Knowing God, the world and ourselves. What can the science-theology dialog learn from the German idealism today?

Essay, 2008

13 Pages


Knowing God, the world and ourselves. What can the science-theology dialog learn from the German idealism today?

By Thomas Klibengajtis PhD,


The aim of this paper is to show that there is no significant difference between knowledge and understanding in science and religion, since the epistemic approach in both these fields is idealistic. After presenting the meaning of the term ‘real’, the idealistic approach of Kant, Fichte and Schelling will be adduced and its relevance for the contemporary science will be demonstrated. Subsequently the term ‘scientific realism’ will be introduced together with some ideas proving that it should be considered as idealism sui generis. Then some examples from the history of science will be given proving that many discoveries were preceded by an a priori idea. In the last part of the paper the human I will be depicted as the predominant ‘space’ of the religious experience. Since a human can discover God within him/herself, s/he is also able to discover God in and within the exterior world. Since, both in science and religion, knowledge and understanding originates from the I, there is no significant difference between scientific and religious approach.

Keywords: epistemology, realism, German idealists, scientific realism as idealism, religious experience. What is real?

The issue of knowledge and understanding in science and theology concerns foremost the notion of reality and consequently the notion of realism. A realist considers something (S) as real, which is outside and hence independent of the recognizing subject. On the other hand the independence of subject and object cannot be too strict, otherwise any act of knowledge wouldn’t be possible, in which subject and object form a certain unity.

The idealistic turn and approach of Kant, Fichte and Schelling Kant’s way from things to representations

In the epistemology before Kant it was generally claimed that the subject, although recognizing something beyond and therefore, in a way, alien to itself, has to have certain interior “instruments,” let us call them “categories,” making this cognition possible. This view starts in the similia similibus cognoscuntur - doctrine, according to which something similar can be recognized by something similar. It can be found among the Presocratics (Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Diogenes from Apollonia) described by Aristotle,1 in Plato2 and, in a way, in the Aristotelian epistemology itself, which starts with the sensual and ends in the theoretical cognition. This epistemological tradition was handed down to the Middle Ages and adopted in the classical sentence quod recipitur in modo recipientis recipitur - “everything, which is recognized, is recognized in the way of recognizing subject.”3 It stresses the subject’s role in the processes of cognition and indicates that the latter is possible only then, if the subject internalizes something objective. Hence, as the short historical sketch shows, cognition before Kant was never regarded as purely receptive. In the Pre-Kantian epoch, however, such categories as substance, quantity, relation, etc. were primarily found in things and secondarily in minds recognizing them.4 Since Kant, categories were transferred into mind, where, as independent from things, they became ways of experiencing things. According to Kant, “We necessarily attribute to things a priori all the properties which constitute conditions under which alone we can cogitate them.”5 This means, that we can only be sure of our categories, whereas the things outside the mind (die Dinge an sich) stay incognisable.6 This epistemological turning point, situating knowledge and understanding not in the nexus between things and mind, as seen in the correspondence theory of truth (veritas est adequatio intellectus et rei),7 but within the internal logical and epistemic processes of mind, was certainly preceded by the Cartesian proves for God’s and world’s existence, which were taken from the point of view of the solipsistic I.8 Neither Descartes nor Kant were solipsists, but they rediscovered the truth that our mind or soul, to say it in the language of religion, is the true space where God, world, and ourselves can be experienced. Since, we perceive reality only by and through ourselves is there anything beyond ourselves which can be experienced?

Fichte’s way from I to the Absolute I

The post-kantian idealistic philosophy had to meet three challenges: (1) how to prove experience, (2) how to prove the possibility of science, (3) how to avoid solipsism. All this had to be undertaken from the perspective of the subject, which does not know much more beyond its own ways of understanding. The early Fichte initially choose a path which could be considered as a path straight to solipsism. Kant divided reality into (A) things in themselves and (B) our representations of them, stressing however, that albeit (A) are incognizable, they are nevertheless existent and they do exert influence on (B). Fichte, on the other side, ascribed both (A) and (B) to the mental activity of the I.9 Since the Fichtean I starts its process of knowledge and understanding from its self-awareness (I = I),10 it recognizes the world as something different from itself, i.e. as the non-I (I ≠ non I).11 However, since the I cannot be limited by anything outside itself, which would be incompatible with its freedom, the I posits the non-I within itself.12 Thus Fichte can claim: “Everything that exists, exists only insofar as it is posited in the I. Besides the I there is nothing.”13 The early Fichte speaks of the I* as a hyper-unity and of the I, as the subject, opposed the non-I. In order to avoid any misunderstanding and contradiction he later calls the I* ‘something third’14 and finally the absolute I.15 Based on this epistemology Fichte develops a Wissenschaftslehre, i.e. “theory of science” or “doctrine of scientific knowledge”. This is however not a theory of physics, chemistry, etc. existing somewhere outside the I, but a doctrine in regard to the inner-mental processes of knowledge. Knowledge (Wissen) says Fichte, is existent only insofar as it is present within the subject’s mind. But where are the things science is about? In the Absolute, i.e. God, answers the late Fichte. The Absolute I is something objective beyond the different, individual Is and as such forms their ontological fundament.16 This step from the individual I of the early period, which contained everything within itself, to the Absolute I, where the individual I is only a part of, was made by Fichte in order to save the absoluteness and certainty of knowledge (Wissen).17 Knowledge, in order to be such, has to be one and the same for everybody, which means that its object has to be outside of the individual I. Consequently, the individual I becomes the manifestation of the Absolute, which is the true “being in itself” (An-sich).18

Schelling’s way from idealism to realism and back While the Fichtean transition from idealism to pantheistical realism occurred not expressis verbis but only de facto, Schelling maintained that idealism and realism, in a way, coincide.19 Schelling’s theory of knowledge (Wissen) is based on an idealistic reading of the correspondence theory of truth (veritas est adequatio intellectus et rei).20 The contents of the subjective mind have to refer to something beyond them, to the “real cause” (der Realgrund), which Schelling calls “the Unconditioned” (das Unbedingte). It is the ultimate cause or the keystone of the subject’s argumentation without which all science and knowledge would fall in the category of regressus ad infinitum. Schelling’s Realgrund, das Unbedingte, or the Absolute, is nearly identical with the Absolute I of the late Fichte. Roughly speaking, according to Schelling, we can have knowledge of something outside us only because we have the capability of perceiving it. But we have the latter only because we are, in a way, parts of the Absolute, which creates and sustains the reality outside of us, we refer to. Hence the Absolute manifests itself as nature, from its real side, and as representations of the self- conscious I, from its ideal side.21 Therefore idealism and realism coincide.

The significance of German idealism for science a) Kantian approach What is the significance of these three idealistic doctrines for our understanding in science? Together with Kant we can claim, that in science we perceive reality, i.e. something outside the scientist’s mind, only by the scientific ‘categories’ of the particular science. This is because these scientific ‘categories’ are embedded in human epistemic categories. W. I. Mc Laughlin shows it in regard to astronomy by applying Kantian epistemology to the following issues:


1 Aristoteles, De anima, 404 b 11-27; 405 B 21-29; 409 B 26-27 [Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten]

2 Plato, Tim. 45 C:[Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten].

3 Thomas Aquinas, De veritate, q.12 a.12 arg. 12 s. c. 2.: „omne quod in aliquo recipitur, recipitur in eo per modum recipientis.“

4 Aristoteles, Categories, cap. 4-5.

5 Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Introduction 1, in: Kant-Werke, vol.3, Berlin: Reimer, 1904, p. 26.

6 Ibd., p. 27; p. 78.

7 Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, q. 1, a 1.

8 Descartes, Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison et chercher la vérité dans les sciences, Paris: Vrin, 1987, pp. 33-36 (=IV. 4-5 according to different Descartes editions); p. 39 (=IV. 8).

9 Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Zurückforderung der Denkfreiheit, in: R. Lauth and J. Jacob (eds.), Fichte- Gesamtausgabe der Bayrischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (= AK), Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Frommann- Holzboog, 1964, vol. I.1, p. 179, v. 8-34 (=VI, 18.45-VI, 19. 47 according to the former Fichte editions), Ueber den Begriff der Wissenschaftslehre oder der sogenannten Philosophie. Vorrede zur ersten Ausgabe, Fußnote, AK I. 2, p. 109; Grundlage der gesammten Wissenschaftslehre, AK I.2, p. 416, v. 15-22 (=I, 286). Cf. Wolfgang Röd, Der Weg der Philosophie von den Anfängen bis ins 20 Jahrhundert. Zweiter Band 17. bis 20 Jahrhundert, München: Beck, 1996, p. 214; Peter Baumanns, J. G. Fichte. Kritische Gesamtdarstellung seiner Philosophie, München: Alber, 1990, pp. 56-60; Dieter Henrich, Fichtes ursprüngliche Einsicht, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1967, pp. 10-16.

10 Über den Begriff der Wissenschaftslehre, AK I. 2, p. 139.

11 Grundlage, pp. 264.11-267.23 (=I,102-105)

12 Ibd. p.409,1-32 (=I, 277).

13 Ibd. p. 260,25-261,4 (= I, 98 -99).

14 Ibd.

15 Grundlage, p. 271-272 (=I, 109-119), 279 (=I, 119).

16 Darstellung der Wissenschaftslehre. Aus den Jahren 1801-1802, AK II.6, pp. 149-172 (=II,19-41).

17 Darstellung, pp. 197, v.17-199, v.8 (= II, 65-66).

18 Röd, p. 220.

19 Schelling, Philosophische Untersuchungen über das Wesen der menschlichen Freiheit in: Schelling-Werke [= SW] Stuttgart-Augsburg: Cotta, 1856-1861, vol. 3, p. 452; Vom Ich als Prinzip der Philosophie, SW vol. 1, p. 65; Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur, SW vol. 1, p. 163; System des transzendenten Idealismus, SW vol. 2, pp. 26, 60.

20 The famous “veritas est adequatio intellectus et rei” by Thomas Aquinas (De Veritate, q. 1, a 1) reads in Schelling’s version as follows : “One knows the true only. The truth however can be found in the correspondence between the representations and their objects”. Cf. System, p. 13.

21 Ideen zu einer Philosophie der Natur, SW vol. 1, pp. 162-163; System, pp. 13-16; Bruno, oder über das göttliche und natürliche Prinzip der Dinge, SW vol. 2, p. 506; Vorlesungen über die Methode des akademischen Studiums. Erste Vorlesung. Über den absoluten Begriff der Wissenschaft, SW vol. 2, p. 546.

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Knowing God, the world and ourselves. What can the science-theology dialog learn from the German idealism today?
12 Konferenz der European Society for the Study of Science And Theology (ESSSAT) zum Thema “How do we know? Understanding in science and theology”, Sigtuna, Schweden, Mai 2008.
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Mein Beitrag bei der 12 Konferenz der European Society for the Study of Science And Theology (ESSSAT) zum Thema “How do we know? Understanding in science and theology”, Sigtuna, Schweden, Mai 2008.
Erkenntnislehre, Realismus, Deutscher Idealismus, Erkenntnis in Naturwissenschaften und in Religion, Religiöse Erfahrung
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Dr. Thomas Klibengajtis (Author), 2008, Knowing God, the world and ourselves. What can the science-theology dialog learn from the German idealism today?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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