Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Kant by Numbers

It’s time to write about Kant once more, and again I find myself hesitant to comment on the content of his very difficult writing. Without hesitation I can admit gratefulness that the original ten-year plan in the Britannica set spread out the Kant readings over the entire decade, and I can say that I’m just as glad I gave myself a second ten years to review it all. I definitely understand the overall system better this second time around, but I also find many specific passages more opaque this time than I did before, if my sketchy notes offer any sure indication. I probably didn’t understand then as much as I thought I did, which tells me I probably don’t understand now as much as I think I do, either.

Ironically, considering my diffidence, Kant appears to have gone to great lengths to present his ideas systematically and in the most organized fashion, suitably for a man whose philosophy states that our minds by their nature organize and systematize all sensations, perceptions, and ideas. I’m now reading the third and longest section of the Critique of Pure Reason, the section on Transcendental Dialectic. Here Kant says that our logical reasoning unifies three things we can never possibly perceive: our thinking selves, the conditions for all the phenomena we experience, and the condition for the existence of all things (i.e., God). Whether these things are actually unified, we can never know, he says. Our reason simply leads us to believe that they are so.

Part of Kant’s drive to organization reveals itself in numbers. According to Kant, these three unified ideas correspond to the three types of syllogism: categorical (which begin All A are B), hypothetical (which begin If A then B), and disjunctive (which begin Either A or B). The longest chapter of this longest section of the book concerns the ideas arising from hypothetical reasoning. Kant critiques them by examining four antinomies. Each antinomy has two contradictory yet seemingly airtight conclusions, and one solution.

As an example, Kant presents rational arguments to prove both that time had a beginning and that time has no beginning. If time had no beginning, he says, there would have been an infinite span of time before us. But an infinite span can by definition never be traversed, and so time would never have come to our point. Therefore time had a beginning. But if time had a beginning, then what would have been before time? More absurdities. His solution to the conundrum declares that time has no objective reality but exists only as a mode of human perception, and as humans, we can never imagine enough time to know if it has a beginning or not. I wish Kant had occasionally provided vivid analogies to aid in assimilating his dense prose and quirky ideas. Perhaps we could think of being on a tall mountain (with clear skies and a good telescope) and seeing a road stretch from one horizon to another. It does no good to say whether the road goes on forever or comes to ends. We are absolutely incapable of seeing far enough to determine.

Curiously, Kant mentions Zeno’s similar paradoxes about time, which I read about twice already this year, once in January and once in March. Neither Plato nor Aristotle can fully approve of Zeno’s logical contradictions, but Kant says Zeno got it right. I thought the coincidence of reading about Zeno twice in one year remarkable enough to blog on earlier. Who would have thought I’d come across the Eleatic philosopher for a third time in 2012?

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