Keepers of ancient peace

Rohit Gupta | Updated on January 22, 2018

Heaven and earth: The Throne Verse (Ayat Al-Kursi) in the form of a calligraphic horse, from 16th-century Deccan. -- WikiCommons

In modern scientific discourse it is considered anathema to discuss religion, yet it is from religious speculation that science has gained much

A legend goes that when the Persian poet Sadi of Shiraz visited the flourishing temple of Somnath in the 13th century, he was astonished to see an idol that moved in response to prayers. It dawned upon him soon that the priests had cheated by hiding a mechanical automaton inside it.

Several historians recount this episode from Bustan (The Garden) by Sadi — a popular subject of illustration in the Mughal period. Romila Thapar even suggests that Sadi may have confused fire-worshipping Zoroastrians with idolator Brahmins, but we can never be sure what transpired — since Sadi himself is known to be an unreliable narrator. Nevertheless, it would have been great sacrilege to turn your deity into a mere puppet who dances to the pull of strings. What kind of God moves at the whim and command of earthly priests? If it were a real God, would not the whole Universe move according to his omnipotent Will?

The anecdote above is interesting to us mainly because it resonates with the central dilemma of science in the 17th and 18th centuries. In his book From Galileo To Newton, A. Rupert Hall describes the conundrum thus: “… if the universe is wholly mechanical God has no part in it; if God controls the universe then it is not mechanical nor governed by laws.” The birth and development of modern science happened in the Christian world, and it was natural that a universal law — such as Newtonian gravity — would be seen as a manifestation of divine will. Almost every new scientific notion was simultaneously analysed from a religious point of view.

After the macrocosmic orbits defined by the force of gravitation, the attention shifted to invisible and microscopic phenomena. Carlo Cercignani writes in his biography of Ludwig Boltzmann, The Man Who Trusted Atoms: “...heat, previously considered to be a material substance, is none other than an irregular motion of the most minute particles of a body, which collide one against another. This motion cannot be observed directly, because the particles themselves are invisible…”

In 1819, the French experimental physicists Nicolas Clément and Charles-Bernard Desormes imagined a universe without heat: “Not only would there be no more life in this dismal universe... but also movement of every kind would have ceased on Earth. There would no longer be an atmosphere, no rivers, no seas; motionlessness and death would be everywhere.” Heat was something that could not be seen, and yet it was universal — from the warmth of human touch to the fire that raged in the Sun, to the oxidation of blood, which was “the oil in the flame of life”.

Instead of the pure, geometric movement of the planets in pristine curves — the movement of heat from one body to another revealed that energy in the universe was always conserved, even though it changed from one form to another. By a strange coincidence of history, one of the pioneers in the science of heat was named after the Persian poet we met earlier. In his work on the efficiency of heat engines, Sadi Carnot uncovered a principle of nature that would later assume cosmological proportions — unleashing an entirely new variety of religious speculations.

In modern scientific discourse it is considered anathema to discuss religion, and yet it is from the fountain of religious speculation that science has gained so many harvests. Another major figure of thermal physics, James Prescott Joule stated in 1847 the spiritual implications of the new law: “Thus it is that order is maintained in the universe — nothing is deranged, nothing ever lost, but the entire machinery, complicated as it is, works smoothly and harmoniously ... the whole being governed by the sovereign will of God.”

Religious ideas are indeed prototypical models of the universe, and should be subject to the same scrutiny as scientific ideas. Especially the schools that deny the existence of God altogether share something in common with modern science. Islam holds that God cannot be depicted in a human form, a reasonably sound assumption considering the interstellar heavens are too large to be controlled by a creature with only four limbs. Or the Vedantic school of Mimamsa, which speculated about the existence of only a personal (and not cosmic) God, among the many colourful varieties of Hinduism.

Or consider the philosopher Boethius, who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy in AD 523, which greatly influenced medieval Christian thought. He wondered about the possibility that mankind could live in peaceful harmony if only it emulated the stars. “If you wish to discern the laws of the high and mighty God,” wrote Boethius in his last days, even though in a prison — “... look up to the roof of the highest heaven. There the stars, united by just agreement, keep the ancient peace… Thus the mutual love governs their eternal movement and the war of discord is excluded from the bounds of heaven.”

(Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah)


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Published on November 06, 2015
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