Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Some thoughts on Kant

This week I finished the Routledge textbook on Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, as well as Dan Robinson’s Oxford lectures on it. So here’re some thoughts about Kant, his Critique and its relation to dreams, cats, and non-Euclidian spaces.

In the Critique, Kant is utilizing an impressive apparatus of terms: Paralogisms, Amphiboly, Axioms, Postulates, Prolegomena, Schemata. Not to mention that as every other serious philosophical tractate, Critique is split into chapters with mysterious names: Aesthetics, Analytics, Dialectics. This apparent complexity shouldn’t discourage anyone from trying to understand Kant’s ideas though. They’re not too bad – in fact, they’re pretty entertaining.

Kant was primarily concerned with the ‘structure of human experience’ – human perception, understanding and cognition – the common-sense judgements we make. In this sense, Kant was clearly an anthropologist. Just like Copernicus, he finally placed humans on their proper place in the Universe – a pretty modest one. According to Kant, it’s audacious to claim we could understand the world as it is, or can make any reasonable judgements about any metaphysical matters – our common-sense intuitions are often faulty or straightaway wrong, and the products of our minds are flawed. Human knowledge is biased and has boundaries. The acceptance of this fact has led to the Copernican revolution in epistemology, the philosophy of understanding – just like the discovery of Copernicus that the Sun doesn’t rotate around the Earth had revolutionized astronomy. 

Phenomena and the things in themselves

In the Critique, Kant managed to reconcile two long-lasting philosophical debates: one – in the area of epistemology, between rationalists and empiricists. Another – in the domain of ontology, between realists and idealists.

The first dispute was going on between rationalists (like Leibniz) and empiricists (such as Hume). The former were claiming that we can derive all possible knowledge about the world through the reason. The latter – that all real knowledge comes from experience. Kant destroyed both: he claimed that empirical experience without being processed by reason doesn’t result in any usable knowledge. But, at the same time, the pure reason detached from empirical experience results in the same nonsense. ‘Reason has a tendency to overstep its legitimate grounds’. Hence – the book title.

Moreover, Kant reconciled another debate – this time, between realists (like Newton) and idealists (such as Berkeley and Descartes). Realists were arguing that the world surely exists and we’re capable of perceiving it directly, as it is, while idealists – that existence of the outside world is dubious, and we can only rely on our own minds for the acquisition of any knowledge. Kant came up with a more creative theory: the world most likely exists, however it’s unknowable to humans. Since the only way to perceive the world is through our senses, and these are ultimately faulty – there’s no guarantee that the reality looks the same! What we see are mere appearances, or phenomena. The real objects – which he called ‘things in themselves’ – are in principle unknowable to human beings.

Well, I think that makes total sense: for instance, it was established that tigers are blind to red and orange colours, and therefore see themselves in green, due to the structure of their retina. We see tigers in yellow – who is right? There’s no way to say! The tiger is a thing in itself – nobody knows what his true color is (to say even more, he’s a thing in itself even to himself – more about it later).

Kant called his theory ‘Transcendental idealism’. He outlined lots of various ‘intuitions’ and ‘categories’ that are common to humans, and that enable us to perceive and understand the world, sensually or cognitively. He called them ‘a priori’ intuitions or concepts – as something innate, what we’re born with, as opposed to ‘a posteriori’ knowledge – which simply results form the empirical perception.

Space and time as human intuitions

The key idea of Kant is that the two fundamental intuitions that make it possible for us to sensually perceive the world are space and time. Yes, space and time are just the faculties of human perception, not the real things. What a bold statement, huh?

Still, I sort of agree that time might not be a universal phenomenon perceived similarly by every creature on Earth. For instance, let’s take cats. Why does my cat want to enter the room so badly when he sees a closed door, and then loses any interest in it, once it’s open? I think the cat understands time differently – not as a sequence of moments, but more like a forever-now. If the door is closed, it must be closed forever. Once it’s open – it will always stay like this, so there’s no urge to pass through.

And speaking of space, I’m often wondering how come the cat is fine with spending 20 years of his life inside 80 square meters of my apartment? The unknown territory of the outside world surely terrifies him. Clearly, in his perception, space is not a vast territory covering the surface of the globe, but something completely different. The cat is not even aware of the horrifying fact that the Universe is infinite… Lucky him.

Empty concepts and blind percepts

Apart from navigating the world through the sense experience, humans also need to comprehend the world cognitively. This is done by means of employing innate concepts of understanding. According to Kant, these include the ideas of substance, quantity, quality, causality, etc.

For instance, when we see an object (like a dog or a bird) that’s moving from one place to another, we might observe it from various distance and different angles. How come it’s possible to conclude that it’s the same object all the time? Because we have an a priori concept of a substance! Which makes it feasible to assume that an object is likely to keep its form and shape in space and time.

Only when empirical experience is combined with concepts of cognition, the real knowledge becomes possible. As the famous Kant’s saying goes: ‘Concepts without percepts are empty. Percepts without concepts are blind’.

This is also the reason why Kant is so strongly against metaphysics: how can we deduce the existence of a soul or God, if these ideas are completely detached from the empirical reality? Let’s not even mention immortality, freedom, ethics, or human rights… According to Kant, such ideas are ‘beyond the land of truth’. Pure reason is necessary, but you cannot take it too far.

Without a priori concepts of cognition, the world would appear as incoherent chaotic mess. It’s especially evident in Kant’s interpretation of dreams, or ‘extra-categorical experiences’, as we may call them. In dreams, we don’t employ any concepts of cognition in application to our experience. That’s why dreams lack any logical structure, any principles of causation, or even coherence in terms of time and space. Perhaps, if our perception was not equipped with the concepts of cognition, the world would look the same way as in dreams!

Refutation of idealism and skepticism towards one’s own self

Kant comes up with an interesting argument against the theories of idealists such as Berkeley and Descartes. Berkeley was right away certain that the outside world doesn’t exist. Descartes was simply skeptical about it. What these two agreed on was the fact that their own selves existed for sure (‘Cogito, ergo sum’).

Kant argued: if you’re so sure that the outside world is a mere illusion, how can you be sure of your own existence? Your own selves might be as illusory as the rest of the world! The idealists were defeated with their own method.

As for his own idea about self-consciousness, Kant made an interesting statement: ‘I’ must also be a thing in itself. It’s never possible to know yourself entirely, since what you know about yourself are just mere phenomena. Unlike empirical ego, transcendental ego is ultimately unknown.

Sounds legit. If we don’t interpret ‘self’ in the outdated terms of a soul, and take our brain as the essence of us – what we know about ourselves are the products of our brain generated up until now, however we can never be sure which reactions it might produce in some future circumstances. For instance, in the dangerous situations, when adrenaline kicks in, and the reptile brain takes control of the body. As a thing in itself, the brain can be studied using tools and instruments of neurobiology, but not simply through the faulty introspection from the subjective standpoint of its host (Kant was very skeptical of such introspection).

Transcendental metaphysics and human psychology

Once again, Kant argued that theories of metaphysics that have no relation to empirical experience don’t yield any truth or knowledge, even though we can definitely spend a lot of time contemplating such ideas. Existence of God, immortality of the soul, free will… According to Kant, these concepts tell more about us, their inventors, rather than the external world.

That makes a lot of sense. Some authors, like Jordan Peterson, who are trying to derive truth about the world from the myths and psychology, mistake maps of the territory for the territory itself. Yes, the Bible might provide some knowledge about psychology and the worldview of the ancient Jewish tribes, its authors, but it won’t provide any factual knowledge helpful for understanding the Universe per se. Kant was quite clear on that.

Interestingly, Kant placed psychology on the list of disciplines built on the illusionary logic – dream sciences – which also include cosmology and theology.

Kant says there’s nothing permanent in experience of the self, but a succession of appearances. Indeed, does the self have any permanent substance? While talking about this topic, professor Robinson refers to the story of Theseus: as he travels through the seas, wooden planks of his ship get replaced. By the end of the journey, all the timber is completely renewed – is it then the same ship? Same question can be asked about our own self. Does it have a permanent substance? How is the continuity of the self possible? As Hume said: ‘When I search for myself, I can find nothing but a bundle of perceptions’.

In this connection, Kant introduces the term ‘transcendental unity of apperception’ – which he suggests to be the real nature of our self-consciousness. We perceive all range of various sensual experiences: black-ness, bitter-ness, cylinder-ness, but only our consciousness can synthesize all these feelings into one unity: a cup of coffee. This is the transcendental unity of apperception. And according to Kant, this is the only actual process behind the pretentious ‘I think’ of Descartes which he used to prove the substantial nature of his soul. How naive!

Kant and the modern-day science

Since Kant lived in 18th century and was preoccupied with the state of human knowledge as of that time, it’s interesting to see how much his ideas would be affected by the modern science.

Have we managed to overcome flaws of human perception at least a bit in the past few centuries? I think so. Even though math and physics are not the native languages of human cognition (they’re clearly more native to machines that to us), they have allowed for a tremendous progress in human understanding, towards seeing the reality ‘the way it really is’. Do we still have to doubt causality? Given the current methods of physics, probably not. Have we expanded our knowledge about the ‘real’ color of tigers (in terms of measuring wavelengths and studying structures of eye’s photoreceptor cells)? Definitely.

What’s also interesting is that one thing that Kant constantly refers to in his arguments is geometry. For instance, throughout the whole book, he’s greatly preoccupied with the so-called ‘synthetic a priori judgements’ – or, statements that are not empirical, but contain lots more information than they theoretically should. Geometry is a great example of it. The knowledge that the shortest distance from the base of a triangle to its top is a perpendicular line is not contained in the definition of a line, neither in the definition of a triangle, but we still can conclude it pretty easily without a need for empirical proof. And Kant says it’s possible thanks to the pure intuition of space that we’re born with! It just allows us to infer geometrical theorems without conducting many empirical experiments, and… measuring real-world triangles.

The argument sounds pretty cool so far. However, it was hit hard when the non-Euclidean geometry was discovered. We clearly don’t have any innate intuition of a non-Euclidean space – it simply goes against the common sense. Humans were not designed to exist in hyperbolic spaces with a negative curvature, neither to witness the cases where mass and energy are so strong that they distort space, so we clearly don’t have a good grasp of how the theorems of geometry would behave in such conditions. Kantian intuition has failed us – geometry is apparently an empirical thing: a posteriori and contingent.

So, to conclude, Kant is an anthropologist. He says that in theory things in themselves can be understood: just not by us. There can be creatures capable of it – just not humans. But in light of the 21st century, I think that humans equipped with scientific instruments could be just as good. One day we might even find out how cats perceive space and time (or, what it’s like to be a bat). But that’s a whole other story.

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