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Symposium Examines Scientific Thought within Context of Islam
"After fifty years of crying in the wilderness about Islamic thoughtit is gratifying to see such interest in the subject," said George Washington University Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, keynote speaker for the 9 October symposium at the Library of Congress, "Islam, Science, and Cultural Values."
The day-long event, co-sponsored by AAAS, the Library of Congress, Georgetown University, and the National Academies of Sciences, brought Nasr and 14 other speakers together to consider the compatibility of science and Islam, and to examine the future of science in Muslim nations. According to John Esposito, director for the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, the symposium reflects the growing interest in the field of Islamic science, and a new willingness among Muslim scholars to question the traditional perception of science as separate from religion. The topic is of great interest to AAAS's Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER), which helped organize the event as part of its efforts to facilitate communication between scientific and religious communities.
"The history of science in the Islamic world, its relation to Islamic religious beliefs, and its potential for advancing the Islamic countries economically, socially, and politically are matters little known but of increasing importance in the United States," said Albert Teich, director of the AAAS Directorate for Science and Policy Programs. "AAAS's DoSER program is an excellent vehicle for promoting discussion of such issues and we are pleased to collaborate with the Library of Congress, the National Academies, and Georgetown University in sponsoring this important meeting."
In his talk, Nasr spoke about the long tradition of scientific thought in Islam, and criticized as "scientism" what passes for science in the contemporary Islamic world. He said that scientism claims that the scientific method is the only path to truth and does not accept other modes of knowing as valid. Scientism also rests on the assumption that the physical order of reality is completely independent and self-sufficient. "How to incorporate science into the Islamic world view," he said, "is the $64,000 question."
According to Audrey Chapman, Senior Associate for Ethics in the AAAS DoSER program, Nasr's view is that traditional Islamic science perceived the physical order as a sign of God, as symbols pointing to a reality beyond itself and therefore did not have a word for "fact." In contrast, scientism assumes that nature is self-contained.
"Nasr's major point is that scientism has caused a paralysis and negated the possibility of an intellectually creative tradition of scientific inquiry in the Islamic world," Chapman said. "He located the problem in the Islamic world in the understanding of the nature of science itself, and sees the solution in the recreation of an Islamic philosophy of science predicated on a unity between the physical and the spiritual."
14 October 2003