Abdu'l-Baha and "Ether"

April 13, 2006

An interesting little discussion on the intersection of science and religion has unfolded in Special relativity and the Bahá’í Faith. In references in Some Answered Questions and elsewhere, 'Abdu'l-Bahá speaks of "ether," a concept that was abandoned by the majority of scientists with the acceptance of Einstein's special relativity. The question then is, which should we adhere to? The religious truth or the scientific one?

Fortunately I believe this is a false dichotomy, at least in this specific situation. Despite having a masters degree in physics, I’ve never been bothered by the "ether" quotation. For example, 'Abdu'l-Bahá writes:

"Reflect that light is the expression of the vibrations of the etheric matter: the nerves of the eye are affected by these vibrations, and sight is produced. The light of the lamp exists through the vibration of the etheric matter; so also does that of the sun, but what a difference between the light of the sun and that of the stars or the lamp!"

But reference to "ether" is not made here from the standpoint of a holy man proclaiming the truth of a scientific concept. Rather, He explains the state of science (rather well, I might add), and goes on to use the relative intensity and energy of sun light compared to lamp light — both of which interact with animal eyes in the same fashion — as an analogy for a spiritual concept. Understanding the spiritual concept is what matters here, not the state of science 100 years after the above was uttered.

Though this is admittedly but one sample from the many science-referencing quotations from the Central Figures, it seems to me that the majority of such statements are intended to construct a semblance of a picture of spiritual reality — that is, they are not intended to absolutely accurately describe physical reality. Indeed, in a letter to an individual believer, the Universal House of Justice wrote that:

With reference to your question about the "ether", the various definitions of this word as given in the Oxford English Dictionary all refer to a physical reality, for instance, "an element", "a substance", "a medium", all of which imply a physical and objective reality and, as you say, this was the concept posited by nineteenth century scientists to explain the propagation of light waves. It would have been understood in this sense by the audiences whom 'Abdu'l-Baha was addressing. However, in Chapter XVI of "Some Answered Questions", 'Abdu'l-Baha devotes a whole chapter to explaining the difference between things which are "perceptible to the senses" which He calls "objective or sensible", and realities of the "intellect" which have "no outward form and no place", and are "not perceptible to the senses". He gives examples of both "kinds" of "human knowledge". The first kind is obvious and does not need elaboration. To illustrate the second kind the examples He gives are: love, grief, happiness, the power of the intellect, the human spirit and "ethereal matter". (In the original Persian the word "ethereal" is the same as "etheric".) He states clearly that "Even ethereal matter, the forces of which are said in physics to be heat, light, electricity and magnetism, is an intellectual reality, and is not sensible." In other words, the "ether" is a concept arrived at intellectually to explain certain phenomena. In due course, when scientists failed to confirm the physical existence of the "ether" by delicate experiments, they constructed other intellectual concepts to explain the same phenomena.