Science and Religion

Science and Religion

by William S. Hatcher

“The Revelation proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, His followers believe, is…. scientific in its method… religious truth is not absolute but relative….” —Shoghi Effendi

A cardinal principle of the Bahá’í Faith is that science and religion must be in agreement and harmony. In view of the conflict and confusion which have long existed on this subject, one might think that this principle would be a great rallying-point, attracting large numbers of scientists and religionists to examine deeply the tenets of the Bahá’í Faith. This has not yet proved to be the case, however. What has been true is that those people who already felt deeply the need for some reconciliation of science and religion and who chanced to examine the Bahá’í Faith were pleased to find this principle an essential part of the Bahá’í teachings.

The situation is, I feel, quite analogous to another age-long conflict, the conflict between established religious orthodoxies. The relevant Bahá’í principle here is the essential oneness of religion. Yet there has not been any marked tendency on the part of established religious authorities to look with favour on this basic Bahá’í teaching. Because each orthodoxy has been adamant in its claim to superiority over other orthodoxies, there has been no common willingness to accede to the “leveling” belief that a de facto unity underlies the various great religious systems. Of course, there is a contradiction between the various rites and rituals, dogmas and creeds to be found in the present form of these religious orthodoxies. What the Bahá’í Faith affirms is that these rites, creeds, and dogmas are largely irrelevant to the fundamental teachings, the essential purpose and meaning of religion. These teachings have, without exception, enjoined such qualities as humility, love, compassion, tolerance. Fanatics can find no sanction for their fanaticism in the recorded teachings of their founder. Present-day religious arrogance is thus seen to be a partly deliberate, partly unwitting perversion of the viewpoint which the venerated founder had originally hoped to engender in his followers. Add to this the further observation that these founders were largely venerated only after the fact and were the object of scorn, hatred, and rejection in their day, and we have a thumbnail sketch of religious history.

I have chosen the conflict between orthodoxies as an analogy to the religion-science conflict because I suspect that it is closer than either religionists or scientists would like to admit. Orthodox religionists would dislike the analogy because they have been forced to admit the value of science after an initial resistance, and the idea that they may one day be forced to capitulate in a similar manner before the pervasive value of another religion which they initially misjudged—this would be painful. Scientists would resist the analogy in that it tends to compare science to the dogma of a religious orthodoxy, a comparison which they would regard as invidious. For if anyone is “winning” the so-called religion-science conflict, it is clearly science. Yet, it is not a novel observation that scientists are increasingly assuming the function and role played by priests in earlier societies. They are the initiated, those who explain the great mysteries to the unwashed masses.

Anyone who has had the opportunity to work in a scientific field knows how often serious scientific achievement is embellished with a liberal amount or sham and wordplay. If these are not rituals designed to charm the masses (or one’s Dean or the National Science Foundation) they come uncomfortably close to it.

Of course, a scientist would object that all of this is not true science. This, he would say, is the concession which the true seeker after scientific truth must make to the ultra-pragmatic world-at-large. The many exigencies of life in the political and social market place force the scientist, as an individual, into compromises, subtle and not so subtle, with the basic principles of scientific inquiry. But, one might contend, this does not compromise science itself, for anyone can plainly see that its principles are pure and lead to excellent results when applied correctly.

Does not all this sound strangely like the well-worn apology for the failures of religious institutions? “Our institution is divine,” we are told, “but you must not judge it by the ‘human element’ within it or by the corruption of individual exponents who may be weak and unredeemed.”

The point is that both science and religion are human, social activities. As such, they cannot claim to be purer or more exalted than their ultimate influence on society. This does not mean that such activities do not draw on invisible sources of inspiration and power to produce their effect. It means only that the evidence for the existence of such hidden well-springs of creativity can only be measured by the ultimate, realizable effect which these activities or institutions do indeed produce.

The outline of the Bahá’í approach to the religion-science conflict now heaves more clearly into view. It is that, when the true purpose and nature of science are understood and when the true purpose and nature of religion are understood, then there is, de facto, no conflict. An essential unity is discovered, a unity which was there all along but which was hidden by the aberrations in the articulation of the two viewpoints. Just as Bahá’ís make no attempt to reconcile the confusing and contradictory dogmas of different religious orthodoxies, so they make no attempt to reconcile narrow-minded pronouncements by dogmatic would-be apologists for either science or religion.

A notable feature of the religion-science controversy as it has actually existed in our recent history is this: new science came into conflict with old religion. This fact must be borne in mind by anyone honestly seeking to understand the dynamics of the problem. Modern science is, indeed, new in any historical sense of the term. Even to date it from the Renaissance is a mistake. The chief features of contemporary science appear only in the nineteenth century. Of course, its roots go deep into the past, indeed to the dawn of human intellectual endeavour. But this is true of everything. What is certain is that such a profound transformation of science was effected in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that one can properly speak of a revolution, however revolutionary the original sixteenth-century advances may appear with respect to their prehistory.

Of course, even to date the “scientific revolution” from the Renaissance does not obscure the glaring fact that the religion with which it came into conflict was already past its prime, atrophied, and sterile. Even though it possessed strong political and social prerogatives, religion had long since assumed a position as champion of the status quo, a disbeliever in the possibility of genuine social evolution and progress in this life. No wonder that “religion” seems to have been so much on the defensive and so easy an adversary to discredit in the eyes of thinking men. Such men simply had no example of a religion which was a dynamic, creative, evolutionary force. There was nothing in their immediate experience, no analogy or example, which could easily allow them to view religion in any light other than that in which its most volatile exponents chose to present it: a reactionary social force.

But the new science also suffered from the decline of religion. Because man was socially and morally atrophied in so many respects, society tended to use science for prejudicial, unscientific, and irrational ends. Science tended to become a tool to obtain desired (but not necessarily justified) social ends, rather than an attitude toward life as a whole which, from the Bahá’í viewpoint, it should have been. Thus, we now see the specter of scientific achievements being used to destroy nations, render the earth uninhabitable, effect mass murder, disgorge a cornucopia of often useless gadgets, and even to bolster dogmatic and puerile political-social or philosophical points of view about life. 

As examples of the latter, one might cite the attempt by some modern-day Marxists to use science to establish a religion of “scientific atheism” complete with dogma, rituals, and the rest, or the pseudo-philosophy of logical positivism whose inadequacy has not lessened efforts to popularize it.

Scientific Method

We now turn to a more substantive task of elaborating just how the basic unity of science, and of science and religion, is viewed in the light of the Bahá’í teachings. Our theses are, quite simply: (1) that the basic unity of science lies in its method of inquiry or epistemology, and (2) that the Bahá’í Faith consciously accepts this epistemology as its own, accepting in its wake whatever redefinitions of the terms “religion” and “faith” are consequent to it.

What, in the final analysis, is science anyway? To begin with, science is a collection of statements or affirmations which are taken as truths about reality (or some portion thereof).2 To say that a statement is true means that the state of affairs which it affirms to be the case is, in fact, the case. To say that the statements of our science are “taken” as truths means that we deliberately include in science only statements which we have judged to be true as a result of a certain process. We can thus see that science involves at least two aspects, namely the process or method by which we judge statements to be true, and the collection of statements which results from this process.3 We will begin our discussion with a consideration of the collection of statements and then turn to a consideration of the process by which the collection is generated.

The statements which comprise science (or any given scientific discipline) are subject to highly complex interrelationships. These interrelationships serve to make some statements in the collection much more important than others. The two statements “this paper is white,” and the highly pregnant “e=mc2” are both equally true statements of physics, but these statements are not of equal importance. Let us try to make all of this a bit more precise.

The Abstract and the Concrete in Science

The statements of science have two components, an experiential (or empirical) one and a logical or theoretical one. Statements may vary with regard to their empirical and theoretical components. The theoretical component of a statement results in part from the use of abstract terms. These are terms which refer to entities or qualities not directly accessible to human observation. “Energy” and “mass” are examples of abstract terms while “paper” and “white” are concrete terms, referring as they do to observable entities and qualities.

The theoretical component of a statement also results from the relative complexity of the linguistic structuring of the statement and of the terms which occur in it. For example, terms such as “velocity”, “light”, “mass”, and “energy” which occur in the statement “e=mc2” are complex when their mathematical definitions are spelled out.

In fact, the pregnant statement “e=mc2” has such a high theoretical component that it takes years of concentrated effort to assimilate its meaning. This statement is far removed from simple, direct physical observations like the whiteness of paper. On the other hand, “this paper is white” has such a simple linguistic structure involving the use of concrete terms that its meaning might even be conveyed by the one word “white” accompanied by appropriate gestures toward the physical object in question. It is inconceivable to think of conveying the meaning of a highly theoretical statement in this manner. 

Of course, even a statement like “this paper is white” has some theoretical content. It involves abstractions which are not innately given to us and which develop in normal children only after several years of life experience. Also, a highly theoretical statement has some empirical component. When all of the abstractions and definitions hidden in “e=mc2” are spelled out, the result will be an affirmation which says something about human experience on some level. We should thus be careful to view the experiential and theoretical components of statements as being a matter of degree.

A statement with a high empirical component and a low theoretical component corresponds to the popular notion of a “fact”.

The Implication Relation between Statements

Often, but not always, the important statements of science are statements with a high theoretical component. However, what makes a statement important is not only its internal structure and meaning, but its relationship to other statements. The basic relationship between statements is that of “implication”, which means that if certain statements are admitted as true, then certain other statements must also be admitted as true, these latter being “logically implied” by the former. The nature of the necessity (the “must”) involved in implication has received detailed analysis. Avoiding such details as being beyond the scope of this article, let us say that the necessity results primarily from the way in which we use words. To take a traditional example, we say that the two statements “all men are mortal” and “Socrates is a man” together imply that “Socrates is mortal.” We mean by this that the very signification of the first two statements is such that the last statement is true if the first two are. Another way of expressing this would be to say that the single statement “if all men are mortal and if Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal” is logically valid. This statement has a sort of general form: “if all A is B and if X is an A, then X is a B.” We would call this a logically valid form meaning that no matter what names we might substitute for A, B, and X in the form, the resulting sentence would turn out to be true. For example we would accept as true the statement “if all dogs are cats, and if Descartes is a dog, then Descartes is a cat.” Notice, dogs are not cats and Descartes is neither a dog nor a cat, but rather what the statement asserts is that if certain conditions are fulfilled, then certain other conditions follow, and this total statement is true. The truth of this whole statement, then, depends essentially on the way we use words like “if, then…”, “and”, etc. The structure of a sentence in terms of these and other such logical words determines whether or not a sentence has a logically valid form.

Beyond this cursory analysis, we will have to trust the reader’s intuitive understanding of the notion that a statement or statements may logically imply another statement (or statements).

Now, the complex interrelationships between the statements of a science result precisely from the fact that the truth of a given statement may logically imply the truth of other statements. A given statement is thus related to many other statements, both statements which the given statement implies, and statements by which the given statement is implied. The totality of this relationship determines the “position” or “importance” of the statement in the total context of science.

We might try to define the weight of a statement in the following way: The weight of a given statement of our science is the number4 of other statements now accepted to be true but which would be in doubt if we ceased to accept our given statement as true.5 Thus, if we dropped “e=mc2” from our list of truths, many statements come into doubt; but if we drop “this paper is white” from our truths, then few statements, if any, are affected (depending, of course, on the reason for our initial misstatement concerning the colour of the paper).

Generally speaking, statements with great weight are important statements of science.

There are two further points worth making here. The first concerns the way we have treated the individual statement as if it were an independent, meaning-bearing entity. Actually this is an oversimplification. A statement, just like a word or phrase, depends on the total context of its usage for its complete meaning. It is wrong to think of a statement as having a meaning in isolation from the context of its usage and its relationship to other statements.

The second point concerns the relationship between the statements of our science and the given phenomenon they seek to describe. It has become increasingly clear from observation of the practice of science that this relationship is often mediated via certain abstract structures or models. A model is an image or chart which we have conceived with our minds and whose structure reflects in part the way we expect the world (or that portion of the world which constitutes the phenomenon being investigated) to behave. 6 We say that the model is abstracted from reality and that the phenomenon in question is an interpretation of the model. To say that such a model is abstract means, among other things, that it does not attempt to capture all of the phenomenon as we experience it.7 Whenever a model is involved in our study of a phenomenon, some of the statements of our science will be directly true not of reality but of the model. They become true of reality only when (and if) the model is properly interpreted in the phenomenon. Thus, whereas a given statement true of a model always remains so, it can be variously true or false of reality depending on the way the model is interpreted.8 Of course, relative to any model and/or any interpretation of that model, a given statement will be either true or false and not both. A given science may be conveniently thought of as the statements which make it up plus the model (or models) of reality they describe, but we do not insist on this as a comprehensive definition.

As sketchy as this analysis admittedly is, we have gotten some idea of why some statements of a science are much more important than others. Generally speaking, statements with a high theoretical component and statements with high weight are more important than statements with a low theoretical component and with low weight. (Nothing excludes the possibility that a statement could have a low theoretical component and still have high weight.)

Although it may seem surprising at first, it is quite possible for one statement to imply another statement without our being aware of it. This means that we actually discover relationships of implication by a process of examining the logical connections between statements. It also means that, contrary to popular conception, observation and experimentation are not the only processes involved in discovering scientific truth. We often discover new truths by discovering that a previously doubtful statement is implied by some of our known and accepted truths. Often this discovery takes place not as a result of any direct or immediate observation of the world but as a result of our intuition and subsequent proof of the existence of a relationship of implication.

It follows that it is wrong to consider that science is a “collection of facts”, though this is a frequently expressed popular view. We have already noted that “factual” statements are simply statements with a low theoretical component and these comprise only part of our scientific statements, and sometimes the least important part.

The Relativity of Knowledge

We can also see from our preceding analysis that scientific knowledge is relative. Scientific inquiry brings into play a host of human faculties such as reason, intuition, and experience, and these on different levels of profundity and objectivity. One cannot, however, explain in any simple manner the way in which these faculties interact to produce a given statement of science. The statements of science are arrived at by a process of repeated application of these human faculties, and by many different human beings. Years of experimentation (organized experience), theorizing (conscious reasoning and intuition), and discussion lie behind the one statement “e=mc2”.

It would be a mistake to say that we hold such a statement to be true because of reason, or because of intuition, or because of experience. In the final analysis, we hold something as true only because of everything else which we accept as true, that is, because this something is consistent with our experience and understanding of life as a whole. No statement can be held absolutely to be true, for no statement is independent of other statements and facts which may come to our attention at some future date. Nor is it independent of the meaning of other statements, a meaning which may be altered either by subtle shifts in the way we use words or by a change in explicit conventions and definitions. A combination of such factors can result in a change in the implication relation and thus a change in the truth value of some statements. Our knowledge, then, is relative. It is relative not only to time but to the whole body of our present knowledge which forms the context in which the statement has meaning in the first place.

In short, no scientific statement can ever be held to be immune from possible revision, forever beyond the possibility of modification. Insufficient appreciation by logical positivism of this fact has been one cause of the lack of acceptance by the scientific community of this pseudo-epistemology. A classic example is the case of Newton’s laws of mechanics and his theory of gravitation which were in fact considerably modified in later centuries. One of the confirmations of the modification came as a result of experiences (experiments with subatomic particles) which Newton could not possibly have induced in his lifetime. This simple but dramatic example should serve as an object lesson to anyone disinclined to take seriously the relative nature of scientific knowledge which we have described above.

Because statements have meaning only in the total context of their usage, there is a residue of subjectivity inherent in any statement. Though parts of the total context of science may involve highly articulated objectifications, the ultimate roots of understanding are always collective human subjectivity and so there is always “room for argument”. Total objectivity is not possible. Suppose, for example, that we try to eliminate the subjective element of the notion “red” by agreeing that the term shall be applied only to those objects which give a reading of thus-and-so on a spectroscope. Once this agreement is made, we may still argue sometimes about whether or not the needle really is quite on thus-and-so, and the unbeliever will go away saying that the definition was all wrong in the first place.

Our analysis of the nature of science and scientific statements has allowed us to appreciate several aspects of scientific knowledge. We have seen that science is much more than a “collection of facts” or an amassing of factual statements. We have seen that scientific knowledge is relative. And we have seen that total objectivity is impossible since man, the subject, is after all the developer of science.

Knowledge, in short, is human knowledge, because it is human beings who are the knowers. All of our discussion should be understood with this in mind. I emphasize this seemingly trivial point here, because failure to understand it often leads to some unfortunate emotional reactions to the otherwise clear points which we have summarized above. Some people feel that to assert that knowledge is rooted in human subjectivity or that knowledge is relative is to argue that the world “out there” is unreal or perhaps a figment of our imagination. There is, however, no such implication. Nothing we have said implies that there is no reality which operates independently of our will and our subjectivity. We have pointed out only that our understanding of this objective reality (whatever it ultimately turns out to be) is relative because our relationship to it is relative.

The Process of Knowledge

“But how,” one might ask, “does a statement come to be accepted as true in view of this incredibly complex situation you have sketched out for us?” Let us say that something like the following is involved: our subjectivity is bombarded with stimuli. In order to make sense out of this experience, we begin to make certain simplifying assumptions. These assumptions, if they are made unconsciously and without reflection, become embodied in what we call “common sense”. The child “knows” that getting hit by a car will hurt, because he has fallen down before and experienced the effects of sudden acceleration. This is clearly a learned and not an innate response. But the child cannot articulate any principles of acceleration or velocity and “prove” that he will be hurt.

Now if, on the other hand, our simplifying assumptions are made explicitly and consciously (or if we make explicit those assumptions which were previously unconscious) then we have the beginnings of science. We continue to build the science by examining the logical relations between our assumptions and their consequences (mathematics, theorizing) and testing our assumptions (experimentation, i.e., the willful bringing about of experience). This leads us ultimately to a well-organized “body of knowledge” which describes a model of reality, or a portion thereof. The collection of statements which make up this body of knowledge are the statements of our science. As we have already stressed, this body of knowledge and the model (or models) it describes will be continually revised in the light of new experiences, new assumptions, and newly-discovered logical relationships.

Simply put, it is the conscious, explicit organization of knowledge which makes it scientific. Science is organized knowledge. Or, to paraphrase the words of W. V. Quine, “science is common sense which has become self-conscious.”9 When we begin to organize our experience (experimentation), rather than simply profiting from fortuitous experiences, to direct our reasoning (mathematics and logic), rather than being satisfied with common­sense deduction, and to train our intuition (reflection and meditation), rather than relying on occasional flashes of insight—then we are engaging in scientific inquiry as opposed to common sense or unscientific (or, perhaps, prescientific) inquiry.

Notice that it is this conscious direction and organization of our inquiry which alone enables us to generate truths of high weight, that is, important statements. Science is not just a matter of discovering true statements, for every human being knows an unbounded number of trivially true statements: grass is green, fire burns, etc. In sum, human thought is bound to go on in any case, and human thought is bound to evolve (change as a function of time). Science, as a positive value, intervenes by giving certain directional principles so that we may profit more effectively from this evolution.

At bottom, the criterion for truth in science is essentially pragmatic. “Does it work the way it says it will?” is the question to be answered. If the theory says that such and such a thing must happen, then does it happen? It is by repeated application of this pragmatic criterion, interlaced with intervening theory, that we gradually build up our model of reality, our collection of true statements.

In closing this discussion, we might try to formulate a general criterion of scientific truth in somewhat the following manner: We have a right to accept a statement as true when we have rendered that statement considerably more acceptable than its negation. Proof, in scientific terms, means nothing more than the total process by which we render a statement acceptable by this criterion. The possibility, even the notion, of “absolute proof” of anything is simply not within the domain of scientific method (again, contradictory to popular notions).

Similarly, we may formulate a summary definition of scientific method in the following terms: Scientific method is the systematic, organized, directed, and conscious use of our various mental faculties in an effort to arrive at a coherent model of whatever phenomenon is being investigated.

Knowledge and Conviction

The reader who may be reflecting on these things for the first time might well have an immediate reaction of the following sort: “If knowledge really is relative, as you say, then where does the sense of certitude which I possess come from?” The fact is that we do have seemingly deep-seated “feelings” of certitude about many things. In particular, the sense of our own existence or self-identity, and the sense of the objective reality of the physical world are two feelings which seem to be quite universal. Yet, the mentally ill frequently lose their sense of identity and existence. Even normal people have moments in which they have a sense of “unreality” about things. After all, we really could be dreaming and the world may be a monstrous illusion. The belief in the unreality of our existence or of the physical world is unscientific since scientific inquiry has led us to feel that the assumption of the reality of these things is considerably more acceptable than the contrary. Yet, if we are honest, we cannot rule out the possibility of having to revise our assessment in the future. How far it is from our everyday common-sense experience of matter (from which our sense of physical reality is largely derived) to the rational and scientific view of matter as energy, protons, electrons, etc.!

Thus, the “feeling” of certitude which we have is a psychological state. Our convictions may not really be as deep as we perceive them to be, and we may lose them in the future even though such a thing be inconceivable to us at the present moment. The feeling of certitude is not equivalent to knowledge, for knowledge is the process we have described in some detail above, but a sense of certitude can be had even when there is no knowledge.

I think that we can say something like the following concerning the relationship between knowledge and conviction: If our intellect accepts a concept as true, then our emotions begin to organize themselves around the idea, focussing on it, and “depending” on it. When this happens, the concept ceases to be a mere intellectual hypothesis or assumption. It becomes part of the way we live and expect things to behave.

Of course, an intellectual concept may be new or it may be an explication of a principle previously assumed on an unconscious level. Thus, there may already be considerable emotional orientation around a principle before we are able to make the principle explicit even to ourselves. Progress in knowledge frequently occurs when unconsciously assumed hypotheses are made explicit.

For example, from infancy our experience of the world leads us to expect unsupported objects to fall. This common expectation which we make in a more or less unconscious way can be explicitly formulated in the theory of gravitation. But the purely intellectual part of this theory does not express the emotional upset we would feel if suddenly it happened that an unsupported object did not fall. It would be only the most objective scientist who, observing an instance in which a dropped object did not fall to earth, could overcome his natural emotional reaction to the event and consider it merely as an intriguing counterexample to the present theory of gravitation.

There is nothing unscientific about this emotional and subjective dependence on our assumptions. Psychologists have shown this dependence to be so great that even a slight physical environmental change, such as being plunged into total darkness, can result in psychotic behaviour in a short period of time. We are so constructed that dependence on our assumptions is an inextricable part of our makeup. Our freedom lies in being able, through independent inquiry, to obtain knowledge and thus modify our conceptions and ultimately our emotional orientation. The very depth of this emotional attachment to our concepts serves as a pressure to force us to keep our concepts as close as possible to reality, because we are in for emotional shocks if our expectations are not fulfilled.

Knowledge and Faith

We need a good word to sum up this process of organizing our emotions around our assumptions, and religion has provided us with the word: faith. We can define an individual’s faith to be his total emotional and psychological orientation resulting from the body of assumptions about reality which he has made (consciously or unconsciously). Of course, his faith may change with time as he has new experiences and modifies his concepts.

We can see from this analysis that faith is not some vague thing possessed only by a few religious mystics. Every human being has faith just as surely as he has a mind and a body. We are not free to choose not to have a faith any more than we can choose whether to be born. However, the quality of people’s faiths differs considerably depending on the degree to which the basic assumptions on which a given faith is based are justified. Faith is the process of organizing our emotional life around our assumptions, and so the quality of faith is directly proportional to the validity of the assumptions (again, conscious or unconscious) on which faith is based. We can see, now, why the Bahá’í Faith enjoins a scientific outlook on life as being essential. The scientific approach does not guarantee us absolute knowledge, this being beyond the possibilities of man in any case, but it does guarantee that our concepts will be as functional and as close to reality as possible.

We have already indicated that change and reappraisal characterize knowledge and faith. But what is also true is that we seem to be more suited to gradual, smooth transitions than to sudden, violent, cataclysmic ones. The latter tend to overstimulate us to the point of shock, rendering a new and pragmatic response difficult. This is to say that living is basically a serious business, and that it behooves us always to maintain a certain alertness in order to be able to modify our conceptions gradually, thus avoiding rude awakenings where we find that our faith has been totally blind and misguided.

In short, when our concepts are grossly unscientific, our faith becomes blind and unreal. We come to expect the wrong things and to be upset when they do not happen as we wish. We become hardened and adamant in our faith. Even when presented with clear contradictions in our conceptions we resist change, for we sense that even though the purely intellectual effort necessary to reconstitute our thought may be small, the emotional reorientation necessary to assimilate the new truth will be great. Thus, we may be led, by our emotions, to act against our own interest. How scientifically did Jesus say, “As a man thinketh, so is he,” and how scientifically did Paul say, “The good I would do I do not.” The more we persist in our blind faith the greater the inertia against acceptance of a truer picture of reality, and the greater the pain when the larger conception forces itself upon us, and we can avoid it no longer.

Our discussion here touches upon yet another common misconception about science and its relationship to religion. This is the idea that there is an intrinsic opposition between faith and reason. Rather than being in opposition, the two are part of the same process of knowing and living, as we have seen. Faith must be rational, and reason always operates within the context of our basic assumptions, that is, our faith. Our assumptions, when made explicit, are the purely intellectual component of our total faith.

I wish to close this section with two brief comments. The first is for the philosophically minded individual who may feel he sees a contradiction in that I make an absolute principle of the relativity of truth. This, I do not do. The reason for accepting scientific method is that it works. The statement “the scientific method is a good one” is to be evaluated by the same pragmatic criterion as any other statement. I admit the possibility that later experience may force me to revise my evaluation even of that statement. I thus do not make an absolute out of relativity.

The second comment is this: Though the nature of knowledge and of man’s own limitations makes relativity an essential feature of knowledge, it may be that in practice most statements can be rendered either very acceptable or very unacceptable, thus reducing the existential component of “undecidability”. The theoretical uncertainty remains even with the surest of statements, but it is our explicit awareness of this uncertainty which is our greatest asset in adapting to our human situation. Once we accept humbly the limitations imposed on us, it becomes practically possible to resolve a good many issues and to make real progress in formulating a meaningful and practical understanding of reality.

The Phenomenon of Revelation

Suppose that a certain phenomenon occurs in our corner of the universe precisely every two billion years. What is the chance that we will ever discover the rational basis for this phenomenon and the principles which govern its occurrence? Clearly the chance is small, almost non-existent. If we happen to be the generation that observes the phenomenon, then it will appear to us as a miracle since we will have no record of its having occurred in the lifetime of any man in our recorded history. We will be able to do no more than record the phenomenon ourselves. If our record survives for two billion years until the next occurrence, then perhaps some scientific genius will begin to see some relationship and even intuit an answer to the question. But more than likely the tendency will be to doubt the validity of a two-billion-year-old record. Moreover, we ourselves, as observers of the phenomenon, will probably begin to doubt that it ever happened. Since the infrequency of the phenomenon will not allow us to incorporate it easily into our existing rational and scientific framework, our natural tendency will be to attempt to explain away or to discredit the phenomenon. Of course, if this recalcitrant phenomenon is itself the cause of other important phenomena, then we will have to find some way to integrate it into our model of reality or we will fail to be scientific in our approach.

There is one physical science which is actually in this position to some extent. This is astrophysics. Of all the physical sciences, astrophysics is perhaps the most dependent on records kept by scientists two or three hundred years ago, for the observations of the planetary motions which can be made within one generation or by one man may not suffice to observe certain important tendencies.

Though the original example of a periodic phenomenon having a period two billion years in length was hypothetical, it is quite possible that there are certain important phenomena which occur regularly at long intervals and whose pattern we have not succeeded in understanding.

If we consider the great religious systems of which there still exists some contemporary expression or some historical record, we will see that most have been founded by an historical figure, a unique personage. Islam was founded by Muhammad, Buddhism by Buddha, Christianity by Christ, Judaism (in its definitive form) by Moses, Zoroastrianism by Zoroaster, and so on. These religious systems have all followed quite similar patterns of development. There is a nucleus of followers gathered around the founder during his lifetime. The founder lays down certain teachings which constitute the principles of the religion. Moreover, each of these founders has made the same claim, the claim that the inspiration for his teachings and his influence was due to God and not to human learning or human devices. Each of these founders claimed to be the exponent on earth of an invisible, superhuman reality of unlimited power, the creator of the universe. After the death of the founder, an early community is formed and the teachings of the founder are incorporated into a book (if no book was written by the founder). And finally a great civilization grows up based on the religious system, a civilization which lasts for many centuries.

All of the statements in the above paragraph are statements with high empirical content and low theoretical content. These are a few facts about religious history. Of course, these facts are based on records and observations of past generations. We can try to dispute these records if we choose, but we must be scientific in our approach. In particular, the records of the older religions are of validity equal to any other record of comparable date. If, for example, we refuse to believe that Jesus lived, we must also deny that Socrates lived for we have evidence of precisely the same validity for the existence of both men. The records of Muhammad’s life are much more valid than these, and are probably beyond serious dispute. Moreover, if we choose to posit the unreality of the figures whose names are recorded and to whom various teachings and influence are attributed, we must, at the same time, give an alternative explanation of the influence which these religious systems, elaborated in the name of these founders, have had. This is more difficult than one may be inclined at first to believe.

The major civilizations of history have been associated with the major prophetic religious systems. Zoroastrianism was the religion of the “glory of ancient Persia”, the Persia that conquered Babylon, Palestine, Egypt, and the Greek city-states. Judaism was the basis of the great Hebrew culture which some philosophers, such as Jaspers, regard as the greatest in history. Moreover, Jewish law has formed the basis of common law and jurisprudence in countries all over the world. (It seemed very hard for a Russian to answer when I asked why they closed some shops on Sunday. Certainly, I surmised they did not believe in the nomadic stutterer named Moses who proclaimed the principle three thousand five hundred years ago to a bunch of ignorant wanderers in a desert.) Western culture, until the rise of modern science, was dominated by Christianity. The great Muslim culture invented algebra and preserved and developed the Hellenistic heritage. It was the greatest culture the world had seen until the rise of the industrial revolution began to transform Western culture.

We are, however, very much in the same position with respect to past revelations as we would be with regard to our phenomenon having a period two billion years long. We were not there to observe Jesus or Muhammad in action. The contemporaries of these people were certainly impressed by them, but these observations were made years ago and are liable, we feel, to embellishments. Even though it may be unscientific to try to explain away the influence of these religious figures, there is still a certain desire to do so. We are put off by certain obvious interpolations, and we are not sure just what to accept and what to reject.

The Bahá’í Faith offers the hypothesis that man’s social evolution is due to the periodic intervention in human affairs of the creative force of the universe. This intervention occurs by means of the religious founders or Manifestations. What is most significant is that the Bahá’í Faith offers fresh empirical evidence, in the person of its own founder, that such a phenomenon has occurred, Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892) claimed to be one of these Manifestations and He reaffirmed the validity of the past revelations (though not necessarily the accuracy of all details recorded in the ancient books). Here is a figure who walked the earth in recent times and whose history is documented by thousands of records and witnesses. There are, at the time of this writing, persons living who knew Bahá’u’lláh. Of course, even the death of these people will not make the historicity of Bahá’u’lláh less certain. Moreover, the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh are preserved in His manuscripts and so we are faced with a record of recent date and one of which there can be no serious doubt.

The only way we can judge Bahá’u’lláh’s fascinating hypothesis that social evolution is due to the influence of the Manifestations is the way we judge any proposition: scientific method. This is the only way we can judge Bahá’u’lláh’s claim to be one of these Manifestations. We must see if these assumptions are consistent with our knowledge of life as a whole. We must see if we can render these assertions considerably more acceptable than their negations. In the case of Bahá’u’lláh, we have many things which we can test empirically. Bahá’u’lláh made predictions. Did they come true? Bahá’u’lláh claimed Divine inspiration. Did He receive formal schooling and did He exhibit power or knowledge not easily attributable to human sources? He insisted on moral purity. Did He lead a life of moral purity? In His teachings are found statements concerning the nature of the physical world. Has science validated these? He also makes assertions concerning human psychology and subjectivity and invites individuals to test these. Do they work? He engaged in extensive analysis of the nature of man’s organized social life. Does His analysis accord with our own scientific observations of the same phenomena? The possibilities are unlimited.

Of course, the same criteria can be applied to other Manifestations, but the known facts are so much less authenticated and so restricted in number that little direct testing is possible. This does not disturb Bahá’ís because they believe that, essentially, there is only one religion and that each of the successive revelations is a stage in the development of this one religion. The Bahá’í Faith is thus the contemporary form of religion and we should not be surprised that it is so accessible to the method of contemporary science. Christianity and Islam were probably just as accessible to the scientific methods of their day as the Bahá’í Faith is to modern scientific method.

Each religious system has been founded on faith in the reality of the phenomenon of revelation, and those people associated with the phenomenon felt fully justified in their faith. But as the influence of religion declined and the facts of revelation receded into history, the sense of conviction of the truth of the phenomenon subsided, and this was only natural, as we have seen. It is therefore important to realize that the Bahá’í Faith offers much more than new arguments about the old evidence for the phenomenon of revelation. It offers empirical evidence for the phenomenon and it is frank to base itself on this evidence and to apply the scientific method in understanding this evidence. So much is this so, that I would unhesitatingly say that the residue of subjectivity in the faith of a Bahá’í is no greater than the residue of subjectivity in the faith one has in any well-validated scientific theory.

Exponents of traditional religions have tried to co-exist with modern science not by admitting the validity of scientific method in the approach to religion, but rather by contending that religious experience is so subjective, mystic, private, and incommunicable as to be “beyond” scientific method. The philosophy of religion based on these views is known as existentialism. In its modern form, existentialism was partly formulated in reaction to logical positivism. This latter philosophy insisted on “public verifiability” as an essential feature of scientific method. Without much thought, religionists accepted the positivistic analysis of scientific method, while applying existentialism to religion, and thus helped popularize the view that religion was hopelessly immersed in subjectivity, forever beyond the reach of scientific method. This has, in turn, led to a wide-scale rejection of religion by thinking people from all backgrounds. In closing my own discussion of these questions, I would like to correct this unfortunate view of religion.10

Let us begin with an example. A biologist looks through a microscope in his laboratory, sees a certain configuration, and exclaims: “Aha, at last I have the evidence that my theory is correct!” Question: How many people in the world are capable of looking at the configuration and verifying the findings of the biologist? Answer: Very few, almost none, probably only a few specialists in his field. The fact is that the biologist will publish his findings, and a few other qualified individuals will test his results, and if they seem confirmed, the scientific world at large will accept the theory as verified. The positivist might concede this but say: “But if an individual did go through the years of training necessary to understand everything the biologist knows, then the individual could verify the statement. Thus, I admit the statement is not practically verifiable by the public, but it is theoretically verifiable.” But even this is not enough. The fact is that the positivist will be constrained to admit that a great many people may be unable, through lack of intelligence or mental proclivity, ever, in theory, to validate the result. The fact is that the findings are not immediately accessible to the public at all. The findings can be verified only by individuals capable of assuming and willing to assume the point of view of the researcher.

Of course, statements with high empirical content are those most directly accessible to the public. But we have already seen that a science comprises many statements with a high theoretical component and these are not so accessible to the public. Moreover, many important statements of a science are to be found among these theoretical statements.

The moral of all of this is that the objectivity of science does not reside in the public accessibility of the majority of scientific statements. Science is not primarily a collection of facts or factual statements. Such statements taken in isolation are useless. Empirical statements are useful primarily for the relationships and models about reality that they suggest, i.e., for the theories that they tend to affirm or deny. The objectivity of science resides in the method we have described, for this method is what allows for the continual reassessment of our faith (our assumptions) which is so necessary to maintaining a functional view of reality.

Thus when I say that the Bahá’í Faith accepts the scientific method and that the faith of a Bahá’í has no greater residue of subjectivity than any other scientific theory, I mean just that. The empirical facts concerning the Bahá’í Faith are just as publicly verifiable as any empirical facts. And the deeper, theoretical truths are subject to the same degree of verification: Any individual capable of assuming and willing to assume the point of view of a Bahá’í can verify the findings of a Bahá’í.

Conclusions

Working scientists have tended to be skeptical of religion because they have examined only the older religions where, as I have suggested, facts are few and theory is perverted by years of unscientific thinking. Few such scientists have undertaken an objective study of the Bahá’í Faith. They cannot, therefore, presume that they would not validate the finding of Bahá’ís until they have examined this most recent evidence for the phenomenon of revelation. A modern scientist would ridicule someone who judged modern science by studying the science of 500 or 2000 years ago. Yet these same scientists judge all religions without examining the modern form of religion which is the counterpart of modern science.

The truth is that scientists are human and that human beings, even scientists, can suffer from subtle but disastrous prejudices. When great scientists such as Albert Einstein and Julian Huxley have undertaken to write about scientific religion, they have been scorned by the scientific community. Most biologists began to regard Huxley as a senile old man when he undertook to write in this vein. Yet Huxley’s thoughts on the subject are not only profound but they also constitute the true culmination of his scientific career. We, as individuals, can do nothing more than to apply the scientific method in our own life and to maintain a scientific faith. We must not allow false conceptions about science to mar the beauty of scientific method any more than we let false conceptions of religion mar the beauty of religion.

1. This essay has been revised for this compilation. The original is reprinted by permission from World Order, 3, No 3 (Spring 1969), 7-19. Copyright ©1969 by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States.

2. We will use the term phenomenon to refer to a circumscribed portion of reality. Notice that it is the knowing subject who determines (perhaps unconsciously) what portion of reality he seeks to understand. He thereby contributes an element of his own subjectivity to the phenomenon, even though reality (other than the realm of the knower’s own internal states) exists independently of him and of his needs.

3. The point is that a statement can be true (or false) without our knowing it to be so. Moreover, the subsequent analysis in the present article will show that scientific method provides only relative rather than absolute criteria for determining truth. This means that we may unwittingly include some false statements in our science. However, it is one of the fundamental characteristics of science that we commit ourselves to the discipline of a method which reduces the possibility of falsehood as much as possible. Moreover, we reject from our science any false statement as soon as its falsity becomes apparent.

4. Modulo logical equivalence.

5. This can be made precise via the notion of finitely axiomatized theories.

6. A deep philosophical question asks whether or not these models are, in some instances, part of objective reality, i.e., whether they exist independently of our minds. Plato gave a strong affirmative answer to this question, and the discussion of it continues in our time with regard to modern scientific practice. For a treatment of this philosophical problem in relation to the concept of scientific method of the present essay, see my “Platonism and Pragmatism”, presented to the seventh annual meeting of the Society for Exact Philosophy, held at McGill University, June, 1979.

7. If, for example, we are interested in counting books on a bookshelf, our model will consist of the abstract set (collection) of the books. In particular, this model totally ignores such things as the size of the books, their shape, their colour, their contents, etc.

8. Thus, 1+1=2 is eternally true of adding numbers (our model). It is also true of reality if we interpret adding as “physically putting together” and the numbers as counting, say, stones or apples, but false if we interpret the numbers as counting piles of sand or drops of water (while keeping the same interpretation of adding).

9. See W. V. Quine, Word and Object, Technology Press of M.1.T., Cambridge, Mass., 1960. p. 3.

10. See the third of the three essays of the present collection for a more thorough discussion of this question.

Share
en.pdf24.org    Send article as PDF   

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.