Yet I Still Want be a Catholic – Post 14: Kant

Yet I Still Want to be a Catholic – Post 14:  Kant


Part of my aim in these posts is to persuade you that we all need to think philosophically, that the ideas of the great philosophers are not that difficult to grasp and can be of great help to us in our attempts to make sense of the world.  But we have been hindered in our attempts to think philosophically by professional philosophers who have set their subject about with complex ideas and extremely abstruse terminologies.  This applies to none more than Immanuel Kant.  It’s a fair bet that most people after struggling to get through the first chapter of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason would feel in acute need of watching some football or listening to pop music.   But even Kant’s ideas, or so I believe, when stripped down to their bare bones (mixed metaphor?) are not that complicated.  I think Kant’s wonderful. he has certainly been hugely helpful to me.  Trying to explain his ideas, in so far as I understand them, is certainly going to test my thesis to destruction.


Kant was Professor of Philosophy at Königsberg in Prussia and to begin with accepted the prevailing ideas in continental philosophy in his day uncomplainingly.  At the time, these were dominated by two characters called Leibniz and Wolff.  They thought that sense experience is unreliable.  You think you see a fox but it’s only a shadow.  In more modern terms, brain science now tells us that the brain doesn’t take photographs as it were of the world out there, as we might naively think, but translates the messages our senses give us into codes, so bewilderingly intricate and apparently nonsensical even the code breakers at Bletchley Park would have been taxed to make sense of them.  But astonishingly the brain does, and presents us with perfectly sensible images of the world we at least think we are seeing (more about the brain later).  But do these images correspond to what is out there?  The rationalists of the day thought that sense experience is so unreliable only pure thought can be relied on to tell us truth.  We know for certain that 2+2 make 4 and one thing can’t be another thing at the same time.  So far so good.

Image of Immanuel Kant.  We can only know things in the way we know them.

But in Britain (Brexit is nothing new) they thought just the opposite.   All our knowledge comes through sense experience and only our sense experiences are reliable.  This supposedly wonderful world of pure thought doesn’t exist.  You take two stones and add two more and you’ve got four.  That’s all there is to it.  I know this stone exists, said Doctor Johnson, because I kick it.  This kind of empiricist thinking (if I might be allowed a teeny-weeny bit of jargon) reached its apex in the thinking of David Hume.  Hume, who was a great billiards player (he’d probably have been on TV in one of those snooker competitions they broadcast from the Crucible in Sheffield if he’d been alive today) noted that if you hit a ball with a cue and it rolls into the pocket you know it’s in the pocket because you’ve seen it doing it.  But what you didn’t see was the cue causing the ball to roll into the pocket.  What you saw, strictly speaking, was a sequence of events.  It could have been, theoretically, some kind of accident (which in the light of Heisenbergian uncertainty doesn’t sound all that impossible).

You have no immediate evidence that there is such a thing as causality.  And while he was at it Hume questioned continuing identity too.  How do you know you are the same person you were seven years ago?  All the cells in our bodies are supposed to change every seven years anyway (we might say) so perhaps that doesn’t sound that looney either.


Statue of David Hume in Edinburgh.  We have no direct evidence of causality. Hume was the original Mr Cool.  Boswell, visiting him on hie deathbed and hoping he would be repentant of his atheism, found him ‘as tranquil in mind and as clear headed as any man can be’.


Hume’s ideas got Kant leaping out of his philosophical chair as if it had caught fire.  Hume, he said famously, awoke him from his dogmatic slumbers.  He just couldn’t see a way round Hume’s sceptical arguments.  But on the other hand, if you take Hume seriously you just can’t live.  His doubts about causality didn’t stop Hume playing billiards.  You don’t not draw your salary from the bank because you’ve got doubts whether the secretary who typed out your account code might not have caused the money to be transferred.  Even more importantly, you can’t think either.   The whole of science rests on the assumption that there is causality.  Even Bohr thought that by observing the observer causes the wave function to collapse.  Nor can you think that one thing can be another at the same time.  If somebody sees a dog, you don’t expect them to say it’s a cat.  You can’t even think it’s a cat in dog’s clothing.


What was Kant’s solution?  It was what he called the synthetic a priori (that’s an abstract term to frighten the horses, but fear not Kant’s idea is quite simple).  What he meant was that you just can’t go around saying there’s no physical world out there. because it really does look as if there is.   Ronald Knox succinctly captured the argument of Bishop Berkeley, (who was a big there’s no actual world out there chap, we only think there is) in his verse “There was a young man who said God/ Must think it exceedingly odd/ If he finds that this tree/ Still continues to be/ When there’s no-one about in the quad” and the Bishop’s reply which was “I am always about in the quad/ Which is why that this tree/ Still continues to be/ When observed by, yours faithfully, God”.  Kant thought this God long stop was a wholly illegitimate argument.  With Doctor Johnson, we kick the stone.  But on the other hand, we don’t think things we think thoughts.  What you actually mean when you say there are four stones out there is that your eyes and brain are telling you that there is, and the whole problem of how do you know they are giving you accurate information remains.  So Kant compromised.  He proposed that we do know things but only in the way we know them.  Our brains structure our experience in accordance with concepts like causality and identity, without which we can’t even think.  Kant agrees with Hume that there is no direct evidence that there is causality out there.  But it’s a lot more reasonable to think that the world really is like what we think it is than to think that it isn’t, and anyway we can never absolutely know (got you there Hume).


Kant thinks that our senses receive information from the outside world and then the imagination restructures these sense impressions so that we know them in the way it is possible for us to know things (I’m really impressed with Kant, he’s more in tune with modern brain science that anybody else, or so I think.  This restructuring of experience is exactly what we are now told the brain does).  According to Kant, we see a dog, the brain looks up its store of remembered images, compares and checks, and then tells us, yes, it’s a dog.  For all practical, and indeed theoretical purposes, it’s a dog.  And the same dog, he’s called Billy, you meet on your walk each morning (Kant was something of an obsessive and went on exactly the same walk at exactly the same time every morning except on the day the Bastille fell, so people knew something pretty big had happened).  He thought that because there is such a big input from the imagination in what we know, there must be more to our knowledge of the world than what science can tell us.  You don’t say look at that collection of leaves and branches, nay atoms and molecules.  It’s a bloody tree.   There’s a world of forms that transcend the parts that make them up.   That is why science cannot tell us whether things are beautiful or not, because that isn’t what science does, but the imagination does do that.  In the realm of bits and parts there is no teleology (that is things striving to achieve an end, but in most contemporary biology only the way things happen to be as they are as a result of mindless evolution, the very word teleology gets Dawkins spitting).    But Kant thought that in the world as it is processed by the imagination there is.  Kant meant that things are always striving to become themselves, the complete transcendental realities that they aspire to be.   A tree is beautiful because all its parts are in a congruent harmony.  The leaves need the branches and the branches need the trunk and they both need the leaves in a kind of transcendental realization of itself.   The whole tree belongs to itself, is itself.  It produces seeds to propagate itself.  If it is damaged it tries to heal itself.  Science can give us the biology and chemistry of how these things happen.  But it doesn’t tell us about the togetherness of it all that Kant was after.  There could never, he said famously, be a Newton of the grass blade (actually I think he was underestimating Newton, but more about that in another post).


Kant had yet more to say.  Our experiences can take us beyond the beautiful into the sublime.  The sublime, he said ‘strains the imagination to its limits’.  These kind of experiences are not usually the chocolate box ones, but awesome, even horrible (his word) and deeply disturbing.  Examples he gives are ‘the ocean piled up’ and ‘wild mountains in disarray’.  Such experiences give you metaphysical goose pimples. They are so wonderful they brook no doubts.  When I first saw the Matterhorn I knew what Kant meant.  Kant has been very important to me  because he let me out of the empiricist trap.   He persuaded me that we can never know exactly whether nature corresponds with the way we know it outside the way we know it, so we must be satisfied with the most inspiring, though never completely provable, accounts of it that we can find.  In my case his.  The Lockean ‘a stone is a stone’ feeds our imaginations with nothing.  We don’t really know what is out there and contemporary science has done nothing to dispel that thought.  But we do have our experiences of nature.  Kant made me realise that unless we have been blinded, which most of us are and I certainly was, nature is not just sticks and stones or even just atoms and chromosomes and genes but ever fresh and ever new, reaching beyond itself,  engaging not just our logical brains but our feelings as well,  encompassingly beautiful, ravishing, awesome, marvellous, – why did I never see it before? – even sublime.




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