Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The McSynthetic A Priori and Fries please

Here's a big issue with Kant, that I, low-rent Voltairean inductivist, discover when skimming through the 1st Critique: apart from the use of the categories from Aristotle's Physics (perhaps themselves sufficient grounds for Kant's inclusion into the Historical Interest Only category), the synthetic a priori argument is, as men more qualified than I have pointed out, resting on some rather flimsy support.

This is synthetic a priori according to Kant: "Every event must have a cause." Kant seems to be saying that the subject "Event" has within it the necessary predicate of causality, and that this is not something we learn by looking at the world. Yet as he says knowledge starts in experience. How do children learn this fact? THey learn the word and understand causality? It would seem the child does not undertand causality until he perceives it working in the world: he sticks a knife into the outlet and gets a nasty shock. Ouch--avoid it. Not all learning is like this, perhaps, but most is. And learning the meaning of the word "event" means looking at something--actions in the world as well as definitions, synonyms.

It is also unclear whether Kant means the fact of causality as it is in our brains, vs. the fact of causality in the world. If he simply means there are physical laws independent of our brains which are a priori, that seems an obvious empirical point and anyone (apart from extreme mystics or platonists) would agree. If he is saying a human's understanding of this fact--every event must have cause--is a priori and known without reference to the world, a type of innateness, then I think Herr Kant is to be rejected. There may be innateness--genetic and biochemical--but epistemological innateness of the sort Kant proposes seems implausible.

Mathematical terminology does not just appear in our brain, and it is not unrelated to physical events. At the very least Kant's definition seems as much linguistic as ontological. Consider any basic truth of classical physics--say Newton's equation stating weight as inversely proportional to the square of its distance from the center of the earth--it is synthetic a posteriori , derived from facts about matter and force, gravity etc. And if this is the case--that physical "laws" of nature come to be known to humans by inference, experience, and testing, it seems the edifice of the Critique is substantially ruined. Persons with more expertise in quantum physics than myself might advance some arguments in support of Kant's "noumena," but it should be remembered that Werner Heisenberg himself was rather critical of Kant, apres-Copenhagen.

One of Kant's favorite targets was the skeptic Hume; Hume held to a material causality though with reservations; he's Newtonian, I think, but would have said Newton's laws were not necessarily true but more a matter of probability. Nonetheless the general methods of Humean inductivism, refined by statisticians and figures such as Popper or Kuhn, are far more relevant to biology and economics--any sort of empirical endeavor--than is Kant's ghost architecture.


J. L. Speranza said...

Excellent, and witty, too, J. I loved your reflections on the synthetic a priori as it does NOT exist!

J said...


There are more Kantian scrawlings on here. Actually, I have another ...theory re the Synthetic A Priori, and First Critique, sort of quasi-traditional. To be very brief, it only holds...assuming God exists (and transcendental idealism holds..which I think's still a crypto-dualism). Which is to say, contra-the cognitivizers, the first Critique offers an architecture of a Mind substance (which would ultimately stem from Gott), seen as a massive mystical vision, yet with certain rational/logical aspects as well (and aesthetic). IN a sense the synthesis is ...human, related to how humans come to understand ...Reality as a whole, including sciences, mathematics, language, history, the arts. As a Weltanschauung, however, Kant's transcendental idealism ONLY holds ...with the theological underpinnings (well, perhaps it could be...platonized...but I don't think Kant intended that either...)

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