A truly philosophical thought

Immanuel Kant claimed that the way we perceive and experience the world is dependent on our minds, and is the result of the way our brain gives order to the “raw data” of the outside world. Time and space are therefore not things that are out there in the world and which we perceive, but are in fact structures of the mind and nothing more.

By extension, the laws of mathematics would not be true independent of human experience, but would rather be true in accordance with the way our minds shape reality.

What do you think of this?

Could we ever gain knowledge of objects as they really are “in themselves”?

I think I’m having a flashback to my phil101 class from freshman year…

Anyway, I’ve never bought the idea that you can have knowledge of something “in itself.” What would that even mean? You can’t divorce knowledge from the perspective through which it is attained. The act of knowing requires a thinking, sentient subject - it’s our perspective as human beings that allows us to learn about the world, to have knowledge at all.

(I find it amusing that I’m arguing for Kant here, as I hate his style of writing more than almost any other philosopher.)

Chris,

this is a fascinating topic and I’d love to discuss it the whole night with you over a couple of beers. I could write a book about what you asked but I’ll just pick out some elements here. For me as a scientist, the experiment is the ultimate judge. A lot of scientific findings from general relativity and quantum mechanics are completely counter intuitive but can be described by mathematics even though we cannot truly comprehend the nature of these phenomena. As long as findings are in agreement with the experimental finding they may be a correct description of nature.

Following the scientific method I do believe we can learn about the nature of the things and the universe. I am not too familiar with what Kant said there about the “relativity” of mathematics, but I would argue that the mechanics of the universe are all about mathematics. The motion of the stars and galaxies follow mathematical rules. Mathematics is the language of the universe so to speak.

Friedemann

Friedemann,

I totally agree and I think Kant would have as well. His point about mathematics is that you can discover new things from experience like the solution to a complex problem or the motion of stars using mathematical models and laws, but that the laws that govern these discoveries are already arranged and shaped and moulded “in advance” you might say, by our minds. So if you could theoretically step outside your own mind (obviously a logical impossibility), free from the illusory-like screen through which we experience the world every day, then you would perceive the universe and its objects as they really, truly are, in themselves.

Needless to say, since concepts like cause and effect and substance and unity are also structures of the mind, the objective, true world would presumably be formless, colourless, silent, devoid of causality and effect and without substance or weight or depth and so on.

His Critique of Pure Reason was basically a fusion of two (at the time) competing schools of thought: the rationalists and the empiricists.

The rationalists claimed that true knowledge originates in the brain, not through experience. So the laws of logic would be the ultimate, foundational laws to which any experiment is subject.

The empiricists claimed that, to the contrary, knowledge arises from experience through our senses. David Hume, a famous empiricist, claimed that when you roll a marble into another marble, nowhere in that event can you locate the cause of the motion upon impact - it is invisible. He concluded that his knowledge of the fact that impact upon an object causes the object to move can only be derived from experience, not from laws. He said it was at least theoretically possible that dropping something will not cause it to fall. His knowledge that it wouldn’t was a result of comparisons based on past experience, all to do with experience and not innate mental laws like that rationalists claimed.

Kant basically fused the two claims to create what he called the Synthetic A Priori, that is, knowledge which arises in the mind (à la rationalist theory) but which nevertheless yield new information and thus knowledge (as per the empiricists).

Mathematics is thus, for him, an example of this. Its necessity results from the structuring processes imposed upon the world by us, by our minds, but we can use it to discover new things in the world, like information about our universe.

His system is extremely dense and complex and it has taken me many, many hours to work through it and put all the pieces together. He goes into considerable detail, explaining how the senses “receive” an object from the outside world and the processes that must take place for this raw data to processed ultimately into Knowledge.

Chris,

I admire you for battling your way through Kant’s musings. I might be a bit cynical here but the way I see it is that philosophy has in a way lost to science. 500 years ago philosophy and science in a way coexisted, you can say they were the same thing. Newton’s famous publication actually was called “Mathematical principles of natural philosophy” or something like that. But what has given us insight in how the universe works, what has brought us technological progress? Of course science. Science has one simple basic rule: the experiment is the judge. That is the sole foundation of science. Honestly, I don’t understand philosophical treatises. Kant was a very bright mind, but I don’t really understand what he is saying. Do you think his ideas are still relevant today?

Friedemann

Science is founded on a dialectical view. IE There’s the observer and the observed. This is inescapable. This is also why scientific explanation of the “absolute” nature of anything is question begging.

I suppose in a way science has won out, but then I have never really considered the two as being in competition. Rather I see philosophy as that discipline which moves and inspires and critiques and refines scientific inquiry. Even logic is not a branch of the sciences, but of philosophy. Philosophy is undoubtedly less popular than science nowadays, especially and most tragically in Germany, where it was once the homeland of so many of the greatest philosophers to have ever walked the planet. Indeed, such is the moribund state of philosophy in Germany, that a noticeably greater amount of philosophical literature on German philosophers is nowadays mostly written in English! Then again, I dare say the same holds true in France…

I have a deep respect for science. I think overall I probably hold physics and philosophy the highest in regard as intellectual disciplines, since they seem to go the deepest in trying to figure what exactly our world is. I think both subjects will always be relevant in certain respects, though science and philosophy are really polar opposites if considered purely in practical terms. Get a degree in a science-related field, and you have a potentially very good chance of getting well-paid work. Get a degree in philosophy, and you might find yourself the butt of many jokes:

What does a PhD student of philosophy say on his first day on the job?

“Do you want fries with that?”

As to the relevance of Kant specifically, it’s hard to say. By the very nature of his thought, it’s virtually impossible to prove or disprove either way, but it still makes for highly fascinating discussions. I’m completing a degree in philosophy myself, and don’t regret it for a second, in fact very much to the contrary. I’ve had to deal with a great range of challenging and highly abstract ideas, many of which have been extremely thought-provoking and helped me to see the world in different ways. And after all, isn’t that the point of philosophy, to make one think?

Chris,

the human mind is very powerful, I agree. I am fascinated by the life of Albert Einstein because he embodies the power of a thought. After his education he had a hard time finding a proper job and his first job was a paper shuffler in the patent office in Bern. While working there he formulated the special theory of relativity, aged 26! His only resources were his thought experiments and the body of scientific evidence in his time. Isn’t that amazing? In fact, what is amazing is that special relativity is relatively simple mathematically but its implications are so radical. General relativity is of course much much more complicated but that is another story.

As to the relevance of philosophy, I think every discipline has to promote itself and highlight its relevance. I could give you countless scientists who have shaped the world. It would be more difficult for me to name influential philosophers. I find the discussion about how we can gain knowledge (Erkenntnistheorie) very interesting since I am a scientist myself and science is all about gaining knowledge and insight into the nature of the universe. Which of these philosophical findings of the great philosophers is relevant to the scientific method? Can philosophers give practical advice how a scientist should go about his/her business?

Friedemann

Friedemann,

You might be interested in reading about Wissenschaftstheorie, or, as it’s called in English, the philosophy of science. I’ve never actually investigated this branch of philosophy myself, so i’m less qualified to make specific claims with respect to science, but that was mainly what I was referring to when I mentioned philosophy as a mover and critic of science. Logic belongs to philosophy, after all, and is the scientific method not ultimately founded on logic?

As to influential philosophers, surely you have heard of Aristotle, Socrates, Descartes, Nietzsche? They’re four of the most popular I can think of off the top of my head. Again, I would stress that I don’t think of science and philosophy as being competitors, rather as allies “fighting” for a common cause. Science is simply more practically oriented, more earthly you might say, and consequently more popular and useful, whereas philosophy deals with those underlying presuppositions such as our laws of logic which science uses to investigate and explain the world. At least as it appears to us.

I think there are areas of thought that science may never be able to answer. Could science ever explain in which situations it’s right to take someone’s life? Or why we feel moved at the sight of the sun setting? Or what we mean when we talking about “being”? These are just some of the issues that belong to the philosophical domain. It seems to me that science deals exclusively with the physically actual. Philosophy deals with everything else.