The Science of Religion #1: How We Know

The Science of Religion #1: How We Know

Maya Bohnhoff

How do we know?

Most people feel that they know a certain number of true things about themselves and the world they live in. What is the process by which we have come to hold one thing true and another false?

Imagine being in a group of people at the “petting zoo” part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium viewing a frog.

How do we know . . .

  • The frog is green.
  • The frog is moist.
  • The frog chirps.

    Exhibit A

We can see that the frog is green, feel that it is moist, hear it chirp. In other words, we know these things through our senses AND since most of the people around us—including the kids—agree that these things are “true.” We agree that we know them.

But, how do we know . . .

  • The frog is an amphibian.
  • The frog hatches from an egg.
  • The frog begins life with a tail and fins instead of limbs.

These are not things that we know merely by observing the frog before us in the exhibit. There might be an expert on hand to tell us these things. And, indeed, any individual in the group (including you) may have studied frogs and aver that the frog is an amphibian that hatches from an egg as a creature that looks more like a fish than a frog. BUT, whether other people in the group accept that as “knowledge” they can also hold with certitude depends on a number of things. Such as how trusted the source of information is.

What if one or more members of the group doesn’t take your word that the frog has qualities that are not immediately apparent? They may call into question how you came to “know” these things about the frog. Did you see the eggs? Did you see the hatching? Did you observe the creature morph from one form to another? Maybe you did. Or maybe you “know” these things about the frog because your teacher told you or you read them in a textbook or saw them on Nature.

Thus HOW we acquire knowledge becomes a factor in the quality and completeness of that knowledge. We acquire knowledge about our world unconsciously every day. More frequently than we probably realize, we make unconscious decisions about the trustworthiness of a source of information. Prejudice and bias can play a role here, obviously. And we may be selective. I may accept the authority of Einstein, say, when he speaks about physics, but dismiss what he says about frogs, preferring to address my “frog queries” to a biologist or zoologist.

It is this territory—a place in which we can no longer see, touch or hear the object of our study directly—that disagreements arise about what is “true” and what we “know” or merely choose to believe.

William S. Hatcher PhD, mathematician, philosopher, educator sums this up well, I think when he wrote:

“It is when we try to go beyond the level of common-sense knowledge that we are forced to reflect more seriously about the process of discovering truth, for the unanimity which characterizes the world of practical truth is then rather quickly lost. We may, for example, start wondering about the inner and hidden structure of the things we observe—those forces and entities which we cannot observe directly but whose existence seems required to explain what we do observe.” — The Science of Religion, p. 3

So, friends, here’s the $64,000 question: How do we determine reality?

At the heart of the Bahá’í Faith is Bahá’u’lláh’s assertion that we must independently investigate reality, not relying on the opinions of others for our own knowledge. Certainly, there is a place for authority, but before we can use any authority as guidance, we need to subject it, too, to some investigation.

How do we go about doing this?

“In sum, we seek what science calls a theory, a consistent set of hypotheses involving abstract concepts which describes a model of reality and which allows us to deduce and thereby explain the known facts. In religious terms, we seek a faith, which is simply a theory to which we add a high degree of personal commitment and emotional investment.” — William S. Hatcher, ibid. p. 3

Next time I’d like to talk about science and religion as tools for building what Hatcher calls “a model of reality”.

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