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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