New Scientist Interview with Abdolkarim Soroush
This interview was first published in New Scientist print edition
Only in a few countries could a philosopher of science be seen as an enemy of the state. Abdolkarim Soroush, one of Iran's best-known intellectuals, argues that science cannot progress under totalitarian regimes. His greatest "crime" is to suggest that this is a legitimate Islamic view. After six years in exile, Soroush bravely returned to Iran last week. Ehsan Masood spoke to him on the eve of his departure
Why are you going back to Iran?
I have been away for six years. I need to go back to sort out various things and visit my students, family and friends. Some of my closest friends have been arrested. Before I left I set up an independent institute for epistemological research, which I have discovered was closed down last month. The building has been sealed off. I need to find out what happened.
How risky will this visit be in terms of your personal safety?
It is difficult to say. My friends tell me I am taking a risk. But I need to go.
President Mohammad Khatami is also a personal friend of yours. Will you meet him?
I avoid him and he avoids me. That is better for both of us.
Many of your students are taking to the streets in Iran calling for more freedoms. Do you think they will succeed?
These protests are coming entirely from within. They are not because of foreign provocation. Iran has had an explosion in its university population since the revolution, when there were just 200,000 students. Today there are 2 million. They and their families want greater freedoms and I believe the end result will be a reduction in the power of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, more power to parliament, and greater academic freedom.
How has your experience in Iran influenced your views about science?
My experience in Iran teaches me that a minimum amount of freedom is necessary for the advancement of science, for the advancement of thought. Research cannot flourish if you cannot communicate with your fellow scientists; if you cannot explain your ideas freely, or have to hide part of them lest you be arrested.
I am communicating with you now. We can freely chat and freely exchange information. Science is a child of these kinds of conditions. If I hide something from you and you hide things from me, and both of us are obliged to read between the lines, these are not ideal conditions for research to progress.
Yet science has done well under totalitarian regimes in China and the former Soviet Union, and even under some fairly unpleasant governments during Islam's "golden age of science" between the 9th and 13th centuries...
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.
And I disagree with you about Islam's golden age. Totalitarianism is absolutely a modern phenomenon. In the past, kings were despots but they were not totalitarian. They weren't able to put their hands on science and philosophy. There was no widespread plan to limit scientists, philosophers and other academics. If there were restrictions, they came from religion or fellow philosophers rather than the political system.
You started your professional life as a chemist. Why did you switch to history and philosophy of science?
While still in Iran, I became fascinated with a whole series of problems to do with the nature of science. This happened when I took private tuition in the philosophy of Islamic metaphysics and my teacher and I would often discuss issues such as the nature of theories, the nature of observation and experimental evidence. Neither of us was ever satisfied that we had properly understood these issues, but then neither of us knew that there existed a branch of knowledge called philosophy of science. In fact, philosophy of modern science was unknown in Iran at the time. I didn't find out about it until I came to the UK in 1973.
Are you saying there was no teaching or research in philosophy of modern science in Iran before the Islamic revolution of 1979?
Yes. I was the first person to introduce this subject in Iranian universities. I arranged for academics to be trained and books to be translated and written. Prior to the revolution, philosophy courses at Tehran University concentrated on figures such as Kant, Hume and Heidegger. There was no teaching of the works of modern analytical philosophers such as Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell. This may have been because our heads of department were mostly educated in Germany and France - French is Iran's second language - and were generally weak in English.
You were a supporter of the 1979 revolution...
Yes. Everybody was a supporter. We thought that there was no other way to get rid of the hated regime of the shah and the insecurity that came with it.
Scientific revolutions and political revolutions are similar in many ways. You cannot plan them, they just happen, and you become wiser after the event. After the revolution there was no one dominant view. There were secular people, moderate Muslims, radical Muslims and so on. Revolutions tend to result in totalitarianism. People like me were in it to make it more moderate.
After the shah was overthrown, you returned to Iran. How did you attract the attention of Ayatollah Khomeini?
I met Ayatollah Khomeini when he was in exile in Paris during the 1970s. I later discovered from some of his intimate friends that he had read and liked one of my books on the philosophy of Islamic metaphysics. Khomeini himself had taught metaphysics. I was also known for another book I had written criticising Marxism - considered a serious threat in Iran at the time - and for another on ethics and science. You could say I was a public figure in Iran.
After the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini set up what he called the Advisory Council for the Cultural Revolution to revise the curricula in the universities. I was invited to become one of the council's seven members and I served on it for four years. It was here that I was given the opportunity to introduce philosophy of modern science in universities.
How did the students take to it?
The students became very excited. I myself taught the subject for more than 10 years and set up a research faculty at Tehran University. Today, I am happy to say that history and philosophy of science is flourishing in Iran. There are many professors and books are constantly being published.
How did you fall out with the authorities?
Around 1990, I published a series of seven articles in a popular cultural magazine called Kyan. The magazine is part of the country's biggest-selling newspaper group. The articles went under the title "The expansion and contraction of religious knowledge". In these articles, I defined a branch of knowledge called religious knowledge and tried to explain it using the principles of philosophy of natural and social sciences. These articles rapidly became quite controversial. The ayatollahs [Shiite Muslim religious leaders], in particular, became very sensitive. Some 10 books have since been written in response to my series.
What did you write that got the ayatollahs so inflamed?
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.
But as the controversy grew, I was happy to see these ideas debated in the public media. The original articles were later published in a 700-page book, and I found that I was beginning to attract quite a following. My classrooms became overcrowded and my books were selling very, very well. Books on philosophy usually sell between 2000 and 3000 copies. Some of my books sold more than 50,000. This made the politicians and clergy very sensitive as I was seen to be undermining their exclusive position. I started coming under restrictions.
What kinds of restrictions?
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.
To what degree do you think research in Muslim countries should be regulated?
When I was on the Advisory Council for the Cultural Revolution, the clerics thought there was an excessive leftist influence on the social sciences and wanted us to purge them of this. I always argued that this would not work because scientists never accept commands from anybody.
But in a country like Iran, surely religion will always guide what research you can do?
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.
You are sometimes described as Islam's Martin Luther, the 16th-century Christian reformer. Are you?
I do not think I am. My main job is to offer an alternative to the totalitarian view of Islam.