If last year's Columbia-hosted panel discussion on the intelligent design controversy made one thing clear, it's that the stakes in the debate are much higher than simply arguing about whether the world was created in six days a few thousand years ago.
For Akeel Bilgrami, even though he is a secularist and an atheist, such spiritual yearnings are not only understandable but also supremely human. Columbia's Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy has argued in many essays that in our modern world, "religion is not primarily a matter of belief and doctrine but about the sense of community and shared values it provides in contexts where other forms of solidarity—such as a strong labor movement—are missing."
Invited by President Lee C. Bollinger and Provost Alan Brinkley to deliver this semester's University Lecture on Oct. 25th, Bilgrami chose to focus on the roots of modern society's "disenchantment," a term coined by German philosopher Max Weber in reference to the process through which all aspects of the world become explainable by natural science.
Bilgrami argued that there is a distinction between a "thin" and "thick" notion of scientific rationality. The former is politically and culturally innocuous whereas the latter views nature in essentially predatory terms—as something that is to be conquered with nothing but material gain as its end. Many of us recoil from this "thick" concept, claimed Bilgrami, because it supports the destruction of nature and has disastrous cultural and political consequences.
Bilgrami devoted much of his talk to tracing the origins of "thick" rationality as well as the critiques it has received over the years. He identified the 17th century as the critical turning point, when scientific theorists such as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle put forward the idea of matter and nature as "brute and inert"—as opposed to a classical notion of nature as "shot through with an inner source of dynamism, which is itself divine."
Even at the time, there were many dissenters who accepted all the laws of Newtonian science but protested its underlying metaphysics, Bilgrami explained. They were anxious about the political alliances being formed between the commercial and mercantile interests and the metaphysical ideologues of the new science—anxieties echoed by the "radical enlightenment" as well as later by Gandhi.
According to Bilgrami, both Gandhi as well as these earlier thinkers argued that in abandoning our ancient, "spiritually flourishing" sense of nature, we also let go of the moral psychology that governs human beings' engagement with the natural, "including the relations and engagement among ourselves as its inhabitants."
Bilgrami expressed a certain sympathy for this dissenting view, noting that even if we moderns cannot accept the sacralized vision favored by these earlier thinkers, we should still seek alternative secular forms of enchantment in which the world is "suffused with value," even if there is no divine source for this value. Such "an evaluatively enchanted world" would be susceptible not just to scientific study, Bilgrami argued, but would also demand an ethical engagement from us all.