A well-known historian and philosopher of science, Pierre Duhem reflects the typical Eurocentric attitude: “There is no Arabian science. The wise men of Mohammedanism were … faithful disciples of the Greeks, [and] … destitute of all originality.” It is amazing how prejudice can blind historians to the vast original Islamic contributions to mathematics, medicine, chemistry, optics, astronomy, as well as a wide range of technological developments. In contrast, Briffault, in The Making of Humanity, writes “The experimental method of Arabs was, by Bacon’s time, widespread … throughout Europe. Science is the most momentous contribution of Arab civilisation to the modern world.” Our focus in this op-ed is not on the injustice, but on the misunderstanding of science that results partly from minimising Muslim contributions.
By a strange paradox, while the accomplishments of modern science are bright as the sun, philosophical attempts to understand the nature of science and the scientific method remind us of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. Different schools of thought contend with each other, and each school has a fragment of the truth, but there is no coherent overall picture, and massive confusion prevails. Pre-Islamic Greek science was based on axioms and logic, much like Euclid’s geometry. The radical innovation of the Muslims was to drop axioms, deductive logic and thought experiments, and base science directly on observations and real experiments. Euro-centric accounts omit this chain of transmission of knowledge — an internet biography states: “Bacon took up Aristotelian ideas, arguing for an empirical, inductive approach, known as the scientific method, which is the foundation of modern scientific inquiry.”
In fact, most propositions of Greek science were later proven to be false. Bacon actually opposed Aristotelian ideas, arguing strongly in favour of the observations and experimentation that were part of Islamic science. However, Bacon missed the crucial importance of the formulation and testing of hypotheses, which is a core scientific activity. In early 20th century, the logical positivists added to the Baconian mistake by asserting that facts and observations were enough by themselves; there was no need of hypotheses. Both Bacon and the Positivists missed a vital component of scientific activity. Science is founded on careful observations, but reaches beyond them to arrive at the hidden reality which drives the observations. The proverbial apple of Newton provides a perfect illustration of this aspect of science. Science involves going beyond the falling apple to see the invisible force of gravity, which was responsible for this fall. Centuries before Copernicus, Abu Raihan al-Biruni hypothesised that the earth goes around the sun and used precise geographical measurements to deduce the existence of an unobserved continent, later discovered by Columbus.
What makes science interesting and exciting is that reasoning about the invisible reality is always fraught with danger since one can never confirm this reasoning by direct observation. Karl Popper picked up on this aspect of scientific theories, that they can never be proven true since they deal with unobservable structures. Popper came to the mistaken conclusion that the defining characteristic of scientific theories is that empirical evidence can falsify or disprove, them, but they are impossible to prove. Thomas Kuhn studied the history of science and realised that it proceeds by revolutions. One dominant hypothesis is often rejected and replaced by another entirely different hypothesis about the hidden structure of reality. However, the Kuhnian picture of science created many unresolved puzzles which continue to vex philosophers of science.
Major confusions about the nature of scientific methodology led economists to mistake the Greek axiomatic and logical methodology for science in early 20th century. Modern economic theories of consumers, firms and equilibria are based entirely on axioms, logic and thought experiments, which often directly contradict observations of real world consumers, firms or markets. In effect, economists rejected in toto Islamic contributions and went back to their Greek ancestors. Just as the Greeks were singularly unsuccessful in understanding nature, so economists have been singularly unsuccessful in studying economic systems. It was not prejudice against Islam that led economists to reject science in favour of Greek methodology; the substantially more complex reasons will be discussed in later columns.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 16th, 2016.
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