The following article assumes that the reader has some familiarity with the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and his understanding of the phenomenon/noumenon-divide. The noumenon was very important for Jung, and in Psychological Types §659 he even assumed that Ni types could see into the noumenon. But why should the noumenon even exist? Many people, especially NTJ types like Hegel, Nietzsche, and Ayn Rand, have railed violently and forcefully against Kant, and the very idea of the noumenon’s existence appears to be under a great deal of pressure these years.
Why should the noumenon exist? And even if it does exist, does it even mean that it is a worthwhile discovery, or something we have to worry about? Certainly, the human mind could warp and filter reality, as Kant said, but the degree to which this goes on could be so infinitesimal that there is no significant difference to speak of.
I.e. Kant could be right, but his discovery of the filtering mechanism could be insignificant.
Kant asserts that the difference between object-in-itself and object-as-perception is there and that it is non-trivial.
But according to Kant’s manner of thinking, this is NOT an empirical claim as everything empirical belongs to the world of perception. It is by way of reflexivity, i.e. by reason and thought analyzing itself, that he arrives at the idea that there must be a difference between pure reality and reality-as-perception.
But then we must ask ourselves the obvious question: When everything that is thought or perceived must in some sense be subjected to the automated machinations of the human mind, then how does Kant himself know that the thing-as-perceived does, in fact, differ from the thing-in-itself?
This is a pertinent argument against Kant. He attempts to answer it in various ways, e.g. by showing how our cognitive faculties are bound to lead us into paradox and contradiction when examining the nature of reality, e.g.:
- Is everything just atoms, or does a new layer of reality ’emerge’ somewhere along the way up to full consciousness?
- Does the reflexivity of consciousness somehow impact conditions going forward [i.e. by some form of will], or is the reflexivity of consciousness wholly determined by the antecedents already given?
- Can the totality of the universe be regarded as a sum-total, i.e. an object that encompasses the totality, or is it a multitude?
In spite of the ‘new materialism’ of people like Sam Harris and Stephen Hawking, none of these questions can really be decided on merely empirical grounds. Their intellectual grandfather, E.O. Wilson, knew this and said:
“[Scientific materialism] is a metaphysical world view, and a minority one at that, shared by only a few scientists and philosophers. It cannot be proved with logic from first principles or grounded in any definitive set of empirical tests, at least not by any yet conceived. Its best support is no more than an extrapolation of the consistent past success of the natural sciences.” – Wilson: ‘Consilience’ ; Abacus 1999 ed., p. 7
What happens with Harris, Hawking etc. is really a philosophical nivellation; they dodge the tough questions from their academic opponents and simply declare their views to have been “proven by science” in books meant for the public. They have certainly won the war for the public opinion, but the gauntlet that was thrown down by Hume, Kant, Popper, et al. has been ignored. Particularly disgraceful in this regard is how these “new materialists” declare themselves to be the scions of Hume all the while ignorantly and gregariously trampling his ontological skepticism underfoot.
While one can attempt to buttress the claim that there is a difference between the object-in-itself and object-as-perception by use of experimental, empirical facts, that is really to miss the point. Even if we assume that Kant is correct, this method will diminish his thought, because:
- By virtue of our experience of this warping it will be subject to those same warpings that govern over cognition of the empirical domain.
- Again, assuming that Kant is correct the differences that we will be able to ‘point toward’ with the aid of experimental and empirical evidence may not be the most profound ways in which we ‘warp’ reality.
Next, is there any good reason to believe in the noumenon? Isn’t it essentially like believing in the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny?
No: The difference between Kant’s argument and all manner of supernatural beliefs is that Kant would grant that everything that is cognized by us humans appears to us as subject to science and natural laws. So he would not accept, say, a boulder magically altering its course in order to avoid crushing the kindergarten that was passing by below. According to Kant, any empirical phenomena that we can examine will, in the end, end up conforming to natural laws. If the boulder changed trajectory, then it will have done so in accordance with the laws of motion.
However, on the other hand he says that the empirical domain is not all that there is to reality. This is indeed an appeal to the “meta-physical” as he would be the first to assert. In common parlance, “metaphysical” has now become a term of abuse, or synonymous with miracle workers and fortune tellers, but in a philosophical sense it simply means meta-empirical.
So if one would say that Kant’s meta-empirical aspect of reality can’t be asserted, one would be entirely in the right, but on the other hand, Kant is also right when he says that his opponents can’t assert that the empirical dimension is all that there is to reality.
Thus, both the claim that there is another aspect of reality which we can’t perceive and the claim that the empirical dimension is all that there is to reality are metaphysical claims. The proponent of the former can’t assert his claims to be true by any empirical standard and the proponent of the latter can’t prove that the empirical dimension is exhaustive. (Cf. Wilson above, who was himself a non-Kantian.)
Any position on this matter is therefore metaphysical. Whether one agrees with Kant on the points discussed so far is thus really a matter of intuition and taste when it really comes down to it; a taste in ideas.
This is where psychology might lend us a hand: In Jungian terms, Te/Fi types are more likely to believe that human cognition is sufficient to exhaust reality (Aristotle) and Ti/Fe types are more likely to think that normal human cognition is insufficient to exhaust reality (Plato).
The fact that we are now getting a host of Ti types propagating the anti-Kantian position is a historical anomaly, attesting perhaps to the continued success of the empirical method. Yet this continued success is a matter of quantity. Within a Kantian framework it is a mistake to think that quantity will suddenly spill over into a qualitatively different domain (i.e. the meta-empirical, again, cf. Wilson above.)
So ultimately, Kant doesn’t have to prove that “there’s more” than empiricism to reality, he just has to argue that what we know about reality isn’t exhaustive. He doesn’t have to “win” he just has to pull a “draw”. And that isn’t too hard.
As Owen Flanagan (another non-Kantian) has said, not even in theory do we know of any series of empirical experiments that can prove that empiricism is exhaustive. So again, whether one believes in the Kantian noumenon becomes a matter of taste. Both positions are metaphysical (i.e. postulating something beyond the physical itself). Kant’s intuition is that there’s “something more” that is qualitatively different – his opponent’s intuition is that whatever “more” there is can be made to conform to the empirical laws that we already know, or that our present body of natural laws can be revised and reformulated so as to eventually form a completely exhaustive account of reality.
The people, who want Kant to pull a “win” before they will take his idea of the noumenon seriously as essentially stacking the deck in their own favor. They might as well turn the argument around and´ask: Why should something be nonexistent simply because humans can’t perceive it? Flanagan and Wilson understood this, but they did not complain: They granted that Kant’s argument can’t be refuted, but got around it by saying that the practical consequences for science are negligible and that one day we may be able to devise a series of tests that can determine if such a dimension of reality really exists.
So people would say that by employing this line of arguing, Kant is framing the argument in such a way as to make it almost impossible to refute his position.
They would be quite correct to say that. But as the physicist Mario Bunge has said, you should aim to subject your claims to tough tests rather than soft ones. If you’re going to make claims about the ultimate nature of reality, then you had better well make sure that you’re subjecting your claims to the toughest possible test. And here, Kant’s critique of cognition is one of the hardest tests that we know.
It is perhaps true that Kant’s noumenon is somewhat analogous to a religion, yet with the notable difference that religious people often claim to know what God is doing, what he wants, who he is, etc., whereas in a Kantian epistemology we would say that we could not know any of this. The only thing we can know, according to strict Kantianism, is that we cannot disprove God’s existence. Yet at the same time, nor is there, scientifically speaking, anything in the empirical domain that points to the existence of miracles or a God; that is purely a matter of faith. Within a Kantian framework there may be one or more deities dwelling in the noumenal dimension of reality, but there may also not be. We can’t reasonably know.
This is not a copout for the kind of faith that you see in religious people who want to assert their beliefs in public. They would hardly accept such tight limitations on their beliefs. But nor is it a concession to the ‘new atheists’ like Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking, Daniel Dennett, or even Russell before them. Their arguments are really quite lowbrow, peddling false dilemmas like gunning down specific claims from the Bible and then taking that as proof against all religion (which is really quite ridiculous as the karmic law of Hinduism/Buddhism is entirely transcendent.) Likewise, in the case of Russell and his flying teapot, the sophistry consists again of confounding the empirical domain with the noumenon.
When such ‘difficult’ questions as these are parsed out in formal debates it often happens that the nuances of both positions are lost. At the end of the day, we do not think that the value of Kant’s thought lies in these ivory tower type of discussions that are not going to be settled in any immediate future anyway. Nor do we think that phenomenon/noumenon; fact/value and science/non-science exist as entirely distinct categories outside of pure thought.
If we are to leave the formal discussions behind in order to try and discover what Kant was talking about, rather than what arguments there may be made for his case, it appears to us that we can’t conceive of experience without also conceiving of space, location, and time. To Kant, space and time were properties that we imposed upon the world, our minds having actually started before “we” start to cognize reality.
Here are some examples from modern-day science that Kant may be right:
(a) Location: Looking at quantum, it seems that our usual notions of space and location collapse. As far as quantum is understood today, a particle has no locality until it is observed. It has no location, but is all over the universe at once (technically we would say: in a wave form).
However, once we observe the particle, it materializes in a specific location.There is no unanimously accepted physical or metaphysical framework to make sense of this. Bohr famously said that it was all in the eyes of the observer, which leads us right back to the social constructivism of the left wing.
Physicists today don’t tend to study Kant (although Gödel, Einstein and Heisenberg certainly did). But maybe they should, because what they are observing is actually quite close to the gist of Kant’s thought.
However, Kant thought that reality was “just there” and then we warped it in our heads while it was still “just there” in unmodified form independently of us. As it seems from quantum mechanics, however, reality is not really “just there” behind our cognitive spectacles; reality itself becomes warped by our perception. So quantum actually differs a little from Kant. Yet Kant’s idea of the noumenon as an “unobserved, indivisible wholeness” that cannot be digested by normal human cognition still comes uncannily close to what we are observing.
This is what we mean when we say that philosophical discussion of Kantian epistemology actually leads us away from the insights that can be gained by studying his thought (other than purely intellectual exercises in deduction): In a philosophical discussion we end up discussing “layers” or “dimensions” of reality, whereas what we may really be dealing with is processed and unprocessed aspects of reality as digested by human cognition. (And the very digestion changes the thing-in-itself!)
(b) Time: Phenomenologically we cannot conceive of experience without time; using your terminology, we can barely “not know” what an experience devoid of time would be like. Yet as we know from relativity, traveling at the speed of light will cause time to stand still. So basically this tells us there is a difference between knowing something intellectually and then cognizing something phenomenologically. We can intellectually understand that a wall is made mostly of atoms, but we can’t cognize the fact that the wall is mostly void phenomenologically. So far so good. But we can postulate a ladder where things get progressively harder for us to understand, even intellectually:
- Level 1: A wall consists mostly of void, not matter.
- Level 2: There is no time when traveling at the speed of light.
- Level 3: A particle that is not observed is a non-material wave that is everywhere at once; once observed it gains material existence in a specific location.
Level 1 is easy enough to understand and investigate, even though our cognition is plainly not cut out to perceive a wall as consisting mostly of void. But at Level 3 we are beyond the limits of what our cognition can meaningfully process. Even at PhD level most physicists make the mistake of using “materialist” logic for quantum calculus. Our brain does not understand the unconditioned; it wants reality to be conditioned. It brings its own a priori categories to the table and it is not going to give them up without a fight.
(This is furthermore supported by ‘mystical’ experiences, such as from meditation, which have a surprisingly similar phenomenology in spite of profound differences in method, location, and chronology. People who lived on different continents in different centuries report such unconditioned flashes of insight into reality, but they cannot be maintained for long before the brain starts re-asserting the usual structures by which we cognize reality. In other words, it can’t maintain a noumenal, or rather partially noumenal, view of reality for more than a few moments.)
We have postulated three levels above. But is that all? How far does the rabbit hole go? We don’t know.
Say the rabbit hole goes to Level 1000. Does this mean that we will at some point have crossed a line into some ‘noumenal’ mode, or will we merely have planted the flag onto hitherto undiscovered aspects of the empirical domain?
All of these questions, again, remain unanswered. And personally we think it is unreasonable to try and decide them in any ultimate sense, given our current status of knowledge. An alternative may be the one proposed by David Hume: To be a naturalist in the everyday sense (i.e. assume our default mode of cognition as conventionally true), but to be a skeptic in the ultimate sense. This leaves us with a mechanistic, scientific universe that conforms to the laws of nature and which has no miracles or God; a universe where “man knows what he knows” (“there is no evidence for the existence of God, hence belief is irrational”), but at the same time does not presume to know what he cannot reasonably know (“my experience is finite and hence it would be impossible [but not irrational] to assert my experience with regards to the infinite).
This is still closer to Kant than the anti-Kantian positions that we are seeing from the likes of Sam Harris today. Yet in its own time, Hume’s idea was disturbing enough to Kant to provoke him to come up with the split in the first place.