Dr W Large

Transcendental Theology

To be able first of all to understand revolution in the concept of God which happens with Kant, we first of all need to understand the scope of the Critique of Pure Reason.  We must recognise that Kant is writing philosophy in the age of the triumph of the new scientific method which understands nature in terms of mathematics and not individual substances as in the metaphysics of Aristotle.  The first critique is a philosophical defence for the success of Newtonian science.  The natural philosophical partner of science is empiricism, and yet empiricism, at least as Kant sees it, cannot offer a secure foundation to the sciences.  It leads, as the work of Hume demonstrates, to fundamental scepticism.  The problem is whether reason can know something beyond experience, but which at the same time is not vulnerable to the criticisms of scepticism.  The key to Kant’s solution is that the only object of reason is reason itself.  Or that reason cannot know of anything outside of reason, or if reason does posit something outside of reason, then this is reason’s own outside.  But this would mean, against empiricism, that experience itself must be internal to reason, rather than something unknowable which remains inaccessible to human thought, for where dogmatism and empiricism remain the same is that they both have an outside, dogmatism in the idea of infinity and empiricism in the idea of the object.  For Kant, it is not a matter of knowledge trying to reach outside of itself to something alien (which it either fails to reach or distorts, since its essence is different from the object it desires to know), but of the recognition that what is outside knowledge has knowledge itself as its very foundation.  The truth of the object is to be found in the subject itself.  Knowledge must not conform to objects; rather objects must conform to knowledge.  But if reason itself is the ground of reason what possible limits could there be to reason’s claims as to what it can and cannot know?  It is the purpose of the Critique of Pure Reason to answer this question.  There are basically two limitations for Kant: experience itself and the a priori.  Nonetheless, as he underlines in the second preface to the first critique, this self-limitation of reason is valid for the science only, whether pure or applied, and the limitation of reason as to what it can rightly claim to know is to make room for faith.  Thus, reason cannot know God, for reason can only know itself, but this merely leaves room for belief.  What we do need to be careful of here is not to confuse the God of faith with the God of reason, as though they had the same content, but one we now say we believe in rather than know. On the contrary, the very content of the concept of God changes in Kant’s philosophy.  It goes from being an object external to reason, to an idea immanent to reason itself. 

Why can Kant say that objects must conform to our knowledge rather than our knowledge must conform to them?  This is because he takes the empirical critique of epistemology seriously.  Thus we cannot know what objects are in themselves, but only how they appear to us.  But if we only know how objects appear to us, then this very manner of appearing is going to be determined by our own mode of knowledge.  Kant argues that there is a fundamental basis to human knowing which  is a priori, that is to say it does not come from the object, or even the individual person themselves, rather it comes from the mode of knowledge all objects, and it is this mode of knowledge which determines the appearing of any object.  There are two sides to this mode of knowledge, one which is space and time, every object appears in space and time, and must conform to space and time in order to be an object for human beings, and secondly as object of knowledge, every object must conform to the categories of the human understanding, which are the basic building blocks of human understanding.  The first two part of the critique, the transcendental aesthetic and analytic, seek to describe the two sides of the a priori and also give a proof of their validity in what is called the deduction.  The detail of their description and their proof does not concern us here, for what we are interested in is in the change of the meaning of God once we claim that objects conform to us, rather than we must conform to objects.  We must, however, underline that for Kant the a priori is only one side of knowledge.  Without experience, there would no knowledge at all. As Kant says, concepts without intuitions are empty, as intuitions without concepts are blind

Without sensibility no object would be given to us, without understanding no object would be thought.  Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concept are blind. It is therefore just as necessary to make our concepts sensible, that is, to add the object to them in intuition, as to make our intuitions intelligible, that is, to bring them under concepts. These two powers or capacities cannot exchange their functions. The understanding can intuit nothing, the senses can think nothing.  Only through their union can  knowledge arise. (A51/B79)

For there to be knowledge of something an object must be given to consciousness, but God cannot be an empirical object, and therefore the knowledge that theology has claimed to have for centuries it simply a bogus one. Let us then look in a little more detail in Kant’s critique of one form of theological reasoning, the cosmological argument.

      We can say that there are two forms of Kant’s objection to this type of argument.  One concerns the possibility of thinking of the universe as a whole such that one could think of a cause preceding it, and the other is that the cosmological argument actually sneaks in the ontological argument, which is equally invalid.  One, therefore is a scientific disproof not by showing that we can scientifically demonstrate the God does not exist, but that science requires no need of the concept of first cause, and in fact it is not scientifically demonstrable.  The other is a logical disproof of the cosmological argument by showing that it still requires a movement from essence to existence that is illegitimate.

As we have already said, to understand Kant’s argument here we need to understand the overall argument of the Critique of Pure Reason.  In this work, Kant wants to show what the necessary limits of scientific, or theoretical reasoning can be.  He argues that science or theoretical reason must be limited to experience, otherwise we are left with dogmatic proofs that cannot be validated.  One such dogmatic proof is the cosmological argument.  Experience for Kant is made of two elements, concepts and intuitions.  His basic position is that the cosmological argument confuses concepts and intuitions by treating concepts as though they were intuitions.

If in employing the principles of understanding we do not merely apply our reason to objects of experience, but venture to extend these principles beyond the limits of experience, there arise pseudo-rational doctrines which can neither hope for conformation in experience nor fear refutation by it.  Each of them is not only itself free from contradiction, but finds conditions of its necessity in the very nature of reason - only that, unfortunately, the assertion of the opposite has, on its side, grounds that are just as valid and necessary. (B449)

Let us look at this argument is more detail. The argument works negatively, or critically, Kant would say, by showing that if we treat space and time as properties of objects, rather than our representations of objects, then we are involved in paradoxes that insolvable.  These paradoxes Kant calls the ‘antinomies of reason’.  In terms of the cosmological argument, there are equally valid arguments, Kant hopes to demonstrate, for showing that a necessary being must exist as the first cause, but also that no absolutely necessary being is possible.  This pair of conclusions is contradictory.  Kant solves this antinomy not by demonstrating that both are false, but there are true of different objects: the object of reason, which might be called an idea, and the other the objects of the senses.  It might be true that the idea of causality implies an unconditioned cause, but this is not true of the objects of the senses.  The mistake comes when we try an imply an idea of reason beyond the limits of experience.  Now the universe as a whole, or what Kant calls a totality, cannot be an object of experience, therefore the causality of nature cannot be ascribed to it, but this is precisely what the cosmological argument wants to do.  What Kant is saying is that it is perfectly possible to think the idea of the unconditioned cause, but this does not mean that there is any object in reality.  Such a notion of an unconditioned cause is dependant on a complete series of causes, but the concept of a complete causal series is an ideal for reason alone and not an object of knowledge, for an object of knowledge can only be something that is given, that is to say present both in terms of the concepts of the understanding and the forms of intuition, and an unconditioned cause, by definition can be neither.  Such as idea of completeness might be necessary to a system of knowledge, but it does not permit is to claim that there is an actual existence corresponding to it, and still less that this existence is a supreme person:

Such transcendent ideas have a purely intelligible object; and this object may indeed be admitted as a transcendental object, but only if we likewise admit that, for the rest, we have no knowledge in regard to it, and that it cannot be thought as a determinate thing in terms of distinctive inner predicates.  As it is cut off from any reasons that could establish the possibility of such an object, and have not the least justification for assuming it.  It is a mere thought-entity. (B 593)

Natural theology treats God as though he were an empirical object subject to the categories of the understanding like other objects in the world, despite all the speculative and metaphysical colour of its language.  Thus, it denies in advance what it wants to set out to prove.  It is involved in trying to prove what it itself claim lies beyond experience by the rules of experience.

The logical disproof of the cosmological argument is slightly different. The form of the argument can be broken down to 6 steps as follows:


1.      Experience tells us that things exist whose existence is contingent

2.      Because their existence is contingent there must be cause, whether contingent or necessary, which brings them to be.

3.      If the cause is contingent then it too must have a cause that brings it into existence, and if this too is contingent, then it too must have a cause which is either contingent or necessary until arrive at a cause that must be necessary

4.      Such a series cannot be endless otherwise what does exist would not have a reason to exist at all.

5.      Therefore there must be a first cause which is intrinsically necessary

6.      What is necessary must exist.


The last step is an ontological argument for Kant – it argues from a logical necessity to a real necessity, which is invalid:

The attempt to establish the existence of a supreme being by means of the famous ontological argument of Descartes is therefore merely so much labour and effort lost; we can no more extend our stock of theoretical insight by mere ideas, than a merchant can better his position by adding a few noughts to his cash account. A602/B630.

Thus, the critique of the ontological argument is also a critique of the conceptual form of the cosmological argument. What is important to stress here is that Kant is not claiming that we cannot know God, because God is some mysterious object or being beyond knowledge, for all objects are from the very beginning constituted by consciousness.  There could be no object on the other side of consciousness.  Rather he is asserting that definitions about what God is are nonsensical.  They are a misuse of language, rather than a failure of knowledge. We must accept the limitations of human knowledge in order to save reason from itself. This self-limitation of knowledge, however, should not lead to a crisis of faith, rather they should strengthen it by placing it on safer rational grounds. This new foundation for a rational faith, as we shall see next week, will be morality and not science.