Archive for March 4, 2010
In my studies of Immanuel Kant, I am still at the stage where I feel that I don’t have a firm grasp on all the points he made and why he made them. And when my reaction to a philosopher is, “How could he have been so stupid to believe that?” I usually find that I have not completely understood him yet, all the more so when the philosopher in question is generally regarded as the greatest philosopher since ancient Greece. It is only after I study an argument in more detail and say, “Oh yes, I can see now that this guy was not so stupid after all,” that I can begin to seriously consider why he might have been wrong on some points.
That’s why I would like to briefly restate some of Kant’s main points and see if I got them right:
First of all, would it be right to say that Kant’s whole endeavor lay in determining the bounds of all possible human knowledge? He did not want to disprove the existence of time, space, God or anything else, but to see how far human knowledge can go and at what point it meets with boundaries. To put it a different way, was Kant’s main goal to map the hedge around the human mind?
If so, would it be also right to say that Kant has been (partially) proven right by the development of science and psychology, particularly in the 20th century? The mind and the world work together, yes, but only to a certain extend. At the level of quantum physics, at the level of the beginning of the universe, we realize that reality is very different from what we could have conceived, and, in fact, from what we *can* conceive. As someone has said, if you think you have understood quantum physics, you have not understood it. On the quantum level, the universe behaves in a way that does not make sense to us.
Seen from an evolutionary perspective, this is of course what we should expect. After all, our brains developed on this planet and work reasonably well in the day-to-day environment of survival. But push that same brain to the ultimate reality of our cosmos, and it has to capitulate. It can still observe, but it cannot truly understand.
Not to mention psychology and neurology. If there is one thing research in those fields over the past decades has shown us, it is that our beliefs are tricky. They are driven by a variety of factors and can be easily distorted. The heart is deceitful above all things, the Bible says, but so are our brains.
Of course, Kant lived prior to Darwin, prior to quantum physics, prior to modern psychology and neurology. But given his necessary ignorance about those things, he seems to have anticipated the limitations of human knowledge rather well.
So, coming back to my summary of Kant:
Kant said that we bring certain predispositions to the world around us, and only what can be fit into those predispositions can be experienced by us. Nowadays we would explain those predispositions in terms of evolution, psychology, and neurology, but Kant had to prove our predispositions, as it were, in a more abstract manner. Thus he focused on time and space, and used examples from geometry to show that they are predispositions of our mind.
Whatever the universe might be in terms of time and space, we can only discuss it to a certain extent (or perhaps not at all). Space and time cannot be said to exist independently of our experience, but it doesn’t mean that there is no real world out there about which it is completely rational to say that it consists of time and space. It is rational to say this, but it is also very human, and as humans we have the predisposition to say this. In that sense, space and time do not exist outside of us.
To put it a different way: Space and time do in fact apply to the world, but they are not derived from experience. There is a correspondence between the space and time in our heads and the outer world, but the mind is not the empirical recipient of time and space; rather time and space are the only lenses we have for perceiving the world.
Our minds are all we have to work with, and so work with it we shall. We should keep viewing ourselves as living in time and space, we should keep thinking about metaphysics and even about God, all the while realizing, however, that these are predispositions of our minds and that our minds are rather leaky vehicles for containing ultimate truth.
Was that a fair (though no doubt very imperfect) portrayal of Kant? Was his goal in fact to determine the bounds of all possible human knowledge? And did he, to a certain extent, succeed? Have evolution, quantum physics, psychology and neurology expressed scientifically what Kant tried to say philosophically? Namely that there is a hedge around the human mind? That our mind is limited and predisposed to think a certain way?