Man, by default and by nature, contemplates life and death and his own relevance and place in this vast and expanding universe. Are we here and now by chance or are we for a purpose? There is considerable overlap between science, religion and philosophy when we address these fundamental questions.
There is complete agreement between science and religion about our biological nature and our interconnectedness with the rest of the animal world. But there is a sharp divide and divergence of opinion between biology and philosophy, religion and materialism when the destiny of Man is the focus. Material philosophers resent and lament the non linear nature of Man or he appears curved to them and it was precisely expressed by Albert Camus when he stated that Man refuses to be what he is.
Is it ever possible to explain human behavior in accordance with the theory of natural selection or, in other words, is he tailored according to Darwinian logic? There are so many dimensions of Man that simply defy any kind of Darwinian reductionism and the popular attempt of Biological determinism to explain man’s nature.
Alija Ali Izet Begovic, the eminent Islamic thinker, has made a detailed analysis of the different perspectives of science and religion viz-a-viz Man. He argues that Darwin and Michel Angelo, when they defined Man, were focusing on two different realities or two different dimensions: the former the physical, the ephemeral and the immediate and the latter the spiritual and the eternal.
It is not so much the physical attributes that differentiate Man from Ape. It is his inner world of cult, prohibition, taboos, beliefs and superstitions, aesthetic creativity and spiritual anxieties, and his relentless quest for meaning and purpose that make Ape a Man.
Francis.S. Collins, the preeminent Geneticist who was the head of Human genome Project also understands the limitation of genetics and biology alone to satisfactorily explain the human behavior and he calls DNA the language of God and the ubiquitous Moral Law or agape, God’s sign posts. Mankind has a universal longing for God, purpose and meaning.
The anthropological studies agree that the spiritual quest and longing for God is as old as history of Man itself. There is not even a single community or culture that lived without metaphysical moorings, without taboos, without a concept of the sacred and the divine and the recent studies suggest that a child, irrespective of his upbringing, becomes God-conscious as early as at the age of four.
Man shows an innate sense of right and wrong irrespective of culture, language and faith. Every child is born with equal moral capital, the tribals of far flung forests and highly refined communities of modern cities are gifted with the same sense of right and wrong, Islam doesn’t suggest that Man is inherently altruistic, instead it says Man is born naturally innocent and ethically conscious, at the same time, he is morally vulnerable and prone to commit mistakes and at times to go utterly wrong and divine guidance is needed to maximize virtue prevailing. Why is it that a man in his natural state of innocence, innately abhors crimes and feels guilty and troubled by the pangs of conscience when he commits murder, rape or theft? There is no rational explanation for the feeling of guilt of Jean Val Jean and the attempts to explain away the sublime human qualities by the logic of evolutionary psychology give way to more questions than answers. It was not fear of punishment or retribution that consumed, disturbed and burned Jean Val Jean from within, it was his intense feeling of guilt and his quest for repentance and redemption that preoccupied him for the rest of his life. The human soul is the theatre of God and his conscience is His signature.
The longing for God, the quest for meaning, an innate sense of right and wrong, self awareness, death consciousness, freedom of choice and free will, the power of articulation, willingness to self sacrifice and the potentiality to commit suicide, aesthetic, ethical and spiritual concerns are some of qualities of Man that baffle materialists.
Throughout history, across cultures and continents, innumerable men and women have made supreme sacrifices and have deliberately embraced death and martyrdom to defend a cause that they held sacred. Mother Teresa’s selfless service, Schindler’s dedication and his subsequent death poor and penniless Omar Mukhtar’s martyrdom and Che Guevara’s revolutionary zeal are all absurd acts of stupidity if Man is a mere material being. We come across tales of numerous people who risk their own lives in their attempts to save fellow human beings from being swept away by waves or being caught by fire, and no one calls them insane or stupid, rather we stand before them in awe and reverence. We equally admire tragic heroes both in fiction and real life who stand up and sacrifice themselves to promote justice and other human values. Is chivalry and sacrifice a mundane quality or a virtue of another world, a reminder of our prologue in Heaven?
Europe is supposedly the most secular civilization in history, but its underpinnings are deeply religious. Human dignity, the most cherished ideal of western civilization sounds hollow and meaningless and the concept of equality of man becomes ontologically indefensible if we assume that we are here purely by chance and without any purpose. What does the dignity of Man mean? It means that Man is different and human life is sublime and sacred and hypothetically it is entirely justifiable and even advisable to risk the lives of an endangered species if it guarantees the safety and survival of a single human life. Is it an act of self congratulation or an implicit admission of our loftiness, otherness and difference from the rest of the animal world and a subconscious refutation of materialistic reductionism? Is it ever possible to bring Man and Animal to a common denominator?
The equality of Man is also a metaphysical concept and appears to be mere wishful thinking if we can’t accept the fact that we are created quintessentially equal by one God. If people are judged by their talents, physical attributes, charm, grace and level of accomplishments, certainly they are unequal; a desiccated and wrinkled tribal woman is equal to a glamorous blonde and a well accomplished scientist is on a par with an illiterate herdsman only if we accept the presence of a divine spirit that radiates equally in all of them.
The human being is now endowed with the potentiality to erase the entire race, if not the entire life, from the face of the earth and here is the paradox- that the most evolved and adapted being, the final product of natural selection, the crown of evolution, is potentially capable of wiping out the entire species- Man writing the obituary of himself and the rest..
Longing for the Absolute and the innate sense of right and wrong are the striking features of Man. Who was the first Man? It was not when the Ape shed its tail and hairs, improved its facial features and started walking upright that the first Man was born; it was when he directed his gaze onto the firmament, started wondering about himself and his surroundings, learned his prayer and began his relentless search for God that Man was born. The cave Man was no less spiritual than post Modern Man and cave paintings and murals, music and dance were no less sublime than post modern Art. Hayy bn Eqzan as portrayed by Ibn Tufyl grows up on a solitary island, totally cut off from the society, but fully aware of his Maker without being indoctrinated by anybody, because Man is naturally inclined to be a believer.
God-consciousness is deeply imprinted and soft wired into the inner self of Man and he composes the best music in His praise, paints the best murals and frescoes in his desperate attempt to catch a glimpse of the Divine, makes performance Arts and writes millions of poems and hymns to express his devotion, but God continues to be imperceptible and incomprehensible no matter how much we strain and strive.
Art is the daughter of spirituality; Gothic arches of the cathedral, towering minarets of Masjids and awe inspiring sculptures of temples bear testimony to the inner connection between Art and Religion. The Bible is the single most influential Book that shaped Western literature and Art just like the Indian Epics are the corner stones of Indian Arts. There was not even a single Book in the Arabic language until the Qur’an was revealed and it produced numerous poets and philosophers in its wake. Einstein, one of the greatest minds in human history openly expressed his wonder and excitement on reading Dostoevsky and he stated that Dostoevsky gave him more than any scientist, more than Gauss .What is left in his novels if we remove all references to God, Religion, Morality, Ethics and the human predicament ?The origin of Man was a sharp, abrupt ,painful and radical break from animal existence and it is longing for God, prayer, taboos, moral and ethical concerns, art and spirituality that make Man what he is.
Is it ever possible to resist all impulses and temptations to experience the Divine and to be oblivious of God? Is not denial of God denial of Man and a revolt against one’s own self?
Take all the classics in literature, poetry, painting, music, performance, frescos and murals and how many of them were really inspired by atheism? How many schools, colleges, hospitals, universities and charitable institutions are there founded, funded and run by atheists. Is it because of dearth of money and materials or is it because of the pitiless indifference and lack of inspiration? Most of the premier institutions, both in the west and the east, had humble beginning as religious seminaries that later flourished into finest universities in the world. In the heyday of Islamic civilization, centers of worship also functioned as centers of Learning and Healing.
Materialism generally played a more constructive role in the advancement of science and technology in post enlightenment Europe, and this progress emboldened and armed messianic political ideologies and racist enterprises that resulted in pogroms, genocide and ethnic cleansing. The trans-Atlantic slave trade, extermination of the indigenous population and subsequent colonization of Americas and Australia, opium wars and dehumanization of people of Africa and Asia all cast serious doubts both on the claim of Man’s altruistic nature and the humanistic pretensions of the secular West. Most of the Enlightenment thinkers from Voltaire to Pascal couldn’t hide their racist arrogance and many openly expressed their faith in the unique nature of their civilization and considered colonization a civilizing mission, a duty of the White Man, to spread so called enlightenment values. The worst fears of Dostoevsky were materialized when the secular West lost all moral restraint and orchestrated world wars, developed weapons of mass destruction and used them against populations whom they considered inferior to them.
Dostoevsky considered collapse of the belief in an Absolute Being to be the worst disaster in the history of mankind, consequently eliminating the belief in a real world. This leaves the human being with two alternatives. One is the hopeless and depressive state that is caused by believing that life has no meaning, all is in vain; the other, in the words of a hero in Dostoyevsky’s works, is “if there is no God, then God is I”; or, in other words, Nietzsche’s notion of “Now, I’ve got the power.” The twentieth century turned out to be the bloodiest in the history of mankind with countless wars and proxy wars under the tutelage and patronage of the secular west which were condoned and sanctified and continue to be glorified as just wars and lofty missions for the promotion of human values and virtues.
The centuries of slave trade, subjugation of other races and imperial onslaughts filled the coffers of the west with gold and resources that enabled them to perpetuate their control and domination both as hard military power and as a soft power of knowledge and learning and effectively cleaved the world into two unequal entities – a prosperous centre of the North consisting of Europe and US and an enfeebled periphery of the south consisting of Latin America, Africa and Asia and through an unfair fiscal system and the arms trade and unjust sanctions control over the periphery is perpetuated.
In short, the history of rise of western civilization is complex and variegated and the idea that secularization of a society and obliteration of religion from public life will herald progress in science and technology and will automatically create a humane and egalitarian society is a naive self deception at its best and dangerously misplaced at its worst.
For almost a millennium the Islamic community could play a leadership role in illuminating the world in every field of human endeavor, from science to art to mysticism without any conflict between faith and reason and without clash between religion and science and it was following the loss of Spain and many other factors that Muslims fell from grace and they lost control of their destiny and the last century witnessed the deliberate attempts made by the Muslim elites totally disconnected from the masses to enforce militant versions of secularism in different parts of the Muslim world and it only augmented misery and poverty and produced dysfunctional societies .Generally the leaders with heightened sensitivity to Islamic values have been more successful in energizing their constituencies towards a brighter future and making advancement in science and technology a fall back upon the values and ideals of Al -Andalusia.
Michael Hamilton Morgan’s ” Lost History; the enduring legacy of Muslim scientists, thinkers and artists ” painstakingly chronicles how Islam laid the foundation for the Renaissance of Europe, but paradoxically Muslim communities largely became victims of the ferocities of a rejuvenated west rather than being its beneficiaries. Let me quote Morgan “This author does not believe there was any inevitability to the rise of the west .Why did these societies that for centuries led the world in many areas and laid the foundation for the rise of European thought and science fall behind ?
” some were the result of sheer bad luck, and some the result of cultural evolution”
“The geography of Islam lies in the cradle of civilization…These same regions have turned into deserts over the millennia..
” the impact on the Muslim heartlands by the successive waves of central Asian invasions. gradually destroyed the centers of Muslim invention ,while central and western Europe were spared the devastation and disruption at the time….
” In the 17 the century, as European Nations began to colonize the Americas, they received a flood of overseas wealth that enabled them to also undertake colonial ventures in the Muslim world
” the world is changing once again. For every crisis spot, there is now a promising centre of innovation in the Muslim world…”
An important dimension is often missed when the concept of human progress is discussed. Just like Man is not linear, his progress is also not and there is a steady regression in the fields of Art, culture, religion and Philosophy. Science and technology is consistently progressing, our means of communication and mode of transport have improved beyond imagination and from astrophysics to biotechnology all branches of sciences are soaring to new heights and Man has moved from Stone Age to atomic age. But what about Art and culture? There is an unmistakable decline in the quality and nothing comparable to Indian epics or Greek tragedies is going to happen ever. Can we confidently state that the English Language is going to claim another Shakespeare or birth of another Rumi or Hafiz in Persian? Einstein is going to be challenged for sure, but Dostoevsky will remain unscathed and unmatched. This is the nature of science and Art.
Post Modern man is enjoying unprecedented wealth and comfort brought about by the progress in science and technology but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is happier than his predecessors. Theatre and Literature, a reflection of reality paint a pessimistic and nihilistic picture of Man whereas the folklore and murals of ancient communities are full of life and exuberance of joy despite their material poverty.
At the root of the chasm between religion and materialism is the question of Man’s place in the universe. The religious view is that Man has another dimension beyond his biological existence and his presence here is with a purpose and for a mission. To be responsible means to be free. Does man have freedom of choice and freewill or is it an illusion? Do we have an inner self capable of exercising freedom? Are we socially conditioned and biologically determined as materialist thinkers advocate? If we buy the argument that human behavior is biologically determined by neurotransmitters, chemicals, genes and mirror neurons its inevitable corollary is that our freedom is an illusion and this proposition raises serious ethical questions. If human beings have no Freewill and freedom of choice, by implication, we are precluded from the moral responsibility of our actions. Can someone be punished for a crime which he is programmed for? Any independent judiciary takes into consideration the degree of premeditation and intention to judge the seriousness of the crime .Where does the intention come from if we assume that there is no independent self and no free will? How can we say that one is culpable and punishable for a crime he commits over which he has no control? Doesn’t it mean that manipulation of gene, mirror neurons and the neurotransmitters the better solution for theft, rape and murder than judgment and punishment ? Recognizing the presence of an inner self exercising freedom and executing free-will makes us accountable for our deeds as well as our words and intentions, but recognition of inner self is the recognition of its author, God and denial of God is denial of Man and his free-will.
Man still remains unknown to the men of both science and religion and the correct balance between faith and reason is the way forward, but how to reach and maintain that dynamic balance is a challenge to everyone and every community…
Dr Jafer Ajanur Palaki is a medicine specialist at Department of Medicine, Wakra Hospital, Doha, Qatar.