Scientism versus integrated learning

  • IKIM Views
  • Tuesday, 05 Jun 2018

BLAISE Pascal was a 17th century French mathematician, scientist and inventor. As a mathematician, he wrote on the subjects of projective geometry, probability theory and differential calculus.

As a scientist, he made significant contributions to the study of fluids and the explanation of the concepts of atmospheric pressure and ­vacuum. He was a pioneering inventor of the mechanical calculator, baro­meter and syringe.

However, he strongly opposed scientism, which is the fallacy of believing that the method of science must be employed in all forms of human experience. Scientism also proposes that natural sciences, given time, will solve every issue faced by humanity.

Pascal was convinced that in order to save humanity from ­scientism, there must be a proper appreciation of two basic types of thinking: the geometrical mind (esprit géométrique) and the intuitive mind (esprit de finesse).

While in essence the human mind remains one, a balance must be struck between these two contrasting directions the mind can take.

It must be noted that in Islamic tradition, as represented for instance by Ibn al-‘Arabi, al-Sha‘rani and al-Zabidi, there are three levels of knowledge: knowledge of the intellect (‘ilm al-‘aql), knowledge of the states (‘ilm al-ahwal) and know­ledge of the secrets (‘ilm al-asrar).

Knowledge of the intellect is whatever knowledge a person obtains either “necessarily” or “in origination from his thinking”.

Knowledge obtained necessarily refers to the most basic, intrinsic logical grounds of all reasoning, in which something is known imme­diately “of necessity” (daruratan), such as the principle of non-contradiction. It further refers to things that are self-evidently known (badihatan) in such a way that they cannot possibly be refuted or rejected, such as one being the half of two.

In the second case of thinking-­originated knowledge, a thing is known as a result of a person’s mental inquiry (nazar) concerning evidence or proof (dalil) – provided that he discovers the probative aspect (‘uthur) of that evidence.

The emphasis in this level is on the discursive mental processes of conceptual thinking (al-fikr) and mental inquiry, which can lead to all sorts of errors. That is why philosophers say some of the arguments about ­rational speculation are sound (sahih) and some are invalid (fasid).

The second level of knowledge, ‘ilm al-ahwal, refers to knowledge of the state, condition or case of a thing. Examples include knowledge of the sweetness of honey, the bitterness of aloes, the pleasure of sexual intercourse, of excessive love (‘ishq), spiritual inner agitation (wajd) and passionate longing (shawq).

Such objects are known – and their knower is characterised as knowing them – only by savouring or tasting (dhawq), which is an experience directly known and ­verified. Otherwise, none can be said to have such knowledge.

A rational person, for example, can know it neither by mere definition (hudud) nor by establishing conceptual proof.

The fact that this knowledge is a direct, experiential knowledge means it is impossible to be known in its real sense merely through verbal transmission or report, however extended the verbal discourses may be.

In fact, an extensive explanation on this knowledge would only distort it. It is simply not possible for its taster to cause a non-taster to obtain it.

However, if at all there is any need to express it in a verbal manner (ta‘bir) – such as the need to instruct other person in this kind of knowledge – it would be sufficient to talk about it by employing an allusion that points to what the knower has really savoured or felt.

Error of the knowledge of states among “people of tasting” (ahl al-dhawq) may be illustrated in the case of a person whose organs of taste are overcome by yellow bile, so much so that honey tastes bitter to him; what actually touches the organs of taste is the yellow bile and not the honey.

The third level of knowledge is ‘ilm al-asrar, which means know­ledge of the secrets of things that are bestowed by Allah to true prophets and saints.

Ibn al-‘Arabi points out that this is the knowledge that transcends the limit of knowledge attained by discursive thinking. This level of knowledge has been referred to by the Prophet Muhammad as the knowledge of “the inbreathing of the Holy Spirit (that is, the Arch­angel Gabriel) in the heart”, a tradition cited by Dutch scholar Arent Jan Wensinck in his Concordance et indices de la tradition musulmane.

This writer cannot stress it enough: knowledge of the secrets is peculiar and privy to true prophets and genuine saints only.

Three examples of knowledge of the secrets are the Prophet’s metaphysical statement that “Allah was, and nothing was with Him”; the Prophet’s saying with regard to the Day of Resurrection that “there is a pool in it sweeter than honey”; and God’s information to the Prophet on the actual existence of the Garden of Paradise and what is in it.

The ones who know “the know­ledge of secrets” – the prophets and saints – are the wise people, who know and comprehend all know­ledge such as the divine, natural, mathematical and logical sciences.

“Hence,” states Ibn al-‘Arabi, “there is no knowledge nobler than this ‘all-encompassing knowledge’, which comprises the entirety of knowable things (al-hawi ‘ala jami‘ al-ma‘lumat).”

Dr Mohd Sani Badron is principal fellow/director of the Centre for Economics and Social Studies, Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (Ikim). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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