Kant, Hume and doing Theology

May 19, 2008 at 9:18 am Leave a comment

I am not fluent in “Philosophy” and find my tongue getting stuck to the roof of mouth when I try to articulate my ideas about all things philosophical. As I have listened to people philosophizing throughout my life I have always felt two immediate emotions: one of being an “outsider” in that I cannot immediately join in the discourse, and another of intrigue at this discussion of ideas in a language that is not entirely intelligible to me. I realize, though, that neither of these facts disqualify me from entering the discourse, and so I am pleased to share my thoughts and research about Kant and the person he claims to have shaken him from his “dogmatic slumber” – David Hume. In this paper I am interested in why Kant’s thinking is important to Theology and why he may have reached some of the conclusions he did during his lifetime. I am hopeful that this exercise will be a springboard for exploring Kant further in the context of Systematic Theology, for he stands as a jagged mountain-backed monolith; he provides that “watershed” divide that continues to inform the ways we think about religion and do theology in our time.

Nicolaus Copernicus’ 1514 ideas of a heliocentric cosmology, eventually published as On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, marks the beginning of a process of dramatic and lasting shifts in human thought and beliefs about how the physical universe operates: the earth was no longer in a central, specially favoured position, and long-held scientific and philosophical beliefs were opened to question and speculation. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) invokes the Copernican shift in “world-view” to describe the effect he believed his method would have on the traditional metaphysics of the eighteenth century. And it is David Hume that Kant credits for having roused him from a “dogmatic slumber” opening the way for him to think in the ways he did.

David Hume 1711-1776

“It is never possible to deduce judgements of value from matters of fact.”

David Hume has been called the “ultimate skeptic” for his convincing reduction of matter, mind, religion and science to a matter of sense impressions and memories. All our ideas, Hume challenges his readers, come from impressions received by our senses. These assumptions, Hume argues, are not to be trusted: simply relying on a notion that one thing is caused by another because we habitually have found them to be that way through a reoccurring pattern is no reliable assumption that things will always be this way. Just because we put ideas together because they have similarity does not make them connected, Hume asserts, and even our notion of “belief” is in reality nothing more than a strong “idea.” Our perceptions, he argues, can be divided into two classes: the “less lively” called “thoughts” or “ideas,” and “lively” perception called “impressions” which generally come to us through our sensory capacity to hear, see or feel both physically and emotionally. Our idea of God, Hume argues, begins in the process of self-reflection on our own minds and positing the existence of God: all our ideas are simply copies of our impressions. The important question to ask, Hume advances, is “from what impression is that supposed idea derived?” When we look at a painting, he illustrates, our thoughts concoct the memory of an original idea or scene because of the principle of “resemblance”; when we hear of a particular room in a building, our thoughts assume the reality of additional rooms through the principle of “contiguity”, and when we imagine or think of a wound, we cannot dismiss the attendant idea of pain and hurt through the principle of “cause and effect.”

Our idea of God, Hume argues, arises from a self-reflection on the operation of our own minds . Our idea of God, he asserts, is merely a copy of our impression of God; Philosophers rob nature and created beings of their inherent power when they assert that everything is “full of God.” When we find phenomena in nature, Hume believes, we immediately seek a cause or an author. Such a Deity, Hume argues, is known to us only through his productions. Our belief in God, Hume contends is nothing more than a conception of an object than the imagination alone is ever able to obtain. For Hume, liturgical ritual is little more than superstition. Hume finds evidence for the truth of the Christian religion, founded on the testimony of eyewitnesses to miraculous events which are, in and of themselves, a violation of the laws of nature. Any testimony that a religion is proved by miracles, Hume posits, must “confound itself.” Experience alone, he argues, gives authority to human testimony. Religion, Hume concludes, is founded on faith, not reason.

Emmanuel Kant 1724-1804

“Reason is the pupil of itself alone. It is the oldest of the sciences.”

Our minds, argues Kant, are not passively processing perceptions, but are actively creating experiences for us as we look out on the world: the representation of any given physical object makes the object intelligible and the object does not make this intelligibility. Our minds, he believes, actively generate perception. They are not tabula rasa . A blank slate filled with random information does not lead to intelligence just as an oil barrel filled with microprocessors does not lead to a functioning computer. In other words, as I write this paper – my fingers pressing keys and organizing words on the screen – I am engaging in the act of perceiving as I process information. I am, Kant believes, recognizing order out of a background of perceptual noise. In Kant’s view, then, human knowledge is based on experience. He calls this “Pure Reason.”

But “Practical Reason,” he further offers, recognizes that there are certain notions in the human mind – a priori – that are quite independent of practical experience: concepts like “eternal life,” “human rights” and “Supreme Being.” Kant acknowledges that the human mind is capable of perceiving material objects as well as ideas about ideals. Because we are capable of processing ideas in both the material and ideal worlds, Kant views our highest purpose as recognizing and knowing the moral law originating from a Supreme Being. This will lead to happiness, Kant believes. Our obedience to moral law should come not just through desiring to be happy, but because we recognize that it is our moral duty to become worthy recipients of happiness through absolute obedience to moral law.

Kant is interested in answering the question “What can we know?” Our minds are constrained by the limits of mathematics and the science of the natural, measurable world. This act of knowing has it limitations. Our knowledge is constrained because our minds play a role in constituting the features of experience. This limits our mind’s abilities to the confines of the measurable time and space which we inhabit. Kant argues that it is impossible for us to extend our ability to know into the “supersensible realm” of speculative metaphysics because the objects of our experience constitute our only reality. We make a fatal assumption, Kant argues, if we claim that we can have knowledge of “things as they are in themselves” (which Kant calls “Noumenon”) independent from our knowledge of things as they appear (which Kant calls Phenoumenon.) Kant concludes that we must simply recognize that we cannot know “things as they are in themselves” and that our knowledge is constrained by the conditions of our ability to experience: “We have no insight whatsoever into the intrinsic nature of things.” Only a divine perspective, Kant suggests, can know the whole story of the universe.

David Hume, in examining his own awareness, said that he could not find a “self” but was always left with his awareness of something. He came to the conclusion that his “self” was little more than the total of these kinds of impressions. Kant reached an entirely new conclusion: that his act of thinking – his “I think” moment – when considering his awareness of something, was the creation of his mind as it processed his sensations and his understandings. Kant called this the “transcendental unity of apperception.” Following his own theory, Kant recognized that his perception of his sense of self was nothing more than a phenomenon tied to his space and his time. He speculates, though , that there must be a noumenal self of himself which he concedes is entirely beyond his ability to know. This is not because his noumenal self does not exist, but because his phenomenal self constrains his ability to have the pure knowledge of the supersensible realm. The supersensible realm, Kant believes, must exist even though we can only approximate the idea of such a reality. Even though we operate in a deterministic world, Kant argues, we can nonetheless lay claim to free will. By clarifying the conditions under which we can know anything, Kant’s philosophy leads us to the boundaries of what we can know. Once we are at the borders of these boundaries of knowing, Kant concedes, our ability to think fails us and we are left to speculate about the unknown. Garth Kemerling puts it this way :

What is possible—indeed, according to Kant what we are bound by our very nature as rational beings to do—is to think of the noumenal realm as if the speculative principles were true (whether or not they are). By the nature of reason itself, we are required to suppose our own existence as substantial beings, the possibility of our free action in a world of causal regularity, and the existence of god. The absence of any formal justification for these notions makes it impossible for us to claim that we know them to be true, but it can in no way diminish the depth of our belief that they are.

Kant thinks the way he does in large part out of his dissatisfaction of two contemporary and competing systems of thinking: the Rationalism of Europe, and the Empiricism of England which found its terminal voice in David Hume. Empiricists argued that all our knowledge comes from one source: experience. Our minds do not come into being with any inborn, natural tendencies. They are blank slates at the outset. This makes our minds passive, organizing holding-ponds for all the sense impressions that our minds receive. We literally come into the world “empty.” John Locke, a strong influence on Hume, argued whatever knowledge we acquire must be gained through the accumulation of our sensory deposits over time. David Hume took Locke’s doctrine and arrived at a very different conclusion: our minds are like the stage of a theatre onto which arrive disorganized sensations. This is all, Hume believes, that experience can offer us. All we are left with is distinctive and separate bundles of information. There is no necessity that objects correspond to our impressions of them; notions of cause and effect, argues Hume, rely on nothing more than superstition. It is here that Kant sees a truth in limiting knowledge to experience and an untruth in Hume’s conclusion that there is no necessary connectedness to our experiences.

Rationalists promoted the idea that it is possible for our reasoning minds to move beyond the sensory data we receive in any sense experience, that our minds are capable of grasping truths that are not readily available through experience. It is possible, Rationalism posits, for the Reasonable mind to “get things” as they exist in their pure state. For example, I may “get” the idea of God as the first-cause of the universe, and I may “get” the concept of “life-after-life” unaided by anything else than the idea of these things themselves. Rationalism asserts that our Reason can gain a knowledge of things beyond our sensory experience because of its access to pure knowledge in the supersensible realm.

Understanding Kant, then, is to understand how he perceives these competing ideologies. In his Lectures on Logic Kant poses three questions : “What can I know?” in which he explores his metaphysics; “What ought I to know” in which he presents his ethics; “What may I hope for?” in which he examines his theology. Kant responds to his first question – “What can I know” – in The Critique of Pure Reason in which he expounds on man’s self understanding, his or her rationality, of what he or she is. Kant explores his second and third questions in The Critique of Practical Reason. Kant then reduces his first three questions to a fourth: “What is [hu]man?” Kant’s dissatisfaction with his contemporary models pushed him to conceive a solution that corrects the serious flaws he saw in the aposteriori (sourced in experience) knowledge of Empiricism and the a priori ( independent of experience) knowledge of Rationalism. Out of this comes Kant’s greatest achievement: his Transcendental Method.

Kant is not trying to prove that we have consciousness, nor is he trying to prove that we exist. He is trying to find out what the necessary conditions of our knowledge are by discovering what it is that we cannot know. Or, as another writer has analogized it:

“We are all in a box, according to Kant, and he is trying to find out what the walls in the box look like.”

One writer sees Kant’s brilliance in his attempt to encapsulate in one philosophical idea the foundations of consciousness. The process of “understanding” anything, Kant believes, is through the process of the mind actively arranging experiences. Each perception is singular and particular. In order for there to be any wholes at all, the mind must arrange and organize the particular perceptions into conceivable wholes. From this Kant concludes that the basic way for a person to be is to do. The necessary condition for us to have any conscious experiences at all, argues Kant, the is that we are able to recognize the experience as ours. This ability to think about our thoughts as our own – the capacity to say the words “I think” – Kant calls apperception. This thinking, Kant argues, when applied to the natural world, allows us to describe them intuitively. But Kant has difficulty applying this reasoning to the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. Kant’s solution to overcoming this problem of the noumenal vs. the phenoumenal, as best I can understand it at the time of this writing, is to reason about God as if he were a known reality. As Richard Peters puts it:

In this, Kantian metaphysics acknowledges the boundary between the two worlds that Kant has identified—the noumenal and phenomenal—and so does not attempt to penetrate beyond it, but restricts itself instead to it—that is, it restricts itself to the relations that reason can discern between the two worlds.

As Kant contemplates ideas about God in this manner, within the bounds of reason, he reaches the conclusion that any such God worth acknowledging (thinking as if such a God were a known reality) would require nothing more from his followers than a commitment to the duty of choosing morally good actions. Kant rejects the notion of original sin precisely because he sees humans as moral creatures with the freedom to choose. Divine commandments, Kant argues, presuppose our ability to be obedient: if we ought to do something, he posits, then we must be able to do it suggesting that we are predisposed to goodness. To become a better human being, Kant offers, each person should do as much as he or she can to live a morally good life; whatever lies beyond human ability to achieve, he suggests, should be left to God who “cooperates in making all things good.”

The person of Jesus, for Kant, is the Divine idea of the perfect human being, a prototype “come down to us from heaven”; through emulating this prototype’s dispositions, Kant argues, we can become “the children of God.” While Kant does not deny that Jesus may be divine, he finds little use in speculating about the supernatural nature of Jesus; such ideas, inaccessible to reason, have no practical benefit for Kant. Kant likewise finds the concepts of heaven and hell inaccessible to reason, although he does not deny that they are actualities. He sees the way of Christ leading to salvation, just as he sees a rejection of the way of Christ leading to damnation — although, for Kant, the speculation of how such things come about has no practical benefit.

Kant’s idea of “church” is that of an “ethical community” of men and women who share the same moral truths and aspire to work together out of their common sensibility of duty. This ethical community, Kant believes, can be recognized as the “kingdom of God” through four attributes: it is universal in its principles; it is unified under exclusive moral incentives; it offers free association, and it is unchangeable. Kant sees other churches as “historical” in their faith and in need of being informed by his concept of “rational” faith. “Historical” faiths, he argues, prescribe arbitrary laws that lead men and women from their attention to duty. It is the scriptures, Kant argues while quoting 1 Timothy 3:16, interpreted by “rational” scholars, that will bring about the moral improvement of mankind. Kant envisions a time when this “rational” religion will displace and inform the “historical” religion:

…in the end religion will gradually be freed of all empirical grounds of determination, of all statutes that rest on history and unite human beings provisionally for the promotion of the good through the intermediary of an ecclesiastical faith. Thus at last the pure faith of religion will rule over all, ‘so that God may be all in all.’

Kant’s impact on the way we think about and do theology, then, lies in this separation of all things “faith” from all things “reason.” Science and religion became different topics for conversation under Kant’s new schema. Just as Copernicus turned astronomy inside out when he hypothesized that the earth might actually, in truth, move around the sun, so Kant turned epistemology inside out when he theorized that objective reality depends on the mind. Both of these events seem so ordinary to our modern sensibilities. And the moment we find ourselves contemplating the ordinariness of either Copernicus’ or Kant’s schemas, we realize just how successful both were at changing the world-views of their times.


Entry filed under: Philosophy, Theology.

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