Thursday, May 3, 2012

We need everybody in on this

Another interesting talk at the Madison Freethought Festival 2012 was by Sean Faircloth. He is currently working with The Richard DawkinsFoundation for Reason and Science. Not surprisingly, he talked about science and said we should know our scientific heroes. He showed a slide of Francis Bacon, sometimes credited with sparking the rise of science in Europe. I talked to him about also including a Muslim scientist, for reasons I will explain in my follow-up email to him, included below.

In one of the museums I visited in my recent trip to Ireland, there was a timeline of our advances in science, going back to our use of fire or some such primitive beginning. What was unusual about this timeline is that it included Ibn Al-Rushd. Most timelines include Aristotle and other Greeks then leave a big gap. They might say something about their works being lost in the East for a while. The next thing that happens is Western Europe conquers Moorish Spain and the Greek works are suddenly found! Although unconfirmed, those works may have been lost for up to a century, and certainly the direct line of their teachings and even language was lost, but they were not just put in cold storage in Baghdad.

My letter to Sean:

I’m following up on our brief conversation about the heroes of early science that we had after your talk at the Madison WI Freethought Festival. You mentioned Francis Bacon and I suggested you also include a Muslim. This is not just a token nod to Islam but an important part of the history of how Europeans dealt with the scientific revolution in its early stages. Our ignorance of this history is directly related to the misunderstandings we are experiencing in the science vs. religion debate today.

If I had to pick one Islamic scientist to represent the rest, it would be Ibn Al-Haytham who wrote the Book of Optics in 1039 CE. This book is considered by many to be the first work to involve modern scientific methods like peer review, laboratory experimentation and documentation. Also important is the climate in which it came about. Al-Haytham is quoted as saying, "Truth is sought for its own sake. And those who are engaged upon the quest for anything for its own sake are not interested in other things. Finding the truth is difficult, and the road to it is rough” in his critique of Ptolemy, demonstrating the new idea of doubting the ancient texts handed down to them from the Greeks.

The culture that encouraged this line of thinking included “The House of Wisdom” started by the Caliph al-Hakim. Reading was encouraged by anyone from any race or stature and books were collected from all over the known world. There were religious reasons and motivations for this, but there were few religious restrictions on what could be explored. Much of the knowledge that was accumulated was passed on to the European scientists that we all know. Here is a quick list of some of that

This came to an end in the mid 13th century when the Mongols invaded from the East, destroying much of the works in Baghdad, and the Europeans took back Spain. Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus) was already declining from within so exactly who destroyed information and how much of it was transferred to Europeans is not entirely clear to me. There is evidence that a very different attitude was taking hold and there was some fear of all this knowledge flooding in as indicated by the prohibition of philosophical and theological theses in the Condemnation of 1277 by the Bishop of Paris.

Although the ideas of copyrighting and citing sources were not yet known, it is not hard to imagine that hiding a connection of knowledge to an empire that had just been conquered was deliberate. Especially by an empire that had control of the education system and was under threat by internal and external forces. It was also just bad luck that Arabic was difficult to use in a printing press. Even if it was not deliberate, the result has been that it is the Renaissance in the West that has been credited with the rise of science when in truth it was a combined effort of the cultures of the three major monotheisms with significant input from the Far East.

Support from government, open minded attitudes, encouragement of learning for everyone and a spirit of cooperation started the scientific revolution. War, power struggles, hoarding of information and claims of cultural superiority have worked against it. These forces continue to be at odds today. Hopefully we can learn from the past.

Thanks for your time and work.

P.S. I’m still searching for good scholarly documentation of the above. There are plenty of web links but the books I have found tend to have religious agendas. There is no thesis here that God or Allah encouraged science, only that cultures who worshipped those gods can also be cultures that encourage science. This BBC documentary, by physicist Jim Al-Khalili does the best job of connecting the dots that I have found. 

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