December 28, 2003


Reader Mahsheed pointed to this essay, Is There and Islamic Problem?, and asked what I think of it. I've read it a few times; there's a lot to digest, but my overall impression isn't all that favorable. I'll have more to say later, but there's a passage I couldn't help noting:

In addition, the standard claims about the rationality of modern Europe – even during the Enlightenment – are exaggerated. Several of the leading scientists of the seventeenth century – including Tycho Brahe, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler and Pierre Gassendi – admired for their contributions to the development of modern physics and astronomy, held astrology in high esteem. Even Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest scientist of modern times, devoted nearly two decades of his life to investigations in alchemy. A mere twelve percent of the books in Newton’s library were on physics, astronomy and mathematics. On the contrary, not only were the leading philosopher-scientists of Islamicate societies opposed to astrology, so was Islamic orthodoxy.

This is a point I've raised myself; among Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers, there was a ferment of ideas, some of which were based on odd notions and sources. Over the weekend, I read about John Calvin's struggle to suppress "superstition" -- the problem, obviously, is that for all Newton's superstition, it's clear to me what humanity gains by suppressing speculative thought, some (perhaps most) of which will be nonsense on the order of the works of Johann Valentin Andrea, and some of which will be the The Principia. I am reminded of a line from Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, that in the end, reason is unreasonable. If the Wright Brothers believed in elves, and that by flying they would have the opportunity to commune with the elves, would that have diminished their airplane?

From which has humanity benefitted more -- from Calvin's austere theology, or Newton's expansive reading?

Posted by Ideofact at December 28, 2003 11:39 PM

Hi, Thanks for commenting on it. I hope you can say a little more because you have the necessary background, imo. Is his argument credible?

Posted by: Mahsheed at December 30, 2003 03:03 PM

I'd also like to add that you make a good point here and I agree with you that real progress often necessitates some thinking "outside the box".

Posted by: Mahsheed at January 1, 2004 04:30 PM