Thoughts on how the individual acquires knowledge

Chapter 5: after Reflections (13)

Keywords: understanding, soul, wisdom

This last passage explores how the individual acquires knowledge, how the individual learns.

Scientific knowledge is generated through human effort and religious knowledge is vouchsafed through Revelation.

Facts and information are the raw materials of knowledge, shaped into elements such as concepts, patterns, connections and hierarchies, the same way as building materials provide the raw materials of an edifice that has a certain structure.

Knowledge requires the faculty of understanding, the power by which we acquire knowledge of physical and spiritual reality. The knowledge of things may be associated with the things themselves. The knowledge of the universe is encoded in the universe. The knowledge of a rose is encoded in the rose. The knowledge of a human being is encoded in the human being.

Nature is bereft of understanding. Nature is ordered but is not conscious of that order, it behaves according to prescribed laws but it cannot see meaning in them. Understanding is therefore only possible with humans as it unravels the knowledge of the laws and of the order, but discovers insights that underlie their existence. Religious knowledge states that understanding is a power of the human soul (reference needed), and that the reality of man is his soul, which is beyond material existence.

The mind comprehends, understands the abstract by the aid of the concrete. The soul achieves understanding through additional means, such as the process of purification of one’s inner being, which involves constant effort to avoid idle talk and to push aside vain imaginings. The individual tries to increase detachment from that which perishes and to become more aware of the laws governing that which lasts. The individual acquires spiritual qualities.

The acquisition of wisdom is then the combination of religious and scientific knowledge. Every situation requires a specific application of knowledge. This connection between knowledge and action is a characteristic of wisdom.

The acquisition of knowledge demands three premises; an epistemological premise, a methodological premise and an ontological premise. The first premise informs us about the relationship between the inquirer and the known; the second one informs us how we know the world and gain knowledge of it; the third one informs us of the spiritual qualities required for learning in the context of advancing civilization.

The spiritually learned must be characterized by both inward and outward perfections; they must possess a good character, an enlightened nature, a pure intent, as well as intellectual power, brilliance and discernment, intuition, discretion and foresight, temperance, reverence, and a heartfelt fear of God. For an unlit candle, however great in diameter and tall, is no better than a barren palm tree or a pile of dead wood (Abdu’l-Bahá’, 2000, p. 33).

An unlit candle is static, it doesn’t move, it is not active, but it has the potential to give light. A lit candle is giving light; it diminishes with time and will eventually be consumed.

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