How to go to Heaven or How the Heavens go? Part 2 of 2

How to go to Heaven or How the Heavens go? Part 2 of 2

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Metanexus Sophia. 2004_02_19. 5380 Words.

Below is part two of the two-part essay by Dhruv Raina from the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India. Raina compares two pious scientists, the renowned English Sinologist Joseph Needham and the Pakistani physicist Abdus Salaam, in order to unravel the complex relationships between science, religion, and social context.

In part two, Raina introduces Salam, a pious Muslim and a Noble Prize winner in Physics, concluding his study with a comparison between two very different pious approaches toward religion and science. Whereas in part one of his essay, Raina discusses Needham’s integrating intentions toward science and religion, in part two Salam is introduced for his pursuit of a more isolationist strategy of the two domains.

The essay was presented at International Seminar on Modern Science, Values and the Quest for Unity, held last month in Mahabaleshwar, India.

— Editor

How to go to Heaven or How the Heavens go?

Dhruv Raina, Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies School of Social Sciences Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi 110067 India

Part Two of Two.

Salam: the context of the isolation of science and religion!

I turn now briefly (8) to a great particle physicist, the late Abdus Salam, from Pakistan who won the Noble Prize in physics along with Weinberg and Glashow for their unification of the electro-weak forces. Salam was also a pious Muslim who did a great deal for physicists from all over the Third World, enabling them to join the international community of physicists. Our immediate concern here is how Salam broached the Western antinomy of science and religion. Unlike Needham who attempted to integrate the two in order to restore the highest ethical choices on science so that these choices would result in human benefit, Salam argued from a conception that kept the scientific and religious spheres distinct. The differences in historical and religious contexts throw light on the different frames adopted by either scientist.

A possible rationale for separating science and religion

Salam studied in the Punjab, then part of India, and after the two countries became independent of British rule went to England where he went on to acquire a doctoral degree in physics. Christian missionaries and officials of the East India Company introduced the modern sciences into the Indian subcontinent. The former often thought, given the evangelical predisposition of some of them, that they could use science as a weapon to undermine local religious beliefs. By the end of the nineteenth century they reckoned with the futility of the enterprise [Habib and Raina, 1989; Raina and Habib, 1998; Gosling, 1976; Baber, 1996]. In fact, the first generations of Indian scientists and intellectuals of a relatively progressive persuasion legitimated the pursuit of modern science by neutralizing the idea that modern science was Western. In order to do so they argued that while science was morally worthwhile and economically beneficial, this science revealed to us the laws that governed the external world. But there was another science that the Eastern religions had grasped that revealed to us the inner world of man. This dual separation of the two realms enabled them to protect science from religion and to shield their own culture from the cultural imperialism of the colonizers. In the history of European domination of the East, the tropes of cultural superiority changed from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries. In the eighteenth century cultural superiority was often asserted on religious grounds but with the progress of science the contributions to science came to be considered the yardstick of the cultural development of a nation [Adas, 1990]. The attempt to separate the two quests could then be seen as a strategy of appropriating modern science under conditions of rapid cultural transformation.

Consequently, the two responses of Needham and Salam to the problematic of science and religion is one that is conditioned by their respective cultural situations and the place of modern science within their respective societies. Salam’s response I argue is one which is quite typically characteristic of a number of scientists from the Indian sub-continent, who strived to promote the cause of science in the region as well as their respective countries. Nevertheless, Salam did share with Needham an ecumenical picture of science [Needham, 1973]. Thus Salam was to write in 1984: My own view has always been that science is the shared creation and joint heritage of all mankind and that as along as a society encourages it, Science will continue to flourish in that society (9) [I&R, 1989, p. 280]. This idea that science was the shared creation of all mankind did not merely parry the thrust of Western exceptionalism but legitimated science as a culturally anchored activity and not as something gifted by the West to the non-Western peoples [Raina and Habib, 1989]. Thus Salam’s biographer Jagjit Singh informs us that for Salam …science and religion refer to different worlds; religion to the inner world of the human mind and science to the outer world of matter. To explore his inner world of ‘soul’ and Allah one needs faith and to explore the outer world of matter, reason [Singh, 1992, p. 157].

The decline of Islamic sciences

On the question of science and Islam, Salam reminded his readers in an article entitled Scientific Thinking: Between Secularisation and the Transcendent, that the Holy Quran had emphasised that the believers should reflect on the laws of nature through examples from cosmology, physics and botany [I&R, 1989, p.281]. He then proceeds to illustrate his point through the canonical literature of the history of science in the Islamic world (10). He cited the mathematician Al-Kindi in his Nobel prize lecture: As Al-Kindi wrote 100 years ago:`It is fitting then for us not to be ashamed to acknowledge truth and to assimilate it from whatever source it comes to us. For him who scales the truth there is nothing of higher value than truth itself; it never cheapens nor abases him’ [I&R, 1989, p. 377]. When confronted with such catholicism, such openness to the pursuit of knowledge, the crucial issue for Salam was to understand that if science had the religious sanction of the Quran, why did science decline in Islamic civilisation? He dismisses explanations that invoke external causes such as the Mongol invasion, since the process of decline had set in before that. Salam instead felt that the causes for the decline of the creative phase of scientific activity in the Islamic world were internal. These internal factors were of a political and spiritual nature. The delayed impact of the tremendous inequalities of wealth resulted in the political and economic decay of the region. The Islamic empire was unable to control and organizationally hold together such an enormous state under unfavourable conditions [Singh, 1992, p. 154]. Consequently, the scientific enterprise became isolated and because of that became inward looking. Secondly, there was an active discouragement of innovative thought by sectarian elements within the religious establishment: the age had turned away from creative science, either to Sufism with its other-worldliness or, more importantly, to a rigid orthodoxy with a lack of tolerance (taqlid) for innovation (ijtihad), in all fields of learning, including the sciences [I&R, 1989, p.284]. In this Salam’s own views concurred with those of historians of science who had attempted to understand the decline of the sciences in the Arab culture area [Sayili, 1960; Huff, 1993; Cohen, 1994].

The transcendent and the secular

The concern of relevance to us here is not whether Salam was expressing his own perspective on the decline of the sciences or whether he had drawn upon the researches of historians of science to enrich his own perspective. The decline itself was ascribed to a conflict between the openness of science and a combination of other-worldly philosophy and the fundamentalism of the religious orthodoxy. But there was a sense of the numinous, of the religious, that the religious orthodoxy could never appreciate. This dimension of the religious experience coincided with the wonderment inspired by the pursuit of science. Salam would argue that the appreciation of mystery, of the sense of wonder that inspired and was produced by scientific discovery constitutes true religiosity. Exemplifying his perspective through Einstein’s Spinozistic religiosity, Salam would propose that this sense of wonder leads most scientists to a Superior being…a Superior Intelligence, the Lord of all Creation and Natural Law [I&R, 1989, p. 285]. Here again there is a difference between Salam’s appreciation of the numinous and Needham’s view of it. In Needham’s view the idea of the Creator is not essential to the numinous experience – there could be another aspect of this experience. This is evident from Needham’s exploration of Confucianism and Buddhism.

In Salam’s understanding this aspect of the numinous was shared by the Abrahamic faiths. Nevertheless, in methodological terms Salam does not calibrate his speculations on this matter from a comparative perspective, since he anchors himself within the history of Islam. Speaking more generally of the Abrahamic faiths Salam identifies four aspects of the transcendent and four aspects of societal or secularist thinking. These are summarized in the table below:

The transcendent

–The Lord created Natural Law, the Universe and human beings endowed with spiritual qualities and yearnings in His own image

–The Lord answers prayers of those who turn to him in distress

–The Lord is a personification for the mystic and the Sufi of eternal beauty

–The Lord reveals to some human beings (prophets and chosen saints) divinely inspired knowledge

The secular

–The Lord is the guardian of humankind

–The Lord endows the history of humankind with meaning

–The Lord specifies what should be human belief and the ideal way to conduct human affairs

–The Lord rewards good deeds and punishes wrong doing

[I&R, 1989, p.286].

Salam proceeds to educe the several consequences by going through the reflections of pious scientists on this matter. Clearly, according to Einstein the immanent beauty of the universe evoked similar religious feelings. The laws of nature were deducible from a self-consistency and naturalness principle – wherein the Universe came into being spontaneously. Furthermore, as Einstein had remarked (in a much cited statement): …I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of a kind that we experience in ourselves…. And he goes on to add: The existence and validity of human rights are not written in the stars. In other words the secular was entirely socially constructed. Salam evidently did not agree with Einstein on this matter, labeling these views of his as subjective, but draws solace from the fact that Einstein remained silent about the spiritual dimension of religion [I&R, 1979, pp. 2867]. While Salam would like to construe silence as tacit acquiescence in the spiritual comfort of religion, silence could as well be construed as dissidence or the momentary suspension of judgment.

Religion’s inability to respond to the new sciences

The hostile attitudes that even pious men of science entertained towards religion were, in Salam’s view, a product of the inability of the natural philosophers to reconcile their cosmological doctrines with faith. In May 1983, the Vatican in a manner of speaking apologized for its immature handling on the Galileo affair and proclaimed the absence of contradiction between science and faith. And went onto insulate the elements of faith from the scientific systems of the age. This Salam interprets as not merely the Vatican’s recognition of the limitations of faith, but the recognition in the world of science since Galileo of the limitations of scientific disciplines (11) [I&R, 1989, p. 288]. But this separation is not something that Salam is happy about. The conventional philosophy of science that is perhaps the philosophy of science of most practicing scientists relates to the provisionality not only of the methods of a particular discipline but to the provisionality of facts and theories of science. This gives cause to Salam to wonder why the changing conception of space and time ushered in by the Einsteinian revolution has not inspired or provoked any debate or visions among philosophers and mystics. The scholars of the Middle Ages would have thrashed out the religious and philosophical consequences of the new theories of science [I&R, 1989, p.289].

Harmonious complementarity

The clash between science and faith or between science and metaphysical thinking is one, which is central according to Salam in the Abrahamic religions. But could there be a harmonious complementarity between the two? Salam takes up a couple of cases from the sciences to substantiate such complementarity. However, he maintains there is a methodological distinction between physics and metaphysics. In the case of the former, experimental verification is the final arbiter [I&R, 1989]. The principle of the anthropic universe is seen as the instantiation of a metaphysical principle that shapes our understanding of cosmological, biochemical and other processes.

According to the proponents of the anthropic principle in cosmology: our location in the universe is necessarily privileged to the extent that of being compatible with our existence as observers [Brandon Carter, cited in Barrow and Tipler, 1988, p. 23]. The anthropic principle comes in several versions (12), but the one that concerns Salam is the weak anthropic principle (13). The version of the anthropic principle that he evokes is Hawking’s formulation according to which The conditions necessary for the development of life will be met only in certain regions that are limited in space and time [Hawking, 1988, p.124-6]. One of the functions served by the anthropic principle is that it attempts to link certain features of the global and local structure of the universe to conditions necessary for the existence of living observers [Barrow and Tipler, 1988, p.13].

Since Copernicus man as a living observer had been all but banished from cosmological formulations. This process had been reversed through a number of developments in science – the return of the living observer should not necessarily have been construed as the return of subjectivity to science. But the idea that the evolution of intelligent life on earth was linked up with our scientific knowledge of it seemed to have put the argument from Design back in the saddle (14). Salam sees the anthropic principle at work even in the recently discovered electroweak force. The unification in particle physics theory of the electromagnetic force and weak nuclear forces that was accomplished by Salam, among others, is seen as an exemplification of the principle. Why did nature unify these forces into one electro-weak force. Salam wrote: One recent answer seems to be that this unification provides one way to understand why in the biological regime one finds amino-acids which are only left-handed …The penicillin miracle mould thus be impossible except for the unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces [I&R, 1988, p.292-3]. Thus the observation of the handedness of biological molecules in neutrons could only have been possible given the long biological times taken for life to emerge.

Salam proceeds then to explicitly state the relationship between his physics and his faith. Whereas the pursuit of physics would only seem to unravel a small part of the Lord’s design; his faith appears to have been predicated …by the timeless spiritual message of Islam, __* on matters on which physics is silent and remains so *__ (emphasis by Salam) [I&R, 1988, p.295]. Salam thus distances himself from Einstein’s quasi-deism; for he had faith in the efficacy of prayer and in the need for acting to unburden suffering mankind [I&R, 1989, p. 296].

In a speech delivered in 1983 at a conference on the history of particles from pions to quarks Salam elaborated upon the idea that excellence for the theoretician was that of producing new ideas while he attempted to read Allah’s design. This was natural philosophy at its best. The excellence of the experimentalist derived from the ability to develop an experimental technique to its limits and beyond. The third excellence was a product of the human desire to spite the theorist [I&R, 1989, p.391]. We see then that Salam’s religious quest was reflected in the revelation of the designer’s mind through the pursuit of his science and not so much in his method. The method or the path was that of the physicist. During the course of an interview, Lewis Wolpert and Allison Richards asked Salam if his religious views influenced him into believing that in a unified theory of physical phenomena. Salam’s response was not too clear. While he felt that there was no conscious influence, but ideas of unity in religious thought may have provided a backdrop [I&R, 1989, p. 468]. This was particularly so when his religious training was never seen to be in

However, recent researches in cosmology and theories of the origins of the universe had in Salam’s mind produced a convergence of the concerns of science and religion. Salam’s ideas on this issue are not explicitly stated in the articles in I&R, but comes out in his discussion with Jagjit Singh. This convergence is a product of a process when science sets out to solve superproblems of the origins of the universe. The mathematical formalism is so far advanced that cosmology is confronted with mythical dimensions. This is compounded by the increasing difficulty of verifying the predictions of advanced cosmological theories. A situation results wherein observed events predicted by robust hypotheses are defended with insurmountable difficulty. Scientists perturbed by this state of things take recourse to an external standard or norm when the conclusions are not verifiable by the standards of reason [Singh, 1992, p. 161-2]. We would do well to ask if this shift was limited to a few scientists and that Salam was probably speaking for himself under the circumstances. In either case, the religious aesthetic that moved him remained unchanged. The formal, abstract constructions of science do not depict a universe that is animated. This sense of wonder, this aesthetic of the marvelous is the basis for the numinous as well.

Divergence and concurrence

Are these two contrary quests or different paths of the same quest? What does this exploration tell us about the relationship between science and religion? These are questions that naturally occur to us after having traversed through the reflections of Needham and Salam. What are the points of divergence and concurrence? Needham’s method would require that we compare Needham’s views on the subject with those of a scientist from another culture area since that would help us acquire another perspective of the science and religion problematic. The comparison presumes that Needham and Salam come to their respective lifelong engagements from two different perspectives. Rather than drawing them along radically distinct trajectories their quests finally bring them together on some issues.

Naturally there are a number of points of divergence. The difference in their approach to the problem could be understood in terms of their different cultural and political locations; and it is not possible to discount the influence of Needham on Salam on at least two counts. Needham was certainly the older of the two – he was at least two decades older than Salam. It is but natural, given Needham’s iconic standing among scientists of non-European origin studying in the Europe, to suggest that Salam certainly knew of him. Not to mention that both of them were at Cambridge from the 1950s onwards. But in terms of direct influence two may be easily inferred. Firstly, Salam’s reading of the history of sciences of the non-European world included readings of a number of historians whom Needham had directly influenced. Further Salam had read Needham when he embarked on responding to the Arabic version of the Needham question. Secondly, both Salam and Needham were builders of international institutions of science that featured scientific collaboration between the developed and the developing world. Needham was instrumental in bringing science into the charter of UNESCO [Petitjean, 1989; Elzinga, 1996], while several decades later Salam set up the International Centre for Theoretical Physics at Trieste as a UNESCO supported institute. Consequently, there was the world of science policy that both were ensconced within, though in different capacities at different moments.

But let me come back to their different starting points. We began by stating that Needham attempted to integrate science not just with religion but also with Marxism. This integrationist project was conceived in part as a response to the crisis of capitalism that several members of the Cambridge left, to which Needham belonged, had engaged with intellectually and through movements of popular fronts since the 1930s. Needham was, it may be suggested, amongst the first of the group to abandon the axiom of scientific and technological neutrality. During the era of the Cold War when the ideology of scientific neutrality dominated the discourse of science, Needham injected ethical values and political choices back into the discourse of science. The search for the numinous in scientific pursuits would, he hoped, guide science and citizens in making ethical choices. Not only had capitalism devastated contemporary civilization, the inevitable march of science had posed a number of challenges for religion. These challenges required thinking religion afresh.

His investigations into the science and civilization of China may have initially prompted his interest in the history of science. But gradually his exposure to Chinese religions and cultures provided him a comparative perspective from which to revise his views on the antagonism between the worlds of science and religion. Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism alerted him to the possibility that the European experience could not become paradigmatic for all religions and cultures of science. This exposure also leads him to a non-Deity centred view of religions. His Marxist background, the international ethos of science, which he had grown up with, and his engagement with other cultures led him then to work towards the creation of an ecumene of science. The conflicts of the world could not be resolved as long as injustice and inequity prevailed and one of the several tasks conceived for UNESCO was to help the developing world bridge the scientific and technological hiatus that enslaved it to the developed world. The struggles for decolonisation that burgeoned before the beginning of World War II and that picked up momentum with rise of socialism after the war helped shaped Needham’s vision.

Salam’s starting point was different. If Needham was seeking to bridge the Cartesian duality of fact and value, Salam was carving out different domains for both. This programme had its origins in the process of decolonisation that had begun in the last years of the previous century. The first step in the process of neutralizing the cultural imperialism of the colonizers was to establish that science was part of the patrimony of all civilizations, that it was a cultural universal. This legitimated science as a cultural activity. In the world of science splintered by the dichotomy of fact and value, the isolationist strategy helped in protecting religion and culture from the in roads of scientific imperialism. This was also a way of countering colonialism. However, the gap between West and the East had to be explained. The Needham question was to bother intellectuals from the sub-continent from the last decades of the nineteenth century. Salam’s answer to the Arabic version of the Needham question invoked a social explanation, including the closing in of the religious orthodoxy around men of science. This situation finally resulted in the decline of the sciences. Despite the differences in approach we observe a similarity between Salam and the early Needham.

Salam however shared with Needham a sense of the numinous as we have seen in the discussion above. He claimed, when coaxed, that his religious background might, have stimulated ideas of unification in physics. Furthermore, while pursuing different paths the act of scientific discovery evoked an aesthetic of mystery that confirmed a divine presence. Where did the ethical problems of science arise? An answer to this question provides us the key to Salam’s attempt at isolation. According to Salam, the problems of the developed world could be understood to be a consequence of too much science. The problems of the less developed world and the developing world arose from too little of it. In order to bridge the gap between the two worlds a larger portion of the developing world’s citizenry would have to be drawn towards the world of science. This would have to be done without creating the sort of cultural dissonance that the colonizers had inaugurated, and without alerting the population to a conflict between science and religion. In either case, that of Salam or Needham, the goals were to expand the community of science. A community that would not only contribute to ameliorating human suffering but that would act ethically to ensure that wars would not be fought again. The exciting adventure of science would invoke the aesthetic of the mysterious, of the numinous; it would reveal the hand of the designer of creation.

These then were two important responses to the problematic of science and religion in our own times. Two practicing scientists attempted to raise the question of values at a moment in twentieth century when the world was torn apart by wars, the greed of capitalism, and unbounded inequality. In engaging with these questions they often traversed disciplinary boundaries, but more importantly went across the grain of thinking of their own disciplinary communities. Whether their efforts have left an impact upon the ethical practices and judgments concerning science only time will tell. But the institutions they created to expand the communitas of science, to enable the citizenry of the third world to join the developed world in the open adventure of science are still in place despite the political vagaries of the times.


8 The volume of Salam’s writing on science and society is not of the same order as Needham, since investigating the relationship between the two was the latter’s bread and butter for the last half century of his life. Salam on the other hand was a practicing physicist who spoke on occasion on matters of science and society.

9 In future I shall refer to Salam’s Ideals and Realities: Selected Essays of Abdus Salaam as [I&R, 1989].

10 Jagjit Singh’s biography of Abdus Salam draws not merely upon his writings but upon a large number of interviews and conversations that the author had with Salam [Singh, 1992]. Consequently, Ideals and realities must be complemented with this biography in order to clarify or expatiate on points that need further elaboration. Thus Singh points out that Salam’s exploration of the history of science led him to the view that the advent of Islam resulted in the flowering of the sciences in the Arab world between the eight and eleventh centuries A.D. [Singh, 1992, p. 150].

11 Mary Midgely would be somebody who would disagree with this point of view.

12 See the introductory chapter of [Barrow and Tipler, 1988].

13 According to the weak anthropic principle: The observed values of all physical and cosmological quantities are not equally probable but they take on values restricted by the requirement that there exist sites where carbon-based life can evolve and by the requirement that the universe be old enough for it to have already done so [Barrow and Tipler, 1988, p.16].

14 In fact, the second chapter of this comprehensive exposition on the anthropic principle by Barrow and Tipler deals design arguments.


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