. 8. The future of science balanced on a knife’s edge? - The European Perspective

8. The future of science balanced on a knife’s edge?

In his book To Explain the World Steven Weinberg speculates about what would have happened if the Paris condemnations hadn’t been lifted in 1325. He thinks that it could have easily led to a decline of scientific inquiry similar to that which occurred in the Islamic world. Rescinding the condemnations of 1277 was thus an eminently important step towards freeing scientific inquiry from the control of the Catholic Church and it opened the way for developments leading to the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.

Similarly, Weinberg credits al-Ghazali personally to be the key figure in the growth of tension between science and Islam (Weinberg, 2015, p. 121).

He is seen by Weinberg as so powerful that he “could have saved science” in Islam if he had adopted a more moderate stance (Weinberg, 2015, p. 122). Robert R. Reilly, in his book The Closing of the Muslim Mind, describing the triumph of the Asharites against the Mu’tazilites, advocates a similar view: he calls the Asharites’ denial of causal relationships in nature a “catastrophical result”. Reilly writes about al-Ghazali:

Were it not for al-Ghazali, Averroes and rationalism might have won the battle for the Muslim Mind (Reilly, 2010, p. 127)

Thus, according to these views, it appears that in both cultures there was a point where the future of scientific inquiry was balanced on a knife’s edge, and could have fallen either way. The influence of al-Ghazali and of the Asharites in Islamic culture led, unluckily, to the termination of the “Golden Age” of Islam and to philosophical and scientific decline. But without this negative influence, the Islamic “Golden Age” would presumably have continued. As luck would have it, in Western Europe, lifting the condemnations against Aristotle led to a scientific revival, and, ultimately, to the Scientific Revolution. However, hadn’t the condemnations been lifted, science would have declined, just as it did in Islam, and the Scientific Revolution may never have occurred. One might exaggerate somewhat and say: luck saved science in Christianity and bad luck condemned it in Islam.

This “knife’s edge theory” has an element of truth in it but it is shortsighted. It gives too much credit to individuals like al-Ghazali and to events like the Paris condemnations. And, it doesn’t ask these important questions: “why did the Asharites and al-Ghazali win the debate  in Islam and why not the Mu’tazilites or the falasifa?” and “why did the Aristotelians and not their clerical opposition win the debate in Christianity?”. In order to answer these questions, one must look at deeper, ideological characteristics of these two civilizations.

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