Thursday, January 10, 2008

Common Misconceptions

In this post I present the notion of "misconception". This is because most Islamic writings that describe the relationship between Islam and modern science are mainly based on misconceptions.

Basically, a concept is an abstract or general idea inferred or derived from specific instances and is typically labeled or designated by a corresponding term. For example, in Physics, we have concepts like motion, velocity, force and mass. Concepts help to integrate apparently unrelated observations and phenomena into theories and laws, which are the basic ingredients of science. For example, the concept of motion is described using the concepts of velocity, acceleration, displacement and time, and the relationship between motion and force is described in Newton's laws of motion. The ability to form or understand mental concepts and abstractions is called conception. A misconception is an incorrect conception which happens when a person believes in a concept that is objectively false. For example, in the theory of evolution, the idea that humans evolved from monkeys is a popular scientific misconception of the idea that humans and the monkeys simply share a common ancestor. A list of some common misconceptions and their corresponding clarifications can be found here.

A misconception may result from incorrect information (aka erroneous belief) or from incorrect reasoning (aka logical fallacy). When a misconception is favorable to the person who holds it is called self-deception. But when a person strongly holds a false belief in spite of invalidating evidence then it is called delusion.

One of the critical erroneous belief misconception in science is to believe that science is about proving anything. Proving something does not make it true. Nothing in science is ever proved true, it is only confirmed by observation and/or experiment. Regardless of how well or how long something has been confirmed, it is always subject to falsification or correction by new observations or experiments. For example, Newton's laws of motion and classical mechanics were verified by experiment and observation for over 200 years but they later were modified when the Special Theory of Relativity was introduced and showed that the laws would be wrong at very high speeds.

Another common misconception is the
confusion over the meanings of the terms "fact", "law" and "theory" by suggesting that "fact" means "truth," and "theory" means "speculation" or that a "law" is more certain than a "theory". Scientific facts, laws and theories are three very different types of statements. Scientific facts are controlled, repeatable and verified scientific observation or phenomena. A scientific law is a description of an observed regularity among facts, often expressible as a simple mathematical formula. A theory is an integrated conceptual framework for explaining and reasoning about the events that have been observed and if a lot of evidence is collected to support the theory, it will probably be considered as a good explanation. It may, given even more testing and verification of its predictions, become an accepted theory. The notions of "fact", "law" and "theory" can be illustrated by considering the "gravity" concept:
It is a scientific observed fact that if we drop anything heavier than air then it will fall. This fact is described by Newton's "law of Universal Gravitation". Newton described the behavior of the gravity by this law but he did not (actually could not) explain why gravity did it. Einstein developed a theory of gravity, called the "General Theory of Relativity", which explained how gravity works. This theory is widely accepted as most of its predictions have been verified in many experimental observations.
Apart from factual misconceptions, a reasoning misconception, or a fallacy, is a component of an argument that is evidently flawed in its logic or structure thus restating the whole argument to become incorrect. Fallacious arguments are very common and can be quite persuasive. A careful look at newspapers, advertisements, and religious and political propaganda can reveal many fallacious reasoning and arguments. But it is sometimes hard to evaluate whether an argument is fallacious depending on the complexity of its strcuture.

A very common fallacy is known as the appeal to authority. Here, a person accepts a claim because he erroneously believe that the claimant is a legitimate source or an expert on the field of that claim. For example, a person believes that the universe was created in 6 days because the Quran said so and he believes that the Quran is a ligitimate divine source of knowledge.
Other common fallacies are the regression fallacy, cherry picking and appeal to emotion. A detailed list of common fallacies can be found here and here.

On the other hand, misrepresentation of a concept, though not a misconception in itself, may produce a misconception. For example, the misrepresentation of the theory of evolution as presented by a creationist produces a misconception which can be revealed by considering a corresponding presentation by a theistic pro-Darwin biologist.

Many people have difficulty challenging their misconceptions. This is due to several reasons. Some people have long adopted misconceptions and they become deeply ingrained in their minds. Other people lack the will or ability to gain new information or re-evaluate old information and therefore they don't like to be proven wrong even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Some people may purposely embrace and propagate misconceptions to achieve some personal, religious or political goals. It is necessary to mention that due to the objective nature of conceptions and the subjective nature of being human, it is likely that everyone has some kind of misconception.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Perspectives on Islam and Modern Science

The majority of Muslims today believe that Islam is in complete harmony with modern science and that the relationship between Islam and science is very strong. This belief is based on many claimed observations. There are many references in the Quran and the Sunnah that encourage the act of seeking knowledge and that appreciate and glorify science and scientists. Also, many Muslims are convinced that modern science was first developed in the Muslim world by Muslim scientists under the Islamic civilization. Moreover, there is a strong focus in the Muslim world nowadays to claim a divine inspiration for Islam by showing that it is a dispenser of scientific truth. This is done by interpreting particular verses of the Quran (and sometimes particular elements from the Sunnah) and claim to show that these verses make prescient statements about the nature of the universe and many other phenomena recently confirmed or discovered through scientific research. This field is widely known as the scientific miracles in the Quran (or Sunnah) and is widely presented by many Islamic scholars as a proof of the divine nature of the revealed Quran and therefore the divine nature of Islam itself. On the other hand, the term "religion scientists" is widely used in the Muslim world, from the layman to the highly educated individual, to refer to the Muslim priests who are specialized in issuing Fatwas or to the Muslim scholars who are involved in "Islamic studies"; which is an umbrella term for traditional Islamic academic research, such as Islamic theology, Islamic history, Islamic economics and Islamic jurisprudence.

However, this claimed association between Islam and modern science raises the following questions:
  1. Are the above claimed observations correct?
  2. Are they sufficient to claim a strong association between Islam and modern science?
  3. Do they reflect the reality of the scientific understanding in the Muslim world today?
The answers to these questions will be demonstrated in the following posts. So stay tuned!