Beyond Kant

This is a continuation of previous post on The Knowledge of Childless Philosophers. I would like to clarify some aspects of the theory of knowledge which have become muddled and confused because childless philosophers did not observe how children learn about the world, and acquire knowledge starting from scratch. If they had taken this as the basic model for how we acquire knowledge, they would have been able to avoid a huge number of mistakes. 

A realist methodology for science starts from the realization that scientific knowledge goes FAR BEYOND the realm of the observable. Electrons, Neutrons, Positrons have different kinds of charges, and act in different – incredible and amazing –  ways, but the link between them and observable phenomena is extremely weak and indirect. One of the readers’ comments on a previous post was: how can we learn about what we cannot observe? Paraphrase this to: how can we learn which of two slits a photon goes through, when we cannot see these events? This was exactly the question that Kant faced: How do we get knowledge which goes beyond what we can observe? It is obvious that rationalism will not provide an answer – if we start with self-evident axioms and use logic, we cannot ADD empirical information not already contained in the premises. It is also obvious that Hume’s empiricism will not work. Electrons are not there for us to see, and there is no amount of observations and experiments that we can show ordinary people which will allow them to deduce that electrons exists. Kant took ONE STEP beyond the realm of the observable to argue that our MIND supplies the (invisible structures) which organize the observations into a coherent and meaningful framework. This is what “transcendental” refers to – knowledge which transcends logic and observation. It is worth pausing to appreciate the value of Kant’s contribution. When Newton looked at the falling apple, HOW did he come to think of “gravity”? This knowledge is not there in the observation, because the same observation is routinely made by millions without thinking about gravity? In general, we can construct hypotheses about enormous spherical shells with stars pasted on them, rotating about the earth. In doing this, we are created models from our imagination, which do not correspond to observations, but serve as deeper explanations for what we observe. Kant realized that human knowledge of structures of reality was NOT based purely on logic and observations, as the rationalists and empiricist philosophers had argued. Of course, if he had observed children acquire knowledge, he would have learned this without so much difficulty. Also, seeing that children are experts at acquiring knowledge of the unobservables, he might have been inspired to write in simpler language.

My 3-year old daughter was noisily “helping” her aunt put her baby to sleep. To prevent her from waking up the baby, her aunt said “I think I hear your mother calling you”. My daughter raced out of the room to look for her mother. She found that her mother was engaged in conversation, and did not pay any attention to her coming into the room. She immediately deduced that she had been sent away from the baby and protested loudly that “My aunt sent me away from the baby” — looking through the appearances to arrive at the real cause why she had been told her mother was calling for her. Where did she acquire this knowledge, which was not part of what could be observed directly by her?

There are many examples of how children make inferences which are strongly in conflict with our imagined logics of scientific discovery. Children jump to generalizations from observing one fact, instead of patiently waiting to learn an entire collection and then deducing a law. In fact, as many psychologists have noted, children are born scientists. Three year olds learn difficult linguistic rules, and uncover hidden mechanisms at operation with ease. This is because, as Kant realized, we are born with mental structures which enable us to learn about the world we live in. There is strong evidence that emotions reflected by facial expressions are universal, so that knowledge of a range of human emotions is built into us. Babies differentiate between frowns and smiles and respond appropriately. Similarly, Noam Chomsky argued that the facility with which we learn languages shows that we are born with innate knowledge of grammatical structures. We are born with the capacity to imagine what the hidden structures of reality may be, and make good guesses about “Why” things happen.    

Where Kant went astray was in forbidding the cross-checking of these imagined mental structures with reality itself. Our mental models can be right – if they match reality – and wrong – if they don’t. Kant thought that it was impossible to check this – the true structure of reality could never be known because it was unobservable. While it is true that the mental structures we hypothesize to explain the observations can never be observed in external reality, this does not mean that there is no way to verify the existence of unobservable objects and effects. When we postulate the existence of electrons to explain some observable phenomena, we cannot go and look to see if there really are electrons. But we CAN use the hypothesis of existence of electrons to predict other phenomena that we would see if they existed. And when we see such phenomena, we get further confirmation of their existence. The empiricist REJECTION of this type of reasoning comes from the quest for certainty. Regardless of how many indirect tests we carry out, we cannot achieve the same level of certainty that we could from seeing and touching electors, and so if we confine our definition of knowledge to “Justified, True Belief”, we can never achieve knowledge about existence of electrons. If we forbid speculative talk (which was the intent of Hume and the empiricists) about objects which might exist, but about which we could never be certain, then effectively we bar talking about all subatomic particles and their properties. 

One of the key contributions of “Pragmatic” Philosophy is to give up on the quest for certainty, and settle for uncertainty in knowledge. Our entire life experience is based on navigating uncertainties, and making guesses about unobservables. Someone who sees a child growing and learning would never make the mistake of thinking that the child is acquiring mental structures of knowledge which do not correspond to structures of external reality. It would be crystal clear that the learning process involves use of hands, legs, and eyes, in addition to the brain. Furthermore, while it is clear that the child acquires new concepts – mental structures – it is also clear that increased success in navigating the world shows that these structures accurately reflect external reality.  

Instead of listening to childless philosophers, we should based our epistemology on our life-experiences in dealing with unobservables. Internal feelings in hearts of others about us are forever unobservable for us, yet the fabric of our social lives is woven from learning about and attempting to influence these feelings. Many posited unobservables have observable side-effects and implications. Many scientists were convinced of existence of atoms and molecules by Brownian motion, which could be observed, and could be explained by their presence. So to go beyond Kant, we must take our mental models seriously, as hypotheses about unobservable reality. These hypotheses often have observable implications. In fact, scientific experiments play a vital role in creating situations where the hypothesized objects and effects can be studied in isolation. Thus experiments play a crucial role in testing theories about unobservables. Such tests and experiments can never either decisively refute, or decisively  confirm, any hypothesis about unobservables. But as long as we learn to live with uncertainty, we can find near-refutations, or strong confirmations, of our scientific theories about unobservables. The Real Model – the correct unobservable true structures of external realities – is forever out of our reach, and known only to God. The progress of science, and our own life-experiences, show us that we can learn bits and pieces of it, and build on this learning, probing deeper and deeper into hidden layers of external reality.

Any study of scientific discovery will provide clear examples of how unobservable entities are discovered, and how we learn to manipulate them, even though we are unable to observe them. The discovery the certain liquids only combine in fixed proportions led to the hypothesis that these liquid were composed of molecules and that these molecules could only combine in certain fixed proportions. A diverse array experiments and phenomena could be explained by these same molecules with the same properties, giving weight to the hypothesis of their existence. An important point is that the molecular theory itself proved very fruitful as the basis of further, more complex and intricate hypotheses about the structure of matter. Those who were trained in the social product of scientific knowledge were able to make observations and experimentations of far greater sophistication than those who were not equipped with this knowledge.

Kant thought that our knowledge does transcend the bounds of observations and logic, but this transcendental knowledge is “ideal” – that is, it is projected by the mind onto reality, and it does not correspond to structures of external reality. We cannot know the true nature of unobservable external reality because we can never observe it. Advances in science substantially weakened the position taken by Kant. After Einstein’s discoveries of the counter-intuitive nature of curvature of time-space, it was not possible to maintain that time and space were projections of our mind onto external reality. Kant was also a prisoner of his time as major scientific discoveries of unobservable objects and effects had not yet taken place. It would be much more difficult to maintain that properties of atomic particles, electromagnetic phenomena, and astrophysics, are all projections of our minds, without correspondence to external reality. (For more detail, see Kant’s Blunder)

As opposed to Kant, Bhaskar Roy offers us “Transcendental Realism”. That is, we can have knowledge of objects and effects which we cannot observe with our sciences. To understand scientific progress, we must make a clear distinction between “Ontology” and “Epistemology” which is very muddled and confused in nominal (non-realist) philosophies of science. In fact, nominalist philosophies often commit the “epistemic fallacy” of supposing that if we cannot know something (an epistemological constraint), then it does not exist (an ontological conclusion). A weaker form of the epistemic fallacy, but with same consequences, is to say that if we cannot observe it, then it may or may not exist, but its existence does not matter for scientific theory. Bhaskar’s Critical Realist Philosophy of science is based on clearly distinguishing between ontology and epistemology.

Ontology refers to objects and effects in external reality. The existence of these objects and effects has nothing to do with whether or not we can learn about them. Bhaskar calls them the “Intransitive” portion of scientific knowledge.

Epistemology refers to HOW we can learn about objects and effects which are unobservable. This has a lot to do with our human capabilities – our hands and eyes and ears, and our abilities to manipulate our environment, conduct experiments, construct instruments, isolate causes, etc. This portion of our knowledge is social, and must be learnt and passed on – which is why Roy calls it the “Transitive” portion of scientific knowledge. The set of experiments, inferences, and reasoning, which leads us to know about the existence of electrons and their properties is very complex, and has been acquired over centuries. If this socialized knowledge was not transmitted to the next generation, electrons would continue to exist, but we would no longer know how we can learn about their existence. It is this knowledge which accumulates, though it is subject to errors and to major revisions from time to time, as Kuhn discovered. This is inherent in the nature of uncertainty associated with this knowledge.

In the next post we will consider how we can go beyond the observable data in econometric analysis to extract deeper information not present in the surface appearances, which are just the correlations.





15 thoughts on “Beyond Kant

  1. To my understanding, this post misunderstands Kant in many ways, and makes things too complicated unnecessarily. All of the relevant issues could be clarified Algorithmically.

    1. In my opinion, “logics” was totally misunderstood. Logics are something inside a person’s brain. They are something, not nothing. When logics are used on observations, experiences or information, the latter are changed into new things i.e. the “knowledge”, so “transcendence” happens, which “transcends” both information and logics, just like water “transcends” hydrogen and oxygen, but not something irrelevant with hydrogen or oxygen. Even if the logic of deduction is used on data, e.g. 7+5=12, 12 must be seen as the “new thing”, not remaining the old thing, 7 or 5. This is always somebody (including realists) fail to perceive.

    2. “Logics” should not be treated narrowly. For example, “imagination” is exactly a combination of some “logical operations”, if we look into it in detail. Logical operations run usually together with information – as chemical reactions, instead of alone one-sidedly.

    3. Kant assumes “thing-in-itself”, this means he accepted more or less realism, or metaphysics. Kant insisted that people could never reach “thing-in-itself”, in my opinion, this is completely right. This should not be deemed that Kant dismally fell into relativism or empiricism. How to coordinate the potential conflicts here? Pls. see next.

    4. What Kant wanted to say was, in my opinion, that when limited thinking abilities encountered with experiences, some cognitive equilibria took place, which prevent cognitive processes from reaching the thing-in-itself, or realities. Unfortunately, there was no so precise model as computer to clarify and remedy the idea in Kantian era, thus Kant fell in jeopardy. When thoughtful “atoms” are Algorithmically established today, things become clear easily, that is: When Instructions encounter data in one’s brain, combinations & permutations, cognitive developments, convergences and divergences, Combinatorial Explosions happen in turn or concurrently. Since Instructions and data are all concrete and characteristic, the “truth” (or reality) must be assumed in advance of cognitions, otherwise the cognitions, cognitive improvements, or innovations would be meaningless. A truth or reality is only “believed” to be, and is actually and relatively the “most correct” one among many not-so-correct computational results, and human minds as a whole keep developing endlessly. Whereas Kant failed to define thoughtful “atoms”, and hence failed to define thoughtful developments, consequently he is misunderstood that he had accepted an absolute boundary for human reason. Thanks.

  2. Asad, interesting. But you just compound the error Kant made. You say, “Kant took ONE STEP beyond the realm of the observable to argue that our MIND supplies the (invisible structures) which organize the observations into a coherent and meaningful framework. This is what “transcendental” refers to – knowledge which transcends logic and observation.” Kant solved the problem of how humans know what they know by inventing structures supplied by the human mind to organize observations into a framework that has meaning for a human or humans. But there are literally millions of possible structures (likely even more) that humans could choose to achieve this end. Yes, human creativity and imagination (if one wishes can be called ‘mind’) create many such structures daily. But humans must still choose which one (or combination) to use and which to become part of their collective life, their culture and society. This is achieved via ongoing interactions with other humans and other things and events. The process is complex. Making it difficult to track or observe when looking back at it. And making its results difficult and often impossible to predict. And this is the prime concern of all social scientists. How do humans create durable and stable collective lives, so far as that is seen to happen? And how and why does this break down and fail? Kant ignores all of this. He invents “mind structures” to sidestep the question.

    1. That you took Kant seriously, even if for only a moment. In my view, most destructive philosophy in western life. By passing Marxism by a lot. It’s my view the first sentence in your posting should have been something like this — I’m chucking out all of Kant; let’s try starting again without him. Don’t want to inflict my prejudices on you, but with Kant really can’t stop myself.

  3. “After Einstein’s discoveries of the counter-intuitive nature of curvature of time-space, it was not possible to maintain that time and space were projections of our mind onto external reality. Kant was also a prisoner of his time as major scientific discoveries of unobservable objects and effects had not yet taken place. It would be much more difficult to maintain that properties of atomic particles, electromagnetic phenomena, and astrophysics, are all projections of our minds, without correspondence to external reality.”

    I’m not clear what you are getting at here.I thought that ‘atomic particles’ were useful fictions, without any precise correspondence to any possible reality. For example, see my sketchy notes on Eddington at . Eddington obviously goes beyond Kant, but does anything contradict what Kant actually said (as distinct from others’ interpretations)?

    1. When you say that atomic particles are useful fictions, you are expressing the Kantian/nominalist/empiricist views – that scientific theories organize our observations of reality – the ontological question of TRUTH (do atoms exist? does not arise). As opposed to this, I am arguing for a REALIST position, which says that that the epistemological question whether or not we can ever learn about existence of atoms and their properties is a DIFFERENT question from the ontological question of Whether or not the exist – our inability to KNOW for sure that atoms exist does not turn them into useful fiction.

  4. To be more positive about your blog (as distinct from nit-picking over Kant), how about this:

    “It will perhaps be said that the conclusion to be drawn from these arguments from modern science, is that religion first became possible for a reasonable scientific man about the year 1927. If we must consider that tiresome person, the consistently reasonable man, we may point out that not merely religion but most of the ordinary aspects of life first became possible for him in that year.” from Eddington.

    Do we think that the kind of science that mainstream economics seeks to emulate reflects the insights from 1927? Would an appropriate pedagogy for economics need to address the issues that physics grappled with back then? E.g.,does Bhaskar Roy’s ‘transcendental realism’ provide insight into Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle? (Maybe it would, if I understood Roy’s work better.)

  5. “As opposed to this, I am arguing for a REALIST position, which says that that the epistemological question whether or not we can ever learn about existence of atoms and their properties is a DIFFERENT question from the ontological question of Whether or not the exist – our inability to KNOW for sure that atoms exist does not turn them into useful fiction.”

    But the question that you refuse to address is this. If we explain the existence of certain facts of nature as the result of the characteristics of sub-atomic particles – and everyone agrees this is coherent and the best explanation we have – what difference does it make if I regard the particles as convenient constructs for explaining phenomena while you regard them as “real”. How would our exploration of the characteristics of the particles differ? Philosophical questions are interesting when they are important, i.e. when something hangs on which way you answer them. Ontological questions that are designed to be unanswerable are of no consequence for the advance of a scientific study.

    A fiction is something invented which we have no reason to believe exists so that does not describe sub-atomic particles. We have reason to believe they exist in the sense that they are essential elements in the best theory we have for explaining a range of phenomena. Yet you say we cannot know they exist, which is very confusing in the light of your other statements. In your scheme are they real or not? I can be clear. If real means elements of the best available explanation of phenomena, the answer is yes, or at least we think so. If real means corresponding to some level of reality that we cannot apprehend, even in principle, the answer is who knows and who cares?

    Btw your daughter is evidently a shrewd little girl and it is true that children frame causal hypotheses from an early age. Moreover children categorise objects extremely early, I pointed to a light and told my daughter, then less than 18 months old, that it was a “light”. We then went into another room and I asked her where the light was. She pointed to a standard lamp in the same room. She did not indicate the other room where the light was attached to the ceiling. She had already interpreted light as the name of a category of objects, not a particular object. That supports Chomsky that the human brain is not tabula rasa but is predisposed to operate in certain ways and to interpret phenomena in certain ways.

    It does not imply that we have a sixth sense and can intuit the reality of unobservable entities independently of our sensory experiences. .

  6. PS Bhaskar obviously had not considered the quantum realm where the distinction between reality and what we know appears to break down – Schrodinger and all that. Einstein’s reluctance to accept the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics was a dispute about ontology but it had a consequence. It implied that there was more work to do to supply the missing bit of theory. The Copenhagen interpretation implied on the contrary that there was no missing bit of theory – in your terms, reality was just as the equations described. To an empiricist that translates as the view that no more complete explanation was at all likely to be found. Contrast that with the question as to whether sub-atomic particles are “real” or the most convenient construct. It is just a discussion about labelling that has no scientific implication.

  7. Ontological questions do have serious implications, but I have no time to discuss this in detail. Consider however my guess at what your intentions are – these are forever unobservable to me and to all outsiders — however, if you are driving and the light has just turned red as I am crossing the streetwalk, my correctly guessing your intentions can have life or death consequences for me. All our life decisions are based on guesses about the future course of events, which are completely unobservable and unknowable, and yet make life and death differences.

    1. Asad, You kindly replied to a comment of mine directly. I’m not sure which you were replying to, but I definitely agreed with your first paragraph, on uncertainty. Your second contained the segment “causality (influence)”, as if they were synonyms. I think I’m not the only one who gets distracted by such usage.

      Anyway, please be patient with people who see differences you don’t. (or don’t see what you do.)

      1. Some people just make comments to propagate their own views, without trying to understand what is being said. These I ignore. You are definitely not among these people, and I take very seriously all your comments. I even took time out to read your paper on Keynes Treatise on Probability, and found it useful. However, I am very busy, and often dont have time to respond, even to serious comments which call for a serious response. If you would like a response to something that I have not answered, send me an email.

  8. I’m not a philosopher. Don’t want to be one. Kant could not visualize complexity. Things like time and space, the people in my neighborhood or city, as well as the storm outside my window are real in the sense they effect me, the things around me, and the other people in my life. None of us can escape that interference with our lives. If we equate that with being real, then all of these are real. Even if often we cannot perceive or understand how that reality is created. And perhaps will always wonder about it.

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