Vahid Houston Ranjbar
Published in
20 min readMay 3, 2016

Plato, Modern Physics and Baha’u’llah

(link to Russian language version, link to French version)

“What a penetrating vision into philosophy this eminent man had! He is the most distinguished of all philosophers….He (Socrates) it is who perceived a unique, a tempered, and a pervasive nature in things, bearing the closest likeness to the human spirit, and he discovered this nature to be distinct from the substance of things in their refined form. He hath a special pronouncement on this weighty theme. Wert thou to ask from the worldly wise of this generation about this exposition, thou wouldst witness their incapacity to grasp it…”Baha’u’llah Tablet of Wisdom (1873)[2]

Socrates and his pupil Plato are highly praised in the Baha’i writings. Socrates is the protagonist of Plato’s discourses, thus it is difficult to disentangle Plato’s ideas from those of Socrates. Outside of their ideas about political philosophy, Plato was also concerned with the so-called theory of forms, and it is this idea Baha’u’llah attributes to Socrates. However, Baha’u’llah’s appreciation seems to go much further than Plato’s theory. The theory of forms claims that non-physical idealized forms or ideas represent the most accurate reality and that physical objects derive their ‘essence’ from their relationship to these forms. These forms are often described as models or templates from which imperfect copies or projections are made in the physical world.

Fig. 1 Kepler’s Platonic solid model of the Solar System from Mysterium Cosmographicum(1596)

Plato uses the well-known cave analogy to illustrate this relationship. He imagined that there are several prisoners trapped in a cave deep underground.Their bodies and heads are held immobile with chains and brackets against one wall and on the other are projected shadows of objects, which are cast by a large torch held behind their heads. The prisoners only know this reality and so mistake the shadows they see projected on the wall for reality itself. Eventually one of the prisoners escapes and sees the real objects being projected and realizes the nature of the deception. This freed prisoner is likened to the enlightened philosopher or, as we might say, a spiritually awakened person. The prisoners are all of humanity and the shadows are what we take to be physical reality.

Fig 2. Plato’s Cave

This idea of a separation between the “essence” of a thing and its actual physical attributes held powerful sway over Christian and Islamic thought, since it fit very well within their theologies. However, by the middle ages Nominalists like William of Ockham (of Occam’s razor) began to question this viewpoint. Later, British Empiricists like Hume rejected the Platonic notion of essences existing apart from physical reality. This viewpoint is now dominant in present day scientific thought. The idea of an essence beyond what can be directly measured is looked on as pseudoscience. This may be more a problem of language, however, especially when one reflects on the triumph of math in modern physics and the growing view that math somehow represents the “true” nature of reality.

Fig 3. David Hume

One can trace this radical view of math to the introduction of the quantum wave equation by Schrodinger and the matrix representation by Heisenberg in the mid 1920’s. The new wave function presented a problem: it was explicitly non-physical due to the fact that it was an imaginary or complex valued object. Additionally, when evaluated to generate measurable quantities, it operated in a probabilistic manner.

The debate over what this wave function represented physically was somewhat resolved by the so-called Copenhagen interpretation. At the heart of this view is Max Born’s thesis that the wave function is simply a mathematical object which can yield a probability density function — thus it has no physical meaning outside of mathematics and its ability to “predict” a particles behavior. Needless to say, physicists hated this interpretation, though it has become increasingly accepted in the ensuing 80 years. Yet initially many clung to the belief that the wave function was masking some other local physics that we just couldn’t measure. These were known as the “hidden” variable theories. To try and prove this thesis, Einstein and others came up with the now famous EPR paradox [2] to expose what was considered an absurd consequence of quantum mechanics; the fact that two particles, after interacting and becoming “entangled” quantum mechanically, could affect the measured state of each other after being separated by a great distance. However, Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” was subsequently demonstrated through many experiments with quantum entanglement. In 1964, John Bell put forward his famous theorem, which states, “No physical theory of local hidden variables can ever reproduce all of the predictions of quantum mechanics.” He further proposed an approach to test the validity of this theorem by measuring the occurrences of correlations between measured states of particles, which were quantum entangled [3]. Experiments testing Bell’s inequality in 1972, 1981 and more recently 2015 [4], have so far lain to rest any theory of local hidden variables.

It was actually Heisenberg himself who grasped the connection between of quantum mechanics and the Platonic viewpoint:

Fig. 4 Werner Karl Heisenberg (1901–1976)

“I think that modern physics has definitely decided in favor of Plato. In fact the smallest units of matter are not physical objects in the ordinary sense; they are forms, ideas which can be expressed unambiguously only in mathematical language”[5].

There are several important aspects of quantum mechanics that lend themselves to the Platonic interpretation. First, the clear separation between the object measured and the mathematical form, which gives rise to the object. Then there is, as Heisenberg acknowledged, the fact that the “units of matter” are really just mathematical ideas.

Additionally, there is more subtle evidence for the correctness of Plato’s view. It flows from the fact that fundamental physical interactions are governed by probability and not pure determinism. If we accept the assumption that the universe is either spatially infinite or eternal, the logical consequence is that all forms are eternal. This is because probabilistic physics operating over any kind of infinity will yield all outcomes that have a non-zero probability of occurring, even if that probability is infinitesimally small. Thus everything that could exist has a non-zero probability of occurring. This means in a universe with infinite space, all these forms must exist with an infinite number of occurrences, and if the universe is eternal,these forms will occur an infinite number of times.

This is the foundation for notions of parallel universes[6] so popular with sci-fi writers and analytics philosopher. In fact the only escape from an infinite multiplicity of identities is the conjecture of a unique human soul. Either way the death and decay of forms would seem to be an illusion — a simple product of our limited sampling.

If we now return and reflect on Baha’u’llah’s praise of Socrates, the innovation he attributes to the Greek philosopher is even more explicitly consistent with modern quantum field theory than Plato’s theory of forms as it is usually understood. At the very least it is much more descriptive. It would seem he is describing, within the limits of the language available to him, the existence of a quantum field. If we reflect on this word “spirit” and what it really means, one can see that it contains both the concepts of non-physicality and pervasiveness, which are the hallmarks of the quantum wave function. In fact he even uses the word “pervasive” as if to emphasize this aspect.

Finally he also states that the people of his generation were incapable of grasping the implications of this idea. This is an interesting point, since Plato’s theory of forms was of course well known and thoroughly studied for millennia. One could understand such a statement in light of what would come some 50 years later, with the important difference however that he seems to imply — by using the word “things” that this type of relationship exists not only between basic particles of matter, but well beyond that.

Fig 5. An example of the type of interaction being studied by Experiment 234 in the Fermilab 15-Foot Bubble Chamber

It is interesting that Baha’u’llah’s son and appointed interpreter, Abdu’l-Baha, seems to presage important concepts in many of his philosophical talks, often decades before they became current among physicists. For example in his excellent article “Ether, Quantum Physics and the Bahá’í Writings” Robin Mihrshahi [7] points out how Abdu’l-Baha used the word ‘ether,’ commonly understood at that time as the medium for propagation of electro-magnetic waves, in a totally new manner consistent with quantum mechanics. Abdu’l-Baha describes it not as a physical reality but an intellectual one “…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”[8]

In another place Abdu’l-Baha seems to intuitively understand another profound consequence of quantum mechanics: the non-existence of absolute rest, or the impossibility of reaching absolute zero Kelvin. In several places Abdu’l-Baha makes the statement: “that movement is essential to existence” or later, “All creation, whether of the mineral, vegetable or animal kingdom, is compelled to obey the law of motion;” [9] , “Divine and all-encompassing Wisdom hath ordained that motion be an inseparable concomitant of existence” [10].

Fig. 6 Abdu’l-Bahá Son of Bahá’u’lláh

From a Baha’i viewpoint, one might understand these Platonic forms or ideas as the words of God.

“(the) Word of God which is the Cause of the entire creation, while all else besides His Word are but the creatures and the effects thereof. Verily thy Lord is the Expounder, the All-Wise. Know thou, moreover, that the Word of God — exalted be His glory — is higher and far superior to that which the senses can perceive, for it is sanctified from any property or substance. It transcendeth the limitations of known elements and is exalted above all the essential and recognized substances. It became manifest without any syllable or sound and is none but the Command of God which pervadeth all created things. It hath never been withheld from the world of being.” [1]

If we parse more carefully this concept of the ‘Word of God’ we conclude at its simplest level words are containers of ideas or “information”. With the increasing dominance of information technology in our lives, the organizing and creative power possible in information would seem obvious. However from a physics point of view, the connection between information, life and the rise of order is only now beginning to be understood. This understanding can trace its genesis back to the late 19th century. The development of the steam engine helped prompt the new physics of thermodynamics. Thermodynamics was originally concerned with the behavior of gases and heat engines. From this sprung the understanding of physical laws, which governed energy and order. The most important of these were the laws that related the symmetry of the distribution for a given gas to the energy that could be extracted. So, for example, if there was a system where one container held a “hot” gas and another a “cold” gas, the heat differential could be used to drive a so-called heat engine. However, once the system was thermally mixed no more work could be extracted.

The new concept of entropy quantified this symmetry of mixing. A system was in the highest entropic state when it was most symmetrical — that is, when the hot and cold gases were perfectly mixed. So, if one sampled the gas at any point, one would find an equal number of fast (hot) and slow (cold) particles.

The lowest entropic state was one where the hot and cold particles were distributed as asymmetrically as possible, the fast particles completely separated from the slow. The concept of entropy was introduced along with the second law of thermodynamics, which related the rise of entropy to the extraction of energy from a given system.

It was around this time that James Maxwell came up with a famous thought experiment that challenged the ideas enshrined in the second law of thermodynamics, specifically the idea that for a system of particles in thermal equilibrium, where all the fast and slow moving particles were completely mixed, no more work could be extracted. Maxwell imagined a box containing this distribution with a wall dividing it into two sides. In the wall there was a door, which was controlled by some demon that would open the door only for fast moving particles and keep it shut for the slow particles. In this way, over time, all the fast particles would come to reside on one side of the box, leaving the slow particles on the other. In this situation, a heat engine could be run from the differential in temperature, and thus extracting work in violation of the second law of thermodynamics.

For many years Maxwell’s demon challenged the understanding of entropy and the second law. Later, statistical mechanics were worked into the existing thermodynamic framework and entropy was understood as representing the possible states of a given system. Finally, entropy made its way into the new field of information theory when Shannon equated the statistical definition of entropy with information [11]. Maxwell’s Demon began to be understood as a class of information engines. An information engine is currently understood as a system which can turn information into work. Here information gathered by the demon concerning the velocity of each particle represented a rise in entropy. This is because this information needed to be stored on some physical medium whose initial entropic state had to be considered. So, for example, a magnetic tape, which stores information as zeros and ones, needed to be first initialized to be all zeros. This initialization placed the tape into a lower entropic state, which was then given up as information was recorded. In the end, the work required to reset this memory would consume more energy than was extracted, thus preserving the second law. This is known as Landauer’s erasure principle. [12] More recently a physical realization of a type of Maxwell demon machine has been created using a photon circuit. [13]

Fig. 7 Fast (white) and slow (black) particle in equilibrium (top). Maxwell’s Demon opens door to sort particles of different speed (bottom).

However, the implications of Maxwell’s Demon are still somewhat unresolved and debated. There are also some that assert there is an important confusion in Shannon’s definition of information as entropy. Adami has recently pointed this out, [14] claiming that what Shannon called information and equated with entropy was really a measure of uncertainty, not information as it would be commonly understood.

For example a coin that can have two defined states, heads or tails, has a defined amount of entropy, which is less entropy than a six-sided dice, which has six possible states. This is what Shannon called information, because a six-state system can hold more bits of information than a two-state system.

Adami goes on to define information as “anything, which can give one the ability to predict an outcome better than chance.” To my knowledge this new definition of information has yet to be applied to the case of Maxwell’s Demon. The existing literature uses the standard Shannon version of information. It would seem that using the new definition of information wouldn’t alter the ultimate implications for the second law of thermodynamics, however I would argue that it does alter the conclusions about the role of information in generating order.

For example, Shannon’s definition relates the rise of entropy with the rise of information. Information defined in this way takes on a “negative” meaning with respect to order. This I believe misses the role which the information plays in facilitating the generation of order. If we use the Adami understanding of information we can identify the inherent information present in the system. This inherent information is represented in the implied physical assumption that allows the demon to predict the future trajectories of the particles and thus sort them using the trapdoor, or even the fact that faster particles are those that make a system “warmer”and slower make a system “colder.” This information inherent in the system is overlooked using the standard definition of information. Further using this approach permits a better linkage to biological systems which use the information inherent in DNA to generate order.

Adami argues that it is this “information” that is the real commodity of evolutionary biology. The better an organism is at modeling its environment the more chance it has of passing on its genes. The process of reflecting or adapting to the environment drives evolution. This concept has echoes of the common mystical idea that we are “mirrors” of God and the universe. “Doth thou reckon thyself only a puny form when within thee the universe is folded?”[15].

Or as Baha’u’llah says: “He hath entrusted every created thing with a sign of His knowledge, so that none of His creatures may be deprived of its share in expressing, each according to its capacity and rank, this knowledge. This sign is the mirror of His beauty in the world of creation.” [16]

In my opinion we are still on the threshold of understanding the deep connections between the origin of order and information inherent in the laws of nature. Again in the Tablet of Wisdom, Baha’u’llah makes another important statement relevant to the origin of order. He also here seems to steer away from the strictly rationalist approach of Plato. Plato famously believed that all knowledge could be arrived at by direct application of the intellect and that this was superior to observation.

“Look at the world and ponder a while upon it. It unveileth the book of its own self before thine eyes and revealeth that which the Pen of thy Lord, the Fashioner, the All-Informed, hath inscribed therein. It will acquaint thee with that which is within it and upon it and will give thee such clear explanations as to make thee independent of every eloquent expounder.”[1]

In this paragraph Baha’u’llah emphasizes what ironically is the core idea of empiricism and where one might see a fundamental break with the Platonic approach. He advocates for observation of nature as the basis for deductions. Then, in the next paragraph, Baha’u’llah goes on to modify the standard supernatural theory of creation:

“Say: Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise. Were anyone to affirm that it is the Will of God as manifested in the world of being, no one should question this assertion. It is endowed with a power whose reality men of learning fail to grasp. Indeed a man of insight can perceive naught therein save the effulgent splendor of Our Name, the Creator. Say: This is an existence which knoweth no decay, and Nature itself is lost in bewilderment before its revelations, its compelling evidences and its effulgent glory which have encompassed the universe.”[1]

In this paragraph he breaks with the “traditional” religious narrative, which places supernatural forces as the immediate cause of creation. Here he states that, “Nature” creates by virtue of its association with the divine name “Creator.” While the ultimate cause of creation is still the divine, its immediate cause is “Nature.”

These two paragraphs also form the backbone of the Baha’i principle of harmony between science and religion, a principal explicitly enunciated by Abdu’l-Bahá’: “The third principle or teaching of Bahá’u’lláh is the oneness of religion and science. Any religious belief which is not conformable with scientific proof and investigation is superstition.”[17] This is because it forces followers of Baha’u’llah to always return to the benchmark of the empirical observation of nature, and be prepared to subject their interpretations of scripture to the rigors of experimental observation. Ultimately Nature is held up as another “book” of God.

A deeper study of Baha’i epistemology as elaborated by Abdu’l-Baha reveals a practical viewpoint that values both rationalist and empirical approaches to knowledge. However, it is understood that neither are absolutely free from error. In Abdu’l-Baha’s analysis the only error-free species of knowledge comes from what he terms the “grace of the Holy Spirit.” In all cases the vehicle to correct knowledge is objectivity or detachment. In the opening verses of Baha’u’llah’s book of Certitude he says “No man shall attain the shores of the ocean of true understanding except he be detached from all that is in heaven and on earth.”[18]

This paragraph in the Tablet of Wisdom on Nature indicates that Nature continually “creates”and is possessed of a power or force which can bring order. In a letter to the naturalist Dr. Forel Abdu’l-Baha seems to refer to this as the “the Ancient Power”[19]. “Nature” is only one term or concept among many that the Bahá’í writings employ to explain what is rather unexplainable to our finite minds. In another place Abdu’l-Baha identifies “Love” with the power to bring forth life. “Love is the very cause of life”. “We declare that love is the cause of the existence of all phenomena and that the absence of love is the cause of disintegration or nonexistence.”[17] He then goes on to relate the “attractive force” to Love.

What is tantalizing is that recent work by Barbour[20] and his colleagues seem to show that there is something unique about systems under the operation of an attractive force. In this paper they say, “self-gravitating systems exhibit “anti-thermodynamic” behavior that is not fully understood.” Thermodynamics as it was originally conceived didn’t take into account gravitation. Indeed the operation of self-attractive forces leads to symmetry breaking and clustering which is very different from how ideal gases behave. Further Barbour’s work represents a possible solution to the origin of the so-called time’s arrow and the asymmetry between matter and antimatter in the universe. Both are important and deep questions in physics. Most physicists have identified the irreversible process described in the second law of thermodynamics as the “arrow of time.” So, for example, the process of mixing gases described earlier or breaking of a glass into many pieces, represent physical occurrences which one rarely observes in reverse and so distinguishes the backward from the forward direction of time.

Fig. 8 Three configurations at different Newtonian times t of a typical solution of the N-body problem. The time symmetry of the law is reflected in qualitative symmetry about the central region in which the distribution of the particles is maximally uniform. The direction of time indicated by the arrow of the time axis is purely conventional. Either choice of direction gives contraction with structure destruction through uniformity at minimal size followed by expansion and structure formation, mainly in the form of Kepler pairs (shown as loops). Internal observers must be on one side of the central region and would regard it as their past ( Figure from [20]).

Since the discovery of antimatter in 1932, the question of why normal matter dominates in our universe over antimatter has been unresolved. This is because the laws which govern their production don’t seem to exhibit a significant enough preference for matter over antimatter [21]. This question is also deeply related to questions of time directionality, since it is understood that antimatter represents matter with reverse time propagation. It is part of what embodies the so-called charge, parity and time (CPT) violation searches in high energy physics.

In their studies of simple many-body models of the universe governed by Newtonian laws of gravitational attraction, they have discovered that such systems naturally exhibit modes which both converge and de-converge from what might be considered a type of big-bang singularity. In this case antimatter represents a kind of anti-time converging on the singularity and normal matter normal time divergent from the singularity (see Fig. 8).

Finally Baha’u’llah also in his writings indicate that profound scientific and artistic advances soon to be revealed in the future. He attributes their imminent discovery to forces released via the revelation of the ‘words of God’ in his age.

“ Through the mere revelation of the word “Fashioner,” issuing forth from His lips and proclaiming His attribute to mankind, such power is released as can generate, through successive ages, all the manifold arts which the hands of man can produce. This, verily, is a certain truth. No sooner is this resplendent word uttered, than its animating energies, stirring within all created things, give birth to the means and instruments whereby such arts can be produced and perfected. All the wondrous achievements ye now witness are the direct consequences of the Revelation of this Name. In the days to come, ye will, verily, behold things of which ye have never heard before. Thus hath it been decreed in the Tablets of God, and none can comprehend it except them whose sight is sharp. In like manner, the moment the word expressing My attribute “The Omniscient” issueth forth from My mouth, every created thing will, according to its capacity and limitations, be invested with the power to unfold the knowledge of the most marvelous sciences, and will be empowered to manifest them in the course of time at the bidding of Him Who is the Almighty, the All-Knowing.”[22]

However in Baha’u’llah’s Tablet Kalimat-i-firdawsiyyih (Words of Paradise) he leaves us with several astounding warnings concerning the progress of civilization and the power of future scientific discoveries: “In all matters moderation is desirable. If a thing is carried to excess, it will prove a source of evil. Consider the civilization of the West, how it hath agitated and alarmed the peoples of the world. An infernal engine hath been devised, and hath proved so cruel a weapon of destruction that its like none hath ever witnessed or heard….Strange and astonishing things exist in the earth but they are hidden from the minds and the understanding of men. These things are capable of changing the whole atmosphere of the earth and their contamination would prove lethal.” [23]

Links to my other articles on religion and science:

Plato, Modern Physics and Baha’u’llah

One Physicist’s first Look at Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablet of the Universe

The Known and Unknown: Physics and the Revelation of Baha’u’llah

Does the singularity of God require the singularity of Religion?

The Spirit of Faith and Eternal Life

A Talismanic View of Evolution

Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab and Shaykh Ahmad

The fetish of exaggerated individualism is driving us to extinction.

Links to Short Stories:

Igor (part I), The Refugee (part II), Marion-Jack (part III),

The Amerikans (part IV)


[1] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed After the Kitáb-i-Aqdas: Tablet of Wisdom

[2] Einstein, A; B Podolsky; N Rosen (1935–05–15). “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality be Considered Complete?” (PDF).Physical Review 47 (10): 777–780. Bibcode:1935PhRv…47..777E.doi:10.1103/PhysRev.47.777

[3] J. S. Bell, On the Einstein Podolsky Rosen paradox, Physics 1, p. 195–200, 1964.

[4] “Loophole-free Bell inequality violation using electron spins separated by 1.3 kilometres”. Nature 526: 682–686. doi:10.1038/nature15759

[5] As quoted in The New York Times Book Review (8 March 1992).

[6] In The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, 2011

[7] Australian Bahá’í Studies Journal, Volume 4 (2002).

[8] Some Answered Questions by Abdu’l-Baha pp 83–86:

[9] Paris Talks by Abdu’l-Baha pp 88–94

[10] Tablet of the Universe, published in Makátib-i ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Volume 1, pages 13–32 (1997) (provisional English translation)

[11] Shannon, C.E. (1948), “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”, Bell System Technical Journal, 27, pp. 379–423 & 623–656, July & October, 1948.

[12] Landauer, R., 1961, IBM J. Res. Dev. 5, 183

[13] M. D. Vidrighin et. al. PRL 116, 050401 (2016)

[14] Christoph Adami, “What is Information” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A mathematical, physical and engineering sciences

[15] Seven Valleys by Baha’ullah quoting Ali

[16] Baha’u’llah Gleanings CXXIV

[17] Promulgation of Universal Peace. Abdu’l-Baha

[18] THE KITÁB-I-ÍQÁN The Book of Certitude. Buaha’u’llah:

[19] Abdu’l‑Baha’s Tablet to Dr. Forel:

[20] PRL 113, 181101 (2014)


[22] Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah LXXIV:

[23] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed After the Kitáb-i-Aqdas: Words of Paradise

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Vahid Houston Ranjbar

I am a research physicist working on beam and spin dynamics. I like to write about connections between science and religion.