7/31/2017. Kant and Our Ineradicable Desire to be God

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1 Radical Evil Kant and Our Ineradicable Desire to be God 1

2 Immanuel Kant ( ) Kant indeed marks the end of the Enlightenment: he brought its most fundamental assumptions concerning the powers of human reason to a devastating critique in doing so, he also transformed our understanding of ethics, politics, religion and the nature of evil before we understand these, however, we must have some basic grasp of his theory of knowledge, or epistemology 2

3 Kantian dualism The three faculties of the mind are the sense, the understanding, and the reason. In the sense, objects are given to us, providing us with percepts or sensations. In the understanding, objects are thought, thereby giving rise to concepts. There are two kinds of concepts: concepts a posteriori these are merely abstracted from sense experience (e.g., whiteness, hardness, roundness, etc.) concepts a priori these are necessary and universal, describing the form rather than the content of experience (e.g., time, space, cause, etc.), and since these could hardly be derived from experience, they are subjective, given by the perceiving subject The fact that knowledge always involves both concepts and percepts yields the two Kantian worlds : the noumenal or intelligible world i.e., the Ding-an-sich, things-in-themselves, the World As It Really Is, etc. which we can never know as such the phenomenal or sensible world i.e., the world as we understand it, which constitutes the realm of knowledge per se 3

4 The three ideas of Kant s reason The reason is the faculty that employs ideas which: like a priori concepts, are general notions that cannot be derived from percepts unlike a priori concepts, are general notions that cannot be applied to percepts The most important examples of such ideas are our general notions of freedom, immortality, and God. But in order to understand how Kant arrives at these three ideas of the reason, and how he uses them, we must first understand Kant s ethics. 4

5 Kant s ethics An important part of Kant s revolution was to argue that knowledge is not an undifferentiated whole: theoretical knowledge seeks to know the phenomenal world of appearances through science practical knowledge seeks to know the moral values by which our actions might be judged Remarkably, Kant believed that: experience has absolutely nothing to teach us about the second (Kant was thus an anti-utilitarian and anti-empiricist in ethics) as the universality of our moral judgments suggests, our practical knowledge precedes our awareness of phenomenal events and is far more certain we act morally, not from prudence, nor from self-interest, nor even from inclination but simply because it is our duty How, then, do we know our duty? 5

6 The categorical imperative How, then, do we know our duty? briefly, the warrant for dutiful action comes from the conformity of the actor s will to a general law (which serves the will as a principle, or maxim, of action) this law is the categorical imperative i.e., we should act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law Kant s contemporaries, as well as later writers, were quick to point out that the categorical imperative bears a remarkable similarity to the Golden Rule i.e., to do unto others as you would have them do unto you 6

7 Kant on the classical arguments for God s existence Kant s view of the so-called classical arguments for the existence of God might be usefully compared with those of Hume: like Hume, Kant felt that all three of these arguments Ontological, Cosmological, and Teleological were fundamentally mistaken but unlike Hume, Kant did not regard general ideas like freedom or immortality or God as meaningless rather, he simply felt that we were mistaken in conceiving such transcendental ideas as objects of knowledge in fact, Kant considered such ideas to be natural to human reason, and thus as having an important function to play in our understanding of the world 7

8 The moral argument for human freedom Consider, for example, the idea of human freedom (or freedom of the will): this could hardly be an object of theoretical (scientific) knowledge, for the very effort to show how human behavior is the effect of complex prior causes seems to undermine the idea of free will itself but if we consider the deontological (binding) character of the categorical imperative, it quickly becomes obvious that it makes no sense whatever unless human beings are free to act according to its demands e.g., to say that one ought to do something over which one has no control is simply nonsense the injunction to act morally thus presupposes the freedom to do so; and to deny freedom is to make the moral law absurd 8

9 The moral argument for immortality Again, consider the belief in the immortality of the soul: according to the categorical imperative, the supreme good for each individual is the good will, or virtue, in which one s will is in perfect accord with the moral life to say that something ought to be is to say that it is possible yet even if it were possible, it is equally clear that no rational being is capable of obtaining the supreme good within the span of a single lifetime thus, not irrationally, we postulate the existence of an immortal soul 9

10 The moral argument for the existence of God The supreme good is not yet the perfect good: the perfect good would include, not just virtue, but also happiness proportioned precisely according to one s virtue clearly, this perfect good is unattainable, not just within a single lifetime, but also through human effort alone thus, just as we postulate an immortal soul, we also postulate God as an ideal sufficient to the achievement of a world in which virtue and happiness are reconciled 10

11 Kant on belief and rational faith It is important to understand the epistemological status of these beliefs: freedom, the immortality of the human soul, and the existence of God are rational postulates required by the practical reason although they are derived from the categorical imperative, they are in fact subjective wants rather than objective duties themselves to believe in them is an act of rational faith i.e., we may choose to reject them but inversely, they are things in which it is not irrational to believe quite fervently 11

12 Our propensity for evil In fact, five years after the Critique, Kant published Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason (1793), arguing that human beings have a natural, innate propensity for evil. This natural propensity is expressed in at least three different ways: 1. the frailty of human nature i.e., the general weakness of the human heart in complying with the adopted maxims, as in the famous utterance of Paul in his Letter to Romans: What I would, that I do not! 2. the impurity of human nature i.e., the tendency to adulterate moral incentives with immoral ones (even when it is done with good intention, and under maxims of the good) 3. the depravity of human nature i.e., the propensity to embrace evil maxims, which subordinate the incentives of the moral law to other incentives 12

13 The radical innate evil in human nature In a particularly subtle and elusive argument, Kant went to describe this as a radical innate evil in human nature thus inspiring a sometimes bewildering scholarly discussion of radical evil which is still gathering momentum: briefly, for Kant, whether a human being is good or evil depends not on the differences between the incentives (sensuous or moral) that he incorporates into his maxim, but on the subordination within the maxim i.e., which of the two he makes the condition of the other a propensity to such an inversion lies in human nature, and thus there is in the human being a natural propensity to evil, which must ultimately be sought in the free power of choice this evil is radical i.e., it corrupts the ground of all maxims it cannot be extirpated through human effort, for this could happen only through good maxims something that cannot take place if the subjective ground of all maxims is already corrupted but it must equally be possible to overcome this evil, for it is found in the very condition of human freedom itself 13

14 Our wish to be God... Susan Neiman has suggested that there are two almost contradictory themes in Kant s thought on the problem of evil. The first concerns the dissatisfaction we experience upon realizing that we are not God: our practical reason demands that happiness and virtue should be systematically connected; indeed, this is the purpose of all moral action, and the basis of our faith in God but for us to know what God knows would not only be metaphysically impossible, but also morally disastrous, for every good act would, of necessity, be calculated according to its anticipated effect the very notion of human freedom thus depends upon the limitations of our reason, and for this, we should be grateful i.e., that faith is not scientific knowledge, and that God remains inscrutable 14

15 ...is the wish that we can never extinguish. This in turn leads us to the second theme in Kant s view of the problem of evil: briefly, since the faith in a world which coordinates happiness and virtue cannot possibly be faith in another world to come, it must lie in the transformation of the world in which we live solving the problem of evil, therefore, is not only impossible, but also immoral, for knowing the connections between moral and natural evils would undermine the very possibility of morality itself In his later work, Kant went further, arguing that theodicy was not only impossible and immoral, but tended toward blasphemy and impiety. 15

16 To never be at home in the world. The young Nietzsche thus described Kant s view of the separation of virtue and happiness as tragic something to whose reconciliation we aspire, but which is forever beyond our reach. The categorical imperative, Kant agreed, offers us the enticing opportunity to pretend that we are God, to imagine ourselves writ large; but we are never, and never can be, at home in the world. In fact, the thought that the rift between reason and nature is neither error nor punishment, but the fault line along which the universe is structured, can be a source of pure terror. 16

17 Kant on the Teleological Argument In the Critique of Judgment (1790), therefore, Kant mused about the Teleological Argument: a world that constantly evokes pleasure at the discovery of design within it could only be the product of a benevolent Designer (the only proof of God s existence that impresses both the man on the street and the scholar) but in addition to the beautiful, nature gives us the sublime (lightning, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, etc.) which is shot through with violence and thus teaches us that the world was not made for us after all 17

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