Do any religion support intellectualism?

Summary: consciousness, philosophy, religion and science

From discussing naturalism, materialism and dualism to the meaning of life

Series in six parts

  1. Basics: materialism, reductionism, ontology & epistemology (3.2.2021)
  2. Interim balance sheet & explanation of everyday phenomena (8.2.2021)
  3. Naturalism & East vs. West (February 15, 2021)
  4. Intermezzo: Conflict or Compatibility? (22.2.2021)
  5. Interim conclusion (1.3.2021)
  6. What we can learn from the puzzle consciousness (15.3.2021)

There still seems to be a lot of need for discussion on the subject of awareness and the explanatory power of the natural sciences. After all, Timm Grams ’guest contribution, The Fifth World Mystery: Consciousness right after the outlier On the relationship between belief, philosophy and natural science, has now become the second most discussed contribution here at MENSCHEN-BILDER.

In this summary I would like to answer the question of what this discussion has brought about and which essential points remain open; It should be noted that - for reasons of time alone - I have not read all of the more than 750 comments. In my impression, there were more and more repetitions and the conversation finally turns in circles. In order to sharpen the view of what is being talked about, I will begin with a few conceptual remarks:


If one discusses phenomena such as consciousness or free will but also positions (“isms”) such as materialism, naturalism or dualism, then it should be at least roughly clear about what one speaks. Otherwise you might produce a lot of words, but talk past each other and not with each other. MENSCHEN-BILDER is now a blog that is expressly open to hobby philosophers. Nevertheless, one should not lose sight of the sharpness of the terminology if this is to be more than just a pastime.

On materialism, I am referring to a textbook by the Dutch philosophers Sacha Bem and Huib Looren de Jong, which I myself used for years in my university teaching - until, by the way, the publisher pulled the plug for the online edition, probably for a new print edition better to sell. In any case, the two define the position as follows (in German translation):

Materialism: A metaphysical doctrine in philosophy that everything in the world and all of its entities and phenomena, including psychological phenomena, are manifestations of spatiotemporal matter. "

Then they explain that one can take this position in a more or less strong way:

“There are strong and more or less weak variants. The strong variants imply reductionism: Mental phenomena must be seen as manifestations of physical or brain processes and must be scientifically reduced to these processes. "

Bem & de Jong (2006), p. 277; German transl. d. A.


Reductionism often expresses itself in statements of the form: "Today we use psychological vocabulary - for example that we think or feel something - but actually these are only brain processes that will be more precisely identified in future research." One imagines it in such a way that the everyday language and also the scientific language of psychology and cognitive science can be converted into a language about nerve cells and their activities.

There are then still different opinions as to whether one can continue to use the psychological vocabulary after this reduction, for example for purely pragmatic reasons, or whether it should actually be given up as incorrect. The latter is therefore called “eliminative materialism”.

When I studied philosophy (2000-2005), the Analytical Philosophy of Mind was looking for an intermediate path: Is there between a strong materialism on the one hand and one Mind-body dualism on the other, a position that is both philosophically and scientifically tenable?

Dualism divides physical and psychological processes into two independent modes of being. Incidentally, contrary to what is often claimed, this does not rule out the possibility of it lawful connections between the modes of being. René Descartes (1596-1650) already assumed that body and soul - via the pineal gland - interact according to certain rules. That is why he also did physiological research and, for example, dissected animals.

Non-reductive materialism

But let's stick to the search for the way in between: Such positions are usually called non-reductive materialism. With this one gives priority to matter, but one also wants to express that - at least in a certain sense - not everything is matter. A distinction should be made here between two levels: that of Explanation (epistemic) and those of the His (ontological). What does that mean?

You have to be aware that our access to the world - unless we see, hear, smell, taste or feel something directly - above all else linguistic Kind is. Mind you, there can be a difference between what is fundamental and real and what we can describe and explain.

Scientists, too, still use language to formulate their results and theories and to exchange them with others, instead of dancing or painting them, for example. Of course, illustrations and animations can play a role.

Description and world

It is precisely at this point that the mentioned difference between the epistemic and the ontological level becomes significant: Perhaps we cannot describe and explain everything that is. Then it could be that everything in the world is material, but cannot be formulated as if it were material.

Conversely, this means that there are two ways of interpreting something when something changes Not materialistic (which means: as if it were matter) can be described: either what is to be described is really not materialistic; or, to put it bluntly, it just looks like that.

This difference is significant because it shows us the limits of our means of knowledge, our language. We should never forget that description and world are two different levels, just as a word, a concept, a name is not the same as the phenomenon it is supposed to describe.

The young Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) noted that the limit of his language means the limit of his world (Tractatus, §5.6). And Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) criticized the fact that we - also in science - often confuse the terms with the phenomena (Fröhliche Wissenschaft, §58).

I see it the same way as Nietzsche and consider discussions such as the one about materialism and reductionism to be good (that is, criticism-worthy) examples of his point: One argues so much about terms that one loses sight of the phenomena. Wittgenstein, I would contradict that, beyond language, the direct experience remains - only we cannot or only to a limited extent share what we have experienced with others: share.

The poets of all cultures have always testified to the difficulty of conveying our experiences through language. But let's not forget that empirically in “empirical science” refers to what can be experienced - and not only believed on the basis of tradition. Experience is therefore central in (natural) science.

Being and appearance

Incidentally, however, even direct experience is unfortunately no guarantee that the world will too fundamental and real so is; after all, we can only experience what we can experience, that is, what we have the necessary means of knowledge for. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) already named categories of our understanding - such as unity and multiplicity or cause and effect - by means of which we recognize the world. And I don't see how one could get past his insight, even if I might name the categories differently.

Imagine that you can see everything through a red foil: Then everything looks red, but what is due to the foil and not to the things. In order to perceive the world as it is fundamental and real, one would have to without any foil can see. But how is that supposed to work?

In the discussion of the mind-body problem one still says today: "If the brain were so simple that we could understand it, then we would be too stupid to really understand it." Even if this sentence may not express any deep philosophical truth, it reminds us that our knowledge depends inevitably on our possibilities of knowledge: We can only understand ourselves, if at all, from our point of view and not beyond ourselves.

In the second part we take stock of the interim, we deal in more detail with non-reductive materialism and the scientific explanation of everyday phenomena.


  • Bem, S. & de Jong, H. L. (2006). Theoretical Issues in Psychology: An Introduction. Legend.

Title graphic: geralt on Pixabay.

The discussions here are free and are generally not moderated. Treat each other respectfully, orientate yourself on the topic of the blog posts and avoid repetitions or monologues. When exchanging ideas, things can get hot, but not be offensive, and above all never go below the belt. Stephan Schleim is a studied philosopher, psychologist and doctorate in cognitive science. Since 2009 he has been at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, currently as Associate Professor of Theory and History of Psychology. The author also writes for numerous other media.