July 25, 2015

The following is an enlightening article by Harvard student Br. Daniel Haqiqatjou which debunks the highly prevalent notion in our society that “science = truth” which he dubs the Science Success Question (or SSQ). An extremely well-articulated response to those who reject Allah's description of the creation of Adam . The article, which has been published in Ascent Magazine, an Islamic magazine published by students from Harvard and MIT, reappears here with permission from the author. Enjoy- Ahmad Al Farsi


Imagine throwing a die. Regardless of your belief in God or the lack thereof, you will agree that if a die is thrown, there is a one in six chance the number three will face up. The belief in God or the lack thereof does not add or subtract anything from the description of this phenomenon. Sure, the atheist will attribute the three to something like “randomness” and the theist will attribute it to the will of God. But in the end, both the theist and atheist have the same physical description of a throw of the die.

The situation is much the same for the scientific description of other physical phenomena, including the theory of evolution. There is nothing inherent to the Darwinian theory of evolution or its derivatives that precludes the existence of a creator, nor is there anything that demands one. Any “randomness” or “chance circumstance” involved at any point of the evolutionary process is no more or less a proof against the existence of God than the randomness involved in any physical process, like the throwing of dice. The eminent evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, coined the expression non-overlapping magisteria to denote the inability of the scientific process to confirm or refute anything of the metaphysics of religion as well as the impotence of religion to interfere with the realm of science. This is as much a descriptive notion as it is a prescriptive one: religion and science should remain constrained to their respective domains.

This conceptualization is undoubtedly comforting to those scientists who consider themselves religious as well as to believers who consider themselves scientifically inclined. But is the situation as neat and clean as it seems? One indication that it is not is the fact that often both religionists and scientists claim their respective Weltanschauungs to be the sole foundation upon which Truth is built, a foundation undivided by ad hoc magisteria.

And indeed, the division between scientific knowledge and other types of knowledge is not as clear-cut as our materialist cultural ethos might have us convinced. In the philosophy of science, this is called the Demarcation Problem. What is it that distinguishes a scientific theory from religion, metaphysics, or sheer myth? Is science free from cultural bias, ideology, and provinciality? Is science truly objective and universal?

It is that materialist within all of us in the modern world that reacts to these questions with, “Of course science is objective and beyond cultural biases, unlike something as subjective as religion! How else can you explain the widespread success of science and technology?”

This question, which I will refer to as the Success of Science Question (SSQ), is more of an indication of our deeply ingrained pre-commitments than a rational defense of the objectivity of scientific thought. It should be apparent that the question itself is subjective: who or what determines “success”? If we, as a civilization, place material and material pursuits in a position of primacy by which all else is appraised, then naturally a system of thought and methodology that serves those values will be seen as the vanguard, whereas other systems of thought that serve those distinctly immaterial domains of human life, like religion, are given less weight.

But the SSQ is meant to be more philosophically penetrating than that. Stated more potently, the question asks: “How can science not be tied to an objective, physical reality when its methodologies allow us to manipulate and predict the world around us so decidedly?” In other words, there is a presumed correlation between those scientific hypotheses and what physically happens in the world, which implies that science has some basis in an objective, non-provincial reality.

It is easy to respond to this claim by appeal to the history of science. In virtually every period of human civilization, models of the universe have been proposed, developed, dogmatically adhered to, and eventually displaced. Ptolemy, for example, proposed his geocentric cosmology to account for the volumes of empirical data on the night sky. The model provided an empirically accurate description of the motions of celestial bodies, which then advanced the navigational methods of seafarers as well as the “predictive
powers” of astrologers. In these material terms, his model was very successful, though we know today that his model had little to do with reality. What makes us think that our current theories are any closer to reality than Ptolemy's? What makes us think that we are
not the Ptolemys of tomorrow?

By reflecting on and studying other prominent examples in the history of science, we see that scientific thought has by no means developed through some consistent, methodological process over the centuries as the SSQ seems to imply. If anything, the development of scientific thought has been a long, bumpy, twisted road where no one anywhere on it has been able to predict what lies beyond the next bend. Who could have imagined the development and success of ideas like heliocentricity, laws of motion, Maxwell's equations, relativity, the quantum, or superstrings? If science is tied to what we intuit is a regular, patterned objective reality, how can scientific development be so utterly non-linear?

Beyond history, the SSQ suffers from a more serious problem. It should be noted that scientific practice itself is a process of the constant reformulation of failed hypotheses. This is a significant aspect of science we cannot ignore, as it has vast implications for the SSQ. Let us take a closer look at the SSQ. Again, it asks us to explain how science can not be tied to an objective reality when its methodologies allow us to predict and manipulate the world around us. Now, when we take into account the fact that in actual scientific practice, theories and methodologies are constantly being tweaked and reformulated in order to account for and be congruent with what we observe around us, we realize that something has gone conceptually awry.

To make matters clear, let me ask the following question: What is good science? Undoubtedly, a good scientific theory is one that accounts for all known and relevant empirical data. If a theory does not account for known data, it is effectively discounted as a possible description of reality (and is at most considered a useful approximation). For most of scientific practice, however, this is not exactly what happens. In practice, most theories are not completely discarded when contrary empirical evidence is discovered. Much more often, they are modified and tweaked in such a way as to remain congruent with the data. This process of reformulation and tweaking is the principal modus operandi between the hypothesizing scientist and the world around him.

How is this problematic for the SSQ? Well, the SSQ implies that science is successful because it facilitates the accurate prediction and manipulation of the physical world. But, from the above discussion of scientific practice we see that science is defined as that which corresponds to what we consider the accurate prediction and manipulation of the physical world. So the SSQ is posed in terms that are viciously circular. If we define good scientific theory and methodology as that which corresponds to what we consider accurate prediction, then science is successful (i.e., congruent with prediction) by definition.

And as if this were not enough to make us seriously doubt the logical grounding of the SSQ and its implications, we realize that science is not the only system of thought whose development is moderated by the check of empirical adequacy. Many world religions of the past and present are moderated by what people observe. In fact, that is exactly the argument used to discredit certain religions and mythologies (ironically, by those who seem not to realize that science itself falls prey to the same objections). It seems obvious to many that religion and mythology are simply the attempts of un-scientific, irrational people to explain physical phenomena such as the rising of the sun, or pregnancy, or the seasons.

For example, let us say there is a “primitive” society somewhere in the “uncivilized” world whose people have developed a complex mythology to describe the motions of the stars, sun, and moon. The mythologies themselves consist of stories about gods and goddesses who interact with each other in specific and idiosyncratic ways, and these relationships result in the observed motions of the celestial bodies. One day, the people of this society witness for the first time a solar eclipse. This is a shocking observation (or finding). The priestly class scrambles for some way to account for this bizarre and unsettling event (i.e., discovery). Their project is to create (i.e., formulate) a mythological account (i.e., theory) of the solar eclipse that accounts for the eclipse (i.e., is empirically adequate) and is, for the most part, harmonious with the established mythological accounts of the past and present (i.e., is a reformulated and tweaked version of past accounts). How is this project qualitatively different from any scientific project of the past or present? Now the following may sound shocking, even brazen, and perhaps the reader might think I am being overly dramatic. But I simply ask the reader to consider the following question in light of my description of said primitive society: How exactly is, say, the strange and top quark different from Zeus and Artemis?

All this begins to indicate that science is not a uniform body of objective thought and practice mechanically marching forward through time, though again, our materialist commitments scream to us to believe otherwise. In actuality, scientific thought, like any other system of thought including religion, metaphysics, and myth, has developed sporadically and regionally, with scientists continuously influenced by environmental, ideological, and societal factors, guided by supra-rational intuition and reliance on obsolete yet lingering theories of yesteryear as much as anything else. Removing the veil, we find the parable of science the parable of a blindfolded man stumbling through the darkness, his understanding of and interaction with the vast universe based merely on the last block upon which he happened to stumble.

This discussion is not meant to say that science is not useful, even immensely so. And it is assuredly not to say that religion, myth, and science are all epistemically by default on the same level of truth or untruth; I am a committed Muslim, after all. It is only meant to challenge the authoritarian grip science maintains over our notions of objectivity, rationality, and ultimate Truth. In the debate on evolution versus creation, the playing field will be fundamentally uneven and unfair unless this authority is intellectually critiqued. Assumptions which merely beg the question in favor of scientific materialism prevent the discussion from even getting off to a profitable start.

And so where does that leave us in the debate on religious creationism and evolution? Well, it depends on your religion. For the Muslim, the Qur'an is the transcendental Word of God. And Adam (peace upon him)—a speaking, thinking human being—is documented therein as the first of humankind. Similar to the situation in Christianity and Judaism, only a non-literal interpretation of this Adam mentioned by God can be reconciled with Darwinian macroevolution, and for most Muslims true to this aspect of their tradition, such allegorization is not an intellectually or spiritually robust option. Gould's non-overlapping magisteria has no potency against such readings. And so, what's left for the scientifically inclined modern Muslim, or theist in general?

Well for starters, he or she can feel confident in mentally nudging science off its high horse with its claims to epistemic superior it over all other systems of thought, as I have begun to do in this short essay. Intellectually, that should be enough to dissolve the conflict between traditional religious interpretation and science. For those theists or atheists who, for whatever reason, are not convinced by what I have described of science and prefer to maintain their faith in materialism, I propose the following weaker, yet sufficient, argument in support of traditional religious interpretations.

Imagine a day when there comes along a brilliant scientist who hypothesizes a remarkable theory on the origin of species that puts Darwin on his head: a theory that says that certain chemical and physical processes, under the right conditions, can spontaneously lead to the formation of highly complex organisms. The conditions are impossible to recreate in the lab, but nevertheless, through this theory, it is possible that organisms as complex as humans came about literally out of thin air. Of course, such a theory if verified would not be a “proof of God,” but it would be a strong indication that God's description of things may not be as outlandish and in need of figurative interpretation as some of us may think.

Does this daydream sound far-fetched? Well, this is exactly the conceptual situation with the theory of the Big Bang. Modern cosmology asks us to believe that the entire universe, with all its complexities and all its many physical laws and constants in outrageously perfect harmony, literally came out of nothing. Bang! and it was all set. Whether theist or atheist, how can one be so confident in this account of the formation of the entire universe but have utmost skepticism for a considerably less fantastic account of the formation of Homo sapiens or any other species? Is man more complex than the entire universe? Ironically, only someone with an egocentricity characteristic of the belief that man is the center of the universe and that all revolves around him would be inclined to answer this question in the affirmative.



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