Monday, 2 July 2007

Rational / Scientific Thinking


First, let us begin by defining the thinking process. Human beings possess the capacity to think, and this capacity is a distinguishing feature of human beings that separates him from all other creations. Although it has been known that human beings possess this capacity, very little effort was dedicated towards producing a concrete definition of thinking. Several ideas and philosophies were flouted, but the first serious attempt at producing a definition of thinking came from the Communists. The Communists defined thinking as a process by which the brain senses matter, producing sensation. Through repeated sensation upon sensation, the human being eventually comprehends the reality he is sensing and is able to develop concepts about it. An example of this is a human being who senses a book in Arabic. Repeated sensation will eventually produce comprehension of the meaning of the words, enabling the human being to think about the meaning of the Arabic text.

While this may have been the first attempt at laying down a definition of thinking, the definition put forth by the Communists was flawed. What the Communists described was SENSATION, but in order for the sensation to produce thinking, the sensation must include an additional element, which is RELEVANT OR BACKGROUND INFORMATION, in order to produce thought. Thus, the thinking process emerges when four elements exist: The reality or subject being thought about, a human brain, senses to transfer the reality to the brain, and relevant or background information. The first three elements (brain, reality, and senses) will merely produce sensation, and this aspect the human being shares with many animals. A human being will take a bite from an apple and sense that it satisfies his hunger, as will an animal, and this will produce a feeling of satisfaction, which will attract the human being (or any other animal) to anything that looks like an apple. However, the process of analyzing the apple physical and chemical attributes, questioning where the apple came from, studying how the apple grows, and attempting to harvest and grow the apple, require relevant information, which the human being can link to his sensation and produce thoughts and concepts related to the apple. This is where the similarity between human beings and animals stop, because only a human brain has this capacity to link sensation to information to produce thought.

Why did the Communists fail to recognize the importance of relevant information? Most probably, to safeguard their Atheistic doctrine. The information that exists nowadays regarding everything, which human beings utilize as a basis to build thoughts and concepts upon, was transmitted by the previous generation, which received its information from the generation before. One can trace this lineage all the way to the first human being and ask the question: Where did the first human being obtain the first information from? If one accepts that the thinking process can only exist when sensation is mixed with information, then he must conclude that the first information came from Allah, which enabled the first human being to think. This is related in the Qur'an in Surat Al-Baqarah: ''And We taught Adam the names of things.'' Thus, to maintain consistency with their Atheistic doctrine that matter is eternal and there is no Creator, the Communists denied the existence of information in their definition of thinking. Instead, they claimed that thinking is eventually produced by ''trial and error'' after repeated sensation. For example, a human being would be able to eventually comprehend the meaning of an Arabic book or design a computer through repeated sensation and ''trial and error.'' However, this view is erroneous because sensation after sensation, even a million sensations, would produce only sensation. It is inconceivable that a human being can understand a language without relevant information related to the language itself, or that a human being can design a machine or a computer without background information.

In summary, the rational or intellectual thinking process is a process that requires two elements: Sensation, which itself requires a functioning brain, a reality of subject matter, and senses; and relevant information. Of course, people will vary in the accuracy and content of the information they possess, their ability to link the information to their sensation, and how refined their sensation of their surroundings are, and this will produce conclusions and thoughts of varying degrees of accuracy and strength. However, the process itself is something that exists in all human beings. The only constraint to the thinking process is that the subject matter or reality at hand must be something that the human mind and senses can comprehend. Thinking about what will occur after death or the physical structure of Angels or the Essence of the Creator is not possible because such realities are beyond the mind and senses; any attempt to do so will produce only speculation and conjecture, but no thoughts build upon solid intellectual proof. However, one can think about the existence of the Creator because the proof of the existence of the Creator is the effects of his existence (the surrounding universe), which can be comprehended and sensed by human beings. In fact, one can prove the existence of anything in this manner. Even something as simple as a pizza is proof that there exists a ''pizza maker.'' One does not have to know anything about what the pizza maker looks like or his attributes, because the proof of his existence is in the pizza itself. We know from reality that dough does not prepare itself and flatten itself, and we also know that cheese does not shred itself, nor do tomatoes puree themselves to make tomato sauce. Even if one were to place a prepared dough, tomato sauce, and shredded cheese side by side, nothing would happen. Similarly, the matter in this universe does not possess the capacity to assemble itself or to operate on its own. Rather, the matter in the universe operates in accordance to a system of laws. In order for one to claim that matter is the origin of everything (as the Communists claimed), then there must have been a period where there existed matter without system, and eventually the matter organized itself and produced a system. This idea is easily refutable through both common everyday experience as well as through examining the nature of matter itself. If you strip away the system of laws from the matter, then not even something as simple as a proton can exist. Thus, it is the system that not only organizes the matter but defines its very shape and existence. How about the other way around – that there was a system without matter, and eventually the system created matter, as some people claim. This idea is also false because the system emanates from the matter itself. All the forces that we know of that define the very existence and shape of matter, whether the gravitational force, or the electromagnetic force, or the strong nuclear force, are themselves a characteristic of matter. Without matter, these forces would not even exist (What would gravity be without matter? What would the electromagnetic force be without charged particles? What would the strong nuclear force be without protons and neutrons?). In conclusion, neither matter nor system have the capacity to exist without the other, which means that both matter and system came from something that is neither matter nor system, and that thing is the Creator. The only other alternative is to claim that both matter and system emerged by themselves from nothing, and to claim that nothing created something is a paradox that has no basis in reality.

Another way of approaching this issue is the following: Everything in the universe, including the universe, is limited and dependent. Life is limited because it depends upon certain parameters to exist, without which life would not exist. The universe is limited because it can be measured, and it depends upon a system of laws that govern and organize it. Limitedness and dependence means that everything has a beginning. One cannot claim that something is limited and unlimited simultaneously, unless that person is trying to fool himself or play games. Therefore, everything must have had a beginning, and since this universe does not have the capacity to create itself, then it must have had its origins from a Creator, who Himself is Unlimited. If someone imagines the Creator to be limited, then He must have had a beginning, and He must be dependent upon something else to bring about His existence, which means that He would not be the Creator but rather a limited and dependent creation.

A question may arise regarding the scientific thinking. The scientific thinking process shares certain similarities with the rational thinking process. Both the rational and the scientific thinking process require sensation and information, and both processes involve research and a reality that is the subject of the research. However, the difference between them lay in the type of reality and in the type of research that is conducted. The rational thinking process, the reality or subject at hand is examined as is, and the results of this examination is linked with all relevant information, and a rational or intellectual conclusion is deduced. Whereas, in the scientific thinking, the reality is subjected to the process of experimentation and compared with a comparison group (in scientific terminology, the ''control group'' and the ''experimental group''), and based upon the outcome of this experiment, conclusions are deduced through measurements and observation. This important distinction leads to fundamental differences between the rational and scientific processes:

1). Because the intellectual or rational thinking involves studying the reality as is, then the intellectual process can produce absolute truths or conclusions. This is not to say that every intellectual study will produce an absolute conclusion; it merely indicates that the intellectual process has this capacity. However, the scientific thinking cannot produce absolute truths, and no scientist will ever claim that any scientific conclusion will be absolute. The reason for this is because scientific conclusions are derived through measuring the outcomes of experiments, and hence, the results will always vary depending upon the parameters of the experiment and the instruments used to measure the outcome. And as instruments become more precise and experiments are repeated greater refinement, scientific results are continuously updated and revised. If anyone claims that science can produce absolute conclusions, then the challenge is open for that person to open any scientific journal or magazine and locate a scientific study or experiment where the conclusion states that ''this is the absolute truth, and no further research or experimentation can be done on this issue.''

One can utilize the intellectual process to observe that objects have a tendency to fall towards the earth and conclude that there exists a force that pulls objects towards the earth. This is an absolute truth – there definitely exists a force that pulls things towards the earth, and this fact is agreed upon by every human being and has been proven for an uncounted number of times. However, measuring the precise magnitude of this force is the job of science, and this measurement will continuously change as the instruments used to measure the force become more precise. Also, one can utilize the intellectual process to observe that the universe must have been created because the properties of the universe lead to this absolute conclusion that there must exist a Creator (as was discussed previously). However, studying the physical composition of the planets and stars, analyzing the atmosphere, and studying the mechanisms of biological systems, are the subject of science and the scientific thinking.

2). The cornerstone of the scientific thinking is the experiment. Any study devoid of an experiment cannot be classified as scientific and will be immediately rejected as a scientific study. Such a study can be classified as an intellectual study or a statistical study, but it cannot be considered a scientific study unless an experiment was conducted. This fact means that the scientific thinking can only apply to those realities that can be subjected to experimentation, such as rocks, liquids, or gases. However, the intellectual method can apply to realities where subjugation to experimentation is not possible, such as in studying the behavior of nations or societies.

Therefore, the distinction between the scientific thinking and the intellectual thinking is clear, and it must remain clear in our minds. Unfortunately, nowadays, this distinction has been clouted, due to two reasons. First, the understanding of Islam has been muddled, and as a result of this, the understanding of Islam's scope. When Allah revealed Islam to humanity, He defined the scope of Islam clearly, and He made it clear that Islam came to address the thinking and the actions of the human being. At the same time, Allah clearly indicated that He gave the human being the full authority to discover the natural universe He created (which is science) and to utilize this knowledge to build the tools necessary to make life more livable (which is technology and engineering). Thus, one will find that Islam defined rules of conduct in war and combat, and defined the reasons for Muslims to fight; however, Islam did not define instructions on how to manufacture swords, airplanes or missiles, but rather left it to the Muslims to develop whatever tools they need to protect Islam and fight effectively for the reasons that Islam defined. Also, Islam defined rules and systems for organizing the wealth of the society, regardless of whether this society is a village in the desert or a city with skyscrapers or a domed colony on Mars. How to build a city infrastructure is not the scope of Islam, and Allah never intended for this to be the scope of Islam; however, what is very much the scope of Islam is how to organize the affairs of the people.

Muslims in the past understood this distinction. They understood that their job was to believe in Islam, to understand Islam clearly, to implement Islam and to carry the Message of Islam it to the people. This firm conviction that they had the correct system and way of life from Allah propelled Muslims to excel in their understanding of Islam, but it also created within them the motivation to excel in whatever sciences and technologies were needed to establish the supremacy of their way of life and to improve the conditions of life itself. And there was never any conflict between Islam and science. When Muslims were confronted with a scientific or technical issue, they realized that they had full permission from Allah to use their minds to deduce an answer, and there was never any conflict between this and full obedience to Allah in their actions. In this context, the Muslims would refer to a chemistry book for a problem in chemistry, or they would refer to a book of medicine when confronted with a medical issue. However, when it came to an issue related to the actions of the human being (such as how to punish a criminal for a certain crime, how to distribute the wealth in the society, or how to select the rulers), or an issue related to a thought (such as what will happen after death) they would refer to the Qur'an and the Sunnah.

As time progressed, the understanding of Islam began to wane, and as a result, this understanding of the distinction between the scope of Islam and the scope of science began to diminish. As the Muslims were declining, Europe witnessed the Industrial Revolution, which paralleled a revolution in science and technology. This sudden shift overwhelmed many Muslims, to the point that some Muslims became fascinated by the West and began to call for Western culture. This in turn caused some other Muslims to shift to the other extreme and denounce anything emanating from the West, including the sciences and technology that Islam allowed for Muslims to take from others. Others attempted to reconcile between these two extremes by calling for a ''middle ground.'' Today, Muslims find themselves caught between these voices, all of which are incorrect. The correct approach that Muslims should have adopted was to understand Islam and to clarify among themselves the distinction between the scope of the Islamic Message (which include the thoughts and actions of human beings), and the scope of science and technology.

A second factor that further clouted this distinction had its roots in the development of the scientific culture in the West. After the West adopted Capitalism as a way of life, with Secularism as its creed, the West experienced a dramatic revival, and as a result, scientific culture flourished in the West. Parallel to this revival was the emergence of an intellectual split in which the West classified knowledge into two realms: the realm of ''faith,'' which included fields such as theology, and the realm of ''reason,'' which included the sciences. Those fields where the scientific thinking applied, such as physics and chemistry, were categorized as fields of ''reason,'' and were uplifted to a very high status as a result. This created a feeling among the West that science was synonymous to reason and that the only valid conclusion was a scientific one. However, other fields of knowledge where the scientific thinking did not apply, such as history, anthropology and sociology, felt excluded and, for fear of being relegated to the domain of ''faith,'' began to classify themselves as scientific and presented their findings as having a ''scientific basis.'' In reality, such fields had nothing to do with science whatsoever. Muslims were not immune from this influence. Even today, many Muslims harbor the notion that any intellectual thought must be established on scientific grounds. Many Muslims even have the idea that, in order for Islam itself to have any credibility, it must be proven scientifically.

What the Muslims must realize is that science must be confined to those fields where the scientific method apples. Attempting to extend the scientific thinking to fields of knowledge that are beyond the scope of science and presenting such findings as scientific amounts to a mockery of the entire scientific institution. Furthermore, fields of knowledge where the scientific method does not apply should not disregarded, nor should a non-scientific conclusion be dismissed as ''faith.'' Science is not the only source of knowledge, not to mention that scientific knowledge can never establish absolute truths. Let us always remember that the scientific conclusion, but its very nature, is always in error, and for this reason, scientific knowledge always subjected to continuous change or modification. And there are many fields of knowledge where the scientific method cannot apply, yet they are very much needed. The knowledge that is derived from many of these fields and disciplines are not borne out of ''faith'' but are arrived at through the intellectual method of thinking, which is the most noble gift that the human being possesses. Both the intellectual or rational method of thinking and the scientific method of thinking should be given their due respect, and this respect will materialize only by recognizing the limits of each and where each process applies. Regarding the issue of belief, this issue lies within the domain of the intellectual method, and rightly so because only the intellectual method is capable of developing absolute conclusions. And in order for belief to stand on firm and solid ground, must be built with nothing short of absolute certainty.

May Allah (swt) help us understand Islam and clarify our thoughts.

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