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Religion, Science and Reason: The Dynamic Relationships

Behrooz Sabet | Aug 29, 2018

PART 4 IN SERIES One Unifying Method of Acquiring Knowledge: A Baha’i Perspective

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Behrooz Sabet | Aug 29, 2018

PART 4 IN SERIES One Unifying Method of Acquiring Knowledge: A Baha’i Perspective

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

We live in a world based on science, reason and logic—so how can those modern ways of knowing relate to the more mystical approaches to reality?

Unifying the spiritual and the scientific is one of the primary goals of the Baha’i teachings, which connect them all as aspects of a single, holistic process of human learning and comprehension:

The mind comprehendeth the abstract by the aid of the concrete, but the soul hath limitless manifestations of its own. — Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith—Selected Writings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, p. 337.

The senses alone are incomplete, as they are subject to the mind’s interpretations. Reciprocally, the senses do not provide a complete and generalized picture of reality; therefore, the mind cannot depend solely on the senses, nor can it ignore sense perception altogether. Without the senses, the mind will remain in the realm of mere speculation. The utilization of reason is a necessary tool for validating the perception of the senses, and the same is true in the reverse. This reciprocal relationship is imperative for any proper analytical process used in acquiring and refining knowledge.

Furthermore, Abdu’l-Baha implied that the shortcomings of using reason alone are partly due to the fact that throughout the history of philosophy, thinkers have failed to take advantage of all the methods of comprehension; instead, they relied primarily on using logical proofs.

As an example, Abdu’l-Baha cited the debates among ancient philosophers on the question of cosmology. Plato had first proven the earth to be static, and then disproved himself by propounding a new theory of a heliocentric universe. His ideas were eventually forgotten until Galileo’s time, when all of this speculative reasoning—as well as shifts in worldview—came to a decisive conclusion that empirical proofs and objective measurements were to be used to achieve universal consensus.

Hence, we can conclude that the mind is capable of understanding the truth, but is incomplete and biased if used independently of other methods of comprehension. Without an integration of the senses and logic/reason, thoughts and ideas remain in the realm of speculation, and human experience will be bereft of the precision and confirming power of scientific verification.

Logic and reasoning combined with the faculty of the senses can produce credible results. For example, in the above scenario, it was the combination of the interaction between Galileo’s sense-based observations and his logical-mathematical theories that enabled him to gain conclusive knowledge. Indeed, Galileo’s successes are unique in the history of science, not only for what they proved, but more importantly because they marked a higher level of integrating the methods of sense perception and logical reasoning.

However, the relationship between sensation and reasoning is not static—it continuously transforms and progresses. In the past, due to limited technology and the absence of precise instruments to facilitate the process of experimentation, the analysis of scientific research was largely based on logic and reasoning; however, in the last 400 years, new discoveries and scientific advancements have produced a higher level of collaboration between these two methods. This relationship has made it possible for the wheels of science to progress at a much faster rate.

The Relationship Between Reasoning and the Holy Spirit

The Baha’i teachings maintain that the mind is the fruit of the spirit’s progress. Abdu’l-Baha said:

As for the mind, it is the power of the human spirit. This spirit is as the lamp, and the mind as the light that shines from it… The mind is the perfection of the spirit and a necessary attribute thereof, even as the rays of the sun are an essential requirement of the sun itself. — Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 242.

Therefore, we can say that the power of the mind is an evolving component of our spirituality and self-development. If we consider that the mind is static, then it will prove susceptible to error; but if we see the mind in the light of an all-encompassing progressive process, it will maintain its potentiality, validity, and thus nobility. This all-encompassing evolutionary process is intimately connected with the emanations of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit influences the individual self and the faculty of reason in two fundamental ways. First, it continually reveals new knowledge through the messengers of God—the revealers of the world’s religions—in the form of oral traditions and written texts. These oral traditions and written texts literally add to the content of human knowledge. For example, the Baha’i revelation describes in specific terms new ideas and concepts about the nature and origin of physical reality, the evolution of the universe, and the dynamics of the human psyche and social organization. If we examine all religious traditions, we will see that this has happened before in profound ways. Consider, for example, Barbour’s suggestion that:

…the biblical doctrine of creation made a distinctive contribution to the rise of experimental science because it combined ideas of rationality and contingency. If God is rational, the world is orderly; but if God is also free, the world did not have to have the particular order that it has. The world can then be understood only by observing it, rather than by deducing its order from necessary first principles, as the Greeks tried to do. — Ian Barbour, Religion and Science, p. 210.

Traditionally, the spiritual world has often been subject to a total alienation from the material world. The Baha’i Faith, however, views these two realms as closely related. In fact, the world of phenomena allows the spiritual world to express its potentialities. The effects of the spirit, as expressed in tangible phenomena, can thus be studied according to empirical and rational standards. Therefore, the faculty of the senses, combined with reasoning, provides us with the information and understanding about the physical world surrounding us. This knowledge allows us to then establish the foundation blocks for metaphysical comprehension.

Contradictions between the knowledge content of religious scriptures and scientific and philosophical ways of thinking should not be viewed as an assumption that reason has been incapable of understanding this type of religiously-revealed knowledge. Viewed from a different perspective, these apparent contradictions may have been due to either religious traditions or scientific reasoning lagging behind in the course of the progression of knowledge.

The knowledge contained in religion should ideally be viewed as complementary to scientific/philosophical reasoning. Contradictions between the two should be attributed to the element of time and the historicity of knowledge. Both science and religion can fall behind in the pursuit of knowledge. Abdu’l-Baha gave an example of religion falling behind and even impeding the advancement of knowledge when he cited the medieval papacy:

… when the means of temporal sovereignty were secured, and worldly honour and prosperity were obtained, the papal government entirely forgot Christ and occupied itself with earthly dominion and grandeur, with material comforts and luxuries. It put people to death, opposed the diffusion of learning, persecuted men of science, obstructed the light of knowledge, and gave the order to slay and pillage… — Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 154.

The second primary influence of the Holy Spirit functions as the source of the spiritual and moral refinement of the human self. It liberates the mind from the suggestions of self and creates a transcending pattern in the path of acquiring knowledge.

The Holy Spirit, beyond its influence on the realm of thoughts, provides meaning and purpose to life and thus a reason for the renunciation of the ego. The knowledge acquired from the Holy Spirit requires reflection and action, making it possible for one to deliberate questions of what is right and just. As such, the Holy Spirit acts as the true source of human morality, compassion and kindness.

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  • Steve Eaton
    Sep 1, 2018
    Your series is just terrific!
  • Rosslyn and Steven Osborne
    Aug 30, 2018
    I found this article to be excellent and easy for me to follow and comprehend. Thank you Ros
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