Late Ottoman Discussion Contrasting Science and Religion

Occaaaaasionally (read: often), I stalk my professors online...not so much in a scary way as to see where/what they studied, what they have written, etc. This semester I found some papers by one of my professors via One of the papers caught my attention as being right up my alley. It was an analysis of a debate between two Arabic intellectuals in the late Ottoman period, concerning whether science or religion was more likely to yield truth.

Note: I did not read the debate myself; I only read my professor's analysis. For the more in-depth and knowledgeable analysis of the debate, read his paper (linked above). Here, I will summarize the debate as he presented it and discuss it in my own way.

The debate took place between Celal Nuri and Sehbenderzade Ahmed Hilmi in 1913. Nuri, a prominent public intellectual, posited (through a whole book!) that nothing metaphysical exists, so any philosophy not founded on scientific revelation is basically nothing more than an abstract logical exercise and ultimately meaningless (though perhaps useful as a social construct). Hilmi responded to Nuri's book and reasoned that since science works with hypotheses and theories, perpetually revising them according to new discoveries, it is in fact false to refer to scientific exploration as truth.

I am using my own words here to summarize what my professor summarized (O.o), but it seemed to Hilmi that science is almost equivocal to religion (in a philosophical way) in that both are avenues along which people walk with an intention to find the truth (and in this way, both deal with metaphysical subjects). Neither is truth itself, but more of a direction or path along which to potentially reach the truth. It seems to me that he also indicated, though, that metaphysical religion and materialistic science can neither one be based upon the other, because they by nature are wholly different.

...I don't think I have a whole lot to add to these ideas at the moment, but I found the debate intriguing and wanted to mention it here. As always, interactions are welcome! :)


  1. It's an interesting question. I'm a scientist (physicist by education), so my view on this may not be a surprise to you.

    Science does never reveal and explain the full truth in all it's complexity, that's true. Sometimes we don't even want to deal with the full complexity, if we can make simplifications that solve our problem at hand much faster.

    Ancient science (natural philosophy) and religion are kind of similar, in the sense that both are purely intellectual constructions. There were Greek philosophers (I don't remember names) who claimed that science could be worked out completely in the human mind, without experimental support.

    Modern science is not like that, and therefore quite different from religion. In modern science theoretical models and observations go hand in hand. Sometimes theories are developed to explain an observation, sometimes theories are constructed first, and subsequently confirmed by observations (an example is the Higgs boson, predicted theoretically by Peter Higgs in the 1970s, and observed experimentally 40 years later.)

    Science progress in steps, gradually revealing more and more of "the truth". Quantum physics was developed to explain failures of classical physics. It doesn't mean that classical physics is wrong. We still use it to solve many problems, but it has it's limitations. In this way science makes continuous progress explaining new phenomena that weren't previously understood. First came Newton with classical physics, then came quantum physics and Einsteins theory of relativity. And so on. There's still a long way to go.

    Also, science can be used to construct and build things (technology). We can make computers, cell phones and send remote-controlled vehicles to Mars. Hence, science may not explain the full truth, but it can't be that wrong either (otherwise cell phones and computers wouldn't work).

    As far as I know, experimental religion doesn't exist. There are no observations confirming theological theories, it's purely an intellectual construction (I believe that Man made God and not the opposite). There are orthodox and dogmatic versions of religion, and there are modern and liberal versions. Still religion is just a matter of belief (or lack of it).

    Science and religion are fundamentally different, but not really in conflict with each other (unless you believe literally that the world is 6000 years old; Young Earth Creationism and stuff like that). Science and religion can live peacefully side by side. Science will never prove or disprove the existence of God.

    Amen >:)

    Cold As Heaven

    1. As always, I appreciate your insight! And I agree that science and religion can live together without conflict.

      Interestingly, I see theology the same way you describe science above, in that it develops progressively - theologians call it progressive revelation. That is how Christians can believe the God revealed in the Old Testament and the God revealed in the New Testament are One and the same. It is how progressive Christians believe that sometimes developing history and culture can inform our understanding of God's relation to humanity.

      I thought the debate was interesting, and when I read of Hilmi's response, I had my own interpretation of progressive revelation in mind, too, but still thought it was a good response.

      I agree with you, too, that religion is different from science in observable proof. Subjective proof, maybe, but not necessarily visible (though I know there are many who would argue with that vehemently! ;) ).

    2. I certainly agree that theology evolves progressively too. Both science and theology has contributed to remove apparent conflicts between them. There is a big difference between modern liberal theology and 18th century theoligy (are all Abrahamic religions worshipping the same God?)

      Subjective religious proofs may exist. At least some claim it. But this is also a difference between science and religion. In science all evidence is objective. An important principle is that scientific discoveries must be reproducible (by a competent scientist). This is the case for both theoretical derivations (.mathematical models) and experiments >:)

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