Some epistemological and ethical considerations: Hume, Kant, scientific realism and negative philosophy

So far, I've had two excellent professors of Kant at the university. Both are Kant specialists and know his magnum opus — Critique of Pure Reason — backwards and forwards. They even understand the fine detail of different translations and the heated disputes that occurred throughout the last two centuries over this or that term. Unfortunately, they say, Kant could have been a little less obscure in his writing. I agree with them. There is an excuse that he wrote in the obscure vernacular in vogue at the time, imitating Christian Wolff's style, but the Scotsman David Hume wrote before Kant and expounded his ideas in a clearer form. Besides that, a little after Kant, other German philosophers were already writing in a more accessible way — among them, Schopenhauer.

Newton's discovery of refraction, by Pelagio Palagi

To understand what happened at the time, we need to remember the scientific revolution that came after the 1687 publication of Newton's Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, known as Principia Mathematica. Newton wasn't the only one to arrive at differential calculus — Leibniz also did it —, but the influence caused by Newton's mechanical laws destroyed two thousand years of Aristotelian natural philosophy. Aristotelian physics was descriptive, because Aristotle believed that it was impossible to mathematize nature. When he was able to successfully mathematize laws of nature, Newton demonstrated that Aristotle's descriptive physics was wrong. This not only generated a scientific revolution, but also a technical revolution, which helped European advances in the following centuries. 

It is in this scenery that Hume started philosophizing. In order to save time, and also because I'm far from being a specialist in the subject, I will grossly sum up Hume's and Kant's theories of knowledge. Hume Hume was one the greatest empiricists in History. According to him, all human knowledge can be divided in two categories: relationship of ideas and matters of fact. The relationship of ideas are things like mathematical and logical propositions, while matters of fact are all the things that possess some kind of contingency relative to observation and experience.

In his view, the only kinds of knowledge that are universal and necessary are those obtained through relationship of ideas. For example, when we say that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides, this would be a universal and necessary knowledge; but when we state that the Sun rises everyday in the East, we are only stating something out of force of habit, since nothing guarantees that the Sun will always rise in the East — something that today, through contemporary astrophysics, we know to be true; after a few billion years the Earth won't even exist in order for the Sun to "rise".
Some time after, Kant was impressed by Hume's thesis and abandoned what he called his "dogmatic sleep" — like many other German and European thinkers of the time, he still considered some form of religious-metaphysical system as the basis of human knowledge. However, after reading Hume, Kant went on a path in search for a philosophy without dogmatic foundations. He sought a philosophy that was more in tune with the scientific thinking of his age. But Kant still believed that it was possible to save the dignity of metaphysics as a philosophical science, as long as we established rigid limits to it. Like Hume, Kant was also impressed by the scientific revolution caused by Newton, but contrary to empiricists, he imagined that what Newton had discovered were universal and necessary laws of nature — something that goes against Humean thought, which considered Newton's laws as excellent approximations, not universal and necessary laws, since they were based on the observation of nature and experimentation.

Kant's critical project tried to show that there is a third kind of human knowledge, being the analytical judgements — which are equivalent to Hume's relationship of ideas — and the synthetic a posteriori judgements — which are equivalent to Hume's matters of fact. Kant named this third kind of knowledge as the synthetic a priori judgement. That is, a type of knowledge obtained from experimentation that is universal and necessary. For example, the Newtonian equation Force = Mass x Acceleration was a synthetic a priori judgement for Kant — it is neither a logical relationship of ideas, like logical or pure arithmetical statements, nor is it merely a contingent fact extracted from the world. For Kant, this equation would be a universal and necessary knowledge obtained through experimentation and observation.

But there's a problem. Since then, science has changed a lot. Physicists discovered that Newtonian mechanics can't explain a series of phenomena and — especially after Einstein's equations — realized that Newtonian physics wasn't really correct. In other words: Newtonian physics was useful (and it is still useful) in explaining several common phenomena, and it able to produce equipment, buildings, machines, etc, but only within a certain range. When we deal with astronomical scales — when we talk about extreme sizes and speeds—Newtonian physics becomes highly inadequate, while Einsteinian physics is validated. The same goes for absurdly small phenomena, which became the field of quantum physics.

So, now that we know that Newtonian mechanics is not universal and necessary, what happens? Is Kant dead? For many, yes, he is, and for quite a while now. But this isn't the whole story. There have been Kantian philosophers who revised and relativize the aprioristic concept, some of them even corresponded with Einstein at the time of his discoveries. In fat, this is an option: the relativization of the a priori synthetic judgement. There are some academic publications that criticize certain critics of Kant's a priori synthetic judgement — thinkers such as Karl Popper, in the 20th century — stating that Kant himself never treated the synthetic a priori as an absolute, and that, in fact, he never defended a complete abandonment of experimental science. His defenders claim that, on the contrary, Kant wouldn't see any problems in revising what he considers universal and necessary within physical science if he was alive and saw that scientific experiments showing Newtonian mechanics to be inadequate. After all, Kant wasn't a dogmatic thinker. 

Where do I insert myself in this? Honestly, I don't know. I remain skeptic as to my capacity to decide between the Kantian idea which states that there are universal and necessary principles to be discovered by science and the Humean idea that all observational and experimental science is always an approximation of what is true, but never truth itself. The name of this website, Metaphysical Exile, references Emil Cioran's philosophy and the idea that we were all thrown in a physical existence without being able to chose. We were yanked out of nothingness an now we inhabit a world where we suffer and have to create meaning only to die painfully eventually. Like the Americans say: life sucks and then you die.

Despite making allusions to metaphysics and using poetic vocabulary here and there, this kind of negative philosophy espoused by Cioran and other pessimistic thinkers like him is not based on fantasy, it admits the validity of contemporary sciences — that is: what we have is an approximation of a "truth" which is open to future revisions through new experimentation and new scientific theories. In other words: in the end of the day, the posture I take is something close to scientific realism. A big part (maybe even for the most part) we become pessimists precisely because of of what contemporary science tells us about the human animal and about the physical-chemical universe we inhabit. The lack of some higher meaning to our lives and the non-existence of a rational historical telos (and in my case, the refusal of a teleology that requires so much blood and suffering) — these are some of the "gifts" that contemporary natural sciences gave us so far. After seeing this, some despair and want to return to a world of medieval fantasy; people like Olavo de Carvalho, president Bolsonaro's crazy philosophical guru. Others prefer to stick to less insane, but also fantastic beliefs, such as the idea of eternal human progress through imense sacrifice.

In the end, no matter the existence or not of some universal and necessary truth which we can discover through experiments, the fact is that contemporary science gives us an ever growing and ever sharper picture—and this picture does not satisfy. Someone may state: "But if science is always revising itself, independent of the adopted epistemology, we can't know, maybe the future will point to a human existence that is totally worth it." It's true. I can't state that life isn't completely worthless with complete certainty. At some moment, an ethical posturing — such as the pessimist ethics I agree with — requires choice. The choice I make is to accept the validity of the discoveries made by NASA's WMAP and the ESA's Planck satellites: our universe will probably end in a phenomenon called "Big Freeze" in hundreds of trillions of years, and there is nothing anyone can do to avoid this scenario. No future technological invention coming from the craziest corners of science fiction will ever be able to revert this scenario. Only an omnipotent and metaphysical God could do it, but this God doesn't exist.

Even if science came to prove the opposite and say the universe will continue in some static form capable of maintaining organic life forever, that would still leave the pessimist ethical question: is the continuation of life worth it? The answer, at least for the pessimist, would still be negative, because certain facts about suffering — of all creatures capable of feeling some kind of physical or mental pain — are independent from the final destiny of the universe. They depend only on the composition of animal life capable of pain. Even if we knew that in one hundred years all lives would be marvelous and without suffering, we'd have to consider how ethical it would be to continue our perpetuation in the world during the intervening time.

The value judgement I make in this regard is that it would not be ethical: it wasn't ethical in the past, it isn't ethical today, and it never will, because of the terminal structure of being — about this subject, it is worth reading Discomfort and Moral Impediment by philosopher Julio Cabrera. Isn't that what most of humanity does, even knowing that it is unlikely that suffering will end in one hundred years — in truth, even knowing that suffering will probably never end while animal life exists? Most of us think it is worth it, even when we know the horror and the insidious possibilities that permeat all life.

By Fernando Olszewski

(This post was originally published April 11th, 2019 @ Exilado Metafísico)