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Apr 28, 2017

Can Our Science and Economics Honor Nature?

The Underwave off Kanagawa, Katsushika Hokusai (1829–1833)

The Underwave off Kanagawa, Katsushika Hokusai (1829–1833)

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Waleed El Ansary

Waleed El-Ansary

Xavier University

Waleed El-Ansary's research centers on the intersection of religion, science, and economics.

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Can Our Science and Economics Honor Nature?

The island of Misali, part of the Zanzibar archipelago in the Indian Ocean, is a wonderful example of the remarkable role that religious values can play in confronting the crisis facing our natural world.1 The coral reef surrounding the largely uninhabited island is home to a rich variety of fish and turtles, providing direct livelihood to people in neighboring Pemba, which is over 95 percent Muslim. But rising population and depleting fish stocks led fishermen to adopt desperate and unsustainable fishing methods to maintain their catch, including dynamite fishing and the use of guns. Although such destructive methods damaged the corals and harmed local species, government bans had practically no impact. Local religious leaders helped restore sustainable fishing and a rich underwater life to the island, however, by highlighting Islamic teachings about conservation.

The fishermen clearly failed to understand and apply Qur’anic lessons about man’s stewardship of nature to their fishing methods, requiring remonstration from local religious leaders to correct their self-destructive practices. As faithful Muslims, their hearts and minds already contained a consciousness about nature rooted in spirituality that religious leaders could actualize through advice drawn from Qur’anic teachings. One local fisherman aptly summarized why the religious message succeeded, whereas government decrees had failed. “It is easy to ignore the government,” he said, “but no-one can break God’s law.”2

Religion, Science, and Nature

Analogous examples of the importance of religion in protecting nature are found in all the world’s major religious traditions.3 Indeed, most people in the world may only heed religious, as opposed to secular, ethics about nature, and scientists increasingly recognize the need for religion and science to join forces to address the crisis.4 In 1991, for example, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and other renowned scientists issued a joint statement entitled “Preserving and Cherishing the Earth: An Appeal for Joint Commitment in Science and Religion,” which declared:

[Our current environmental] problems of such magnitude, and solutions demanding so broad a perspective must be recognized from the outset as having a religious as well as a scientific dimension. Mindful of our common responsibility, we scientists—many of us long engaged in combating the environmental crisis—urgently appeal to the world religious community to commit, in word and deed, and as boldly as is required, to preserve the environment of the Earth.5

Yet the agnosticism of many scientific thinkers raises the question of how such a call can coexist with a view that, in the words of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “claims for itself a monopoly of the knowledge of the order of nature,” or the knowledge that is accepted by society as “science.”6 It is one thing for religious leaders to protect nature by highlighting the sanctity of God’s creation, as the example of the fishermen in Misali illustrates, and quite another thing to defend the environment from exploitation relying on a secular worldview that arguably conflates values and tastes as “preferences” that have no moral import, thus compromising the ability to make morally meaningful statements.7 Nasr asserts, “In a world in which the very category of ‘sacredness’ as applied to nature is meaningless, to speak of the sacredness of life is little more than sentimental thinking or hypocrisy.”8

It is necessary here to highlight the radical difference between science as organized knowledge, which can refer to any level of reality, and scientism, which claims that modern science, defined as a strictly empirical or sensory means of knowing the material world, has a monopoly on knowledge—that is, that anything beyond the sensory world is unreal, impossible to prove, or purely fanciful. Accordingly, scientism is an ideological construct that effectively supplants a metaphysical view of the universe, eliminating any basis for religious ethics about the environment through its reductionism. It ignores any higher, divine or celestial, levels of reality, and qualities such as beauty, justice, and virtue, which are above sensory, empirically observable phenomena.

If there is to be lasting cooperation about nature between religion and science, scientism, which is inherently hostile to religion, cannot be allowed to usurp the role of science. In fact, scientism is “bad philosophy,” not “good science.” It is self-refuting—because it is impossible to prove that “The only way to know anything truly is by using your physical senses” by using your physical senses.9 Moreover, contemporary “hard science” itself has now brought to light a number of “limit theorems,” a phrase the Catholic philosopher-scientist Wolfgang Smith introduces to describe various ways science discloses its own boundaries.10

It is then a scientistic (not a scientific) worldview which, through confining itself to technological, political, economic, and other purely materialistic structures, does injustice to man and threatens nature by treating both as resources rather than as the sacred creations they are. Specific crisis events, such as the melting of the glaciers of Mount Everest, with its dire consequences for downstream farming and hydropower,11 the melting ice sheets of the Antarctic and Greenland, or the acidification of the oceans and destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, are merely the “tip of the iceberg,” to borrow an analogy from systems theory,12 because they are manifestations of unnoticed larger problems generated by an underlying dysfunction: our worldview.

Accordingly, addressing this root cause requires that we change how we look at the world, at ourselves—and ultimately, at Reality.13 Religion asserts that only a holistic approach to the sciences of man and nature can solve the crisis we face, by showing us how to change the way we live.

Modern economic thought runs counter to this solution. First emerging in an industrializing eighteenth century context marked by surging materialism, it separates economics from social life and from the possibility of an integrative, religiously informed worldview. Robert Foley describes this breach:

Modern society is made up of two spheres: an economic sphere of individual initiative and interaction, governed by impersonal laws that assure a beneficent outcome by pursuit of self-interest; and the rest of social life, including political, religious, and moral interactions that require the conscious balancing of self-interest with social considerations.14

This is sometimes called the “separate domain” argument; it posits that the motivations of “actors” in the economy, whether they are ethical or not, have nothing to do with whether a market economy generates “beneficent” outcomes, because economic exchange is compatible with a variety of motives, whether egoist or altruist, making the free market amoral (as opposed to immoral).

But if market prices fail to include environmental costs in the price of goods, then underpricing these goods leads to environmental degradation, called “market failure” by economists. And conventional economics cannot answer the question, “Why not leave it to future generations to bear the costs of current pollution, given the delay between cause and effect?” Conventional economic theory attempts to respond to market failures with technical solutions within the prevailing economic paradigm, ignoring the root causes of these crises in favor of short-term solutions that often cause worse outcomes in the long term. A purely scientistic worldview, moreover, arguably demands solutions based on the separate domain argument to the maximum extent possible. 

But if the separation of ethics from economics, along with the technological and socio-economic structures that result from this separation, leads to economic instability in the short term and environmental unsustainability in the long term, then we must question not only whether an economic system needs virtuous actors, but also whether the economic system itself must be institutionally or structurally virtuous. As Gandhi put it, “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good” is one of the greatest delusions of our time.15

Religion then must challenge the mainstream economic claim that industrial and post-industrial capitalism, as well as economies based on Marxist thought, such as communism, can be environmentally sustainable. Only through a metaphysical approach can we clarify the intimate, but neglected, connection between religious cosmological sciences and religious economic thought. To arrive there, however, we must first identify the secular roots of the crisis nature faces and also understand why conventional responses to this crisis have failed. Only then can we find a way forward, through a holistic approach that integrates ethics and economics and, ultimately, honors nature as God’s creation. 

Work as a Spiritual Practice

All the world’s major religions see the end of the human state in the perfection of our spiritual possibilities. Economic activity must therefore address our physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs, balancing all three in such a way that no single dimension is emphasized at the expense of others. E.F. Schumacher, arguably the most important economist to represent religious thought in the twentieth century,16 identified the basic objectives of this integral approach in terms of three objectives that would meet the needs of individuals for personal and spiritual growth and dignity:

First, to provide necessary and useful goods and services. Second, to enable every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts like good stewards. Third, to do so in service to, and in cooperation with, others, so as to liberate ourselves from our … egocentricity.17

Clearly, all three objectives apply to what one does and what one makes.18 Economic activity thus has two aspects: the transitive (or objective) aspect and the intransitive (or personal) aspect. Work is transitive that produces results outside of the worker and is directed to some object or service in the external world (Schumacher’s first objective of work). Work is intransitive where its effects stay within the worker and contribute to the formation of character (Schumacher’s second and third objectives of work). Titus Burckhardt illustrates this point in a Muslim context: 

I knew a comb-maker who worked in the street of his guild, the mshshatin.  He was called ‘Abd al-Aziz (the “slave of the Almighty”) and always wore a black jellaba—the loose, hooded garment with sleeves—and a white turban with a litham, the face veil, which surrounded his somewhat severe features. He obtained the horn for his combs from ox skulls, which he bought from butchers. He dried the horned skulls at a rented place, removed the horns, opened them lengthwise, and straightened them over a fire, a procedure that had to be done with the greatest care, lest they should break. From this raw material he cut combs and turned boxes for antimony (used as an eye decoration) on a simple lathe; this he did by manipulating, with his left hand, a bow which, wrapped round a spindle, caused the apparatus to rotate. In his right hand he held the knife, and with his foot he pushed against the counterweight. As he worked he would sing Qur’anic surahs in a humming tone.
I learned that, as a result of an eye disease which is common in Africa, he was already half blind, and that, in view of long practice, he was able to “feel” his work, rather than see it. One day he complained to me that the importation of plastic combs was diminishing his business: “It is not only a pity that today, solely on account of price, poor quality combs from a factory are being preferred to much more durable horn combs,” he said; “it is also senseless that people should stand by a machine and mindlessly repeat the same movement, while an old craft like mine falls into oblivion. My work may seem crude to you; but it harbours a subtle meaning which cannot be explained in words. I myself acquired it only after many long years, and even if I wanted to, I could not automatically pass it on to my son, if he himself did not wish to acquire it—and I think he would rather take up another occupation. This craft can be traced back from apprentice to master until one reaches our Lord Seth, the son of Adam. It was he who first taught it to men, and what a Prophet brings—for Seth was a Prophet—must clearly have a special purpose, both outwardly and inwardly. I gradually came to understand that there is nothing fortuitous about this craft, that each movement and each procedure is the bearer of an element of wisdom. But not everyone can understand this. But even if one does not know this, it is still stupid and reprehensible to rob men of the inheritance of Prophets, and to put them in front of a machine where, day in and day out, they must perform a meaningless task.”19

In the example of ‘Abd al-Aziz the comb-maker, all economists would recognize the first objective, or the transitive aspect of work—the production of goods and services for human welfare. Some economists like Adam Smith recognized the intransitive aspect related to the second and third objectives of work to various degrees, acknowledging that different types of work have different effects. As Smith noted in later editions of The Wealth of Nations, employing few of man’s faculties could have serious social costs by reducing certain human capabilities:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.20

From the holistic perspective of religious ethics, production or exchange that violates any of the three objectives is “degrading” because we decrease the value of the objective we violate not quantitatively, but qualitatively. One reason is because “goods differ in kind,”21 so to view selling pornography, for example, as the same as selling household items is ultimately a category mistake. The first dehumanizes its producers, the second, ideally, does not. When “everything is for sale,” writes Michael Sandel, markets themselves may corrupt goods. If you pay children to read books, he explains, then children are taught that reading is a chore, not a practice with intrinsic worth; similarly, selling seats in a classroom diminishes the value of a diploma, and hiring foreign mercenaries degrades citizenship. Sandel concludes: “[W]hen we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use.”22

A holistic approach, however, asserts that humans are human beings, not simply human “havings” and “doings.”23 If it is true that complete fulfillment is only found in the unlimited reality of God (whether approached in personal or supra-personal terms), as all the world’s major religions assert, then it follows that to seek the Infinite in finite goods can only result in profound disappointment, pain, and even despair. Accumulating wealth for its own sake converts the joy and blessings of wealth into a sort of envious misery, because somebody else will always have more. Indeed, a misdirected search for the Infinite has stoked appetites that now insatiably devour the beauty of the natural world. Bereft of the traditional worldview of their ancestors, large segments of humanity have strayed from paths that lead to a sense of the sacred or transcendent, to the Beauty that satisfied humans grounded in living religious traditions for millennia.

We can only find the path again by understanding that our soul's unconditional happiness can be achieved by finding and expressing Beauty within itself. But to fill the void created by the absence of inward beauty24 with heedless consumption can be likened to drinking saltwater—it will only make us thirstier. Schumacher describes this cycle in the context of modern economies:

The basic aim of modern industrialism is not to make work satisfying but to raise productivity; its proudest achievement is labor saving, whereby labor is stamped with the mark of undesirability. But what is undesirable cannot confer dignity; so the working life of a laborer is a life without dignity. The result, not surprisingly, is a spirit of sullen irresponsibility which refuses to be mollified by higher wage awards but is often only stimulated by them.25

It is precisely such a cycle—the endless need for more—that is destroying our natural world.

Can Our Economics Be Ethical?

The central question about the adverse relationship between nature and the economy is whether we are in need of institutional transformation or simply moderate reform. The Catholic ethicist John Sniegocki notes that free trade economists overwhelmingly believe only more economic growth through capitalism can solve pressing social ills. For the environment, many reference the “Kuznets curve,” a theory that asserts that growth first generates pollution, but eventually, as wealth increases, better technologies, increased efficiencies, and mitigation efforts begin to resolve ecological degradation. These theorists, writes Sniegocki, generally have deep “faith in human ingenuity, science, and technology to save humanity from any possible human caused ecological disasters.”26 Other mainstream economists may believe in government regulations and international agreements to solve problems, but they also fail to acknowledge the need for a change in worldview, which a holistic solution demands.

Economists are partly correct in viewing the environmental crisis in terms of “market failures,” as results of the overuse (or underuse) of goods relative to their “true” costs—and most particularly the fact that natural resources that should have a “price” are considered “free,” or are drastically underpriced. A classic example is a factory polluting a nearby neighborhood: it imposes costs on its neighbors, but the costs are “external” to the polluter insofar as it is not required to concern itself with social and environmental responsibility. In situations involving negative externalities27 like polluted air, economists maintain that some goods—clean air in this case—are “underpriced.” Market failure is the cumulative effect: it is the overuse of clean air relative to its true value (or the cost of its pollution) that leads to the inefficient use of resources. 

Accordingly, market failures can account for myriad environmental threats, including marine losses, deforestation, desertification, freshwater system decline, loss of biodiversity, proliferation of toxic pollutants, acid rain, nitrogen excess in fertilization, and so forth.28 The increasing scarcity of unpolluted natural resources, used or damaged by their use in production processes without costs to the exploiting enterprise, reverses the claim that an invisible hand promotes societal interests when individuals pursue their own interests. This naturally puts a blinding spotlight on the need for reasonable regulation of markets and commerce, but the political process responsible for such regulations often fails due to the corrupting influence of special interests, raising the question of Juvenal: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will guard the guardians?).29

Alternatively, one might think that a socioeconomic system based on central command explicitly appealing to cooperative ideals, or the “visible” hand of the state rather than the invisible hand of the market, would be better equipped to neutralize negative effects of growth. But in fact the opposite is true, as evidenced by the dismal environmental record of communist countries, which some observers even blame for the collapse of the Soviet Union.30 Communism attempted to achieve economy-wide cooperation through central planning, but it undermined the basis for such cooperation by its systematic deskilling of work. Like other mechanized economies, communism ignores the intrinsic connections between meaningful work and spiritually productive cooperation (Schumacher’s second and third objectives of work). Special interests, moreover, can take on even more corrupt and dysfunctional forms in industrial communism than in capitalism, because bureaucrats often conflate the interests of bureaucracy with the interests of society.31 The absence of a spiritual dimension in communist political theory means that communism attempts to achieve a sort “Christian” charity without relying on the inspiration of Christ, or any other revelation.32 But, explains Schumacher, charity without a spiritual grounding is often fatal: “There is no supportable middle position. Those who want the Good Society, without believing in God, cannot face the temptations of Machiavellianism.”33

In an industrialized world, communism and capitalism therefore have much more in common than their proponents admit: both neglect Schumacher’s second and third objectives of work, and the resulting loss of intrinsic meaning in production and exchange promotes conflict rather than cooperation between workers, owners (whether individuals, corporations, or the state), and consumers.34 Although communism opposes spiritual values much more directly than capitalism, both systems undermine spiritual values. Without a change in the philosophical understanding of work, personal reform within a system is rendered powerless to reform the system itself. Schumacher writes:

This is of decisive importance. It shows that appeals for good behavior and the teaching of ethical or spiritual principles, necessary as they always are, invariably stay, as it were, inside the system and are powerless to alter it: unless and until the preaching leads to significant new types of work in the physical world.35

Indeed, there is an increasingly urgent debate over whether the secular paradigm that has indirectly created the industrial economic system can generate new technologies quickly enough to solve the accompanying crises related to the environment. Whether technological “fixes” are possible depends on whether or not our worldview corresponds to the nature of reality. If it does not, attempting to find a fix within the current paradigm can lead to a vicious downward cycle of technologies, with each “cure” often leading to more and more adverse (and even catastrophic) “side effects.” If science and technology are based on philosophical presuppositions that ignore higher levels of reality above observable phenomena, and this does not correspond to the nature of reality, then both man and nature suffer unintended adverse consequences.

Unfortunately, the current analytical tools of mainstream economic theory, imported into economics from Newtonian mechanics, suppress the need for substantive philosophical debate by claiming to be ethically neutral.36 This application of materialism ultimately promotes technical (market or incentive-based regulatory) solutions for moral problems, reinforcing the “separate domain” argument and leaving no higher orders of reality to which to appeal about the spiritual significance of production and exchange processes. This is a crucial point that theologians, philosophers, and other intellectuals must keep in mind when carrying out dialogue with economists on the environmental crisis, for such interconnections between economic theory, practice, and worldview are not made explicit in mainstream economic texts. In short, the worldview that understands work in purely mechanical terms is responsible not only for economic production that generates violence against man and nature, but also for the analytical tools that express and promote the same values and theories that caused the environmental crisis to begin with.

Towards a Sacred Science

The Abrahamic elevation of humanity as the crown of creation is criticized by many environmentalists as forwarding an “anthropocentric” view similar to that of mainstream economic theory, and hence they blame both for the current environmental crisis.37 Deep ecology, for example, espouses the equality of man and other creatures, or an “eco-centric” or “bio-centric” approach in place of an “anthropocentric” one.38 But such a critique misunderstands Abrahamic teachings, which instill a theocentric, rather than purely anthropocentric, approach. Indeed, the Abrahamic traditions conceive of humans not as owners of the earth, but in the dual role of God’s servants and vicegerents on earth. Nasr writes:

[As a servant, one] must be passive towards God and receptive to the grace that flows from the world above. [As a vicegerent, one] must be active in the world, sustaining cosmic harmony and disseminating the grace for which [one] is the channel as a result of… being the central creature in the terrestrial order.39

In this sense, the status of vicegerent is not simply a privilege, but a responsibility and a trial, and failure to realize one’s spiritual potential leads to disequilibrium.40 For faith traditions, nature is harmed when the vicegerent of God no longer considers himself or herself the servant of God, a mistake that leads to the belief that humans are accidental beings not created for a higher purpose.41 Anthropocentrism is dangerous because it usurps theocentrism, not because biocentrism is a better alternative. Denying the centrality of humans only introduces further disequilibrium.

Fortunately, the intellectual and spiritual roots of the environmental crisis are receiving renewed attention. Discoveries in physics during the last century challenge the notion of a strictly mechanistic universe, and fierce debate has ensued about interpreting the new physics and about what should replace pre-quantum materialism.42 As one scholar puts it, we are in a reality marketplace.43 The Catholic scientist and theologian Wolfgang Smith (who carried out extensive correspondence with Muslim scholars such as Nasr) has attempted to integrate the findings of physics into higher orders of knowledge.44 Remarkably, Muslim philosopher-scientists such as Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037 CE), ‘Umar Khayyām (d. 1131 CE), and Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī (d. 1274 CE) anticipated this solution centuries earlier in their holistic philosophies of nature. Mullā Śadrā (d. 1640) developed their thought into a grand synthesis of Islamic theology, philosophy, and mysticism to provide the metaphysical foundation for a contemporary science capable of interpreting all natural phenomena through a spiritual perspective that responds to the limitations of modern science without denying its factual discoveries.45 As the astronomer Robert Jastrow put it, albeit in a non-Islamic context:

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; and as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.46

Indeed, it is ironic that René Descartes, who established the philosophical foundation for secular science by denying any qualitative dimension to nature and creating an inseparable gulf between the subject who knows and the object that is known, was a contemporary of Mullā Śadrā.

G.N. Tyrell illustrates the difference between such secular and sacred approaches to nature by comparing nature to a text. He points out that a book, for example, is merely a colored shape to an animal, and any “higher significance a book may hold lies above the level of its thought.”47 The animal is not wrong, since the book is a colored shape, but this does not exhaust its meaning. Tyrell carries the analogy further:

A book, we will suppose, has fallen into the hands of intelligent beings who know nothing of what writing and printing mean, but they are accustomed to dealing with the external relationships of things. They try to find out the “laws” of the book, which for them mean the principles governing the order in which the letters are arranged…. They will think they have discovered the laws of the book when they have formulated certain rules governing the external relationships of the letters. That each word and each sentence expresses a meaning will never dawn on them because their background of thought is made up of concepts which deal only with external relationships, and explanation to them means solving the puzzle of these external relationships…. Their methods will never reach the grade [of significance] which contains the idea of meanings.48
From the point of view of sacred science, the book of nature corresponds to sacred scripture, each page of which reveals a truth, namely the “vestiges of God.”

From the point of view of sacred science, the book of nature corresponds to sacred scripture, each page of which reveals a truth, namely the “vestiges of God” — vestigia Dei in traditional Christian thought, āyāt Allāh in Islamic thought, and analogous concepts in other religious traditions.

When we apply this understanding to economics, we see that a sacred economics requires both a faith-based approach to law, which can set the conditions for production, and also a set of sacred intellectual sciences, which, because they are based on an integral vision of humanity’s place in the cosmos, can inform the heart of production with a coherent vision of humanity’s hierarchy of spiritual and other needs. 

On the one hand, a religious approach to law would establish a minimum division of labor to provide necessary and useful goods and services, asserting that some members of the community must practice each profession to fulfill the needs of society. The division of labor is thus analogous to other collective duties, such as building orphanages and hospitals. If no members in the community fulfill these needs, each member of the community is held spiritually accountable. The division of labor is thus conceived of as a duty, not simply a pragmatic possibility.

On the other hand, a sacred approach to intellectual, productive, and artistic sciences would also be necessary, because the norms and principles of art, which are also derived from the heart of revelation, would govern the making of things in a sacred economy.49 From this point of view, human arts and crafts should communicate a spiritual truth and presence analogous to nature, or God’s art. “The ethical aspect of work in this case embraces also the aesthetic,” writes Nasr.50 Thus, the production process is conceived as a spiritual discipline in which what one makes is not only a means of livelihood but also a product of devotion. According to Ananda Coomaraswamy, “The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.”51

This approach to the making of things has always been closely wed to the spiritual practices of a given religious tradition, because the necessary condition for this approach is consciousness of one’s mortality and complete dependence on the Absolute, or “spiritual poverty” (faqr).52 Metaphysics and a sacred understanding of the sciences of nature apply to everything in the productive sciences—from architecture and urban planning to the art of dress and personal living space. The same applies to the practical sciences investigating everything from social organization to the treatment of the environment. This link between work, spiritual education, and the character of our surroundings forged by the sacred intellectual sciences is crucial to fulfilling the hierarchy of people’s spiritual and other needs.53 Sacred economics therefore depends on sacred science and is fatally incomplete without it. The most promising areas of the economy in which to begin developing or applying such sciences are arguably holistic agriculture, medicine, architecture, and textiles, as well as carpet and utensil production. Moreover, for equilibrium, sacred economics relies on the fact that all contingent beings are interconnected in light of their common Source. In the traditional conception of society, there is a “corrective function of others, and of collectivities and communities as embodiments of ‘the neighbor’—and in a more profound way as representatives of the Divine ‘Other’…”54 If traditional metaphysics and natural sciences correspond to the nature of reality, then the individualism of mainstream economic theory is inconsistent with social and economic equilibrium.

The community, in this traditional understanding, transmits doctrines and practices on the division of labor, production, and market exchange that allow each member to live in harmony with themselves, their fellow community members, and nature. The Cartesian denial of the intrinsic interconnectedness of all things in modern science is once again at the root of individualism in economic theory on one hand, and, on the other, the mechanized production and exchange processes that produce the negative externalities harming nature.

Accordingly, we must recover the sacred intellectual heritages of the world’s great religious traditions if we would bring forth holistic science and technology that can change our economic paradigm.55 It is important to point out that sacred economics does not only apply to economies informed by spiritual principles; it also spells out the consequences of violating these principles in secular economies, both at the individual and structural levels, including the aesthetic aspect of work. If such spiritual principles are necessary for equilibrium—because injustice towards man and nature leads to instability—then spiritual principles are the necessary starting point of economic analysis, because disequilibrium is unintelligible in its own terms. Economics is therefore continuous with other practical sciences ranging from ethics to politics and is not an independent domain separated from the rest of social life, as the “separate domain” approach of modern economic theory claims. Sacred economics thus critiques both modern mainstream economic theory and practice.56