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When Worldviews Collide

The Encounter of Traditional and Modern Worldviews

“Worldview? What’s that,” my colleague asked in mock humor when I used the word recently over lunch in polite company, as if he had never heard the word before and didn’t have a clue what it meant. The rest of the academics looked on with studied detachment, not wanting to get involved in the discussion and give themselves away. Silence is golden and hides a multitude of sins. His gallows humor, as in the death of worldview, wasn’t lost on my modern-day sensibility, not to mention sympathies. Here was a successful academic, a professor teaching Chemistry in the Chemical Engineering Department at a respected university who was uncomfortable with the term. Like the word “world class”, people use the term for effect without realizing its true implications and how it affects the way we think.


In my classes, I always drop the word worldview among other random tidbits to entice my students to give themselves away through ignorance, disinterest, or distain; but they never do. They always nod approvingly, not to suggest that they know its meaning and implications, but as if to suggest how important it is that we have a worldview that informs our behavior and shapes our lives. What would students find if they did a Google search to enlighten themselves? The first link to show up on a routine Google search comes from none other than Wikipedia, the ubiquitous website that everyone loves to hate and hates to use but secretly does. It is enough that it provides a definition that people can latch onto if they want to know everyman’s version of the definition of the word. A comprehensive world view is the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing the entirety of the individual or society’s knowledge and point of view.

Now that’s plain scary, I thought to myself, using words that make no real sense, much less lend clarity as a definition. Cognitive orientation? Encompassing the entirety? Society’s knowledge? What might that be? Just about the only word worth salvaging in this want-to-be definition is “orientation” since it captures an essential fragment in the mosaic of meaning that could make up a true sense of what an inspiring, living and universal worldview might look like in plain words on a page. Are we going to tackle the ignominious challenge to pen a definition that could fill a thimble full of ideas that might distinguish this elusive concept? Not likely, except to suggest perhaps the following, framed within the language of the traditional perspective that traces its sources of knowledge back to revelation within the main world religions as the prevailing inspiration of our time.

A worldview is a body of knowledge, a grand mosaic if you will, comprehensive in its scope and universal in its depth, that finds its source and takes root within a concept of universal revelation from the higher consciousness of a Supreme Being, a worldview that orients the society at large who have accepted and hold dear its framework, towards those principles and doctrines with the force and power to give shape and color to our knowledge base, our cognitive and intuitive thinking processes and our behavior toward ourselves and others within the contours of a humanistic and pluralistic civilization.

Ultimately, knowledge that forms the foundation and substance of a worldview must reflect a universal whole; a complete reality must be a manifestation of an organic and holistic reality; the universe must be what it is, namely an ordered and harmonious totality that we see outwardly reflected in the harmony and lawfulness of the celestial spheres. The elements found in the natural order must be related to the whole, partly in order to understand their meaning and purpose, and partly to preserve the integrity of their own individual raison de’etre which relies on the harmony and balance of the Whole. “The science of our time knows how to measure galaxies and split atoms, but it is incapable of the smallest investigation beyond the sensible world, so much so that outside its own self-imposed but unrecognized limits it remains more ignorant than the most rudimentary magic.” Modern science presents a vast accumulation of detailed knowledge which no one could hope to grasp in its totality, partly because modern science does not accept a perspective of totality that satisfies its demand for physical proof, and partly because the accumulated facts simply do not add up to a complete and unified theory in the scientific sense, a totality and a unity (al-tawhid) in the Islamic sense of the term.  

If the traditional knowledge of metaphysics lacks sufficient proof from the scientific point of view, then it could be affirmed that from the metaphysical perspective, modern science lacks significance and the means of achieving a comprehensive meaning to the facts it uncovers that would amount to a universal cosmology regarding the origin and fate of the universe. It is not worth gathering together an extensive body of knowledge of the physical world, only to lose the essential knowledge of the soul of man and the Spirit of God as an unwanted consequence of the accumulated discoveries of physical nature. It is not worth the sacrifice of a traditional knowledge that belongs to a higher order of understanding with the power of unifying the multiplicity of all knowledge and of unifying the wide diversity of the manifested world into a single Whole, for the sake of an analytic knowledge that knows everything about the facts of the universe, but that understands nothing about the significance and meaning of the universal and metaphysical truths.

The prevailing attitudes of modern science have not always been the established standard in earlier, more traditional societies. In addition, science has not always been modern. History portrays western science as having gone through a far more traditional era when the meaning of the term “science” itself reflected the metaphysical and spiritual roots of knowledge that found its ultimate source in the sacred scriptures of the various religions, an essential knowledge that addresses the grand questions of humanity, including the questions of origin, destiny, and final end of humanity within the context of the universe as we know it. The traditional sciences were considered “a knowledge, which, while not pure metaphysics, is traditional, that is, related to metaphysical principles, and though a science in the sense of organized knowledge of a particular domain of reality, it is not divorced from the immutability which characterizes the principial order.” In this regard, knowledge draws its doubt or its certitude from the acceptance of the principle of revelation as the ultimate source of the essential knowledge. The tradition of a pursuing science of the physical laws of the universe was left to the relatively lower-level understanding of science as we know it in the modern world.

Another notable difference between traditional knowledge and modern science lies in the meaning of their application in life. Modern science applies its knowledge to the benefit and enhancement of the quality of life on the physical, practical, and sensorial levels of experience. This is not surprising since it is only interested in the physical plane of existence as the sole expression of true reality. The traditional sciences, on the other hand, understand themselves to be applications of a metaphysical doctrine that gains entrance to a different order of reality and integrates this knowledge into a unity through synthesis and full integration into a person’s behavior and action. Thus, the way a person is provides a direct reflection of the way he/she acts and behaves. The traditional sciences prepare the way for a higher expression of the essential knowledge and offers a pathway leading toward that knowledge.  

In today’s world, scientists describe the universe in terms of two basic theories, relativity and quantum mechanics, considered to be the two great intellectual achievements of the twentieth century. The theory of relativity now dominates the field of astronomy by describing the force of gravity and the large-scale structure of the universe. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, deals with phenomena on very small scales within the quantum world. Not surprisingly, astronomy as the macrocosmic field of the infinitely large and quantum physics as the microcosmic field of the infinitely small are beginning to create cracks of denial in the wall of scientific truth that has always accompanied the scientific attitude concerning higher levels of reality. The findings of both astronomy and physics have begun to hint at the possibility of domains that are actually “trans-physical”, domains that virtually transcend the purely physical plane of existence.

The sciences of physics and astronomy also point to another astounding insight:  They both contain their own distinct worlds and suggest the possibility of more undisclosed insights that are different from anything we perceive directly with our senses; as such they seem to follow their own distinct laws. We live between two worlds, the one macro and the other micro in dimension and orders of magnitude, just as from the traditional point of view, we live in the continuum of time within the envelope of eternity. As regards the linear progress of time, time’s continuum seems directional and timely, moving forward at a rate that coincides with the ticking of a metronome and the beating of our hearts. Outside the linear progress of time, time’s continuum seems like a pause between two eternities, a single breath of humanity that has had its moment only to fall back into the ocean of the Spirit. Our lives are but fragments, a parenthesis that opens the envelope of the space/time continuum and closes out the eternal now. Between the infinitely large and infinitely small worlds of astronomy and physics lies the meso world of the intelligible and the understandable, the meso-world of everyday phenomena. This middle land is reminiscent of the “middle way” of Islam. We experience directly a meso-world with our senses and are expected to follow the middle way, a path that not only reflects the reality of the natural order in which nature is beautiful because it symbolizes and reflects beauty, but also because the middle way represents the way of measure and balance that we hope to achieve in our lives as a reflection of the Islamic principles.  

For centuries, western science has insisted on observing the natural order directly while, at the same time, it has systematically refused to believe in anything that was perceived indirectly, from behind a symbol or a veil as it were, such as the truths of the traditional world that were perceived indirectly through myth, symbols, and metaphor. It wanted to find its truth in the atoms and molecules of every drop of water and every grain of sand. Now, however, with the discoveries of quantum physics, modern science has turned a corner, only to arrive at a kind of black hole in its study of the physical universe. It has discovered to its surprise that matter cannot always be substantiated and form cannot always be visualized. In fact, modern science is now reaching beyond its traditional domain of the physical world into areas that are difficult to imagine even for scientists, much less visualize or listen to for verification through the senses. For example, physicists are forced to ask themselves: Is a neutron a particle or a wave? Physicists no longer know since it behaves as both a particle and a wave and its behavior is characterized by unpredictability.  

In the traditional perspective, people were accused of believing, without coming to a true understanding of the physical world around them. With regard to some of the latest findings of quantum physics, scientists find themselves understanding their theories, but without actually believing them, because they point towards border areas into which science has been forbidden to venture. “The normal reaction to a first exposure to relativity is:  ‘I think I understand it; I just don’t believe it.’ Normally it takes a physicist about five years of contact with the ideas before he feels comfortable with them — not because they are complex or obscure, but just terribly strange.” Now quantum and astro-physics are exploring the frontiers of these borderlands with an intensity and thoroughness that it always brings to its investigations, and these scientific disciplines are beginning to make some startling discoveries and some inescapable realizations that could possibly lead to a breakthrough in the way the traditional and modern scientific worldviews interact with each other.

The time has come when we must reflect within ourselves the interrelatedness and unicity that scientists are slowing beginning to discover within the basic elements of the phenomenal world. The time has come to use the great achievements of modern science, together with traditional knowledge, to provide a consistency of perspective and philosophical depth to the knowledge that is being made available to people during this time period. We need to leave behind with finality all preconceived notions concerning the unknown mystery, in order to open ourselves to the full view of a new and unexplored horizon that begins within humanity as a realization that the origin and final end are one and the same. The aim of knowledge is not the discovery of some ultimate proof that will prove all our scientific theories to the detriment of metaphysical knowledge. The aim of knowledge is but a return to the Origin of all things which lies at the heart of humanity, within the nucleus of the atom, and at the Absolute Center of the universe. To have knowledge of our origins and our final end is to know from where we originate and therefore the destination to which we will ultimately return.

Whether it is the recent findings of modern science in the fields of biology, chemistry and physics that have revolutionized the entire intellectual framework and enriched the storehouse of modern knowledge as never before, or the wide diversity and profound scope of the traditional knowledge whose fullness reaches down from Heaven to enrich the earth and whose extent spans across all races and cultures, one thing must become clear. The deeper a modern and contemporary person explores either the rational or intuitive perspective, the more that person must realize the existence of a unique similarity of aim and purpose between the two contemporary paradigms of knowledge. A bridge of opportunity is beginning to emerge that may span the divide that exists between scientific and traditional knowledge that would be too important to ignore by right thinking individuals.  

Science needs a perennial philosophy of universal truths in order to substantiate the facts and the findings that it uncovers on the physical plane of manifestation, and in order to give them accessibility and meaning to the people of our time. Traditionally, the world religions, and the religion of Islam in particular, have accomplished this feat with considerable success by offering a sacred philosophy of life and practical wisdom to help fulfill life’s purpose in a manner that is comprehensible to everyone. The science we envision would have to be a “sacred science” rather than an exclusively “empirical science” such as we have now, a science that holds the door open to permit the higher, metaphysical realities to reveal themselves within the natural order as the universal principles that they truly are.

Neither science nor religion can continue into the new millennium as islands unto themselves. Nor can either modern science or the great world religions suffer a fatal compromise at the expense of the other perspective. The world cannot afford to lose either the incredible quality or depth of the traditional knowledge or the incredible precision, accuracy and range of the knowledge of modern science. They both need to integrate themselves into a comprehensive theory of knowledge that the adherents of these two perspectives would be willing to believe in and act upon. Each perspective needs to exhibit a new consciousness that complements the incredible breadth of knowledge and possibility that these valid and alternative fields of vision encompass. They both need to be inclusive rather than exclusive, inviting dialogue and exchange between related fields of interest to bridge their differences and frames of reference. It is not for nothing that the Messenger of Islam is quoted as having said: “Seek knowledge (of science), even unto China,” which was a form of Arab hyperbole to suggest that the knowledge of science was so important one should seek it even unto “the ends of the earth”. No doubt, the Prophet of Islam was thinking of a traditional knowledge that found its source in the headwaters of revelation that flowed through him to his companions, and ultimately the world we now live in.

The sources of traditional knowledge will continue to inspire the minds and hearts of humanity. The night sky will always be the “city of God” and the vast cosmic universe will always be a magnificent universal book and a mirror reflection of the Divinity. The traditional scale of the universe fully establishes the value of the qualitative experience behind the cold face of quantity. It weaves an intricate web of purpose and a hierarchy of meaning that permits humanity to find their place in the universe precisely because the essential elements of the universe exist within the human being, namely knowledge, intelligence, existence, life, and consciousness. The mystery of cosmic genesis and the knowledge of a true beginning lie hidden within the mystery of a transcendent consciousness that has proclaimed as an eternal remembrance: “I was a hidden treasure and wanted to be known. Therefore, I created the world.”
John Herlihy was born in Boston Massachusetts and has received higher degrees from Boston University and Columbia University in New York. He has also published a number of works on Islam and spirituality, including Wisdom’s Journey and Living a Muslim Life. His most recent publication (August 2015) is entitled Feathers in the Dust: Traditional Essays on the Human Condition. He has also written a book of travel essays, Journeys With Soul. He teaches academic writing in the English Department at Qatar University in Doha.