(4) The Pillars of Unbelief - Kant

PETER KREEFT

Few philosophers in history have been so unreadable and dry as Immanuel Kant. Yet few have had a more devastating impact on human thought.

Immanuel Kant
(1724-1804)

Kant's devoted servant, Lumppe, is said to have faithfully read each thing his master published, but when Kant published his most important work, "The Critique of Pure Reason," Lumppe began but did not finish it because, he said, if he were to finish it, it would have to be in a mental hospital. Many students since then have echoed his sentiments.

Yet this abstract professor, writing in abstract style about abstract questions, is, I believe, the primary source of the idea that today imperils faith (and thus souls) more than any other; the idea that truth is subjective.

The simple citizens of his native Konigsburg, Germany, where he lived and wrote in the latter half of the 18th century, understood this better than professional scholars, for they nicknamed Kant "The Destroyer" and named their dogs after him.

He was a good-tempered, sweet and pious man, so punctual that his neighbors set their clocks by his daily walk. The basic intention of his philosophy was noble: to restore human dignity amidst a skeptical world worshiping science.

This intent becomes clear through a single anecdote. Kant was attending a lecture by a materialistic astronomer on the topic of man's place in the universe. The astronomer concluded his lecture with: "So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant." Kant replied: "Professor, you forgot the most important thing, man is the astronomer."

Kant, more than any other thinker, gave impetus to the typically modern turn from the objective to the subjective. This may sound fine until we realize that it meant for him the redefinition of truth itself as subjective. And the consequences of this idea have been catastrophic.

If we ever engage in conversation about our faith with unbelievers, we know from experience that the most common obstacle to faith today is not any honest intellectual difficulty, like the problem of evil or the dogma of the trinity, but the assumption that religion cannot possibly concern facts and objective truth at all; that any attempt to convince another person that your faith is true — objectively true, true for everyone — is unthinkable arrogance.

The business of religion, according to this mindset, is practice and not theory; values, not facts; something subjective and private, not objective and public. Dogma is an "extra," and a bad extra at that, for dogma fosters dogmatism. Religion, in short, equals ethics. And since Christian ethics is very similar to the ethics of most other major religions, it doesn't matter whether you are a Christian or not; all that matters is whether you are a "good person." (The people who believe this also usually believe that just about everyone except Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson is a "good person.")

Kant is largely responsible for this way of thinking. He helped bury the medieval synthesis of faith and reason. He described his philosophy as "clearing away the pretensions of reason to make room for faith" — as if faith and reason were enemies and not allies. In Kant, Luther's divorce between faith and reason becomes finalized.

Kant thought religion could never be a matter of reason, evidence or argument, or even a matter of knowledge, but a matter of feeling, motive and attitude. This assumption has deeply influenced the minds of most religious educators (e.g., catechism writers and theology departments) tody, who have turned their attention away from the plain "bare bones" of faith, the objective facts narrated in Scripture and summarized in the Apostles' creed. They have divorced the faith from reason and married it to pop psychology, because they have bought into Kant's philosophy.

"Two things fill me with wonder," Kant confessed: "the starry sky above and the moral law within." What a man wonders about fills his heart and directs his thought. Note that Kant wonders about only two things: not God, not Christ, not Creation, Incarnation, Resurrection and Judgment, but "the starry sky above and the moral law within." "The starry sky above" is the physical universe as known by modern science. Kant relegates everything else to subjectivity. The moral law is not "without" but "within," not objective but subjective, not a Natural Law of objective rights and wrongs that comes from God but a man-made law by which we decide to bind ourselves. (But if we bind ourselves, are we really bound?) Morality is a matter of subjective intention only. It has no content except the Golden Rule (Kant's "categorical imperative").

If the moral law came from God rather than from man, Kant argues, then man would not be free in the sense of being autonomous. This is true, Kant then proceeds to argue that man must be autonomous, therefore the moral law does not come from God but from man. The Church argues from the same premise that the moral law does in fact come from God, therefore man is not autonomous. He is free to choose to obey or disobey the moral law, but he is not free to create the law itself.

Though Kant thought of himself as a Christian, he explicitly denied that we could know that there really exists (1) God, (2) free will, and (3) immorality. He said we must live as if these three ideas were true because if we believe them we will take morality seriously, and if we don't we will not. It is this justification of belief by purely practical reasons that is a terrible mistake. Kant believes in God not because it is true but because it is helpful. Why not believe in Santa Claus then? If I were God, I would favor an honest atheist over a dishonest theist, and Kant is to my mind a dishonest theist, because there is only one honest reason for believing anything: because it is true.


Those who try to sell the Christian faith in the Kantian sense, as a "value system" rather than as the truth, have been failing for generations. With so many competing "value systems: on the market, why should anyone prefer the Christian variation to simpler ones with less theological baggage, and easier ones with less inconvenient moral demands?

Kant gave up the battle, in effect, by retreating from the battlefield of fact. He believed the great myth of the 18th-century "Enlightenment" (ironic name!): that Newtonian science was here to stay and that Christianity, to survive, had to find a new place in the new mental landscape sketched by the new science. The only place left was subjectivity.

That meant ignoring or interpreting as myth the supernatural and miraculous claims of traditional Christianity. Kant's strategy was essentially the same as that of Rudolf Bultmann, the father of "demythologizing" and the man who may be responsible for more Catholic college students losing their faith than anyone else. Many theology professors follow his theories of criticism which reduce biblical claims of eyewitness description of miracles to mere myth, "values" and "pious interpretations."

Bultmann said this about the supposed conflict between faith and science: "The scientific world picture is here to stay and will assert its right against any theology, however imposing, that conflicts with it." Ironically, that very "scientific world picture" of Newtonian physics Kant and Bultmann accepted as absolute and unchangeable has today been almost universally rejected by scientists themselves!

Kant's basic question was: How can we know truth? Early in his life he accepted the answer of Rationalism, that we know truth by the intellect, not the senses, and that the intellect possesses its own "innate ideas." The he read the Empiricist David Hume, who, Kant said, "woke me from my dogmatic slumber." Like other Empiricists, Hume believed that we could know truth only through the senses and that we had no "innate ideas." But Hume's premises led him to the conclusion of Skepticism, the denial that we can ever know the truth at all with any certainty. Kant saw both the "dogmatism" of Rationalism and the skepticism of Empiricism as unacceptable, and sought a third way.

There was such a third theory available, ever since Aristotle. It was the common sense philosophy of Realism. According to Realism, we can know truth through both the intellect and the senses if only they worked properly and in tandem, like two blades of a scissors. Instead of returning to traditional Realism, Kant invented a wholly new theory of knowledge, usually called Idealism. He called it his "Copernican revolution in philosophy." The simplest term for it is Subjectivism. It amounts to redefining truth itself as subjective, not objective.

All previous philosophers had assumed that truth was objective. That's simply what we common-sensically mean by "truth": knowing what really is, conforming the mind to objective reality. Some philosophers (the Rationalists) thought we could attain this goal through reason alone. The early Empiricists (like Locke) thought we could attain it through sensation. The later skeptical Empiricist Hume thought we could not attain it at all with any certainty. Kant denied the assumption common to all three competing philosophies, name that we should attain it, that truth means conformity to objective reality. Kant's "Copernican revolution" redefines truth itself as reality conforming to ideas. "Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects...more progress may be made if we assume the contrary hypothesis that the objects of thought must conform to our knowledge."

Kant claimed that all our knowledge is subjective. Well, is that knowledge subjective? If it is, then the knowledge of that fact is also subjective, et cetera, and we are reduced to an infinite hall of mirrors. Kant's philosophy is a perfect philosophy for hell. Perhaps the damned collectively believe they aren't really in hell, it's all just in their mind. And perhaps it is; perhaps that's what hell is.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Kreeft, Peter. "The Pillars of Unbelief — Kant" The National Catholic Register, (January - February 1988).

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THE AUTHOR

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.

He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1988 The National Catholic Register