Universal Reason: Science, Religion, and the Foundations of Civil Societies

Universal Reason: Science, Religion, and the Foundations of Civil Societies

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Presented at the Institute for Wisdom and Philosophy, Tehran, Iran, May 9, 2005 
In the name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful.

At a time of heightened alienation and conflict between Islam and the West, there is an urgent need to promote a “dialogue of civilizations” as called for by President Khatami some years ago.  The thesis of this paper is that the dialogue between science and religion provides an important point of departure for such an ambitious project, in part because science provides a modest set of universalities for such a dialogue to build upon. 

At Metanexus Institute, we are responding to the growing conflicts between Islam and the West with a new initiative that seeks to address these foundational philosophical issues.  We seek to build on our growing network of Local Societies in Islamic countries  and throughout the world  and to catalyze a series of high profile conferences leading to the formation of local, national, and regional organizations charged with promoting an open and exploratory dialogue between science and religion throughout the world.

We think the science and religion dialogue is precisely the kind of citizen diplomacy that the world needs today.  This initiative is as much about a new political, educational, scientific, and spiritual renaissance in the West, as it is about the much-touted need for an “Enlightenment” in the Islamic world.  Indeed, we enter into this endeavor with the expectation that we have much to learn from Islam and that we will be also transformed by the encounter.

From Orientalism to Occidentalism, late 20th century philosophy was a time for deconstructing essentialism and discovering difference.  In philosophy we see this in the collapse of positivism in particular and epistemology in general.  Universal and absolutist claims were replaced by Wittgenstein’s “language games,” Kuhn’s concepts of the “social construction of science,” Foucault’s notion of “Power Knowledge,” Levinas’ “Other,” and Derrida’s “differance”.   The late 20th century world was de-colonized and replaced with global capitalism in which all value is reduced to the symbolic values of money.  Is it any wonder that humans in different religions and different contexts respond to this assault on traditional values with the rise of fundamentalist religions and ideologies.  In his first sermon as Benedict XVI, the new Pope warned against a “dictatorship of relativism” that was coming to rule the world.  Certainly, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei would agree with the Pope’s warning.

Unfortunately, it is not the least bit clear what mediates between the Pope’s claims to truth and those of his differently thinking Christian brethren, be they Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox.  Nor is it clear what would mediate and adjudicate between the various truth claims of Christians from the Muslims from the Hindus from the Buddhists from the Secularists.  And of course, the educated now know better than ever that there is no single Christian or Islamic or Hindu or Buddhist or Secular perspective.  Inter-religious dialogue often fails on the cognitive level, though affection bonds and mutual appreciation may nonetheless grow between those who participate.

It is time, I believe, for the philosophical pendulum to swing forward, forward towards an exploration of what unites humans in spite of our difference.  An exploration of that which is universal, a language of discourse, a dialogue of civilizations, that can transcend our many and profound differences.  I will be so bold as to resurrect the term “universal reason,” even as I know that it must always in some sense be a fiction for finite humans, who can never hope to truly obtain God’s view of the whole.

The quest for universal reason underlies a Medieval and Enlightenment confidence in the ability of humans to reach consensus through evidence-based argument and dialogue.  This confidence underlies the belief in what Muslim, Jewish, and Christian theologians referred to as “natural religion,” an innate spiritual sensibility that is not dependent on specific revelation (though natural religion was always seen as inferior to revealed religion).

This concept is also linked to natural law philosophy, which holds that human beings have innate moral sensibilities that allow them to agree on universally applicable moral judgments through a process of independent reasoning, regardless of contextual or cultural circumstances.   The theory of self-governance through these innate universalities motivated the Lockean revolutions in Europe and the United States, as well as, Anti-Colonial Revolutions of the 20th century.  Thus, the quest for universal reason is part of the philosophical foundations of democratic and sovereign societies, though we often fall short of this ideal.  Even we, in the United States in the aftermath of a bitter election campaign, sometimes forget that democracy is not about majorities forcing their will upon minorities, but rather a social hermeneutic which actually should seek higher-order compromises and build principled consensus.

While a gross historical and philosophical over simplification, the decline of science in Islam and its ascendancy in the West is sometimes linked to the rejection of the speculative philosophy of ibn Rushd (1126-1198) and ibn Sina (980 – 1037) in favor of the fideism of al Ghazali (1058-1111).  Ibn Rushd, known as Averroes in the West and ibn Sina, known as Avicenna, inspired the Jewish thinker Mose ben Maimon (1135-1204), also known as Maimonides or Rambam, who in turn inspired the Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274).  Thus, the rational and speculative tradition of Ibn Rushd and ibn Sina survived and thrived in Europe, while it went into decline in Islam.  I do not want to make any pretenses to being a Medieval scholar or a scholar of Islam, so this is something that the historians, theologians, and philosophers can debate.

What I am interested in here is what was sometimes referred to as “the Two Books Tradition”, in which religious thinkers in the Medieval, Renaissance, and early Enlightenment periods read both “the Book of Nature” along side of “the Books of Revelation” as divinely authored.  In some sense, humans could understand God through careful study of the created universe.  And the two sources of God’s revelation – nature and scripture —  should not contradict each other.  Reason was universal, because God was the universal Creator-Mind sustaining all phenomena.

As I already noted, today most philosophers would agree that there are many different rationalities specific to different domains of learning and thought.  Contemporary philosophy understands that there is rational, irrational, and other rational, the latter being based on completely different assumptions and structures of thought.  Reason is not universal, at least not in any simplistic way.  Much of the late 20th century philosophy is about just this problem.  Some welcome the postmodern turn.  Analytic skills are deployed to deconstruct and criticize, to expose the cultural, socioeconomic, gendered, and psychological presuppositions and biases that unconsciously create knowledge systems.   Others decrying the relativistic and nihilistic implications of this postmodernism, dogmatically affirm their piece of the truth as valid, mustering what arguments they can.

For instance, while many still invoke “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” as the philosophical foundation of the American experiment, there is little agreement around the world about what these natural laws are or what they have to do with our contemporary scientific understanding of nature and the human person.  Today, in the global village, we are all confronted with many different religions and cultures with seemingly incompatible beliefs and practices.  The ever-present temptation in the midst of this conundrum, certain of one’s own beliefs and dubious of another’s, is to resort to power to coerce others to submit to one’s ideological position.  If might makes right, then the contest to be right waged with 21st century technology is guaranteed to make us all losers.

[Comments: The issue of nuclear proliferation and the controversy over Iran today.]

Is there a way to resurrect the concept of universal reason such that it might make credible and compelling claims on human beliefs and behaviors in spite of religious, ethnic and ideological differences?  Are there natural laws that can guide human ethics in spite of cultural difference?  We begin by looking at science. 

In contrast to postmodern philosophy, science really is an example of a self-transcending learning process that moves towards consensus.  Scientists have lots of arguments, to be sure, but over time they tend to agree about the details.  And scientists achieve such consensus, in spite of its social, economic, and cultural context.  The universalities in science, however, are quite specific, perhaps not very useful in answering the big philosophical and moral questions about meaning and purpose.  Science is building a new Tower of Babel, as the sciences break down into a mind-boggling variety of disciplines and specializations.  The methods of scientists differ dramatically from one specialization to another, what works for a particle physicist has nothing to do with the work of a microbiologist, the ethologists don’t speak the language of embryologists.  All is not lost, because in spite of the lack of a universal scientific epistemology, the threads of scientific facts are woven on the warp of time and the woof of scale like a magical Persian tapestry.  We live in a universe, which has been evolving through time over some 13 billion years and is ordered in the scale of entities from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic.

Contrary to the 20th century warfare model of science and religion, most historians of science agree that religions have helped to inspire and support scientific discovery over the centuries.  Most philosophers and historians would also argue that there is no necessary correlation between science and atheism and that one can hold robust religious beliefs that do not conflict with science.  Of course, there are many religious beliefs that may only be interpreted metaphorically and that are simply wrong when taken as scientific truths—for instance in the persistence of Young Earth Creationism in the United States and increasingly also in the Islamic world.  There are other religious beliefs which science will necessarily be mute, for instance in the realm of paranormal phenomena or life-after-death.  The up-shot of this is that Islam and the rest of the world can fast-forward through the Enlightenment without having to give up core religious beliefs.  Science does not necessarily entail secularization.

What makes science such a powerful point of departure for intra- and inter-religious dialogue is that science is true everywhere.  Contemporary science, like science of the past, will not always remain true for all times, because new data and theories will inevitably supercede older ones.  Research science provides a kind of self-transcending hermeneutics that leads to a progressive unfolding of facts—lots and lots of facts—facts that also function through the proliferation of new technologies.  Science, however, qua science, does not give us the plot of this adventure.  Is life a triumph or a tragedy or something else altogether?  What does it all mean?  Science cannot tell us, but it does provide the necessary characters and setting for any credible plot development of the larger story of our lives.  Such grand narratives are what bind civilizations together through a common sense of meaning.

Contrary to some apologists, there is no such thing as “Islamic science”, just as there is no such thing as “European science”. By virtue of being science, truths become universally accessible to humans in many different cultures and places.  Maxwell’s Equations are the same the world round.  The Citric Acid Cycle in your cells amazes chemist and biologist the world round.  Electromagnetism knows no national or ethnic boundaries. And technologies built on these insights, like the television and radio, are picked up and used in diverse cultures.  Mathematics works universally regardless of who invented the concepts of zero or infinity, which happen to be Indic and Arabic in origins.  Hatha yoga and acupuncture work, universally, apart from their cultural context, as do the many miracles of modern medicine (though in medicine the therapies will work better if one believes in them). 

There is no such thing as Islamic science or Western science or any kind of ethno-science.  Here, intellectuals have been guilty of confusing Scientism with science, which is precisely what the some times shrill advocates of Scientism want us to do.  It may be a difficult boundary to patrol, but it is important to distinguish between the cultures of science and the contents of science.  We can and should aspire to a sacred culture of science, an Islamic culture of science if you will, but this will not change the content of science, only the interpretation of that content, as well as the applications of that knowledge.  Science, notes Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam, is the universal property of all of humanity.

Of course, every science necessarily has to arise in specific histories and contexts.  Much of the recent American and European ascendancy in science was originally built in the colonial period upon the importation of non-Western scientific and technological achievements.  Research science today, in both academics and the private sector, is a uniquely cosmopolitan culture, collecting teams of highly trained specialists from around the world and concentrating them in labs and enterprises.  Scientists need other scientists.  International teams cluster around centers of excellence with access to lots of resources, and collaborate via publications, the Internet, and professional meetings.  The many specialized languages of scientific disciplines bring together international teams, even as we are overwhelmed with the exponential growth in knowledge that science produces.  Science is more than mere facts to ponder or to bend to our will, needs, and desires.  Science is a spiritual quest for truth.  And every new truth of science leads to an endless web of new questions and problems.

It is also the case that science is not now and never was a value-free enterprise.  Importing science also means importing lots of values.  Science is best when it comes with a passion for rigor and debate.  Scientists exhibit an intrinsic fascination with how “things” work; in other words, the universe which science studies is filled with intrinsic values, though scientists are at a loss for words to say why this is so.  Most scientists presuppose a profound commitment to a nature of endless fascination, from microcosmic to macrocosmic.  They share amazement at the intricate, beautiful and elegant structures of stuff, life, and consciousness.  Scientists preach a passion for truth wherever it leads.  Thou shalt not cook the data.  Science thrives in a spirit of competition, but also highly evolved cooperation.  Scientists preach human stic purposes informed by the best knowledge obtainable and promote codes of ethics, such that the powers unleashed through science benefit and not harm humanity or the unique and precious planet that we inhabit. When scientists are at their best, they practice altruistic fidelity to the phenomena.  These values often put science at odds with authorities, be they religious, corporate or governmental authorities. 

Of course, this is an idealized account of science and scientists.  It is also a very messy business.  There are egos and interests involved.  Personalities, power and politics are also part of the often chaotic process.  There are Promethean tragedies enacted and feared.  There are terrible possibilities unleashed; principalities supported by the power of science.  Scientists can be corrupt.  They can also blindly follow money or ideologies.  Scientists may also possess increased powers of selfish rationalization.  Scientists tend to be overly compartmentalized in their lives.  Their myopic visions can become dogmatic propositions.  They are humans after all and exhibit all of the flaws and failings that we encounter in other domains of human life.  Science is always social, political, personal, economic, cultural, and historical.  In spite of this, the miracle of science is that there is a progressive unfolding of reality, a process that allows for self-transcending knowledge, if not always appropriate wisdom and noble purpose.

Technology is part of science.  Science gives rise to new technologies that transform our lives, even as new technologies make possible further scientific insights that would not otherwise be possible. We have entered a new age of techno-magic, in which humans use powerful new technologies without understanding even the basic scientific principles on which they are based.  Anyone can learn how to use a cell phones, though few understand the fundamentals of electromagnetism upon which the technology is based.  Millions log onto the Internet, though few understand binary codes, digital packets, or algorithmic processes.  Billions have benefited from modern medical therapies, though even educated people confuse atoms, molecules and cells.  More ominously, weapons of mass destruction, which can destroy an entire city in a tragic flash of light, are increasingly easy to manufacture, though few understand the profundity of E=mc2.  Knowledge without understanding becomes dangerous magic.  Power without wisdom threatens the world with unparalleled tragedies.

The modest universalities and self-transcending processes of science serve as a basis for intra-religious and inter-religious dialogue.  We believe that this exploration is inherently transformative and progressive.  We might start this “dialogue of civilizations” by resurrecting the concept of universal reason.  What are the conditions for universal reason?  How are scientific truth claims differentiated?  What are the hermeneutics of moral and transcendent truth-claims?  How does the seeking after universalities impact individuals and societies?  What are the claims of universalities that might guide the emerging global civilization?

The educational and dialogical program proposed assumes not that we possess truths at the outset, but that truth may emerge through a rigorous, open and exploratory encounter between the domains of science and religion.  We assume that a “fusion of horizons” is possible, even as new horizons of human discovery and right livelihood appear.  We believe that the new view of the universe and ourselves offered by modern science tends to relativize human ideological and territorial disputes. 

In pursuing this vision, we will also need to reinvent the university.  Humanity has made tremendous progress through specialization and division of labor, but we need a new breed of intellectuals, scientists and clergy alike, who are broadly trained in multiple disciplines and able to do and teach difficult and creative integrative work without collapsing disciplinary rigor.  The challenge is really too much for any individual, so we must build interdisciplinary communities for integral studies.

We live at an extraordinary moment in the natural history of our planet and the cultural evolution of our species.  The big story today is not a “clash of civilizations”, though such a conflict might well lead to our collective downfall.  The big story is the future evolution of our planet.  In that unfolding adventure, the engagement of science and religion will take center stage.

Friends, Iran and the United States have a troubled history.  For my part, I am so very sorry.  Let us build a better future and an alternative to the politics of confrontation and name-calling that our governments engage in.  We must work with and engage our respective governments in this endeavor, but we must also build this better future from below, between people.  I pray that our visit here is a modest contribution to that effort.

Next year, Inshallah, there will be an international congress on religion and science hosted in Tehran (May 1-4, 2006 www.nrcms.ir ).  It is my sincere hope that many Iranian institutions and intellectuals at the highest levels will join in hosting this event and that many Americans might attend.  This might be the beginning of many such exchanges, large and small, in which we can study and learn together about this magnificent planet and this stunning universe, which God has crafted.

These academic exchanges with Iran will bring Muslim scientists and religious scholars together with their Western counterparts to explore the multifaceted hermeneutics of science and religion in quest for universal reason.  It is a project that affirms our belief in a universal God, by whatever name, that transcends the particulars of our cultures; a God who can also be understood in part in the particulars of a created universe.  These conferences on religion and science should also seek to reach a broader audience through regional media, classroom visits, and other public meetings.  The goal might be to create organizations that promote the constructive engagement of science and religion, which we hope will launch a new renaissance for liberal education, scientific achievement, and authentic spirituality in Iran, no less so than in the West.

Our conviction is that a rigorous and humble hermeneutics of truth-seeking will help transform education and religious discourse, will create a renewed enthusiasm for science education, as well as religious studies, and will help inspire students to excel in learning, thus helping to build new social and spiritual capital in Iran, in the United States, and throughout the world.