Thursday, March 24, 2016

Review: "Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything" by Philip Ball

Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything by Philip Ball
University of Chicago Press, Paperback, 9780226211695, 465pp. Publication Date: September 17, 2014

Today, citizens of the industrialized world almost universally consider curiosity to be a praiseworthy trait, and we consider it to be a fundamental attribute of the Scientist, the Jedi of Science, through which our place in the universe can be understood and our welfare enhanced. But humanity did not always consider curiosity to be praiseworthy.

It is certainly not evolutionary advantageous. How many curious hominids had their genetic lines snuffed out by eating unknown plants or entering dark caves or traveling to the next valley?

In the early modern period of European history, Christianity was generally interpreted to discourage curiosity as a distraction from God's revelation and hubris, in that the effort to seek new things implicitly indicated a dissatisfaction with that which God had already made known and available.

Philip Ball's book examines the transition of the value Europeans and their intellectual travelers placed on curiosity. I've reviewed other books on the history of science, but the length and detail of this book made it an especially challenging read. Nevertheless, it's important material for North American Muslims and many other people for at least some of the following reasons:

1. The circuitous, confused, two-steps forward one-step back nature of building the ecology of concepts necessary for the modern scientific enterprise should make contemporary Muslims cautious about glib assertions that early modern Muslims were open to science and that Islam and science are compatible. Early modern "science" like Ibn al-Haitham, al-Biruni, Galileo and Newton and what people do today are so different as to make such assertions comically reductionist and anachronistic. I recommend Taner Edis's book An Illusion of Harmony in this regard.

2. Just as the vitruosi (a collector of observations, especially using the newly refined instruments of the microscope and telescope) could not do science without a framework of concepts, disciplines such as history and sociology have frameworks. Histories without acknowledgment or reflection on the framework are likely to be nationalist, self-serving propaganda. If a history is truly without a framework (something I'd judge to be nearly impossible), it would simply be a collection of observations and likewise without value.

3. While organized religions like Christianity and Islam have tended to oppose some of the major scientific advances since the early modern period, I think statements like "Had it not been for religion, we would have had the Internet 500 years ago," or "If the Christians hadn't burned down the Great Library in Alexandria, we'd have averted the Black Plague" and others like them are unknowable and belong in the shelves of alternative history books. Aside from the fallacies related to the Great Library, readings in the history of science show how much our modern scientific enterprise is contingent upon its surrounding technological society. Insofar as organized religion led to the social cohesion which created the economic, political and moral forces which turned curiosity into science, then speculating on how far ahead science would be had there been no religion is baseless.

4. For those who claim that Muslims can take "the knowledge of the Europeans and not their morals," they need to understand that the scientific enterprise is incomplete and ineffective without a constellation of supporting behaviors and attitudes. While I don't assert that 21st century development requires people all over the world to do the exact same things 19th century Europeans did, it's certainly more complicated than the grocery-cart model of cultural borrowing some contemporary Muslims advocate.

As for the book itself, Philip Ball to some extent has imbibed the spirit of the virtuosi and included vast numbers of people and places and books to tell the story of the intellectual concept of curiosity. Mercifully, each chapter ends with a few paragraphs to sum up the chapter's main points. I'm trying to recruit a reviewer better able to deal with this book than me. If so, I'll in sha Allah link to what he writes about it.

You can follow Philip Ball on Twitter.