|KANT, RATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY AND THE IDENTITY THEORY|
|The ontological identity theory is a contradictory position based on the untenable notion of two perspectives from which one would be able to consider the conscious mind.|
PSYCHICAL APPEARANCE AND REALITY: KANT, RATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY AND THE IDENTITY THEORY
Kant's error about rational psychology: Psychical appearance and reality
by Titus Rivas (*)
'Who forces us to think that subjectivity is real, essential?'
Friedrich Nietzsche, Der Wille zur Macht
'The reality of a sensation is exhausted by its appearance to us; for sensations, esse is percipi.'
Anthony J. Rudd, What It's Like and What's Really Wrong with Physicalism
In this essay I defend Karl Popper's position that the negative
evaluation of 'rational psychology' by the German philosopher Immanuel
Kant forms the main implicit basis for the present acceptability of the
identity theory in the philosophy of mind. Furthermore, I claim the
Kantian analysis cannot stand critical scrutiny. I will finally show
what this means for the philosophical status of the identity theory.
1. Kant and rational psychology
In his well-known Kritik der reinen Vernunft Immanuel Kant intended
to show that the pretensions of the metaphysics of his own era (and
even metaphysics in general in the traditional sense) were groundless. He wrote that all our knowledge is relative to certain unchangeable, given suppositions of human perception and reasoning. We have no access to reality as it is
in itself -an sich-, but only to reality as it appears to us through
our specific human filters of perception and thought. Therefore, we can
never hope to reach any insight in the true nature of things. The only
attainable goal we can reasonably long for, is to reach knowledge of
how things are and behave within reality as it appears to us.
Gary Hatfield states: "Although other modern philosophers before Kant, including Descartes, Locke, and Hume, had conceived of the project of examining the knower and the knower’s cognitive capacities, Kant’s investigation stands apart because he provided a novel and an especially thorough examination of the powers and capacities, or “faculties,” of the human mind, which he explicitly linked to determining the very possibility of metaphysics. Moreover, Kant’s conclusions differed significantly from those of his predecessors. His so-called “deduction” of metaphysical concepts claims to justify the use of such concepts, but it justifies them differently than would either a rationalist or an empiricist. This deduction also put limits on the use of these concepts, of a kind that would undercut rationalist metaphysics. Like Descartes, Kant thought that metaphysics could provide a systematic body of theoretical first principles, but he denied that it provides knowledge of substances as they are in themselves."
Kant used a specific terminology to distinguish the traditional metaphysical
and the empirical objectives. Metaphysics is traditionally searching for knowledge of
noumenal reality, i.e. of reality as it really is, independent of any
human presuppositions or cognitive deformations of perception and
thought. Empirical science, however, strives for knowledge of
phenomenal reality, i.e. the world as it appears to us humans.
Within the metaphysics of Kant's days there was a branch named
'rational psychology' which may legitimately be compared to our own
contemporary philosophy of mind. As a subspecies of metaphysics, Kant
criticized the rational psychology of thinkers like Wolff and Leibniz
and analyzed its 'paralogisms'. The main problem Kant has with rational
psychology is that it tries to rationally deduce metaphysical truths
about the soul, whereas all rational psychologists can logically
dispose of, consists of phenomenal psychical reality. Psychical reality
as it really is, noumenal psychical reality in other words, necessarily
remains unknown to them. Rational psychology pretends it can
deductively show the immortality of the soul, and so on, whereas
according to Kant, all it can really do is give a catalogue of
phenomenal truths which imply nothing for noumenal reality. (See for
example the Second Book of Transcendental Dialectics.)
Thus, rational psychology fails hopelessly. We can know absolutely
nothing about noumenal reality, and we can make no exception for our
own conscious experiences. The Cartesian adagium Cogito (ergo) sum (the
very foundation of Cartesian and Neocartesian epistemology and
ontology) can only hold for my conscious existence as a phenomenon, not
as a noumenon.
2. Kant's rejection of rational psychology, and identity theory
One of the main lessons Kant wants to teach his readers is that,
contrary to common metaphysical doctrines, we have absolutely no
knowledge of noumenal reality. For example, we don't know if anything
noumenal corresponds to the phenomenon of matter. And if there is
indeed something which corresponds to it, we have no way whatsoever to
find out what it is. Similarly, what phenomenally appears to be mind,
might in noumenal reality be something entirely different.
I hope that the epistemological correspondence between this Kantian position and the modern position about the ontology of mind called 'identity theory', is quite clear. Both Kantian and modern identity theory distinguish between mind as it appears to us, from a first person perspective ('by acquaintance'), and mind as it is in in itself. Mind can be considered both from a subjective and from an
objective position according to both theories. (Addition of July 2004:
Wolfgang Gasser has kindly written me that Kant did not use the word objective as a synonym for noumenal and reserves the term for the context of 'phenomenal objectivity', but the reader should know that I here use
the word in a more general rather than specifically Kantian sense.)
is hardly surprising therefore if Karl Popper (1977) traces the
identity theory back to Kant via Schopenhauer, Clifford, Schlick, Feigl
and Bertrand Russell. However, there is an important difference which
should not be overlooked. Kant clearly claims that we can never know
the true nature of mind, only mind as it appears to us through our perceptual and cognitive filters. On the other hand, identity theory is usually certain that the true nature of mind is physical, i.e. that mind seen from an objective third person perspective is precisely the brain or part of it. Kant should
doubtlessly characterize the identity theory position as a groundless
metaphysical claim of a 21st-Century rational psychology.
Still, the identity theory would be nowhere if we could show Kant
to be wrong in his general rejection of rational psychology. There is
something paradoxical about this, because if Kant is right about
rational psychology, identity theory should be seen as a form of
groundless speculation, as any other type of philosophy of mind should.
However, if Kant is wrong about rational psychology, this would mean we
do directly know something about mind as it is, from our private first
person perspectives, so that the distinction between phenomenal and
noumenal underlying identity theory would collapse. Either way, within
the context of an evaluation of the Kantian critique on rational
psychology, immediately it becomes surprisingly clear that identity
theory isn't viable (Rivas, 1996, 2003).
3. Phenomenal and Noumenal Reality of Mind
I want to defend the position that the distinction between the
conscious mind as it appears to us and a noumenal conscious mind (as it
would be rather than just appear) is groundless. This position
can be compared to that of Franz Brentano (1973), though I doubt that
he held it for the same reason. Stronger parallels may be found in
Bolzano (1970), Searle (1997) and Rudd (1998).
According to Kant, we have phenomenal experiences of an external world and of our own private, psychical world. Since our acquaintance with both worlds is necessarily phenomenal, we don't know anything of those worlds in themselves. An explicit 19th-Century defender of Kantian phenomenalism of mind, was Friedrich Nietzsche, (Nietzsche,
1992, book I, 65). Not only does Nietzsche speak of the exclusively
phenomenal access to our inner mental processes, but he also states
that this access might even be completely ficticious, meaning that
there might in fact (or 'noumenally') be no such thing as introspection
or subjectivity. This mental phenomenalism is a central notion within
Nietzsche's philosophy, to such an extent that much of his thought
depends on it.
Now, I claim that there is a serious contradiction hidden in this assertion. Kant is certain that there really are phenomenal
experiences, and rightly so. But if he is, how can he at the same time
deny that we know something about our minds, namely that we have
(Wolfgang Gasser told me in 2004 that reality
is a term Kant reserved for phenomenal reality, but even if that is
true, we may still ask how Kant could claim to know that all we have is
phenomenal experiences of our minds so that our minds could be
completely different than they appear to be.) It is contradictory to
claim that all we ultimately have are phenomenal experiences of an
inner and outer world, while denying at the same time that we know that
those phenomenal experiences as such are part of ultimate reality. This
means that phenomenal experiences as such must be real not only from a
phenomenal point of view, but also in an ultimate, ontological sense.
Note that I'm not just claiming this, but analytically proving my
claim. If Kant's claim that we can only know the world as it appears to
be, were merely a claim about knowledge in the phenomenal sense, and
not about knowledge as such (as it is), this would imply that Kant
invalidates his own words about the limits of our knowledge, because
absolutely nothing could be known about knowledge as it is - not even
about its limits - and only about knowledge as it appears to be. All his
authoritative and influential claims about knowledge would become
completely based on mere phenomenal appearances and imply nothing about
the ultimate reality of knowledge in itself, according to the
implications of his own system. Or, as Mario Derksen stresses:
"Dietrich von Hildebrand shows that Kant's entire epistemology is
problematic from the bottom up:
Kant dissolves the authentic meaning of knowledge as the grasping of a
being such as it is objectively . . . by replacing it with the notion
of the construction of the object. We must stress again and again that
this implies an immanent contradiction . . . in the interpretation of
knowledge. . . . In claiming to reveal to us the real nature of
knowledge, Kant presupposes the notion of knowledge which he denies in
the content of his thesis."
My point here is that the conscious mind can only be conscious. It
cannot ultimately be something else than itself. If we say that a
conscious experience might in reality be something else than that
conscious experience we are saying that the conscious experience as
such might ultimately be non-conscious, which is analytically absurd.
It would be like saying that we only imagine and think that we imagine
and think, but that it might be the case that we actually never imagine
and think anything. The contradiction is that it would require us to
have only a (subjective) illusion that we truly experience things,
whereas this can never be the case, as illusion is itself such an
We cannot have the illusion of experiencing subjective phenomena
(compare: Popper, 1977). It is only in the phenomena's possible
referential characteristic of pointing at something outside themselves
that we can have an illusion. Phenomena might refer to something
completely non-existent or absent, as in the case of hallucination, or
they might distort (information from) sensorial stimuli. But as such, phenomena cannot be
mere illusions (of phenomena). Being phenomena, they necessarily are
what they seem.
Kant therefore made a very serious mistake in his evaluation of rational psychology. Whereas it is logically thinkable that the outside
world is not what it seems, it is simply inconceivable that the world
of phenomenal experiences - the conscious mind - would be anything else
than itself. In phenomenal life, the life of "how things appear to us
subjects", the distinction between a phenomenal experience as it
appears and a phenomenal experience as it is, cannot be made.
Therefore, we do ultimately have direct access to our own phenomenal
experiences. We experience them as they are, not just as they appear.
Their appearance is their reality. Appearances as appearances are
always those very same appearances. In other words: The objective -in
the usual non-Kantian sense of this word- (an sich) nature of
subjectivity is subjective. David J. Chalmers (2003) has formulated
this as follows: "If something feels conscious, it is
conscious. One can hold more generally that the primary and secondary
intensions of our core phenomenal concepts are the same."
Thus, it is Descartes or even the ancient scholars, like
Plato and Plotinus, that should from now on form the historical basis for the ontology of mind, not Kant's error of analysis.
4. Identity theory and Kant's error
Kant has made an unfortunate error in analyzing rational
psychology. He thought that consciousness as it appears and
consciousness as it is could be two different things. The same errors
occur in identity theory as we have seen. Thus, Feuerbach says (p.
168): "(...) from the fact that thought is not a brainprocess to me, but
an act which differs from the brain and which is independent of it, it
doesn't follow that it is not in itself a brain process. No, on the
contrary: What to me or subjectively is a purely spiritual, immaterial,
non-sensuous act, is in itself or objectively material, sensuous. The
identity of subject and object (...) particularly concerns the brain
process and the process of thought" (Thies, 1975).
The implication is obvious: If Immanuel Kant can be said to go astray in this respect, the same must go for identity theory. In other words: The conscious mind cannot really be the unconscious brain. What if we consider the other possibility, namely that the brain is the phenomenal appearance of the 'noumenal' reality of consciousness? According to Karl Popper (1977), this would be what Feigl thinks, so that Popper considers him more of a spiritualist than a materialist.
The answer is that only if the brain as a material object is a
phenomenal illusion and exists only as that illusion, it would be
possible to consider it as really (and exclusively) a part of the mind.
The point is that ontologically speaking we would then have a type of
idealism, not of identity theory. Popper mentions that Feigl wishes to
be seen as a materialist.
5. Is introspection infallible?
Does the foregoing imply that introspection must be infallible? Is it
not obvious that we can be wrong about past subjective experiences or
about the best way to categorize them? There are two different
definitions of the term introspection involved here. In the sense of direct acquaintance with our subjective experiences as they are,
introspection must necessarily be infallible. In the sense of the
correct categorization of subjective experiences, or of knowledge of
our personal psychological history, development or mechanisms,
introspection is certainly fallible. The quality of fallible introspection in the second sense is directly dependent on the infallible introspection in the first sense.
Summing up, we can say that the ontological identity theory is a
contradictory position based on the untenable notion of two
perspectives from which one would be able to consider the conscious
mind. The only viable road to the conscious mind is the subjective one.
The conscious mind is not really something physical. The objective
perspective on the conscious mind is the subjective perspective.
Now, if we wish to cling to a notion of matter as a noumenon, the
only possible ontology for contemporary philosophy of mind can be a
form of radical dualism (Smythies & Beloff,1989). The only
alternative would be an idealism which rejects the 'real' (ultimate),
i.e. non-mental existence of matter (Foster, 1991) .
Obviously, this has important implications for the ontological foundation of psychical research.
- Bolzano, B. (1970). Athanasia oder Gründe für die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (first edition: 1838). Frankfurt am Main: Minerva.
- Brentano, F. (1973). Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt, Erster Band (first edition 1924). Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag.
- Chalmers, D.J. (2003). Consciousness and its Place in Nature, in: Stich, S.P., & Warfield, T.A. The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Mind. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
- Foster, J. (1991). The immaterial self: a defence of the cartesian dualist conception of the mind. London: Routledge.
- Kant, I. (1974). Kritik der reinen Vernunft (first edition 1781). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
- Nietzsche, F. (1992). Herwaardering van alle waarden (Dutch translation of Der Wille zur Macht: Versuch einer Umwertung aller Werte). Amsterdam: Boom Meppel.
- Popper, K.R. (1977). The so-called identity theory, in: Popper, K.R., & Eccles, J.C. The self and its brain. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 81-86.
- Rivas, T. (1996). Filosofie van de persoonlijke onsterfelijkheid: grondslagen voor survivalonderzoek. Tijdschrift voor Parapsychologie, 64, 3/4, 27-44.
- Rivas, T. (1999). Analytical argumentation and the theoretical
foundation of psychical research I: Arguments for the causal efficacy
of mind. The Paranormal Review, 10, 33-35.
- Rivas, T. (2003). Geesten met of zonder lichaam: pleidooi voor een personalistisch dualisme. Delft: Koopman & Kraaijenbrink.
- Rudd, A.J. (1998). What it's like and what's really wrong with physicalism. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 5, 4, 454-463.
- Searle, J.R. (1997). The mystery of consciousness. London: Granta.
- Smythies, J.R., & Beloff, J. (1989). The case for dualism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
- Thies, F. (Ed.) (1975). Ludwig Feuerbach: Werke in sechs BÃ¤nden: 4. Kritiken und Abhandlungen III (1844-1866). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
(*). I wish to thank Vincent Pompe, John Beloff, René van Hezewijk, Rob de Vries, Anthony J. Rudd, Sandy Lemberg and Anny Dirven for their useful suggestions. I'm also grateful to Ms. Elena and Katerina M. for their moral support when I wrote the first draft of this paper (early 1990s). I'm indebted to Wolfgang Gasser for his comments on the first version of this online paper.
This paper is mentioned on this website.
Mario Derksen: Kant, Noumenal Ontology and the Existence of God
Josef Seifert: Back to Things in Themselves
This paper has been published several times on the internet, and the present version dates from 2012.
|immanuel kant, philosophy of mind, dualism, materialism, ontology, identity theory, rational psychology, idealism|