Task Force Essay: Reflections on Task Force Contributions

February 11th, 2016 | by MuslimScience

By Philip Clayton

Ingraham Professor of Theology,
Claremont School of Theology,
United States

You will already recognize the difficulty for me as a non-Muslim in responding to your papers. Clearly I cannot stand in judgment on your reflections, for where would I stand to do so? Many of the differences between your positions involve intra- Islamic disagreements; what can I add that would be helpful?

For this reason, I have decided to write of my perceptions of your papers but not to play the role of judge or evaluator. I respond as a person of faith, a believer in God, who has spent much of the last 30 years studying religious responses to science and the implications that follow when people take one position or another on these matters. Over the years I have listened deeply to my Muslim friends and colleagues, learning much from their contributions. After all we are members of the same family of Abraham.

Where my listening is helpful, I am happy. Where I have misunderstood or failed to understand, I hope you will forgive me.

  1. M.B. Altaie, “Has Science Killed the Belief in God?”

It was my pleasure to read the paper by Prof. Altaie first. As it turned out, that is also the natural order in which to read the papers; if they are published as a book, this could well be the first chapter in the volume.

Altaie’s paper lays out the background for many of the other papers in this collection. By the third paragraph he has introduced the helpful definition from Prof. Keith Ward of Oxford: “God is a non-physical being of consciousness and intelligence or wisdom, who creates the universe for the sake of distinctive values that the universe generates.” By the end of the opening section we realize that whether God and science are compatible depends on what notion of God, and what understanding of science, you accept. (I found the mathematical examples here particularly helpful.)

Dr. Altaie’s historical survey traces how both scientists and religious people chose interpretations that set the two at odds with each other. From that we recognize that interpretations of natural laws (and their implications) played a particularly important role. In classical Islamic philosophy, and in some of the medieval Christian theologians, one can find theologically rich theories of natural law. In the end, though, those are not the ones that the dominant Western thinkers chose.

The section on “modern views” shows how things have become even worse in recent years. Instead of looking for common ground, thinkers have tended to emphasize the most combative stances. Altaie’s final section is likely to produce the most focused debate. He gives Keith Ward the final word: science and God don’t have to be at war unless you choose a strictly materialist interpretation of science. But in this section, as also earlier in the paper, Altaie also toys with the possibility of science-based arguments for the existence and necessity of God, quantum-physics based arguments, as well as positions that imply a strong separation and independence of God-language from science-based language. Sorting out the different positions, and assessing which ones are the strongest, will take the closest attention.

  1. Rana Dajani, “Evolution and Islam: Is there a contradiction?”

As Prof. Altaie has focused more on the field of physics, Professor Dajani takes on the question of evolution. Perhaps no area of science has raised more resistance within the Islamic world. It is a good thing that this enquiry will be included in the work of the Task Force alongside the other papers.

Prof. Dajani clearly rejects the thesis of incompatibility:

I want to highlight that the notion that evolution contradicts Islam, is a myth, and is an example of what happens when we misunderstand our religion. Islam calls for freedom to think and explore. The lack of freedom to think which comes from misunderstanding of our religion… (p. 6).

This is a programmatic statement — in a sense, a statement of the task of the entire conference. One wants to know in more detail why this misunderstanding arises and how it can be overcome. If it is a misunderstanding, as I also believe, it is without a doubt a widespread one.

The heart of Dajani’s paper lies in his ten theses. I presume that each one will be discussed intensely at the conference. In the full version of the paper, it will be important to argue and defend each thesis in some detail. We all know that the compatibilist position on evolution and God, which Dajani espouses, is a controversial one; although we hope for change, we acknowledge that today it is the minority view. (Similarly, 56% of American evangelical Christians reject the core tenets of Darwin’s basic evolutionary theory.)

  1. Mehdi Golshani, “Modern Science and Challenges to Some Islamic Theological Doctrines”

I first had the privilege of working with Mehdi Golshani some 18 years ago, in the “Science and the Spiritual Quest” program. Since that time we have been together on the podium in many different countries and have contributed articles to each other’s books.

In each encounter I have learned new things, and today’s paper is no exception. What is uniquely valuable in Prof. Golshani’s work is the combination of commitments that he brings to each study. In this paper one sees at least three of those commitments:

  • The insistence on listening carefully to science and to scientists, while always keeping Holy Qur’an before us;
  • The value of a philosophical perspective. Golshani does not place individual scientific assertions in confrontation with Qur’an; rather, he identifies the broader conceptual positions that are entailed by one or the other and then places his attention there;
  • The importance of historical perspective, which allows us see the big picture.”

Golshani’s method allows him to identify and then to make progress on the major themes. In this paper he organizes his reflections around three central questions: (1) The Problem of Life and Spirit; (2) Creation of the Universe (3) Does the universe have a purpose? Reading these topics, one is immediately aware of two things: first, these are questions that must matter deeply to Muslims; and second, these are questions that science as such does not directly answer. The origins of the universe, yes — at least insofar as they can be empirically reconstructed and described by testable equations — but not the creation of the universe. Similarly, scientists can talk about the functional purposes of specific adaptations in animals, but not about the purpose of the universe as such. Finally, scientists are concerned with problems that living organisms have to solve, but not with “the problem” of life. And “Spirit” is not a term that any scientific explanation can appeal to.

There are many valuable insights that arise from applying this method, both in this paper and in Golshani’s other publications. Here I mention just one. Prof. Golshani’s method allows one clearly to see where atheist and materialist scientists “overreach.” Because Golshani has clearly defined this discourse as philosophical, one can clearly see that Dawkins and Friends are putting forward philosophical claims — even though they claim scientific authority for their pronouncements.

  1. Farid Panjwani, “The Science & Religion debate – Islamic perspectives & frameworks underpinning the discussion”

I introduce the paper by Prof. Panjwani here, because it seems to me that he is arguing for a similar point. The series of rhetorical questions that Dr. Panjwani raises, and his introduction of several important passages from Holy Qur’an, have the function of helping us to recognize the different use of language, the different forms of discourse, that are at work in the two cases. He writes perceptively:

Could it be that the Quran is not giving facts or a scientific theory of creation, rather its discourse may have a different socio-cultural function; in Darwin and the Quran are we not seeing a scientific and a poetic use of language, respectively? (p. 3)

Prof. Panjwani’s appeal to different “forms of life” (L. Wittgenstein) in the following section also merits further reflection; a number of significant conclusions may follow from this recognition.

The trouble is, Wittgenstein’s sharp divisions between different forms of life do not actually hold as neatly in the case of Islam and science — or, for that matter, other religions as well. One could cite many examples. But perhaps it’s unnecessary, since Panjwani himself softens his own claim:

The above may give the impression that science and religion have not much to do with each other. This impression is true only if science is understood narrowly as a method. But, this method is itself embedded in culture and connected with other parts of society both in terms of how scientific problems are formulated and how the resulting knowledge is applied. Both the production of scientific problem and the application of scientific knowledge are deeply value laden and have consequence for the worth of science and quality of life of the populace. (pp. 3-4)

That seems exactly right. In that case, however, the Wittgensteinian separation of science and Islam cannot dispel the tensions that sometimes rise between them.

Panjwani concludes with an appeal to Islam’s ethical role that is similar to the position taken by Prof. Shah (see below): “Religion has a proper and legitimate role in the discourses at both these levels. It can and ought to bring the question of ethics, justice and meaning to these matters.” Each of these three functions — ethics, justice, meaning — merits further reflection and discussion.

  1. Mohammed Ghaly, “The (Im)Possible Medicalization of ‘Breathing the Soul’ (Nafkh Al-Rūh): Contemporary Islamic Debates on the Beginning of Human Life.”

The paper by Prof. Ghaly presents a detailed case study of the issues that are dealt with more philosophically by Prof. Golshani and others. I am afraid that I am not competent to judge the specific issues that are covered in the symposium on which Prof. Ghaly reports. But I do very much endorse his final conclusion about the result: “The case of the IOMS symposium shows that exactly the opposite (viz. increasing interest in religion) can be the driving force behind medicalization” (p. 13).

The case-study approach is a good reminder of the way that the various participants in this Task Force can complement each other’s work. The philosophers and theologians are sometimes in need of more concrete case studies in order to render their work concrete. And the authors of case studies need to achieve the kind of conceptual clarity that the philosophers are 200 famous for. It’s my hope that meeting together and discussing will produce both of these improvements.

Prof. Ghaly does offer an attractive programmatic statement at the end of his article:

Thus, medicalization here is not presented as a substitute for religion but as a tool for understanding the religious tradition in a new or better way and to make it compatible with the modern reality… realized that none of them can claim exclusive authority over such sensitive issues and how they should be approached and addressed. Both groups [biomedical scientists and religious scholars] learnt that scientists cannot solve the moral questions alone and religious scholars cannot argue without the updated scientific knowledge (13).

I see three components of an important program in this passage. First, Ghaly calls for humility; no one group should claim “exclusive authority.” Second, he rightly insists on the need to recognize complementarity: “scientists cannot solve the moral questions alone,” but nor can religious scholars do their work well without “updated scientific knowledge.”

That point, finally, calls for new kinds of interdisciplinary groups within the Islamic world — and ideally at the major universities. A number of the papers in this collection make this suggestion in different forms. I hope that the organizers of this week’s conference will dedicate some time at the end to a discussion of exactly what form these groups might take. If such groups really did grow out of this consultation and become established at universities across the Muslim world, it might well be the most single important result of our work together.

  1. Nidhal Guessoum, “Islam, Science, Methodological Naturalism, Divine Action, and Miracles”

It has been almost ten years since I met Nidhal, and my respect for him has grown constantly over these years. He is the consummate diplomat — whether it is negotiating to bring about consensus, as he did in Doha in 2008 as we worked to formulate the Declaration on Islam and Science, or whether it is representing Islam in the tense discussions within the Templeton Prize Advisory Committee. This semester I am teaching his Islam’s Quantum Question and coming to more deeply recognize the many achievements of that book.

I also respect Nidhal’s courage. Many of us who represent a religious tradition can “soft-peddle” the conflicts between some traditional religious statements and some parts of science. Nidhal’s habits of mind (and of character) lead him right into the most difficult areas and the most difficult issues. Having watched what often happens with one’s co-religionists as a result, and having done the same within my own tradition for many years, I am well aware of how costly this approach can be. I believe that those of us who are more cautious in our formulations, more concerned to walk away with answers, owe a debt of gratitude to those of our colleagues, like Nidhal, who keep us honest. For the danger is that, unlike him, we will rush to harmonize science and faith too quickly, papering over areas of tension that actually deserve a closer look. Nidhal’s intent is positive, but he wants us to “sit with” the tensions (as my Buddhist friends say) before we move too quickly to formulating our answers.

In this paper Guessoum concentrates in particular on the recent (2014) collection by Stefano Bigliardi. It is a rich source of concepts and approaches. But it is also an ideal field for Nidhal “to do a Guessoum,” if I may create a new verb in English. Where others might highlight a series of strong answers, Nidhal probes for the tensions, the uncertainties, the unanswered questions. His attention goes to the concepts of methodological naturalism and causation, and he probes to see what positive and negative effects these concepts have for questions of divine action and miracles.

As he notes, “On the Muslim side, there have been very few, if any, fully argued proposals for viewing God’s action in the world, perhaps due to its high sensitivity” (p. 4). Here I should be careful, since the answer to which Guessoum is drawn — “I had previously suggested an alternative viewpoint: that God acts only on minds/spirits” — is one that I have been defending in books over 15 years, mostly recently in The Predicament of Belief and in Adventures in the Spirit.

Guessoum’s response to both topics in his paper (divine action and miracles) reveals the central features of his research program. Let me try to put words on what that program is, in order to show why I think his research program is particularly important. It is this: Guessoum asserts that the conflicts are deeper and the problems harder than many of us acknowledge. He does not believe that Muslim scholars must be driven to secularist answers like those that the Turkish scholar Taner Edis has advocated. The most fundamental Qur’anic answers can still be affirmed, even in light of the most severe challenges. However, these answers must today be affirmed in a different framework. Accepting methodological naturalism while denying metaphysical naturalism is one example of this approach. Another is affirming divine action in ways that do not break natural law. Here Guessoum’s focus on Spirit is particularly interesting: “In the Islamic tradition, there is a general understanding that the spirit is the communication channel and connection between God and humans as well as the fundamental “driving force” that God infused in humans” (4).

  1. Prof Mohd Hazim Shah, “The Relationship between Science and Islam: Islamic Perspectives and Frameworks”

I am here meeting Prof. Mohd Hazim Shah for the first time. I profited greatly from the clarity of his paper. It caught my attention right from the start; reading him, one can immediately recognize that the influential four-fold typology composed by Ian Barbour grows out of the specific conflicts between Christianity and science in the context of the modern period. It would be ideal if the Muslim dialogue between religion and science, as it rapidly moves to greater prominence in the Islamic world, could leap-frog over the mistakes of “modernism” and move directly into a postmodern framework. (By “postmodern” I do not mean the deconstructive postmodernism of Derrida and the other French thinkers, but the “constructive postmodernism” of Stephen Toulmin, David Ray Griffin, Wenztel van Huysteen, myself, and others).

Prof. Shah’s organization of the three approaches in Section 3 is equally insightful; it lays an excellent foundation for probing discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of each one. I also found his three observations in Section 4 to be remarkably wise. They are deserving of careful attention and reflection.

In the end, Prof. Shah is drawn to the “ethical approach” that he associates with the work of Ziauddin Sardar. I will leave it to the other participants to debate the costs and benefits of de-emphasizing the other two approaches within the field of Islam and Science. Because I am drawn to Prof. Shah’s position, I wish I could be present to hear this particular discussion. It is not for me as a non-Muslim to determine whether or not the costs are too high to pay (though I do suspect that they are not as high as one might think).

I do wish to underscore, however, how crucial is Prof. Shah’s critique of “value-free science” as it has been practiced in the West. There is deep wisdom in his words:

However, the pursuit of modern science and technology must be guided by Islamic values and ethics to ensure that in the long run, science and technology will serve humanity and the Muslim Ummah, and not lead to its eventual destruction, which is a real possibility looking at the way the west is using its science and technology within the framework of Capitalism. In fact even the capitalistic world had to resort to ‘regulatory measures’ based ultimately on some moral or ethical values, in order to ensure sustainability. (pp. 7-8)

The growing global gap between rich and poor (countries and individuals), and above all the insane refusal to instigate sustainable practices on the part of the multinational corporations, provide all that evidence we need that Prof. Shah is right. Islamic values — and, I would like to add, values derived from other religious traditions as well — are “make or break” for our planet, and thus for the human species as a whole. If we do not draw from the rich wisdom of Islam (and other traditions), it is likely that secular, capitalist values will drive humanity to the brink of extinction … and perhaps beyond.

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