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

Modern Science: the Triumph of the Secular

It is now common wisdom that the rise of modern science was not a natural result of some technological advancements that took place in Western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. The formation of modern science was rather the end-result of a number of philosophical and metaphysical changes that have altered humanity’s view of nature and science in an unprecedented way. In this sense, modern science represents a radical shift from the traditional notion of scientia— a shift from the sacred evaluation of nature to a secular and profane framework in which pure quantity is taken to be the reality. With this new outlook, nature is divested of its symbolic and sacred meaning, and the scientist becomes the sole arbiter of truth. For Nasr, the legitimation crisis of modern science stems from this new and ‘alien’ perspective that has led, among other things, to such global calamities as the environmental crisis and nuclear warfare. Accordingly, Nasr’s relentless attack on modern science is focused on the analysis and critique of the errors of this philosophical purview rather than being a sentimental attack on modern science itself as it is commonly and mistakenly assumed. In this regard, Nasr’s encounter with the intellectual premises of secular Western science can be interpreted as an archeology of modern science whose roots go back to the 17th century scientific revolution.

Five main traits of modern science come to the fore in Nasr’s critical analysis. The first is the secular view of the universe that sees no traces of the Divine in the natural order. Nature is no longer the vestigia Dei of Christian cosmology but a self-subsistent entity that can be encapsulated exhaustively in the quantitative formulae of natural sciences.[24] The second feature is the mechanization of the world-picture upon the model of machines and clocks. Once couched in terms of mechanistic relations, nature becomes something absolutely determinable and predictable — a much needed safety zone for the rise of modern industrial society and capitalism. The third aspect of modern science is rationalism and empiricism as we have alluded to before. The fourth trait is the legacy of Cartesian dualism that presupposes a complete separation between res cogitans and res extensa, viz., between the knowing subject and the object to be known. With this cleavage, the epistemological alienation of man from nature comes to completion by leaving behind a torrent of pseudo-problems of modern philosophy, the notorious mind-body problem being a special case in point.[25] The last important aspect of modern science is in a sense a culmination of the foregoing features, and it is the exploitation of nature as a source of power and domination — a fact not unknown to modern capitalist society. Now we can see, in a brief manner, how these aspects of modern science figure in Nasr’s critical analysis.

What came into being with the Scientific Revolution was a new way of looking at the world in the deepest sense of the term. Nature was no longer conceived as a being of sacred significance with its own life cycle and unity not to be destroyed by man’s desire to establish a fake paradise here on earth. The humanist ideal of bringing down heaven to the terrestrial domain was deemed possible only by turning nature into a stage in which the destiny of mankind was to be decided in isolation from the Divine dictums of Christianity or any other religion. The historic break away from the religious view of the universe marks the incubation of modern secularism that claims to account for all the dimensions of nature by reducing it to pure quantity and a soul-less machine. For Nasr, this secular view of the universe underlies the most essential characteristics of modern science. Once translated into the language of pure quantities, nature becomes devoid of any intrinsic meaning and intelligibility whereby all the qualitative aspects associated with the natural phenomena such as beauty, harmony, telos and intelligibility turn into what Galileo called the ‘secondary qualities’, namely the subjective feelings of humans with no corresponding reality in the extra-mental world.[26] Galileo’s distinction between the primary and secondary qualities has also laid the foundations of modern empiricism: reality is what can be measured quantitatively, and it is only through the channel of empirical science that access to ‘reality’ defined as such can be gained.[27] Hence, science deals with a domain of reality with no meaning and value in and of itself. As Collingwood rightly points out, this view excludes God as well as man from the world of nature in that both God and man are seen as conferring meaning upon nature ex post facto, thus rendering nature into inert matter.[28] Consequently, this leads to the glorification of the human mind as the sole locus of meaning and value, and thus slips into a gross subjectivism. Nasr rejects this subjectivism, insists on the intrinsic qualities of nature, and makes the bold epistemological claim that the world of nature, or the external world, displays certain qualities intrinsic to itself, which cannot be confined to the feelings or the cognition of the knowing subject. Said differently, the qualities that we associate with the natural phenomena are not simply the results of some psychological states but rather to be seen as constitutive of what we experience.[29] Placed within this framework, the world of nature appears to be of sacred quality in and of itself and not necessarily dependent on our perceptions of it.

This view has important implications for the so-called ‘bare facts’, the temple of all the positivists, that supposedly replace the metaphysical and philosophical suppositions of pre-modern sciences with the ‘facts’ of natural phenomena. As I have stated earlier, the myth of neutral fact free from any context of meaning and value has to be abandoned as inadequate. This, then, puts into question one of the fundamental premises of the secular view of nature that the ‘bare facts’ of science leave no space for religious or artistic truth and that what is out there in the world of nature is no more than aggregates of chemical and biological elements upon which the human mind antecedently confers meaning. As Nasr repeatedly states, the projection of nature as pure materia is a reflection of the secular outlook of modern science in which a ‘suppositionless’ encounter with the world is pushed to the limits of relegating nature into a structure of brute facts with no meaning and even practical use.

It is not a difficult step to take from a nature conceived as inert and essentially devoid of meaning to a nature constructed upon the model of machine and, later with Newton, of clock. The purpose of this analogy, as we all know, was to prove the precision of modern natural sciences and to substantiate man’s claim for absolute domination over nature. The myth of the determinate and predictable state of things was a necessary assumption for the operation of natural sciences — a myth shattered by the rise of quantum mechanics and sub-atomic studies.[30] In any case, nature had to be construed as a machine in the full sense of the term so that the rise of industrial society could go ahead without any serious objection from religion or society, both of which were already made submissive to the undisputed authority of science. Interestingly enough, the very model through which the bare facts of nature were to be discovered proved to be a clear indication of the philosophical outlook adopted by modern science: ‘machine’ or ‘clock’ is certainly not a phenomenon to be found in nature but rather an invention of modern industrial society. Nasr sees the disastrous effects of the mechanistic view of the cosmos in this misconceived belief in science that has led to the eclipse of traditional ideas and values on the one hand, and to a number of modern disasters on the other. In addition to that, Nasr also insists that thinking about nature in terms of machines is not the best way to deal with natural phenomena. As the history of pre-modern sciences shows, it is possible to study and make use of nature without subscribing to a mechanistic world-view in which the intrinsic value of nature and everything in it is deemed inconsequential for the progress of human society.

The third important trait of modern science is, for Nasr, rationalism and empiricism which, in spite of their historical rivalry, complement each other in a number of surprising ways. First of all, both rationalism and empiricism as the two progenies of the Enlightenment reject the great chain of Being, namely the hierarchic view of the universe which lies at the heart of traditional sciences. Instead, modern rationalism constructs a world-picture within the limits of reason alone while empiricism takes a similar position by reducing reality to the least common denominator, i.e., the sense experience. The philosophical roots of Enlightenment humanism can thus be traced back to this epistemological strait-jacket imposed upon our perception of the world by rationalism and empiricism. Secondly, both of these schools take the knowing subject, the cogito of Descartes, to be the sole possessor of meaning and intelligibility thus paving the way for a subjectivist epistemology. Although the cosmology of modern science at the hands of Galileo supposedly invalidated the Christian view of the universe that regarded the world as the center of the cosmos, modern epistemology put the modern man back at the center by assigning to him the role of being the Promethean ‘creator’ of the world.[31] Thirdly, both rationalism and empiricism adopt what E. Nagel calls the ‘view from nowhere’ standpoint according to which man is disengaged from the world in which he is ineluctably included and able to see the world by himself from a God-like vantage point.[32] As I have mentioned earlier, modern rationalism, according to Nasr and the traditional school, rests on a serious misunderstanding of the notion of ‘reason’ when it relegates the intellect to calculation and analysis. Modern empiricism, on its part, falls into a similar predicament by repudiating any principle higher than sense perception.

The fourth distinguishing characteristics of modern science is closely related to both rationalism and empiricism, and this is the legacy of Cartesian bifurcation which draws an ontological and epistemological abyss between the knowing subject and the object to be known. With this rupture, the knowing subject is veiled ontologically from the world surrounding it and bound to look at everything as an ‘other’ including nature and ‘other minds’. Historically, the epistemology of ‘othering’, the inevitable offshoot of Cartesian dualism, has been one of the key factors for the alienation of man from nature and the destruction of the natural environment. It is not surprising to see that the decimation of natural resources coincides with the rise of colonialism and Orientalism, both of which are grounded in the creation of ‘others’ as the unavoidable costs of Western domination. Nasr sees the roots of this modern predicament in the Cartesian heritage and argues very strongly for what we may call an ‘epistemology of unity’, according to which the unity between the intellect and the intelligible is to be reasserted in order to have a genuine relationship with the world of nature as well as with other human beings.[33][33]

The last but by no means the least important aspect of modern science might be described as an ineluctable outcome of the preceding factors that we have just outlined. This pertains to the very context in which modern science is pursued and supported by governments, institutions and corporations. At this point, one of the most apparent leitmotifs of modern science is its connection with power and domination that has received a global prevalence with the consolidation of world capitalist economy. Science as a way of gaining power and control over nature and other human beings is certainly a very strong impulse that lies at the heart of modern scientific enterprise. An important outcome of this new spirit has been the wedding between science and technology to the extent that one can hardly speak of ‘pure science’ anymore that will not be succumbed to the demands and conditions of consumerist economy. Putting aside the extremely limited number of scientists who still see their vocation as a pursuit of truth and knowledge, nearly the entire body of modern science is driven by a will to power which manifests itself in the never-ending technological novelties financed by government funds and international corporations. Many critiques of modern science have warned against the dangers of rapid technological change that creates a state of unbounded dependency on the one hand, and an irremediable sense of dislocation on the other.[34][34] Nasr sees the roots of this predicament in the very assumptions of modern science and its stance towards nature that has led to its desecration and decimation. Accordingly, any plausible solution for the persisting problems caused by modern science and technology can be achieved not by better engineering or further progress but by reconsidering the entire perspective of the modern world-view over nature, human life and its meaning.[35][35]

By way of conclusion, I would like to state two points on the implications of Nasr’s view of science. Nasr’s critique of modern secular science is based, as we have seen, on his conviction that the philosophical foundations of modern physical sciences are marred in a serious way and that their misdeeds can be countered only by rediscovering the sacred view of the cosmos. Obviously, this inference has a number of interesting consequences for the current relationship between religion and science, into which we cannot go within the limits of this study. One important result, however, is that modern science, because of the secular framework it adopts, cannot be regarded as a continuation of traditional or pre-modern sciences as it is assumed by many historians of science.[36] As I have pointed out earlier, the main difference between traditional and modern sciences is one of perspective and perception, not technical advancement. This being the case, the attempts to dovetail the findings of modern science with the spiritual teachings of traditional religions, as it has become a widespread fashion in the recent decades, are destined to fail unless we set out to redefine the metaphysical underpinnings of science as a way of coming to terms with the world of nature. Without undertaking this colossal task, our efforts will do no good than elevating science to a semi-religious truth or turning religion into a scientific trope.[37][37] Keeping this in mind, Nasr’s critical work, as it may seem too radical and uncompromising to some, is likely to be a secure starting point for a more comprehensive and plausible discourse on the relation between religion and science.

With his unyielding stance, Nasr also opens up a new avenue for facing up to the challenge of modern science without sacrificing the traditional ideas and values, and for rejecting the totalizing claims of modern secular worldview which continues ever increasingly to dominate every facet of human life. Considering the current positions taken on science, which has been either total submission in the case of modernism or an inchoate rejection in the case of postmodernism and its associates, Nasr’s critical approach offers a veritable alternative to both extremes, inviting us to a serious deliberation over the very terms of the question of science. In this sense, the reassertion of the religious view of the universe and its meaning for natural sciences is indubitably of prime importance not only for the followers of any particular religion but for the whole of society. Yet, it is to be hoped that the necessary steps in this direction are taken carefully before we lose the very ground on which we stand.

By Ibrahim Kalin, Library of Living Philosophers: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, L. E. Hahn, R. E. Auxier and L. W. Stone (eds.), (Chicago: Open Court Press, 2001), pp. 445-462.

[24] In a famous anecdote of the history of science, Laplace, explaining his model of the universe to Napoleon, declares God as a ‘redundant hypothesis’. For Laplace’s famous reply that ‘I had no need of that hypothesis’ see, Roger Hahn, ‘Laplace and the Mechanistic Universe’ in God and Nature, ed. David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986).

[25] Rorty goes so far as to attribute the ‘invention of the mind’ to Descartes and his cogito which has come to be the source of modern theories of knowledge and the ill-formulated mind-body problem. See his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 17ff.

[26] The distinction between the primary and secondary qualities made by Galileo is one of the foundations of the Scientific Revolution. This issue was later taken up in philosophy by Hume and became one of the pillars of modern empiricism. For the importance of this distinction, one may refer, among others, to the following: R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1945), pp. 102-105; Wolfgang Smith, Cosmos and Transcendence Breaking Through the Barrier of Scientistic Belief, (Illinois: Sherwood Sugden & Company, 1984), pp. 15-16; Alexander Koyre, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957), pp. 88-109; S. H. Nasr, Religion and the Order of Nature, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 136-138; Ian Barbour, Religion and Science Historical and Contemporary Issues, (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1997), pp. 9-17; E. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1932), pp. 83-91.

[27] For an account of Galileo’s distinction from this point of view, see Herbert Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science 1300-1800, (New York: The Free Press, 1968), pp. 99-102.

[28] Collingwood, ibid., p. 103.

[29] On the traditional school’s view of quality and quantity as two philosophical categories, see Rene Guenon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Time, tr. by Lord Nortbourne, (Luzac and Company Ltd)., 1953, pp., 19-32.

[30] The idea of determinism and prediction has been influential not only in the natural sciences but also, and more perniciously, in the social sciences. The best example of this is social Darwinism and behaviorism as evidenced in the work of Pavlov in the former Soviet Union and that of B. F. Skinner in the United States. Set against the background of their ideological assumptions, both the experiments of Pavlov and Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity present an interesting example of will to power and domination: both claim to have discovered the ‘technology of behavior’ — a much-needed device for any oppressive political system. For William Barrett’s analysis of this anomaly, see his The Illusion of Technique: A Search for Meaning in a Technological Civilization, (New York: Anchor Books, 1979), pp. xi-xv.

[31] The tragic consequences of Promethean humanism have been noticed by many philosophers of the West as well as the East. Nasr has written on the subject extensively, employing a rigorously critical language. Among others, Heidegger, in his celebrated attack on humanism in Letter on Humanism, offers a scathing criticism of Western humanism which has turned man, according to him, into a slave of his own inventions.

[32] ‘The attempt is made to view the world not from a place within it, or from the vantage point of a special kind of life or awareness, but from nowhere in particular and no form of life in particular at all.’ Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions, (Cambridge, 1979), p. 208.

[33] The idea of the unity of the intellect and the intelligible is one of the fundamental teachings of traditional philosophy and plays an important role in Nasr’s writings on knowledge. For Nasr’s treatment of the subject, see the first chapter of Knowledge and the Sacred, pp. 1-64. In the De Anima (430a), Aristotle refers to this idea by saying that ‘in the case of objects without matter, that which thinks and that which is being thought are the same, for theoretical knowledge and its knowable object are the same.’ See De Anima, translated by H. G. Apostle as Aristotle on the Soul (The Peripatetic Press, 1981), p. 51. The main inspiration of Islamic philosopher, however, comes from the Enneads V where Plotinus gives a detailed explanation of the subject. Although Ibn Sina rejects, curiously enough, the unity of the intellect and the intelligible, later mystics and philosophers such as Suhrawardi, Ibn al-Arabi and Sadr al-Din Shirazi have continued to elaborate on the subject. Sadr al-Din Shirazi has even written a treatise called Ittihad al-‘aqil wa’l-ma’qul ([On] the Unity of the Intellect and the Intelligible) published in Majmua-yi rasail-i falsafi-i Sadr al-Muta’allihin, ed. by Hamid Naji Isfahani (Tehran: Intisharat-i Hikmet, 1996), pp. 64-103. Some scholars have claimed that the idea of the unity of the intellect and the intelligible can be traced back to various passages in Phedon, Timaeus and the Republic where a ‘solidarite d’existence’ is established between the Ideas and the soul. For a well-informed essay on this subject see, J. Pepin, ‘Elements pour une histoire de la relation entre l’intelligence et l’intelligible chez Plato et dans le neoplatonisme’, Revue Philosophique 81, (1956), pp. 39-64. For a recent statement of the problem in a comparative way, see M. Hairi Yazdi, The Principles of Epistemology in Islamic Philosophy: Knowledge by Presence, (Albany, SUNY Press, 1992).

[34] There is a considerable literature on the consequences of living in a technology-bound society. Among others, one may refer to Philip Sherrard, The Rape of Man and Nature: An Enquiry into the Origins and Consequences of Modern Science, (Golgoonoza Press, 1987); Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, tr. by John Wilkinson, (New York: Vintage Books, 1964); William Barrett, The Illusion of Technique.

[35] Nasr has devoted two separate books on the analysis of this crucial subject. See his Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man and Religion and the Order of Nature, especially the last chapter. See also A Young Muslim’s Guide to the Modern World, pp. 190-192, for the difference between science and technology.

[36] Religion and the Order of Nature, p. 127ff; and A Young Muslim’s Guide to the Modern World, pp. 181-2.

[37] Darwinism is probably the best example to illustrate this point. Although Nasr gives credit to the scientific evidence against the theory of evolution, his main critique is metaphysical and philosophical throughout. See his Knowledge and the Sacred, chapter 7. For a similar line of argument, see Titus Burckhardt, The Mirror of the Intellect: Essays on Traditional Science and Sacred Art, tr. by William Stoddart (Cambridge: Quinta Essentia, 1987), pp. 32-45; and Osman Bakar (ed.), Critiques of the Theory of Evolution (Kuala Lumpur: The Islamic Academy of Science, 1987).