Beyond scientific materialism

  • Opinion
  • Tuesday, 11 Jul 2017

SCIENTISTS have a distinct and coherent code of norms, which results in “specific behaviours” associated with them. Whether consciously or otherwise, scientists internalise these norms, resulting in what is often referred to as the “professional conduct” of a scientist.

The suggestion that the behaviour of an academic scientist could be related to a compact and coherent set of norms was first put forward in 1942 by Robert King Merton, an American sociologist.

Merton listed five criteria for this set of norms, commonly referred to as Mertonian Norms, namely communalism, universalism, originality, disinterestedness and scepticism.

Communalism refers to the understanding that scientific knowledge should be freely available to all. This means that research findings do not exclusively belong to individual scientists, but to the world at large.

Universalism is an attribute that acknowledges that there are no privileged sources of scientific knowledge. Discovery claims and theoretical arguments should be given weight according to their intrinsic merits, and not who the scientist is, which research institutions he/she is attached to, or which country he/she belongs to.

The third criteria, originality, puts the emphasis on discovery – the cornerstone in scientific epistemology. Science is the discovery of the unknown, and scientific discoveries should be novel.

The fourth Mertonian Norm is disinterestedness. This dictates that there should not be any personal stakes in accepting or rejecting a scientific idea.

Finally, scepticism highlights the tenet that scientists take nothing on trust. For validation of scientific knowledge to take place, it should be continuously scrutinised for errors and inconsistencies.

The Mertonian Norms make up the modern scientific worldview, which is based on a couple of assumptions. The first assumption is the notion that matter is the only reality. The second assumption is that complex things can be understood by reducing them to the interactions of their parts.

This worldview was highlighted by Bouregard, Schwartz, Miller, Dossey, Moreira-Almeida, Schlitz, Sheldrake and Tart in an editorial in EXPLORE Volume 10 No. 5 under the title Manifesto for a Post-Materialist Science. The authors pointed out that these assumptions are the basis for the ideology of “scientific materialism”.

Only empirical evidence is accepted as rational. Other forms of “evidence”, which cannot be empirically studied and verified are rejected outright as irrational and illogical, rendering them baseless claims that do not have any scientific merit. The view of scientific materialism is consistent with the Mertonian Norms highlighted earlier.

The belief in Islam, however, requires Muslims to believe that there are realities that are not tangible and beyond the knowledge of mankind. This is the realm of alam al-ghaybiyyat. While ghaybiyyat literally means “the unseen”, in the context of science, it can also include things that are not yet known or understood.

With this in mind, we can ask a couple of probing questions. Would those who subscribe to religious beliefs, such as Islam, not make a good scientist? Would the religious worldview that a person has “taint” his scientific thought?

One’s religious belief would not, and should not, impede one’s ability in developing scientific thought. On the contrary, if a scientist who professes the Islamic faith really understands and practices Islam, he/she would make an even better scientist.

This is due to the fact that Islam greatly emphasises discovery of knowledge in order to understand and appreciate the world that we live in as attested through many verses of the Quran.

The Quran encourages and motivates mankind to “study” the world in order to understand its workings. If a Muslim truly appreciates these verses, then he/she would make efforts to master science in order to study the world.

A Muslim scientist would also equally be appreciative of the fact that science has its limitations. Science is powerful, but it is not the ultimate form of knowledge.

For one, science is unable to answer axiological questions (dealing with values).

If someone were to ask which flower is prettier or which bag of garbage smells worse, science would not be able to explain the choices that people make to answer these questions.

Secondly, science is also unable to answer questions of ethics and morality. What makes something good and what makes something bad are questions that cannot be empirically proven.

Scientists can no longer afford to be “disinterested” and only do science for the sake of science, but instead should look at the implications and impacts that their research has on the world. Ethics and morality in conducting research cannot be put aside simply because a scientist wants to do research for the sake of research.

Thirdly, science has also found itself unable to adequately explain metaphysical questions such as how the brain could generate the mind as well as concepts of religiosity and spirituality.

That is why the renowned physicist Edwin Schrödinger aptly said, “Science puts everything in a consistent order but is ghastly silent about everything that really matters to us: beauty, colour, taste, pain or delight, origins, God and eternity.”

No doubt, science has contributed tremendously in helping us to understand ourselves and the world that we live in. However, if we only appreciate the material aspects of our lives, and only look at the world from a materialistic worldview, we risk ignoring other aspects of being human.

The fact is that human beings are not merely physical beings. We have intangible components which include a mind and a soul, making us intellectual and spiritual beings as well.

Therefore, there is an urgent need to shift the worldview and paradigm from scientific materialism to what Bouregard et al. termed in their editorial as the “post-materialist paradigm” which acknowledges that “the physical world is no longer the primary or sole component of reality”.

  • Dr Shaikh Mohd Saifuddeen Shaikh Mohd Salleh is Senior Fellow and director with Ikim’s Centre for Science and Environment Studies. The views expressed here are entirely his own.
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