Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Science and the Baha'i Faith

In reader mail, one correspondent asks "how Baha'is think religion and science are compatible? What is the Baha'i conception of science?" This reader cited the Wikipedia article -- "Baha'i Faith and Science", which is a good introduction to the subject. It provides much detail beginning with
A fundamental principle of the Bahá'í Faith is the harmony of religion and science. Bahá'í scripture asserts that true science and true religion can never be in conflict. `Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the religion, stated that religion without science leads to superstition and that science without religion leads to materialism. He also admonished that true religion must conform to the conclusions of science.
The reader was specifically concerned if the Baha'i writings about human evolution imply a "creationist" as opposed to a strictly Darwinian theory. In my opinion, this is a pseudo issue, not a real dichotomy from either scientific or religious viewpoints. Major results are (1) 'Abdu'l-Baha's statements about human evolution are not necessarily inconsistent with concepts in contemporary biological research and (2) the principle of the harmony of science and religion provides for update of Baha'i scripture on science topics.

Let us consider several themes which may help Baha'is and others navigate such questions on the relationship between science and religion.

Independent investigation of truth is the title of this journal and is typically listed as a major principle of the Baha'i Faith. To make a long story short, nobody really knows the full truth in either science or religion, else there would be no need to continue investigating. In this process, both science and religion are part of experience and people use working hypotheses.

A working hypothesis is our best guess at truth and is used based on faith in its probable correctness in both religion and science. For example, "God exists" is classed as a religious belief and "objects in our physical world are composed of a much smaller number of elementary constituents" may be classed as a scientific belief. Among many definitions of God provided by Baha'i founder, Baha'u'llah, is the "unknowable essence". On the science side of the ledger, the discovery of compounds composed of elements whose atoms are composed of elementary particles -- proton, neutron and electron, naturally leads to the question of the composition of these particles. In this example, science and religion converge both seeking the most fundamental "essence" of our world.

The "Tablet of the true seeker", written by Baha'u'llah, outlines essentials for investigators and the investigation process itself applicable to both science and religion. Beyond many similarities between scientific and religious spheres of human experience, some differences may be considered.

The scientific method emphasizes sensory experience, the inputs from our sensory organs, extended by various measurement instruments. On the other hand, religious experience may be more subjective, based more on intuition and expressed with vocabulary and concepts referring to less tangible aspects of that experience. This distinction is not mutually exclusive. Good investigators in science may use a lot of intuition and in religion use their senses, as in witnessing an important or momentous event or in using controlled experimental design to test the effects of prayer and the like.

The Wikipedia article cited above itemizes some quotations from Baha'i scripture -- defined as the authenticated writings of Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha. In many cases, the text suggests a sort of prediction or statement of scientific truth. While many of these passages might be viewed as remarkable, caution is advised in all cases since much of their interpretation depends on how the vocabulary used is defined. One may argue that this is a major factor in the human evolution pseudo issue discussed further below.

Scientists use operational definitions of key terms or variables in a research project. That is, a term is defined by how it is measured. For example, intelligence may be defined as number of correct answers on an exam. A free neutron may be defined as a count by a scintillation counter instrument. Motivation may be defined as number of responses of an experimental animal to obtain a reward like a food pellet. A disadvantage of using operational definitions is that they may not really measure the intended concept (known as the validity of the measurement), which can lead to erroneous conclusions in scientific reports. However, explicit operational definitions clarify how the terminology might best be understood.

Concerning definitions of key terms in scientific fields, the general public and non-specialists typically do not know precise definitions of key words and venture into territory where terms are ill-defined or even defined differently, by implication, at different times and places. As a result, false dichotomies and conclusions can abound.

The so-called human evolution issue may qualify as one of these instances. In this context, it might be emphasized that 'Abu'l-Baha was primarily a religious figure, center of the Baha'i community from 1892 to 1920, not a trained scientist or necessarily fully versed in the use of terms in science in those years. Indeed, during most of this period, he was a prisoner in Aka, Palestine, then controlled by the Ottomans.

Thus, when 'Abdu'l-Baha eventually had the opportunity to travel to Europe and the United States, one can be fairly certain that all of his statements were intended to promote the development of the Baha'i Faith and understanding of his listeners. On the other hand, some writers in recent years may err with assumptions that not only did 'Abdu'l-Baha have some mysterious or supernatural access to all knowledge, but that he used terms intending the same meaning as might be assumed today after about 100 years of scientific advances. Recall that scientists consider knowledge as our best working hypothesis, hopefully a useful approximation of the truth, a body of information subject to development and polishing over time.

A good example might be the word "species". Following numerous passages in his father's writing, 'Abdu'l-Baha reportedly emphasized several differences between the human being and animals, obviously confirmed by modern biology or by common sense. But today biologists consider homo sapiens as a species of animal, which might appear to some unversed observers to be in conflict with the ideas 'Abdu'l-Baha was trying to convey. However, the very definition of species depends on noteworthy qualitative and quantitative differences between populations of individuals, in agreement with the ideas expressed by 'Abdu'l-Baha. Perhaps the vocabulary used is somewhat different between then and now. Further, 'Abdu'l-Baha's objective was clearly different. That is, he was introducing Baha'i ideas often in a foreign language and in foreign countries, not submitting a research paper to the modern scientific journal Nature. If done today, he obviously would have formulated many of these ideas in appropriate contemporary terms.

Next, 'Abdu'l-Baha reportedly suggested a sort of parallel evolution with the notion that humans were always human or destined to be, even though the physical form of the species (to use the modern term) changed over time as seen both in observations of evolution of the species as well as in embryological development of each individual. On the other hand, to the lay person, this picture may seem to differ from more simplistic notions that humans evolved from some past species of primate or common ancestor of one or more present primates.

This was called a pseudo issue above. For one thing, 'Abdu'l-Baha's concept is more in agreement with modern biology than the simplistic human-from-past-primate image. Let us step through some relevant ideas and data.

First, biologists group similar present species by many criteria such as morphology, number of chromosomes and more recently by DNA or gene similarities. This sort of analysis is typically statistical meaning that some groupings can be by chance alone, not due to an evolutionary relationship. Similar analysis may also be used to trace backward in time DNA similarities with the hope of further establishing that present species A (e.g., humans) might have evolved from past individuals of species B (e.g., another primate). In some cases, DNA may be recovered from the remains of individuals that lived in the past, which provides a great opportunity to conduct similar analyses.

This research is not inconsistent with 'Abdu'l-Baha's statements, which might be stated using more modern terminology as follows:

1. Present humans (species A) evolved from a past individual A'.
2. Other present primates (species B) evolved from a past individual B'.

These two statements say that species A and B have different or separate lines of descent over a defined time interval. The options become more complex when lines of descent might follow a common track for a period, might converge and might diverge.

This representation of 'Abdu'l-Baha's comments on the subject appears to be fully consistent with analyses mentioned above to trace species development. Indeed, the general objective is to describe past individuals A' and B'. The default assumption is the most likely research result that A' and B' are different individuals. A less likely, but interesting result could suggest that A' and B' might be the same individual (aka common ancestor), after which the lines of descent diverged. In short, about a century ago, 'Abdu'l-Baha participated in drawing the outline and articulating fundamental premises of modern advanced biological research in evolution.

It is entirely possible in a given prehistoric period, that A' and B' are different past individuals. However, it is also possible that A' and B' were the same individual -- a so-called common ancestor, but some mutation or other event split a single species into two. No doubt decades of further species DNA analysis will be required to favor one of these two possibilities in a particular time-frame, hypothetically going all the way back to single-celled individuals in the oceans.

Whatever of the two possibilities is most supported by the data, 'Abdu'l-Baha's basic logic remains intact, namely that past individuals of present humans may be viewed as steps in "human" evolutionary development, just as past individuals of (other) animal species may be viewed as steps in their "animal" evolutionary development.

In summary, it may be fair to say that 'Abu'l-Baha's conception of the subject is not inconsistent with modern biology. Indeed, it appears to be remarkably prescient, being a more sophisticated analysis than the more crude idea that present species A evolved from present species B. If conventional thinking among biologists is accepted, one might wonder why there is any controversy at all about the text on this particular subject in 'Abdu'l-Baha's addresses and writings.

The logic is simple. Imagine a photo of a family showing a grandchild and the two grandparents. In the photo is a young dog and its two grandparent dogs. We may say as 'Abdu'l-Baha did, "The human grandchild has grandparents who are also human; the grandchild dog has grandparents who are also dogs." One does not have to be an expert to understand the logic in these simple statements. We may add, "Even though the grandparents of the human look different, we can still think of them as human. Likewise, we can think of the grandparents of the dog as also being dogs. In short, as far as line of descent is concerned, the human in the photo descended from humans and the dog descended from dogs." A child can grasp it.

Playing with word definitions may be a major factor in manufacturing evolution non-issues. For example, among modern biologists, there is not a single universally accepted definition of such a basic concept as a species. It turns out that there are many shades of grey. In practice, species is operationally defined consistent with the research objectives of particular projects. As a result, a number of variations in such definitions can co-exist in the scientific literature without confusion among readers -- almost all being other trained scientists.

Notice that the discussion above assumed a fixed definition of species. The whole field becomes even more murky when we add that species definitions may vary as convenient for the research objective. This consideration should further inhibit lay people who are not experts in these matters from making weighty pronouncements about human evolution with expectation of being credible.

Alas, lay readers and writers are notoriously prone to ignore precise definition of terms and complexities in the subject matter, to misinterpret or even sensationalize scientific reports and to draw unwarranted conclusions. An excellent example is the silly allegation that Baha'is are "creationists" in some respect, unfairly mixing Baha'is and their writings with a contemporary social or ideological controversy, which at first glance may have little or no clear or significant relation to the content of Baha'i scripture.

Authors like Bahman Nadimi assume "the subject of evolution stands alone as the most challenging area for harmonizing religion and science" and "the problem" of "divisiveness that permeates the debate". Meanwhile, Salman Oskooi argues "the problem of disharmony between scripture and science is sometimes rooted in a misattribution of scriptural inerrancy where it was not warranted". My take is that these authors treat the subject more as philosophers or theologians, quoting extensively from Baha'i scripture, where passages are cited to help understand the meaning of other passages. This approach has its own merit.

However, notice that Oskooi uses secondary sources like Scientific American rather than primary sources, such as research reports and reviews in scientific journals, as typically done by trained and experienced scientists.

"Scriptural inerrancy" may not be the key point, perhaps wrongly assuming that 'Abu'l-Baha on human evolution may properly be treated as a scientific position paper rather than as an effort to present religious principles in terms that intelligent people of his day might understand. His father, Baha'u'llah, wrote to the kings of the earth. If 'Abdu'l-Baha was concerned with proposing a scientific theory, he could well have submitted a paper to one of the scientific journals of his day. Hence, "historical context" might be more relevant than "scriptural inerrancy" in the Oskooi citation above.

"Scriptural inerrancy" seems to be the delicate way that theologians assert that points about science in scripture may never be incorrect and just plain wrong. If we insist that 'Abdu'l-Baha on human evolution is scripture (as defined above) while 'Abdu'l-Baha insisted that religion, including some of his own statements, might be updated by science, then there is no news here and "scriptural inerrancy" is inapplicable, because 'Abdu'l-Baha not only sanctioned updating his descriptions regarding evolution and other science topics, but no doubt fully expected that they would be updated.

In this light, it appears that some recent authors on this subject may have completely missed the point. They want to analyze scripture on specific scientific questions as if it were eternal truth while that same scripture itself indicates that it may be updated by scientific developments via the principle of the harmony of science and religion. Hence, it seems that this scripture is more a topic for historians than for philosophers and theologians. At least for scientists, this scripture is primarily of historical interest.

Indeed, one may argue that 'Abdu'l-Baha did not err in these presentations, that he successfully emphasized the magnificent spiritual and intellectual capabilities of the human species and the need for independent investigation of truth and for harmony of science and religion. As a religious leader, he backed these ideas by accepting most of the human evolution thinking of scientists of his day, in contrast to other religionists who opposed allowing science to update religion. By implication, his presentations were a challenge to scientists to match his performance by accepting the often revolutionary religious principles of Baha'u'llah -- namely, to update their religious thinking.

Many scientists are members of the Baha'i community, but the majority has yet to adequately respond to 'Abdu'l-Baha's challenge. Instead of elaborating on this theme, some contemporary writers prefer to treat 'Abdu'l-Baha's effort as a modern paper on evolutionary biology theory. Was it really? Or was it a teaching effort? Was he trying to communicate Baha'i concepts to the public or was he aiming for a post-humus Noble prize in biology?

In any case, scientists use sensory observations (the data) and strive to develop ideas (theories) that explain all the data. Although religious experience might be an inspiration, they do not derive their science from scripture, period. For scientists, theories explaining observational data and religious scripture, both parts of human experience, are nonetheless apples and oranges. Therefore, among scientists, debate is normal, not divisive and definitely not a "problem". It is what scientists do.

The news for scientists like the author may be that the Nadimi and Oskooi articles indicate that the philosophers and theologians are in a hurry to understand how scientific and religious beliefs might eventually converge regarding human evolution. What is the hurry?

Scientific and religious beliefs are both being updated to achieve harmony between science and religion as much as possible at any particular time. This harmony is a moving target. A 2003 paper by Mehanin and Friberg may be useful snap-shot of this moving target.

Why would the updating process be divisive? If anything, for scientists, theoretical debates are fun and in order to have that enjoyment, people taking the other side of the argument de jour are welcome.

'Abdu'l-Baha's talks and writings are historical documents which will not change. As thinking on human evolution is inevitably updated in the future, what exactly does it matter what century-old religious documents say about the subject? Apparently, theological investigators deem that some religious documents deserve special attention even though they may clearly be yesterday's news. For scientists, yesterday's news is irrelevant. New observations contradicting, or unexplained by, current theory is relevant.

Well-established science can apply pressure to update religious beliefs, and vice versa. Since current forms of both science and religion both lack a monopoly on truth, harmonizing the two belief systems may be a slow, incremental process. Meanwhile, beware of using science to judge scripture and vice versa.

To a scientist, attempts by non-scientists to reconcile specifics in religious documents from 100 years ago about human evolution with contemporary biological research seem like one big waste of time. Apparently, many authors want to be literalists. But what are the odds that a century-old science textbook will shed light on current issues in science? Likewise, what are the odds that a 100-year-old religious document on a scientific subject will shed light on current issues in science? In both cases, the odds are slim to nil. Efforts to overcome these odds might be called the "lottery ticket" or "Hail, Mary" approach to harmonizing science and religion, with very low productivity expectation.

However, to be open-minded, free speech and independent investigation using a variety of methods are accepted and encouraged. Happily, as time passes, the free market of ideas will indicate the most probable best solutions.

Humility is a key requirement for the true seeker in both scientific and religious investigation. Trained researchers know that operational definitions may be faulty or misleading, that statistical analysis typically provides only a probably that a working hypothesis is confirmed or rejected according to the data collected, and that interpretation of research results is fraught with many pitfalls. Given this degree of caution and awareness of possible faults by professional researchers, lay persons outside a particular field of expertise are well advised to exhibit a similar degree of humility and preferably, to develop expertise in a particular field and do serious work in that field.

For example, articles by linguists presenting the origin and generally accepted meanings of vocabulary in Baha'i scripture in its original languages could be constructive, so that language non-experts might better appreciate the English translations in much published Baha'i literature.

The author has a PhD in Physiology, which is human biology. This is mentioned only because, as far as the author knows, this article may be the only publication by a trained biologist on the subject of human evolution in Baha'i scripture. Let us hope that others trained in the biological sciences including genetics, biochemistry and microbiology will also write on this subject in the future, whether or not they agree with the current presentation. The basic theme is to be slow to state strong conclusions and fast to recognize and itemize possible faults in conventional thinking.

With proper exercise of humility, one might say that there is no such thing as the "Baha'i view of human evolution". It does not exist. What exists is specific passages from Baha'i scripture, where there is considerable room for definition of terms and interpretation of meanings, exactly as there is in modern biology and its many sub-specialties. Saying that all Baha'is believe exactly X, Y or Z on a science topic is like saying all biologists accept theory X, Y or Z. It is not true and will not happen. People are too variable. Thus, among Baha'is as among scientists, the task is a never-ending line of discussion, debate and investigation. Call it chaos, but that is what we have.

Finally, we get the independent part of "independent investigation of truth" which allows for Baha'is and others to develop dramatically different ideas and conclusions on many topics. What may be considered established knowledge may be challenged by new data and ideas. Hence, one might strive to be somewhat detached from, or independent of, so-called established knowledge, since further investigation might reveal new and substantially different pictures.

Summary and Conclusions. 'Abdu'l-Baha's statements about human evolution are not necessarily inconsistent with concepts in contemporary biological research although some propagandists seem to wish it were so. Indeed, 'Abdu'l-Baha's treatment of the subject almost a century ago outlines several basic ideas which are now premises of current research in evolution.

The Baha'i principle of the harmony of science and religion provides for update of Baha'i scripture on science topics. This update process will probably be slow and decentralized, as particular advances in science are gradually dessiminated and widely accepted as established knowledge.
© 2011 James J Keene

1 comment:

  1. James- Could not agree with you more. It took many centuries before the full implication of Muhammad's comments on the relative motion of earth and sun became apparent. One can assume the same for evolution. The future advances in DNA sciences such as "ancient DNA" has the potential to revolutionize our understanding on evolution. As you said- we just have to avoid the temptation to have hard conclusions.

    Bahman Nadimi