“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.