By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
04 May 2018
Understanding Modern Science as a Problem for Religion
Deep down many believers resent our age of science believing that it has undermined faith. But everyone would love to extol rational credentials of religion and avail many gifts of modern science at the same time. There are many who think that science can be an ally of faith. Such towering scientific minds as Darwin, Freud and Hawking, for instance, all have been critical of popular religion. Most scientists today are not believers. Many young people exposed to science turn against religion. This is a complex problem – note, for instance, heavy weights like Wallace and Darwin disagreeing on the question of including or excluding man in evolutionary account, and crucial disagreements between Freud and Jung, Russell and Whitehead, Iqbal and Nasr on the question of religion vis-a-vis modern science – and we propose to treat one aspect of it today.
The first point to be noted is the difference between attitudes of scientists and philosophers or philosopher scientists. The best of philosopher-scientists don’t usually dismiss essential fact of religious experience (questioning certain conceptual model explaining it is another matter) and don’t naively or disrespectfully treat millennia of collective wisdom (expressed in religious terms) of all traditions and ages. They are quite conscious of the fact that science doesn’t trade truth/certainty but is primarily problem solving enterprise and its conclusions are not stable/are subject to a constantly changing "consensus." Science doesn’t claim or even seek “certainty, infallibility and complete emotional objectivity.” Instead it is based upon “wonder, adventure and hope.” Similarly the best minds in traditions don’t assert that we have to literally defend mythological, symbolic truths. They seek to keep wonder and the Question alive. For them religion is not an answer to questions science asks or philosophers usually deal with but a method to live in a certain way that is its own reward. Religion is refusal to stay at a particular station or be content with the given seeking to move on and on and explore higher and remoter frontiers of consciousness/being. They don’t see religions telling us certain stories that we have no means to intellectually defend/testify/verify in any sense. Religions have always cultivated intellectual or philosophical dimension for their own interest. Religion doesn’t compete with science for explaining natural phenomena. Science doesn’t, in final terms, dabble in the question of meaning of life or First Principles or what transcends its jurisdiction.
It is thus the case that the best minds from traditions and sciences would have usually good relations. Or don’t fail to appreciate one another – Tagore and Einstein had no problem understanding each other. Salam and Weinberg could pursue science and faith without confounding the two. Nagarjuna would hardly mind Hawking’s “atheism” though, along with Ibn Arabi, might invite him to consider travel in the black hole of his own being and explore a “territory” more wonderful and worthy of our attention than the physical one at the edge or beginning of the universe. Coomaraswamy and Iqbal would have little difficulty in having a wonderful dialogue and sharing tea with Darwin. Whitehead’s collaborations with fellow scientists and philosophers were not affected by their different views on religion. Such claims as reducing man to ape with no residue, reducing intelligence/consciousness to non-intelligent material principle, excluding or exiling mystery/subjectivity/art/beauty by invoking mechanism all the way up or down the scales of being, reducing ethics to certain utilitarian calculus are not made by philosopher-scientists. The best religious minds criticize modern science for being naïve about intellectual matters. Whitehead, for instance, remarked “Science has remained an anti-intellectual movement based on naive faith” And “When religion ceases to seek for penetration, for clarity, it is sinking back into its lower forms. The ages of faith are the ages of rationalism.” Schuon’s critique of modern science is premised on the point that science takes little note of demands of intelligence. Sages criticize reductionist rationalism that constructs religion as an Other to be discredited for the sake of the rights of intellect as distinguished from reason.
People differ in the degree of openness to truth or love and capacity to keep wondering and seeking newer unceasing unveilings of Being, in the length of the road they have travelled and none can claim he has reached unattainable end. To be humble is a virtue of both great scientists and mystics or believers.
What is at stake for better minds is not the fate of certain notions traditionally associated with historical religions but what becomes of culture in the age that swears by naïve faith in exclusivist science. What has been missing from students of science in general is even an elementary understanding of culture. As Whitehead noted: “Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it. A merely well informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth. What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction.” Few students trained in science are today comprehensively educated or cultured. Herbert Spencer in An Autobiography has aptly remarked: “The inability of a man of science to take the poetic view simply shows his mental limitation; as the mental limitation of a poet is shown by his inability to take the scientific view. The broader mind can take both.” Religious problems that many face later in life are not traceable to any real conflict between any answers in scriptures and science but failure to keep wondering about Being or Life or Consciousness – failure to be truly philosophers, scientists and poets. “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.” How quickly do we grow accustomed to wonders is lamented in Isaac Asimov story “Nightfall,” about the planet where “the stars were visible only once in a thousand years. So awesome was the sight that it drove men mad. We who can see the stars every night glance up casually at the cosmos and then quickly down again.” Indeed, as John Perry noted in Teaching of Mathematics: “A lifetime may be spent by a philosopher in discussing the truth of the simplest axiom. The simplest fact as to our existence may fill us with such wonder that our minds will remain overwhelmed with wonder all the time.”
Since modern thought or science has problems with usually reiterated theistic model let us ask sages whether the question about theism should so sharply divide the world. Are believers of world religions including Islam theists or trans-theists? Metaphysics and esotericism allow us to avoid the trap of theism-atheism binary as it affirms God as Reality (Being) which is affirmed in certain/ limited sense by everyone – we all are and by our very being participate in the Being so to speak.
The scriptures such as the Quran don’t demand belief in existence of some entity called God but affirming unity of Reality (Tawhid) – and note it isn’t numerical oneness of God but oneness of Reality that is to be affirmed. Science has been committed to this affirmation – in the limited sense – in the domain it is interested in and that grounds its practice of finding laws and equations that apply everywhere or in any possible universe and to seek repeatability of experimental findings and positing essential uniformity of behaviour of natural phenomena.
Nasr defends the statement that if it were possible to teach metaphysics to everyone (including Hawking and Dawkins), there would be no atheists around. Ibn Arabi by stating that God is a precept and not a concept and noting that even atheists have a degree of Tawhid makes this clearer.
Eckhart by stating the other pole of the same thesis in his shocking statement “Don’t prate about God; God is not” and Boddhidharma by presenting a flower instead of any discourse about God made the better statement about what should be ideally passed over in silence as both Buddha and Wittgenstein advised in their own ways. Islam has forbidden discussion on the Essence or Zat or Suprapersonal Divine Principle and encouraged discussion only on what we could somehow relate to on the analogy of our own being or what is called Sifat that somehow manifest in the world or life made an empirical move that is so dear to the spirit of modern science. In observing and contemplating natural phenomena we are, in a sense and to a certain degree, participating in affirming the Divine.
Sufi thinkers and poets have stated the doctrine regarding God in convincing terms and for this they minced no words in acknowledging that truth lies beyond the duality of belief and disbelief (Kufr and Islam).
Summing up we may state that the problem of conflict between religion and science is best dealt by their best minds and it is not scientists or (exoteric) theologians/Ulama but experts in philosophy of science and sages who are best qualified to speak on the subject. Scientists and religious scholars as such would desist from commenting on weighty issues they know little about. Sages clarify the claims of religion that philosophers of science need to take into account to question the currently fashionable polemical exchanges between literalists in religions and advocates of scientism. Surveying current scenario where top ranking scientists and philosophers of religion are polarized on the question of religion, we may agree to keep the debate open and provisionally consider Rama Coomaraswamy’s point that “If any conflict exists, it is not between science and faith properly understood, but between modern and traditional attitudes” and seek to carefully clarify divergent attitudes. If science and faith as such were in conflict we could afford clear judgments either way.