Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Kant, "Aufklärung," Evolution

Though I would not go so far as some and denounce Kant's entire conceptual architecture (Heisenberg nearly did so), there are many aspects of the Kritik der Reinen Vernunft (Critique of Pure Reason) which should trouble anyone either gullible or naive enough to read it. For one, Kant’s general claim of the synthetic a priori (SAP), which applies not only to mathematical knowledge but physics and natural sciences, has always bothered me. At least in terms of causality (and thus of the Newtonian physics of his time) Kant was mistaken. Causality cannot be known a priori–there is no a priori knowledge, synthetic or analytic, about the physical world (i.e. physics); yet K. offers as an example of the SAP (from the older physics) that "every event must have a cause". Synthetic, yes, but how could this be a priori? It was learned, for one. The language was correlated with events--and cause--and states of affairs, not with some transcendental categories or noumena.

Newton was an inductivist as well as mathematician, and made hundreds of observations to confirm his theories of mechanics and gravitation; Einstein's theory of general relativity was confirmed by an eclipse. This is sort of obvious, but the point is that Kantian a priori-ness, and the supposed subjectivity of time and space, have little to no relevance to modern science, whether physics or psychology (perhaps Kant's continued presence in the colleges is part of some pro-German faction in the academies--someone like Hilbert a much better choice). If there are a priori truths about nature, then the world is a very strange place–ghost vector-world--(or knowledge passed genetically?).

The view of mathematical knowledge as synthetic is also puzzling, though a bit more understandable in terms of a prioriness. Most would say math. truths are analytical, based on tautologies; define the variables, constants and operators ( = for identity, + , -, ~, v, -> etc.), and deductively necessary results follow. YES, regardless uf analyticity or synthesis, there is an issue regarding the source of our knowledge of mathematics which Kant wants to affirm; i.e., empiricism ala Locke cannot really explain math knowledge via sensationalism (and true there are no integrals or logical connectives--and, or, conditionals, etc.--existing in nature the way there are objects which we term trees, rivers, people, tables, etc.). Thus POINT GRANTED at least in terms of showing the limits of traditional empiricism. But that empiricism could not provide a cogent mathematical epistemology does not thereby entail one must view mathematical truth as a priori (whether analytical AP or synthetic AP).

There can hardly be any doubt that the human mind conceived of mathematics, and logic itself--numbers, equations, the unit circle, functions, connectives, derivatives, integrals, a coordinate system---from interactions with nature, from perceptions, and from agricultural work, building, markets (i.e. abacus), military applications. Mathematics, whether number, geometry, or function, is an abstraction from nature, a conceptualization (and quite remarkable, if not anomalous, in an evolutionary sense) not from some Platonic heaven, and of course something like integral calculus took centuries to develop. That may seem like nominalism, but an account of mathematical knowledge as historical, empirical--useful, in pragmatic terms--should be affirmed, unless one prefers more Casper the Friendly Geist.

* * *

And using the 1st critique as metaphor or model seems sort of like using the Bible as metaphor. I mean, if you are trying to save some religious or metaphysical view, I think there are better sources than Kant–even a Cartesian dualism or perhaps platonic realism more plausible than Kant. Descartes was, I believe, as profound a metaphysician and mathematician as Herr Kant; and the arguments of the Meditations, the Cogito, seem a bit more forceful than the speculations of the Critique (which are far from axiomatic or necessary).

But I still don’t think any metaphysics, whether via Descartes or Plato or even the weirder aspects of the quantum theory (non-locality, chaos etc.), can overcome the rise of biological materialism and evolution.

* * *

there’s a big difference between some type of rational, philosophical justifcation of religious concepts (as say Descartes and Kant both attempted to do), and popular religion, “faith,” organized churches and so forth. I don’t think there are any rational, logical defenses of religious concepts, but I will grant (as even the arch-materialist Hobbes did) that there may be pragmatic reasons for upholding religious institutions and even Scriptural “values” to some extent. The Sermon on the Mount is not mere hyperbole; it’s a fairly profound statement of ethics.

* * *

EO Wilson

I read Wilson’s Consilience a few years ago and was impressed, though I agree he does oversimplify a few things (in regards to ethics and altruism, I would claim). Most philosophical types I know who have bothered to read it objected to it, as they do to Darwin, but they are rarely able to formulate their objections. Philosophers tend to be sort of Kantian, if not theists, far more than they are materialists; thus, Darwin, if not biology as a whole, is taken to be wrong owing to its materialist grounds. (Idealists, theists and neo-idealists also conveniently overlook verification when it's in their best interest to do so.) But I contend there are no good grounds for Kantian idealism (or theology for that matter), nor for immaterial conceptions of mind. And obviously Darwin as well as Mendel and many other biological concepts have been established. Thus the burden is on idealists to disprove Darwin, if not materialism, which they have failed to do; the Intelligent Design argument, however subtle and complex, being the latest theological fiasco. (That said, I might agree with Behe to some extent on secular grounds, or at least to some notion of an organizing force or principle,: but not with his religious conclusions.)

* * *

Another question is whether the celebrated 3rd Antimony, however sublime a concept, is really a correct picture of reality. I’m not much of a postmodernist, but in some sense I would say the freedom/nature dichotomy may indeed be a false binary. if not metaphysical dualism (and there are some Cartesian aspects to Herr Kant are there not). The abstraction of “Freedom” is itself certainly questionable; does Kant mean human consciousness as a whole there, or intention, or what? I think he meant what is called “intention” now, though hardly anyone, at least in psychology or cognitive science, would say one intention is somehow independent of nature, or transcendental; moreover determinism has not ever really been refuted–if anything genetics and biology tend to confirm deterministic views. It’s only theists and theistically-inclined philosophers who make transcendental claims for intention and consciousness. However, as model and indeed metaphor, the 3rd has a definite power (Beethoven-like nearly), but one could also read that metaphorical power as somewhat deceptive, if not dangerous: especially if one concludes that Hegel takes that 3rd Antimony as a starting point for a lot of bad thinking.

* * *

"all the great thinkers attributed to the Enlightenment such as Hume, Locke, Kant were actually religious believers and none of them believed in progress" Miss Bunting, Guardian columnist

Hume certainly was not pious nor a believer in any real sense, though he may have supported the Church for pragmatic reasons; the Enquiry pretty much reduces Scripture to those few sections which are capable of withstanding rational criticism, doesn’t it? If that. Hume denies not only miracles but any arguments for a Deity, and any ideas of objective morality. I don’t understand how Hume is now being read as a theist.

Kant himself has a somewhat skeptical side (he affirms knowledge of phenomena is surer than that of noumena, for one–), and he was criticized by the Lutherans of the day; moreover, catholics certainly do not respect his system or his rejection of all the classical canonical arguments.

But the Ausklärung (gr. for Enlightenment) is also attributable to the French, is it not: the Encyclopedists, Voltaire, Rousseau, the french republicans (when republican meant something, as it did for the republicanos of La Guerra Civil in España ). Diderot called for the death of kings and priests. They certainly were not religious in any real sense: Voltaire, who pretty much declared God was dead in what 1750, also was read by the yankees such as Franklin and Jefferson–Jefferson had a bust of Voltaire in his study.

Hegelianism probably had more of a causal relation to the disasters of the 20th century, both through fascism and communism. Don’t blame Voltaire or Hume or Jefferson, or even Darwin: blame Hegel and his bastard son Marx and distant cuz Nietzsche, and perhaps German industrialists . And maybe throw in Freud and phenomenology as well in the culprit file (thus Kant to some degree, the father of phenomenology).

Yes, the Enlightenment is not easily reducible to a set of core concepts or figures; nonetheless, I think it can be formulated in analytical terms more or less, and that formulation would include the political as well as philosophical and scientific. And I would assert a writer such as Voltaire may be as important an E. person as the traditional philosophers such as Kant and Hegel, certainly in terms of the effects of his ideas.

Hegel obviously includes much, but, like most analytically-inclined people, I hold that what he includes is not merely a grand system of unverifiable metaphysics, but outright pernicious falsehoods; as one old professor of mine claimed, WWII might be viewed as the clash of the Hegelian right and left , and both of them are wrong, or something to that effect.

Any notion of Reason in history, of some impersonal “telos”, or of a transcendental dialectic seem about as close to truth as like hinduism . And the history of the 20th century shows what sort of progress characterizes the “Geist”, or the marxist version of it. The more empirical, secular aspect of the E.–from Locke and Hume to Voltaire, Rousseau , the encyclopedists, scientists, even a few decent Romantics such as Shelley, to Jefferson, the French republicans–that is the authentic, and viable tradition of the E. (tho’ with mistakes–like Rousseauian “freedom”), and unfairly criticized by all sorts of postmods and multiculturalists.


J said...

POSted by traxus4420/American Stranger:


"Nice mini-survey -- I'm pretty un-hip to Kant and Wilson so I'll go ahead and skip down to --

I would say the principle source for critiques of the Enlightenment is not the many concrete developments in rational and empirical thought, or the artistic accomplishments, but the mythologizing -- 'progress,' Reason with a capital R, all of which at least informed Hegel's End of History and perfect State (although doesn't he count more as a Romantic? - whatever). Sadly there's some slippage and rationality as such sometimes comes under attack (though there is some subtlety to this).

All that said, and maybe your concessions to a Hobbesian pragmatic adoption of religious principles and sympathy to Behe's 'organizing principle' show you've considered this, human society sort of requires the 'existence' of things that aren't empirically true merely in order to function. It's not like equal citizenship for all really holds any water when you get down to massive IQ differentials and various 'psychological weaknesses' (laziness, megalomania, etc.) -- but government (or so-called individuals for that matter) can't function without the overlay of some simple, abstract theoretical principles to keep a mass of humans with conflicting interests and perceptions 'civil.' And aside from meme 'science,' there isn't really any way to analyze this sort of pure phenomenon without simultaneously contributing to it, i.e. objective analysis is not really possible because all it can do is disprove its existence. No amount of brain science is going to make politics less necessary.

But this is where I get uncertain -- if scientific progress is a mythology that works, it's not completely out of the question that it could work in the case of total social control (mass networked mind in the name of greater security/efficiency, sounds sci-fi until you read about it, etc.) a la Hegel. I can say it's unlikely but I can't deny its possibility..."


J's response:

I would partially consent to a view of science as ideology, or potential ideology; though I would not go so far as postmods and Feyerabendians do, who seem to imply anthropological/mystical claims or methods or systems have, or may have, some viability equal to science; I mean, if whatever works is science, and acupuncture cures people, then acupuncture is science: but I do not think there are many areas of science where there is that sort of mystery; and most "folk" cures can be chemically explained. Additionally, when you consider that, say, Western science developed anti-biotics and anaesthetics, and other cultures didn't, and those anti-biotics--Penicillin-- were greatly helpful in reducing pain and suffering, most would agree that western science is quite superior to the primitive or shamanistic methods in terms of reducing pain. Feyerabend tends to overlook those sort of humanist advances (and medicine is in some sense humanist)of western science and rationality.

Feyerabend is an interesting read; I believe he is, however, saying something different than what he thinks he is saying--and what he is saying suggests a basic pathology; humans, whether laymen or academics, are prone to sadism and cruelty if not totalitarianism, therefore science can be put to all sorts of nefarious ends and should not be assumed as good, or something, which I think is accurate; it's intrumentalism, for the most part, though I would amend and claim there is innate "good" to say medicine or even applied mathematics, since those are generally far more efficacious than other methods in remedying particular problems.

Science may function as hard-core reification (of corporate culture and business for instance) if not a type of religion, but then the history of science shows that the physicians and experimentalists were often the enemies of the Church and King and that the sort of "spirit of disinterested inquiry" or whatever has often been viewed as evil: certainly the evolution debate shows this, with all sorts of theist, Catholics, protestants, Muslims taking issue with fairly well-documented Darwinian concepts (but I grant Darwinism can become Social Darwinisn and Spencerism easily enough, and in EO Wilson's writings there is a hint of that conservative Darwinian aspect, which is a bit alarming). Given a choice between high-powered reseachers, and dixie fundamentalists, I'd take the former.

J said...

I would also agree that cognitive science is far from providing some complete explanatory system in regards to intention, perception, knowledge, or human worth and all sorts of other issues, and that abstractions such as Justice or Freedom or Ego are often necessary, though such concepts are capable of more precision than Kant or Hegel or marxists provided. A retrofitting of Descartes or Kant, in terms of both metaphysics and ethics/politics. is not entirely wrong, but that retrofitting should be sans theology and the Ghost, shouldnt it? Kant is discussing issues that many writers avoid, and even if he makes mistakes (the synthetic a priori, his ideas of space), his ideas will sort of be applicable and relevant, at least until cognitivists or perhaps neo-behaviorists (imagine some faction advocating ramped-up use of psychotropic meds) take over academia and politics. Even BF Skinner's theories are not without political value, and also with some evidence in support of ideas such as operant conditioning, reinforcement, and so forth (plus behaviorism provides quite a bit of cyber-pulp entertainment value: anyone who could teach a pigeon to play ping pong, or put his own kid in a box to be raised by a machine deserves some respect from phreaks).

traxus4420 said...

"Given a choice between high-powered reseachers, and dixie fundamentalists, I'd take the former."

I'd take whichever seemed weaker, me.

I responded to your comment linking Feyerabend on my blog which sort of touches on some of these issues --

The source of my anxieties about a strict empiricism and discomfort around morality is that this theological Ghost seems to me inextricable from notions of the human subject, both philosophically and experientially, and it is this subject as something that is free and in some sense private that's essential to morality, politics, etc. Determinism, though theoretically likely by the current rules of science, will probably never be actionable -- but then again, it might, and will be to a degree at least. When a system threatens to close we are in very precarious times indeed. Spirit of disinterested inquiry can be not so different from divine will of the holy spirit in practice.

traxus4420 said...

Don't want to keep saying morality -- hate the shit myself -- it's just an easy approximation of what I think I'm trying to mean -- call it common social beliefs and customs that don't hurt too bad.

J said...

I tend to get a bit ansy discussing a "subject" but will grant that a cartesian construct, construed as ghost or non-ghost, will not likely be replaced, regardless of the efforts of scientists and empirical psychologists. Tho' my point on behaviorism was slightly silly, I belirve there are plenty of grounds for sort of retrofitted behaviorist views; hearing many "marxists" bicker you will note that they are often sort of suggesting various behaviorist types of ideas: Skinner may be outmoded now, but BFS also claimed that marxism had a primitive behaviorist aspect.

A sort of Rousseauian/libertarian freedom was suited to various utopian scenarios; it also led to Vegas Inc. In some sense I agree with leftist critiques of freedom as an inherent "good", and with some of the critiques of academic "ethics"; and agree to the economic determinism/materialism of early Marx (the German Ideology, his dismissal of Kant and Hegelian idealism), tho' not in agreement with his descriptions of economics and politics, if anyone gives a F.

America is freedom-possessed, and that sort of libertarian freedom which the hippies praised easily becomes the NRA, Hummers, prostitution, gambling, cowboy capitalism, etc.: pretty much a sort of hick anarchism (A. in the bad sense), which is really what we have, regardless what US "conservatives" think ;i.e the American hick conservative is no Samuel Johnson or Burkean or even Alex Hamiltonian type, concerned with "heritage", propriety, the classics, etc.; he's a nutcase militarist, a redneck-party boy who wants the Raht to own an Abrams tank and a casino with a gaggle of ho's doing porno in the back next to the Harley shoppe. Behaviorism could have stopped that (may some ramped up form of neo-behav. might, or socialists will, for better or worse), but the leftist-liberal couldn't quite hang with the likes of Skinner, Jensen, Quine (and Quine's politics were not so great).

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