Kant and Non-Materialistic Naturalism

Kant is, interestingly enough, concerned to uphold naturalism without materialism. While this seems odd at first blush, his reasons for doing so are fairly interesting and constitute a universally acknowledged important (though to what degree it’s successful is somewhat more in doubt) project. Let’s bracket to the side the fact that Kant has only a small number of not-so-good arguments for his position as well as some serious questions of coherence and see just what happens when we dig through his thought.

In more contemporary terms, metaphysical naturalism generally cashes out to a kind of materialism or physicalism – the only things that there are are material things (or, if we want to Quine things up, whatever we’re committed to by our best theories). It is, at its broadest, non-supernaturalism. The physical, causal order is all there is, in one way or another.

Kant was a naturalist in a slightly different sense: he took everything to be governed by mechanical laws but wanted to resist and undermine the assumption of materialism, which is more or less one of the driving reasons behind his transcendental idealism, which may be best understood as contrasting with its opposite, transcendental realism.

As I see Kant, he means two things by ‘transcendental realism’ (TR). (1) The epistemological thesis that we are fully aware of of the limitations of our own mind and can thus know the things in themselves, and (2) the metaphysical thesis that things exist in time and space apart from human cognition.This is a problem because the mathematical and mechanical laws of nature, on this scheme, govern literally every thing, including the things in themselves – and from this, Kant takes it, follows materialism.

Kant’s idealism needs little introduction, but setting it against TR, we can see that the basic gist is that (1) we aren’t fully aware of the limitations of our mind and can’t know the things in themselves and (2) the objects of our experience, things in time and space, exist as a result of our cognition and conceptual activity.

What this doctrine secures is this: a naturalism without materialism. How? By restricting the mathematical and mechanical laws of nature to the objects of our experience, Kant has protected the things in themselves from being naturalized or material-ized.

Put another way: if we can experience or know the things in themselves, then the universal laws of nature apply to them, because they apply to everything. By restricting our knowledge and experience from the things in themselves, Kant has both secured his naturalism (because the laws of nature apply to everything we experience) and attacked materialism (by showing that the universal laws of nature do not apply to everything).

If Kant is right then, naturalism is correct in the sense that universal laws govern everything we experience – but by restricting this to the appearances, he can both avoid and attack materialism, since the laws apply only to our experience and not to the things in themselves. Thus, while everything we expereince is ‘natural’, not everything is in nature.


Thought on Naturalism

One often hears critics of naturalism say something along the lines of ‘if all we are is the product of chemicals and matter being governed by the impersonal laws of nature, then all our thoughts and ideas are also products of chemical reactions governed by natural laws, and therefore have no meaning.’ This is often followed with ‘why should I listen to you? it’s all just a product of random physical processes!’

Now, if naturalism is true, it doesn’t follow that our faculties are unreliable, at least not in the logical sense. As folks like Plantinga have argued, it is in fact more probable, given naturalism, that our faculties aren’t trustworthy, but it’s not necessary that they be untrustworthy.

Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, with Stephen Law.

Here Alvin Plantinga presents and defends his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism with/against Stephen Law, himself not a theist. A fascinating argument and a fascinating discussion well worth your time.

Roughly speaking, the EAAN has its roots in C.S. Lewis’s book ‘Miracles’ where he states that naturalism undercuts its own justification. Plantinga has developed it into a fairly formidable argument.

‘Naturalistic evolution gives its adherents a reason for doubting that our beliefs are mostly true; perhaps they are mostly mistaken; for the very reason for mistrusting our cognitive facultiesgenerally, will be a reason for mistrusting the faculties that produce belief in the goodness of the argument.’

– Alvin Plantinga – taken from http://www.bethinking.org/science-christianity/an-evolutionary-argument-against-naturalism.htm – an outline of a lecture Plantinga gave on the argument. Again, well worth reading. It’s fairly technical but provides good context for the argument.