Reconstruction: Preface (4)

Following are some thoughts in response to students’ questions and comments.

Religion vs. Science

Based on what he has to say in the “Preface,” Iqbal’s project of reconstructing Islamic thought seems to be heavily focused on producing what he calls “a scientific form of religious knowledge.” It is not entirely clear what he means, though the reader should assume that the book itself is going to provide some explanation of this phrase. It is therefore important to keep this question in mind as we proceed with our reading of the Reconstruction.

But it is true that the whole idea of reconciling science and religion can be confusing, especially if the reader has previously seen unsuccessful or uninformed attempts at achieving such an outcome.

There are several different approaches for thinking about the relationship between science and religion. For instance, one particular approach recommends that we keep these two separate from each other. The idea is that religion and science have completely different spheres of activity, and therefore never the twain shall meet. Stephen Jay Gould, a biologist, has argued that religion and science represent mutually exclusive domains of inquiry, which he calls “non-overlapping magisteria” (or NOMA). The underlying assumption is that science deals solely with facts and religion deals exclusively with values. Since facts and values are totally unrelated, so must be science and religion. Many religious individuals are fond of NOMA, probably because it protects religion from any criticism from science, even though that protection comes at a cost, i.e., NOMA inserts a wedge in human knowledge, splitting it into discontinuous domains.

Another version of this approach was cited by a commenter on a previous blog post, which goes as follows: Science is concerned with “discovering the laws of nature” while religion “provides the moral code” for society to live by. The conclusion that seems to be implied in this observation is that any search for harmony between religion and science is likely to be a pointless enterprise.

What’s noteworthy about this argument is that the conclusion of incompatibility is already assumed in the very definitions of science and religion. I don’t deny that it is possible to define science and religion in ways that make them mutually exclusive, but that should make us wonder if there are alternative but legitimate ways of defining science and religion that lead to the opposite conclusion. For if such ways exist, then it would follow that the relationship between science and religion is not a matter that can be settled at the level of definitions.

Similarly, we should remember that the NOMA approach works only insofar as the fact-value dichotomy is maintained. But if it can be shown that the world of facts and the world of values aren’t as distinct as we’ve assumed, and that they do, in fact, overlap to a significant extent, then NOMA becomes untenable. As we read the Reconstruction, it would be interesting to find any clues that might illuminate how Iqbal defines science and religion, as well as whether or not he supports the fact-value dichotomy.

Here’s a more fundamental reason why NOMA is problematic, particularly from an Islamic perspective. If we assume that both science and religion are legitimate sources of knowledge, then we have to ask whether scientific knowledge and religious knowledge refer to the same reality or do they refer to two different realities? If we accept that reality is singular, as the imperative of tawhid seems to demand, then these two forms of knowledge must describe that same reality, perhaps from two different perspectives. The difference in perspective can be expected to produce difference in form and emphasis, but it shouldn’t produce two independent bodies of knowledge that are mutually exclusive, non-overlapping, and incompatible with each other.

An Absent God

The commenter has also quoted Isaac Newton, who believed that natural phenomena were caused “at first by the immediate hand of the Creator, and ever since by the power of Nature.” This quotation was probably intended to show the non-overlapping nature of religion and science. However, Newton’s statement is actually a concise expression of Deism, despite the fact that Newton himself was not a deist. Deism, of course, was a highly influential viewpoint among Western elites (including the Founding Fathers of the United States) during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Deism is relevant in the present context because it was an attempt to protect the Christian idea of God from any attacks inspired by scientific naturalism. By arguing that God did create nature and its laws but hasn’t been involved in any of its workings ever since, members of the educated class could justify their belief in God as rational while also acknowledging that natural phenomena could be explained without any reference to God’s will. From a sociological perspective, Deism became popular because it allowed the elites to avoid the stigma of atheism but without being seen as backward or unenlightened, as well as to maintain a solid foundation for morality and, in turn, for the legitimacy of political order. In the deist view, God brought the world into existence and set forth the laws of nature; from that moment on, the world has been functioning in accordance with these laws, which we can discover with the help of science, but it no longer needs God to run the show. This view is often summed up in the phrase “clockwork universe.” The metaphor is apt because you had to manually wind a spring by turning a key in the back (or sometimes front) of a mechanical clock; after this, the clock would function without any further intervention for up to a week or even a month, depending on the type. This metaphor had originated in the Middle Ages, when it was used to describe the exquisite balance of God’s creation, but it subsequently acquired a very different meaning. Among philosophers, Gottfried Leibniz was a major proponent of “clockwork universe.” To be sure, Newton himself did not like this way of describing the universe; the metaphor suggested a world that was completely independent of God, whereas Newton wanted to affirm the role of divine providence. It is instructive to note that even though Newton, because of his personal religious views, abhorred the mechanistic philosophy of Descartes, his own scientific discoveries ended up providing a great deal of support to the notion of a “clockwork universe.” It would seem that Newton’s religion and Newton’s science remain on parallel tracks; clearly, the moment was not ripe for a full-fledged integration.

The major downside of the perspective represented by the phrase “clockwork universe” was that God came to be seen as separate from, and unrelated to, the world of sense experience. Deists wanted to affirm the existence of God, but apparently the only way they could do so was by sending God into exile. The belief in God survived the onslaught of scientific naturalism, but only at the cost of divine immanence.

Even though Deism as a movement no longer exists, the notion of a complete separation between the Creator and the creation remains widespread among modern-day Christians and Muslims. In fact, it is often incorrectly assumed to represent the authentic doctrine required by these traditions, when it is actually a legacy of the Enlightenment.

So, what exactly is wrong with the view that God is above, beyond, separate from, and essentially outside the world? First, it goes against both the biblical and the qur’anic teachings about God. Second, positing a deity who is outside the concrete, material reality within which we find ourselves leads to several negative consequences. It generates a view of the natural world that is devoid of all sacred and spiritual value; the world effectively becomes meaningless. It denies the possibility of experiencing God, except in cases of direct divine interventions. It deprives a huge body of human knowledge, namely science, from having any religious significance whatsoever. It widens the gulf between spirit and matter, which contributes to the desacralization of the body. The overall result is a widespread secularization of experience.

In the Reconstruction, Iqbal has a great deal to say about theology. However, the deity he affirms has nothing in common with the absent God of deism. To cite just one example, Iqbal highlights the fact that the Qur’an describes the universe as expanding, growing, and evolving, and that it presents creation not as a one-time event that took place in the distant past, but as God’s ongoing activity,

No Finality in Philosophical Thinking

In his “Preface,” Iqbal wrote that there was “no such thing as finality in philosophical thinking.” In explaining this sentence, I suggested that philosophical ideas tend to become obsolete over time. It was then brought to my attention that this is not exactly correct, given that people are still referring to the ideas first expressed by Plato and Aristotle more than two millennia ago. That is a fair point, and I would like to say a few things by way of clarification.

First, it is indeed true that philosophical ideas don’t become obsolete in the same way as software manuals do, i.e., they don’t become completely useless as soon as a new version is released. The type of progress we are used to seeing in science and technology doesn’t really happen in philosophy, which, depending on your viewpoint, may or may not be a defect. This is partly because of the abstract nature of most philosophical writings, which—like poetry–may allow practically endless opportunities for fresh interpretations. However, many philosophical ideas do become obsolete over time, in the sense that they are no longer as interesting, fertile, or useful as they once were; or in the sense that they lose their attraction or legitimacy as a result of cultural evolution. Moreover, just because we continue to discuss philosophical ideas that first emerged hundreds of years ago does not necessarily mean that we also find them convincing or true; very often, we study these old ideas to understand how they impacted society and how they shaped the thinking of later philosophers.

Second, when Iqbal says that “there is no such thing as finality in philosophical thinking,” he is clearly not referring to philosophical ideas becoming unworthy of study or attention. He is referring to the fact that the philosophical quest does not have an end point, for it is really a conversation among thoughtful and inquisitive minds that has been taking place over the course of millennia. The reason why this conversation cannot end is because no matter how intelligent or true your ideas may be, someone can always come up with better, more interesting, and more useful ideas than yours. It may not happen in your own life-time, but it will eventually happen. To paraphrase another statement of Newton’s, this is because every generation of philosophers must inevitably stand on the shoulders of the previous generation of philosophers, and is for that reason able to see a little bit further than its predecessors. This fact alone does not guarantee that every new idea will be an improvement on every old idea, but it does suggest that the philosophical contributions of every generation create new possibilities that subsequent generations are able to exploit in order to push the conversation forward. Iqbal knew that his views would not constitute the absolute last word on how to formulate “a scientific form of religious knowledge,” but he must have been conscious that his lectures would set a process into motion that would—hopefully—make it possible for others to generate “sounder views” than his own.

As a side note, consider the fact that Iqbal would not have been able to do what he did if it were not for the work of his predecessors, such as Sayyid Ahmad Khan. In the same way, it was Iqbal’s monumental work on the reconstruction of Islamic thought that arguably made the largest contribution to the modern revival of Muslim intellectual culture. If that revival hadn’t happened, it is very unlikely that a large segment of Muslims would have developed the kind of interests and inclinations that have, for example, led you and me to this blog post.

I believe we have every right to judge Iqbal’s philosophy, but even when we decide that some of Iqbal’s ideas were less than perfect, we should remember that we wouldn’t have been in a position to make these judgments if it were not for the “fresh avenues of thought” that became available to us at least partly due to Iqbal’s own trailblazing contributions.

Finally, notice Iqbal’s phrase “as knowledge advances,” for it tells us something important about the relationship between philosophy and science. This relationship is hard to delineate historically, since the distinction between philosophy and science is itself relatively recent (until the nineteenth century, science was simply known as “natural philosophy”). But if we focus on the recent past, we can see that at every point in time philosophy has been limited in many ways by the scientific knowledge that existed at that point. No doubt, philosophy can speculate a great deal about the unknown, and in that sense it is able to venture far beyond what science can say; however, what philosophy cannot do is either ignore or violate that “systematized body of knowledge” whose truth value has been underwritten by the scientific method. In other words, the state of scientific knowledge at any historical moment (at least since the time when science became distinct from philosophy) tends to determine the general contours of what can and cannot be thought in the domain of philosophy.

It is often said that in the Middle Ages philosophy was handmaiden to theology, but in the modern era it has become handmaiden to science. There is more than a grain of truth in this statement, even as it contains a great deal of exaggeration.

Given this relationship between science and philosophy, we can expect that as science progresses, or—to borrow Iqbal’s phrase—“as knowledge advances,” the contours of what can and cannot be thought in the domain of philosophy will also keep changing. As scientific knowledge evolves, we can expect that many current heresies will become orthodoxies just as some of today’s orthodoxies will become heresies. That is because advances in science cause the emergence of entirely new pathways in the intellectual landscape, just as they also obliterate many older ones.

Today, of course, it is very obvious that no philosopher can reject the established facts of science and still command the respect of his/her peers; but this was largely true before the twentieth century as well, at least in cases where we can distinguish between science and philosophy. Deism is a case in point. The deists saw the world in mechanical terms because the state of scientific knowledge in the Enlightenment era was such that it encouraged philosophers to think along certain pathways and not along other pathways (which, for all practical purposes, did not exist). It is precisely because twentieth-century science was significantly ahead of the Enlightenment era science that twentieth-century philosophers—such as Iqbal—could take advantage of the “fresh avenues of thought” that post-Newtonian science had opened up for them, avenues that simply weren’t available to the deists.

What Iqbal is telling us at the end of his “Preface” is that progress in philosophy is tied in many ways to progress in science. The reason why he is hopeful that ideas better than his own will emerge is because he thinks progress in science will continue long after his own era. Iqbal is saying that as human knowledge advances, it is highly likely that many useful and productive ways of thinking would become available that aren’t possible today, and that these would, hopefully, allow future generations of Muslim philosophers to come up with “sounder views” than the ones he is presenting in the Reconstruction.

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