Conversations about science and religion often fail to produce much enlightenment because the two topics are not of a comparable order. The topic of science concerns knowledge creation (epistemology) or the body of knowledge it produces (cosmology); while the topic of religion concerns belief systems (theology) and group behavior (sociology

To make progress in a science/religion conversation, we first have to clarify which aspect we are discussing:

Sociology: Here we ask questions about group and mass behavior such as:  who is doing this scientific or religious activity? Is it meant only for an elite? Or does everyone participate? To what end or purpose are they engaged? For personal advantage? Or to benefit all humanity?

Theology: This concerns the big existential questions: Is there a God? How does God communicate with humanity? What is the purpose of human life? But apart from some clues in evolution, there may be little dialogue here with science.

Cosmology: Here our dialogue can address the spiritual implications of scientific knowledge:  How awesome is the scale of the known cosmos? What worlds of God are implied by multiple universes? How infinitesimally improbable it is that the universe happened by chance?

Epistemology: This concerns the essence of knowledge-making itself. How is scientific knowledge expanded? How does spiritual knowledge grow? Are there really two distinct realms of knowledge referred to as: five-sense empiricism vs mysticism, physical vs metaphysical, or phenomena vs the noumena behind them?

This particular series focuses on the last aspect – knowledge-making.  How can we reconcile the scientific and spiritual paths to knowledge-making? To begin, the Latin root of the word science is “scio,” meaning “I know.” We produce the content of science through a widely-recognized, rational method of scientific search.

The comparable root of the word spiritual is “spiro,” meaning “I breathe” or even “I live.” The human spirit produces something we call “inspiration” through a less-widely recognized method of spiritual search—which, you will see here, can be similarly rational.

This series will detail how scientific and spiritual search act as parallel, interweaving paths to truth and knowledge.

What do these paths have in common? Both are rational; both require the seeker to explore actively for themselves; and both are incapable of reaching the final Reality.

What is distinctive about these paths? Scientific search tells us how to do things, by expanding our sensory experience and competence. Spiritual search tells us what to do and why, by inspiring souls and civilizations to pursue excellence in unfolding human potential.

Like our left and right eyes, these probing pathways of exploration work together to produce a complete vision of reality.

Let’s look more closely at these two paths to knowledge, and explore some of the steps on each path.

Let’s look more closely at these two paths to knowledge, and explore some of the steps on each path.

Step 1 – Nature of Each Path of Search

Scientific search, by nature, will be collective and very public, no matter how much private investigation is involved. The very nature of scientific knowledge is its universal validity.

Spiritual search, by nature, will be independent and solitary, no matter how much consultation takes place among seekers. The soul is designed to investigate for itself; and in this age, the Baha’i teachings call on humanity to give up merely imitating its ancestors or blindly following anyone:

…God has created in man the power of reason whereby man is enabled to investigate reality…  Each soul must seek intelligently and independently, arriving at a real conclusion and bound only by that reality. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 291.

Step 2 – Type of Knowledge Produced

Scientific search acknowledges that it must hold current scientific knowledge lightly, in a tentative way, because it is never final. New scientific knowledge will always arrive tomorrow; and sometimes it even produces a scientific revolution, transforming the dominant paradigm into a totally new view of reality. Matter itself has dissolved into a fleeting idea.

Spiritual search also produces tentative knowledge that we lightly hold. That’s because the individual soul deepens gradually, maturing in its spiritual realization while never attaining the final Reality. While less commonly recognized, the same is true of humanity as a whole. Historically, the human race has been limited in what it could bear to hear from its divine educators and prophets, as they themselves often remarked. So while spiritual knowledge of our human race progresses from age to age, we also know that it will never reach to the final Reality, which is beyond the limitation of any qualities:

Every man of insight is far astray in his attempt to recognize Thee, and every man of consummate learning is sore perplexed in his search after Thee…  Every evidence falleth short of Thine unknowable Essence… – The Bab, Selections from the Writings of the Bab, p. 208.

Step 3 – Literature Explored

Scientific researchers do not want to waste time repeating what is already known, so they start by reviewing the most current scientific publications. Unfortunately, these studies may vary in validity, since their authors are other fallible scientific researchers.

Spiritual search follows a different logic in the literature it reviews. Deeply spiritual texts, with their enduring value to humanity and their continuing relevance, become mystical classics over time. The true seeker carefully reads the sacred writings of those mystical classics, the authors of which were unlike ordinary humans. These rare divine educators and messengers reveal profound insights, unveil fundamental new aspects to reality, and produce spiritual revolutions in human life. Such revelations generate growth in a transcendent flame of divine wisdom, which burns eternally in a deathless tree of divine truth:

That which is intended by ‘Revelation of God’ is the Tree of divine Truth that betokeneth none but Him… and in every age is made manifest through whomsoever He pleaseth. – Ibid., p. 112.

…no earthly water can quench the flames of Divine wisdom, nor mortal blasts extinguish the lamp of everlasting dominion. Nay, rather, such water cannot but intensify the burning of the flame, and such blasts cannot but ensure the preservation of the lamp, were ye to observe with the eye of discernment… – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 19.

This systematic comparison of scientific and spiritual search will continue in Part II of this series, with specifics of their overall strategies, their instrumentation, techniques to investigate, and collection of evidence.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

4 Comments

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  • Garrett Brisdon
    Jul 04, 2017
    Hi Elaine! I just came across these articles. They were not only fascinating and helpful, but reading them also brought back warm memories of the adventures in scientific and spiritual search we shared as colleagues at Maxwell. I'm retired now and working on a novel which I hope will explore and illustrate some of the concepts you've explained so well in these articles. Cheers and all the best!
  • Linda Pearce
    Nov 10, 2016
    Thank you! I find we struggle with this and the distinction you make between ultimate truth, scientific and spiritual, and our growing evolving understanding is enormously helpful. As in, there is an ultimate truth but we as individuals, as communities, religious or scientific, are not privy to it, and certainly not the guardians of it!
    Your article is so wonderful because it shows clearly how no member of a religious group can say he has The truth and no scientist can dismiss spiritual truth as mere superstition because it also has a crucial contribution ...to make.
    I feel inadequate to express my gratitude!
    Read more...
  • Steve Eaton
    Nov 10, 2016
    This is going to be an absorbing series, Elaine! Mason, that "handhold" strategy has been a valuable tool for me in understanding anything! Aside from the benefit of stepping away from
    a strenuous inquiry for a while to
    rest the brain, going to the opposite bank of the science-religion knowledge stream gives us a new
    perspective. I think science and
    religion aren't just in harmony; they
    are mutually informing, facilitating,
    and expediting!
  • Mason Schmitt
    Nov 09, 2016
    Dear Elaine,
    In my experience, either when I'm discussing a topic with someone else or when I'm alone with my thoughts, I find the exploration of an idea to be like rock climbing. By this I mean that my goal is the attainment of a higher level of understanding and the path to that understanding often requires that I use the best available handhold to allow me to keep making progress. Thus one (science/religion) is often informing the other and allowing me to continue to move forward. Likewise, if there appears to be a disagreement between science and ...religion, that prompts me to investigate both in a different way, because I know they must agree.
    Read more...