Human beings have many gifts, including our outer and inner powers and abilities. Abdu’l-Baha said:
There are five outward material powers in man which are the means of perception—that is, five powers whereby man perceives material things. They are sight … hearing … smell … taste … and touch. These five powers perceive external objects. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 243
Since the early 1900s, when Abdu’l-Baha gave this talk, science has labeled other external powers of man, such as the ability to sense temperature or to maintain balance, among others. All these powers aid humans to perceive and navigate the physical reality around them.
Man has likewise a number of spiritual powers: the power of imagination, which forms a mental image of things; thought, which reflects upon the realities of things; comprehension, which understands these realities; and memory, which retains whatever man has imagined, thought, and understood. The intermediary between these five outward powers and the inward powers is a common faculty, a sense which mediates between them and which conveys to the inward powers whatever the outward powers have perceived. – Ibid., p. 243.
From the definitions above, we can deduce that the common faculty is a very busy entity indeed, functioning as the gateway and conduit to both sets of powers.
This brings us to the act of actually conceiving of a thing. For example, our dreams may seem true and real, like a mirage of an oasis in the middle of the desert seems real—but even though the dream seems real and the mirage seems real, we know the mind and the body can play tricks on us. So to truly conceive of something must mean going deeper than just seeing, or tasting, or imagining, or even thinking—as powerful as that may be—until we reach the stage of comprehension.
Abdu’l-Baha made an astonishing statement when he said: “That which man conceives with his own mind he comprehends.” – Star of the West, Volume 5, p. 47.
Let’s look at the dictionary definitions:
conˑceive: to form in the mind; imagine.
comˑpreˑhend: to grasp mentally, understand.
Our minds are conception generators, conceiving of plans and ideas at an amazingly fast pace—between an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 thoughts per day. Even our dreams are stories containing conceptual plans and ideas, although they may be imaginary and fantastical.
Comprehension usually comes later, after a bit of reflection; mulling over the facts or the particulars of a given situation, or after any type of learning or experience. Generally, we must use our mental powers to fully comprehend a painting or a mathematical equation or a social problem, but the power of comprehension can also be instantaneous.
Either way, we use our outer powers to experience a thing and gauge its impact on us and those around us, and we use our inner powers to facilitate an appropriate responses to the reality we perceive. Of course, sometimes our body itself reacts automatically and instantly. The “fight or flight response”, for example, is a much more immediate and physical response to external stimuli. When we use our common faculty, it does its best to mediate between conception and comprehension.
For example, speech is a complex human function that takes time to master, learn and assimilate. Some people can speak multiple languages fluently, whereas others concentrate on only their native tongue. Human speech takes patience and timing, tact and wisdom, and if we run off at the mouth too much, or speak hurtful words, others turn away. For although we have outer and inner powers, using them to their fullest potential takes effort, diligence, wisdom and time.
We humans are good at conceiving, physically and mentally. We also might think we conceived or comprehended a thing—but when a new light of truth shines on the subject, we find that our conception and comprehension were flawed.
This is how it is with any human-made conception of God and what God’s will is for us, as Abdu’l-Baha explained in the fuller version of the quote above:
If man worships God … he must first form a conception of God, and that conception is created by his own mind. As the finite cannot comprehend the infinite, so God is not to be comprehended in this fashion. That which man conceives with his own mind he comprehends. That which he can comprehend is not God. That conception of God which a man forms for himself is but a phantasm, an image, an imagination, an illusion. There is no connection between such a conception and the Supreme Being. – Ibid.
That is why, throughout human history, we have turned to the messengers and prophets of God to educate us and our understanding of both God’s will for us and His reality. Our inner and outer powers simply can’t conceive of or comprehend our Creator.
None of us are perfect, but the prophets relied on the Holy Spirit to guide their every action and words perfectly. If we turn to those messengers—in this day, to Baha’u’llah—we will learn about God and be drawn closer to Him.