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Friday, 24 October 2014

Kant on Evidence-transcendence & Reason


According to Immanuel Kant, God is experience- or evidence-transcendent. And, in this sense, he agrees with David Hume. According to Kant, Hume thinks that “we apply only ontological predicates (eternity, omnipresence, omnipotence)” to God. But what Hume required were “properties which can yield a concept in concreto”. They must be “superadded”. That is, predicates such as eternity, omnipresence and omnipotence are not intrinsic properties, they are, if you like, abilities of God. What Hume wanted was a criterion of identity for God, not simply descriptions of His abilities and powers.

It’s as if someone were to describe a rose by saying that "it delights people and is an emblem of love", instead of saying that roses are red and give off a sweet pungency. These are relational predicates. Hume was asking: What is God? I don’t want to know His powers or what do he does?

Of course Kant would say that his intrinsic properties are beyond us because such properties can only be given in experience. This prompts the question: Aren’t the properties of omnipotence, omnipresence also given only in experience? But part of God’s essence, as it were, is the fact that He is beyond experience. And not only that, part of God’s essence for Kant, is that He is beyond experience. If we wanted more than this from God, we would, Kant says, be guilty of “anthropomorphism”; and this is what many theists were guilty of.

So, in a sense, Kant sympathised we Hume’s deism and sided with him against theism and all other “anthropomorphisms”. Theism, or at least anthropomorphism, is for crude God-lovers who somehow project their own properties or attributes on to God (as Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud were later to elaborate on). However, despite what has been said, Humean deism is going to far, or so Kant thinks. Kant’s view of deism is unequivocal. He says, “nothing can come” of it. Not only that: it “is of no value” and “cannot serve as any foundation to religion or morals”. So whereas theism is too human (“all too human”?), deism is too anti-human. Kant therefore attempted, as ever, to find some kind of middle way between the two extremes.

Though, again, Kant is unhappy with anthropomorphism (and therefore theism?). We mustn't “transfer predicates from the world of sense to a being quite distinct from the world”. The end result of Kant’s vision of God is therefore quite unequivocal. We must “acknowledge that the Supreme Being is quite inscrutable and even unthinkable in any determinate way as to what it is in itself”. God is, therefore, another noumenol being.

Kant agreed with Hume who thinks that it is wise “not to carry the use of reason dogmatically beyond the field of all possible experience”. However, Kant had a problem with this dogmatic attitude towards reason itself. He thinks that Hume should not “consider the field of experience as one which bounds itself in the eyes of our reason”. Reason ,therefore, comes to Kant’s rescue again. That is, reason can take us beyond “all possible experience” and give us the means to understand, if not know, God Himself (in this instance). Indeed Kant calls Hume’s dogmatism towards reason “scepticism”. And Kant, yet again, attempts to find “the true mean between dogmatism…and scepticism”.

Kant reiterates why he thinks we can transcend experience. He says that experience “does not bound itself; it only proceeds in every case from the conditioned to some other equally conditioned thing”. However, experience’s “boundary must lie quite without it, and this is the field of the pure beings of the understanding”. And, of course, it is reason again that takes us to these “pure beings of the understanding”.

It is natural theology, via reason, that takes us beyond “the boundary of human reason”. It “looks beyond this boundary to the idea of a Supreme Being”.

And yet again Kant shows us that there is an illusive bridge between the offerings of experience and that which is beyond experience. He concedes “that reason by all it’s a priori principles never teaches us anything more than objects of possible experience”. However, this doesn't mean that “this limitation does not prevent reason from leading us to the objective boundary of experience, viz., to the reference to something which is not itself an object of experience but must be the highest ground of all experience”. However, Kant again concedes that reason “does not, however, teach us anything concerning the thing in itself”.

So what does reason do? It “only instructs us as regards its own complete and highest use in the field of possible experience”. Reason takes us beyond possible experience; though only into the field of conjecture, supposition and speculation. That is, it doesn't give us absolute knowledge of what lies beyond the boundaries of possible experience. It does, though, show us the boundaries themselves and what may lie beyond them.

Kant is clear that it is metaphysics itself that takes us beyond the bounds of possible experience. He says that pure reason is compelled “to quite the mere contemplation of nature, to transcend all possible experience” and to “endeavour to produce the thing…called metaphysics”. Metaphysics frees “our concepts from the fetters of experience and from the limits of the mere contemplation of nature” and allows us into the “field containing mere objects for the pure understanding which no sensibility can reach”. It is in passages like this that Kant shows us how far removed from the tenets of empiricism despite the fact that he, in a certain sense, fused empiricism and rationalism.

The empiricists believed that there was no knowledge beyond experience. Kant agreed. However, Kant believed that metaphysics took us beyond experience into the realm of “pure beings” that, nevertheless, could not be known. It was these flights of fancy that traditional empiricism was against. And indeed, later 20th century empiricists and the logical empiricists thought that it was precisely because of these Kantian flights of fancy - even if they didn't claim to give us knowledge - which resulted in metaphysics itself becoming “meaningless” or “nonsense”.

Kant did indeed strike a balance between the rationalism that had no time at all for the experiences of the senses and the empiricists who equally had no time for anything that was putatively beyond sense experience. Kant himself criticised Plato for floating off into the ether because he had no solid moorings in the world of sense. However, he accused hard-core empiricists like Hume of being “sceptics”. Was it the case, therefore, that Kant was between a rock and a hard place; or, as David Lewis put it, “between the rock of fallibilism and the whirlpool of scepticism” (1996, pg 503). Does it indeed make sense to talk of what lies beyond sense experience? Equally, doesn’t empiricism in its hard form annihilate the very practice of metaphysics and, ultimately, all philosophy?


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