Problem with Scientism and Why Al-Ghazali is Still Relevant Today

Problem with Scientism and Why Al-Ghazali is Still Relevant Today

Arrogance of scientism, and how Al-Ghazali put his attention to science and scientism.

I start this writing by coining a term ‘Qutbism’, to name a perspective on everything that is marked by many things, two of which are very prominent. First, arrogance which clearly emerges because someone ‘feels’ that he has held the absolute truth. Second, “self-righteousness”, that is the feeling of being the most ‘pious’ while others are seen to be in ‘aisle of error’ and therefore need to be saved.

“Qutbism” in this article refers to Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood ideologist who passed away hanged by the former Egyptian president, Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1966 due to his radical views which provoked Muslim ummah to fight againt the legitimate government that he considered as ‘infidel’ and ‘thaghut’.

Qutbism is not merely a religious phenomenon, but it can also take a secular form, as will be addressed in the last part of this note.

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I had suffered this Qutbism “disease” in two stages of my life at least. First, when I was young and fascinated by Sayyid Qutb’s ideas, especially from his book entitled Ma’alim fi al-Thariq, a manifesto written by Qutb in very beautiful and elegant Arabic. This book had bewitched me when I was only about 19 years old. Also, the manifesto has inspired thousands of young Muslims around the world, encouraging them to become fundamentalist-radicals and slip into the symptoms of takfir (easily labelling others as infidels).

No longer after reading this book, I was immersed in a kind of ‘getting drunk’ experience. It was during this period of ‘drunkenness’ that I arrogantly thought everyone around me was ‘jahiliyyah’, in the darkness of faith. “I was the only one who had the most correct Islamic theology”. Fortunately, I just kept such condition in mind and never preached it verbally.

I recovered from this ‘drunkenness’ thanks to the ideas of Islamic renewal proposed by Indonesian Islamic scholars: Nurcholish Madjid, known as Cak Nur, and Abdurrahman Wahid, known as Gus Dur. I actually read the ideas of these two pious-thinkers from Indonesia long before I got acquainted with Sayyid Qutb’s notions.

When I was bewitched by Qutb’s ideas, I was actually “forgetting”. Soon after that, I started to feel something strange about Qutb’s ideas. I thought, if it was continued, this Qutb’s ideas could lead me to “totalitarian” ways of life, feeling as the true holder of absolutely absolute views.

After recovering from this disease, I then experienced a very fun ‘intellectual adventure’. This was the most beautiful time in my life. I thank God for being given the opportunity to enjoy this adventure. However, there were also traps in this journey. At the end of this adventure, I had almost “slipped” in another similar Qutbism trap which I want to call as “scientism”.

By scientism here I mean as a view that sees modern science – especially in terms of natural sciences – as a paradigmatic model for the most perfect human knowledge because it provides definite foundations of knowledge based on empirical data.

I’m not the one who studies natural science formally. My education was to study Jurumiyah and Taqrib – two elementary textbooks in Arabic grammar and the science of jurisprudence taught in traditional Islamic school. However, in this intellectual journey, and due to my interactions with a number of friends, I finally met a lot of popular literature in the field of science. I began to get acquainted with books written by Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Steven Weinberg, E. O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Peter Atkins, Victor Stenger, and many others.

I really enjoy reading these science-related textbooks. At least, through these readings I know how modern science understands important questions in human life: How was the origin of the universe? How was the origin of life on earth? How do animal and human societies work? And how must the phenomenon of human consciousness be explained? And so forth.

I once got “drunk” briefly in this period of scientism. I was tempted for a moment to think that modern science can be considered as the most successful way in explaining “life”. Other sciences are otherwise inferior.

Yes, I just drunk for a while. I could move on after I began to feel something strange among the supporters of this science. Let’s say, they have characteristics that are quite similar to those of religious Qutbism – arrogant, feeling themselves morally superior over others; that is self-righteousness.

It was at this point that I became introduced with the ideas of an American mathematician and philosopher, David Berlinski (A PhD holder in philosophy from Princeton University). He wrote a book with a rather ‘provocative’ title: “Devil’s Delusion – Atheism and Its Scientific Pretension” (2008). This book is clearly an outspoken refutation against the famous Richard Dawkins’ book: “God’s Delusion” (2006) and the works of other “new atheists” such as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.

One of the paragraphs that is relevant to my experience in his Berlinski’s book regarding the “arrogance” of some scientists and supporters of modern science. In the introductory section, Berlinski writes:

“Occupied by their own concerns, a great many men and women have a dull, hurt, angry sense of being oppressed by the sciences. They are frustrated by endless scientific boasting. They suspect that as an istitution, the scientific community holds them in contempt. They feel no little distaste for those speaking in its name. They are right to feel this way. I have written this book for them.”

In short, Berlinski says that many people are annoyed because of scientific boasting performed by the scientist community. They feel to be marginalized by the supporters of science because they are given only two choices: science or religion; if science is right, then religion is automatically wrong.

I feel represented by Berlinski through his succinct statement. Berlinski is not a follower of any particular religion. He describes himself as a secular Jew who had never gone to a synagogue, but he was also irritated by the symptoms of what he calls as “scientific boasting”. I am a person who does not like arrogance, either religious or secular ones. The ideas of liberal Islam that I had put forward in the early 2000s were precisely to criticize the “religious arrogance” that was exhibited by some radical fundamentalist Muslims with a variety of spectrums.

On the other hand, I also have a similar annoyance with the secular arrogance that I see in the “scientism” phenomenon – a perspective that regards science as the only proper explanation of Life with a big “L” while others, especially religion, are superstitions and myths which are remnants of human childhood.

I grew up in an Indonesian traditional Islamic environment and studied moral teaching called tawadlu’, “ethics of humility”, dislike to judge others. Arrogance is the most taboo thing in the culture in which I grow; except if “being provoked” disproportionately by another party: what can I do.

Every form of arrogance, either religious or secular, immediately causes a reflex of rejection in myself. I can now understand well the “annoyance” of al-Ghazali against such philosophers (read: scientists) of his day as he uttered in his autobiography that I was studied, entitled al-Munqidh Min al-Dalal, Deliverance from Error.

What was written by al-Ghazali nearly a thousand years ago echoed a similar view written by Berlinski in this century. Both al-Ghazali and Berlinski wanted to distinguish between “science” and “scientism”. Science is a set of natural facts supported by solid “evidence”, or “burhan” in Ghazali’s language. While scientism is an ideology embraced by practitioners of science in the name of science. Scientism is “pretense” (in Berlinski’s language) in the name of science, not science itself.

As every “pretense” does, they can be too far and behave annoyingly such as the aforementioned “scientific boasting”. This is illustrated, for instance, in the statement of Peter Atkins, a chemist from England who teaches at Oxford University when writes:

“… there is can be no denying the proposition that science is the best procedure yet discovered for exposing the fundamental truths about the world. By its combination of careful experimentation guided by theory, and its elaboration and improvement of theory based on experiments it inspired, it has shown itself to be of enormous power for the elucidation and control of nature… No other mode of discovery has proved to be so effective or to contribute so much towards the achievement of the aspirations of humanity.” (Peter Atkins, “Science as Truth”).

It is this “pretense” that has been criticized by scholars such as al-Ghazali, Berlinski, or John Lennox (a mathematician from Oxford University who wrote a book titled “God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?”). What scholars like al-Ghazali criticize are not philosophy or science per se, but “ideological assumptions” that lie behind the authority of science.

I still admire science. In my perspective, science is one (not the only!) form of human knowledge bestowed by God for their benefit. What I don’t admire is scientism and “scientific arrogance” as well as other kinds of arrogance.

Translated from original post in Facebook:  by Ulil Abshar Abdalla, published on June 1, 2020.