Philosophy on the Edge – A Guide for Younger Folk


I wrote this as the first draft of a guide for younger people exploring the polarity between science and religion. It tries to be accessible and is probably biases, not in favour of science or religion, but in favour of being open-minded, neither sceptical nor a blind faith believer. I occasionally draw on parts of it when exploring with adults, particularly leaders and managers, ideas about what we know, how we know what we know, and the importance of open-mindedness in life and work. It also draws a little on my own reflections at the time on Rudolf Steiner‘s Anthroposophy. I wrote it in the 1990s and it is, as I say, a draft.

Two self-named “scientific” standpoints, both claiming to be “scientific” often emerge in the public debate about truth as conflicting, opposing camps. Much of the boundary between science and religion is explainable in terms of these camps.

Camp 1

…Holds that the materialistic explanation of the universe is a final one – a truth validated by the methods of science and meeting its criteria for:

– Testability

– Repeatability

– Logical argument

– Results from measurable experiments.

Having reached this conclusion, all further attempts to “explain” the universe using any other methods not already established as part of the accepted methods of materialistic science  must be discounted as “unscientific”, wrong, or simply exceptions that prove the materialistic rule.

Thus, it is deemed as scientifically valid in this camp to explain someone’s repeated “clairvoyant” experiences as hallucinations arising in the chemicals of the brain. It is even valid to make this conclusion “without employing the methods of materialistic science” to test it, because the materialistic foundations upon which the conclusions or judgements have been made, have already been generally validated in establishing the materialistic world explanation.

A member of this camp  cannot see the relevance of anyone questioning his/her conclusion based on materialism because a materialistic explanation of all things is a self-evident truth already generally proven by its own methods. Anyone suggesting otherwise is self-deluding, annoying, stupid etc. for ignoring the blatant fact that all things are material or measurable by materially designed instruments.

In this camp are the basic observational tools of the five senses, and the development of physical technologies which enhance the power of these senses, allowing us to see the “Invisible”, hear the “inaudible”, where these things are still viewed as “material” but just too “small” or too “remote”.

Further, are the intellectual tools of logic, mathematics etc. These allow us to build up predictive models of reality, test hypotheses and generalise findings.

This is even applied back, so to speak, to the process of thinking itself that arrived at the conclusions about its own activity, namely, that even thinking is materialistically explainable entirely in term of brain, body and environmental activity. Complex, but ultimately measurable.

When philosophers such as Rudolf Steiner point out that those, in this camp who claim that all thought arises only in the sense world, in the chemical brain, do not see that this conclusion already presupposes thinking as the starting activity, they will reply: Exactly, that is proof of our view !

Many in this camp view anything – any ideas, experiences, theories which contradict the materialistic outlook as:

– Stupid

– Wishful thinking

– Unscientific

– Unreasonable

– Religious

If it claims to be scientific then is it’s seen by this camp as “pseudo” or fake science, to be viewed with the proper attitude of “Scepticism”.

Once again, in their defence, I should point out that the core belief is that a materialistic explanation of the universe, based on a non-creationist view, has, in their view, already been established as true beyond question. It is now a self-evident truth, requiring no further proof or validation. Any further theories or ideas posited are simply examples of:

– People wishful thinking coming into play e.g. a desire for the survival of the individual personality after death

– People clinging on to religious beliefs and theories which they have been socialised into

– Evolutionary theory in action – they will soon die out and the fitter “ideas” and the people holding them will survive through natural selection

Camp 2

The second camp of scientists have much in common with the first in terms of their wish for a science based on:

– Repeatable results

– Rational methods

– testing theories e.g.

Many in camp two are trained in scientific method. Many are not.

However, no matter how convincing the materialistic explanation may be, those in this camp feel and think that it is not all-explaining and simply leave it as an open question. For many, they are happy to describe the materialistic explanation as “clearly the most likely based on the available evidence” but they keep a mind open to other possibilities. They are not happy to take a general theory which  has become “proven” and then to apply it to local situations, for many of those local situations, on further examination, simply defy the general materialistic view, when empirical data is collected, specifically when qualitative, case study data is collected.

They are equally suspicious of quackery and unscientifically derived world-views. They believe scientific method is the only real way to truth. However, they view that scientific method as one which is evolving. It is not a fixed set of ideas or disciplines. They recognise many phenomena in the world which logic and scientific instruments based on the five senses cannot yet explain, and they are not happy to rest content with the idea that they need no urgent explanation as they will be explained by and by, fitting as they must do, into an already established all-explaining materialistic world view.

If someone claims to see “etheric bodies” – non-material substances which surround human beings – they are not content to conclude that the person making the claim is either lying or deluded. They investigate. At the point where their sense-based Research tools can pick up no physical “readings” to support the claim, they do not then conclude that the phenomenon cannot exist. They set up a hypothesis that the claim might be true and that current methods cannot register the phenomenon. Whilst recognising the dangers of wishful thinking, self-delusion etc. they leave the matter as an open question, perhaps a highly unlikely one, but nevertheless possible.

Their epistemological stance is different to the first camp in that they see the materialistic explanation as highly convincing, with huge data sources to support it, but not proven. Why not proven ? Because they observe phenomena not explained by it, not measurable by it, and deem it unscientific to assume it to be explained by it (e.g. as psychosomatic) without full scientific examination using appropriate methods.

They accept the POSSIBILITY that – if non-material phenomena are a reality – then it might be possible that material-based research methods will be unable to register their effects and processes.

Now we have here the key problem. Those who suggest the reality of non-material phenomena (such as Rudolf Steiner) claim that their experience of these phenomena  are based on the use of themselves as the “tool for observation”. They claim that their are “Senses” or organs of observation in mankind which are non-physical but can be utilised by a person for the observation or experience of non-material phenomena and that these phenomena can register as “effects” in the physical organs of the human being, particularly the brain, in such a way that they can be conceptualised in language or symbol and therefore described, analysed and communicated to the scientific community. The “microscope” or “telescope” in these realms is some active, non-material element of the human being itself.

In Camp1 this is deemed to be fantastic, annoying nonsense as it has already departed from the all-explaining materialistic view. How this crazy view has arisen is, of course, explainable as:

– Wishful thinking

– Fear of death

– Religion


For camp 2, fantastic as it sounds, it must be treated seriously, as a new phenomenon in the world, to be added to current observation and thought. No one in camp 2 need BELIEVE the phenomenon, but they do need to keep an open mind about it. Indeed, repeated observation of it needs to be recorded if possible.

I have seen an angel.

Camp one explanation:

– You may have thought you have seen an angel but you haven’t really seen one. You must have been hallucinating, or maybe some other psychological explanation can be put forward. But you haven’t seen one because they do not exist. Angels are non-material beings and do not therefore exist. For nothing non material exists.

Camp 2 explanation

– You may have had a hallucination or be psychological ill. Let us examine you. This experience you have had, if it is not a hallucination, seriously would bring into question the current materialistic world view. Until we have proof, we will make no judgement either way.

These two camps can and never will agree until the day when all phenomena – ALL phenomena – are explained by a sense-based science, or when non-material phenomena are in some way, yet to be found, proved to the satisfaction of CAMP1. Perhaps they would need to experience a statistically significant number of angels who could be physically measured.

I live in camp2. I do not see camp1 as truly scientific. Indeed, I see their stance as a contradiction of their basic tenet – that scientific conclusions should be based on repeatable, materially testable methods. I find the idea that such testing of reality has been long completed, that materialism is proved and therefore that scientists need not waste time exploring any new phenomena which question their conclusions as all such phenomena can be explained – without explanation – by the already validated world-view. I find that unscientific for it means that the different phenomena of the world, appearing under different conditions are being treated as elements as if they were in a great laboratory experiment which is not controlled in a careful or rigorous way. The seeing of Mary at a shrine by a hundred people being explained by scientists as a hallucination because scientists elsewhere have been able, under controlled conditions, to produce hallucinations in a controlled sample, even though the scientists judging have not been at the shrine, spoken to anyone or collected any data – is simply not scientific. Indeed, it is also dangerous, for the same approach leads to children being given drugs which cause unplanned physical handicap because the drug worked under “laboratory conditions” on rats.

How do we cope with an emerging body of “evidence” for non-material phenomena ? If we are in camp one, we do not need to “cope” with it at all. We can simply apply our self-evident truth of materialism, long-ago validated scientifically, and we can dismiss it as nonsense. We can point to the fact that the non-material phenomena cannot be registered on any materialistic instruments, that we have a lot of evidence that many people “hallucinate” due to physical-brain problems, and conclude that the non-material phenomena are simply products of an over-active mind or imagination.

In camp 2, we want to know by what method the so-called phenomena have been observed and, if the method has been described, we want to repeat that method ourselves.

It is vital to grasp these differences. Those in Camp1 simply find the position of those in camp2 as pointless from a scientific perspective. And when those on camp2 present their observations of the “non-material” phenomena as “scientific”, they present a threat to the wider community’s view of Camp1 as the “accepted” generally scientific view and should therefore we negated (rubbished, attacked etc.). This negation process appears to legitimate the scientists departing from their own “non-involved”, detached and normally objective position and to stray into the realms of emotion-based criticism, scorn and general “rubbishing.”. I have seen scientists such as Richard Dawkins, engaged in televised “popular science” debate depart from his normal measured self-control (scientists, in communication situations,  should be a living example of their methods), and engage in emotional out bursting, unfounded criticism and outrageous generalisation, without owning up to the fact that this is emotional subjectivity at work and not an accepted method of scientific communication. In many cases scientists simply have not paid enough attention to the application of their own methods to themselves – to their own communication skills, their thinking processes and their own attitudes and emotions. Surely, in a scientific communication, such processes should also be brought under rigorous testing and control?

Not enough scientists in either camp have paid enough attention to the processes of thinking -out of which all scientific thought and result has emerged. All scientific thought – even the materialistic ones – began with thinking. It is therefore logical that, to understand the nature of the universe, of reality, we must take thinking as our observational starting  point.

Those in Camp1 would claim that, were we to do this, we would need to develop instruments of observation for brain activity – that we will one day be able to do this. They do not own up to the fact that, until we do develop such technologies, all of our scientific observations and thoughts arise from a tool that we know almost nothing about. We can, in a limited way, observe its processes and effects but we have, as yet no significant scientifically accepted body of knowledge for a firm foundation. When such technologies ARE developed, we will attempt to measure and test thinking via brain and “mind” activity. The mind or brain will be an external object of observation i.e. one scientist will observe the thinking of an object – another person’s brain. Those in camp1 one are in no doubt that it is only a matter of time before such techniques and technologies for observation are developed.

Some of those in camp2, taking thinking as a starting point, accept the possibility that the root of thinking is non-material. Note – the possibility. They leave the matter open. They welcome the development of the technologies in camp 1 but, given the possibility that these technologies will not find the root of thinking as a material source, they look to other methods. They read accounts of other methods of observation. Some of those who claim the reality of the non-material claim they have arrived at such conclusions through self-observation. They claim that it is possible to make the process of thinking in oneself an object of one’s own observation – that such observations cannot be measured by “material-based” technologies, but that such methods can be “objectified” through the repeated testing of such methods, through triangulation, and confirmation with other observers. Through making thinking an object of one’s own observation one can see its non-material or “spiritual activity”.

Those who sit in camp 2 treat such claims suspiciously, for they rely on methods which are based on a single subject. They look therefore for objective confirmation. They are sceptical but they leave open the possibility of truth in the claims. Even though such claims coincide with explanations of “wishful thinking” and “hallucination”, until such things can be verified by observational technologies yet to be developed by camp 1 – they leave the matter open – as a possibility. Some even try to confirm the claims through their own attempts to test out the “subjective” methods. However, the fact that a lot of people DO have hallucinations, do feel a religious need for the non-material, this does not scientifically invalidate the claims of direct experience of a non-material realm – it might throw serious doubt on them – but no more than that. The scientists in camp1 break all of the rules they claim arrived them at their validated conclusions of materialism when they start to make emotional judgements about those who question their view.

A number of people in camp one have developed a particular definition of “science” based on probability. They are pragmatic in that they would claim that science cannot investigate everything and should turn its attention to those effects were the hypothesis of cause is based a higher degree of probability. They would claim that, even if there are some forms of “non-material” realm, the huge weight of evidence in favour of the materialistic meta-explanation simply makes it silly and impractical to look for other explanations, coming as they do from such implausible sources as “clairvoyants”, “seers” etc.. Who add to the improbability by rarely making any use of scientific methods. Any attempts to use such methods are deemed to be “quasi-scientific” as they make use of materialistic scientific methods and principles but do not (and cannot) make use of the physical instruments of investigation.

The biggest danger of camp1 is that is becomes a self-referential model. i.e.. The materialistic view becomes dogma and all future investigation is coloured by this dogmatic stance. This is perfectly acceptable if such dogma happens to coincide with fact However, given the possibility – no matter how improbable – that the current materialistic view is a function of current limitations of thought and knowledge (and – some of those in camp2 would argue – consciousness) – such dogma may simply be a barrier to knew scientific discovery which would make use of new methods outside of the materialistic boundaries. It is for each and every individual to examine the two camps and make a decision.

Examples of current points of disagreement between the two camps concern acceptance of the possibility that:

– Individuals claiming non-material conscious experience are accessing a non-material realm

– It is possible that some element of thought or cognition occurs in the “mind” as a non-material entity and, though it may use the brain as a conduit for such activity, it is separate of the brain itself

– There is a non-material element to each human being which exists apart of physicality and may even transcend physical death

– That physical reality is but a small or limited part of the whole of reality – that there are other dimensions to existence, currently only posited theoretically in mathematics

Again, those in camp one would argue that there IS a difference of view. They would argue that the camp2 view is not really a different view, but a mistaken one, a sentimental one and therefore, in scientific terms, not even a valid view at all and certainly not worth considering on the same level as the Camp1 view. As far as Camp1 goes, the camp2 view is nonsense and should have been put to rest years ago.


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