Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Kant's 3rd

Few people who have made it through Kant's Critique of Pure Reason would deny that the 3rd Antinomy--in brief, the Freedom/Nature dialectic--possesses a certain Beethoven-like sublimity. Kant holds that the strictly determined laws of nature, and freedom (i.e. human intentionality) to be irreconcilable and depend on two separate concepts of causality. Some have gone as far as to argue that the Big 3rd really leads to Hegelian dialectic, . thus to the inverted Hegel, Marx, and dialectical and/or economic materialism (and there are some of us who think Papa Marx was following in Hobbes' footsteps [and Smith and Ricardo, obviously] as much as he was following those of Hegel). Zizek invokes the 3rd Antinomy in The Parallax View on occasion, as a contrast to the Lacanian/marxist hyperbole--and there are, surprisingly, a few entertaining bon mots in TPV, about every 25 pages or so.

There are reasons, however, to object to the 3rd Antinomy (and really to much of Kant--anyone care to provide a necessary argument for the synthetic a priori?), regardless of the continentalist philosophers' traditional reverence for the 3rd. The freedom/nature dichotomy does seem to suggest a type of archaic dualism (and there are more than a few Cartesian aspects to the 1st critique, as in the Deduction of the Categories). Humans are economic creatures: not merely robots (or primates--as even Marx grants), yet nonetheless their acts are determined to a large extent (ie, like as determined as McBauerlumper heading off to the lunch counter at noon). The abstraction of “Freedom” is also itself certainly questionable; does Kant mean human consciousness as a whole, or intention, or---some transcendent Geist, perhaps? We here at Contingencies suggest that by "Freedom" (Freiheit) Kant intended, er, something like “intention”, though hardly anyone, at least in psychology or cognitive science, would argue that intention stands apart from humans' biological and neurological endowment. Moreover, determinism has not ever really been refuted; if anything, genetics and bio-chemistry tend to confirm deterministic views---though the apparent "anomaly" of human consciousness remains an issue, at least for some (Jefferson sort of sums up the freedom/determinism issue thusly: "Man [is] a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights and with an innate sense of justice." Rational, and with rights, maybe TJ, but animal nonetheless). Theists and theistically-inclined philosophers, or immaterialist-mystics of some sort, of course continue to make transcendental claims for intention and consciousness ("Free will" remains one of the favorite terms of biblethumpers). As model and metaphor, the 3rd has a definite power, but one could read that metaphorical power as somewhat deceptive, if not dangerous.

Starting at least with Wm. James, consciousness was identified with the brain, instead of the metaphysicians' Mind, or Res Cogitans, Idea, etc. That’s not to say that James or the S-R people, and the behaviorists solved the problem of intention, but one doesn't simply toss the entire tradition of empirical psychology out the window (unless one is a renowned parisian postmodernist perhaps). Kantian or Cartesian views of the Ego/Mind/Self are not very prevalent except for a few philosophers, theologians or maybe people like Chomsky. But even Chomsky asserted that his language faculty forms part of the "biological endowment" of humans. The Chomster's rationalism is not equivalent to the Kantian or Cartesian ghost.

There can hardly be any doubt that consciousness is predicated on the biochemistry of the brain. Lobotomies, drugs, alcohol, sex, even food, demonstrate “external realism,” as Searle refers to it: nature has a causal relation to our thinking, to consciousness, regardless of metaphysicians' doubts (or the doubts of the Catholic church).

The 3rd Antinomy may be a powerful model, or explanatory hypothesis, or for that matter, interesting conceptual poetry of some type. But the freedom/nature dichotomy is not a fact in the sense that, say, evolution is a fact, or hunger is a fact, or that gravity is fact, or the physics of electricity is fact. There are semantic problems with the very word "freedom." What does the word “freedom” really refer to in Kant’s 3rd Ant.? The freedom of humans to act in certain ways? Freedom is a quality or attribute; not an object in the sense the brain is an object. We say someone is free. But one could not really point to the freedom itself. Freedom is a strange word, and concept. It describes some situation, a state of a person, a state of affairs; it means something like, not bound, not encumbered, but those terms are not so definable either. (Maria has a sensation of hunger, and decides to go to lunch: her decision may seem freely chosen to some extent, but she certainly does not choose whether she is hungry or not.) And you’ll find, if you work at it, that much of Kantian metaphysics has that problem– the terminology does not point to anything that can be readily defined; it can be conceptually described but not really correlated with any existing thing.

Regardless of BF Skinner's faults and oversights, Skinner’s critique of “mentalism” (which he thought philosophers, theologians, and most belle-lettrists were generally guilty of) should at least be considered, until cognitivists and brain scientists begin to offer some convincing accounts of thinking, intention, language, perception and the knowledge-accumulation process itself (---and Skinner's crony WVO Quine also had problems with the Idea idea---as well as essences, abstract entities, a prioricity, etc.). Indeed, as BF realized, Freedom, and a naive Freedom-fetish (rather common to both right and left), lies at the root of many social, economic, and, one might argue, environmental problems.

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