Natural Science and Spirituality

On the historical traces of a synthesis

Author: Prof. Dr. Orestis Terzidis
Natural science has radically changed our view of man and the world in recent centuries. This change has profound consequences for our approach to technology and nature, but also for our understanding of religion and art, science, of society and politics. Modern ways of life has been decisively shaped by natural science. Therefore, it is important to understand its emergence and its consequences for our lives.

Albert EinsteinNatural scientists cannot bear it exaggeratedly said that there should be something further beside the physics with its laws.

The beginning of modern science is usually seen at the beginning of the 17th century. At that time, the ecclesiastical institutions claimed the explanatory sovereignty for thoughts about mankind and the cosmos. Contradictions against the prevailing view were sanctioned and rejected as heresy. Postulates about the nature of nature were derived from a literal understanding of the Bible. Whoever contradicted these ideas came into conflict with the ruling religious authorities. In extreme cases, he was condemned by the Inquisition.

A well-known example of such ideological guidelines is the geocentric world view, i.e. the idea that the earth is the center of the universe. From the Bible the sentence “God establishes the earth circle immovably ” was quoted and concluded from it that the earth does not move. Contradictory views, such as the heliocentric world view described by Nicolaus Copernicus in the middle of the 16th century, according to which the sun is the center of the movements of the celestial bodies, were considered to contradict the Holy Scriptures and were rejected.


Parallel to this, and as a direct result of this development, the philosophical systems of the modern era emerged, such as rationalism and the philosophy of the Enlightenment. A central thinker of rationalism is René Descartes. Our image of him today is often shaped by the idea that he took the first step in what Max Weber later called the “disenchantment of the world.” But Descartes’ views are more subtle, and it is significant that he sought out the Rosicrucians during his stay in Ulm.

René DescartesCartesian thought seems to go much further and cannot be reduced to a simple reduction of the world to abstract and anemic concepts.

One can debate the extent to which this quote from Uwe Schultz, a modern biographer of Descartes, is exhaustive of the intentions of the Rosicrucians and the motivations of Descartes; in any case, it shows a side of rationalism and its background that may seem unfamiliar to many. It is an indication that the pensée cartésienne, Cartesian thought goes much further and cannot be reduced to a simple reduction of the world to abstract and anemic concepts.


After this historical overview, it is interesting to ask which elements are systematically important for the scientific method and way of knowing. Three elements should be mentioned here: first, the role of empiricism, that is, of experiences and observations; second, the appearance of a formal representation of knowledge in terms or mathematical systems; and third, the consolidation in comprehensive theories or paradigms.

Hegel developed ideas that interpreted the whole of natural and cultural history as a process of spiritual evolution.

In addition to the realms of knowledge related to objects, humans know a whole range of other expressions: These include contemplative insights, interpretive cognition, introspective perceptions, and aesthetic and ethical realities. Likewise, the existential questions of origin, identity, and destiny are also part of it. Most people know these questions very well from their own experience and contemplation.

The emphasis on developing rational, independent thought as the basis of knowledge and as a counter to a speculatively developed and authoritatively enforced worldview also forms an important feature of the Enlightenment. Ken Wilber speaks of the “dignity of modernity,” which leads to a differentiation of the three value spheres of cognition, religion, and art.


Accordingly, religion no longer dictates to science the method and content according to which it should develop. Conversely, in the phase of rationalism and enlightenment, it is generally assumed that spiritual cognition occupies its very own sphere. In Kant’s case, this is closely connected with ethics. But also in general, by far the most representatives of this epoch search for an appropriate place for spirituality.

In the aftermath of the Enlightenment, a new phase in the development of  science can be identified. This phase can be called scientism, in which the sciences begin to make an absolute claim to any objective knowledge. By the middle of the 19th century, numerous scientific discoveries had been made. Besides the continuation and refinement of mechanics, fundamental discoveries had been made in thermodynamics. But also chemistry, electromagnetism, astronomy, geography, geology and mineralogy. In biology, a further upheaval in the world view was in the offing with the theories of evolution. At the same time, profound social changes had taken place. (…)

About the author

Prof. Dr. Orestis Terzidis

Prof. Dr. Orestis Terzidis works as a professor at the Faculty of Economics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). He studied physics and philosophy in Heidelberg and received his PhD in theoretical physics. Subsequently, he worked as a manager in industrial research and development. In addition to his core scientific areas in the field of innovation management, he is deeply involved in the importance of empirical sciences. Also their relationship to philosophical issues.

Image: © Rassouli-Joyriders,

This article appeared originally on the German Homepage  Tattva Viveka: Naturwissenschaft und Spiritualität

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