“…for the time being I gave up writing~there is already too much truth in the world~an over-production which apparently cannot which be consumed!” ~Otto Rank, taken from Ernest Becker‘s book The Denial of Death
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
This entry is written in the spirit of Socratic dialogue and inquiry. I pray all who read this entry will bear my intentions in mind, insha’Allah. I mean not to offend, but to engage.
This past summer, I decided to go back to graduate school to continue my studies in nuclear engineering. (Yes, I am a nuclear engineer. And yes, I am a Muslim. Does that scare you? It shouldn’t. And no, I don’t intend to work for Iran. And yes, Black people, believe it or not, can be nuclear engineers.) But I made that decision after much deliberation, much soul-searching and agonizing, and much praying. From an existential prospective, it was a very difficult decision to make. Why? Because, like Otto Rank, I didn’t want to feed the system, so to speak. I didn’t want to become part of the problem. This blog entry is sourced at my existential angst over this situation.
We all know the famous adage scientia potentia est, “knowledge is power.” We are all also well acquainted with another famous adage, “absolute power corrupts absolutely” or its more subtle formulation promulgated my all time favorite science writer Frank Herbert, “absolute power attracts those most susceptible to corruption.” Since, in mathematical parlance, knowledge equals power, we should then be able to apply the law of substitution we learned back in Algebra class and substitute, “power” for “knowledge” in the second adage, which yields, “absolute knowledge corrupts absolutely” or “absolute knowledge attracts the those most susceptible to corruption.” Does this make any sense whatsoever? At a glance, probably not. Just wait. I’m getting somewhere with this. Hear (or read) me out.
I would like to pose a series of questions, which, as is often the case for me, I don’t believe I even have the qualifications to answer myself. Despite this shortcoming of mine, I feel merely asking the right question, in most cases, is the initial step needed to actually 1) discover even if a problem exists and 2) formulate a plausible solution to said problem. Just as above, consider the famous aphorism, “too much a good thing can become bad.” Most of us, I hope, would readily agree with this axiom as it relates to material objects or hedonistic pursuits: too much wealth, too many cars, too much fun, too much food and drink, too much sex, etc. But what about knowledge? Does this apply to the production of knowledge? Has the rate of knowledge production become excessive?
In other words, relating these questions to the constructions laid out in the first paragraph, has our quest for omniscience, and hence omnipotence, corrupted our sensibilities towards knowledge, effectively denigrating it into something akin to a material commodity, like something you find a store, like something you could easily accumulate excesses of? “The end of man,” says Robert Penn Warren is his book All the Kings Men, “is to know.” But can there really be too much knowledge in world? Is it possible for us to know too much? Consequently, I find Warren’s choice of words interesting and ironic since the word “end” has two primary meanings, “purpose” and “finality.”
What’s my take on it? (This is my blog after all). I truly believe our enterprise to dethrone God with vast amounts of materialistic scientific inquiries (keyword: materialistic) and academic publications has relegated knowledge, something which was so highly esteemed by the Prophet صلى الله عليه, to an inferior station occupied by material things. Thanks to the pseudo-privatization of our educational institutions by companies, we now speak of attaining a degree, of authoring the next masterpiece of literature, of performing the next ground breaking experimentation as something which a child could pick up in a candle aisle at Wal-Mart. I’m sure you’ve seen in the commercials, “Come to such-and-such university, get your degree in such-and such, become such-and-such,” as if the process of self-amelioration and self-refinement were that simple.
In fact, when I think of the state of academia as a whole, I feel my beliefs are vindicated. When I consider the depreciation of the social sciences (psychology, sociology, linguistics, anthropology, the so-called “soft sciences”) and the humanities (philosophy, literature, the arts in general) and the elevation of the so-called “hard” or natural sciences (chemistry, biology, physics, genetics) and applied sciences (engineering, medicine, pharmacy), I can’t help but to think I’m on to something. In this pursuit to supplant Allah سبحانه وتعالى, to become gods ourselves, it seems we are losing ourselves. It’s no coincidence that you can’t say the word “humanities” without the word “human;” they were once the vessels through which our humanity, that which makes us human beings, sailed through the fabric of space-time. Now, they hardly have a place in universities; they no longer tell our stories. Lack of funding has desiccated them to a state of oblivion, and the more lucrative “hard” sciences and applied sciences (thanks a lot to military research spending, Military Keynesianism at its finest) have superseded them. Instead of descending from Higher Forces or the Great Spirit, we now ascend from slime and monkeys (not that monkeys and slime are bad). It’s also no coincidence that Allah سبحانه وتعالى says, in the Noble Qur’an, “…and be not like those who are oblivious of God, and whom He therefore causes to be oblivious of (what is good for) their own selves: (for) it is they, they who are truly depraved! [59:19]”
This problem evinces itself clearly when I think of Muslims. What do I mean? For us, one issue that perturbs this problem is the insistence on the part of Muslims to seek knowledge, which is in and of itself is a good thing, while not impugning the continuation of the materialistic paradigm disseminated by the Enlightenment tradition of constructing a dichotomous separation of knowledge into the profane or secular and the sacred. God has His place, the world has its place, and it’s best not to conflate the two. There’s “scared” knowledge, there’s “secular” or “dunya” (the temporal, physical world and its earthly concerns and possessions) knowledge: one will get you the akhirah (the eternal spiritual realm or the hereafter) and the other won’t. Simple as that.
I have never agreed with this approach. Should it not be for the religious that God should occupy all spheres of being? To me, it doesn’t make any sense for our religious leaders, well-intentioned though they may be, to inculcate the virtues of the pursuing of knowledge without first questioning the legitimacy of our current paradigm. How can we, as religious people who believe in the al-ghayb (“what is beyond the norms human perception”), do battle against materialism when we tacitly accept the notion that knowledge itself can be bifurcated along secular lines?! The outcome is already decided even before the battle begins! And thus we Muslims fall prey to same excesses of knowledge in the service of materialistic production since we never challenged the system in the first place! As one my favorite living philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, says, we have to be willing to ask more fundamental questions about systems which govern our lives, be willing to redefine the problems, and be willing to look at problems in a different light, especially when it comes to the role of education and problem solving.
Hopefully, my formulations now seem more reasonable. Great, but if this is indeed the case, then what’s the solution? If we are indeed in a rut, how do we get ourselves out of it? Enter another one of my favorite living philosophers, Huston Smith.
his interview with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove about the book, Smith makes the point that the expansion of knowledge of the world of nature has actually lead to a contraction of the world of meaning and values: as we expand our knowledge of the physical world horizontally, our understanding of the realms of being and value contracts vertically. “It’s almost as though,” he states in his interview with Mishlove, “we have pulled the shade down on the realms of being that our forefathers believed in implicitly, but we have shut them out simply because our honored way of knowing in the modern world~namely, the scientific method~has no way of getting at those realms of worth.” He suggests that we might be able to overcome this problem if we employ knowledge, science in this case, in service of higher principles instead of it being obsequious to the whims of materialism. In this way, we can both acknowledge the good that scientific inquiry can produce while still leaving open the necessary doors needed to examine our values and principles, something which science simply can not do.In his book Beyond the Postmodern Mind and
Huston Smith, along with others of his ilk like the prolific writer and intellectual Seyyed Hossein Nasr, also provided a sensible alternative to materialism, the Perennial Philosophy. (I seemed to be obsessed with the word “perennial”). To be quite honest, I don’t quite understand all of its premises. I moreover don’t think a mere blog entry from an amateur (and I mean, real amateur) philosopher like myself would do it justice anyway even if I did. But basically, as I understand it, the Perennial Philosophy suggests that all major religions have a perennial quality about them, and as such have carried similar veins of truth in various forms throughout the ages. Now what this does is it allows for a frame of mind that can not only accept a plurality of religious manifestations but it also makes room for religion and spirituality in the mind of populace which, liberal materialism, quite frankly, does not. Perhaps if we shift our archetype to something that can accommodate religious thought in the communal conscience, perhaps if we supplant the ideology of materialism entirely, then maybe we can overcome this issue, insha’Allah.
You might say that the love of God and the al-ghayb would asphyxiate. Maybe you’re right. But, my God, liberal materialism is already asphyxiating us! If I have to choose~and it clearly seems I must choose!~I think I’d rather the former do so than the latter.
I pray my pen, or my keyboard, hasn’t gotten the better of me. Anything good that I’ve written is from Allah سبحانه وتعالى (“Glorified and Exalted be He”); all else is the result of my own inadequacies.
Peace Itself and Peace to all.