Relationship between Science and Religion in the Modern Age

Relationship between Science and Religion in the Modern Age

Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed

Presented at Rossmoor, Walnut Creek, California on September 21, 2020

Thank you, Sara, for this privilege to speak once again at Rossmoor. Among the audience are distinguished men and women of arts and science, as well as inquisitive students. I am told there is also an international presence.  

The classical approach to sharing knowledge is to ensure that it enriches the participant. We will apply that criterion to our association. I offer each of you a tree to take home. It is the tree of knowledge with five branches, the empirical, the rational, the emotive, the perceptive and the infusive, namely, the knowledge that is acquired through the body, the mind, the heart, the soul and the spirit.  

The title of today’s presentation is “The Relationship between Science and Religion”. It is indeed a profound question. As it is with all intellectual pursuits, the answer is implicit in the question. Seven hundred years ago, Mevlana Rumi answered it this way: “You ride your horse from village to village, asking everyone: “Have you seen my horse?”. 

Modern man is like that rider on the horse. So engrossed is he with the physical and material that he has lost touch with his own soul, the horse that he rides. In the Islamic tradition, the word for the soul is the Nafs.

Let us start with a little reflection about the sublime insignificance of the human

As far as we know today, there are two trillion galaxies in our own universe, each galaxy has two billion stars, and there may be other universes that we do not know about. Tucked away on the fringes of our own midsize galaxy, the Milky Way, is our star, the sun and our earth, a speck of dust circling around it. And on this speck of dust there are seven billion of us each one with an ego stretching from San Francisco to New York.

Insignificant as we are in the grand scheme of physical universe, we dare to ask: Who am I? Why am I here? We rose from stardust, were lit up with the light of consciousness and started to ask: Where did I come from?

The summary of my presentation is this: Science and Faith are two mighty oceans. Whereas science is based on observation, measurement and reason, faith is based on awareness and conviction. These two oceans meet within the human soul. The human is a microcosm of the universe and the mirror through whom God reveals the majesty of His creation.  The junction of science and faith is within each of us, not out there among the stars or the jungle of fuzzy and obtuse ideas.

 I start with a parable. It is called “The parable of the Candle and the Shaikh

Mevlana Rumi (d 1273 CE) was one of the greatest poets to grace this planet. People in the East as well as the West consider him to be a spiritual master and a consummate exponent of the deepest longings of the human soul. Rumi had a teacher. His name was Shaykh Sinai. One evening,  Shaykh Sinai was walking back home from the mosque after evening prayers. Darkness was fast approaching. The alleys of the town were narrow and constrained as they used to be before the advent of the automobile and the freeway.

As he walked, Shaykh Sinai  saw a little girl walk towards him with a candle in her hand to help her see in the approaching darkness. The great Shaykh approached the child, bent down and asked her in a gentle voice, “Please tell me where this light came from?”

The child looked up at the Shaykh. Her sharp, penetrating eyes saw a great man of wisdom looking benevolently at her. His shiny white beard glistened in the light from the flickering candle. His furrowed face radiated the wisdom of the ages.  The little girl paused for a moment, blew the candle out with a single breath and asked the Shaykh:

“Tell me where the light has gone and I will tell you where it came from?”

This sublime parable, so pregnant with layers of meaning, is a useful preamble to our discussion about the nature of knowledge. Knowledge is a supreme gift. It cannot be destroyed in an earthquake or burned in a fire as the ones raging in California. It cannot be stolen by a thief or packaged in a container. It cannot be bequeathed from father to son as a piece of property. The branches of the tree of knowledge are vast and cover the heavens and the earth. The body, mind, heart, soul and the spirit bask in its light.

The propensity towards knowledge separates man from the beast. Animals do not ask questions. They do not gather data, build computers and sift through the data to build the tree of knowledge.   Man is thus a knower.

The Senses and the Mind – Basis of Scientific Knowledge

Empirical and rational knowledge are the first two branches of the tree of knowledge. Empirical knowledge is based on observation and measurement. It is the basis of physics, chemistry and biology. Rational knowledge is based on reason and is the privilege of the mind. It is the basis of mathematics, logic, computer science, geometry and architecture. These two categories, namely the empirical and rational, can be expressed in words or symbols and can be taught. We write scientific papers, give seminars, teach at Stanford and Berkeley, hold Zoom meetings such as this one to share and build upon this knowledge. Empirical and rational knowledge form the basis of science and are the foundation of our modern technological civilization.

What is Science?

What is science? It is a rigorous method to understand nature based on observation and measurement.  As nature is complex, we make assumptions in the process of unlocking its secrets. Therefore, science may also be defined as an empirical method to find the natural truth based on certain assumptions.

There are two fundamental assumptions that underlie the pursuit of natural science: The principle of objectivation and the principle of before and after. The principle of objectivation states that man is the subject and the cosmos is the object that man can study with detachment. The principle of before and after implies that the flow of time is linear and every effect has a preceding cause. A lack of time prevents me from going deep into the philosophical implications of these assumptions. Suffices it to state here that you and I are not separate from nature; we are a part of it. We are at once the subject and the object, the witness as well as the witnessed. As Mevlana Rumi said: “You are not just a drop in the ocean; you are the ocean in the drop”. The idea of before and after may be valid in everyday lives when short spans of time are involved but they break down for cosmic events. For instance: What was there before the big bang?

Allow me to share with you from my own experience. When I first entered Caltech as a graduate student in 1961, I had an Applied Mathematics professor who sometimes began his lectures with “Oh God! Make our world linear”. For those who may not know what linear is, here is an illustration: If we know that a car uses one gallon of gas to go ten miles, we calculate that it will take two gallons to go twenty miles. But is that necessarily true? What if the road conditions change, the road becomes bumpy and has pot holes? What if you go up a hill on a curved road, or a traffic jam slows you down? Our calculations break down. Similar is the case with scientific predictions. The fact that the earth has avoided a major collision with a big asteroid in a thousand years is no guarantee that we may not be hit with one tomorrow.

The Mystery of the Senses

The body is the means of interaction with the physical. It is the vehicle for observation and measurement. The mind is the instrument for reason, a vehicle for rational and extensional thought. It is the nursery for mathematics, logic, geometry, language and thought synthesis. It processes the information generated by the senses, connects it with logic into a rational whole and seeks to make sense of the cosmos.  Indeed, it even ponders the possibility of heaven.

It may come as a surprise to many that there is a mystery to the senses.  The speech is not in the tongue, the sight is not in the eye, the hearing is not in the ear and the touch is not in the skin. They are all attributes of the soul, the Self, the I as in I am. Let me explain.

Consider the sensation of color. Where is the sensation of color? We offer the following example first advanced by Nobel Laureate Sherrington. Consider a beautiful yellow rose. If you ask a physicist, he may state that electromagnetic waves from the sun hit the rose. The petals of the rose absorb all wavelengths except a wavelength of about 0.6 micrometers. Wavelengths around 0.6 micrometers are reflected by the rose, travel through the air and enter the eye where they register on the optic nerve. The optic nerve sends an electrical signal to the brain where it registers its color.

In this “scientific” description, the sun is there, wavelengths are there, absorption and reflection are there, the optic nerve and brain cells are there. But where is the color yellow? Is it in the sun or the eye? We will immediately recognize that it is neither in the sun nor in the eye nor even in the rose. The sun merely radiates the light. The rose merely reflects waves of light. The eye merely receives and registers the light waves. Each of them participates in the process of recognition. But none of them determines the color yellow.

The answer quite simply is that the sensation of color is an attribute of the soul. We cannot find the yellow color out there in the physical world because the soul is not “out there”. It is with us. The senses are like “windows” to the soul so that the soul can witness a moment of light.

Natural science does not answer questions of color and feelings. In the world of natural science there is no color, no pain, no happiness, no joy, no suffering. It is a cold, empty world, totally devoid of human qualities. In it the rainbow does not exist, only the dispersion of light. In it, love does not exist, only changes in body chemistry. In it tears do not exist, only droplets falling from the eye. This is so because the seat of love and hate, of color and feeling, namely the soul was taken out in the very beginning through the Principle of Objectivation.

The fact that sensual qualities, love, compassion, joy and sorrow, beauty, enchantment, music and melody are absent from the complex picture built up by “science” does not convince us one bit that they are not there. The rainbow exists because we see it. Men and women love because they feel and they cry because they suffer. There is a deep mystical quality to our sense of sight, touch, sound and taste, a quality that cannot be described using the methods of empirical science.

In summary, the senses do not belong to the material world. There is a deep mystery to them. 

Eminent scientists have grappled with the question of how the mind interacts with the physical but they arrived at an impasse. Here is what Sherrington has to say in his book Mind and Matter:

“Mind, for anything perception can compass, goes therefore in our spatial world more ghostly than a ghost. Invisible, intangible, it is a thing not even of outline; it is not a “thing”. It remains without sensual confirmation and remains without it forever”. (Man and His Nature, Sir Charles Sherrington, Cambridge University Press, 1940, page 357).

The helplessness of secular thought springs from the very assumptions that are made in building the edifice of secular science. These assumptions exclude the soul from the world at the outset. It is like the first gambit in a chess game. Having excluded the soul at the very beginning we cannot locate it later when we go searching for it. As a consequence, knowledge that is acquired through “scientific” thinking is cold and logical, without color, without feeling and without love.

The mystery deepens until we arrive at the confluence of the mind, the body and the heart. They do meet and the meeting takes place in the soul, the Self, the I that defines each of us uniquely.

The Heart, the Stage for Manifestation of Love and Grace

If the empirical and rational were the limits of human knowledge, then where do love, compassion, forgiveness, mercy and grace fit in? Love cannot be measured with a ruler, weighed on a scale or calibrated on a thermometer. Yet, the vista of love is vast. It embraces the entire universe. It has the power to make the oceans boil, icebergs melt, the sky and the earth to kiss each other. I am sure each of you have felt the pangs of love somewhere, sometime, and the scars may still be there.

The fact that we cannot measure love with a wooden pole does not convince us one bit that it is not there. It resides in the inner recesses of the heart. In all of God’s creation, there is nothing as sublime as the heart for it alone has the capacity to love and to be a stage for manifestation of divine grace.

Emotive knowledge is the third branch of the tree of the knowledge. It is the knowledge of the heart. This kind of knowledge is felt but it cannot be taught.

Some Attributes of the Heart

  • The heart is the stage for the emotive life of the human. It is where love and hate, compassion and mercy, charity and greed, forgiveness and vengeance find their resolution.
  • The heart possesses a powerful electromagnetic field and has its own nervous system, with a network of 40,000 neurons. The neurological centers store data that enable it to think and accumulate wisdom. It releases hormones that send messages to the brain and influence behavior. Hence the saying of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh): “There is in the human a piece of flesh. If it be sound, then the entire body is sound”.
  • For the discharge of its higher responsibilities, the heart has the capacity to turn, not physically but emotionally. On one side it looks at the life of this earth and its dazzling riches, reaches out with greed to possess them. On the other, it turns to gaze at the Spirit, contemplate its grandeur and its beauty and bask in its light. For this reason, it is referred to in the Islamic and Sufi traditions as the Qalb, namely, that which turns, like a gimbal in a spacecraft.
  • Importantly, the heart is the throne for revealing Divine Grace. It alone has the capacity to ponder the majesty of divine love, to contain it and exude it to the body and the mind. For this reason, it is compared to the throne of God. Indeed, it is the fortress of faith.

The Soul, Mirror of the Invisible World

Let us now turn our attention to the Soul wherein lies the junction of the two seas. What is the soul?  In Eranos Jharbuch, Karl Jung wrote:

“All science is a function of the soul, in which all knowledge is rooted. The soul is the greatest of all miracles. It is the conditia sine qua non of the world as an object. It is extremely astonishing that the Western world, apart from very rare exceptions, seems to have so little appreciation of this being so. The flood of external objects of cognizance has made the subject of all cognizance withdraw to the background, often to apparent non-existence.” (Eranos Jahrbuch, 1946, p 398)

The soul, is the horse that we ride, going from place to place, asking everyone: “Have you seen my horse?”.  Never mind that sometimes this horse behaves like a mule or a donkey. At other times it stinks like a skunk. Occasionally, it is a winged angel that lifts us up to the heavens.

The term “soul” is a composite term. It may be compared to a large house which has a living room, a family room, a kitchen and bedrooms. In a similar sense, the senses, the mind and the heart are parts of the soul. The knowledge possessed by the soul is the fourth branch of knowledge, the perceptive branch.

I will enumerate here some attributes of the Soul:

  • First, the soul is universal. All men and women, irrespective of their race, color, nationality are endowed with it.
  • Second, the Soul is endowed with a free will and it is born free.
  • Third, the soul is the cognitive element for all inputs from the body, the mind and the heart.  
  • Fourth, it perceives beauty, order and proportion.
  • Fifth, the soul has a sense of justice and right and wrong.

The Will of God is realized in nature by necessity. It is realized in humankind by choice. The sense of justice is a uniquely human attribute. It is not an attribute that is found among the animals.

Summarily, the excellence of humankind lies in the attributes of the soul.  The soul is “the mirror of the invisible world”. In it, all of God’s creation is reflected.  It is endowed with the capacity to “know” what it “sees” and to act upon it as the anointed regent of Divine Will.

The Spirit – Source of Life, Knowledge and Power

Lastly, let us ponder over the Spirit that animates life.  

In the Islamic tradition, the word for the Spirit is the Ruh. The Spirit is the life-giving source of the universe. It animates all creation. It is the light of existence. It is not the body that contains the spirit. It is the spirit that contains the body inside and out.

The light from the Spirit is reflected in many shades:

At the most elemental level is the Spirit that animates all things, trees, birds, animals, the stars, the universe, the heavens and the earth. It is not a dead universe we live in; it is alive. It reflects the light of God although it perceives it not. In the Sufi tradition, it is called Ruh e Haywani (the basic Spirit that animates all creation).

The Spirit that animates humankind is of a higher order.  It has a heart. You and I are made of the same stardust that the planets are made of. But we are stardust which has become conscious and is aware. We as human beings see, hear, touch, speak, reason, ask and act and we are responsible for our actions. The Sufis call it Ruh e Insani (The Spirit that animates humans).

There is yet a higher spirit, which in its sacredness animates the souls of the Prophets, elevates and ennobles them to listen to the voice of the heavens and transmit the eternal truths to humankind. Moses spoke to God. Not everyone has this privilege. This spirit is called Ruh ul Quds, the Holy Spirit.

The knowledge of the spirit is the fifth branch of knowledge, the infusive.  

Thus, the tree of knowledge has five branches, the empirical, the rational, the emotive, the perceptive and the infusive. The empirical and the rational define the domain of science. Faith is all inclusive; it embraces all five branches of knowledge.

Humankind is unique in the heavens and the earth, provided with senses steeped in mystery, a noble mind crowned with reason that probes the deepest secrets of the cosmos, a sublime heart which is illuminated with heavenly light, a soul that is perceptive of divine presence and a spirit that bestows upon him life, power and knowledge.

I conclude with a reiteration of what I stated at the outset of my presentation: Science and faith are two mighty oceans. Both are in search of the Truth. Science is based on observation and reason but it hits an impasse due to the assumptions it makes and it stops there. Faith is based on awareness and conviction. It attaches no preconditions to its position and embraces the empirical, the rational, the emotive, the perceptive and the infusive. These two oceans meet within the human soul. 

 In the search for the truth one must not be blind to the boundaries that our limitations impose. Let us recall the parable of the four blind men who approached an elephant to find out what it looked like. The first one embraced the elephant’s foot and said it was like a pole. The second one stroked the belly and said it was like a massive wall. The third caught hold of the tail and said it was like a serpent. The fourth one felt the tusk and said it was like a smooth rock. Truth is one and indivisible. There is no scientific truth and a separate religious truth. The search for a meeting of these oceans is an individual search and the path one takes to reach that junction is predicated upon one’s journey in life, one’s capacity to learn and ultimately on the Grace of God.

Thank you. 

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