Science vs Belief


nq160530Science within the early Islamic world flourished, and in many respects did not simply rival what was happening elsewhere, but it some aspects surpassed it, and yet today right across the Islamic sphere of influence superstition and ignorance generally prevails.

What happened, what went wrong, and are there lessons we can perhaps learn from that decline?

It is true that belief does often drive the scientific endeavour, for example the utterly bizarre Islamic inheritance laws within the Quran did indeed inspire the development of algebra, and the need to work out which way to face when it was time to pray drove developments in astronomy, geography, spherical geometry and spherical trigonometry. In the end however, belief was to prove itself to be the ultimate suppressor.

Between the 8th and 16th centuries the scientific endeavour did thrive, but with the rise of clerical factions that all came to an end. There is one specific event that perhaps serves to illustrates this.

Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe had an amazing observatory that opened the eyes of humanity to the universe above, but his observatory was not the only one. Over in Istanbul Taqi al-Din had setup a similar Istanbul observatory that had both equipment and also staff that were very much on par with Brahe’s observatory, and yet we have heard about Tyco Brahe and know nothing about Taqi al-Din. This is because the Chief Mufti recommended to the sultan that this was not Islamic, so it was all demolished by a squad of Janissaries, by order of the sultan sometime after 1577.

Science is commonly believed to be a body of knowledge, but it is of course a methodology that is used to acquire knowledge. It is reliable, dependable and open to modification when new information come along, and is generally objective and eliminates human bias. This is often a truly frightening concept for the religious methodology that is a complete contrast, it is closed to any modification and declares things to be true on the basis of no evidence at all, and even when faced with a reality that conflicts it will still resist and dig in.

When science is permitted to prevail, then we learn new facts and gain a better understanding. However, if belief is permitted to trump science, then we end up with knowledge that is simply wrong. None of this is a historical aberration, for today we find that it manifests itself within some as a complete denial of climate change, a sincere belief that despite mountains of evidence that not just planet earth but the entire universe is only 6,000 years old. Most who are religious are not inclined to embrace such a stance, and there rests hope for a better world. However, those who are, have done so for religious reasons, and so have in effect embraced their very own personal age of darkness and ignorance.

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