pussyWhy have only two scientists from Muslim countries won the Nobel Prize? Is it because Al-Ghazali killed science for Muslims?

I first heard that idea from the Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy, in Prospect magazine. As I recalled it, Ghazali had said it was more important to study the Koran than to study the natural world, and scientific endeavour died. So I was pleased to discover The New Atlantis, with its in-depth article accessible to the educated layman. It pits Mu’tazilism against Ash’arism. The former is the creation of al-Mamun, the seventh Abbasid caliph, who died in 833. He opposed a flourishing Byzantine empire, and sought advantage by translating ancient Greek learning for practical use. He also sought power over the religious scholars by contending that the Koran was created, so must be interpreted by human reason, but the Ash’arites believed the Koran was co-eternal with God, and unchallengeable.

By 880, holding Mu’tazilist beliefs was criminal, and Occasionalism was official teaching. It states that God’s will is completely free. That a fire is hot, say, is not because of natural laws but because God wills it, and God could change his mind, making it cold. That it is always hot is a matter of habit, not necessity. Maimonides explained it thus: just as the king generally rides on horseback through the streets of the city, and is never found departing from this habit; but reason does not find it impossible that he should walk on foot through the place.

Some Christians might agree: God is all-powerful. A generally predictable world- nights start getting longer after the winter solstice, for example- is part of God’s good gifts to us, for if things dropped stopped falling we would stop functioning. Though we leave space for miracles. Sustained rationalist attempts even make our chaotic weather patterns more predictable.

Fountain logoAl-Ghazali wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers, arguing (according to Hillel Ofek in The New Atlantis) that reason, which leads us to discover, question and innovate, was the enemy of piety. Law was similarly ossified: Islam had been a system of government as well as a religion, unlike Christianity which had developed among the poor and excluded. For four centuries, Koran and Hadiths were applied to new situations through argument, or ijtihad; then all important legal questions were regarded as already answered, and new thinking was a crime.

Fortunately,  I googled, and found this defence of Al-Ghazali in The Fountain. The sharp conflict between religion and science is a modern phenomenon, and unnecessary (I am happy as a Christian to accept the theory of evolution). There were scientific achievements in Islamic countries well after Al-Ghazali. Nuh Aydin writes that Ghazali used philosophic techniques to refute philosophic assertions contrary to Islamic doctrine, but accepted the Greeks’ mathematics, astronomical sciences, and logic.

Then I see that The New Atlantis is published by the “Ethics and Public Policy Centre”. I heard of them: ah, yes, a conservative group opposing Roe v Wade and stem-cell research. However attractively presented (I considered a subscription) their articles on gene sequencing or Islam are untrustworthy.

7 thoughts on “Occasionalism

  1. Fundamentalist thinking leads to conservativeness, which itself leads to stagnation. And nothing much grows in stagnation. Just how I view it.

    I was well aware that once, not so long ago at that, the Muslim world was THE source of new scientific knowledge, and even surprisingly modern thought. Sad how so much of the Muslim world has slipped into self destructive stagnation.


  2. I got a tad lost here, which is probably my fault … but in terms of Nobel Prizes, I had a teacher ask us in school why the British had won more Nobel Prizes per capita than any other nation? We sizzled and fizzled around for answers. We were told, “The answer may be in the slightly more chaotic world of British education. Look at you, he said, as we sat there in our neat, straight rows. No wonder so many of you make good soldiers and officers … our classrooms are a tribute to the German Pedagogic Movement.” We were then treated to a lecture about how public education in the States copied what was, at the time (mid to late 1800s) the prevailing ideal. The British, being stubborn old Anglo-Saxons, never bought into it and had classrooms in circles, outside, and so forth and so on …

    In terms of why so few Muslims have won the Nobel Prize … well, I don’t think any Mormons have won either … or Rastafarians … or …


    • The problem is not only with Nobel prizes, but with papers published in peer-reviewed journals. There are Universities with no lecturers so published. Christianity does not seem so incompatible with scientific enquiry as Islam- see this list. Though I find that list suspect as I thought David Hume and Voltaire notable atheists.


    • How could we possibly know? The Chinese did not keep their technological lead, there is the antikythera mechanism; that New Atlantis article is keen to minimise the religion v science thing, especially with regard to Christianity- no, Christianity is cool with science, Ken Ham is an outlier and Galileo was impolitic and unlucky. It could be a monolithic empires thing, or the Mongol invasion, or something. Too many people writing about this have an interest for either of us to find the truth of it. It is more important for the Muslims, why they should have so much difficulty now.


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