Don’t Mess With My Algorithms

Finkelstein comments:  A brilliant Indian mathematician friend of mine (who happens to be the spouse of my brilliant German editor) sent this comment on the Oxford Union Youtube posted on this web site



The orator spoke at the speed of light, but was quite funny. However I found his peroration very apologetic and defensive. All he needed to say was that whatever violence and brutality can be attributed to Muslims is not even an infinitesimal fraction of what the West has wrought on the world. As for his dubious claims about “Islamic Science” and “algorithm”, I wrote something in response to similar claims made in an article in Counterpunch. For what it is worth, here is my rejoinder.

It is one thing to say that Science and knowledge in general do not respect geographical boundaries, and are not the sole prerogative of the West, but quite another to conflate terminology with Science, which is quite silly. It is certainly true that it is Islamic renaissance that kept alive the ‘Scientific spirit’ of the ancient Greeks (albeit ancient Greeks were certainly not scientific in the modern sense of the word) when Europe was busy burning witches, but I am not sure what the words such as algebra and algorithm having roots in Arabic proves. The notion of an ‘algorithm’ was not clarified until the early part of the twentieth century, when the work of Turing, Church et al made the notion rigorous, culminating in the Church Turing thesis. So although the term itself existed prior to this twentieth century intellectual revolution, I don’t think anyone, let alone the Arabs, prior to this revolution ever thought that such a slippery notion such as an ‘algorithm’ could actually be formalized. Similar things could be said about ‘Algebra’ and other concepts mentioned in the essay.

It would also be silly to gainsay the tremendous technological and Scientific achievements of the West (if that makes me Euro-centric, so be it) which were really quite unique, and of course had both malevolent and beneficent aspects. It is exactly these achievements that resulted in Western hubris, and the conquest of the World. There is no use denying what is obvious. Actually it seems to me that people who try to prove that ‘Indian Science’, or ‘Arabic Science’ or ‘Chinese Science’ were as potent as Western Science, and that Western Science and Technology owes a lot to other cultures, protesteth too much. They also fall for the same racist assumption that they decry in the Westerners-that what makes a culture worthwhile is its achievements in Science and Technology (otherwise, why would they be trying to compare the two, and show, using shallow means, that Western Science owes ‘huge’ intellectual debt to other cultures?). It is exactly these kinds beliefs (that non-Western cultures were inferior because of their relatively lower Scientific and Technological development) that were used to justify genocides that the West perpetrated on other lands and cultures.