Thursday, June 30, 2011

What Went Wrong

Hillel Ofek has a wonderful essay in The New Atlantis on why the engine of Muslim science and learning ground to a halt despite having been one time the world leader in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Ofek writes:
To anyone familiar with this Golden Age, roughly spanning the eighth through the thirteenth centuries a.d., the disparity between the intellectual achievements of the Middle East then and now — particularly relative to the rest of the world — is staggering indeed. In his 2002 book What Went Wrong?, historian Bernard Lewis notes that “for many centuries the world of Islam was in the forefront of human civilization and achievement.” “Nothing in Europe,” notes Jamil Ragep, a professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma, “could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600.”

Algebra, algorithm, alchemy, alcohol, alkali, nadir, zenith, coffee, and lemon: these words all derive from Arabic, reflecting Islam’s contribution to the West.

Today, however, the spirit of science in the Muslim world is as dry as the desert. Pakistani physicist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy laid out the grim statistics in a 2007 Physics Today article: Muslim countries have nine scientists, engineers, and technicians per thousand people, compared with a world average of forty-one. In these nations, there are approximately 1,800 universities, but only 312 of those universities have scholars who have published journal articles.

There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, but only two scientists from Muslim countries have won Nobel Prizes in science (one for physics in 1979, the other for chemistry in 1999). Forty-six Muslim countries combined contribute just 1 percent of the world’s scientific literature; Spain and India each contribute more of the world’s scientific literature than those countries taken together.

In fact, although Spain is hardly an intellectual superpower, it translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years. “Though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West,” Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has observed, “for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading.”
So what changed and why?
As Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, an influential figure in contemporary pan-Islamism, said in the late nineteenth century, “It is permissible ... to ask oneself why Arab civilization, after having thrown such a live light on the world, suddenly became extinguished; why this torch has not been relit since; and why the Arab world still remains buried in profound darkness.”
Ofek goes on to assert that the Islamic disinterest in secular scholarship can be traced back to the ascendency in the tenth and eleventh centuries of the Ash’arism school among Sunni Muslims, who comprise the vast majority of the Muslim world:
With the rise of the Ash’arites, the ethos in the Islamic world was increasingly opposed to original scholarship and any scientific inquiry that did not directly aid in religious regulation of private and public life.

While the Mu’tazilites [predecessors to the Ash'arites] had contended that the Koran was created and so God’s purpose for man must be interpreted through reason, the Ash’arites believed the Koran to be coeval with God — and therefore unchallengeable. At the heart of Ash’ari metaphysics is the idea of occasionalism, a doctrine that denies natural causality. Put simply, it suggests natural necessity cannot exist because God’s will is completely free. Ash’arites believed that God is the only cause, so that the world is a series of discrete physical events each willed by God.

According to the occasionalist view, tomorrow coldness might follow fire, and satiety might follow lack of food. God wills every single atomic event and God’s will is not bound up with reason. This amounts to a denial of the coherence and comprehensibility of the natural world.....It is not difficult to see how this doctrine could lead to dogma and eventually to the end of free inquiry in science and philosophy.
Ofek sheds further light on the problem by contrasting Islam with Christianity:
... [I]t is helpful to briefly compare Islam with Christianity. Christianity acknowledges a private-public distinction and (theoretically, at least) allows adherents the liberty to decide much about their social and political lives. Islam, on the other hand, denies any private-public distinction and includes laws regulating the most minute details of private life. Put another way, Islam does not acknowledge any difference between religious and political ends: it is a religion that specifies political rules for the community.

Such differences between the two faiths can be traced to the differences between their prophets. While Christ was an outsider of the state who ruled no one, and while Christianity did not become a state religion until centuries after Christ’s birth, Mohammed was not only a prophet but also a chief magistrate, a political leader who conquered and governed a religious community he founded.

Because Islam was born outside of the Roman Empire, it was never subordinate to politics. As Bernard Lewis puts it, Mohammed was his own Constantine. This means that, for Islam, religion and politics were interdependent from the beginning; Islam needs a state to enforce its laws, and the state needs a basis in Islam to be legitimate. To what extent, then, do Islam’s political proclivities make free inquiry — which is inherently subversive to established rules and customs — possible at a deep and enduring institutional level?
There's much, much more in this fascinating essay for those who wish to gain a deeper understanding of the Islamic world and how a society's fundamental religious presuppositions can be either high octane fuel for the engine of technological progress or sand in its gears. I encourage you to read it.

It Took Long Enough

Finally, after years of huge financial losses, dozens of deaths, and dozens of people taken hostage the U.N. has finally done what it should have done years ago:
The UN has kind of, sort of, unofficially but grudgingly given shipping companies "permission" to hire armed guards for vessels passing through pirate infested waters off the Somali coast. This was done via "interim guidelines" issued last month by the UN and the IMO (International Maritime Organization)..

Until now, it was understood that armed guards on merchant ships was a grey area, and companies allowing it were risking lawsuits from their victims (even if they were armed pirates) and anyone caught in the crossfire. Some countries flatly forbid ships flying their flag from employing armed guards. This has caused some shipping companies to shift the registration of ships plying pirate infested waters, or threatening to do so if their current country of registration does not openly allow armed guards. Some nations, like the United States and France, have done this, and gone after any pirates seizing ships flying the French or American flag..

Before the new UN/IMO guidelines, only about ten percent of the ships moving through pirate infested waters carried armed guards. It was noted by all that these were the ships least likely to be taken, and frequently the cause of pirates being shot dead (and not officially reported). With the new guidelines, more ships are believed ready to employ armed guards.

The pirates may respond by threatening to kill hostages, but this would invite what the pirates least want; an invasion of their coastal bases. So the UN move may prove to be one of the most effective anti-piracy actions in years.
Sometimes it takes bureaucrats a long time to see the common sense solutions that ordinary people espy at once.

Here's another suggestion that would improve not only this situation but the efficiency and vigor of economies throughout the Western world: Decertify 80% of the lawyers who specialize in tort law or at least reform the law. Lawsuits and the threat of them are perhaps one of the greatest impediments to our communal well-being and our national economic growth. Reducing the number of people who get rich off of suing others will greatly improve the quality of life of the rest of us.

Think of it as another attempt to thwart piracy.