Science, Religion, Art & the Necessity of Freedom (2004)

Science, Religion, Art & the Necessity of Freedom: Reason’s Response to Islamism

Subroto Roy, PhD (Cantab.), BScEcon (London)

(A public lecture delivered as the Wincott Visiting Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham on August 24 2004, based on a keynote address to the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, Manila, November 16 2001.)

I am most grateful to the University of Buckingham for allowing me to refresh and carry forward my research these last several months. For some 25 years I have been learning of and reflecting upon the work of two great modern British philosophers, John Wisdom (1904-1993) and Renford Bambrough (1926-1999). In the 1980s in America, I came to apply their thinking in Philosophy of Economics (Routledge 1989), a book which got me into a lot of trouble there. Returning to Britain in 2004, I am dismayed to find their work almost forgotten or unknown today, even at the Ancient University that had been their home. “Orientalists” from the West once used to comprehend and highlight the achievements of the East for the peoples of the East who were unaware of them; I am happy to return the favour by becoming an “Occidentalist” in highlighting a little of the work of two of Britain’s finest sons of which she has become unaware. Wisdom and Bambrough played a kind of modern-day Plato and Aristotle to the Socrates played by Wittgenstein (1889-1951); the knowledge they achieved in their lives and have left behind for us to use and apply to our own problems make them, in terms of Eastern philosophy, rather like the “Boddhisatvas” of Mahayana Buddhism. I do not expect anyone to share such an extravagant view, and will be more than satisfied if I am able to suggest that we can have a grasp of the nature and scope of human reasoning thanks to their work which may help resolve the most intractable and seemingly irreconcilable of all current international problems, namely the grave cultural conflicts made apparent since September 11 2001.

2. The September 11 attacks aimed to cripple one of the world’s largest and most important countries in a new kind of act of war. The perpetrators apparently saw themselves — subjectively in their own minds — acting in the name of one of the world’s largest and most important religions. Since the attacks, the world has become an unusually bewildering place, as if notions of freedom, tolerance and the rule of law have been proven a lie overnight, as if virtues like patience, common reasoning and good humour have all become irrelevant, deserving to be flushed away in face of a resurgence of ancient savageries. The attackers and their friends taunt the West saying their love of death is greater and more powerful than the West’s love of life; the taunts and the counter-taunts of their powerful adversaries have had the effect of spraying panic, mutual fear, hatred or destruction across the surface of everyday life everywhere, so we now have bizarre scenes of people taking off their shoes and clothes and putting them on again while travelling, and of the British public being advised on how to cope with nerve gas attacks when they might have much rather been watching “reality TV” instead. An Age of Unreason appears upon us.

The very simple proposition I put forward here is this: there are, indeed there cannot be, any conflicts that are necessarily irresoluble. To put it differently, the logical scope of common reasoning is indefinite and limitless. There is no question to which there is not a right answer. If I was asked to answer in one sentence what has been the combined contribution to human thought of Wittgenstein, Wisdom and Bambrough, indeed of modern British philosophy as a whole, I would say it has been the proof that there are no unanswerable questions, that there is no question to which there is not a right answer.
By “common reasoning” I shall mean merely to refer to the structure of any conversation well-enough described by F. R. Leavis’s operators in literary criticism:

“This is so, isn’t it?,

Yes, but….”.

My “yes” to your “This is so, isn’t it?” indicates agreement with what you have said while my “but…” tells you I believe there may be something more to the matter, some further logical relation to be found, some further fact to be investigated or experiment carried out, some further reflection necessary and possible upon already known and agreed upon facts. It amounts to a new “This is so, isn’t it?” to which you may respond with your own, “Yes, but…”; and our argument would continue. Another set of operators is:

“You might as well say…”;

“Exactly so”;

“But this is different…”

This was how Wisdom encapsulated the “case-by-case” method of argument that he pioneered and practised. It requires intimate description of particular cases and marking of similarities and differences between them, yielding a powerful indefinitely productive method of objective reasoning, distinct from and logically prior to the usual methods of deduction and induction that exhaust the range of positivism. We are able to see how common reasoning may proceed in practice in subtle fields like law, psychology, politics, ethics, aesthetics and theology, just as objectively as it does in natural science and mathematics. Wittgenstein had spoken of our “craving for generality” and our “contemptuous attitude towards the particular case”. Wisdom formalised the epistemological priority of particular over general saying: “Examples are the final food of thought. Principles and laws may serve us well. They can help us to bring to bear on what is now in question what is not now in question. They help us to connect one thing with another and another and another. But at the bar of reason, always the final appeal is to cases.” And “Argument must be heard”.

In all conflicts – whether within a given science, between different sciences, between sciences and religion, within a given religion, between different religions, between sciences and arts, within the arts, between religion and the arts, between quarrelling nations, quarrelling neighbours or quarrelling spouses, whether in real relationships of actual life or hypothetical relationships of literature and drama – an approach of this kind tells us there is something further that may be said, some improvement that can be carried out, some further scope for investigation or experiment allowing discovery of new facts, some further reflection necessary or possible upon known facts. There are no conflicts that are necessarily irresoluble. Where the suicide-bombers and their powerful adversaries invite us to share their hasty and erroneous assumption that religious, political or economic cultures are becoming irreconcilable and doomed to be fights unto death, we may give to them instead John Wisdom’s “Argument must be heard.”

Parties to this or any conflict may in fact fail to find in themselves enough patience, tolerance, good humour, courage to take an argument where it leads, or they may fail to find enough of these qualities in adequate time, as Quesnay and the Physiocrats failed to find solutions in adequate time and were swept away by the French Revolution. But the failures of our practical human powers and capabilities do not signal that the logical boundaries of the scope of reason have been reached or even approached or come to be sighted.

3. The current conflict is said to be rooted in differences between religious cultures. We may however wish to first address whether any religious belief or practice can survive the devastating onslaught of natural science, the common modern adversary of all religions. What constitutes a living organism? What is the difference between plants and animals? What is the structure of a benzene ring or carbon atom or subatomic particle? What is light? Sound? Gravity? What can be said about black holes or white dwarfs? When did life begin here and when is it likely to end? Are we alone in being the only form of self-conscious life? Such questions about the world and Universe and our place in it have been asked and answered in their own way by all peoples of the world, from primitive tribes in hidden forests to sophisticated rocket scientists in hidden laboratories. Our best common understanding of them constitutes the state of scientific knowledge at a given time. Once we have accounted for all that modern science has to say, can any reasonable explanation or justification remain to be given of any religious belief or practice from any time or place?

Bambrough constructed this example. Suppose we are walking on the shore of a stormy sea along with Homer, the ancient Greek poet, who has been restored to us thanks to a time machine. We are walking along when Homer looks at the rough sea and says, “Poseidon is angry today”. We look at the waves loudly hitting the rocks and nod in agreement saying, “Yes, Poseidon is angry today”. We may be using the same words as Homer but Homer’s understanding of and expectations about the words “Poseidon is angry today” and our understanding of and expectations about the same words would be utterly different, a difference moreover we are able to understand but he may not. To us with our modern meteorology and oceanography, and the results of the television cameras of Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough, we know for a fact there is no god-like supernatural being called Poseidon living within the ocean whose moods affect the waves. But to Homer, Poseidon not only exists in the ocean but also leaves footprints and descendants on the land, when Poseidon is angry the sea is vicious, when Poseidon is calm the seas are peaceful. We use the words “Poseidon is angry today” as an accurate description of the mood of an angry sea; Homer uses the same words to mean there was a god-like supernatural being inside the ocean whose anger was being reflected in the anger of the waves.

My second story is from 7th century AD located here in Buckingham, from a spot a few hundred yards behind the Economics Department of the University where there is St Rumbwald’s Well. In 650 AD — just a short while after The Recital of the Prophet of Islam (570-632AD) had been written down as The Q’uran, and just a little while before the Chinese pilgrim I-Ching (635-713AD) would be travelling through India recording his observations about Buddhism – here 12 miles from Buckingham was born the babe known as Rumwold or Rumbwald. England was hardly Christian at the time and the first Archbishop of Canterbury had been recently sent by the Pope to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Rumbwald’s father was a pagan prince of Northumbria; his mother the Christian daughter of the King of Mercia. St Rumbwald of Buckingham or Brackley is today the patron saint of fishermen at Folkestone, and he has been historically revered at monasteries in Mercia, Wessex and distant Sweden. Churches have been dedicated to him in Kent,Essex, Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire, Dorset and North Yorkshire. Pilgrims have washed themselves at St Rumwald’s Well over centuries and it is said Buckingham’s inns originated in catering to them. What is the legend of St Rumbwald? It is that on the day he was born he declared three times in a loud voice the words “I am a Christian, I am a Christian, I am a Christian”. After he had been baptised, he, on the second day of his life, was able to preach a sermon on the Trinity and the need for virtuous living, and foretold his imminent death, saying where he wished to be buried. On the third day of his life he died and was buried accordingly.

When we hear this story today, we might smile, wishing newborn babes we have known waking up in the middle of the night might be more coherent too. Professor John Clarke has shown Catholic hagiography over the centuries has also registered deep doubts about the Rumbwald story. We might be tempted to say the whole thing is complete nonsense. If a modern person took it at face value, we would look on it sympathetically. We know for a fact it is impossible, untrue, there has to be some error.

At the bar of reason, all religions lose to science where they try to compete on science’s home grounds, which are the natural or physical world. If a religious belief requires that a material object can be in two places at the same time, that something can be made out of nothing, that the Sun and planets go around the Earth to make Night and Day, that the Earth is flat and the sky is a ceiling which may be made to fall down upon it by Heavenly Wrath, that the rains will be on time if you offer a prayer or a sacrifice, it is destined to be falsified by experience. Natural science has done a lot of its work in the last few centuries; all the major religions pre-date this expansion so their physical premises may have remained those of the science understood in their time. In all questions where religions try to take on scientific understanding head on, they do and must lose, and numerous factual claims made by all religions will disappear in the fierce and unforgiving heat of the crucible of scientific reasoning and evidence.Yet even a slight alteration of the St Rumbwald story can make it plausible to modern ears. Just the other day Radio 4 had a programme on child prodigies who were able to speak words and begin to master language at age of one or two. It is not impossible a child prodigy of the 7th Century AD in his first or second year of life spoke the words “I’m a Christian”, or that as a toddler with a devout Christian mother, he said something or other about the Holy Trinity or about virtue or that he wished to be buried in such and such place even if he had had no real understanding of what he was talking about. If such a prodigious infant of royal blood then died from illness, we can imagine the grief of those around him, and how word about him might spread through a countryside in an era 1200 years before the discovery of electricity and invention of telecommunications, and for that information to become garbled enough to form the basis of the legend of St Rumbwald through the centuries.

The Rumbwald story is a typical religious story that has its parallels in other times and places including our own. It is impossible for it to have been factually true in the way it has come down to us, but it is completely possible for us with our better knowledge of facts and science today to reasonably explain its power over the beliefs of many generations of people. And if we are able to reasonably explain why people of a given time and place may have believed or practised what they did, we have not reason to be disdainful or scornful of them. The mere fact such religious stories, beliefs, experiences and practices of human beings over several thousand years across the globe have been expressed in widely different and far from well-translated or well-understood languages – Egyptian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Hawaiian, Samoan, Apache, Kwa Zulu, Hausa, Swahili – let aside English, Arabic, Yiddish or a thousand others, provides more than ample explanation of how miscomprehension and misapprehension can arise and continue, of how a vast amount of mutual contempt and scorn between peoples of different cultures is able to be irrationally sustained. The scope for the reasonable “demythologisation” of all these stories in all these languages from all these religions, in the way we have sought to “demythologise” the Rumbwald story here obviously remains immense and indefinite.

Next consider religious practice in the modern world, and the universal act of praying. (Economists have not seemed to look much at this before though a lot of mankind’s energy and resources are rationally spent towards it every day across the world.) Some weeks ago, on the 60th Anniversary of D-Day, Lady Soames, the daughter of Churchill, recalled the incredible fear and tension and uncertainty felt during the buildup to the invasion of Normandy; she said that when she finally heard the roar of the aeroplanes as they started across the English Channel: “I fell to my knees and prayed as I’d never prayed before or since” (BBC 1 June 6 2004, 8.40 am). A policeman’s wife in Costa Rica in Central America is shown making the sign of the cross upon her husband before he goes to work in the morning into a crime-ridden area from which he might not return safely at the end of the day. Footballers and boxers and opening batsmen around the world say a prayer before entering the field of contest. So do stockbrokers, foreign exchange dealers, businessmen, job-candidates and students taking examinations, and of course hospital-patients entering operating theatres. Before a penalty shootout between England and Portugal or Holland and Sweden, many thousands of logically contradictory prayers went up.

All this praying is done without a second thought about the ultimate ontological character of the destination of such prayers, or even whether such a destination happens or happens not to exist at all. The universal ubiquitous act of praying might be a rational human response to fear, uncertainty, hopelessness, and despair, as also to unexpected joy or excessive happiness.

Blake said: “Excess of joy, weeps, Excess of sorrow, laughs”. When there is excess of sorrow or excess of joy, praying may contribute mental resources like courage, tranquillity and equanimity and so tend to restore emotional equilibrium in face of sudden trauma or excitement. A provisional conclusion we may then register is that religious beliefs and practices of people around the world are open to be reasonably comprehended and explained in these sorts of straightforward ways, and at the same time there is a good sense in which progress in religious understanding is possible and necessary to be made following growth and improvement of our factual understanding of the world and Universe in which we live.

We still speak of the Sun “rising in the East” and “setting in the West” despite knowing since Copernicus and Galileo and the testimony of Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong that the Sun has in fact never done any such thing. Our understanding of the same words has changed fundamentally. Tycho Brahe thought the Sun went around Earth; his disciple Kepler the opposite; when Tycho Brahe looked East at dawn he understood something different from (and inferior to) what Kepler understood when Kepler looked East at dawn. It is similar to Homer and us with respect to whether Poseidon’s moods affect the waves of the sea. Examples of traditional religious belief and understanding may get modified by our scientific knowledge and understanding such that the same words may mean something quite different as a result and have a new significance for our consciousness.

Indeed it extends well beyond natural science to our understanding of literature, art and psychology as well. With the knowledge we have gained of ourselves — of our conscious waking minds as well as of our unconscious dreaming minds — after we have read and tried to grasp Blake, Goethe, Dostoevsky or Freud, we may quite well realise and comprehend how the thoughts and feelings residing in the constitutions of actual beings, including ourselves, are more than enough to describe and explain good and evil, and without having to refer to any beings outside ourselves residing elsewhere other than Earth. It is like the kind of progress we make in our personal religious beliefs from what we had first learned in childhood. We do not expect a person after he or she has experienced the ups and downs of adult life to keep to exactly the same religious beliefs and practises he or she had as a child at mother’s knee, and we do not expect mankind to have the same religious beliefs today as it did in its early history.

Bambrough concluded: “There is no incompatibility between a refurbished demythologised Homeric polytheism, a refurbished demythologised Christianity, and a refurbished demythologised Islam…. The Creation and the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Virgin Birth…may be very differently conceived without being differently expressed….we can still learn from the plays and poems of the ancient Greeks, although we reject the basis of the mythological structure through which they express their insight and their understanding. The myths continue to teach us something because they are attached to, and grounded in, an experience that we share. It would therefore be astonishing if the Christian religion, whether when considered as a united and comprehensive body of doctrine it is true or false, did not contain much knowledge and truth, much understanding and insight, that remain valuable and accessible even to those who reject its doctrinal foundations. In and through Christianity the thinkers and writers and painters and moralists of two thousand years have struggled to make sense of life and the world and men…. What is more, the life that they wrestled with is our life; the world they have portrayed is the world that we live in; the men that they were striving to understand are ourselves.”

Bambrough was addressing Church of England clergy forty years ago but in his reference to a refurbished demythologised Islam he might as well have been addressing Muslim clergy today — indeed his findings are quite general and apply to other theists as well as to atheists, and provide an objective basis for the justification of tolerance.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam each starts with a “religious singularity”, a single alleged moment in the history of human beings when a transcendental encounter is believed to have occurred: the Exodus of God’s Chosen People led by Moses; the Birth, Life, Death and Resurrection of God’s Only Son, Jesus Christ; the Revelation of God’s Book to His Messenger, Muhammad, Peace Be Unto Him, the Seal of the Prophets. Each speaks of a transcendental Creator, of just rewards and punishments awaiting us in a transcendental eternal life after mortal earthly death.

A different fork in the road says, however, that the wind blowing in the trees may be merely the wind blowing in the trees, nothing more; it is the path taken by Buddhism and Jainism, which deny the existence of any Creator who is to be owed our belief or reverence. It is also the path taken by Sigmund Freud the ultra-scientific rationalist of modern times: “It seems not to be true that there is a power in the universe, which watches over the well-being of every individual with parental care and brings all his concerns to a happy ending…. it is by no means the rule that virtue is rewarded and wickedness punished, but it happens often enough that the violent, the crafty and the unprincipled seize the desirable goods of the earth, while the pious go empty away. Dark, unfeeling and unloving powers determine human destiny; the system of rewards and punishments, which, according to religion, governs the world, seems to have no existence.”

We then seem to have a choice between a Universe Created or Uncreated, Something and Nothing, One and Zero, God and No God. Pascal said we have to bet on the Something not on the Nothing, bet on the One not on the Zero, bet on God being there rather than not being there. Pascal’s reasoning was clear and forms the basis of “decision theory” today: if you bet on God’s existence and God does not exist, you lose nothing; if you bet on God’s lack of existence and God exists, you’ve had it. The philosophies of my own country, India, speak of Zero and One, Nothing or Something, and almost leave it at that. Perhaps we know, or perhaps we do not says the Rg Veda’s Hymn of Creation.. Does our self-knowledge end with our mortal death or perhaps begin with it? Or perhaps just as there is an infinite continuum of numbers between 0 and 1, there is also an infinite continuum of steps on a staircase between a belief in Nothing and a belief in Something, between the atheism of Freud and the Buddhists and the theism of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Generalising Bambrough’s findings, it would be surprising if we did not find each and every religion, whether theistic or atheistic, to contain some knowledge and truth, some understanding and insight, that remains valuable and accessible even to those who may otherwise reject the doctrinal foundations of any or all of them. In and through the religions, the thinkers, writers, painters, poets, sculptors and artists of thousands of years have struggled to make sense of our life and the world that we live in; the men and women they were striving to understand are ourselves.

4. Just after the September 11 attacks, I said in the Philippines that the perpetrators of the attacks would have been surprised to know of the respect with which the religious experience of the Prophet of Islam had been treated by the 19th Century British historian Thomas Carlyle: “The great Mystery of Existence… glared in upon (Mohammad), with its terrors, with its splendours; no hearsays could hide that unspeakable fact, ‘Here am I!’. Such sincerity… has in very truth something of divine. The word of such a man is a Voice direct from Nature’s own Heart. Men do and must listen to that as nothing else; all else is wind in comparison.” Carlyle told stories of Mohammad once not abiding by his own severe faith when he wept for an early disciple saying “You see a friend weeping over his friend”; and of how, when the young beautiful Ayesha tried to make him compare her favourably to his deceased wife and first disciple the widow Khadija, he had denied her: “She believed in me when none else would believe. In the whole world I had but one friend and she was that!” Carlyle’s choice of stories suggested the simple humanity and humility of Mohammad’s life and example, even an intersection between Islamic belief and modern science (”a Voice direct from Nature’s own Heart”). Carlyle quoted Goethe: “If this be Islam, do we not all live in Islam?”, suggesting there might be something of universal import in the message well beyond specifically Muslim ontological beliefs.

In general, the words and deeds of a spiritual leader of mankind like that of secular or scientific leaders like Darwin, Einstein, Aristotle, Adam Smith or Karl Marx, may be laid claim to by all of us whether we are explicit adherents, disciples or admirers or not. No private property rights attach upon their legacies, rather these remain open to be discussed freely and reasonably by everyone. Just as war is too important to be left to the generals, politics is too important to be left to the politicians, economics is definitely too important to be left to the economists; even science may be too important to be left to the scientists — certainly also, the religions are far too important to be left to the religious.

Yet Mr Osama Bin Laden and his friends, followers and potential followers, indeed any believing Muslims, are unlikely to be impressed with any amount of “external” praise heaped on Islam by a Carlyle or a Goethe, let aside by a President Bush or Prime Minister Blair. They may be wary of outsiders who bring so much praise of Islam, and will tell them instead “If you like Islam as much as you say you do, why not convert? It’s so easy. You have merely to say ‘God is One and Mohammad is the Seal of the Prophets’ – that’s all, you are Muslim, God is Great”.

Indeed Mr Bin Laden and friends are unlikely to be impressed with any kind of economic or carrot-and-stick policy of counter-terrorism, where incentives and disincentives are created by Western authorities like the US 9/11 Commission or the Blair Cabinet telling them: “If you are ‘moderate’ in your thoughts, words and deed you will earn this, this and this as rewards from the Government, but if you are ‘extremist’ in your thoughts, words and deeds then you shall receive that, that and that as penalties from the Government. These are your carrots and here is the stick.” It is Skinnerian behavioural psychology gone overboard. The incentives mean nothing, and the disincentives, well, they would merely have to be more careful not to end up in the modern Gulags.

We could turn from carrot-and-stick to a more sophisticated mode of negative rhetoric instead. If a doctrine C, declares itself to be resting upon prior doctrines B and A, then C’s reliability and soundness comes to depend on the reliability and soundness of B and A. If Islam declares itself to depend on references to a historical Moses or a historical Jesus, and if the last word has not been spoken by Jews, Christians, sceptics or others about the historical Moses or the historical Jesus, then the last word cannot have been spoken about something on which Islam declares itself to depend.

We can be more forceful too. Suicide-bombers combine the most sordid common crimes of theft and murder with the rare act of suicide as political protest. Suicide as political protest is a dignified and noble and awesome thing – many may remember the awful dignity in the sight of the Buddhist monks and nuns of South Vietnam immolating themselves in 1963 in protest against religious persecution by Diem’s Catholic regime, which led to the start of the American war in Vietnam. Six years and half a world away, Jan Palach, on January 19 1969, immolated himself in Wenceslas Square protesting the apathy of his countrymen to the Soviet invasion that had ended the Prague Spring. Socrates himself was forced to commit suicide for political reasons, abiding by his own injunction that it would be better to suffer wrong oneself than to come to wrong others — suicide as political protest is not something invented recently. And certainly not by Bin Laden and friends, whose greed makes their intentions and actions merely ghastly lacking all dignity: they are not satisfied like the Buddhist monks or like Jan Palach with political protest of their own suicides by self-immolation; they must add the sordid cruelty that goes with the very ordinary crimes of theft and mass murder as well.

Yet this kind of negative rhetorical attack too may not cut much ice with Mr Bin Laden and his friends. Just as they will dismiss our praise for Islam as being a suspicious trick, they will dismiss our criticism as the expected animus of an enemy.

To convict Mr Bin Laden of unreason, of contradicting himself, of holding contrary propositions x and ~x simultaneously and so talking meaninglessly and incoherently, we will have to bring out our heaviest artillery, namely, The Holy Q’uran itself, the Recital of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him). We may have to show explicitly how Mr Bin Laden’s own words contradict what is in The Q’uran. He and his followers would then be guilty of maintaining x and its contrary ~x at the same time, of violating the most basic law of logical reasoning, the law of excluded middle, of contradicting themselves, and therefore of speaking meaninglessly, incoherently, nonsensically regardless of their language, culture, nationality or religion. The Q’uran is a grand document and anyone reading it must be prepared to either considering believing it or having powerful enough reasons not to do so. “The great Mystery of Existence”, Carlyle said, “glared in upon (Mohammad), with its terrors, with its splendours; no hearsays could hide that unspeakable fact, ‘Here am I!’. Such sincerity… has in very truth something of divine. The word of such a man is a Voice direct from Nature’s own Heart. Men do and must listen to that as nothing else; all else is wind in comparison.”

Certainly, as in many other religions, the believers and unbelievers are distinguished numerous times in the Prophet’s Recital; believers are promised a Paradise of wine and many luxuries, while unbelievers are promised hell-fire and many other deprivations. But who are these unbelievers? They are the immediate local adversaries of the Prophet, the pagans of Mecca, the hanifs, the local tribes and sceptics arrayed against the Prophet. It is crystal clear that these are the people being named as unbelievers in The Q’uran, and there is absolutely no explicit or implicit mention or reference in it to peoples of other places or other times. There is no mention whatsoever of Anglo-Saxons or Celts, Vikings, Goths, or Gauls, of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Confucians or Shintos, no mention of Aztecs, Incas, or Eskimos. There is no mention of any peoples of any other places or of any later times. Certainly there is no mention of the people of modern America or Israel or Palestine or Britain or India. Yet Mr Bin Laden evidently sent an email to the head of the Taliban on October 3 2001, in which he referred to “defending Islam and in standing up to the symbols of infidelity of this time” (Atlantic Monthly, Sep. 2004). We are then able to say to him or any of his friends: “Tell us, Sir, when you declare a war between believers and unbelievers in the name of Islam, whom do you mean to refer to as “unbelievers”? Do you mean to refer to every person in history who has not been a Muslim, even those who may have been ignorant of Islam and its Prophet? Or do you mean to refer to the opponents and enemies the Prophet actually happened to encounter in his struggles during his mission as a proselytiser, i.e., the Arabic idolaters of Mecca, the hanifs and Qureshis, this local Jewish tribe or that local Christian or pagan tribe against whom the early Muslim believers had to battle strenuously and heroically in order to survive? If it is these local enemies of the Prophet and his early disciples whom you mean to refer to as “unbelievers” destined for Hell’s fires, there is textual evidence in The Recital to support you. But if you mean by “unbelievers” an arbitrary assortment of people across all space and all time, you are challenged to show the verses that give you this authority because there are none. Certainly you may have military or political reasons for wishing to engage in conflict with A or B or C — because you feel affronted or violated by their actions — but these would be normal secular reasons open to normal discourse and resolution including the normal laws of war as known by all nations and all peoples. There may be normal moral arguments to be made by radical Muslims against the US Government or against the Israeli Government or the British or Indian or some other Government — but there are no generalised justifications possible from within The Q’uran itself against these modern political entities. We should expose Mr Bin Laden and his friends’ lack of reason in both maintaining that Prophet Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets, and also maintaining that they can extrapolate from The Q’uran something that is not in The Q’uran. The Q’uran speaks of no unbelievers or enemies of the Prophet or the early Muslims who are not their local enemies in that time and place.

Pritchard, the distinguished Oxford philosopher, once wrote an article called “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” We today may have to ask a similar question “Does Islamist Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?”

5. If all this so far has seemed too clinical and aseptic in approaching the mystical matters of the spirit, I hasten to add finally that a decisive counterattack upon natural science may be made by both religion and art together. Our small planet is a satellite of an unexceptional star in an unexceptional galaxy yet we are still the centre of the Universe in that it is only here, as far as any of us knows, that such things as reason, intelligence and consciousness have come to exist. (Finding water or even primitive life elsewhere will not change this.) We alone have had an ability to understand ourselves and be conscious of our own existence — the great galaxies, black holes and white dwarfs are all very impressive but none of them can do the same. What responsibility arises for us (or devolves upon us) because of this? That is the perfectly good question asked by art and religion on which science remains silent. Life has existed for x million years and will be extinguished in y million more years, but we do not know why it arose at all, or what responsibility falls on those beings, ourselves, who have the consciousness to ask this. Religion and art cannot battle and win on science’s home ground but they can and do win where science has nothing left to say.

That is what DH Lawrence meant when he said the novel was a greater invention than Galileo’s telescope. Other artists would say the same. Art expresses life, and human cultures can be fresh and vigorous or decadent and redolent of death. The culture that evaluates its own art and encourages new shoots of creativity will be one with a vibrant life; the culture that cannot will be vulnerable to a merger or takeover. There is and has been only one human species, no matter how infinitely variegated its specimens across space and time. All have a capacity to reason as well as a capacity to feel a range of emotions in their experience of the world, something we share to an extent with other forms of life as well. And every human society, in trying to ascertain what is good for itself, finds need to reason together about how its members may be best able to survive, grow, reproduce and flourish, and this vitally demands freedom of inquiry and expression of different points of view. The lone voice in dissent needs to be heard or at least not suppressed just in case it is the right voice counselling against a course that might lead to catastrophe for all. To reason together implies a true or right answer exists to be found, and so the enterprise of truth seeking requires freedom as a logical necessity. It takes guts to be a lone dissenter, and all societies have typically praised and encouraged the virtues of courage and integrity, and poured shame on cowardice, treachery or sycophancy. Similarly, since society is a going concern, justice and fairplay in the working of its institutions is praised and sought after while corruption, fraud or other venality is condemned and punished. Leavis spoke of the need for an educated public if there was not to be a collapse of standards in the arts, since it was only individual candour that could expose shallow but dominant coteries.

Freedom is logically necessary to keep all potential avenues to the truth open, and freedom of belief and experience and the tolerance of dissent, becomes most obvious in religion, where the stupendous task facing everyone is to unravel to the extent we can the “Mystery of Existence”. The scope of the ontological questions is so vast it is only wise to allow the widest search for answers to take place, across all possible sources of faith, wherever the possibility of an insight into any of these subtle truths may arise, and this may explain too why a few always try to experience all the great religions in their own lifetimes. A flourishing culture advances in its science, its artistic creativity and its spiritual or philosophical consciousness. It would be self-confident enough to thrive in a world of global transmissions of ideas, practices, institutions and artefacts. Even if it was small in economic size or power relative to others, it would not be fearful of its own capacity to absorb what is valuable or to reject what is worthless from the rest of the world. To absorb what is valuable from outside is to supercede what may be less valuable at home; to reject what is worthless from outside is to appreciate what may be worthwhile at home. Both require faculties of critical and self-critical judgement, and the flourishing society will be one that possesses these qualities and exercises them with confidence. Words are also deeds, and deeds may also be language.

The crimes of September 11 2001 were ones of perverse terroristic political protest, akin on a global scale to the adolescent youth in angry frustration who kills his schoolmates and his teachers with an automatic weapon. But they were not something inexplicable or sui generis, but rather signalled a collapse of the old cosmopolitan conversation with Islam, and at the same time expressed an incoherent cry of stifled people trying to return to an austere faith of the desert. Information we have about one another and ourselves has increased exponentially in recent years yet our mutual comprehension of one another and ourselves may have grossly deteriorated in quality. Reversing such atrophy in our self-knowledge and mutual comprehension requires, in my opinion, the encouragement of all societies of all sizes to flourish in their scientific knowledge, their religious and philosophical consciousness and self-discovery, and their artistic expressiveness under conditions of freedom. Ultra-modern societies like some in North America or Europe may then perhaps become more reflective during their pursuit of material advancement and prosperity, while ancient societies like those of Asia and elsewhere may perhaps become less fearful of their capacity to engage in the transition between tradition and modernity, indeed, may even affect the direction or speed of change in a positive manner. To use a metaphor of Otto Neurath, we are as if sailors on a ship, who, even while sailing on the water, have to change the old planks of the ship with new planks one by one. In due course of time, all the planks get changed one at a time, but at no time has there not been a ship existing in the process — at no time need we have lost our history or our identity.