Man of the Millenium, Immanuel Kant

“To live is to wait for past events to return back to life”   Azorin


             This past 20th Century has been unique in recorded history.  Like in the Homeric epic, we have witnessed the great transition from the androcentric Iliadic technophilia to the matrifocal spiritual Odyssey just unfolding. About 26 centuries ago the special contours of the western mind were beginning to take shape.  Man began looking beyond self for answers about self, his origins, and his destiny.  The spiritual Big Bang can be traced back to its origin at the Milletus Township of the pre-Christian era.  There, Thales and his successors (e.g.,Anaximander) had already envisioned a cosmos composed of transcendental, quintessential primordial units that ‘filled up a boundless’ cosmos, something they called the ‘apeiron’. This substance already contained both matter and its antimatter opposite. There were no spatial coordinates to locate its position and no sensor capable of apprehending its form.  It was primitive entity capable of  transformations not amenable to get constituted into perceptible phenomena. The last centuries before the Christian era mark the beginnings of an Iliadic search for that perceptible, identifiable, measurable fundamental substance called the ‘arche’ in the physical world. Is it possible self consciousness, as we know it today, is a recent (pre-Homeric) phenomenon?

           Today, at the dawn of the 21st Century, we still try to hold back the Promethean fire by covering the sun’s rays with the palm of our hands; a full  cycle has been completed, we still discern the warmth of its shining rays of change, a ‘spiritual Big Crunch’ is showing at the horizon. The Ecclesiastes has warned us, “…there is nothing new under the sun.”

           Historians have shown how that early world view has given way to the ‘macho’ worlds of neo-Homeric Iliads, with its great androcentric epics of courage, pride and domination in the battlefield, somewhat reminiscent of our late century global blitzkriegs (into Iraq, Panama, Belgrade, etc.) dominated by man’s technological superiority of Olympian proportions.

           By contrast, this same 20th Century already evinces the same signs and symptoms of a new Homeric Odyssey that sets aside the individual and heroic, opening new Trojan gates to allow spiritual fresh air to moisten the seed of imagination and creativity allowing it to sprout new concerns for the living, for the environment, for infinity and for the magic and the fantastic.  It is again the beginning of a new spiritual Big Crunch forged and lead by the forgotten women; back to the mythos of the Homeric goddesses?  How did it all happen?  To illustrate, let us examine briefly the evolution of our concept of mind.

The Historical See-Saw

          Hindsight tells us that the history of ‘modern man’ is only a few centuries old. Man and cosmos were one unit, one conscience, with man and its earthen spatial conveyance at the center of it all.

           But enter Copernicus in scene and the scenario changes dramatically. The unit is shattered, fragmented and individualized into components while man is propelled with centrifugal force into an infinite abyss, dethroning him out of his cosmic nest; a rude awakening from his geocentric illusions in cosmology. That paved the way for Galileo, Descartes and Newton to provide the new boundaries of cosmos, a real intellectual challenge.  Men became alienated in a world of matter and forces, there was no place for hope, spirit and consciousness or mythic / theistic categories.  Even Da Vinci sentenced “…to know is to measure…”, or the modern physicalist version, “if it ain’t measurable, it ain’t there”.  The material world no longer responded to human valuation, the esthetic, emotional or imaginative were now ontologically cut down to size; to allow for the quantification of nature.

           Wallace and Darwin hammered in new nails into consciousness pretensions of ruling the universe, being now cast aside as one of man accidental products of organic evolution. There was nothing divine or extra-physical about man’s creation, his consciousness, free will and uniqueness in character, all been derived exclusively from his biology.  Man was inexorably thrown into an irreversible path toward its entropic annihilation in a chaotic thermodynamic disorder.

           But most historians missed the important point about the Copernican revolution.  As Kant vaguely suggested, man may have been dispossessed of his privileged position at the center of creation but the entire transposition was still viewed from man’s perspective, he was still at the very center of it all!

           Freud’s influence on our concept of mind was no less dramatic and also two pronged.  On the one hand the mystery of dreams, neuroses, fantasies and behavioral aberrations were now approaching intelligibility under a Darwinian perspective.  The mind was seen opening to a more logical understanding of its internal dynamics. However, the unconscious processes determinants of human behavior could not be ruled out.  And a repository of non-rational forces remained outside the reach of the rational straight -jacket, mind was only considered an epiphenomenon.  An undercurrent of non-rational awareness developed below the high tide swells of the Enlightenment, instinctual, political and economical (Malthusian) phenomena seemed now as the result of unconscious impulses as singled out by Freud, Marx and Darwin respectively. Yet, reductionist activity has continued well into the light of the new millennium when the scientific methodology has brought nature inside the domain of probabilistic determinacy. But man had been reduced to an arbitrary genetic excuse for the advancement of the species, a transient accident in the grander scheme of organic evolution.

           When we look back at this period with finer optics we feel the undercurrent. The Enlightenment was initially propelled  by two divergent views: Newton’s finessing of natural forces in a comprehensive syntheses achieved by human reason and his contemporary, John Locke’s reminding him constantly that there is nothing in his abstractions that was not previously in his sensory experience, where epistemology must finally rest on. Empiricism was born.  Newton’s primary qualities of color, taste, odor, were inherent only in the subjective human sense experience.

           The undercurrent became stronger under the least expected source, a fervent adherent to empiricism, Hume. He pointed out to scientists that their human sense intuitions of natural objects could never experience the most important element of science, causation. Man’s experience of nature was limited only to sensory impressions, events in succession; man could never experience a ‘cause’.  Even the ultimate independent concepts of time and space were not sensory experiences but mere abstractions of the mind.  He made clear that propositions engendered by rationalistic deductive logic were as important as those based on sensations alone. Paradoxically, metaphysical argumentation about extrasensory reality was as much undermined, as was the inductive reasoning, the logical foundation of natural sciences.  Henceforth, the certainty of sensory phenomenology rests with the subject’s human mind, not with nature!!

           While Newton stressed the capacity of the human mind to abstract conclusions about distant bodies, invisible forces, Locke stressed more its capacity to capture the general outlines of a physical nature and subject it to the combinatorial logical operatives of the human mind to find order and structure in its representations as out thoughts.  As pointed out by Hume, causality it’s all in the mind, based on the brain’s habits of associating events.

           Towards the end of the 18th Century, this was the state of affairs; rationalists claim of having provided a scientific scaffolding on which to order nature as championed by Newton and the ‘tongue in cheek’ certainty of philosophers that such knowledge was beyond the reach of experience.

           Enters Immanuel Kant to settle the dispute between the Newtonian scientists and philosophers, especially after Hume’s devastating arguments on their conception of causality, can not be either observed by scientist in nature nor derived metaphysically by the philosopher or mathematician; it is part of the brain’s natural operation!  If so, why not study, observe it inside the brain?  The problem is, can man detach himself from his own brain to observe   his own brain in operation? Metaphysics was dying because minds require empirical evidence, without it, positive or negative extrapolations to infinity, God, immortality, were frequently suffocated by confusions, illusions or delusions.  However, neither could the natural sciences any longer invoke causality when attempting to structure the universe.  For Kant the ideals of pure reason to fashion cosmology, a la Newton, was inadequate and had to be framed within the limits of sensory experience.  Metaphysics would then extend the boundaries of sensory intuitions of nature, especially with the help of mathematics. Empiricism and rationalism were thus beginning to be reconciled, but how would he approach it?

           Kant’s solution was nothing short of extraordinary. He started by forever denying that man was capable of knowing things ‘in themselves’, their true, i.e., their ontological' nature, whether by scientific observation or metaphysical deduction (i.e., logical elaboration).  Man had inherited a logical machine, so to speak, his brain.  It would bring the ‘chaos of sensations’ into a logical order, a world view already fashioned by the cognitive apparatus. From now on, Cartesian ontology (nature of things) had shifted to Kantian epistemology (nature of mind) as the proper focus on which to understand reality. The spatio-temporal a-priori constants of the Newtonian world structure are simply mind constants to best accommodate in order its perception of the chaos out there in nature (or of body function itself, I may add).

           The details of the Kantian conceptual model is beyond the scope of this brief, but in essence it provides for the conforming of experiences perceived into the mind’s a-priori principles-categories of the understanding-, one of which is, of course, causation itself, along with effect, substance, relation, quantity, etc.  These now are the essential frames of reference to comprehend the world. Reality is one of man's own making!  Neither Leibnitz rational universal structure nor Locke’s world of sense impressions could bring man to the knowledge of things, pure thinking end up in tautologies, pure sensings in illusions or delusions. The propositions derived simultaneously from both sources must cooperate.

           This way Kant saved philosophy from a certain death when it became clear that it should concentrate on its investigation of the structure of the mind, the beginning and end of all we know about oneself and the cosmos we create.  Copernicus may have evicted man from center stage but Kant has put him back where he properly belongs, as the measure of all things that are and those that are not.

           Just like a most powerful independent computer part cannot logically analyze its own performance while simultaneously being a dependent part of the unit it is attempting to analyze, neither can a brain logically have thoughts about itself.  Is this the end of philosophy?  Kant extended his categorical imperatives to include morality. He felt it within himself that entity that cemented harmoniously all of cosmos.  But he could not prove it! Must you prove the reality of all truths?  Is it faith, denied by reason, empiricism and secularism?  Is psychology the ultimate justification?  Faith is like man’s shadow, never leaves you, but the lights must be ‘turned on’ for you to experience it.

           The same science that, with Copernicus, Darwin and Newton, had caused man to be centrifugally ejected from his position at the center of creation has brought him back.  Science is relative to the observer, to his physical context, to his own construction, to prevailing paradigms, influenced by his animical disposition, belief system and socio-cultural context.

           The 'new' kids on the block, Chomsky and Wittgenstein, further reinforce Kant’s vision:  the brain acts like a logical machine that translates environmental energy into a language code that enables man to have thoughts about his intuitions, communicate them and above all, realize against its own rational will, that a first cause likely exists, one that is uncaused, uncreated and intelligent.

End Chapter 2