As a child I was encouraged to think my own thoughts, to keep an open but skeptical mind and to learn from others without blindly accepting their opinions. The discovery of truth by my own effort, I was told, was not only my right but my responsibility especially in matters of religion.
I learned, for example, that it was not enough for me to believe in God: it was necessary that I investigate the question of God's existence and find out whether He was real. Likewise, if any person or book claimed to reveal the Will of God, I was entitled or rather, obligated to ascertain for myself whether there existed reasonable grounds for such a remarkable claim. It was a question for evidence and verification, not mindless obedience.
This cautious attitude toward religion was not, as one might expect, something I acquired from agnostic relatives, secular teachers or materialist friends. It did not come from anyone wishing to undermine my spiritual convictions. It was a part of my religious training as a member of the Bahá'í Faith.
Taking this training to heart, I questioned everything including the validity of the religion that first taught me to ask awkward questions. During my college years I, like many others, became something of a doubting Thomas. I challenged my own reasons for believing in God, in an unseen spiritual world, in life after death, in divine revelation. For me this was a period of intense soul-searching and digging for answers.
Eventually, I found answers that satisfied me. My faith had survived its ordeal and was, if anything, stronger and more resilient as a result. The point, however, is that the process left me with an abiding interest in the "first principle" of the Bahá'í Faith: the independent investigation of truth.
Although the search for truth forms a major theme of the Bahá'í sacred texts, it is tempting to dismiss the precept as too simple and obvious to warrant much comment. Its very straightforwardness tends to mask a variety of intriguing implications. Perhaps for that reason, it has drawn less attention than many other Bahá'í ideals such as the harmony of science and religion, equality of the sexes, world peace through world government, a universal auxiliary language, appreciation of racial and cultural diversity, and the like.
This essay represents one person's investigation into the Bahá'í principle of search for truth a turning of the practice inward upon oneself, one might say. After presenting some background information and opening thoughts, it will explore five concepts that seem to me implicit in this teaching, indicating how each one challenges commonly held notions or attitudes. It will, in the process, attempt to show that there is far more to the principle than may at first meet the eye that it not only carries a mandate for taking charge of one's own spiritual destiny, but offers a practical method for testing the claims of religion in general and the Bahá'í Faith in particular.
The role of faith
Critics of religion often view it as being, by its very nature, hostile to a free and open search for truth. Such hostility is certainly a key aspect of religious fanaticism, which in the minds of many is synonymous with religion itself. Before proceeding, therefore, let us see what Bahá'ís believe about the nature of religious truth and the meaning of faith.
The Bahá'í Faith "proclaims unequivocally the existence and oneness of a personal God, unknowable, inaccessible, the source of all Revelation, eternal, omniscient, omnipresent and almighty." God created all humanity "to know Him and to love Him" and "to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization." This dual purpose is something man cannot achieve by his own unaided effort, since he has no direct access to the knowledge of God or His will. God therefore intervenes periodically in history (at intervals averaging roughly a thousand years), providing mankind with guidance through a chosen Messenger or Christ-figure Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster and the other founders of world religions.
These Messengers "Manifestations of God," as Bahá'u'lláh terms them "are one and all the exponents on earth of Him Who is the central Orb of the universe, its essence and ultimate purpose. From Him proceed their knowledge and power; from Him is derived their sovereignty." "He hath manifested unto men the Day-Stars of His divine guidance ... and hath ordained the knowledge of these sanctified Beings to be identical with the knowledge of His own Self.... Every one of them is the Way of God that connecteth this world with the realms above, and the Standard of His Truth unto every one in the kingdoms of earth and heaven."
Since these Divine Educators all speak for the same God, there can never be any true conflict among the religions they have revealed: "These principles and laws, these firmly-established and mighty systems, have proceeded from one Source, and are the rays of one Light. That they differ one from another is to be attributed to the varying requirements of the ages in which they were promulgated." Each Manifestation of God updates the laws of His predecessor to reflect the changing needs and growing capacity of an evolving world, and each promises that God will send additional Revelations in the future. Bahá'u'lláh identifies Himself as the latest, but not the last, in this eternal series of Manifestations Who progressively reveal God's will.
It follows that Bahá'ís followers of Bahá'u'lláh do not regard their Faith as having a monopoly on truth. They see all the great world religions, including their own, as successive chapters in a single continuous book. This universality, however, in no way dilutes the fact that they also believe without reservation in the divine authority of Bahá'u'lláh's teachings. If Bahá'u'lláh says something, they will accept it as true simply because He says it. I believe many things on this basis, even when they are things I could not possibly investigate for myself.
At first glance this attitude may seem contrary to the principle of independent investigation of truth. Nevertheless, we can easily resolve the apparent contradiction. Bahá'u'lláh asks us to take His word for many things, but not for the most basic claim of all namely, that He is the unerring "representative and mouthpiece" of the Creator of the universe. Instead, He marshals a host of compelling reasons both logical and intuitive to support the claim, inviting individuals to "consider His clear evidence" and to verify that "This thing is not from Me, but from One Who is almighty and all-knowing."
Now if someone is convinced, as a result of investigating the evidence, that Bahá'u'lláh is what He claims, it is only logical to accept the rest of His teachings. It would be self-contradictory not to do so. After accepting His claim, the believer continues his independent search for truth, but with a new focus. He no longer seeks to determine whether Bahá'u'lláh's teachings are correct this he has already established by authenticating their Source but to develop an ever-growing understanding of them. This acceptance is a form of faith, but not as the term is commonly used, since there is nothing passive or mindless about it. It is the direct result of a struggle to see and to understand reality.
To many people, faith is by definition blind, so that the term "blind faith" is redundant. To Bahá'ís, however, "blind faith" is a contradiction in terms: "By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds." In other words, our faith is the knowledge we choose to translate into action. It is neither ignorant emotionalism nor abstract intellectual conviction, but a deeply felt understanding reflected in life. It is an understanding which, because it stems from personal investigation, is capable of engaging both mind and heart. The independent search for truth is not a denial of faith, but its very foundation.
Bahá'u'lláh emphasizes the deeply individual nature of this quest: "... every man hath been, and will continue to be, able of himself to appreciate the Beauty of God, the Glorified. Had he not been endowed with such a capacity, how could he be called to account for his failure? ... the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself."[12 ]
The trap of imitation
"What does it mean to investigate reality?" asks 'Abdu'l-Bahá. "It means that man must forget all hearsay and examine truth himself, for he does not know whether statements he hears are in accordance with reality or not. Wherever he finds truth or reality, he must hold to it, forsaking, discarding all else; for outside of reality there is naught but superstition and imagination."
"Although some attend churches and temples of worship and devotion," He says, "it is in accordance with the traditions and imitations of their fathers and not for the investigation of reality.... They have become accustomed to passing a certain length of time in temple worship and conforming to imitations and ceremonies."
He notes that a child typically adopts the religion of his parents as a matter of mere custom, not because "he has investigated reality and proved satisfactorily to himself" that it is right.
There is a well-known experiment in psychology in which a number of individuals are asked to make an obvious visual judgment: for instance, whether a given shape is round or oblong. Only one participant, however, is really the test subject the others, unknown to him, have been instructed to lie in their answers. All of them may seem to agree that the figure is perfectly round, even though it is plainly oblong. What will the subject do? This experiment has been repeated many times, with disturbing results: most people so tested will not only change their answers to conform with what they think the others see they will actually change their perceptions. Often they will see the shape as perfectly round, despite its obvious distortion. We apparently have a strong tendency to see things in whatever way we think most others see them.
Bahá'u'lláh tells us to "see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others." If this is difficult in connection with something as simple as a geometric figure, how much harder must it be with deeply felt emotional issues especially if we have spent our lives in the company of people who may hold mistaken opinions about them? That this often happens should be clear to anyone who thinks about the pervasiveness of prejudice based on race, gender, nationality and the like (not to mention religion itself)-
This implies that we all may have to make important decisions at times when it appears to us that either we are confused, or the rest of the world is. Under such conditions, most of us find it extraordinarily difficult to believe we could be right while everyone around us is wrong. However, we must learn to consider the possibility and to judge it wisely, yet without intellectual pride before we can reasonably hope to see with vision that is ours alone.
This knack for swimming against the current of conformity appears to be a learned skill, an acquired habit one that must be consciously cultivated and exercised before it becomes second nature. Fortunately, opportunities abound for practice. Many of these are trivial; a few, possibly, quite crucial. God's attitude toward blind imitation, as interpreted by Bahá'ís, is graphically expressed in this symbolic passage from Bahá'u'lláh:
"If, in the Day when all the peoples of the earth will be gathered together, any man should, whilst standing in the presence of God, be asked: 'Wherefore hast thou disbelieved in My beauty and turned away from My Self?' and if such a man should reply and say: 'Inasmuch as all men have erred, and none hath been found willing to turn his face to the Truth, I, too, following their example, have grievously failed to recognize the Beauty of the Eternal,' such a plea will, assuredly, be rejected."
Now, what are some specific implications of the Bahá'í principle of individual search for truth?
A question of justice
The first implication is that independent investigation of truth is a moral necessity based on justice.
The habit of personal search is depicted in Bahá'í texts as a responsibility or duty, a spiritual obligation, an essential ingredient of good character just as honesty, kindness, dependability and many other traits are essential to good character.
In The Hidden Words Bahá'u'lláh's foremost ethical work we read: "The best-beloved of all things in My sight is justice ... By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behoveth thee to be." "The essence of all that We have revealed for thee," He writes elsewhere, "is Justice, is for man to free himself from idle fancy and imitation, discern with the eye of oneness His glorious handiwork, and look into all things with a searching eye."
`Abdu'l-Bahá says: "The first teaching of Bahá'u'lláh is the duty incumbent upon all to investigate reality." "...every individual member of humankind is exhorted and commanded to set aside superstitious beliefs, traditions and blind imitation of ancestral forms in religion and investigate reality for himself." The Bahá'í teachings further state that the Faith "enjoins upon its followers the primary duty of an unfettered search after truth."
By emphasizing the ethical importance of investigation, Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá present it in a new light. Independent search is widely accepted as a convenient right, an option to be exercised or neglected at one's discretion. The Bahá'í teachings, however, go considerably further in treating it as a moral imperative.
While investigation of reality applies with special force to religious faith, it like religion itself is seen by Bahá'ís as a continuing approach to all of life. Bahá'u'lláh's admonition to "look into all things with a searching eye" is applied, in other passages from His works, to journalism and judicial inquiry (to cite only two examples).
The impact on unity
A second implication is that independent investigation of truth powerfully promotes the unity of mankind.
Of all the insights one can find in the Bahá'í writings on this topic, this one, it seems to me, is both the most strongly emphasized and the most contrary to prevailing attitudes. Whatever else modern man believes about the search for truth, he does not believe this.
Popular expressions used in connection with the search for truth almost always bring to mind its supposedly disruptive nature rather than any unifying influence it may exert. For example, the term "free-thinker" suggests for many people (aside from its connotation of atheism) a moral anarchist, someone who disturbs the composure of others by attacking cherished ideals and traditions. Even those who strongly advocate, and commit themselves to, the individual quest for reality typically see themselves as "rocking the boat," "doing their own thing" while "marching to the beat of a different drummer."
But this is a short-sighted view. 'Abdu'l-Bahá teaches that in the long run, it is the truth-seeker who fosters unity, while the conformist blocks it: "...all souls should consider it incumbent upon them to investigate reality. Reality is one; and when found, it will unify all mankind." "...by investigating (reality) all will find love and unity." "The greatest cause of bereavement and disheartening in the world of humanity is ignorance based upon blind imitation. It is due to this that wars and battles prevail; from this cause hatred and animosity arise continually among mankind."
In every Revelation, according to 'Abdu'l-Bahá, "the light of Divine Guidance has been focused upon one central theme.... In this wondrous Revelation, this glorious century, the foundation of the Faith of God and the distinguishing feature of His Law is the consciousness of the Oneness of Mankind." This oneness, He says, is "the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh revolve"; promoting it is "the object of life for a Bahá'í."
For years I wondered why, if the teaching of oneness is so central to this Revelation, 'Abdu'l-Bahá almost always described the investigation of truth as the "first principle" of the Faith. To put it another way, how can it be my "object of life" to promote the oneness of mankind if my "primary duty" (as quoted above) is "an unfettered search after truth"? There really is no conflict here, of course. The paradox is dispelled by seeing that the most effective way in which to promote the oneness of mankind is to base one's life on the independent investigation of truth. 'Abdu'l-Bahá flatly predicts that "all religions and nations of the world will become one through investigation of reality."
This promise of eventual world unity is nothing new it is found in the scriptures of all the great religions. In the Bible it is expressed as the "Kingdom of God on earth," the day of "one fold and one shepherd," when "nation shall not lift up sword against nation" because "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." Bahá'u'lláh states that He is the promised Redeemer Whose mission is to usher in this long-awaited age of peace, and that His Revelation has set in motion the forces that will gradually bring it into being.
The nature of this unity, and the process by which Bahá'ís expect it to come about, are addressed in some detail in the sacred writings of the Faith. There is no need to dwell on these details (which, in any event, are likely to be convincing only to those who already accept Bahá'u'lláh as divinely inspired). But if one seeks to understand what Bahá'ís believe about the search for truth, it is essential to understand a few points about Bahá'u'lláh's vision of the future.
According to Bahá'í prophecies, the unity of mankind will be established in two stages the first political, the second spiritual. These stages are referred to, respectively, as the "Lesser Peace" and the "Most Great Peace." The first stage a world government or federation of nations will be the direct result of events taking place "in this century." This preliminary unity will be established, out of sheer necessity, by nations that are still unaware of Bahá'u'lláh's healing Revelation. Although it will be a vast improvement over the present international chaos, the "Lesser Peace" will be a fragile and limited unity, unable of itself to heal the deeper divisions afflicting mankind.
The long-term solution, or "Most Great Peace" (which may take centuries to reach) is defined in these words of Bahá'u'lláh: "That which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith, This can in no wise be achieved except through the power of a skilled, an all-powerful and inspired Physician."
While this passage states that world unity cannot be achieved without divine aid, other Bahá'í texts indicate that humanity itself, through its own free will, must take an active part in the unifying process. It is in this context that search after truth becomes in the Bahá'í view not merely a personal concern but a pressing social issue. 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains:
"We are considering the divine plan for the reconciliation of the religious systems of the world. Bahá'u'lláh has said that if one intelligent member be selected from each of the varying religious systems, and these representatives come together seeking to investigate the reality of religion, they would establish an interreligious body before which all disputes and differences could be presented for consideration and settlement. Such questions could then be weighed and viewed from the standpoint of reality and all imitations discarded. By this method and procedure all sects, denominations and systems would become one.''
I remember how astonished I felt when reading this for the first time, because to me it did not sound at all practical. 'Abdu'l-Bahá's next words then hit me: "Do not be astonished at this, or question its practicability." He cites as one model the Bahá'í community itself, with its success in recruiting and harmonizing members from an amazing variety of seemingly irreconcilable religious backgrounds: "This is a proof of the possibility of unification among the religionists of the world through practical means."
In today's world, polarized as it is by religious warfare and fanaticism, it is indeed difficult to imagine Bahá'u'lláh's proposal being taken seriously. Yet the Bahá'í writings foreshadow a future state of society, sometime after the arrival of the Lesser Peace, in which "the clamor of religious fanaticism and strife will have been forever stilled." If as Bahá'ís believe the world is evolving toward this destiny, may there not come a time when most of mankind is ready to investigate truth, sincerely and without prejudice? In such a world, could not the Council of Investigation proposed by Bahá'u'lláh prove effective in bridging the chasms that separate today's contending faiths?
This proposal clearly does not mean that individuals should delegate their independent search for truth to a committee, whose conclusions they would accept blindly. That would negate everything else the Faith teaches about individual conscience. But an interreligious investigating body, offering its findings for independent verification by the masses of humanity, could facilitate and stimulate the efforts of countless private seekers. These combined efforts, in turn, could pave the way for that planetary spiritual unification that is the ultimate goal not only of the Bahá'í Faith but of all revealed religion.
The oneness of truth
To say that investigation has a unifying effect presupposes a third major implication, namely, that truth is one;
it cannot contradict itself. This means that different people, seeking the truth along different paths, can eventually find the same truth because they share a single coherent reality.
The Bahá'í teachings are filled with statements such as: "No one truth can contradict another truth", " ... oneness is truth and truth is oneness which does not admit of plurality." "Reality does not accept multiplicity, nor is it subject to divisibility." "...outside of reality there is naught but superstition and imagination."
Of course, the Bahá'í Faith recognizes the existence of paradoxes statements that appear to contradict but in reality do not. Such seemingly divergent truths are reconciled as one gains a fuller understanding of their meaning. But the point is that when two statements really do conflict, only one can be right.
For years I considered this a mere platitude and imagined that everyone agreed with it. After all, in logic, mathematics and science, any self-contradictory statement is rejected as false by definition. I have come to suspect, however, that many people do not entirely believe in the oneness of truth (at least as it applies to religion). I recently discussed this with a friend who assured me that "if you believe something, that makes it true for you. If someone else believes something different, then that's true for him. 'Truth' is whatever you believe; that's what the word means."
The philosophy is one I first came across in college and have since heard from a number of people. I have no idea how widespread it really is. However, even if we reject such an idea in theory, we may unconsciously uphold it in practice. Any time we adopt convictions on the basis of comfort, convenience or any other criterion besides investigation, we are indeed implying that "truth is whatever you believe." By reminding us of the oneness of truth, the Bahá'í teachings encourage us to renounce such confusion and the wishful thinking it engenders.
One irony is that the Bahá'í Faith itself, which flatly rejects any notion of conflicting realities, is often accused of supporting such a position. Bahá'ís are sometimes mistakenly described as people who think that "it doesn't matter what you believe" since "all religions are true." Seeing thousands of diametrically opposed, mutually exclusive religious beliefs, and imagining that Bahá'ís endorse all of them, an observer might well conclude that the Faith sees no problem with the idea of contradictory truths.
This is a misunderstanding. What Bahá'ís believe is simply that the original teachings of every religion the inspired words of the Manifestations are divinely revealed and true. Bahá'ís regard only these pure precepts as fundamentally consistent; they make no such claim for man-made dogmas and interpretations that have sprung up later. Over the centuries, every historic religion has become encrusted with thousands of conflicting creeds, doctrines, theologies and practices, none of which have any basis in the teachings of its founder.
Bahá'ís, as we have seen, do not hesitate to dismiss all such secondary ideas as "superstition and imagination." In every religion adherents search for the underlying core of truth which, properly understood, provides a basis for genuine oneness. A contrived and artificial unity, created by closing one's eyes to inconsistency, can never exert any lasting influence on society.
Discovery and verification
A fourth implication of the Bahá'í position is that an investigator can discover and verify spiritual truth through logical arguments based on evidence.
Many people today do not believe that spiritual truth is discoverable at all.. Among them are many agnostics and skeptics who think it is useless even to speculate on such questions as the existence of God or life after death. This view is shared, in a way, by believers who insist that religion must be accepted purely "on faith" (by which they apparently mean blind credulity). Neither camp regards religious belief as the result of finding out what is real and what is not. Both see faith as a spontaneous act of will, a "gamble" one takes without knowing in advance whether it is actually justified. The Bahá'í Faith, as we have already seen, rejects all such extreme ideas.
Another view holds that spiritual truth is discoverable through investigation, but that such discovery is purely intuitive or emotional in nature. Religious experience is seen as being so private, so mystical and subjective as to be "beyond reason" that is, it cannot be described or analyzed, only felt.
Although the Bahá'í attitude is somewhat different, the Faith does uphold the value of intuition as one guide to spiritual truth. Many people recognize the Manifestation of God because His life and words touch a responsive chord in the heart of the seeker, who becomes enraptured by their beauty. Every Manifestation inspires countless followers to live and die for His Cause, solely on this basis. Many of these followers would have difficulty explaining the strength of their convictions. There is nothing wrong with this. Some level of intuitive response or insight is clearly essential to religion; a purely intellectual assent to the Manifestation's claim, without a heartfelt sense of His tightness, will not bring forth from anyone the self-sacrificing commitment needed for spiritual and social progress.
And yet, we should not, according to the Bahá'í teachings, be content with an intuitive conviction. Relying solely on intuition at the expense of other human faculties is risky, says 'Abdu'l-Bahá, for "When we apply but one test, there are possibilities of mistake." He describes a more balanced approach:
"Day and night you must strive that you may attain to the significances of the heavenly Kingdom, perceive the signs of Divinity, acquire certainty of knowledge and realize that this world has a Creator, a Vivifier, a Provider, an Architect knowing this through proofs and evidences and not through susceptibilities, nay, rather, through decisive arguments and real vision.... You must come into the knowledge of the divine Manifestations and Their teachings through proofs and evidences." "...we must be able to prove Divinity from the standpoint of reason so that no doubt or objection may remain for the rationalist. Afterward, we must be able to prove the existence of the bounty of God that the divine bounty encompasses humanity and that it b transcendental."
'Abdu'l-Bahá expresses dismay at the lack of attention paid to this topic:
"If you should ask a thousand persons, 'What are the proofs of the reality of Divinity?' perhaps not one would be able to answer. If you should ask further, 'What proofs have you regarding the essence of God?' 'How do you explain inspiration and revelation?' 'What are the evidences of conscious intelligence beyond the material universe?' 'Can you suggest a plan and method for the betterment of human moralities?' 'Can you clearly define and differentiate the world of nature and the world of Divinity?' you would receive very little real knowledge and enlightenment upon these questions....
"The intellectual proofs of Divinity are based upon observation and evidence which constitute decisive argument, logically proving the reality of Divinity, the effulgence of mercy, the certainty of inspiration and immortality of the spirit. This is, in reality, the science of Divinity."
Reason, according to 'Abdu'l-Bahá, can do more than support and supplement one's intuitive conviction it can be the route through which one attains such certitude in the first place: "If thou wishest the divine knowledge and recognition, purify thy heart from all else beside God, be wholly attracted to the ideal, beloved One; search for and choose Him and apply thyself to rational and authoritative arguments. For arguments are a guide to the path and by this the heart will be turned unto the Sun of Truth. And when the heart is turned unto the Sun, then the eye will be opened and will recognize the Sun through the Sun itself. Then man will be in no need of arguments...."
The "proofs and evidences" of which 'Abdu'l-Bahá speaks are set forth in a number of Bahá'í sources, notably Bahá'u'lláh's Book of Certitude. 'Abdu'l-Bahá Himself discusses them at length in Some Answered Questions and The Promulgation of Universal Peace; in His well-known letter to Dr. Auguste Forel, the Swiss entomologist; and in many other places.
Most of these logical arguments strike me as simple and straightforward; others, as requiring deep thought. A few of the latter, I freely admit, still are not clear to me after years of reflection; however, I do not need to understand clearly every argument before being convinced by what I see as the obvious soundness of the others.
As the Bahá'í Faith becomes better known, these arguments are bound to attract attention, both friendly and skeptical. In my opinion, Bahá'ís would do well to study them, so that we will be better prepared to understand and explain them when the need arises, as it surely will. (Also, I would hope, someone with a quicker mind than I have will help me to understand the ones I am still working on.)
Especially significant is 'Abdu'l-Bahá's statement (quoted above) that such proofs are based on "observation and evidence" constituting "the science of Divinity." Although most of the detailed arguments are beyond the scope of this brief essay, we can, through this and other statements, gain enough clues about their general nature to understand at least some of the reasoning whereby one can test the claim of Bahá'u'lláh. This theme is developed in the following section.
A fifth implication from the Bahá'í teachings is that the search for spiritual truth must take place in accordance with scientific method.
This touches on another vital Bahá'í teaching, that of the harmony of science and religion. True science and true religion, according to 'Abdu'l-Bahá, are alike in that "both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test." He explains that "science is the discoverer of realities. It is of two kinds: material and spiritual. Material science is the investigation of natural phenomena; divine science is the discovery and realization of spiritual verities." "Moreover, the Bahá'í writings explicitly describe the Faith as "scientific in its method."
These statements are important for many reasons, one being the light they shed on what 'Abdu'l-Bahá means by "proofs and evidences." Before discussing this, we must clarify two popular misconceptions. First is the notion that scientific method deals exclusively with material realities; second, that it can produce some sort of absolute knowledge.
Concerning the first misconception, many non-scientists assume that scientific method means nothing more than the use of physical instruments to study and measure physical things. If this were true, no religion could sensibly claim to be scientific in its method of investigating spiritual reality. One can hardly place God or the soul under a microscope for direct examination.
The problem with this idea is that it confuses the starting point of science with its end result. It is true that science, for its raw data, relies on direct observation. Knowing this, one may be tempted to assume that science itself is the study of directly observable phenomena i.e., physical or material things. But no such inference is warranted. Scientists begin with directly observable evidence; but they are able (by using reason and mathematics) to deduce from such evidence its conclusions about all sorts of realities that are not directly observable or measurable, and which in many cases are not material things at all.
Psychologists, for example, study such phenomena as imagination, memory, self-awareness and other mental faculties. None of these whatever one may believe about their nature is detectable by any physical instrument, although they exist and can be investigated.
Even in those sciences most directly concerned with physical reality, research into intangibles takes on great importance. Consider the proposition that "space is curved," which is important in astronomy and cosmology. The curvature of space is deduced from physical evidence, but it is not a physical thing it cannot be inspected through a telescope or analyzed with a spectrograph. It is an abstract aspect of reality, beyond observation and yet known by its observable effects. There is no obvious reason why at least some spiritual questions, such as the existence of God or the soul, could not be investigated in a similarly indirect manner.
The second misconception is that the scientific method produces "absolute knowledge" or "absolute proof." This is entirely incorrect. Even the most rigorously verified explanations of science are called "theories" a term intended to suggest that they could be revised in the light of new evidence.
A collection of scientific observations, however large, can always be explained in more than one way. There is no infallible method for choosing which way is correct. Given a range of competing explanations, each of which fits the available evidence, a scientist will prefer the simplest and most economical choice, that is, the one that does the most explaining with the least theorizing. This rule of thumb is called Occam's Razor, or the law of parsimony. It is not a law at all, of course-merely a realization that unnecessary complexity provides a greater arena for error. A more elaborate explanation may actually turn out to be the correct one.
Newton's theory of gravitation, for example, perfectly explained all of the observable data available in his day. Einstein later developed a different, more complex theory to accommodate new evidence observations that Newton could not have anticipated. Now suppose a scientist in Newton's time, knowing no more or less than Newton himself knew, had been presented with both the Newtonian and Einsteinian conceptions of gravity. Using Occam's Razor, he would undoubtedly have chosen Newton's model simply on the grounds of economy. Moreover, his decision would have been entirely rational, even though Einstein's theory was, as we now know, more correct. What this indicates is that no amount of evidence can provide "absolute proof" of any scientific theory. Scientific "proof" is relative, a matter of high probability only. There is always an alternative explanation which, however improbably, may turn out to be right. In practice, however, a theory may acquire such high probability that we are justified in acting as if it were absolutely certain. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, while recognizing that "All human standards of judgment are faulty, finite," points out that a statement tested by all methods at our disposal, and supported by overwhelming evidence, "can be adjudged and relied upon as perfectly correct." We need not harbor illusions about the absoluteness of our knowledge in order to act upon it with a high degree of faith.
While this relative uncertainty of human knowledge is no cause for alarm, it is essential that we understand and accept it. By so doing, we give ourselves a powerful incentive to continually test, refine and expand our understanding of reality (whether in science or religion) and stay open to new information. Without such recognition of our limitations, we tend to become fanatical and narrow-minded.
With this background, we can give the following (admittedly sketchy and oversimplified) description of scientific method: A scientist, in seeking to understand something, constructs a tentative explanation (or "hypothesis") that accounts as simply and neatly as possible for all observations known to him. He then decides what consequences should follow if the explanation is true, and tests these systematically, with a view to disproving the hypothesis. A scientist reasons, "If hypothesis X is true, then such-and-such must also be true" then he tests the such-and-such. If observation does not bear out his prediction, he rejects the hypothesis. If it does, he must decide (more or less subjectively) how much it strengthens the probability that his explanation is correct. A hypothesis that is strengthened enough times, in enough ways, eventually becomes a "theory" and is accepted as verified (subject always, however, to later findings). This is the meaning of "scientific proof," insofar as the expression has any meaning.
This procedure of inquiry is available to each of us, not merely to scientists. It is useful in evaluating any proposition, not only those that describe physical reality. It systematically uses all our faculties (including reason, intuition and common sense), not just sense perception. Scientific method enables us to determine the credibility of an explanation through repeated and varied attempts to discredit it. If we learn from such attempts that a theory is a reliable guide to experience, that its implications match earlier observations and accurately foretell later ones, then we can judge it worthy of acceptance and faith.
Now suppose we wish to test as a scientific hypothesis Bahá'u'lláh's claim that He is a flawless Channel of communication from an all-knowing, infallible Supreme Being. It is admittedly hard to imagine any single-purpose test that could verify such a hypothesis to everyone's satisfaction.
On the other hand, the hypothesis, if untrue, should be fairly easy to disprove. Bahá'u'lláh's recorded utterances fill more than 100 volumes, of which He states: "Out of My mouth proceedeth naught but the essence of truth, which the Lord your God hath revealed." Such a claim entails consequences that anyone can test using observation and reason. This suggests many ways of investigating the Bahá'í hypothesis.
Here are a few indications that one might consider: Bahá'u'lláh made many detailed prophecies. Have these been fulfilled, or have any been contradicted by subsequent events? He described scientific facts that were unknown in His lifetime. Have these been verified, or have any been decisively refuted during the past century? He says His words have a unique creative power to facilitate spiritual growth. Can we, by reading and reflecting on those words, experience such a power? A divinely perfect Being, we might expect, should make an extraordinary impression on those with whom He comes in contact. What effect did Bahá'u'lláh have on those around him? He dictated His books and letters at high speed, never pausing to revise or meditate, and often with no chance for premeditation. Was He able spontaneously to create finished works of the highest excellence, as revelation logically should be? Or do these writings (however brilliant they may be over-all) show the wide variations in quality one would expect of a human author composing extemporaneously? What opportunities did He have to acquire the knowledge He displayed? How well-documented are the circumstances of His life and writing? With a little imagination, one can find countless ways of testing Bahá'u'lláh's claim.
For the sake of scientific argument, suppose we find that His many prophecies and scientific assertions check out with perfect accuracy (except for a few that remain open); that His words and life show a profound transforming effect on others; that His spontaneous compositions consistently display extraordinary literary beauty and depth of content; that His prescriptions for social and spiritual regeneration work; that any other tests we devise show the results we should expect if Bahá'u'lláh's claim were true. One failure to disprove such a claim is not, in itself, proof of its validity. But if we take a scientific approach, using repeated attempts to discredit the Bahá'í hypothesis, we may eventually find that it explains the observed evidence with far greater economy and predictive power than any of the alternatives. In this sense, the claim of Bahá'u'lláh is as open to scientific testing and verification as any physical assumption or theory.
Unlike many scientific hypotheses, however, this question holds more than theoretical interest for anyone seeking its answer. Fortunately, any individual can make such an investigation; and no one, without having done so, can fairly prejudge what its outcome will be.
'Abdu'l-Bahá has said that "nothing is of greater importance to mankind than the investigation of truth."
This Bahá'í principle wins ready assent from persons of almost every persuasion; however, it is rich with implications that are not necessarily obvious or universally accepted. Among them are:
- Individual search for truth is a moral necessity based on justice;
- it is a powerful way in which to promote the unity of mankind;
- this unifying influence derives from the fact that truth is one, that all human beings share a single consistent reality;
- an investigator can discover and verify spiritual truth by means of logical arguments based on evidence; and
- this evidence must be evaluated in accordance with scientific principles and method.
These insights form the basis for a uniquely independent outlook on life an outlook in which the individual accepts full responsibility for his or her own perceptions and beliefs. They also provide a sound framework for evaluating the claim of Bahá'u'lláh to divine knowledge and authority, and challenge every earnest seeker to undertake such an evaluation.
1. Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1979), pp. 135, 138; also, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982), pp. 62, 314, 372.
2. Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1965), p. 139.
3. Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1971), sec. XXVII.
4. Ibid., sec. CIX.
5. Bahá'u'lláh, quoted in Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974), p. 115.
6. Gleanings, sec. XXI.
7. Ibid., sec. CXXXII.
8. Ibid., sec. XXVIII.
9. Ibid., sec. XVIII.
10. Bahá'u'lláh, quoted in Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day Is Come (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Committee, 1941), p. 41.
11. Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'í World Faith (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1956), p. 383.
12. Gleanings, sec. LXXV.
13. Promulgation, p. 62.
14. Ibid., p. 221.
16. Bahá'u'lláh, The Hidden Words of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1979), p. 4.
17. Gleanings, sec. LXXV.
18. God Passes By, p. 140.
19. The Hidden Words, pp. 3-4.
20. Bahá'u'lláh, Writings of Bahá'u'lláh (New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1986), p. 249.
21. Promulgation, p. 62.
22. Ibid., p. 433.
23. Shoghi Effendi, The Faith of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980), p. 9.
24. Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 189-90.
25. Gleanings, sec. CXIII.
26. Promulgation, p. 372.
27. Ibid., p. 127.
28. Ibid., p. 391.
29. The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 36.
30. Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 42.
31. Shoghi Effendi, quoted in The Spiritual Revolution (Thornhill, Ontario: Canadian Bahá'í Community, 1974), p. 9.
32. Promulgation, p. 433.
33. Matthew 6:10.
34. John 10:16.
35. Isaiah 2:4.
36. Isaiah 11:9.
37. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, quoted in The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 39.
38. Gleanings, sec. CXX.
39. Promulgation, pp. 233-34.
41. Shoghi Effendi, in The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 41.
42. Paris Talks, p. 137.
43. Promulgation, p. 454.
44. Ibid., p. 373.
45. Ibid., p. 62.
46. Ibid., p. 255.
47. Ibid., pp. 227-28.
48. Ibid., p. 325.
49. Ibid., p. 326.
50. Bahá'í World Faith, p. 383.
51. Promulgation, p. 107.
52. Ibid., p. 138.
53. Shoghi Effendi, Selected Writings of Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Committee, 1942), p. 7.
54. Promulgation, p. 22.
55. Ibid., p. 255.
56. Gleanings, sec. CLIII.
57. Promulgation, p. 63.