Philosophical Musings Inspired By Kant

So, in line with my goal to do more philosophical reading to start the year, I’ve been reading Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” that I last read selections of way back in university. And so far I’ve gotten back to the point where he starts to talk about the categories, which are the preconditions of experience.

The main issue Kant is facing here is, I believe, this. He’s examining the issues around our knowledge of the world, and wants to find a balance between the idealists who argue that there may not be a world outside of our ideas of it and the empiricists who want to argue that we get credible knowledge of the world through our senses. The problem with both, in my view, is that neither of them can handle cases of illusions or delusions very well. For idealists, it’s hard to see how our ideas about the world can be mistaken if they are in fact only our ideas of it, and so the idealist is either forced to insist that contradictory evidence doesn’t change their ideas — or that there is one right idea about the world but not one that we have to learn by examining any kind of real world — or else find a way to explain how our ideas can be wrong without there being a real world out there to have wrong ideas about. On the other hand, empiricists have a difficult time with illusions because it suggests that our sense impressions could be giving us incorrect facts about the world. While especially with science there have been a number of ways to try to make those facts at least consistent, it will always raise the question of whether our resolution is reflecting the real world or if they’re just rationalizations and so we can’t trust our senses to be telling us about the real world at all.

This leads to where I am now, with Kant arguing against fundamentalists and skeptics, as he puts it. The former are people who would insist that they have the knowledge and the facts despite any problems that have been raised. The latter are people who insist that given those problems we can’t actually know anything about the real world at all. Kant wants to be able to justify knowledge of the real world and not just assume it, and he thinks that that should be possible.

What’s important up to now in my reading is that he starts from the idea that there are simply some categories that are the preconditions of experience that we require in order for our experiences to be intelligible. As these are the preconditions of experience, we cannot learn them from experience: we can’t have any intelligible experience to learn anything from without already having them in our intellect. The two main categories of these are space and time, as he argues that without them we couldn’t have any understandable experience to learn anything from. But because all experience is filtered through these preconditions, we can’t claim that these categories are in the objects themselves, which he calls the thing-in-itself. So what we have is an appearance of the thing, but not a direct link to the thing itself.

I opined in that class long ago that Kant is probably being too conservative here. In order for our experiences of an object to fit here, there has to be something about the object that lets us unify it into an experience through the categories. So we should be able to claim that while we can’t know exactly what the thing-in-itself is, we know that it cannot have a property that would make it impossible for us to unify it in the way that we just did. Thus, in some sense, it fits into the categories. So all of the objects that we perceive are, in fact, intelligible in that way.

But, then, could there be objects that aren’t intelligible? Well, there could be, but either we would never perceive them — there would be no way for us to get any kind of intelligible unified perception in consciousness, so our minds would simply drop them — or they would seem very weird and/or incomplete to us. So there may be a number of objects out there that we simply never perceive because it is impossible for us to do so.

So then we can ask this question: is it not possible, then, for us to be simply building a consistent world out of a set of unintelligible sensory perceptions that then do not map in any way to the world as it is? I don’t mean something like a Cartesian Demon or a Matrix where we are stuck in an illusion foisted upon us by someone else, but instead with us building a sensible and intelligible world out of an unintelligible one only in our minds. Could this be the case? It seems that it could, but if I was going to argue against that interpretation I’d argue that it would be something that would be so difficult that the edges would show, and our world would look a lot odder than it actually is. We should have all sorts of oddities that we can’t quite resolve and that we’d have to dismiss. This does happen, but no where near as much as it probably should if the world outside was unintelligible. So it’s more likely that either we have a Matrix-style illusion where we are almost certainly cut off from any experiences of the world — or, at least, we don’t use them to build our image of it — or we are getting real experiences of at least more or less intelligible objects and using that to build our perceptions through the categories. And since we don’t seem to be able to change our perceptions as per our desires or even ideas all that often, it’s far more likely that the reason our perceptions don’t align with our ideas or wants is because there’s something else outside that that we are referencing that forces our perceptions into certain forms. So, given this, we’re probably justified in believing that there is an external world with at least intelligible properties that is what we are ultimately experiencing.

Anyway, the big push for this was more to focus on Kant’s moral system given the books I already had on this, but I have always thought that Kant had an interesting idea here, if often a bit esoteric.

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