37th Annual Association of Baha’i Studies Conference: Science and Religion Talks

37th Annual Association of Baha’i Studies Conference: Science and Religion Talks

ABS logo 2Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone!

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, from the Bahá’í Writings.

September 2, 2013. The 37th Annual Association of Baha’i Studies Conference was held from August 15 to August 18 this year in the beautiful planned city of Irvine, California – the jewel of Orange County.

Learning in Action: Scholarship and the Generation of Knowledge was the conference theme – and there were excellent talks on the topic by some very capable people. Also, there was the release of a new letter of guidance from the Universal House of Justice about possible future roles for the Association for Baha’i Studies which I discussed in last week’s blog (see here). Finally, there were a large number of session talks, too many to possibly attend, including seven on science and religion.  These talks were held under the auspices of the Science and Religion Special Interest Group where I serve as one of the chairpersons. Below, I report on the talks I chaired.

Science and Religion Talks at the 37th Annual Association of Baha’i Studies

For each of the talks on science and religion that I attended and chaired – the one exception being the talk I gave – the room where the talk was held was filled to the overflowing. These were very popular talks!

For each of the talks, I share part of the abstract and then discuss the talk and my impressions.

“The Human Mind: Does it Have a ‘Location’?” by Kamran Sedig.

Abstract: It is often assumed that the mind is “located” in the brain. The Baha’i Writings differentiate the two and state that the mind does not reside in the brain. … In this presentation we will examine and compare the concepts of brain, mind, soul, and spirit in the light of both Baha’i Writings and current theories of cognition.

Kamran Sedig, a professor in Canada specializing in applied cognitive science, gave a talk that looked at the metaphors the Baha’i writings use to talk about the mind – which he says is ultimately unknowable – and summarized them as indicating that the mind is not physically located in the brain. Modern theories of mind – including the theory of distributed cognition that is part of the focus of his reserach – also consider the mind in a metaphorical way.  For example, cognitive science researchers considers it geographically (mind as a map), computationally (mental computing and data storage), biologically (as a brain), epistemologically (mental models of reality), anthropologically (culturally determined), and sociologically (determined by social interaction). These metaphors – taken as pieces of the puzzle – also show that the mind is more than something simply located in the brain.

This talk was exemplary – I felt – in that it explored the parallels between the Baha’i teachings and modern science in a systematic way.  For me, it was a powerful illustration of how careful consideration of the Baha’i teaching can be used to drive scientific insight.

Mehrdad Ehsani“Scientific Insights into ‘Here Am I’ (Consciousness and Space-Time)” by Mehrdad Ehsani.

Abstract: “Here Am I”, in the Long Obligatory Prayer, is our gateway to a scientific and spiritual investigation of the nature of consciousness and its significance in Baha’u’llah’s teachings. … We will show that there exists a magical present moment of time, independent of clock time through which clock time flows [which] is out stepping stone to spiritual enlightenment.

Mehrdad Ehsani is also a professor – indeed, a very distinguished professor of engineering in the field of energy and vehicle research at Texas A & M. But it is not engineering that he turns to as the answer to questions about the nature of our mind and consciousness. Rather he turns to consciousness itself – that magical moment of “now” that we all are intimately aware of. Drawing on the mystical traditions that are common to all the religions of the past and the findings of modern science, especially modern quantum mechanics, Kamran appeals to our direct intuitive grasp of consciousness as an essential element of life that we should not ignore.

I hope he pursues this topic further – he could become the Baha’i Deepak Chopra.

“Common Ground: Science and Religion as a Social Media and a Way to Build Communities” by Stephen Friberg, Maya Bohnhoff, and Bahram Nadimi.

Abstract: We evaluate the experience of the Common Ground effort – blogs, science and religion discussion groups, and soon local area meetings – as an exercise in community building around some of the most compelling issues – science and religion – that face people everywhere.

This talk by the Common Ground team presented an overview of the Common Ground blog effort and a brief discussion of where we would like to go. Currently, Common Ground has 360 posts, 43 pages of other materials, and nearly 2000 comments. It started in October of 2010 and has an average of nearly 4000 views a month. Common Ground has also started a science and religion discussion group, will be sponsoring a Wilmette Institute course starting November 11th, 2013 entitled Science, Religion, and Creating the Future: A New Discourse, and is planning to have a regional conference on Science and Religion in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2014.

Panel on Evolution Science and Religion Talks at the 37th Annual Association of Baha’i Studies

The evolution science panel was perhaps the “jumpingest” science and religion presentation I ever attended at an ABS conference. The speakers were young, dynamic, and passionate – the crowd was young, in between, and all other ages as well, the talks were excellent and informed, and the questions were engaged, deep and way too many to be handled in one session.

“Evolution: A False Dichotomy” by Mark Salata.

Abstract: A false dichotomy is presented to the public when addressing biological evolution in U.S. classrooms. We are pushed to choose between faith and reason. As Baha’is we are called to challenge such false dichotomies and promote unity between science and religion.

Mark Salata – a very dynamic speaker – is an education consultant and entrepreneur running a science publishing company (Werkz) providing iTunes materials on biology (see here) who also happens to be a Ph.D. in biology and a former professor. In his talk, he emphasized that we don’t need to accept the separation of science and religion widely associated with the conflict of creationism/intelligent design and evolution. Rather, we should use the facts uncovered by the biological sciences to drive our understanding of creation without buying into purely materialistic interpretations of those facts.

“Evolution and the Baha’i Faith” by Kiana Mohajeri.

Abstract: Through parallel consideration of the Baha’i writings and evolutionary genomic evidence, the accepted stance on human evolution can be supported and shown to be in harmony with the teachings of the Baha’i Faith.

Kiana Muhajeri is a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle focusing on genomics. In her talk, she stepped us through the result of recent genomic research and showed us that there was no disconnect between those results and the Baha’i teachings

Both Mark and Kiana fielded the many, many questions from the audience with aplomb and convincing arguments (well, usually) and the discussion spilled over into the corridors and continued the rest of the conference.

Computational Science Panel

Also, there was a Computational Science Panel with two excellent talks which I unfortunately was unable to attend. One talk was “Hidden Themes in 346 Baha’i Prayers, Found with the Statistical Topic Model Latent Dirichlet Allocation” by Lynne Butler, and the other was “Cybernetics as a Guide to Incorporating Learning into Institutional Functioning” by Craig Loehle.

This direction of their work offers tremendous possibilities, and I was very disappointed that I had to chair talks at the same time that they were given.


Next week, I will talk about the possible things that could be done with a revived Association for Baha’i Studies Science and Religion Special Interest Group.

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