On Kant’s divergence from Plato

    It is quite popular today to say that according to our scientific models, the world proceeds according to causal law. And therefore, either an interaction is caused, or it is random, and in either case human freedom fails to appear.

This is something of a paradox, because the formulation of the defeat of freedom itself presupposes freedom – what do we mean by freedom? Freedom is human activity. Hegel has a convincing proof of this: assume we were unfree, that we just responded to a series of drives and appetites. So on the one hand there is us, which is a set of drives, and on the other hand, all the possible ways our drives could be satisfied. If we look closely, we notice that there is no thing in either of these lists that is something like the principle of choice, the thing which determines which appetite ought be satisfied now, given the concrete situation. Economists presume a “principle of maximization”, but thinking clearly, this is quite a large assumption because it assumes the ability to numerically quantify all the drives and all the possibilities for satisfaction. Since this isn’t anything like counting bottles, but more like spontaneous determination and choice, it turns out that Freedom is implied by this “nonfree” self. The attempt to actualize human freedom is then the search to find the object proper to it, and not merely the object of some desire. I’m not sure what this would be, but the spontaneous re-valuation of values looks like a good place to start.

Anyway, so I’ve proved freedom from a determined subject. But a reductive physicist has no problem with this – he can simply retort that I’ve assumed “drives”, which don’t really exist, all that exist are the interaction of particles or whatever his model tells me this century. This brings us to the relation between modeling (concepts), and the world (being). Now, while it is not required to have a metaphysics in order to model and act in the world (e.g. the pyronian skeptics), it is the characteristic of modern science that it assumes some basic models to be true, and works out other models taking that into account. In other words, modern science (since Descartes) is productive not because it questions everything but because it refuses to question everything, it takes some things for granted (i.e. Newtonian physics), and works everything out taking that as a given. Now, obviously these physics have been superseded, but the mistake is to think it’s because they failed to solve some physical problem only – the possibility of coming up with a new physics was largely motivated by the contradiction between Newton’s theory of gravity and Maxwell’s theory of electro magnetism (don’t ask me to explain the contradiction).

The tendency not to put the main theory into question makes it appear to be simply true, because to a Scientist is sort of is. Of course, many scientists will admit it’s a hypothesis, but people in newspapers never seem to hear that bit. (Notice Newton’s laws were “laws”, but since then everything is called a “theory” – it’s because physicists take seriously the provisional character of the things they refuse to put into question). Naturally, most people arn’t as smart as physicists and they assume that if their cell phones work so well, this must mean that the models we have now are just the truth ones. But what does this mean, for the models to be “the true ones”. This brings me to the divergence between Kant and Plato.

Plato believes the world to be in itself differentiated according to permanently enduring laws, forms (eidos, idea) which can be grasped as concepts by humans who study philosophy for long enough. It is common to confuse Plato’s metaphysics (the world is in itself a differentiated unity according to law), with his epistemology (idealism – we learn about the laws of the world in itself by thinking about concepts). But properly, they are two distinct positions, one about what there is, and one about how we know what there is. Modern science has categorically disproven idealism as method of inquiry, but it does not necessarily take a stand on the metaphysics – unsurprising since metaphysics are “beyond physics”.

Kant takes this issue head on: living in the age of Newtonian Science, Kant asks how can a human be Free if we take the world to be governed by laws?  Keep in mind the scientific laws were actually “laws” for the physicists then, not “theories”. Kant’s solution was to say the laws were not in the world itself, but in the understanding. In other words, Kant takes the platonic metaphysics out of the world itself, and puts it in our faculty of ap-perception, so it is not the case that the world truly is differentiated according to law, this is a misguided question, but rather the world for us shows up as the kind of thing differentiated according to law. To save freedom, Kant posits a world in itself, where these laws exist not as the laws governing the interaction of things, but as the laws governing how things show up to us. And then he posits that is another kind of law, the law of freedom, which makes us appear as the kinds of beings that are free.

Kant thus argues that the world can show up to us in two fundamentally different ways – either as the object of science, where everything is causally determined according to law, or as free, where it obeys the law of freedom (which is to act such that the maxim of your actions, the ground of your will, could be made the ground for universal legislation. Or put differently, you, as a human, would affirm the world in which your actions were not a choice but forced by a law.)

Kant thus completely diverges from the metaphysical idea of the world “in itself”, the world “in itself” becomes not an object but a way we talk about things, a way our understanding has of understanding the world as it is for us in relation to something we never see. Does it exist? This is a mistaken question for Kant – because existence properly is existence for us.

Now, what does this split tell us about modern physics? Well, we no longer think that the laws we have are the right ones, we want to take into account that physicists change their mind every hundred years or so. It would appear that since the laws “ain’t in the head”, they must be out there in the world – but on what grounds do we assume this? Because it’s practical? But then, it certainly isn’t practical when it comes to dealing with art or laws or music? Oh, but it will be responded, we must be consistent. Why? Even in science, there are different laws from discipline to discipline?  Biologists do not worry that there rules of thumb might not be reducible to a meaningful statement about the interaction of matter and energy? They simply use them, because they are useful.

Why can we not appeal to use-value to affirm freedom? Freedom is how we encounter the world, we encounter the world as the kinds of beings that are free. How do we know this? By examining the character of our experience – we notice that we can act one way or act another way. Oh, but you say, it’s an illusion. What does this mean? Usually illusions when revealed cease to show themselves as illusions.  Take for example, ghost riders in the sky – we would say if you saw riders in the sky they were an illusion. But, if you went up into the sky and talked to them, perhaps got ran over by the cattle they were hearding, you would no longer want to call them an illusion. If science continued to say it was an illusion, it was some other interactions which produced what looked like an interaction with riders. But we would then say, Science, say what you like, these are in fact riders – I encounter them as riders, I can call them on my cell phone, they are always there or at least at this and this time. I use this silly example because this is how we encounter free beings – we don’t encounter them as an illusion, we encounter them day after day as the kinds of beings that obey laws which are comprehensible on the level of folk (or, maybe, good?) psychology, and on the level of freedom and right. If science fails to describe the objects of our experience, why would we assume that the objects of our experience were faulty, and not that the science was only describing the world according to one particular aspect?


8 thoughts on “On Kant’s divergence from Plato

  1. If science fails to describe the objects of our experience, why would we assume that the objects of our experience were faulty, and not that the science was only describing the world according to one particular aspect?

    Science isn’t a set of things you see, it is a way of looking: one based on hypothesis formation and testing. You are appealing to scientific values when you say “I can call them on my cell phone, they are always there or at least at this and this time.”

    People often mistake “the set of things we have learned through science” with “the practice of science.” The former is always in doubt, given how looking at the world scientifically can add nuance – or completely rewrite – some of the provisional conclusions we reached earlier.

  2. It’s a mistake to differentiate between the set of things that the scientific look shows up, and the practice of science. Those things can only be seen scientificaly: a different practice will show up a different set of entities, or the same entities seen differently.

    If the former were always in doubt, then freedom could not become a problem. Freedom is a problem insofar as we insist on taking particular things out of doubt, and saying “they really are this way”. Science must do this, but there is no need for scientists or anyone else, the practice is not the same as the people who practice it or do not practice it. It is the practice of science that must assume the truth of its way of looking at things, while the scientists practicing it can recognize the contingency of the very practice which from its own view appears as necessary.

  3. You equivocate between levels and dimensions a number of times. Although I must give you props for talking to science directly – “But we would then say, Science, say what you like…”

    There is the metaphysics. There is an transcendental object that we are aware exists, but cannot be aware of its true form, and there is appearance. Appearance is knowable, because it given shape by the faculties of the mind. [Notes: (1) I am using mind generally, and not positing a substance dualism. (2) You have granted as much, but to try to give some textual reference for my very general interpretation, the only faculties I can remember are the faculties of apperception. (3) When we talk about the appearances being knowable, we are still talking about ontology, rather than epistemology, because we have not begun to explain how we come to know rules within our experiences yet.)

    Then, there is the epistemology. This explains how we might come to know the rules that govern our experiences. Science is a good model. However, we must not that we are already talking about appearances. Our experiences are of appearances (in this ontological scheme) and the rules/laws/theories/predictions (whatever you want to call them) are how we come to know things as they appear in terms of our experiences.

    So, when you say, “It would appear that since the laws “ain’t in the head”, they must be out there in the world”, you are Kant don’t have the same meaning of head. We can’t access the transcendental object. The world that you are talking about, in which the laws are out there, is already the world of appearances. It is perfectly consistent to claim that the laws are out there in the world of our experience, because we can come up with many examples where entirely in your head experience can conflict with entirely in your head rules. For example, every time you make an incorrect prediction based on a preicieved pattern. To use an overwrought example, the experience of seeing a bent stick in water. The rules are meant to serve as measure of ordering or experiences and have to be learned through science, the systematic study of our experience. They never penetrate to the nomenal level.

    The confusion also happens because you shift between ontology and epistemology. One second we are talking about the ontological difference of the transcendental and appear and the next you are talking about an process that servers as an epistemological justification of laws of experiences.

    Some random notes:
    (1) The problem of freedom (at least concerning determinism) happens beyond the level of Kant’s ontological distinction. It is between our experience of the world as particles and the illusion of freedom. Here illusion is not refering to appearance in the sense of Kant’s ontology. (A) Before you object, Kant sees this problem as going beyond appearance, but he only does so, because he needs to cheat to be able to preserve it. Essentially he backdoors freedom and god from the transcendental.

    (2) If this sense is preserved, science wouldn’t deny the existence of your ghost riders. I mean, if it could reveal another source, say you took drugs every day before you saw them, or they were projections as part of an elaborate hoax, then science should (it is hoped) begin to trend towards the correct explaination. I’m not just not sure why, if we think of science as providing rules that make sense out of our experiences, that you think science would deny the existence of your ghost riders in this scenario? Additionally, this doesn’t make sense because the scenario is backwards – see 3(a).

    (3) You say that illusions usually disappear when revealed as illusions. (A) You then give an example of things that are real, which science should deny, because they are usually and probably initially dismissed as illusions. This is the reverse of the example you outlined. You have to start with an illusion (something which isn’t really there) to show how it dissolves and isn’t experienced as such, after it is revealed to be an illusion. Instead you start with something that is real, and then ??? (Try to prove it is real? Try to prove it will be originally mistaken as illusion?) (B) This claim isn’t true. The sense of illusion you are alluding to, isn’t pure appearance. I know the stick is really straight, but it will still appear bent in the water. I know about various optical illusions, and yet they will still appear that way. I might be aware that I am seeing a mirage, and yet see it anyways. This doesn’t posit the appearance (of the stick straight or bent) as the “real” world in the Kantian transcendental sense. The way in which the law of refraction is out there in the world (in terms of Kant’s ontology) is still the world of appearance. The law is a way to organize/predict our experiences (i.e., reaching into the water) and these require tuning. That is why the need for scientists to revise the rules does not necessarily have to be inconsistent with Kant’s ontology.

    (4) The general argument for freewill is extremely problematic. Once we take out the confusion about science somehow penetrating the transcendental in Kant’s ontology, we know of a whole host of illusions that aren’t true. I refer you to the bent stick. The ‘I appear free, so I am free’ is a very powerful motivational factor in the debate. Just like, I watched the ball fall, so the ball fell. It looks like a straightforward experience. However, the problem is that we have other experiences that look as if they might conflict with it.

  4. I may have miscommunicated,

    It is not my attempt here to prove freedom exists. I think this is a very misguided project – in fact, I’m trying to show why it’s misguided. I bring up Kant mostly because he’s the first to take really seriously that what we mean by “existence” is not that something has human-experience-independant-subsistence. Rather, it means something is an object of knowledge for us, that we have a concept of it and that we can cognize it. Now, I’m not a Kantian, and I don’t think that’s what existence is, but I think it’s a hell of a lot closer than “materiality”, whatever that means.

    You don’t prove the “existence” of t-objects. T-objects don’t exist, at best you know them as necessary posits, but this is a different kind of knowing than the sense in which we know the cat is on the mat.

    But getting away from Kant, it’s silly to think you’d prove the existence of “freedom” like you’d prove the existence of your cell phone or the computer. If you we submit them both to rigorous epistemic critique, we may find that we don’t “know” basically anything, let alone whether we are free or not. This is boring – this is bad philosophy. Not even the ancient skeptics denied that things existed, they simply reserved judgment on matters that exceeded their own cognition. So, to the question, “how do I know I’m not a robot”, they’d probably reply, “well, It seems I’m not a robot, but I suppose I can’t be entirely sure”.

    Why do we want this absolute certainty anyway? Science doesn’t offer it, and it’s a mistake of universalizing some particular scientific description which puts freedom into question, so why do we demand absolute certainty in our freedom?

    The better question to ask is: What does it mean to say you are free. No one seems to want to ask that anymore, even though the answers do seriously differ.

  5. I’m inclined to agree with you on all counts, Tristan. I’ve recently been obsessed with the thought experiment of f I was absolutely identical to someone elplacing myself in someone else’s body, one we are all familiar with, as it’s an exercise in empathy; “Well, if you were in their shoes?” I think it effectively gets to the point of freedom is and is not.

    I have no problem accepting that if I was physically identical to Tristan, I would do as Tristan does. This may be deterministic in theory, but it doesn’t seem to conflict with freedom in practice; I could never be physically identical to Tristan, because Tristan is Tristan and I am myself. The thought experiment is all too Newtonian; could I really be perfectly modeled? Quantum mechanics says no, it can’t be done. So am I not, effectively, free? Free by my definition, I suppose. Free of prediction and therefore determinism. Deterministic, sure, maybe; determined, never.

  6. Quantum mechanics says no, it can’t be done.

    This is misleading. Quantum mechanics doesn’t say it can’t be done, it just says that the model will not be perfect. Some element of chance will remain. The existence of some randomness does not solve the puzzle.

    Potentially, the fact that observation changes quantum outcomes might be more useful for creating free will wiggle room.

  7. If the model isn’t perfect, it’s a model. That’s the meaning of a model – that it’s not identical with the thing. If it were identical with the thing, it would be the thing. Things are identical with themselves. Things appear deterministic with respect to themselves, but that’s not a problem.

    Quantum mechanics doesn’t give us the ‘wiggle room’ we need for freedom. That’s a bad idea. In science, either something is determined, or its random – and neither is what freedom is. Freedom is causation but not according to scientific law.

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