Some Answered Questions 1:
A Philosophical Perspective
by Ian Kluge
Published in Lights of Irfan, Volume 10, 2009
The purpose of this paper is to identify and explore the philosophical positions explicitly and implicitly embedded in Some Answered Questions (SAQ) which celebrates the centenary of its publication this year. Such a study of SAQ is valuable for at least five reasons. First, it facilitates a deeper and more precise understanding and appreciation of the philosophical foundations of the Bahá'í Writings. Indeed, SAQ itself clearly invites examination from a philosophic perspective not only by the way it implicitly incorporates philosophical concepts or ideas in its explanations but also by its explicit discussions of such topics as the “reality of the exterior world,” the nature of God, proofs for God’s existence, the difference between emanation and manifestation and the four-fold analysis of causality to name only the most obvious. While these examples all refer to ontological issues, SAQ also deals explicitly with issues in onto-theology, epistemology, personal and social ethics as well as in philosophical anthropology and psychology. Second, `Abdu'l-Bahá’s statement that “in this age the peoples of the world need the arguments of reason” also invites a rational, i.e. philosophical analysis of SAQ (and the Writings) in order to make our teaching more effective by meeting people’s need for the “arguments of reason.” Bahá'u'lláh’s exhortation to “be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in” reinforces our obligations in this regard.
Third, a philosophic understanding of SAQ is extremely useful in conducting rational inter-faith dialogue, not only to discover the foundational similarities we would expect to find since religions are essentially one, but also to give precise formulations and analyses of historically developed doctrinal differences. By putting such dialogue on a rational, philosophical footing, we are more likely to generate genuine understanding than by mere exchanges of competing views. Fourth, a philosophic understanding of SAQ (and the Writings as a whole) also facilitates the task of apologetics, of explaining and defending the teachings against critique or even outright attack. This is difficult to accomplish without a good understanding of the philosophic foundations of the Bahá'í teachings and the issues they involve. Even if opponents are not convinced, it will at least be possible to demonstrate that the teachings have a rational foundation and form a coherent world-vision or Weltanschauung. A philosophically based, rational apologetics will be an increasingly useful, too, as the Faith becomes better known and subject to more sophisticated critiques. Finally, a philosophical understanding of SAQ will help scholars determine the nature of the ideas that inform the Bahá'í Faith, and to identify those philosophical schools with which it shares the greatest affinities. Conversely, it will help us discover which schools are the most difficult to reconcile with SAQ (and the Writings in general) and why this is so. Such understanding also helps us to determine what makes the Bahá'í teachings philosophically unique and uniquely fitted to meet “the needs of the age [we] live in.”
In studying SAQ from a philosophic perspective, we shall examine not only the explicitly given philosophical statements but also their wider implications or extensions in order to show their applicability to a wide variety of areas. For example, `Abdu'l-Bahá makes use of Aristotle’s theory of four-fold causality – a concept often misunderstood by modern philosophers and scientists – and says that this analysis of causality applies to “the existence of everything.” Thus, as we shall demonstrate, it is possible to extend its application to the analysis of the family, society in general or even the Bahá'í community. Moreover, implicit in this causal analysis is an entire ontology of matter and form, essence, substance, essential and accidental attributes and teleology. These terms and categories exemplify a particular way of observing and analysing reality that differs dramatically from other schools of thought such as modern empiricism or postmodernism. Bahá'ís wishing a more complete philosophic understanding of SAQ (and the Writings) should be familiar with this way of analysing reality which has clear affinities to the philosophical tradition begun by Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus – what this paper calls ‘the Athenian tradition’ – and continues most actively in our time in the work of Whitehead and in the works of the various schools of neo-Aristotelians and neo-Thomists. 
This study will also begin the process of extracting implicit philosophical principles and implications from SAQ, such as, for example, a version of intelligent design theory inherent in the teaching that “Nature is subjected to an absolute organization, to determined laws, to a complete order and a finished design.”  This statement clearly rules out the more militant forms of Darwinism promulgated by such writers as Dawkins and Hitchens, which claim that the universe, and life, especially human life, are merely a result of blind fortuitous accidents. This does not imply that SAQ embraces the Christian versions of intelligent design, but it does imply that SAQ accepts some variation of intelligent design theory. Consequently, in light of the teaching of harmony between religion and science, Bahá'ís are faced with a new philosophic challenge of how to reconcile the acceptance of intelligent design with vehement scientific rejection of any such concept. The resulting investigations will inevitably lead us to further explorations of the Writings and the philosophy of science.
2. SAQ’s Ontology: Some Basic Principles
In its simplest terms, ontology concerns our theory of being i.e. what we mean by saying that something ‘is’ or ‘is real’ as opposed to being ‘unreal;’ ontology also explores the nature of real things and how they are related to each other. Doing ontology is unavoidable since, either explicitly or implicitly, every statement about the world contains ontological assumptions that guide our understanding and action. For example, the simple statement, ‘I shall walk the dog’ assumes (a) that ‘I’ exists in some way, (b) that ‘I’ have could make such a decision, (c) the dog exists in some way, (d) that ‘I’ and the dog are distinct and separate entities, exterior to each other, (e) that motion is possible and real and that (f) the city street outside also exists. It is, of course, possible to dig much, much deeper, but this simple example illustrates that we cannot avoid doing ontology even in our simplest thought processes and actions.
This certainly applies to religious texts. For example, if a religion teaches that there is a transcendent God Who is the source or ground of the material world, it has made several ontological claims. The most obvious is that reality contains two different kinds of entities. On one hand we have a contingent, material world that depends on something else for its existence and on the other, an entity which is non-contingent, independent and not material. It follows therefore that ontologically speaking, existence has at least a dualistic, two part structure involving two radically different kinds of entities and that the existence of one ‘part’ i.e. God, is a logically necessary and sufficient condition for the existence of the other, i.e. creation. This, in turn, has implications for our relationship to non-contingent, independent source as well as its contingent and dependent world this Source created. At this point, ontology reveals practical implications for our lives because how we conduct our lives is a determined by how we understand reality. Ontology begins to show its onto-theological and ethical implications.
We shall begin our exploration of the ontology embedded in SAQ by asking a fundamental question: is the exterior world real or is it unreal i.e. a dream, illusion, fiction or construction created either by Descartes’ demon, Maya or even by ourselves? The belief that the exterior world is a mere fantasy may be called ‘maya-ism’ after the veiling or illusion creating power (sometimes portrayed as a goddess) in the Hindu religion. In SAQ, `Abdu'l-Bahá flatly rejects the view that reality is a phantasm.
Certain sophists think that existence is an illusion, that each being is an absolute illusion which has no existence-- in other words, that the existence of beings is like a mirage, or like the reflection of an image in water or in a mirror, which is only an appearance having in itself no principle, foundation or reality. This theory is erroneous;
It is noteworthy that `Abdu'l-Bahá refers to those who maintain that the world is an “absolute illusion” as “sophists,” a term traditionally associated with flawed and deceptive reasoning. Use of this term signals his rejection of maya-ism which is confirmed by his statement that “[t]his theory is erroneous.” Consequently, for any Bahá'í-based philosophy, the unqualified assertion that “existence is an illusion” is not an option for understanding reality. This limitation is significant because it helps establish the view that SAQ contributes to laying out guidelines within which any Bahá'í-based philosophy must work.
3. Ontological Realism
Three closely related far-reaching consequences follow from `Abdu'l-Bahá’s statement. The first and most obvious is that “each being” in the exterior world is real, i.e. possesses some “principle, foundation, or reality” which give it some degree of existence “in itself.” In other words, “each being” has at least some degree of innate existence, is individual, is distinct and possesses some detachment or independence from other beings and is, in that sense, unique. As `Abdu'l-Bahá’ says in a later section of this passage, “in their own degree they [things in the exterior world] exist.” Each thing “in the condition of being  has a real and certain existence.” They are not mere “appearances” of something else, i.e. epiphenomena, passive side-effects or by-products that possesses no “principle, foundation or reality” of their own. This idea is re-enforced by the following statement:
for though the existence of beings in relation to the existence of God is an illusion, nevertheless, in the condition of being it has a real and certain existence. It is futile to deny this. For example, the existence of the mineral in comparison with that of man is nonexistence . . . ; but the mineral has existence in the mineral world . . . Then it is evident that although beings in relation to the existence of God have no existence, but are like the mirage or the reflections in the mirror, yet in their own degree they exist.
This statement makes it unequivocably clear that according to `Abdu'l-Bahá while degrees of reality differ, every being is, in its own degree, undeniably real. It is worth noting that he flatly rejects any contradictory viewpoint: “It is futile to deny this,” he says, thereby foreclosing any argument to the contrary. He emphasises the reality of creation elsewhere by stating “Now this world of existence in relation to its maker is a real phenomenon.” In other words, it has its own, undeniable degree of reality. The reason for this will be discussed in the section on “Existence and Nonexistence.”
`Abdu'l-Bahá’s statement that each thing has its degree of existence provides a realist foundation for Bahá'í ontology and epistemology. If “each being” has its own “principle, foundation or reality” and reflects one of the names of God in its own way, it is, therefore, not only genuinely distinct from all other things but also independent from them, i.e. has its own principle or foundation of existence “in itself.” Having this principle or foundation “in itself” establishes a basis for the ontological independence of “each being” (except, of course, from God) including independence from human observers, which is to say, the ontological status of “each being” is does not depend on being observed by humans or on human beliefs or linguistic practices. As we shall have occasion to discover in later discussions, the realist orientation to reality has enormous implications for epistemology especially in regards to the concept of ‘essence.’ It also has far-reaching implications for the relations between Bahá'í philosophy and contemporary postmodernism.
4. Ontological Pluralism
The second major consequence is that in `Abdu'l-Bahá’s statement we find the ontological basis for ontological pluralism, i.e. the belief that reality is made up of a multiplicity of individual things each of which “proclaims to us one of the names of God” in its own way and to the limits of its capacity. In other words, reality is made up of genuinely distinct beings whose differences are real and fundamental and not merely an appearance, illusion or matter of perspective. Their individual existence is not merely a “mirage” or reducible to something else that is ‘more fundamental’ such as a ground of being, or God.
Accepting some form of ontological pluralism entails the rejection of ontological monism according to which there are no fundamental divisions or distinctions among things - including the distinction between the independent Creator and the dependent creations. In other words, the things of created world can ultimately be reduced to particular modes of being or appearances of God Who is the only real thing or substance in existence. All distinctions are illusory for those possessing the enlightenment to see through the unreal distinct surface phenomena to the one reality underneath. According to SAQ, however, the distinctions between individual beings are real, i.e. “each being” has its own “principle, foundation or reality” though, of course, ultimately, this multiplicity of beings operates “under one law from which they will never depart.”
Moreover, as we shall see, in our discussion about the nature of God, SAQ categorically rejects any suggestion that God, the independent and non-contingent Creator can in any way be ontologically one with dependent and contingent creation. The distinction between the independent and non-contingent and the dependent and contingent cannot be undone or overcome. The reason is obvious. For humans to become ontologically one with the absolutely independent and non-contingent God would be to lose their particular identity as the kinds of beings they are, and the same would hold true for God were He to unite with the contingent. Not only would this deny ontological pluralism by vitiating real differences, but it would also imply that there can be change in God insofar as He could be unified with his creation in some way.
The belief that the existence of the exterior world and its beings are an illusion vis-à-vis God’s absolute existence is not an inadvertent re-admission of monism into Bahá'í ontology. It might be argued that since only God really, i.e. absolutely exists, then all other things are not real, illusory or mirages. Consequently, only one being remains – God – as real, and that, of course, is precisely the monist position, i.e. there is only one real substance, or being or will and that everything else is ultimately, unreal, mere epiphenomena. In other words, the distinctions between things are unreal or illusory, including the distinction between God and His creation. However, `Abdu'l-Bahá clearly rejects this position; speaking of the things of this world, he says, “in their own degree they exist.” Elsewhere he says:
So man exists; the animal, the plant and the mineral exist also--but the degrees of these four existences vary. What a difference between the existence of man and of the animal! Yet both are existences. It is evident that in existence there are differences of degrees.
These statements indicate that although the existence of things is bestowed by God, it nevertheless is real in its own right and not merely a chimera. Like a gift, it really belongs to the recipient though it originates from the wealth and bounty of another. Here again, we see the commitment to ontological pluralism re-enforced since from this perspective, the reality of different grades of being are guaranteed by God’s perfections.
The Creator always had a creation; the rays have always shone and gleamed from the reality of the sun, for without the rays the sun would be opaque darkness. The names and attributes of God require the existence of beings, and the Eternal Bounty does not cease. If it were to, it would be contrary to the perfections of God.
Pluralism is guaranteed because the “names and attributes of God require the existence of beings,” i.e. require the existence of beings genuinely different from God. The fact that God is the origin of this difference does not make it any less real.
5. Distinctions of Being and Power
According to SAQ, the distinctions between the various kinds of being are based on differences in powers or ability. For example, “The vegetable spirit is the power of growth . . . [t]he animal spirit is the power of all the senses” and “human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul” which embraces all beings, and as far as human ability permits discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings.
In other words, ontological differences in the degrees of being are reflected in the various capacities and powers with which each kind of being is gifted. Each station includes the powers possessed by the preceding station and adds a new power as illustrated by `Abdu'l-Bahá’s assertion. As well as having the perfections of the mineral, of the vegetable and of the animal, he [man] also possesses an especial excellence which the other beings are without--that is, the intellectual perfections.
there is no doubt that from its effects you prove that in the animal there is a power which is not in the plant, and this is the power of the senses--that is to say, sight, hearing and also other powers; from these you infer that there is an animal spirit. In the same way, from the proofs and signs we have mentioned, we argue that there is a human spirit. Since in the animal there are signs which are not in the plant, you say this power of sensation is a property of the animal spirit; you also see in man signs, powers and perfections which do not exist in the animal; therefore, you infer that there is a power in him which the animal is without.
In other words, the degree of being possessed by an entity manifests itself in the kind of powers and capacities it has. We shall have more to say about this in our discussion of the essences of things. For now, suffice it to note that this image of successively more inclusive levels of being establishes the concept of creation as having an underlying order, of being a hierarchy of successively more expansive capacities which ultimately ends or finds its origin in God. In this way, the cosmic order itself becomes evidence for God’s existence. Finally, it should be noted that this cosmic order reinforces the pluralist ontology exemplified by SAQ because it shows the existence of different kinds of being.
It is also worth noting that the terms ‘being’ or ‘existence’ cannot be applied univocally to God and His creation, i.e. they do not have exactly the same meaning in each case. Indeed, the ‘being’ of God and man are so dissimilar that there is a difference of kind between them insofar as God is non-contingent and independent and man is not. Consequently, in SAQ the concepts of ‘being’ or ‘existence’ are applied in an equivocal manner to God and man; there is some analogous similarity insofar as in both Creator and creatures, the word ‘existence’ distinguishes them from ‘non-existence’ but the manner or mode of this existence is radically different in each case. This is important to keep in mind because it is one of the reasons for saying that God is essentially unknowable to humankind.
6. Ontological Hierarchism
The third consequence that follows from the teaching that all things have various degrees of being is the establishment of an ontological hierarchy with God’s absolutely independent, non-contingent and incomprehensible being at the top and matter at the bottom. All beings between have existence “in their own degree,” i.e. their own place in this universal hierarchy of being:
the beings, whether great or small, are connected with one another by the perfect wisdom of God, and affect and influence one another. If it were not so, in the universal system and the general arrangement of existence, there would be disorder and imperfection. But as beings are connected one with another with the greatest strength, they are in order in their places and perfect.
Therefore, in Bahá'í ontology, ‘to be’ or ‘to exist’ means possessing one’s own degree of reality and having one’s own unique place in the hierarchy of being based on the degrees of existence possessed by various kinds of things such as minerals, plants, animals or humans. Indeed, in discussing the various kinds of “beings which inhabit the world, whether man, animal, vegetable, mineral,” `Abdu'l-Bahá says the following:
all beings are connected together like a chain; and reciprocal help, assistance and interaction belonging to the properties of things are the causes of the existence, development and growth of created beings.
Our main point, of course, is that `Abdu'l-Bahá’s image of a chain or order made up of different kinds of beings can be viewed as support for the underlying concept of an ontological hierarchy in SAQ. Just as a chain needs links in different positions, so creation requites higher and lower degrees of being with the inevitable result that “as the degrees of existence are different and various, some beings are higher in the scale than others.” The mineral, plant and animal are of a lower degree than man, whom God “selected for the highest degree,” though, of course, “material beings are not despised, judged and held responsible for their own degree and station.” This hierarchy of being is also reflected in the differences among humankind, among whom there may be a “difference of station . . . [which] is not blameworthy.” This station, just like the station of minerals, plants and animals is given and is not alterable by our action. In contrast, what can be affected by our actions are the “difference of faith and assurance” and therefore, “the loss of these is blameworthy.” SAQ adds, “man is praiseworthy and acceptable in his station, yet as he is deprived of the perfections of that degree, he will become a source of imperfections, for which he is held responsible.”
Furthermore, no being has the right to complain of the station or degree of being into which we have been placed.:
the mineral, has no right to complain, saying, "O God, why have You not given me the vegetable perfections?" In the same way, the plant has no right to complain that it has been deprived of the perfections of the animal world . . .No, all these things are perfect in their own degree, and they must strive after the perfections of their own degree. The inferior beings, as we have said, have neither the right to, nor the fitness for, the states of the superior perfections. No, their progress must be in their own state.
It should be immediately noted that “inferior” here does not mean inferior in value but less comprehensive in powers, as for example, the mineral lacks of powers of growth or the plant, and the plant lacks the powers of movement of the animal. However, all are “prefect in their own degree.” The idea that differences in degree do not imply differences in valuation is evident, for example, in `Abdu'l-Bahá’s discussion of the various characters of human beings.
Hence it is clear that in the original nature there exists a difference of degree and varieties of worthiness and capacity. This difference does not imply good or evil but is simply a difference of degree. One has the highest degree, another the medium degree, and another the lowest degree.
No moral evaluation is associated with any degree of being in and of itself. To assert otherwise would be tantamount to claiming that creation has inherent imperfections – a claim which impugn the “Divinity Who has organized this infinite universe in the most perfect form, and its innumerable inhabitants with absolute system, strength and perfection.” Such imperfection is not conceivable from God.
The concept of ontological hierarchy also appears in the following:
this limitless universe is like the human body, all the members of which are connected and linked with one another with the greatest strength. How much the organs, the members and the parts of the body of man are intermingled and connected for mutual aid and help, and how much they influence one another! In the same way, the parts of this infinite universe have their members and elements connected with one another, and influence one another spiritually and materially.
Here, too, we observe not just the idea of mutual connection and inter-action at work, but also the idea of hierarchy as indicated in the simile associating the universe and “the human body,” i.e. a hierarchically structured organism in which everything is interconnected. In this passage, `Abdu'l-Bahá also alludes to the idea that the universe functions like an organism and is not merely an unorganised collection or aggregate of isolated individual parts working in isolation. Instead, they are all parts working with an organised whole for their own well-being and for the well-being of the whole. This vision lays the ontological foundation for the Bahá'í social vision of each person functioning as part of an organic community for mutual benefit in a balance of interests between part and whole.
7. Hierarchy After Death
The hierarchical nature of existence is also continues in life after death. Punishment consists of “falling into the lowest degrees of existence” where “He who is deprived of these divine favours, although he continues after death, is considered as dead by the people of truth.” The same idea is at work in the following statement:
In the same way, the souls who are veiled from God, although they exist in this world and in the world after death, are, in comparison with the holy existence of the children of the Kingdom of God, nonexisting and separated from God.
Here, too, `Abdu'l-Bahá makes clear that the conduct of our lives determines our degree of existence in the next life; in comparison to those who receive God’s favours those who:
do not are as “dead” or “nonexisting” – just as, analogously, creation has no existence compared to the absolute existence of God. This ontological hierarchy also lays the foundation for the epistemological principle that “the difference of conditions in the world of beings is an obstacle to comprehension,” which is to say, that the lower degrees of being cannot comprehend the higher. Humankind, for example, cannot comprehend the Essence of God because our degree of being is too low and God is too different from us. We shall explore this further in our discussion of the epistemology inherent in SAQ.
It is important to emphasise that these statements about a chain of being refer to the ontological nature of different kinds of beings – “man, animal, vegetable, mineral” – and are not statements about the value of these kinds of beings; no kind of being is devalued, as SAQ makes clear by referring to their “reciprocal help, assistance and interaction.” All beings in all stations play a necessary part in the cosmic process, though these parts are very different. In short, the ontological hierarchy does not of itself imply inherent unimportance of any station. As noted above, “all beings” take part in the cosmic process of influencing and being influenced.
8. Kinds and their Perfections
As indicated each link in the chain, each degree or station of being is necessary:
Know that the order and the perfection of the whole universe require that existence should appear in numberless forms. For existing beings could not be embodied in only one degree, one station, one kind, one species and one class; undoubtedly, the difference of degrees and distinction of forms, and the variety of genus and species, are necessary--that is to say, the degree of mineral, vegetable, animal substances, and of man, are inevitable; for the world could not be arranged, adorned, organized and perfected with man alone.
Here we find an unmistakeable proof that all the various kinds of being are necessary for the perfection of the created universe. We also find in this statement an indication that SAQ accepts the principle of plenitude, i.e. the belief that all possible forms of being will be actualized at some time and in some way. That is why `Abdu'l-Bahá’ says that “the whole universe require[s] that existence should appear in numberless forms.” These forms are numberless because degrees of being are numberless, though, of course, they may be divided into groups or kinds. They are all needed for the universe to achieve its evolutionary perfection.
9. A Dynamic Ontology
The fact that each thing has particular degree of being suggests that all things must strive for the perfections appropriate to their kinds, or for “their own degree.” These perfections differ: the vegetable world finds perfection or purpose in growth and supporting animal and human life,; the animal finds perfections in achieving a comfortable physical existence and in supporting human life; finally, the perfection of the human world is to attain “the good attributes and virtues which are the adornments of his reality.” Each station or place in the hierarchy of being has its own characteristics and its own perfections.
We should also note that `Abdu'l-Bahá’s concept of this chain or hierarchical order of being is dynamic insofar as “reciprocal help, assistance and interaction” is concerned. Indeed, SAQ asserts unequivocably the general principle that all existence is dynamic: "Know that nothing which exists remains in a state of repose--that is to say, all things are in motion. Everything is either growing or declining; all things are either coming from nonexistence into being, or going from existence into nonexistence.
The exact nature of this dynamism is not only motion, coming into existence, growth, decline and going out if existence but also either direct and/or indirect involvement in the existence of other beings. According to SAQ “every being universally acts upon other beings, either absolutely or through association.” ‘To be,’ therefore, not only means that a thing has the principle or foundation of its existence “in itself” but also means that ‘to be’ involves an active relationship with other beings, i.e. to influence and to be influenced, to be active and receptive. This on-going interaction among things means that all beings communicate their existence and the particular nature of their existence to the world around them; they ‘share’ themselves as part of a cosmic community of such ‘sharing’ or self-communication. In creation, existence is relational or social and this fundamental fact, which encompasses all created reality, provides the ontological foundation for Bahá'í social philosophy. To keep the relational aspects of human existence in good order is precisely one of the tasks of the Manifestations.
10. A Nested Hierarchy
The foregoing considerations strongly suggest the conclusion that according to SAQ, creation is not an ontological flatland in which all things possess the same degree and manner of existence. In other words, existence is arranged in a successively transcendent levels of reality, with successively higher degrees of being, until we come to God Whose being is of another kind completely. From the perspective of the degrees of being, creation is not arranged on egalitarian principles with each kind of thing possessing the same degree. Of course, as seen above, from the perspective of valuation all things have an equally necessary part in the cosmic process although their function and place in the hierarchy of being differs.
The kind of hierarchy observed in SAQ is a nested hierarchy i.e. hierarchy in which higher levels contain lower levels. This is evident in the statement that, " the Divine Essence surrounds all things. Verily, that which surrounds is greater than the surrounded, and the surrounded cannot contain that by which it is surrounded, nor comprehend its reality.
Elsewhere he says, “the Essence of Unity surrounds all and is not surrounded.” The same situation holds true in regards to the Manifestations: “the Sanctified Realities, the supreme Manifestations of God surround the essence and qualities of the creatures, transcend and contain existing realities.” This is also true of humankind, "The most noble being on earth is man. He embraces the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms – that is to say, these conditions are contained in him
To “embrace,” is, of course, to include or surround. The same situation holds true in the case of the spirit and the human body: “for the spirit surrounds the body,” and idea repeated in the assertion that “This spirit, which in the terminology of the philosophers is the rational soul, embraces all beings.”
As we have observed in our discussion of the degrees of being, each ontologically higher level includes the powers of the lower and adds some new power, as humankind includes the powers of vegetable growth, animal motion and sense and adds the powers of the rational soul. Thus, it embraces or surrounds the lower within itself but also transcends it by being more. Therefore SAQ suggests a nested ontological hierarchy that starts with the most inclusive and transcendent, i.e. God, and ends with the least inclusive and least transcendent.
Refinements and subdivisions may, of course be added if we take other Writings into consideration, but SAQ itself provides warrant for only these.
The nested hierarchy proposed by SAQ has an important implication for the Bahá'í concept of God. The belief that God ontologically surrounds, embraces and includes all created things and at the same time transcends it is one form of a doctrine known as panentheism. This is not to be confused with pantheism (or monism) according to which God and creation are identified as one substance and the diversity of created beings are ultimately no more than “mirages” or illusions. (We have seen how SAQ categorically rejects this view.) Panentheism, however, admits that all created beings have their own degree of existence, even though they are contained within God. The universe is within God, God is not within the universe. Thus God’s presence is everywhere in creation but He transcends this presence and thus remains unknowable to humankind. This transcendence is what differentiates pantheism and monism from panentheism which is distinguished from deism by the fact that it does not see God as completely unconnected from nature or creation.
There is more here than just a change of wording. Panentheism provides a rational alternative to pantheism and monism which reduce the plurality of beings to the divine – and thereby create problems for the concept of free will. How can we be free if we are only mirages or illusions and God is the only real source of action? It also provides a rational alternative to the forms of theism in which God seems disconnected from His creation and often so distantly transcendent as to be remote and beyond interest for human beings. In panentheism, God is both present throughout all creation, and still personal and transcendent. Later in this paper we shall demonstrate the effect panentheism has on the epistemological teachings promulgated in SAQ.
12. Ontology: Causality
Causality is one of the most important issues in ontology, one that has been controversial since Hume’s reduction of causality to regular succession. This is most commonly understood to mean that when we say ‘A caused B’ we really mean ‘Whenever A occurs, B immediately follows.’ He rejects the idea that somehow A ‘does something’ to make B happen. There is no necessary objectively real connection between the two; any connection is human inference or projection based on mental habits. Hume’s understanding of causality has gained acceptance in light of some interpretations of quantum mechanics, though there has recently been a revival of Bohmian, i.e. causal interpretations.
There is no question that SAQ rejects Hume’s analysis of causality and accepts the traditional concept of causality being the influence or affect of one thing or event on another.
It is confirmed through evidences and proofs that every being universally acts upon other beings, either absolutely or through association. Finally, the perfection of each individual being--that is to say, the perfection which you now see in man or apart from him, with regard to their atoms, members or powers--is due to the composition of the elements, to their measure, to their balance, to the mode of their combination, and to mutual influence.
Here `Abdu'l-Bahá asserts that beings affect or influence one another and that these affects have certain results, in this case, the “perfection” of individual beings which is “due to,” i.e. caused by these influences among other things. Elsewhere he says:
There is no doubt that this perfection which is in all beings is caused by the creation of God from the composing elements, by their appropriate mingling and proportionate quantities, the mode of their composition, and the influence of other beings. For all beings are connected together like a chain; and reciprocal help, assistance and interaction belonging to the properties of things are the causes of the existence, development and growth of created beings.
Not only does `Abdu'l-Bahá state that “reciprocal help, assistance and interaction” affect all beings but also, in the image of a chain, he conveys the idea of a necessary order and connection among these mutually interacting beings. Such necessary connection is precisely what Hume and his followers deny.
12.1 Four-Fold Causality
In SAQ, one of the most radical and far-reaching statements about ontology concerns the subject of causality:
[T]he existence of everything depends upon four causes-- the efficient cause, the matter, the form and the final cause. For example, this chair has a maker who is a carpenter, a substance which is wood, a form which is that of a chair, and a purpose which is that it is to be used as a seat. Therefore, this chair is essentially phenomenal, for it is preceded by a cause, and its existence depends upon causes. This is called the essential and really phenomenal.
This assertion is radical because it is a revival, both in conception and in terminology, of Aristotle’s much misunderstood theory of causality as expounded in his Physics and Metaphysics. Here, too, Aristotle discusses the four causes, using precisely the terminology confirmed later by `Abdu'l-Bahá: the material cause, or matter of which something is made; the formal cause, or form which makes an entity the particular thing it is; the efficient cause, i.e. mover or maker which directly brings the entity into being, i.e. “brings form to the matter”; and the final cause, or purpose of the entire activity of making. Not only does `Abdu'l-Bahá employ Aristotle’s terms, he uses them exactly as Aristotle used them in order to analyze causality and, furthermore, he uses them to draw a general conclusion about the nature of how causality works in creation. It is interesting to to note that SAQ contains no suggestions of the Muslim philosopher Ibn Sina’s four subspecies of the efficient cause.
Before proceeding, it is important to clarify exactly what Aristotle means by four-fold causality lest we entrap ourselves in philosophical misunderstandings that have dogged science and philosophy since the time of Descartes and Galileo. To produce any kind of real change in something, there must be matter or what `Abdu'l-Bahá calls “substance” because there must be something in which the change happens. There must also be a form from which the change begins and to which it proceeds; in the case of `Abdu'l-Bahá’s example, we have the substance in the form of wood being changed into a substance in the form of a chair. There must also be an efficient cause which initiates the change when a new form emerges from an old one, as the chair ‘emerges’ from the block of wood by way of the carpenter’s action. Finally, there is the final cause or purpose which determines how the efficient cause will act, i.e. whether it will act one way or another depending on what is compatible with the goal. All four of these causes must be present for any change to occur. It should be noted that in `Abdu'l-Bahá’s illustration, the final cause is in the mind of the carpenter, i.e. is extrinsic to the material and substantial causes.
This fact leads to a major complaint about four-fold causality, namely, that it is anthropomorphic, applies to conscious and deliberative human actions, but does not apply to natural processes. Indeed, since the time of Descartes and Galileo, accepting final causality has been regarded as an identifying feature of unscientific thinking. Nature, it is said, does not operate with a purpose towards final goals. Only higher animals and humans can conceive of objectives to work for, but the rest of nature certainly does not. Therefore, `Abdu'l-Bahá’s use of four-fold causality does not harmonize with the accepted science of the last four centuries. Unfortunately, as numerous experts on Aristotle have pointed out, this view is predicated on Descartes’ and others’ misunderstanding of Aristotle.
The problem with Descartes’ and all subsequent misinterpretations of final causality is that they assume that Aristotle meant the term in the sense of an extrinsic conscious, deliberative finality even in the case of natural processes. However, Aristotle never thought that such an extrinsic deliberative cause was at work in all changes. Such is obviously not the case in the growth of a plant, or the digestive process, but because there is no extrinsic and conscious final cause at work does not logically mean that there is not mean there is no final cause at all. As Aristotle writes, “It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe the [conscious] agent deliberating.” He was clearly aware that in natural processes, we see no such extrinsic agent guiding the changes. According to Aristotle, in natural processes “the form [formal cause], the mover [the efficient cause], ‘that for the sake of which’ [the final cause] . . . often coincide.” In other words, the efficient cause or mover, the final cause and the formal cause may be one, i.e. three principles operating at once, which is to say, that the final cause may be intrinsic to the process of change. That is why John Wild, a neo-Aristotelian, says that “the only final cause in subhuman processes is the natural form,” a view echoed by Aristotle expert, Abraham Edel: “Thus in nature the final cause and formal causes are one.” The form at whatever stage of development it may be, limits the actions of the efficient cause, and these successive limitations in turn, effectively close and open various paths of development, thereby leading to a particular result. As Aristotle scholar Henry B. Veatch points out that in nature,
Aristotelian final causes are no more than this: the regular and characteristic consequences or results that are correlated with the characteristic actions of the various agents and efficient causes that operate in the natural world.
Veatch’s example is strikingly simple: we expect sunlight to warm a window sill, we do not expect sunlight to fragment the sill into thousands of pieces, turn it blue or to make it float in the air and fly around like a cloud. Those are not the “regular and characteristic” affects that the laws of physics allow sunlight to have on window sills. Indeed, the laws of physics clearly limit or characterize the action of energy transfer that we observe and this characterization or limitation is what Aristotle means by ‘final cause’ in regards to non-human nature. As W. Norris Clarke, S.J. points out, this means that the “final causality is necessarily inherent in every exercise of efficient causality.” This final cause must be inherent in every efficient cause because:
If the efficient cause at the moment its productive action is not interiorly [inherently] determined or focused towards producing this effect rather than that, thenthere is no sufficient reason why it should produce this one rather than that.
Efficient causes always lead to particular effects, and if there is no reason why an efficient cause should produce one or another effect, then any effect might follow: a window sill might flight after being touched by sunlight. However, we know that efficient causes do not produce random results, but rather particular results on a regular basis according to the laws of nature as described by physics and chemistry. “This inner determination of the causal agent [efficient cause] towards the effect-to-be produced is precisely final causation.” In nature, the efficient cause and the final cause are unified because the efficient causes obey the laws of nature, i.e. fall within the limits imposed by these laws and this conformity to law shapes the outcome. Because the final cause may be implicit in the formal and efficient causes, we cannot simply avoid or side-step the issue of final causes.
12.2 Consequences of Four-Fold Causality
What does `Abdu'l-Bahá’s acceptance of Aristotle’s four-fold causality mean for our understanding of the philosophical positions inherent in SAQ? The first and most obvious effect is that if understood correctly, four-fold causality and particularly final causality do not place religion in conflict with science which rejects the notion that subhuman processes are shaped by deliberately formulated goals extrinsic to the processes themselves. While processes involving human intervention are guided by such consciously developed goals, natural processes are not. However, nowhere does Aristotle say that final goals must be always be conscious and deliberative, and indeed, as we have seen in Physics, he explicitly denies that they are.
The concept of final goals only becomes problematical when it is misunderstood anthropomorphically as a consciously intentional, extrinsically determined goal. However, as shown above, this is not what Aristotle promulgated. Therefore, `Abdu'l-Bahá’s acceptance of final causes does not create disharmony with science once Aristotle’s teaching is correctly understood. After the long-term and widespread misrepresentations (originating with Bacon, Descartes and Spinoza) of Aristotle’s doctrine, it will, unfortunately, be a difficult struggle to overcome deeply entrenched misinterpretations of Aristotle.
Four-fold causality also provides us with the intellectual tools by which to analyse and explain all aspects of reality except God and the Manifestations Who are not subject to such analysis. In other words, four-fold causality is a particular way of understanding reality and is, therefore, an embryonic ontological world-view with all kinds of implications for various human endeavours.
The second conclusion we may draw from `Abdu'l-Bahá’s acceptance of four-fold causality is that in Bahá'í ontology, reality is teleological, i.e. informed or guided in its processes by intrinsic and/or extrinsic final causes. The ubiquity of final causes means that creation is not random or anarchic but rather law abiding and organised. On this topic, `Abdu'l-Bahá states regarding nature,
This composition and arrangement, through the wisdom of God and His preexistent might, were produced from one natural organization, which was composed and combined with the greatest strength, conformable to wisdom, and according to a universal law. From this it is evident that it is the creation of God, and is not a fortuitous composition and arrangement.
If a series of events is not fortuitous or accidental, then some principle of order or lawfulness must be at work in nature either extrinsically or intrinsically or both to shape events and their consequences. If there were no ordering principle or guiding law, then any results might follow an action. Aristotle’s four-fold causality is simply a philosophical explanation of why this does not happen, i.e. why results are regular unless disturbed by other extraneous factors. Hence, order, pattern i.e. organisation emerge from the action of intrinsic final causes (and thus establish the very conditions for the existence of science).
14. Intelligent Design
However, `Abdu'l-Bahá goes much further than the assertion of order, pattern and organisation. Nature, he says:
is subjected to an absolute organization, to determined laws, to a complete order and a finished design, from which it will never depart--to such a degree, indeed, that if you look carefully and with keen sight, from the smallest invisible atom up to such large bodies of the world of existence as the globe of the sun or the other great stars and luminous spheres, whether you regard their arrangement, their composition, their form or their movement, you will find that all are in the highest degree of organization and are under one law from which they will never depart.
In other words, nature as a whole shows “finished design,” i.e. is not “a fortuitous composition and arrangement” – phrases suggesting not only that existence is organised and lawful, but more strongly, that existence is characterised by a design. This, of course, brings up a sensitive question: does SAQ promulgate a variation of intelligent design theory? From these statements, and others we shall examine later, it is clear that the answer is affirmative, though the variation of intelligent design in SAQ is not that of Biblical literalism. If the natural world is not “a fortuitous composition and arrangement,” if it is “conformable to wisdom” and if it is “subjected to an absolute organization, to determined laws, to a complete order and a finished design,” then it is clear that nature is not a result of undirected accidents and random events but of some ordering principle however complex its workings may be. This design requires the existence of an extrinsic consciously deliberative final cause. As `Abdu'l-Bahá says:
[T]the least change produced in the form of the smallest thing proves the existence of a creator: then can this great universe, which is endless, be self-created and come into existence from the action of matter and the elements? How self-evidently wrong is such a supposition!
Here, too, the subject of change and by implication, causality, emerges, since without the guidance of final causality inherent in the efficient and formal causes of change, change would be undirected and accidental. However, according to `Abdu'l-Bahá, this change is so far from being random that it “proves the existence of a creator,” i.e., an ultimate source of the laws manifest in the changing process. The universe cannot have come into existence only “from the action of matter and the elements” because this matter requires form in order to be the particular kind of matter it is and act in the particular way it does – and form, as Aristotle points out, intrinsically includes final causality in natural processes. This intrinsic form of final causality of course leads to the question about the source of order and lawfulness, i.e., to God. It is worth noting how hylomorphism (see below) is implicitly assumed in `Abdu'l-Bahá’s argument as well as his explicit endorsement of the foundational principle of intelligent design, namely that we can legitimately reason our way from events in nature to the existence of “a creator.” In other words, we have moved from a final cause intrinsic to natural processes to an extrinsic, deliberative and conscious final cause. That `Abdu'l-Bahá regards such a reasoning process as correct is rhetorically shown by his categorical rejection of the contrary view: “How self-evidently wrong is such a supposition!” Even though some Bahá'ís may find this association with some form of intelligent design theory uncomfortable, intelligent design, albeit not in its Biblically literal version, is a fact of Bahá'í ontology in SAQ.
However, this does not necessarily cause a conflict with science insofar as science concerns itself with intrinsic final causality as evident in the operation of empirically verifiable natural laws, whereas religion’s concern is extrinsic final causality as known through revelation and rational reflection. Each explores aspects of final causality appropriate to its methods. If conflict develops, it is a consequence of choosing to let this happen.
The acceptance of four-fold causality is an important contact point between SAQ and the philosophical tradition begun by Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus (the Athenian tradition) and continued in various forms in the modern world. This would be even more apparent if we were to embark on a detailed analysis of what is entailed in four-fold causality, for example the implication that any entity is made up of matter (as in `Abdu'l-Bahá’s example) and form, the latter being provided by the carpenter in `Abdu'l-Bahá’s illustration. SAQ itself makes a passing reference to this view, stating, “The sun is born from substance and form, which can be compared to father and mother.” SAQ then proceeds to say that darkness, which, as an absence of light has no existence in itself, i.e. “has neither substance nor form, neither father nor mother, and it is absolute imperfection.” This suggests that for entities to exist requires substance or matter and form, or to put it another way, all things existing in nature are made of substance and form.
Those familiar with the history of western philosophy will, of course, recognise the doctrine of hylomorphism which asserts that all sensible things are exemplify a union of matter and a form that makes it a certain kind of thing. The hylomorphic theme is not explicitly developed in SAQ, but the statement that “the existence of everything depends upon four causes” strongly suggests its universal applicability in our understanding of reality and thus creates an unmistakeable contact point with the Athenian tradition both in its European and its Muslim branches as seen in the philosophy of Aquinas and such Muslim philosophers as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd.
16. An Application of Four-Fold Causality
In order to understand the versatility of four-fold causality as an analytical tool, we shall briefly outline how it may be used in the analysis of society or any other community. The matter or material cause of a society are the individuals who make up the society or group. The final cause (which may or may not be explicitly conscious in all members) is the common good for which the individuals work, either deliberatively or though being enlisted by the rules, customs and trends in that society. For example, the final cause of Communist society was to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessary step to the abolition of all rulers. The formal cause of a society is made up of the rules, duties, obligations, rights and offices required to achieve the common good. These give society its particular form or shape. The efficient cause is the people’s willingness to achieve the common good, their willingness to abide by the rules and fulfill their obligations, i.e. the love of the common good. For a society or community to be healthy requires that all of these four causes are working appropriately. If, for example, a community loses sight of its final cause i.e. the common good towards which it is dedicated, it will soon lose its way and dissolve into rampant individualism where the pursuit of the good of individual persons dominates lives.
17. Platonic Trends in SAQ
Another contact point with the Athenian tradition is the suggestion scattered throughout SAQ that the world in which we live is or will be mirror of a superior, spiritual world. Such a view is usually described as Platonic, i.e. reminiscent of Plato’s teaching that the world is only a shadow, imitation, reflection or image of the superior real world of ideas. These shadows or reflections are embodied in the ever-changing world of matter. For example, `Abdu'l-Bahá says, “the earth is the mirror of the Kingdom; the material world corresponds to the spiritual world.” It is “the outward expression of the inward,” i.e. the material expression of the spiritual or the expression of the “spiritual world” in the material realm. Such views are certainly Platonic in nature insofar as they posit a material world which is a counterpart or copy of a spiritual or non-material model. The Kingdom, according to `Abdu'l-Bahá, “is not a material place; it is sanctified from time and place. It is a spiritual world, a divine world . . . it is freed from body and that which is corporeal.” Unfortunately, this material world is all-to-often a distorted reflection of the spiritual world, a condition that the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh is intended to remedy: “The world will become the mirror of the Heavenly kingdom.” Here, too, the Platonic theme is evident. Platonism also has applications for they key doctrine of progressive revelation and ethics. `Abdu'l-Bahá says, “what is meant by the term Holy of Holies is that spiritual Law which will never be modified, altered or abrogated; and the Holy City means the material Law which may be abrogated.” The “material Law” is an earthly image of the eternally unchanging “spiritual Law” which is reflected in varying material conditions. In this case, Plato’s Ideas – such as the Idea of the perfect horse – has been transferred into ethics; instead of perfect Ideas of things, we have perfect Ideas of eternal ethical principles which we try to imitate or reflect as best we can.
If the material world reflects or corresponds to the spiritual world, one of the consequences is that reality is structured as a series of correspondences between the spiritual and the material. This is illustrated by the statement that “The Sun of Reality”, like the material sun, has numerous rising and dawning places.” As we shall see in the section on epistemology, these correspondences have far-reaching consequences for the epistemology explicitly and implicitly present in SAQ. It means, for example, that we cannot understand the phenomena of material reality fully without taking into account what has been revealed about their spiritual counterparts. This is most readily illustrated in the case of human nature which cannot be properly understood only on the basis of material studies but must also take into consideration the divine ideal of which actually existing man is a reflection, image or shadow.
18. The Reality of Universals
The subject of Platonism raises another important ontological question for SAQ, namely, does SAQ recognise the reality or existence of at least some universals? Universals are the supposed referents of general terms like ‘red’, ‘table, ‘tree, understood as entities distinct from any of the particular things described by those terms.
For example, ‘dog’ is a universal but ‘Otto’ is a particular example or instantiation of this universal. All individual dogs have certain characteristics in common that make them members of the universal class ‘dog.’ There are three possible viewpoints (and variations thereof) about universals. One is extreme realism espoused by Plato, which holds that universals i.e. Ideas, are real entities in themselves in “a non-spatio-temporal existence distinct and separable” from all particular instantiations. The second is moderate realism held by Aristotle which maintains that universals are real but only in their individual instantiations. The human mind abstracts them – but it abstracts from something real in the individuals. The third view is nominalism, “the view that things denominated by the same term share nothing in common except that fact.” In other words, there are no such things as universals and all so-called universal terms are arbitrary constructions.
The reason this ontological issue is so important well beyond its technical philosophic aspects and receives considerable attention is that it has an enormous impact on personal and social ethics, psychology, philosophical anthropology as well as positive and natural law. For example, it concerns whether or not there is such a thing as human nature, what it is and what role is its role in individual and social ethics. Does human nature establish norms in behavior and ethics? Postmodernism and some forms of existentialism, adopt the nominalist view and deny that any such thing as human nature exists; in their view, it is nothing short of totalitarian to establish ethics or laws on the basis of standards based on so-called human nature. Only individuals are real and any concepts of universal essences, natures or attributes are constructions of fictions imposed upon individuals. Perhaps Sartre sums up this attitude best when he writes, “As we have seen, for human reality, to be is to choose oneself; nothing comes from the outside or from within which it can receive or accept.” There is no ‘pre-made’ human nature or any other nature, there are only individuals making themselves.
SAQ rejects the nominalist position. `Abdu'l-Bahá says, "spirit is universally divided into five categories: the vegetable spirit, the animal spirit, the human spirit, the spirit of faith, and the Holy Spirit. The vegetable spirit is the power of growth which is brought about in the seed through the influence of other existences. The animal spirit is the power of all the senses, which is realized from the composition and mingling of elements . . .
The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names--the human spirit and the rational soul--designate one thing. This spirit, which in the terminology of the philosophers is the rational soul, embraces all beings, and as far as human ability permits discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings. But the human spirit, unless assisted by the spirit of faith, does not become acquainted with the divine secrets and the heavenly realities. It is like a mirror which, although clear, polished and brilliant, is still in need of light. Until a ray of the sun reflects upon it, it cannot discover the heavenly secrets.
Here we have a virtually self-evident demonstration of belief in universal attributes and powers that define different kinds, species or essential; attributes things. These essential attributes and powers are present in and identify all members of a kind as vegetable, animal or human. Germane to our discussion is `Abdu'l-Bahá’s categorical declaration about the spirit being “universally divided into five categories,” indicating that this division is an objective fact of creation or nature and not merely a product of human intellectual construction. They are simply given facts we have to work with as we explore the world. The “five categories” are real – manifested in differences of composition and capacity – and are not merely arbitrary man-made contrivances. Their essential attributes always appear in individuals and are known by the human mind, but they have an objective basis in reality.
The reality of universals is emphasised from another perspective when `Abdu'l-Bahá says:
Know that the order and the perfection of the whole universe require that existence should appear in numberless forms. For existing beings could not be embodied in only one degree, one station, one kind, one species and one class; undoubtedly, the difference of degrees and distinction of forms, and the variety of genus and species, are necessary--that is to say, the degree of mineral, vegetable, animal substances, and of man, are inevitable; for the world could not be arranged, adorned, organized and perfected with man alone. In the same way, with only animals, only plants or only minerals, this world could not show forth beautiful scenery, exact organization and exquisite adornment. Without doubt it is because of the varieties of degrees, stations, species and classes that existence becomes resplendent with utmost perfection.
Here the issue of universals is taken up from the perspective of the ontological principles of plenitude and perfection. The principle of plenitude and perfection as given in this quotation asserts that for creation to be perfect (How could it not be given its origin in God?) requires diversity, i.e. more than “one degree, one station, one kind, one species and one class.” Degrees, stations, kinds, species and classes are all references to universals, i.e. to terms that refer to types of beings, to categories or collectives united by common essential attributes. The fact that kinds are considered necessary for the perfection of God’s creation demonstrates that they are real and not mere human constructions of fictions.
A third indicator that Bahá'í ontology exemplifies some form of realism in regards to universals are `Abdu'l-Bahá’s statements about the evolution of humankind:
But from the beginning of man's existence he is a distinct species . . . But even when in the womb of the mother and in this strange form, entirely different from his present form and figure, he is the embryo of the superior species . . . For the proof of the originality of the human species, and of the permanency of the nature of man, is clear and evident.
Throughout his discussion of the inalterability of human nature, he makes clear that humankind represents a different kind of species from minerals, plants and animals. References to humankind’s existence as a distinct species with characteristic capacities are also fund in his discussion of life after death:
When we consider beings with the seeing eye, we observe that they are limited to three sorts--that is to say, as a whole they are either mineral, vegetable or animal, each of these three classes containing species. Man is the highest species because he is the possessor of the perfections of all the classes--that is, he has a body which grows and which feels. As well as having the perfections of the mineral, of the vegetable and of the animal, he also possesses an especial excellence which the other beings are without-- that is, the intellectual perfections. Therefore, man is the most noble of beings.
These statements are quite categorical about the objective reality of these different “sorts” or “classes” and their various species. Humankind’s differences from the others and its position as the peak of this hierarchy are also presented as facts of creation or nature and not merely as artefacts of human subjectivity. They do not exist merely as thoughts without any connection to reality.
Since classes, categories and species are ontologically real, it remains to determine whether or not SAQ indicates if they exist in a Platonic or Aristotelian manner. If they exist Platonically, these universals exist objectively as part of a non-spatio-temporal realm separate from the ever-changing material world. If their existence is Aristotelian they exist objectively but only in particular instantiations from which our ideas of them are abstracted by the human mind.
This paper contends that on the issue of universals, the interpretation most consistent with SAQ (and the Writings in general) is the Platonic interpretation although it is not developed in any great detail. In this connection, it should be recalled that “the earth is the mirror of the Kingdom; the material world corresponds to the spiritual world.” In other words, the kinds, species and classes that exist physically on the earth are the material reflections of their spiritual, i.e. non-spatio-temporal counterparts. They key point is that the ideal spiritual prototypes exist in the “Kingdom” and these are reflected over time. A similar concept is found in the following statement:
The Prophets, on the contrary, believe that there is the world of God, the world of the Kingdom, and the world of Creation: three things. The first emanation from God is the bounty of the Kingdom, which emanates and is reflected in the reality of the creatures
Here, too, `Abdu'l-Bahá shows that the “world of Creation” reflects of corresponds to the “world of the Kingdom,” which thereby functions as an ideal Platonic realm to the former. It is, of course, also possible to argue that these universals, the kinds, classes or species exist as ideas in the “First Mind” and then gradually actualised in the evolution of the material world. Both of these alternatives would be in harmony with `Abdu'l-Bahá’s statements that creation exemplifies design i.e. something in which there is conscious deliberation and forethought. That these universals may somehow pre-exist their appearance in the material realm is suggested by the following quote:
the terrestrial globe from the beginning was created with all its elements, substances, minerals, atoms and organisms; but these only appeared by degrees: first the mineral, then the plant, afterward the animal, and finally man. But from the first these kinds and species existed, but were undeveloped in the terrestrial globe, and then appeared only gradually. For the supreme organization of God, and the universal natural system, surround all beings, and all are subject to this rule.
In other words, the earth was created “from the beginning” with all its potential beings and species within it. This implies forethought and ideas for “these kinds and species” insofar as specific plans are necessary to make such detailed provisions for the future. The evidence provided by SAQ suggests that such ‘Platonic’ ideas or models were present in the Kingdom or the “First Mind” before the earth was created or any of them had been turned into materially manifest realities.
19. Reflection and Participation
The ‘Platonic’ affinities in SAQ are also strengthened by the teaching that all existing beings and kinds reflect one or more of the names of God. According to `Abdu'l-Bahá:
The world, indeed each existing being, proclaims to us one of the names of God,
but the reality of man is the collective reality, the general reality, and is the center
where the glory of all the perfections of God shine forth-
Elsewhere he states:
Without doubt each being is the center of the shining forth of the glory of God-- that is to say, the perfections of God appear from it and are resplendent in it . . . The world, indeed each existing being, proclaims to us one of the names of God, but the reality of man is the collective reality, the general reality, and is the center where the glory of all the perfections of God shine forth--
He also says, “all beings express something and partake of some ray and portion of this [divine] light.” These quotations assert that every being has within itself a reflection of one or more of the names of God which is to say that every being has a direct connection with the ideal or spiritual power of the names of God. As a species human kind is distinguished from other species because we reflect or participate in all of the names of God: it is the “collective reality” which reflects or participates in “all the perfections of God.” Other kinds, classes or species of being only reflect one of these names.
In the language of the Athenian tradition in philosophy, the reflection of one of God’s names in every being means that each being ‘participates’ in the names of God, it instantiates or exemplifies these names in its own way. Thus ‘to be’ means to reflect one of the names of God, just as we have seen before that ‘to be’ means to have one’s particular degree of being and one’s appropriate place in the chain of being. In regards to reflecting the names of God we might also say that beings imitate the names of God in their instantiations of them, and thus, collectively make the signs of God’s power present or establish God’s presence in creation. This helps lay the ontological foundations for a Bahá'í natural theology, since such reflection, participation, imitation allows us to argue from the created world to the Creator because “[a]ll the creatures are evident signs of God.” `Abdu'l-Bahá reasons from the created to the Creator in his various proofs of God’s existence in SAQ. Indeed, some of his arguments such as the argument that the creator must be more perfect than the created – as the Kingdom is more perfect than the material world – make no logical sense outside of a Platonic ontology in which higher levels of being are more perfect than lower levels and the lower participate in the higher.
In this Platonic ontological schema, each being is also a “pointer towards the Infinite.” Thus, the study of God’s creation by the sciences takes on a religious significance insofar as such study will bring us closer to God – if understood spiritually and not in strictly positivist, empiricist and materialist terms. Such spiritual understanding of science is justified because the material world and the metaphysical or spiritual world are closed to each other, but inter-act through reflection, imitation or participation. In this way, the doctrine of reflection and participation provides an ontological basis for the Bahá'í emphasis on science. It also lays the ontological foundations for a Bahá'í philosophy of man or philosophical anthropology. For example, `Abdu'l-Bahá says:
The reflection of the divine perfections appears in the reality of man, so he is the representative of God, the messenger of God. If man did not exist, the universe would be without result, for the object of existence is the appearance of the perfections of God.
In other words, the universe is incomplete without man, who represents a necessary degree of perfection which gives the universe a goal and purpose (note the teleological thinking) just as the fruit is “is the reason” for the existence of the tree. Humankind has a necessary place in the existence of the universe which is why `Abdu'l-Bahá states, “it cannot be said there was a time when man was not” and adds that the belief that there was a time when man did not exists in some form in the universe is “false and meaningless.” In short, humankind has a cosmic role.
Continued in Part 2. Some Answered Questions.