Ibrahim, the impact on modern science

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

In the 1950’s, a scientist with a PhD in physics from a prestigious university was expected to engage in groundbreaking research that might lead to a new discovery. This was not the case for Thomas Kuhn. After graduating, he instead turned his attention to the history and philosophy of science.  He was curious about how new discoveries came to be and if there was an underlying pattern. His research concluded with his renowned book and masterpiece Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

In the book, Kuhn not only reshaped our thinking of how new scientific discoveries emerge, but he also coined terms that became standard in scientific literature such as “paradigm shift,” “normal science,” and “revolutionary science.” His research corrected many misconceptions that were widely believed. For example, he challenged the idea that new discoveries are built upon previous theories. Rather, the emergence of new theories often renders previous theories erroneous.

Kuhn categorized scientists into two groups, normal and revolutionary. Normal scientists constitute the vast majority and are engaged in research and experiments that confirm and utilize existing theories. In contrast, revolutionary scientists challenge existing theories and attempt to correct them or negate them all together. When a new theory which challenges previous theories is accepted, it constitutes a paradigm shift.

Kuhn made the argument that science does not necessarily lead to truth. Rather, it is only our best attempt to explain our observations. He also stated that almost all theories fail the verification test under certain circumstances. However, scientists are usually not concerned by those discrepancies until a problem arises that existing theories cannot solve. In such a case, Kuhn notes that a crisis in science occurs when scientists scramble to come up with an explanation, often leading to a paradigm shift. A crisis in science is usually triggered by an urgent need. For example, the focus of previous scientists on astronomy was motivated by the need for a more accurate calendar. Hence, this crisis results in many theories.

In our modern time, the discrepancy between relativity and quantum mechanics is one area which has the potential to create a scientific crisis wherein new theories might emerge. Efforts in this field of study are ongoing and the development of “string theory” is just one example.

Method of Ibrahim

Although Kuhn provides a compelling analysis of scientific discoveries, there is one element that requires more attention to better understand how science has developed. In all developed theories in science, especially in physics (the most fundamental form of science), the underlying assumption of scientists is that all theories and laws must converge and work together with compatibility. In other words, a discrepancy in one theory is enough to render it erroneous even if it explains many other phenomena’s successfully.  There is no place in the universe which is exempt from the same universal laws and patterns.

This view is consistent with monotheism as all creation and laws were established by the same God as mentioned in the Quran:

لَوْ كَانَ فِيهِمَا آلِهَةٌ إِلَّا اللَّهُ لَفَسَدَتَا ۚ فَسُبْحَانَ اللَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَرْشِ عَمَّا يَصِفُونَ

Had there been within the heavens and earth gods besides Allah, they both would have been ruined. Exalted is Allah, the Lord of the Throne, above what they describe.

Surat Al-Anbiya 21:22

And again in another verse:

قُل لَّوْ كَانَ مَعَهُ آلِهَةٌ كَمَا يَقُولُونَ إِذًا لَّابْتَغَوْا إِلَىٰ ذِي الْعَرْشِ سَبِيلًا

Say: If there had been with Him other gods as they say, then each would have sought a way to the Owner of the Throne.

Surat Al-Isra 17:42

A case is made within monotheism, following the path of Ibrahim, that inconsistencies in the laws of the universe would be an indication of more than one god, each controlling its own domain. This polytheistic view was practiced then, and still is today, by many people who attribute a new god for each phenomena they cannot explain which breaks from the usual patterns they are used to. Rather, the consistency of universal laws within creation are a sign of the one omnipotent Creator who wrote these laws.

Another fundamental belief in scientific discovery is that the laws of the universe are also consistent over time. Scientists assume that theories which are valid for our current time were always valid beforehand and that the laws we know today will be valid in the future. Thus, we are able to anticipate and predict outcomes based on previously developed theories.  This view is likewise a pillar in monotheism as it represents God’s consistency, as mentioned in the Quran:

قُلْ سِيرُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ فَانظُرُوا كَيْفَ بَدَأَ الْخَلْقَ ۚ ثُمَّ اللَّهُ يُنشِئُ النَّشْأَةَ الْآخِرَةَ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ

Say: Travel through the land and observe how He began creation. Then Allah will produce the final creation. Verily, Allah has power over all things.

Surat Al-Ankabut 29:20

The universal applicability of scientific theories is a major force for future scientific developments. Each discrepancy in an established theory prompts a relentless effort by scientists to explain such discrepancies and reconcile them in new theories. This principle established the need for consistency within and between different scientific disciplines. Regardless of how long a theory was believed to be true, it only takes one exception to render it invalid.

This was best articulated by Richard Fayman, a Nobel Loiret in physics who was known for his ability to articulate and breakdown complex concepts into easily understandable analogies. He explained in one lecture that science is based first on guessing and then conducting experiments. If experiments validate the initial guess, the scientist is onto something and more experiments are continued for further confirmation. On the other hand, if experiments diverge from the first guess, he said, “No matter who said it, it is wrong.” What interests us is how did science develop this universal principle?

Historically, science assumed a new era when Mesopotamians attempted to record numerical data for observations. History also indicates that human curiosity in the workings of the universe always existed.  Whereas the Greeks relied on empirical studies, it was in the Muslim Golden Age that universal theories started to develop and be verified by experiments. From this point forward, science was handled almost exclusively by scientists from Muslim, Christian, or Jewish backgrounds.

The modern culture of science was established by followers of religions which can all be traced back to Ibrahim. The faith element in which the unity of creation exists has been behind the outstanding achievements of science until this day. From Muslim scientists such as Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and Al-Khwarizmi to the scholars of the age of Isaac Newton until the scientists of modern history such as Michael Faraday, James Clark Maxwell, Max Plank, and Albert Einstein, God was always mentioned as part of their explanation of how the universe operates.  Although their belief in a “personal God” and their religious ideas would vary, they all believed that a singular intelligent Being and His universal laws were behind the cosmic order all around us. It was the method of Ibrahim again that established the culture of modern science.

Interestingly, while the followers of the three Abrahamic faiths developed the culture of science, the scientific development of Chinese scholars was impeded due to their refusal to accept universal laws. According to Needham in his series of books Science and Civilization in China, the Chinese philosophy and belief which differed from monotheism prevented them from developing a universal view of scientific law and very much slowed the development of science all together for them. Needham writes:

It was not that there was no order in Nature for the Chinese, but rather that it was not an order ordained by a rational personal being, and hence there was no guarantee that other rational personal beings would be able to spell out in their own earthly languages the pre-existing divine code of laws which he had previously formulated. There was no confidence that the code of Nature’s laws could be unveiled and read, because there was no assurance that a divine being, even more rational than ourselves, had every formulated such a code capable of being read. One feels, indeed, that the Taoists, for example, would have scorned such an idea as being too naive to be adequate to the subtlety and complexity of the universe as they intuited it.

Needham, J. (1969). The grand titration: Science and society in East and West. p. 327

The current era of science is sometimes referred to as the era secular science, having been liberated from religious superstition, although the universally accepted method of scientific discovery is ironically rooted in the method Ibrahim and his system of values. People can maintain their practices while growing distant from their founding values, and scientists are no exception.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.

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