Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Critique of Pure Reason

I have previously mentioned Dinesh D'Souza's repeated, cowardly assertions that Kant had proven that atheists were wrong and that if you didn't know what he was talking about then you were simply uneducated.

I pointed out that this was a subtle ad hominem argument.  D'Souza would make these assertions repeatedly and never explain what exactly it was that Kant said that was so forceful and convincing.  He would instead simply say that if you don't know because you haven't read Kant, then you are just "uneducated".  I actually watched him do this on national television--repeatedly.

This is, of course, ridiculous.  He was clearly hiding behind an authority figure and insulting anyone who disagreed--thus making the argument a combination of the logical fallacy of argument from authority and an ad hominem argument.  When you get this offensive, dishonest nonsense, simply point out that the person is not actually making the argument that he claims is so compelling, which implies that he knows it is not compelling.

The truth is that virtually no one actually reads Kant at any length anymore except those studying for a degree in philosophy.  The vast majority of people in modern society can be highly educated without ever reading Kant.  He is just one of a number of philosophers in history who contributed a few ideas but whose actual works consist of thick tomes full of dense prose.  Reading his works would be waste of time for anyone who is not studying for a degree in the subject.  Most of us get enough exposure to his ideas just from reading more modern authors whose works include his ideas or by simply reading a textbook of basic philosophy.  D'Souza knows this too.  In fact, he is relying on it.

Apparently enough people pointed out D'Souza's cowardly tactics for him to finally come out of hiding and try to make the argument he said was so compelling.  D'Souza's point was that Kant had explained why pure reason wasn't perfect.  Why isn't it perfect?  According to D'Souza:

     "Kant showed that human knowledge is constrained not
     merely by the unlimited magnitude of reality but also by
     a limited sensory apparatus of perception."

This, of course, hardly proves that atheists are wrong.  In fact, this "argument" is really nothing more than a fancier and subtler version of "you can't prove god doesn't exist".

Besides, D'Souza is wrong for a more basic reason:  Arguing that pure reason isn't perfect is not an argument for rejecting reason altogether, and when a person embraces religion, that person is rejecting reason.  The quote from Diderot I used in an earlier post captures the absurdity of D'Souza's argument perfectly and shows that it's absurdity has long been recognized (which undoubtedly explains why D'Souza was so reluctant to actually state it out loud in public):

“Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: 'My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.' This stranger is a theologian.”
Denis Diderot, Addition to Philosophical Thoughts (c. 1762)

Later in his article D'Souza reveals why he thinks Kant has refuted atheism:

     "It is essential to recognize that Kant isn't diminishing
     the importance of experience. It is entirely rational for
     us to use science and reason to discover the operating
     principles of the world of experience. This world, 
     however, is not the only one there is."  [Emphasis

And, there you have it: circular reasoning yet again.  Like with so many other theist arguments, this specious argument carries no water at all unless one assumes there is another reality that cannot be delved by human senses or science--unless one has already assumed one's conclusion that a supernatural realm exists.  (This is also a more subtle form of the "non-overlapping magisteria" argument popular in recent years.)

Like all such cautionary messages, Kant's reasoning justifies only the notion that we should strive to keep an open mind should new evidence ever actually appear--not that it is intellectually respectable to believe before such evidence appears.  It is even more clear that Kant's work does not justify believing one claim about the supernatural and simultaneously rejecting all others based on skepticism, which is exactly what D'Souza does.


  1. Well, let's be honest... that's an incredibly uncharitable reading of D'Souza and Kant. D'Souza's point isn't "you can't prove that God doesn't exist," as you claim. I just read the article. His point is that Kant gives us good reasoning for belief in the supernatural. It's arrogant of us to believe our 5 senses give us full knowledge of reality. There's the world as we perceive it. And then there's the world as it truly is. Kant's argument is that they aren't the same. D'Souza says that's what Christians and Muslims and Jews and Buddhists, etc... believe.

  2. Yes, let's be honest... intellectually honest. Charity has nothing to do with it. If D'Souza has an argument to make, let him do it. I am under no obligation to be "charitable", by which you seem to mean engaging in fuzzy, irrational or incomplete reasoning, when reading his article. I did, however, in intellectual honesty, sum up his argument, its implications, and--more important--what it DOES NOT say or even imply.

    Certainly, D'Souza claims that Kant gives us good reasoning for belief in the supernatural, but, in truth, Kant does no such thing. He merely points to the limitations of our faculties, knowledge, and reason. To the best of human knowledge, however, those limitations exist only in theory (actual theory, not scientific theory). This is because those things that we may not be able to sense or reason about currently exist only in theory as well.

    In other words, his entire argument can be distilled to the assertion that there "could" be things about the universe that we don't know or suspect. This tells us absolutely nothing about what those things might be--by definition. Thus, it gives us no reason to affirmatively believe in any of those things.

    It only tells us that we cannot be absolutely certain that such things don't exist. But, as I have pointed out in other posts, such uncertainty is inherent in ALL human conclusions. Such uncertainty is NOT a reason to actually believe in such things. Merely a reason to keep an open mind should new evidence arise. If it were a reason to believe in such things, then we would have to accept ALL such hypotheses--because there is no evidence to distinguish the false from the true.

    In the absence of new evidence, however, such hypotheses should all be rejected. If any one of them is accepted, then one must explain why that one is different from the other hypotheses for which there is no evidence. If no reason is forthcoming, then the person who accepted the one and rejected the others is guilty of intellectual prejudice (and intellectual dishonesty). Such a conclusion is the intellectual equivalent of saying "it's true because I think it is true".