The writer is vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. He holds a PhD in Economics from Stanford University
Historical accidents have shrouded the emergence of science and the scientific method behind multiple veils of mystery. Misunderstanding the nature of science has led to seriously defective methodologies in modern social science, especially economics. The first barrier to understanding is created by Eurocentric history which states that roots of modern sciences originated with the Greeks. According to this account, the Muslims preserved Greek knowledge, and passed it on to Europe, without making any significant improvements. The Europeans took up the mantle of their Greek ancestors and have since made fantastic progress. The myth that “Europeans are unique in their capacity for rational and scientific thought” has been debunked effectively by many historians, notably Blaut in Eight Eurocentric Historians. Nonetheless, these ideas have been widely propagated, and permeate public consciousness.
Jack Goody in The Theft of History has shown that many inventions of other civilisations were appropriated by European historians and attributed to Europeans to create a Eurocentric history. Even though it is transparently obvious that the flames of the European Enlightenment were lit by sparks from the advanced civilisation of Islamic Spain, one will not find any mention of this in the standard historical accounts. Similarly, conventional histories gloss over the breeding of corn by the master botanists among the Incas (which feeds half the world today), the crucial inventions of papermaking, printing, gunpowder and compass by the Chinese, development of calculus by the Kerala school of mathematicians, and the diverse and extensive contributions of the Islamic civilisation in many fields. Quite apart from the injustice in this distortion of history, this process of negating the Islamic contribution to development of science results in a loss of understanding of the nature and significance of the contribution. If we peel apart the veils of these historical distortions, it becomes crystal clear that science and the scientific method originated in the Islamic civilisation. The discovery of the experimental method by the Muslims was such an important advance on Greek science that it has been termed a conceptual revolution which was “greatest idea of the second millennium”. Our goal is to explain the nature of this advance.
The Greeks originated the first systematic study of Geometry, via the famous axioms of Euclid. The tremendous value and importance of these methods is obvious because these methods are still taught in schools and universities. The purely axiomatic and logical structure of these methods leads to iron-clad certainties which do not require empirical verification. When the Greeks turned to the study of nature, they tried to use the same method that had been so successful. Aristotle argued that induction from observations could be used to frame axioms, but the laws of science must be based on logic, parallel to geometry. Logic reveals grand universal truths, while observations can only reveal lowly ‘contingent truths’ which are valid within a particular historical context under specific circumstances. Richard Powers writes that “the most important idea of this millennium was (due to) Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn ul-Haitham [who] … remains little-known … But the idea that Ibn al-Haytham championed is so ingrained in us that we don’t even think of it as an innovation, let alone one that has appeared so late in the human day.” Greek axioms and logic had led to two rival theories about vision, which had remained deadlocked for 800 years. One way of framing axioms led to the conclusion that light emanated from the eyes and struck the object, while the other led to the reverse conclusion. Ibn-ul-Haitham used observational evidence to definitively settle the matter. For example, he argued that staring at the sun burns the retina, establishing that light travels from the sun to the eyes. His striking innovation was that he made no appeal to theory, axioms or logic. Instead, he demolished a whole mountain of Greek theory with a single appeal to data.
The difference between axiomatic-deductive methodology of the Greeks and scientific methodology developed by Ibn-ul-Haitham and followers is like night and day. This difference can be illustrated and clarified by a wide range of examples. For instance, let us consider the discovery of the atom. Often credited for discovery of the atom, Democritus followed the typical Greek method. He argued that if we kept subdividing matter, we would reach the smallest possible particle, after which no further subdivision would be possible. This was seen as a logical necessity, not as an empirical fact. If viewed experimentally, this logic is deeply flawed. The process of subdivision is constrained by human experimental capabilities, not just the properties of matter. Experimentation and observational evidence have led to knowledge which could never be achieved by axioms and logic. Advances in experimental techniques led to the splitting of atoms, clarifying the structure of matter in ways which were impossible earlier. It was precisely this time-barred and contingent nature of experimental truths which repelled the Greeks.
In contrast to Democritus, Dalton’s discovery of the atom reflects the scientific method. The observation that certain chemicals only combine in fixed proportions, led Dalton to postulate that this was due to properties of the atoms which made up the chemicals. Dalton derived properties of atoms from the observation of a particular fact which was impossible to derive from logic or from intuitive certainties. Similarly, observational evidence about electrons led Niels Bohr to scientific theories which appear logically impossible — that electrons jump from one orbit to another without passing intermediate stages. If economists had imposed their axioms for rational behaviour on electrons, forcing them to behave in a logical manner, we would never have arrived at quantum theory. The essence of the scientific method consists of letting observations guide the construction of theory, regardless of how crazy the theory appears to be logically. Contemporary economic methodology is firmly based on the Greek conception of science and gives primacy to axioms and logic over observations. The mystery of why economists use a pre-scientific methodology and confuse it with science will be resolved later.
The emergence of science, by Dr Asad Zaman, tribune.com.pk