Man’s Place in the Universe (I)
Written by: Amin Ahsan Islahi, Translated by Saeed Ahmad
What is the appropriate conduct for man in this life and what is his place in the universe. These questions have always been of fundamental importance. Both are interconnected so that one cannot properly by answered without the other. Realisation of what status he has in this life influences man’s attitude. Just as an uninvited guest would not behave as the chief guest of a banquet, the attitude of one who regards himself as a cog of the machine will entirely be different from the user or controller of the machine. The former, bound to the machine, would move with its rotation and working while the latter will control the working of the machine to meet his own ends. Similarly if a man considers himself an animal, albeit a developed animal, he cannot rise to the ranks of human because despite the highest development, an animal will remain an animal. A monkey can learn a lot but cannot become Socrates or Aristotle, One who is mindful of his status of a crowning creation of the universe, a master-piece of the All-wise and All-powerful who breathed His soul in him and honored him with His divine spark, will certainly have a very different attitude. This attitude is mainly regulated by man’s status and responsibilities in relation to his position in the universe.
The questions have been answered by thinkers, philosophers and intellectuals of all times. They maintained different theories and ideas. Religions also provided requisite guidance. Here, the view of prominent philosophers who represent renowed schools of thought which left deep rooted effect on the contemporary thought will be examined along with views of the thinkers of pre-Islamic religions. Thereafter, we shall refer to the guidance provided by the Holy Qur’an on this subject.
In pre-Socrates era, two schools of thought are prominent. One of them considers man a creature as worms, animals, and other creatures. There being no significant difference between man and other creatures, both share the same fate. Man has no distinction over them. The Sophists belonging to the other school contend that man was the centre of the universe and its crowning creation. The attributes, abilities and powers he has been imbued with bespeak of his high status. They hold that man had been endowed with a divine reason.
History of philosophy of pre-Socrates period is obscure and discusses the sky, the earth, rainbow or similar natural phenomena. Problems of real philosophy were not discussed in those times.
Socrates (470-399) was not only the greatest of Greek philosophers but also the most prominent of all philosophers of the world. his famous saying “O man, know thyself” still adorns the temple at Delphi in Athens. His predecessors, namely, Thales Heraclitus Permendes Zeno Phythagoras, etc. were themselves interested in knowing the nature and characteristics of matter. The search for laws of the material world and its things was their subject. Socrates drew attention to man instead of the trees, stones, the sky and stars. He argued that man should know himself, the purpose of his creation, and the faculties with which he has been endowed with to determined his role in this world.
Socrates raised this question to draw attention of the philosophers of his time to man’s own ego. In man is hidden the treasure of life and it needs to be discovered, first; knowledge of fire and water was secondary. He tried to lead his fellowmen to the right path. For Socrates, man was of essence; all other things were of secondary value.
Socrate’s renowned pupil Plato (428-348 BC) developed the formers theory to explain the attitude worthy of man in various spheres of life; moral, political, psychological and social. His philosophy bears the seal of his master who holds that this universe has its enternal principles and laws though immutable but susceptible to discovery. For him, man is not an animal though he is born in the same manner. Man had a soul which is a part of the Divine Soul. This helped him to know the eternal laws and the secrets of the universe. He said that man’s body or matter tries to subjugate his divine soul and attracts him towards itself. Man should seek to control it and rise above matter or body to reason.
After Plato, Aristotle (384-322 BC) was the most prominent among the Greek thinkers. As socrates bequeathed philosophy, Aristotle bequeathed science to mankind. He was the first of give a rational definition to man; an animal but one who speaks and understands and is also perceptive and intelligent. This is the real difference between man and other creatures. The more significant of his sayings is that man is blessed with a divine spark and this very spark is the soul of buoyancy in man. Although an animal, he accomplishes great tasks due to this divine spark. He measures up the length and breadth of the earth and the sky. The mechanics he has invented to explore the visible and the invisible are also a boon of the divine spark.
After Aristotle, a prominent school of thought is that of Stoics. According to them, man is a microcosm of the whole of universe. Thus, in man, as in the universe, reason rules and he should subordinate himself to the laws of the universe. The study of universe reveals that it is ruled by reason whom the Stoics call Divine Reason. Therefore, man should follow reason and not become a slave to his belly and body. They believe that everything has a prescribed place in the divine order. Therefore, man is required to discover this place and fit himself into it. Thus, man should live according to laws of nature. Thus, the Stoics make man subordinate man to the universal ideal because he will be happy if he understands the laws of nature and obeys them willingly.
ERA OF HIATTUS
Thereafter, is a long period of Hiattus in the world of philosophy. In the medieval era, the church dominated human thinking. Some historians have aptly pointed out that “the church found the giant of reasons asleep and chained him, and he was chained to debility”. Through the sacrifice made by Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, the chains were cut and man reverted to search for laws of nature. In this pursuit some dived deep into the gloomy solitudes of the ocean, some rose up to measure the earth and some others tried to peep into the space through microscopes. The long cherished urge to transform iron to gold gave birth to alchemy, which gave birth to chemistry; from astrology man reached astronomy. Study of animals gave birth to biology. Similarly, man’s knowledge about laws of nature increased tremendously. Nevertheless, philosophy did not contribute to anything worth mentioning. Whatever the dialecticians did hardly belongs to philosophy.
VIEWS OF MODERN PHILOSOPHERS
BACON (1561-1626). He was the first philosopher of modern who tried to extricate reason from the church’s web. He emphasised the necessity for a careful and accurate study of the universe with an open mind. He believes that such a will confirm similarities among events and also contradiction n them. In this manner, man will establish laws or consistencies among happenings on the basis of which he can subjugate the powers of nature in a masterly fashion. He argues that man must believe in religion, as he is obliged to obey the divine law, though his will murmured against it. He is obliged to believe in the word of God, though his reason is shocked by it.
Bacon’s attitude towards religion was one of compromise. Thomas Hobbies (1588-1679), however, did away with this dualism and went over completely to the scientific position. Everything in the universe, including man, is, for Hobbes material and is in constant motion. Thus, man’s task is to understand the laws of motion and thereby to understand the universe. Having gained this understanding, man could adjust the laws in accordance with his will.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) considered man to be a machine operated by natural laws just as a watch operates on its own. Man is union of the two relative substances, mind and body. Similarly, this universe is working on mechanical principles. Man is a part of this great machine. As the universe is a machine, everything in it should be expounded purely on mechanical principles. Body of man is matter but his mind is spirit. Since the body works on mechanical laws, the mind should also be moulded according to these laws. Descartes is of the opinion that matter rules over man.
Spinoza’s (1632-1677), like Descartes, also holds the universe to be a machine. For him, God is a part of this machine and so is man. The machine matters much more than its parts. This machine is under compulsive operation, bereft of thought. As man is entangled in it rotation, he cannot rid himself of the laws o nature.
According to Spinoza, the will of God and laws of nature are, in fact, one entity. In his opinion, the mind of God is the sum total of all thought scattered all over in time and space. He considers reasons and will to be one and the same thing. Free will has no existence, the mind is bereft of an absolute will. When the mind wills some thing, it is determined by some cause which is the result of other causes. Spinoza considers human actions to be bound by laws that are absolute like mathematical laws.
According to Spinoza, our individual self is delusion. We are part of the stream of laws and sequence of causes. We are part of God. We are transient forms of a being which is the greatest of us all. We are mortal and finite, while He is immortal and infinite. Our bodies are modes of making, our race is an incident of the mode of life.
One may call this the philosophy of positivism or of compulsion. In a way, it is the philosophy of pantheism because man is held to be a part of God.
Spinoza’s views have been described in greater detail as these had great effect on the subsequent period and paved the way for man’s compulsive posture. Spinoza was thus a real Naturalist.
BERKELEY, LOCKE AND HUME
After Spinoza, comes the philosophy of George Berkeley (1658-1753). John Locke (1632-1704), and David Hume (1711-1776). According to them, everything is contained within the human mind; nothing is outside it. This whole universe, for whose mastery scientists are striving for, has been reduced to man’s imagination only. It looks as if Mirza Ghalib, the great post also had liking for this philosophy when he composed this verse: ‘Be not beguiled by life, Asad Universe is in our ideas’ net.’
Locke holds that that besides human mind and body, there is God who made the universe. For Locke, man’s reason is the touchstone of everything in the universe. He subscribes to the view that would exists, so God also exists. But George Berkeley eliminated the material world. For him, there is no universe outside the mind. Existence is that which is perceptible and nothing exists if there is no mind to perceive it. Thus, whatever there is, it is within the mind of man and nothing is outside it.
David Hume developed this view to its logical conclusion. He made man, and man alone, the centre and the sum total of the universe. All that we know is actually our imagination. There is no material or spiritual substance outside that would generate our ideas. All that can be said about this universe is that the universe is our ideas in succession. From where these ideas come to our mind, Hume has no answer. According to him these ideas arise from unknown causes. He contends further that even if we believe in a cause of our ideas, or believe in the existence of God, we cannot prove it by any rational method known to us.
This school of thought needed special mention to show how these people undermine the status of man. They do not hold him in high esteem. Everything, according to them, is like a day dream. As there is nothing outside, whatever they see is hardly worthy of any credence.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) differed with the earlier philosophers. He holds that man is not a machine or its part. Man was an ideal of feeling and sentiments. Science and civilisation has bound him in chains and are destroying all that is really human. Rousseau proposed to cast off this shell of civilisation to free man for full development of all his capabilities.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1808). a great German philosopher, the Socrates of his era, refuted materialism, fatalism and mechanism. He argues that there is a higher kind of truth than science and other knowledge and that truth is moral nature of man. All good is within man and it is his inner voice which does not need any outside proof. Man’s moral being and his inner voice motivate him to do good. This proved that God exists and He is the creator of man and the universe. For him, if God did not actually exist, man’s necessity would require His existence. He does not share the views that the world consist of mere experiences and sensations and there is nothing beyond. According to him, there is another world beyond the world of experience and science and that is the world of reason and action. He says, our reason steers us to God and our moral being impels us to believe in God. Reason is neither a “Passive Wax” which can be cast in any design nor a storehouse of sentiments and experience. On the other hand, it is the most active part of our body. It is our mind that arranges experiences and sensations into ordered thought to arrive at conclusions.
Kant says, man has a feeling of immortality, implying that the worldly life is a part of another life. We know that truthfulness or good conduct may be harmful and falsehood may be beneficial but still we tell the truth. The world teaches us that it was beneficial to be shrewd like a snake, but we still tread the path of virtue. Eversince the world came into being, such has been the universal attitude. In fact, there is a realisation that this life is a part of another life and will give birth to another life where goodness shall prevail. Every good will have hundred folds reward. Kant believes that had this perception been missing man would not have chosen the path of goodness; he would have chosen the part of immediate gain.
After Kant, there are two German philosophers propounded skepticism in philosophy. One of them is Arthur Schopenhauer (1778-1860), who considers man to be a super natural animal but slave of his passions. The Reason’s role is to accomplish his desires. At times, it seems as if reason is not subordinate to desires, rather it is the guide. But this guidance is reminiscent of a guide who takes the tourists only to those places they intended to visit. For him, the “will” is the strong blind man who carries on his shoulders the lame man who can see. According to him, will is the only permanent and unchangeable element in the mind.
A desire fulfilled leads to another desire and this process continues. Man cannot free himself of desires. Freedom is possible only if desires are subordinate to knowledge and reason but such a possibility does not exist. Life is evil and full of a continuous struggle and every human being is entangled in a continuous compulsive chain.
Friedrich Nietzche (1844-1900) advocated that the real thing in man is passion for power and this passion, the basic element in the universe that dominates everything. The passion for power is so strong that it spares none; whosoever came in its way faces destruction. The wheel of universe continues revolving regardless of who faces destruction and in what condition. Man is at the mercy of storms, earthquakes, floods and other calamities. Thus, life is a misery. Nietzsche regards man to be the barbarous animal who does any thing to master power. Reason and morality are helpless against this passion for power, they are but weapons in his hands, dupes of his game. Nietzsche says, behind all “morality” is a secret desire for power, possession or superiority. Therefore, man’s struggle should not be to be good. It should to be powerful. Such societies would come to an end as cannot produce ‘the superman’.
Another philosophical school, known as ‘positivists’ believe that the only source of knowledge is observation and experience. What man sees and experiences is his real world. August Comet (1798-1857), a philosopher of this school, says that source of knowledge is observation and experience through which we see relations between different things and we see nothing beyond, As far as inner essences of man and universe, we can know nothing. When we look at the universe, we see it is functioning in a specific way. Man finds himself in hot and cold seasons, floods and draughts and miseries. He, however, uses the same things to his benefit. Whereas, from the harmful thing, he manages to get benefit from them to. As man finds relationships between the parts of the universe and himself, he is able to frame rules to govern his actions in the light of these relationships.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), further developed this thought by showing how man should discover relationships within the universe. We say that we see many events in which there are similarities. We study these similarities and discover consistencies. Since man is a part of the universe, this uniformity and sequence should also permeate through his action. Mill says, man is a very complex being. Every action of man is the result of a vast number of factors. These fundamental principles apply both to the universe and to man, and recognition of them is easier in the universe but difficult in man. For example; it is possible for an astronomer, on the basis of observation and experience, to predict with absolute accuracy the time of appearance of a comet, but to predict whether a newborn body will be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer or a thief is practically impossible. Obviously for the reason that the factors behind the appearance of a comet are easy and somewhat fixed and factors behind man are very complex.
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) takes the position that man can know only through his experiences. He is certain that the experiences must have a cause, that there must be a universe beyond our experiences which becomes the cause of makes our experience. Although he called this the “unknowable”, he interpreted it in terms of what he found in man. Since man has subjective feelings and sentiments, the “Unknowable” is of the same nature. Thus, the fundamental principle of the universe is also the fundamental principle of man. The “Unknowable” is a creative force and remains active according to definite laws of development. Man is the result of this creative development and a part of the evolutionary processes found in the universe. The law of evolution is the universal law of things and is also applicable to man. Moreover, everything in the universe, including man, adapts itself to the environment. Man is what his universe and environment have made him to be.
Another well known philosopher, William James (1842-1910) also belonging to “positivits” school, believes in the universe of observation and experience. He places man at the centre of the universe. For him, experience is real. Therefore, on the basis of our experience, we construct a theory of the universe. For James, what satisfies man is true; and which does not satisfy him is false. Man finds certain consistencies in his experience. These apply to the universe too. We act upon them, and the results which we anticipate follow. Therefore, the reality is this experience and the universe then is the universe of human experience.
John Dewey admits that the universe is that which man experiences. He, however, does not admit this world of experience to be real. He says it is foolish to go beyond the experiences and to try to find out from where this world started and where it will end, as no man can get outside his experience. According to Dewey, reality is changing and developing according to laws which are the laws of human experience. Man is a part of this process of evolution, which we find everywhere. The difference is that man can comprehend the universe. He says that as in man we find uncertainty and doubt, same is the case with the universe. Man’s experience is, therefore, the only measure which helps him understand the world.
Rertrand Russsell (1872-1970), sees the universe as a great mathematical machine governed by scientific laws that are inexorable, unchanging. Man is a very small and insignificant part of it. He is caught in the on rolling of the great machine, and its wheel grind everything regardless of what is thrown into it. After a short break the machine against start grinding man. The machine of the universe does not care who comes in its ebb and flow. In the theory of the machine of the universe, an individual has no place. Mankind, says Russell, is like a group of shipwrecked sailors on a raft in a vast sea at night. There is darkness all around the they are at the mercy of the waves. One by one they fall off the raft into water and disappear. The process will continue till the last man has fallen down. The sea will continue rolling on and the holes made in the water by their bodies will be covered over. Nature cares not for man.
CRITICAL APPRECIATION OF PHILOSOPHERS’ VIEWS
The first group of philosophers is of those who equated man with animals, worms, beasts, etc. In their opinion, man will meet the same fate as these animals. Man has no precedence over them. The difference in certain attributes is not of much importance as similar differences are also present among the animals themselves.
The second group is of those philosophers who hold man a part of universal machine; the importance is that of the machine and not of the part. The wheel of the universal machine is rotating and man, like everything else in the universe, is playing his role. He is tied to it and his end is tagged to it. Great philosophers including Spinoza are included this group.
The third group is of those for whom man is the subject and fundamental purpose of the creation of the universe. He is the crown creation and the whole universe has been designed to his purpose. This group includes all great philosophers like, Socrates, Sophists, Plato, Aristotle and Kant etc.
Our present day philosopher, under the influence of science, thinks that he will shortly conquer the universe with the help of science and will also become its lord and master. He does not attach any importance to God and is dreaming to become its master himself. Obviously his position is different but, actually, he belongs to the third one.
The philosophers in the first group did not realise the importance either of the universe or man, as if they found the precious ‘Kohi-Nur’ pearl from the garbage and they mistook it to be a commonplace stone. Otherwise, it is a that if a person ponders over the greatness, sublimity, grandeur, modes and wonders of this universe, he is dumfounded by the great and ingenious universe. If someone has the audacity to call the Red Fort a stable, he would hardly be a same person? Only a fool would consider such a great universe, which is manifest of the highest wisdom, to be useless. It is impossible to believe the destiny of man to be that of animals in the face of his capabilities, intelligence, sagacity and potential. While sitting in his room, man is capable of measuring the distance of the sun from the earth and the time its rays reach the earth. It would be foolish to hold about such an intelligent being that he would die as an ass and come to his end just like an animal. Such a concept would negate the purposefulness of the universe as well as of mankind and would reduce this universe to as absurdity. If man perishes like other animals, the universe is deprived of its purpose and responsibility and accountability is lifted and the universe becomes a play boy’s game who discards the game as soon as he has enjoyed it to the fill. Can it be said about the great universe full of wisdom that it is a playboy’s game without a purpose? Man – a thinking being – perceives the grandeur and magnificence of this universe and exclaims O Lord Ye created it not aimlessly.