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

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

  1. I rather love the analogy of trying to understand Life, the Universe, and Everything through science alone being like taking only left turns in your car.

    It occurs to me that you might not go off the road and you might actually be able to get where you’re going, but not for an excruciatingly long time.

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