G.F. Wolfgang, in the last 10 years I had many opportunities to gain impressions of your thinking and working. What amazes me most is your ability to synthesise an extraordinary amount of knowledge and to combine it with spiritual insight. You are a natural scientist and had a chair for evolutionary biology at the University of Witten. Could you tell us something about your relationship to nature?
How little children experience the world
W.S. Apparently I had a special relationship with living nature even as a small child. My mother told me that it was difficult to go for a walk with me. I always found something that made me stop: a snail or earthworms, spiders and other things. Whenever I could, I put it in my pocket and my father had to empty the pocket again if it was too sticky because of the snails. I will never forget the impression that horse chestnuts, freshly dropped in autumn, made on me. They came from the tree that stood next to the kindergarten. A bellflower impressed itself on me so deeply that I was able to botanically determine it many years later from the memory of the five-year-old.
G.F. That reminds me of statements by Rilke in his poems, according to which we are called by nature. Can you tell us how your relationship with nature developed?
W.S. It’s true that the intensity with which you experience nature as a small child is so immense that later, usually around puberty, you forget how strong the childhood experiences were. With people who work in the natural sciences it can be shown again and again that they would not have become good scientists without the experiences they had as a child. There are two skills that belong to a child: always being full of questions and always eager to learn. These are basic qualities that every scientist needs throughout his or her life. So the “child within the man” is an important thing, especially in the scientific profession, because it is through this that creativity is born.
G.F. And then there is the other aspect of the child, namely the feeling of direct connection with everything. The child is still very open to things, as long as thinking does not interfere.
Monism changes into dualism
W.S. One can assume that the younger we are, the more we are one with the experience of the world. The distance created by thinking confronts you with the objects and makes them “present”, they are “presented “ before our eyes, so to speak. We see them at a distance. The little child does not have this form of encounter with nature, but is fully absorbed in what it experiences. In the course of childhood, and then especially in adolescence, the distance then occurs and we experience a clear separation between perception and thinking. As children, we always have the confidence that what we perceive is right that it has its meaning. This is lost in the moment when we turn what we are experiencing into objects. You cannot prevent this, it comes sooner or later, at least during a normal development. By objectifying the world, we get into a dilemma that leads to all the questions that we then have all our life.
It is the transition from a monistic ability to be open to the world into a dualistic one. Suddenly experience and thinking break apart, suddenly perception and concept break apart. Then many questions arise from the fact that we do not understand our new experiences. We do not know what it is, what it means that we have experienced. That is why the questions now arise and we then search for the right understanding, and if we think we understand something, it is a conceptually formulated connection, which is either too much dominated by our own inner world – in which case it can become an error if it is too subjective – or the opposite occurs and the mere objectivity is cultivated, which understands nothing – thus dualism is reinforced even more. The purely subjective experience does not help, nor does the purely objective experience. It only helps to overcome the subject-object divide. And this overcoming is actually the purpose of all knowledge, all understanding. In it, the two sides of dualism reconnect and we arrive at a new, but now fully conscious monism. One can see in oneself, but then paradigmatically also in great personalities, how they have always gone through three steps:
The expulsion from paradise
The biblical myth describes the monistic oneness with the world as paradise, and the expulsion from paradise then consists in the fact that earthly life can no longer be sustained as a life in a uniform, cosmic connection with the world. This has always been the primeval human experience in the cultures, which has been handed down from early times, since we have written reports. Even the writing itself is a massively reduced symbolism, a strong abstraction. A tree looks very different from the written word TREE.
And that brings us to the topic: Why have we lost this openness to the world? The “why“ is the core question, in order to also experience a sense in dualism. The sense of dualism is that I become fully aware of myself as an individual and thus achieve a freedom from the environment. This is an emancipatory process, a spiritual-emancipatory process. And this emancipation belongs to the maturing of the human being, belongs to his necessary biography. But this freedom is only a freedom “from”. Friedrich Nietzsche noticed that freedom “from” is not enough, and he once wrote: What do I care about freedom “from” – I ask about freedom “for”.