Task Force Essay: Meeting Muslims Meeting Science

November 11th, 2015 | by MuslimScience

by Willem B. Drees

Dean, Tilburg School of Humanities
Tilburg University, Tilburg
The Netherlands

Let me begin with a word of gratitude, for the members of the Taskforce on “Islam and Science – The Big Questions” and their work. As an external advisor I had the pleasure to meet a group of highly intelligent, informed and committed people, to attend their discussions and read their papers, and thus to learn from these colleagues. In the remainder of this contribution, I will offer my perspective on some of the basic issues in reflections on a particular religious tradition, such as Islam, and the natural sciences.

1 Natural Sciences, Technology and Languages: Diversity and Convergence

1.1 Science: Global

Scientists are humans. They come from different countries, speak various languages, and do not agree on politics or religion. Despite such differences, mathematicians and natural scientists have come to share knowledge about reality that is accepted by colleagues across all that divides humans from each other. Insights are accepted as genuine knowledge about the way the world is, and how the world came to be the way it is, its natural history. By profession scientists disagree when it comes to the way forward in current research. They try multiple avenues, and propose different models and hypotheses. At the same time, they tend to agree on consolidated science. The Periodic Table describing the elements in chemistry, from Hydrogen and Helium onwards, is the same across the world. And, as a thought experiment, if we would ever learn of the ideas of extraterrestrial scientists, I would expect that their notation would be wildly different, but that they would have come up with the same notions, for materials at that level of description and under those conditions. Natural scientists do not agree by convention; on the basis of experiments, observations and calculations they come to agree that this is the most accurate description of reality, at that level of description. Fallible humans seem to have come to knowledge that is certain and objective to a remarkable degree, even though all such knowledge remains revisable and conditional – perhaps bounded in ways we have not yet realized.

Given the practice of the natural sciences, I am deeply convinced that one has to recognize “the international and universal nature of modern, collaborative science”, which is called in this report ‘universal science’ (section 4.1.1, position iii), and take that as one’s point of departure.

1.2 Technologies: Globalization varies by Context

Some other human products are fairly global as well. Examples are Röntgen diagnostics and smart phones. Such technologies are rooted in shared science, but also fulfill needs we all have as humans – for better and for worse. And if we do not feel those needs, global marketing and media will help evoke them. Alongside intrinsic value, commercial interests drive globalization. In this context, considerations of ethics and policy have to be raised. Which technologies will be used, in what ways, and who has access, and who will profit or suffer? Those questions are context-specific, and therefore the situation is different from the perspective on the development of science given above.

Given the variety of social contexts in which science and science-based technologies are used, abused, or unavailable, I have sympathy for the approach dubbed ‘ethical science’ in this report (4.1.1, position ii). I accept this as a major call to pay attention to social effects and conditions. But alongside the reflection on technology and society, one cannot deny the need for engagement with the remarkable, almost universal, type of knowledge that science has become. In the taskforce, Farid Panjwani argued strongly for a combination of autonomy for science, methodologically, combined with a religiously inspired engagement with issues of ethics, justice and meaning (see 4.1.6).

1.3 Languages: Cultures are Specific; Globalization as Dominance

Widespread is also English, not as the highbrow English of Oxford or Cambridge, but as a second language for many, a tool for imperfect but fairly efficient communication on this planet. That is why this report is in English – the language allows it to be shared with colleagues from many different countries. There is a genuine difference between English as a global language and the natural sciences as shared knowledge, or even modern medical diagnostic tools: We could easily imagine that we would have had a different global language. In Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, French seemed destined to have the highest cultural and intellectual status. Early in the twentieth century, the most important developments in physics were published in German. Longer ago, Latin was the common language of scholarship around the Mediterranean and in Europe. Chinese or Arabic have had their share as medium of creativity and scholarship, in the past and present, and may well become more significant in decades or centuries to come.

Linguistic diversity may remind one of forms of diversity that touch more deeply upon culture and personal existence. Such an orientation seems to me reflected in the approach called above ‘Sacred science’ (4.1.1., i). On the basis of deep understanding of a particular theological and mystical tradition, one might prefer to see the world in that light. As long as one does this as a private exercise, there might not be any reason for concern. However, if this is presented as a way to related to the natural sciences, it seems to me to miss the point. The natural sciences have been successful, absorbing and transforming insights from many cultures, by being irreverent to those sources – not necessarily in an aggressive sense, but in a methodological sense. Thus, ‘sacred science’ seems to me not to engage the natural sciences as they are, but rather relate one’s tradition to a selected practice that is dubbed science, but is not at all part of the practices recognized in the global scientific communities.

What does these varieties of globalization, with convergence intrinsic to the natural sciences and determined by historical developments and thus more contingent convergence in cultural phenomena such as languages, demand of us when we reflect on religion and on religion and science?

2. Religions with universal ambitions: Multiple strategies

Religious traditions are diverse, just like languages. Though one may well be ‘at home’ in the practices and texts of one particular way of life and worship, just as one is ‘at home’ in one’s own language, any sensible person has to admit that others speak differently, and draw on other texts and ways of worship. And those people who speak differently and to some extent live differently, are humans too – we all have similar bodies, similar needs, hopes and fears, and seem to be as likely to be mistaken or misled.

That languages are multiple, may be easy to accept. That religious views differ, across traditions and within traditions, is harder to accept. Why would it be more difficult? The answer may be in the nature of religious belief, which is not just a tool in life (like language), as it also tends to be a claim about reality. ‘God created the heaven and the earth, each of us and everything.’ Such a confessional statement may express awe for the Creator, but it also sounds like a description that aims to be universal, just as scientific claims. In my opinion, this triggers various ‘programs’ in religion and science.

2.1 Natural theologies: scientific support for religious belief?

This element of similarity seems to me to have driven the desire to think about religious beliefs along the same lines as scientific knowledge. Such a desire for a science-like approach to religion has driven the natural theologies that were common in Europe in the 17th, 18th and 19th century; patterns of reasoning that are widespread today as well. Arguments about fine-tuning (the universe seems designed for life, and especially for such nice and smart forms of life as we are) or about interventions in developmental or evolutionary process to create organisms that are ‘designed’ to function may well tie science to a particular theistic view. As we see in this volume, the discussion is not exclusive to Western Christianity, but also shared by Muslims.

However, many would say that science does not reach that far. It involves the natural sciences in a metaphysical agenda. Perhaps we should take the consensus in the sciences more seriously, as a consensus that arose by putting aside all metaphysical, religious and political disagreements, and limiting scientific work to that which can be done in laboratories, astronomical observatories, and mathematical modelling. ‘Methodological naturalism’, as an option discussed in the Task Force (see above, 4.2.3), is a view that takes this self-limitation of the scientific discussion very serious – not interfering with science on religious grounds, but neither expecting science to solve fundamental religious issues. Of course, more immediate ‘inner-worldly issues’, such as the beginning of the new moon, may well be topic of scientific research, while relevant to believers.

2.2 The open ended character of science

If we were to treat religious views not as consolidated science, but as research programs, we might live more easily and comfortably with the diversity of religious views, and the diversity of interpretations within religious communities. We are speaking of issues that so far transcend human existence, that the idea that we ever would know for sure, might be hubris, arrogance. Among the three monotheistic traditions, there has been a shared strand of modesty, sometimes called ‘negative theology’. We are familiar with finite things, including ourselves – but God is not-finite, infinite. God is always greater than we can think. Not as a claim that can be used to come to a conclusion, but as an acknowledgment that our explorations are always open-ended, may well be corrected, and fall short of the full, ultimate understanding that is not given to us humans.

If so, as a religious orientation shared by sensitive believers among the three religions ‘of the book’ as well as by many others, a dispute with science might arise when some scientists (or popularizers of science) claim that they are approximating the final answer. That may seem offensive, not only when the answer does not include the Creator, but also when the answer were to include the Creator – offensive is the suggestion that we could reach that far. Thus, as one might expect, there is also among the colleagues in this taskforce an engagement with recent atheistic arguments that present themselves as based upon science (section 4.2).

2.3 Education and interpretation

Attractive though an agnostic strategy may be, we cannot avoid engaging the best available knowledge. What do we mean by speaking of God as Creator?

How do we think of the epistemic, metaphysical and normative claims typically made in our tradition? In my opinion, there is no easy approach, for all circumstances. Emphasizing the existential and personal side, withdrawing from the global, and with that from the scientific view of the universe, is radical and perhaps wise (philosophers may think of Ludwig Wittgenstein). But in the process of separating what can be dealt with scientifically, and what is tenable and what a fair approximation, we have to engage scientific insights of our time.

One area is the engagement with evolution, and the development of a theologically or existentially adequate interpretation of human existence and human nature, given that we have evolved as contemporary biology informs us. It is clear that especially the acceptance of evolution, and the willingness to develop our ideas against this background, is not universal, not in Western countries nor in Muslim majority countries (see 4.4.2). Members of this Taskforce contribute to this much needed project of education and reflection, and rightly see important ‘future steps’ in this direction (at the end of 4.4.2).

One more element that I would like to highlight, was the sense of the community that needs to be involved, and especially the need for collaboration of religious and legal scholars and of scientists, in a process of collective ijtihad, as it was labelled by Mohammed Ghaly (see 4.6 above). Especially when we have to deal with real life issues which involve science as well as our ethical, social and existential orientation, for instance in the medical sphere, we cannot avoid the discussion among well-informed Muslims, engaged in nuanced reflections and respectful dialogue. Sitting at the table with the colleagues of this Taskforce, hearing some of that reflective dialogue in practice, was a privilege and a joy.


Willem B. Drees

Editor of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science and dean of the Tilburg School of Humanities, Tilburg University, the Netherlands. For a more extensive articulation of his views, see Willem B. Drees, Religion and Science in Context: A Guide to the Debates (London: Routledge, 2010).

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