Baha’u’llah declared that religion is in complete harmony with science and reason. If religious belief and doctrine is at variance with reason, it proceeds from the limited mind of man and not from God; therefore, it is unworthy of belief and not deserving of attention; the heart finds no rest in it, and real faith is impossible. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 231.

Here’s the working definition mathematician William S. Hatcher gives for science: “a collection of statements or affirmations which are taken as truths about reality (or some portion thereof).” (The Science of Religion, p. 8.)

Different kinds of statements exist about reality, just as different kinds of reality exist. The laptop I composed this essay on is real, but it is a different level of reality than the thoughts I’m expressing or the words and letters I’m using to express them.

Consider the following statements: “The cat is black;” and “E=mc²” (Energy is equal to the squared mass of an object moving at light speed in a vacuum).

Both of these statements describe reality, and both can be spoken to by science. One is concrete, the other is abstract or theoretical. “The cat is black” describes a concrete object; “E=mc²” describes a theoretical relationship. Both are equally true statements of reality, but they are not equally important.

“The cat is black” is an empirical or experiential statement. The “cat” and its quality of “blackness” are directly observable.

“E=mc²” is a logical or theoretical statement. It requires the use of abstract terms such as “energy” [e] and “mass” [m] and light speed [c] that humans can’t directly observe:

In fact, the pregnant statement “e=mc²” has such a high theoretical component that it takes years of concentrated effort to assimilate its meaning. This statement is far removed from simple, direct physical observations like the whiteness of paper. On the other hand, “this paper is white” has such a simple linguistic structure involving the use of concrete terms that its meaning might even be conveyed by the one word “white” accompanied by appropriate gestures toward the physical object in question. It is inconceivable to think of conveying the meaning of a highly theoretical statement in this manner. – William S. Hatcher, The Science of Religion, p. 9.

Hatcher further comments:

A statement with a high empirical component and a low theoretical component corresponds to the popular notion of a fact. Often, but not always, the important statements of science are statements with a high theoretical component. – Ibid., p. 10.

But what makes a statement important? A statement’s importance lies chiefly in its relationship to other statements—specifically, the number of other statements that depend on it being true.

Hatcher explains: “Thus, if we dropped e=mc² from our list of truths, many statements come into doubt; but if we drop “this paper is white” from our truths, then few statements, if any, are affected.” – Ibid., p. 9.

One statement can also imply another statement without our being aware of it. We discover scientific relationships between statements, theories, or facts by examining the logical connections between them. Often this discovery takes place not by direct observation but as a result of intuition and the subsequent work required to provide evidence of the logical relationship between the statements.

I suspect most of us have encountered conflicting ideas about what science is and how it works. I’ve often heard science referred to as a “collection of facts.” But science is not a collection of empirical facts. Neither is it a belief system. “Facts” are simply statements about reality that have a low theoretical component. They comprise only a small part of our scientific statements—sometimes the least important part.

Whatever else scientific knowledge is, it is relative. That’s why we trust science—it concerns relationships between different types of information that are perceived through human senses, then processed by the human intellect.

Scientific inquiry brings into play a host of human faculties such as reason, intuition, and experience, and on different levels of profundity and objectivity. One cannot, however, explain in any simple manner the way in which these faculties interact to produce a given statement of science. The statements of science are arrived at by a process of repeated application of these human faculties, and by many different human beings. Years of experimentation (organized experience), theorizing (conscious reasoning and intuition), and discussion lie behind the one statement “e=mc²”.” – Ibid., p. 10.

Hatcher further remarks:

It would be a mistake to say that we hold such a statement to be true because of reason, or because of intuition, or because of experience. In the final analysis, we hold something as true only because of everything else which we accept as true, that is, because this something is consistent with our experience and understanding of life as a whole. – Ibid.

What Dr. Hatcher suggests is that no statement of science exists independently of the meaning of other statements—which may be altered either by subtle shifts in the way we use words or by a change in definitions. In other words, our scientific knowledge is relative and subjective.

A classic example: Newton’s laws of mechanics and his theory of gravitation have been considerably modified since his time. At least one change came as a result of experiments with subatomic particles that Newton could not have performed in his lifetime. What this means in practice is that no statement of science is absolutely true, for no statement is independent of other statements and facts which may not yet be known. As science develops, by definition, it changes.

In this realm, as we reach further out into our universe and further into ourselves, Occam’s Razor may apply. This scientific axiom came from William of Occam, a 14th century Franciscan monk-philosopher who contended that “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” In other words, don’t reach for needlessly complex answers where simpler ones may apply.

Scientific knowledge is also subjective for the simple reason that human beings are the knowers. Even the most direct sensory input must be filtered through human faculties.

This does not mean that the world “out there” is unreal or a figment of human imagination. It means merely that our understanding of objective reality is subjective and relative, because our relationship to it is relative. Contrary to popular notions, “absolute proof” of anything is not within the domain of the scientific method—and scientists know this better than anyone.

The Baha’i teachings say that we should apply this same standard of reason and intelligence to our belief in religion:

Shall man, gifted with the power of reason, unthinkingly follow and adhere to dogma, creeds and hereditary beliefs which will not bear the analysis of reason in this century of effulgent reality? Unquestionably this will not satisfy men of science, for when they find premise or conclusion contrary to present standards of proof and without real foundation, they reject that which has been formerly accepted as standard and correct and move forward from new foundations. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 140-141.

Next: How Do You Know? The Process of Knowing

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.

14 Comments

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  • Arthur Eaton
    Dec 25, 2016
    It is quite sad that Dr. William S. Hatcher demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of the nature and methods of science. E=mc squared squares the speed of light and multiplies it by the mass of an object to determine the energy that would be released if the object were converted to energy; it has nothing to do with traveling at the speed of light. Also his definition of science implies that scientific theories are accepted on faith, which is absurd - scientific theories must be proven or discarded. This is what happens when your primary source of belief ...is faith instead of reason and evidence.
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    • Mike Moum
      Jan 05, 2017
      Ultimately, the success or failure of a scientific theory rests on its correspondence to reality. That is why scientists devise tests and experiments to confirm, refute, or modify a theory. Nothing in this article contradicts that. Concerning your comment, Maya explained that "c" in the equation is the speed of light. Nowhere does she say anything about "traveling" at that speed. Your comment is a "straw man" argument.
    • Jan 04, 2017
      You misunderstand.
      First, the ' speed of light' was my phrasing, not Dr. Hatcher's. He was a mathematician and scientist; I am merely a science fiction writer with a great love of history—especially the history of science and religion.
      Nowhere doe either of us say that scientific theories are accepted on faith. Rather that our proposal of theories to test rests on the faith that the universe is knowable and can be tested.
      The point of my essay was that, as Dr. Hatcher notes, we all form our understanding of the world and ourselves on both a conscious and ...unconscious through a combined process that requires reason, intuition, and experience, and that our knowledge base that continues to grow as we live.
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  • Bill Carsley
    Oct 19, 2016
    I find your writing to be very incisive, insightful and thought provoking, Maya. Have you ever considered writing a book which engages Baha'i thought in a respectful dialogue with Christian thought? I think your unique perspective would yield something well worth reading.
  • Bill Carsley
    Oct 16, 2016
    A very interesting article, Maya! My attention was especially drawn to your discussion of the differing levels of reality represented by concrete versus abstract statements, and also the limitations of human comprehension when dealing with descriptions of reality which are more highly theoretical than empirical.
    I've found the Baha'i idea of essential unity, particularly Station equivalency among the various Prophets, to be impossible to verify in any concrete or empirical way. I'm now wondering if Baha'u'llah's concept of this shared Station (he does describe it as a reality on the level of "pure abstraction") may in fact be ...so abstract as to be totally beyond the reach of human comprehension or confirmation.
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    • Oct 19, 2016
      You may be right about the human ability to grasp such a concept. The Baha'i writings certainly make a case for there being concepts we are simply not capable of grasping at this point in our spiritual and intellectual evolution, just as a child in its mother's womb has no capacity (or experience) to comprehend concepts he will later take for granted once he is born into the external world. Such "mundane" ideas as sun, air, mother, family, eating, breathing are elemental out here. In there, they are unimaginable.
      This discussion of Station Equivalency makes me think of the ...scientific fact that light is at once a particle and a wave. Each particle is a discrete unit, yet shares the properties of the wave with all other particles.
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  • Oct 14, 2016
    I read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins, and I recommend it for its solid science and its insight into scientific atheist thinking. He doesn't seem to understand much of what religion is about. I would enjoy talking with him about the Baha'i Faith.
    • Mike Moum
      Jan 05, 2017
      I highly recommend "The God Delusion" to Baha'is because it raises important questions that the Faith can answer, which in turn forces us to examine and understand both science and religion. It asks the questions, and in order to provide the answers, we need to understand the questions first.
    • Oct 19, 2016
      Your comment brings to mind what the Baha'i Writings say about the "conflict" between science and religion—which is that if we deem them to be in conflict and do not see their essential harmony, we have failed to understand what one or both are telling us.
  • Omphemetse Mputle
    Oct 13, 2016
    That last quote explains why atheists in the sciences are atheists
    • Jan 04, 2017
      This is certainly a factor. I find many atheists view religion as both anachronistic and static and they do so because many believers present it that way. It is hard for some of us to put aside binary thinking and understand the concept that both science and religion have central principles that are eternal while the practices that arise from those principles are in an almost constant state of change ... because we are.
      It is ever true that science is not a collection of facts about the universe, it is the conscious collection of knowledge through a particular process ...of inquiry.
      It is ever true that religion is not a collection rituals or practices, but a process by which we find an evolving relationship with God and with each other.
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  • Oct 13, 2016
    Thank you, Maya, for this important discussion. I would point out that the statement "the cat is black" could be less concrete than "e=mc^2". The dividing line between "black" and other colors is not precise. The same cat may appear brown or gold when sunlight shines on its fur.
    We don't often think of that the fact that science is just as much based on belief as religion. Both are based on the belief that objective reality exists independently of our individual selves. Religion says that God is omnipotent and eternal. Science assumes that ...the universe obeys laws that are constant over time and space. Some modern thought (I would call it non-thought) denies both science and religion by putting the individual above all else.
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    • Mike Moum
      Jan 05, 2017
      The Baha'i principle of Independent Investigation of Truth implies that a) truth exists, and b) truth is knowable. That is also the foundation of science.
    • Oct 19, 2016
      Awesome comment, Daniel. And yes, the entire edifice of science rests on the faith that the universe is a knowable place that operates by processes and laws we can recognize and understand. It is also, alas, susceptible to dogmatism because the knowers of science (we humans) are susceptible to it. Watching the Alvarezes try to gain support from the scientific community for their KT Boundary theory of an asteroid strike was very illuminating on that point.