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Science and Revelations

If it is modern science which has created the abnormal and deceiving conditions which afflict youth today, that is because this science is itself abnormal and deceiving. No doubt it will be said that man is not responsible for his nihilism, that it is science which has slain the gods, but this is an avowal of intellectual impotence, not a title of glory, since anyone of who knows what the gods signify will not let himself be carried away by discoveries in the physical realm - which merely displace sensory symbols, but do not abolish them - and still less by gratuitous hypotheses and the errors of psychologists. Even if we know that space is an eternal night sheltering galaxies and nebulae, the sky will still stretch blue above us and symbolize the realm of angels and of Bliss. [Understanding Islam, p. 112].

Some people say that science has long since shown up the inconsistency of the Revelations, which arise - as they would argue - from our inveterate nostalgia as timid and unsatisfied earthlings [and incurably stupid earthlings, we would add, were this hypothesis true]. ...

Imagine a radiant summer sky and imagine simple folk who gaze at it projecting into it their dream of the beyond; now suppose that it were possible to transport these simple folk into the dark and freezing abyss of the galaxies and nebulae with its overwhelming silence. In this abyss all too many of them would lose their faith, and this is precisely what happens as a result of modern science both to the learned and to the victims of popularization.

What most men do not know - and if they could know it, why should they be called on to believe it? - is that this blue sky, though illusory as an optical error and belied by the vision of interplanetary space, is none the less an adequate reflection of the heaven of the angels and of the blessed and that therefore despite everything it is this blue mirage, flecked with silver clouds, which was right and will have the final say; to be astonished at this amounts to admitting that it is by chance that we are here on earth and see the sky as we do. Of course the black abyss of the galaxies also reflects something, but the symbolism is then shifted and it is no longer a question of the heaven of angels.

But what we would chiefly emphasize here is the error of believing that by the mere fact of its objective content 'science' possesses the power and the right to destroy myths and religions and that it is some kind of higher experience, which kills gods and beliefs; in reality it is human incapacity to understand unexpected phenomena or to resolve certain seeming antinomies which is smothering truth and dehumanizing the world. [Understanding Islam, p. 114-115].

It is precisely the scientia sacra which enables us to grasp that this 'faith' is right and that 'children' are not wrong when they pray turning to the blue sky, though in another fashion grace too enables us to grasp this. But nothing is possible apart from divine aid, the tawfiq on which Sufis insist, so that higher intelligence is not of itself a sufficient guarantee in what concerns our final goal.

Modem science, as it plunges dizzily downwards, its speed increasing in geometrical progression towards an abyss into which it hurtles like a vehicle without brakes, is another example of that loss of the "spatial" equilibrium characteristic of contemplative and still stable civilizations. This criticism of modem science - and it is by no means the first ever to be made - is made not on the grounds that it studies some fragmentary field within the limits of its competence, but on the grounds that it claims to be in a position to attain to total knowledge, and that it ventures conclusions in fields accessible only to a supra-sensible and truly intellective wisdom, the existence of which it refuses on principle to admit.

In other words, the foundations of modem science are false because, from the "subject" point of view, it replaces Intellect and Revelation by reason and experiment, as if it were not contradictory to lay claim to totality on an empirical basis; and its foundations are false too because, from the "object" point of view, it replaces the universal Substance by matter alone, either denying the universal Principle or reducing it to matter or to some kind of pseudo-absolute from which all transcendence has been eliminated.

In all epochs and in all countries there have been revelations, religions, wisdoms; tradition is a part of mankind, just as man is a part of tradition. Revelation is in one sense the infallible intellection of the total collectivity, in so far as this collectivity has providentially become the receptacle of a manifestation of the universal Intellect. The source of this intellection is not of course the collectivity as such, but the universal or divine Intellect in so far as it adapts itself to the conditions prevailing in a particular intellectual or moral collectivity, whether it be a case of an ethnic group or of one determined by more or less distinctive mental conditions.

To say that Revelation is "supernatural" does not mean that it is contrary to nature in so far as nature can be taken to represent, by extension, all that is possible on any given level of reality, it means that Revelation does not originate at the level to which, rightly or wrongly, the epithet "natural" is normally applied. This "natural" level is precisely that of physical causes, and hence of sensory and psychic phenomena considered in relation to those causes.

If there are no grounds for finding fault with modem science in so far as it studies a realm within the limits of its competence - the precision and effectiveness of its results leave no room for doubt on this point - one must add this important reservation, namely, that the principle, the range and the development of a science or an art is never independent of Revelation nor of the demands of spiritual life, not forgetting those of social equilibrium; it is absurd to claim unlimited rights for something in itself contingent, such as science or art. By refusing to admit any possibility of serious knowledge outside its own domain, modem science, as has already been said, claims exclusive and total knowledge, while making itself out to be empirical and non-dogmatic, and this, it must be insisted, involves a flagrant contradiction; a rejection of all "dogmatism" and of everything that must be accepted a priori or not at all is simply a failure to make use of the whole of one's intelligence.

Science is supposed to inform us not only about what is in space but also about what is in time. As for the first-named category of knowledge, no one denies that Western science has accumulated an enormous quantity of observations, but as for the second category, which ought to reveal to us what the abysses of duration hold, science is more ignorant than any Siberian shaman, who can at least relate his ideas to a mythology, and thus to an adequate symbolism. There is of course a gap between the physical knowledge - necessarily restricted - of a primitive hunter and that of a modem physicist; but measured against the extent of knowable things, that gap is a mere milliliter.

Nevertheless, the very precision of modern science, or of certain of its branches, has become seriously threatened, and from a wholly unforeseen direction, by the intrusion of psychoanalysis, not to mention that of "surrealism" and other systematizations of the irrational; or again by the intrusion of existentialism, which indeed belongs strictly speaking not so much to the domain of the irrational as to that of the unintelligent.

A rationality that claims self-sufficiency cannot fail to provoke such interferences, at any rate at its vulnerable points such as psychology or the psychological-or "psychologizing" interpretation of phenomena which are by definition beyond its reach.

It is not surprising that a science arising out of the fall -- or one of the falls-- and out of an illusory rediscovery of the sensory world should also be a science of nothing but the sensory (1), or what is virtually sensory, and that it should deny everything which surpasses that domain, thereby denying God, the next world and the soul (2), and this presupposes a denial of the pure Intellect, which alone is capable of knowing everything that modern science rejects. For the same reasons it also denies Revelation, which alone rebuilds the bridge broken by the fall.

According to the observations of experimental science, the blue sky which stretches above us is not a world of bliss, but an optical illusion due to the refraction of light by the atmosphere, and from this point of view, it is obviously right to maintain that the home of the blessed does not lie up there. Nevertheless it would be a great mistake to assert that the association of ideas between the visible heaven and celestial Paradise does not arise from the nature of things, but rather from ignorance and ingenuousness mixed with imagination and sentimentality; for the blue sky is a direct and therefore adequate symbol of the higher and supra-sensory degrees of Existence; it is indeed a distant reverberation of those degrees, and it is necessarily so since it is truly a symbol, consecrated by the sacred Scriptures and by the unanimous intuition of peoples.

A symbol (3) is intrinsically so concrete and so efficacious that celestial manifestations, when they occur in our sensory world, "descend" to earth and "reascend" to Heaven; a symbolism accessible to the senses takes on the function of the supra-sensible reality which its reflects. Light-years and the relativity of the space-time relationship have absolutely nothing to do with the perfectly "exact" and "positive" symbolism of appearances and its connection at once analogical and ontological with the celestial or angelic orders...

(1) This distinction is necessary to meet the objection that science operates with elements inaccessible to our senses.
(2) Not all scientists deny these realities, but science denies them, and that is quite a different thing.
(3) The word "symbol" implies "participation" or "aspect", whatever the difference of level may be involved.

One of the effects of modern science has been to give religion a mortal wound, by posing in concrete terms problems which only esoterism can resolve; but these problems remain unresolved, because esoterism. is not listened to, and is listened to less now than ever. Faced by these new problems, religion is disarmed, and it borrows clumsily and gropingly the arguments of the enemy; it is thus compelled to falsify by imperceptible degrees its own perspective, and more and more to disavow itself. Its doctrine, it is true, is not affected, but the false opinions borrowed from its repudiators corrode it cunningly "from within"; witness, for example, modernist exegesis, the demagogic leveling down of the liturgy, the Darwinism of Teilhard de Chardin, the "worker-priests", and a "sacred art" obedient to surrealist and "abstract" influences.

Scientific discoveries prove nothing to contradict the traditional positions of religion, of course, but there is no one at hand to point this out; too many "believers" consider, on the contrary, that it is time that religion "shook off the dust of the centuries", which amounts to saying, that it should "liberate" itself from its very essence and from everything which manifests that essence. The absence of metaphysical or esoteric knowledge on the one hand, and the suggestive force emanating from scientific discoveries as well as from collective psychoses on the other, make religion an almost defenseless victim, a victim that even refuses more often than not to make use of the arguments at its disposal.

It would nevertheless be easy, instead of slipping into the errors of others, to demonstrate that a world fabricated by scientific influences tends everywhere to turn ends into means and means into ends, and that it results either in a mystique of envy, bitterness and hatred, or in a complacent shallow materialism destructive of qualitative distinctions. It could be demonstrated too that science, although in itself neutral - for facts are facts - is none the less a seed of corruption and annihilation in the hands of man, who in general has not enough knowledge of the underlying nature of Existence to be able to integrate - and thereby to neutralize - the facts of science in a total view of the world; that the philosophical consequences of science imply fundamental contradictions; and that man has never been so ill-known and so misinterpreted as from the moment when he was subjected to the "X-rays" of a psychology founded on postulates that are radically false and contrary to his nature.

Modem science represents itself in the world as the principal, or as the only purveyor of truth; according to this style of certainty to know Charlemagne is to know his brain-weight and how tall he was. From the point of view of total truth let it be said once more - it is a thousand times better to believe that God created this world in six days and that the world beyond lies beneath the flat surface of the earth or in the spinning heavens, than it is to know the distance from one nebula to another without knowing that phenomena merely serve to manifest a transcendent Reality which determines us in every respect and gives to our human condition its whole meaning and its whole content.

The great traditions moreover aware that a promethean knowledge must lead to the loss of the essential and saving truth, have never prescribed nor encouraged any such accumulating of wholly external items of knowledge, for it is in fact mortal to man. It is currently asserted that such and such a scientific achievement "does honour to the human race", together with other futilities of the same kind, as if man could do honour to his nature otherwise than by surpassing himself, and as if he could surpass himself except in a consciousness of the absolute and in sanctity.

In the opinion of most men today, experimental science is justified by its results, which are in fact dazzling from a certain fragmentary point of view, but one readily loses sight not only of the decided predominance of bad results over good, but also of the spiritual devastation inherent in the scientific outlook, a priori and by its very nature, a devastation which its positive results - always external and partial can never compensate. In any event, it savours of temerity in these days to dare to recall the most forgotten of Christ's sayings: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Mark viii. 36) [Light on the Ancient Worlds, 34-38].