Academic journal article Islam & Science

Science, Scientism, and the Liberal Arts

Academic journal article Islam & Science

Science, Scientism, and the Liberal Arts

Article excerpt

In much of the developing world today, particularly among countries populated by Muslim majorities, a dreadful ideological disease has erupted, spreading as an epidemic through several generations already. Arising out of presumptuousness, if not arrogance, as well as historical privation, if not cultivated ignorance, this is the disease of the conflation of science with scientism, a conflation that corrodes the faculty of imagination and critical thought of the inflicted, and eats up that very cultural space which provides for the free expression of ideas. The result is a fateful irony: the ostensible cry of scientism is "more science"! But scientism kills science! What is left is an ocean of electronic gadgetry, NMR machines, laboratories, technicians, computer programmers and a young generation with no cultural bearings, no cultural anchorage and a future utterly contingent upon the fluctuations of market forces: now rising, now falling.

What is scientism? It is an excessive faith in the power of scientific techniques, and in the applicability of these techniques to all else--to human behavior, to ethics, to society, to religion, to culture, to everything. Upon closer analysis, it would appear that scientism is made up of two sub-malignancies, one political, the other logical. Politically, scientism functions as an ideology of arrogance which places the scientist (correction: in the case of much of today's Muslim world, one should rather say, "the applied scientist"; even better: "the technician") upon a pedestal, thereby intimidating the common citizen who is dazzled, puzzled, and often dislocated by technology. The impression given is that the scientist has the solution to all problems; he knows what ordinary mortals can never even aspire to know. This sub-malignancy plays havoc with common peoples' eyesight and maneuvers to have huge funds diverted from the exchequer to the "scientists." It is this impaired vision that causes parents to throw their bright children into the factories that produce technicians by the hundreds every day--in the Muslim world by and large these factories are often called universities and institutes of learning.

The logical sub-malignancy, on the other hand, consists of a reductionism. The reductionism that all human knowledge is reducible to the methods of the natural sciences. So ultimately, all disciplines disappear into physics or biology or their sisters. This creates a milieu which undermines all disciplines of learning except the natural sciences. It also creates an epistemological hierarchy wherein the "lower" disciplines, such as literature or history, have absolutely nothing to contribute to science, whereas science has everything to contribute to them. No wonder that in much of the world of Muslim peoples today there is a trend of rapid depletion of the liberal arts from the curricula of colleges and universities, often to the limits of total extinction.

The political element of the disease spreads through the carrier of obfuscation, the obfuscation being one which darkens the distinction between science and technology. In a country like Pakistan, to take one typical example, science is technology for the general populace, including science teachers. Indeed, in the past decade or so there has been a mushrooming growth in that country of what are called universities or institutes of engineering and technology, and of computer software and programming, and, of course, of information technology (the magical "IT"). They exist in every nook and corner of the country--in purpose-built locations, in converted residential houses, in shopping malls. And in official government reports all of these masquerade as providing "science education." Note the historical emptiness here: there is no awareness and no recognition of the historical fact that technology can exist without science, and that science is not duty-bound to issue technological products; that the first one is inextricably meshed up with market forces while the second lies in the realm of creative and critical human thought and intellectually controlled imagination. …

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