Immanuel Can’t

February 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

English: , Prussian philosopher. Português: , ...

Immanuel Kant is the bad guy. Or so the story goes. He did not live up to his name. Immanuel means ‘God with us’ and Kant made sure God could no longer be with us. Maybe it would be appropriate to change his name into ‘Immanuel Can’t’.

After all it was Kant who created a dichotomy between the things and the perception of them. In Kant-speak: the distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal. ‘Noumenal’ refers to the way things are in reality. According to Kant we can forget about knowing them as they are. Their true essence or nature is unavailable to us since those things get filtered through our senses and are molded by what our mind does to them. The impressions of those things is all we have in our mind and that’s what we have to work with. They only appear to us in a certain way; they are phenomena.

Another thing Kant did, was to say, that to use revelation in order to talk about God, was pointless. We have no way of knowing whether there is such a thing as revelation. The human mind is left to itself and has to decide on such matters by reason and empirical evidence alone. After all Kant was an Enlightenment man. So he relegated God-speak to the realm of practical reason. Only in the reasonable assessment of our moral actions was there room for God, sort of objectively, at the mercy of reason so to speak. Kant’s dichotomy between noumenal and phenomenal was supposed to curb the Enlightenment’s self-assurance. It was a critique of it. The funny thing is, that, since the scientific method resulted in such predictable and concrete results, Kant’s dichotomy was applied only to the supernatural. Of course his ideas on God and morality did little to stop that. So Kant’s thought resulted in a world in which the natural world (matter, science, stuff) is accessible to us, while the supernatural things (God, revelation, etc.) belong to the inaccessible noumenal that we prefer to ignore as being out of reach and not too useful in the first place.

And so Christians, especially conservative ones, have been pretty mad at Kant for performing the vanishing act on God. Since God does exist and since the Bible is God’s revelation, Kant has to be wrong. A good many Christians therefore prefer to ignore Kant’s ideas as a glitch in the crazy world of philosophy; they pretend Kant never existed in order to give God’s existence a much needed dose of fresh air. Everybody who paid heed to Kant went down the wrong path. Francis Schaeffer, for instance, considered the post-Enlightenment developments in Western thought one in the direction of despair and meaninglessness. Many Christian apologists go about their business of arguing for the existence of God without giving Kant his due.

I think this is wrong. It is an unconscious or even willful ignorance concerning the insights Kant brought to bear on Western thought. It may be useful to realize that Kant had no desire to remove God from the equation. He was concerned about developments in rationalism and empiricism and wanted to show that relentless confidence in human reason was going to lead nowhere. Now, the problem is that Kant was himself very much a product of the Enlightenment. ‘Dare to think’ was his maxim. He could therefore only leave room for God under the auspices of reason. Yet he tried to show that our knowing is limited. His noumenal-phenomenal distinction evidences profound insight into the nature of our knowing. Whatever has happened since Kant, it seems that with the arrival of postmodernism we are finally coming to grips with what it means not to be able to know. Kant was altogether right about the whole damn thing. The only problem is that Western civilization has come to this conclusion while wanting to maintain human autonomy. This is disconcerting to say the least.

Now, Christians are dead-scared to embrace the notion of not being able to know. It takes God away from us and renders the Bible as a useless tool to come to true knowledge about God. Maybe. Maybe not. I think what is going on is that many are really afraid to lose certainty and security. Declaring the Bible the absolute infallible Word of God is a way of assuring ourselves that what we say about God is undeniably true. It’s almost as if we are trying to by-pass the requirement of faith by putting the Bible on a pedestal and worship it. But the funny thing with Kant is that when we accept that there is so much we can’t know for sure, we also realize that that is what our relationship with God is all about in the first place. We put our trust in God, not in our knowing of God, not in our statements about the Bible. Our human knowing is fallible, because in our createdness we simply do not have the tools to obtain absolute, universal knowledge or to know something without a shred of doubt. Whether we pursue inductive or deductive ways of knowing, there are always the gaps of unknowing, failing logic, and faltering observation. But God knows. He knows everything and everything exhaustively and objectively. Our faith in God doesn’t depend on our epistemological bulwarks but on the still small transcendent voice that comes to us from beyond.

I believe Kant needs to be rehabilitated. Not that he did everything right (he had even racist ideas); not that his thinking now is the infallible foundation for modernity and beyond. He simply tried to show -with the best of intentions- that we actually know very little. And knowing that, can be a reassuring thing.


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