Kant’s famous three questions
by Dr James Fratzia
22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804
“What can I know?
What should I do?
What may I hope?”
In his well known book Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787) Kant poses three questions at the heart of all philosphical thought : “What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope?”
These thoughts, albeit not as concisely expressed, frequently arise in the reflections of older scholars at academic institutions regarding their life experience, their work and their accomplishments. The more honest ones have more questions later in their distinguished careers than they did at the start. Too frequently the implications of Kant’s notion of “transcendental idealism”1 are lost on those who refer to his famous three questions in learned reflections in academic intsitutions. At the very least, study of the the natural, observable world, cannot answer many of the deeper metaphysical questions our lives prompt us to consider. Kant’s three questions require metaphysical reasoning, not simply reasoning based on experience and empiric scientific discovery. Too frequently they remain unanswered.
What can I know?
Humans cannot know all ‘truth’ in the universe, or beyond. Human interpretation of empiric truth is even less likely to be reliable, than the actual empiric evidence itself. Pure reasoning demands this conclusion. The Bible deals with this ‘truth’- “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever…..” Deuteronomy 29:29. The things humans can never know, and especially their reliable interpretation, are described as “secret (or hidden) things” which God must reveal. Jesus promises in the Bible that God will reveal things we need to know from this secret store of truth.
All truth is truth, whether from experience, science or the Bible. Our interpretation of truth is not necessarily truth and it is often the arrogant assumption that those who have succeeded as luminaries or leaders in our society somehow interpret truth accurately. A godless elite in Western nations are the prophets of such wisdom, often described as ‘political correctness’ and which has no room for any competing authority, such as God. Wisdom, which is one way of describing the expectation of such reflections, should begin with the ‘fear of the Lord‘ (Proverbs 1:7) – an acknowledgement of humility before the one who knows all things and the consequences of a failure of submission to that recognition.
Humans have a tendency to ‘confirmation bias‘. Neurocognitively, humans cannot process all information available to our senses. So we screen out most of our sensory input, selecting out the input which we will process. Our experience, our genetics and epigenetics, our training determines what we will ignore and what we will look for and perceive from our environment. In doing so we miss out on what we don’t want to preceive or see. Modern magicians and tricksters use this scientific ‘truth’ to deceive their audiences. Ignoring the ‘secret’ things revealed to us by God means that equipoise is missing from human reasoning which ignores them due to an academic equivalent of confirmation bias. Science teaches us that we do this naturally, and it requires intellectual discipline, so often missing today amongst intellectuals, to incorporate all information in our reasoning. To reason adequately, all information must be considered. We don’t even approach our potential to reason as humans unless we also consider the secret things which only God knows. Kant probably understood this and included an acceptance of the existence of God in his philosophy.
Therefore, if we were to have equipoise in our ‘knowing’, we must conclude that we know what is reasoned by our experience, ‘truth’ we can reason from scientific endeavour, and ‘truth’ which could never be discovered or reliably understood by us but which is revealed by God through a special process of writing and transmitting the Bible, mediated by our individual specific enlightenment. This revelation by God is “special” because God does it by his spirit. It is specific because it is not a feature of the reasoning of all people. It is important for “knowing” because it provides additional capacity and power to our reasoning. This does not simply provide ‘spiritual’ knowing, but the spiritual ‘truth’ allows us to better understand our knowledge from experience and scientific endeavour. Contrary to prevailing misinformation by opponents, accepting knowledge specially revealed by God does not result in dimunition of our faculty to reason (a marker of false ‘religion’, the enemy of man) but a transformational augmentation of our ability to reason.3
To know what one can know in answer to Kant’s question, one must widen our thinking and humbly include all information.
What should I do?
Kant decided that true reason resulted in the reasoning of universal moral law which bound all rational beings. This moral law, or “categorical imperative”, consisted of treating others with respect and bound all rational beings. It results in Kant’s pronouncement that one should “Do the right thing because it is right”. Kant understood that faith in God was actually rational.
It was essential to have an unswerving non-humanist philosophical authority in favour of human dignity if philosophical answers to “What should I do?” did not include misanthropic ones. At the very least, Kant’s universal moral law could only remain valid in all circumstances if inherent human dignity was guaranteed by an unchanging authoritative God. That is, that human beings needed to be more than just reasoning animals. This cannot be sustained purely from human reason.
A Biblical Christian view fleshes out “What should I do?”. “What should I do?” from a Biblical perpective is not philanthropy as many Christians and non-Christians alike would think from passages such as the parable of the good Samaritan (because that is about Jesus2). What everyone should do is described in the words of the prophet Micah from the old testament “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God“ Micah 6:8. This is God’s requirement of all human beings, whether they acknowledge God or not. One may not seek the salvation and resurrection offered by Jesus, but God will still deal with them according to the requirement to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly before him.
To know “what I should do?” one must “know what one can know”. It is not an option to ignore God’s ‘secret’ things, even if one rejects God, if one is to reason more fully. Humility is required for all intellectual pursuit. However, a little bit of knowledge has an interesting effect upon humans who lack humility before God (1 Corinthians 8:1) – arrogance, elitism, judgmentalism and attempts to silence those who disagree with them – lording over people rather than serving them. For the ‘godless’ elite, acting justly is more about the ‘rule of law‘, rather than laws which are just based on what a higher authority than themselves consider best for human society. Arrogance is fed by authority which is often a philosphical construct derived purely from human reasoning, something they can control and manipulate. Loving mercy is usually about minimising or avoiding accountability for morale failure and the exploitation of others, in order to maintain elite status, power and wealth. It is not about benevolence, sober self-judgement, liberation of the oppressed and the implications which flow from recognition of the ‘human condition’.
What may I hope?
Too often the answer provided by academic luminaries is ‘more of the same’ – more reflection on human experience, more scientific discovery and more theories and societal changes based on human reasoning alone. Not only does this not satisfy many people’s deeper questions about life but it requires a ‘faith’ in human goodness and progress. Such a faith is unreasonable because it has a poor evidentiary basis. Even as material standards improve for many around the world, hopelessness does not. It has been known in the Wast for a long time that materialism alone does not satsify. there are many reasons, including the failure of materialism to provide meaningful relationships. Another of these reasons is that the benefits of materialism are limited by ageing and because death inevitably follows a materially prosperous life. Another is that even though a mind transformed by ethical philosophical discipline generally helps improve our reasoning, our decision-making and our relationships with others, too often we see that knowledge leads to arrogance, a politically correct elitism or simply exploitation.
What is missing is a more radical transformation in reasoning and human behaviour which requires supernatural power. The only power which can do this the power which raised Jesus Christ from the dead – the power of God to transform our thinking, our motives, and our relationship with others. This is a power that preserves and enriches this life. It is revealed in the Bible. So Jesus says “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” John 10:10. This power provides real hope in this life, regardless of suffering, ageing and death. But this is also a power that preserves our life through the inevitable death which awaits all of us, allowing us to live with full knowledge and without time for eternity. It is a central promise by God to us which is our ultimate hope – and God cannot lie.4 Against the certainty of resurrection, ‘more of the same’ has little appeal.
Today, the learned ones reflecting upon their lives too often fail us. Humble reasoning logically requires a recognition that we cannot know all things through reason from our experiences, our history, our cultural backgrounds or our reasoning from scientific discovery. It requires additional transforming knowledge that is transmitted to us from God who exists outside our investigatory capacities and who knows all things. Unfortuately, the power of God and the revelation in the Bible which augments our capability to reason is rarely sought by so many ‘wise ones’ exalted for their academic achievements in Western society. Too infrequently is it acknowledged that to do what is right is severely impaired, not simply by inadequate reasoning, but also by a failure to accept the historical evidence that a power beyond our natural limitations is required to consistently do what is right in human life. Then there is death itself, ever-present and unavoidable. Our learned academics, luminaries and celebrities fail us utterly at this point. They can only offer ‘more of the same’. Because ultimately the only meaningful hope we may have is the promise by God that the power which raised the historical Jesus from the dead will raise his followers to eternal life. And that is what all Christians celebrate this, and every, Easter.
- Probably the Easiest to read on-line summary can be found at http://www.iep.utm.edu/kantview/
- How Do We Know Things : http://www.thedebriefing.net/articles/natural-theology/how-do-we-as-humans-know-things/
1. Kant argued that we can only have knowledge of things we can experience. Therefore we must distinguish between what we can experience (the natural, observable world) and that which we cannot know experientially (including beyond the material). ↩
2. Luke 10:25–37 is a parable of God’s intervention in the lives of human beings upon whom he has compassion. God does all that is necessary for healing, pays all the costs and returns on the third day to take over the care of the victim. The parable is spoken in response to whom is our neighbour whom we must love – the answer given in the parable is that our neighbour whom we must love is actually Jesus↩
3. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Romans 12:2 ↩
4. Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness— 2 in the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie,promised before the beginning of time, 3 and which now at his appointed season he has brought to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Savior, Titus1:1-2↩
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