new phenomenon. It is the religious response to the advent of modernity and the rise of modern science as the most powerful method for explaining the natural world. Muslims are not alone in seeking validity from science. Christians find science in the New Testament, Jews find it in the Torah, Hindus find it in Bhagavad Gita, and Mormons find it in the Book of Mormon. Everyone is convinced that their holy book contains snippets of modern science. Take the specific case of dark matter: you can find websites and even books that claim that dark matter is already mentioned in the Qur’an (for Muslims), the Bible (for Christians), the Torah (for Jews), and Bhagavad Gita (for Hindus). Of course, everyone will be scrambling to change his or her respective interpretations if the dark matter idea turns out to be wrong.

Make no mistake. None of this is science.

It is ironic that when medieval Muslim scholars dominated natural philosophy (what we may loosely call science today), they did not seek ‘scientific miracles’ in the Qur’an. Instead, the Qur’an served as an inspiration to understand the natural world through reason.

So what can we do to rekindle the spirit of scientific culture in Pakistan? This is a large question, but we can take the small step of appreciating the joy of finding things out. From the condensation of water into rain here on Earth, to the detection of lakes of liquid methane on the Saturn’s moon, Titan. From understanding the way leaves change colours in the winter, to figuring out the how stars form in galaxies.

Science seeks answers about how the universe works. Religion provides inspiration to explore the natural world. The late American biologist Stephen J Gould called science and religion two equal but separate spheres of life, or Non-overlapping Magisteria, in his own words. The former deals with the physical world and the latter with questions of ethics and the meaning of life. The building blocks of a scientific culture in Pakistan will have to be laid upon this mutual respect and separation of these two vital spheres of life.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 28th,  2011.

26 comments:

Akbar said...

(I doubt if the writer has ever read Quran in the first place, yet too keen to jump to commentary and conclusion over something he has little or no knowledge about. SOrry no offence, but had to set the record straight).

@Salman:
Overall nicely written, yet you seem to have exaggerated this notion a little bit in this highly subjective analysis devoid of any form of objectivity. Yes there are people especially youth who do believe in Quran's 'science miracles', based on many interpretations and misinterpretations. And yes it IS a major impediment to a scientific culture in Pakistan. Yet I would rather blame the attitudes and interpretations for all this. I do not object if there are some facts mentioned in this scripture. It may be a wise guess by a wise man 1400 years ago, or may be something else I don't know. So if it says in its opening verse, that God is the lord of many worlds, how does it impede your inquiry into researching extrasolar planets? For me it is actually an inspiration. Then it is mentioned in Quran in chapter 43 verse 13 that there are signs in the universe for those who think and inquire.

Your idea may be partly true that if one believes in scientific 'miracles' in Quran it can be an impediment to scientific inquiry. But it depends on subjective interpretation. For me and my likes, any clue is rather inspirational. So if it is mentioned in Quran that life began in water, should we change it or what?

Naveed Ejaz said...

Akbar,

If you don't know whether the author has read the Quran or not, then why make that remark in the first place? Wouldn't it be more productive to comment about the validity arguments - which you do later on - in the article rather than to conjecture about the writers intentions or inclinations?

In my limited understanding of both the Quran and science, I would put forward the notion that scientific facts fall in one of two categories. Firstly, there are instances where the Quran is describing a natural process such as the water cycle or birth. Secondly, there are seemingly metaphysical events such as the splitting of the moon. Subjective interpretation of both phenomenon is a right every person is entitled too, however the problem is that the application of this principle is usually very biased. So if scientific evidence is found which closely resembles the water cycle account in the Quran, it is readily accepted as proof. However, on the flip side, splitting of the moon or evolution theory are disregarded even in the face of immutable evidence primarily because it seems to be in contradiction to a majority of subjective analysis by Islamic scholars.

It is great that you interpret scientific facts in the Quran as clues to be investigated, but it is not easy teaching genetics and evolution to an undergraduate biology class that believes that it is propaganda purely because it goes against what they assume the Quran has told them.

Akbar said...

@Naveed:
Thanks for pointing it out. I realize the inappropriateness in my comment and would be keen to apologize to the writer.

On one hand, Quran is not a book of science in the first place. And there are many things mentioned which cannot be scientifically proven, sometines apparently go against the scientific evidences. But on the other hand, it has become a hot cake to criticize this scripture for ideas which are not even mentioned in Quran, or actually opposite to the general belief. And many times, the writer has related a few ideas to Quran or advocated these to be so which are actually opposite to what is found in Quran. For example, the idea of a anthropomorphic God, or Earth as the centre of Universe, or believing in God impedes scientific inquiry. Even a quick look at Quran would reveal that this is not so, rather opposite.

You hate Zakir Naik talking about evolution, don't you? Because we presume he has not read evolution up to the required standard. But then if you wish to talk about the concepts in religion (thus mentioning Quran as the most widely read religious scripture in the world), can you easily get away without actually giving any reference from Quran? I doubt so, and this is what I mentioned in my first comment.

I greatly value Salman as a bright scientist and inspired by him. Most of the times I really find extremely valuable stuff in his writings that I often quote to my peers. However I have to keep the record straight when it comes to Quran which is in my view the most misunderstood religious scripture to the 'modern world' (and to ourselves too for all the misinterpretations leading us to the shape we are in at the moment).

Naveed Ejaz said...

Akbar,

I'll leave Salman to comment on what he's written in the past (I've only started reading this blog very recently), but my understanding of his article was that it isn't a belief in God that impedes scientific inquiry, its looking for scientific knowledge within the Quran and subsequently assuming it to be fact which is the problem. It's more social and cultural rather than religious.

I agree with you that scientists should not misrepresent what's mentioned in the Quran. And I have no problem with anyone discussing evolution or science, in fact I very much welcome it. But I only ask that the burden of proof for anyone presenting their argument should be the same.

I can't prove this, but misrepresenting what is in the Quran is something that religious scholars do more than scientists. The problem is that while most people are more than willing to point out the lack of religious training that scientists have, they very seldom apply the same principle for asking islamic scholars about their scientific credentials. Both sides need to meet on common ground but that requires that people should pose tough questions about about disparities to both groups.

Akbar said...

@Naveed: You wrote:
'I can't prove this, but misrepresenting what is in the Quran is something that religious scholars do more than scientists.'

- I couldn't agree more to that. This is what has happened and we are in this mess. And if you ask my personal opinion, religious and science shouldn't be mingled together. If one finds some scientific fact or clue in Quran, then good on him. One can find inspiration to seek more in that direction or impede one's scientific enquiry, depending on personal preferences. Yet I agree with Salman that it has been detrimental to our attitude on how we approach science in our society by overrating the interpretations of purely religious texts. Afterall, why didn't we pick up the 'clues' BEFORE they got discovered through scientific means and methodologies with hard evidences?

Akbar said...

Hmmm...maybe I misinterpreted the whole article. Too bad... :-(

Faisal Irshad said...

Science and religion will always be incompatible but they do not operate in separate domains. Religion does not have the monopoly on deciding the moral rules. If we can have a proper understanding of human psyche through scientific investigation then we can be in a better position to define morality that works. When we find inconsistencies between scripture and reason (Science) then it is a subjective choice of prioritzing one over the other. Religion works on faith (blind faith to be exact). Trying to justify religion through scientific scrutiny is a wild goose chase since there are many inconsistencies between them relationg to the creation of Earth, Universe and Humans.

Salman Hameed said...

"but my understanding of his article was that it isn't a belief in God that impedes scientific inquiry, its looking for scientific knowledge within the Quran and subsequently assuming it to be fact which is the problem. It's more social and cultural rather than religious."

Thanks Naveed - that was exactly the point of the article (and I think I have been quite consistent about this point in the past writings as well :) ). You also made an astute observation which is precisely the problem with the endeavor of I'Jaz.

"So if scientific evidence is found which closely resembles the water cycle account in the Quran, it is readily accepted as proof. However, on the flip side, splitting of the moon or evolution theory are disregarded even in the face of immutable evidence primarily because it seems to be in contradiction to a majority of subjective analysis by Islamic scholars. "

Salman Hameed said...

"Science and religion will always be incompatible but they do not operate in separate domains. "

Faisal - it depends on how people view the domains. I don't think there is one particular way to define the relation of science and religion. Historically, sometimes they have clashed and sometimes they have not. But "religion" is a very broad category. I think an accurate way of talking about this would be that there are scientific claims that are incompatible with specific religious interpretations. But beyond that it becomes too general to say that they are incompatible.

However, you have brought up an interesting issue over the domain of morality. I think this is a really interesting question. I don't think science can necessarily answer those issues (this is where Hume's "is/ought" distinction comes in - even if we know how things are does not imply how things ought to be). I think the discussion then has to veer in philosophy versus religion - but then, some aspects of theology can be deeply rooted in philosophy. So are then back to the clash or non-clash of specific claims.

At the same time, I think the origins of morality is going to be (and it already is) a serious clashing for many religious folks (though not for all).

Akbar said...

@Salman
"...that was exactly the point of the article (and I think I have been quite consistent about this point in the past writings as well :) )."

- I beg to differ here a bit, or may be I am mistaken. Every so often you endorse the views of 'atheists' based on their limited understanding of religious scriptures (especially Quran), don't you? Views like anthropomorphic God, Earth as centre of Universe etc, none of which are in consistence with Quran.

Faisal Irshad said...

Salman, in my limited understanding, both religion and science are ways of explaining the world around us (or to quote Carl Sagan:"Creation Myths"). This is where i think that science is more reliable and apt at understanding and religion is simply invading the science's turf.

Secondly, I think that research in neuroscience will enable us to better undertannd the human psyche and hence holding the people responsible for their actions. As an example we can use the nature nurture debate more reliably (through scientific investigation)in the issues of dealing with homosexuals which is an out right felony in religious context.

Salman Hameed said...

"both religion and science are ways of explaining the world around us (or to quote Carl Sagan:"Creation Myths")."

Faisal - the question of origins is indeed one of the places where the proper domain question comes up. However, remember, that religion for most people is not about the origins question. Instead, it deals with issues of meaning of life, community, compassion, providing answers for pain and suffering, etc. None of these things necessarily clash with scientific domains. To see religion simply as providing physical explanation is, I think, a very narrow interpretation of religion. This does not necessarily resolve the issue of origins (for some this is also not an issue - for example the Belgian priest Lemaitre) - but lets place that conflict in its proper context.

Same about your comment regarding neuroscience. In some instances there is a real clash (for example, some religions claim that homosexuality is unnatural, and therefore a sin - can obviously be shown to be false). On the other hand, neuroscience tells us how things work - not how things should work (this is the "is/ought" distinction). For that we need a separate framework. And this is where the moral philosophy and/or religion might come in. As Richard Dawkins has said that the biology is driven by natural selection and evolution. But he would not like to see the society operate in the same way. At the same time, the roots of morality (and moral thinking) might still have evolutionary origins - but we still have to think what is moral and what is not? These are hard but very interesting questions.

Faisal Irshad said...

"And this is where the moral philosophy and/or religion might come in"

Salman,
My point is that religion is simply redundant in dealing with such issues since we can use philosophy for defining the "Moral Landscape".

Nice article by the way but i guess it is time for our species to grasp the nature of existence face on without the crutch of religion.

Salman Hameed said...

Faisal,

Sure - but remember philosophy and religion have had a long-intertwined history.

"but i guess it is time for our species to grasp the nature of existence face on without the crutch of religion."

I don't think it is that straight forward and we get back to the issue that religion - at present - is more than about providing explanation of origins and morality (those are indeed competing grounds for science and philosophy respectively). But we also have to explain and deal with loss, pain, and grapple with the issues of meaning in life. Religion is not the only way of dealing with these - but it is a way. In fact, currently it may be the best way available. Now I'm not saying that there are no alternatives, rather that for many (and perhaps most) it serves a purpose not available by other means. One may choose not to use that option, but it is important to acknowledge its contemporary use.

Check out Philip Kitcher's "Living with Darwin". The last chapter of his book addresses this issue. He wants to develop a society based on the ideas of Dewey (you can also check out his lecture video as part of our Science & Religion Lecture Series. He was our speaker in spring 2010 and you can find the link to his lecture on the right hand side of the blog).

Akbar said...

Don't we need any credentials like formal knowledge base on religion in order to talk in a substantial manner over the said subject? Can we actually suggest what is it all about and what is it not all about without, going through the text in religious scriptures? Most of our knowledge on religion is purely based upon our own presupposed ideas about the religion in question, isn't? I may be wrong but it is just a thought.

Faisal Irshad said...

Akbar,
It is the discussion that we can put up to the best of our knowledge. We wondering whether we can use religious texts for the basis of morality or the scientific investigation. Which source do you think is more reliable when there are many discrepancies in religious texts, something that can be found out easily by reading the translations and without resorting to authorities?

Akbar said...

Faisal:
Quite right. And the more you consult the clerics, the deeper the confusion and controversies get. Misinterpretation is much more prevalent than actual meaning which has long been conveniently twisted and distorted to 'fit' into the existing tribal or local customs, whether it be face covering or foot long beards or ban on women driving, none have roots in actual text of Quran.
As you mentioned about the best of your knowledge, it still requires at least one thorough read through the Quran (or any other religious scripture under scrutiny; I quote Quran because it is most read religious scripture and I don't have much knowledge about other ones), so I presume you have already done so too and do not resort to presupposed ideas.
Coming back to the question of morality and religion: Do we really need religion for morality? I don't think so. It is not something 'invented ' by religion but is something deeply ingrained in human psyche, partially molded by contemporary cultural influences, except for some universal constants. There is an excellent article by Peter Singer and Marc Hauser on 'Godless Morality' (easy google search) discussing the issue.
What does religion tries to achieve then?
Apart from its ease of political misuse of course, I think the main historic purpose of religion has been to regulate this positive human instinct. Religion only regulates it through ordinance in an attempt to make sure it always works in every situation and warns of a penalty (e.g. 'in hereafter') if not followed.
Let me give you an example of traffic. No matter how moral and disciplined we are, we cannot be safe on the road by our own free will. We still need to have pre-defined traffic rules and an authority to implement the rules to make sure it works, and to punish those who do not abide by the rules, intentionally or unintentionally.

Naveed Ejaz said...

I think that while there is a growing trend of keeping religion out of the lab (justifiably so in my opinion), it is very hard and possibly catastrophic to separate religion from society.

Religion is in essence a large part of our our species history. It has had a profound effect on morality (though not always positive if mainstream opinion on homosexuality is to be considered as true). A friend of mine once said that prophets were groovy dudes (his words not mine!). That they usually spoke about the human condition, they spoke about emancipation of slaves, equal rights for all. If that is our understanding of religion, then it is a very important part of our collective history and we while we should not have blind faith in it, we should treat it as any other source of knowledge i.e. with critical analysis but with respect.

A german philosopher (I forget his name) remarked that he is terrified of the idea that our universe exists without absolute justice. Though not synonymous, that is precisely the topics that reformers like Marx, MLK have written about.
In that sense, religion cannot be considered to have sole ownership over defining morality.

Faisal Irshad said...

"I quote Quran because it is most read religious scripture and I don't have much knowledge about other ones), so I presume you have already done so too and do not resort to presupposed ideas."

Of course Akbar! This is what every honest person is expected to do. Any honest quest for truth should be indifferent to preconceived ideas and with skepticism. As the scientific method is defined by Karl Popper, we should try to falsify our preconceived ideas and not find for the corroborative evidence, only then can we reach unbiased to a conclusion (or very nearer to it).

Religion is part of the childhood of our species (how childish it is to think that religion should never be questioned?). As our understanding about the universe and human psyche increases with more emphasis on human rights and democracy the role of religion is not so strong in keeping people "to the right path" through harassment. To know whether this is true look at the statistics for crime rate and moral decline in secular societies and it is evident that the rate is lower there as compared to the theocratic countries.

Ali said...

Faisal,
"As the scientific method is defined by Karl Popper, we should try to falsify our preconceived ideas and not find for the corroborative evidence, only then can we reach unbiased to a conclusion (or very nearer to it)."

You speak as if Karl Popper is the ultimate authority on scientific method.
Give me one good reason why we should "not find for the corroborative evidence."

Falsifying preconceived ideas is one thing. But to what extent? Can we falsify ALL our ideas?
There will of course be a limit for falsifying. We cannot falsify truth. So if you keep insisting that we should not look for corroborative evidence it is as if you are saying we can never reach the truth.

"... only then can we reach unbiased to a conclusion (or very nearer to it)."
Could it be possible that some of the "corrobortive evidence" we find form the conclusion? At least in some cases?
I got the feeling that according to your logic, we can never reach a conclusion simply because we should not stop our attempts to falsify.
Are you scared of "corroborative evidence?"

Faisal Irshad said...

Ali,

We should "try" to falsify the preconceived ideas since we do not have an "authority" to guide us.

According to Karl Popper's Falsifiability criteria our "trust" in a scientific theory increases with time as we fail to find the negative evidence for the theory.The beauty of the scientific method is to always ask the questions since we can not be certain of anything (wish we had a scientific scripture!).

Human mind is very much prone to be biased and most of us resist to accepting new ideas. Due to biasness we can only look for the evidence that supports our cherished ideas and ignore the ones that are at odds. This is what happens when people say that astrology works because they keep the "hits" and ignore the "misses".

Yes I think everyone should be "scared of corroborative evidence" keeping mind the propensity of human mind in finding false patterns in nature.

Ali said...

Faisal, this is intersting.

"We should "try" to falsify the preconceived ideas since we do not have an "authority" to guide us."
Perhaps it would be better if you said we do not have an authority to guide us in EVERYTHING.
I do not disagree that we should try to falsify preconceived ideas. But are you saying that we can never have the truth as a preconceived idea?
I believe we can.
I also believe we cannot falsify the truth.
So what would be the outcome of our trying to falsify?


"The beauty of the scientific method is to always ask the questions since we can not be certain of anything ..."
If we cannot be certain of anything, we will not have anything that we can call FACTS. All our perceptions and observations will be parts of theories. But the fact that there are FACTS says that we can be certain of somethings.
For example, we can be certain that a square that measures 2cm on a side will have 4cm squared as its area.
According to your logic we should keep on tring to falsify this in order to arrive at the 'truth.' For me this would be like a mad man going round and round in circles trying to find the spot where he started from. In effect, he would have crossed the starting point many times but since he cannot be certain of it, he will have to go round and round 'forever.'

"Human mind is very much prone to be biased and most of us resist to accepting new ideas."
Yes but this happens at the beginning of new ideas. When there is overwhelming evidence, eventually we accept the new idea. Think of what happened to the steady state theory of the universe.

Ali said...

Faisal,

"Yes I think everyone should be "scared of corroborative evidence" keeping mind the propensity of human mind in finding false patterns in nature."
So I was not wrong in thiking you are scared of corroborative evidence.
I suggest you look a little deeper into this 'corroborative evidence.' If you do, I am confident you will accept that not everything can be falsified. Because you say everyone should be scared of 'corroborative evidence', i think your heart disagrees to waht you have typed on this blog. You are only trying to convince yourself.
Ignorance is not bliss, Faisal. And I think you know it too well. :)

Faisal Irshad said...

Ali,

"All Swans are White" is going to be TRUE until you find an instance of a Black Swan. Likewise, the

laws of physics according to our current understanding are universal but we can not have any

assurity that they will be the same every where in the universe. This is what i mean by preconcieved

ideas and yes we do not have assurity for anything. I don't know why you are discussing about the

FACTS when we were actually discussing the rules and laws.

Ptolemy's earth centred model with the introduction of epicycles had almost equal (if not equal)

predictive power as compared to the Copernicus' Sun centred model. If I were to have "FAITH" in the

"TRUTH" of Ptolemy's model i would never have questioned it. Why do we accept the Sun centred model?

Because it is elegant and simpler. I think this should answer you about the validity of

Falisfiability method.

By the way the point of the discussion was to compare the scientific method with the method of

theological revelation. As i said in an earlier post when we believe in the revelatory nature of religion then there is no point in arguing for the validity of scientific method since we have already made up our mind to accept scripture as authority. Religious people will only try to fit the contradictory data by interpreting it according to the scripture or in most cases will simply reject the contradictory evidence by asserting that some time in the future science will prove them wrong. This faith position is what i mean that everyone should be scared of or if you don't like the word "scared of" replace it with "Wary of" :-)

Faisal Irshad said...

Ali,

"All Swans are White" is going to be TRUE until you find an instance of a Black Swan. Likewise, the
laws of physics according to our current understanding are universal but we can not have any
assurity that they will be the same every where in the universe. This is what i mean by preconcieved ideas and yes we do not have assurity for anything. I don't know why you are discussing about the FACTS when we were actually discussing the rules and laws.

Ptolemy's earth centred model, with the introduction of epicycles, had almost equal (if not equal)predictive power as compared to the Copernicus' Sun centred model. If I were to have "FAITH" in the "TRUTH" of Ptolemy's model i would never have questioned it. Why do we accept the Sun centred model? Because it is elegant and simpler. I think this should answer you about the validity of Falisfiability method.

By the way the point of the discussion was to compare the scientific method with the method of theological revelation. Religion works on Faith and Dogma. There is no option for doubt or falisifiability in religion and the only way to belive in the validity of revelation is through anecdotal evidence which is not considered reliable in science.

Anonymous said...

the young should work with a zeal to take science ahaead, as it it the onl authoritative way to get this stupid thing called religion once and for all out of the way of human progress. i always thought that religion is not an impediment to human progress, but rather it is a co-inhabits societies where there is low progress. But i have changed by mind over time. Especially with the islamic faith, which unfortunately is a great obstacle in this regard.