How Do We Know That God Exists?: `Abdu’l-Baha, the Ether, and Knowledge of God
How do we know that God exists? The Baha’i view, expressed in the authoritative writings of `Abdu’l-Baha, is that man “can by his reasoning power, by observation, by his intuitive faculties and the revealing power of his faith … believe in God.” Because God cannot be seen, `Abdu’l-Baha likens knowledge of God to knowledge of the ether, something whose existence is known only through “the effects it produceth, heat, light and electricity being the waves thereof.” Thus, it is through evidences from the world around us – through “the outpourings of Divine Grace” – that we become “assured of the existence of God.” But isn’t the electromagnetic ether an outmoded 19th century idea rejected by modern science? And if so, doesn’t this cast doubt on `Abdu’l-Baha’s assertion that knowledge of God is derived in the same way as knowledge of the ether? This manuscript reviews central concepts in the Baha’i Faith concerning how we know God and reality, then surveys the ever-changing conceptualizations of the ether from its ancient origins as a mythical Greek god to cutting-edge 21st century cosmological concepts of dark matter and dark energy, and concludes by examining what the ether means to modern debates about the existence of God in a post-scientific age. `Abdu’l-Baha’s use of the ether, we suggest, is more relevant than ever given the central role that the ether – now increasingly known by other names – plays in modern physical theories of the universe.
How do we know that God exists?
This age-old query is one of the most thought-provoking question ever asked. Not only do individuals ask the question of themselves, but among social groups and societies, it triggers more stories, myths, religions, philosophies, and theologies than most other questions combined. This out-swelling of intellectual activity – both in individuals and in social groupings – is due in no small part to the fact that God cannot be seen, touched, tasted, heard, or in any other manner physically sensed.
The Baha’i answer as expressed in the writings of `Abdu’l-Baha is that man “can by his reasoning power, by observation, by his intuitive faculties and the revealing power of his faith … believe in God.” `Abdu’l Baha, in his talks and letters to Europeans and Americans at the beginning of the 20th century, likened knowledge of God to knowledge of the ether. The ether, he argued, is known to exist “by the effects it produceth, heat, light and electricity being the waves thereof.” Likewise, by “the outpourings of Divine Grace we are assured of the existence of God.”
The popular view at the beginning of the 21st century – and even the opinion of some scientists – is that the ether does not exist. According to this view, the famous 19th century Michelson and Morley experiments showed that light traveled at the same velocity no matter its direction, showing the ether to not have directly observable properties. In 1905 Albert Einstein published his first paper on special relativity, and dramatically claimed that the ether was no longer needed. The question then arises: If the ether is an outmoded concept from 19th century physics, how can it fittingly illustrate God’s existence? Doesn’t it rather illustrate – and rather forcibly – how belief in God is a discarded relic of past ages and primitive forms of thinking?
The short answer to this question is that the ether – sometimes renamed, sometimes not – continued to exist, becoming ever more central to gravitational and quantum mechanical theories of the universe. This view – the continued importance of the ether – was championed most dramatically by Einstein himself, and it has been a constant theme in the development of ever more sophisticated pictures of the our physical and cosmological universe. In short, it was not the ether itself that was rejected, rather one particular 19th century conception of the ether.
So, the ether – renamed or not renamed – remains a scientifically valid concept. As `Abdu’l-Baha also rejected 19th century aspects of the luminiferous ether that we now know to be unphysical, his argument remains valid.
This raises another interesting aspect of `Abdu’l-Baha’s argument. As knowledge of God is similar to the knowledge of the ether, and as our understanding of the ether has twisted, turned, and changed, it follows that we can better understand the twists, turns and changes in conceptions of God by looking at the corresponding change in ideas about the ether. Most dramatically, it suggests that we can understand the rejection of belief in God by understanding the rejection of the ether. A history of the ether and an examination of the correspondence between knowledge of the ether and knowledge of God addresses this question in ways that are particularly relevant to this post-scientific age
The about-face in the good fortunes of the ether also suggests a way to understand the current about-face in the intellectual respectability of belief in God. The rejection of God by 19th and the early 20th century intellectuals and scientists was on much the same basis as rejection of the ether – (1) neither concepts had tangible realities that could be tested or sensed and (2) both were concepts of great age that had evolved across many cultures. In other words, we can use the ether as a representation of real – but directly unobservable – forces at work in the world and an apt symbol of not only how we obtain knowledge of God, but also of the varying ways in which fundamental realities are renamed and viewed differently in changing times.
Some comments about 19th century belief in God and the Baha’i Faith
The 19th century European rejection of belief in God and the corresponding rise of secular ideologies – nationalism, socialism, colonialism, social Darwinism, scientism, and the like is well-known (references) and provides the background for understanding both the catastrophic and nearly continual worldwide warfare of the early 20th century and the emergence of world we know today. An incomplete list of the reasons for the European rejection of belief in god must include the enlightenment embrace of Newtonian physics, the emergence of British empiricism, the emergence of modern nationalism, and the corresponding rise of anti-clericalism. But undoubtedly, it was the increasing influence of the scientific worldview and its ability to deliver increased material prosperity, improved military capabilities, and an exponential growth of knowledge that most impressed people. By the end of the 19th century, the extraordinary dynamism of science-based technological development had transformed Europe – and the entire world – with networks of ships and railroads, telegraphs, and the burgeoning growth of cities and large industries. Leading thinkers came increasingly to see religion and its ways of thinking as outmoded and an impediment to continued growth and enlightened understanding.
A significant consequence of the rejection of belief in God and the rise of secularism was the rapid growth of science-based belief systems built on ideas of materialism, the conception variously expressed that held that only those things which had a material basis were real. Scientism, the view that any true knowledge had to be based on science, was also embraced. Increasingly, prescriptions for the advancement of society were on a material and/or scientific basis – either through the empowerment of industry, the development of enhanced technical capabilities, the advancement of warfare using increasingly sophisticated weaponry, or through ideas of the empowerment of the working classes or the entrepreneurial classes. Evolution took up the theme in the realm of science, and concepts of breeding and empowerment through competition for resources came to the fore as social Darwinist theories of European biological and cultural supremacy.
In academic circles, critical study of the Bible and the historical Jesus further had the joint effect of dividing church communities into conflicting sides and undermining the authority of Christian belief. Belief itself came increasingly to be looked on as ignorance and pre-scientific superstitions and influential books – Frazer’s The Golden Bough is an example – painted religion as entirely based on myth. In the United States, influential educators rewrote the history of religion to portray it as the traditional enemy of science and proclaimed that religion and science were at war. Nietzsche’s view that God was dead effectively conveyed the widespread notion among leaders of thought that traditional ideas about God and religion were no longer sustainable in light of advances in scientific understanding.
4. If traditional religion and belief in God was showing signs of dying, interest in the occult, mysticism, spiritualism, and the various religious traditions of the world was growing, especially among the middle-classes and the well-to-do. A consequence of this was a growing interest in Eastern religious traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, and even Islam. So when the Baha’i Faith – whose leaders had been exiled to Palestine in a bid to prevent its growth in Iran where it originated – came to the attention of westerners, there was a surge of interest. Soon after the turn of the century, visitors – including Phoebe Hearst, a wealthy American philanthropist, and Laura Dreyfus-Barney, daughter of famous painter and socialite Alice Pike Barney – were visiting `Abdu’l Baha in Acre Palestine, across the bay from modern Haifa. In 1911 and 1912, `Abdu’l-Baha toured Europe and North America, addressing church groups, theosophical societies, university assemblies, and diverse groups of leaders of thought.
The central component of his teachings were those of Baha’u’llah, his father, who had appointed him the head of the Baha’i Faith. Speaking with westerners, he emphasized the oneness of all religions, the oneness of humanity, the equality of women and men, the goal of a unified and peaceful world civilization, and the oneness of science and religion. He urged his listeners to look at the progressive and transformative powers of science and to recognize the need for a similar progressive spirit in religion. And he continually offered analogies to help people turn toward and understand the unapproachably high station of God. It was in this context that he spoke of the ether.
5. When `Abdu’l-Baha firsted started to speak frequently with educated Westerners in the early parts of the 20th century, the scientific concepts of the existence of the ether were about to change dramatically. Long considered to be the very material which vibrated so as to transmit light and radio waves, experiments, most notably those of the American physicist Michelson, had shown the ether to have to no observable motion. Then, in 1905, Einstein dramatically changed the concept of the ether by saying that it was not needed for the new and revolutionary theory of relativity. A short twelve years (?) later, the ether was restored to its place in the pantheon of scientific concepts by none other than Einstein himself, but with none of the previous fanfare. Even many physicists were unaware of its restoration, in no small part because it assumed a different function.
In the nearly one hundred years since, the ether, ether in its own right or by different names, has become the nin suo quo?? of physics, an essential componenent of any and all field theories in physics – where all theories about the component forces are field theories – and the explanation of dark matter and dark energy proposed by current astronomical observations of the universe.
This about-face in the good fortunes of the ether raises interesting questions? Can we expect a corresponding about-face in the intellectual respectability of belief in God? After all, the rejection of God by 19th and the early 20th century by leading intellectuals and scientists was on much the same basis as rejection of the ether – neither concepts had tangible realities that could be tested or sensed and both were concepts of great age that developed across many cultures.
6. A history of the ether and an examination of the correspondence between knowledge of the ether and knowledge of God addresses this question in ways that are particularly relevant to this post-scientific age, and is what we carry out in necessarily abbreviated form here. We conclude that the example of the ether as a representation of real – but directly unobservable – forces at work in the world is an apt symbol of not only how we obtain knowledge of God, but also of the varying ways in which fundamental realities are renamed and viewed differently in changing times. While the resurgence of the ether by other names is known to too few people to allow `Abdu’l-Baha’s analogy to have widespread current impact, there is certainly potential for it to be influential in the future as an illustration of the nature of knowledge of God.
How do we know that God exists
One answer common to Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith alike, is that knowledge of God is obtained through the “manifestations” of God. That is, the Buddha, Christ, Muhammad, or Baha’u’llah speak with divine authority. Then, knowledge of God come from understanding their teachings, something best achieved by putting them into practice. Other religions also have inspired leaders and great Teachers who bring knowledge of God to their peoples. But, neccessarily, all of this knowledge is indirect knowledge. It is either through an understanding of the manifestations teachings, or it is through inspiration from those teachings. Often, the authority of the manifestation is thought to be confirmed on priests or monks with a role in the institutions constructed in the name of the manifestations.
Another answer is through mystical experience and prayer. By focusing on God – or in the case of Buddhism, meditating, divine inspiration dawns in soul and inspiration opens up a direct portal of experience. But, of course, the knowledge obtained is purely personal and only bears fruit to the extant that it drives action.
Yet another answer is theology, where systems of thought descriptive of the nature of God and His worlds are spun out, sometimes as elaborations of creation myths inherited from the past, sometimes as philosophical systems inspired by philosophical speculation as was the case for Judaism and Christianity in the classical era.
In all of these cases, God remains ungraspable, only accessible to certain degree, and distant from the mind of the knower.
In the Baha’i Writings, God is unknowable. God’s “essence” can not be incarnated, recounted, or perceived.
‘Know thou of a certainty that the Unseen can in no wise incarnate His Essence and reveal it unto men. He is, and hath ever been, immensely exalted beyond all that can either be recounted or perceived.” (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 49)
Our understanding fails to comprehend God. God’s reality is “everlastingly hidden”:
“To every discerning and illuminated heart it is evident that God, the unknowable Essence, the Divine Being, is immensely exalted beyond every human attribute, such as corporeal existence, ascent and descent, egress and regress. Far be it from His glory that human tongue should adequately recount His praise, or that human heart comprehend His fathomless mystery. He is, and hath ever been, veiled in the ancient eternity of His Essence, and will remain in His Reality everlastingly hidden from the sight of men. “No vision taketh in Him, but He taketh in all vision; He is the Subtile, the All-Perceiving.”… (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 46)
If God’s reality is hidden – if God’s essence is unknowable as the Baha’i Writings attest and as confirmed by authoritative scriptures from the religions of the world – how can we know that God exists? How do we know that prayers are heard and answered? How do know that the chaos and disorder of everyday and historical events reflects some greater organization and purpose orchestrated by God?
This is one of the central questions or religion.
Sensible and Intellectual Realities
Sensible realities are realities which are apparent to our senses, according to `Abdu’l-Bahá. Intellectual realities are realities like “intelligence, love, knowledge, imagination and thought” which involve our mind, intellect, and rational powers. (Some Answered Questions 108)
Specifically, sensible realities are:
… things which the eye, or ear, or smell, or taste, or touch can perceive, which are called objective or sensible. So the sun, because it can be seen, is said to be objective; and in the same way sounds are sensible because the ear hears them; perfumes are sensible because they can be inhaled and the sense of smell perceives them; foods are sensible because the palate perceives their sweetness, sourness or saltness; heat and cold are sensible because the feelings perceive them. (Some Answered Questions 83)
In contrast, an intellectual reality is:
… a reality of the intellect; it has no outward form and no place and is not perceptible to the senses. For example, the power of intellect is not sensible; none of the inner qualities of man is a sensible thing; on the contrary, they are intellectual realities. So love is a mental reality and not sensible; for this reality the ear does not hear, the eye does not see, the smell does not perceive, the taste does not discern, the touch does not feel. (Some Answered Questions 83)
Nature and the human spirit are examples of intellectual realities. The ether, “the forces of which are said in physics to be heat, light, electricity and magnetism,” is another example.
We describe intellectual realities using the language of sensible reality. Grief or happiness can be described by saying “my heart is oppressed” or “my heart was dilated” though the heart experiences neither physical pressure or a growth in size. We talk about “seeing the light” or “being in the dark.” The “light of knowledge, and that darkness of ignorance, are intellectual realities, not sensible ones; but when we seek for explanations in the external world, we are obliged to give them a sensible form.” (Some Answered Questions 84)
2011-08-30 I’m getting stuck here. What I need to do is to outline some major themes in the Baha’i writings – hopefully, “THE” major themes, about knowledge of God and then relate them to the ether. So, what I will do next is study. I will take the paragraphs I have (as sub-sections) below and outline them as to knowledge of God and relevance to the ether.
XX. Know thou of a certainty that the Unseen can in no wise incarnate His Essence and reveal it unto men. He is, and hath ever been, immensely exalted beyond all that can either be recounted or perceived. From His retreat of glory His voice is ever proclaiming: “Verily, I am God; there is none other God besides Me, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise. I have manifested Myself unto men, and have sent down Him Who is the Day Spring of the signs of My Revelation. Through Him I have caused all creation to testify that there is none other God except Him, the Incomparable, the All-Informed, the All-Wise.” He Who is everlastingly hidden from the eyes of men can never be known except through His Manifestation, and His Manifestation can adduce no greater proof of the truth of His Mission than the proof of His own Person. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 49)
- The essence of God cannot be revealed to man.
God is “immensely exalted beyond all that can either be recounted or perceived.”
God “can never be known except through His Manifestation”
That which comes within human grasp is finite, and in relation to it we are infinite because we can grasp it. Assuredly, the finite is lesser than the infinite; the infinite is ever greater. If the reality of Divinity could be contained within the grasp of human mind, it would after all be possessed of an intellectual existence only — a mere intellectual concept without extraneous existence, an image or likeness which had come within the comprehension of finite intellect. The mind of man would be transcendental thereto. How could it be possible that an image which has only intellectual existence is the reality of Divinity, which is infinite? Therefore, the reality of Divinity in its identity is beyond the range of human intellection because the human mind, the human intellect, the human thought are limited, whereas the reality of Divinity is unlimited. ‘Abdu’l-Baha – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Talk at Home of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur J. Parsons, 1700 Eighteenth Street, NW, Washington, D. C., 10 November 1912, Notes by Joseph H. Hannen
- Understanding of God is necessarily intellectual only – an intellectual concept.
- Reality of divinity cannot be contained by the human mind
- Oiur reality is much greater than our understanding’Abdu’l-Bahá. `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Tablet to August Forel. Translation taken from The Bahá’í World, Vol. XV, 37-43.
Now concerning the Essence of Divinity: in truth it is on no account determined by anything apart from its own nature, and can in no wise be comprehended. For whatsoever can be conceived by man is a reality that hath limitations and is not unlimited; it is circumscribed, not all-embracing. It can be comprehended by man, and is controlled by him. Similarly it is certain that all human conceptions are contingent, not absolute; that they have a mental existence, not a material one. Moreover, differentiation of stages in the contingent world is an obstacle to understanding. How then can the contingent conceive the Reality of the absolute? As previously mentioned, differentiation of stages in the contingent plane is an obstacle to understanding. Minerals, plants and animals are bereft of the mental faculties of man that discover the realities of all things, but man himself comprehendeth all the stages beneath him. Every superior stage comprehendeth that which is inferior and discovereth the reality thereof, but the inferior one is unaware of that which is superior and cannot comprehend it. Thus man cannot grasp the Essence of Divinity, but can, by his reasoning power, by observation, by his intuitive faculties and the revealing power of his faith, believe in God, discover the bounties of His Grace. He becometh certain (page 16) that though the Divine Essence is unseen of the eye, and the existence of the Deity is intangible, yet conclusive spiritual proofs assert the existence of that unseen Reality. The Divine Essence as it is in itself is however beyond all description. For instance, the nature of ether is unknown, but that it existeth is certain by the effects it produceth, heat, light and electricity being the waves thereof. By these waves the existence of ether is thus proven. And as we consider the outpourings of Divine Grace we are assured of the existence of God. For instance, we observe that the existence of beings is conditioned upon the coming together of various elements and their non-existence upon the decomposition of their constituent elements. For decomposition causeth the dissociation of the various elements. Thus, as we observe the coming together of elements giveth rise to the existence of beings, and knowing that beings are infinite, they being the effect, how can the Cause be finite?
- The Essence of Divinity cannot be comprehended.
- What can be conceived by man has limitations.
- All human conceptions are contingent.
- Human conceptions have a mental existence, not a material one.
- Difference in stages are an obstacle to understanding.
- “The inferior stage is unaware of that which is superior and cannot comprehend it.”
- “Thus man cannot grasp the Essence of Divinity, but can, by his reasoning power, by observation, by his intuitive faculties and the revealing power of his faith, believe in God, discover the bounties of His Grace.”
- “He becometh certain that though the Divine Essence is unseen of the eye, and the existence of the Deity is intangible, yet conclusive spiritual proofs assert the existence of that unseen Reality.”
- “The Divine Essence as it is in itself is however beyond all description.”
- “And as we consider the outpourings of Divine Grace we are assured of the existence of God.”
- ” Thus, as we observe the coming together of elements giveth rise to the existence of beings, and knowing that beings are infinite, they being the effect, how can the Cause be finite?” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Tablet to August Forel. Translation taken from The Bahá’í World, Vol. XV, 37-43.
- As to the attributes and perfections such as will, knowledge, power and other ancient attributes that we ascribe to that Divine Reality, these are the signs that reflect the existence of beings in the visible plane and not the absolute perfections of the Divine Essence that cannot be comprehended. For instance, as we consider created things we observe infinite perfections, and the created things being in the utmost regularity and perfection we infer that the Ancient Power on whom dependeth the existence of these beings, cannot be ignorant; thus we say He is All-Knowing. It is certain that it is not impotent, it must be then All-Powerful; it is not poor, it must be All-Possessing; it is not non-existent, it must be Ever-Living. The purpose is to (page 18) show that these attributes and perfections that we recount for that Universal Reality are only in order to deny imperfections, rather than to assert the perfections that the human mind can conceive. Thus we say His attributes are unknowable.
infererence from observations
attributes are unknowable’Abdu’l-Bahá. `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Tablet to August Forel. Translation taken from The Bahá’í World, Vol. XV, 37-43.
In fine, that Universal Reality with all its qualities and attributes that we recount is holy and exalted above all minds and understandings. As we, however, reflect with broad minds upon this infinite universe, we observe that motion without a motive force, and an effect without a cause are both impossible; that every being hath come to exist under numerous influences and continually undergoeth reaction. These influences, too, are formed under the action of still other influences. For instance, plants grow and flourish through the outpourings of vernal showers, whilst the cloud itself is formed under various other agencies and these agencies in their turn are reacted upon by still other agencies. For example, plants and animals grow and develop under the influence of what the philosophers of our day designate as hydrogen and oxygen and are reacted upon by the effects of these two elements; and these in turn are formed under still other influences. The same can be said of other beings whether they affect other things or be affected. Such process of causation goes on, and (page 19) to maintain that this process goes on indefinitely is manifestly absurd. Thus such a chain of causation must of necessity lead eventually to Him who is the Ever-Living, the All-Powerful, who is Self-Dependent and the Ultimate Cause. This Universal Reality cannot be sensed, it cannot be seen. It must be so of necessity, for it is All-Embracing, not circumscribed, and such attributes qualify the effect and not the cause.
- Exalted above understanding. “In fine, that Universal Reality with all its qualities and attributes that we recount is holy and exalted above all minds and understandings.”
- Chain of causation. “Thus such a chain of causation must of necessity lead eventually to Him who is the Ever-Living, the All-Powerful, who is Self-Dependent and the Ultimate Cause. “
- Cannot be sensed or seen. “This Universal Reality cannot be sensed, it cannot be seen. It must be so of necessity, for it is All-Embracing, not circumscribed, and such attributes qualify the effect and not the cause. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Tablet to August Forel. Translation taken from The Bahá’í World, Vol. XV, 37-43.
- In short, the point is this, that the world of man is supernatural in its relation to the vegetable kingdom, though in reality it is not so. Relatively to the plant, the reality of man, his power of hearing and sight, are all supernatural, and for the plant to comprehend that reality and the nature of the powers of man’s mind is impossible. In like manner for man to comprehend the Divine Essence and the nature of the great Hereafter is in no wise possible. The merciful outpourings of that Divine Essence, however, are vouchsafed unto all beings and it is incumbent upon man to ponder in his heart upon the effusions of the Divine Grace, the soul being counted as one, rather than upon the Divine Essence itself. This is the utmost limit for human understanding. As it hath previously been mentioned, these attributes and perfections that we recount of the Divine Essence, these we have derived from the existence and observation of beings, and it is not that we have comprehended the essence and perfection of God. When we say that the Divine Essence understandeth and is free, we do not mean that we have discovered the Divine Will and Purpose, but rather that we have acquired (page 26) knowledge of them through the Divine Grace revealed and manifested in the realities of things.
- To fully grasp the realms above is impossible. “the world of man is supernatural in its relation to the vegetable kingdom, though in reality it is not so. Relatively to the plant, the reality of man, his power of hearing and sight, are all supernatural, and for the plant to comprehend that reality and the nature of the powers of man’s mind is impossible.”
Man cannot comprehend the Divine Essence. “In like manner for man to comprehend the Divine Essence and the nature of the great Hereafter is in no wise possible.”
- It is the results of Divine Grace that we can understand, not the essence. ” it is incumbent upon man to ponder in his heart upon the effusions of the Divine Grace, the soul being counted as one, rather than upon the Divine Essence itself.
- Observations from reality. “As it hath previously been mentioned, these attributes and perfections that we recount of the Divine Essence, these we have derived from the existence and observation of beings, and it is not that we have comprehended the essence and perfection of God.”
- Attributions are knowledge through the realities of things. When we say that the Divine Essence understandeth and is free, we do not mean that we have discovered the Divine Will and Purpose, but rather that we have acquired (page 26) knowledge of them through the Divine Grace revealed and manifested in the realities of things.