Kant’s Critique of Reason, and its Relevance for Reductionist projects of all Stripes

A commonplace of our time – since Kant’s time in fact – is the attempt to reduce phenomena to the terms of one theoretical lens. It is easier to be assured of one’s perspective then, to enjoy the comforts of knowing, and to feel superior to those other people who are silly and ignorant. The most common form of this is ‘scientism‘, which rejects all forms of knowing other than positive, empirical demonstrations that make reference to concrete, physical things.

Immanuel Kant famously made a case that metaphysical questions of the highest order – concerning the meaning of freedom, God, morality, truth – are inescapable in light of our inquisitiveness and purpose-driven natures. They – nor their opposite – cannot be justified and defended through the use of ‘pure reason’ alone. Nonetheless, taking a positive stance on them is a very good thing for us to do.

Belief in what Kant argues are subjective ‘ideas’ like freedom, causality, God, and morality are in fact necessary posits that undergird many of our practical orientations to the world. However, due to their status as subjective, we cannot have objective knowledge about them; it turns out that reason can spin logically coherent and plausible arguments for either side of a position that are mutually exclusive. Some of the issues in this class of things include belief in the soul, a first cause vs. eternity, the simplicity vs. compositionality of substance, free will or determinism, and the existence/non-existence of God. Kant’s own view was proto-pragmatic, in that he says that though we cannot have a fully rationally compelling answer to these questions, we must nonetheless take a stance for the reason that these beliefs are crucial to shaping our lives for the better.

I want to take up this argument, as it has clearly been influential in both American Pragmatism, and Continental Postmodernism, as well as in numerous other areas of inquiry, and in Western culture writ large. Kant is right to argue that the problem exists as he conceives it, but that this is only a consequence of his narrow interpretation of what counts as evidence or reasons for belief in metaphysical matters. Although not directly related to Kant’s own thinking, many of our own disagreements stem from a narrowing of our frame of reference, which has the effect of treating certain phenomena and methods of inquiry as unworthy by implication. We are unwise to be so reductionist and agnostic when this involves a clear denial of some truths essential to human flourishing.

Kant was concerned with demonstrating the truth of certain ideas via rational means. For him, the nature of the problem of the rational justification of metaphysical ideas arises from the fact that we only have experience of ‘intuitions’ through our faculty of sensibility (our senses), but then group these experiences under ‘concepts’ using our faculty of understanding. This latter act is a mental, or cognitive one that involves taking the sense data of experience out of its original mode of presentation, and drawing inferences about it on the basis of the application of ‘categories’ of the understanding – quantity (how much of it there is, in what dimensions), quality (what properties it has, such as colour, and texture), relations between other things, and modality (is it a ‘real’, ‘possible’, or ‘non-existent’ thing).

The sceptical conclusion is that there is a disconnect between experience and the ideas we use to represent and think about them. It is reached by noting something that we can all relate to. When comparing the fit between a ‘particular’ manifestation of some entity, and the ‘general’ concept to which it belongs, we notice it. For example, any thing that we would describe as ‘red’ will have characteristics that make it similar to all other ‘red’ things, though it will not be exactly the same as any others. This is because of the difference between ‘types’ of experience and the mental faculties and processes involved in them. When we recognize, and reflect upon our experience of many similar instances of ‘red’, we are using a different mental process from the one that we used in the raw experience of a sensation of something red. The disconnect between particular experiences of things and the general concepts that we use to understand them, as well as the further conclusions that we draw in making inferences about them is that we are misapplying concepts. We do this by taking something that is only proper to experience, and then extending it to other domains, in which it does not apply.

The process of categorizing intuitions of sensory experience under concepts is an operation of the mental faculty of the ‘understanding’ that is in the service of the human ‘interest’ of making sense of things. This interest to ‘make sense of’ is in the further service of our other higher level interests – needs, wants, desires, hopes, and dreams, and the various realms to which they apply – knowledge, morality, and faith among others.

Many of our concepts then, are projected onto experience in order to categorize and make sense of it so that we may accomplish our goals. They are not discovered ‘out there’ in ‘the world’, but are attributed to it by the forms of our mental faculties and the processes they carry out. This is not done in a way that is completely incongruous with experience, but it imperfectly captures the complexity of things.

Kant recognizes that this process of fitting sensory experience into rationally comprehensible categories is one that is carried out by moving from particular experiences to higher order concepts. At the bottom of any chain of reasoning that takes us from specific experiences to ever more complete categorization is the repetition of a move that is characterized as the search for the prior conditioning cause or concept.

The process proceeds as follows. In order to understand and categorize experience, we proceed backward from the local experience to the ‘unconditioned’ source of the presentation of the phenomenon in question. For example, if we see one thing ’cause’ another, we reason backward to an understanding of the first cause, of all causes, which can lead us to formulate a metaphysical view of the world as fully ‘deterministic’. When we see a furry things with ears, after seeing many others like it we reason back to classify the group of them as ‘dogs’, who are comparable to other ‘mammals’, who are to be conceived of as ‘sentient’ life forms, embedded in the further category of ‘living beings’, and so on and so forth.

In a sense then, the concepts that are most important to understanding our world are not ‘of this world’ – they transcend it. Indeed, naturalistic explanations of things like morality, love, and friendship will reduce them to their functionality, and explain their emergence in purely adaptive terms.

Kant does not take this approach, but does claim that reason can provide no resolution to the equally logical, valid, and necessary perspectives that we take on the world.

Some of the topics he considers in The Critique of Pure Reason are as follows.

First, there is the question of whether the world had a first cause, or is timeless and eternal. Kant notes that we can reason backwards towards the unconditioned cause of every cause we experience in our lives. We understand the notion of a cause from seeing event B follow event A. We naturally look for the antecedent of that, and so on until we reason ourselves back to the search for a first cause of all consequent events. On the one hand, there is no way to say that this sequence cannot go on ad infinitum, for we only ever have the experience of a cause in light of that which preceded it. However, on the other hand, it makes no sense to think that there is no first cause because there can also be no events, or antecedents without there having been a first one. Thus, we are left with an unsolvable problem, generated by two competing uses of reason that are both plausible, but actually false, given the different senses of the same term at different parts in the argument.

Secondly, there is the question of the composition of substance. Substance is just the stuff of the world – matter. We get the concept of substance from the particular experience of sensory data, and the inherence of properties in them. We thus understand that there is a kind of stuff, out of which the properties that we recognize must ultimately be made up of. Due to the notion of magnitude (being extended in space), we note that any one of our perceptions can be reduced or expanded to include ever smaller or larger ‘parts’ of stuff that are related to the others. It is thus equally plausible – upon competing exercises of the process of reasoning – that there is an ultimately tiny, and ultimately large entity that we might call ‘substance’. If both of these things are true, it seems as though there can be no ‘particular’ things as we experience and label them, because they are either always reducible to further gradations, or extendable to larger entities. Neither of which can go on ad infinitum, though in principle, there is no way we can ‘know’ this.

Third, there is the issue of spontaneity/determinism. We see from the relationship of events between each other, that there are causes, the likes of which have nothing to do with the operations of our intellects. We can express the relationships between these events as necessary, and deterministic, for without such an understanding, events would be unconnected, and completely unpredictable. We can reason ourselves back from any event to a series of deterministic causes, ultimately concluding therefore, that there is no such thing as spontaneity, or a free act. On the other hand, the concept of determinism does not make any sense without the idea that there was a first in the chain. Was this first act then not spontaneous?

Kant’s answer to these problems is that the concepts we use in reasoning about these issues are not ‘objectively real’, but are ‘transcendentally ideal’, and this explains why we cannot have objective knowledge of them. However, ‘transcendentally ideal’ should really just be read as ‘real’ in the sense of assumed, and understood – indeed, constitutive of – all of our actual experiential lives. The world of ‘objectivity’ for Kant, here refers to the perspective that we can take on the world that is concerned with rationality and logically demonstrable truths about the essence of things, and the relationships between them. This perspective is not directly concerned with our experience of reality – the phenomenal realm. The problem occurs when we take terms out of their context. Freedom, causation, an ‘I’, and so forth, all have significance in the empirical contexts in which we discover them, but we cannot reason about them in the abstract, beyond the spatio-temporal conditions in which we find them.

We don’t need to accept the particulars of Kant’s argument to realize that the general thrust of it makes good sense. The core of his insights have been arrived at by many different thinkers engaged in diverse pursuits. It is that many of our concepts and ways of thinking have a context of applicability. Beyond this, when they are misapplied, they end up denying the validity of perspectives that we take in engaging in other, equally important and meaningful pursuits in our lives.

The tendency to theorize about too large a domain from a narrow set of assumptions can have harmful consequences. When starting from axioms that engender a certain perspective, it is easy to proceed outward to include other phenomena in the explanatory model. However, to do so, one has to either either eliminate the phenomena that don’t fit, or re-defining them according to one’s own terms.

Two extremes of this reductionist tendency are subjectivism and materialism. The former explains everything from the perspective of the first-person view of the agent – the freely choosing ‘I’. From such a perspective, everything is interpreted through the lens of the meaning and significance things have for you. People who are unable to think about the material, and environmental causes of some of their states of mind struggle to make sense of the way in which their internal states are affected by the many factors that are outside of their control. On the other hand, the latter eliminates the validity of the perspective of consciousness by reducing all experience to physiological states of the brain and body, and external ‘environmental’ causes. A tendency to explain away all of your own feelings and emotions by appealing to some third-person or material cause cannot make sense of the subjective frame of reference that forms the basis for everything that we do in our lives.

Both perspectives, according to Kant, are guilty of the fallacy of trying to explain away a domain of thought and action – a perspective on the world – whose logic is by definition, not reducible to that of another. This is why philosophies that are built on the assumption of eliminating one or the other look incomplete, and the lives that are based on them as a result – impoverished.

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