Human – a praying animal. Spirituality as consequence of brain evolution

Scientific Essay, 2009

27 Pages


Rationality and the clash of religions

Despite the appearances to the contrary we live in times of religious struggles. By “religion” (=rel0), however, not necessary a belief in a God or gods is meant, but every world-view, which:

(a) claims to explain everything in the world and in human existence,
(b) gives meaning to the life of its adherers,
(c) confers a special dignity on their existence,
(d) is disposed to proselytize,
(e) regards its opponents as somehow inferior,
(f) can be fully understood only from inside,
(g) provides some cultic elements (liturgy, sacred books, martyrs etc.).

The criteria of rel0 are met by „secular religions” (=relsec), “esoteric religions” (=relesot) and “traditional religions

” (=reltrad). The somehow self

-contradictory term relsec designates all world-views which invoke a higher cause, being explicitly not God, in order to fulfill their mission as described above (Eric Voegelin). The task of the higher cause can be fulfilled by different substrates: by revolution, as in the case of French Revolution (Claude Lefort), by proletariat, as in the case of Marxism (Leszek Kolakowski; Sam G. MacFarland), by nation/race, as in the case of Nazism (Stanley Stowers; Michael Ley; Claus-Ekkehart Bärsch), and by scientific naturalism as promoted by Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Carl Sagan et al (Karl W. Giberson 2008, 43-46).[1] However not only relsec meet the criteria of rel0. These criteria are both met by relesot and reltrad. While relesot emphasize the individual spiritual experience and are mainly not interested in providing rational explanation for different beliefs (Sutcliff), reltrad, especially the Western theism, claim that at least some part of their doctrine is rational, yet not entirely accessible by the mere ratio. Western theism, by which the Abrahamic kinds of religion, i.e. Judaism, Islam and Christianity are meant, shows the full range of different attitudes towards rationality. In case of Christianity the view ranges from “I believe because it’s absurd” (credo quia absurdum)[2] a statement ascribed to Tertulian - and the concept of Thomas Aquinas, according to which “every intellectual act depends on God”[3], who is, as Christians believe, rational Himself.[4] Probably the strongest emphasis on irrationality in religion, understood as prevalence of God’s transcendence inaccessible to human mind, can be found in Orthodoxy and in Calvinism.[5] The strongest emphasis on rationality, on the other hand, seems to be present in Roman-Catholicism.[6] Notwithstanding the inter-religious and inter-confessional differences reltrad claim that rationality, considered as participation in God’s wisdom in which all rationality is embedded, forms an essential part of every religion. While relsec purport an “exclusive rationalism”, because it excludes God, reltrad maintain an “inclusive rationalism”, in which God is contained. Besides these differences mentioned rationality forms a common ground where reltrad and relsec, including scientific naturalism, can enter into dialog.

Scientific naturalism as the paradigm of today

Contemporary problem with connecting such issues as God, brain, prayer and evolution results not only from the popular, yet incorrect, claim that religion lacks rationality and therefore no common ground with science can be established. It results also from the perspective of scientific naturalism - the scientific paradigm of today. According to scientific naturalism world’s normal causal processes as processes of matter are only accessible by the means of science. Consequently they are never interrupted by any supernatural cause and thus no nonsensory experience is possible (Griffin 2002, 361-362).

Paradigms, however, are not always convincing due to their intrinsic consistency. They rather exert influence due to the fact that they are paradigms. A view becomes a paradigm only then if it is accepted by the majority as a common sense opinion or as an opinion in accordance with science. Consequently science, though believed to be the absolute truth, is also a social construct. If scientists declare reality to be the object of science they in fact mean something which is considered by the majority of the scientific community as real. Hence the area of scientific interest, i.e. “the paradigmatic reality”, is defined by a social agreement. This “paradigmatic reality”, however, is also established by a current founding policy on the part of the state or private investors. Some projects are funded because they are believed to be useful. Others are rejected because they are inconsistent with the ruling paradigm. Consequently the funding policy as a part of social agreement draws a sharp line between sense and nonsense in science and retards thus any scientific progress. The issue how many angels can dance of the point of a needle, often quoted as an example of a nonsensical medieval study, seems quite reasonable from a particular metaphysical perspective which can be followed by a scientific approach. Let us assume the existence of angels. Let us further assume that everything in the universe, including angels, exists as energy, which, at present can be only partly measured by our devices. Since, according to physics, any energy can be converted into matter and/or movement, the issue of dancing angels seems less nonsensical (Sandberg 2000).[7] Since, however, the first proposition of the argumentation above, as metaphysical, is inconsistent with the paradigm of scientific naturalism, someone who might dare to work on the dancing-angels-issue will at least face the objection of petitio principi since s/he builds an argumentation on a proposition which s/he cannot prove.

Scientific naturalism, even if it rejects metaphysics, is also embedded in a particular metaphysics. This metaphysics is materialism (Griffin 2002, 365-357), which defines the boundaries of reality in its own way. Scientific paradigms are not eternal, they also can change. This happens primarily due to a shift in metaphysics after which a shift in science follows. We owe our contemporary scientific interest in biofeedback, alternative medicine, body-mind-brain issues and many ecological questions like animal self-awareness or plant intelligence to the metaphysical shift which took place in the West in the late 1960s and resulted in the New Age two decades later. Due to the fact that some people sensed and/or experienced that reality is much more than the scientific paradigm of their parents generation allowed, they started to develop new methods and devices in order to prove their metaphysical approach. Thomas Kuhn describes the paradigmatic process as a shift from normal science (=paradigma), via crisis and revolution, to new normal science (= paradigmb) (Kuhn 1969). As science Kuhn regards small groups of research workers who carry forward one line of inquiry. This disciplinarity matrix, as Kuhn calls it, provides paradigm-as-set-of-shared-values which again is intimately linked to paradigm-as-achievement (Kuhn 1969; Ian Hacking 1983, 10-11). Consequently paradigm forms the beginning, the method and partially the result of the research. Since, however, the result becomes an achievement only due to the acceptance of the academic peers, which occurs mostly if no ruling paradigm is violated, the question comes up whether science is not a mere social construct.

Philosophical background of scientific naturalism: the legacy of Descartes

Before a new metaphysical shift can finally result in a new scientific paradigm, the philosophical background of scientific naturalism (natscien) will be exposed. Natscien was formed by the dualistic rationalism and idealism (=ratioideal), on the one hand, and the monistic materialism and reductionism (=matred), on the other hand. Both developments originated in the Cartesian split of reality into “the extended thing” (res extensa), i.e. “matter”, and “the thinking thing” (res cogitans), i.e. “mind” . René Descartes (1596-1650) sought for the unquestionable certitude of knowledge and existence which could resist any skepticism. According to him this certitude cannot be found in the exterior world due to the possibility of misperception, but within the mental processes of the thinking subject. Hence even if we doubt about everything, we cannot doubt the same process of doubting. This means that by questioning any possible content of thought as unreal the self-awareness of the questioning individual still remains. For this reason we can say “I think therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum) and recognize ourselves as a “thinking thing” (res cogitans). After having proved the existence of anything at all, Descartes proceeds to the evidence of the exterior world which results from the existence of God (Descartes, 1987, 31-39). Since we doubt, we recognize ourselves as imperfect. Consequently we have a native notion (idea innata) of something more perfect (smp) than ourselves. Smp must be real, since even the imperfect doubting subject exists. Consequently smp, as more perfect, has to exist, too. Otherwise it would be less perfect than the imperfect, yet existing, doubting subject. Smp is God. Since God is perfect He has also to be good, because the notion of perfection includes the notion of goodness. Even if we can be only sure of the contents of our mind, at least some of them have to be true. This happens for that reason that God as perfect, good and veracious and as such He would not place entirely false notions into human minds.

One of the notions placed by God is the notion of extensiveness, considered by Descartes as the most universal and abstract feature of all bodies. Since everything beyond the thinking subject (res cogitans) is extended (res extensa) reality can be split up into two realms: the realm of res cogitans, i.e. realm of mind, and the realm of res extensa, i.e. realm of matter (Röd 1999, 73). In this way modern dualism was born. Since, however, this concept attributed body to the one realm and mind or spirit to another, human, as consisting of mind and body, ceased to be a considered as a unity. Against the Platonic dualism which solved the problem of two realms (i.e. of the noetic and sensual cosmos) by means of participation, modern dualism claimed a juxtaposition of matter (res extensa) and mind (res cogitans). Consequently the post-Cartesian philosophical development focused either on matter or mind. In the genuine Cartesian system the problem of knowledge about the exterior world was solved by the claim that God gave us the notion of it. Notwithstanding this solution most post-Cartesian philosophers rejected God as the epistemological link between the inner and the outer world. This approach, however, caused a clash between the inner and the outer experience, empiricism and rationalism, experiment and theory, science and religion.

This process can be shown on the example of French philosophy which significantly contributed to the further development of the philosophy of science. In the era preceding French Revolution French philosophy, similar to the French society, belonged either to a reformist or a revolutionary party (Röd, 1984, 163). The reformist party consisting of Charles Louis de Secondat, and, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755), François Marie Voltaire (1694-1778) and Denis Diderot (1713-1784) focused on the realm of res cogitans and opted for a religion of reason. The revolutionary party, on the other hand, consisting of Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751) and Paul Henri Thiry d’Holbach (1723-1789) followed the Cartesian path of rex extensa and claimed a mere materialism. In regard to the mind-matter-issue Voltaire claimed that we simply don’t know what the relation between spirit and matter is (Röd 1984, 176). Diderot went a step further and proceeded in regard to the matter-spirit-issue from agnosticism to the negation of any link between the res extensa and res cogitans. He purported that any teleology is anthropomorphic. Consequently in science we are only allowed to ask how and not why. Since by asking for meaning which means by arguing from the perspective of res cogitans in the world of res extensa we slip into anthropomorphism (Röd 1984, 190). Contrary to Voltaire and Diderot the revolutionary party saw no need of linking mind with matter, since only the latter exists. La Mettrie declared that an immaterial soul cannot work on the body (Röd, 1984, 216). Consequently he considered the soul as a function of the material brain process. He also connected metaphysical materialism with epistemological reductionism and declared the contents of mind as reducible to sensations. According to La Mettrie thinking is only the facility of organized matter. Holbach, another materialist, drew theological conclusions from La Mettrie’s philosophical views and claimed that “to worship God means to worship the own brain’s fiction”. He considered everything as matter to which mechanic regularities ruling physics, biology and even society can be attributed (Röd, 1984, 229). These materialistic views, albeit developed in the 18th century, sound very modern even today. In opposition to materialism another philosophical path called spiritualism developed. Maine de Biran (1766-1824), one of its advocates, focused entirely on the res cogitans and claimed that only the inner experience is related to facts (Röd, 1989, 281). Consequently he had severe problems to answer the question whether the spiritual and supra-individual reality really exists or whether it should be considered as a sum of psychological and physiological phenomena (Röd, 1989, 283). The answer to the latter question is not irrelevant to the philosophy of science. If we assume that only an individual experience exist, we cannot presuppose any universal or generally binding truth, rule or formula. German idealists had also to face this problem of empirism and solved in their own way. Kant claimed that the categories of our mind are universal. Fichte placed the individual I within the Absolute I. Schelling embedded the individual human experience within the Absolute (Klibengajtis 2008, 15-20). In order to prove the existence of the outer world German idealism had to employ very sophisticated metaphysical constructions. This degree of complexity couldn’t work for science and a new paradigm shift, called positivism, occurred. Most scientists preferred this perspective elaborated by Auguste Comte (1798-1857). He declared that positive science has to be (1) empirical, (2) value-free, (3) able to make prognoses based on laws of induction and (4) able to make these prognoses work in a rational praxis (Röd, 1989, 28). Although positivism originated in the 1820s, its legacy lasts until now. Positivism followed the 18th century materialism and focused on the res extensa. German idealism, on the other hand, concentrated on res cogitans and made by this way a significant contribution to the development of psychology. Despite numerous attempts to establish a new metaphysical paradigm which could mediate between the realm of res extensa, i.e. science and the realm of res cogitans, i.e. mind, psyche and spirituality, such as the synthetic philosophy of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), neokantianism, vitalism, analytical philosophy and deconstructionism, we still live in a conflict between res extensa and res cogitans. Consequently any attempts of a uniform view on matter and spirit seem suspicious.


[1] Scientific naturalism as represented by Dawkins and consorts certainly meets the criteria (a) to (f) described above. Dawkins (2004) meets at least the criteria (a) to (c) when he writes: “My objection to supernatural beliefs is precisely that they miserably fail to do justice to the sublime grandeur of the real world. They represent a narrowing-down from reality, an impoverishment of what the real world has to offer.” By calling anyone who rejects evolution “ignorant, stupid and insane” (1989) he meets the criterion (e). Other proponents of natscien employ a quasi religious language as described by Giberson (2008, 174-182) which strikes odd as to people who call themselves rationalists. Interestingly enough Dawkins, Dennett and other proponents of natscien belong to a proselytizing movement of “the brights” (Giberson, 44) whose main ideas such as a naturalistic worldview can be traced back to the times of preceding the French Revolution. Even if cultic elements of “the brights” are not mentioned on the movement’s page ( they probably exist.

[2] A sentence wrongly ascribed to Tertulian († 220). In regard to the real Flesh of the risen Christ he in fact wrote “it’s believable because it’s improper” (credibile es, quia ineptum est) (De carne Christi 5,4).

[3] Aquinas, Summa theologica, Prima secundae, Q. 109, 1 c: “Actio intellectus cujuscumque creati dependet a Deo, quoad duo: primo inquantum habet ab eo perfectionem qua agit, id est lumen; secundo inquantum movetur ab eo.“ 12 q. 109. 1 c

[4] Tertullian, De anim. 16.

[5] While Calvin argues from the incapability of human mind which, although endowed with a “sense of Deity” by nature, fails to recognize God’s salvation due to the fall (Calvin 1964a), Orthodoxy argues from God’s ineffable transcendence and holiness which is incomprehensible to human mind. Although both approaches seem similar their consequences are quite different. According to Calvin a believer has to accept God’s irrational choice including predestination and reprobation which stays irrational for him to the end (Calvin 1964b). According to Orthodoxy a believer should enter the mystic way which surmounts the rational approach and results in contemplation in which all differences between rational and irrational will be abolished as comprehended quasi from God’s perspective (Vladimir Lossky 2005, 7-9).

[6] The relation between reason and faith was one of the main subjects of the First Vatican Council (1869-70). The Dogmatic Constitution on Catholic Faith Dei Filius from 24. April 1870 asserts that “there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason” (Chap. IV, 5) and “not only can faith and reason never be at odds with one another but they mutually support each other” (Chap. IV, 10). Nevertheless “the reason is never rendered capable of penetrating [the] mysteries [of faith] in the way in which [the faith] penetrates those truths which form its proper object” (Chap. IV, 4).

[7] Significantly the note about Sandberg’s paper can be found in the German Bild der Wissenschaft Plus in the column: Research Nobody Needs to Know (Forschung, die die Welt nicht braucht) (Sandberg 2001, 50).

Excerpt out of 27 pages


Human – a praying animal. Spirituality as consequence of brain evolution
The Venice School on Science and Religion 2009, zum Thema “Evolution and Human Uniqueness” (26.05-30.05. 2009).
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Mein Beitrag bei der The Venice School on Science and Religion 2009, zum Thema “Evolution and Human Uniqueness” (26.05-30.05. 2009).
Religionsphilosophie, Evolutionstheorie, Paläonthologie, Urmenschen, Hirnforschung, Religion, Spiritualität
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Dr. Thomas Klibengajtis (Author), 2009, Human – a praying animal. Spirituality as consequence of brain evolution, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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