Sunday, November 22, 2015
The Epistemology of Immanuel Kant
Kant, like every other philosopher of his time, was attempting to answer the question regarding how we should understand our world. What are the necessary conditions for the intelligibility of human experience? In his critique of pure reason, Kant was interested in understanding what reason could know without aid from the other faculties. Essentially, Kant was seeking to outline the limitations and boundaries of the faculty of reason. Specifically, Kant wanted to know just how much understanding and reason can know apart from all experience. To outline his project then, Kant wanted to solve two very specific problems: first, how can we know synthetic a priori truths? How can we know things like the laws of causation? The second problem Kant wanted to solve was how a scientific view of the world could be reconciled with our religious view of the world. If all knowledge is reduced to sense data, then what are we to do with our religious views of immaterial ideas like the soul, eternality, and God?
In his earlier career, Kant was a rationalist. He believed the mind was capable of possessing empirical knowledge of the world apart from sense experience. But then Kant was introduced to the work of David Hume. As Kant puts it, “I was awakened from my dogmatic slumber.” As a result, Kant was set on the path toward what would become known as his “Copernican Revolution” in epistemology. Just as Copernicus had thought, like everyone else, that the sun moved around the earth until he realized it was the other way around, Kant believed that philosophy had it just as backwards when it came to the mind-object relationship. Rather than objects impressing themselves on the human mind, it seemed to Kant that the mind was actually the agent impressing and imposing itself on the objects of sense experience. Kant believed that knowledge is a due to the inherent nature and structure of the mind. The mind of man is not the passive wax like that in an old-fashioned phonograph, being written upon by sense data. Instead, the mind is active in organizing the sense data into categories of the understanding. Essentially then, Kant believed that the human mind is active in constructing human knowledge. Contrary to empiricism, the mind is not a blank sheet of paper filling up with sense data through our experience.
Kant then believed that the mind does not revolved around sense experience. Instead he suggested that knowledge is the conformance of objects to the mind. This would seem then to explain how we could know laws of nature. If they are located in the mind, and we can know the mind, then it follows that we can know such laws. Kant divides reality into two realms: the noumenal and the phenomenal. Noumenal things are things that trigger our sense experience but they are unknowable in themselves. The phenomenal world is the world as we experience it through the structure and organizing activity of our minds. They are intelligible, rational, structured, and knowable. We see how Kant solves the problem of possessing knowledge of synthetic a priori truth. But how does this solve for the reconciliation between scientific knowledge and our religious view of the world. Kant says that we cannot know things like the immaterial soul or God or eternality. Instead, we believe them on faith.
Kant’s program we call Transcendental Idealism. It is called ‘transcendental’ because it is not occupied with objects, but rather with how we can possibly know things about objects even before we experience them. The knowledge transcends experience. It is called idealism because quite frankly, we cannot know objects as they are in themselves. We only know the appearances of objects as they are experienced by the senses. And these objects are merely representations of things, they are not the things in themselves. The human mind denies access to the things in themselves in that it actively structures the sense experience into categories we know a priori.
The implications of Kant's Transcendental Idealism on Christian theology are significant. For starters, knowledge of God is destroyed along with knowledge of self and of anything that is not part of the physical universe. To say we take it on faith is viewed as somehow not enough to qualify as knowledge. But that is not the sort of faith we mean when we talk about Christian faith. Modern Christians are about to be confronted more and more with this sort philosophical speculation as the shift in thought moves away from the Bible as God's Word and more brazenly toward man as the measure of all things. This has been the case for some time now but lets just say the pretense of American Christianity is evaporating before our eyes and it is only prudent for us to prepare ourselves to enter these conversations. Over the next several weeks I will provide fodder for evangelizing the many types of skeptics Christians encounter or will begin to encounter in their near future.
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