Aug 24

Books on Science and Religion #13: Scientific Materialism in 19th Century Germany

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


August 24, 2014

What is scientific materialism?

Is it more than just materialism? Is it proof from science that – despite our stubborn belief that we have minds and our fullest reality is our thought – everything is just matter?

The Baha’i point of view is that we fall into “the despairing slough” of materialism when we try to make progress on the basis of science alone.  This is one of the meanings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s analogy in Paris Talks (p. 143):

Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone!

wm-blake-out-of-slough-of-despondShould a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.

I see this, among other things, as saying that a preoccupation with matter – an unbalanced focus that ignores crucial spiritual, ethical, and moral aspects of reality – is like driving your car and only taking left turns. Soon you are off the road.

Materialism surrounds us, according to the Century of Light (commissioned by the Baha’i Universal House of Justice). Baha’is and others daily are

… struggling against … the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science”, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness. (p.135).

In the following, we look at the rise of scientific materialism in mid-19th century Germany. We are following Richard Olson’s historical overview on the 19th century origins of modern scientism called Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Writers like Steven Pinker, Victor Stenger, A.C. Grayling, or Richard Dawkins claiming that science shows religion to be false are parroting the views we discuss in the following.

Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century EuropeFirst, let’s define scientific materialism. The best definitions I’ve seen is by Ian Barbour – the physicist, thinker, scholar, and public intellectual most responsible for putting issues of science and religion at the forefront of modern intellectual discourse. He defines materialism and scientific materialism as follows (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. p.760-761):

Materialism is the assertion that matter is the fundamental reality in the universe. Materialism is a form of metaphysics (a claim concerning the most general characteristics and constituents of reality).

Scientific materialism makes a second assertion: The scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge. … The two assertions are linked; if the only real entities are those with which science deals, then science is the only valid path to knowledge.

German Scientific Materialism in the Mid-19th Century

220px-Vogt1Our previous blog reviewed the development of the mid-19th German philosophical foundations of materialism. Briefly stated, developments in German philosophy (most notably those following Hegel’s historical philosophy) and in radical German theology led to pungent criticism of traditional Christianity and of religion. David Strauss’s LIfe of Jesus denied divinity to Christ and claimed the Bible to be fiction and myth. Ludwig Feuerbach, in the Essence of Christianity, portrayed traditional Christianity as egoistic and inhumane and proclaimed that God was simply man’s inner nature projected onto the universe – a “false essence”.

The scientific materialisms of Carl Vogt (1817-1895), Jacob Moleschott (1822-1893), and Ludwig Büchner (1824-1899) soon followed. These writers “collectively managed to convince themselves and many of their readers – both those who sympathized with their perspectives and those who bitterly opposed them – that materialism was a natural consequence of scientific activity,” writes Olson.  And despite the fact the overwhelming majority of German scientist rejected their dogmatism, their views came to seen as representative of those of the whole scientific community by a German public thirsty for scientific knowledge.

moleschottThree of the most significant factors contributing to the success of this scientific materialism were (a) the failure of the 1948 German revolution and the support of both the church and traditional philosophy for conservative values, (b) the rapid growth of mid-19th century German science, and (c) the emergence of the view that sensation – the evidence of the senses – was the basis of science and knowledge. Lets explore the later, as it features so strongly in the talks and addresses of `Abdu’l-Baha.


The elevation of the importance of sensation was an innovation due to Feuerbach. He, against Hegel, argued that sensation, like self-consciousness, was a primary quality of knowing and knowledge. For scientific materialists, sensation came to be seen as a core component of science. Here is how Friedrich Gregory’s classic Scientific Materialism in Nineteenth Century Germany sets the stage:

Feuerbach came to believe that man’s conception of nature was dependent upon an act of human experience equally as primary as self-consciousness. This was the act of sensation … [to Feuerbach], this meant that] sense experience was not being understood for what it was in reality, but that it was being treated as a purely intellectual phenomenon
dependent solely on the mind.

BuchnerThis, according to Feuerbach, meant that Kant and Hegel had failed to recognize a crucial aspect of reality and this was not only a crucial failure but that it was a failure of traditional religion and theology:

By intellectualizing the experience of sensation Hegel and other idealists had severed sensation’s roots in the real world and made it possible to bestow upon sensation an illusory, false, and merely imagined foundation, one that existed only in the mind. The abstractions of speculative philosophy were no more than real experiences transferred to the realm of thought and there made into a separate, ideal reality. … When these were intellectualized said Feuerbach, the result was theology.

Thus Feuerbach argued that ” the various theological doctrines of Christianity were intellectualized forms of authentic human experiences, and that as … man became aware of his nature as a social creature, he realized the sensual needs he possessed.”

What this meant in the hands of the scientific materialists was that philosophy and religion were both wrong. Only sensation and science was a reliable source of knowledge. Others, following their lead, would go much further. Religion, they were to claim, worked evil by denying sensation and its importance, contrary to science. (A modern philosopher of science is likely to suggest that sensation was being mistaken for empiricism – the systematic acquisition of knowledge through measurement that is an essential component of science.)

To Baha’is and like-minded people, it is of great interest to consider how `Abdu’l-Baha, addressing European and North American audiences at the beginning of the 20th century, criticized this point of view. It is the only case that I know of where `Abdu’l-Baha used ridicule. Here is how it put it at Green Acre Maine 1912 in the United States in The Promulgation of Universal Peace (p.262):

The donkey is the greatest scientist and the cow an accomplished naturalist, for they have obtained what they know without schooling and years of laborious study in colleges, trusting implicitly to the evidence of the senses and relying solely upon intuitive virtues. The cow, for instance, is a lover of the visible and a believer in the tangible, contented and happy when pasture is plenty, perfectly serene, a blissful exponent of the transcendental school of philosophy. Such is the status of the material philosophers, who glory in sharing the condition of the cow, imagining themselves in a lofty station. Reflect upon their ignorance and blindness.

German Scientific Materialism – An Analysis

Kulturgeschichte / Industrie / HŸttenwerke / Gie§ereienOne of the basic premise of German scientific materialism was that it would destroy both traditional religion and philosophy.  Büchner, whose book Force and Matter was both highly popular and widely translated, wrote that

Starting from the recognition of the indissoluble relation that exists between force and matter as an indestructible basis, the view of nature resting upon empirical philosophy must result banning every form of supernaturalism or idealism from what may be called the hermeneutics of natural facts … There seems to us to be no doubt about the ultimate victory of this realistic philosophy over its antagonists. The strength of its proofs lies in facts, and not in unintelligible and meaningless phrases.

The scientific basis for German scientific materialism is obscure to our generation, accustomed as it is to quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity..  Mainly, it evokes the conservation of energy and matter.  But it also could be very similar to modern thought in that it argued that everything was built on a “substratum of organized matter”. The Buddhist writer Alan Wallace summarizes it thus in his excellent critique of western rationalist thought in Embracing Mind:

Force and Matter (1855) reduced the mind and consciousness to physical brain states produced by active matter. Büchner rejected religion, God, Creation, and free will, and in a later work denied there was any difference between mind and matter at all. In the same vein the Dutch physiologist and philosopher Jacob Moleschott expounded a theory that thoughts and emotions had a physiological basis. 

What this meant to scientific materialist, according to Wallace, is the following:

Existence is purely physical—there is no other reality. The sources of this reality are the laws of nature, forces that are entirely impersonal, having no connection whatsoever with the mind of human beings, their beliefs, or values. These laws operate in isolation from any supernatural, spiritual influences, all of which are illusory.

Life in the universe is an accident, the outcome of mechanical interactions among complex patterns of matter and energy. The life of an individual, one’s personal history, hopes and dreams, loves and hates, feelings, desires— everything—are the outcome of physical forces acting upon and within one’s body.

Death means the utter destruction of the individual and his or her consciousness, and this too is the destiny of all life in the universe—eventually it will disappear without a trace. In short, human beings live encapsulated within a vast, alien world, a universe entirely indifferent to their longings, unaware of their triumphs, mute to their suffering. Only by facing this reality and accepting it fully can humans live rationally.

But this view of the world, Wallace argues, is not a scientific discovery, but a philosophical metaphysics:

So nineteenth-century scientific materialists created a philosophy based on a set of beliefs that was not arrived at scientifically, or to put it differently, was supported by modes of inquiry that focused exclusively on material phenomena. They speculated beyond the scientific evidence into the realm of metaphysics, normally the sphere of religion and philosophy. … [and] the public was unaware that there was more to this new philosophy than pure science,

Wallace argues, and I agree, that this is what people believe to be the worldview of science:

Most people today, asked if this sounds familiar and where does it come from, would answer, “This is what science tells us about life and the universe.” … Perhaps one of the reasons for the strong polarity existing today between religion and secularism is the widespread influence of this view. In this modern “scientific” world, we are given a narrow choice: accept either scientific materialism or religious faith (which, according to scientific materialists, means turning your back on reality).

But, of course, it is not. It is just another ideological point of view stemming from our need for belief, one that grew powerful and influential, and one that haunts us still.

This analysis means, assuming that it is correct, that we can answer the question posed at the beginning of this blog. Scientific materialism, a phenomena that burst into the world in mid-19th century Germany, is not science. Rather, it a set of metaphysical beliefs based on 19th century German philosophy and science, buttressed by French positivism and enlightenment atheism

Next Blog

Next week, we address the extraordinarily destructive dialectical materialisms of Marxism, the other offshoot of Feuerbach’s radical theology innovations.


This is the 13th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Aug 19

Increase in arrests highlights continuing persecution of Baha’is in Iran

From the Bahá’í World News Service:

 — The arrest last week of five Baha’is in Tehran signals a rising tide of detainments and imprisonments of Baha’is in Iran in recent months.

Since June, at least 14 Baha’is have been arrested, a trend that exemplifies a pattern of systematic persecution of Iranian Baha’is by the government, this despite its claims to uphold international standards of human rights. In Yazd, 20 Baha’is who had originally been acquitted of charges leveled against them in 2012 learned in August 2013 that their cases had been re-opened and all 20 sentenced to prison, notwithstanding the judge’s admission that they were being treated unjustly. The Baha’is appealed the case and, in a flagrant miscarriage of justice, the sentences against all 20 were upheld. The deputy head of the Justice Administration told the lawyers of the Baha’is that: “The accused are members of a hostile sect who have no citizenship rights.”

More than 100 Baha’is are currently in prison on false charges related entirely to their religious beliefs, while thousands more are subjected to various forms of discrimination and harassment, including denial of access to university and increasingly severe economic repression.

Bahá'í arrestsThe latest arrests in Tehran, for example, appear to be related to ongoing efforts to prevent Baha’is from earning an adequate living. The five were arrested after agents from the Ministry of Intelligence raided the optical shop where they work on 11 August 2014. In February 2014, an optical shop owned by a Baha’i in Tabriz was closed down by the authorities on the grounds of “market saturation”, but Muslim owners of optical shops in the same location experienced no such difficulties. It is understood that “market saturation” has only been used in the cases of Baha’is. Clearly the government is disallowing Baha’is in some cities to own certain types of business on the grounds that too many Baha’is are engaged in it. Read the rest of this entry »


Aug 17

Books on Science and Religion #12: The Foundations of German Materialism

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


August 18, 2014

Materialism – the word – means several things.

It can mean, for example, the pursuit of material wealth – fancy cars, expensive clothes, a beautiful house, a big TV, those kinds of things. People get caught up in it, pursuing wealth to the disadvantage of everything else. It is a hugely disturbing world trend today, growing in the United States, China, and throughout the third world. It is highly disruptive – and is probably one the greatest contributors to the impoverishment of a large cross-section of the world’s peoples.

2010-10-12 016Materialism can also mean the doctrine that material things are all that there is. There is – this kind of materialism holds – no God. Thought, perception, consciousness, and our minds are simply the consequences of material configurations of atoms, molecules, biological entities, fields, forces, those kinds of things. It is sometimes called physicalism, metaphysical naturalism, or scientific materialism. Closely related, but different, are the Marxist versions of materialism – historical materialism and dialectical materialism.

Materialism of all kinds are related. If you believe that material things are all there is, then it is easy to consider satisfaction of material desires and/or an exclusionary focus on material progress as all there is.

German science and scientism – along with social movements like Marxism that owe it substantial debts – are discussed in Chapters 4, 5, and 6 of Richard Olson’s excellent Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Before diving into those chapters, we briefly review the Baha’i teachings on the topic. Read the rest of this entry »


Aug 11

Books on Science and Religion #11: The Beginnings of German Materialism

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


August 10, 2014

Why are so many scientists and intellectuals so critical of religion?

The Baha’i Faith tells us that religion – or more precisely – true religion, is essential to humankind’s progress:

[The Baha'i Faith] … enjoins upon its followers the primary duty of an unfettered search after truth, condemns all manner of prejudice and superstition, declares the purpose of religion to be the promotion of amity and concord, proclaims its essential harmony with science, and recognizes it as the foremost agency for the pacification and the orderly progress of human society.

If religion is “the foremost agency for the pacification and the orderly progress of human society”, then bypassing it or undermining it would have disastrous consequences as it loses strength, vitality, and relevance. And it is hard to not see those disastrous consequences.

This doesn’t weigh into the criticisms of Steven Pinker – the Harvard experimental psychologist. He completely rejects religion, saying that science shows “that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures – their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies – are factually mistaken.”

free-vector-mathematician-scientist-clip-art_108774_Mathematician_Scientist_clip_art_hightMy guess is that this is not the real reason for his critique. For one thing, it is mainly untrue.

Simply put, religion is not about theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies – and its description of those things are mainly metaphorical in nature. Rather, it focuses on the spiritual, moral, and ethical dimensions of life. It may be that Pinker is thinking of theories opposed to Darwinian evolution. But those are invariably ad hoc and taken seriously only as a polemic. It is Newton’s laws of motions, of course, that are the religious theories of the universe par excellence, given Newton’s strongly religious character and their central place in English religious life in the 18th century. But I doubt that they are recognized by Pinker as such. Read the rest of this entry »


Aug 03

Books on Science and Religion Books on Science and Religion #10: Richard Olsen’s Science and Scientism in 19th Century Europe

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


August 3, 2014

Steven Pinker – the highly capable experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist, popular science writer, and Harvard professor – tells us that

… the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken.

The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value. … the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science.  (Pinker, Steven. “Science Is Not Your Enemy.” The New Republic, August 6, 2013).

ArtificialFictionBrainThis, of course, is pure belief – the findings of science tell us no such thing. That doesn’t prevent this belief from being widely shared or being seen by the masses as true. Materialism and scientism are ideologies – and they are not just believed by this or that college professor. In one form or another, they are the accepted views of the age. One Common Faith, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, puts it this way:

Early in the twentieth century, a materialistic interpretation of reality had consolidated itself so completely as to become the dominant world faith insofar as the direction of society was concerned. … For many in the West, the Divine authority that had functioned as the focal centre of guidance … seemed simply to have dissolved and vanished. … The experience of the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific … [were] effectively marginalized …

Where do these scientistic beliefs – these remarkably narrow, constricted, and corrosive materialistic interpretations of reality – come from? Clearly, the aging of the world’s religious traditions and their loss of vitality explains much. But, also a goodly part of the answer lies in the various forms of scientism and scientific materialism that developed in 19th century Europe and spread across the world through conquest, colonialism, and trade. Richard Olson’s historical overview on the 19th century origins of modern scientism – Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe – gives us a readable and compelling picture of how modern scientism originated, bringing into play often ignored developments of science and religion in France and Germany, and describing some of the surprising ways they still affect us today. Read the rest of this entry »


Jul 27

Books on Science and Religion #9: Materialism, Scientism, and Steven Pinker

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


July 27, 2014

Is materialism the “dominant faith” of the modern world?

This of course is not a question about numbers of people enrolled in a given religion, but a question about dominant ethical and moral values and their influence.

womanmoneyWe start by looking at One Common Faith, a document that explores the crises affecting the modern world written for the Baha’i Universal House of Justice. Its perspective holds that materialism – a set of values that owes much to scientism – has had an extraordinarily corrosive effect on the world over the last century.

We then look at some recent examples of scientistic views as expressed publicly by Steven Pinker, the prominent Harvard scientist and writer. He insists that “the moral worldview of any scientifically literate person … requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value,” illustrating the continuing influence of scientism.

Read the rest of this entry »


Jul 20

Books on Science and Religion #8: John Polkinghorne and Science and Religion in Quest of Truth

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


July 20, 2014

In our last six posts (Books #2, Books #3, Books #4, Books #5, Books #6, and Books #7), we have looked at books by Victor Stenger and A.C. Grayling, two writers closely associated with the new Atheist movement.

Stenger and Grayling and the ‘four horsemen of new Atheism‘, swimming against the consensus of modern historians of science, hold science and religion to be in irreconcilably in conflict. Thirty years ago, this would have been met with little or no dissent – and little interest – in the modern academic and intellectual community. That it creates such a stir now is due in large part to the efforts of John Polkinghorne, a Cambridge mathematical physicist and Anglican cleric whose indefatigable efforts over the last 25 years have made discussions of science and religion a central topic in the modern world.

Science and Religion Quest for TruthFrom a Baha’i perspective, i.e., one that endorses the view that science and religion are both essential elements of any practical and long-term solution of the problems of the world, Polkinghorne’s perspective is both closely in harmony and persuasive in detail. Where it differs, however, is with respect to religions that Baha’is view as equal in authority to Christianity – Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. With respect to these, Polkinghorne is admirably open and ecumenical, but holds to the uniqueness of Christ.

Read the rest of this entry »


Jul 13

Books on Science and Religion #7: A. C. Grayling and The God Argument

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.



July 13, 2014

A. C. Grayling, author of The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism, has a very impressive resume. He is not only a well-known British philosopher, but also a widely-read columnist, a public intellectual, a prominent educator, and a prolific writer.

He comes recommended to us by Massimo Pigliucci, the scientist, philosopher, and atheist referenced in Books on Science and Religion #6: More on Victor Stenger’s The God Hypothesis. Pigliucci criticizes prominent new Atheist writers – Dawkins, Stenger, and Harris - for scientism, holding them to be philosophically naive as well as anti-intellectual. Atheism needs philosophers, Pigliucci concludes:

What the atheist movement needs, therefore, is not a brute force turn toward science at the expense of everything else, but rather a more nuanced, comprehensive embracing of all the varied ways—intellectual as well as experiential—in which human beings acquire knowledge and develop understanding of their world. … this is precisely the direction toward which some post–New Atheism writers, such as De Botton and Grayling (not at all coincidentally, both philosophers) have been pushing most recently. (Pugliucci, New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement, p.152.)


Read the rest of this entry »


Jul 06

Books on Science and Religion #6: More on Victor Stenger’s The God Hypothesis

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


July 6, 2014

Victor Stenger believes that we can prove scientifically that God doesn’t exist, a view he lays out in God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist. Last week we looked at his introductory arguments in Books on Science and Religion #5: Victor Stenger’s God Hypothesis. This week, we look at Stenger’s arguments in more detail and present critiques of his approach.

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Jun 30

Books on Science and Religion #5: Victor Stenger’s God Hypothesis

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


June 29, 2014

Does God exist? If so, can we prove it? If not, can we prove it?

Victor Stenger thinks we can. Like a creationist – or like a modern intelligent design advocate – he believes that we can scientifically prove – or disprove – the existence of God. He describes his beliefs in God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, published in 2007 shortly after Richard Dawkins‘ best-selling The God Delusion on the same topic. It made it to the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.

Below, I briefly introduce Stenger’s hypothesis about the existence – or nonexistence – of God. Before I do so, let me briefly explain why I believe in God and give an introduction to some of the logical reasons behind such belief. Then, I will touch on typical strategies – usually invoking metaphysical monism – that try to undermine such beliefs. The main part of the analysis of God: The Failed Hypothesis will be in blog #6, the next blog in this series.

Read the rest of this entry »


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