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."

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