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We human beings have four ways of knowing, the Baha’i teachings say—so let’s see if we can understand how each one works.
While any comprehensive analysis of this profound topic extends beyond the scope of this essay, what follows is a cursory sketch, hopefully sufficient for our purposes, of Abdu’l-Baha’s four ways of knowing.
1. The method of the senses.
This method of knowing relies on sense perception, usually referred to as empiricism in most discourse. Beginning sometime during the seventeenth century, empiricism has been closely associated with the epistemological basis of scientific research. Empiricism tends to define scientific endeavor as one of collecting and classifying various observable facts into an abstract formulation, merely to provide a convenient summary of these facts. It is believed by some that the study and observation of empirical phenomena is the sole basis for scientific research and determining the truth, often coupled with the conclusion that the empirical method is the one and only way to ensure that scientific knowledge remains pure and safe from subjective assumptions, philosophical speculations, and theological presuppositions. In the early part of the 20th Century, describing the empirical method, Abdu’l-Baha said:
“At present all the European philosophers hold this to be the most perfect criterion. They claim that the greatest of all criteria is that of the senses, and they regard it as sacrosanct. And yet the criterion of the senses is defective, as it can err.”
Abdu’l-Baha used traditional philosophical examples of the unreliability of knowledge acquired through sense perception:
“The eye sees a mirage upon the desert as a lake of water, but there is no reality in it. As we stand upon the deck of a steamer, the shore appears to be moving, yet we know the land is stationary and we are moving. The earth was believed to be fixed and the sun revolving around it … A whirling torch makes a circle appear before the eye, yet we realize there is but one point of light.”
In brief, the Baha’i teachings maintain that the senses can only offer imperfect empirical data, and that observational data alone cannot provide adequate tools for generalization and/or interpretation of information—a truth clearly evident to any thoughtful and genuine scientist.
Despite any emphasis on the imperfection of the senses, though, the Baha’i teachings regard the empirical approach as a necessary mechanism for acquiring knowledge and understanding. Abdu’l-Baha clearly stated that empirical forms and symbols are essential for conveying intellectual concepts. From one point of view, it would seem that Abdu’l-Baha agrees with the Aristotelian approach, which contends that we need concrete particulars and sensible objects for the comprehension of metaphysical realities.
2. The method of reason.
This method of understanding reality, based on the logical and reasoning capacities of the human mind, finds its primary use in the field of philosophy. The debate among philosophers regarding the relationship between the mind and the senses is as old as philosophy itself. Generally speaking, rationalist philosophers remain unsatisfied with the proponents of scientific empiricism, who they say are content with partial and limited truths, all of which are contestable.
The empiricists, in turn, generally claim that these empirical truths are all we can know; dismissing the grandiose claims of the rationalist philosophers. For the most part, rationalists will argue that in order to achieve recognition and understanding of truth, we must go beyond empirical methods and include the findings to which reason, when set free from strict reliance on the senses, will lead us. However, the Baha’i teachings recognize that reason, by itself, is neither independently foolproof nor comprehensive. Abdu’l-Baha refers to debates among the ancient philosophers to illustrate this point:
“They deduced things through the power of the mind and relied on rational arguments: All their arguments are based upon reason. But despite this, they diverged greatly in their opinions. They would even change their own views: For twenty years they would deduce the existence of something through rational arguments, and then afterwards they would disprove the same, again through rational arguments. …
It is therefore evident that the criterion of reason is imperfect, as proven by the disagreements existing between the ancient philosophers as well as by their want of consistency and their propensity to change their own views.”
In one of his talks, Abdu’l-Baha remarked:
“… great discoveries and announcements of former centuries are continually upset and discarded by the wise men of today. Mathematicians, astronomers, chemical scientists continually disprove and reject the conclusions of the ancients; … everything is continually changing because human reason is progressing along new roads of investigation and arriving at new conclusions every day.”
However, this assertion should not be misunderstood as a dismissal of reason per se; rather, it is clear and implied that Abdu’l-Baha’s critique of reason is essentially a critique of a fixated definition of the term. Stated differently, if humanity stubbornly and blindly attaches itself to the findings of reason from a previous age, then as time passes and civilization evolves, reason can become a barrier to the realization of truth. When viewed within the context of the Baha’i teachings, which characterize the acquisition of divine knowledge as progressive and evolutionary, then reason, in its process-oriented expression, can be viewed as becoming one with the universal reason or logos running through all religions.
3. The method of traditions.
This mode of acquiring knowledge is based on the adherence to traditional religious belief systems that exist in various cultures, which have over time, developed into present-day schools of thought and convention. These belief systems are typically based upon the scriptures of the various traditional religious faiths. In Abdu’l-Baha’s words:
“This criterion is not perfect either, because the traditions must be understood by the mind. As the mind itself is liable to error, how can it be said that it will attain to perfect truth and not err in comprehending and inferring the meaning of the traditions?“
Traditions, as we all know, tend to crystallize into dogmatic patterns of thinking which, like reason, can become frozen into a conceptual quandary. Conversely, if they are given the generating impulse of an evolving intellect, they can continue to remain a beneficial and reliable method of knowing.
4. The Holy Spirit.
Abdu’l-Baha defined the Holy Spirit as “the Bounty of God and the luminous rays which emanate from the Manifestations.” In further defining the Holy Spirit, Abdu’l-Baha said:
“But the grace of the Holy Spirit is the true criterion regarding which there is no doubt or uncertainty. That grace consists in the confirmations of the Holy Spirit which are vouchsafed to man and through which certitude is attained.“
The Baha’i teachings identify the concept of the Holy Spirit with the power invested in the messengers of God—the divine voices of each age, and the mediators between humanity and its Creator:
“So we can say there must be a Mediator between God and Man, and this is none other than the Holy Spirit, which brings the created earth into relation with the “Unthinkable One”, the Divine Reality.
The Divine Reality may be likened to the sun and the Holy Spirit to the rays of the sun.“
From a Baha’i perspective, the Holy Spirit, like reason and tradition, is a dynamic, progressive and generative force—not a fixed or absolute reality. This theme recurs often in the Baha’i writings. Shoghi Effendi wrote:
“Its [the Baha’i Faith’s] teachings revolve around the fundamental principle that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, not final. Unequivocally and without the least reservation it proclaims all established religions to be divine in origin, identical in their aims, complementary in their functions, continuous in their purpose, indispensable in their value to mankind.”
From these brief analyses of the different methods of knowing identified by Abdu’l-Baha, we can conclude that the main source of any disagreement between the modalities of reason, tradition, and the Holy Spirit arises because of tension between static and dynamic approaches to understanding reality.
Reason, tradition, and the Holy Spirit constitute the core of culture and civilization. A static approach to these methods can often lead to perceiving error as reality, thus contributing to the causes of the disunity and disintegration of culture and civilization. On the contrary, a dynamic and progressive vision of these methods can contribute significantly to the generation of new knowledge, and thereby cultivate the integration of even higher levels of culture and civilization—one of the primary goals of the Baha’i Faith.