As a scientist interested in the history of science, I have become acutely aware that much of the science ‘history’ we picked up in the course of our scientific training is largely folklore (what Richard Feynman referred to as ‘myth-stories’) and highly unreliable. Hence it is advisable not to make sweeping conclusions based on them. Via PZ Myers over at Pharyngula I came across an interesting article that looks at a recent discussion between Sam Harris and Ben Shapiro, where they use history to draw conclusions about the relationship of science to religion. You could not pay me enough to listen to these two people but Tim O’Neill, an Australian atheist who writes the blog History for Atheists: New Atheists Getting History Wrong did, and he has done a thorough analysis of the historical assertions made by both and finds them, especially those of Harris, utterly wanting.
I am not that interested in Harris’s views on science history (I am sure that he and his acolytes will bring out the usual accusation that O’Neill has misunderstood Harris or is deliberately distorting his views) but O’Neill uses the discussion as a stepping stone to explore some interesting topics in history such as the role of Christianity in the fall of the Roman Empire, the stories of Copernicus and Galileo and the church, and the development of science in what is called the Middle Ages. I found it all quite fascinating. It is a long article that seeks to combat many wrong understandings that are propagated within the scientific community. Here is how he deals with Harris’s casual dismissal of the place of science in the Islamic world.
So, for Harris, the Islamic scholars and thinkers who gave us algebra, fundamental aspects of chemistry, advances in accurate astronomy, trigonometry as a separate mathematical field, the collation and expansion of Galenic medicine, critical expansions in optics, key concepts in physics and everything from “algorithm” to “zenith”, only did so because of some kind of “happy convergence”. But he is quick to add that all this happened in a “brief period”, after which Islam presumably reasserted its true nature and this “convergence” was quashed. Nothing to see here, says Harris, please move along.
This view makes very little sense. The idea that a state of affairs that continued for six whole centuries could somehow be an mere abnormality is clearly ridiculous – about as ridiculous as Harris calling this 600 year span “a brief period”. That aside, there is far too much evidence of on-going proto-scientific natural philosophy continuing after the supposed end date of this “brief period” for the idea that it had been stifled by theology to work. Long after the villain of Renan’s story – al-Ghazali – we see the “Spanish Aristotelianism” of Ibn Bajja, Ibn Tufail, Ibn Rushd, and al-Bitruji. Then in the eastern regions of the Islamic world in the thirteenth century there was a newfound interest in astronomy, as seen in the huge Maragha observatory in what is now Iran, built under the patronage of Hulagu Khan, and then the later astronomical centre of Ulugh Beg in Samarkand. The latter’s meridian sextant, with a radius 40 metres wide, was the largest astronomical instrument of the time and one of remarkable sophistication. These centres and the schools and libraries associated with them continued to do valuable and innovative scientific work, including reform of the Ptolemaic model. Even if Copernicus was not aware of or influenced by the work of Ulugh Beg’s disciple, Ali Qushji, the fact that the latter was doing sophisticated work on the motion of the earth long after the supposed end of the “brief period” shows that the notion of a short Islamic scientific golden age is an artefact of western prejudice. As George Saliba notes, “if we only look at the surviving scientific documents, we can clearly delineate a very flourishing activity in almost every scientific discipline in the centuries following Ghazali” (Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, 2007, p. 21).
But people like Harris get their grasp of history second or even third hand. The convenient fiction of the “brief period” of Islamic proto-science, brought to an end by the wicked theologian al-Ghazali has become entrenched in New Atheist circles, partly thanks to it being peddled as a moral fable by another scientist and public educator, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson tells this fairy tale in several of his public lectures, one of which can be found in a YouTube video that is regularly circulated on New Atheist fora. As already noted, the idea that Islamic proto-science ended with al-Ghazali’s influential book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, is simply wrong. So is the claim that al-Ghazali argued against the pursuit of scientific knowledge.
There is a lot more interesting stuff in the article.