The Western Christian/secular view of modern science is not necessarily the norm. When is a Jumbo jet not a Jumbo jet? This was a question that came up in our opening class of the year for our new intake MSc students in Science and Religion, discussing the views of the Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr.
The theme of the class was the very topic of “Science and Religion” – What is it? Is there a single agreed definition, covering a suitably well-defined set of topics? Looking at some of the scholarly literature on the topic you might be forgiven for thinking that the answer should be “yes” to those questions, but I maintain that the scope of the field is much more complex, and that “no” is a much more honest answer.
Consider this (rather lengthy) quote from Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in his piece entitled “Islam and Science” in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (2006, pp.73-4):
“Instead of criticizing the implicit value system inherent in modern science from the Islamic point of view, many of the champions of the blind emulation of modern science and technology claim that it is value-free…[M]odern science, like any other science, is based on a particular value system and a specific world-view rooted in specific assumptions concerning the nature of physical reality…Modern science must be studied in its philosophical foundations from the Islamic point of view, in order to reveal for Muslims exactly what the value system is upon which it is based and how this value system opposes, complements, or threatens the Islamic value system, which for Muslims, comes from God…Even a 747 Boeing jet is not global simply because it is now landing in Samoa as well as Tokyo, Beijing as well as Islamabad or Tehran. Rather, it is the result of a technology derived from a particular view of man’s relationship with the forces of nature and the environment, as well as an understanding of man himself, a view which many forces in the modern or even post-modern West are trying to globalize, by eliminating other views of the world of nature and man’s relationship to it, including of course, the Islamic one. Modern science is a direct challenge to other world-views, including the Islamic, which claims knowledge of reality based on not reason alone, but also on revelation and inspiration.”
I have put the most challenging part in bold. In class, this passage caused considerable puzzlement among some of us, while others agreed with its strong criticism of the imperialising tendencies of science. To so many of us brought up in the Western world, modern science is “value-free”; it just is, as the physical world just is. And yet, according to the above quote, science (especially in technological manifestations like the Jumbo jet), is very definitely not “value-free”. A Jumbo jet might work as well in Tokyo as it does in Tehran, but according to Nasr it carries a heavy cultural baggage along the way.
It’s a commonplace in the postmodern view to acknowledge cultural baggage, so let’s explore this a little more by asking: how important is this cultural baggage in science? Should we acknowledge our contexts and presuppositions when we come to science, in the same way we might in the humanities? Is it meaningful, for instance, to speak of a feminist physics or a Catholic chemistry? Would a Buddhist biology be different in any fundamental respect from a Belgian biology? These qualifications and questions sound absurd to some degree, especially to Western ears. But the point Nasr seems to be raising is that there are contexts in which they really matter, particularly when the science is seen to stand against a theistic view of the world.
Islam, like Christianity, teaches that nature is comprehensible by virtue of its origin from the Creator. Science has a divine underpinning in this view; it works not because nature is natural but because it is ‘creation’. If this is correct (and clearly it’s one of the most hotly debated topics around), then ‘science and religion’ as a discipline is not two distinct things (and still less is it two distinct things at war with each other), but it’s one thing – ‘religious science’, or ‘scientific religion’.