18 November 2008

Milk and Sugar 

On the Pretext of Religious Intellectualism


"Abdulkarim Soroush"



It would appear that religious intellectualism has turned into a weight, otherwise they wouldn’t be sending their henchmen into the ring to knock it down. Recently, one of the knockers wrote a disquisition in which he likened religious intellectualism to three things in order to prove its impossibility to his own satisfaction. The three similes were: 1. An eight-sided triangle; 2. Woollen steel; 3. Metallic sour-grape juice.

The first simile was a shabby imitation of the squared circle or circular square, which dejectedly hobbled away a few years ago scarcely after making its debut - much to the disappointment of its ringmasters. But metallic sour-grape juice was, in all fairness, of much stronger mettle. It encapsulated the kind of flair and talent that’s only possessed by ‘poets of dire times’ which endures and shrivels into a raisin before souring, and, then, springs shoots anew in ‘ruddy times’, with rejuvenated vigour and grace.

But the present piece is not a critique of sour-grape philosophers or a defence of religious intellectualism, which needs no defence or argumentation. Here, religious intellectualism is only a pretext for a philosophical discussion about how we can determine whether something is possible or impossible. In science, the situation is clear: Any occurrence that contravenes confirmed scientific laws is impossible. For example, scientists cannot believe in the possibility of an occurrence in which the principle of the conservation of matter or the principle of the conservation of energy is contravened. But what about philosophy? Can we, on the basis of a priori, metaphysical laws, say that this or that event is impossible; and, hence, that we mustn’t expect it and must promptly deny it if it ever happens? We don’t have to look very far for an example: Can the phenomenon known as religious intellectualism be declared impossible on the basis of a priori principles? Can it, in effect, be removed from the realm of possibilities with the assertion that it is a contradiction in terms? And is it basically possible to make an empirical ruling about it or not? I’m not concerned with the ‘reasoning’ of the gainsayers for the moment. In fact, all they’ve done is to present similes, which is neither argumentation nor validation. If we change the simile, we obtain a different result. Why shouldn’t we say that intellectualism and religion are like milk and sugar; different but combinable. And when they combine, they produce a delightful concoction and composite. A simile can always be knocked down with another simile. And this suffices to disprove the assertions of the deniers and the sneering. But the important point for us now is to see whether we can say that an external event has not occurred and cannot occur on the basis of a philosophical, a priori argument.

The problem can be formulated in another way. We can ask: Can philosophy do the job of science? Can a priori principles give birth to a posteriori principles and laws? Can appealing to phenomena’s essences or natures (assuming that they can be grasped and identified) make us unneedful of experience? Let me give an example. Philosophy maintains that every event has a cause. Can we conclude on the basis of this a priori law that aspirin cures headaches or that smoking causes cancer or that being totally submerged in water makes a person drown? The answer is so obvious that we don’t even need to articulate it. Although the principle of cause and effect governs those scientific laws, it does not engender them. In other words, although each of those scientific laws is an instantiation of the philosophical law of cause and effect, they’re not born out of it and the discovery of each one of them requires recurrent experience.

Another example: Let us imagine that we’ve somehow discovered and defined water’s essence and nature (assuming that this can be done and actually means something). Can we - having identified water’s essence - know a priori that table salt dissolves in water whereas barium sulphate doesn’t? Can we know that iron sinks in water whereas wood doesn’t? If we’ve grasped the ‘essence and nature’ of gravity in our imagination, can we extrapolate from it that bodies attract with a force that’s inversely proportional to the square of their distances (Newton’s Law)? There’s no end to examples of this kind for us to marshal. And they all clearly tell us that philosophy cannot determine particular instances and that empirical laws have their own method of discovery and justification; viz., experience and nothing but experience. This point, which manifests itself so clearly in the realm of ‘natural studies’, still has repudiators and opponents in the realm of ‘human and social studies’. Some people still imagine or pretend that they can arrive at empirical rulings by referring to the nature of human affairs, and that they can, in this way, explain the present and future of some human events and phenomena and unravel the tale of their possibility or impossibility. Of course, here, too, the extent of their daring (nay, impudence) depends on the extent to which the relevant area is ‘scientific’. Economics, which is more ‘scientific’, is more likely to rob them of courage. Hardly anyone would dare nowadays to claim that by recognizing ‘the essence of money’, they can explain how markets behave and arrive at the laws of global capitalism in an a priori way and merely on the basis of logic, with no recourse to experience or mathematics. But the essence-peddlers seem to be much bolder and loquacious in the realm of culture, civilization and history. Bloated with philosophical pride, they stride along haughtily and try to intimidate experience, and they boast that they’ve travelled to the four corners of ‘essence’ while everyone else is still hopelessly stuck in the alleyway of experience. They speak so confidently of the nature of the West, the essence of intellectualism, the nature of technology and the kernel of religion that you’d think the truth of the entire cosmos had bared itself unreservedly to them. If their boldness ended here, there’d be nothing to fear; after all, everyone is free to dream their dreams. The tragedy and misfortune lies in the fact that they step beyond their field of dreams and superimpose their imaginings onto reality. Since, in their imagination, the essence of intellectualism cannot be combined with the essence of religion, they conclude that the two cannot be combined in the external world either. Nothing could be more astounding, more daring and more idealistic: considering the world to be a mirror - nay, a servant - of one’s illusions and arriving at the forms and attributes of phenomena without ever having troubled oneself with research and experience: since this is our impression (in our minds) of the essence of intellectualism, the world has to comply with our essence-ology! Instead of first asking the world (for, experiences are effectively questions) whether combining intellectualism and religiosity is possible or not, they give the world a stern lesson and say: Don’t you dare combine them, for, it is impossible! It brings to mind the naïve and dreamy philosopher who’d never heard of glass and who insisted that ‘the essence of matter’ is darkness and opaqueness. And when they showed him glass in order to shatter his illusions, he still wouldn’t budge and said: This isn’t matter; this is of the nature of spirits!

There is also the tale of the late Haj Molla Hadi Sabzevari, the great philosopher who (legend has it) said: Photography doesn’t comply with our laws, so it’s impossible, because accidentals would have to be transferred when you take photographs and accidentals cannot be transferred!

There is also a similar story about the King of Siam (Thailand). It’s been said that, one day, the King of Siam was speaking to the Dutch ambassador and asking him to describe his country. The Dutch ambassador said, among other things, that, for several months of the year, water hardens (freezes) in our land. The King replied: Up to now, I was more or less prepared to believe that you’re an honest man but now I know that you’re a liar. How can something that’s liquid and fluid by its very nature and essence harden and solidify? Similarly, we can recall the essentialist remarks of those who insisted that there’s no such thing as an Islamic revolution, because a revolution cannot be Islamic. Let them open their eyes now and see an Islamic revolution.

The same kinds of things were said about ‘Islamic philosophy’, but what did they all come to and which Muslim philosopher did they prevent from producing Islamic philosophy? The idea that ‘philosophy is essentially Greek’ - even if it actually means something (which it doesn’t) - never prevented philosophy from becoming Islamic or Christian. This means that ‘essences’ are not afraid of intermingling in the external world even if the essentialists consider them antagonistic opposites that can never intermingle in their constricted imaginings.

We must ask experience - not essence - to tell us about the external dispositions and rulings of ‘essences’. To put it in the language of Islamic philosophy, the rulings of existence are different from the rulings of essence, and confusing the two is a fallacy. This is a very profound and wise point. Milk and sugar are two essences, which, as long as they reside in the mind, are independent and separate, and there is no telling how they will behave in the external world and what will become of them. And the dreamers may well issue fatwas about their eternal separateness, as they may do with water and fire. It is experience - and nothing but experience - that can reveal the friendship between milk and sugar, and the enmity between water and fire.

If the real world obeyed the essentialists’ imaginings, no change or combination or evolution would ever occur in it. Each essence would, instead, be like a monk in an isolated monastery who never sees others and who never becomes other than he is. Intellectualism would forever remain what it was at first (because its essence always stays the same); as would religion and the West and modernity and technology, and so on and so forth. And development would basically become impossible and unimaginable. The world would turn into closed, fixed windows which neither move nor open and close. It’s no wonder, then, that these essentialists believe that intellectualism is a window that’s closed to religion and that religion is a window that’s closed to intellectualism; as if, neither intellectualism nor religion can ever budge. They are always the same fixed essences that they’ve always been. Instead of asking the external world whether these two things can ever join up or not, the essentialists peer into the mirror of their essences and issue an edict - regardless of reality - that they must remain apart for all eternity.

One of these dreamers once said that the nature of the West, which is arrogance and carnality, can be found in all the novels that are written in the West. So, I asked him: Have you read all the novels that have been written in the West? What about all the novels that are going to be written two centuries from now? How do you know what’s in them and what’s going to be in them? But I could see that my questions were futile and that union with the realm of essence had made him unneedful of referring to the external world and exercising caution in issuing judgments about things.

In brief, essentialism is conjoined with a belief in fixity and rigidity. And none of these things is capable of explaining the development, evolution, transformation and combination of phenomena. And they are too feeble and ineffective to be used for explaining social phenomena; so much the more so for natural phenomena, which flew this coop long ago.

The fact of the matter is that neither intellectualism nor the West nor modernity nor technology nor religiosity nor tradition, etc. have fixed essences. Their destinies and fortunes have to be viewed in the real world and over the course of history, not by peering into the mirror of essence. Hence, the question of whether a marriage and an intermingling is possible or impossible can only be asked of ‘the objective world’ not of ‘the mind’.

If we set aside clear contradictions (which belong to the realm of propositions), we can say that judging what things are opposites is also an empirical question. We cannot say a priori which attributes are opposites and which ones are not. Mulla Sadra was unambiguously of the view that opposition depends on setting and subject (or, as we would say nowadays, ‘context-dependent’). In other words, he maintained that the opposition of two opposites is not absolute, does not hold everywhere and is not a rational imperative; but that it depends on where the two opposed attributes meet. Sometimes, this meeting is possible; sometimes, not. And he suggested that the stronger a person’s character is, the more able he is to combine opposites. In other words, attributes that cannot coexist in matter, can occasionally coexist in a soul and this shows that the opposition of opposites is not absolute. If this is the case, then why should we be so bold, hasty and rash as to declare changeable phenomena opposites for all eternity?

Sheykh Attar wrote: ‘A body becomes a soul when a soul enters a body / Could anyone spin a more wondrous spell than this?’

In the realm of theory and with a view to essences, no two things are as disparate as body and soul. But these two very disparate things exist in a tight embrace for a whole lifetime and it is only death that can break this ‘wondrous spell’. Can religiosity entering intellectualism be even stranger than a soul entering a body?

Yes, the real world is a world of wonders; marriages and divorces unfold on its stage of which there’s no sign in the crude scenarios of fantasists. ‘The times unravel a thousand designs, not one of which / matches the ones that are in the mirrors of our minds.’

They say: This or that phenomenon is contradictory, so it won’t occur. They don’t say: It has occurred, so it can’t be contradictory. More wondrous still is that these same knockers who ‘flexed their muscles of argumentation’ for the sake of a pittance and waxed lyrical about how the Islamic Republic’s idea of religious ‘guardianship’ was ‘Platonic’, and happily issued gainful rulings about the combination of these two ‘uncontradictory’ concepts, have today arrived at the conclusion that intellectualism and religiosity are contradictory! So, the guardianship of a Shi’i jurist can be Platonic but intellectualism cannot be religious?! O wonder of wonders! People have produced artificial intelligence and electronic brains and they’re even planning to build robotic human beings, but our friends are still muttering ‘essence, essence’ in a bid to decide whether it is possible to combine these things or not!

Let me also say a word about those similes. As I said, similes don’t constitute argumentation; a simple change of simile will change the outcome. We can make something appear possible by using one simile and make the same thing appear impossible by using another simile. We can say that religious intellectualism is like metallic sour-grape juice or we can say that it is like lemon squash. And, of course, the choice of simile depends on one’s flair and talent (which is very strong in some people!), as well as depending on one’s fair-mindedness (which is also, in all fairness, very strong in some people). But the main point is that the repudiators’ similes that we began with - in addition to not amounting to argumentation - have been based on a misunderstanding of the problem. They have assumed that, when two things are combined or when something is qualified with an adjective, the thing turns into another thing while, at the same time, preserving its identity. And they have given examples to show that this is impossible. Correct. Not only is it impossible for a triangle to become eight-sided, it is even impossible for milk to turn into sugar while continuing to be milk. And so on and so forth. Intellectualism cannot turn into religion and religion cannot turn into intellectualism. Yes, but milk can become sugary, just as intellectualism can become religious. It’s a question of ‘qualification’ (the possibility or impossibility of which has to be asked from the external world and from experience), not on the basis of a transformation of essence which (according to philosophers) is impossible.

Apart from all this, intellectualism is not a closed little box about which we can speak in ambiguous and mysterious terms and the fate of which we can extract from such things as the essential and the accidental, and the potential and the actual, which are themselves a hundred times more ambiguous than intellectualism and religion. Religious intellectualism consists of an aggregate of big and small assertions and propositions, which need to be grappled with individually if they are to be shown to be true or false on the basis of argumentation. Sitting in a corner, issuing wholesale judgments, chanting abracadabras, appealing to kernel and essence, and longing for quiddities to murder one’s rivals is not a laudable way to behave.

The wooden blade of ‘Westoxication’ has become even more dull and ineffective than all of their other methods. Even if it once had a bit of edge and could make a few timid souls tremble, today it has neither the charm to rob any hearts, nor the strength to cut off any heads. And how strange it is that they still try to solve their problems by brandishing this wretch and beg for assistance and strength from a languishing wreck.

These days, some of the professors who have the task of teaching the human ‘sciences’ (i.e., theories that rise from experience and fall with by experience), unfortunately behave like philosophers and present students with non-empirical, a priori, metaphysical and, occasionally, anti-scientific statements in the guise of science. Neither science nor philosophy can emerge from such lessons. All that they produce is a heap of pompous, futile phrases which offer no solutions to any problems, either in society or in people’s minds. And if they have any outcome at all, it is to keep the social sciences backwards; nothing else. I advise university students not to purchase these fake goods; and not to be intimidated by the chatter of essence-peddlers; and not to exchange science with pseudo-scientific philosophies; and not to fall for ‘post-modernist Sufis’ who denigrate science and bring shame to scientists; and to seek refuge in science from their sham theories.

It goes without saying that I feel no animosity towards essences and have no quarrel with metaphysics. All I want is for lovers of learning not to put a priori philosophy in the place of a posteriori science; and not to ask philosophy to do the job of science; and not to impose fixity and rigidity on minds and the world in the name of essence and nature; and not to shut the door to change and evolution; and not to lock up phenomena in the cage of essences; and not to rob them of historicity and changeability; and not to reduce the sphere of possibilities to the sphere of their imagination; and not to declare impossible things that are possible; and not to weigh down thinking with their own illusions; so that they can both attain truer learning and avoid falling into the kind of lamentable torpour that the world does not abide.

Abdulkarim Soroush
February 2008

Translated from the Persian by Nilou Mobasser







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