The scientist, best selling author and prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins, has courted controversy over a tweet he posted a few days ago saying:
All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.
Muslim scientists did do great things in the Middle Ages, and rather than get all defensive about the present sorry condition of Muslim civilisation, let’s try instead to address Dawkins’ main point: why is it that the high points of Muslim civilisation were so many hundreds of years ago? Has there been something preventing Muslim civilisation from excelling in science?
I have read a number of Dawkins’ books over the past fifteen years since I first came across Unweaving the Rainbow. I have derived a lot of joy from his books so I think it is worthwhile addressing his substantive point rather than getting sidetracked with other issues.
A couple of months ago, I posted a short extract from David Deutsch’s superb book, The Beginning of Infinity, in which he argued that a prerequisite for sustained knowledge growth is fallibilism – the recognition that even our best current explanations may contain misconceptions in addition to truth.
Here is another extract from Deutsch’s book in which he ponders the question why science has been so successful at helping us understand the world around us. I think it also helps shed some light on what may perhaps be holding Muslim civilisation back – and consequently, what needs to be done to get it back on track.
For thousands of generations, our ancestors looked up at the night sky and wondered what stars are – what they are made of, what makes them shine, what their relationship is with each other and with us – which was exactly the right thing to wonder about. And they were using eyes and brains anatomically indistinguishable from those of modern astronomers. But they discovered nothing about it. Much the same was true in every other field of knowledge. It was not for lack of trying, nor for lack of thinking. People observed the world. They tried to understand it – but almost entirely in vain…
This was the situation from our species’ earliest prehistory, through the dawn of civilisation, and through its imperceptibly slow increase in sophistication – with many reverses – until a few centuries ago. Then a powerful new mode of discovery and explanation emerged, which later became known as science. Its emergence is known as the scientific revolution, because it succeeded almost immediately in creating knowledge at a noticeable rate, which has increased ever since.
What had changed? What made science effective at understanding the physical world when all previous ways had failed? What were people now doing, for the first time, that made the difference?…
The scientific revolution was part of a wider intellectual revolution, the Enlightenment, which also brought progress in other fields, especially moral and political philosophy, and in the institutions of society…One thing all conceptions of the Enlightenment agree on is that it was a rebellion, and specifically a rebellion against authority in regard to knowledge.
Rejecting authority in regard to knowledge was not just a matter of abstract analysis. It was a necessary condition for progress, because, before the Enlightenment, it was generally believed that everything important that was knowable had already been discovered, and was enshrined in authoritative sources such as ancient writings and traditional assumptions. Some of those sources did contain some genuine knowledge, but it was entrenched in the form of dogma along with many falsehoods. So the situation was that all the sources from which it was generally believed knowledge came actually knew very little, and were mistaken about most of the things that they claimed to know. And therefore progress depended on learning to reject their authority. This is why the Royal Society (one of the earliest scientific academies, founded in London in 1660) took as its motto ‘Nullius in verba’, which means something like ‘Take no one’s word for it.’
However, rebellion against authority cannot by itself be what made the difference. Authorities have been rejected many times in history, and only rarely has any lasting good come of it. The usual sequel has merely been that new authorities replaced the old. What was needed for the sustained, rapid growth of knowledge was a tradition of criticism. Before the Enlightenment, that was a very rare sort of tradition: usually the whole point of a tradition was to keep things the same.
Thus the Enlightenment was a revolution in how people sought knowledge: by trying not to rely on authority…
Do read the entire book if you have the opportunity.