On Having the Last Word: Epistemological and Normative Considerations (abstract), Gereon Wolters

Author Information: Gereon Wolters, University of Konstanz, gereon.wolters@uni-konstanz.de

Editor’s Note:

    Through Stefano Bigliardi, Professor Wolters provided the SERRC with an extended abstract of a paper to be published in Bollettino della Società Filosofica Italiana. Wolters’ abstract, and future article, fits into the larger discussion on Islam and science being hosted by the SERRC.[a]

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2oC

From everyday life we know that quite a few people insist on having the last word on whatever issue. This seems to be connected with exerting power on others. How about the last word in cognitive contexts, particularly in religion (as far as it is cognitive) and science, humanities and social sciences included? Is not defending truth here the motive for the last word? My thesis is that also in these cognitive contexts rather power than truth, or better authority connected with power is the central issue. Only enlightened rational thinking that found its most vocal and popular expression in Karl Popper’s Logic of Scientific Discovery (original in German, 1935) came to the conclusion that there is no last word, neither in science nor in other cognitive fields. One should fight—this is the normative part of the paper—both the ongoing claims to the last word in cognitive matters by religious fundamentalists and “postmodern” Western relativism. The latter correctly joins modern philosophy of science in rejecting the last word, denies, however, that there are objective second last words, based on universalizable arguments and evidence. 

The Western model case for a power based, authoritarian last word is the Galileo affair. In 1616, Galileo received an injunction by the Cardinal Inquisitor Robert Bellarmine not to hold, teach or defend in any way the Copernican heliocentric worldview. Galileo disobeyed in his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (1632) and was sentenced to life in jail for disobedience to the authorities a year later.

The dogma of infallibility (in matters of faith and morals) that was granted to the Pope in 1871 by the First Vatican Council is a fascinating case of personalizing the authority of the last word that up to that point had been with ecclesiastical institutions. Although the infallibility dogma clearly shows that the Catholic Church had not learned anything on a theoretical level from the Galileo case, She had become rather cautious in Her practice of condemning, however. The reason for this is simply the result of Her defeat in the confrontation with the barrage of enlightened criticism for almost two centuries.

Today we find only in the field of evolutionary theory last word rearguard actions of the Catholic Church. This is well understandable since the evolutionary worldview is in conflict with Scripture, understood more or less literally. Pope Pius XII in the Encyclical Humanae Generis (1950), besides casting doubts on the scientific character of evolutionary theory, claims among other things to have the last word on the direct creation of the human soul by God and on the “monogenism” of humankind, i.e. its origin with a first couple, Adam and Eve. Pontifical monogenism contradicts both the gradual character of species formation, which excludes a “first couple”, and genetic findings.

Pope John Paul II in a famous letter to the Pontifical Academy stated in 1996 the adequately confirmed scientific status of evolutionary theory, but claimed at the same time the last word about “monogenism” and the direct creation of the soul. The direct creation of the soul is hardly a scientific topic, while “monogenism” simply contradicts scientific evidence. Happily, the Catholic Church does not have any more the authority to enforce Her view on this matter. I have not heard of any biologist who cares about the ecclesiastical view.

With Christian and Muslim fundamentalists the logic of centralized and then even personalized authority that characterized the Catholic desire for having the last word, is replaced by what one might call “the authority of literally understood holy texts”. In the Christian context, we find such positions above all among American fundamentalists or “evangelicals”. Almost half of the population of the United States has serious doubts about Darwinian evolution, or rejects it altogether. The attempts of Christian fundamentalists to introduce their views in public schools have failed, however, thanks to the separation of religion and state that is guaranteed by the American constitution.

In Islam, things are worse. Many Muslim thinkers claim not only—similarly to their Christian fundamentalist counterparts—the last word for a literally understood Quran but also the first. Taner Edis in his An Illusion of Harmony. Science and Religion in Islam (2007) speaks of “science-in-scripture-apologetics” who claim that central findings of modern science are anticipated in the Quran. Evolutionary theory is not included, of course.

One explanation for the rather bizarre positioning of Muslim intellectuals in this context is the conflict between the rather hyperbolic self-assessment that pervades the Muslim world and its clearly marginal role in modern science and technology. Many Muslims perceive this situation as a collective humiliation by “the West”. The hyperbolic self-assessment of large parts of the Islamic world is based on the conviction that it possesses the only true religion. Connected to this is the narrative of a medieval Golden age, promoted by the wisdom and the knowledge of the Quran. This narrative is embedded in a larger narrative of a general cultural and moral superiority of Islam that has found a remarkable expression in the “Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam” (1990) by the member states of the “Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers”. Here a quote from the preamble:

The Member States of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Reaffirming the civilizing and historical role of the Islamic Ummah which God made the best nation that has given mankind a universal and well-balanced civilization in which harmony is established between this life and the hereafter and knowledge is combined with faith; and the role that this Ummah should play to guide a humanity confused by competing trends and ideologies and to provide solutions to the chronic problems of this materialistic civilization […].

Looking at the political, social and intellectual reality in predominantly Islamic countries, from Pakistan to Somalia, from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, from Qatar to Syria, from Iraq and Iran to Libya, from Yemen to Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria, Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon, to name just a few, may raise doubts, whether the Ummah is the right model to solve the “chronic problems of this materialistic civilization”.

As far as the last word in evolutionary theory id concerned, very few Muslim intellectuals accept it as it stands. Of the six scholars, interviewed by Stefano Bigliardi in his Islam and the Quest for Modern Science (2014) it is only one (Nidhal Guessoum). From my other readings about the subject, I conclude that there are not many more.

Karl Popper is the most luminous figure among those modern philosophers of science who after two centuries of enlightened thinking by cogent logical and epistemological arguments gave a deathblow to the idea of the last word. In modern Western thinking, the authority of whatever last word has gradually been replaced by critical discourse, based on rational (i.e. universalizable) arguments. This is in my view the most fundamental precondition for the enormous success of Western science and technology. It includes that there can be at most only second last words, even with our best confirmed theories.

Some scholars have contested even the possibility of second last words. According to these “relativistic” or “postmodern” positions, everything scientific is “construction”, “local”, “culture dependent”, “gender dependent”, and so on. These relativisms seems to be a considerable step backwards, and give ample space to fundamentalisms of all sorts, above all religious fundamentalism. Les extremes se touchent.

Against fundamentalism and relativism, I would like to recall and recommend some enlightenment-oriented norms:

  • “Have the courage to use your own understanding!” (I. Kant)
  • Keep separate state and religion!
  • Spend more money on education!
  • Fight the cretinism of large layers of our consumer societies!


[a] Articles in the exchange on Islam and science on the SERRC:

5 replies


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