Prof. Dr. Yunus Çengel, Yildiz Technical University, TURKEY
The primary sources of knowledge are experience, reason, and testimony. Positivism limits true knowledge to that acquired by the observation-based scientific method and thus by the five senses. For positivists, to express simply, “what you see is what there is” and “what you see is what it is,” and anything else is unknowable. This rather strict interpretation of empiricism has played a major role in shaping the 19th century thought, and is adopted and later imposed as an ideology especially by the natural scientists. But positivism is criticized for not being based on observations and thus not being true knowledge itself by its own definition. Rationalists cite reason as a significant source of knowledge, and give mathematics, morality, and induction as examples. Religious studies as a branch of learning also relies generally on testimony and interpretation, like history. Theology, which is a study of the divine, beliefs, nature of God, and religious truths relies mostly on testimony and the teachings of religious authorities, with rational arguments serving in a supporting role, and investigates the relation between the divine and other beings.
Nursi can be portrayed as a new-age religious scholar and a theologian as he has chosen observation and reason as his main platform of study, with testimony serving in a supporting role. Instead of taking scripts as indisputable facts, Nursi uses observations and reason to prove the stated facts in the scripts. That is, he closed the door to blind submission that sidesteps the mind and opened the way for convincing via rational arguments by fully engaging the mind. It can even be said that Nursi combined natural theology and revealed theology and merged revelation with reason. In his approach which is unique in theology, Nursi combines the best of empiricism, rationalism, and testimony and sets the stage for inference by appealing to the mind and conscience of the reader. Therefore, Nursi’s approach resembles in many ways the modern scientific method of inquiry. He demonstrates in his Risale-i Nur collection that faith and sciences are not adversaries but rather allies. He also mentions that all sciences continuously speak of God and make known of the Creator in their particular ways. Nursi maintains that there can be no contradiction between confirmed scientific facts and religion, and that careful observations and objective thinking that form the platform of positive sciences necessitate belief rather than disbelief. Despite the common thought, Nursi asserts that sciences that maintain objectivity and logical consistency confirm belief and not refute it.
Knowledge is one of those things that we have an intuitive understanding of and recognize when we see, but cannot quite give a complete description or precise definition for it. This is because knowledge is an invisible non-material light that can be sensed only by the non-material mental eye, and it cannot be confined in words. The biological eye that we know of sees the visible outer sides of beings through the physical light. This visual feast via light shows the existence of a universe of light, and points to the light source. Our seeing everything outside clearly during the day is due to the light coming off the sun reaching everywhere and being received and reflected by everything. The fact that the outer faces of beings are visible is evidence that there is a light source outside. This is because beings other than light-emitting ones like the lamps and radioactive materials have no light in their structure. As a result all beings disappear in darkness when the sun sets or the lamps are turned off, and the eyes can no longer see. Another form of seeing is to see with the mind instead of the eye, and this can be accomplished with the non-physical knowledge light that has nothing to do with the ordinary light. The light in the physical world shows the outer sides of beings and their physical features, but the light of knowledge shows the inner sides of beings and their significance.
The age we live in is the age of information and communication, and our knowledge about beings and the happenings increase every day. The first step in positive sciences is observation. From atoms to galaxies everything has a firm existence made of knowledge, and everything, it looks like, is woven with a web of knowledge. Scientific research is merely an attempt to expose this knowledge body of beings correctly and completely. This is done by observing the glitters of knowledge in the structures of beings and by seeing the sun of knowledge that is the source of these glitters with the mental eye. For example, the mass of cell is about one-billionth of a gram. But the knowledge that is contained within this cell fills volumes of books, and the amount is ever increasing. Hundreds of scientists have been walking through a cell whose length is one-hundredth of a millimeter for years, and still there is no end at sight. In short, the universe is a feast for knowledge, and a mysterious book filled with wisdom waiting to be read and understood. Nursi repeatedly emphasizes this aspect of the universe with the phrase ‘the grand book of universe.’
The fact that everything in the universe is made with knowledge and for all beings seemingly to emanate knowledge shows that there is an all-encompassing light of knowledge that penetrates into everything – just like glitters of light coming off a diamond pointing to the presence of a universe of light in the surroundings. Yet there is no such component as ‘knowledge’ in their basic building blocks, and that knowledge, whose existence is beyond any doubt, is meaning and not matter. And just like gravity, there is a common layer of knowledge that permeates through everything and is beyond time and space. Unlike the ordinary light we know of, the light of knowledge that comes from this non-matter (meaning) layer of knowledge can be perceived by the non-matter mental eye and not by the physical bodily eye.
Nursi relates the precise measuredness in beings and this all-encompassing invisible universe of knowledge to the divine name ‘All-knowing’: “A balance so perfect and measure so regular and unfailing govern in all living creatures and sorts of creatures from minute particles to the planets of the solar system that they prove conclusively an all-encompassing knowledge and testify to it with complete clarity. This means that all the evidences for knowledge are evidences also for the existence of the All-Knowing One. Since it is impossible and precluded that there should be an attribute without the one it qualifies, all the proofs of knowledge form a powerful and completely certain supreme proof of the Pre-Eternal All-Knowing One’s necessary existence.”
Also, Nursi introduces knowledge as a prominent attribute of God, and states that knowledge indicates a being that knows everything just like the light indicating the sun: “Yes, just as mercy shows itself as clearly as the sun through the wonders of sustenance and proves decisively a Most Merciful and Compassionate One behind the veil of the Unseen; so too, through the wisdom, purposes, and fruits of order and balance in things, knowledge, which is reined in hundreds of Qur’anic verses and in one respect is the chief of the sacred seven attributes, displays itself like the light of the sun, making known with certainty the existence of One Knowledgeable of All Things. Yes, the comparison between ordered, measured art, which points to man’s consciousness and knowledge, and man’s fine creation, which indicates the knowledge and wisdom of man’s Creator, resembles the comparison between the tiny glow of the fire-fly on a dark night and the encompassing light of the sun at noon.” When a group of high-school students in Kastamonu visited Nursi and asked him to tell them about their Creator because their teachers do not speak of God, he responded as follows: “All the sciences you study continuously speak of God and make known the Creator, each with its own particular tongue. Do not listen to your teachers; listen to them.” That is, to Nursi, the science books and documentaries that do not seem to be mentioning of God are indeed mentioning of God constantly – just like a book or article written about a painting to be talking about the artist and describing him or her indirectly.
Nursi views the presence of numerous branches of sciences as evidence for the presence of order, and the presence of order as the presence of an orderer: “A science has been formed about every field in the universe and is being formed. The sciences consist of universal laws. The universality of the laws discloses the fine order in the field concerned. That is to say, each and every science is a faithful witness to the fine order.”
Nursi attracts attention to the knowledge and consciousness dimensions of beings by pointing a microbe which is a technological wonder micro machine, and states that the existence of beings cannot be explained by the mindless and ignorant cause-and-effect relations and the natural laws in the background: “A microbe that is invisible to the eye, a tiny animal, possesses a rather delicate and peculiar divine machine. Since that machine’s existence is a mere possibility, its chances of existence and nonexistence are equal. It cannot come into existence without a necessitating cause. It is essential that that machine comes into existence with due cause. But that necessitating cause is not the natural causes. Because the delicate order in that machine is the result of knowledge and consciousness. The natural causes are inanimate things with no knowledge and consciousness. One who claims that intricate machine that amuses the minds to originate from natural causes should bestow Plato’s consciousness and Calino’s knowledge on every bit of natural causes. In addition, he should believe that communication is present among the particles. Those who are heedless of all wisdom and benefits in the grand order of the universe pointing to a perfect will, an all-encompassing knowledge, and a supreme power were obliged to attribute the real motive to the inanimate causes.”
To give a modern example, cell phones function in full compliance with the mechanical, electrical, and electromagnetic laws and principles. But the presence of cell phones is not the natural result of such natural laws. If there were no people in the world with knowledge, artistry, will, and consciousness, there would be no such thing as a cell phone today. The claim ‘Even if there were no conscious human beings in the world, in time there would form cell phones that were capable of duplicating each other, and aliens that land on earth would collect cell phones from the ground like pebbles’ has no scientific backing and no validity.
As a second example, when someone looks at the hundreds of dissimilar chimney rocks in Cappadocia valley in Turkey with such glasses, he may conclude that these sculptures may have formed by erosion under the influence of natural events like rain, hale, and wind that are not related to purpose and will. This is because there is no order in the arrangement among chimney rocks, no apparent purpose or utility is observed, no diligence is noticed, and no rules or conventions are used in their formation. Same can be said about the underground caves. But when someone enters the underground cities underneath and observes the houses, stairs, columns, paintings and other art work on walls and ceilings, and even the ventilation channels, he or she will immediately know that these are made by beings that possess intelligence and knowledge like human beings, even if there is no one around. This is because crafting and constructing purposely and diligently using concise measurement by observing utility can be done only with consciousness, will, and knowledge. This approach shows some parallelism with the ‘intelligent design’ theory. But Nursi goes beyond and makes the connection to the designer by arguing that ‘if there is a design, there must be a designer.’
The primary sources of knowledge are observation and experimentation that relies on the five senses, reason, written and oral communication, perception, and association. Therefore, the acquisition of knowledge involves the five senses as well as the sixth sense (inspiration) and the mental thought process. In humans, the acquisition of knowledge exhibits itself as developing an innate understanding and growing awareness. Knowledge differs from opinions and beliefs in that mere beliefs involve personal biases, opinions involve personal biases together with doubt. Knowledge, on the other hand, involves a high level of certainty and is free of personal biases and doubt. Therefore, knowledge is often characterized as justified true belief. It is something that the mind admits and the heart affirms.
In Evolution of Physics, Albert Einstein argues that we may never be able to acquire certain knowledge of the seen and the unseen and thus reach absolute reality through inference of facts: "Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavor to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears it’s ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility or the meaning of such a comparison." There is certainty and unanimity in what is observed (the face and the moving hands of the watch), but uncertainty and differing opinions in the nature of the unobservable (the sealed mechanism that runs the watch). Therefore, even in observation-based natural sciences, opinions can easily be confused with plain facts and be perceived as facts since they often come packaged together.
There are two faculties in people that serve as the center for acceptance and rejection of information presented as true or false: the mind and the conscience. The mind weighs things on the scale of reason using universal logical rules. The conscience judges on the basis of the built-in core values and the ethical rules. Therefore, the mind functions as the external examiner and judge while the conscience operates internally by consulting with other inner faculties. Both the mind and the conscience play important roles in accepting the presented information as true knowledge or rejecting it as falsehood. What is true knowledge for one can be fallacy for another.
The source of true religion and factual sciences is the same, and Nursi states that there can be no contention between true religion and factual sciences. He labels the expression ‘This fact contradicts religion’ as a ‘foolish word’. He explains “A person who views a matter whose truth is certified by indisputable evidence being opposite of true and factual religion as a possibility and fears that this contradiction might be valid is not sane.” He maintains that true religion and factual sciences must be allies working together and not foes working against each other. This is because all sciences originate from the holy names All-Wise (al-Hakim) and All-Knowing (al-Alim) while holy scriptures come from the attribute Speech (al-Kelam); and the Divine unity cannot allow two-headedness. If there appears to be a contradiction, the two must reconcile by making sure that the scientific fact is indeed a fact and that the scripture is interpreted correctly. If there appears to be a contradiction between authentic narrations and factual sciences, the mind is to be taken as the base and the narration is to be interpreted: “It is among the established methods of usûl, Islamic sciences and jurisprudence, that if reason (aql), and narration (naql) contradict one another, reason is taken as the base while religion is interpreted. But, that reason should truly be reason.” This is because reason is a valid criterion and a uniting reference for all humankind, and authentic narrations cannot be understood or applied in a way that commonsense cannot accept.
Sciences that are based on certified facts can prevent nonfactual interpretations in religion while religion can shed light to sciences to progress in the right direction. As expressed by Albert Einstein in his famous quote ‘Science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind,” denying one another is harmful to both religion and sciences. For example, if modern medicine subscribed to the notion that every being is in its highest creation, rather than the notion that every being is the outcomes of a chain of random events, it would not fall into the mistake of searching for a baby food superior to mother’s milk or viewing menopause as an illness and attempting to treat it with estrogen supplements, with apparent adverse results. Scientists would rise up and view creation from the perspective of the creator, like Einstein did, and would produce innovative theories about how the universe should be running.
EMPIRICISM AND RATIONALISM AS SOURCES OF KNOWLEDGE
The ultimate source of knowledge has long been a topic of dispute between empiricists and rationalists. Empiricists hold that the only, or at least the most, reliable source of knowledge is the sense experience by means of observation and experimentation. Rationalists find this approach too limiting and hold that the reliable source of knowledge extends well beyond the knowledge acquired by perception through the five senses. Rationalists cite reason as a significant source of knowledge, and give mathematics, morality, and induction as examples. Empiricists express skepticism about knowledge that is not based on experience. Empiricists consider sense experience as the only reliable source for concepts, knowledge, and ideas, and thus knowledge as a posteriori – something that occurs after the relevant experience. Rationalists counter by claiming that it is possible to have a priory knowledge – knowledge gained before having a relevant experience.
The origin of the thought that senses can be deceptive and reason is the sole reliable source of knowledge can be traced back to Socrates and Plato, and the rationalist line of thought includes prominent philosophers like Rene Descartes who argued that knowledge that stems from sense experiences is not reliable. Most rationalists subscribe to the intuition/deduction thesis which asserts that deductions based on intuition or the intuition alone can be a source of knowledge in a given subject area. Intuition is an innate feeling, and it provides rational insight to judge propositions. We form a warranted true belief about a proposition by seeing it with the mental eye and verifying to be true. Using valid arguments, we can also deduce conclusions from intuited knowledge. Thus intuition and deduction can be a source of a priori knowledge without requiring sense experiences – like in mathematics and ethics. Depending on the strength of the rational insight, intuition and the subsequent deductive reasoning can provide beliefs of varying strengths. The innate knowledge interpretation of rationalism asserts that as rational beings, our innate knowledge is part of our nature, and sense experiences may only serve as triggers to arouse awareness of this knowledge, and thus the experience itself is not a source of knowledge. Radical rationalists claim intuition to be infallible and thus to represent truth while main line rationalists admit that intuition can be false and thus distinguish between intuited propositions and the truth.
Natural scientists are naturally closely involved with the material universe. They rely on the scientific method to generate knowledge, and thus they tend to primarily use empiricism in their studies. In their scientific inquiries, they resort to carefully designed and conducted experiments, and are open to confirmation or falsification by others. They also tend to view existence to be comprised of matter subjected to physical laws, and thus search for answers in the motion and changes of material beings, as expected. But there are notable exceptions. Einstein, for example, derived his knowledge that formed the basis of his theories from logical empiricism via mental arguments and mathematical rigor, to be confirmed later by others by actual physical experiments. Therefore, Einstein can be said to be a rationalist since he resorted to rational intuition and reason to discover new knowledge. Likewise, calculations show that it is not possible to account for the gravitational force that holds the stars in galaxies together with visible mass. Therefore, based on rational arguments alone, it is widely believed by physicists that some kind of invisible mass called “dark matter” that provides the additional gravitational force exists. Despite the lack of any direct empirical evidence for its existence, calculations show that dark matter constitutes 25 percent of the universe.
Unlike empiricism which requires direct experience with reality and rejects other claims of truth, rationalism is not of a uniform shade, and different approaches to it exist. Some rationalists see pure reason and thought sufficient for acquiring knowledge while others require some experiential evidence. One reason for the bitter dispute between empiricism and rationalism is to confuse the areas of applicability of each approach. The conflicts will be minimized if the two methods are pulled to within their rightful boundaries.
Five senses are associated with the material world, and thus physical sciences such as physics, chemistry, and geology are prime areas of inquiry by empiricism. Still, any generalizations and making sense of what is sensed require rationalism in the form of intuitive induction. A similar argument can be given for social sciences such as psychology and sociology as well. Subject areas such as mathematics that are not directly associated with the physical universe are best suited for study by rationalism. For subject areas such as philosophy of science both empiricism and rationalism are relevant, and the two approaches should be used as appropriate to complement each other. The scientific method dwells on empiricism, and thus it is appropriate for the sciences. But sneering at information generated in non-scientific areas because the scientific method is not utilized is simply prejudice.
Empiricism and rationalism should be taken as complementing each other rather than competing with or even denying each other, and these two methods should never be in conflict during the search of reality. For example, information generated by reason and rational arguments should never be in conflict with information based on confirmed empirical studies. Therefore, information obtained in fact-based scientific fields (areas of study that are suitable for observations) using the scientific method should be taken as the base, and rational arguments should be used in a supporting role to scrutinize the observed data, to fill in the gaps, and to generalize the findings. Of course, empiricism is not infallible, and what we see is not necessarily what it is. For example, for many centuries it was thought that the earth was at the center of the universe and the sun was revolving around the earth, based on plain observations. But later unbiased careful observations refuted this old science and established the opposite as the truth. Therefore, raw data yielded by empiricism should always be checked for reasonableness and consistency, and be scrutinized in the light of confirmed facts.
Pluto used to be one of nine planets in the solar system since its discovery in 1930. But on Aug. 24, 2006 the International Astronomical Union General Assembly in Prague passed a resolution redefining the planets using a new rationale, and the new definition excluded Pluto. That is, rationalist approach in this case took precedence over empirical approach since there was no new empirical information about Pluto to justify this change of status. Again there is no guarantee that the criteria for planets will not change, and thus the good old Pluto may appear in the list of planets again in the future.
In medical sciences and pharmacology, it is not uncommon for the medical “truths”, which are based on empiricism and serves as the basis for treatment and prevention of diseases to be overturned, and yesterday’s justified true belief to become medical misinformation. Judgments passed on the basis of limited observations or studies is like guessing the whole picture of a puzzle board based on a limited number of pieces in place, and thus care should be exercised when attempting to construct wholesome truths on the foundation of limited number of empirical facts – especially on multi faceted comprehensive matters. Therefore, empirical findings also are prone to error, no matter how carefully the experiments are conducted in well-controlled environments. And, being based on empiricism is no guarantee for a widely believed fact not to turn out to be actually false. Rationalism can be a valuable tool in weeding out fiction from facts.
Also, the realm of empiricism cannot reach the non-scientific areas of knowledge. Therefore, rejecting knowledge in those areas generated by rationalism is not rational at all since empiricism is not applicable in those areas. Of course it is compulsory to accept scientific knowledge since evidence is external and it can be demonstrated to all. But this is not the case for non-scientific knowledge since the evidence is internal, and the rational arguments presented can be found convincing for some and non-convincing for others, and universality cannot be expected.
Nursi attracts attention to the importance of both the general branches of knowledge based on reason and the sciences based on observation and experiments, and emphasizes their future dominance: “In the future mankind will turn to sciences and learning. It will obtain all its power from sciences. Power and rule will then pass to the hands of sciences and knowledge.” In his work Ishārāt al-I’jâz, Nursi states: “the source of Islam is knowledge (al-‘ilm) and its base is reason or intellect (al-‘aql);” and it is from the reputation of Islam “that it accepts the truth and rejects fallacy and delusion.” He often makes reference to Qur’anic phrases like “So will they not think”, “So will they not reason”, “So will they not ponder on it” to show that Islam values reason and knowledge as witness.
Like a rationalist, Nursi emphasizes the importance of passing the tests for logic, consistency, and coherence that logic in the evaluation of propositions: “Logic and coherence should be taken as a guide.” “The guides that will point to the path of moderation and stir away from extremism on both sides are the philosophy of religion, lucidity, logic, and sciences.” Therefore, Nursi views both empiricism and rationalism as valid approaches so long as they are used in their rightful places. He uses both methods himself as he finds appropriate.
Positivism is the strict form of empiricism that limits genuine knowledge to that which is based on sense experience alone. Founded primarily by the French philosopher Auguste Comte in 1830s and spread throughout Europe in the second half of the 19th century, positivism holds that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge acquired by the scientific method using observations. Positivism requires knowledge to be testable, logical, and the outcome to be observable with human senses. Any proof should be made by empirical means only and not by rational arguments, and the statements must possess universal validity. It declares any knowledge based on other sources such as innate faculties and intuition as meaningless, and rejects all forms of metaphysics and inquiries about the ultimate causes or origins of events. Therefore, positivist philosophy is confined to observable ‘positive’ facts verified empirically by actual senses. Also, scientific information is subject to change when warranted by new evidence.
It is plausible that positivism itself does not qualify as genuine knowledge since it cannot be verified empirically. Therefore, positivism better fits into the domain of ideology, and the positivistic view is labeled as ‘scientism’. Positivists label all knowledge not directly tied to observations and thus is not testable not as wrong but as meaningless, and thus ignore it. But many philosophers responded by critiquing positivism and labeling this highly confining approach as nonsense. At first look, positivist approach seems appropriate for hard sciences such as physics, chemistry, and geology since they are based on observations, but even this is debatable in the light of quantum mechanics since the presence of observer may influence the outcome of the observation. Extending positivistic approach to other fields of learning, even social sciences, has met with resistance, and most social scientists and historians have long disregarded positivism in their line of work. Also, based on physical laws, we precisely know what time the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Yet positivism will reject this knowledge since it cannot be tested (our senses are limited to the current time, and cannot extend to the future). Therefore, positivism is irrelevant for most knowledge, and thus cannot be used as a general criterion for true knowledge.
Nursi uses the expressions ‘understand no further than their eyes see, have no heart, are blind, and have grown distant from spiritual matters’ to describe those who subscribe to the positivist movement and limit knowledge to what is acquired on the basis of observation and experiments. He points out that the sphere of the mind is much larger than that of the eye, and the sphere of the hearth is much larger than that of the mind.
The five senses and empiricism (in particular positivism) is just one of the mechanisms of acquiring knowledge. Declaring knowledge that is not suitable for testing in the laboratories and thus whose truth or falsehood cannot be ascertained on the basis of measurements as unscholarly is not scholarship, but rather, it is prejudice and bigotry. The positivist approach can be suitable for sciences that are based on observation and laboratory testing, but branches of learning are limited to sciences. The scale of grocer can measure only things that have weight and thus things that respond to gravity. Ignoring and even denying things like temperature, length, electric charge, time, and light because they cannot be measured by a grocer’s scale is not scholarship; it is grocer ship. The scale that receives and measures the light of knowledge is the mind, both knowledge and the mind are non-matter. It is unfair to knowledge to limit it by the amount that can reflect on matter, and this is an attempt to materialize knowledge and its processing center, the mind. And this is opposite to the nature of things, and this is to wish for the impossible. This is because there is neither knowledge nor mind in the basic building blocks of matter.
For example, scientifically it is well-established that tobacco is one of the strongest cancer-causing agents. Tobacco use is closely associated with lung cancer, with 90 percent of lung-cancer deaths among men in the United States attributed to smoking. Men who smoke one pack a day are 10 times more likely to suffer lung cancer compared with nonsmokers. Also, smokers are up to 6 times more likely to suffer a heart attack than nonsmokers. For an ordinary person looking at these statistics it is clear that smoking causes cancer and a rational person should abstain from smoking.
For a rationalist, the proposition ‘smoking causes cancer’ is true knowledge since it is certified on the basis of an overwhelming amount of observational evidence. Yet for a positivist, this proposition is false since there are some smokers who never get cancer, and thus falsifying the proposition. Similarly, from positivistic view, the proposition ‘drunk driving causes accidents’ is also false since there are so many people who drove while drunk without getting involved in a traffic accident. These examples reaffirm that the positivist approach based on the strict scientific method is limited to inanimate beings only, and is not applicable to animate beings, especially human beings. Adopting a rational approach, the whole world is unanimous in discouraging smoking because of its harm to smokers themselves and banning drunk driving because of its potential harm to others.
Governments appeal to the minds of their citizens with ‘facts’ based on data obtained from observational studies to instill beliefs in them and to change their behavior regarding smoking and drunk driving. Nursi does the same thing in Risale-i Nur on matters of belief and religion by presenting ‘facts’ on the basis of reasoned arguments stemming from observations. Nursi strongly argues that a rational person should choose belief over disbelief, just like choosing non-smoking over smoking, using statistics: “A single hour a day is sufficient for the five prayers together with taking the ablutions. So what a loss a person makes who spends twenty-three hours on this fleeting worldly life, and fails to spend one hour on the long life of the hereafter; how he wrongs his own self; how unreasonably he behaves. For would not anyone who considers himself to be reasonable understand how contrary to reason and wisdom such a person’s conduct is, and how far from reason he has become, if, thinking it reasonable, he gives half of his property to a lottery in which one thousand people are participating and the possibility of winning is one in a thousand, and does not give one twenty-fourth of it to an eternal treasury where the possibility of winning has been verified at ninety-nine out of a hundred?” Also, the deterministic positivist approach is not suitable with the general philosophy of religion as it would result in compulsion whereas religion is a choice, just like smoking. For example, a person does not have a choice when it comes to obeying gravity.
INDUCTION AND DEDUCTION AS TOOLS OF KNOWLEDGE CONSTRUCTION
Sense experiences generate glimpses of data or information that are reflections of underlying universal phenomena and are indicative of them. It is neither possible nor it is practical to conduct every conceivable experiment related to a phenomenon. Therefore, after a sufficient number of observations, we need to generalize the instances of facts that if a proposition holds in all observed cases, then it also holds in all cases. The acquisition of universal knowledge requires some form of inductive reasoning or simply induction, which is the process of inferring a law, principle, generalization, conclusion, or judgment from particular instances of occurrences. This is like playing the “connect the dots” game: The dots on the given page are real, as everyone can observe, and they are placed correctly. But we cannot make much sense of them unless we connect the dots as instructed. As the picture emerges, the individual dots lose their importance and become insignificant since we have generated many more of them as part of the connecting process.
Empirical studies provide us with a set of information bits or data points that we map out mentally. Once we have (or think we have) a sufficient number of points, we build a meaningful picture on those data points by mentally “connecting the dots”. Therefore, pure or radical empiricism is inadequate as a method of inquiry of universal knowledge, and the incorporation of some rationalism via induction is necessary. The universal conservation of energy principle (or the first law of thermodynamics), for example, is inferred on the basis of a limited number of experiences associated with energy conversions and interactions. Therefore, it is a fruit of intuitive reasoning. Equipped with this ray of knowledge, we can mentally see what will occur during experiments that involve energy interactions before the experiments are conducted. That is, we can predict the outcome of future events, and generate new knowledge. Likewise, we can also predict the past by induction on the basis of what is observed at present, as done in history and archaeology.
The generalizations drawn by inductive reasoning have different degrees of certainty, and there is always a risk for induction to lead to falsehoods from truths, like getting the wrong picture by connecting the right dots incorrectly or not having a sufficient number of dots. But this is a risk worth taking as it is the lesser evil, and no scientific progress and development can be made without such exercises. As the saying goes, if something looks like a duct, walks like a duct, and quacks like a duct, we should not hesitate to call it a duct. Besides, we trust the truth-seeking humanity that it will eventually discern falsehood from truth. Doctors must continue to make diagnostics using induction based on a limited number of observed symptoms unless we are willing to do away with medical science because of some bad misdiagnoses. Also, empiricists need to go beyond the direct sense experiences and admit testimony as a legitimate source of knowledge since much data nowadays are generated elsewhere, and scientific induction heavily depends on data transmitted from reliable sources by various means. And we have to rely on sound reason to sort things out and to make best sense out of what we have under our hands.
In the Risale-i Nur collection, Nursi gives outstanding examples in the arena of induction using a sound train of logic. For example, judging from the observation that everything in existence is made with art together with knowledge (like a butterfly being a wonder of art while being a living flying machine), he infers to the attributes of the artist: “It is a well-known fact that works of art which are well-proportioned, symmetrical, perfect, and beautiful are based on an exceedingly well-drawn-up plan. And a perfectly drawn plan points to a perfectly sound knowledge, fine intellect, and refined faculty of spirit. That is to say, it is the spirit’s immaterial beauty which is manifested in art by means of knowledge. Thus, the universe, with its innumerable material fine qualities, is formed of the distillations of immaterial fine qualities pertaining to knowledge. And those immaterial qualities pertaining to knowledge and those perfections are certainly the manifestations of an infinite, eternal loveliness, beauty, and perfection.”
TESTIMONY AS SOURCE OF KNOWLEDGE
Testimony – information based on others’ knowledge – has long been a common source of knowledge whose probability of truth depends directly on the degree of reliability of the origin. Written testimony that passes stringent tests of scrutiny for authenticity, and oral testimony that survives trustworthiness tests – like cross examination in courts of law – are credible sources of knowledge. During a trial, for example, the testimony of a couple of trustworthy witnesses is sufficient to establish guilt and convict an accused as charged. Once a judgment is passed, the commitment of crime changes from a mere possibility to justified true belief and thus knowledge. It remains that way until the knowledge is refuted by other more credible testimony or compelling physical evidence such as contradictory DNA tests. What is required in courts of law for accusations to turn into knowledge is not absolute certainty, which may be impossible to achieve, but rather the establishment of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
History is the discipline that deals with narrative description, analysis, and interpretation of past events related to human beings, with the aim of producing an accurate account of the past on the basis of preserved authentic historical records in the form of written documents (including pictures and inscriptions), oral accounts, and the remains of physical structures and artifacts. History is considered a subject of humanities by some because of its interpretative nature, but it is generally classified as a social science since it utilizes in its investigations the scientific methodology in a broad sense at an increasing rate. The challenge that faces the historians is the construction of the whole on the basis of a limited number of facts on hand in written, oral, and physical form, especially when the evidence is scarce. The narrative reconstruction of a historical event involves some authentic facts and a varying amount of imagination to fill in the missing squares. Therefore, history still involves a component of art, and different historians may have different accounts of a past event on the basis of the same historical facts, depending on their personal interpretations of available historical records and how they fill in the gaps.
Although we have no direct experience of it, testimony is probably the biggest source of our knowledge in real life. We are constantly fed information through the internet, television, radio, newspapers, books, and telephones – even teachers in the classrooms and coworkers at work. Only a small fraction of our knowledge is based on our five senses and reasoning. For example, we may have considerable knowledge of New York even if we have never been there by taking what we have read or heard as true knowledge. Likewise, we may know a lot about polar bears even if we haven’t seen any. The age we live in is called the ‘age of information and communication’ since a huge amount of information is constantly being generated and is instantly transmitted all over the world. Therefore, disregarding testimony or transmitted knowledge as a credible source of knowledge is a one-way ticket to dark ages. Of course transmitted knowledge should be scrutinized for logical consistency and reasonableness, and discarded if deemed unreliable. But in any case, the fact remains that testimony is a major source of knowledge and history is a legitimate branch of learning.
Nursi uses certified narration – narration filtered through logic – as a source of knowledge in the Risale-i Nur. This way, he merges rationalism with certified narration: “Since the scholars of religion and philosophy, and of the speculative and scriptural sciences, have in effect agreed that beings are not restricted to this Manifest World; and since, despite being inanimate and inappropriate for the formation of spirits, the visible Manifest World has been adorned to such an extent with beings with spirits; existence is surely not limited to it. There are numerous other levels of existence in relation to which the Manifest World is an embroidered veil.” “The agreement of all the revealed scriptures and religions since the time of Adam concerning the existence and worship of the angels, and the numerous unanimous reports in all ages of conversations and meetings of men with the angels, proves that their existence is as certain as the existence of the people of America, whom we have never seen, and that they are concerned with us.”
NATURAL SCIENCES AND THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
Science can be defined as the continuing process of acquiring knowledge about the universe in a systematic manner and reducing that body of knowledge into general principles that is open to testing by others. Sciences have emerged out of philosophy, and the study of the physical universe and the description of the workings of nature was the topic of ‘natural philosophy’, which is now called ‘natural sciences’. Indeed, the 1687 manuscript of Isaac Newton, known as the father of classical physics, was named ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’. The term ‘science’ comes from the Latin word ‘scientia’ which means ‘knowledge’. Science constitutes the branch of knowledge that is related to observed phenomena in both animate and inanimate worlds. As such, scientific information is universal in nature and it is common to all people since we all share the same universe. Historically, ‘science’ was used as a synonym to ‘knowledge’. The term ‘science’ acquired its modern meaning in the 19th century with the development of the experiment-based scientific method.
Like most branches of learning, sciences are rooted in philosophy and religion, and continued to flourish within that context until the 17th century when the observation and testing based scientific method took hold. Driven by their curiosity and independent thinking, early natural philosophers sought to discover the underpinnings of the universal order and to understand the essence of things. Pre-Socratic philosophers rejected the mythological explanations for existence, and attempted to establish a rational platform based on observations. Anaximander is considered by some to be the first scientist for his contention that everything in the universe is ruled by natural laws and controlled by physical forces, and for resorting to experiments to find answers.
Sciences may broadly be subdivided into the categories of natural sciences (used to be called natural philosophy until the modern era) which study natural phenomena, and social sciences which study human behavior and societies (used to be called moral philosophy). The natural sciences consist of physical sciences (physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc.), the earth sciences (physical geography, geology, hydrology, meteorology, etc.), and the life sciences (biology, zoology, botany, genetics, medicine, etc). Social sciences include psychology, sociology, anthropology, and economy. Each branch is divided into sub branches (like mechanics, optics, electricity, particle physics, thermodynamics, etc under physics). Sciences such as biology and social sciences that rely heavily on statistics are called soft sciences.
Scientific knowledge is condensed into testable (and thus falsifiable) theories and laws. The scientific method involves the elements of (1) the collection of data and evidence through experimentation and observation, (2) the formulation of hypotheses by the reduction of data and evidence, (3) testing of the hypotheses, (4) elimination of any inconsistencies through reasoning, and (5) verification of hypotheses by further testing, examinations, and reasoning. The body of knowledge acquired using the scientific method is also referred to as science. Further, the word science is used commonly as a label for fields that are studied systematically. The goal of science is to acquire knowledge in order to better understand and describe natural phenomena. This is done by revealing the intricacies of the inner workings of beings, and thus exposing the invisible machines than govern natural phenomena behind the scenes.
The testing ground for material beings is the modern laboratories equipped with the state of the art equipment and well-trained technicians. Hypotheses are verified or falsified on the basis of data obtained from careful measurements. Verified knowledge is then accepted as fact, and falsified knowledge is discarded as fiction. Therefore, the data collected from experiments is the deciding factor. Even after being well-established, scientific theories are subject to falsification by new contradictory data obtained by more careful measurement. Therefore, absolute certainty in sciences is a rarity. For observational studies, the entire earth becomes an observatory. Scientific knowledge about the fields of psychology and sociology is derived by carefully observing the common traits in the behaviors of individuals and groups of individuals, respectively. Medical science involves both laboratory studies and observational studies in acquiring knowledge related to health and medication.
Science pertains to perceived reality, and it is a valuable tool for trying to describe what is. But it does not deal with untestable matters. The objective of science to understand, describe, and formulate physical phenomenon (usually as physical laws or theories) underlying the occurrences in natural world, and then use it to predict similar future occurrences. Once a working knowledge for a phenomenon is gained through observations, predictions for the future and generalizations can be made even if an adequate explanation for the phenomena cannot be given.
Science is often mixed with opinions, beliefs, and extensions, and thus unscientific information is often presented as science. To avoid confusion and mix-up, it should be remembered that science refers to objective knowledge and deals with what is. Scientific knowledge is based on observable phenomena, and it is open to testing by others for verification or falsification. The objective of science is to describe what is on the basis of sensation filtered through reason, but not to deduce. The conclusions drawn or deductions made for the insensible part of the studied phenomena on the basis of what is sensed is philosophy and not science. (Still, the line between science and non-science is not clearly drawn). Therefore, when it is done right, there is unanimity in science since all unbiased observers will observe the same, but conflict in philosophy since the deductions made often reflect personal biases.
Nursi accepts the sciences being based on the five senses as part of their nature, and casts the sciences that are based on the sensual experiences as the sensory organs of humanity. He calls on people to interpret the knowledge that comes via the sciences and points the high order behind the scenes and to make the right inferrals: “O mankind! If your thinking and your vision prove inadequate to discover this high order, and if you are unable to see that order even after a general investigation or a comprehensive research, examine the universe and read its pages via the sciences that result from the joining of ideas of people and are like the senses of humanity so that you see that high order that leaves the minds astonished.” According to Nursi, if the world were a human being, the sciences would have been its senses through which to perceive the environment.
The scientific method relies on observations and careful reasoning. Science analyzes what is sensed on the basis of reason and logic, and any deductions that go beyond what is observed are not scientific. Studying the behavior of living organisms systematically under varying conditions is science, but theorizing about how life started on earth is non-science. So it is no surprise that there is general agreement among all manuscripts on cell biology, but widespread dispute on the origin of life. Of course this does not mean that searching for the origin of life is not a legitimate learned activity. All efforts that produce useful knowledge is part of scholarship, and the success of non-scientific information depends on the degree of consistency with observed phenomena, compliance with logical rules, and appeal to the mind. Non-scientific information that is inconsistent with sciences and does not appear to be reasonable will obviously not find much acceptance. Well-supported non-scientific information with convincing arguments and logical consistency will be perceived by the human mind as ‘fact’ – just like scientific information based on observations and laboratory experiments.
Consistency with existing body of knowledge, conformity to observed phenomena, and compliance with reason and logical consistency are important tools for testing hypotheses. The requirement of logical consistency can be used as effective means of identifying and eliminating falsehood. This is commonly done by thought experiments even in the fields of hard natural sciences like physics. The motivation behind thought experiments is clear: They are fast, inexpensive, easy to device, and very effective especially in falsifying hypotheses. Besides, sometimes it is impossible to set up real experiments in the lab for certain phenomena (like those associated with black holes), and experimental work is time consuming and expensive. Albert Einstein is famous for well-done thought experiments in physics. Said Nursi is also a master in setting up vivid scenarios and analyzing them in the light of knowledge and reason. With often used expressions like ‘Is It at all possible …’, Nursi invites people repeatedly to weigh differing ideas with the scale of logic.
SOCIAL SCIENCES AND HUMANITIES
The academic disciplines that deal with the non-physical aspects of being human and aids in the understanding and making sense of the world are known as humanities. Social sciences cover the fields of study outside the natural sciences, humanities, and the arts, and position themselves between natural sciences and the humanities. They include psychology, sociology, philosophy, political science, history, human geography, anthropology, archaeology, economics, education, international relations, law, and public administration. Some of these fields such as anthropology, history, and law border humanities and are sometimes treated as such, depending on the method of inquiry used. Both social sciences and humanities are used to produce and disseminate knowledge, whose usefulness may or may not be imminent, and both contribute to the transitioning to the knowledge-based society.
Humanities help develop self-consciousness and instill interpretive skills rather than an understanding of causality of events. Humanities education aims at bringing up more cultured and wholesome individuals with an appreciation of artistry, and a tendency to reflect on and to interpret the world that surround us qualitatively. Therefore, humanities is also called ‘cultural sciences’. Humanities and arts education helps people acquire a broad perspective, a multi-faceted personality, and a unique personality, and contributes greatly to personal development and to ‘becoming human’. The dominance of the benefit-driven capitalistic thinking even in knowledge production and the resulting short-sighted emphasis on material gain and quick return on investment have shifted the sights to hard sciences, and resulted in the scientisation of knowledge production. This trend is likely to result in humanities to become more integrated with sciences and to become increasingly more quantitative in nature.
Social sciences attempt to use the scientific method to the extent it is applicable, but humanities have no such concern. Literature (stories, poems, plays, etc) and the study of languages are considered topics of humanities while linguistics is often classified as a social science since it incorporates a scientific approach to the study of languages. Philosophy and religion are treated as social sciences so long as they seek explanations of social phenomena. They become humanities when emphasis shifts to understanding and appreciation.
Natural sciences produce empirically verifiable results and are positioned to deliver facts that are in high demand by firms ready to convert new technology into new products. In institutions of higher education, humanities are receiving a second-rate treatment because of the increased emphasis on ‘utility’ and useful and marketable skills. To legitimize their work and to prove their utility, social sciences attempt to imitate the natural sciences by resorting to empiricism and mathematical modeling when studying the ‘human’ aspect of the world.
Scientific investigations rely on experimentation, observation, and reason. They involve the collection of raw data that contain unprocessed information, the analysis and classification of facts, checking for logical consistency, and generalization – like the supply-and-demand law in economics. Experimentation constitutes a major part of scientific investigations for sciences that involve matter such as physics and chemistry. But sciences that involve the behavior of humans and human societies are characterized as observational, and proceed mostly via observation and reason.
Physical and earth sciences deal with inanimate matter, which is fully governed by the laws of physics, and always give the same reaction to a specific action. The motion of a piece of wood dropped in a river, for example, can be predicted accurately using the relevant physical laws and principles. This is also the case for animate beings like plants that lack free will, but not so for human beings that possess free will together with a physical body that is subject to physical laws. Consequently, despite some common traits like playing in water or swimming towards either side of the river, no one can predict with precision what a particular person will do when dropped into a river. Therefore, the cause-and-effect relationships hold well for natural sciences, and the general conclusions drawn are verifiable and universally applicable. Also, natural sciences are well-suited for observational and experimental studies, and thus the scientific method in the strict modern sense. But this is not the case for social sciences that deal with societies made up of free-thinking individuals rather than mindless molecules. As a result, social sciences are often labeled as ‘soft sciences,’ and use a distinct form of the scientific method in the broad classical sense as their methodology.
Social sciences are based largely on observations and statistical analysis of data collected to identify common traits. Like natural sciences, social sciences must maintain rigor, logical consistency, and coherence in their studies, and be open to scrutiny by peer review. At the end, social sciences aim at understanding social phenomena and the dynamics that produce them using the most objective approach available. It should be recognized that the domain of social sciences is different in nature than that of natural sciences, and thus social sciences should not be judged by the criteria used in natural sciences. Some natural and even social scientists claimed that social sciences do not qualify as science because of the complexity of human and societal behavior, the lack of universality and certainty in cause and effect relations, and the unsuitability for precisely controlled experimental studies. Indeed, unlike molecules and physical objects, humans and societies do not always react the same way to the same situations they are subjected to. But nevertheless social sciences play an important role in the production of useful knowledge open to refutation on the basis of careful observations and rational arguments with logical consistency, and thus generally regarded as science.
PHILOSOPHY, RELIGION, AND THEOLOGY AS BRANCHES OF LEARNING
Philosophy, which means ‘love of wisdom’ and implicates ‘deep understanding’ and ‘innate enlightenment’, is the discipline concerned with the investigation of truth regarding existence through logical reasoning. As such, philosophy relies primarily on rationalism and thus reasoned arguments rather than empiricism as its method of inquiry. This is to be expected since the topics that philosophy deals with are not quite suitable for empirical investigations.
The primary goal of philosophy is the discovery of the significance and essence of existence, and the exposition of the intricacies associated with the emergence, implications, and interrelations of beings. Philosophy is related to the underlying core concepts and principles that characterize beings and govern events, and every discipline has a philosophy that deals with the investigation of the basic concepts and principles associated with it. The philosophy of science, for example, is concerned with the foundations, implications, and methodology of science.
Some major branches of philosophy are logic (deals with consistency with innate mental faculties during arguments and soundness of reasoning), metaphysics (investigates the nature of reality beyond the visible universe, the body-mind relation, what constitutes existence (ontology), epistemology (deals with knowledge), ethics (or moral philosophy; studies ethical truths – what is right and why it is right), aesthetics (deals with beauty, art, enjoyment, and perception), and semantics (deals with languages and how languages are related to realities). These branches have several sub branches. The philosophy of religion, which deals with questions on religion, for example, is considered a branch of metaphysics.
Theology is the study of the divine, beliefs, nature of God, and religious teachings. The phrase ‘theology’ comes from the Greek ‘theos,’ which means god, and thus theology can simply be viewed as the study of God and beliefs. Theology relies on testimony and the teachings of religious authorities as well as rational arguments, and investigates the relation between the divine and other beings, especially humans, in a systematic manner. Theology is associated with theism - belief in the existence of a God or gods, especially belief in a personal God that interferes in human affairs and the world events. Theological studies aim to provide a reasoned discourse to enhance understanding of God or the gods, and to justify and explicate religious teachings. Phrases like ‘Catholic Theology’ and ‘Islamic Theology’ are used to refer to specific systems of beliefs and teachings. Western philosophers mostly concern themselves with Western theology and thus the nature of God in Christian traditions.
Natural theology is the branch of theology based on reason and rational arguments alone with no recourse to revelation and scriptures. Natural theology holds that knowledge about the existence and nature of God may be acquired on rational grounds by merely observing creation, reasoning, and contemplating. It differs from revealed theology which is based on scriptures. Many theologians are skeptical about natural theology because of the limitations of human faculties and the reasoning power, and view divine guidance as an essential component. Judging from the imaginative mental scenarios set up and the rational arguments presented to demonstrate his cases in his Risale-i Nur collection, Said Nursi can be labeled as a brilliant natural theologian. He uses natural theology as a platform to arrive at revealed theology and to set up the proper framework for the interpretation of revelation, and thus merging these two branches of theology and conforming reason with revelation.
Nursi states that the words on religion and theology of those who are involved in the positive sciences based on matter do not carry much weight since these two fields are much different than one another – just like the words of an engineer on medicine do not have much value. The views of positivists on non-matter areas do not have much validity: “With respect to a problem subject to discussion in science or art, those who stand outside that science or art cannot speak
authoritatively, however great, learned and accomplished they may be, nor can their judgments be accepted as decisive. They cannot form part of the learned consensus of the science. For example, the judgment of a great engineer on the diagnosis and cure of a disease does not have the same value as that of the lowliest physician. In particular, the words of denial of a philosopher who is absorbed in the material sphere, who becomes continually more remote from the non-material or spiritual and cruder and more insensitive to light, whose intelligence is restricted to what his eye beholds - the words of such a one are unworthy of consideration and valueless with respect to non-material and spiritual matters.”“A person who is far from something cannot see that thing as clearly as the one who is close. Whenever there is disagreement about the nature of something, the opinion of the person closely is valued no matter how intelligent the far person is. Therefore, one cannot say that the philosophers that discovered technological things like lightening and steam can also discover the lights of the Qur’an and the secrets of truth. Because his mind is at his eyes. And the eye cannot see what the mind and the heart see.”
SCIENTIFIC AND INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTIONS AND THE DECLINE OF RELIGION
During the Middle Ages that lasted a millennium from the fall of Rome in the 5th century to the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century, Western Europe has suffered a general stagnation and backwardness in all areas from economy to intellectual output in literature, art, and sciences. Religion was the dominant influence in daily life, and clergy held a monopoly on truth. This age is characterized by a strong faith in the Church and the absolute authority of clergy. Aristotle’s (384 – 322 BC) doctrines related to the physical universe such as the world being the center of universe and the planets moving in circular motions were adopted as part of the doctrines of the Church. But the pioneering works of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Johannes Keppler (1571-1630), and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) in the 16th century based on careful observations and experiments followed by the formulation of the three fundamental laws of physics in the 17th century by Isaac Newton (1643-1727) disproved the Aristotle doctrines and have shaken the Church’s credibility. This new method of acquiring knowledge about the universe on the basis of observation, experimentation, and reason laid the foundations of the scientific method and started the era of modern sciences. The revolt against the religious authority unwilling to loosen its grip on knowledge is later dubbed as ‘scientific revolution’, and it resulted in the Church losing more and more ground as sciences progressed. In his book Il Saggiatore, Galileo, who was condemned by the Church for heresy, described the position of a scientist as a person trying to read the book of universe and make some sense out of it: “Philosophy (i.e., sciences) is written in this grand book—I mean the universe—which stands continually open to our gaze, but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and interpret the characters in which it is written.” The continued scientific discoveries shattered the centuries old notions, changed the world view of the public, and established the reason-based modern way of thinking.
The scientific discoveries that refuted the long-held beliefs such as the earth being the center of the solar system and offered reasonable explanations of natural phenomena cast a serious doubt on biblical authority, and resulted in a growing skepticism about all religious truths. Everything was being questioned critically, and new questions led to new discoveries. As the era of faith and submission gave way to the era of reason, the representation of knowledge shifted from religious authority inspired by revelation to scientific establishments relied on observation and reason. Eventually, the entire physical universe was declared the domain of sciences, and religion was forced to retreat into the realm of metaphysics and morality. But the Church’s stand was weakened, and trust in religious truths was deeply shaken. The dominance of science shed doubts on everything that violated the natural laws such as miracles and scriptures that spoke of supernatural. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a highly successful and just as arrogant scientific establishment that looked down on religion and all forms of the divine. There were even talks that a reasonable person could not possibly believe in God, and with expanding dominance of sciences and materialistic philosophy, some argued, the religions and faith were to become things of the past.
Similar changes were also occurring in the same time frame in applied sciences and engineering. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the world has undergone a revolution in industrialization, dubbed as ‘industrial revolution’. The construction of the first commercially successful steam engine by Thomas Newcomen in 1712 (patented in 1698 by Thomas Savory) marked the beginning of the switch from manual labor to machine power, and the invention in 1775 of James Watt’s efficient steam engine that reduced the coal use to one quarter accelerated the change. With the demonstration of a steam locomotive by Robert Trevithick in 1801, the electro-magnetic rotation used in electric motor by Michael Faraday in 1821, and the gasoline engine by Etienne Lenoir in 1859, industrialization was on its way to infuse all segments of society. This period witnessed the mechanization of all industries from steel making to ship building to textile machinery to transportation and agriculture, and the establishment of technology as the dominant source of power and wealth. Industrialization and the establishment of a working class eventually had a profound effect on all aspects of social and personal life from political systems to individual thinking. The economic and social changes gave rise to individualism and individual freedoms, and entangled the moral fabrics of societies. All attention was turned to the world and to things that provided material gain and enjoyment, and the regard for spiritual matters and the hereafter was on decline.
Newton’s discovery of universal gravitation behind the order of the universe in the 17th century opened the door for a new understanding that the universe is governed by the laws of nature. This and the works of early natural philosophers such as Keppler, Copernicus, and Galileo inspired some to apply the reason-based approach to religion also, and fueled the thought that God created the universe, set it in motion in accordance with the laws of nature, and then abandoned it. In the words of Alfred Montapert, “Nature's laws are the invisible government of the earth.” This notion formed the foundations of the philosophy or belief called deism, which is in contrast to theism in narrow sense (believing in a God that intervenes in worldly affairs), polytheism (believing in the existence of many gods), and atheism (denying the existence of God altogether).
NURSI’S REASON-BASED APPROACH TO RELIGION
Said Nursi viewed what looked to most as the peak of enlightenment and awakening for humanity and the apex of civilization as abatement and animalism. He saw this captivating wave of scientism and materialism that was side stepping the divine and promising a joyous worldly life as a serious threat for the eternal life of people, and wanted to attract attention to this great danger. Being a realist, Nursi knew that faith in the divine was weak, and thus basing his case on the verses of Holy Scriptures would be ineffective. Also, people were highly inclined towards worldly comfort and pleasures, and asking people to give up the certain of the present for the probable of the future would fall in deaf ears. Therefore, there was only one thing to do, and it was to counter reason-based disbelief with reason-based belief, and to demonstrate that the purest, highest, and the longest lasting pleasures even in this world are in belief and in leading a virtuous life. Nursi proved the matters of belief quite convincingly by refuting all alternatives on the basis of observation, reason, and logical consistency.
The developments during the era of scientific and industrial revolution showed that nothing would remain the same, and religion was no exception. Said Nursi is a contemporary religious scholar who recognized the realities of time and adhered to them rather than ignoring or opposing them. He approached religion like a scientist by challenging the mind with deep-probing provocative questions related to theology and religion, and then seeking answers to them using rational arguments based on logic and observations. Therefore, it can be said that Nursi adopted the scientific method into religion in general and theology in particular, and contributed to the qualification of these branches of learning as sciences. He did not hesitate from raising the most mind-boggling questions and resolving them in a reasonable fashion.
Nursi’s approach is very much in line with the scientific approach. He builds his case on the basis of objective observations and universally accepted facts, and subjects his case to all sorts of scrutiny by heavily engaging reason. He appeals his case to the mind for acceptance as true knowledge only after showing by convincing arguments that it passes all the tests for reasonableness, compliance with observations, and conformity with known facts. Therefore, risale-i Nur “proves” the cases it makes to satisfy the mind. In instances when the direct proof of a case is not possible, Nursi uses the indirect approach and disproves the opposing alternatives to show the validity of his case. He then appeals to conscience for validation.
Nursi views the universe as a major book, and the creatures as the lines or pages of that book. The discussions in Risale-i Nur are based to a large extent on observations and reasoned arguments, and thus they are fully compatible with scientific approach. Therefore, although the risales are religious pamphlets, they also resemble scientific articles. Among those who view the universe as a book is also Einstein: “We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is.”
Nursi, like Einstein, sets up his experiments in mental world rather than the physical world. Many risales start with a claim and end with a proof. For example, the 23rd Flash on Nature starts with three hypotheses regarding creation and continues as follows: “Indeed, since beings exist and this cannot be denied, and since each being comes into existence in a wise and artistic fashion, and since each is not outside time but is being continuously renewed, then, O falsifier of the truth, you are bound to say either that the causes in the world create beings, for example, this animal; that is to say, it comes into existence through the coming together of causes, or that it forms itself, or that its coming into existence is a requirement and necessary effect of Nature, or that it is created through the power of One All-Powerful and All-Glorious. Since reason can find no way apart from these four, if the first three are definitely proved to be impossible, invalid and absurd, the way of Divine Unity, which is the fourth way, will necessarily and self-evidently and without doubt or suspicion, be proved true.”
Nursi supports this thesis with thought experiments such as: “Imagine there is a pharmacy in which there are hundreds of jars filled with quite different substances. A living potion and a living remedy are required from those medicaments. So we go to the pharmacy and see that they are to be found there in abundance, yet in great variety. We examine each of the potions and see that the ingredients have been taken in varying but precise amounts from each of the jars, one gram from this, three from that, seven from the next, and so on. If one gram too much or too little had been taken, the potion would not have been living and would not have displayed its special quality. Next, we study the living remedy. Again, the ingredients have been taken from the jars in a particular measure so that if even the most minute amount too much or too little had been taken, the remedy would have lost its special property. Now, although the jars number more than fifty, the ingredients have been taken from each according to measures and amounts that are all different. Is it in any way possible or probable that the jars should have been knocked over by a strange coincidence or sudden gust of wind and that only the precise, though different, amounts that had been taken from each of them should have been spilt, and then arranged themselves and come together to form the remedy? Is there anything more superstitious, impossible and absurd than this?”
Starting with this example, Nursi states that each living being may be likened to the living potion in the comparison, and each plant to a living remedy that is composed of matter taken in most precise measure from numerous and various substances. He declares the claim ‘causes created these’ and the attribution to causes and the elements to be as unreasonable and absurd as the claim that the potion in the pharmacy came into existence through the jars being knocked over by accident. At the end, he states that all living creatures can only come into existence “through a boundless wisdom, infinite knowledge and all-encompassing will.” With such reason-based arguments, Nursi aims to satisfy the mind by overcoming all possible objections and to establish contentment in the heart.
Unlike the traditional religious scholars, Nursi does not invite people to embrace faith by dropping reason and unconditionally surrendering to the commandments in the undisputable Holy Scriptures. That is, he does not appeal to the conscience or hearths of people alone and bypass the mind. Instead, he places any religious matter into the hands of minds, and challenges the minds to examine the matter most critically using the most stringent criteria for scientific information. He is not afraid of opening religious matters to all sorts of questioning and criticism since he contends that there can be no contradiction between the sound mind and true messages of religion. The mind may not be able to fully comprehend some realms of religion; but lack of comprehension is not rejection.
By carefully analyzing what is observed and making logical inferrals, Nursi went further than the natural scientists in opening tunnels into the phenomena governing ordinary events behind the scenes, and describing those invisible phenomena fully with logical consistency. For example, Nursi makes the following inferrals on the basis of the observation that all existence, individually and collectively, exhibit signs of great wisdom:
“It is obvious that perfection in a work points to the perfection of the act which is the source and origin of the work. And the perfection of the act points to the perfection of the name, and the perfection of the name, to the perfection of the attribute, and perfection of the attribute to the perfection of the essential qualities, and the perfection of the qualities point necessarily and self-evidently to the perfection of the essence possessing those qualities.
For example, the inscriptions and adornments of a faultless palace which are perfect show behind them the perfection of a master builder’s acts. And the perfection of the acts shows the perfection of that effective master’s titles and names, which demonstrate his rank. And the perfection of the names and titles show the perfection of the other attributes qualifying the master builder’s art. And the perfection of the art and attributes show the perfection of the abilities and essential capacity of that craftsman, which are called the essential qualities. And the perfection of those essential qualities and abilities show the perfection of the master’s essential nature.
And in exactly the same way, these faultless works observed in the world, which manifest the meaning of ‘Do you see any flaw?’ [Qur’an, 67:3], this art in the well-ordered beings of the universe, point observedly to the perfect acts of an effective possessor of power. And those perfect acts clearly point to the perfect Names of a Glorious Author. And that perfection necessarily points to and testifies to the perfect attributes of the Beauteous One signified by the Names. And those perfect attributes certainly point to and testify to the perfection of the Perfect One qualified by those attributes. And those perfect qualities point with such absolute certainty to the perfect Essence of the One possessing those qualities that they show that all the sorts of perfection to be seen in the whole universe are but signs of His perfections, hints of His Glory, and allusions to His Beauty, and pale, weak shadows in relation to His perfection.”
We sense many things – including force, love, and even life – only when they manifest on matter, and naturally we think matter to be the source of everything. This prejudgment that we grew up with without much questioning still forms the main platform that sciences are built on. Nursi has not shown any interest in the one-dimensional view that the universe and everything in it are made entirely of matter (or energy), and criticized those who have. To those who raised the objection "Who do you think you are to challenge these famous philosophers? You are like a mere fly and yet you meddle in the flight of eagles!" Nursi has responded by saying “the matter in which they got drowned did not even wet my toes.”
Like a natural philosopher, Nursi does not refrain from attacking the most perplexed matters, even questions the nature of the most fundamental concepts of physics like natural law and force which are closely associated with existence and the concept of nature. While the materialistic thinkers present the familiar physical universe that formed after the big bang as the whole of existence, Nursi views this universe as the ‘corpse of creation’ which he terms the ‘manifest universe’. He describes the ‘nature’ as the laws and principles of creation that regulates the motions of the parts and elements of this material body and maintains order, and sees nature as a divine printing machine that prints the works of the Creator in the form of books: “There exists divine laws of creation that keep the motions of the elements and parts of the corpse of creation, known as the manifest universe, in line and in order. It is this set of the laws of creation that is called ‘nature’ or ‘divine printing machine.’ Yes, nature consists of the assembly of the immaterial laws that are in effect in the creation of the universe.”
To Nursi, what is called natural law is a section or article of this constitution of creation that is called nature, and force is the enforcement of these laws. The law of gravity, for example, is part of nature. The force of gravity, on the other hand, is the enforcement of the law and thus for everything to be pulled towards the center of the earth as foreseen by the law of gravity.
The fact that the laws of nature are in effect since the beginning of the universe and the tendency of people to see and show illusion as reality set the stage to dress nature with real external existence by solidifying and extending the airy nature with the imposition of the imagination. This is done to such extent that as if there is an invisible very powerful hand controls everything from subatomic particles to galaxies, and enforces the laws with no tolerance. In reality, what are known as laws and general forces do not have the ability to serve as the cause and the source for this universe. But because of the unawareness about the Artist of the universe and the forcing of the undeniable order, thinking that the astonishing works of wonder are the make of nature which is nothing more than a printing press is the result of an invalid argument which claims that a book is the natural product of a printing machine. According to Nursi, nature is nothing more than a channel of water, but somehow it is confused with being the source of water because of over involvement of imagination. The superficial view that looks at a printing machine as the author of printed books has paved the way for shallow and amusing situations.
Similar to the scientific and industrial revolutions witnessed in the later part of the past millennium, Nursi has initiated a rational and open approach to religion at the down of the new millennium by opening up even the most sensitive theological matters to criticism and scientific scrutiny. As result of this bold approach, Risale-i Nur has put an end to the presumed clash between sciences and religion, and turned them into allies. Nursi maintains that careful observations and objective thinking that form the platform of positive sciences result in a strong belief rather than disbelief, and past experience is indicative of this.