You can't trust anything, really
Posted by aogMonday, 20 October 2003 at 21:40 TrackBack Ping URL
I first saw this article in the WSJ and thought it was a flaw argument, but then there was discussion about it at the Brothers Judd. The quote in question is from Kant:
The Fallacy of the Enlightenment is the glib assumption that there is only one limit to what human beings can know, and that limit is reality itself

In his “Critique of Pure Reason,” Kant showed that this premise is false. In fact, he argued, there is a much greater limit to what human beings can know. The only way that we apprehend reality is through our five senses. But why should we believe, Kant asked, that our five-mode instrument for apprehending reality is sufficient for capturing all of reality? What makes us think that there is no reality that goes beyond, one that simply cannot be apprehended by our five senses?

The first thing to wonder is, is Kant talking about our five senses unaided by technology? If so, then it’s quite a silly argument. One need only consider such things as an atomic force microscope which, with a suitable attachment, allows one to “feel” and manipulate single atoms. Clearly there is no way to do this with unaided senses, yet people do it anyway. So the basic senses clearly do not create a limit to knowledge.

On the other hand, if Kant is speaking of senses even when aided by technology, his argument makes even less sense. With things like X-Ray telescopes, technology can transmute initially imperceptible things in to some mix of our existing senses. On what basis does Kant claim some limit to this? We can listen to the beating of the sun if we chose. It’s a rather Samuel Johnson response.

It may be that there are limits based on our cognitive limitations, but again it’s hard to say that advancements in technology cannot create post humans capable of more complex information processing (or even that have additional physical senses).

A final objection is that when we use technology we have to take things on faith, if nothing else that our technology is actually “observing” reality rather than just generating noise we interpret as real. However, this objection is just as weak as the others because it contrasts human senses with technology. But what’s the real difference? Who really thinks that human vision is an absolutely accurate perception of the world? One need only consider the blind spot to realize that even our direct senses are inaccurate and provide us with a false perception of reality. So technologically aided senses are not fundamentally less reliable than our built in ones.

All in all, i find Kant’s point a rather a silly one. Perhaps we can excuse him because technology wasn’t as prevelant nor knowledge of innate senses as well developed as they are today, but that’s no excuse for moderns who repeat this discredited idea.

Comments — Formatting by Textile
oj Monday, 20 October 2003 at 23:46


You’re still talking about listening and “blind” though. What is there that you can “know” that you do not perceive through your senses?

Annoying Old Guy Tuesday, 21 October 2003 at 10:49


What is there that I can “know” that I do perceive through my senses? Matter is made of atoms, but I don’t perceive them through my senses. What I “know” about matter via my senses is wrong. If you trust your senses directly, why not indirectly?

David Cohen Tuesday, 21 October 2003 at 20:27

Explain to me how you know that Saturn exists.

aog Tuesday, 21 October 2003 at 20:49

I’ve seen it through a telescope. But that’s my point again - if I believe something because I see it with just my eyes, how is that different from seeing something through a telescope?

What I fail to see is how one can (as Kant and D’Souza apparently do) have faith in direct physical sensation but not in technologically enhanced sensation.

If you give up on the senses, you can’t know anything. That strikes me as an uninteresting point of view. So I take it on faith that my senses reveal to me, even if noisily, objective reality.

But once I’ve made that leap of faith, I don’t see any stopping point beyond it. Kant argues that we can know something about reality but not everything and I don’t see where he gets that from. Where, exactly, do you draw the line?

Anonymous Tuesday, 21 October 2003 at 22:06

But isn’t that the point? Once you’ve made a leap of faith, you’ve accepted that reason is not the only source of knowledge, nor it’s only limit.

oj Tuesday, 21 October 2003 at 22:37


I think you’re still hung up on the primitive fiive senses vs. technologically enhanced perception. A Telescope makes the moon look really big, but it doesn’t change the fact that you are perceiving reality through the five senses, does it?

aog Wednesday, 22 October 2003 at 09:12


I accept that even reason requires some basic axioms in order to function. My point of contention is the required axioms are much more basic than here.


Perhaps, but that seems to me to be the only point of the original quote. How is that really different from the atomic force microscope? Again, you need to either deny that through reason one can know anything, or you have no good place to draw the line, thereby invalidating the claim that because we have only five sense we cannot know all of reality. I’m not attempting to prove that we can know all of reality, just that if we can’t, having only five senses isn’t the reason why not.

End of Discussion