Metaphysics Reconsidered:
A Dialog between `Abdu'l-Bahá and August Forel

By Ramin Neshati

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #88
Bosch Bahá'í School: Santa Cruz, California, USA
May 28 – June 1, 2009
(see list of papers from #88)

    Age-old and unresolved philosophical debates over the purpose and essence of life, the nature and form of existence, the scope and structure of knowledge, the origins and models of morality or the theistic arguments over the presence and attributes of an omniscient, super-natural deity have long dodged thoughtful inquiry and challenged the constraints of human reasoning and logic. Throughout recorded history various schools of philosophy have offered explanations, hypotheses and theories to categorize, analyze and rationalize such debates. However, the prolific contributions of philosophers to human learning and wisdom, from the ancient to the modern, have yet to yield a converged, consistent, coherent and integrated framework to settle these persistent philosophical debates. How do Bahá'í teachings address such metaphysical questions? Such an exploration forms the root and reason of this talk.

    Toward the end of his life, `Abdu'l-Bahá corresponded with the celebrated Swiss scientist Auguste-Henri Forel. To the Swiss, Forel is a renowned philosopher, neuroanatomist, psychiatrist, and entomologist. Forel wrote to `Abdu'l-Bahá on December 28, 1920, after having heard of the Bahá'í Faith through his acquaintance with German adherents of this nascent religion. In this letter he expresses, among many topics, his astonishment at `Abdu'l-Bahá's pre-World War I `prophetic vision,' declares his personal belief in monism, his disbelief in the survival of the human soul after the death of the physical body, and wishes to know whether he can be considered a Bahá'í despite his `agnostic' beliefs. `Abdu'l-Bahá responded on September 21, 1921, nearly two months before he passed away. In God Passes By, Shoghi Effendi refers to `Abdu'l-Bahá's letter to Forel as `one of the most weighty the Master ever wrote.' Referencing the talks he had given during 1911-1913 when he traveled extensively to Europe and North America, `Abdu'l-Bahá painstakingly reiterates the Bahá'í principle of the complementarity of science and religion and addresses Forel's questions in a nuanced and sophisticated manner. He explains the nature of the human soul, compares and contrasts mankind to other forms of life, and delves into the relationship between man and nature. Finally, he directly and exhaustively addresses the existence of a divine create force as an unknowable metaphysical reality. Forel's reaction to `Abdu'l-Bahá's letter is noteworthy. He finds the bulk of his beliefs congruent with `Abdu'l-Bahá's explanations save for his unshaken conviction in monism and, quite possibly, a misreading of Abdu'l-Bahá's explication on the nature of the soul and its relationship to human intellect and the brain. Yet, Forel unambiguously professes his belief in the Bahá'í `principles' and affirms the same in his will. Here we will review the context and content of `Abdu'l-Bahá's dialog with Forel and explore how Bahá'í teachings on metaphysical realities can credibly and persuasively interact with current intellectual trends in ontology, epistemology and related streams of philosophical inquiry.

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