Kant, Rationalism, Empiricism, and the God Question

(This was originally a footnote I had to remove from my book to meet the word limit, I then added to it)

After Descartes, modern Western philosophy divided at two major views – Continental Rationalism and British Empiricism.  The Empiricists had held that all knowledge was perceptual, originating in the senses, but had run aground on scepticism as Hume demonstrated that there was no way such the inductive principle (the foundation for natural science) could be held on empirical grounds alone.  In contrast, the Rationalists believed that rationality was possible on the basis of deduction from self-evident truths to the non-obvious.  It is the relations of thought rather than perception of an external physical world that constructs reality.  They had run into a credibility problem because the three great Rationalists Descartes (1596 – 1650), Spinoza (1632 – 1677) and Leibniz (1646 – 1716) all came to significantly different metaphysical conclusions about nature, despite substantive thematic connections between them.

Let us look at this more closely.  Spinoza had admired Descartes project and defined a similar priority of terms such as substance and “God”, and all three Rationalists favoured mathematics as the language of rationality. Spinoza also wanted to give priority to God to the degree God is the whole of nature or the whole of nature is God, a pantheistic posit of which there is no analogue in Descartes though we might want to assert some formal similarity between Leibniz and Spinoza for Leibniz was concerned to be perceived as orthodox in Christian theology despite the innovations of monadology.  Both Leibniz and Spinoza believed God was logically constrained to create the world as it is, an important point of metaphysical contact perhaps displaying far more unity than might at first be admitted.  As was suggested by Professor Ó Murchadha in a critical examination of the argument I made in my PhD thesis, perhaps the distance can be narrowed still further by considering Leibniz’s presentation as astute politicking, demonstrated both in the matter of his dispute with Newton over the calculus and disguising his support for aspects of Spinoza’s heretical position in the eyes of Jews, Catholics, and Protestants.  Spinoza had been excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam and was forced to leave the city, after being censured by both the Catholics and  the Protestants.

However, that said, the point remains clear that dualism, monism and monadology are of a fundamentally incommensurate nature, which militated against their account and methodology being a convincing or a compelling one, especially to the Empiricists who in Hume had counselled all such metaphysical works should be “cast to the flames” (literally, he was a librarian for a time).  Yet, with some distance, perhaps we can appreciate them with Hume, as offering valuable insights and perhaps something about the nature of rationality itself.  If we find unpalatable Hume’s insistence that reason is un-reasonable (it “raises invincible arguments against itself” ) because we employ reason in most activities of living as well as deduction in logic and science, we might rather find in Hume what might be called the asymptotic limit of reason when considered in “that abstract view”.  Of course, for the Christian, we need not consider reason at all as an “abstract” view, but reason as a quality of the Godhead and bequeathed to us as the created in the image of God.  The problem of induction for the believer is no problem at all, the world works the way it does because the LORD declared He put those laws in place in Genesis and actively upholds them in the power-filled words of Christ.  However, the philosophical solution that Kant offered after Hume “had awoken him from his dogmatic slumbers” is worthy of consideration because of the enormous influence of Kant on much of what followed him, he might rightly be considered the “turning point” of Western thought.

Kant was motivated to mitigate the sceptical conclusions of Hume as an empiricist and the inadequacies of the Rationalists; and, also, importantly to make room for religious faith.  Kant is interesting in this respect because viewing his work through Christian glasses (which  we might consider the influence of the protestant Pietism of his family in his view), his metaphysical agnosticism might be considered a “secularisation” of the non-dogmatic emphasis of Pietism which favoured spiritual experience over creeds and catechisms.  Kant’s “solution” to Hume in the division of reality into noumena and phenomena, the former considered as “things as they are in themselves” and the latter as “things as we experience them”, though attractive and compelling to many, has the devastating consequence of separating us from things as they are in themselves, i.e., nature and God as they are in themselves.  Though he found a way to allow religious belief within the bounds of reason (the title of his most mature work on moral philosophy), he could never reconcile the “moral law within” to the “starry heavens above”, i.e., the realms of nature and value had a large wedge driven forever between them.  Science might describe for us phenomena, but it could never say anything about noumena or the true reality of things.  Thus, the great divide between “spiritual” modes of thought and the “scientific” modes of thought; with the subsequent assertion that Christ need not have risen from the dead on the Third day but that did not mean that he did not rise from the dead spiritually.  Thus, scriptural exegesis for the neo-Orthodox might avoid all the embarrassing offences to reason, which the liberals and worked so hard to mitigate, without changing the text of scripture but just its meaning.  For the atheologian wanting to shoot down the Christian apologist and the Christian apologist wanting to give an answer, this separation is untenable and has all the appearance of an intellectual sleight of hand, well witnessed to with the absurdities maintained regarding the historicity of the biblical accounts.

Thus, Kant, in this respect, might rightly be considered the “turning point” of Western thought, and the 19th and 20th centuries a series of responses, some cognitive (attempting to reconstitute reason in a more rigorous fashion, e.g., Hegel’s dialectic model), some non-cognitive (as in the voluntarism of Schopenhauer and the nihilism of Nietzsche) and others subjective ( in the protoexistentialism of Kierkegaard).  There was also a clear secular and radical phenomenological school that dismissed noumena and argued “phenomena” was all we had, thus the logical positivists reigned over all for half a century before being exposed as merely maintaining a metaphysical dogma that rejected all metaphysics except our principle of verification.  There’s was really a re-capitulation to Hume’s scepticism, not an answer to it and an intentional ignoring of the problems of philosophy.  The philosopher, perhaps above all else they might do or say, are those who should reconcile all the domains of human knowledge, laying both the foundation and the putting on the roof to our uni-versity.  Separating the “spiritual” and the “secular” forever excludes the spiritual from the public square, and should be rejected as the self-interested, naïve position of the secularists or of the lazy Christian apologists who prefer their ghetto to tearing down those intellectual strongholds that rise up against the knowledge of God.  God did not create the world and then abandon it to itself, the Holy Spirit really does come to live in us and lead us into all truth, and that truth is for all the domains of human life, not just some “spiritual” add-on.

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