October 12, 2020

It's Good to Learn the Mistakes of Others. It's Better Yet to Not Repeat Their Mistakes

Pete Zaitcev linked to this piece by Hillel Ofek in The New Atlantis that looks at why Islamic countries tend to have such a dearth of scientific achievement today, despite having been the undisputed world leaders in the sciences early on. 

The article is well researched and informative. While my history degree did not have islamic society in particular as its main focus, this article certainly comports with what I have researched regarding the matter, and clarifies a few specifics regarding the ascendancy of a particular strain (denomination?) of Sunni thought that is generally considered to be the culprit, but as the article proposes, may well have simply accelerated existing trends within the civilization. 

Honest critiques of "The Religion of Peace" are hard to come by in this day and age as they tend to be either the "woke" apologia frequently produced by todays very PC academia or the product of independent researchers who in response to that Islamophillic dynamic....overcompensate to say the least. It's a good article and I suggest you read it in full. Given today's publishing climate and academic realities I'd go so far as to call it brave.

However, the greatest relevance of the article to us today may not be what it says about another society's past, but the implied warnings it holds for our future. 

While it is commonplace to assume that the scientific revolution and the progress of technology were inevitable, in fact, the West is the single sustained success story out of many civilizations with periods of scientific flourishing. Like the Muslims, the ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations, both of which were at one time far more advanced than the West, did not produce the scientific revolution.

Humans have been humaning for as much as 300,000 years over those 30 millennia there have been flashes of brilliance and periods of innovation that gave us math geometry and the ability to do engineering feats build aqueducts to bring water 56 miles from Subbiaco to the Capitoline hill and many other innovations that are not to be sneezed at, but the massive cascading tsunami of knowledge building upon itself without regard to where new knowledge came from as long as it was testable, that we've enjoyed since the renaissance and enlightenment....well that's sort of thing has started a couple of places, but such golden ages always petered out after a decade or two, or were strangled in the crib by entrenched interests (as in  China and Rome)...except for the two closely linked phenomenae of the Renaissance and Enlightenment begetting the industrial revolution. These bizarre bank shots involving a series of very specific, political, cultural, and religious conditions allowed for something that had not occurred in humanity over its  many endeavors over a third of a million years. Using Thomas Newcomb as a completely arbitrary start for the industrial age, we've been in this happy state for about 300 years. 

That's a thousandth of the time we know that humanity has walked the earth (and we can be reasonably sure the earliest known remains were not the earliest people). So, going into the past of humanity and picking any one year there is a one in a thousand chance that one will land in a world ruled by tyranny, oppression, superstition, backwardness, malthusian cycles of despair looming over lives brutish and short with little or no hope of it ever getting better. That's the norm....the median state of humanity...the direction in which history bends. 

The idea that history and the universe inevitably bends towards progress is a product of 300 years of everything getting better every year. Between 1803 and 1903 we had gone from near feudal agrarian societies of subsistence farmers, to cars, electricity, and airplanes. 66 years later there were human footprints on the moon, shortly after that we were sending rock-&-roll, bagpipe music and porn to the STARS! It is easy to see how, given the short lifespans of humans, some saw this as an inevitable trend, but it is a divergence from the mean that represents only 1/1000th of humanities existence.  

Western civilization, and those others that have used its insights to rekindle and build upon their own lost glories are not examples of the arc of history inevitably bending towards progress, they are an example of a middle finger raised against the very norms of the universe. Our societies are like a kayaker fighting heroically against the flow of a maelstrom threatening to drag us down to the foetid depths that humanity will reach by regressing to its mean. 

And we've stopped paddling. 

Returning to Ofek's article, look what was happening in Islamic universities at about the time that Europe was beginning to leapfrog Islamic civilization. 

  No one paid much attention to the work of Averroës after he was driven out of Spain to Morocco, for instance — that is, until Europeans rediscovered his work.

Sounds like Averroës got cancelled. 

The things that made this wondrous aberration in which we live possible are under attack from multiple quarters. The so-called cancel culture used by the cultural enforcers of "wokeness" is becoming every bit as pernicious and stifling as the ash'erite courts in stifling anything outside the accepted norms. One of the reasons that Ofek points to the Ash'erite school for Islam's fall is the inability of the Islamic leadership to reconcile reason and faith, impericism and theology. Christianity explicitly allows for "rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's" in fact Christ himself (not a prophet or apostle) implored people to do so. There is a very distinct understanding in Christianity, that there is a separation between the secular and the sacred. (The cultural basis for the church /state separation so important to our progress).  Sunni theology sees this as another example of how Christians are weak, and that Christianity is the religion of slaves. 

Likewise, the secular religion that is so sweeping our ruling classes sees itself as fully integrated into the power structure and government, which its adherents see as weapons to be wielded against unbelievers. Certainly that is hyperbolic, but it does not seem to be far from the practical result. A twitter mob is little different from a sharia court, except that it cannot dispense an amputation or direct death penalty yet. It can ensure that someone who commits apostasy, or blasphemy against the received wisdom of those in charge, looses their ability to engage, their banking privileges, and their ability to live in peace.   There were, of course, such blacklists, extortions and literal witchunts, in Europe, but given Europe's balkanized nature, one could leave and go somewhere else. Today, the long arm of the blue-check-stassi can reach you anywhere. 

And it gets worse.  

Unlike Islamic theology, which is based on the Koran, today's transgressions can change minute to minute on the whims of hash tags, and be fiendishly non-intuitive (did you know that understanding that astrology is bollocks is...SEXIST?)  

The pernicious influence of Foucault, Derrida, Sarte' and others is attacking the very foundations upon which this civilizational edifice is built, and the implications are terrifying. 

I'm not suggesting that there's going to be a collapse like the Greek dark age (where they literally forgot how to write and had to re-invent the alphabet) . Technologies are rarely lost. Even after the fall of Rome only a few closely held trade secrets like the chemical formula for the Roman's better concretes and the methods of hydraulic excavation were lost. The beau monde wine-moms are unlikely to discard the washing machines and microwave ovens that have liberated them from 300,000 years of domesticity. It's worse than that. You see the very technologies that make the Twittermob so effective can, as we've seen in China, enable a panopticon undreamed of in the worst nightmares of Orwell. That's a set of technologies that the beneficiaries of these toxic trends are unlikely to see fall by the wayside. Getting out from under such a system would be nigh impossible, not only because of its capabilities, but its stability. After all, freedom as we understand it has been an alien concept for the vast majority of 300,000 years. 

We need to really embrace and promote the values of the enlightenment and push back against those who blame it for our ills. Because if we don't, we will not have cast off our chrysalis,  and moved on to greater things in the stars, but, instead, like our many forebears we will regress to the mean...a bad place to be indeed.   

This dynamic might have implications for the Fermi Paradox, but it has more urgency at the moment for us. 

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at 06:28 PM | Comments (3) | Add Comment
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1 A very well written article, BM.  As societal collapse and technological decline is an important thread in the tapestry that is my Machine Civilization future history, I think about things such as this rather a lot.
One idea I had after finishing Barzun's "Dawn to Decadence" was simply how improbable the story of the last 300-500 years of the West is.  As you rightly point out, to think our story is the norm is not only wrong but dangerous.  In 405 AD everyone knew the Roman Empire had a few problems, but it had always been around so it always would, right?  No worries!  What was that about the Rhine freezing over...?

Posted by: Clayton Barnett at Tue Oct 13 11:07:30 2020 (ug1Mc)

2 Well, there's several other problems.
1) You can only have so many times to conquer great Byzantine or Persian cities full of leading Christian or Zoroastrian or Jewish natural scientists. And those guys might have kids or grandkids, or a few disciples who are Muslims, but soon the Islamic theological bullies will shut you down or murder you.
Heck, you can't even do textual criticism or Islamic historical research under your own name, openly, at most Western universities.
2) The Quran explicitly says that Allah doesn't set up natural laws as part of Creation, which was why the Mutazilites and other "progressive" groups were shut down hard in the early Middle Ages.
3) Without getting all conspiracist, it's pretty obvious that the Quran contradicts itself in some fairly serious ways, including mashing together passages that indicate that Jesus is divine, the Quran is a divine person, etc., etc. Given that there's also some extreme funny business going on with the Islamic account of history for several centuries, and some very weird archeology, and several different versions of the Quran that contradict each other on fairly serious topics.... Well, basically you can't start thinking and poking into any aspect of Islamic culture and literature, or natural philosophy, or the sciences, without running into serious trouble with the religious/state authorities of the possibly fatal kind. You might be safe sticking to math, but there's problems there also.

Posted by: Suburbanbanshee at Tue Oct 13 20:45:20 2020 (sF8WE)

3 Regards number 1 of your points. They were successfully building on those assimilations, until the Asheri'te ascension. 
I think number 2 is the big one of the three things you point out. The idea that the almighty set up a system without any rules kinda puts the kibosh on looking for universal constants. The outlook also hampered application of their technologies. The Muslims basically INVENTED optics, their contributions to the theory of optics is very hard to overstate, but it was the Catholics that invented eyeglasses and the telescope and Dutch opticians perfected the microscope. In the case of eyeglasses (mid 1200's) this happened almost as soon as they got the data. 

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at Wed Oct 14 04:43:58 2020 (5iiQK)

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