God has conferred upon and added to man a distinctive power — the faculty of intellectual investigation into the secrets of creation, the acquisition of higher knowledge — the greatest virtue of which is scientific enlightenment.
Dec 23, 2012. After the first World War, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, leader of the Baha’i Faith, wrote a letter to the Central Organization for a Durable Peace (see Tablet to the Hague). In the letter, sent in 1919, he outlined the central teachings of the Baha’i Faith, including the independent investigation of reality:
Among these teachings was the independent investigation of reality so that the world of humanity may be saved from the darkness of imitation and attain to the truth; may tear off and cast away this ragged and outgrown garment of 1,000 years ago and may put on the robe woven in the utmost purity and holiness in the loom of reality. As reality is one and cannot admit of multiplicity, therefore different opinions must ultimately become fused into one.
Newton (1642–1727) (also see Wikipedia) – whose extraordinary scientific accomplishments gave him unparallelled influence in the Enlightenment – held the independent investigation of reality as central to the scientific method. It was, he said, the key to doing science correctly; the key to freeing the mind from the influence of metaphysical presumptions, irrationality and superstition; and the key to understanding Christianity (where his conclusions presaged some of the basic teachings of the Baha’i Faith.)
In the following, we outline some of Newton’s views about the proper way to investigate reality.
The Independent Investigation of Reality
The independent investigation of reality can mean several things. According to the Baha’i teachings:
It means that man must forget all hearsay and examine truth himself, for he does not know whether statements he hears are in accordance with reality or not. Wherever he finds truth or reality, he must hold to it, forsaking, discarding all else; for outside of reality there is naught but superstition and imagination.
Or it can mean – not dissimilarly – what Newton promoted as the correct way of doing science. His recommendations have become an unassailable part of the modern scientific method.
The most famous of the statements of Newton’s views in these regards is in an essay called the General Scholium at the end of the second and third editions of the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. “I do not feign hypotheses,” he writes (sometimes this is translated as “I do not frame hypotheses”) in clarifying why he doesn’t attempt to explain the causes of gravity:
For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this experimental philosophy, propositions are deduced from the phenomena and are made general by induction.
Newton is saying that “experimental philosophy” (i.e., science) must proceed by being free from metaphysical or occult assumptions, from untested and arbitrary physical assumptions, and from preconceived ideas and assumptions in general. Explanations must rely on the facts of what is being investigated, not preconceptions. The Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Newton elaborates:
[T]wo very different “Newtonian” traditions in physics arose from Newton’s Opticks and Principia: from his Opticks a tradition centered on meticulous experimentation and from his Principia a tradition centered on mathematical theory. The most important element common to these two was Newton’s deep commitment to having the empirical world serve not only as the ultimate arbiter, but also as the sole basis for adopting provisional theory.
Throughout all of this work he displayed distrust of what was then known as the method of hypotheses – putting forward hypotheses that reach beyond all known phenomena and then testing them by deducing observable conclusions from them. Newton insisted instead on having specific phenomena decide each element of theory, with the goal of limiting the provisional aspect of theory as much as possible to the step of inductively generalizing from the specific phenomena.
Much of what Newton is doing is building on the empirical tradition of Islamic science; the work of Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo and others, and the British empirical tradition of Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke. But Newton’s modifications to those traditions, combined with the extraordinary success and impact of his science, transforms the “natural philosophy” of his predecessors to the modern science of today, a science whose hallmark is “objective” investigation into the truth of things unimpeded by metaphysical, political, social or other assumptions:
Such a commitment to empirically driven science was a hallmark of the … the research of Kepler, Galileo, Huygens … . Newton, however, carried this commitment further first by eschewing the method of hypotheses and second by displaying in his Principia and Opticks how rich a set of theoretical results can be secured through well-designed experiments and mathematical theory designed to allow inferences from phenomena.
The success of those after him in building on these theoretical results completed the process of transforming natural philosophy into modern empirical science.
Thus was modern science born, with “objective” and independent investigation of reality as its core value. By the middle of the 18th century, Newton was universally lauded as the greatest of all Enlightenment thinkers and the methods he promoted became the basic principles of a scientific tradition that is continually growing in power, capacity, capabilities, and impact.
Newton was not only a scientist of unrivaled capacity, but also deeply religious in a way that valued the same principles of rationality that he applied to science. Next week, we review aspects of his religious thought, their impact on liberal Anglican thought and practice, and their eventual loss of influence.
This is the 8th in a series of blogs on the Enlightenment Vision of Science. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.