Thursday, December 04, 2008

Dinesh D'Souza - What Atheists Kant Refute

Mr. D'Souza is on a roll with a second article in CSM.

Once again, though he attempts to point out a fallacy, I think another fallacy emerges. His main point rests on Kant's philosophy:

Kant showed that human knowledge is constrained not merely by the unlimited magnitude of reality but also by a limited sensory apparatus of perception.

Consider a tape recorder. It captures only one mode of reality, namely sound. Thus all aspects of reality that cannot be captured in sound are beyond its reach. The same, Kant would argue, is true of human beings. The only way we apprehend empirical reality is through our five senses. But why should we believe, Kant asked, that this five-mode instrument is sufficient? What makes us think that there is no reality that lies beyond sensory perception?

Moreover, the reality we apprehend is not reality in itself. It is merely our experience or "take" on it. Kant's startling claim is that we have no basis for assuming that a material perception of reality ever resembles reality itself. I can tell if my daughter's drawing of her teacher looks like the teacher by placing the portrait alongside the person. With my eyes, I compare the copy with the original. Kant points out, however, that comparing our experience of reality to reality itself is impossible. We have representations only, never the originals. So we have no basis for presuming that the two are even comparable. When we equate experience and reality, we are making an unjustified leap.

It is essential to recognize that Kant isn't diminishing the importance of experience. It is entirely rational for us to use science and reason to discover the operating principles of the world of experience. This world, however, is not the only one there is. Kant contended that while science and reason apply to the world of sensory phenomena, of things as they are experienced by us, science and reason cannot penetrate what Kant termed the noumena – things as they are in themselves.

Some critics have understood Kant to be denying the existence of external reality or of arguing that all of reality is "in the mind." Kant emphatically rejects this. He insists that the noumenon obviously exists because it is what gives rise to phenomena. In other words, our experience is an experience of something. Perhaps the best way to understand this is to see Kant as positing two kinds of reality: the material reality that we experience and reality itself. To many, the implication of Kant's argument is that reality as a whole is, in principle, inaccessible to human perception and human reason.

So powerful is Kant's argument here that his critics have been able to answer him only with derision, as though his arguments are self-evidently fallacious. When I challenged Daniel Dennett to debunk Kant's argument, he responded on his website by saying several people had already refuted Kant. But he didn't provide any refutations and he didn't name any names. Basically, Mr. Dennett was relying on the ignorance of the audience. In fact, there are no such refutations.

Although Kant's argument seems counterintuitive – in the way that some of the greatest ideas from Copernicus to Einstein are counterintuitive — no one who understands the central doctrines of the world's leading religions should have any difficulty grasping his main point. Kant's philosophical vision is largely congruent with the teachings of many faiths that the empirical world is not the only world. Ours is a world of appearances only, in which we see things in a limited and distorted way – "through a glass, darkly," as the apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians. The spiritual reality constitutes the only permanent reality there is. Christianity teaches that while reason can point to the existence of this higher domain, it cannot on its own fully comprehend that domain.

Thus, when Christopher Hitchens and other atheists routinely dismiss religious claims on the grounds that "what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence," they are making what philosophers like to call a category mistake. We learn from Kant that within the domain of experience, human reason is sovereign, but it is in no way unreasonable to believe things on faith that simply cannot be adjudicated by reason.

When atheists summarily dismiss such common ideas as the immortality of the soul or the afterlife on the grounds that they have never found any empirical proofs for either, they are asking for experiential evidence in a domain that is entirely beyond the reach of the senses. In this domain, Kant argues, the absence of such evidence cannot be used as the evidence for absence.

Kant's argument is certainly worthy or consideration and perhaps it can not be easily dismissed. However, where D'Souza's argument falls apart is in trying to use Kant's admittedly "secular" argument to apply to religion. It is quite possible that there is a true "reality" out there which cannot be perceived by humans. However, most religions do not admit to ignorance of this reality. On the contrary, they seem to know quite a bit about what will happen to souls in the afterlife. Whole treatises have been written about things which cannot be perceived by humans - from glimpses into Heaven to compendia of Angels and Demons. As soon as this extra-sensory world intersects with our world, there is a breakdown in the Kantian argument of non-perception and therefore D'Souza's argument falls apart.


Anonymous Daganev said...

You are greatly mistaken about religions say and don't say about things that they know and don't know.

When a person says. "I have been taught that there are angels that do x and y." They are not claiming to have been able to directly experience the angels doing x and y. They are claiming that at one point in history, some of that information was transferred over. Possibly even as a metaophor for the copy of reality that we can relate to.

Kant's arguments apply directly to religion, because that is what he was arguing about. (he just wrapped everything in secular terms to be more agreeable amonsgst his peers)

December 04, 2008 3:29 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

On the contrary, Daganev, it is you who is greatly mistaken. There are many instances in the Talmud and the Tanach of angels and other spiritual beings appearing directly to humans and interacting with them. Dead spirits speak to the living. Demons can be detected through various magic rituals.
Christianity is replete with interactions with the spiritual world.

Unless you are saying all religion is metaphorical, these are documented examples of people claiming to directly interact with the spiritual world.

December 04, 2008 6:36 PM  

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