The essence of multicultaralism

      Multiculturalism is a stage of historical awakening in which the peoples of the world are coming to recognize that all the cultures and civilizations of the human family, of the present as of the past,  have their intrinsic value and beauty.            

      From the sands of Mesopotamia which was one of  the  cradles of human civilization to the spiritual empire of India which probed into the mysteries of human consciousness, from the Chinese sense of harmony with the world  and the imposing  majesty of the pyramids to the once vibrant richness of Mayan and Aztec civilizations, there is a magnificent range of thoughts and accomplishments, of insights and frameworks which have breathed life and feeling in a wide spectrum of human cultures. Through these  expressions, the  human spirit  forged  many particular ways of recognizing and reckoning the world,  giving meaning to human  existence, and achieving an impressive variety of material and moral ends. There is glory  in the myriad  expressions of art and music, in  poetry and philosophy, in myth and creativity.

      Even as every biological species must be protected from extinction, every language and tradition which has evolved over the centuries and millennia, deserves to be nurtured and respected. Each one of them  needs to be studied and understood, preserved and respected, for the further enrichment of one and all. 

      Multiculturalism may thus be looked upon as a call to recognize the variety and splendor in humanity's heritage. This is the positive side of multiculturalism.

The roots of multicultural awareness in the modern world

      The genesis of multiculturalism in its modern manifestations, however, has a negative dimension to it. In a sense, multiculturalism may also be looked upon as  a reflection of and a reaction to  the gradual removal (or attempts thereto), after more than four centuries, of the dominance of Western nations in the affairs of the world.  Aside from erasing some ancient cultures, in every region of the world where Western Man made his appearance since the close of the fifteenth century, he  exploited the natural resources,  subjugated the peoples, introduced his new-found technology, and (consciously or unwittingly) initiated them into his world views. His victims were angered by his subjugation, hated  him for his exploitation,  benefited in some ways from his technology, and didn't know whether to thank or condemn him for the world views he ushered in.

      These latter impacts have created emotional frustrations and psychological humiliations  which are now finding expression in a hundred different ways.

      [Anyone of consequence in  the non-Western world who led the oppressed peoples in regaining their  dignity and nationhood  had read the works of Western thinkers, and taken inspiration  from their thoughts and ideals. Moreover, the major languages and modes of modern Europe soon became the primary media of communication among the leaders in the non-Western World.]

      When Western Man intruded into their lands, the peoples of Asia,  Africa, and the New World were not without language or culture. They had over the centuries created art and music, propounded philosophy and poetry, contrived crafts and inventions which, though not as well known beyond their own borders, were no less mature and significant than their coeval European counterparts. These cultures had also evolved their science and technology. Not simply the ancient Greeks, but Egyptians and Babylonians, Chinese, Hindus, and Mayans, Arabs, Africans,  and Aztecs, all had inquired in the nature of things, and  in times past they all had formulated their own theories about life and the material world.

      If the freedom movements in the colonies of Asia and Africa were provoked by the physical violations  of Western Man into the rest of the world, the demand for multiculturalism is a rebellion against his intellectual arrogance.

The role of science in civilization

      Now there is an important difference between ancient and modern civilization: The material foundations of ancient civilization were craftsmanship and devices resulting from human ingenuity, based on trial and error. The intellectual foundations of ancient civilizations were religion and mythology. Their norms and values rested largely on traditions and  sacred texts.  On the other hand, the material basis of modern civilization is sophisticated technology, deriving from complex physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Its intellectual foundations are closely linked to  the modern scientific world view. Its values  and norms have evolved primarily from eighteenth century European Enlightenment.

      Any dispassionate inquiry will reveal that modern civilization is not better than ancient ones on any absolute standard, any more than that the ancient ones were intrinsically superior. But irrespective of that, it is a historical fact that the major insights and material elements of the modern world first arose in the Western cultural framework.


      This last fact has had a tremendous impact on non-Western peoples. And it manifests itself in different ways in the current multicultural discussions.

      In this context,  non-Western peoples face a serious predicament: To  accept modern science and  its off-shoots of technology and secular liberalism seems to to be equivalent to embracing the creations of Western culture. Yet, even virulently anti-Western cultural chauvinists have to rely on telephones and airplanes,  vaccines and  pipe-lines, international banking systems and  computers and much more of Western vintage to survive and compete in the modern world.

      In Western societies, on the other hand, there has been a gradual  awakening that Europeans had committed  outrageous  moral transgressions and grievous intellectual errors in recent  centuries: The moral transgressions lay in their ruthless appropriation of lands and minerals that  belonged to others  and the infliction of political domination over them. [Others before them had engaged in similar atrocities, but those are now in the distant past.] Their intellectual blunders related  to the arrogant conclusion to the effect that the conquered peoples were without culture or civilization of consequence. Thanks to a number of sensitive and enlightened scholars in the West, the cultural superiority assumed by  Europeans of earlier centuries has been revealed to be base and baseless.

Science and multiculturalism in past centuries

      While diversity and multiculturalism in the context of culture and history have become topics of public interest in recent years, it is not as universally known that in the context of science, these ideas have a considerably longer history.

      In the seventeenth century, during the era of the emergence of modern science, Francis Bacon expressed his contempt for ancient thinkers like Aristotle, and Réné Descartes declared that there was little to be gained from the study of the ancients who, in his opinion, had been consistently wrong on every matter of scientific interest. Indeed, such views were sometimes extended to literature and philosophy also: Homer was as much the target of some those early writers of the modern scientific era as Socrates or Aristotle. Even Newton's analogy of the moderns sitting on the shoulders of the ancients was  interpreted to mean that the ancients were of a much smaller stature, with only a narrower perspectives of the world.

      However, in due course, the gradual development of Greek scholarship resulted in a deeper understanding of Hellenic contributions to scientific thought. Indeed, sometimes this led to exaggerated views of the Greek role in science. For example, William Whewell extolled the Greeks in the following terms:  [History of the Inductive Sciences (1837)]

      The sages of early Greece form the heroic age of science. Like the first navigators in their own mythology, they boldly ventured their untried bark in a distant and arduous voyage, urged by the hopes of a supernatural success; and though they missed the imaginary golden prize which they sought, they unlocked the gates of distant regions, and opened the seas to the keels of the thousands of adventurers who, in succeeding times, sailed to and fro, in the infinite increase of the mental treasures of mankind."

      Interest in Chinese astronomy was already initiated by European Jesuits like Antoine Gaubil   in the seventeenth century. But it took two more centuries before Biot published his history of Chinese astronomy. The pioneering work of de Saussure in the first decades of this century was also very important.

      In 1821, thanks to the dedication and genius of men like Jean François Champollon and Thomas Young,  Egyptian hieroglyphics were decoded, and the foundations of Egyptology were laid. Then  Goerg Grotefend's deciphering of  cuneiform texts and Henry Rawilson's work on Behistun inscriptions considerably increased our knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian civilization.

      Already in the later part of the eighteenth century, and much more so in the nineteenth, orientalists from William James onwards explored the lore and intellectual legacies of ancient India, paving the way for Indology. By the end of the nineteenth century it was realized that ancient Hindu thought was not confined to mythology and metaphysics, but extended to mathematics and the exact sciences as well.  The great Laplace  paid homage to Hindu mathematics when he wrote : "...we shall appreciate the grandeur of this achievement (India's creation of the decimal system) when we remember that it escaped the genius of Archimedes and Apollonius..."by the beginning of the nineteenth century. The decipherment of  the Bâkshali manuscripts by A. F. R. Hoernle revealed a host of arithmetical and algebraic problems in which Hindu ancient mathematicians had been engaged. The French chemist Marcellin Berthelot wrote a treatise on ancient chemistry.

      These are some of the many scholarly investigations into the content, nature, and significance of the scientific output of non-Western peoples undertaken in past centuries. Not all their assessment were objective or even correct in the light of later findings, but  given the cultural hegemony of Western nations in the heyday of European colonialism,  most of those efforts were undertaken in an enlightened spirit of inquiry. Indeed,  they provided the foundations for the multicultural visions which enlighten humanity in our own times.

Modern science and ancient science

      A major result of all these efforts has been to bring to the consciousness of the world at large the fact that the scientific spirit has been present in every culture of humankind all through the ages. Here however, we need to distinguish between the scientific spirit, scientific methods, and scientific results.  The first of these is the spirit of inquiry. It is an intellectual response to the myriad phenomena in the world around. It is the urge to understand, to explain and interpret. It involves the gazing of the stars, the observing of plants and trees and animals, wonderment about lightning and thunder, and more. Without these, there can be no science. It is this spirit that has always been there among all the peoples of the world.

      Scientific results include ideas and concepts, facts and figures which arise as a result of scientific inquiry. Here again, every culture and civilization arrived at interesting, and sometimes influential, results. The solar calendar of the Egyptians, the seven day week of the Babylonians, the decimal system of the Hindus, the paper technology of the Chinese, the geometry of the Greeks, the alchemy of the Arabs, all these and more are among the many results of ancient science from diverse cultures.

      Yet, it is also important to recognize certain fundamental differences between ancient and modern science. First, Modern science rests on a universality that transcends ethnic, racial, and religious frameworks. It is not a deficiency of ancient science that it was affiliated to the culture and religious matrix of its practitioners, but its inevitable characteristic: inevitable, because of the constraints in space, time, and communication under which ancient sciences evolved. Not many original thinkers in the ancient world traveled far and wide, learned alien languages, or thought in paradigms that differed radically from their own religious framework.

      The science born of the Copernican Revolution and  Galilean-Newtonian physics is also very different from its aunts and sisters of the ancient world in a great many other fundamental ways. Modern science utilizes sophisticated instruments in its explorations of the world. It is highly quantitative. It does not regard any authority as sacred or infallible. It places considerable value of carefully observed results. Speculation is permitted only in so far as it can lead to experimentally confirmable consequences. Modern science does not invoke supernatural factors in its explanations of the physical world.  Neither the earth nor the human being is central to the universe.  That it to say, modern science regards the human mind as merely another phenomenon in the complex variety of nature. None of these holds in the framework of the ancient sciences.

Modern science and values

      Emerging from the modern scientific world view and intrinsically associated with it are the mind-freeing visions of the Enlightenment. These  include, among other things, a skeptical attitude towards human knowledge, the rejection of the infallibility of texts and authorities, the non-acceptance of absolute truths, respect for carefully collected facts and figures, suspicion of simplistic explanations, and profound respect for observational evidence supported by reason and logic. These, combined with a dedication to unfettered quest for understanding every facet of the experienced world tend to  rid the mind of primordial fears of the unknown, obscurantist mumble-jumble, personification of natural forces, and magic-mongering,  not to mention the elimination of some awful social evils. 

      The scientific world view also led to other  healthy forces  that are not as readily recognized: For the ideals of universal justice and equality, the striving for the improvement of the human condition at large, the vision of social and political problems in global rather than in parochial terms, all these  go hand in hand and are in perfect harmony with the values on which the scientific enterprise rests. The universality implicit in the scientific search and the recognition of the historical roots of culture and religion are preconditions for attitudes that transcend subcultural barriers. The concepts of a chosen people, of a personal monolingual God who  made specific geographical locations his hallowed spot and certain languages sacred,  of superior and inferior castes, of a master race: these and similar constraining convictions lose their appeal to the scientifically enlightened.             

Claims of identity between ancient and modern science

       When it comes to the intellectual grasp of the world, to the interpretation of natural phenomena in rational and self-consistent terms, a good deal of ancient world views -including those of the European Middle Ages- have to give place to the modern scientific.  This fact needs to be emphasized because some Western thinkers, in their proclamations of mea culpa  for the intrusions of their forebears, and in their eagerness to pay homage to non-Western cultures, sometimes attribute equal truth-content to ancient and to modern scientific insights. Ensconced in the cozy comfort of European and American universities, they speak and write eloquently on the insights of non-Western medicine, physics, and astronomy.

      What  is  objectionable when they do this  is that they appropriate the modern scientific world view to their own culture, and relegate the pre-modern ones for ever to non-Western cultures. This is somewhat like a Hindu in the twelfth century who, while using the decimal system for himself,  praises the Romans for their fascinating number system which uses  the letters  of the alphabet. The fact of the matter is, the decimal system is Hindu only in its origin, not in its appeal or applicability. This is equally true of modern science. Whether she is  Hindu or  Arab,  Chinese or  Nigerian, once she is introduced to  it, a scientist becomes a member of an international  community. At the intellectual and inquiring level of science, there is more in common between an Arab and a Norwegian physicist or between an Indonesian and Texan chemist, than there is between a twentieth century Frenchman and his peasant compatriot or his twelfth century ancestor.

       At the same time, intellectuals in the non-Western traditions, in their eagerness to demonstrate to the aggressive West that they themselves are (or were) not any less in their creativity, sometimes make claims to the effect that their distant ancestors had all the knowledge and insights of current science.  They  try to circumvent the pain of accepting what they regard as  Western  science by proclaiming that their ancient texts and scriptures  embody some of the fruits and propositions of modern science. There are honest and popular writers in non-Western cultural contexts who declare quite seriously that even the results of quantum mechanics and high-energy physics may be detected in ancient aphorisms and magical utterances.  In such contentions they are often inspired or instigated by imaginative Western writers. Some go so far as to say that Western Man stole their scientific treasures and built up modern science.  They fail to see that the  difference between modern science and ancient science lies not so much in the results obtained as in the methodology by which they are obtained. 

Modern science, a break-away from ancient world-views

      The modern science that emerged in 16th century Europe was not a natural continuation of ancient science, as is often asserted, though it did emerge in the context of the intellectual ferment that was brewing in the Western world at the time. But the genesis of modern science involved a systematic repudiation and  gradual replacement of earlier world views.  When science first arose in the Western world, it created  considerable spiritual chaos, and in battle after battle where science and non-science confronted each other, the latter had to give way: in observational astronomy, fossil geology,  evolutionary biology, or whatever.

      Modern science  was a revolutionary change in humanity's approach to understanding of the world; its framework has little to do with technological gadgetry. It is the modern scientific attitude that makes archeology, dispassionate history and cultural anthropology possible. It is the scholarship and curiosity emerging from modern science which  deciphered  hieroglyphics and cuneiform tablets, brought to light the glories of ancient Egypt and Sumeria, unearthed Mohan-jo-daro and more. Though there have been Marco Polos, Hieung Tsangs,  and Al Birunis before, it was beyond the resources, material or intellectual, of earlier cultures  to undertake the kind of sympathetic and objective quest of other civilizations that we are able to undertake today, let alone engage in open discussions of the oppressions and atrocities perpetrated by one's own kings and governments. It would have been impossible for Arab scholars to in the Middle Ages to produce a work detailing the atrocities of Gengis Khan, Ibrahim Lodi  or Timur Lane in the name of Islam.

Concluding thought

      Multiculturalism is not the emotional embrace of every aspect of every culture, much less  the reticence to condemn or the fear to criticize alien modes or beliefs. Rather, it is the recognition that all peoples are capable of profound, noble, and beautiful  expressions of the human spirit, and an effort to understand and appreciate instances of these. But it is a serious blunder  not to distinguish between the finer expression of human culture on one hand -like art, music and poetry- and enlightened scientific world views on the other. Science and the related enlightened outlook are of universal appeal.  Like the wheel,  agriculture, or the number system, they  should not be associated with any particular culture or civilization, except perhaps in the context of its historical origins.