Brief Exposition of Kant's Thinking about Human Rationality

by Philip McPherson Rudisill

We begin with an examination of pure reason, experience and human theoretical knowledge.

Here is the human condition. All that we see or ever can see must appear within our brainarium, i.e., what we see is on our retinas and is communicated to the brain via electrical impulses and there, within the brain, a projection unfolds and we see, not things, but the appearances of things, and in terms of a time and space that are our way of looking at these things in the brainarium.

Now what we do is this. Even though there is nothing in the brainarium except appearances of things, we dream up a something which is independent of the brainarium and we utilize that in order to make a connection among all of the appearances in the brainarium, e.g., dream and waking. This thing that we dream up is called the thing on its own. We dress it up via the categories of thought which make up our capacity for, and form of, understanding (for connecting), and we call it the object of experience. By means of this dreamed up object of experience we are able to recognize that what we see is actually on the retina (and projected in the brainarium) such that the finger that splits into two ghosts as it approaches our nose (assuming a two-eyed looker) is not a real thing, but only our representation of a real thing and which representation is entirely within us. This experience and recognition validates our presumption in utilizing this dreamed up thing on its own to explain our appearances, and to call it a reality. See Thomas Reid.

We essentially dream up a giant brainarium (not unlike a planatarium), as it were, and call it the world of experience, and by means of this we see our own projections in our brainarium as perspectives of, and in, this real world of experience.

Can we now go further and assert the existence of something which is apart from this giant brainarium? Pure reason tries to do this but is not as successful as with experience. In experience the appearance became the representation of the object of experience, but with pure reason there is no appearance or anything to represent the idea we have of a thing on its own independent of the giant, public brainarium. We are necessitated by pure reason to dream up a soul, freedom of will and God, but can only think them along with the world of experience, but never to recognize them nor, for that matter, to have need of them in the equations and thinking of science.

Upshot. While we have no reason to deny the existence of the soul and freedom and God, we also have no evidence within the brainarium whereby we can affirm them. We did not deny the existence of something apart from our brainarium, but rather assumed something, and came upon, i.e., validated, the concept of the object of experience. We cannot deny the existence of something apart from the world of experience (where this world is a giant bainarium, as it were), but cannot expect to come upon evidence in this world of anything which cannot appear within that brainarium. We can think things independent of that brainarium, but never recognize them as real. Essentially then we are in a state of agnosticism.

We now turn to a critique of practical reason and see if reason fares better there in its practical realm. We find that we have the ability to devise principles of acting both with regard to our pursuit of happiness, e.g., work hard when young in order to have enough in old age; and with regard to our duty, e.g., do not lie. The former depends on one's prospects for happiness, the other is a categorical imperative, i.e., do this regardless of happiness.

This categorical imperative is based upon the moral law which is an idea of pure reason (in a practical application) where we conceive of (or dream up) a realm of free beings where each being considers itself as an end in itself and realizes this must hold of all, and autonomously formulates a law to bind himself and all members of that realm always to treat all (including again himself) as ends in themselves and never solely as means. When the human first understands this law, there arises a unique feeling called respect or the moral feeling. Per the idea of this law alone, before any action is undertaken, there is a feeling of humiliation at the exclusion of the ego in the consideration concerning the action, and this is coupled with a feeling of exaltation at the thought of compliance with this law.*

* It is difficult to imagine how such a feeling could reside in the make up of an evolved being, since it can never arise in consciousness until this idea, which is an invention of pure reason, is distinctly conceived. We must then think this feeling of respect as contained in the human in a dormant state and ready to arise upon the advent of the idea.

It is worth noting again that the conception of each member of the free realm is that he and all are ends in themselves, and may not be considered as mere means to the ends of anyone. This is called universal human dignity. It means that the human may not become a mere commodity. This is the meaning of the moral law.

First by virtue of the consciousness of this moral law we are also conscious of our own freedom, and they represent one and the same thing. And so where earlier we were allowed to think freedom but not recognize it, now we can recognize it via this achievement/fact of pure reason itself, via the categorical (unconditioned) imperative of the moral law. But of course this holds only in our subjective practical actions and not as objects of experience as exposed by science. It is a fact and holds in practice and only in practice. But that is also the only thing that matters here, i.e., regarding practical reason.

What is now needed is a reconciliation of this moral imperative and the counsels of prudence or happiness. For they are often at odds. The way this is accomplished is via the Highest Good whereby the moral act becomes also the most prudent act and is to be crowned (eventually) with happiness.

The moral act, as any act, must have a purpose in order to be a rational act. Something is to be accomplished. We don't wash a clean car just to wash a clean car, or buy a book not to be read or displayed but just to be bought. Given the state of the human being with his obligation to be moral and his unquenchable desire to be happy, the only rationally coherent purpose is the Highest Good, namely a state of moral perfection coupled with commensurate happiness. This in turn requires a longer life (immortality) to achieve to the anticipated moral perfection and to experience the commensurate happiness, and also a God in order to force the hand of a mechanical nature to provide the requisite happiness.

Now, looking at this in reverse we see that without God and the soul, the Highest Good cannot be a purpose of the moral law, and without a purpose the moral act, as any act without purpose, becomes inane and irrational, and so it follows that the rejection of God means the rejection of the moral law and the directing of the atheist's actions by the counsels of prudence and self happiness alone. And this is Kant's example as presented in the essay on Sagan and Kant.

For a much more detailed presentation of all this see Kant in a Nutshell.

Return to Sagan essay.

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