DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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I Kant (1724-1804)
Immanuel Kant is considered by some to have been the greatest philosopher of modern times. He certainly had a deep and lasting influence upon those of his contemporaries who thought about the meaning of religion.

Kant was born in K�nigsberg, East Prussia, the fourth of nine children. His chest was deformed and he was only about five feet tall. Despite that, he was a brilliant speaker, often in great demand. His father was a saddle maker who died when Kant was twenty-two. Anthony Storr remarks that Kant depicted childhood

as a period when discipline imposed by others must necessarily and regrettably restrict the child's freedom. Indeed, he thought that infants cried at birth because they resented as a constraint their inability to make proper use of their own limbs ... his insistence upon complete autonomy displayed itself early ... [1]

Bertrand Russell did not think him the greatest of modern philosophers, but rated his importance highly. He notes Kant's insistence upon personal autonomy, reporting that Kant said

... there can be nothing more dreadful than that the actions of one man should be subject to the will of another [2].

Storr tells how difficult it seemed to be for Kant to relate closely to anyone, a trait which may account to some extent for the line his philosophy took. He remained unmarried though he had a number of loyal friends. He never travelled further than about 100 kilometres from home. Later in life his obsessional tendencies (he took pains never to sweat, for example) became more apparent in a rigid daily routine regulated by the clock. People could set their watches by him as he passed by on his daily walks. He developed

... a technique of breathing only through his nose ... [and] refused to take a companion on his daily walk in case conversation forced him to breathe through his mouth whilst in the open air [1].

So although Kant lived in troubled times - the European Seven Years' War, the French Revolution and the early part of Napoleon's career - his life was uneventful and highly structured.

He thought the French Revolution was a good thing - until the events of the Terror. His hero was Rousseau. He was missed on his regular walks for several days once when, as Russell tells, he was reading Rousseau's Emile.

His Perpetual Peace of 1795 addressed political and social matters. He thought that reason utterly forbids war. The excesses of the Revolution made him suspicious of democracy which he thought necessarily results in despotism. The notion of a balance of powers which reduces and, at its best, banishes minority control did not occur to him. He wrote:

The 'whole people', so-called, who carry their measures are really not all, but only a majority: so that here the universal will is in contradiction with itself and with the principle of freedom.

Kant studied physics and mathematics at the University of K�nigsberg. He taught at the university for 15 years, lecturing first on science and mathematics, as well as geography, but gradually enlarging his field of concentration to cover almost all branches of philosophy.

He pored over the works of Isaac Newton and went on to write an early book entitled General Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755). He wrote on earthquakes, wind and physical geography amongst many other aspects of science.

Although Kant�s lectures and works written during this period established his reputation as an original and creative philosopher, he did not receive a chair at the university until 1770, when he was made Professor of Logic and Metaphysics. 

Kant�s unorthodox religious teachings, based on reason rather than revelation, brought him into conflict with the government of Prussia. In 1792 he was forbidden by Frederick William II, King of Prussia, to teach or write on religious subjects.

Kant obeyed this order for five years until the death of the king and then felt released from his obligation. In 1798, the year following his retirement from the university, he published a summary of his religious views.

Kant lived towards the end of the Enlightenment, when the radical changes in the way people in the West viewed the world were becoming more apparent. In passing from an age in which authority was the measure, he and others grappled with the implications of thinking for oneself. 

Submission to external authority can be described as heteronomous or "subject to external controls and impositions" [3]. This word is much less well known than its antonym autonomous - perhaps because autonomy is a reigning paradigm of our post-Enlightenment world.

Kant put it like this:

Enlightenment is man's exodus from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is the inability to use one's understanding without the guidance of another person.

He continued:

Dare to know. Have the courage to use your own understanding; this is the motto of the Enlightenment [4].

His concerns reflected the climate of perceptual change going on at the time. Before this there had been three major ways of thinking about the world. Greek philosophy of the Platonic school was fundamentally  oriented towards a priori reasoning. The school of Aristotle looked more towards drawing conclusions from observation of the world. The Christian stance was that all ultimate knowledge is revealed to us by God.

The heart of Kant�s philosophy, often called critical philosophy, is in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781). Kant, in line with the other thinkers of his times, concentrated on how we think about and know ourselves and the world around us. He was influenced by few other thinkers.

The purpose of the Critique was to demonstrate that experience is the source of knowledge but that some of it, once discovered, stands alone as a pure type. Although our knowledge can't transcend experience, at least some of it is not inferred inductively from experience but is a priori (knowledge that is acquired irrespective of experience, that is, by deductive reasoning alone).

"The bird is blue" is an empirical statement, which must be experienced before it can be understood. Part of that experience is knowledge of colour. This knowledge is a posteriori

In contrast, there are a priori statements such as "two plus two makes four". A child may be helped to understand that 2 + 2 = 4 by playing with four marbles - but once the proposition is understood it becomes self-evident. 

Russell puts the matter this way:

An 'empirical' proposition is one which we cannot know except by the help of sense perception, either our own of that of someone else whose testimony we accept. The facts of history and geography are of this sort; so are the laws of science, whenever our knowledge of their truth depends upon observational data. An 'a priori' proposition, on the other hand, is one which, though it may be elicited by experience, is seen, when known, to have a basis other than experience.

Before Kant, Ren� Descartes had argued that all true knowledge is a priori, while David Hume and John Locke argued that only what comes from experience (that is, a posteriori) can truly be said to be knowable.

Most religions, and particularly Christianity in Europe thought that the most important knowledge came from God (or the gods) via revelation. Revelation is a direct form of communication through the writings, speech and deeds of holy people and through the medium of special events like natural disasters or strange phenomena.

So Kant, in order to develop what seemed to some to be a deadlock between reason and revelation, proposed that thought can be differentiated into "analytic" and "synthetic" propositions.

An analytic proposition is one in which the predicate is contained in the subject, as in the statement "birds (subject) have wings (predicate)". To state the reverse would be to make the proposition self-contradictory, ("wings have birds"). So this kind of proposition can be called knowledge. They are called analytic because truth is discovered by the analysis of the subject itself, in this case, of the concept "bird".

Synthetic propositions, on the other hand, are those that cannot be arrived at by pure analysis but only by observation or experience. To say "the bird is blue" is to make a synthetic statement because the colour must be observed first. The bird could have been yellow. To know that it is yellow one has to know about other colours and differentiate that of the bird from them. That is, colour is not something attached specifically to birds. 

Similarly, one has to observe that today is a wet day. This type of knowledge can't be worked out just by thinking about it. All the common propositions that result from experience of the world are synthetic.

In describing how this type of judgement is possible, Kant regarded the objects of the world as unknowable at a fundamental level. From the point of view of reason, they serve merely as the raw material from which perceptions are formed. Objects in themselves are unknowable since any one object can be perceived in different ways by different individuals. 

If person A sees one thing in a Rorschach test and person B sees something else, who is to say which is "correct"? The inkblots can't be known in the usual sense of knowing anything. This example might seem extreme - but in fact the point relates to anything.

We apply what Kant called "intuitions" (or raw perceptions, which are intrinsic to the human mind) in order to make sense of the world. This is how people gain most of their knowledge. It follows that any intelligible experience will be organized through categories of raw perception.

For example, the fact that we have to organize all our experience through the category of "cause and effect" can be expressed in the synthetic a priori judgement that "every event has a cause". This judgement is a priori because we can know it simply by reflecting on the fact that the category of cause and effect is essential to intelligible experience. We do not have to check whether in our experience every effect does indeed have a cause.

It is also synthetic because the concept "event" does not contain the concept of "caused" in the way that the concept of "bird" contains the concept of "winged". Such synthetic a priori judgements form the fundamental principles of science, according to Kant.

Therefore, knowledge belongs to the mind, and is applied by the mind to our raw perceptions in order to gain knowledge. Accordingly, our conceptual knowledge can only be of the world as it is "for us". The opposite view would be that time, space, and the categories are inherent in the structure of the world as it is "in itself", independently of its being experienced by people.

In demolishing the ontological, cosmological and teleological proofs for the existence of God, Kant argued that humans can have no knowledge of God. We can only propose or suppose God. He wrote: "I have found it necessary to deny knowledge [of God] in order to make room for faith" - a position taken up in the 20th century by Karl Barth and others who set out to defend orthodoxy from the inroads of science's synthetic a priori judgements.

In essence, he separated knowledge of God from "pure reason". When we talk of "knowledge" of God (or anything of that sort) we're not really talking about knowledge in the normal sense of the word, said Kant. This in turn means that religious propositions are not the sort that can be supported by reason or proofs.

Thus religious propositions are synthetic statements. They don't describe (analyse) experience but add something to experience which is not really included in it. Analytic judgements can be checked out against experience. Religious statements can be checked out only by the law of contradiction, which is essentially an internal check. Thus it's impossible to "prove" religious statements in the same way that scientific (analytic) statements can be verified.

For many decades, people had been wondering what might be a satisfactory basis for deciding what comprises right conduct. If it was no longer credible to rest upon [a] the God-given laws of good behaviour in the Old Testament and [b] the God-given authority of the Church, what could take their place?

Kant provided what at first appeared to be a satisfactory basis for human conduct. Like other idealists, he rejected purely utilitarian ethical foundations for those which could be demonstrated by abstract argument.

One had only to work out by reason how the world worked - including how societies work - to perceive clearly an inbuilt moral order. From that vision could be rationally worked out the best possible ways ahead for both individuals and societies. One had only to think properly and all would eventually fall into place. Russell writes of Kant's ideas on morality that

The essence of morality is to be derived from the concept of law; for, though everything in nature acts according to laws, only a rational being has the power of acting according to the idea of law ...

In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (1795) Kant based his ethical system on a belief that morality springs from reason. Moral actions, he believed, must be undertaken from a sense of duty ultimately dictated by reason, and no action performed out of inclination, for expediency, or solely in obedience to law or custom can be regarded as moral.

His starting point was his now well-known observation:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within [4].

Kant described two types of ethical command derived from reason. 

The "hypothetical imperative" rationally dictates a given course of action to reach a specific end or goal. It would say, "You must do so-and-so if you intend to achieve this or that outcome". It is subjective and calculated.

The "categorical imperative" rationally dictates a course of action independent of whatever goals the agent may have and therefore stands as right regardless of the "why" of doing it. It is objectively necessary without regard to outcome.

All moral formulations originate a priori in our reason. Kant stated his categorical imperative in two key formulations - which are really guidelines rather than axioms: 

  • "Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a general natural law"; 
  • "Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only".

In this sense, Kant's "proof" for God was an argument from morality. Because we feel free, we feel responsible. This sense of moral obligation drives us to act constructively. There must be someone or something upon which our obligation focuses. This is what we term "God".

Kant also argued that it is our goal to meet all the demands which the moral imperative lays upon us. But life is too short for most of us to achieve this. It follows that the human soul must be immortal, since only that condition will allow us to reach the state of moral perfection for which we exist.

Being conscious of deciding for ourselves, practical reason acts on this consciousness. That is, God is a necessity of practical reason because if there is no God there is no point in trying to attain the highest reason. God is therefore necessary as the moral absolute:

... it is only from a morally perfect and at the same time all-powerful will and consequently only through harmony with this will, that we can hope to attain the summum bonum which the moral law makes it our duty to take as the object of our endeavours [4].

Kant�s ethical ideas are the logical outcome of his belief in the fundamental freedom of the individual. In his Critique Kant worked out his statement of the freedom of the individual - that is, the freedom to obey consciously the laws intrinsic to one�s nature as a rational being. 

He believed that the world was progressing towards an ideal society in which reason would 

... bind every lawgiver to make his laws in such a way that they could have sprung from the united will of an entire people, and to regard every subject, in so far as he wishes to be a citizen, on the basis of whether he has conformed to that will.

It was hardly surprising that the religious authorities, closely linked as they were with the secular authorities of the time, should think Kant's ideas dangerous. It seemed to them a new version of deism, rendered even more suspect because

  • it made unnecessary a personal redeemer, prayer or miracles as testified to in the Bible, and
  • was based on moral experience instead of revelation.

Kant was the inspiration for the school known as Idealism, whose chief representatives were Johann Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and G W F Hegel. 

They were united in aiming to salvage Kant�s basic insights while overcoming the oppositions in his philosophy between the "thing in itself" and the "thing for us" - that is, the clash between those who think that we can know physical reality as it actually is, and those who think that while we may agree about some aspects of physical reality (say by using the scientific method or some other) we all perceive reality in our own unique way. 

Kant�s so-called "transcendental dialectic" was the immediate predecessor of the dialectical methods used by Hegel and Marx.

Of course, every thinker rests upon a foundation of those who went before. But there is a sense in which Kant both formulated and channeled a current of thought which had been flowing for some time.

Newton had shown (as far as most people of the time were concerned) that the universe operates according to immutable rules of physical behaviour. The world and the planets go round the sun on precise orbits. Once one knows the mathematics, one can calculate these orbits exactly. In the same way, it will only be a matter of time before humankind has worked out all the other immutable laws which govern our existence.

Not long after Kant's death, Darwin was to elucidate the "laws" of natural change and development of all living things. This demonstrated an order "red in tooth and claw" in which the fittest survive. Far from having been created by God, both we and the world are the result of forces which, by the power of our reason, have become or will become clear to us.

All this indicated to people of nineteenth century Europe that there were laws, immutable over time and derived from nature, which could be followed with certainty. Some also proposed that as their perceptions of right and wrong improved, humans were in the process of getting better at being good. 

This accounts, I think, for what may seem to us today as ruthless exploitation by Western countries of less-developed societies. It also accounts for the huge sense of disillusionment experienced by many during and after the so-called First World War. If we are improving, how could it be that we embarked upon so blind and cruel an adventure? it was asked.

In the 20th century, Kant�s influence has been extraordinarily widespread. Among the thinkers who have developed and adapted Kant�s ideas in their thought are the philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Popper, Peter Strawson, and John Rawls.

Followers of Hegel and Marx will recognise thesis and synthesis in Kant's "antinomies" - mutually contradictory propositions which, despite the contradiction,  each seem to be provable. So, for example, there are proofs both for the existence of necessary Being (Hegel's "absolute being") and for its non-existence. Another might be (to modify Kant's second antinomy somewhat) that objects are both complete in themselves and made up of parts, each also complete.

Kant both typified and advanced progress towards personal autonomy. The sense many in the West have today of personal identity and accountability is, in terms of the far reaches of human history, entirely new. Some remark today that autonomy has been taken too far. They propose that it has resulted in an overblown individualism which denies a necessary social interdependence.

We should recall that Kant lived in times not far removed from the medieval social dispensation. Those times reflected the ancient paradigm that the individual derives worth from membership of a group. That membership dictated that right and wrong derived from its leaders. In the final analysis, therefore, authority was vested not in reason but in an auctor or leading authority figure. 

Writing of the origins of European culture, for example, C S Lewis says that

... you absorb your culture, in part unconsciously, from participation in the immemorial pattern of behaviour, and in part by word of mouth, from the old men of the tribe ...[5]

Kant's emphasis upon reason and upon the responsibility of the individual to exercise reason was to be a powerful and lasting influence upon many thinkers in the West for over a century.

His influence is now fading as we gradually become more and more aware of the uncertainties both of our perceptions and our role in the natural order. The more we work out how to think, the more do we realise that our thinking is fragile and limited in its capacity to imagine the "real" world.

Having said that, it remains true that Kant represents a decisive step away from medieval concepts. We all make our own realities. That is, our world is not a given which we set out to discover. Rather it exists by and through us, through our knowledge and experience of it. We are autonomous. [6]
____________________________________________________
[1] Solitude, A Storr, 1988
[2] The History of Western Philosophy, 1946
[3] Christian Faith at the Crossroads, Lloyd Geering, 2001
[4] Critique of Practical Reason. The phrase "Dare to know" comes from the
      Latin poet Horace.
[5] The Discarded Image, 1964
[6] Stephen Trombley,  Fifty Thinkers Who Made the Modern World, 2012

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