Abdus Salam and Galileo: The separation of science from religion (and philosophy)

Dr Abdus Salam, the late Pakistani particle physicist is the only Muslim physicist till date to have been awarded the Nobel Prize. Dr Salam was rare among modern day scientists in that he was a devout Muslim. While most modern scientists are not concerned with religious matters, Dr Salam found his inspiration for science in religion. For instance, in his Nobel banquet speech, he quoted the following verses from the Quran:

“Thou seest not, in the creation of the All-merciful any imperfection, Return thy gaze, seest thou any fissure. Then Return thy gaze, again and again. Thy gaze, Comes back to thee dazzled, aweary.” Salam added: “This in effect is, the faith of all physicists; the deeper we seek, the more is our wonder excited, the more is the dazzlement for our gaze”

However, at the same time, Dr Salam believed in the strict separation of science and religion, and refused to debate or entertain Muslim ‘scholars’ who issued judgements on scientific matters using the Quran. This may appear to be a contradiction but in fact this attitude has a long history that can be traced back to the father of modern science, Galileo Galilei. Galileo too was a deeply religious person. A careful study of Galileo’s inquisition trial reveals that Galileo ardently wanted to keep the church from committing a mistake that it would later come to regret. In his Letter to Christina, he famously argues for the separation of science from not just religion but also philosophy! (This point about philosophy is often forgotten. In Galileo’s case, the dogmatism of philosophers is perhaps more to be blamed than religious dogmatism).

Galileo begins the letter by discussing the calumnies against him: “…I discovered in the heavens many things that had not been seen before our own age. The novelty of these things, as well as some consequences which followed from them in contradiction to the physical notions commonly held among academic philosophers, stirred up against me no small number of professors-as if I had placed these things in the sky with my own hands in order to upset nature and overturn the sciences.”

He then narrates how these philosophers in their desperation started using the Bible for arguing their case. Since their authority had been challenged, as an easy resort they appealed to the Bible. As someone who was deeply religious, Galileo couldn’t bear the thought of being accused of heresy. He goes on to explain why mixing religion with science was a recipe for disaster:

“In expounding the Bible if one were always to confine oneself to the unadorned grammatical meaning, one might; fall into error. Not only contradictions and propositions far from true might thus be made to appear in the Bible, but even grave heresies and follies. Thus it would be necessary to assign to God feet, hands and eyes, as well as corporeal and human affections, such as anger, repentance, hatred, and sometimes even the forgetting of things past and ignorance of those to come.”

As discussed in an earlier post, this is exactly the battle that is raging in the Muslim world right now between the Salafi/Wahhabis and other schools of thought. Echoing Dr Salam, Galileo goes on to say, “But I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations.”

To further strengthen his position, Galileo banks on the authority of St Augustine. Galileo notes that St Augustine had also called for a separation of religion and science. Regarding the motion of earth and the sun, St. Augustine had said: “Some of the brethren raise a question concerning the motion of heaven, whether it is fixed or moved. If it is moved, they say, how is it a firmament? If it stands still, how do these stars which are held fixed in it go round from east to west, the more northerly performing shorter circuits near the pole, so that the heaven (if there is another pole unknown to us) may seem to revolve upon some axis, or (if there is no other pole) may be thought to move as a discus? To these men I reply that it would require many subtle and profound reasonings to find out which of these things is actually so; but to undertake this and discuss it is consistent neither with my leisure nor with the duty of those whom I desire to instruct in essential matters more directly conducing to their salvation and to the benefit of the holy Church.”

In another place, Galileo addresses philosophers who were worried that by challenging the authority of Aristotle, he was undermining the future of philosophy: “Philosophy itself cannot but benefit from our disputations, for if our conceptions prove true, new achievements will have been made; if false, their refutation will further confirm the original doctrines. So save your concern for certain philosophers; come to their aid and defend them. As to science, it can only improve.”

In The Assayer, Galileo lays down the spirit of modern science, in direct contrast to philosophy:“To put aside hints and speak plainly, and dealing with science as a method of demonstration and reasoning capable of human pursuit, I hold that the more this partakes of perfection, the smaller the number of propositions it will promise to teach, and fewer yet will it conclusively prove. Consequently, the more perfect it becomes, the less attractive it will be and the fewer will be its followers. On the other hand [books with] magnificent titles and many grandiose promises attract the natural curiosity of men, and hold them forever involved in fallacies and chimeras without ever offering them on single sample of that sharpness of true proof by which the taste may be awakened to know how insipid is its ordinary fare.”

If only the above words with all their profound implications were imbibed properly by many popular science writers, philosophers and religious-minded people, a lot of needless and heated debate could be avoided. Ironically, many modern scientists tend to forget Galileo’s message, fancy themselves as philosophers, and produce books with “magnificent titles” such as A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. Unfortunately, as things stand, in many respects, we are still living in the pre-Galilean age. 

Anyhow, Galileo’s stance was vindicated in the long run, though at the time he had to suffer for his prophetic message. He did not turn away from his religion till the very end. During his house arrest, towards the end of his life, he wrote a letter to a correspondent saying, “…I have two sources of perpetual comfort–first, that in my writings there cannot be found the faintest shadow of irreverence towards the Holy Church; and second the testimony of my own conscience, which only I and God in Heaven thoroughly know. And He knows that in this cause for which I suffer, though many might have spoken with more learning, none, not even the ancient Fathers, have spoken with more piety or with greater zeal for the Church than I.”

In short, Galileo believed that he was doing a service to religion by advocating its separation from scientific matters. In Pakistan, Galileo’s spiritual descendant, Dr Abdus Salam suffered a similar fate when he was declared a non-Muslim by the Pakistani state. This led to his self-imposed exile; he was buried in Pakistan on his request…no state official attended his funeral…

Endnote: Since science and philosophy were virtually indistinguishable till as late as the 19th century, it might appear to be anachronistic to say that Galileo was arguing for a separation of science and philosophy as early as the 17th century. However, Galileo’s writings clearly show that he knew (and explicitly argued) that his way of doing things was piecemeal and approximate, based on demonstration and experiments, and, more importantly, his aims were not the same as those of traditional philosophy. 

2 responses to “Abdus Salam and Galileo: The separation of science from religion (and philosophy)”

  1. I just recently finished re-reading Rene Descartes “Discourse of the Method” (contemporary to Galileo) where he distances himself from Philosophers talking like if he was not one them but, on the other hand, he does not limit his method just to science… or better put, just to what we consider now science.

    He believed reason was above data, that ideas had more reality than senses (this stand goes back to Plato) so, although Descartes and Galileo separated science from philosophy that separation is not maybe the one nowadays we might have in mind.

    I don’t know, but after reading Galileo’s comments in your post, and considering Descartes Method, I have the feeling that back in those days people might have begun to use the term Philosopher as a synonym for charlatan.

    But, to be honest, I might be pre-Galilean because I am not really sure whether reason supersedes data or the other way around.

    1. So the thing is that Galileo in his works describes many experiments that he actually did perform and many that he didn’t perform (they were simply thought experiments or deductions based on reason alone). So that in a way already answers your question. A lot of the time, the data is simply misleading and we can’t let it dictate our conclusions. Hence, we are supposed to do experiments and not just model the noise out there (though this latter can lead to useful applications). But even with experiments, like you imply, its a judgement call often. That’s why there is no algorithmic scientific method that tells you what supersedes what.

      When I said pre-Galilean, I meant arguments over matters which science can’t even begin to reach. Galileo was very aware of the limitations of science. On another (related) note, on the separation of science and philosophy, what Galileo argues over and over is that his method is unexciting and piecemeal and approximate, and he doesn’t aim to provide big answers as do the philosophers. There is a lot in there. I think Galileo was laying down the seeds for the separation…but of couse as I said (and you also say), in our terms the real “divide” didn’t happen as late as the 19th century…

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