Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Twelve Rounds with Kant (part 4)

Charles Demuth, Machine (1920)

The operation was a success: after writing more words about X-Men comics than a grown man should be permitted to exhibit without opprobrium, my brains are more or less de-wormed, and we can resume our extemporaneous study of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781–1787). I won't ask if you're as avid as I am to dip back into transcendental idealism and the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge—surely everyone's answer is a spirited HELL YES!

Hmm—but I'm finding that putting aside Kant for a few weeks is like reneging on an exercise regimen: you don't return to it with quite the same spryness and stamina you could muster before going idle. Maybe we should keep today's session relatively short, and begin by stretching our ganglia a bit. We'll also stimulate our eyes between blocks of text with some paintings by Charles Demuth, whose precisionist sensibilities are not inappropriate to a discussion of one of philosophy's most renowned (or infamous?) Order Muppets.

Not too long ago I picked up Alfred North Whitehead's The Function of Reason (1929) at my local used bookstore.¹ I sometimes wondered, while reading the Critique, how Whitehead felt about Kant. To the best of my knowledge he seldom or never mentions him in Science and the Modern World (1925), but I never doubted for a moment that Whitehead had intensely scrutinized the Critique at one or several points in his life.

In The Function of Reason, Whitehead satisfies my curiosity on this point:

The Cartesian dualism, whereby the final actualities were divided into bodies and minds, and the Newtonian materialistic cosmology, combined to set a false goal before philosophic speculation. The notion of mere bodies and of mere minds was accepted uncritically. But the ideal of explaining either minds in terms of bodies, or bodies in terms of minds guided speculative thought. First Hobbes made bodies fundamental, and reduced minds to derivative factors. Then Berkeley made minds fundamental, and reduced bodies to derivative factors——mere ideas in the minds, and more particularly in the mind of God. The most important effect on the relations of philosophy to natural science was, however, produced by neither Hobbes nor by Berkeley, but by Kant. The effect of his Critique of Pure Reason was to reduce the system of nature to mere appearance——or, to use the Greek word, the order of nature is phenomenal. But whether we prefer the word "appearance" or the word "phenomenon," the effect is the same. There can be no metaphysics of nature, and no approach to metaphysics by scanning the order of nature. For nature is a mere derivative appearance; and when we consider it, we are remote from any intuition which tells of final truths. It is true that Kant himself did not draw that conclusion. The starry heavens affected him, a triumph of the obvious over philosophy. But in the long run, the effect of the Kantian point of view was to degrade science to the consideration of derivative details. But again the obvious triumphed. There is an insistent importance in the details of our phenomenal life in the phenomenal world. Kant denied that this phenomenal system could bring us to metaphysics. Yet obviously here we are, living phenomenally among phenomena.²

We can scratch at Kant's eschewal of metaphysics (if he indeed does eschew it) later on. Right now, I'm interested in speculating as to what motivated Kant to precess Cartesian mind/body dualism into his own phenomena/noumena dyad. My from-the-hip explanation is because he's a control freak.

Charles Demuth, Business (1921)

Let's shuffle backwards a moment and recap what Kant has to say about what we know and how we know it. Space and time have no independent existence beyond the organism experiencing them; they are no more nor less than pure forms of sense perception. The transcendental schemata that constitute the rules by which the understanding organizes the subject's experience of reality are attuned to aspects of space and time. The categories of quantity, for instance, are derived from the principle that all intuitions are extensive magnitudes—"because as intuitions in space and time they must be represented through the same synthesis by which space and time in general are determined," and obviously expanses of space and durations of time are most effectively communicated through quantification. Kant begins his proof of the schemata of the relational categories (which include the cause-and-effect bugbear that jarred him into writing this book to begin with) by asserting "experience is only possible through the representation of a necessary connection of perceptions." From this statement follow his three Analogies of Experience (transcribed directly from the text):

1. In all change of appearances substance is permanent; its quantum in nature is neither increased nor diminished. (Principle of Permanence of Substance)

2. All alterations take place according to the law of the connection of cause and effect. (Principle of Succession in Time According to the Law of Causality)

3. All substances, insofar as they can be perceived as simultaneous in space, are in thoroughgoing interaction. (Principle of Simultaneity According to the Law of Interaction or Community)

Kant's ideas typically pass desiccated through any effort at synopsis, and the arguments he adduces to substantiate his Analogies are no exception. In general, they conform to his self-styled transcendental method, which purports to prove the validity of a given synthetic a priori proposition by establishing that:

...the conditions of the possibility of experience in general are at the same time conditions of the possibility of the objects of experience, and thus possess objective validity in a synthetic a priori judgement.  

So for the cause/effect relation, Kant argues that alterations in the manifold of subjective experience formally adhere to the rule of causal connection because we are incapable of perceiving such alterations otherwise. "All nature, indeed, is nothing but a combination of phenomena which follow rules," Kant wrote elsewhere; and those rules are (according to him) the pure categories of understanding through which we actively (and indeed creatively) interpret the welter of unknowable noumenal substance beyond the wall of sense perception.

Charles Demuth, Incense of a New Church (1921)

Kant somewhat concurs with Hume here. The skeptical Scotsman maintained that when billiard balls collide, our incapacity to directly experience the actual mechanism of kinetic transference reduces us to taking as probable that the motion of one ball is casually dependent on its being struck by the other, based on the regularity with which one event appears to follow the other. In Kant's framework, the word "appears" is triply underscored. Event B must necessarily follow Event A by virtue of causal connection because we must understand it that way (owing to the category of Causality and Dependence and its related schema), irrespective of whatever the billiard balls are doing as things-in-themselves (whatever they are as things-in-themselves). We can't deal with them in that respect: only the appearance of the billiard balls can enter into any reasonable discussion.

In short, Kant's epistemology attempts to negate the uncertainty inherent in Hume's empirical "constant conjunction" postulate by avouching apodictic causal connection in its stead, and his transcendental logic provides the protocols through which this is possible—or so he claims:

It might seem indeed as if this were in contradiction to all that has always been said about the course taken by human understanding. It was supposed that only by perceiving and comparing many events, following in the same manner on preceding appearances, we are first led to the discovery of a rule according to which certain events always follow on certain appearances, and that only thus we are enabled to form the concept of a cause. If this were so, this concept would be merely empirical, and the rule which it supplies, that everything which happens has a cause, would be as contingent as the experience itself. The universality and necessity of that rule would then only be fictitious, and devoid of any true and universal validity, because they would not be a priori, but founded only on induction. The case with this rule is the same as with other pure a priori representations (for instance, space and time), which we are able to extract as pure concepts from experience only because we have put them into experience, and so have first brought experience about through them. It is true, no doubt, that the logical clarity of this representation of a rule determining the succession of events, as a concept of cause, becomes possible only when we have used it in experience; but a recognition of this representation, as the condition of the synthetic unity of appearances in time, was nevertheless the foundation of the experience itself, and consequently preceded it a priori.

What can we call Kant's determination but marvelous? Finding that the rationalist tradition on which he cut his teeth had no grounds for treating causal connection but in tentative, provisional terms, he devised a system in which the law of cause and effect attained the necessity he craved of it. All he had to do was center subjective experience in the scheme of things, and declare that subjectivity and its formal principles are the provenance of the laws of nature which govern the appearance of the world outside our own skins.³

Charles Demuth, Wild Orchids (1920)

Apparently, some critic of the Critique's first edition took issue with Kant's epistemology and proposed a theory focused less on the transcendental power of the understanding than the sensing organism's physiology. In the B Deduction of the second edition, Kant addresses the idea.

Someone might propose...that the categories are neither self-thought a priori first principles of our knowledge, nor derived from experience, but subjective dispositions of thought, implanted in us with our existence, and so arranged by our Creator that their use should acutely harmonize with the laws of nature which determine the course of existence (a kind of preformation system of pure reason). 

At first glance, this proposition seems perfectly reasonable. An organism is an intricately organized collection of matter and energy, existing in and as part of a cosmos where matter and energy behave according to a set of immutable rules. If the organism cannot accurately sense events in its environment, it will not be able to respond to them with any efficacy, and will not live for long. True, much of what happens in the world escapes our attention, or is perceived in an idiosyncratic fashion, according to our composition. We can't see, hear, or feel the radio waves bounding and tunneling through our environs. Atmospheric perturbations may occur at too low or high a frequency for our ears to detect. We experience the interaction between our fingers and a table surface as "hardness," not "electrostatic repulsion." Our olfactory and gustatory faculties are supremely prejudiced (for our own protection). But we can sensibly take for granted, I would think, that an organism's perceptions of the world, while limited to those aspects of reality it is endowed to perceive and respond to, can be trusted to provide information of how the world actually is—or at least those features of the world upon which our senses shed light. However space-in-itself relates to itself in the theoretical physicist's mathematical fever dream, distance almost certainly means the same to us as it does to the "brute matter" of which we are composed. If our experience of time's one-way arrow is someways dishonest, it is so by omission of subtleties rather than falsification of facts.

This assumption is (obviously) anathema to Kant's scheme, and he will have none of it: 

But the following is a decisive objection against this middle course (apart from the objection that there would be no end to such a hypothesis, so that no one could know how far the presupposition of predetermined dispositions to future judgements might be carried): that the categories would then lose that necessity which is essential to the concept of them. Thus the concept of cause, which asserts the necessity of a result under a presupposed condition, would become false if it rested only on some subjective necessity, arbitrarily implanted in us, of connecting certain empirical representations according to the rule of causal relation. I should not then be able to say that the effect is connected with the cause of the object (that is, by necessity), but only that I am so constituted that I cannot think this representation as connected in any other way. This is exactly what the sceptic most desires, for in that case all our insight, resting on the supposed objective validity of our judgements, is nothing but mere illusion; nor would there be a lack of people who would say they know nothing of such subjective necessity (which must be felt); and at all events we could not quarrel with anybody about what depends merely on the manner in which his subject is organized.

There's a scene in the film Liar, Liar where Jim Carrey, playing a lawyer made incapable of speaking anything but the unvarnished truth, stands up in court and shouts "your honor, I object!"

"And why is that?" the judge asks.

"Because it's devastating to my case!"

Kant's answer to the "preformation of pure reason" hypothesis has a very similar ring to it.

Charles Demuth, After All (1933)

To be fair, his parenthetical remark about there being no end to such a theory is justified. To put the question in mentalistic terms, how do we determine which of the fundamental concepts with which we organize experience are "inborn," and which are extrapolated from experience itself? How could we ever find out?⁴

I suspect Hume's answer would be that we can't arrive at a satisfactorily definite answer, and we just have to live with it. But to Kant, this uncertainty is intolerable. The entire thrust of his project in the Critique is the extirpation of metaphysical ambiguity. His elaborate framework, if accepted as true, purports to cordon off a field of existence in which facts stand on indubitably secure ground, and outside of which sprawls the rank jungle of the inexplicable. This is precisely why he begins the Critique by defining space and time as forms of sense perception, and vehemently denies their independent reality: he "solves" the philosophical problem of induction by placing the operations of nature in the human mind, domesticating and demystifying them.⁵

But no worldview guarantees against the inconceivable. The truth is the unabstracted material, and material existence is a cosmic maelstrom of particulars and instances that only a God could comprehend in its totality. Any philosophical system, even one as seemingly internally consistent as Kant's, can only emphasize and minimize aspects of the whole in service of dealing with some part or pattern of it. It is always beholden to facts for which it cannot account; its premises take as axioms propositions that another system might dispute with equally rigorous precision. Kant conveniently packs the mechanisms of natural phenomena into the understanding, but cannot account for the understanding but in vague, mentalistic terms and the word "soul." Far from banishing the ineffable, he simply conceals it in a spare room of his grand edifice.

While Kant's confidence in his brainchild is admirable (and not unjustified), his anti-empiricist preoccupation with necessity sometimes comes off not so much as the asseveration of an intellectually honest conviction than as a recalcitrant protest against the ineffable.⁶

1. Bookhaven, on Fairmount Avenue in Philadelphia. Wonderful people!

2. Whitehead famously declared that the whole of Western philosophy consists of a long train of footnotes to Plato. Given that the genealogy of the Romantic movement, Hegelian idealism, existentialism, and the subjectivistic postmodern theorists can be traced back to the Kantian epistemological doctrine of the individual creating his reality vis-à-vis the transcendental schemata, we might credibly allege that modern philosophy is largely a series of footnotes to Kant.

3. In Modern Painters (1843–1860), our friend John Ruskin gets cheeky in a footnote to a screed against the philosophical division of experience between the subjective and the objective:  
In fact (for I may as well, for once, meet our German friends in their own style), all that has been subjected to us on this subject seems object to this great objection; that the subjection of all things (subject to no exceptions) to senses which are, in us, both subject and abject, and objects of perpetual contempt, cannot but make it our ultimate object to subject ourselves to the senses, and to remove whatever objections existed to such subjection. So that, finally, that which is the subject of examination or object of attention, uniting thus in itself the characters of subness and obness (so that, that which has no obness in it should be called sub-subjective, or a sub-subject, and that which has no subness in it should be called upper or ober-objective, or an ob-object); and we also, who suppose ourselves the objects of every arrangement, and are certainly the subjects of every sensual impression, thus uniting in ourselves, in an obverse or adverse manner, the characters of obness and subness, must both become metaphysically dejected or rejected, nothing remaining in us objective, but subjectivity, and the very objectivity of the object being lost in the abyss of this subjectivity of the Human.
In an appendix referenced by this passage ("German Philosophy"), Ruskin lobs another tomato: 
I have often been told that any one who will read Kant, Strauss, and the rest of the German metaphysicians and divines, resolutely through, and give his whole strength to the study of them, will, after ten or twelve years' labor, discover that there is very little harm in them; and this I can well believe; but I believe also that the ten or twelve years may be better spent; and that any man who honestly wants philosophy not for show, but for use, and knowing the Proverbs of Solomon, can, by way of Commentary, afford to buy, in convenient editions, Plato, Bacon, Wordsworth, Carlyle, and Helps, will find that he has got as much as will be sufficient for him and his household during life, and of as good quality as need be.
I'm not ready to say whether he's right or wrong quite yet.

4. Herodotus writes about a king of Egypt who, desirous of identifying the primeval tongue, supposedly had a pair of infants raised in isolation to discover what language they'd end up speaking in a vacuum of human influence. Settling the question of inborn versus acquired "ideas" would probably necessitate some grossly unethical experiments of this kind.

5. Whitehead summarizes the problem in Science and the Modern World:
There are particular definite things observed, and we have to make sure that the relations between these things really do obey certain definite exact abstract conditions. There is great room for error here. The exact observational methods of science are all contrivances for limiting these erroneous conclusions as to direct matters of fact. But another question arises. The things directly observed are, almost always, only samples. We want to conclude that the abstract conditions, which hold for the samples, also hold for all other entities which, for some reason or other, appear to us to be of the same sort. This process of reasoning from the sample to the whole species is Induction. The theory of Induction is the despair of philosophy——and yet all our activities are based on it.
In other words, we can't know for absolutely certain that each object in the universe attracts every other object in the universe with a force proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them without testing every iota of matter in the universe to make sure. More to the point, we can't know for absolutely certain that a cue ball striking a triangle of billiard balls is the cause of them scattering unless we test the hypothesis an infinite number of times and find that the result is always what we expect. We can be 99.999999 percent certain, yes—but that's not enough for Kant.

6. From the posthumously published Pensées (1670) of Blaise Pascal, penned over a century before Kant began compiling material for the Critique of Pure Reason: "The last proceeding of reason is to recognize that there is an infinity of things which are beyond it."

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