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Wisdom: the Best Gateway to Understanding

MOSTAFA MOHAGHEH DAMAD

Academy of Sciences of Iran


I would like to begin my speech with a comparison between the words science and wisdom. The definition of science is generally clear to everyone, but the meaning of wisdom seems to be more complex, so I have chosen this term to mean the equivalent of the Arabic hikma, but I am not sure whether it is used in the same sense in the western world.

Hikma appears more than 20 times in the Holy Koran, where it is of eminent significance. It is repeatedly emphasized that the Prophet Muhammad teaches people “the Book and the Wisdom,” and on one occasion it is said, “He [God] grants wisdom to whom He pleases, and to whomever is granted wisdom, He indeed is given a great good.”. Moreover—and this is probably more important—in the Koran, God Himself has been called “wise” (hakim) more than a hundred times. In this context I interpret the concept of hikma to be “intellectuality” joined with spirituality, education, cultivation, and ethics.

Now, science has certainly been capable of bringing ease and prosperity to mankind. But since mankind is composed of a human and an animal dimension, it cannot be doubted that science, in turn, can become a means to satisfy man’s arrogance, to generate his vices, to sow differences, and to spread conflicts, wars, and bloodshed.



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4 Wisdom: the Best Gateway to Understanding MOSTAFA MOHAGHEH DAMAD Academy of Sciences of Iran I would like to begin my speech with a comparison between the words science and wisdom. The definition of science is gener- ally clear to everyone, but the meaning of wisdom seems to be more complex, so I have chosen this term to mean the equivalent of the Arabic hikma, but I am not sure whether it is used in the same sense in the western world. Hikma appears more than 20 times in the Holy Koran, where it is of eminent significance. It is repeatedly emphasized that the Prophet Muhammad teaches people “the Book and the Wisdom,” and on one occasion it is said, “He [God] grants wisdom to whom He pleases, and to whomever is granted wisdom, He in- deed is given a great good.”. Moreover—and this is probably more important—in the Koran, God Himself has been called “wise” (ha- kim) more than a hundred times. In this context I interpret the con- cept of hikma to be “intellectuality” joined with spirituality, educa- tion, cultivation, and ethics. Now, science has certainly been capable of bringing ease and prosperity to mankind. But since mankind is composed of a human and an animal dimension, it cannot be doubted that science, in turn, can become a means to satisfy man’s arrogance, to gener- ate his vices, to sow differences, and to spread conflicts, wars, and bloodshed. 25

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26 SCIENCE AS A GATEWAY TO UNDERSTANDING In Islamic literature, science has been divided into two groups: useful and harmful. The former leads to the development and promotion of human society, while the latter causes corruption on Earth and the destruction of humans and nature. Science is use- ful as long as it makes mankind humble toward the magnificence of being, and useful science goes hand in hand with spirituality and ethics. On the other hand, harmful science engenders man’s arro- gance to a degree that he neither shows any regard for his natural environment nor for his fellow man. It is because of the aforementioned scientific arrogance that modern man finds no reconciliation with the earth and the very en- vironment in which he lives. On the contrary, he pollutes and de- stroys it ever more; man’s arrogance is a result of his excessive- ness in the sciences. The excessive belief in the sciences, or put differently, a dry and petrified scientific attitude devoid of any spiritual back- ground, an interpretation of the world from the narrow angle of the natural sciences, is the main reason for the destruction and corrup- tion of mankind’s natural environment. This is the most conspicu- ous result of the industrial developments of the last few centuries. Science has brought forth man’s unlimited arrogance. In modern culture, science has replaced religious belief and thus has become man’s true master. It was Auguste Comte, the science-praising French phi- losopher, who first divided the development of our knowledge into three historical phases: first, the divine or godly phase; second, the philosophical or abstract phase; and third, the scientific phase (Comte, 1853). In the divine phase, man attributes all phenomena and all changes in the world to God’s will or to supernatural forces. In the philosophical phase, man’s intellect becomes capable of experimentation and the art of abstraction, thus relating the de- velopment of natural phenomena to forces that are themselves hid- den, but whose effects are apparent. In this stage, man searches for a subjective and final explanation for the natural world. In the last phase, which is scientific and experimental, both man’s reason and

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WISDOM, THE BEST GATEWAY TO UNDERSTANDING 27 man’s vision become subject to observation and trial so that only the palpable and the visible are valid. Comte held that mankind has left behind the first two stages and has reached the third one. Man no longer quarrels about things that bring no benefit to him; rather, he leaves aside useless argumentation and turns exclusively to whatever is beneficial to his actual life. Comte thought that religion would not be accepted or fol- lowed if it was not accepted by men of learning. In addition, he said that modern science can only accept and worship one single being: the being of humanity that stands above everything else and any other being, encompassing all past and future generations. The being that must be worshipped is comprised of all those who have endeavored for the progress of mankind and who will continue this way in future times. Toward the end of his life, he had enjoyed the taste of love, and on the basis of his philosophical convictions he founded the Religion de l’Humanitéand he built a temple to hold prayers.1 Comte identified humanity as le Grand Etre and he called himself le Grand Pretre, noting of course that in his religion, wor- ship did not have the usual meaning of glorifying, but of caring and attending (Foroughi, 1989). Comte thus stated emphatically that science would be man- kind’s future religion. We see that his prediction was not too far afield from reality, because in recent centuries the sciences have indeed become man’s ultimate idol—a deity to be worshiped by all people. It has become even more than a deity, namely a monopo- listic god that tolerates no rival or partner—an idol devoid of life and soul that has slaughtered without trial any concept that was filled with meaning and soul. Spirituality, ethics, philosophy—be it natural or metaphysical philosophy—has no status without the validation stamp of the sciences. Today, scholars have left behind the divine and metaphysical stages, and any religion that they can accept and believe in must adapt itself to experimental science. In other words, science is mankind’s future religion. 1 The spread of Manaichaeism through Spain and into neighboring countries probably had a strong influence on Comte.

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28 SCIENCE AS A GATEWAY TO UNDERSTANDING During recent centuries, humanity has turned ever more to the sciences in order to gain an easier and better life. But the kind of science that interpreted man’s environment as separate from the warmth of life and devoid of any spirit and meaning has made him forget his inner values and the spiritual nature of the world, and has led him toward a continuously narrower and more painful life. Man view of nature has narrowed to such an extent that he has lit- erally made breathing difficult for himself. Science, which had set out to help and to attend mankind, became its deadly enemy, quite according to what Sheik Saadi, an outstanding Iranian poet of the thirteenth century said: “A servant went out to fetch some water, but the water rose and swept the servant away.” Present-day science has made nature a tool and a meaning- less object at the hand of modern city dwellers. It has secularized life, having separated it from divine grace. Nature is no longer a mirror reflecting God’s beauty. Not only has nature lost its connec- tion with modern man, but mankind also finds itself separated from nature, which has become a stranger to man, void of any holiness. If anything is holy to modern man, it is nothing but his own self; nature is only a reservoir to be exploited for man’s needs and joys. Hence, modern man does not have a friendly eye on nature but looks upon it only in a materialistic, exploitative, and selfish way. Nature is no longer man’s beloved one to whom he could show his love, not his partner for whom he might feel responsible while at the same time enjoy its company. Instead, man looks upon nature as a woman of pleasure who can be used for his bodily pleasures without any sense of responsibility. Such a prostituted nature, as a result, has gradually been worn out and become hardly useful anymore, as though having reached its final days, lying old and dull before man who has no use for it anymore. Of course, man has always had an innate propensity to harm and dominate nature and to use it for his needs and pleasures. But it was modern science that prepared a theoretical foundation for such an attitude toward nature by desecrating it. Modern man finds no spiritual concept anymore for which to reach out in the heights of the mountains, in the depth of the oceans, or in the end-

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WISDOM, THE BEST GATEWAY TO UNDERSTANDING 29 less skies. On the contrary, it seems that their sublime magnifi- cence annoyed man’s dominant and presumptuous spirit, provok- ing him to deprive them of their natural magnificence by control- ling them. No longer does modern man aspire to the spiritual experience of ascending to the divine kingdom, as we find in the story of Christ, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, or in the Prophet Mu- hammad’s nightly ascension to the skies. Man has become arrogant by ascending mountains, flying spaceships, and wandering be- tween the planets. Now man dances on the ruins of what he has left behind. In its desecration of nature, science has been successful to such an extent that even many pious people have lost their reli- gious feelings toward nature. In short, science devoid of spirituality might enhance man- kind’s power, but because man applies the philosophy of instru- mentalism toward nature in his drive to dominate it, he has become so arrogant that he has trampled almost all ethical considerations. On the other hand, hikma declares the world to be a comprehensive mirror of God Almighty, which reconciles man with his natural environment so that man can walk along the path of salvation. Hikma views the world as holy, whereas science tries to remove all holiness from being. DISCUSSION Mostafa Damad: I am sure that there are many questions, for all of the people in the audience are scientists, and I have criti- cized science. I should remind everyone that I am a professor of Islamic studies, and I should defend religion and make peace be- tween religion and science. I think that in the word hikma, there is peace. The word is used time and again in the Koran. I tried to find this word in Hebrew, perhaps in the Old and New Testament. In particular I was interested to find the word that is opposite in meaning to Hikma in the Old Testament, but I failed.

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30 SCIENCE AS A GATEWAY TO UNDERSTANDING Masoumi Hamedani: In most English texts translated from Arabic, the word hikma is translated as “wisdom” and some- times as “theosophy.” Damad: But in Koranic texts hikma is not synonymous to philosophy or theosophy. William Colgalzier: I like your title, “Wisdom: the Best Gateway to Understanding.” However, it is difficult for me to ac- cept blaming science for the inappropriate application of science. We use science as a way to understand the natural world through the use of experiments. Science is not a substitute for religion, and it’s not a substitute for human values. Certainly it’s not a substitute for wisdom, which is often in short supply. My view is that science is a tool. In looking at the application of science, hopefully it’s a tool that is used wisely. It could certainly be used badly as well. Damad: Professor, you are a religious man and a scientist. But I know many other scientists who say that science does not have a religion or philosophy, and that they would believe in God if only they could find him in the laboratory. You are not this type of scientist. You perhaps think like me and would shake hands with me. Mehdi Bahadori: Why don’t you use the word ethics in- stead of wisdom? Damad: Wisdom encompasses ethics. Wisdom has a very vast meaning. It is a combination of ethics, knowledge, spirituality, education, etc. All of these concepts are included in hikma, accord- ing to Allameh Tabataba’i and other Islamic philosophers (Ta- bataba’i, 2003). Bahadori: Is the word ethics used in the Koran? Damad: Yes. Where God addresses the holy prophet, “you are endowed with khologhen azeem,” i.e., with “great ethics.” Yousef Sobouti: I would like to follow the same theme as Professor Colglazier. A newborn baby does not have wisdom. It has the potential to become wise, but it does not possess wisdom when it is born. Wisdom comes through experience and learning at later stages of life, but it is science that has brought the largest and vastest understanding of nature to man.

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WISDOM, THE BEST GATEWAY TO UNDERSTANDING 31 Damad: What are you trying to conclude? Sobouti: I am trying to agree with you. Wisdom could be a gateway to understanding, but wisdom comes through experience in life, and the most important means of gaining this experience nowadays is science. The examples that you gave from Auguste Comte or from the earlier philosophers belong to the past. The points of view of people have also changed. I don’t think Auguste Comte’s teaching would be acceptable to many scientists today. Damad: Professor Sobouti, let me answer you by asking a question. Do you think if I were a scientist, but without the ration- ality that you advocate, or the ethics that Professor Bahadori em- phasizes, or the wisdom that I have described, it would be possible for us to be at peace together and live kindly and lovingly? Do you really think that this would be possible? Sobouti: That’s a difficult question. I am not claiming that I have a prescription for solving the disputes of the world. But what I’m saying is this: the concepts that you use—ethics, for ex- ample— are manmade values. They depend on the elements of cul- ture; on habits, on practices, on religions, and on many other things. Cultural values cannot solve disputes. On the other hand, science is free of such values. It doesn’t depend on any culture, on any belief, on any geographic location, or on any historical era. Damad: I disagree. I maintain that ethics is independent of manmade values. If we live in peace together, it is because of eth- ics. With science only, we will have wars and conflicts with each other. REFERENCES Comte, A. and H. Martineau. 1853. The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte. London: John Chapman. Foroughi, M. A. 1989. The development of philosophy in Europe. Tehran: Safi Ali Shah Publication. Tabataba’i, M. H. and A. Q. Qarai. 2003. The Elements of Islamic Metaphysics. London: Islamic College for Advanced Stud- ies.

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