The above title comes from a book of a famous Muslim Scholar, Al Imam Al Ghazali (1058-1111 AD); of which has brought a lot of interest to me. While the book serves almost a self written autobiography of himself, it’s core theme was, how Al Ghazali, through his pursuit of knowledge and seeking truth, discover that the quest itself is a never ending process – but only serve as a sincere efforts to raise ourselves away from series of errors. The lesser the errors are the better you are. Human, being an imperfect creature can only achieve thus; and no more – because the final and absolute truth only remains with God. The lesser you err, the closer you are to God (and hence the Truth).
On the same subject, I also read from the Philosopher Prof. Karl Popper, explaining almost exactly the same subject, based on the western philosophical tradition (of Socrates, Plato – of the Greeks; and of Immanuel Kant and others of modern philosophers) in the following manner: that “Truth”, while it should manifest itself, only can be obtained through our efforts to uncover the “Ignorance”; the lesser our ignorance are, the closer we are to the Truth. In fact no knowledge can be said to be absolute, since the absence of any falsifications of it (i.e. any proof of it to err), does not by itself proof it to be correct. It only proof that “thus far” we are not wrong, until someday, someone may proof that it is wrong. In the meantime, it remains the “Truth”, as we best understood it.
The above two philosophical contributions, while sounds obvious (to some) or complex (to some); actually has a lot of relevancy to our daily lives. In particular, about how we organize our society, government, economies and etc. Before I go further on this subject, let me bring an example that most of us who have studied Physics are familiar with – and demonstrate the above fallacy of “Truth”. During the Renaissance, Johannes Kepler, came out with what is known as Kepler’s Law – which explains about the Earth rotating the Sun in an elliptical movement. Off course, Kepler was earlier shunned and rejected by the Catholic Church since it was against the “Truth” that was held by the Church. In another word, Kepler uncovers their errors. It was held for so long that Kepler was right, until Newton came up with the famous Newton’s Law –which rectify some of the errors of Kepler’s Law (the movement was not exactly elliptical, but close to it, following the Newton Law of gravity). Everyone then touted that Newton’s finding is the final and absolute Law; that is until Einstein, started to challenge this notion, and finally come out with his “Theory of Relativity”. Which in effect rectify the errors in the Newton’s Law. We have to realize that Einstein do not claim his finding as the “Law”, because he knows that it is only “true” to a limit, until further discoveries and findings in the future that can rectify any errors left in his theory. It is also noteworthy that people live and accept Kepler’s Law for over two hundred years, before Newton came out with his; and another 150 years more, before Einstein corrected Newton. In another word, we can live with erroneous assumptions for hundreds of years!
Now let me come back to the subject of our concerns today. In order not to go too deep in discussions, I would lie to bring only two issues to highlight. First is about the capitalistic economic system, and second, about the methods of governance (namely democratic system) – and all the facets of the systems that we are practicing today. It is assumed and accepted by most people that this are the two best systems and presents the triumph of mankind over the quest for economic system and governance. The question is: are the human beings committing the same “error” as I described above? Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened, and are all too pervasive in today’s society. In particular, the obvious case is the United States and all western powers that existing today.
What’s wrong lie with the assumption that we have found the perfect solution to our problems – namely Capitalism and Democracy. We all know that Marxism, Socialism and other’s didn’t work (and hence errors); and it is even much more wrong to assume that we should go back to those tried and failed systems. The fact is: the two systems that are “best” actually remain imperfect; and therefore, at no point we should rest on our laurels and safely assume that everything will work accordingly. It is now becoming clearer that Democracy, could and only works well with other systems such the media, education, and other supports systems works together with it. The case of capitalism is even worse – it breeds a lot of fragility, crashes and instability throughout the world.
The fact that, how certain things can go wrong in a big way, and escape the attention of almost everyone over a long period of time; is rather frightening. For example, how could the US housing bubble can grow so large (into trillions of dollars over ten years), without anyone even realizing that it could blow up in a devastating manner; is rather troublesome. This happened, despite the internet access, media, extensive data collection systems, countless professionals and bankers in the field. It begs the question why? Off course it is easy to come out with simplistic theory such as the US conspiracy (or Jewish etc); but I found that to be rather absurd. In my observation – the whole thing goes back to what I started with earlier: ignorance of our errors. Everyone has become so confident that the systems will work and will self rectify and self correct through the efficient market mechanism. That fundamental believe is at the core of the problems. This arrogance and over confident is the root of all evils that make us to be blind.
Capitalism and Democracy, while stands as the best available solutions, are in fact second best. We should never stop in modifying and challenging both systems in order for us to get a better system. This is the same manner that human should not stop at Newton’s finding, and hence there would be no Einstein. Similarly, nobody should stop at Einstein, and we should continue to pursue perfection of our knowledge (though as Al Ghazalli says, that itself is a never ending quest).
If we apply the same logic to the case of Malaysia – is an even more daunting and clear. Our democracy is way from perfect – even at its most basic element: we have no free media; voting arrangements and independence of the apparatus such as the police, civil servants, election commissions, and the judiciary are not present. Furthermore, of late, we have seen that some parts of the Constitutions are being challenged (since we rarely get into such situations before – and only now we realize that such things exist); the role of the Monarchy is being challenged and questioned. And off course, we have UMNO and BN – which are in deep “ignorance” of their own. At the same time, we also have less than perfect oppositions in the forms of Pakatan (PKR, DAP, PAS). And even more still we have people who enter into politics (from both sides) – with varying motives and targets; most are personal, while some are truly commendable.
When we talk about economic system and management – it is even worse (in my opinion). There are very little, if any, clear and coherent economic arguments and thoughts that went into almost all policies of the Government. Open and serious economic debates among the leadership and the society are almost non-presence. The assumptions that things will work by almost in verbatim adoption of other peoples approach and methodology is rampant.
If any lessons that we can take, it could be summarized as follows: as a society, we have to acknowledge that it is our task not to err, or to err as less as possible. Blind faith, acceptance without reasons and questions is bad practice. To succeed and thrive, we need to “deliver ourselves from errors” on a continuous basis. We as Malaysians today, are indeed on many path of errors that need to be corrected. To be critical, thinking with sound judgments and acceptance to reform – is probably where we all should start with. Arrogance and over confidence – on the other end; only further the cause of “errors” and breed crisis and collapses of the societies.
Note: The Arabic title of Al Ghazalli’s book is “Al Munqidh Min Al Dhalal”.