Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Mind and God as Philosophically Known, part II

Part I of this thread can be found here.

Etienne Gilson tells us that a philosopher can be great even if he is wrong in his fundamental conceptions. What makes such a philosopher great is the depth, consistency and honesty with which he carries through the logic of his basic convictions. Such a great philosopher will find the deepest implications of a certain line of thought, and his legacy will be the monument "if you choose to think this way, it is here where you must eventually end up." Such a philosopher's thought has a timeless quality to it, as is shown when later thinkers presume to have "gone beyond" or corrected the philosopher, but in the process demonstrate that they have actually yet to reach him. Kierkegaard spent a career exposing modern thinkers who thought they had moved decisively beyond Socrates, but were miles behind him.

Immanuel Kant was such a great philosopher, and the line of thinking he explored begins with the conviction that math, the empirical sciences, and "pure reason" (i.e. thought abstracted entirely from empirical data) are the only true ways to know the truth of things. Specifically excluded from legitimate thought is metaphysics as classically conceived. In other words, Kant had fathomed the implications of the prejudices of modern thought almost at their historical origin. 

One of Kant's timeless conclusions is that, if his initial convictions are correct, then a "science of the mind" that might fathom the depths of the human mind is an impossibility. Such a science is restricted to exploring the empirical mind, which is the mind as it appears as an object for scientific investigation. But the a priori mind, the mind that creates, conducts and judges empirical science, and before which the empirical mind appears, is forever beyond it (or, rather, forever behind it.) 

The greatness of Kant as a philosopher is seen in the examples of modern researchers of the mind who think they have understood and corrected Kant, but only prove that they have yet to reach him. I gave a few examples in the last post in this thread; another instructive example is Steven Pinker in his book The Stuff of Thought. Pinker's book is particularly good for these purposes because he apparently shares Kant's initial convictions - that math, the empirical sciences, and pure reason are the only ways to truth - and also specifically calls out Kant on the points where Pinker and others think they have improved on him.

Pinker gives a good summary of Kant on page 157:

"Real observers, Kant concluded, must live in a world of whatness, whereness, and becauseness, imposed by the way that a mind such as ours can grasp reality. Our experiences unfold in a medium of space and time, which isn't abstracted from our sensory experiences (the way a pigeon can abstract the concept of redness when it is trained to peck at a red figure regardless of its size or shape) but rather organizes our sensory experiences in the first place. We are not just a passive audience to these experiences but interpret them as instances of general laws couched in logical and scientific concepts like 'and', 'or', 'not', 'all', 'some', 'necessary', 'possible', 'cause', 'effect, 'substance', and 'attribute'..."

He then goes on to critique Kant this way on page 159:

"This is not to say that Kant himself is a reliable guide to our current understanding of the nature of thought and its relation to the world. Many philosophers today believe that Kant's rejection of the possibility of knowing the world in itself is obscure, and most physicists dispute his blurring of the mind's experience of time and space with our scientific understanding of time and space. Contrary to everyday experience, our best physics holds that space is not a rigid Euclidean framework, but is warped by objects, may be curved and bounded, is riddled with black holes and possibly wormholes, has eleven or more dimensions, and measures out differently depending on one's reference frame... In all these cases our best scientific understanding of time and space is wildly out of line with the mind's inclinations."

Pinker needs to read his first paragraph more carefully. The "space" and "time" that Kant talks about in his transcendental aesthetic are not a matter of experimental verification or falsification; they are the condition of any empirical experience whatever, be it everyday, scientific or otherwise. Physicists may come up with a novel, empirical concept of "space" that is useful in science, but that concept is derivative of Kantian space, not a rival to it. Thus, when Pinker talks about the physicist's space, he must use words like "warped", "curved", "bounded" and "riddled", words which are grounded in friendly old Kantian space, not the physicist's novel space. And physics itself, whatever conclusions about space might be drawn from it, is still conducted in the Kantian space that is the condition of human experience. Similarly, physicists may conclude that reality has eleven, twelve, or a thousand dimensions, but their experience still comes to them in the same three dimensions that it did to Aristotle, Bacon, or Kant. Whatever meaning they might attach to those extra dimensions, is conditioned by and derives its meaning from the permanent three dimensions of Kant's transcendental space. If the physicist's space were "wildly out of line with the mind's inclinations", then no one would be able to make sense of it, including the physicists. (They do use the mind to understand physics, don't they?) There is no "leaping over" or "getting beyond" the transcendental aesthetic, short of a leap beyond the human condition itself. And if Kant's initial premise that "space" and "time" are conditions we impose on experience rather than derive from experience is at all acceptable, then his conclusion follows - that anything we conclude from our empirical investigation of events in space and time applies only to our experience of them (that is, appearances) rather than the things as they truly are in themselves (that is, reality.)

If Kant is wrong, then he is wrong at the start, as I believe. It won't do to accept Kant's account of the human condition - the one that makes traditional metaphysics worthless and grants to empirical sciences the privilege of knowing reality - then think that empirical science can somehow transcend the conditions of its own possibility and do what the old metaphysics was supposed to do: Know reality as it is in itself. This is thinking you have gotten beyond Kant without really reaching him.

But as Gilson wrote, the desire in man to know being and not just the appearances of being is deep, permanent and just as much a part of modern philosophers as it was part of Aristotle. Kant recognized the same thing, calling metaphysics a necessary illusion, a temptation that must continually be fought against. But Steven Pinker doesn't want to write a book called The Appearances of the Stuff of Thought; he wants to write The Stuff of Thought, or what the mind is really like, even if his Kantian start makes such an achievement nothing less than a miracle.

And we get a miracle of a sort in the last chapter. Summing up the book, he writes:

"In this book I have given you the view from language - what we can learn about human nature from the meanings of words and constructions and how they are used... How might the proverbial Martian scientist - in this case a Martian linguist - characterize our species, knowing only the semantics of our language?"

He then goes on to state a number of conclusions in the voice of abstract science:

"Humans construct an understanding of the world that is very different from the analogue flow of sensation the world presents to them. They package their experience into objects and events... Human characterizations of reality are built out of a recognizable inventory of thoughts. The inventory begins with some basic units, like events, states, things, substances, places, and goals. It specifies the basic ways in which these units can do things: going, changing being, having... Humans recognize unique individuals, and also pigeonhole them into categories... When humans thank about where an entity is, or what it is, or how it changes and moves, they tend to conceive of it holistically, as a blob or point without internal parts... When humans see the world or visualize it in a mental image, they situate objects and events in a continuous medium of space... Humans see some things as just happening and others as being caused" etc.

The adoption of the viewpoint of a fictional Martian is, of course, a rhetorical effect to trick the reader into granting Pinker a viewpoint that transcends the human condition; as though, by pretending to be a Martian, he can really think like a Martian would think and not a human. But it's still a human thinking about what a Martian would think of humans. Nor would things improve if we speculated a Klingon thinking about Pinker thinking about what a Martian would think of humans. For it would still be a human at the beginning of the chain thinking about the Klingon thinking about the... you get the point. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Unfortunately, Pinker's thinking about humans, or humans through the rhetorical device of a Martian, is limited by all the limitations he lists for humans. His thinking must be packaged into objects and events; it is built out of a recognizable inventory of thoughts; he tends to think of things holistically; he must situate objects in a continuous medium of space and time. His book is not written from a standpoint transcending the human condition through science, but from within the constraints of that condition itself, as it must be for every human being, including every scientist. 

And so we finally reach Kant. What is fascinating about Pinker's concluding chapter is that it owes virtually everything to the Critique of Pure Reason and almost nothing to empirical science. This is as it must be. The Critique of Pure Reason is an a priori analysis of human experience from the inside. "Human characterizations of reality are built out of a recognizable inventory of thoughts" is not a conclusion that can possibly be made from empirical science, for science assumes it in its constitution, being itself a human characterization of reality built out of a recognizable inventory of thoughts. Similar points hold for all of Pinker's other conclusions.

What made Kant great is that he had the self-discipline to not attempt a miraculous transcendence of the human condition through the impersonation of a Martian or, even worse, think that empirical science might transcend its own conditions. He understood deeply the implications of the premisses of modern thought. Among those conclusions is that the mind must ultimately be opaque to itself; the mind may analyze its own appearances, but those appearances are necessarily conditioned by the structures of human thought. The real mind behind those structures must forever be a mystery to us.

Unless, of course, Kant was not right in his initial convictions...

The next post in this thread can be found here.

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