Monday, May 2, 2011

Kant and the Theistic Arguments

Immanuel Kant thought that arguments for the existence of God fell into one of three categories. Logically speaking, all classical arguments could be reduced to a form of the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, or the teleological argument (physico-theological argument). His rejection of the first two arguments was primarily due to his rejection of the ontological argument. He maintained that the cosmological argument depended on the ontological argument, such that a destruction of the ontological argument entailed the destruction of the cosmological argument.

Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument stemmed primarily from a single criticism. He denied that existence added anything to the essence of a thing. In other words, the concept “exist” does not contribute to one’s knowledge of what that thing is. The defenders of the ontological argument thought that God must have all positive perfections, including the perfection of existence. Kant rejected this because he thought that what a thing is may be properly understood without illicitly adding the property of existence. This meant that, even if the idea of God necessarily entailed the possession of all positive perfections, existence itself could not be listed among those positive perfections.

Kant found the teleological argument to be the most plausible argument, but he rejected this argument as well. Hume had viciously attacked the argument and Kant accepted many of Hume’s criticisms. Moreover, even if the argument were sound, it would not yield the God of the Bible. At best, it would imply a grand organizer, but even then the argument would have to be supplemented with an invalid cosmological argument in order to produce a designer who could cause the existence of the universe.

If it is sound to reject these arguments, then the proposition “God exists” cannot be held as a dogmatic doctrine, but only as a practical postulate. This is, in fact, the route that Kant took. He held that belief in God was necessary for the proper functioning of the practical intellect. In other words, when he turned his attention to the practical intellect, he found it necessary to postulate God in order account for the reasonableness of moral action. In positing God as merely a necessary requirement for objectively right and wrong moral action, he reassigned God’s place in our thinking. In essence, Kant gave philosophical backing to the notion that religion’s primarily usefulness is found in its ability to make people conform to moral standards.

Critique of Kant

Immanuel Kant’s criticisms of the theistic arguments relied on several problematic starting points, only one of which will be presently explored. Kant took the principle of causality to be a category of the pure understanding. As a category of the pure understanding, causality is simply an organizing principle of the mind.

The senses present disorganized sensations to the mind and the pure understanding structures that knowledge in order to produce the object of knowledge: namely the phenomena. If this epistemic account of knowledge is true, then one cannot talk about an infinite regress of causes in the world as it is in itself because causality is not occurring outside of the mind. This is why Kant saw the cosmological argument as misguided. The cosmological argument relied on causality as something that occurred in the world, even apart from our knowledge of it.

However, if causality is something that happens outside the mind and is graspable by the mind, then a question like “What got the chain of causes going?” is an existentially valid question. Kant understood this question to be the result of the mind’s employment of causality beyond all actual or possible human experience. He arrived at the category of causality transcendentally because he thought that it was impossible to arrive at necessary statements like “Every event needs a cause” by empirical means. But he arrived at this method and these conclusions because he saw sensations as disorganized raw data. If Kant is right in thinking that sensation is disorganized, and if our knowledge is presented to us as an organized whole, then it would reasonably follow that the mind contributes organization to the raw data.

However, the moderate realist’s rejection of Kant’s methods and conclusions is due to a rejection of Kant’s view of sensation. Rather than the senses simply presenting disorderly pictures to the mind, the moderate realist insists that organized forms are conveyed to the mind through the senses. If organization may be abstracted from the world, then there is no need to turn inward to the mind to account for the organization of that which is derived empirically. Kant may be correct in thinking that the mind has some organizing potencies, but he went too far in thinking that the world does not contribute anything to our notion of causality.

If the moderate realist is correct, then not only is the cosmological argument back on the table as a viable argument for God’s existence, but the entire collection of theistic arguments are back on the table because they are not all based on the same grounds. If they are to be refuted, they will have to be refuted individually.

Kant was able to reduce all arguments to the ontological argument because he thought the necessity in all theistic arguments was given by the mind. However, if one may know the world as consisting of fully organized objects (both physical and mental), then the grounds for the ontological argument and the cosmological argument become distinct. The ontological argument is now based on the idea of God, and the cosmological argument is based on what is known about the world as it is in itself. Therefore, the rejection of one argument does not entail a rejection of both arguments.

Kant and the Rejection of Reason

One of the more ironic results of Kant’s philosophy is that it naturally leads to the rejection of reason itself. This is ironic because Kant was trying to save reason from the skeptics. He rightly saw that the empirical philosophies of Locke and Hume lead to a pessimistic view of man’s knowledge of the world. Kant’s response to the Hume’s pessimism was to redefine knowledge.

The problem is that Kant’s redefining of knowledge fixed a permanent gulf between the world as it is in itself (the noumena), and the world as it appears to us (the phenomena). He essentially said that what we know is the thing as it appears to us, and that which the mind cannot know is the world as it is in itself. This turned knowledge in general and science in particular into a kind of psychology. What we know is in the mind. How we know is discovered by looking into the mind. How we justify claims is provided by the mind.

Since everything known is in the mind, one must remain an agnostic concerning the true nature of the world. The world cannot stand as an objective arbiter between two disputants because the mind itself regulates what we know. But what if two different minds regulate sensation in different ways? Who is to say that one mind’s way of regulating sensation is right and the other wrong? On what objective grounds may one respond to Kant’s categories of the pure understanding? If there is disagreement concerning the number of categories or concerning the meaning or functions of the categories, how does one objectively settle the matter?

Given Kant’s own system it is difficult, if not impossible, to settle these kinds issues objectively. After Kant, various movements arose from his philosophy. One of the natural offspring of Kant is the phenomenological movement. They recognized that if all that is known is the phenomena, then one is left with subjectivism. For that group, the task of philosophy is no longer one of discovering what is true about the world. Rather the task of philosophy is to examine the contents, states, and abilities of our own cognition. Reason no longer legislates and resolves disputes among parties with different opinions. Reason is reduced to descriptions of how the mind, in fact, processes things.

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