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The Role of Faith in Science

The Role of Faith in Science Science and Religion

Muzaffar Hussain


This paper was prepared for the 9th Annual Conference of Pakistan Agricultural Scientists Forum held in 1997 at Abbotabad, (Pakistan).

Science has increased food production, controlled diseases, globalised communication, alleviated man’s miseries and added tremendously to his physical comforts. On the other hand, it has also introduced deadliest weapons and poisons and caused environmental degradation and pollution putting the very existence of mankind at stake. For both good and bad, science has become an inevitable part of everyday life in modern civilisation. So every nation of the world is willy nilly trying to maximise its scientific efficiency and performance. Certain parameters have been set to determine a nation’s scientific potential. The same parameters are applicable to individual scientific establishments and institutions also. These are:

i) Supply of Scientific and technical manpower.

ii) Technical and financial resources.

iii) Supply of scientific and technical information

iv) Form and organization of the system

These parameters or standards, which if met adequately, are believed to provide a favourable environment for ensuring scientific and technical growth of a country. The crucial importance of these material factors is universally emphasised in the management of corporate science enterprises. Circumstances may, however, vary from one country to another and accordingly emphasis on each of these factors shifts in their inter se prioritisation.

In India, for example, Ranganathan never felt weary in stressing the importance of information. He conceived scientific activity as an essentially information process and used to say very fondly, emphatically and repeatedly that information is the raw material as well as the end product of all scientific research. One of his books begins with a mention of ‘Research Consultants’ engaged by the United States Defence Department during the Second World War. They were chosen from amongst the working scientists and were deputed to spend all their time in the libraries sifting and collecting information needed by their counterparts working in the laboratories. The provision of effective and quick information support to the researchers saved much of their time, which they previously used to spend in the libraries. Time thus saved was now utilised by them in the laboratories which paved the way to early discovery of the atom bomb by speeding up the discovery process. According to Ranganathan, high priority accorded to information in the name of research consultancy established the superiority of the United States in the domain of science and thus enabled this country to emerge as the leading power of the world.

Then in late fifties, the Russians took precedence over the Americans in Space Science by launching the first ever sputnik into space. The United States took it as a big challenge, rather a threat to their image as a world power. The American President immediately constituted a Committee headed by Dr. Weinburg, to delve into the weaknesses of the US Research System which gave the Russians an edge over them. After a thorough appraisal of the US Science System, the Committee submitted a Report entitled ‘Science, Information & Government’ popularly known as the Weinburg Report, which pinpointed major weaknesses and shortcomings in the United States Science System. Most of these, according to the Report, pertained to the Information component of the System. These weaknesses were overcome soon and positive results started accruing. Consequently, the Americans not only caught up with the Russian scientists in space science but also outstripped them in a very short period of time.

These are, of course, interesting stories containing very valuable lessons for the science policy makers. But still these do not reveal the whole truth as these are focussed on the materials factors only. Improving creativity in scientific researchers certainly needs congenial material environment and it flourishes and thrives within the empirical parameters already described. But in the ultimate analysis creativity sprouts and blooms in the minds of the scientists that gives birth to new ideas. The psychologists therefore got interested in the creative process and their interest was quite natural, genuine and fully justified.

Most of the psychologists have studied the creative process from a very broad perspective. For them, creativity of a scientist or an artist is essentially the same kind of mental activity; you may call it an identical psychological process. This point was made out in an interesting intertangle of two contemporary creative geniuses. Havelock Ellis, a great writer, is reported to have once remarked: ‘Einstein is a great artist!’. On hearing such remarks of a great writer about himself, Einstein was piqued and it stimulated his scientific curiosity. As a true scientist, he set out to discover the real intent of the statement made by Havelock Ellis and started reading his works. After reading some of his books, he too gave a similar judgement on him saying: ‘Havelock Ellis is a great scientist’. Obviously this exchange of statement with a counter-statement was neither just humour nor a mere reciprocation of courtesy. It was, in fact, their concord on the deep similarities existing between their innate psychological processes even though their fields of activity were so vastly different. I need not dwell on this point more than conceding that creativity of all kinds emanates from the unconsciousness and the diverse forms that it takes have marked resemblences and similarities.

Brewster Ghiselin compiled a book entitled ‘The Creative Process’1 containing first-hand information on the world’s most outstanding men and women of his time. They were selected from various fields such as art, literature and science. He recorded in this book the experiences of thirty eight persons in their own words as to how they begin and complete their creative works. Analysing how new creative ideas are born and developed, he classified them into two main categories: intensive thinkers and intuition followers. It was interesting to note that the most of them reported that they were guided by sudden flashes of intuition and clairvoyance.

Walter Bradford Canon also wrote a book under the title ‘The Way of the Investigator’2 and devoted one full chapter on the subject. He says ‘The role of creative scientists depended on two methods: the method of intensive thinking on the existing status to find out the next move and the method of seeking assistance of a sudden and unpredicted insight’. Both these methods according to him served the scientists in their discoveries equally well. Canon states from his own personal experience that he invariably had the unearned assistance of unpredicted insights during his research activity which was a matter of routine from years of his youth and he always trusted them. He remarks:

 “The process had been so common and reliable for me that I have supposed that it was at the service of every one.”

Canon also refers in this chapter to a study conducted by Platt and Baker in 1931 which related to an inquiry into the appearance of hunches among the chemists in their research work. The inferences drawn were based on the answers received from 232 respondents. While recording their evidence regarding their experiences in finding solutions to the problems, 33% of the researchers admitted that they always received assistance from hunches and 50% reported that they had such assistance only occasionally whereas 17% of the respondents said that they never had any such experience. Among this last category of respondents some researchers declared that the very idea of hunches was distasteful to them. Without going into details, it would suffice here to say that psychologists have been grappling with the creativity question since long and as a result of their studies they have been advancing arguments in favour of one or both these methods just described ie the thought aided by intuition and the unaided thought.

Some of the psychologists have been merely listing the conditions favouring the creativity process e.g; good physical state, fresh mind, mastery of the subject, striving for results, confidence, enterprise, willingness to take chance, eagerness for action, readiness to break away from routine, etc. Certain conditions have also been indicated by a few of them that help in the creativity process such as discussing the problem with other investigators, reading articles pertinent to the problem as well as pertinent to the methods useful in finding the solution. Others have tried to corelate creativity to I.Q. or n.Ach. of the individual scientist. Grahm Wallas3 describes four stages of creative thinking, viz. Preparation, incubation, illumination and verification which are widely accepted. Abraham A. Maslow4 differentiates between creativity associated with great tangible achievements and creativity potential of the ordinary persons which inheres in the self-actualisation motivation of every individual.

In short, there is a vast plethora of literature on the subject to which one may refer according to his interest and taste. It may, however, come as a great surprise to the psychologists and scientists belonging to the secular school of thought that some scientists of the highest stature talk about certain moral values and religious beliefs in connection with scientific creativity. For example, the Nobel Laureate Krebs laid great emphasis on the value of humility saying: ‘perhaps the most important element of scientific attitude is humility because from it flow self-critical continuous efforts to learn and to improve’. Similarly, the Pakistani Nobel Laureate, Dr Abdul Salam, stated before an interviewer that the Islamic concept of Tawhīd provided for him the basis and direction of research which led him to a discovery that qualified him for the Nobel prize. I may be excused here for a little digression from the subject and to refer to the Qur’ānic verse extending open invitation to men of all other faiths for forging a unity on the concept of Tawhīd. This Qur’ānic call, according to Dr. Rafi-ud-Din, has a special significance for the scientific community as he regards the concept of Tawhīd indispensable to science. He says:

The concept of God (Tawhīd), the most fundamental of all the truths is indispensable to science as a system of truths. It must be used to illuminate the paths of scientific observation and inquiry in the worlds of matter, life and mind to reveal new scientific truths which can never be known in its absence.5

 Therefore, the question I am now going to raise pertains to the role of faith in nurturing scientific activity. In other words, the question before us is: does Islam develop a special type of mind-set that helps in the sharpening and strengthening the creative faculty of the working scientists? My answer is: ‘YES’, and I will now try to explain what forms the basis of this motif.

Before I proceed to discuss the subject, let it be very clear that religious motivations are no substitute for natural endowments or compensation of natural disabilities. For example, bravery and cowardice are inborn mental dispositions. As bravery is a natural endowment, so is cowardice a natural disability. But Islamic motivations can certainly accentuate the bravery of the brave and attenuate the cowardice of the coward. Allah’s promise of granting eternal life and bliss to the martyr immediately after his death makes a brave Muslim all the more brave. Likewise His admonishment for the cowardly behaviour with punishment in the life Hereafter helps a coward in overcoming his cowardice to a remarkable degree if he is a true Muslim. In a similar way, the creative faculties of the scientists are greatly augmented by Islamic motivations and Islamic teachings.

In fact, all true believers in God among the scientific community, whether Muslim or Non-Muslim, enjoy science as a God-seeking and God-appreciating activity. Some of them had mystic experiences in the midst of scientific activity. My own father who had a strong mystic propensity used to relate a story about his going into ecstasic state in the classroom while listening to a lecture on the circulation of blood. The great lengendry negro scientist, George Washington Carver, known as the Peanut Man in America, called his laboratory as God’s little Worship’ and always prayed before entering it. A journalist wrote about him:

 To me, it was a delight to meet a man of such distinction as Dr Carver who enjoyed religion as he does. When I talked about things of God, his eyes sparkled and his soul caught fire.6

In recording these remarks about Dr. Carver, the interviewer simply testified that the joy of science and the joy of religion had mingled together so completely in Carver’s personality that it was difficult to separate them from one another. This aspect of his psychology was also reflected in his lectures. He used to describe his laboratory work as his conversations with God. Linda O. Mc Murry gleaned one such lecture and gave its account in the following words:

He often described his conversations with the Creator about the peanut. In one account, he told the Creator: ‘I would like to know all about the creation of the world’ to which His reply was: ‘Surely you have disappointed me. You are supposed to have reasonable intelligence.’ Then Carver asked to know only ‘all about peanuts’ but still the Creator declared: ‘All about the peanuts is infinite and you are finite’. As the Professor narrowed his demands the Creator explained: ‘I’d be glad to give you a few peanuts. I have given you few brains. Take the peanuts into the laboratory and pull them to pieces.’ Carver broke the peanuts into their constituents and the Creator advised him to take parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and put them together any way you wish so long as you keep the law of compatibility. When Carver asked: ‘Can I make milk out of the peanut?’ The reply was: ‘Do you have the constituents of milk?’ The professor would then note that the answer was yes, and hold up a bottle of peanut milk, followed by dozens of other products. Audiences loved the story which revealed a sense of humour and belief in the divine inspiration and he used it often.7

 Carver used to say that the universe is a Grand Broadcasting System of God if we only knew how to tune Him in. We can thus appreciate what a powerful motivation the love of God can generate for spurring up creativity of the scientist. As a true believer, he enters the laboratory with reverence and conviction to understand things of creation as the ‘handiworks’ of God. The hunches of the creative scientists to which we referred earlier thus turn into mystic experiences as ‘broadcasts’ from God.

Frithjof Capra, another great scientist, earned world-wide fame for writing a book entitled ‘Tao of Physics’. He too had a mystic experience mingling with the scientific thought. But he could not relate it to God and was therefore led astray. In the preface to the first edition of this book, published in 1974, he wrote about his mystic experience:

Five years ago, I had a beautiful experience which set me on a road that has led me to the writing of this book. I was sitting by the ocean late summer afternoon watching the waves rolling in and feeling the rhythm of my breathing, when I suddenly became aware of a gigantic cosmic dance. Being a physicist I knew that sand, rocks, water and air around me were made of vibrating molecules and atoms and that these consisted of particles which interacted with one another by creating and destroying other particles. I knew also that the earth’s atmosphere was continually bombarded by showers of ‘Cosmic rays’ particles of high energy undergoing multiple collisions as they penetrated the air. All this was familiar to me from my research in high energy physics but until that moment I had only experienced it through graphs, diagrams and mathematical theories. As I sat on the beach, my former experiences came to life, I ‘saw’ cascades of energy coming down from outer space in which particles were created in rhythmic pulses; I ‘saw’ the atoms of the elements and those of my body participating in the cosmic dance of energy; I ‘felt’ its rhythm and ‘heard’ its sound; and at that moment I knew that this was the Dance of Shiva, the Lord of Dancers worshipped by Hindus’.8

 Frithjof Capra was waylaid by Hindu Mysticism because, as he himself admits, he was only familiar with Hindu Mysticism or the Zen of Budha. His intuition was perfectly right but he intellectually integrated his experience to the Dances of Shiva due to the limitations of his religious knowledge. Here one is reminded of Holy Prophet’s (sws) saying that every human being is a born Muslim and it is the upbringing by his parents which turns him into a Jew or a Christian. Had Frithjof Capra been familiar with the Tawhīd of Islam, this Grand Dance of the Universe would have surely appeared to him as the Grand ‘Tawāf’ of the entire creation of universe around Allah (swt).

Coming to the Islamic view of scientific creativity, I prefer to conceive it as a form of ‘faith activism’. I think that all sorts of creativity coming from ‘insights’, ‘hunches’ or ‘unearned inspirations’ are emanating from the same source: i.e. deeper recesses of the unconsciousness. These have marked psychological resemblences and similarities and are essentially manifestation of the same quest for REALITY in various forms. What the scientists and artists call ‘creativity’, mystics and religious people name as ‘love for God’. In support of this statement.

I ask you to ponder on the following verse of the Holy Qur’ān which points to a covenant between man and Allah (swt) which is deeply rooted in the human unconsciousness:

And [remember] when your Lord brought forth the children of Adam from their reins, their seed and made them testify to themselves [saying]: ‘Am I not your Lord?’ They said ‘Yes, verily’. (7:112)

Reminding the same covenant, the precursor of faith, of lying dormant in human unconsciousness, the Holy Qur’ān in another verse exhorts man to activate it at the conscious level:

Read in the name of your Lord who created. (97: 1)

This is the very first revelation which flashed on the mind of Muhammad (sws) through the medium of angle Gabriel.

I strongly feel inclined to interpret this verse as the way shown to man for activating the covenant presently lying dormant in his unconsciousness. According to the verse, the very first step towards the Ma‘rifat of Allah (swt) is the study of His creation. To my mind, this is what the allusion ‘Who Created’ in this verse signifies. It is through the knowledge of His creation we call science that we develop an understanding of Allah (swt) at the conscious level with whom an eternal covenant is already inherent in us. Science is thus simply a process of faith activation. Creativity in science is thus a means of coming closer to Him. All search for knowledge, says Iqbal, is essentially a form of prayer. To explain this point, he quotes the following passage from the mystic poet Rumi.

This Sufi’s book is not composed of ink and letters, it is not but a heart white as snow. The scholar’s possession is pen marks. What is Sufi’s possession? Foot marks. For some while the track of the deer is the proper clue for him; but afterwards it is the musk-gland that is his guide. To go one stage guided by the musk-gland is better than the hundred stages of following the track and roaming about.9

 On the analogy of the mystic’s method expressed as ‘hunt of the musk deer’, Iqbal explains the process of creativity in science as coming closer to God and gaining power over nature. He says:

The scientific observer of nature is a kind of mystic seeker in the act of prayer. Although, at present, he follows only the foot prints of the musk deer, and thus modestly limits the method of his quest, his thirst for knowledge is eventually sure to lead him to the point where the scent of the musk deer is a better guide than the foot prints of the deer. This alone will add to his power over nature and give him that vision of the total infinite which philosophy seeks but cannot find. 10

Again it is profoundly meaningful that by combining Dhikr and Fikr, the Holy Qur’an integrates the act of (scientific) reflection on the things of creation with the act remembrance of Allah (sws) and establishes a vital relationship between the two. Just ponder over the following two verses:

Verily in the Creation of the heavens and the earth and in the succession of night and day, there are indeed messages for all who are endowed with insight [and] who remember God when they stand, when they sit, when they lie down to sleep, and thus reflect on the creation of heaven and the earth: ‘O our Sustainer! You have not created this without meaning and purpose. Limitless are You in Your Glory! Keep us safe, then, from suffering through fire! (3:190-191).

For Muslims, then, remembrance of Allah and reflection on His creation are vitally bound to one another. By remembering Allah, a Muslim scientist invokes the Source of all creation and creativity whereas by reflecting on His creation, he discovers Him through His laws operative in the natural phenomenona of this universe. To remain in constant contact with Allah (swt), through remembrance and reflection is for the Muslim scientist the be-all and end-all of all his research activities. Dhikr and Fikr are therefore indispensible to each other in the Islamic concept of Science.

In Islam, science may therefore be conceived as a process of faith activism which on its culmination issues into a special type of religious experience termed as Khashī‘ah by Holy Qur’ān.

The whole process of scientific research in an Islamic framework may therefore be conceived as under:

1. It begins with man’s eternal covenant with Allah (swt) lying dormant in his unconsciousness and he seeks to re-affirm it at the conscious level through the pursuit of knowledge we call science.

2. The pursuit of knowledge is endless. As the island of knowledge in the limitless ocean of Creator’s secrets of creation expands, its frontiers with the unknown also go on increasing in the same proportion. Man can never achieve or ever hope to achieve full comprehension and mastery over the secrets of creation. This means that the urge for scientific knowledge ingrained in the human mind has a far more subtle purpose of generating faith rather than mere conquest of nature which is usually assumed by the secular scientists.

3. In the pursuit of knowledge, man remains ever engaged in an endless game of ‘hide and seek’ with his Creator, Who is both the Manifest and the Hidden. In playing with the elusiveness of God lies the fascinating joy of science.

4. All sciences are based on the law of causality. But the chain of cause and effect is infinite in which Allah (swt) acts as the First and the Last i.e. the ultimate causer of every cause and the ultimate producer of every effect in the infinite continuum of cause-and-effect relationships in nature. A Muslim scientist therefore recognises two levels of causality viz horizontal causality and vertical causality. At the level of horizontal causality, he discovers cause-effect relations which he can comprehend and manipulate. But at the vertical level of causality, he can only attribute them to the omniscient and omnipotent Creator Who is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. A Muslim Scientist’s approach and attitude to this universe is, therefore, to quote Bosinian President, Mr. Alija Izatbegovic, a ‘mixture of scientific curiosity and religious admiration’. That is why the Holy Qur’ān emphasises the symbiotic relationship between Fikr and Dhikr.

5. In the ‘hide and seek’ game of the scientists in the continuum of ‘cause-effect’ relationship, he is rewarded with material advantages and spiritual elevation. Scientific activity, therefore, bestows on man not only power over nature but also a high-grade spiritual experience to which the Qur’ān refers as Khashyah.

6. This spiritual experience obtained through scientific method is according to Iqbal the need of our time. The modern man, who ceased to live soulfully by developing ‘habits of concrete thought’, demands a ‘scientific form of religious knowledge’ and ‘concrete living experience of God’. All scientific knowledge obtained from whatever source it may come is valuable and has a religious significance for us. But the Muslims have their own way of assimilation of scientific knowledge by integrating all knowledge with their concept of Tawhid.

7. ‘God-consciousness’ or Taqwā is the measure of personality growth in Islam. Scientific knowledge must therefore be assimilated in such a manner that it adds to ‘God-consciousness’ of the individual. This necessitates changes in the style of science education and science writing.

In the end, I want to share with my readers a feeling which will surely gladden their hearts. Just imagine the Holy Prophet (sws) being spiritually in the company of scientists of all times when he prayed:

 O Allah! Show me the reality of thing as they actually are

In your endless quest for knowledge, try to seek communion with God as Rumi yearned:

Let this droplet of intellect that thou hast bestowed on me merge with thy oceans of intellect.

Before concluding, I may refer to a genuine difficulty of some of us who insist on the dichotomy of science and religion and emphasise the incompatibility of the permanent nature of religion with the ephemeral nature of science. I also strongly believe as they do that the religious laws disclosed through revelation are immutable whereas scientific laws discovered by human intellect are tentative and ever changing; but at the same time I also believe that human mind cannot be divided into two opposite camps; Moving from one camp to the other at ease is not only against our basic principle of Tawhīd but also simply impossible. I belong to the school of thought based on the intellectual tradition set by Allama Iqbal and Dr. Rafi-ud-Din who believed in the harmony of religion and science and were great advocates of their integration.

I conclude my discussion with the prayer that may Allah (swt) guide our scientists in coming closer and nearer to Him in their scientific pursuits and they serve humanity with the perpetual insights they receive from Him. And always remember that faith is the gateway to science and science is nothing else but faith activism.

_____________________

1. Brewster Ghiselin, The Creative Process, Mentor books, New York-1963

2. Walter Bradford Cannon, The Way of the Investigator, W.W.Norton & Company Inc. New York - 1972

3. Graham Wallas, The Art of Thought, Harcourt Brace Iovanovich Inc. New York - 1954

4. Abraham H. Maslow, Creativity in Self-Actualizing People, Von Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York - 1968

5. Dr. M. Rafi-ud-din, Brochure 1995, All Pakistan Islamic Education Congress, Lahore - 1995

6. Linda O. McMurry, George Washington Carver, Oxford University Press, New York - 1981

7. Ibid

8. Frithjof Capra, The Tao of Physics , Bantam Books, New York -1984

9. Allama Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, (Ed-Saeed Shiekh), Institute of Islamic Culture, Club road, Lahore - 1986

10.10. Ibid

Taken from:

http://www.monthly-renaissance.com/issue/content.aspx?id=483

 

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