08 August 2008

Critique of pure Kantianism

I’m reading Clive Hamilton’s latest book, The Freedom Paradox. Its premise, that the freedom of the modern individual to pursue endless consumer choice and sensual gratification has failed to provide ‘inner freedom’, sounded promising enough for me to pick it up. The first few chapters had me nodding my head in agreement as Hamilton dissected the current disappointing state of liberalism in the social, political and economic arena. John Stuart Mill’s ideas on individual liberty were mildly rebuked for his oversimplified views and gushy optimism, though Hamilton acknowledges Mill’s seminal role in the formulation of many liberal values we enjoy today. Hamilton throws water on my fiery Millism, but I could use some cooling down.

Then, at the start of the book’s second act where Hamilton introduces the metaphysical basis of his argument for a ‘post-secular’ ethics, our foregoing relationship, which started out amiably enough, begins to sour. You see, Hamilton turns Kantian.

Well, to be accurate, he turns into a transcendental idealist. Hamilton’s metaphysics draws heavily from the ideas of the German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, who argued for the existence of a Reality (note the capital ‘R’) behind reality. Transcendental idealism insists that the world we know through our senses and cognition is one of mere appearances which conceal a ‘truer’ Reality (yes, capital ‘R’ again) that is unknowable to reason. This idea goes back to Plato’s theory of Forms, the Forms being the perfect, Real (get used to this) versions of everything that exists, and that all objects and concepts are but pale imitations of their true Forms.

Such ideas positing a Reality behind and beyond the world of appearances is an attempt to refute the commonsense ‘realist’ view that there is an objective world that exists independently of our thoughts and that we come to know about this world through our senses and cognition. Transcendental idealism argues instead that our consciousness ‘creates’ the world through the subject-object dualism we impose upon it, that without our participation as the observer, observed reality simply wouldn’t exist. This idea has much in common with Eastern philosophy and mysticism (‘the world is an illusion’). Schopenhauer was familiar with Hindu and Buddhists texts that influenced his philosophy.

According to such beliefs, Eastern or Western, the Reality that lies behind ‘the thinnest veil’ is unreachable through thought or the senses. To access this ‘citadel’ (a term Hamilton uses), one must leave all cognition behind. The ‘sensory and intellectual barrier’ must be dropped so that one can directly experience this Reality. If you try to think about it, you’re ‘ejected’, bounced back into the world of appearances, reality with a small ‘r’.

Exploring transcendental idealism in depth will necessitate an exhaustive (and exhausting) wade through tomes of often dense, obscure and contradictory prose. Suffice to say that the conception of a Reality beyond reality is prone to paradox and infinite regress (perhaps the Reality behind this reality has another REALITY behind it, ad infinitum). Furthermore Hamilton - and those like him who flirt with grand metaphysical constructs with a hint of the mystical – fails to consider the latest discoveries in neuroscience (he touches briefly on the subject but doesn’t follow it through to the necessary conclusions), discoveries that increasingly reinforce the idea that we humans aren’t so special in the natural scheme of things.

Human exceptionalism started to erode when Copernicus dared to suggest that the universe didn’t revolve around us. Then another iconoclast named Charles came along with more bad news: apparently we’re nothing more than upgraded monkeys. And now neuroscientists are discovering evidence that shows our smug, self-congratulatory sense of identity and human consciousness to be nothing but a complex interplay of electro-chemical actions in the brain. Given this unrelenting demotion, it’s almost understandable why there are those who, struggling to come to terms with no longer being top dog, resort to intellectual acrobatics to ‘prove’ the unique ability of humans to access a higher realm of experience. It’s a possibility – far fetched perhaps, but still a possibility – that what we in our hubris consider a distinctive human consciousness can eventually be biologically engineered and transplanted into non-human animals or artificial creatures like robots. This potential application of neuroscience demolishes any philosophical assumptions (conceitedly cloaked as ‘deductions’) on the nature of human consciousness. A consciousness at our level of sophistication would no longer just belong to humans.

The credibility and efficacy of science rest on the existence of an objective reality that is bound by predictable laws. A new discovery that breaks a previously established law doesn’t disprove this objective reality; it has simply demonstrated that the law was wrong, wrong because it failed to correspond to objective reality and thus should be revised. Too many philosophers jump out of the plane into the open sky of metaphysical conjecture without the parachute of scientific realism. But if they don’t trust the reliability of science to begin with, if they reject the limits of reality for the unlimited promise offered by a transcendent Reality, why would they even want a parachute?

Hamilton’s intentions are noble despite the dubiousness of the metaphysical path he takes to reach his destination. Yes, I agree with him that a universally applicable ethical code is needed if humanity is to have a set of objective values to live by. But it’s totally unnecessary to invent a mystical Otherworld beyond this one in order to build such a code. Occam’s razor must cut here. The sciences of this reality – neuroscience, evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology – are adequate to the task. What is lacking isn’t an awareness of a transcendent ‘essence’ common to humanity, but rather a wider distribution of scientific knowledge that would enlighten people on what the good is and how to achieve it. Ignorance isn’t bliss, and part of the reason why the social malaise that Hamilton rightfully criticizes exists is because a great number of people simply don’t know what they need to know about that lump of grey jelly in their skulls.

In the title page for Part Two of his book where Hamilton addresses the philosophical foundations of his argument, he quotes the French science sociologist and anthropologist Bruno Latour: “There is no greater intellectual crime than to address with the equipment of an older period the challenges of the present one.” Here’s the irony: that is precisely the crime that Hamilton is guilty of. By not taking fully into account what modern neuroscience has to say on the subject of consciousness, Hamilton fails to articulate a convincing moral philosophy. Instead he exhumes the skeletons of Kant and Schopenhauer who, though men of mighty intellect, are ideologically outdated where it concerns the functioning of human consciousness.

Any serious discussion on consciousness cannot ignore the latest research findings in neuroscience. The new data is lending increasing support to the idea that consciousness has a physical basis. Philosophical theorising on the subject is beginning to look embarrassingly irrelevant. While transcendental idealists, mystics and gurus build castles in the air, cognitive scientists are laying tangible foundations for solving the mystery of consciousness.


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