THE SECULARIZATON OF SCIENCE AS
THE PROBLEM OF HUMANITY
By Husain Heriyanto
· Director of Research Department of the Islamic College for Advanced Studies, Jakarta;
· Director of the Avicenna Center for Religion and Science Studies (ACRoSS) Jakarta.
The discourse on issue of secularization of science is commonly trapped in focusing solely on metaphysical and cosmological discussions. It is undoubtedly that we are extremely in need of raising those accounts, which have been ignored completely over the last three centuries since the rise of secular-modern science. The great efforts that Muslim scholars have been pursuing this path relentlessly such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ismail Faruqi, Mehdi Golshani as well as Syed Naquib Alatas, Osman Bakar and Mulyadhi Kartanegara in Southeast Asia region must be much appreciated.
Appreciating the theological-religious critiques of the secularization in modern science, this paper raises a further approach on this issue, which is still rarely brought up, namely, the perils of secular science towards humanity. It neither says the previous account lacks human concern nor claims as the new critique on secularization of science. Such works of Nasr as Islam and The Plight of Modern Man and Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man are full of explanatory human concern. We may say even that Nasr’s in depth analysis of the inquiry of science both in its traditional meaning and modern form is occupied with profound human narrative. When identifying the modern conception of man as Promethean man Nasr portrays:
Promethean man is a creature of this world. He feels at home on earth, earth not considered as the virgin nature which is itself an echo of paradise, but as the artificial world created by Promethean man himself in order to make it possible for him to forget God and his own inner reality.
(Knowledge and the Sacred, 1981)
The point of this essay is focused on the ways of bringing up the issue of secularization of science for which we are required to exercise. The first, rather than simply introducing the established metaphysical and cosmological doctrines in dealing with modern science through a top-down route, I appeal to those who want to back up the criticism of secular science for undertaking a bottom-up approach. By the term ‘bottom-up approach’ I mean as an elaborate response that starts from the contemporary problems surrounding modern science and comes to philosophical and critical analysis of foundations of actual conditions of secular science.
The second, we need to consider that the discourse of secularization of science is neither in a vacuum of social context nor devoid of dynamic interaction between philosophical foundations and science. Just as Peter Berger’s explanation on dialectics between moment of internalization (individual is the product of society) and that of externalization (society is the product of individual), there is a working interchange between philosophy and science through which philosophical implications of science as well as philosophical foundations of science pertain to the discussion. The mode of relationship between science and philosophy is dialectical, a two-sided intersection rather than a one-way course.
Through the above-mentioned approach I would like to identify the seemingly unavoidable process of secularization of science at the present as the problem of humanity and civilization. The core thesis of this paper is that secular science imperils the existence of humanity and civilization rather than the existence of God. In fact, this process is a historical course that is neither given nor unshakable. In reference to the richness of Islamic thought and tradition, we still have true faith and great hope that the secularization is not the end of history of mankind. Rather, it will be exposed clearly as a myth of modern epoch.
Ever since the renaissance in Europe in which modern science had departed from religion radically and pursues its own course, a great optimism arisen in the enlightenment period that science could solve all the problems of humanity. As a matter of fact, however, today we are witnessing a great crisis caused by science and the optimism has been substituted by skepticism. The ecological crisis, growing poverty, a great gap and injustice leading widespread devastation around the world, systematic and institutionalized violence, wars, arms race, etc have put humanity today in serious crisis that had never experienced.
This paper is to reveal the dangerous impacts of secular science that threaten the future existence of humanity in two levels, they are, epistemological and ethical ones. The first is that secular science has lead scientists as well scholars in general become skeptical of their own ability to improve the human condition. Positivism, an epistemological basis of secular science, paves the way for appearance of skepticism, relativism, and nihilism in which postmodernism suggests those ideas as well.
The second is the total submission of scientific enterprises into neo-liberalism and capitalism. There is an insidious and overarching tendency of the direction and application of scientific research to market forces. This phenomenon serves to dissolve any unified sense of human welfare into a set of discrete exchanges between knowledge “producers” and “consumers”. This tendency is natural and logical implication of secular science in the practical level, something inevitable.
The importance of Islamic viewpoint in this problem is that Islam is capable of providing a broader framework to eliminate the negative effects of secular science whereas it can also establish sacred-religious science accommodating the need of human being for knowledge and science. Islam has profound epistemology, which is appropriate to overcome the skepticism and relativism as well as it also has rich sources and great authority to establish system of ethics and code of conduct for scientific enterprises.
II. The Second Stage of Secularization of Science
It is deplorable that the secularization process of science at the present-day is driven largely by side effect of the modernism project that fails to solve humankind problems as it promises since the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. Instead of reaching its great optimism, modern Western scientific worldview produces an alien thought for human being, namely, what is called postmodernism. Postmodernism is the name for a movement in advanced capitalist culture, particularly in the arts from which the term postmodernism originated. At the same time as modernism is the culture of modernity, postmodernism is the culture of postmodernity.
A leading postmodernist, Jean-Francois Lyotard, in his masterpiece entitled The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, attacks the legitimating myths of the modern age such as the progressive liberation of humanity through science and the idea of universality and rationality of humankind. In part of Introduction of that book he acknowledges,
I define postmodern as incredulity (skepticism, doubt) toward metanarratives (modernism ideas, projects). This incredulity is undoubtedly a product of progress in science: but that progress in turn presupposes it.
On science Lyotard argues that during the last forty years the leading sciences and technologies have become increasingly concerned with language: theories of linguistics, problems of communication and cybernetics, computers and their languages, problems of translation, information storage and data banks. Referring to Wittgenstein’s idea about language games, he rejects the reality of knowledge because knowledge is merely a kind of discourse, which we produce by means of language and communication.
Lyotard believes that the nature of knowledge cannot survive unchanged within the context of general transformation. The status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as the postmodern age. He predicts that anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable into quantities of information will be abandoned and the direction of new research will be dictated by the possibility of its eventual results being translatable into computer language. Knowledge is already ceasing to be an end in itself. It is and will be produced in order to be sold.
The brief account of Lyotard’s idea above lead him to talk about what he calls the mercantilization of knowledge. With the Industrial Revolution it was found that a technical apparatus requires an investment, but since it optimizes the efficiency with which the task to which it is applied is carried out, it also optimizes the surplus value from this improved performance. It is at this moment that science becomes force of production, a moment n the circulation of capital. Thus, the game of science becomes the game of the rich, in which whoever is wealthiest has the best chance of being right. It is that an equation between wealth, efficiency and truth is established.
In other words, we can say that the goal in contemporary science is no longer truth but performativity, that is, the best possible input/output equation. Scientists, technicians and instruments are bought not to find truth, but to expand power. Since performativity increases the ability to produce proof, it also increases the ability to be right; the technical criterion cannot fail to influence the truth criterion. This shift of attention, from truth to performativity, has impact in present-day educational policy. It has been clear for some time that educational institutions are becoming more functional; the emphasis is on skills rather than ideals.
The aforementioned description of postmodernism thought, which is represented by Lyotard, leads us to come some conclusions as follows:
1. Postmodernism is a mode of response to modernism (particularly, modern Western scientific worldview)
2. Postmodernism embraces skepticism, relativism, subjectivism
3. On the one hand postmodernism is a cynical criticism to modernism, but on the other hand it is a much more radical form of modernism in the term of secularization of science. It even does not simply refute the reality of metaphysics but also the rationality of science.
As a result, there are two modes of secularization of science. The first mode is the early secularization from by the time modern scientific worldview dominated across the world to the Second World War in which many people still believe in modernism project. The second mode is the late secularization that emerges after the Second World War along with the wave of growing skepticism on truth and rationality of science. The following table is to depict some characteristics of two modes of secularization:
Early Secularization Late Secularization
Refuting metaphysics, asserting science Refuting metaphysics and science
Rejecting spirituality, declaring rationalism of cogito Rejecting spirituality and rationality
Promoting positivism Promoting skepticism, relativism, pragmatism
Being skeptical on God’s existence Being skeptical on human ability to know God as well as Reality as such
Promoting universality Promoting particularity
Working in the content (message) Working in the message and medium
Being institutionalized (state, academe) Being un-institutionalized (individual choices)
Occurring mainly in educated man Occurring in educated man and mass people
Driving capital and market Being driven by capital and market
Science is a representation of reality Science is a fabrication of reality
In spite of different background and characteristics, both secularizations make the world at stake seriously and they in turn threaten the future existence of humanity and civilization. Furthermore, it is clearly identifiable that the late secularization is more dangerous and devastating because this mode is much more pervasive that pass through different cultures, diverse people from any educational background, different levels of society and country around the world. In cooperation with the dominance of capitalism and neo-liberalism, this second stage of secularization creates such global calamities as environmental destruction, over-whelming injustice, vast violence and terrorism, moral disorientation, and other social malaises and devastations. Because of which we may say that secular science imperils the existence of humanity and civilization because it creates the survival of the world in severe danger we had never experienced in the past.
Considering the focal point of this paper as well as limited time for presentation in this conference, I would like to describe a brief elucidation of appearance of humanity problems and difficulties that brought about by the massive process secularization of science. For this explanation, I just focus on its relation to the actual conditions of contemporary science.
III. The Late Secularization in Overwhelming Blindness of Vision
Skepticism: The Problem of Humanity
Today, we live in the world with which anonymous worldviews largely driven by blind forces with no true knowledge, justifiable ideology, real faith or truthful commitment. For large numbers of people the present day it seems that life is blind, irrational, and purposeless as the poet A.E. Housman lamented (quoted in John Cottingham, On The Meaning of Life, 2003):
…. nature, heartless, witness nature,
Will neither care nor know
What stranger’s feet may cross the meadow a lot of
And trespass there, and go
Nor ask amid the dews of morning
If they are mine, or no
Moris Berman (The Reenchantment of the World, 1981) outlines that the modern scientific worldview is a kind of alienated consciousness that leads to feeling of total reification: everything is an object, alien, not-me; and I am ultimately an object too, an alienated ‘thing’ in a world of other. This world is not of my own making; the cosmos cares nothing for me, and I do not really feel a sense of belonging to it.
Modern thought, which was established through the phase of skepticism following the collapse of the Church authority with respect to the scientists, in fact remains generating the virus of human thought for our civilization today. Modern skepticism has metamorphosed into postmodern skepticism, which contaminates human reason, intellect, and conscience in more devastating and pervasive way.
According to Wittgenstein, an influential pioneer of postmodern movement, our basic religious and moral commitments can make no claim to truth. He points out that there is no rational criterion of correctness of religions. He also denies the basic principles of science, which certainly can be given only by rational justification, something he refutes.
The idea of Wittgenstein is the path to total skepticism about the possibility of human knowledge. Let us read an exposition of Roger Trigg in his work Rationality and Science (1993) on Wittgenstein’s idea:
Reason and philosophy are put in jeopardy by Wittgenstein. In fact, so is any notion of reality. He was convinced that we cannot discuss how far one view or another may ‘agree with reality’. For him, all justification has to come to an end. Regarding the principles of science, he calls them as the rules of the scientific language-game.
This growing appearance of skepticism operates in various forms and different levels. Generally there are two realms of skepticism, i.e., theoretical and practical. Theoretical realm includes ontological and epistemological sections. Practical level encompasses ethical and social dimensions. This essay focuses on exploration of three realms of skepticism, which will be occupied in interconnected way. They are:
(1) Epistemological analysis;
(2) Ethical analysis, and
(3) Social analysis.
The main question that one raises is that why and how skepticism appears in the modern-postmodern world after the great success of scientific advancement in the last three centuries. Why does modern man comeback to initial condition by the time the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment drive the path of modernity? This query in fact needs a long explanation. I try, however, to clarify it in short exposition.
At least there are two main factors behind the collapse of the Enlightenment dream. The first is the internal factor, namely, the great progress of science itself. The amazing development of modern science have led a numerous scientists to address a lot of fundamental questions, which are deeper, radical, and more mysterious, demanding philosophical and theological discussions. Those questions have been raised by physicists about quantum and relativity theories, by cosmologists about our enormous universe, and by biologists about our evolutionary past and future.
Unfortunately, those queries cannot be grasped clearly because positivism, scienticism or mechanistic-deterministic worldview as the dominant paradigm of modern science is not compatible with these deeper questions. Positivism, an epistemological basis of secular modern science, was stuck in deadlock stance in which it has no capability to accommodate those scientific questions. As a result, positivism as well as scienticism collapses due to overlooking knowledge and reality in deeper level.
The dominance of this paradigm over the last two centuries, however, makes some scholars defend obstinately this worldview. This stubborn attitude might happen since they cannot lose their dream to establish a belief (a myth?) that the scientific method can solve all human problems. Let us scrutinize the following Richard Dawkins’s stubborn claim,
So where does life come from? What is it? Why are we here? What are we for? What is the meaning of life? There’s a conventional wisdom which says that science has nothing to say about such questions. Well, all I can say is that if science has nothing to say, it’s certain that no other discipline can say anything at all. But in fact science has a great deal to say about such questions.
(quoted in Mikael Stenmark, Scienticism: Science, Ethics, and Religion, 2001)
Some scholars might be broken down on account of the failure of secular modern scientific worldview in providing them with proper clarification. In the word of Werner Heisenberg, they feel lost the ground for science.
The violent reaction on the recent development of modern physics (quantum theory) can only be understood when one realizes that here the foundations of physics have started moving; and that this motion has caused the feeling that the ground would be cut from science
(Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, 1962)
What is the ground of science that they mean? The ground is nothing but mechanistic-deterministic worldview, which is a main character of modern scientific paradigm. Some scholars who lost the ground, accordingly, bring up and endorse a shocked response to science and knowledge in general. They yell ‘the end of science’, ‘the end of knowledge’, and in turn they refute reason and philosophy as well as any meaningful term such as truth, faith, religion, human values, moral values, human conscience. For them, all are only product of social discourse. They claim that science and human knowledge generally is product of manufacture of reality. Human knowledge neither deals with reality nor truth. That is total skepticism.
Regarding this result, there will be a next question: why they do not shout ‘the end of positivism’ or ‘the end of scienticism’ instead of ‘the end of science’. Let me outline this query in brief.
According to Roger Trigg (1993), those who refute the value of knowledge as a result of the collapse of positivism have been misled by the identification of science with reason, the identification of scientific knowledge with human knowledge. What Trigg means is that many scholars have identified, gradually from the dominance of positivism without proper awareness, the scientific enterprise as the only reason activity. They think that rationality of science is identical to human reason. In fact, human reason is much broader than all scientific endeavours. Likewise, scientific knowledge is not identical with human knowledge; the first is part of the latter. Furthermore, Trigg points out that science itself depends on a rational understanding of the world.
By means of a series of syllogism I may draw this process of identification in order to clarify why the collapse of positivism lead some scholars to endorse skepticism. They occupy several propositions as follows.
1. The only kind of knowledge we can have is scientific knowledge (identification of scientific knowledge with human knowledge)
2. Scientific knowledge is what can be scientifically justified
3. What can be scientifically justified is what compatible with positivistic paradigm (identification scientific justification with positivism)
4. The search of deeper questions on scientific discoveries cannot be accommodated by (is not compatible with) positivistic paradigm
5. Positivism is the true ground of science
6. The search of deeper questions on scientific discoveries is inevitably a true fact of science
Premise 1: The only kind of knowledge we can have is scientific knowledge
Premise 2: Scientific knowledge is what can be scientifically justified
Conclusion: The only kind of knowledge we have is what can be scientifically justified
Premise 1: The only kind of knowledge we have is what can be scientifically justified
Premise 2: What can be scientifically justified is what compatible with positivistic paradigm (identification scientific justification with positivism)
Conclusion: The only kind of knowledge we have is what compatible with positivistic paradigm
Premise 1: The only kind of knowledge we have is what compatible with positivistic paradigm
Premise 2: The search of deeper questions on scientific discoveries cannot be accommodated by (is not compatible with) positivistic paradigm
Conclusion: The search of deeper questions on scientific discoveries is not scientifically knowable (the knowledge that we can have)
Premise 1: Positivism is the true ground of science
Premise 2: The search of deeper questions on scientific discoveries is inevitably a true fact of science
Initial Conclusion: Either positivism or the search of deeper questions on scientific discoveries is true
But, since this initial conclusion is contrary to Proposition 4, then the final conclusion becomes: Neither positivism nor the search of deeper questions on scientific discoveries is true.
And then some scholars come to introduce another way of justification, namely, what they called ‘consensus criteria’. Thus, both propositions might be true if there is consensus. Here the concept of ‘true’ does not longer deal with truth or correspondence with reality but just a result of discourse, a product of bargaining, or maybe an object of trading. That is clearly a kind of skepticism about the value of knowledge.
Ethical and Social Analysis
The second factor why skepticism emerges in the modern-postmodern era is an indirect cause to scientific path. What I mean is the bad impact of the vast advancement of science and technology towards society, nature and humanity in general. Some wise scholars (scientists, thinkers, philosophers, religious scholars) respond to problems of humanity, which are set up by science along with its technological implications. Production of mass destruction of weapons, two world wars, a great gap between the rich and the poor around the world, the imbalance distribution and consumption of natural resources, and the environmental crisis are conditions to which people blame applications of modern science as the causal factor.
In this regard, Mehdi Golshani in his work Issues in Islam and Science (2004) says,
There is no doubt that science and its technological offspring brought a lot of blessing for humanity, but the promised utopia – science can bring felicity and prosperity for humankind – did not materialized. Instead, science produced means of mass destruction and environmental pollution, and it disrupted the balance between the spiritual and the materialistic aspects of life and humanity witnessed world wars, poverty, injustice, moral-void, and violence.
Golshani correlates the actual condition of practice of contemporary science with philosophical foundations of modern scientific worldview. He expounds that the development of science and technology under the secularist-materialist worldview has led to grave consequences for humankind. In this worldview, the ethical, philosophical, and religious dimensions of science and technology are neglected and humankind’s physical comfort is confused with real happiness. The industrial world with all its technological superiority is crying out for meaning and purpose – things that scientific and technological advances have not provided for humankind.
This condition generates contemporary men in the threat of despair, hopelessness, and disorientation in life. Let us listen to the voice of desperation from Richard Rorty below:
There is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves; no criterion that we have not created in the course of creating a practice; no standard of rationality that is not an appeal to such a criterion, no straight argumentation that is not obedience to our own conventions
(Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism, Minneapolis, 1982)
This skepticism generates worse actual condition of science in relation to ethical concern. Because just as the epistemological skepticism that demolishes the value of knowledge, this skepticism leaves no room for moral values and their magnificent role in human life. The principles of moral values will lose their intellectual basis. Universal norms of ethics completely will be meaningless and collapse into total indifference of moral consciousness. It is a condition that moralists say as moral disorientation. And this moral disorientation in turn brings about the deeper skepticism in which human being will be void of meaning of life, stuck in the corner of emptiness, desperation, hopelessness and nihilism.
Those above-mentioned condition in short are not taken it as a given but it is established by the long and pervasive process of secularization of science. Such global calamities as injustice, poverty, wars, organized violence, terrorism, arms race, moral disorientation, alienation, abuse of human rights, global warming, and severe damage to nature and environmental sphere are the end-products of complex process of secularization of science. R.D. Laing (The Divided Self, 190) says “we have destroyed the world in theory before we destroy it n practice”.
In this moment I need to expose a few concrete examples of abuse of power on scientific enterprises related to ethical and social issues. Let me bring up one case that occurred in South Africa.
South Africa’s Case of Intellectual Property
As I mentioned above that the late secularization mainly driven by capital and market in which the transnational corporations (TNCs) operate. Through TNCs advocates of the secular-modern science along with its applications have intensified the process of secularization to a point that threatens to undermine the universality of scientific knowledge. This turn is exemplified in new regimes of intellectual property.
One case that happened in South Africa strongly indicated this alarming situation. A transnational pharmaceutical company (a TNC) succeeded to drive South African government to make an arrangement in which this TNC will supply South Africa with drugs for the treatment of AIDS at discount prices with a rule that South Africa will not develop its biomedical industries. Though widely reported as a victory for South Africa (it constitutes 15% of the world’s AIDS sufferers), however the arrangement ignore the idea of knowledge that is both applicable and available to everyone (the principle of universality of knowledge). Furthermore, in long term, South Africa will suffer from high expense for buying drugs and it will be always dependent on TNC.
This case indicates that the TNCs have effectively driven a wedge between the ability to produce and consume knowledge, thus converting universalism and emancipation to subordination and subjugation. In fact, South Africa is capable of producing drugs that their people need, but they were only allowable to consume, to be dependent agent. This is a model of the late secularization in which capital and market drive this process with no ethical and human consideration. It seems that capital is like god that can buy anything including science and technology which is very required by millions people.
This unjust supremacy of TNCs along with supervisors from Western developed countries is only possible in practice under an umbrella of secularization of science. Accordingly, it has been justifiable if I declare that the secularization of science is the problem of humanity.
- A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World , The Free Press, Macmillan Co., New York, 1967
- Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapoli, 1984
- John Cottingham, On The Meaning of Life, Routledge, London, 2003
- Madan Sarup, Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, Longman, Harlow, 1993
- Mehdi Golshani, Issues in Islam and Science, IHCS, Tehran, 2004
- Mikael Stenmark, Scienticism: Science, Ethics, and Religion, Ashgate, Burlington, 2001
- Moris Berman, The Reenchantment of the World, Bantam Books, New York, 1984.
- Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, Anchor Books, New York, 191967
- R.D., Laing, The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness (Penguin Books, London, 1990
- Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Mariner Books, New York, 2000
- Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism, Minneapolis, 1982
- Roger Trigg, Rationality & Science: Can Science Explain Everything?, Blackwell, Oxford – Cambridge, 1993.
- Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1976
- ________________, Islam and The Plight of Modern Man, ABC International Group, Chicago, 1975
- ________________, Knowledge and the Sacred, Suhail Academy, Lahore, 1981
- ________________, The Need for A Sacred Science, Routledge, London, 2004
- Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1958
 This essay is a paper presented at the First ISTAC International Conference on Islamic Science and the Contemporary World, held from 9th until 10th January 2008 in ISTAC, IIUM Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.