Your Mail

 

Counseling:

Ask the Scholar

|

Ask About Islam

|

Hajj & `Umrah

|

Cyber Counselor

|

Parenting Counselor

 

Search

Advanced Search

 



Critiques and Thought | Islamic Themes | Human Condition & Social Context | Scientific Domain | Interfaith, Intercivilizational & Intercultural | Interviews, Reviews and Events


Progress and Science

By Dr. Abdul Wahab El-Messiri
Translated by Dr. Mazen El-Naggar

24/12/2003

The Following is a chapter from Dr. Abdul Wahab El-Messiri's autobiography entitled "My Journey in the Seeds, Roots, and Fruits" translated from Arabic.

I recall, in my youth, a conversation with my school colleague and my long time friend, Dr. Attiyyah Hamid, regarding my dreams for Egypt, among which I mentioned the agricultural mechanization. He surprised me, as he was more agriculture savvy than myself (he lived in the rural Abi al-Matameer while my experience was limited to Damanhour), by dismissing the idea as a disaster. For if the agricultural mechanization was introduced, unemployment rates shall soar among millions of agricultural workers. His comeback was a complete surprise to me; for newspapers and magazines did not waver in addressing 'mechanization' as the perfect solution for all problems. Dr. Hamids reply, in fact, put forward the problematic of 'nature' (matter/machine) and 'Man'; as Man is the ultimate end and shall not be instrumentalized. This dialogue was impressed in my mind and did not leave ever since.


[this is to] put forward the problematic of 'nature' (matter/machine) and 'Man'; as Man is the ultimate end and shall not be instrumentalized. This dialogue was impressed in my mind and did not leave ever since.


I arrived to the United States at a time the New Criticism school was predominant in most of the English Literature departments. This school emphasizes reading and analyzing texts; as it avoids historical and social interpretations. A literary text -according to the theorists of this school--is a self-sufficient structure that resembles a flower vase and can be comprehended from within without the need to grasp its context, its historical background, the author's autobiography or intents. Thus, the critical process, as introduced by the critics of this school, takes the form of internal 'text de-codification' through what is termed as "close reading". Such reading focuses on the text's internal relationships (i.e., its associations and interactions) as it excludes its historical, social, cultural and psychological aspects. New critics used to believe that within each great creative work, there is a perception of the paradox that characterizes the human existence experience (some of them considered the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the greatest Paradox; for that life is born from his death and triumph is born from his downfall). Moreover, they distinguish between the human phenomenon from natural phenomenon through the paradox that can be conveyed by poetry diction; as it is capable of addressing a certain motif and its antithesis, together. This is in contrast to the abstract scientific diction that can only treat abstract scientific rules, one motif or its antithesis. Therefore, poetry and metaphor became intimately attached to the very human existence; as human emotions can only be expressed through such themes.

I did not embrace the New Criticism thinkers vision regarding the literary text; however, I was profoundly influenced by some of its critical and philosophical premises, such as its discernment between the scientific, (natural and materialist) phenomenon and the human phenomenon, its misgiving in regard to science as deemed insufficient paradigm to express the human experience. I always endeavored to view the literary text as an entity comprising numerous complex elements, one of which is paradox; but it is not necessarily the most significant. The shape of the text and structure resemble but (do not reflect) the construction with a historical moment. I, hence, availed myself from the 'close reading' methodology without subscribing to its underlying 'anti-historical' paradigm.


The shape of the text and structure resemble but (do not reflect) the construction with a historical moment.


I recall that in 1965, a friend of mine a French Professor of physics and a member of the New Left, invited me to accompany him and visit the atomic bomb inventor, Robert Oppenheimer, in his home in Princeton, New Jersey. Oppenheimer was the chief of the San Alamos team that 'succeeded' in utilizing nuclear energy to perform the first nuclear explosion. The great scientist served us tea and after we chatted about everything, the New Left and American capitalism, I asked him: What were your feelings after you realized that your project has succeeded and that the time for the first explosion became near? He replied very briefly: I vomited, i.e., he realized the savagery of the scientific paradigm which directs his behavior during his work on the atomic bomb and that it is a paradigm detached from Man, Mans values and ultimate ends. I was amazed by his reply that reminded me of what Francois Rabelais; If science is not connected to consciousness, it shall lead to self-destruction, and reminded me of the Friday sermon cleric in Al-Habashi mosque in Damanhour as he who used to seek refuge in God from science that does not avail. Oppenheimers reply to my question supported my sense of distinction between the human and the natural, that of the insufficiency of science in acquainting with Man and Mans system of values and aesthetics and of the dangers involved in the separation between scientific experimentation and human purposes (it should be acknowledged that Oppenheimer spent the rest of his life fighting the use of atomic bomb).


If science is not connected to consciousness, it shall lead to self-destruction.


I started to experience deep doubts in regard to some premises that were turned to obscurant secular absolutes such as belief in science, progress and technology. I learned from Kevin Reillys book The West and the World, that science has a varying history and that the purposes of the Byzantine and Islamic science differ, for instance, from those of modern science. I started to find out, as an example, that the materialist thought which emerged in the eighteenth century and received some substantial credibility from various 'scientific' discoveries in the nineteenth century was based on erroneous scientific hypotheses such as simple causality law which was born in the hotbed of Newtons (mechanical materialist) outlook of the universe. Newtons world is a tightened closed one that is characterized by its mechanical determinism. The Newtons reasoning about the universe is predicated on the mechanisms of the particles physical (configuration) existence and the motion laws. Consequently, the materialist scientific outlook emerged and argued for laws that govern physical phenomena. Such laws are deduced from the induction based on experimentation and observation; its first pillar is the doctrine of causality and determinism and that no contemplation is possible outside research laboratory and experiment results.

The above outlook remained completely in control until the end of the nineteenth century. Henceforth, substantial criticism had been aimed at that closed system with all its hypotheses of determinism, objectivity, absolutism of space and time, and the possibility of pure objective observation of reality and hard causality. The latter most denotes that cause A renders effect B as simple as heat causes steel expansion. The Quantum theory, Heisenbergs indeterminate doctrine, and the relativity theory all together weakened these hypotheses. Consider, for instance, the principle of confusion, i.e., the inability to differentiate between the individual (unique) particles that are micro-physically examined due to the removal of its uniqueness. So if we have two particles in the same place and we desired to follow the path of certain particle, the issue shall be confused; i.e., we will be unable to differentiate one from another.

I, lately, read in the Time magazine, about a scientific experiment performed on photons and showed that when they are subject to certain experiment, they react and alter their behavior. This is an entirely new matter; however, can we generalize such pattern for the whole universe? For one of the problems encountered by social sciences is the behavior alteration Man shows when one realizes that he/she is the subject to an experiment; so shall natural science encounter the same problem?

The Relativity theory demolished the borders between subject and object; it gave the observer a great deal of importance for his/her speed or stillness would alter the results of measurement. The standards used to measure durations and distances eventually rely on the monitor's point of view and the signal framework which adds a subjective attribute to the measurement process (in the classic physics, measurement results are independent of the observer's speed). As a result, it is not possible any more for physics to attain its (claims of) objectivity; i.e., Man is no more able to see nature itself as one can only behold the "observed" nature.

A non-materialist existence of atomic energy appeared as the single undulatory existence (waves). The examination of light phenomenon proved that photons behave in certain experimental circumstances as composed of light particles and beams; however, in other experimental circumstances, photons behave as composed of waves. (One physicist sarcastically said: "On Saturday, Monday and Wednesday, we define light as particles and beams; then it turns to waves for the rest of the week".) This is known as the "principle of dualism"; it is also a valid principle in the case of atoms that sometimes behave as waves and other times as particles. No single experiment could prove that photons are both particles and waves, in the same time; for each experiment only reveals one physical state, either particles or waves.


No single experiment could prove that [light] photons are both particles and waves, in the same time; for each experiment only reveals one physical state, either particles or waves.


The logic of science used to only offer two values: truth or falsehood, i.e., issues are either 'true' or 'false'. Nevertheless, now it is possible to have a trilateral logic that has a median value of 'indetermination'; accordingly, issues are deemed either true, or false, or indeterminate (i.e., undefined). It also can be said that "physical" reality, as Fu'ad Kamil accurately stated it in his article titled: The Crisis of Modern Science, "accepts two possible and equally sound explanations (outcomes) but they can never be combined both in one picture because the law of indetermination makes it impossible perform any determinative experiment so as to determine which explanation is the truth and which is falsehood." It seems that this logic represents the final picture of the Quantum physics all the way to the present moment.

Finally, if we ask: What is matter? The answer cannot be obtained via physical experiments alone; rather it needs a philosophical analysis of physics. As nature does not dictate one particular situation on us; truth is not limited to one particular diction.


As nature does not dictate one particular situation on us; truth is not limited to one particular diction.


Perhaps, discovering black holes in the universe has great significance on both scientific and symbolic levels. For, inside these holes, the laws of physics and biology as well as time and space all and light (the constant element in nature) is, in turn, devoured. We can see the black holes' effects on their surroundings but we do not fathom their (fathomless) secrets; as they exist and play an essential role such that we cannot understand some phenomena without them. Yet they are not subject to human control and we do not fathom their secrets completely. Lately, the chaos theory emerged and unleashed a new strike against the solid closed materialist (outlook of the) world.

In addition, I realized that much of the so called 'scientific laws' are, in reality, a priori philosophical categories embraced by scientists but have none or a flimsy relationship with the realm of scientific experimentation. If, for instance, a scientist says that the world appeared by chance; such statement only asserts his/her 'belief' in that fact or his failure to understand the universe true origin. Similarly, when another scientist addresses the 'automobile material', the scientist, in fact, names something that he/she does not understand its. In both cases, both scientists came from obscurant philosophical premises that precede the experimentation process itself.


'scientific laws' are, in reality, a priori philosophical categories embraced by scientists but have none or a flimsy relationship with the realm of scientific experimentation.


A physicist and friend of mine told me that in order to embark upon a grand unification theory requires the absorption of and accounting for all the knowledge, facts, information or their bases. This is though deemed impossible at present; human knowledge was doubled during the periods: early history-1750, 1750-1900, and 1900-1950. During 1950-1990, it was doubled once every decade and after that once every five years. So I asked him: What if we store all human knowledge in a super computer? He replied: The difficulty of retrieving and/or utilizing all that knowledge still has to be encountered. Another scientist told me that a class of problems is known as 'theoretically tractable' and that solving them shall require that the current generation of computers to work for thousands of years to that end; perhaps that is all the time left for mankind on earth!

The limitations of the human mind, on the one hand, and the accumulation of information and scientific facts, on the other hand, had rendered the cooperative team work an inevitable necessity for scientific research while the scientific discovery could not be but individualistic. This is the 'Catch-22 dilemma': no single individual can absorb all science outcomes for they are so voluminous and cumulative; however, one individual is supposed to arrive at one or more scientific theory (such as the relativity theory) which explains or reasons about the outcomes of various sciences. Consequently, it now turns to be impossible to formulate a general theorem based on the materialist/natural donne available to us, as it was in the past. For we do not know some of it although is known to others and some of that still awaits solutions.


[I]t now turns to be impossible to formulate a general theorem based on the materialist/natural donne available to us, as it was in the past.


Our world had immensely expanded on the macro level (heavenly bodies, stars, cosmos, etc.) and on the micro level (particle, atom, etc). The realm of knowledge has an unprecedented expansion. If we also consider the issue of narrow specialization (i.e., the true scientist/scholar is the one who knows his domain completely), we will gradually encounter the specialized scientist who knows so much regarding his narrow specialized domain and ignores so much regarding anything else. One scholar attempted to epitomize the case as he said that specialization is to know more about your narrow domain, then your knowledge expands more and your domain gets narrower until you know everything about nothing!

The Egyptian writer, Muhammad Sid Ahmed, published an article in Al-Ahram daily, on a parallel noteworthy observation: ...the most crucial accomplishment of Man by the end of the second millennia is Mans ability to be liberated from the limits of his own size within the universe, the ability to transcend his natural capacity so as to explore the mysteries of the extremely tiny and extremely immense... that is Mans ability to intervene and reformulate nature laws .. For the first time, the 'cultural' intervenes not in reformulating the 'natural'.. but in the realms of the very tiny and very immense that Man became able to pioneer as he does not rely in this endeavor on the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and feeling)... for they are substituted by mathematical equations (formulas) based on assumptions that may hit or miss... Thus, Man became reliant on ambiguous tools which convey more than one explanation and are vulnerable to confusion...Therefore, what promises to accomplish miracles so as to upgrade human destiny may convey, within its folds, the menace of misinterpretation or may crash into unknown and becomes a source of an unparalleled chaos, 'self-destruction' and forms of massive suicide of the entire mankind that, in turn, were never tested before. For such warning to be issued by some serious thinker like Muhammad Sid Ahmed, the matter shall be taken quite earnestly.

Modern science has gradually demolished the notion of 'expanding science domain and diminishing the unknown' (a naive idea that induced an optimistic scientist from the nineteenth century to predict that within thirty years Man will know everything; thus, there shall be no need for God, morals or religion). After a century of scientific experiments, Man discovered that with every exploration and control of something, a thousand new unknown and uncontrollable things emerge; i.e., the more knowledge man acquires, more ignorance is encountered. Along this situation is our experience with the atom; that particular thing which moves without any (known) law and is difficult to monitor. Nonetheless, at every attempt to monitor atom, we discover new issues that puzzle us. The next step on our agenda is to split the atom; once that is accomplished, it is assumed that we will reach an earthly paradise. Now we are in a dilemma in regard to how get rid of the nuclear waste, however. We ended up concluding that it could annihilate us as well as our planet, together. And we still hold to the "fire ball", i.e., nuclear waste and arms that are capable of annihilating the world several times.


After a century of scientific experiments, Man discovered that with every exploration and control of something, a thousand new unknown and uncontrollable things emerge; i.e., the more knowledge man acquires, more ignorance is encountered


If controlling nature is science's greatest illusion, the actual reality is to the contrary, however. This issue surpass the atomic realm to some technological 'discoveries' which we use in our daily life. So it has been reported that genetically modified food could diminish the human immune system (as proven in some scientific experiments); thus, the term 'Frankenstein food'. A British scientist was dismissed from his job because he went on asserting this premise; some of his students demonstrated in order to support his assertions. Such does not differ much from what happened to one of my friends in the U.S. as he performed some tests on microwave ovens and found them gravely harmful to human health. But before he could reach the final conclusion of his research, his budget was withdrawn under financial austerity claims. Likewise, we do not know the effects of computer and microfilm screens on human body and eyes.

One scientist put forward several questions in regard to simple matters that reveal the limitations of human knowledge: Why humans are the only mammals that use their right limbs more often than left limbs? Why do indoor plant conditions change due to change in psyche and mood of their owners? Why do schools of migrating birds take the shape of an arrow head when they are flying? How can small animals (such as birds and fishes) manage to travel thousands of miles towards a certain destination that they have never hit before, generation by generation, and to reach there exactly without a map or compass? How can some lost domestic animals, which are not trained to migrate, travel alone thousands of miles and find their owners? The answer to the above questions depends on the premise that our world encompasses thousands of laws and elements that were not imagined by the discoverer of the thermodynamic laws that combined the laws of material existence and motion in one framework in a primary attempt to put forward a single comprehensive explication of the universe.


Why humans are the only mammals that use their right limbs more often than left limbs? Why do indoor plant conditions change due to change in psyche and mood of their owners?...


Lack of control has become an essential characteristic of our age. The more mechanization and scientific manipulation (of the world) the less control we shall attain over such world. This is revealed through numerous aspects such as environmental crises, failing to get rid of waste and the increasing spread of 'psychological ailments'. Lack of control comically appears perhaps in the two following simple examples: In the U.S. my first name magically turned from Abdelwahab to Abdelwaha because the Computer (software) was not able to find enough space for the last letter of my first name. One employee suggested to me that I change my last name to "Elm" and that should be it; it is an Anglo-Saxon and short name! The Computer can handle it sufficiently. Finally I had a problem with the Newsweek magazine; as they suddenly stopped my subscription. After I complained to them they sent to me a letter welcoming my desire to subscribe; so I wrote to them that their letter was not a proper reply to complaint. So they sent to me another stock (ready made) letter saying that they were sorry for my subscription has expired. I answered with a third letter to notify them of the problem and complaint; then I eventually received an answer to my complaint stating that some mistake took place, they will fix it and send the magazine issues to me. They also requested that I ignore stock letters that I will henceforth receive, as the Computer was expected to shower me with more unstoppable stock letters! This was, in fact, the ultimate lack of control; yet in a trivial matter such as billing or communications let alone serious matters such as cloning, atomic energy or food genetic modification.

Finally, there is the problem of scientific experimentation. Several scientists (who achieved some important discoveries in the genetic engineering field) stand against experimentation in this field fearing its devastating consequences considering the de facto separation between the experimental (empirical) tendency and the human, moral and rational tendency. Thus, experimentation itself turned to be the ultimate end--regardless of its fatal consequences for the mankind. One scholar expressed these concerns as, "In the past, scientific experiment mistakes, such as a (devastating) blast or the like, used to happen within the nature's cycle not as a challenge to nature's laws; therefore, the nature's cycle was able to fix the damage. Hence, if a certain area was polluted, it has to be deserted for number of years so that natural factors may repair the man made damage. The radioactive pollution may last for several thousand years; it remains, however, within the temporal and natural cycle. As for genetic engineering experiments, it is so different from the old traditional breeding in the sense that it completely disregards the biological limits for it is always possible to add genes from virus, bacteria or animals to the plant genetic code (genome). These experiments could bring about new creatures that the nature's cycle cannot deal with; such creatures are beyond the domain of natural evolution". The term 'genetic pollution' was lately coined to denote the transfer of alien genes that had been introduced to some plant (for the purpose of making it more productive or more climate resistant) to another plant (e.g., harmful herb/grass) that could make its eradication a formidable, difficult or impossible matter.

I had described the fears of the Western man from the value and the purpose-free experimentation through my description of some metaphorical and mythological images that engrossed the Western imagination. Among these images is the myth of Prometheus who stole the fire from deities and gave it to Man (for the purpose of enlightenment, of course; i.e., the greatest secular myth). Then followed the Faust's myth who sold his soul to Satan in return of full knowledge that enables him of full control of reality and time (or so he thought). With the inception of the eighteenth century, the Frankenstein myth emerged; such an ugly being that was bred by an enlightened scientist in order to utilize it in his service, personal and human. But, after a little while, the 'creature' killed the 'creator' and broke loose; wreaking havoc and committing genocide. Thus, the outcome of human science is human genocide; the conclusion of human science is inhumane. For, Frankenstein is a natural mechanical man that moves within the mechanical natural laws. Afterward, more myths appeared, such as that of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, which indicate Man's fear for one's concrete human identity vis--vis the abstract mind which moves within the domain of scientific laws and inhumane mathematical formulas. Therefore, after Prometheus stole the fireball from the deities, with extreme confidence, so as to enlighten Man's world and path, he became perplexed as for what he shall do with it afterwards. And instead of utilizing fire, it started to burn his fingers: the ozone layer holes, pollution, family deterioration, the eradication of tropical forests, and the heating effects of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So it became apparent that Man's path was not enlightened; on the contrary, all that progress shall lead to the detriment, annihilation and elimination of Man.

The cost of progress had proven to be exorbitant as it failed to cure most of the Man's spiritual and psychological ailments; instead, it exacerbated them. Progress, as it was put forward to us, is the application of the Western paradigm in development and consumption. This paradigm is predicated on invading and exploiting nature; (consider that 20% of the world population, mainly in the West, consume 80% of the world natural resources). Now, what if both China and India 'progress' according to Western premises/standards? Does that not mean another billion automobiles roaming in the roads, burning oxygen, releasing their immense exhaust and polluting the earth atmosphere? What if Brazil, in turn, progresses and proceeds with the eradication of the tropical forests (in order to establish factories, commercial farms and highways and to accomplish the 'prospective progress' a la Western mode, for that is her national right)? Shall that not lead to exhaust one third of the world's oxygen? If the Western notion of progress is founded on the premise of limitless natural resources, practice proved the contrary, however. Some minerals are depleting from the earth, some animals and plants are considered extinct species every year. The waste-processing problem is worsening as the volume of waste increases scarily. (It is expected that within few years if progress maintains the same rates, mankind shall need six more planets like our Earth to extract enough raw materials and two similar planets to dispose the waste of the savage consumption related to progress). Besides, there is the nuclear waste that we did not figure out a definite way to dispose of, yet. The progress that was presumed to realize Man's pursuit of happiness had turned to a threat against the very existence of Man on this planet.


If the Western notion of progress is founded on the premise of limitless natural resources, practice proved the contrary, however.


There is a question that I put forward to myself and others: Is the human nervous system capable of absorbing all these feelings, thoughts and information that are relayed to Man every day from one's social environment with an increasingly savage and fast tempo? It is a question that we need to stop and wonder for a little while in order to put it forward. Is it coincidental that, in the last decade, the brain stroke syndrome hits more people every year in the Arab countries and entire world than ever? Shall Man be able to maintain strong imagination, meditation and historical memory? Or will computers, under the illusion of control, will render the imagination as obsolete, meditation as impossible and historical memory as an out-of-date matters, respectively; as the experience accumulation is not an important issue? Shall this Man be similar to that of the technological Utopia: in control of everything and under control, as well?

We may inquire regarding progress itself: Does it necessarily realize happiness? An let us inquire with Malcolm X, who said that in order for the state to deal with individuals it has to turn them into numbers and figures lodged in the books, for the state is able to send a human being to the space but does not know how to deal with Men. Actually, the scientific revolution succeeded in developing arms in an unprecedented manner throughout the mankind history; however, if one compares the amount of fundraising which medical researches get compared to the amount directed to the development of arms and military technology, for example, the picture will be clear; Man's inability of fighting influenza is evidence of science's inhumane orientation and of the limits imposed by our very human existence.

I had indicated in the introduction of my book, The Earthly Paradise, that the essence of Western civilization is to believe in the notion of deterministic, lasting and fast "progress" until scientific progress had turned to be an objective by itself. The logic of lasting progress and under any price is the prevailing logic in the west and the entire world. Nevertheless, it seems that the environmental crisis had been worsening in the industrialized societies; for the first time in the history of Western progress, a qualitative (modifying) factor is introduced as intellectuals, as well as laymen, began to address the real expenses of progress and environmental pollution. Is producing a commodity by itself a measure of progress? Or shall progress and decline be measured by standards outside the realm of 'stuff' and quantity; for it is not possible to infer these measures except the human phenomenon and historical environment? If it is a commonplace in the West to address the pollution of environment (external nature), the pollution (corruption) of Man shall be inevitably addressed soon! As for the consumerist societies that believe in their ability to satisfy all Man's desires and by defining them quantitatively--disregarding Man's spiritual needs. Such societies, I affirm, ignore the duality of Man and breed misery for mankind. Such was my discourse at the time, though I used to consider myself then not only secularist but also materialist. It seems, however, that since the beginning I was a partial secularist; i.e., a believer in the separation between the state and the church and not in the separation between the entire human reality and moral values and absolutes (as in the case of the comprehensive secularist thinkers who call for the application of natural law on Man and nature; hence, it is a form of the materialist existential monism, as I shall delineate later). As a result, I demand now to revisit the "progress cost" files, to compare revenue to its cost, and to consider the materialist progress in view of the 'human decay'.


The issue is that my acceptance of scientific knowledge had become provisional, critical and within limits.


All the above induced me to have some reservations and penetrations to some premises that are deemed absolute, by some people, premises such as technological progress and scientific (empirical) experimentation. That shall not be construed as I totally reject scientific knowledge (as some fanatic fundamentalists do), but I do not completely accept it as the only possible knowledge (as some fanatic secularists do), if I shall use the terms coined by my friend, Fahmy Huweidy, the Egyptian thinker and thinker. The issue is that my acceptance of scientific knowledge had become provisional, critical and within limits.

Dr. Abdel-Wahab M. Elmessiri is a Professor Emeritus of English Literature, Ain Shams University, Cairo-Egypt.

Dr. Mazen El-Naggar Researcher and academic with interest in history and social studies.

Contemporary Issues


Critiques and Thought | Islamic Themes | Human Condition & Social Context | Scientific Domain | Interfaith, Intercivilizational & Intercultural | Interviews, Reviews and Events


Send Mail

News | Shari`ah | Health & Science | Muslim Affairs | Reading Islam | Family | Culture | Youth | Euro-Muslims

About Us | Speech of Sheikh Qaradawi | Contact Us | Advertise | Support IOL | Site Map