Faith, Conscious Knowledge, and the Practice of Good Deeds

Faith, Conscious Knowledge, and the Practice of Good Deeds

By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge,and second, the practice of good deeds.
— ‘Abdu’l Baha

This was one of the quotes which, as a friend put it, “rocked my world” when I first heard it. Too often do we talk about faith as something opposed to knowledge and science, as involving blind trust in something one can never prove, and as a pursuit both illogical and impractical. This quote, on the other hand, presents a very different concept of faith, my understanding of which I will try and elaborate on here.

Faith and conscious knowledge – a scientific process of discovery

The way I have over time come to understand faith is as a very scientific process of discovery. This, I think is what the first part of the quote alludes to when it talks about conscious knowledge. As we go through life, we acquire knowledge of all kinds. Faith relates to that part of the sum total of our knowledge that we are conscious or aware of.

Now how do we go about acquiring this knowledge? I believe that it has to be through a process based on the scientific method of experimentation and hypothesis testing. This applies to both matters that relate to the physical world and the spiritual. Knowledge of the physical world is developed through what we conventionally call science – and as our scientific hypotheses about the physical world are confirmed by our experiences, we develop faith in our understanding of physical reality.

Developing faith in our understanding of spiritual reality, I would argue, should follow a very similar process to what is followed in conventional science. Abdu’l Baha calls this the “divine science”; praising science as the discoverer of realities, he says,

Scientific knowledge is the highest attainment upon the human plane, for science is the discoverer of realities. It is of two kinds: material and spiritual. Material science is the investigation of natural phenomena; divine science is the discovery and realization of spiritual verities. The world of humanity must acquire both. A bird has two wings; it cannot fly with one. Material and spiritual science are the two wings of human uplift and attainment.

He then goes on to define what specifically he means by “divine science”:

By the divine we mean the discovery of the mysteries of God, the comprehension of spiritual realities, the wisdom of God, inner significances of the heavenly religions and foundation of the law.

Science, therefore, is the process of discovery – and the discovery of spiritual realities progresses in a similar vein to the discovery of material realities. There is one key difference though – all of (material) science today is based on studying some object external to the experimentalist, using certain physical instruments. Even psychologists who study the human brain or surgeons who study the human body study some human being other than themselves, or some part of themselves that is treated as an object other than their self. Therefore there is always a separation between the subject and the object of experimentation, however subtle. In addition, the instruments of experimentation are usually physical, tangible objects that produce physical, tangible signals/measurements/results (fields of study like psychoanalysis or anthropological research are somewhat of an exception to this norm, with instruments of experimentation that are often more intangible; for an interesting analysis of psychology as a science and limitations to a rigidly scientific approach, look here). Both the objectification of that which is being studied, and the physical nature of instruments mean that all these experiments that we conduct on the world have what we like to call objective results – results that do not depend on our opinions/beliefs, but rather can be reproduced by anyone who has access to the same object and the same instruments. This notion of verifiability is a key requirement today for any theory to be considered legitimate science.

A scientific approach to metaphysical questions, on the other hand, is intrinsically different in that it breaks both of the above norms – the object of study is not something extrinsic to us (or even some part of us that we can study as something extrinsic to our “self“), but rather our own soul – or whatever it is in us that we refer to when we say the word “I“. In addition, the instruments of experimentation are not physical objects, but rather, our actions and reflections on the results of those actions. We make a hypothesis about the spiritual nature of the world/ourself, act on the basis of that hypothesis, and then make measurements by looking at the consequences of those actions. If the consequences align with the original hypothesis, one attains a certain measure of faith in it. This process of course does not stop with one such instance – one constantly keeps up this process of experimentation and validation, and over time, one builds up a reasonable level of faith in one’s hypothesis.

Lets take a concrete example of this. Let us suppose that someone suggests that I pray everyday, for that has spiritual influence on the world and my soul. If I accepted him at face value and just did what he suggested, that would surely be blind faith. But instead, let’s say I take what he claims about the influence of prayer as a working hypothesis. Then I act on the basis of that, sincerely, and with an open mind, not being attached to my own views on the matter. So I pray with full dedication everyday for a while, and then observe the effect this has on my soul, my state of mind, my actions in the world, and the effects of those actions on the people around me. If I find that there is a distinct positive change in all these over time, I will, through this scientific process, end up concluding that prayer does indeed have some spiritual effect. Of course, I don’t immediately stop at this point and then blindly accept this as a truth proven beyond question. I have greater faith in it, and so act with increased vigor – but still keep my mind open to being proven wrong if there is enough compelling evidence to show that I was mistaken the first time around. As the evidence in favor of the hypothesis mounts, however, so does my faith in its truth-value. This is an asymptotic process.

Cleansing the instrument of our soul

Note that all this depends on one being completely open-minded, without prejudice, and without preconceived notions of the results of the experiment – in other words, we need to cleanse the instrument of our soul so we can have confidence in the final consequences being the result of the action itself and not our own failings/biases. The following two quotes from Abdu’l Baha emphasize exactly this point.

The perfect love needs an unselfish instrument, absolutely freed from fetters of every kind.

The most important thing is to polish the mirrors of hearts in order that they may become illumined and receptive of the divine light. One heart may possess the capacity of the polished mirror; another be covered and obscured by the dust and dross of this world. Although the same Sun is shining upon both, in the mirror which is polished, pure and sanctified you may behold the Sun in all its fullness, glory and power revealing its majesty and effulgence, but in the mirror which is rusted and obscured there is no capacity for reflection although so far as the Sun itself is concerned it is shining thereon and is neither lessened nor deprived.

Faith and the practice of good deeds

Therefore the building up of faith in a spiritual reality should ideally come about as a result of this development of conscious knowledge that is based on this process of scientific experimentation on the soul. And the experimental process involves our deeds, the actions we use to test our hypotheses about the spiritual world – and this brings in the second part of the quote, the practice of good deeds. Faith, therefore, is knowledge that one is aware of, and which is built up through the exercise of one’s free will in the commission of good deeds.

Another (and I believe equally valid) interpretation of the second part of the quote is also that faith cannot exist in thought alone – one can only be said to have true faith when one acts and performs good deeds on the basis of that faith. It is not enough for me to say that I believe in God and the spiritual nature of the human soul – I need to act on the basis of that belief, serve humanity, do good deeds – and only then can I be said to have faith. Therefore conscious knowledge and action on the basis of that knowledge together comprise true faith.

The subjective nature of spiritual learning

One most striking aspect of this process, of course, is its subjective nature. If I say that prayer has spiritual effect on my soul, is there any way to objectively verify this? This inherent subjectivity is often used as a reason to rubbish any kind of spiritual statement as being scientifically unsound due to its non-verifiability from a completely objective standpoint. But is this really true? Or does this arise from the fundamental impossibility of recreating the exact conditions of experimentation to verify these statements? All scientific experimentalists will agree that objective verifiability only makes sense when the conditions of experimentation are exactly the same – so if someone claims that he conducted an experiment where he measured the boiling point of water to be 100 degrees Celsius, I would need to recreate the same conditions (for example, ensuring that I use pure water, that the atmospheric pressure is maintained at the same level, etc) to get the same result. If I boiled water with salt in it instead of pure water and determined that the boiling point was 105 degrees, I would be remiss in concluding that the first claim was wrong. If we now apply this same analogy to scientific experimentation on the self, one immediately realizes that one can never recreate the same conditions of the soul in another human being, for each person is a complex combination of myriad thoughts, experiences and circumstances. And so one should in fact expect that a scientific experiment conducted by one person on his soul would not be exactly reproducible by another. This is no way means that the original experiment and conclusions are wrong.

Does this then lead to unbridled relativism, a complete lack of objectivity? In a static sense it might seem so, but dynamically I don’t think so. Though initially it might seem like our experimental process is doomed to failure because there is no way to distinguish between true consequences of any action, and consequences that come about due to our lack of understanding/sincerity/openness, over time as our understanding develops, so will our ability to discern truth. Additionally, this process of discovery does not occur in a vacuum – rather, we engage in discourse with those around us, share and learn from each other’s experiences, and together arrive at a more comprehensive understanding of reality than any individual alone could arrive at. Such a dynamic and collective view of knowledge acquisition is also paralleled by notions of scientific progress presented by philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn that have revolutionized conventional views of science (look out for more on Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts in science and its parallels in religion in a later post).

Therefore with time, as we hone the instrument of our soul, polish our mirrors within, and collaboratively seek to learn and grow, we will be able to better reflect the light of knowledge that shines on us all. And this will eventually lead us, asymptotically, towards understanding (objectively) the true nature of reality and all that underlies it – and from that shall arise true faith and certitude.

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4 thoughts on “Faith, Conscious Knowledge, and the Practice of Good Deeds

  1. Kierkegaard claimed that all essential knowledge intrinsically relates to an existing individual. In Either/Or, he outlined three general forms of life individuals can adopt: the aesthetic, ethical, and ethico-religious. The aesthetic is the life that seeks pleasure. The ethical is that which stresses the fulfillment of duties. Neither of these attains to the true individuality of human existence. But in the ethico-religious sphere, truth emerges in the authenticity of the relationship between a person and the object of his attention. With authenticity, the importance is on the “how,” not the “what,” of knowledge. It attains to a subjective truth, in which the sincerity and intensity of the commitment is key. This authenticity is equivalent to faith understood as “an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness.” The coexistence of this “objective uncertainty” with “passionate inwardness” is strikingly paradoxical. Kierkegaard makes a similarly paradoxical claim in holding that “nothing historical can become infinitely certain for me except the fact of my own existence (which again cannot become infinitely certain for any other individual, who has infinite certainty only of his own existence) and this is not something historical.” Thus faith can never be a matter of objective certainty; it involves no reckoning of probabilities, it is not an intellectual acceptance of a doctrine at all. Faith involves a submission of the intellect. It is not only hostile to but also completely beyond the grasp of reason.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Sugel. From what little I’ve read about Kierkegaard and his theory of faith, it seems like he’s talking about something different from what I mean in this post when I say faith. Maybe it is just a question of definition. Kierkegaard seems to talk about authentic faith as being faith in the impossible, of it being an active and constant re-choosing by the individual (because he must keep choosing to believe in the impossible), and the solitude necessary to achieve this faith (since the very personal choice made makes it incommunicable to others). To me all this has certain shades of what I would term blind faith – but authentic faith to me seems more based in reason. Let me give a simple example that might help clarify this point – when I wake up tomorrow morning, I have faith that the sun will rise from the East. Why? Because its always risen from the East every single day of my life, because I have studied (and accepted) theories about the rotation of the Earth and its revolution around the sun, and so on. To me, this is a faith that is reasonable – it is based on solid empirical evidence, and theories and models that have been validated against previous data (even though I myself did not necessarily do this). There is certainly an element of faith here though – after all, there is some finite probability (however small) that some cosmic event will throw off the Earth’s rotation between now and tomorrow morning. The process of developing faith in a spiritual reality, in my mind, operates in a similar way, with certain key differences that I’ve outlined in the post. I really don’t see faith having anything to do with believing in that which has been proven to be impossible. Believing that the Earth is flat in today’s world, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, would fall into this category – and sure, I can see why someone who holds such a belief would find it necessary to adopt a passionate inwardness.

    One thing that I do agree with Kierkegaard on is the essential subjective element that underlies faith in a spiritual reality – but I feel like he’s been a little too harsh on the believer when he says there is no scope for communication with anyone else due to the personal nature of his faith. True, we have our own unique, personal experiences that shape our faith – but there is also much that we share in common that we could talk about, and though one might never achieve complete certainty through this process, one’s faith can certainly be bolstered and strengthened through open and rational consultation with other individuals. So I definitely see us asymptotically moving towards greater certainty (if not complete 100% certainty).

    On that note, I’m also not totally sure about the concept of objective certainty – are we ever 100% certain about anything? I’d prefer to think in terms of practical certainty – else one can easily slip into a very solipsistic view of the world where one is certain of nothing except one’s own existence (and even that could be called into question).

    Finally, its maybe important to remember that Kierkegaard’s view evolved from his interaction with traditional Christianity, and the paradoxes he saw there in what people believed – and I think the Baha’i perspective on faith (that inspired this post) is somewhat different from that.

    Sorry for the long-winded response 🙂

  3. What to an atheist are pure metaphysical speculations are articles of faith to the believers.Perhaps at the risk of stretching the definition of “faith”, it could be said that the religious believers trust in the veracity of their explanations, while the scientists has “faith” that an explanation is possible. I realize that this latter use is a bit out of bounds, because it doesn’t actually occur in the same manner as it does for religious believers, but in essence this is what occurs.In my view, the distinction we actually experience is that most religious believers will extend that “faith” and claim it as fact. Whereas the scientist has no “facts” to extend it to beyond believing that an answer is ultimately possible.This is often what surfaces in debates about evolution versus creationism, because at some level everyone understands that the questions of origins, at this point, don’t have a good scientific answer, so the conclusion becomes that both groups are exercising an article of faith. However, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the scientist’s “faith” doesn’t lay claim to any particular knowledge beyond the belief that an answer is possible, while the creationist uses their “faith” to claim an answer.

    1. I remember looking at an article on irreligion in India, but it said it was hard to categorize people as religious or not religious outside of the West.

      Western concept of Irreligion becomes irrelevant when dealing with Indian religions, since Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism consider atheism, agnosticism, nontheism etc. to be valid. This incongruity arises from the fact that Indian religions do not conform to western definition of religion. The elements that form the concept of irreligion has a strong tradition in India and among Indian religions.
      According to the Dentsu Communication Institute Inc, Japan Research Center (2006), 6.6% of Indians stated that they had no religion.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irreligion_in_India

      ^ Chakravarti, Sitansu (1991). Hinduism, a way of life. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. p. 71. ISBN 978-81-208-0899-7. Retrieved 2011-04-09.
      ^ Kedar, Nath Tiwari (1997). Comparative Religion. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 50. ISBN 81-208-0293-4.
      ^ Evans, Robert (12 February 2004). “Atheists, Humanists Push Campaign for ‘Darwin Day'”. Reuters. “In India, where humanism and atheism have a strong tradition and are not so distant from traditional Hindu thought, which rejects “ultimate truths,” rationalists are alarmed at the rise of an aggressively militant version of Hinduism.”

      Lot’s of religous people subscribe to a religion with metaphysics but without God or atleast not necessarily with God.

      If faith is belief, then the Nontheist and Secular Humanist are not different than the Jew, Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh, New Ager, Neo-Pagan, Unitarian Universalist, Toaist, Scientologist, or any other religionist. They have faith in different positions with regards to whether or not God exist and if so what is the nature of God, about incarnations of God, about life after death, about the origin of life, about evil, about salvation, about undeserved suffering, and about contemporary issues. There are lots of permutations you can put into the Belief O Matic quiz from Belief Net, but there are only 27 categories your answers can be scored against.

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