What can Avicenna teach us in time of Coronavirus?

As COVID-19 brought science and philosophy closer, we have seen a resurrection of interest in Persian polymath Avicenna.

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    Avicenna, or Ibn Sina (980-1037), was a Muslim scientist from Iran who has had a profound and lasting influence on the field of medicine[Wikimedia Commons]
    Avicenna, or Ibn Sina (980-1037), was a Muslim scientist from Iran who has had a profound and lasting influence on the field of medicine[Wikimedia Commons]

    Every day at 7pm in New York, we come out to our balconies or front doors to bang on pots and pans and express our gratitude to physicians, nurses, and other public health workers who are risking their lives to care for and cure those infected with the coronavirus.

    We are grateful that they continue to do their job despite being forced to work severely understaffed and ill-equipped due to a military culture that spends billions of dollars on military hardware but has left healthcare in shambles.  

    We are also appreciative of the work thousands of scientists do around the world to help provide the needed knowledge and biomedical breakthroughs to combat the disease, while also advising governments on what policies to implement to contain it.

    In the shadow of dysfunctional and failed states like the United States, Brazil, or India and their incompetent leaders - Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Narendra Modi - who care more about protecting the interests of the economic and ideological groups they serve than the health of their people, figures like World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom or National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci have emerged as admirable personifications of reason and sanity amid the chaos. 

    Indeed, medical staff and scientists have emerged as the reluctant heroes of this pandemic. 

    The struggles of science

    As the figures of the medic and the scientist are emerging as a much-celebrated character, a saviour of some sort, science is facing growing challenges of its own.

    Amid the pandemic, scientific communities are struggling to distinguish between good science and bad science. "Science has an ugly, complicated dark side," Jackie Flynn Mogensen wrote in a recent article for Mother Jones, "and the Coronavirus is bringing it out." Her argument here is: "What was once a marathon has been compressed to a 400-meter dash: Researchers race to deliver results, academic journals race to publish, and the media races to bring new information to a scared and eager public." 

    Questions are surfacing which the medical profession and science is not ready or prepared or equipped to imagine and address. 

    "The coronavirus pandemic," Joe Humphreys recently observed in the Irish Times, "has been a shock not just to the health system. It has given a jump-start to moral consciences. Things we tolerated as a society - such as low pay for essential workers and income barriers to hospital treatment - suddenly seem abominable." 

    But who is to address such vital matters? Physicians as scientists or moral philosophers as critical thinkers, or both, or neither? 

    Such issues have been the subject of study of generations of scholars in the field of sociology of science. Central to this discipline is the idea that no scientific inquiry, or scientific methodology is entirely independent of social and political factors, or even religious predilections, framing the nature of questions raised and answers speculated.

    Entirely oblivious to such earlier critical reflections on the current states of scientific inquiry, the advent of COVID-19 has occasioned some urgent observations. In one of his recent columns for the Financial Times called The End of Two Cultures, Janan Ganesh discussed the distinction between the arts and the sciences. 

    He proposed that in the aftermath of the pandemic: "An ignorance of science will no longer be viable in polite company. Two cultures will become one. And the accommodation will have to be made by those of us in the humanities."

    He further argued: "It is not just medicine and epidemiology that have become central to our thoughts in recent weeks, but quantitative science, too." 

    The issue to be sure is quite serious. And the underlying factors behind the current divisions between science and the humanities have deep roots in US and European societies. 

    An Avicenna for our time? 

    Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have seen a resurrection of interest in Avicenna, or Ibn Sina (980-1037) as he is known in the Muslim world, a Muslim scientist from Iran who has had a profound and lasting influence on the field of medicine.

    His seminal work, Al-Qanun, was key in the development of medical literature and educational programmes and a cornerstone in the history of medicine. According to historian Jamal Moosavi, Avicenna's works continued to play a pivotal role in the development of medicine in the Muslim world and Europe for 600 years after his death.

    Today, Muslims proudly remind the world that Avicenna's legacy is helping the anti-pandemic efforts across the world. "To fight a microscopic virus, the world has turned to nearly-millennium-old recommendations from Muslim polymath Ibn Sina, a father figure of early modern medicine," wrote one Muslim writer.

    They point out how the very idea of quarantine is rooted in the scientific work of Avicenna who had argued for controlling "the spread of diseases in his five-volume medical encyclopedia The Canon [Al-Qanun] of Medicine, originally published in 1025".

    In much of this understandably proud recollection, what is crucially missing is the fact that Avicenna was not just a medical scientist - he was also a towering philosopher. Let that sink in for a moment: A monumental figure in the history of medicine was also a prolific philosophical thinker. 

    This is what is crucial these days to remember. Imagine Dr Fauci. Now imagine German philosopher Martin Heidegger. And now try to bring the two images together - there we get closer to Avicenna. 

    A philosopher-scientist

    A cursory look at his lifetime achievements shows Avicenna was not just ambidextrous in science and philosophy, or a polyglot Renaissance Man, as we would say today, who wrote on a variety of subjects. He was much more than these labels.

    His work emerged from an epistemic foregrounding that had not yet been overturned in the course of European modernity in which the fragmentation of human sciences between reason and intuition, or science and religion, or social sciences and the humanities, had not yet occurred. 

    Avicenna wrote on logic, metaphysics and mysticism, on psychology and music, mathematics and medicine - and he did so from the visionary certainty of a deeply learned and cultured and philosophical mind. 

    To be sure, Avicenna was a Muslim philosopher/physician in direct descendants from his Greek predecessors. In the words of the eminent Iraqi historian of Islamic philosophy, the late Muhsin Mahdi:

    "Nowhere in medieval thought was the contest between Galen and Aristotle as dramatic as in the works of Avicenna, where the two great traditions intersected. Avicenna wrote the medieval textbook of Galenic medicine the Qanun (the Canon), as well as the central medieval statement of Aristotelian biology (the ayawan, the biological section of the Sefaʾ). In both works he confronted the problem of the Aristotelian-Galenic division, and settling the contest between the two titanic authorities became the cardinal interest of his life-work in medicine and biology." 

    But the issue at hand is not just about science and philosophy. If we place his philosophical and scientific oeuvre next to his masterpiece mystical treatise, Al-Isharat wa al-Tanbihat (Remarks and Admonitions), then we have a fuller picture of the map of his mind. Al-Isharat is the summation of Avicenna's mature thinking in allegorical and mystical prose. The book does not fit into any genre of science or philosophy in the pedagogical sense of the terms, for its treatment of logic and ontology leads in the penultimate Ninth chapter to discussions of philosophical pleasures and theoretical gnosis.

    Avicenna was by no means the only figure in the history of Islamic learning to have combined science and philosophy. The equally monumental figure of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201-1274) was identical in his fusion of science, in his case astronomy, and philosophy, particularly his commentaries on Avicenna's mystical work. 

    At issue here is therefore not the cliche accolade that Avicenna was an exceptionally gifted Muslim physician and philosopher. At issue is a different epistemological foregrounding in which science and philosophy were not so categorically differentiated, professionalised, turned into disciplinary specialisation and fragmented.

    Avicenna was neither a professional physician, nor a professor of philosophy. He wrote from the depth of a unique frame of scholastic learning in which the Greek heritage had come to a vastly different moral imagination than the one Europe would claim centuries later.

    Today, philosophers like Bruno Latour propose to build "a new normal where the fight against climate change [is] paramount". Before politicians and scientists come back together to dismiss such caring philosophical minds, we must remember a time when scientists and philosophers were one and the same, or at least on the same page.

    The point here is neither to dismiss the astonishing scientific achievements of humanity around the globe, or downplay the turn philosophy thinking has assumed in the same world.

    Nor is it to remember with nostalgia a bygone age either. 

    The point rather is to come to terms with the changing environment of the globe after the frightful rise of this pandemic and wonder if we are at the cusp of a new epistemological breakthrough at the root of our very self-consciousness about our world. Where do we stand, what needs to be done, what form of knowledge and self-awareness could save humanity from itself? 

    These are as much scientific as philosophical issues. Is a new Avicenna in sight? 

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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