The Sacred versus the Secular: Nasr on Science 2/3

Scientia Sacra Defined and Defended

Nasr defines scientia sacra as ‘that sacred knowledge which lies at the heart of every revelation and is the center of that circle which encompasses and defines tradition’.[1] Scientia sacra, whose Latin form Nasr insists on keeping, denotes the supreme science of metaphysics which comprises the principial knowledge of things whereas sacred science refers to the application of sacred knowledge to various domains of reality, physical and spiritual. Any science, be it natural, mathematical or intellectual, that places the sacred at the center of its structure is sacred to the extent that it is an application of the immutable principles of metaphysics to the world of change and relativity.[2] In this regard, all sacred sciences are also traditional sciences in the sense that they apply the principles of traditional metaphysics to the scientific study of nature and thus can be called different versions of applied metaphysics.[3] Grounded in this view, all sacred sciences from cosmology to medicine share a number of cardinal principles which Nasr outlines as follows: the sacred sciences construe the world through the prism of a hierarchy of being and knowledge. The physical world is not denied as an illusion, as maya, or as a shadow to be degraded in face of the Absolute. Nor is it taken to be an ultimate reality in and of itself. It is rather placed within a larger framework of meaning and significance that does not confine existence to any particular scientific construction. The traditional civilizations in which the sacred sciences were cultivated insist on the Divine origin of the world, and this view leads to a clear-cut relationship of hierarchy between the absolute and the relative, the eternal and the temporal, the necessary and the contingent. Since hierarchy implies, by definition, a multi-layered structure, the traditional sciences are essentially anti-reductionist. This explains, to a large extent, the persistence of the idea of the ‘great chain of being’ across the traditional civilizations which do not allow the reduction of reality into a pure idea or pure matter as these terms are currently understood.[4] Instead of relegating reality to a lower plane of existence, namely to matter, the sacred sciences analyze each domain of reality in its own level, thus resting on a metaphysical framework within which it is possible to maintain the vision of the One and the many without confounding the two.

In this view, nature, the very subject matter of science, is regarded as a sacred being, as vestigia Dei, or as ayat Allah, e.g., as the signs of God which point to the ‘symbolic significance’ of the world of nature. In sharp contrast to the modern view of nature which reduces the order of nature to everlasting change and impermanence, the traditional sciences look upon nature as the abode of both change and permanence. Although the common-sense experience tends to see nature as a perennially changing structure, the world of nature displays also a remarkable continuity, perseverance and harmony as we see it in the preservation of the species and the endurance of natural forms. For Nasr, this double-aspect of nature proves beyond any doubt the Divine quality in nature: the world of nature has not been left to the infinite succession of haphazard and senseless changes which admit no telos in the cosmos. On the contrary, nature contains in itself the principles of change and permanence simultaneously and points to a ‘big picture’ in which all of its parts are recognized as forming a meaningful unity and harmony. As Titus Burckhardt reminds us, ‘the Greek word cosmos means ‘order’, implying the ideas of unity and totality. Cosmology is thus the science of the world inasmuch as this reflects its unique cause, Being.’[5] Defined as such, the order of nature or the cosmos cannot be other than the reflection of a higher principle on the level of relative existence.[6][6]

Cosmos as a self-disclosure of the Divine can be grasped, according to Nasr, only by what F. Schuon calls the ‘symbolist spirit’ which has been lost in the modern world. The symbolist outlook shared by all the traditional sciences is based on the epistemological premise that the reality of things is more than how it appears to us.[7][7] Just as the reality of God is not limited to His creation, the reality of the natural world is also not confined to the analysis and classification of natural sciences. In fact, the meaning of the cosmos can be made explicit only when one sees it as more than its quantitative sum. A crucial implication of this premise is obviously the rejection of modern empiricism: since reality is not exhausted by its experimental analysis, there has to be an ‘intellectual’ principle that organizes and guides what is experienced by the five senses. Left unto itself, the sum total of experimental data, however ‘thick’ and informative it might be, does not constitute a whole or unity by which we can understand and describe the world. In fact, pure empiricism as a way of dealing with the world of nature is not a possibility because there is always an element of intellectual knowledge involved in any scientific enterprise undertaken.[8] In other words, the choice of the scientist to deal with a particular domain of reality by using certain scientific instruments is not a theory- and value-free endeavor. The context of experiment, despite its operational nature, is always the context of a number of choices, judgements and evaluations that the scientist has in the background of his work. The task of the metaphysics of science, as we observe it in the work of Nasr, is precisely to provide and clarify these principal ideas and judgements through which all natural sciences, whether traditional or modern, function. As a result of the presence of such a metaphysics, the traditional notion of experiment in the natural sciences has a field of meaning completely different from and incommensurable with its modern counterpart. That is why the traditional sciences which Nasr, together with the other members of the traditional school, defends against modern science have never allowed the rise of reductionist empiricism despite the epoch-making achievements of traditional sciences in such experimental fields as medicine, astronomy, mechanics and alchemy.[9]

Modern empiricism or what Guenon calls ‘l’experimentalisme moderne’ differs completely from the traditional notion of experiment since it is not only reductionist but also flawed in its most essential assumption that theory has to be checked against the backdrop of a number of experimental conditions. Guenon puts into question this very assumption and claims that to give priority to experiment detached from the theoretical setting in which it is constructed is to reverse the relation between theory and experiment. For Guenon, it is the illusion of modern experimentalism to believe that ‘a theory can be proved by facts whereas in reality the same facts can always be explained equally well by a number of different theories, and it would not be possible, as some of the defenders of the experimental method like Claude Bernard have recognized, to interpret these facts without the help of some ‘preconceived ideas’ without which these facts remain as ‘brute facts’, devoid of any significance and scientific value.’[10] Set against this background, the traditional sciences that employ the experimental method always function within a framework of metaphysical principles the most important of which is, for Nasr and the traditional school, the hierarchy of being and knowledge.[11] It is the recognition of this hierarchy that exists objectively and independently of the knowing subject that prevents the traditional sciences of nature from falling into the trap of reductionist empiricism.

The traditional notion of scientific experiment brings us to another fundamental issue in the natural sciences, which is the question of scientific realism. Although neither Nasr nor the other exponents of the traditional school speak about realism in terms similar to the ongoing discussion in contemporary philosophy of science, it is possible to argue that Nasr takes a realist position on the meaning and function of natural sciences. The common-sense definition of realism as the acceptance of an objective world not dependent on our perceptions is, one may claim, uninteresting and even boring[12], and it would not be wrong to say that it does not yield any substantial knowledge about the structure of the world around us. Yet, this seemingly simple truism entails a far-reaching thesis concerning our consciousness of the world.

Putting aside the conflicting views on the subject, we may characterize this assertion along the following lines. According to a fundamental axiom expounded by the traditional school, man is in principle capable of knowing God and the world through his intellect which is a God-given faculty. In sharp contrast to Kantianism and other forms of rationalism, the possibility of metaphysics as an all-inclusive science stems from the faculty of the intellect whose function is to integrate and know the higher levels of reality. Whereas reason by its nature analyzes and dissects the world around it into fragments in order to function properly, the intellect synthesizes and integrates what has been fragmented by the reason. The same principle applies, one may argue, to the natural sciences in the sense that the quantitative study of the cosmos is complemented by the qualitative and ‘symbolist’ perception of the intellect.[13]

Nasr’s realist position comes to the fore with his depiction of science as an organized body of knowledge that is in principle capable of describing the world to us as it is. Guided primarily by the supreme knowledge of metaphysics, science can and does investigate the reality of physical entities as they exist objectively in the extra-mental world. This suggests that scientific theories are not mere instruments of operation by which the scientist constructs a picture of the world without having an actual grasp of it.[14] On the contrary, what science presents to us as a world-picture is in fact a true picture of the world provided that it is substantiated by sound evidence and that it does not lose sight of the hierarchic vision of the universe. As in the case of scientific experimentalism, this minimal or common-sense view of scientific realism is supplemented by what one may call a ‘metaphysical realism’ in that the scientific realism in question is gained not through the operation of the senses and reason alone but primarily through the intellect which is the locus of metaphysical knowledge for intellectual as well as natural sciences. The fact that science can present to us a true picture of the world is to be seen not as an exclusive brilliance of scientific theories or experimental devices but as a possibility of the intellect because it is through the intellect that we make sense of the world with which the sciences are concerned. Said differently, what makes the quantitative study of the universe possible is the intellect’s ability to understand the reality of things as they are, namely as the plane of relative existence in face of the Absolute, to the extent possible within the confines of human ability.[15] It is this metaphysical component that separates realism, as it is defined here, from both positivism and physicalism.[16]

Nasr’s ground-breaking work on Islamic science can be taken as an example to illustrate the foregoing points.[17] The Islamic natural sciences cultivated in Islamic civilization by Muslim scientists were based on a careful and analytic study of nature within the matrix of the Islamic revelation. The essence of this revelation is al-tawhid, the principle of unity professed by every member of the Islamic community, which underlies, as Nasr repeatedly states, the unity and interrelatedness of the world of nature. Although al-tawhid in its ordinary sense refers to the theological dictum that there is no divinity but God, its ontological and metaphysical meanings enter the picture as a corollary of it by construing the world of nature as issuing forth from a single source, e.g., from the Divine. For Nasr, the primary goal of Islamic sciences from medicine to geometry is to disclose this underlying unity and to show ‘the unity and interrelatedness of all that exists’.[18] Seen from this point of view, reality presents itself to us as a well-knit unity in which the individual objects as the subject matter of science are located.[19] A supposedly ‘pure’ analysis of the natural world into its constituent parts does not help us understand these discrete parts because each analysis, whether scientific or philosophical, is carried out within a context in which the terms of the analysis are given. Furthermore, each part by definition requires a whole or unity in relation to which alone it can be called ‘part’. The distinct characteristic of Islamic sciences, claims Nasr, is to admit this pre-conceptual and relational unity as a given fact and reveal the balance between the whole and the part, and between the one and the many. This is also one of the fundamental differences between the metaphysical framework of Islamic science and its modern counterpart.[20]

Following the same line of argument, it is possible to contend that the ‘facts’ of science are not derivable from an analysis which is thought to be detached and isolated from the multi-layered contexts of meaning. In fact, as Nasr insists on the necessity of an all-inclusive metaphysical matrix in which any scientific activity is to be conducted, science, be it traditional or modern, represents a prime example of what Ryle calls ‘thick description’, viz. the analysis of the layers of meaning within which an activity is carried out. Now, one of the merits of Islamic science is to unveil the persistence of such layers of meaning that run through the various levels of scientific activity while at the same time explicating the tacit unity and interrelatedness of natural phenomena. The ‘unifying perspective of Islam’[21] in which the Islamic sciences are deeply rooted defines the ‘facts’ of science not as atomistic quanta but as relational entities that tie the entire cosmos together.[22] A crucial implication of this ‘metaphysics of relationality’, if I may use such a term, is the denial of pure and simple ideas which the empiricists such as Hume have conceived of as the constitutive elements of human thought. The so-called pure and simple ideas of human mind always assume a ‘thick’ setting in which they are formed and expressed. The same holds true for the sense-data and/or sense-perception which is always embedded in a context of intelligibility larger than mere sensation. In fact, according to the idea of asalat al-wujud, the primacy of being over essence (mahiyyah), which Nasr expounds in many of his writings, Being is the standing condition of all knowledge. In other words, every act of knowing, whether based on the senses or the intellect, presumes a larger context of intelligibility provided by the all-inclusive reality of Being. It is on the basis of this ‘existential’ ground rather than some physical or ether-like element that we can talk about the cosmos as an interrelated unity.

This substantive unity, however, becomes comprehensible only through the aid of the intellect which integrates various domains of reality as opposed to quantitative analysis which remains at the steps of fragmentation and dissection. For Nasr, the remarkable achievements of Islamic sciences were made possible by the availability of such a comprehensive outlook that has determined both the context of experiment and of justification of the traditional natural sciences.[23][23] This is also the demarcation line between the sacred and modern science that has adopted an entirely different perspective, to which we now turn.

By Ibrahim Kalin, to be continued…

[1] Knowledge and the Sacred (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989), p. 130.

[2] The Need for a Sacred Science (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993), pp. 1-2.

[3] Not all traditional sciences are, however, sacred. There is always a human element attached to the formulation of traditional sciences which cannot be taken to be sacred in the strict sense of the term. For Nasr’s distinction between the two, see The Need for a Sacred Science, p. 96.

[4] The best historical account of the great chain of being is A. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of and Idea (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1960).

[5] Titus Burckhardt, The Mirror of the Intellect: Essays on Traditional Science and Sacred Art, tr. by William Stoddart (Cambridge: Quinta Essentia, 1987), p. 17.

[6] Nasr gives a detailed analysis of this point in his works on Islamic science. Especially his Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines has been devoted to the concept of nature and the methods used for its study by Ikhwan al-Safa, al-Biruni and Ibn Sina.

[7] This epistemological claim has far-reaching consequences for our relationship with the world and with other human beings. Unfortunately, there is no space here to delve into this important subject. One may, however, refer to Huston Smith’s concise discussion in his Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), pp. 96-117.

[8] In contemporary philosophy of science, this issue has been discussed around the question of whether we can have observation without theory. As the realists and the instrumentalists alike agree on, scientific observation is always theory-laden and this does not necessarily undermine the scientific validity of observation within a particular science.

[9] For an illustration of this point, see Nasr’s Islamic Science An Illustrated Study (Kent: World of Islam Festival Publishing Company Ltd., 1976), and Science and Civilization in Islam (Cambridge, 1987).

[10] Rene Guenon, La Crise du Monde Moderne, (Gallimard, 1946), pp. 76-77.

[11] Although one may cite tens of classical books and treatises on the hierarchy of being and knowledge, two contemporary works are worth-mentioning here: E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), especially, pp. 15-25; and Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), especially, pp. 34-59.

[12] Michael Devitt, Realism and Truth, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997), 2.nd edition, pp. 13-14.

[13] The distinction between reason and intellect on the one hand, and their unity at a higher level of consciousness on the other, are the two fundamental tenets of the traditional school. For Nasr’s exposition of these terms, see his Knowledge and the Sacred, chapter 1.

[14] For Nasr’s critique of scientific instrumentalism which is a version of anti-realism, see Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man (ABC International Group, Inc., 1997), pp. 25-27. At this point, it should be mentioned that Glyn Ford’s defense of Islamic science, which is based on his interpretation of Nasr, appears to rest on a misreading of Nasr. Ford defines science as a social construction of natural phenomena mediated by the scientific community and society with no claim to objectivity — a thesis promulgated, inter alia, by Kuhn and Feyerabend. In this sense, every scientific tradition, modern Western, Islamic or Chinese, is entitled to be science notwithstanding their conflicting claims of truth and validity. It is not difficult to see the anti-realist component in this assertion: Islamic science is a valid science not because it is based on the scientific study of nature but because it is one of such social constructions that we collectively agree to call ‘science’. As I have tried to show here, Nasr does not subscribe to such an anti-realist interpretation of science. For Ford’s argument, see his ‘A Framework for a New View of Islamic Science’ in ‘Adiyat Halab An Annual Devoted to the Study of Arabic Science and Civilization, (Aleppo: The University of Aleppo, 1978-1979), vols. VI-V, pp. 68-74.

[15] In a famous prayer, the Prophet of Islam asks God to ‘show him the reality of things as they are in themselves’ (arini haqaiq al-ashya kama hiya). This prayer which has been elaborated upon by many Muslim scholars and philosophers suggests that the ultimate reality and meaning of things can be attained only through the aid of Divine guidance. Placed within a larger context, the same principle applies to the proper understanding of the order of nature.

[16] There is no intrinsic or necessary connection between realism in science and belief in progress. Nevertheless, historically, the majority of those who take the realist position have allowed some kind of a belief in progress which accounts for the linear development of natural sciences. By contrast, most of the anti-realists and instrumentalists, notably Kuhn, Feyerabend and Van Fraassen, have rejected the idea of progress by replacing cumulative development in science with paradigm shifts that alter the very definition of science. Interestingly enough, both Guenon and Nasr reject the idea of progress as an intrinsic quality of natural sciences. In this regard, Guenon goes even further and describes the development of chemistry from alchemy and astronomy from astrology as ‘degeneration’ rather progress and evolution — degeneration in the principles that make alchemy, astrology or the science of the soul (ilm al-nafs) traditional sciences. The denial of progress in natural sciences as this term is understood currently is obviously the logical result of the metaphysical outlook that Nasr expounds and defends as a prominent member of the traditional school. For Guenon’s remarks, see La Crise, pp. 79-81.

[17] Nasr has authored a number of important works on Islamic science. See his Islamic Science – An Illustrated Study (Kent: World of Islam Festival Publishing Company Ltd., 1976), An Annotated Bibliography of Islamic Science (Lahore: Suhail Academy, 1985) 3 vols, Science and Civilization in Islam (Cambridge, 1987), An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines (Cambridge, 1964). Nasr has also written many articles on the meaning of Islamic science and its relation to modern Western science.

[18] Science and Civilization in Islam, p. 22.

[19] Ibid., p. 25.

[20] In addition to Nasr’s aforementioned works on Islamic science, see also his brief treatment in A Young Muslim’s Guide to the Modern World (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1993), pp. 85-102.

[21] Islamic Science, p. 4.

[22] Sadr al-Din Shirazi, one of the greatest metaphysicians of the post-Avicennan Islamic philosophy, on whom Nasr has written extensively, depicts the natural phenomena as ‘pure relations’ (idafa mahda) when seen in relation to the absolute (al-mutlaq) and the necessary Being (al-wajib), which is God.

[23] A thorough survey of Islamic sciences ranging from geography and natural history to physics and astronomy is to be found in Science and Civilization in Islam.