When I was younger I used to read a lot about the past glories of Islamic civilisation. It was thrilling to know that Muslims once led the world in learning, that Muslims were once engaged in a systematic endeavour to translate influential books from other cultures into Arabic and to absorb and pass on that learning to others.
It was eye-opening to learn that at a time when the largest library in France held 700 books, the library in Muslim Cordoba contained over a half a million books.
However, that thrill and excitement would always be heavily tinged with sadness at the present state of the Muslim world. No one can point at the Muslim world today as being leaders in very much at all really. And this has been the case for a number of centuries now.
Why has Europe and the West generally been able to make such sustained progress in science and technology (and much else besides) for well over four hundred years now? And why is most of the Muslim world still showing little sign of being able to do the same?
Ironically, when Muslim civilisation was at its height, Europe was still stuck in what historians refer to as the Dark Ages: a period following the collapse of the Roman Empire covering approximately the 6th to the 13th centuries. Could it be that the most of the Muslim world is stuck in its own version of the Dark Ages? If so, is there anything to be learnt from the West’s incredible progress in recent centuries?
A few months ago I purchased a book called ‘The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform The World’ by the award-winning theoretical physicist David Deutsch. Deutsch examines what has driven improvements in the West in everything from our scientific understanding to our politics and moral values.
Deutsch covers a huge amount of ground so it will probably take me several posts to do his ideas any semblance of justice.
One pre-condition for sustained knowledge growth, according to Deutsch, is what he refers to as Fallibilism. In his own words:
“…the recognition that there are no authoritative sources of knowledge, nor any reliable means of justifying ideas as being true or probable – is called fallibilism. To believers in the justified-true-belief theory of knowledge, this recognition is the occasion for despair or cynicism, because to them it means that knowledge is unattainable. But to those of us from whom creating knowledge means understanding better what is really there, and how it really behaves and why, fallibilism is part of the very means by which this is achieved. Fallibilists expect even their best and most fundamental explanations to contain misconceptions in addition to truth, and so they are predisposed to try and change them for the better. In contrast, the logic of justificationism is to seek (and typically, to believe that one has found) ways of securing ideas against change. Moreover, the logic of fallibilism is that one not only seeks to correct the misconceptions of the past, but hopes in the future to find and change mistaken ideas that no one today questions or finds problematic. So it is fallibilism, not mere rejection of authority, that is essential for the initiation of unlimited knowledge growth – the beginning of infinity.” (p9)
To be continued…