Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Reason versus Experience

I am falling well behind on my philosophy writing, so I wanted to finish a section here today to get my keester in gear.
Philosophy students often find the two thousand year debate over whether reason or experience is the more important path to truth exasperating, and not without reason. :-) The conclusion we ultimately reach in Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)—that both are intrinsic to knowing—can seem anticlimactic and obvious. But if we cut through the tiring repetition and get to the heart of the matter, we see a crucial question that we are still wrestling with today.

Perhaps we can see the underlying issue better if we start with Kant’s solution. Is reason or experience the dominant path to truth? Kant responded that both were involved, namely, that the content of my knowledge is largely a matter of my senses, of my experiences. Thus the empiricist is partially right. But the organization of that content is something I don’t get from experience. It is something my mind does to the content I get from my senses. Thus the rationalist is partially right.

Kant put it in this way:

"There can be no doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience. For how should our faculty of knowledge be awakened into action if objects did not affect our senses… In order of time, therefore, we have no knowledge prior to our experience, and with experience, our knowledge begins (1).

"But thinking, which is limited to objects of experience, nevertheless is not derived entirely from experience, but ... there are without question elements of thinking that exist in the mind a priori [prior to experience] (95).

"The uniting together of all impressions [from our senses] requires a synthesis of them into a unity in our consciousness" (79). Critique of Pure Reason

[Let me just say how hard it is to find a good clear quote on this from Kant. To get primary source material, I've not only had to jump all over the first part of the Critique but I've done my own dynamic equivalence translation at that to try to make his sense clearer. No wonder students hate philosophy.]

What Kant is basically saying is that we must have something in our minds that makes sense of our experiences, that connects them together so that they become meaningful. For example, I can experience a horse and I can experience a horn, but I cannot experience a unicorn. Experience may account for my idea of a horse and horn, but it cannot completely account for my idea of a unicorn.

Of course Kant was not interested in unicorns. He was concerned with things like how we can understand one event to cause another or how we can say an event is right or wrong. These are issues that a man named David Hume (1711-76) had raised just prior to Kant. Hume was the empiricist to end all empiricists. Kant once reflected on the impact of Hume on him, saying that "he interrupted my dogmatic slumber." Kant's most important ideas were to a large extent his attempt to grapple with issues raised by Hume.

For example, Hume recognized that empiricism alone cannot account for the idea of cause and effect. I can experience something happening after another thing. But these are simply a succession of experiences, one right after the other. The idea of one event causing another is not something I experience with my senses. Accordingly, Hume questioned whether the idea of cause and effect really made sense, although he decided not to try to jump out the window just the same.

But rather than conclude in Hume's pessimistic and skeptical direction, Kant suggested that my mind rightly organizes the two experiences into a pattern of cause and effect. Think of it this way. Most computers you buy come with word processing software. But until you begin to put letters and words into a document, it remains blank.

In a similar way, Kant suggested that our minds come with certain "software" that stands ready to process the input of our senses. In philosophy, we call this kind of software a priori, because it is there "from before" the time we experience anything. But it is our experience that inputs specific content into the "documents" of our knowledge. Before experience, our knowledge is a blank page, even if there are elements of cognition or knowing that are already in place.

Take another issue Hume raised, what is known as the fact-value problem. Hume suggested that there is nothing in experience that can get us from a fact (like someone just killed another person) to a value (that murder was wrong). Moral judgments, Hume pointed out, are not something that can come from our experiences.

Once again, Kant suggests that God has created our minds with certain "moral software" that glues together events with values. Our minds have built in or "innate" categories by which to process these sorts of things and glue them together. Our minds thus rightly glue together causes to effects and facts to their values. Kant also included the ideas of space and time as categories built into our minds to process experiences. We will discuss the implications of Kant's thoughts for metaphysics in chapter 7, "What is Reality?"

Kant did not end the discussion back in the 1800's. Indeed, in many respects he only got it going full speed. We will look at the major impact of his thought on the philosophy of the last two hundred years in chapter 17, "The Postmodern World."

But he gives us a good perspective from which to summarize the debate between rationalists and empiricists from Plato to Hume. Rationalists, with their emphasis on reason as the best path to truth, have tended to see truth as something that is a priori, already available to our minds in some way apart from our experiences. On the other hand, empiricists have tended to see our knowledge as almost totally derived from our experiences.

Western culture today by and large leans toward the empiricist side of things. It is harder for us to relate to Plato's philosophy (rationalist) than it is for us to relate to Aristotle's (empiricist). Plato, for example, believed that "learning is remembering" (Meno *). Our souls pre-existed our bodies in heaven, where they already were acquainted with universal truth. Learning in our bodies is thus about the process of remembering consciously the things our souls already know a priori.

[text box: Famous Rationalists]

Most of us will find Plato's notion of how learning takes place strange. We much more readily identify with Aristotle's idea that "there is nothing in my intellect that was not first in my senses" (Metaphysics**). In other words, our knowledge comes a posteriori, "from after" we experience things.

If Hume took a purely empiricist approach to its logical conclusion, it was John Locke (1632-1704) who first set down the ground rules, earning him the title "father of modern empiricism." First of all, Locke supposed, we begin with a tabula rasa, a "blank slate."

"All ideas come from sensations or reflections. Let us suppose the mid to be, as we say, a blank slate, empty of all characters, without any ideas. How does it come to fill up? Where do the materials of reason and knowledge come from? To this I answer, in one word, experience. From it all knowledge originates." (Essay Concerning Understanding)

We have sensations of the world that create simple ideas in our minds. We see the color blue and the parts of a flower. Our minds put these simple ideas together to form complex ideas, like our idea of the whole flower in all its aspects. Examples of such complex ideas included things like "beauty, gratitude, a man, an army, the universe." [Essay 12.1] Although these are complex ideas made up of simple ones, the mind considers them as one entire thing.

Hume called Locke's sensations "impressions," and was more imaginative in his examples:

"When we think of a gold mountain, we only join two consistent ideas, gold and mountain, which which we were formerly acquainted. We can conceptualize a virtuous horse because, from our own feeling, we can conceive of virtue. And we can connect this idea to the figure and shape of a horse, which is an animal familiar to us. In short, all the materials of thinking are derived either from our outward or inward sentiment. The mixture and composition of these things belongs alone to the mind and will" (Enquiry 2).

But as Hume would later point out, Locke lacked any basis in his theory to account for the "glue" that stuck some of our most important ideas together. So in Hume's empiricism, things like the relationship between cause and effect did not clearly go together. We put these sorts of things together without a clear basis in experience. If we go with a pure empiricism, Hume would seem to be right. We need some suggestion such as Kant's to come to our rescue if we are to consider some of these other things true. Thus any theory of knowledge that does not involve both the mind and experience would seem to be inadequate.

[text box: Famous Empiricists]

So what does this historic debate have to say about reason and experience as sources of truth, especially for a Christian? One is that experience does not automatically equal truth. Kant rightly pointed out the fact that my mind processes the evidence I get from my senses. I apparently do not know the world as raw experience but as processed experience. My mind organizes my experiences according to its rules.

This raises the question of how accurate the "rules" of my mind are. Kant brings his faith in God into play here--surely God has given us good software. But if our minds are "fallen," affected by sin--not to mention limited in what they can grasp and see--the accuracy of the way my mind processes experience is called into question. [note: James Smith's book] We came across this issue in the previous section as we noted that we do not have the Bible as "raw truth" but we inevitably have to interpret and process its truth with our minds.

We should also point out that although Westerners are thoroughly empiricist in practice. American Christians often lean very heavily in a Platonic direction when it comes to Christian truth. They assume that there is a body of absolute truth that exists in heaven to which we have direct access through prayer and the Bible, rather than through experience. It is important to point out the potential inconsistency--for the same person to affirm such different paths to truth because of the change of subject. In the end it would seem that our minds process and organize spiritual experiences just as they do more conventional sensory ones. [note on brain]

1 comment:

Nathan Crawford said...

Great job summarizing the material here. There are a lot of offshoots from this into the present world - especially as it comes into what it is that we can know.

Also, I feel your pain trying to find a good quote or summary from Kant on his thinking. I made it my mission to read his three critiques this summer (I'm in the third at the moment) and he seems to have twelve or fifteen thoughts intertwined at all moments - it's kind of sickening. Not to mention the fact that he opens things he said were closed and, well, now I'm on a tangent.