[Paleopsych] NS: Interview: The Koran to quantum physics

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Interview: The Koran to quantum physics

[I don't think Mr. Mencken wrote enough about Islam to get into its fit with 
science. He was certainly opposed to all attempts to fit Christianity with 

      * 25 June 2005
      * Michael Bond

    Iran is changing. A society once closed to the outside world has
    acquired a hunger for knowledge and a thirst for cutting-edge ideas.
    The number of publications by Iranian scientists in international
    journals has quadrupled over the past decade. Young people in
    particular want more Kuhn and less Khomeini. And they voted
    overwhelmingly against hardline candidates in last week's elections.

    But what about the clerics who have led Iran since 1979? How
    comfortable are they with modern science and technology? Do they
    oppose it? Can they learn to live with it? Do they believe it should
    be "Islamicised"?

    Western ways of thinking and doing have long held a fascination for
    Iran's religious leaders, from before the Islamic revolution of 1979
    that deposed the Shah. When the Shah banned Ayatollah Khomeini's
    speeches, for example, his supporters distributed them on audio
    cassettes in the hundreds of thousands. Similarly, desktop publishing
    was eagerly adopted to produce glossy magazines extolling the virtues
    of post-revolution Iran.

    Unlike most other Muslim countries, Iran has several institutions
    dedicated to enabling clerics to test their knowledge and ideas
    against those developed in modern universities. Mofid University is
    the best known. In just 10 years, it has developed a reputation in the
    fields of philosophy and human rights, and organises exchanges with
    universities abroad, including the US. Michael Bond travelled to Qom -
    Iran's spiritual hub, birthplace of the Islamic revolution and home of
    Mofid University - to ask Masoud Adib, Mofid's head of philosophy,
    about Islam and the challenge of science.

    Is there such a thing as Islamic science?

    We cannot really talk of Islamic science. We can talk of Islamic
    philosophy, political science, sociology, and maybe Islamic
    psychology, but not Islamic physics or chemistry. Sciences like
    physics and chemistry are neutral.

    However, in science it is important to distinguish between discovery
    and judgement - between collecting data or experimentation, and
    evaluating and judging what has been collected. When researchers
    evaluate data, they all use the same methodology, whether they are
    Muslim or Christian, religious or secular.

    But when a researcher is collecting data or conducting experiments,
    things like religion, culture or even the attitude of the researcher
    make a difference. There might be differences between the way a Muslim
    collects data and someone else, just as there are differences in the
    way women and men collect data, or people from different cultures. But
    this does not mean the science produced is Islamic science.

    How does an Islamic approach to experimenting and data collection
    differ from other approaches?

    In an Islamic culture, the reason a person seeks knowledge is to know
    God, to seek a better understanding of God. That is the motivation.
    Someone from another culture or religion may do it for another reason:
    to seek particular technologies, for example, or just to know reality.
    People who do science for different reasons will probably look at
    different areas, or approach a problem from different sides.

    What would a Muslim scientist seek?

    In Islam, science or knowledge should not be sought solely for the
    sake of curiosity. Research should always be targeted. In a world
    where there is a lot of disease and many complex problems such as
    poverty, famine, drought and lack of education, scientists should not
    be allowed to just go after scientific curiosity for its own sake. It
    is the duty of scientists to try to solve these problems. So a
    scientist should not spend all his time in a laboratory working for
    himself, satisfying his own curiosity. He needs to always consider
    whether what he is doing is in line with what God wants.

    If people are guided so much by religion, how can they do good,
    objective science?

    Religion offers a framework for life. It helps you from the moment you
    get up in the morning until you go to sleep at night. You have to live
    within it. But that doesn't mean that in every moment of the day you
    have to take your instructions from religion. Rather, it means that
    you have to live for religious targets, and that the values from your
    religion should govern everything you do. In this there is no
    difference between Islam and other religions.

    Within that religious framework, you have to learn how to secularise.
    Day-to-day life has to be based on secular knowledge: for instance,
    how to eat your breakfast or work in an office. So you can have
    knowledge of a secular science within the framework of a religious

    How does that work in practice? Where do you draw the line between the

    People tend to make two mistakes. One is to try to derive the details
    of life from religion - for example, looking to religion for the
    answers to why everything happens, the answers to all the practical
    things in life. This will not help us run a society. The other mistake
    is to loosen the religious framework so much that you think you can
    derive the ultimate aim of life from the empirical.

    One of the major reasons a lot of Muslims do not do well in science is
    that they make the first mistake. A lot of modern societies run into
    difficulties and cannot adapt to problems in life because of the
    second mistake.

    How can Iran modernise and develop in science and technology without
    sacrificing the values and traditions of Islam?

    Iran has already modernised in some areas. One of the problems of this
    modernising is that it is not a result of blossoming from the inside;
    it has come from the outside. Over the past 150 years, a gap has
    opened up in Iranian society, with one group going for modernity and
    another for tradition. The revolution in Iran had roots in both
    modernity and tradition, and I believe the gap between the two has
    been gradually closing.

    However, if modernity is not based on a nation's culture it can do
    serious damage. This is what happened in the west. This does not mean
    we have to escape from modernity. Rather we have to try to minimise
    the damage that arises from the clash with tradition. This means that
    in our individual lives, and as a society, we have to keep our eyes on
    religious targets while at the same time making best use of modern

    How would that work in science?

    One of the duties of a scientist from any culture is to progress in
    science and knowledge while preserving his moral values, not as a
    religious person but as a human being. You have to produce knowledge,
    but you may have to restrict yourself from certain areas. It is
    delicate - you lose if you hold back from research, you lose if you
    ignore your moral values.

    Are there any modern technologies that you think are a particular
    threat to Islam?

    On one level, technology is simply a tool and people have to learn how
    to use it. Of course it depends how you use it. The important thing is
    that people use technology in the best way for a country and minimise
    the damage.

    But there is another deeper level at which to look at technology. New
    technologies are deeply tied up with spirituality and morality, for
    they influence how we behave. For example, whether I choose to go to
    work on horseback or in a car will affect how I behave during the
    journey and the effect I have on others. Whenever a new technology
    arises, such as the internet, it is essential to have a dialogue about
    how it is going to affect us. We need time to contemplate such changes
    in life.

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