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Friday, January 6, 2012

Immanuel Kant and the Limits of Knowledge


Immanuel Kant begins the Critique of Pure Reason with this pregnant statement: “HUMAN reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.” This statement is astounding and amazing because it is reason admitting that it cannot answer the very questions it poses so necessarily.  Our reason longs to answer the questions:  Does God exist? Is there a free will? And why is there something rather than nothing?  Yet, our reason has to profess its inability to answer those very same urgent and life size questions. 

Kant says in his project that he is limiting the claims to knowledge so that he can make room for faith.  Kant goes on to show that our capacities for knowledge extend only to the way our minds are disposed to knowledge, namely to the way experience is constructed by our concepts and intuitions.  That is our capacity to know something depends on how our minds are capable of knowing something.  We cannot know something that our minds are not so constructed to know.  This is like the limitations we have in our senses.  I cannot hear certain sounds that elephants can hear because my hearing apparatus is not such that it can hear that level of sound.  Likewise there things that I cannot see because I don’t have the capacity to see that far or that deeply.  Now we have learned to extend our senses through instruments like microscopes, telescopes, radio, etc but there are limits even to the ability of these instruments to extend the degree our perceptions of reality. 

Now Kant is saying that same principle of limitation applies to our minds and our reason.  Our minds by their very nature know through two elements: concepts and intuitions and they both must be present for there to be knowledge.  Our concepts give form to our knowledge while our intuitions put us in touch with reality. But our concepts by their very nature are limited and can comprehend nature only as far as they extend and they must be linked to intuitions or they are empty.

So let us take the big questions again:  Is there a God?  Is there a free will?  Why is there something rather than nothing?  These questions demand that we extend our knowing beyond experience and intuitions.  Our concept of God as an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God does not permit us discovering that in experience because everything we experience is in space and time (our intuitions) and God as we just defined him is not in our experience of space and time.  There is nothing in space and time that is all-knowing, all powerful, or all-loving.  Nor is there anyway for us to see the free will.  The will itself is not visible in space and time.  We can have a concept of the will but we cannot observe it.  And the question of why there is something rather than nothing is obviously impossible to answer for our limited capacity for knowledge.  There is nothing in our experience to tell us that answer and science itself cannot answer it.  That is why Kant calls these questions “metaphysical.”  They are not questions that science by its very nature can answer because science confines itself to experience.

Yet Kant understands that our reason demands answers for these questions.  We cannot stop our reason from venturing into the arena and asking the question.  Hume thought we could simply stop ourselves from asking these questions but that is like telling someone they cannot break the 4-minute mile.  Human beings don’t want to be subject to limits.  We are constantly trying to transcend our limits as can be seen with the microscope, telescope, computer and car.  By our very nature we long for transcendence of our limitations and that to me is evidence that we have something in us besides just cells and dna.  We have a spirit and that spirit bears witness to something. 

Now Kant made room for faith in God by limiting reason, but I want to go beyond Kant and say that the very reason our reason longs for answers it cannot give is already evidence in experience for something beyond experience.  It is evidence there is something beyond experience that right now is hidden to us because of the limitations of our minds, but someday we may come to experience it.  Just consider this:  at one time in the evolution of life on earth, there were no eyes, ears, or taste buds.  But while there was nothing to perceive light, sound, and taste, light, sound and tastes already existed. There just weren’t any sense perceptions to perceive them at the time.  But we evolved those sense perceptions because we are constantly transcending our limitations.  Before there were eyes there were amoebas and if they could have argued, perhaps they would have argued about whether light existed or not.  But once we developed eyes we no longer argue about that – we see the sun.  Now we argue whether God exists but someday we will no longer argue about that.  We will know.  But for now it is a matter of faith and by showing us the limitations of our knowledge, Kant made room for faith and for an open future. (picture by Andy Potts).











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