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The problems which the Age of Enlightenment eventually produced remain with us, and might be said to embody the central philosophical issue of our age.
Those problems began when philosophers and thinkers challenged the claims of accessing objective truth embraced and embodied by tradition and religion. Sadly, that trend has culminated in rejecting all claims of the possibility of accessing objective truth, even those put forward by modern science.
Yet a more careful study of the claims of both religion and science makes clear that there is much more nuance to the truths they exemplify.
While both religion and science acknowledge the existence of an objective reality and a singular body of truth, the claims of access are more tempered and far less absolute than have been traditionally represented. Further, if access to the truth does indeed fall short, it doesn’t imply an equivalence of all knowledge claims. There are objective metrics which can distinguish the efficacy of truth claims while admitting the truth of a negative theology or philosophy. That represents a view – chiefly but not exclusively held by the Baha’i Faith – which rejects the possibility of conceptualizing the deity or even fully accessing and comprehending objective reality.
On Order and Semantics
Many of the major practitioners of the physical sciences have, for quite a long time, effectively jettisoned any pretense of accessing the true reality of physical things in and of themselves. For example, Ludwig Boltzmann, the father of Statistical Mechanics, introduced the concept of “theoretical pluralism,” which appears to have foreshadowed and influenced the development of the philosophical understandings of quantum mechanics and effective field theory. Boltzmann explained:
… no theory can be objective, actually coinciding with nature, but rather … each theory is only a mental picture of phenomena, related to them as sign is to designatum. From this it follows that it cannot be our task to find an absolutely correct theory but rather a picture that is as simple as possible and that represents phenomena as accurately as possible. One might even conceive of two quite different theories both equally simple and equally congruent with phenomena, which therefore in spite of their difference are equally correct.
Thus, even before the end of the 19th century, physical scientists questioned whether accessing some stable and singular lasting truth about the physical world might be achievable. Thus, the claims of modern science were much more modest than most imagined. Instead, a view more in line with American Pragmatism and Instrumentalism prevailed. That is, most physical scientists realized that meaningful conclusions meant building self-consistent models which can predict measured events at a given resolution and scale. Further, it was understood that these predictions had intrinsic variables and probabilities associated with them, and thus could never be totally deterministic. This view is captured on some level by American Pragmatists and Instrumentalists like Peirce who saw the pursuit of “truth” as only meaningful in terms of its basic usefulness. In other words, theories could be provisional and not encompass pure objective truth, yet still be useful.
In that sense, science can be understood as the process of incorporating increasing amounts of semantic information about the universe into mathematical models requiring fewer and fewer variables.
Through this lens, the Copernican scientific revolution really entailed a change of coordinates that simplified the model, reducing the number of variables and increasing the semantic information about the dynamics of the planets and the sun. It wasn’t that an earth-centered universe was incorrect, which in truth is a meaningless statement since one is free to choose any old coordinate system. Instead, using a heliocentric coordinate system made predictions much easier and more accurate, reducing the number of variables to contend with. This view of science is of course counterpoise to Thomas Kuhn’s view, that scientific discovery was driven more by epistemic shifts in paradigms employed by the consensus of practicing scientists than a linear progression of objective knowledge.
These metrics involve assessing the relative semantic content of the various truth claims – that is, how much predictive information is contained in each claim. The same logic informs the appearance of divine revelation, and is in no small measure why we often refer to those beings endowed with the power of revelation as “prophets.”
These individuals – the messengers who brought us the world’s great Faiths – evince a deep knowledge of humanity and the world, and along with the ability to anticipate future events. In doing so, a prophet grasps the trajectory and coming needs of society. It can be argued that this is a large part of why their teachings lead to the emergence of new civilizing orders associated with their names.
In his writings, Baha’u’llah characterizes each of these divine prophets as an “All-Knowing Physician,” explaining that: “The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy.”
In the material world one can observe how the concept of revelation becomes a useful metric to explain and predict the seismic effect which the words and teachings of certain individuals have on the culture, habits, and behaviors of a civilization. One can see how these successive revelations defined the moral values and virtues which would bind societies together for millennia after their appearance. The efficacy of their moral teachings allowed the ascendancy of the societies which adopted them. There is good reason why most if not all successful civilizations have had religion as central to their culture – and its rapid deconstruction and decline in favor of a purely materialistic philosophy over the past 150 years is not without peril.
Concerning this vitally important fact Baha’u’llah warned humanity:
The greater the decline of religion, the more grievous the waywardness of the ungodly. This cannot but lead in the end to chaos and confusion. Hear Me, O men of insight, and be warned, ye who are endued with discernment!
“The vitality of men’s belief in God,” Bahá’u’lláh has testified, “is dying out in every land; nothing short of His wholesome medicine can ever restore it. The corrosion of ungodliness is eating into the vitals of human society; what else but the Elixir of His potent Revelation can cleanse and revive it?” “The world is in travail,” He has further written, “and its agitation waxeth day by day. Its face is turned towards waywardness and unbelief. Such shall be its plight that to disclose it now would not be meet and seemly.”
In the next essay we will consider how the goal of enlightenment can be realized through the birth of a new Faith caused by divine revelation.