Tuesday October 4, 2011
Developing a scientific culture
IKIM VIEWS by Dr Mohd Zaidi Ismail Senior Fellow / Director Centre for the Science and Environment Studies
It is this strong desire to know and learn that drives a person to explore and discover despite circumstances which may not always be in favour of one’s scientific interest. However, a strong desire to know and learn alone will not guarantee the development of a scientific culture.
BY and large, the Government has been concerned with inculcating a strong and resilient scientific spirit and culture in Malaysian society.
At times, where it pertains to the Malay community, the largest segment of the society, such a concern has been translated into programmes that seek to highlight the significant contributions of Muslims in the past insofar as science and technology is concerned, with the objective of encouraging the Malays of today and the contemporary Muslims at large to once again play leading roles in the development of modern science and technology.
There is no doubt that the proper recourse to intellectual and civilisational history plays an important role in reviving a society’s interest in science and technology.
But this alone will not produce sufficient positive results on a much larger scale. Other factors need to be included and should play mutually complementary roles.
If the Government is really serious about inculcating a scientific culture that is deeply rooted in Malaysian society in general and in the Malay community in particular, then it should be willing to carefully consider and nurture elements that are really necessary and vital for such a culture to not only grow but also to endure.
Among elements is a high level of curiosity among a sufficient number of the country’s population.
It is this strong desire to know and learn that drives a person to explore and discover despite circumstances which may not always be in favour of one’s scientific interest.
However, a strong desire to know and learn alone will not guarantee the development of a scientific culture.
It has to be coupled with a disciplined mind so that what we have in the end is disciplined curiosity, a factor that is crucial for the development of such a culture.
Why is this so? To my mind, it lies in the answer to another question: what actually arouses such a desire in oneself?
The key word is question(s).
It is questions as well as its immediate and powerful relative, problems, which gives rise to and constitutes one’s curiosity.
The connection between all these may not appear telling unless one also sees the conceptual and scientific system developed and expressed by the Arabic language, consequent to the revelation of the Quran.
A “question” in Arabic is captured by the term su’al (from which the Malay words, soal and soalan, in fact originate) whereas the term “problem” or “issue” is encapsulated by the term mas’alah (from which another Malay word, masalah, derives).
According to the conceptual system of the Arabic language, since both words spring from the same root word, s-’a-l, they are intimately related, morphologically as well as semantically.
For as far as one’s mental constitution is concerned, a problem (mas’alah) – be it actual or hypothetical – is where a question (su’al) lies and, as such, acts as its locus.
As one is always searching for the true answer or correct solution to a problem, the very presence of a problem as well as the manner it is addressed provides one’s quest or pursuit (matlab; plural matalib) with both the focus and the direction.
It is in this light that, as related by ibn Abd al-Barr (d. 463H) in his Jami’ Bayan al-Ilm wa Fadlihi, both Wahb b. Munabbih and Sulayman b. Yasar declared: “Right question or problem is half of knowledge” (husn al-mas’alah nisf al-ilm).
But we also know from our experience that in general a question does not arise out of the blue.
More often than not, a question arises together with a set or a series of other related questions.
There is in fact a logical system inherent in any set or series of questions, involving a certain pattern of logical priority and posteriority.
A really scientific manner of dealing with questions and problems demands that one pays due attention to such a system and order.
As a matter of fact, this is one of the subject matters extensively discussed by past Muslim logicians, scientists and scholars in their logico-scientific works, especially in those sections or chapters dealing with questions and problems being the major constituent of a scientific quest.
And this is basically what Prof Nicholas Rescher, a leading historian of logic and science, once highlighted in his study of ibn Sina’s major works.
Logic as a science is meant to discipline one’s mind and thinking so that one does not commit erroneous reasoning.
This necessarily and naturally includes the disciplining of one’s mind in dealing with questions and problems.
Some questions should not be raised unless and until other more fundamental questions have been satisfactorily dealt with first.
Or such questions may not even arise in the first place if such more basic questions were answered properly.
Some questions, or problems, although justifiable, should not have been tackled in a particular science or field of study, but rather should have been the proper subject-matter of other disciplines, whether more fundamental to that science or secondary to it.
This is what, among other things, Muslims should be taught if we are ever serious in nurturing a scientific culture. In other words, we ought to be fully aware of the logic of questions if we are to deal with problems scientifically.
Otherwise, simply given mere curiosity devoid of mental discipline, we may end up giving rise to ideologies, superstitions, myths and mythologies, or worse still, prying and scandal-mongering as a number of Malaysians appear to be fond of, unfortunately.