What, if anything, makes science a privileged path to knowledge?
There are two sources of knowledge – science and religion. While it is often thought of them as two entirely separate ones, I would like to draw from my personal religious beliefs and my understanding of scientific theory and practice to date, to construe a model of harmony and collaboration between the two. I will therefore not be arguing over the privilege of science over any other field of human endeavour, but rather the elements that make both science and religion a privileged intertwined path to knowledge.
To start off with, I would like to clarify my understanding of what knowledge is and what our purpose in acquiring it is, as this is the basis on which I will be constructing the following essay. For me, the ultimate purpose in life is the recognition of God, through his Manifestations or Divine Messengers. This recognition, I classify as true knowledge.
It is in human nature to be attracted to beauty – whether this be physical beauty, beauty seen in nature, the harmonious blending of musical notes or the systematic and clear pattern described by a mathematical formula. We are inherently attracted to things beautiful, and seek to spend our time in the acquisition of beauties, or perfections, the ultimate source of which is God. Thus, the beauty that we see in the world around us, can be considered as rays emanating from the Divine Sun, expressions of the source of true beauty.
This beauty, and therefore the knowledge that lies hidden in it, can be accessed through two channels. Think of the world as consisting of two vast systems of knowledge, each of which is served by a particular Book – the Book of Creation and the Book of Revelation. The first of these consists of all the material substance that surrounds us, together with the laws to which all created things are subjected. Some would refer to this as nature. The second of these, the Book of Revelation, consists of the Teachings that the founders of the world’s great religions have brought, and are another way of trying to catch a glimpse of God’s unknowable essence.
These two bodies of knowledge are often presented as being conflicting one with the other, of being alternative methods of describing the world, and supporters of either claiming that their body of knowledge is more sound and that the other one should be discarded of. This can be clearly seen in the attacks of certain atheists on religious belief, and the insistence of religious fundamentalists on the importance of the Holy Writing and its literal interpretation even when in stark disagreement with scientific evidence. Another viewpoint, that of the non-overlapping magisterial, advocates that science and religion are both valid, and that there are certain fields that each of them can and must address. Clearly, the first viewpoint has resulted in no more than a great deal of conflict amongst the two groups worldwide, and the second of these is analysed in quite some detail by Richard Dawkins in his book “The God Delusion”. I will therefore not dwell on rejecting either of these, but suggest an alternative “unified” view.
As a Bahá’í, I believe that nature is an expression of God’s will, and that in its varied phenomena are hidden signs of God, his attributes or qualities. Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, encourages the independent investigation of truth, and promotes the harmony between science and religion. He says that in every atom there are signs of God, and urges men to engage in science. The Bahá’í Writings extol science as the highest form of human endeavour, and encourage the acquisition of excellence in scientific fields. The Bahá’í Faith also teaches that if science and religion are found to disagree on a subject, then one should follow the scientific explanation, lest dogmatic explanations become the norm.
On the other hand, Bahá’ís believe that Bahá’u’lláh has revealed the Words of God and His Will for today. While there is not much in terms of scientific claims as to how the world works in the Writings of the Bahá’í Faith, it is said that through meditation, prayer, and service to one’s fellow men, one can grow spiritually and thus grow closer to God. By doing so, one acquires true knowledge, and without making it sound overly mystical, one might come to understandings of natural phenomena that otherwise would not have occurred. Scientific studies have also shown that meditation increases concentration and aids in intellectual reasoning.
Both science and religion have the potential to achieve great good or cause a lot of harm – in both cases it’s a question of use or abuse. It is therefore of paramount importance that one recognise the paths that one’s decisions lead to, and act conscientiously. When analysing science and some of its praiseworthy characteristics, one is drawn to the principles it promotes of a systematic, just and true approach. Even if such a concept as “the scientific method” cannot be clearly defined, nor its elements enumerated, it is the mindset that science tries to nurture that has helped such marvellous advances in scientific and technological achievements to occur. In the Bahá’í Writings, one is called to adopt a scientific approach in all one’s endeavours, and to investigate everything with an open mind or heart. According to Bahá’u’lláh, anyone who considers himself/herself as a true seeker of knowledge, must first of all rid himself of all attachments and cleanse his heart of every trace of love and hate – lest the love lead him to error or the hate repel him from truth.
Another commonality that I see between science and religion, is the importance given to education. A lot of scientific knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation. A systematization of this process and its accessibility were vastly improved with the advent of the printing press in the Middle Ages, and the popularization of the internet in the late 20th century. A lot of effort has also gone, and still goes, into the education of children and youth in scientific fields, which lays importance not only on the acquisition of knowledge, but also on the advancement of one’s understanding. This continuity in the transfer of scientific knowledge has been the key in expanding the pool of understanding held by the scientific community as a whole, as it allows for what has taken centuries to be discovered to be taught in a much shorter span of time. Furthermore, the specialization of individuals in specific fields of scientific endeavour, has allowed for the expansion in scope of the natural phenomena that science as a whole has analysed and can now explain. However, there is still a general apprehension of religion by the majority of scientists, and a denial of the existence of God by many. This has prevented science reaching its full potential in the amount of knowledge it has been able to generate thus far.
Similarly, the Bahá’í Faith also lays great emphasis on the importance of education – both intellectual, and spiritual. It preaches a close link between the two, which although not outwardly visible, can produce great results. Education of a child’s character is given great importance to, as “every child is potentially the light of the world, and at the same time its darkness.” And it is through a well-trained character that a person can excel in the sciences, by showing good reasoning abilities, determination to complete tasks to the best of their ability, and a willingness to collaborate with others in their quest of truth.
Thus, as science and religion provide access to true knowledge, the knowledge of our Creator, they are privileged. However, this privilege can only be maintained if they work hand in hand, and aid each other in the process. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”