Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Kant and Copernicus

There's a sad truth about books with brilliant theories that change the world.  They often don't even cause a ripple, not at first.  And the audience for the book, the educated elite, sneers at it.

That's what happened to Kant after the publication of A Critique of Pure Reason in 1781.  Poor chap!  Here he had reformulated the whole basis of western philosophy and all he got for it was a few crank calls.

But the dear old chap set to work.  He published in 1783 the Dummies version of the Critique, a Prolegomena for Any Future Metaphysics.  Then in 1787 out came the heavily revised second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason.  It's in the preface to the second edition that Kant makes a bid for world domination.  Copernicus, he writes,
when he did not make good progress in the explanation of the celestial motions if he assumed that the entire celestial host revolves around the observer, tried to see if he might not have greater success if he made the observer revolve and let the stars at rest.
 Yeah, Manny.  Why not compare yourself with the Great One!

Kant's revolution is a little different from the Copernican revolution.  He's not concerned with the motions of the planets.  He just wants to know how we cognize the world.  As he says: "up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects" but all our efforts on this line have "come to nothing."  So let's do it the other way around, he writes.  Let's assume "that the objects must conform to our cognition" on the view that our minds organize the world using "categories" to interpret the appearances of the world, so establishing "something about the objects before they are given to us."

One of the rewarding things about studying chaps like Kant is to see how these brilliant pioneers are getting the first fuzzy view of what the average bear takes for granted today.  In Leibniz we get the idea of "monads" which are non-visible elements of everything but which cannot be directly experienced.  That's an wonderful guess at our modern idea of "quanta" that we moderns have cognized using the penetrating power of what Locke called "microscopical eyes" and we call particle accelerators.

Then Kant, with his idea that the mind organizes reality according to categories formed in the mind, brilliantly prefigures modern knowledge about the brain and the way we organize the impulses coming into our brains from our senses.  I remember seeing a documentary as a kid where they gave people "upside-down" eye-glasses that made everything look upside down.  After about a month, the brains of the test subjects inverted the image the subject saw.  So then, if they took off the glasses, the world looked upside down again.

Then, of course, there is Noam Chomsky's idea that we are already programmed to do language before we start to speak.

Kant's brilliant step is to say: look, let's stop worrying about what the really-real is like.  Let's just think about how we experience the world and function in it.  Let's not worry about "things-in-themselves" when the only thing we know is what we experience, the appearances that we organize in our minds.

Today, two centuries after Kant, the latest "truth" about the really-real is that the universe is completely empty, except for tiny dots.  And the tiny dots turn out to be almost empty except for tiny nano-dots deep in the middle of the tiny dot.  The solidity that we experience with our eyes is just electromagnetic radiation in the "visible" part of the spectrum thrown off by pesky electrons fuzzing around a tiny dot.   If you illuminate an object with, e.g., X-rays, you see something completely different.

Of course, just as Marx turned Hegel upside down, converting Hegel's idealism into materialism, so Kant turned Copernicus upside down.  Copernicus said let's stop putting the observer at the center of the universe and put the sun at the center instead.  Kant said let's stop putting the objects out in the world at the center of our world and put the individual a priori cognition at the center of our understanding of the objects out in the world.

Hey, whatever floats your boat.

No comments:

Post a Comment