Chapter 5: Science, religion and philosophy

Stefan Hlatky

(Lecture given to staff and students at the ETH (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule) - Zentrum, Zürich, Switzerland, on 8 March 1986. Translated by Philip Booth. The original German version can be found in the articles section of this website.)

Contents for this Chapter:
1. Two kinds of understanding; 2. Change, relative and absolute existence; 3. Inner and outer science; 4. Parallel traditions; 5. Belief in God or belief in human beings? 6. Creation or development? 7. The Greek thinkers; 8. The appearance of Christianity; 9. Scholasticism; 10. The beginning of rationalism; 11. Modern materialism; 12. The resurgence of methods of inner research; 13. Technology in place of philosophy; 14. The new positivism; 15. The timeless task of philosophy


If, with regard to the terms 'philosphy', 'religion' and 'science', we are to strive for a clarity that has general validity and for a single understanding, in place of a great mass of contradictory views that are difficult or impossible to communicate, we must begin by defining the term 'philosophy'. As long as we are not in agreement about the meaning of this word, the terms 'religion' and 'science' must also remain unclear. I would like to begin with a historical review.

1 Two kinds of understanding

'Philosophy' is a composite of the Greek words philein and sophia, and means 'love of wisdom'. We know that in earlier times humanity considered there were two ways of developing understanding. One way was knowledge and, linked to knowledge, skill; the other was belief and, linked to belief, wisdom. Corresponding to these, intelligence and reason were also referred to as two different qualities.

That there are two types of understanding has never been doubted. Throughout history, however, there seems to have been a difficulty in differentiating these as two disciplines of thought. The difficulty lies in the fact that, without giving the matter proper consideration, people tend to superficially compare human consciousness - with which humans are able to reflect logically, and which thereby gives them the possibility of believing - with the consciousness of animals, and then view human consciousness as free and independent. In this comparison the point is made that humans experience and know far more than animals, who, in developing experience and knowledge, are tied to the purposes and goals determined by their biological needs. The realization that human will and thought have an obvious relative freedom leads, if it is not properly considered, to the conviction that the purpose and goal of human consciousness is to develop experience, knowledge and skill, so as to be able to keep on improving our understanding of the whole of life. This idea occurs within the framework of the conviction that understanding is a consequence of experience, knowledge and skill. It is forgotten that the starting point has to be belief, and that experience, knowledge and skill can never free us from the necessity for belief.

2 Change, relative and absolute existence

We need knowledge and skill because life manifests itself to us as ever-changing. Like animals, we must understand to some extent the laws of change in order to be able to act meaningfully and appropriately in relation to this property of life. However, the knowledge necessary for dealing with this change is needed by us for two quite different reasons. The first is so that we can change things, and the second is so that we can preserve things - because creation expresses itself to us not only as change, but also as the relative being or existence of bodies or objects that we seek to preserve.

This relative being or existence of all physical things - which constitutes for us the visible and tangible material contents of life, of creation, and which is therefore also the starting-point for objective knowledge - has, through the ages, lured human beings into losing sight of their total, real situation. It has led to the idea that the Being, the permanent reality - which is behind physical creation and from which we and the whole creation come - that is, the whole of causality, can be researched and visibly and tangibly experienced.

In this way the age-old philosophical belief in an invisible absolute God was exchanged for the belief in an investigable absolute Being, i.e. for the possibility of complete knowledge, 'absolute consciousness'. Belief thus came to be seen as a lack of experience. The only belief that was deemed necessary was the belief in those who had greater experience.

3 Inner and outer science

What makes the tradition of human thought so complicated is the fact that research - that is, the leaving behind of the conditions that normally hold in order to study the conditions beneath creation's surface - is possible in two directions: one inner, the other outer. These give rise to two different types of science.

We know that both types were developed in ancient times among closed circles of initiates. Inner science - by which is meant the study of the events lying beyond normal sense-experience that the initiates characterized as transcendental or mystical - was always fully developed and passed on via tradition. But it was considered that the natural limitation of the senses represented an insuperable obstacle to the extent to which the external world could be investigated. Nonetheless, the initiates also developed outer science to the natural limits of the senses, and conditions both on Earth and in the skies were systematically studied.

There is much evidence to suggest that it was very well known that outer science can easily tip over into a power mentality, into a meaningless demonstration of skill. For this reason much of this knowledge was kept secret. On the other hand, the difficulty with inner science was the same as that found nowadays in the area of quantum physics, namely that the conditions that exist beyond the limits of normal sense-experience cannot be compared with everyday physical conditions, and therefore also cannot be described using normal language and logic, which are based on sense-experience. If one wants to discuss these conditions, a language and a logic corresponding to them has to be developed. Thus initiates always had their own language, which was impenetrable to the laity, just as nowadays quantum physicists have to employ a special mathematical language.

4 Parallel traditions

This situation meant that a tradition of science and philosophy (knowledge and wisdom) could not be established and passed on via a single, clearly logical tradition, but only via two parallel traditions: one that was closed, 'turned away from the world', reclusive (among initiates and generally in closed institutions) and one that was open, 'turned towards the world', which was developed as religion (which sought to present interpretations of the closed tradition's findings from both inner and outer science to the public). The open religious tradition, however, instead of being passed on through logical arguments - the method of philosophy - was handed down through comparisons, examples of lives to be imitated, rituals, dogmatic statements, moral laws, and so on.

How far, on the other hand, people were able to maintain and hand down logical thinking in the different closed traditions is difficult to reconstruct today. We can only draw some conclusions on the basis of the shifting tensions between the closed traditions and the open traditions. It can be assumed, however, that in the closed traditions the effort was always made to reconcile all the experiences gained from both inner and outer science with everyday experiences of life, and to interpret all these experiences logically in relation to the timeless philosophical questions - if only in order to protect the traditions against logic-based attacks.

5 Belief in God or belief in human beings?

This aim of achieving a meaningful description that encompassed all experience was quite clearly defined, in the different types of open and closed traditions, as the choice of wisdom. The traditions could not, however, agree on whether, in order to reach this goal, they ought to choose a belief in God or a belief in the possibility of exploring the Being (as they conceived it), i.e. inner science. They could only agree that outer science cannot lead to wisdom, to an understanding of creation. According to the choice they made, either the traditions were essentially monotheistic, or they were based on the possibility of developing consciousness through inner research, where belief was seen as necessary in relation only to human beings (see end of Section 2).

The theories that proposed the development of consciousness - that is, the pantheistic theories - presented inner science, as opposed to outer science, as the search for wisdom, and in so doing obscured the concept of science.

Because the monotheistic tradition could be successfully disseminated to the public only through authoritarian statements, it too was forced to require belief in human beings. In so doing, it obscured the concept of belief.

6 Creation or development?

The concept of creation, too, was very confusing in the monotheistic tradition. Those who considered life just from the point of view of the material surface could imagine God's creation as occurring only in the same way that human beings are able to make and destroy material things. Thus they were forced to ascribe omnipotence to God and thus to present him as incomprehensible. In fact, in so doing they made belief in God impossible. Only belief in the traditions' commandments and in the givers of the commandments remained possible, as it is impossible to believe meaningfully in something that is incomprehensible.

The theories of development regarded the internally explorable background of creation as the original cause, and so discarded the belief in a permanent existence and recognized only change. They held that because change follows given laws, it is possible to control the changeability by understanding those laws. They held that only given laws exist, but no creator of the laws. The belief that given laws exist leads to the idea of achieving increasingly higher consciousness of these laws, which thus leads to wisdom. The path to this wisdom, according to this theory, can be accelerated if one submits oneself to the guidance of those who are more conscious (in the hierarchy of levels of consciousness).

In practice, the difference between monotheism and the pantheistic theories of development was a very fine one. Both considered that human beings must conform to the given laws if they wish to strive for wisdom, that is, God-consciousness, correct belief - rather than allow themselves to be led astray by their own free will. Also the laws were formulated in similar ways by reference to the golden rule ('Do not do to anyone else what you do not want done to yourself'). Because of this fine line, no religious tradition in history has ever been organized in either a clearly monotheistic or a clearly pantheistic way. The golden rule could not be derived either from God or from the transcendental experience of reality in such a way that it could be understood by people as logically binding, that is, as clearly in accordance with their everyday experience of life.

In spite of the constant mixing of these two types of tradition, monotheism and pantheism remained irreconcilable, because theoretically they are just as mutually exclusive as are monotheism and atheism.

7 The Greek thinkers

The Greeks seem to have been the first to break with the closed tradition and to make philosophy (the subject of the never-changing, existent Being) and science (ideas about ever-changing creation) a public matter.

Their schools of natural philosophy did not agree, however, about either the purpose or the method of philosophical reflection, but rather were variously influenced by all the traditions of the then known world. Attempts were made to localize Being in the 'elements' of inner, transcendental science (ether, fire, air, water and earth), which were originally thought of as spiritual. The unity of changing creation was associated with logos, 'reason' or 'word', a concept that is hard to translate, or with meaningless, mechanical necessity, ananke, or, closer to the theological view, with a universal reason or mind, nous. A purely monotheistic view was held only by the Eleatic school, who tried to demonstrate logically the necessary existence of a unitary Being and the impossibility of change.

The most influential Greek thinkers proved to be:

DEMOCRITUS: his Gordian solution to the problem of existence and change (Being and creation) provided the basis for the modern theory of atomism

PYTHAGORAS: his assertion that the whole of reality can be described in numbers, i.e. in a mathematical language, is a view still held by modern science

PROTAGORAS: he introduced the concept of homomensura ('Man is the measure of all things'), laying the cornerstone of modern concepts in political consciousness and thought

SOCRATES AND PLATO: Protagoras' fiercest opponents, they studied the connection of human language and human consciousness to reality. Plato proposed his transcendental experience of a hierarchically constructed reality of ideas as the original cause of creation. For this view, which repeatedly influenced Western thinking, one could consider him the father of psychology

ARISTOTLE: Alexander the Great's tutor, later Plato's pupil and colleague, who is regarded as the first scientist (in the sense of outer science). He was the first to study systematically the different species and phenomena of Nature with the aim of explaining the whole of creation meaningfully using just physical concepts - that is, excluding concepts derived from the experiences of inner science. Deviating from Plato, he saw change as deriving originally from nous - universal, uninvestigable reason - which he equated with God.

Alexander the Great, in line with the ideas of his father, Philip II, wished to unite all the known traditions into one single tradition. He founded a number of public schools that were equipped with, for those times, huge libraries. The Romans, who took over his kingdom, further developed this idea of a unitary philosophy.

Outer science, and objective reflection on the timeless philosophical questions based on it, thus began to blossom in the whole Mediterranean area - the then West - with the aim of unifying the old traditions based on transcendental, esoteric science.

The problem at that time was that only the external, objective sciences were studied and given shape. An objective structure could not be developed for the philosophical questions, as general thinking on these questions was bound to the mystical concepts of the religious tradition, which could not be explained objectively.

8 The appearance of Christianity

There is much to suggest that Christ's aim, in view of this situation, was to translate as far as possible the reclusive tradition of Jewish monotheism, of which he was probably an adherent, into everyday, objective language. He wanted to provide the publicly conducted objective science with the meaningful framework that the disunited philosophers of that time were struggling to find, and thereby to prevent science from developing as an end in itself, i.e. without philosophy. Because of this aim of uniting the two different types of tradition, he came into conflict with the tradition that was open to Hellenism, the Sadducees, and perhaps also the tradition that was closed to Hellenism, the Pharisees. His followers defended his new approach, which they called Christianity, against the Greco-Roman tradition and the teachings of the philosophical schools. Christianity proved superior.

Christianity's superiority was not, however, clear-cut if looked at objectively. The new tradition could not solve the original questions about Being, creation, the act of creation itself, time, consciousness and the soul without making dogmatic assertions. This lured Church leaders into excluding the public once more from the tradition, and into developing the mystical inner science in monasteries.

In AD 529 the philosophical schools in Athens were closed, and the responsibility for the public tradition of knowledge and belief was taken over by the majority Christian community.

9 Scholasticism

In the twelfth century, however, private teachers began to collect large groups of students around them, and with the establishment of the first university they started to break down the monopoly of the Church. Simultaneously, through the stimulus of Arab philosophers, particularly Averroës' commentary on Aristotle's teaching On the Soul (De Anima), there were lively discussions about Aristotle's philosophy. The Church sought to prohibit training in Aristotle's philosophy, until Thomas Aquinas, through the influence of his teacher, Albertus Magnus, came upon the opposite idea. Rather than excluding Aristotle, Aquinas very skilfully unified Aristotle's physics and metaphysics with the dogmas of the Church, and depicted Aristotle as the greatest authority in philosophy. At the same time, however, Aquinas separated philosophy from theology, seeing them as two sciences guided by two different sets of principles.

The principles of philosophy, according to Aquinas, are to be understood by the light of reason, i.e. by logical reflection, while the principles of theology are to be understood through revelation. He did not, however, draw clear boundaries between philosophy and theology. Certain theological truths could be logically proven, e.g. that God exists, that the soul is immortal, while other truths, e.g. about God's Being, the Trinity and the sacraments, are accessible only through revelation and the belief in revelation. He placed the experience of revelation as theological knowledge above philosophy, regarding it as an original, dogmatic knowledge, the background to which is a mystical Being that cannot be investigated either technically or logically. Logical thought in this view is dependent on revelation, not revelation on logical thought.

Aquinas thus did what all other religious traditions in history, divided with Christianity into eastern and western, have always done: he restricted the role played by logical reflection about creation and change. The critical difference, however, was that the old traditions never came up with the absurd idea of wishing to prove logically or objectively such truths as the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. [For a discussion of the differing notions of logic, see Dialogue 4, Philosophical logic, p.133ff.]

It was disastrous for Christianity that it introduced Aristotle's views on physics, but even more disastrous that it regarded his metaphysical way of thinking, which excluded meaning, as philosophy, as a striving for truth (which should involve meaning as well as cause). This last error, which has still not been corrected, was to result in outer research being developed as an end in itself, i.e. without philosophy. This development continues nowadays at an ever-increasing pace, because it was thought from the first, and still is thought, that it will in the end yield answers to the philosophical questions.

10 The beginning of rationalism

This hope of obtaining a scientific answer to the philosophical questions was suddenly awakened throughout Europe when the microscope and telescope were invented at the turn of the seventeenth century, and the new or modern science, which had already superseded Aristotle's dualistic view in the fifteenth century, now took on a definite, 'precise' form. Experience of life was divided into primary (measurable, mathematically describable) objective qualities and secondary (non-measurable) subjective qualities, and research was restricted to the primary qualities. This restriction to a quantitative view corresponded precisely to and realized Democritus' mechanistic world-view. The invention of the microscope and telescope meant that human beings could now also go beyond the senses' natural limits in an external direction. Thus they might arrive at Democritus' atoms and be able to test his theory about the Being and creation. To begin with, quantitative or mechanistic science was kept separate from the phenomena of life. God and the act of creation were not yet called into question.

11 Modern materialism

In the eighteenth century, however, people began to regard Democritus' theory as already proven and as constituting an argument against God and in favour of materialism.

When Wöhler discovered in 1828 that it was possible to synthesize organic material from inorganic elements, materialists construed this as clear proof of the atom-theory, that the changing life we experience was not created by a God, but rather comprises a closed system in which creative activity arises out of inorganic matter.

At the same time Hegel maintained, in opposition to the Eleatics, that reality is fundamentally made of opposites, in other words, that it is fundamentally changeable. However, contradicting himself, Hegel tried to hold on to a certain measure of idealism, by maintaining that history had a purpose. Marx, in his historical materialism, developed Hegel's dialectic consistently, without idealism, that is, without belief in any generally valid given meaning. Darwin reinforced historical materialism. Then came Freud and the development of modern psychology as a logical extension of the Marxist-Darwinist theory.

This is how the exclusive belief in knowledge began, its aim to obviate belief in philosophy and all other forms of belief. Striving for wisdom and inner exploration were considered the unscientific, naive project of our ancestors. Knowledge had its own validity. Technology - skill - was thought of only as a means (though in the twentieth century it was to be strongly helped towards becoming an end in itself by the two world wars). Every effort was made from then on to promote the development of a quantitative science from which meaning and purpose had been carefully excluded since the seventeenth century. The aim was to reach as quickly as possible the point that Comte and the first positivists dreamed of: the answering of as many questions as possible so that most things could be predicted, influenced or prevented, and humanity thereby freed from the necessity for belief.

As long as atomism was believed in, this point in development acted as a vision, associated with the idea that indivisible building-blocks lie at the basis of creation. So concrete has this belief become that corpses have been frozen in the hope that they might one day be brought back to life.

12 The resurgence of methods of inner research

When the principles of quantum physics became known in the 1950s and 1960s, the belief in atomism could no longer be held. Interest in philosophy was reawakened, and the changes in consciousness that could be triggered by psychopharmacology also stimulated interest in internally directed methods of investigation. Following disappointment with the mathematical viewpoint, which came to nothing, an intensive search began for a new or old belief or for any meaning whatsoever by which to live. This search was disorganized at first, but then became increasingly structured through the activities of a growing number of teachers (psychologists and gurus). They, however, like the leaders of the old religions, are only interested in apologetics. The concept of a unified logic and philosophy is rejected from the outset as intolerant. Yet they all long for unity, and gather large crowds of followers around them.

Many people nowadays belong to one or more of these groups that seek to add something to life. In general, however, differences are the only outcome. This stems from the modern principle of emphasizing a person's individuality: the development of individuality excludes unity. This has allowed for the introduction of the spirit of competition, in opposition to socialism, and, because of the strength of the backlash against socialism, it has developed at neckbreaking speed. This is how things now stand. Everybody develops him- or herself and becomes an expert, or a follower of some expert, in something. Because of this we find it difficult to relate to one another in everyday life.

At the same time, the materialist world-view has come to be represented by money, with the result that politicians and economists have exchanged roles.

13 Technology in place of philosophy

A similarly unfortunate change has also taken place in science. From a philosophical perspective, the scientific discoveries of the twentieth century have been crucial; however, the philosophical readiness to draw conclusions from them has been totally absent. It appears that no one is willing to call into question the absolute position of science in relation to philosophy. Only the fact that there has been an exclusive identification with science for several generations can explain why the formulation of relativity theory and the establishment of quantum physics have made no philosophical impression, in scientific institutions or elsewhere. Their only impact has been scientific, technological, political and psychological.

Atomism had already been shown in 1905 (in Einstein's theory of relativity, E=mc²) to be untenable. Materialism and the exclusively quantitative view of science, which stand or fall with atomism, were nevertheless not called into question. This calling into question can, of course, occur only in the spirit of philosophy. And here it is important to remember that the spirit of philosophy and the spirit of science are the same, namely absolutely logical thinking. Only the subject matter is different. The subject of philosophy, as mentioned earlier, is the unchangeable Being; the subject of science is ever-changing creation.

To adopt atomism is to take a stance in relation to the subject matter of philosophy. Atomism actually represents an assumption, a belief. In order, however, to test the validity of atomism without disturbing underlying beliefs, scientists excluded philosophical questions as early as the seventeenth century, at Francis Bacon's suggestion. Since then they have continued, in a gracious but determined way, to reject all philosophical questions from their work. But this attitude is unacceptable. It cannot be reconciled with the scientific spirit, as the point at issue is the testing of a philosophical assumption - atomism - that has been the central problem of science for four hundred years.

The proof that the Being cannot be broken down into its smallest particles and is not accessible to scientific study is not proof that the Being does not exist.

Despite the clear refutation of atomism, materialism was 'rescued' by the discovery of ever smaller particles, and the quantitative viewpoint by Max Planck's introduction, in 1901, of the concept of the quantum, which made it possible to continue developing a mathematics for calculating the new physical conditions discovered in the 1920s. A transition to this new science meant that the original aim of pursuing causality to its hotly sought after end-point had to be publicly abandoned. This made it necessary to specify a new, if possible just as hotly sought after, aim for research.

14 The new positivism

The solution to this problem is now sought in a new positivism by switching around knowledge and skill. Nowadays, technology or skill has become the end, and knowledge has become the means, subordinated to technology.

From a philosophical viewpoint, this exchange of roles means that the concept of an objective Being and the construction of an objectively unified causality - which had already been contaminated with subjective elements when medicine was accepted as a branch of science at the beginning of the nineteenth century - has finally been abandoned. The unity of all sciences is no longer striven for; instead they are allowed to develop in different directions determined by random politics. This means that the objective, logical spirit of philosophy that held firm sway for four hundred years, albeit restricted by the quantitative viewpoint, has now been discarded. The sciences, instead of doing away with the restriction they imposed on objectivity, have opened their doors to political chance.

The transition to the new physics and the new technology has provoked a confrontation between the new physics and rejuvenated inner research, a confrontation in which the public is also taking an interest. But the public can play only a limited part, because there are now two sorts of initiates, the 'objective' initiates of the new physics and the 'subjective' initiates of transcendental or parapsychological experience.

The purely 'objective' initiates reject the experiences of the subjective method as unscientific - as modern science has always done. Those initiates with a foot in both camps emphasize the equivalence of the two experiences, and not suprisingly wish to claim superiority for the subjective experience their own nervous system offers them over the objective experience that technical instruments provide. The purely 'objective' initiates defend the quantitative, technological point of view, because they regard the changing energy, which they see as the original Being, as lacking consciousness. Those with a foot in both camps, who regard the same formless, changing Being as consciousness rather than energy, talk of developing consciousness and attack the 'objective' initiates for their technological viewpoint. In addition, the relationship between the representatives of the old physics and the new physics is not completely without conflict. This is where science stands today.

15 The timeless task of philosophy

These incredibly complicated conflicts can be solved, in my view, only if we reintroduce philosophy as the science of sciences, and if we try to solve the timeless questions of humanity not through knowledge, but by reflecting on the new insights available to us.

The timeless task of philosophy is to unify all questions, conflicts, contradictions and the whole pluralistic reality that constitutes our experience of creation within the framework of a single conception that excludes nothing and requires no compromises. That is why the exclusive subject matter of philosophy is the absolute whole. Nothing can be left out, for 'whole' by definition means something from which it is impossible to subtract anything without it ceasing to be whole.

Because the philosophical conception should unify everything, this task was always regarded as difficult or impossible. But the fact is that the problem of philosophy is not unification. That is because what is unified does not need to be unified: if reality were not unified, it could not be something whole.

The first problem of philosophy is that the absolute whole cannot reveal itself to us as a whole, because we are parts of it, parts that can no more be loose, disassembled, free parts that have lost their connection with the whole than can anything else in creation.

The second problem of philosophy relates to the fact that a free will is an essential requirement for human beings if they are to conceive of the whole and understand it. Without this freedom - which has always given humanity problems - typically human abstract thinking is in practice impossible. It is freedom of consciousness that gives human beings the feeling of consciousness of self. The practical purpose of this individuality is to enable us logically to conceive of and understand the whole as like us, as also existing consciously, i.e. as God. Here we need the philosophical method of thinking. We must do it of our own free will, for the whole cannot show itself to us in the way a part can. That is why no one, not even God, can force us to want to know that we are a part of God's existence, to know about God and an existent design that underlies ever-changing creation. By contrast, in relation to our experience of creation, there is no such freedom.

If people do not wish to believe in God, do not wish to understand God's design and then relate to God, then they must live without design, or, in order to experience meaning, they must find their own designs and relate to human designs. They must then either gather followers around them or themselves be followers of others, and in the process will find the freedom and also the dependency of human beings to be the eternal, insoluble problem of human relationships. Only this choice - to believe in God or to believe in human beings - is free.