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Volume 2, No 3, Summer 1992 [back]

Science, Objectivity, and Religion

Remzi Cirit

I am not quiet certain about my knowledge. What do I know, how do I know, which researches did I get my knowledge from, which environment have I been educated in, have I been affected by the society in which I have lived? These are the questions that should be asked when one thinks about knowledge. As Bronowski stated, "Science is a part, a characteristic part, of human activity at large." Since the past is the domain of the knowable facts, perhaps we can be certain about our knowledge of the past. However, the interpretation of these facts can be problematic. Still, how we interpret the facts and how we organize our ideas are based upon our knowledge obtained in the past.

I am not sure if there should be a distinction between the knower and the known. What is known carries features of the knower. If so, then the argument that "if the very concept of nature, of dispassionate value-free, objective inquiry, and of transcendental knowledge are androcentric, white, and Western, then no more amount of rigorous adherence to scientific method will eliminate such bias, for the methods themselves reproduce the perspectives generated by these hierarchies and thus distort our understanding" is correct. This argument brings forth the problem of objectivity and the process of finding a way towards its solution. It is obvious that scientists are not robots, but are human beings with human values that often play a major role in their selection of problems and in their conclusions. The question is whether what we know is 'absolute' or is always relative to some perspective, some point of view: Is there an aboriginal reality or is reality a constructor?

In Moover's words, "values are such an intimate part of every step of forming hypothesis, selecting measures, and evaluating conclusions." Values enter both into the production and the conceptualization of what is being predicted. The process of selecting a problem and a basic hypothesis for limiting the scope of the study and for defining and classifying the data relevant to that particular posing of the problem involve a choice on the part of the investigator. The choice is made from an indefinite number of possibilities. For example, a deeply religious person's research on the dating habits may involve hypotheses etc. that are based on the premise of immorality of the premarital intercourse. Indeed, no social science or particular branch of social research can pretend to be amoral or apolitical. We use our values in our preferences.

It is obvious that religion forms minds, and minds make value judgements. Islam as a totality is the main determinant of our knowledge. For us Muslims, the values that shape our questions of knowledge and its interpretation must adhere to the Islamic principles. There are big differences between the Western and the Islamic kinds of knowledge. Islamic knowledge can be defined as the recognition of the proper places of things in the order of creation so that it leads to proper understanding of God in relation to Being and Existence. Whereas, even the objects of Western science are different. Then the question comes to mind: Can the Western science represent the Islamic knowledge?

Science can be defined as the process of examining the relationship between the elements of the phenomenal world, and Islam, as a religion, provides us a paradigm to examine these relationships. I use the word "paradigm" in the Khunian sense. Khun argues that choice among competitive paradigms involves sociological and psychological factors, not just some set of criteria that can be accepted as scientific in the traditional sense. For us Muslims then, science should not only search for the common experience of people but should also search for the ultimate truth of God and His message.

Western civilization is not the product of a single stream of thought, but it is the resolute of many leniencies and influences a good many of which refuse to go together. Western civilization has evolved out of the historical fusion of cultures, philosophies, values, and aspirations of ancient Greece and Rome amalgamated with Judaism and Christianity and went through further development and formation by the Latin, German and Nordic peoples.

There is a close relationship between power, culture and science. Since West became the dominant political power in the world, Western science and culture (Judeo-Christian culture) became prevalent in the world as well, and it reached its heydays with the modernization movements. It is also true that the Western understanding of knowledge has been "white-dominated." This claim can be tested by examining the racial origins of the scientists through the history. In the words of Harding, "historians and anthropologists show that the way contemporary Western society draws the borders between culture and nature is clearly both modern and culture bound. The culture versus nature dichotomy reappears in complex an ambiguous ways in a number of other opposites central to modern, Western thinking; reason versus the passions and emotions; objectivity versus the body and physical matter; abstract versus concentrate, public versus private." Even the perspective from which we look at the world is an important issue. For example the Middle Eastern countries call themselves as the Middle Eastern countries, because the standpoint and perspective is Western. The Middle East is the middle of the east from the location of the Western world.

Because of the relationship between science and material power, science is bourgeois. If we look at the general characteristics of the scientists we see that they have been from the upper class. The media and the information has also been controlled by the same people with economic power and there is no doubt that they use them for their interests. On the other hand, according to the Marxist view, social sciences must be based on a materialist scientific method and must be guided by humanist ethics which are the values supporting the oppressed group. Marxists incorporate the human values into science: a social scientist without the humanist ethics is incomplete. Every social scientist must select problems, facts, and interpret the facts according to the criteria of social relevancy and must interpret these problems in light of the humanist ethical values as well as the appropriate social theory.

Research is a process of broadening knowledge and views, not a compilation of statistics. We begin that process with certain ethical values, as well as the previous facts and theories. For instance, a Muslim should begin with Islamic values and concepts. Then he/she should begin his/her research, and experience the world through practice; learning new facts and modifying theories. Thus, viewed as a process, both the ethical values and scientific knowledge evolve together. Therefore the concept of objectivity hides two different issues. If the meaning of objectivity is that the scientist must be neutral or nonpartisan then it is impossible and impractical. If objectivity is defined as an honest approach to truth, then this definition will change contingent upon the definition of truth. The difficulty for us in recognizing and identifying the values of our own civilization lies in the fact that we participate in this civilization that has shaped our actions since our birth. And since there is no unique world culture, and culture affects our judgements, Western scientists should not be blamed for not being objective. If the scientists are male, it does not mean that all science is androcentric.

Epistemology, or theory of knowledge, is the core of any world view. It is a parameter which delineates what is and what is not possible within the purview of knowledge; what is possible to know and ought to be known, what is possible to know but is better avoided, and what is simply not possible to know.

The roots of knowledge imperialism go back to the beginning of the European colonial adventure and to the emergence of scientific rationality as the only legitimate method for understanding and controlling the nature. It is not clear whether facts or values, objective reality or subjective emotions are the main characteristics of the epistemology of modern science. I think an objective, value-free, and neutral science does not exist. Due to cultural and biological differences the scientist can not be objective and get rid of the androcentric, white, bourgeois, and Western influence. The aim of the science then should not be objectivity but to find truth and useful knowledge for the human kind. As the postmodernist school claims, what is important is the depth of understanding. And Islam provides us a paradigm to understand the nature of the people and their surroundings. A Muslim scientist should combine the divine and human knowledge. His/her conclusions should not be based only on the positivist understanding of science which deals with "true-false', but he/she should also include the concept of "good-evil" (munker ve maruf) and "moral-immoral."

©1992 anadolu
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