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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Reaffirming the Freedom to think

Freedom is a basic value but its champions and its expression will appear in many different forms. White Rose, understandably, has recently concentrated on the technological developments that may undermine our civil liberties, in conjunction with the connivance of the authorities.

Other freedoms include the capability of fulfilling one’s desire to pursue research in the sciences, whether natural or social, without suffering repression from the state. Abdolkarim Soroush, a noted Iranian intellectual, can claim to be the founder of studies on the history and philosphy of science in Iran. However, as the biography on this website delicately notes,

Soroush’s lectures in this mosque continued smoothly for six years. Then owing to certain sensitivities, the weekly programme was suspended and attempts to resume them have so far proved unsuccessful.

Soroush was one of the moderate supporters of the 1979 revolution who attempted to find an Islamic structure that would support his religious beliefs and the values of academic research that he had learned in the West – a project similar to that professed by President Mohammed Khatami. However, his historical writings stressed the contingent nature of Islamic knowledge and invited attention…

Vigilante groups would stop me from speaking in public. I was often attacked and beaten. I found that I no longer had a job. No one would employ me. No one would publish my work. Invitations to speak stopped coming. The magazine where my original series of articles appeared was closed down. I was summoned to the Ministry of Intelligence and told very explicitly that the authorities did not like me any more and did not want me to feel secure in the country.

Soroush was attacked because he analysed the religious knowledge of Islam with the “techniques of the natural and the social sciences“, standard features of historical practice in the West. (When Soroush states that he is using the techniques of the natural sciences to examine Islam I am assuming that this is a reference to empiricism, which fits in with his education in the British academic community.) The ayatollahs took exception to Soroush historicising Allah.

They didn’t like the idea that interpretations of religious knowledge can change over time, or that religious knowledge can be understood in its historical context. They thought I was taking away the sacredness of religion and making it dependent on human understanding.

However, the relevant part of Soroush’s statements stem from his reiteration of the freedom for people to think and theorise, without constraint or fear of imprisonment.

Let me make a distinction between empirical research and thinking per se. Thinking needs a free environment. Empirical research, where you have a well-defined project with official approval, can indeed flourish even under a totalitarian regime, because scientists can still meet other scientists, read the literature and publish. But it is impossible to advance new theories – particularly in the social sciences – when you are under the influence of a particular view, or under the pressure of a particular dogma.

Soroush provides an important distinction here. Many repressive states provide the basic apparatus for research in all its forms but restrict academic freedoms, especially in more overtly political disciplines like the social sciences. Assessing the ability to conduct empirical research is a flawed indicator for comparative measures of freedom between individual states

There are always barriers to science. Some come from the nature of the research itself, and these have to be recognised and acknowledged. Others come from outside, and these need to be minimised or eliminated. If you are asked to confirm predetermined conclusions to further a social, political or religious cause, that has to be resisted. If you believe through your religion that you know the answer to a particular issue, then embarking on research to find the answer seems to be a contradiction.

In his final statements, Soroush confirmed his support for a version of ‘pure science’ uncontaminated by the agendas of governing bodies. Whilst he recognised the external pressures that outside forces can bring to bear, he left out the question of subjective bias, implicitly acknowledging that personal leanings are best left to the individual researcher to wrestle with.

Abdolkarim Soroush returned to Iran in August. His further writings can be read here.

3 comments to Reaffirming the Freedom to think

  • mike

    It amuses me that back in Soviet Russia, Darwinism was deemed to be ideologically incorrect. So, for 40 years, they based all their agricultural research on another theory (the name of which I can’t remember), which goes like this:

    The most successful organism is the one which strives to be better, and if it strives to be better, it will produce better offspring. This is good Marxist sense as they saw it. So, they spent 40 years feeding plants lots, keeping them in excellent conditions and collecting their seeds. Of course, the plants grew big & strong, but their offspring were no better than their parents! Logically extending the theory to animals means that if you cut the tail off a male and a female mouse and breed them, they will give birth to tailless mice. Which of course they don’t. But that didn’t matter, since the research was ideologically correct.

    My point? This is the extreme case when the state interferes in Science. And don’t even get me _started_ on what the Soviets did to mental patients because psychoanalysis was deemed ideologically incorrect….

  • Sergei Maximov

    As a moral philosopher, I can’t get too upset when an empiricist gets into trouble with religious authorities. Especially when the empiricist was a supporter of the revolution which brought in the Ayatollahs. A true empiricist would have been sceptical of the ‘benefits’ of overthrowing the Shah and introducing theocracy.
    As supporters of individual liberty, we need to remember that whereas all oppressive governments deserve to be overthrown, by force if necessary, there is no simple equation to the effect that “the reverse of a tyranny is freedom”. In Iran the opposite of tyranny so far has been another form of tyranny.
    Let’s hope that the same outcome doesn’t transpire in Iraq.

  • Sergei Maximov

    Mike’s report of the persecution of Darwinian theory is more complicated and more frightening in fact.
    The Soviet government of Josef Stalin veered between Lyssenkoism and genetic determinism, often in response to power shifts related to Soviet foreign policy. As a result, eminent Soviet scientists could literally be decorated by the General Secretary personally, for their contributions to the understanding fo the natural sciences, and a few weeks later, be pronounced ‘enemies of the revolution’ and ‘spies’, for holding the very same views.
    I forget precise names, but I believe there was one unfortunate professor who went from Academy of sciences to gulag and back twice in ten years.
    Lyssenkoism was the view that successive generations could acquire characterisitcs from environmental factors, not genetic characteristics. The idea was that after a few generations of Soviet workers, children would eventually be born with the innate characteristics of Soviet Man.
    “Freedom is the freedom to say that ‘two plus two equals four’.” George Orwell, in Nineteen eighty-four.