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How do we acquire knowledge? Our senses, our rational faculties, our religious traditions—they all contribute to our knowledge base. But how much of what we know is actually true?
In the book Some Answered Questions, Abdu’l-Baha described four essential methods for the acquisition of knowledge and the study of phenomena, and discussed which of those methods most reliably lead to the truth:
There are only four accepted criteria of comprehension, that is, four criteria whereby the realities of things are understood. – Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 343.
Abdu’l-Baha then lists three of those four criteria—the senses, the intellect, and religious tradition—and explains why each is an unreliable indicator of the truth:
The first criterion is that of the senses: that is, all that the eye, the ear, the taste, the smell and the touch perceive is called “sensible.” …
The second criterion is that of the intellect, which was the principal criterion of comprehension for those pillars of wisdom, the ancient philosophers. …
The third criterion is that of tradition, that is, the text of the Sacred Scriptures, when it is said “God is thus in the Torah”, or “God said thus in the Gospel.” …
Know, therefore, that what the people possess and believe to be true is liable to error. For if in proving or disproving a thing a proof drawn from the evidence of the senses is advanced, this criterion is clearly imperfect; if a rational proof is adduced, the same holds true; and likewise if a traditional proof is given. Thus it is clear that man does not possess any criterion that can be relied upon. – Ibid., pp. 343-345.
In his description of the first three methods, Abdu’l-Baha pointed out their imperfections and ultimate fallibility, then went on to say that only the fourth method of comprehending reality, “the grace of the Holy Spirit,” makes certainty possible.
In this series of articles, we’ll discuss a Baha’i perspective on the nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge, and suggest that a unifying and hierarchically-arranged thread among these four methods can be identified. Additionally, we’ll explore the unique approach to knowledge the Baha’i teachings reveal, which resides in a bold assertion that the progress and evolution of the various modes of inquiry are, in fact, the essential functions of the process of spiritual renewal—far from any rejection of the sound scientific and philosophical methodologies which have developed throughout history. We’ll also examine the fundamental Baha’i principle of the agreement of science and religion, and discover how that principle applies to our unified, holistic acquisition of knowledge.
An Overview of the Methodologies of Knowledge Acquisition
Throughout history, there has been a continual and often chronic conflict among different schools of thought concerning the origin and methods of acquiring knowledge. Unfortunately, this conflict has created a perceived tension—perhaps even a mutual contradiction—between the various methods of inquiry. This, in turn, has contributed to the fragmentation of knowledge into what have become mutually exclusive domains, each with its own methodology and worldview.
Abdu’l-Baha’s categorization of those domains can be expressed in three words: empirical, logical and traditional. The empirical domain, which relies on sense-based observation and experimentation, has become generally known as the scientific method. The logical domain, which relies on the human intellect, is generally known as the philosophical approach to life. The traditional domain, which relies on our understanding of the world’s great faith traditions, is generally known as religion. These three domains—science, philosophy and religion—rarely meet or even concur in today’s world.
That’s because the empirical approach has been transfixed into a reductionist-materialist worldview; logic and reasoning have often lingered in the speculative world of philosophy; and religious traditions have frequently degenerated into superstition and stagnation, conflicting with logic and science.
In response to this condition, the Baha’i teachings offer a new framework which demonstrates the necessity for the interrelation of these methods of comprehension, in a genuine search for truth that includes and incorporates each method.
Abdu’l-Bahá’s integrated view provides a deeper insight into the question of the nature and the origin of knowledge. This insight has the potential to offer a unifying and dynamic perspective on the relationship between science, philosophy and religion, and a comprehensive method for the interpretation of reality.
That Baha’i perspective contends that the necessary relations among the four methods reflect a oneness or wholeness inherent in reality. This oneness must be translated into the unity of knowledge and learning, ultimately reconciling any perceived conflicts within the realms of science and religion. If, however, we make a sharp distinction between the methodologies of religion and science, we will never be able to achieve reconciliation between the two.
Abdu’l-Baha’s perspective leads to the seemingly radical suggestion that the methodology of the study of faith and religion should not differ from that of material phenomena. If perceived from the proper viewpoint, this proposal neither compromises the rigor and exactness of science, nor forfeits the spiritual core of religion. It must be disassociated from the ambitions of a naïve scientism, which seeks to explain the whole of reality in exact empirical terms, and solely within the context of a material or physical understanding. Moreover, this does not signify that religion must wait for science to legitimize it. On the contrary, the call for a unified methodology to acquire and explain knowledge must be based on the demands of both science and religion—a necessity for the unification of all methods of acquiring knowledge, and a common ground for its explanation.