Monday, December 26, 2011

Conference on Knowledge and Values in Indonesia

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 and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. 

A ‘first conference on knowledge and values’ was recently organized by the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies (CRCS) and the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS) at the University of Gadjah Mada (UGM) at Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The two-day conference (Dec. 16 and 17) was titled ‘Methodological explorations of the encounters of science, religion and local culture’. It gathered a dozen or so speakers with some 100 students, most of them graduate students in the humanities, with a predominance in religious studies.

The format of the conference was interesting in itself: the first day was a series of sessions where two speakers presented their views on “the encounters of science, religion and local culture” in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and various areas of methodological study; the second day was devoted to short presentations by students whose essays had been selected, followed by lengthy discussions with the speakers, in parallel sessions of about 30 participants.

On the first day, I was “paired” with Prof. Etty Indrati, a biologist at UGM. I spoke on the challenges posed by modern science to Islam (and theism more generally), particularly methodological naturalism, reviewing the spectrum of Muslim thinkers’ reactions to modern science, and presenting my own position (the Averroesian harmonizing approach that I presented in my recent book); I also pointed explicitly at the worrisome trends in today’s Muslim culture, namely the dominant creationism, the popularity of I`jaz (“miraculous” scientific content in the Qur’an), and the mediocre state of science education and research in this part of the world. Prof. Indrati, while alluding to it once or twice, preferred to avoid the topic of evolution and creationism and focused instead on how science affects living standards and life expectancy and how cultural/religious norms can and should allow people to harmonize their worldviews and lifestyles with the scientific knowledge. In the end, she made the audience happy by proclaiming that a scientist, if s/he excels in his/her pursuit of scientific research, will be led to God. (Prof. Indrati is of Christian background.)

The discussion period for this session saw a spirited and rather high-level series of exchanges, particularly on the topic of “islamization of knowledge”. I later was told that this proposition is still quite popular in that part of the world, particularly among Muslim social scientists. I was asked about the situation in the Middle East, and I replied that the concept and “research program” of the “islamization of knowledge”, which was so popular and strong in the eighties and early nineties, has clearly dwindled in the last decade. Not so in South Asia, I was told. We discussed the flaws (in my view) of that “program” and what valid responses can be brought up to counter that dead-end.

The afternoon sessions were even more interesting, with very diverse talks given by Prof. Adam Seligman (a specialist of religious studies at Boston University), Prof. Mark Woodward (an anthropologist from Arizona State Univ. currently visiting UGM-CRCS), Prof. Heddy Shri Ahimsa Putra (a specialist of cultural studies at UGM), and others.

Prof. Seligman is an orthodox Jew; he characterizes himself as a traditionalist. He tried to stress the importance of understanding rituals as a momentary shift from our corrupt world to an ideal one, and how performing rituals helps us strive toward that ideal life and state of being. He also stressed the importance of keeping to traditions and not allowing “modernity” to make us arrogantly dismiss the ways of our grandfathers and ancestors, just because “we know better”. Needless to say, another spirited discussion ensued.

Prof. Woodward addressed two topics somewhat briefly (talks were 20-30 minutes long): a) what is “post-modernism”, and what principles in it are methodologically productive; b) how does one keep to highest levels of objectivity when studying a social “phenomenon” to which one relates (being from that culture, believing in those dogmas or practices, etc.).

And last but not least, the most unorthodox talk (to a modern mindset) was given by Prof. Putra, a talk he titled “Prophetic Paradigm”. In it, he fused elements of the islamization of knowledge/science program, the Nasrian worldview of “unity” (of knowledge, cosmos, being, etc.), and some local (Javanese/mystic/Sufi, I was told) philosophy. He insisted that “intuition” and mystical inner capabilities, combined with the information that one can extract from scriptures, can lead to knowledge that “science” is incapable of reaching. He presented a proposal on how all that can be integrated in this new “paradigm”, though he admitted that these are merely ideas, and that more specific approaches and applications need to be produced by researchers. Another spirited discussion ensued.

I was quite impressed by the energetic participation of the students. It is true that most of them were graduate students, but the conference was conducted in English, a language they do not fully master, and they were dealing with professors from highly respectable foreign universities, most of whom have published numerous works. Yet the students were not passive at all; they were always polite and grateful for all the discussions, asking to take pictures with the speakers and whatnot, but they were not afraid to voice their opinions and ask pointed questions.

I was also happy to see how the format of the conference (with relatively few speakers) made ample space for discussion, which greatly benefited the students. Most importantly, the discussions focused strongly on methodological issues, which I believe is the crux of the matter in all those debates, and the students were made very fully aware of this aspect.

I wish the CRCS and the ICRS continued success in their programs, and I look forward to more such “encounters” and debates.

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