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Philosophy 220 Assignment, John Deverell ID 7810241

Question: Why does Kant believe that we cannot have knowledge of the absolute truth? Further, how might his view illuminate the relationship between science and religion? We will surely show them Our signs in the world and within themselves. Quran

Philosophy consists in comprehending the reality of things as they exist, according to the
capacity and the power of man. For the phenomenal reality can comprehend the 2 Preexistent attributes only to the extent of the human capacity.

The question of the limits of human knowledge is central to the epistemological status of science and religion, respectively, and the relationship between them. Kants conception of the unknowability of things in themselves contributes a great deal of clarity to this question. While it is sometimes claimed that science is capable in principle of eventually knowing everything, Kants view suggests there is a dimension of reality which is forever inaccessible to human apprehension. This implies that science, i.e. the systematic investigation of nature, is incapable of discovering the ultimate basis of its own determinations. It cannot rule out the role of a metaphysical realm beyond its ken. On the other hand, religion is constrained from justifying dogmatic pronouncements of absolute truth concerning that realm. Indeed, religious metaphysical concepts such as that of God might on Kants account be rendered worthless as knowledge, but I will try to show this is not the case. My reflections on Kants position lead to me the conclusion that the domains of science and religion are reconcilable in the idea that human knowing is an attempt to converge on ever-elusive things in themselves. Kants claim seems right to me, where he states that in our situation as human beings we can perceive only appearances, never able to touch the essence of any object or entity. But I think his characterisation of this situation suffers from certain internal contradictions such that his theory lends itself to styles of

Quran 41:53, quoted in Bahullh 1989, 101 - -

thought that push religion toward subjectivism and science toward reductionism. A modified form of his position could offer a better alternative, along lines to be suggested below. First I will proceed to outline Kants view. What is the rationale for characterising that which we encounter in the world as appearances rather than things in themselves? Kants answer is that our entire perception and understanding of the world is constructed by the human mind in accordance with certain organising principles within the mind itself. Therefore, we do not comprehend the world on its own terms, but on our terms. We know the world as it appears to us, but whether and to what degree this corresponds to the world as it really is in itself, we cannot know, for we swim in the ocean of our own limitations. In our way of encountering the world, it seems to present itself to us as a space-time matrix containing objects of material substance, ruled by causal laws. The whole setup, according to Kant, is constructed by our own minds. For a start, the minds pictures of the world are images situated in the mind, and images in the mind, like reflections in a mirror, are not identical to the world itself. Moreover, the pictures as presented to our conscious awareness, by the faculty of imagination, are at another remove again from the original input, having undergone prior pre-processing. A modern analogy with the digital camera is that the data captured by our senses is like the record assembled in the cameras electronic image sensor which in turn generates a screen display, the latter comparable to a mental picture in the imagination. The cameras image sensor is set up to capture incoming data in an array or structure suitable for eventual conversion to a displayed representation. The data is not yet intelligible until displayed on screen (or paper), as a photograph instead of binary digits, just as the

Abdul-Bah 1990, 221

Philosophy 220 Assignment, John Deverell ID 7810241 raw impressions received by our senses do not become intelligible until rendered in the imagination. We do not see directly what is in the world, but that which we imagine the data from our senses informs us. A camera, by the particular qualities of its lens, image sensor, digital processing hardware and software, and connected outputs, creates different varieties of images in accordance with its make and model as well as its settings at the moment of image capture. Kant shows that the human mind shapes reality even more radically, imposing on it the most basic structures that common sense regards as givens, including, above all, even time and space. The workings of perception go something like as follows. Impressions enter through the senses and are subjected to progressive stages of ordering: The capacity for receiving representations through the mode in which we are affected by objects, is entitled sensibility. Objects are given to us by means of sensibility, and it alone yields us intuitions [an intuition being the direct awareness of some individual entity] 3; they are thought through the understanding, and from the understanding arise concepts.4 Further, it is imagination that connects the manifold of sensible intuition; and imagination is dependent for the unity of its intellectual synthesis upon the understanding, and for the manifoldness of its apprehension upon sensibility. All possible perception is thus dependent upon synthesis of apprehension, and this empirical synthesis in turn upon transcendental synthesis [i.e. the process of relating certain a priori concepts to objects of experience] 5, and therefore upon the categories [of logical analysis]. 6 Putting this another way, an indistinct multitude (manifold) of impressions falling on our senses is first distilled into separate objects. The

3 4 5

Wicks 2012, 42 Kant 2007, 65 Kant 2007, 96 - -

objects are then correlated by relations between them, such as part/whole, concept/instance, and cause/effect. These ordering operations are performed by the categories of logic. From whence come the categories? Kants answer is that they are intrinsic to the mind itself, for they are a priori truths, not derived from experience, therefore present in the mind prior to experience. He says, the categories contain, on the side of the understanding, the grounds of the possibility of all experience in general. 7 He reaches this conclusion by reflecting on the proposition that: There are only two ways in which we can account for a necessary agreement of experience with the concepts of its objects: either experience makes these concepts possible or these concepts make experience possible. He rules out the first of the two ways because as a priori concepts, and therefore independent of experience, the ascription to them of an empirical origin would be a sort of generatio aequivoca [spontaneous generation].8 The second way, which he favours, he calls a system, as it were, of an epigenesis of pure reason9 After having said that there are only two ways to account for agreement between experience and concepts, he admits a third possibility, namely that the categories are neither self thought first principles a priori of our knowledge nor derived from experience, but subjective dispositions of thought, implanted in us from the first moment of our existence, and so ordered by our Creator that their employment is in complete harmony with the laws of nature in accordance with which experience proceeds a kind of preformation-system of pure reason.10 Such a system, Kant says, would rest concepts such as causality on an arbitrary

6 7

Kant 2007, 173 Kant 2007, 174 8 Ibid. 9 Ibid. 10 Kant 2007, 174-175

Philosophy 220 Assignment, John Deverell ID 7810241 subjective necessity, implanted in us with the result that I would not then be able to say that the effect is connected with the cause in the object, that is to say, necessarily, but only that I am so constituted that I cannot think this representation otherwise than as thus connected. This seems to make a hairline distinction from the epigenesis account, for it is not easy to see how the categories could not be implanted in us, if not by God then by nature, so either way the necessary connections we perceive would be subjective. Be that as it may, it is clear from Kants reasons for rejecting preformationism that he wants his scheme to show that our knowledge of the world is not illusory, even though it is not absolute either. Wubnig explains that the terms generatio aequivoca, epigenesis and preformation came from biological theories.

Generatio aequivoca was the

theory that organisms can form spontaneously without the agency of other living organisms12. The similarity between the biological theory and such an empiricist account of the categories is that just as living organisms are supposed to arise spontaneously from matter, according to the biological theory, so the categories are supposed to arise spontaneously from sense experience, according to this empiricist account.13 The preformation theory asserted that all living creatures were actually created at the same time, at the Creation of the universe, and that conception is merely a process of stimulating the organism to evolve. 14
A theory of the pre-established harmony between the activities of minds and bodies depends on a theory of the preformation of minds and their thoughts and bodies and their behavior at the Creation of the universe, since the activities of these minds and bodies are independent of each other and are in harmony only because they were created so that their activities would be in parallel. Leibniz

11 12 13

Wubnig 2009, 147 Wubnig 2009, 148 Ibid. - -

himself held both a preformation theory of mind and of living bodies. His theory of mind was that all thoughts are developments of thoughts we have always had. 15

Finally: The biological theory to which Kant himself subscribed was the theory of epigenesis. According to this theory, the germ (which comes from both parents in sexual reproduction) does not contain the fully formed organism but only the power to form itself into the more developed organism when it has the proper materials.16 The analogy here to Kants theory of mind is that the mind is like the living organism in that it has the power to form materials (sensible intuitions) into objective experience, and the categories are the principles of the organization of these materials. I quote Wubnigs conclusion in full:
The analogy Kant makes between his theory of mind and the theory of epigenesis makes vivid the nature of his Copernican revolution. According to a tabula rasa empiricist account, the mind is merely a receptacle in which sense impressions collect and spontaneously organize into objective experience which neither explains nor justifies the principles of organization. According to a theory of pre-established harmony, the activities of the mind can result in objective experience only because the Creator designed a coincidence between the operations of the mind and the world which means that the principles of organization cannot be justified by analyzing experience and thought but must depend on theology for a guarantee of their validity. According to Kant's own epigenetic theory of the mind, however, the mind itself forms objective experience, and the principles of organization the categories can be and are, so Kant thinks, justified by examining experience and thought, as he does in the Transcendental Deduction. 17

Now since in Kants view the human mind forms objective experience, experience is an appearance in the mind. He writes:
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Wubnig 2009, 149 Wubnig 2009, 150 Wubnig 2009, 151

Philosophy 220 Assignment, John Deverell ID 7810241

If the objects with which our knowledge has to deal were things in themselves, we could have no a priori concepts of them. For from what source could we obtain the concepts? If we derived them from the object (leaving aside the question of how the object could be known to us), our concepts would be merely empirical, not a priori. And if we derived them from the self, that which is merely in us could not determine the character of an object distinct from our representations, that is, could not be a ground characterised by that which we have in our thought, and why such a representation should not, rather, be altogether empty. But if, on the other hand, we have to deal only with appearances, it is not merely possible, but necessary, that certain a priori concepts should precede empirical knowledge of objects. For since a mere modification of our sensibility can never be met with outside us, the objects, as appearances, constitute an object which is merely in us.18

Although the objects that appear to us are within our own minds, an outer world exists. The bridge linking our minds to the outer world is experience, embodied in synthetic a priori principles19 A synthetic a priori principle is in category of judgements that are known to be true without any examination of the things in the world to which the judgement refers 20 and nevertheless not merely analytic judgements devoid of actual content but give us substantive information about the world. Synthetic a priori principles enable us to synthesise sensory input under categories and thereby organise sense data into perceptions of objects. It is thinking of things as objects that prevents our modes of knowledge from being haphazard or arbitrary 21 But because whatever gives an object its identity is distinct from all our representations22, the only way to make sense of this is that we are categorising it under the general category bject concerning which , nothing further can be said. The real identity of the specific object itself is
17 18

Wubnig 2009, 152 Kant 2007, 149 19 See Kant 2007, 193 20 Wicks 2012, 36 21 Kant 2007, 134

Kant 2007, 135

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unknowable. In this same vein, elsewhere, Kant writes: here thus results the concept of a noumenon. It is not indeed in any way positive and is not a determinate knowledge of anything, but signifies only the thought of something in general, in which I abstract from everything that belongs to the form of sensible intuition.23 *** Since Kant took inspiration from biological theories, the question arises as to how well his account gels with modern evolutionary theory. This indicates that intelligence is an emergent property that appears when matter achieves certain advanced configurations, i.e. produces intelligent life forms. The structure of human thinking power, therefore, is of a substance with the forces of nature that gave rise to it. If the categories of logic are in our minds, they have in this sense been put there by nature, surely reflecting natures own exigencies and structure. From a modern evolutionary perspective I find something suspect in Kants statement: Things in themselves would necessarily, apart from any understanding that knows them, conform to laws of their own. But appearances are only representations of things which are unknown as they may be in themselves. As mere representations, they are subject to no law of connection save that which the connecting faculty prescribes.24 To the contrary, a degree of confirmation for the existence of a law or principle of connection, namely that the human mind and the world it perceives have been shaped by one and the same order of nature. (Perhaps my suggestion here contains echoes of what Kant would have called a preformation-system.) All the same, I agree with Kant that the world we perceive is a world of


Kant 2007, 270

Kant 2007, 172-173


Philosophy 220 Assignment, John Deverell ID 7810241 appearances, for reasons as follows. We can never pin down the exact identity of anything, because all things are known only in relation to other things. Kant pointed this out by way of saying that all knowledge consists of identifying subjects by predicates in the logical form, S is P. By means of logical procedures, multiple things can be unified into single entities under the concept of an object. Conversely, entities can be analysed down into multiple elements. There is no way then, that we can claim to have absolute knowledge of anything, for nothing seems to have an identity that is graspable in and of itself. All knowledge is relative, in the sense that any one thing is known only by reference to other things. And yet, science progresses by developing concepts at ever higher levels of abstraction, each stage encompassing a wider range of facts. What does this tell us? At the start I alluded to contradictions in Kants account. These relate to the status of the noumena. Kant wants the noumena to stand for that which gives coherence to appearances while also being utterly inaccessible to any statement of knowledge about them, except that he also wants the noumenal realm to make possible his idea of moral freedom, by being the locus of a causality different from material causality. For this to work, he posits some kind of causal connection between the noumenal world and the phenomenal world. If he finds this a legitimate move, I am prompted to wonder whether other kinds of specifiable connections might also be reasonably posited. Granted, the noumenal world is basically unknowable, yet the idea that it gives consistency to the world of appearances suggests that the relationship between the two is not arbitrary. Hence, the phenomenal world tells us something, hazily, about the noumenal world. In the attempt to converge on reliable knowledge of the operations of the phenomenal world in accordance with the laws of nature and so forth, might we
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not thereby be also gaining some second-hand indications of things in themselves? Such a view offers an opportunity for science and religion to acknowledge each other as both engaging in a common effort to get to the heart of matters behind the surface of things. To get to such a reconciliation requires overcoming the sharp distinction that Kant introduced between knowledge and faith. Gill writes: By making a thorough and clear distinction between speculative reason and practical reason, he [Kant] had provided religion with a basis in the moral realm, which not only removed it out of range of intellectual criticism, but allowed it to focus on its primary business as well. Religion's main concerns are, according to Kant, obeying God and serving mankind, and these have to do with morality, not knowledge.25 Gill argues that Kierkegaard inherited this distinction and exemplified it in his thought. One simply cannot, according to Kierkegaard expect pure, speculative reason to perform beyond its inherent limitations. By means of human reason there is no way to obtain knowledge of reality, nor to break out of the limitations of the egocentric predicament. The attempt to apply reason to ultimate reality only ends in contradiction. 26 Faith is, then, neither knowledge nor an act, but a miraculous gift of God which enables the disciple to accept the paradox that knowledge of God (reality) is possible. 27 Such thoroughgoing subjectivism in religious belief I find unsatisfactory for it effectively leaves no basis for belief except an emotional response, too easily inculcated by tradition or charismatic authority. On the other hand I also find unsatisfactory the kind of expressed by a contemporary empiricist as follows:

25 26 27

Gill 1967, 194 Gill 1967, 198-199

Gill 1967, 200

Philosophy 220 Assignment, John Deverell ID 7810241

Discarding various Myths of the Given, we should rehabilitate the idea that things in the world are given to us in experience before we acquire conceptual capacities, that is, before we learn our first language. Having acquired these capacities, we will describe what we perceive in terms of the concepts that we have acquired, and our experience will be coloured by the conceptual habits that we happen to have. Yet, perceptual experience remains epistemically independent of concepts: we may perceive things that we cannot fit into our conceptual scheme, except in some very indeterminate manner, such as that uncommon object over there. 28

We are born with something deeper in ourselves than this kind of view allows for. Kant was right about that. Somehow that same deep reality is not only in ourselves but in the world as well. Perhaps the problem in Kants view is its bias towards the human I as the central organising principle. Instead, the Pre-existent One, behind all things, remains a live option to consider. Bibliography
Abdul-Bah. 1990. Some answered questions / Collected and translated from the Persian by Laura Clifford Barney. Wilmette: US Bahai Publishing Trust. Bahullh. 1989. The Kitb-i-qn. Pocket size ed. Wilmette: US Bahai Publishing Trust. Frankenberry, Nancy. 1987. Religion and Radical Empiricism. SUNY Press. Hatcher, William. 2004. Minimalism: A Bridge Between Classical Philosophy and the Bahai Revelation. Juxta Publishing Ltd. -the-bahai-revelation. Kant, Immanuel. 2007. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Norman Kemp Smith. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Philipse, Herman. 2000. Should We Be Kantians? A Defence of Empiricism (Part One). Ratio 13 (3): 239.

. 2001. Should We Be Kantians? A Defence of Empricism (Part Two). Ratio 14 (1)

(March): 33. Stern, Robert. 1999. Going Beyond the Kantian Philosophy: On McDowells Hegelian Critique of Kant. European Journal of Philosophy 7 (2) (July): 247. Wicks, Robert. 2012. Kant and Hegel, Phil 220/Phil 340. The University of Auckland, Department of Philosophy (coursebook).


Philipse 2000, 240

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Wubnig, J. 2009. The Epigenesis of Pure Reason. A Note on the Critique of Pure Reason, B, Sec. 27,165168. Kant-Studien 60 (2) (October 4): 147152.