Some Answered Questions 2:
                A Philosophical Perspective


                                      by Ian Kluge 


Published in Lights of Irfan, Volume 10, 2009

20. Existence and Nonexistence

 

In SAQ, `Abdu'l-Bahá makes a number of extremely important and far-reaching statements about existence and nonexistence.

 

The second proposition is that existence and nonexistence are both relative. If it  be said that such a thing came into existence from nonexistence, this does not refer to absolute  nonexistence, but means that its former condition in relation to its actual condition was   nothingness. For absolute nothingness cannot find existence, as it has not the capacity of existence . . . Though the dust--that is to say, the mineral--has existence in its own condition, in relation to man it is nothingness. Both exist, but the existence of dust and mineral, in relation to man, is nonexistence and nothingness.[123]

 

We have already discussed one aspect of this teaching in our consideration of the degrees of being of different kind of things. Our focus at this point, however, is the categorical denial that anything can be produced or produce itself from “absolute nothingness.”

 
`Abdu'l-Bahá offers two kinds of reasons why the ex nihilo interpretation of creation is in error. The first is onto-theological in nature i.e. bases its ontological argument on our understanding of God’s nature. According to this view, “absolute nothingness” cannot even theoretically exist as implied in the doctrine that “the Eternal Bounty does not cease. If it were to, it would be contrary to the perfections of God.”[124]

 

Since God’s “Bounty” or emanations never stop and have always been forthcoming, there must always have been a creation in some form. This is reinforced by the argument that:



 the names and attributes of the Divinity themselves require the existence of beings . . .  a creator without a creature is impossible . . .  for all the divine names and attributes demand the existence of beings. If we could imagine a time when no beings existed, this imagination would be the denial of the Divinity of God . . . Therefore, as the Essence of Unity (that is, the existence of God) is everlasting and eternal--that is to say, it has neither beginning nor end--it is certain that this world of  existence, this endless universe, has neither beginning nor end..[125]

           

The questions underlying this argument are, ‘How can God be the Creator if He has no creation?’ and ‘If God has no creation, how can He claim perfection?’ Thus, the Christian and Muslim doctrine of creation ex nihilo contradicts the belief that God is perfect. This issue constitutes a major difference between Bahá'í, Muslim and Christian onto-theology.


 

 `Abdu'l-Bahá’s second reason for rejecting ex nihilo creation is more philosophical in nature, i.e. is based on the logical problems inherent in this concept. He says that “it is impossible that from absolute nonexistence signs should appear--for the signs are the consequence of an existence.”[126] How could nothingness actively give a sign, i.e. take action and communicate? What could it communicate? How could it receive action? In order to receive, there must be a receiver, something to receive. The whole concept dissolves into nonsense. Nor could “absolute nothingness” become anything  since there would not even be a capacity or potential for something new to come into existence. Thus, `Abdu'l-Bahá states, “Moreover, absolute nonexistence cannot become existence. If the beings were absolutely nonexistent, existence would not have come into being.[127]

 

 Therefore, the concept of “absolute nonexistence” must be rejected and replaced by a concept of relative nonexistence, which is exactly what he does: “existence and nonexistence are both relative.”[128] The diverse kinds and species that exist potentially in the earth are only relatively nonexistent, i.e. they exist “potentially”[129] like the various attributes of the plant hidden in a seed. They exist in a hidden plane, just like the natural powers before they are brought “out from the plane of the invisible and the hidden into the realm of the visible”[130] by humankind.

 

The denial of “absolute nothingness” lays the ontological foundation for the belief that a creation, a universe of some kind has always existed: “the world of existence has always been”[131] and can never fall into absolute annihilation although particular worlds may do so. There is no ontological ground in SAQ to believe that one day God will choose to bring about the end of the world as many Christians have interpreted Matthew 24:35-36. On the basis of SAQ, it is also possible to reject similar interpretations of such Qu’ranic suras as 20:15.[132]   

 

The denial of “absolute nothingness” also lays the ontological foundations for the belief that whatever manifests itself over a period of time was the result of the actualization of potentials inherent in a being. Furthermore, it becomes the basis for the teaching that all things have an essence and that essences are real. Obviously, every being does not have all potentials – the proverbial sow’s ear cannot become a silk purse, a ski-boot cannot become an alligator. In other words, both individual things and kinds of things have a limited array of potentials available to them – as already seen in `Abdu'l-Bahá’s explanations about the mineral, plant, animal and human degrees of spirit. One aspect of essence is precisely this limited collection of potentials which determine what kind of thing a particular being is and what it can or cannot become. Thus, we are led to the conclusion that the rejection of “absolute nothingness” is the ontological foundation for the essentialist nature of the philosophy embedded in SAQ.  

 

21. The Structure of Beings

Every being has a structure of actuality and potentiality, i.e. what it is at the moment and what it could be in the future. The actuality is what we encounter first but, nonetheless, as `Abdu'l-Bahá informs us, every being has its potentials. Speaking of a seed, he says, “So it is first the shoot which appears from the seed, then the branches, leaves, blossoms and fruits; but from the beginning of its existence all these things are in the seed, potentially, though not apparently.”[133] There is more in the seed than what is manifest to us. The same is true of the earth as a whole: “the terrestrial globe from the beginning was created with all its elements, substances, minerals, atoms and organisms; but these only appeared by degrees.”[134] In other words these beings existed potentially in the earth and gradually were actualized. In reference to humankind, he says:

 

In the same way, the embryo possesses from the first all perfections, such as the spirit, the mind, the sight, the smell, the taste--in one word, all the powers—but they are not visible and become so only by degrees.[135]

 

Various perfections are potentially present in the embryo. With this teaching of the reality of potentials, SAQ aligns itself with the Aristotelian branch of the Athenian tradition in philosophy in which all beings are a composite of actuality and potentials, i.e. what is manifested (actuality) and what remains to be manifested in the future (potentiality). This is why beings are capable of change, i.e. they still have potentials left to actualize, and why God is changeless, i.e. He has no potentials to actualize and is absolute actuality; He needs no additional completion. Except for God, every being is incomplete and requires the realization of its potentials to be complete. The potentials inherent in every being are the reason for the active and evolutionary nature of each being as it actualizes its innate potentials. This, in turn, re-emphasises the dynamic and teleological nature of all beings. Indeed, these potentials or “perfections”[136] which gradually appear show that one aspect of a being’s development is a self-perfecting process in which it strives to maximise its being. 

 

Every being is also a composite of substance or essence and accidents, qualities or attributes as shown in `Abdu'l-Bahá’s statement:

Know that there are two kinds of knowledge: the knowledge of the essence of a thing and the knowledge of its qualities. The essence of a thing is known through its qualities; otherwise, it is unknown and hidden.[137]

 

He expresses the same idea when he says:

Some think that the body is the substance and exists by itself, and that the spirit is accidental and depends upon the substance of the body, although, on the contrary, the rational soul is the substance, and the body depends upon it. If the accident--that is   to say, the body--be destroyed, the substance, the spirit, remains.[138]

 

In this statement, the spirit is the substance, i.e. the essence which is the basis of a thing’s existence as the kind of it is (in this case, human) and possesses certain “accidental” qualities.[139] In both quotations, a being is composed of an essence or substance as well as of particular qualities or attribute. As the second quotation shows, some of the attributes are “accident[s],” i.e. they are not absolutely necessary or essential to the existence of the substance or essence. When applied to humankind, this becomes the ontological basis for the immortality of the soul which, being a substance, can exist without its accidents. This leads to the conclusion that some attributes are “accidental” and not necessary, while others, such as immortality or rationality in the case of humankind, are necessary or essential attributes. They cannot be removed without changing the essence into some other kind of being. It should be noted that here again, SAQ analyses reality in the terms established by the Athenian tradition, particularly by Aristotle.

 

 In SAQ, we observe even God is discussed in these terms:

for the essential names and attributes of God are identical with His Essence, and His Essence is above all comprehension. If the attributes are not identical with the Essence, there must also be a multiplicity of preexistences, and differences between the attributes and the Essence must also exist;[140]

 

The gist of this statement is a philosophical demonstration of God’s unity: He is one because His Essence and His “essential names and attributes” are identical. If they were not, then God’s unity would be undermined by the difference between God and His attributes. An additional implication of this statement is that, unlike all other beings, God possesses no unnecessary or accidental attributes that could be separated from Him. All of His attributes are essential – but such is not the case with any other kind of being all of which are made up of both essential and accidental attributes.        

 

 Each being is also a composite of matter and form. Since we have already touched on this in a foregoing discussion, there is no need to repeat the relevant evidence here. Suffice it to say that this acceptance of hylomorphism also places the philosophy embedded in SAQ in the Athenian tradition.

 

22. Essence and Existence

  SAQ provides reason to claim that each being is a composite of existence and essence. We cannot imagine a being which has pure existence but no essence. Even God, according to SAQ, has an essence.[141] The moment we enquire ‘What is it like?’ we are already asking for its nature, its essence and attributes. There is no such a thing as simple ‘existence’; existence is always the existence of some particular thing. On the other hand, just because we can imagine an essence with all its attributes e.g. a unicorn, does not mean it actually exists. Existence and essence are clearly two different things. In every real being they are joined.

 

 All other beings, as we have seen above, possess varying degrees of existence in contrast to God’s absolute existence and independence from all other things. In other words, they are contingent, i.e. not necessary: it is possible to conceive of their not existing without tangling ourselves in all kinds of logical difficulties. As contingent, they exist only by the will of God Who chooses to bestow existence on them but Who was obviously under no obligation to do so. They are utterly dependent on God for their existence and lack any capacity to bring themselves into being.

 

 The fact that beings are contingent means that existence is a freely given bestowal from God Who did not have to confer it. Therefore, it is God’s gift to give existence as a real being to a particular essence, even though this essence could have remained either potential or imaginary. This gift is distinct from the gift of our particular essence. Existence and essence are two principles that are found at work in every actually existing being, i.e. they are not things in any material sense but rather requirements that must necessarily be fulfilled for any thing to be and which can be observed in any real being.

 

 This composition of essence and existence is worth noting first, because it provides an ontological foundation for the Bahá'í teaching of the contingency of all beings except God and second, because it provides an ontological foundation for our gratitude to God for the gift of existence. Our obligation for gratitude is rooted in the ontology of being-in-general. As we can see from this, our ethical relationship to God also has ontological roots.

 

23. God – an Epistemological Preview

Any discussion of God in regards to SAQ (and the Bahá'í Writings in general) must deal with the limitations on our knowledge of God. This requires a preview of some epistemological issues. On the subject of knowing God, `Abdu'l-Bahá says:


 the essence and the attributes of the Lord of Unity are in the heights of sanctity, and fo the minds and understandings there is no way to approach that position. ‘The way is closed, and seeking is forbidden.’[142]

 

Later he adds, “the essential names and attributes of God are identical with His Essence, and His Essence is above all comprehension.”[143] Such strictures raise the inevitable question, ‘What, if anything, do SAQ and the Writings allow us to say about God?’

 

 If we analyse the first statement, it is clear that we cannot “approach” God, i.e. discover Him directly as He is in Himself i.e. in His essence.  The same applies to His names and attributes because God is one with these.[144] In other words, there is no direct knowledge of God because such knowledge requires comprehension or ‘surrounding’ of the object to be understood. In the case of God, this is impossible because humankind lacks the capacity to ‘surround’ what is ontologically higher.

 

 It is evident that the human understanding is a quality of the existence of man, and that man is a sign of God: how can the quality of the sign surround the creator of the sign?--that is to say, how can the understanding, which is a quality of the existence of      man, comprehend God? Therefore, the Reality of the Divinity is hidden from all  comprehension, and concealed from the minds of all men. It is absolutely impossible to ascend to that plane. We see that everything which is lower is powerless to comprehend the reality of that which is higher.[145]

 

However, SAQ (and the Writings) do not fall into the trap of claiming that God is unknowable in any way whatever; were that the case, we would have the problems created by a disappearing God Whose very existence is unknowable  and ultimately irrelevant to humankind. However, SAQ provides for knowledge of God indirectly, through the Manifestations:

all that the human reality knows, discovers and understands of the names, the attributes and the perfections of God refer to these Holy Manifestations. There is no access to anything else: ‘the way is closed, and seeking is forbidden.’[146]

 

In other words, we can know about God through the Manifestation and we can reason about this knowledge but we cannot know God directly without an intermediary. Indeed, all of this knowledge about God:

refer[s] to the Holy Manifestations--that is to say, all the descriptions, the qualities, the names and the attributes which we mention return to the Divine Manifestations; but as no one has attained to the reality of the Essence of Divinity[147]

 

However, we must not make the mistake of concluding that this limited knowledge about God, is untrue or merely a fiction or construct. Limited and indirect knowledge about something is not necessarily untrue or a man-made fiction, especially when it comes from a Manifestation. Thus, we may conclude that while we have knowledge about God via the Manifestation, we have no direct knowledge of God as He is in Himself. Furthermore, we may reason about God from the information provided us by the Manifestation.

 

It should be noted in passing that humankind’s inability to know God’s essence decisively negates any claims that man and God can be ontologically united in mystic states and the suggestion that God and creation or any part of creation can be one. Unity with God is forbidden by the extreme ontological differences between the independent and the dependent and all claims to having achieved such unity are delusions.   

           

24. The Existence of God: The Argument from Contingency

 
The ontology of SAQ is premised on the existence of God Who is the ultimate source of all beings. To support his case, `Abdu'l-Bahá provides various proofs for the existence of God. The first of these is a variation of the proof from contingency:

 
One of the proofs and demonstrations of the existence of God is the fact that man  did not create himself: nay, his creator and designer is another than himself.[148]

 

Humankind is contingent, i.e. humankind cannot be responsible for its existence and essence; therefore, logically, its cause must be outside itself in something else. After all, a thing that does not exist, cannot bring itself into existence, since to do so would be to imply that it can act before it actually is in existence. This is logically and physically impossible. For this reason, human existence necessarily requires an external cause. At this point it is important to digress briefly to note what `Abdu'l-Bahá does not say, namely, that God is the immediate cause for the existence of humankind. The kind of processes studied by science may well be the immediate or proximate causes by means of which humankind evolved but these proximate causes do not necessarily exclude the ultimate cause which begins and guides the evolutionary process through its varying vicissitudes. In other words, once we distinguish proximate from ultimate causes, there is not an inevitable conflict with science on this issue.

 

From `Abdu'l-Bahá’s statement we also learn that God is our ultimate efficient cause or “creator” and our ultimate final cause or “designer.” As the final cause, He would also be our formal cause, i.e. the source of our form or essence as human beings. However, He is not our material cause since God is not the matter or substance from which we are constituted as is asserted by pantheism and monism according to which God and creation are ultimately one substance. Finally, it is worth noting `Abdu'l-Bahá’s use of the term “designer” in regards to humankind strengthens the argument that SAQ supports some variation of Intelligent Design theory in regards to human origins. (See the Introduction.) Humankind, and creation as a whole, is not merely a “fortuitous composition and arrangement.”[149]

 

25. The Ontological Argument

 In SAQ `Abdu'l-Bahá combines the argument from contingency with the argument of perfection when he states:

The contingent world is the source of imperfections: God is the origin of perfections. The imperfections of the contingent world are in themselves a proof of the perfections of God.[150]

 

The argument from contingency was discussed above, so let us turn our attention to the argument from perfection. It is based on the degrees in which beings possess certain attributes. For example, qualities like goodness and truth are found in greater or lesser degrees in various beings. In other words, they exist on a scale according to which some approach more closely than others the greatest possible degree of a certain quality, i.e. some approach perfection more closely than others. To say that something is imperfect or approaches perfection more than something else implies the existence of a perfect standard by which to measure imperfection. Such a perfect standard ultimately can only refer to God. Since we observe imperfection around us, the perfect standard i.e. God must exist. [151] If God, or this perfect standard did not exist, it would not be perfect since it would lack the perfection of existence.

 

 `Abdu'l-Bahá makes use of this argument in SAQ, referring to the attributes of power, knowledge and wealth, which, in their imperfects become weakness, ignorance and poverty. The existence of these imperfections proves that a supreme degree of these qualities must exist, and since qualities cannot exist by themselves they must exist in someone or something. Since things cannot have wealth, knowledge, goodness or truthfulness, these qualities must exist in someone, i.e. God:

Therefore, it becomes evident that there is an Eternal Almighty One, Who is the possessor of all perfections, because unless He possessed all perfections He would be like His creation.[152]

 

 When this argument is applied to ‘being’ or ‘existence,’ it is known as the ‘ontological argument,’ first propounded by Ibn Sina, but also by St. Anselm, Descartes, Leibniz and in our time, Charles Hartshorne and Alvin Plantinga. This argument, still hotly debated today, exists in various forms, one of which is:

God possesses all perfections. Existence is a perfection.  Therefore God possesses existence, i.e. God exists.

 

In the terms of `Abdu'l-Bahá’s argument above, all beings are contingent, i.e. their degree of being is not absolute and necessary. However, the existence of these lesser degrees means there must be a perfect standard of existence, something that exists absolutely and necessarily. This being is God.

 

 The root assumption of `Abdu'l-Bahá’s argument from perfection grows out of the Platonic position that the material world is a less perfect, i.e. contingent and subject to all kinds of vicissitudes. Even among members of a kind or species, some members exemplify the perfections of that species or kind better than others, as, for example, a healthy as opposed to a crippled dog, a well-functioning car versus a ‘beater.’ The deficient examples lack the perfection of the Kingdom. The existence of these lesser degrees of perfection requires the existence of an ultimate degree of perfection – and this is identified with God. In a Platonic world-view, this line of reasoning is completely logical, but it does not work in a non-hierarchical world-view in which all things are understood as having an equal share of perfection. So-called ‘imperfect’ people are just ‘perfect’ in their own way, as are ‘imperfect’ plants, cars and systems of governance. However, SAQ does not accept this non-hierarchical view: “As the degrees of existence are different and various, some beings are higher in the scale than others.”[153]

 

26. The Argument from Design

 `Abdu'l-Bahá also alludes to a variation of the watch-maker argument when he says, “the smallest created thing proves that there is a creator. For instance, this piece of bread proves that it has a maker.”[154] A piece of bread does not bake itself – and, therefore, implies the presence of a baker, just as Paley’s watch implies the existence of a watchmaker. `Abdu'l-Bahá applies this idea to the natural laws that operate in nature:

It is certain that the whole contingent world is subjected to a law and rule which it can never disobey; even man is forced to submit to death, to sleep and to other conditions--that is to say, man in certain particulars is governed, and necessarily this state of being governed implies the existence of a governor.[155]

 

In short, there can be no law without a law-maker, i.e. someone or something who imposes limits on beings and their actions. To appreciate the force of this argument we need to do a thought-experiment: we must try to imagine a world where there are no limits on any being or its actions. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine any beings at all since every being is a limited being that neither is nor can do just anything. For there to be beings and inter-action among beings there must be something which limits them – and this source of order is God.

 

27. The Argument from Change

 Finally, `Abdu'l-Bahá refers to the argument from motion or change: “the least change produced in the form of the smallest thing proves the existence of a creator.”[156] According to this argument, every change requires an external cause and this line of causes cannot be infinite; if it were, no action or change would take place because nowhere do we find the necessary pre-requisites for change, i.e. external causation. Each cause would still be waiting for its predecessor to come into action and this would go on ad infinitum. Therefore, a final first cause of all change must exist and this first cause is God. Because `Abdu'l-Bahá rejects the view that even the slightest motion can be self-caused, he also rejects the suggestion that the universe could have brought itself into being:


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![157]


The question, of course, is rhetorical. What is noteworthy here is the categorical way in which he rejects any contradictory views by calling them “self-evidently wrong.”

 

`Abdu'l-Bahá ends the discussion of the proofs for God’s existence by saying that “These obvious arguments are adduced for weak souls; but if the inner perception be open, a hundred thousand clear proofs become visible.”[158] This, of course, has important implications for epistemology insofar as it recognises “inner perception” as a more powerful source of knowledge of God’s existence than discursive arguments. Insight can teach us more than discursive reasoning in some cases.

 

28. The Perfection of Creation

The argument from perfection inevitably raises the question about the perfection of creation. If the imperfection of creation is proof of God’s existence, is creation flawed? Assuredly not, according to SAQ:

 For all existing beings, terrestrial and celestial, as well as this limitless space and  all that is in it, have been created and organised, composed, arranged and perfected as they ought to be; the universe has no imperfection.[159]

 

Elsewhere he emphases this point by saying, “All beings, whether large or small, were created perfect and complete from the first, but their perfections appear in them by degrees.”[160] In other words, all were created with their full or “complete” endowment of potentials that will be actualised over time. Although no being perfect in relationship to God – which is the basis of the argument from perfection – each thing is created perfect in itself, in its own degree, in its essence, but it does not necessarily give perfect expression or actualization to its perfect endowment of potentials. The vicissitudes of existence, and, in the case of humankind, misuse of free will may hinder the optimum actualisation of the originally perfect essence. Thus, both from an ontological and existential view, there is no contradiction between saying that the universe as originally created by God is perfect but that there are more or less imperfect actualisations of our perfect essential endowments.

 

`Abdu'l-Bahá also makes the following remark:

the universe has no imperfection, so that if all beings became pure intelligence   and reflected forever and ever, it is impossible that they could imagine anything better than that which exists.[161]

 

This is a noteworthy statement because it seems to be another variation of what has become known as Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” argument, according to which God optimizes and actualises all genuine possibilities in His creation, thereby creating a universe that contains the optimal diversity of beings. (This recalls the principle of plenitude discussed above.) `Abdu'l-Bahá’s formulation of this argument is especially interesting because it answers the usual criticism of Leibniz’ view, namely, the existence of evil and suffering negates the alleged inherent perfection of the world. Basically, `Abdu'l-Bahá’s answer is a challenge: let those who think they can, design a better world with the same diversity of beings and including human free will. He answers the challenge by saying that no one could do so. In other words, the fact that evil and ill exists is not in itself an argument against the essential perfection of the world. `Abdu'l-Bahá illustrates this by saying:

a scorpion is evil in relation to man; a serpent is evil in relation to man; but in relation to themselves they are not evil, for their poison is their weapon, and by their sting they   defend themselves. But as the elements of their poison do not agree with our elements-- that is to say, as there is antagonism between these different elements, therefore, this   antagonism is evil; but in reality as regards themselves they are good.[162]

 

29. A Process Ontology

One of the most common criticisms made of the Athenian tradition is that it is a philosophy of stasis that is based on a static vision of the universe. There is some debate about whether or not this is actually the case, but that need not detain us here. Rather, it is important to note that SAQ makes it patently obvious that its ontology is an active, evolutionary process ontology.:

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. So this flower, this      hyacinth, during a certain period of time was coming from the world of nonexistence into being, and now it is going from being    into nonexistence. This state of motion is said to be essential--that is, natural; it cannot be separated from beings because it is their             essential requirement, as it is the essential requirement of fire to burn.[163]

 

Motion or change, and existence are correlatives: change “cannot be separated from beings because it is their “essential requirement.” In other words, change is an essential attribute that is necessary for a thing to exist, a statement that in passing re-affirms the essence and attribute analysis of reality in SAQ, and implies the difference between essential and accidental attributes. This statement also re-affirms the teleological nature of our existence insofar as we are always moving towards a goal of some kind, whether it be coming into existence or going out.  

 
Change is universal – “nothing which exists remains in a state of repose” – and because it is a correlative of existence, there is no possibility of avoiding it for individuals or collectives. Here then, we discover the ontological foundation of the teaching of progressive revelation which is predicated on our subjection to endless change. That is why the revelation of the “eternal verities”[164] must be adapted to the ever-changing condition of humankind and material civilization. Change is also why the “contingent world is the source of imperfections.”[165] The reason is clear: change is only possible if things have unactualised potentials or capacities to shed and/or add unrealised attributes which means that by definition they are incomplete and not fully themselves. That by definition makes them imperfect.

 

 The fact that change is ineradicably part of existence is also seen in the statement that “[i]n this material world time has cycles”[166] This applies to spiritual issues as well; as `Abdu'l-Bahá says, “for souls there are progress, retrogression and education.”[167] This, of course, also includes the development of the human soul after death which once again draws attention to the process-nature of all existence. As `Abdu'l-Bahá says, “Both before and after putting off this material form, there is progress in perfection but not in state,”[168] as well as “as the spirit continues to exist after death, it necessarily progresses or declines.”[169] Thus he affirms that change is inevitable both in the material and the spiritual worlds.

 

Despite the ubiquity of change, we must not make the mistake of assuming that all kinds of change are applicable to all kinds of beings. “Intellectual realities”[170] and spiritual realities do not engage in physical motion:

entrance and exit, descent and ascent, are characteristics of bodies and not of spirits--that  is to say, sensible realities enter and come forth, but intellectual subtleties and mental realities, such as intelligence, love, knowledge, imagination and thought, do not enter, nor come forth, nor descend, but rather they have direct connection . . . the intellectual realities do not enter and descend, and it is absolutely impossible that the Holy Spirit  should ascend and descend, enter, come out or penetrate, it can only be that the Holy Spirit appears in splendor, as the sun appears in the mirror.[171]

 

Spirit and “intellectual realities” do not move through time and space as material things do, but ‘move’ in their own way by a “direct connection”[172] that `Abdu'l-Bahá compares to the reflection of the sun in a mirror. This has tremendous implications for his teaching about what happens at death because it means that the spirit or soul does not enter the body, or inhabit the body as is so often imagined, and therefore has no place ‘to go’ at the onset of death. It simply does not exist in the spatio-temporal realm and is not subject to spatio-temporal change.  

 
The spirit never entered this body, so in quitting it, it will not be in need of an abiding-place: no, the spirit is connected with the body, as this light is with this mirror. When the mirror is clear and perfect, the light of the lamp will be apparent in it, and when    the mirror becomes covered with dust or breaks, the light will disappear. [173]

 

The question remains, of course, about the exact meaning of the metaphor of the light in the mirror. Here is one possibility: the sun does not enter i.e. descend into the mirror ontologically but maintains a formal but not substantial presence in it by means of its power or light. Thus, we observe the form of the sun but not its substance in the mirror and we experience its power/light but neither the sun nor its power/light depend on the body/mirror for their actual existence. When the mirror breaks or is darkened there is nowhere for this power/light to manifest itself and therefore it ‘disappears’ not in itself but in relation to us. To continue the analogy, our soul after death is that ‘segment’ and amount of light we have reflected in our life-times which will differ just as each mirror reflects the sun in a slightly different manner.         

 

Part II: Onto-Theology

 
For our purposes, onto-theology is the study of ontological principles in relation to theological issues, or, if we wish, it refers to the theology of being. In other words, it examines theological issues from an ontological perspective to explore the nature of reality.

 

30. The Ontological Attributes of God

 Scattered throughout SAQ is a catalogue of God’s attributes and these may be divided into two broad categories: God’s ontological attributes and His ethical attributes, i.e. attributes related to the nature of God’s being as we are informed of this subject by the Manifestation and  `Abdu'l-Bahá, and the attributes related to God’s ethical relationship to His creation, as for example, the Merciful, the Educator and the Compassionate for example. In this portion of the paper, we shall focus on the ontological attributes because they form the foundation on which the ethical attributes are built. For example, if God were subject to time and had to wait for the future to unfold before He knew what it was, He could not be the all-knowing, omniscient educator Who could meet humankind’s evolutionary needs.

According to SAQ, God possess certain attributes that make Him absolutely unique and distinguish Him from the rest of His creation. One of these is singleness which has several possible meanings. First, it means God is an absolute unity: That  Lordly Reality admits of no division; for division and multiplicity are properties of creatures which are contingent existences, and not accidents which happen to the self-existent. [174]

 

This complex and far-reaching statement makes two points. First, unlike all created beings, God is not a composite of actuality and potential, essence and attribute, essence and existence and substance and form. He is not a composite of actuality and potential because if God had any potentials, i.e. unactualised capacities, He would obviously be incomplete i.e. imperfect and subject to additional change. This would make God like all other contingent beings, it would be a demotion: “[t]he descent of that Lordly Reality into conditions and degrees would be equivalent to imperfection and contrary to perfection, and is, therefore, absolutely impossible.”[175] God is not a composite of essence and attribute because “the essential names and attributes of God are identical with His Essence, and His Essence is above all comprehension.”[176]  `Abdu'l-Bahá provides a very precise ontological reason why God’s essence and attributes must be one:

 

 If the attributes are not identical with the Essence, there must also be a multiplicity of preexistences, and differences between the attributes and the Essence must also exist; and as Preexistence is necessary, therefore, the sequence of preexistences would become infinite. This is an evident error.[177]

 

In other words, if the essence and attributes are not one, then both must be ”pre-existence[s]” like God because they co-exist with Him. However, this denies the singleness of God and makes Him one of a multiplicity of co-exisiting things. Moreover, if the attributes are prexistences, then there must be an infinite number of them since the ontological ‘distance,’ the degrees, between the essence of God and His attributes is infinite if God is not one with His attributes. This leads to an infinite sequence and the possibility of such a sequence is denied by `Abdu'l-Bahá: “This is an evident error.” (His rejection of an infinite real sequence is another link to the philosophy of Aristotle.)

 

Because God has no potentials to actualise, i.e. is completely actualized, God undergoes no change. There is nothing further for God to change to; hence God is immutable:

The Sun of Reality, as we have said, has always been in one condition; it has no  change, no alteration, no transformation and no vicissitude. It is eternal and everlasting.[178]

 

Change is imperfection because it means that a being is not yet ‘all it can be.’ Such a statement could only apply to contingent beings because contingent beings depend on new circumstances and conditions to initiate change. For them to change means they also exist in time as they await new circumstances and conditions. This is impossible in the case of God because He does not exist in time: “Time has sway over creatures but not over God.”[179] Elsewhere `Abdu'l-Bahá asserts that “beginning and end in relation to God are one,”[180] which is to say that for God, the future does not exist as something distinct from the present and the past as they do for all created and contingent beings: they are the one. 

 

 God is also not a composite of substance and form because form must be imposed on a substance or material from outside; no material can give itself form, as in the case of the chair in  `Abdu'l-Bahá’s example of four-fold causality. Furthermore, God cannot be a composite of essence and existence because He is the only necessary being, i.e. the only non-contingent being whose nature it is to exist. His essence and existence are one. He exists necessarily, He is not contingent or dependent[181] on anything else. That is why He can bestow existence on others but none can bestow existence on Him. In these four ways, God is different from all other beings, i.e. is ontologically unique and cannot, logically speaking, have any partner: “if we say that there is one Sun, and it is pure singleness, and has no partner and equal, we again speak truly.”[182] This, it may be noted in passing, is the ontological reason why there can be no Satan, i.e. no actually existing being capable of challenging God’s absolute position as Creator and ruler of creation. Such a being, would, in effect, be a ‘partner’ or co-ruler.

 

Of course, we must also keep in mind that “the Divine Reality is sanctified from singleness”[183] and not just from plurality. This statement reminds us that God is even beyond ‘one-ness,’ i.e. is beyond all conceivable categories of being (‘number’ is one of those categories) – a position which sets the ontological foundation for the necessity of knowing the Divine only through the Manifestation. If God were conceivable by the human mind, either by reason or by means of experience through ‘mystic states,’ there would be no absolute necessity for us to turn to the Manifestation to know about God.

 

It is important to remember that God does have names and attributes revealed to us by the Manifestation, and, with the guidance of `Abdu'l-Bahá we may reason about these as long as we recall our thoughts are only partial and reflect an innate human bias. (‘Partial’ of course does not mean ‘incorrect.’) For example, `Abdu'l-Bahá tells us that “the names and attributes of the Divinity themselves require the existence of beings.”[184] He proceeds to point out that there can be no creator without a creation or a monarch without subjects. His statement is challenging not because it implicitly names God as the Creator but because it says that God’s names “require” a creation. Does this not effectively deny God’s freedom to create because He is being required to do so by something? Moreover, does not this lack of freedom constitute an imperfection in God, a denial of the principle that “"He doeth whatsoever He willeth"[185]? There is at least one solution to this apparent contradiction. As we saw earlier, God and His attributes are one, i.e. identical. Thus God and the name of ‘Creator’ are one, and therefore, the necessity to create and the will to create are one and the same. Such distinctions do not exist in God for if they did, He would no longer be a unity. Only to us, whose attributes and essences are not always identical with our essence, is it possible for an attribute to compel us to do something. Moreover, there is no external entity imposing itself on God. What contingent and dependent being could have the capacity to do so?

 

God’s absolute unity or “singleness” is only one of the ways in which He is unique. Neither spirits nor God engage in physical motion in any way and, therefore, really have no physical or material mode of existence.

 

This state is neither abiding nor entering, neither commingling nor descending;  for entering, abiding, descending, issuing forth and commingling are the necessities and characteristics of bodies, not of spirits; then how much less do they belong to the sanctified and pure Reality of God.[186]

 

This has important implications for science because it means that any efforts to find the soul in the body is misguided insofar as souls, like God, are not subject to the conditions of place and time (nor of quantity) which are measurements crucial to scientific endeavour. Their existence can neither be proven nor disproven by these means, which means, in effect, we have encountered one of the limitations of science. 

 

 Of course, SAQ, draws attention to other attributes of God, such as the fact that He is omnipotent:

it becomes evident that this Nature, which has neither perception nor intelligence, is in the grasp of Almighty God, Who is the Ruler of the world of Nature whatever He wishes, He causes Nature to manifest.[187]

 

`Abdu'l-Bahá, also maintains that God is omniscient or all-knowing: “He is the Omniscient, the Knower.”[188]

           

31. Emanationism

One of the signature doctrines of Bahá'í onto-theology is the doctrine of emanation, which, historically gets its first thorough explication in the Enneads of Plotinus in the 3rd Century AD. The Enneads were a synthesis of Plato and Aristotle and has great influence both in the Christian and Muslim traditions of philosophy.  Plotinus’ main metaphor for the emanative process was the sun and its light. `Abdu'l-Bahá also uses this metaphor. 

the light of the sun emanates from the sun; it does not manifest it. The appearance through emanation is like the appearance of the rays from the luminary of the  horizons of the world--that is to say, the holy essence of the Sun of Truth is not divided and does not descend to the condition of the creatures. In the same way,  the globe of the sun does not become divided and does not descend to the earth. No, the rays of the sun, which are its bounty, emanate from it and illumine the dark bodies.[189]

 

Several observations are in order. First, the sun, i.e. God, retains His unity or “singleness” and does not divide or distribute itself in its light or among His creations. `Abdu'l-Bahá calls such division and distribution “proceeding through manifestation”[190] in which the “reality of a thing [appears] in other forms.”[191] His example of such manifestation is the emergence of a tree or flower from a seed. Under no circumstances does manifestation apply to God Who never becomes part of creation and Who “has no change, no alteration, no transformation, and no vicissitude”[192]  – a position that effectively precludes even the slightest suggestions of pantheism and monism since the teaching of emanation supports ontological pluralism. It also effectively precludes incarnationism, i.e. the Christian doctrine that in the person of Christ, God Himself became part of creation. The rejection of this doctrine defines a major difference between virtually all branches of Christianity and the Bahá'í understanding of the nature of the Manifestations.

 
 To clarify the nature of emanationism, `Abdu'l-Bahá adds the following statement:

The spirits of men, with reference to God, have dependence through emanation,   just as the discourse proceeds from the speaker and the writing from the writer--that is to say,    the speaker himself does not become the discourse, nor does the writer himself become   the writing;[193]

 

The distinction between speaker and speech, and writer and words clearly demonstrates the ontological difference between God and creation: the difference between them is not one of degree but rather, a difference of kind – hence the ontological pluralism of SAQ. One is not a ‘lesser version’ of the other. Reality is not the appearance of God “in other forms.”[194]

 

Emanationism requires that reality be strictly divided into successive planes or levels of the emanative process with God as the only absolutely independent non-contingent being as the source or fountainhead of all other beings. This, of course, is exactly what we observe in SAQ as we have already shown with the hierarchy of mineral, vegetable, animal and human, and as shall be demonstrated below in the hierarchy of the world of God, the Kingdom and the material world. Moreover, in emanationism each successive level of being has less and less power or capacity and in that sense is proportionally less than its predecessor which has its powers in addition to new ones. For that reason, matter is described as “imperfection,” “darkness” and “night,”[195] and humankind is described as “the end of imperfection [“materiality”]and the beginning of perfection. He is at the last degree of darkness, and at the beginning of light.”[196]

           

 Emanationism stands in sharp contrast to creationism, i.e. the doctrine that God created only once and that was out of nothing. This is the commonly accepted doctrine in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Emanationism holds that creation is eternal and on-going although there may be phases in this process in which particular universes come into or go out of existence. Emanationism is distinct from monism insofar as emanationism does not see all of reality as one without any ontologically fundamental differences between the Creator and the created. The existence of the strict hierarchy we have observed in SAQ negates any such undifferentiated unity. Similarly, emanationism, though sometimes confused with pantheism, is really quite different insofar as emanationism does not identify God with creation or nature since such an identification would involve God in change and have Him descend into ordinary, material beings.

 

The emanationist ontology of SAQ (and the Writings in general) creates bridges between Bahá'í teachings and teachings found in other spiritual traditions such as Sufism, Kabbalah, Advaita Vedanta and the Vijnanavada school of Buddhism. Moreover, it establishes connections with such philosophers as Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd in the Muslim tradition, with Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, John Scotus Erigena and Nicholas of Cusa in the Christian tradition and with Maimonides in the Jewish tradition.

 

32. The Manifestations

Because God and creation are so ontologically different, an intermediary level of reality is needed to connect them without impugning God’s ontological absolute inviolability and without raising the possibility of created beings ascending to the level of the Creator as some mystics claim to do. The need for an intermediary is the ontological basis for the three part structure of reality as variously expressed in SAQ: “Know that the conditions of existence are limited to the conditions of servitude, of prophethood and of Deity. . .” [197] The three conditions mentioned here correspond to the levels of the creation, the Manifestation and the Creator. `Abdu'l-Bahá also expresses this three-part structure of existence by stating, “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.”[198] Again we observe the three part structure with an intermediary between God and His creation. The Kingdom, as we have already seen, is the ideal world of which this world is an image or shadow. The three-part structure is also implicit in the following statement:

Therefore, all creatures emanate from God--that is to say, it is by God that all things are realized, and by Him that all beings have attained to existence. The first thing which  emanated from God is that universal reality, which the ancient philosophers termed the  "First Mind," and which the people of Bahá call the "First Will."[199]

 

In this case, there is God, the first emanation called the “First Mind” or “First Will” and then the subsequent levels of emanation. The “First Mind” or “First Will” stands between them. The tripartite division is referred to implicitly when `Abdu'l-Bahá, speaking of the impossibility of man devising adequate concepts of God, says:

But for this Essence of the essences, this Truth of truths, this Mystery of mysteries,  there are reflections, auroras, appearances and resplendencies in the world of  existence. The dawning-place of these splendors, the place of these reflections, and the appearance of these manifestations are the Holy Dawning-places, the Universal Realities and the Divine Beings, Who are the true mirrors of the sanctified Essence of God. [200]

 

Again we observe the tripartite structure of God, the “reflections, auras, appearances” and the “world of existence.” We also observe how this ‘middle point’ or “dawning place,” of “Universal Realit[y]” mediates or transmits the light of God into the rest of creation. `Abdu'l-Bahá describes the Manifestation as the “mediator of the Divine Bounty”[201] to the created world:

The splendors of the perfections, bounties and attributes of God shine forth and radiate from the reality of the Perfect Man--that is to say, the Unique One, the supreme  Manifestation of God. Other beings receive only one ray, but the supreme Manifestation is the mirror for this Sun, which appears and becomes manifest in it, with all its perfections, attributes, signs and wonders. [202]

           

In the perfect Mirror, “the Sun of Reality becomes visible and manifest with all its qualities and perfections.”[203] This ontological function comes into sharper focus when we consider the third of the three stations of the Manifestations. “The third station is that of the divine appearance and heavenly splendour: it is the Word of God, the Eternal Bounty, the Holy Spirit.”[204] This connection between the Manifestation in His third station with the Holy Spirit is significant because the Holy Spirit is also described as “the mediator between God and His creatures,”[205] which re-emphasises the Manifestation’s role as intermediary between the highest and lowest ontological levels.

 

33. The Manifestation as World-Soul

However, in His third station, the role of the Manifestation goes even further:


it is the divine appearance, which is the divine perfections, the cause of the life of existence, of the education of souls, of the guidance of people, and of the  enlightenment of the contingent world.[206]

 

The teaching that the Manifestation is “the cause of the life of existence” means that He functions like the traditional concept of the ‘world-soul,’ the immediate source of existence and life throughout the created universe. (This is another link between SAQ and the Athenian, particularly neo-Platonic tradition.) Thus the Manifestation has a ‘cosmic’ function in the evolution of the universe itself; His ‘work’ is not simply limited to the human sphere. This third station “has neither beginning nor end. When beginning is spoken of, it signifies the state of manifesting.”[207] In other words, this third station has always existed as a part of the three-fold structure of existence. 

 

 This ‘world-soul’ function is emphasised vis-à-vis humanity by the statement that:

One Holy Soul gives life to the world of humanity, changes the aspect of the terrestrial globe, causes intelligence to progress, vivifies souls, lays the basis of a new life,  establishes new foundations, organizes the world, brings nations and religions under the shadow of one standard, delivers man from the world of imperfections and vices, and     inspires him with the desire and need of natural and acquired perfections.[208]

 

Without the Manifestation in His three conditions – the physical, the human or rational soul and the “divine appearance”[209] i.e. the “the Word of God, the eternal Bounty, the Holy Spirit”[210] – humankind could not exist. He is literally the source of life to humanity (and by implication all the beings humanity physically depends on) as well as the mover of political, socio-economic and cultural progress. In other words, the Manifestation beyond His specifically human aspect, also has a cosmic and world-historical function. Thus, according to SAQ, the Manifestation is more than a teacher of moral and theological truths which is how Manifestations tend to be viewed in other religions. Rather, The Manifestation’s role is wider and more far-reaching than that of the conventional theological understandings.

 

In the ontological schema we have examined, it is apparent that God is ontological prior to all the other levels, i.e. the existence of God is the condition that allows the other two levels to exist. The same is true of the Manifestation Whose existence is the necessary condition that allows creation to exist. That is why `Abdu'l-Bahá says, “the Reality of Christ, Who is the Word of God, with regard to essence, attributes and glory, certainly precedes the creatures.”[211] Without this “Reality,” the rest of creation could not exist, a fact which indicates the ontological function of the Manifestation.

 

34. Three Comments

At this point to general comments are in order. First, SAQ suggest correspondences from the onto-theological perspective. The Manifestations of God occupy the station of prophethood, which corresponds to the Kingdom and to the “First Mind” or “First Will”: all of them occupy a middle position between God and creation. This leads to the possibility that there may be a deeper order or structure at work in SAQ (and the other Writings) than what is explicitly apparent.  This suggestion, however, will require more research.  From this possibility, a question arises: ‘Why then, the different terms for the ‘middle level?’ At this point a definitive answer is difficult to establish but one possibility is that the different terms arise due to different perspectives or contexts and purposes. For example, the term ‘Manifestation’ is used when the focus of discussion is the human and historical presence of this first creation, i.e. when the focus of discussion is onto-theological. The other terms are used when the focus is more ontological and theoretical.

 

The second comment is that the conditions or levels of reality are absolutely fixed insofar as “for every being there is a point which it cannot overpass.”[212] In other words, no being can escape the condition of “servitude” in which it exists. For example, “a mineral, however far it may progress in the mineral kingdom, cannot gain the vegetable power,”[213] and a human being  “however far he may progress in gaining limitless perfections, will never reach the condition of Deity.”[214] Obviously SAQ’s ontology inherently subscribes to a law of limits vis-à-vis progress which effectively rejects any mystic claims of being ontologically one with God, and any notion that the creation and God can in any way be one. Moreover, we might describe this ontological structure as ‘hard’ insofar as there is no crossing over from one level or condition to another. This provides additional support to the idea that the universe has an underlying order and structure which in turn supports the idea of a Creator. Finally, the ‘hard’ distinctions between levels of reality provides ontological foundations for the teaching that human beings cannot attain direct knowledge of God.

 

In the foregoing discussion we have observed in passing that the Manifestations exist on “three planes”[215] or “conditions”[216] or “stations”[217] : the physical condition as with all material beings; the “individual reality”[218] of the rational human soul and the condition of the “divine appearance and heavenly splendor.”[219] A similar idea is found in the following: “but Their heavenly condition embraces all things, knows all mysteries, discovers all signs, and rules over all things.”[220] However, even in rational condition of the human soul, the Manifestation is not merely a man ‘like the others:’

 
But the individual reality of the Manifestations of God is a holy reality, and for that reason it is sanctified and, in that which concerns its nature and quality, is distinguished from all other things.[221]

 

In other words, the Manifestation possesses an individual rational soul, as do all human beings, but it is different from ours in regards to its nature and quality. This establishes a difference in kind between the Manifestation and the rest of creation; He is not merely ‘one of us,’ at least not in His second and third stations. One of the key differences concerns Their knowledge of the world:

Since the Sanctified Realities, the supreme Manifestations of God, surround the essence and qualities of the creatures, transcend and contain existing realities and understand all things, therefore, Their knowledge is divine knowledge, and not acquired--that is to say, it is a holy bounty; it is a divine revelation.[222]

 

Here we see how ontology impacts epistemology insofar as a higher ontological station enables greater access to knowledge of beings on a lower station. In this case, just as the human soul surrounds the body and has intuitive knowledge of its parts and their condition, the Manifestation ontologically surrounds all created entities insofar as His powers and capacities exceed theirs. (See the earlier section on nested hierarchies.) Unlike us, His immediate knowledge is not limited to His own body but extends to all creation. Therefore, He can comprehend all things and know them intuitively just as we are aware of our own bodies.

 

35. The Manifestations’ Superior Knowledge

 Precisely because He has such superior knowledge of all beings, He is capable of guiding humankind.

 
The Manifestation--that is, the Holy Lawgiver--unless He is aware of the realities of beings, will not comprehend the essential connection which proceeds from the realities of things, and He will certainly not be able to establish a religion  conformable to the facts and suited to the conditions.[223]

 

Without His special insight into the conditions of “the realities of things,” the Manifestation would not be able to be the meet the needs of human spiritual and socio-economic evolution. The ontological basis for this special insight is found in the Manifestation’s role as a ‘world-soul Who is “the cause of the life of existence.”[224] This position allows Him privileged insight into the nature of all beings. In this connection, `Abdu'l-Bahá says:

the universal divine mind, which is beyond nature, is the bounty of the Preexistent Power. This universal mind is divine; it embraces existing realities, and it receives the light of the mysteries of God. It is a conscious power, not a power investigation and of research . . . This divine intellectual power is the special attribute of the Holy  Manifestations and the Dawning-places of prophethood[225]

 

In other words, the special and privileged insight into the conditions of creation are a result of possessing the “universal divine mind” which is supra-natural, i.e. “beyond nature.” This means that the “universal divine mind” and its powers are beyond natural explanation, i.e. cannot be explained in purely natural or scientific terms. The fact that it is a “conscious power” and not an investigative power means that the universal mind does not engage in step-by-step discursive reasoning but rather works by immediate insight.

 

Part III: Epistemology

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerning itself with questions about what we know, what is possible for us to know, how we can know, and the reliability of our knowledge and methods of acquiring it. Although SAQ has a considerable amount to say on this subject, it does not contain an epistemological theory worked out in minute detail. Instead, SAQ sets out general guidelines which all proposed Bahá'í-based epistemological theories must satisfy to be in harmony with the Writings. It is, therefore, possible that there may be a variety of Bahá'í-based epistemologies which are consistent with the Writings, though not necessarily with each other.

 

 As already discussed above, epistemology is intimately related with ontology because ontological station or condition determines what and how we can acquire knowledge. One of the principles that underlies SAQ’s epistemology is that “everything which is lower is powerless to comprehend the reality of that which is higher.”[226] This is why humankind cannot comprehend the “Reality of the Divinity”[227] and why the plant or animal cannot comprehend the human essence; `Abdu'l-Bahá says, “the difference of conditions in the world of beings is an obstacle to comprehension”[228] and adds, “[d]ifference of condition is an obstacle to knowledge; the inferior degree cannot comprehend the superior degree.”[229] Consequently, humankind needs the Manifestation to attain knowledge of God: “if man attains to the knowledge of the Manifestations of God, he will attain to the knowledge of God.”[230] Furthermore, this principle shapes SAQ’s view of what philosophy is and can do: “Philosophy consists in comprehending the reality of things as they exist, according to the capacity and the power of man.”[231]

Here we observe not only the realist orientation of SAQ’s epistemology in knowing “the reality of things as they exist,” but also a re-affirmation of the principle that the capacity to know is linked to one’s ontological condition.

 

36. Realism and the Correspondence Theory of Truth

As indicated in our discussion of ontology, SAQ falls clearly into the realist camp. `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”[232] 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.”[233] 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.

 

SAQ builds on this realist ontological foundation by asserting that:

All sciences, knowledge, arts, wonders, institutions, discoveries and enterprises come from the exercised intelligence of the rational soul. There was a time when they wereunknown, preserved mysteries and hidden secrets; the rational soul gradually discovered them and brought them out from the plane of the invisible and the hidden into the realm   of the visible. This is the greatest power of perception in the world of nature, which in its  highest flight and soaring comprehends the realities, the properties and the effects of the contingent beings.[234]

 

The realist approach is clearly present in the assertion that the rational soul discovers the unknown, and “comprehends the realities, the properties and the effects of contingent beings.” In other words, the rational soul does not construct them, which is to say that these “realities” exist independently of the human perceiver. They once existed in a hidden form and are now revealed. Elsewhere `Abdu'l-Bahá states:

The mind and the thought of man sometimes discover truths, and from this thought and discovery signs and results are produced. This thought has a foundation. But many things come to the mind of man which are like the waves of the sea of imaginations; they have no fruit, and no result comes from them.[235]

 

Here `Abdu'l-Bahá goes into more detail. Discoveries lead to “thought [that] has a foundation,” i.e. a foundation in reality. This, in effect, asserts a correspondence theory of truth in which correct thought has a “foundation” or basis in reality, which is to say, corresponds to reality. `Abdu'l-Bahá also differentiates such thought from imaginations which he says lead to no real results. This idea is reinforced by his statement that “Man is able to resist and to oppose Nature because he discovers the constitution of things, and through this he commands the forces of Nature.”[236] The result of human discoveries that have a “foundation” in or correspond to reality is the ability to control nature. This, too, implies that discovers the pre-existing “constitution of things” and does not invent or construct them, i.e. they are independent of human perception. Here is another example:

 the rational soul 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.”[237]

 

The rational soul becomes “cognizant” of “their peculiarities and effects,” i.e. perceives them in their nature and ways of being, not in our constructions. We observe the “properties of beings,” not the humanly constructed properties that we ascribe to them.

 
Of course, humankind is not God or a Manifestation. Its ability to acquire knowledge has limits; we know “as far as human ability permits.” We are not omniscient. However, we must not draw false conclusions from this. The fact that our knowledge is limited by our human ontological station and to our human capacities does not mean it is mistaken or a human construct. A child’s knowledge of arithmetic is limited, but it is not, thereby, in error, nor is it a construction dependent on the human perceiver. Our knowledge that the Giants won the Super Bowl 2008 is a limited knowledge of the actual game, but nonetheless it is correct and not dependent on an observer. Indeed, through the course of this study, we could not locate a single direct or indirect epistemological reference in SAQ which deviated from the realist position and the consequent correspondence theory of knowledge.

 

SAQ reinforces the correspondence theory of knowledge in a variety of statements. As already noted, `Abdu'l-Bahá states that “Philosophy consists in comprehending the reality of things as they exist, according to the capacity and the power of man.”[238] To comprehend “the reality of things as they exist” is nothing other than to have one’s knowledge correspond to reality. Naturally, this comprehension is limited by our station and capacities but this does not mean that what we do in fact comprehend does not correspond to reality. Imagine a very dirty window with only one clear patch: what we see through the clear patch is limited but that does not mean what we see is not really there. Furthermore, `Abdu'l-Bahá asserts that we can gain real knowledge by the power of inference: “From known realities--that is to say, from the things which are known and visible--he discovers unknown things.”[239] His example is Columbus who “through the power of his reason he discovers another hemisphere,”[240] whose inferred knowledge corresponded to reality. Another example of `Abdu'l-Bahá’s to a correspondence theory of knowledge is the following:

 
Reflect that man's power of thought consists of two kinds. One kind is true, when it agrees with a determined truth. Such conceptions find realization in the exterior world; such are accurate opinions, correct theories, scientific discoveries and  inventions.[241]

 

Here he speaks specifically of a knowledge that “agrees with a determined truth,” i.e. knowledge that corresponds to reality. He also provides a test for this knowledge: it leads to “accurate opinions” and “correct theories” which conform to reality as well as to discoveries and inventions. In other words, such knowledge has real results testable with the reality in question.  

 

37. Rejection of Nominalism and Conceptualism

The inherent realism of SAQ places it squarely in opposition to nominalism and its variant, conceptualism. Nominalism holds that general or abstract terms i.e. ‘universals’ only exist as names (hence ‘nominalism’) and do not correspond to any reality. It is the view that things denominated by the same term share nothing in common except that fact: what all chairs have in common is that they are called

 ‘chair.’[242]

 

According to nominalism, only individuals are real; kinds, species and classes are not – something which, as we have seen, SAQ emphatically denies in its assertion of the plant, animal and human levels of spirit, each with its own particular set of class, kind or ‘species’ attributes. The same is clear from SAQ’s references to “degrees, stations, species and classes.”[243] Furthermore, for nominalism, even the common qualities of things such as colours, structure, function and materials are human constructions and do not actually correspond to any real qualities in the things perceived. This, too, conflicts with SAQ which considers the attributes of plants, animals and humans to be objectively real. Humankind, for example, has the powers of growth attributable to plants, the powers of sense and motion of animals as well as the “rational soul” which distinguishes our species. These are objectively real qualities inhering in things.

 

Moreover, as the following statement shows, humankind “discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings.”[244] It is noteworthy that we discover the realities, “peculiarities and effects,” and “the qualities and properties of beings” – we do not invent or construct them. Furthermore, the qualities which clearly belong to the things in which they inhere are a source of knowledge about things: “our knowledge of things, even of created and limited things, is knowledge of their qualities.”[245] Indeed, `Abdu'l-Bahá identifies knowledge of qualities or attributes as one of two kinds of knowledge:

 Know that there are two kinds of knowledge: the knowledge of the essence of a thing and the knowledge of its qualities. The essence of a thing is known through its qualities; otherwise, it is unknown and hidden.[246]

 

Obviously, in his view, qualities provide knowledge about things. Hence SAQ does not agree with the nominalist view that qualities do not correspond to anything real in objects.

 

It is important to emphasise this in order to locate the philosophy of SAQ on the spectrum of available philosophies and especially those of our time when nominalism in its various forms is popular, especially in its postmodern guise.[247] Locating the Bahá'í philosophy on the spectrum of available philosophies helps us determine its nature, not to mention its closest relatives and its opponents. As explained at the beginning of this paper, this has tremendous implications for teaching and explicating the Faith as well as for inter-faith dialogue, especially with religions that have strongly developed philosophical traditions.

 

38. Sources of Knowledge

 According to SAQ, there are four generally accepted sources of knowledge. The first of these is knowledge based on the evidence based on sensory observation or, as it is called today, empirical knowledge. This kind of knowledge has its stronghold in science. `Abdu'l-Bahá rejects this kind of knowledge as final and authoritative because the senses can mislead us and consequently mislead our thinking. Reason is the second method of gaining knowledge, but he rejects it as final and authoritative because it does not necessarily lead to agreement and certainty: “the method of reason is not perfect.”[248] The third method is tradition, and this method is “not perfect, because the traditions are understood by the reason . . .[and] the reason itself is liable to err.”[249] However, there is a fourth method of acquiring knowledge which is able to provide certainty.  

But the bounty of the Holy Spirit gives the true method of comprehension which is infallible and indubitable. This is through the help of the Holy Spirit which comes   to man, and this is the condition in which certainty can alone be attained.[250]

 

Let us examine this carefully, for in the contemporary philosophical climate, much depends on it. The “bounty of the Holy Spirit” provides the conditions in which we can attain “certainty,” “infallible” and “indubitable,” knowledge. Hence it is possible, at least in principle, for humankind to attain certain knowledge. The location of this passage as the conclusion of a talk on epistemology is also of interest because it demonstrates that in `Abdu'l-Bahá’s view, the spiritual condition of humankind has consequences on what and how much we are capable of knowing even in other areas. Our natural abilities, i.e. our abilities unassisted by the Holy Spirit, have inherent limitations that can only be overcome with divine support. Our spiritual condition and our capacity for knowledge are connected, as illustrated in the following statement:

 
 Now consider, in this great century which is the cycle of Bahá'u'lláh, what progress science and knowledge have made, how many secrets of existence have  been discovered, how many great inventions have been brought to light and are day by day multiplying in number. Before long, material science and learning, as well as the knowledge of God, will make such progress and will show forth such wonders that the  beholders will be amazed.[251]

 

The spiritual and the scientific are not opposed to one another and can work together in harmony. There is a further association of the Holy Spirit with knowledge and understanding when `Abdu'l-Bahá  says that the appearance of the Holy Spirit “dispels the darkness of ignorance.”[252] Here, too, spiritual condition and knowledge, i.e. epistemology, are linked.

 

Even the possibility of attaining certain knowledge distinguishes the epistemology of SAQ from that of contemporary postmodern philosophies which cannot admit that sure knowledge is possible even in principle. This is a ‘continental divide’ among modern philosophies with some philosophies, like those in the Athenian tradition, going one way and others, such as postmodernism, going another.

 
Naturally it is necessary to ask ourselves what is meant by the “bounty of the Holy Spirit.” `Abdu'l-Bahá offers one clue when discussing the proofs for God’s existence:

if the inner perception be open, a hundred thousand clear proofs become visible. Thus, when man feels the indwelling spirit, he is in no need of arguments for its existence; but for those who are deprived of the bounty of the spirit, it is necessary to establish external            arguments.[253]

 

In other words, when the mind is clear and open, we can perceive directly that which we otherwise must laboriously prove by discursive reasoning. We acquire knowledge by immediate insight because we are enlightened by the “the luminous rays which emanate from the Manifestations.”[254] This is analogous to but not the same as Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas,”[255] the difference being that `Abdu'l-Bahá includes our spiritual and not merely our intellectual condition in his statement about “the bounty of the Holy Spirit.” However, in both cases, the insight attained, the comprehension attained by the “bounty of the Holy Spirit” is foundational, i.e. it cannot be doubted and is “infallible and indubitable.” On these certain foundations we can build a variety of inferences and deductions. Therefore, we may conclude that the epistemological position of SAQ is foundational insofar as “infallible and indubitable” knowledge is at least possible for those who attain the “bounty of the Holy Spirit.” SAQ is also foundational because the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh are the certain foundations on which all other certain knowledge claims must be based.  

 

39. A Reflection on `Abdu'l-Bahá’s Statements

  `Abdu'l-Bahá’s statements about the four methods of knowledge do not assert that the senses, reason or tradition cannot be used at all in the quest for certain knowledge but rather that by themselves they are not sufficient. They are “liable to error,”[256] i.e. “not perfect”[257] which does not mean ‘always wrong’ but rather, being possibly “exposed or subject to some usually adverse contingency or action.”[258] They may be wrong in various degrees of probability, but this is not to say that they are useless in the quest for knowledge; rather, it indicates that they must be used with care and in the correct conditions. They are necessary but are not sufficient.

 

  According to `Abdu'l-Bahá the senses, reason and traditions must be augmented and assisted by the inspiration or “bounty” of the Holy Spirit; when this occurs, we meet the necessary  and sufficient condition for attaining certainty in our knowledge. This assistance provides us with a touchstone, a perspective or ‘Archimedean point’ from which we can judge whether our views agree with the revelation, are neutral towards it or disagree. Consequently, we must reject views that patently disagree with the revelation, assign various degrees of probability to those that are neutral and accept those which are endorsed or in harmony with the tenor of the Writings.

 

 In considering the epistemology of SAQ, we must beware of going to two extremes common in our time. On one hand, we must not accept the senses, reason and traditions as absolute sources of truth, the way science accepts empiricism or religions often accept unexamined tradition. Such knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for certainty. On the other hand, we must not fall – as is common in postmodern philosophy – into the trap of corrosive relativism and scepticism about all knowledge claims and judge them all as equal because we ‘can’t really know for sure.’ All truth-claims are judged to have the same degree of probability or improbability, which is a viewpoint that brings with it a host of philosophical difficulties.[259] As we have seen, however, throughout SAQ, `Abdu'l-Bahá has no hesitations in describing various views – such as pantheism, maya-ism, re-incarnationism or a real infinite regress – as erroneous.

 

 If `Abdu'l-Bahá did not think that error and truth are real and that progress involves moving from the former to the latter, he would not be able to argue that humankind needs an educator so that:


knowledge and science may increase, and the reality of things, the mysteries of beings and the properties of existence maybe discovered; that, day by day, instructions, inventions and institutions may be improved; and from things perceptible to    the senses conclusions as to intellectual things may be deduced.[260]

 

If there were no real knowledge, i.e. no difference between truth and error, and no progress in knowledge, i.e. no displacement of error by truth, or if all truth-claims had the some degree of probability or improbability, `Abdu'l-Bahá could not speak meaningfully of the “progress science and knowledge have made”[261] since the inauguration of “the cycle of Bahá'u'lláh.”[262] Elsewhere he says, “at the time of the appearance of each Manifestation of God extraordinary progress has occurred in the world of minds, thoughts and spirits.”[263] Without improvements in knowledge there would only be change and not progress; indeed, the whole idea of progressive revelation is predicated on the progress i.e. advancement of human kind. It is, therefore, clear that any variant of scepticism would effectively negate two of the key principles of progressive revelation, namely, that new Manifestations appear because humankind has progressed to the point of needing not just a renewal of the “eternal verities”[264] but also a new, more advanced teachings than previous generations, and that the advent of the Manifestation inaugurates a new era of progress and improvement.

 

SAQ encourages the conclusion that the senses, reason and tradition may give us accurate knowledge, but that we must be open to the possibility of error. This, of course, does not mean we have to be sceptical as a matter of principle even when there is no reason to be. SAQ does not foster an all-corrosive scepticism which would undermine even its own claims and teachings on the importance of discovering the truth about things. Furthermore, any wholesale rejection of reason would undermine the teaching that the distinctively human attribute is the “rational soul.”[265] It would also contradict the praise bestowed upon science, everything said about discovering truths as well as the dictum that “in this age the peoples of the world need the arguments of reason.”[266]

 

The gist of this statement is a philosophical demonstration of God’s unity: He is one because His Essence and His “essential names and attributes” are identical. If they were not, then God’s unity would be undermined by the difference between God and His attributes. An additional implication of this statement is that, unlike all other beings, God possesses no unnecessary or accidental attributes that could be separated from Him. All of His attributes are essential – but such is not the case with any other kind of being all of which are made up of both essential and accidental attributes.        

 

Each being is also a composite of matter and form. Since we have already touched on this in a foregoing discussion, there is no need to repeat the relevant evidence here. Suffice it to say that this acceptance of hylomorphism also places the philosophy embedded in SAQ in the Athenian tradition.

 

Continued in Part 3. Some Answered Questions