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Kant- Prolegomena 06

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Peter King

KANT: METAPHYSICS (II) [1] When we last left our story in Part Three, Kant was explaining the “dialectic of pure reason”: the difficulties into which reason falls when it tries to draw conclusions about things that nec- essarily lie outside of any possible experience. There are two more families to explore, namely the Cosmological and Theological Ideas. [2] The Cosmological Ideas [§§50–54]. The error that reason makes is “the Idea of the complete series of conditions” [§43]. This shows up in four ‘antinomies’: equally compelling arguments on each side of a contradictory pair. The core idea we again have seen in Part Two: we encounter the world as objects standing in causal relations, though in fact we have no access to their real relation. Here Kant thinks that reason goes astray by contrasting the series as fully conditioned with the series as unconditioned—roughly, to take a causal series as absolute or as grounded in something external to itself. This takes four forms: (a) whether the world has a beginning in time; (b) whether there are ultimately simple items; (c) whether everything is determined; (d) whether there is a necessary being. We’ll take a quick look at each, in order. [3] First, whether the world (as a whole) has a beginning in time [§52c. Kant has for once picked an example that seems straightforward. We can see what he’s up to by considering the following pair of possibilities, neither of which is Kant’s line of reasoning but which perhaps gets his idea over more directly. We couldn’t be around before the beginning if the world had a beginning, so that isn’t an option—but if the world had no beginning we couldn’t be there from the start, since there is none. [4] Does the world have ultimately simple constituents? Maybe, but we will never be in a po- sition to know. Kant uses similar arguments in this case as in the preceding (and Kant groups these two antinomies together as the “mathematical” antinomies in §53). This one we can fol- low in detail. The problem is found in the “series of conditions” as Kant tells us. Start dividing up an ordinary material object, into its constituent parts. We can keep tracing the chain of constituents ever downward, but we never know whether there is an endpoint, an ultimate simple constituent. Such a thing cannot be given in experience, because its simplicity is not an “experienceable” feature. Likewise the unendingness of the chain of constituents is not an “expe- rienceable” feature. Hence we are doomed to never know whether the world is metaphysically atomic or made up of continua. The arguments on each side of the antinomy are equally good, or equally bad, at proving their case. Each side makes an unjustified assumption, and the results are in irreconcileable conflict. [5] Recall that Hume thought that the conflict “between liberty and necessity” was merely ver- bal, that we are all really determinists at bottom who accept a compatibilist account of freedom (the lack of constraint or coercion). Kant, by contrast, holds that there is an irreconcileable conflict between such causal determinism and freedom. The former holds that all things are conditioned by causal laws, though we can never know what is the case with all things; the latter holds that there is something unconditioned by causal laws (an act of freedom), though by definition we cannot experience it. No
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