Monday, October 01, 2007

Taner Edis visits Waterloo

Taner Edis, a professor of physics at Truman State University in Missouri, and the co-editor of the anthology Why Intelligent Design Fails? visited Waterloo briefly last Friday. He gave at talk at Wilfrid Laurier University, down the street from me, on "Science and Religion in Islam". This is a topic of his recent book, An Illusion of Harmony.

I've known of his work for quite a while, but had never heard him speak in person. Edis is noteworthy in part because of his Turkish roots, which give him some insight into the Muslim world's flirtation with pseudoscience and creationism. And he is an extremely fair writer, in the model of Ed Brayton, who always tries to understand the other side's position and summarize it accurately.

He started by pointing out that different sciences have converged, through separate paths, on naturalistic explanations for the world. ( If I may quote Stephen Weinberg, "religious skepticism is not a prejudice that governed science from the beginning, but a lesson that has been learned through centures of experience in the study of nature." ) These explanations cast doubt on the reality of supernatural beings.

Scientific materialism, therefore, is a threat to modern religious belief, although technology itself is attractive. There are two kinds of responses: try to show that science supports religious belief (say, by finding passages in the Koran that supposedly presage modern scientific developments) or argue that "true science" is compatible with religion.

While there are many Christian sects that support a young-earth creationist view, in Islam, the old-earth creationist view predominates. There is a strain of Islamic creationism that originated in Turkey but has become popular world-wide. As an example, Edis passed around a truly revolting tract by Harun Yahya entitled Fascism: The Bloody Ideology of Darwinism.

Edis discussed two science-related "urban legends" that are widely repeated in Islamic communities. One was that Jacques Cousteau became a Muslim after observing that there is a salinity barrier in the Mediterranean which is supposedly mentioned in the Koran.

Edis pointed out that Muslims who advance pseudoscience are not opposed to all science and technology. As an example, he cited the Nur movement, whose followers are very pro-technology.

Edis stated that Darwinian evolution, particular human evolution, is not widely accepted in Islam because a naturalistic process with random elements is unacceptable theologically. Islam differs from Christianity in that Christianity has a large number of moderate sects that view science as a separate domain, while Muslims typically see science as subordinate to the revelations of the Koran. Liberal Muslim views are much rarer than liberal Christian views.

Edis pointed out that Muslim countries are very weak in science, although applied science does better than basic research. Those who point out that creationism is pseudoscience are labeled as "secularist".

Altogether, I found Edis' talk to be informative and well-presented. I can't say as much, regrettably, for the questions that followed. I was startled at how incoherent some of the questions were, and some questioners didn't seem to listen carefully to his replies, apparently preferring to base their remarks on caricatures.

A Muslim woman who said she was a professor of chemistry at Wilfrid Laurier (probably this professor) made two statements. First, she said that, as a chemist, she saw no conflict between science and her religion, because Islam instructs its followers to be seekers after truth. Second, she disputed the title of the talk, saying that "Science and Religion in Islam" was misleading because the talk was not about the true Islam. In other words, she employed the "No True Scotsman" fallacy.

In reply, Edis correctly observed that chemistry enjoys a slightly different position than physics or biology. Some aspects of physics and biology (e.g., cosmology, evolution) provide explanations for the world that are significantly at odds with religious claims. Chemistry, however, seems to intrude less significantly into what has traditionally been perceived as religion's domain.

Edis rebutted her second statement by pointing out that, as a non-believer, for him there was no "true Islam", but only a variety of different Islams as practiced by different religious groups. He said it would be arrogant for him to pick one of these Islams and declare it as the true Islam; that was for believers to decide. His concern was to examine Islam as it was actually practiced.

Another Muslim questioner heard Edis' response about chemistry and didn't seem to grasp the distinction Edis was making, saying that he had dismissed chemistry as less important than biology or physics (something not even remotely implied by Edis' reply). The same questioner dismissed the theory of evolution as just one explanation among many.

It was an interesting afternoon, and I only wish I had had more time to discuss with Edis after the talk.


Don said...

I'm not sure what you meant by "Scientific materialism, therefore, is a threat to modern religious belief, although technology itself is attractive"
Was the completion " modern religious belief"?
If so, I don't know why that should be, unless you're saying that using technology doesn't force you to accept the science behind it.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I am summarizing Taner's talk here. The completion to "attractive" was an implicit "to believers in Islam".

Anonymous said...

I knew before you even said it that that second Muslim commenter was probably a creationist. Red herrings are their favorite rhetorical delicacy.

Mark said...

Are there any prominent Muslim probability and statistics workers? Are there any that develop probabilistic methods to study biology, physics, or geology?

Erdos56 said...

Your preface to mentioning the No True Scotsman fallacy brings up the other common argument that arises: the cherry-picking of scriptural verse to support moral claims. I've been trying to develop a phrase for this inevitable rhetorical tool:

Scriptural Cherry Picking
The Selectivity Fallacy
The Scriptural Sieve Fallacy
Argument from Limited Authority
Argument from Prismatic Authority
Careful Lensing