Three Views of Science in the Islamic World

The Sacred versus the Secular: The Metaphysics of Science

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The Sacred versus the Secular: The Metaphysics of Science
The last major position on science of which we can give here only a brief summary is marked off from the other two positions by its emphasis on metaphysics and the philosophical critique of modern science. Represented chiefly, inter alia, by such thinkers as Rene Guenon, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Naquib al-Attas, Osman Bakar, Mahdi Golshani and Alparslan Acikgenc, the metaphysical view of science considers every scientific activity operating within a framework of metaphysics whose principles are derived from the immutable teachings of the Divine revelation. In contrast to philosophy and sociology of science, metaphysics of science provides sciences with a sacred concept of nature and cosmology within which to function.35 At this point, the sacred view of nature taught by religions and ancient traditions takes on a prime importance in the formation and operation of physical sciences, and all of the traditional sciences, regardless of the historical and geographic setting they were cultivated in, were based on such principles which had enabled them to produce highly advanced sciences and techniques while maintaining the sacredness of nature and the cosmos. The traditional natural sciences, Nasr and others argue, derived not only their work-ethics and methodology but also metaphysical and ontological raison d'etre from the principles of Divine revelation because they were rooted in a conception of knowledge according to which the knowledge of the world acquired by man and the sacred knowledge revealed by God were seen as a single unity. As a result, the epistemological crisis of the natural and human sciences that we try to overcome today did not arise for the traditional scientist who did not have to sacrifice his religious beliefs in order to carry out a scientific experiment, and vise versa.
The traditional metaphysics envisages reality as a multi-layered structure with different levels and degrees of meaning. The polarity between the Principle and Its manifestation, which is translated into the language of theology as God and His creation, gives rise to a hierarchic view of the universe because manifestation already implies a domain of reality lower than its sustaining origin. Moreover, since reality is what it is due to the Divine nature, it cannot be seen as a play-thing or the product of a series of fortuitous events. On the contrary, the cosmos, as the traditional scientists firmly believed, is teleological throughout, displaying a remarkable order and purpossiveness. Nature, depicted by modern science as a ceaseless flow of change and contingency, never fails to restore itself into an abode of permanence and continuity with the preservation of species and self-generation.36 Seen under this light, nature, which is the subject matter of physical sciences, cannot be reduced to any one of these levels. With reductionism out, the traditional metaphysics of science uses a language built upon such key terms as hierarchy, telos, interconnectedness, isomorphism, unity and complexity. These qualities are built into the very structure and methodology of traditional sciences of nature, which can be taken to be one of the demarcation lines between the sacred and modern secular views of science.37 It is therefore impossible, the proponents of this view would insist, to create or resuscitate the traditional Islamic sciences of nature without first articulating its metaphysical framework. Any attempt to graft Islamic ethics and epistemology to the metaphysically blind outlook of modern science is bound to be a failure.
The philosophical underpinnings of Islamic science, as defined by Nasr, Attas, and others are derived from the metaphysical principles of Islam. Just as the Islamic revelation determines the social and artistic life of the Muslim civilization, it also gives direction to its understanding of the natural environment and its scientific study.38 The doctrine of tawhid, the most essential tenet of Islamic religion, affirms the unity of the Divine Principle, and it is projected into the domain of natural sciences as the essential unity and interrelatedness of the natural order. A science can thus be defined as Islamic, Acikgenc states, to the extent to which it conforms to and reflects the cardinal principles of the Islamic worldview.39 In a similar way, Nasr insists that 'the aim of all the Islamic sciences -- and more generally speaking, of all the medieval and ancient cosmological sciences --is to show the unity and interrelatedness of all that exists, so that, in contemplating the unity of the cosmos, man may be led to the unity of the Divine Principle, of which the unity of Nature is the image.'40 Thus the Islamic sciences of nature function in a two-fold way. First, they look at nature as a single unity with all of its parts interconnected to each other. Second, they are meant to lead both the scientist and the layman to the contemplation of Nature as the sacred artifact of the Divine. For Nasr, the sacred cosmology of the Sufis, which is grounded in metaphysics and inspiration rather than physical sciences per se, is related to the second function of the sciences of nature, and maintains its validity even today for it is based on the symbolic significance of the cosmos. This brings us to the other important feature of the Islamic sciences of nature, i.e., their intellectual function.
Nasr uses the word 'intellect' in its traditional sense, viz., as related to contemplation. The modern connotation of the words intellect and intellectual as logical analysis or discursive thinking is the result of the emptying of their metaphysical and mystical content. Having rejected the usage of the word 'intellect' as abstract analysis or sentimentality, Nasr seeks to regain its medieval and traditional usage.
'"Intellect" and "intellectual" are so closely identified today with the analytical function of the mind that they hardly bear any longer any relation to the contemplative. The attitude these words imply toward Nature is the one that Goethe was to deplore as late as the early nineteenth century -- that attitude that resolves, conquers, and dominates by force of concepts. It is, in short, essentially abstract, while contemplative knowledge is at bottom concrete. We shall thus have to say, by way of establishing the old distinction, that the gnostic's relation to Nature is 'intellective', which is neither abstract, nor analytical, nor merely sentimental.'41
Defined as such, the Islamic sciences of nature do not lend themselves to being a means of gaining power and domination over nature. Their contemplative aspect, rooted in the Quranic teachings of nature as well as in traditional cosmologies, ties them to metaphysics on the one hand, and to art on the other.
By the same token, the function of philosophy cannot be confined to being a mere interpreter of the data produced by natural sciences. In sharp contrast to the Kantian notion of philosophy, which has turned philosophy into a handmaid of Newtonian physics, Nasr assigns to philosophy an important role in establishing a harmonious relation between the givens of religion and the demands of scientific investigation. In the post-Kantian period, philosophy was gradually reduced to a second-order analysis of the first-order facts of physical sciences, and this has assigned to philosophical pursuit a completely different task. In contrast to this new mission, Nasr insists on the traditional meaning and function of philosophy. On the one hand, philosophy is related to the life-world in which we live, including the physical environment, and as such it cannot remain indifferent to a veritable understanding of the universe and the cosmos. On the other hand, it is closely related to metaphysics and wisdom, and as such it cannot be reduced to a branch of physical sciences. In fact, this is how the relationship between philosophy and science was established in classical classifications of knowledge, both in the West and the Islamic world. The scientist and the philosopher were united in one and the same person as we see in the case of an Aristotle or Ibn Sina, and this suggests that the scope of philosophical thinking could not be relegated to quantitative analysis of natural sciences. Thus, in Nasr's concept of science, philosophy, in addition to metaphysics and aesthetics, plays a crucial role that cannot be substituted for by any other science.42 Moreover, the sciences of nature always function within a definite framework of ontology and cosmology, which is articulated primarily and essentially by philosophy in the traditional sense of the term. This is why philosophy is an integral part of Nasr's metaphysical concept of science.
The metaphysical view of traditional civilizations concerning nature and its scientific study has been lost in modern science whose philosophical foundations go back to the historical rupture of the Western thought with its traditional teachings. The rise of modern science, Nasr and others would insist, was not simply due to some ground-breaking advancements in scientific methods of measurement and calculation.43 On the contrary, it was the result of a fundamental change in man's outlook concerning the universe.44 This outlook is predicated upon a number of premises, among which the following five are of particular significance. The first is the secular view of the universe, which allows no space for the Divine in the order of nature. The second is the mechanistic world-picture presented by modern science, which construes the cosmos as a self-subsistent machine and/or pre-ordained clock. The third is the epistemological hegemony of rationalism and empiricism over the current conceptions of nature. The fourth is the Cartesian bifurcation, based on Descartes' categorical distinction between res cogitans and res extensa, which can also be read as the ontological alienation of the knowing subject from his/her object of knowledge. The fifth and the final premise of modern scientific worldview, which can be seen as the end-result of the preceding points, is the exploitation of the natural environment as a source of global power and domination.45 This is coupled with the hubris of modern science which does not accept any notion of truth and knowledge other than what is verifiable within the context of its highly specialized, technical, and hence restricted means of verification.
The metaphysical view of science, which points to an interesting shift from the philosophy to the metaphysics of science, takes aim at the intellectual foundations of modern science and, unlike the other two views of science, proposes a well-defined philosophy of nature and cosmology based on the principles of traditional Islamic sciences. Its critique of modern science is not confined to ethical considerations or methodological amendments as it claims to restore the religious view of the universe. In this regard, the metaphysical view of science, as formulated by Nasr and others, is part of the larger project of deconstructing the modernist worldview, of which science is considered to be only an offshoot.

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