Saturday, December 03, 2011

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804): What is Truth?

Thus, the question that Pilate gave to Jesus is finally to be answered by Kant:

"To know what questions we may reasonably propose is in itself a strong evidence of sagacity and intelligence. For if a question be in itself absurd and unsusceptible of a rational answer, it is attended with the danger—not to mention the shame that falls upon the person who proposes it—of seducing the unguarded listener into making absurd answers, and we are presented with the ridiculous spectacle of one (as the ancients said) 'milking the he-goat, and the other holding a sieve.'" - The Critique of Pure Reason

Thus, Kant claims that the entire question is absurd, preparing the way for the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  The reason is this:

"If truth consists in the accordance of a cognition with its object, this object must be, ipso facto, distinguished from all others; for a cognition is false if it does not accord with the object to which it relates, although it contains something which may be affirmed of other objects. Now an universal criterion of truth would be that which is valid for all cognitions, without distinction of their objects. But it is evident that since, in the case of such a criterion, we make abstraction of all the content of a cognition (that is, of all relation to its object), and truth relates precisely to this content, it must be utterly absurd to ask for a mark of the truth of this content of cognition; and that, accordingly, a sufficient, and at the same time universal, test of truth cannot possibly be found."

This is unfortunately an argument that all universals are absurd, since they can only be inferred from particulars, yet each particular is different, so that the universal can never be deduced.  In the case of Kant, however, he has taken an opposite view in the case of time, which he has insisted is an a priori concept that is part of the human faculty of reason.  But then we arrive at time the same way:

"I cogitate therein only the successive progress from one moment to another, and hence, by means of the different portions of time and the addition of them, a determinate quantity of time is produced."

We could also use a mode of argument from the scholastic era that time seems to pass differently depending on what you are doing, whether sleeping with or without dreams, and depending on work or play or waiting or listening to a long, tedious sermon.  Thus, it seems to me that Kant would have a hard time defending the thesis that "What is truth?" is an absurd question, while "What is time?" is an a priori part of human reason. 

But this does have me pondering whether or not truth might be a priori, whereas I still don't believe that Kant's argument that time is a priori is convincing.  Besides the simple definition that Kant has given above, we all know that there is something more.  When a child has been up to no good during the past hour, and his parent asks "what have you been up to?", the child immediately considers everything he did during that hour.  Then he answers something like, "I have been studying", because he spent 5 minutes on homework during that period.  This meets the philosopher's standard for truth, and perhaps gives the child relief from fear of punishment, but hardly comforts the conscience that truth has been honored.  Truth is more than mere factual correctness, as our conscience loudly proclaims.  

Going back to Kant's framework, this would lead one to deduce that truth, being clearly related to the moral law, is an a priori principle of the Practical Reason.  On the other hand, the notion that truth is the accordance of a cognition with its subject is still there, so that it would seem to me that truth is known both to the Pure Reason and the Practical Reason.  Thus, I don't think that Pure and Practical reason can be so cleanly separated, and truth is a unifying force.  

Of course the example of the child is subject to a rebuttal; that the information the child provided was deliberately designed to make sure the parent's cognition was not in accordance to the facts, thus, the original definition of truth is sufficient.  But going back to Kant's argument for time, he claims that time is an a priori reality because no event can be conceived outside of time.  I would likewise claim that no moral judgment can be conceived outside of truth, just as the case of the child and parent above is centered on truth.

Having said all that, being a Christian, I should quote a few of the verses that are important to my understanding of truth:

"'You are a king, then!' said Pilate.
Jesus answered, 'You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.'
'What is truth?' Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, 'I find no basis for a charge against him.'" - John 18:37-38

"Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the father except through me'" - John 14:6.


Delirious said...

In my belief, truth is eternal, therefore is priori, and will be truth forever.

Looney said...

Amen to that. But do you think people have any comprehension of truth without having been taught?

Delirious said...

We have an interesting passage in the Book of Mormon that answers this question:

"25 Wherefore, he has given a law; and where there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered by the power of him.

26 For the atonement satisfieth the demands of his justice upon all those who have not the law given to them, that they are delivered from that awful monster, death and hell, and the devil, and the lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment; and they are restored to that God who gave them breath, which is the Holy One of Israel.

27 But wo unto him that has the law given, yea, that has all the commandments of God, like unto us, and that transgresseth them, and that wasteth the days of his probation, for awful is his state!" 2 Nephi 9:25-27

This would include little children who die before the age of accountability.