Monday, November 26, 2012

Does Kant Rescue Cause and Effect from Hume?

Perhaps the stickiest wicket that Kant faces in his Critique of Pure Reason is to roll back Hume's argument that there ain't no such thing as cause and effect.  For Hume, all we can say about events in the world is that B follows A.  We can never say that A caused B.

Since the Brits invented cricket, you can see that the German Kant would have to be really on his game to deal with the googlies from bowler Hume.  (Although I don't know if googlies had been invented yet).

In a way, Kant's whole transcendental machinery is designed to deal with Hume's challenge: what warrant can there be for any assertion of A being the cause of B?  The whole idea of the external experience of objects as appearances rather than things-in-themselves is the center of Kant's cunning plan to deal with Hume and his tricky bowling.

Kant makes his argument that, for any experience in the world, there must be a rule that predicts the occurrence of an event from a previous event, for if there were no rule in the mind connecting events then indeed all sequences of perceptions would be merely subjective, received impressions having no connection with any outside object.  On that view there would be no way to cognize any outside object.

The cunning trick is, of course, that we are not talking about events-in-themselves or outside-objects-in-themselves.  The events are appearances, impressions that the mind processes into unified judgments about what is going on out there.  If I see a boy in the neighbor's yard in the act of throwing a baseball towards my house I take note of that appearance.  If half a second later I receive the impressions of a crash and tinkle in the front room and a a boyish squeak from the neighbor's yard, I am justifying in applying a rule that baseballs thrown at my house are quite likely to hit my house and that the appearance (or hear-ance) of a crash and tinkle shortly after the appearance of the neighbor boy and his baseball justify my judgment that it was the boy wot done it.

It all revolves around the appearances vs. things-in-themselves game.  In the game of appearances I could always be wrong.  It's possible that I didn't see the other kid across the street and his baseball.  Or it could be that a meteorite came out of the sky and broke my window.

But none of that matters.  What matters is that Kant's transcendental machinery describes how my sensibility receives impressions from the outside world, which I process in accordance with my forms of intuition about space and time and then combine them into a manifold using the categories of understanding.  Then I apply judgement to bring the manifold to a unified experience of possible external objects of experience.  But those objects are only appearances, not things-in-themselves.

Good old Kant.  Gin clear, as always.  And four runs for the K√∂nigsberger against the best bowling in England.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Kant's Problematic Refutation of Idealism

Immanuel Kant came up with a wonderful idea.  Let's just say, he writes, that we can't see things "in themselves" but only as appearances.  In that one idea he elegantly avoids claiming that we can ever know the whole truth about life, the universe and everything.

Kant's idea is, of course, not much different from St. Paul's talk about seeing through a glass, darkly.  And it is echoed by the quantum mechanical dictum that you can't see anything in the sub-atomic world without disturbing it.  So you do not see an item "in itself" but only after you have nudged it, with some kind of electromagnetic or sub-atomic energy.  So whatever you are looking at, it is not the same as it was.

But Kant feels the need to demolish his predecessors with his Refutation of Idealism.  He wants to dispatch the Dogmatic Idealism of Berkeley and the Problematic Idealism of Descartes.

Problem is that most everyone agrees that Kant doesn't quite pull it off, thus violating the first rule of politics that if you come to overthrow the king you had better succeed.  Or else.

Kant wants to refute the Cartesian idea that the outer world is "doubtful and indemonstrable."  Kant crosses over Descartes' division between knowledge of internal and external states by setting out to prove that the "empirical consciousness of my own existence proves the existence of objects in space outside me."  Kant's argument is based on the idea that I am conscious of my existence in time and the presupposition of something "persistent in perception" and so on.  

The commentators all seem to agree that Kant doesn't finish the job.  Actually, they begin with contesting the first premise of his proof: "I am conscious of my existence as determined in time."  They say he doesn't even start the job of refutation properly.  

Even a tyro like me can see the problem.  Way back in the Transcendental Aestshetic Kant declares that time is a form of intuition that resides in the mind.  So we are using an intuition cooked up in the mind to argue for the existence of the real world?  Come on Immanuel.  You can do better than that!  You are really arguing Descartes' point that the only thing we can be sure about is the thinking "I"!

Really, Kant should stick with the beauty and the elegance of his central creative insight.  We can't know things in themselves.  Everything we know about anything (including our internal self) is founded on belief.  We believe in an "I"; we believe in an external world.  And until our brains start to rot in old age, that belief seems to work for us.  It gets us food, shelter, and a new generation on the ground and out of the nest.  

There's a refutation of idealism for you: grandchildren!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Kant and "Dogmatic Idealism"

Kant set himself a big task in his Critique of Pure Reason. It was not perhaps as big a task as that of the Rev. Edward Casaubon in his "Key to All Mythologies," but big nonetheless.

Kant wanted to spike Descartes's skeptical idealism, that the "I" was indubitable, but the world not so much. He wanted to whack Berkeley for his dogmatic idealism that the world was an illusion.  But he also wanted to deal with Hume and his denial of cause and effect.  Never mind that he also had a mind to derail the whole global industry busily proving that God existed, not to mention the rapidly growing atheist startups aggressively insisting that God didn't exist.

Common sense tells us that the world exists; that's what Dr. Johnson insisted by kicking a stone with his foot and saying of Berkeley's idealism "I refute it thus."  Common sense tells us that every effect has a cause, even if we didn't see the cause coming before the effect.  So somehow those clever Dicks had to be wrong.

Now you might think that Kant was also a dogmatic idealist.  After all, his repeated insistence that we do not know things in themselves but only appearances suggests that we do not have knowledge of things in the outside world.

I prefer to interpret Kant as setting out the first modern attempt to figure how our mind/brain actually deals with the outside world.  He does this by accepting (even as he insists he refutes) the positions of his predecessors.  Yes it's true that we cannot be too certain about the outside world (Descartes) and that it could all be an illusion (Berkeley) and that cause-and-effect is a tricky business (Hume) especially if you get the cause for an effect wrong.  So what?

So Kant sets up what we would call a "model" of the way that humans deal with the outside world, whatever it really is.  We possess "sensibility", the "capacity... to acquire representations" from the outside world.  From the representations we form "intuitions" based on the forms of intuition inside us about space and time.  We apply the categories of the understanding to our intuitions and then form a unified judgment about the result through the power of "apperception" or self-consciousness.  This judgment is made about the object given in sensibility, its appearance as conditioned by our intuition our understanding and so on.  But what the object really is, in itself, can never be known to us.

It all comes down to common sense.  We know, if we know anything, that we should never assume that we have nothing left to learn, that we have grasped the complete truth about life, the universe, and everything.

Because the moment that you figure you have everything figured out, the world will refute you, "thus."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Can Kant Comprehend Sub-atomic Particles?

Kant's transcendental philosophy is an odyssey between the Scylla of rationalism and the Charybdis of empiricism.

He does not deny that thoughts are real, or that the world is real.  He just says that we cannot know the world as it is in itself.  We can only know appearances.  Our knowledge of the world is constructed upon the way that we manipulate and synthesize sensation into a unified object of experience.

But what about quantum physics?  The recent discovery of the Higgs boson was predicated on the statistics of the recording of certain energetic events on certain detectors at a government-funded particle accelerator designed especially for the discovery of the Higgs boson.  Does that count as sensation?

Locke speculated about a "microscopical eye" that could  see into the "secret composition and radical texture of bodies".  And Kant in the Architectonic of Pure Reason talks about the limited reach of an idea, for the elaboration of the idea into a scientific schema "seldom corresponds to the idea; for this lies in reason like a seed... hardly recognizable even under microscopic observation."

But does the gigantic apparatus of a particle accelerator boil down, in essence, to a microscopical eye or a microscopic observation?  Is the experimentation of modern physics contemplated by Kant's transcendental machinery?  He says that the "capacity (receptivity) to acquire representations through the way in which we are affected by objects is called sensibility."  Does sensibility extend to the eye reading the report on the statistics prepared by a team of physicists detailing six months of particle collisions in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva?

So if we accept the results of the physicists, does that make the Higgs boson an "object of possible experience"?  Here, of course, we are getting beyond individual experience to the notion of science as the project of a social community of scientists, as divined by Thomas Kuhn.

The larger purpose of Kant's first Critique was to deal with the conundrums arising from Descartes, who thought that the "I" was indubitable but the world was dubitable, to Hume who argued that knowledge was a rickety construction built on a bundle of impressions, to the impossibility of proving God's existence on reason alone.  Yet here we were in Kant's time with science burgeoning and generals using the results of science in their very real artillery.  Kant built the first detailed analysis of human cognition, recognizing it as what we would call a feedback loop.  Objects act on us through our sensibility and we form judgments about objects as objects of possible experience.  But we do not know them as they are in themselves.  We only know them as they appear to us and as we think them.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of modern science and technology is how they have changed the way that objects can act on our sensibility.  Years ago I remember watching a TV science program in which they showed how human objects on a beach appeared in different forms of light, from infrared to ultraviolet.  Things look very different when you illuminate them with different light.  And how really do they look "in themselves?"  All we know is how they appear to us, as illuminated to us.  A snake has infra-red detectors, all the better to detect warm-bodied mice in the nighttime.  Why not?  Sense organs are not there just for the contemplation of the ineffable; they are there for survival.

Of course Kant didn't predict everything.  But he did set the stage for us moderns.  Don't think that what you see is what you get.  The "thing-in-itself" may be very different from its appearance.  If indeed there is such a thing as the "thing-in-itself."

Friday, November 16, 2012

Kuhnian Conservatism

Why don't the American people get it?  That's what conservatives ask themselves deep down.  Why don't the American people understand that the welfare state is doomed and that the only question is just when it goes over the cliff.

It helps to realize that nobody has the inside track on reality.  We are all, following Kant, looking at appearances.  Nobody gets to look behind the curtain at the really real, at the thing-in-itself.

If indeed there is such a thing as a thing in itself.

The guy that popularized this approach is Thomas S. Kuhn of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  He argued that most of the time scientists do "normal science;" they trog along taking their current "paradigm" of how-the-world-works for granted and solve the latest problems.  When they get a result that doesn't compute the ignore it as "anomalous."  But eventually the anomalous results start to pile up and the paradigm breaks down, at least to the satisfaction of the young-uns.  A period of revolution ensues with all its chaos and disappointment.  Eventually the old generation dies out and the new generation takes over doing normal science using the new paradigm.

For conservatives, the old paradigm of the administrative welfare state has broken down.  There are anomalous results as far as the eye can see.  Obviously, we argue, the Crash of 2008 was caused by decades of mortgage subsidies and liberal bullying of bankers.  Liberals, of course, don't agree; they think that the Crash was caused by greedy bankers and an out-of-control Wall Street.  If only the rich would pay a little more then everything would return to normal.  Taxes and regulation, that's the ticket.

The American people, of course, are stuck in the middle.  They are inclined to believe liberals that tell them that they deserve their entitlements and very likely free contraception.  But they sense that something is amiss.  But, like Scarlett, they will worry about that tomorrow.  But the main thing about the American people is that they don't really have a theory of how the world works.  Unlike conservatives, they don't passionately believe in the Invisible Hand and the power of the market to provide universal prosperity.  They are employees and their experience of hands is more the Visible Hand of the boss or the layoff notice.  But unlike liberals they don't have a deep and abiding faith in the power of large-minded liberals in rational programs to organize health, education, and welfare for other people.  To them, liberals are just another kind of boss.

Liberals got into trouble a generation ago when their economics and politics got the US into the Carter malaise with 10 percent inflation and 10 percent unemployment.  The result was that a conservative with radical ideas about cutting spending and tax rates could get elected president.

Now we are in another era where liberal ideas are failing miserably.  But they aren't yet failing miserably enough.

But obviously, the Kuhn approach speaks volumes to us.  In our era "normal politics" is the liberal approach of tax and spend and regulate.  But liberal politics ends up in inflation and debt default then people will experience that the old ways have broken down; it will be time for a new approach.

That is why I write about the era of the Welfare State Smashup.  People don't look for new ideas just for the fun of it.  They look for new ideas when the old ones don't seem to work any more.

The only way for conservative ideas to get a real tryout is for liberal ideas to demonstrably fail.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Next Great Moral Movement

Everyone keeps telling Republicans to lose the social issues.  Which is great advice, until the next great moral movement arrives.  Then you'd better get with the movement or disappear from the public square.

What do I mean?  I mean that human society runs partly on self-interest and partly on morality.  You may think that everyone operates purely on self-interest, but they don't.  People want to believe that they are on the side of the angels, and they spend a lot of energy persuading themselves that their nasty little hypocrisies are just minor and temporary diversions from the straight and true.  That is why they say that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.

If we look back at the modern age, we have seen two great moral movements.

The first was the anti-slavery movement.  The argument was simple.  Here we western chappies were drinking our tea and coffee with sugar from slave plantations, and making a nice little packet of money out of it too.  We were treating the slaves that put the sugar on our tables as mere human resources, human machines that we could exploit and use up without regard to their humanity.  The philosopher Immanuel Kant put it this way.  We should treat people as "ends" not as "means."  The plantation slave is the ultimate in treating a human as a means, a mere resource to be used and burned up like coal or oil.

The second great moral movement was similar to the first.  It was the socialist movement.  The argument was almost exactly the same.  We were treating the people that worked in factories, in mines, and mills, as if they were machines, to be worked hard until they were used up.  Again, like the plantation slave system, the factory system treated the worker as purely a means, a mere resource, rather than a brother or sister human.  It was inhuman.

It is easy to describe and to oppose such crimes against humanity, but much harder to really do something about them.  The battle against slavery ended in a century of Jim Crow for the liberated slaves, and the liberation of the worker spawned the most cruel and oppressive political regimes imaginable.

There is a reason why these noble movements went so far astray.  They put their faith in government and government is always and everywhere a system of force.  So, the activists decided that the solution to a system of exploitation and force was to substitute another system of force.  Tell me another one.

The upshot is that we have our modern gigantic governments careening out of control and enslaving their peoples in the name of liberation.

Obviously this will not go on forever.  A moral movement will arise to fight the injustice and the hypocrisy of a system that professes sweetness and light and practices the arts of oppression and exploitation.

Reenter the social issues.  The modern conservative critique of the liberal culture is that it is a culture of pure selfishness and encourages its votaries to treat all other humans as a means to an end.

Sex?  You can couple and uncouple as the mood takes you, but No means No except when it doesn't.  Marriage?  Critical for gays but optional for everyone else.  And babies.

Yeah.  A woman has the right to control her body.  And that means she can terminate the life of her "fetus" or "unborn baby" as she chooses, treating the life within her purely as a means rather than a end.

My guess is that, sooner or later, we will see a great moral movement arise about the whole question of sex, marriage, and abortion.  Whatever liberals say, the sexual revolution has been a mixed blessing to women and children--and men too.  You can see the results in Charles Murray's Coming Apart.  Marriage and family is doing fine in the upper-income educated class.  It is collapsing in the underclass and seriously damaged in the middle class.  Social collapse is really hard on the kiddies.

Nobody can predict the timeline on the next great moral movement, any more than people can predict the stock market.  My guess is that it will really get going in the debris of government debt and default that is coming in the next few years.  Probably it has already started, but we boobs can't see it because we are looking in the wrong places.

But when it comes it will change everything.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Indictment

Conservatives have only one real problem with the administrative welfare state. Our problem is that the welfare state is unjust. Of course, we don't like the fact that it is also cruel, corrupt, wasteful, and anti-human-welfare, but the extras are just penumbras on the basic indictment.  Don't agree?  Let me count the ways.

Force.  Government is force, and big government is big-time force.  The result is that many social functions become exercises in force.  We are forced to send our children to school, and for the overwhelming majority, that means a government school run by government supporters.  We are forced to contribute to a government pension scheme, and the government manages the scheme badly.  We are forced to contribute to a government health-care scheme for our retirement years, and the government has badly underestimated the resources it will take to deliver the promised services.  What is the solution?  For government, more force.

Division.  Government is the means to defend against enemies, foreign and domestic.  But government cannot fight the foe unless it unites the people against the enemy threat.  Thus politicians are experts in the art of uniting.  But that also means they are experts in the art of dividing.  If there is no foreign threat that politicians can use to unite us then they will unite one half of the nation, in a political party, to fight against the other half.  There is nothing sinister about this; that's just what politicians do.  Obviously the more the government does, and the more money it spends, the more scope there is for uniting and dividing.  You can do it with class, you can do it with race.  You can set employees against business owners, and health-care consumers against insurance companies.  The more division you can create, the more that you can mobilize your supporters against the evil greedy ones.  There has to be a better way.

Freeloading.  Freeloading is the great issue for social animals.  We derive enormous benefit from our social engagement with each other, but every society has to deal with the freeloaders, the people that want to get their share without contributing their share.  In the past, societies have developed ingenious ways of dealing with freeloaders short of force, including naming and shaming and divine justice.  Of course, societies have long accepted that some people just cannot contribute, for no fault of their own.  But now we have developed the cult of the victim, in which people are encouraged to define themselves as indigent and unable to contribute their fair share.  Politicians use the cult of the victim to build support.  Where once leaders frankly offered loot and plunder to the warriors in their feudal host, now they offer loot and plunder to people that vote for them and define themselves as victims.

Patronage and Clientage.  In the agricultural era the food producers lived under a peculiar disadvantage.  They needed to store food against the next harvest, but any pirate or plunderer could come by and steal their store.  So the food producers ended up as clients of feudal patrons; they became serfs to warriors that could keep the plunderers at bay.  Since the warrior lords were predatory as well as the pirates, you might say that the cure was often worse than the disease.  Now the bourgeois revolution in the early modern era proposed to ditch this patron-client social relationship with the national state model.  The monarch got an army to defend against marauders, and the people were free to produce and consume in a market economy without having to truckle to a powerful patron.

It is clear, from the history of the last 200 years, that when people first arrive in the city from the country they bring their old patron-client culture with them from the countryside.  All immigrants to the US have begun by joining some sort of patronage machine, from Tammany Hall to the modern Democratic Party.  That is what they understand.  It is only when they get confident and competent in the world of the city that they come to embrace the individualist creed, which asserts the notion of the responsible self that confidently offers services to the community based on the faith that the money will follow.

But really, do we need a patron-client relationship to govern government employment?  Do we want basic social services to be delivered by powerful bosses?  Do we want favors distributed to grateful clients on the basis of race or class?  That way lies injustice.

Impossibility of reform.  The market economy is a process of constant adjustment.  No job, no fortune is guaranteed.  Every participant must consider, every day, how to serve the consumer.  That is why so many of us look to government to guarantee our jobs with labor legislation and preserve our fortunes with crony capitalism; we just don't have confidence in our ability to serve the consumers.  But the result is that government makes impossible promises to its supporters that cannot be withdrawn without a fight.  That is what is happening in Europe right now as people riot in the streets to protest the cuts in social services.

Any system that cannot reform itself short of riots in the streets is a failed system.  The welfare state system is a process of political warfare, a battle to divide the spoils of taxation and borrowing and regulation.  But the winners in each battle seem to think that they have won for all time, and are willing to fight to assert that right of victory.  There has to be a better way.

There is a better way.  Conservatives have recommended a limited government since the dawn of the modern era.  But Marxists have come a close second.  It was Marx that wanted to free the workers from the alienation of wage labor in factories so they could develop their human capacity to the fullest.  It was the Marxists of the Frankfurt School that argued that government and business both had dominatory tendencies, reducing everything to the mechanics of rules and system.  There had to be another way, a social way, that resolved issues of social cooperation in communication and persuasion rather than rules and penalties.

Everybody wants a better way.  Liberals call it "peace and justice."  Conservatives call it "limited government and peaceful cooperation."  The question is how do we get there from here?

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Paradox of the Enlightenment

At the core of Immanuel Kant's great attack on his philosophical predecessors, from Descartes to Berkeley and Hume, is the great Paradox of the Enlightenment.

Here we had the most stunning development in human thought, Newtonian mechanics, that showed how us how the world worked.  Yet against that we have Descartes saying that "I" can't be sure of the external world, Berkeley saying that the exterior world is an illusion, and Hume saying we can't be sure about cause and effect.

Just when Newton has reduced the operation of the external world to a few equations that allowed, e.g., artillery officers to predict where artillery shells would land, the philosophers said: Don't get cocky, kid.

One of the places in in Critique of Pure Reason where Kant really concentrates his fire on his predecessors is in the "paralogisms," i.e. the logical mistakes of his predecessors.

In the Fourth Paralogism, Kant takes on the doubtful existence of outer reality, the real world.  In the first edition, Kant put the paralogism this way.  Things that can only be inferred from perceptions are doubtful.  All outer appearances are inferred.  Therefore "objects of outer sense" are doubtful.

In the second edition, Kant takes a different tack in a rather confused paragraph (B409) that already assumes the error.  He seems to be arguing against this syllogism:  I am distinguished from things outside me.  Other things are those that I think of as distinguished from me.  Therefore I exist as a thinking being.  Or maybe not.

But Kant drills a hole in this argument before he makes it, for by the second edition he can't be bothered too much about making the arguments of his predecessors.  His point is the Great Argument of his entire critique.  If I am confident that the "I" exists, then how could I know it without experience of the outside world?  For against Descartes, Kant argues that we cannot have any knowledge of ourselves apart from our moment to moment experience of self-consciousness as we deal with and process data given to our senses, and try to make sense of it.

Kant's "I" is a component in the human machinery that receives sense impressions, combines them with forms of intuition, gathers the sense impressions and intuitions with the categories of the understanding and creates, using the "I" of apperception (self-consciousness), a unified object of appearance, a judgment about the outside world.  And don't forget that this object in the outside world can only be known as an appearance, not as a thing-in-itself.

If you think about the world like Kant, then all the mind games about mental substances and material substances, the indubitable I and the dubitable outside world, all these things fall away, because they are all integrated together into what we would now call an OODA loop.

Notice that if you subtract the "I" of self-consciousness from Kant's machinery, then you still have a working model of existence in the real world, but one that applies to the "lower" animals.  As far as we know, they get their sense impressions and unify them with intuitions and categories of the understanding.  What they do not do is then apply reason to their unified understanding to get to judgment.  Their judgment is hard-wired rather than flexible.  So they operate in the real world without an I at all, but instead, as we highly advanced humans suppose, in an egoless flow of consciousness.

Since Kant's time, of course, the Paradox of the Enlightenment has increased and deepened.  For now we may know much more about the sensible world, and even in the interior mental world, yet we know less and less "what it's all about."