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Basic Characteristics of the Western Science and Thought

by Enes Ergene on . Posted in An Analysis of the Gülen Movement

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It seems useful here to delineate some basic characteristics of the Western science and its outcomes before I proceed to outline the thoughts, interpretations, and convictions of M. F. Gülen on science, reason, and scientific progress. This will help us understand his attitudes toward the Western thought as well as his mentality and thought.

Gülen has an intellectual background that relates to the Western thought since his youth. He also has a firm knowledge of philosophy, along with his religious and social grounding. Yet, as we mentioned earlier, his philosophical capacity has always been shadowed by his religious and social activities. Turkey first became acquainted with his knowledge of philosophy and intellectual capacity in the 1990s, when his views on such matters as culture, politics, state, democracy, reason and thought, moral values, tolerance, art, and philosophy were publicized in the media in the form of interviews.

The worldview of the modern Turkish people is a result of a long political and intellectual process that began with the Tanzimat Period, in 1839, when political reforms were introduced in the Ottoman state. The process led to the tradition of the ulama (learned men or scholars of Islamic theology) and its institutional structure being secularized following the process required by Western modernization. This, again, led the ulama tradition to become isolated from scientific circles. With the establishment of the new Republic (Cumhuriyet), the concept of the ulama transformed into to the concept of the aydin (intellectual). In fact, the word "aydin" (intellectual) is a modern secular term. It evokes an intellectual who turns his or her back to the legacy of the traditional expressions of reality and, instead, becomes oriented to the Western way of science. The process of the Westernization transformed all concepts in the traditional thought and science. İlimbilim, münevver–aydin, mütefekkir–entelektüel no longer signified the same thing.[1] This transformation of thought culminated in the total separation of social and scientific knowledge from the tradition of religious thought. The secularization of philosophical and scientific thought shook the authority of the ulama tradition over social and scientific matters and left it in an isolated position.[2]

With this conception of the intellectual (aydin) and scholars of religion (ulama) in mind, the image of Gülen, who had a deep intellectual background—a man who was not just an ordinary hodja (teacher) or preacher—attracted the attention of the public. Gülen was educated not in modern institutions, but in the institutes of the ulama tradition. As a consequence, some secular-minded circles in Turkey regard his background in this regard as problematic and risky. The secular elite is not able to envision that a scholar of religion could be interested and well versed in the philosophical, political, social, and cultural matters of the time. They are of the opinion that science should stay in the hands of secularly oriented scholars. For them, secular intellectuals and scholars should exercise their authority in today's world, just as the ulama had exercised political, social, and intellectual authority in former times. Therefore, the secular elite is quite reluctant to share their monopoly over the production of knowledge. Thus Gülen has appeared and still looks an enigma to them.

This condition is, in fact, a small reflection of the separation of science and religion in the West. The conflict, or the battle between the Christianity and the circles of science in the West, ended up with the permanent partition of the two realms. As a result, religion, that is, Christianity, was reduced to a worldly phenomenon, and it was confined to the walls of the church and the individual sphere. This Western experience was rapidly transferred to other societies of the world, and it became a widespread phenomenon through the process of Westernization. The Islamic world received its share from this development when the ruling elite in the attempted to transform their societies with an ideological blindness that treated Islam in the same context with Christianity. This new atmosphere in the Muslim world damaged the ulama tradition and the hierarchy of Islamic thought, and the doors of scientific institutions were kept closed to those who wanted to engage in philosophical and intellectual matters with their religious identity.

Now we may proceed with the basics of the Western science. I do not aim to outline and analyze all aspects of the history of Western thought. Rather, I will deal with the scientific tradition of Western thought from three angles: rationalism and objectivity, positivism and progress, and politics of science and the state. This approach, I hope, will sufficiently outline the rules and the patterns of Western thought and science in general.

1. Rationalism and objectivity - the universalistic dimension

One of the main principles of the Western scientific view is the concept of "rationalism," which requires science to be systematically and visibly produced, and that all other traditions of science are invalid. Rationalism is accompanied by the ideology of "objectivism," and by a "quantitative interpretation of knowledge." It is assumed that scientific knowledge produced in strictly rationalist and objective methods is universal. With this declaration, a new condition is prepared and a new way is opened for this unique science to prevail. In fact, the West might theoretically allow new ways for other traditions of science to interact with their Western counterparts so that these could produce a synthesis and new scientific traditions together. Yet this has never happened because the competition is essentially organized in order for Western science to win.

This ideology has effectively eliminated non-Western science in many places. This process has been a successful one on the part of Western science—not because its counterparts were unsuccessful, but because societies that produced and adopted Western science secured a greater military power over others, as Thomas Kuhn (b. 1922), Immanuel Wallerstein (b. 1930), and Paul Feyerabend (b. 1924) purport.

We have all been indoctrinated by such principles of the Western way—rationality, infallibility, and universality. In recent times, intellectuals and thinkers from the West, such as Kuhn, Wallerstein, and Feyerabend, have shown us why this indoctrination was wrong by questioning the ways and means of rationalism. According to Feyerabend, science can neither be wholly rational, nor be dependent on universal methods and systems; and despite amazing advances in the last two centuries, Western science can not unlock the mysteries of the human condition. It is neither a faultless system of knowledge, nor one which stands for the continual benefit of humankind. It has been victorious not because it is rational or self-made, but because it has had the power of the state on its side, and it has used this to eliminate other cultures and ways of science, and to declare them as being irrational and unscientific.

Furthermore, Western science concludes that scientific laws connect the world, the universe, human being, and society, and the discovery of these laws will illustrate the scientific independence of these laws in time and space. This understanding of science is very often judged in the West as a secularized version of Christian thought. It is said that this conception of science accommodated nature in place of God, for presumptions over the idea of absolute certainty were borrowed from the truths of religion, and modern materialistic rationality was developed in place of the theological approach that dominated cosmological knowledge. The philosophies of nature and scientific researches produced in the early period were all interpreted as opening the way for rationalism.

In contrast, the old teleological theory always emphasized a constant relationship between God, humans, and existence—albeit not a comprehensive one. That is, though it had some deficiencies and drawbacks, the old theological approach defined the universe as being dependent on a Creator. However, the science of nature reduced this relationship to a mechanistic level, transferring the concept of a God-centered universe into rationalism, and emphasizing humans and their material relationships. Thus, the ultimate reality was determined not as the existence of God, but as reason itself; thus, human beings and their function in nature emerged from the rational laws of nature. When rationalism interpreted existence, its norm was neither transcendental nor ultimate causes, but the objective norms of reason.

2. Positivism and progress

The scientific revolutions that occurred in the West in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries slowly led Western thought to a union with the positivistic approach of the nineteenth century, which was the rising ideology of the time. The mechanistic worldview that was developed by Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Newton, and Boyle was modeled according to a solid materialistic and positivistic worldview with the help of rationalism. By the nineteenth century, positivism was the primary ideology shaping Western scientific thought.

Positivism, which represents an empirical approach to the philosophy of science, is based on using observation and experimentation to interpret and explain existence. It assumes positive knowledge only, and it limits knowledge to perceptions by the human senses. It rejects other ways of knowing by placing great emphasis on the fact that knowledge can only be obtained and explained empirically.

This mechanistic view of science explains the structures, actions, and relations which exist in the laws of nature. Positivists claim that the internal order of existence is determined by innate laws, and that existence has no metaphysical, animistic, or transcendental power within itself. Thus, we may discover this internal law only by positive and empirical methods. Positivism, in short, does not ask human reason to look for ways of explanation other than empirical experience.

Positivism was applied in the fields of sociology, philosophy, and political sciences by such Western thinkers as Saint-Simon, Comte, Mach, Kierkegaard, and Sartre. With the development of the Enlightenment and theories of evolution in the nineteenth century, the ideology of progressivism had been idolized. The concepts and theories of existence, human being, nature, and society were reorganized according to the ideology of evolution. Every new discovery brought with it new solutions and opened new fields of research, thus drawing great attention to scientific knowledge. The Western view came to assume that nature also had a history of progress. This belief, along with the positivistic ideals of the Enlightenment, enforced the idea of "progress" and claimed that humans and human societies, which were parts of nature, also made progress; that this progress had laws that could be scientifically determined; and that such laws could be specified through empirical and experimental knowledge.

In his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, T. S. Kuhn argues that science has an ideological structure in the same manner as political revolutions. According to Kuhn, scientists, philosophers, and historians have always declared their own views of science to be the highest point which humanity can reach. It is a widespread ideological attitude to embrace the outcomes of science as the only possible position one can reach. But was it really so? Did science and knowledge follow a constant and straight line? Were there not different options or alternative methods that contributed to this progress? In the 1960s, Thomas Kuhn asked these questions and struck a blow in the reign of progressivism and scientific thought.

Though Kuhn did not have such an intention in the beginning, his book, when considered together with the work of Karl Popper, made a great contribution to the transformation of the positivistic theory of science. Kuhn clearly stated that when scientific thought attempts to present a proven reality, what it presents, in fact, are certain value judgments. To him, such value judgments are not absolute and they can be transformed. A judgment that was right yesterday can be wrong today. The history of science proves that the scientific enterprise did not emerge as an uninterrupted or non-stop accumulation; it was sometimes greatly interrupted by revolutionary transformations.

There are countless scientific theses, paradigms, and ideas that conflict with one another. According to Kuhn, modern science is the result of interactions and conflicts that have occurred between different paradigms. In this regard, "progress" in the field of science cannot be measured by one particular tradition or one particular method. In addition to knowledge gained from the scientific method, society should account for historical and social conditions, religious and moral sentiments, and different value judgments and preferences. Kuhn tries to write an alternative history of science. He argues that we should conceptualize objective norms that exist independently of certain theories so that the concept of scientific progress can be made viable and comparable. Yet when one observes the history of science, one sees that great scientific enterprises that have led to progress have emerged not from the results of objective norms, but as the results of constant conceptual revolutions based on the dialectics of different approaches. Moreover, sociological and psychological factors were involved in these dialectics and conflicts. According to Kuhn, scientific knowledge cannot be separated from the beliefs and convictions of the one who produces it. When alternative views of science emerge, the production of science and scientific progress become enveloped in a power struggle.

Kuhn's criticisms have deeply shaken scientific circles in the West and the positivistic tradition in general. Kuhn was the first to question the past two-century authority enjoyed by the scientific community, and in this way, Kuhn's work was an admirable and courageous attempt to question the Western imagination. Many scholars and thinkers, like Popper, Lakatos, Althusser, Wittgenstein, Feyerabend, Duhem, and Quine, have questioned the Western way of science, each with their own arguments; none of them, however, has been as well received as Kuhn.

While questioning the Western way of science in the 1960s and 1970s may not be as significant or meaningful today as it used to be, it did leave its mark on the field of scientific inquiry. While there have been some new advances in the area of alternative approaches, Western science still attaches itself to the Newtonian mechanistic approach and to the ideology of certainty in the face of sometimes blatant contradictions. Thus, we may reach a conclusion that the West employs an ideological attitude here. And we may, therefore, declare that one cannot clearly specify the Western approach to science without specifying the relationship between knowledge and power.

3. Politics and ideology—science, power, and state

Throughout history, there has existed a strong connection between knowledge and social order. Theories of power have always been based on a domineering understanding of science. Experimental studies that empower military strategies have always relied on important branches of mathematics; for centuries, astronomy was seen as related to navigation and long-term political control of the world. Europeans used astronomy when they spread to the New World during their expansion period. And scholars and authors who were in close contact with the kings and queens of Europe began to support the reformation of knowledge not only to employ knowledge to improve the lives of people, but to use it as a weapon in the hand of the state.

The most enthusiastic of these scholars was the famous English philosopher and naturalist, Francis Bacon (b. 1561). Bacon believed that science should be practiced under the full control of the state. He characterized intellectuals who favored individualism as demonic exegetes whose aim was to reach the ultimate reality directly and individually with no help from clergymen, and also to endeavor to attenuate religious enthusiasm.

Francis Bacon established his thought in this regard on two fundamentals: the first was the spread of the philosophy of nature ("the science of causes"); the second was the spread of power ("the spread of the humanistic empire"). For him, knowledge was equal to power. He effectively interpreted the philosophy of nature in favor of keeping nature, human being, and society under control. While he personally defended the idea that the philosophy of nature should be extended to people, rich aristocrats and scientists such as Robert Boyle (d. 1691) adapted his idea to the social reality. In short, knowledge became increasingly manipulated to serve political, religious, and social authorities in the late European period.

Increasingly, then, science became a political and ideological agent that facilitated the establishment of the centuries-long Western colonial enterprise. Feyerabend endeavors to question the philosophical fundamentals of modern science by raising such questions. He fervently claims that science was sanctified, and a church of science was almost established. For Feyerabend, the argument that science was claimed to be infallible was both baseless and not provable. Feyerabend maintains that scientists acted like the churchmen of the past, for their teachings were considered to be the ultimate knowledge, and the presumption that science is a naturally powerful entity had been made into a doctrine of faith for everyone. Moreover, science was not thought of as a partial or isolated institution; rather, it was made the basic component of democracy—just as the church had been made the basic part of society in the past. He argues that the church and state were, of course, carefully separated from one another. The state and science, however, were inseparable. In short, Feyerabend argues that science is no different than other ideologies that compete with one another for epistemological supremacy. He believes that the conditions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sanctified and, therefore, regarded science as a liberator or "secular messiah." Ideologies can be corrupted to become dogmatic religions. The pattern of scientific progress, especially after the Second World War, is a good example in this regard. Feyerabend explains that the principles that originally gave human being the necessary ideas and power once-upon-a-time—so that he could overcome the fears and prejudices that autocratic religion had exposed to him—are now making human beings slave to their selfish interests. He warns people to be careful not to be deceived by the liberalist rhetoric of some propagandists who appear as if they observe the interests of the people. The political and sociological power of science, and the boundaries it draws, rather than having been carefully considered to provide for the greater good, were, in fact, arbitrarily dictated.

4. Religion and metaphysics

Western science has also developed a view of science that is also open to a religious and metaphysical dimension. This view, however, has not been as influential. Theology and the theory of creation have always remained weak as ideological and political views made headway. In fact, many concepts and theories put forth by the majority of first-hand scientists and thinkers, which actually underline the need for the belief in God, were ignored and distorted by later scientific developments. European scientific thought was greatly open to metaphysical values in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It adopted a view that stressed the point of science as being a means to find God and His attributes reflected on earth. New scientific developments in the future, of course, would force other scientists to question the negative approach developed by some scientists who were against religion. We all know that such notables as Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Descartes, Paracelsus, and even Bacon, perceived the universe as a book emerging from the willpower of God.

Aristotelian natural philosophy had been Christianized in the culture of scholasticism. Throughout a long period of adaptation, mismatches between some pagan perspectives and Christian doctrine were annihilated, set aside, or reconciled. The institutions of Catholicism internalized traditional bodies of science, natural knowledge, and cosmology associated with Aristotle, Galen, and Ptolemy, Anselmus, and Thomas Aquinas, so much so that in Europe, these views were accepted as the only authority until the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The geocentric system of Ptolemy was officially recognized by Christianity until the heliocentric system of Copernicus and Galileo was introduced. Galileo's observation that the world revolved around the sun conflicted with the fundamental doctrine of Christianity that claimed the sun revolved around the earth.

Galileo did not intend to challenge religion, but to present the view that nature, emerging from the will of God, resembled the Bible as a book to be read. He maintained that biblical references to the stability of the earth and to the mobility of the sun were to be taken not as literal truths, but as metaphorical ones.

Naturalists who supported and developed the Copernican view of the universe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries attacked the geocentric view in various ways. Though they were committed Christian believers, they rejected the idea that the earth was the centre of the universe. They believed that it was only one of many planets revolving around the sun. All these views would bring about a conflict between science and religion. This chain of events gave grave concern to the Church despite the fact that natural philosophers were not targeting the beliefs of Christianity as they established the base of the mechanistic worldview. In fact, they emphasized that the terrific congruence in the universe was presided over by a Creator.

While the mechanistic worldview was being developed, the concept of the "Book of Nature" also came into use. The Swiss Renaissance medical man, Paracelsus (d. 1541), had been perhaps the first since Saint Augustine to challenge people "to read the Book of Nature." To him, real philosophy was written in the grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to people's gaze. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures, without which it is impossible to understand a single word of it.

Then, in the 1660s, Robert Boyle (b. 1691) wrote that every page in the great volume of nature is full of hieroglyphs, where things stand for words, and their qualities for letters. Boyle defined natural scientists as natural priests, and he assigned them the task of "telling people of the existence of an omniscient and omnipotent God." In the 1670s, the French Cartesian, Nicholas Malebranche (b. 1715), said, "When I see a watch, I have a reason to conclude that there is some Intelligent Being, since it is impossible for chance and haphazard to produce, to range and position all its wheels. How then could it be possible that chance, and a confused jumble of atoms, should be capable of ranging in all men and animals such abundance of different secrets, springs, and engines, with that exactness and proportion? This clear evidence of contrivance in the natural world is one of the great motives to religious belief. And those whose natural knowledge is greatest are expected to be the most disposed to venerate God's creative wisdom." In 1961, the English naturalist John Ray (b. 1705) offered the eye of a common fly as a powerful example of God's designing intelligence and beneficence. English philosophers then came to believe that God's potency could not have been confined to nature only.

The "Book of Nature" metaphor was developed in the West between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it has been a philosophical and scientific base for proving the existence of God for years. God was believed to have written two books: one was the "Holy Book," and the other was the "Book of Nature." However, scientific developments were later interpreted in a positivistic and secularist way. And once science was secularized, theories of creation suffered gravely. This brought political and societal problems that, in the end, would challenge the authority of Western science.

Footnote[1] After the establishment of the Republic, the Turkish language has undergone an enormous transformation in which many words of Arabic and Persian origins have been removed (or attempted to have been removed) from the lexicon with new words being coined to fill the void. Nevertheless, a great deal of the older vocabulary is still in use. As a consequence, there are now two words—old and new—referring to the same concept, with a slight difference in nuance; the older word is used in a more religious context, whereas the new vocabulary is preferred for secular references. The author is referring to this when he uses the combination of ilim–bilim for "science," münevver–aydin for "learned," and mütefekkir–entelektüel for "intellectual."

[2] For a similar tension in the Arab modernization, see Ibrahim Abu-Rabi, Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.