Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hobbes, Enlightenment, Kant

Remember Hobbes' definition of 'happiness'--and it's endless pursuit? That idea is deeply embedded in modern capitalism and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. It went largely unquestioned (I believe) by the other philosophers and thinkers of the Enlightment, just as they did not question but on the contrary welcomed the mechanistic universe promised by modern i.e. Newtonian science, with its corollary, Deism. Paley's argument for the existence of God pretty well sums it up: just as a watch implies a watch-maker, so this great machine the universe implies a Designer and an Engineer rolled up into one. Since the universe is entirely deterministic, the possibility of Providence disappears. It also creates or seems to create a dilemma for anyone who believes in the freedom of the will (Hume said the opposite but we'll have to let that go til later.)

Kant, a scientific pioneer himself, set out to give a rational explanation and justification of the methods of the natural sciences which he rightly looked upon as the major achievement of the age. Instead, as Isaiah Berlin shows in an essay which ought to be read by anyone interested in modern history, "he lifted the lid of a Pandora's box which he was among the first, with perfect honesty and consistency, to disown and condemn."

The determinism of modern science put Kant in an ethical box from which there seemed to be no escape. But Kant was a philosophical Houdini: he found or invented a stunningly clever escape module which enabled him to preserve both science and the freedom of the will--but at a price, wnich I will get to in a moment. First, I have to admit that I do not understand Kant's "transcendental" metaphysics very well. Basically, insofar as I understand it, Kant turned the problem of knowledge inside-out: the rational order we find in the universe is an order that our minds have created and imposed on it--including its deterministic structure. And the price? Well, if science is an a priori creation of pure reason, what is reason reasoning about? If our knowledge of world and universe is a human invention, how do we know it's true? And here it seems to me, Kant lost it. (But what do I know?) He invented an unknowable Substance as the foundation for reality, and he called that Substance "things-in-themselves." Why did he do this? Because if determinism is merely a rational construct of the mind, the mind--far above that grubby and unknowable Substance down at the unknowable base of reality (down at the quantum or even Planck scale had he only known)--is free to ignore it: one can assert one's freedom by an act of will. That (I guess) is where we encounter Kant's "categorical imperative" which is more or less equivalent to the golden rule: live by the same rules you would impose on others; or, which is not quite the same perhaps, act in conformity to the rules that you would willingly make universal. Anyone who makes it a point of honor to act consistently according to a principle of this kind (or of any kind, perhaps) is heroic. This is not a new idea; the ancient Stoics, or Christians waiting to become lion food knew all about it. But Kant added conditions that raised the bar almost impossibly high: if one acts under the influences of causes which one cannot control, whether external such as physical compulsion or internma such as instincts or desires or passions, then the act whatever its consequences, good or bad, have no moral value. The Self, Kant tells us, must be "raised above natural necessity", for if we are ruled by the same laws as which govern the material world,"freedom cannot be saved" and without freedom there is no morality. So Kant, without intending to, made the exercise or rather the assertion of raw will morally compelling in itself.

In what follows, I shall be drawing heavily on Isaiah Berlin's essay, "The Apotheosis of The Romantic Will."

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