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."

No comments:

Post a Comment