Blogging through Critique of Pure Reason part 8: The Ideal of Pure Reason

Immanuel_Kant_monument_in_Königsberg

Series Index

Criique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant (Hackett edition)

Yes, I know.  We’ve now spilled over into the third year of this read-through, and it’s not early in 2017 any more.  Hey, at least some things remained continuous over these last six months, right?

No?  Fair enough.

At any rate, I’ll offer the same I recommendation that I did on the previous post, namely that you backtrack a bit with the Series Index and get a rolling start on this one.  As with before, we’ll give page numbers according to the A (1781) and the B (1787) editions.  If you’re reading these through at a later time, just understand that there was some significant delay between posts here at the end of the series.

What Is an Ideal?

Kant has already established that pure reason cannot get at things in the world; only sense-experience can engage with objects, and those objects, because of the nature of the mind, always comes to us not as the thing on its own terms but as a thing in the terms (space, time, cause, effect, and such) that our mind uses to make sense of the world.  Thus an object is not the same as a thing, but objective knowledge requires that some thing be involved, so pure reason can tell us that some thing is involved but always insists, if it’s working properly, that the object that we receive is non-identical with the thing on its own terms, which by definition we cannot receive.

That role of reason, to keep distinct in our thinking the places of intuitions, understandings, experiences, and concepts, is what Kant returns to as the regulative power of the ideal (A 569, B 597).  Ideals do not create knowledge but stand as the mind’s capacity to think of an idea as a perfect instance of an action.  A given act can bring the agent more in line with that ideal of human completeness or take away what proximity it had to the completeness, and although the ideal itself does not create any of those new possibilities, it stands, like the pure concepts of the self and of the world, as a fixed point of reference for evaluating the act (A 570, B 598).  For Kant the concept of God is precisely that ideal of completion (A 580, B 608), and like transcendental psychology and transcendental cosmology before it, transcendental theology tests both the range of possible valid claims about God and determines what claims about God are necessary in order for thought even to happen.

To think a contingent being, Kant begins, requires absolutely necessary being to provide some kind of ground for it (A 584, B 612).  His argument for that requirement recalls the argument of Thomas that, without an uncaused cause, the chain of efficient causes in the world stretches infinitely.  Where Kant differs from Thomas is in his insistence that, although contingent beings require the absolute, any argument for God rooted in the insufficiency of the contingent must be a transcendental argument (A 589, B 617), not any kind of positive claim about a necessary being’s existence on that being’s own terms.  Nonetheless, in line with the history of Greek philosophy and its heirs, Kant does note that reason does tend towards monotheism rather than polytheism (A 590, B 618).

Proofs of God’s Existence

Back in 2014, the Christian Humanist Podcast had a little conversation about the medieval proofs for God, noting that in their own original context, what needed defending was not the claim that God is real (that much medieval Europe pretty well assumed) but whether philosophy, as Christianity was rediscovering it in Aristotle’s work, could stand as a good help to Christian thinking.  When Kant inherits these inquiries, he places them here, in his section on the limits of transcendental theology in terms of pure reason, and in his historical context, self-identifying as an atheist in print has been a possibility for some decades.

With that in mind, Kant’s engagement with the ontological proof for God seems to assume that thinkers around him are using it as some kind of defense against atheism.  To that project Kant replies, now famously, that the ontological proof confuses categories of claims about God.  To postulate a being called God and to deny that such a being lacks divine attributes is a contradiction–a being without divine attributes is something, but that something is not God.  But to deny the existence of a being with divine attributes is both to deny the existence of the attributes and the existence of the being, which does not stand as a contradiction (A 595, B 623).  The problem would arise if someone insisted on the attributes without attaching them to a being or upon a being which lacked the divine attributes.  Since neither theism nor atheism mismatches things thus, neither one is rationally invalid.

The cosmological proof, on the other hand, runs into trouble by starting with experience rather than with concepts (A 605, B 633).  Empirical experience can tell us that every happening must have prior happenings in order to happen, and speculative reason can suggest that something beyond this chain must be in place, but once reason makes the jump from the chain of causes to the uncaused, the same problems that met the ontological proof arise again (A 607, B 636).  But really the proof doesn’t even get that far.  Because cause and effect only signify relationships in the world of sense, not in the conceptual sphere, the jump from experiential causes to an uncaused being is by definition impossible (A 610, B 638).  Whatever supreme being is on its own terms, its place for reason must not be inscrutable but stand as a possible thought in a system of concepts (A 614, B 642).  To prove supreme being’s existence by reference to the world of experience separates God from concepts and therefore makes God impossible.  No basket.

What the Concept God Should Be Doing

Like the concept of Soul or Mind, and like the concept of World or Universe, the concept of God has certain, limited, regulative functions in Kant’s philosophy.  For matter and world to exist as contingent objects, some transcendent, necessary being must be in place, but all we can say about necessary being is that we presuppose the self-sufficient and the unconditioned in order to make sense of the contingent and conditional (A 619, B 647).  Nothing in empirical experience makes such a presupposition more or less likely, and no positive claim about that absolute being can be anything but an overreach of reason (A 620, B 648).

Kant’s account of God is therefore wonderfully confident and strident in its refusal to go beyond the transcendental claim.  The manifold, ordered character of the world, expanding beyond our ability to number or even to conceive of the world’s totality, certainly spurs us to think of a supreme cause that makes all of it possible (A 622, B 650).  Moreover, human beings’ concepts of moral perfection indicate that some ideal of perfection underlies our attempts to think and to envision a genuinely good life (A 625, B 653).  But in our admiration of whatever mind gives the world its beauty and complexity and horizons of human goodness, reason falls back into the same difficulties that beset the cosmological argument if we attempt to use that moral sense as a proof that supreme being exists (A 629, B 657).  Once again Kant’s intellectual discipline holds firm: like the unitary soul and the totality of the world, the concept of God can regulate other thoughts but does not itself stand susceptible to definite rational claims.

Transcendental theology therefore works just as well with the God of deism and the living God of theism (A 633, B 661).  Within either framework, theological thought is always practical thought, which deals with what ought to be and operates regulated by the ideal of divine perfection.  Theological thought is not inherently theoretical, which deals with what is and only refers to the theological as a necessary grounding for the contingent (A 634, B 662).  At all points Kant refuses even to entertain competing claims about any positive characteristics of a personal God, preferring instead to limit reason’s dealings to the concept of the transcendental God.  For Kant, the strict limits on theological utterance that transcendental theology provides promise a check and a protection against atheism, preventing those who claim the existence of God from making invalid claims about God and therefore rendering the atheist’s valid rebuttals off-limits to valid human reasoning (A 640, B 668).  Even with these limits, though, Kant refers to God, the transcendental concept, as the crown of human cognition (A 641, B 670).

One More Reminder: Reason Does not Create; Reason Regulates

In an appendix to the Transcendental Dialectic section of the Critique, Kant reminds the reader again that reason, though a powerful faculty, has as its singular temptation to expand its bounds into territory not legitimately reasonable (A 642, B 670).  Transcendental philosophy plays a protective role, keeping reason from grasping beyond its reach and coming up with falsehood instead of truth.  No transcendental idea ever constitutes knowledge, but without the regulation of transcendental ideas, reason’s powers of understanding always run the danger of taking experience and generating illusions with its raw materials (A 644, B 672).  Whether reason posits a definite and unified soul or a definite and bounded universe or a definite and benevolent God, Kant maintains that such things cannot be valid claims of pure reason but invalid mixtures of concept and experience and imagination.  Of course, reason rightly recognizes that experience has some degree of homogeneity, and without some common ground, the manifold and diverse world would cease to generate experiences at all (A 653, B 681).  But strong, radical disagreements about the world come from different emphases–an emphasis on unity or an emphasis on manifoldness–that, without reason’s regulations, overstep the bounds within which reason really happens (A 667, B 695).  As a reminder of what this ever-growing catalog of reason’s limits is about, Kant once more points to reason’s strictly negative, regulative role in the investigation of the actual: perceptions give rise to experiences and experiences to understanding, and reason can either do harm by turning understanding into illusion; or reason can do good work by keeping reason from running towards illusions.  This Critique is a guide of sorts for a well-run conceptual mind, one that stays within its bounds.

Reality does not make this job easy; after all, every experience is a contradiction of sorts, with absolutely singular objects nonetheless participating in unifying schemata that do not leave objects absolute (A 670, B 698).  Without strong regulation, reason encounters the world both as a collection of atoms and as a single system, none of whose parts stand unrelated to all the other parts.  Transcendental reasoning allows the mind to benefit from both impulses, to regard things as existing on their own terms and thus not subject to the mind’s systematizing impulses and nonetheless recognizing that, as perceived by mind, the world is in fact a systematic unity (A 671, B 699).  But if the mind starts with this regulative recognition, rational beings can proceed in the pursuits of science and observation and all the other ways we interact with the world as if they were systematic unities and as if we perceived them as undivided minds and as if a supreme being lay behind the systematic unities and regularities we find (A 672, B 700).

Kant notes, perhaps anticipating atheists’ objections, that positing a supreme being does not take a world populated by n empirical beings and make the number n+1 but rather unifies the number of empirical beings, whatever that population might be, but provides a concept of God that allows a concept of world and thus provides a context within which beings can be beings (A 675, B 703).  The implication of such a concept of God carries through the transcendental reasoning right to the central question: for Kant, a supreme being is necessary for reason, but nothing within reason’s powers can demonstrate that such a being actually exists (A 676, B 704).  Relative to the world, a supreme being is necessary, but because that being is not part of the world, no positive knowledge of that being is possible, because positive knowledge requires empirical experience (A 679, B 707).  Such is not bad news for the believer, as Kant sees it: although God’s existence cannot be proved within the bounds of valid reason, neither can the non-existence of God be proved within those bounds.  So I guess I’ve got that going for me.

Therefore assuming a supreme being as a necessary ground for the world does not expand knowledge beyond the empirical (A 697, B 725).  Science can continue to investigate the world as if a single, architectonic mind ordered the whole (A 700, B 728), but reason rightly ordered makes no positive claims about the character or even the existence of that mind.  If nothing else, this conclusion about relationships between cosmic order and divine mind strike me as reflecting and maybe even predicting how science goes about its business: when a chemist or a physicist encounters anomalies, she doesn’t assume that she’s reached the part of the world where the rules stop but continues to investigate until some error in the investigation or some other rule-like regularity intersects with the regularities anticipated.  That seems to be what Kant’s after here: reason can assume, at the transcendent limits of reason and experience, something that accounts for an orderly world, but science itself does not speculate about why the world might be orderly.

As with other sections of the Critique, this one leaves me appreciating the strong discipline of Kant’s thought and the strong defensive character of his project.  I get the sense that Kant is, in ways that he does not make implicit, the logical implications of losing soul, world, and God, and his project here is to move those concepts out of the way of counter-arguments, where they might fall from prominence, and to situate them at the limits of reason where they continue to do their work but do not stand susceptible to refutation.

I also realize now why all of the critics of Kant that I’ve been reading these twenty years get impatient with the way Kant plays defense.  In an intellectual system in which God lies beyond human capacities to say “no,” there’s not much there to get excited about.  Where the soul operates as an as-if regulative principle, there’s not much urgency to working out the salvation of that soul.  I suppose I can grant that Kant here is playing a game that he sees as standing beyond questions of revelation and obligation, but I’ve seen Boethius play that same game without losing the sense that soul and world and God are not mere negative spaces at the edge of cognition but stand as the starting-points for genuinely human enterprises.  (Yes, the comparisons between Critique of Pure Reason and Consolation of Philosophy occur easily to me.)

I realize, as I turn the corner towards the final section of this Critique, that I should likely put somewhere in my near future the Critique of Practical Reason so that I can continue pondering whether I can continue to be post-Kantian.  Let me get one more section of this read-through up on the site, and we’ll see where we go from there.

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