In this essay I intend to do a number of things. First of all, I will explain what epistemology is in order to make what follows easier to understand. Once this has been done, I will move on to explain a problem highlighted by the french philosopher René Descartes, with regards to how one is to justify the use of reason. This will then follow on to Kant’s theory on the limits of reason itself. He uses this theory to conclude that knowledge of the transcendent is not possible; that is, we cannot have knowledge of things such as God or of an immaterial soul. Upon elaborating his theory, I will then move on to my critique of this philosophy, wherein I will argue that reason does indeed have its limits. Furthermore, I will argue that these limits are not static, but rather that they fluctuate. And finally, I will explain that whether or not knowledge of the transcendent is possible depends upon whether or not God actually exists; and that if He does exist, that knowledge would in fact be possible if He was transmitting it to us.
So… What is Epistemology?
Put as simply as possible, “epistemology is the study of knowledge and justified belief” [reference here]. As a study, it wishes to understand how we should conceptualise knowledge, what its foundations are (that is, where it comes from and how it is possible); and last of all, what are its limits. It seeks to discover how we come to know what we know, and at what point that knowing can be considered to be reasonably accepted. It also seeks to establish if there are any horizon’s beyond which knowledge is not possible, and if there are such horizons, where they lie exactly and what it may contain (if that is in fact something which can be established).
Understanding this subject, arguably, can be considered as an essential step in order to make any claim that one has attained knowledge in any field of study. After all, what use is saying that one has absolute or objective knowledge, if one has not yet got a sufficient theory of what knowledge is, or to what degree humans are capable of attaining it. If you are claiming to know, for example, that God exists or does not exist, how is it possible to justify such “knowing” if you can’t even explain what God is (or is not)? The same can be said of knowledge itself.
Many people claim to know many things, and these can quite often come into conflict with one another. It would seem obvious therefore that in order to reduce confusion and to be able to guide oneself and others towards truth, that the precise conditions for such a knowing must be laid out; along with why or how this knowing can be considered justified. This is important to distinguish as someone may believe something that just so happens to be true without that belief being justified. This would be considered more of a lucky guess rather than an actual knowing. For example, I can guess how many coins are in a jar, but my picking the right number by chance does not mean that I had knowledge of the number prior to it being confirmed. And so, accordingly, the three conditions for someone to be able to say they have knowledge are (1) what is said to be known is true, (2) the one who claims to have knowledge believes it to be true, and (3) that they are justified in this belief. However, these conditions carry with themselves their own problems due to disputes on how the key concepts should be defined and understood [knowledge, belief, truth and justification]. For a more in depth analysis of these problems, and of epistemology in general, please read this Stanford article. For the purposes of this article however, this brief description should suffice.
Immanuel Kant, at the time of writing his book, The Critique of Pure Reason [or, CPR for short], saw western enlightenment to be in a bit of a pickle. This was mainly because there had been very little effort prior to Kant’s arrival to clearly and comprehensively establish any answers to the above problems. That is at least, to the standards that Kant thought were necessary. He therefore set out to understand where the limits of knowledge lay, and to what degree our faculties of reason and understanding can be said to assist us in achieving said knowledge. This task turned out to be quite a large one, which is still largely debated to this day among Kantian’s. It is not his entire work I wish to present to you in this article however, but rather I will focus on one specific idea. Which is, that reason – as a faculty – has its limits, and cannot reveal the truth of all things to those who “use it correctly”, and therefore, that some knowledge, in any certain sense, is inevitably beyond our reach.
On the Limits of Reason
René Descartes, a French Philosopher from the early modern period, wrote a very famous work which attempted to start philosophy all over again from scratch. In doing so, he made use of an argument that later became known as “The Cartesian Circle“. This argument involved two fundamental steps. The first, justifies the existence of God using reason; the second then goes on to justify the use of reason with recourse to God. The problem here is that both steps rely on each other, and so one cannot be used as the sole justification for the other as it leads to an infinite loop. That is, “I justify reason because God; I can then justify God because reason; I can then justify reason because God…” etc etc.
It is from this particular problem that it was declared Descartes’ reasoning was fallacious, and the argument simply didn’t hold because of this tension. However, the problem doesn’t end there, and this only highlights a further issue. How do we justify our use of reason? This is a problem as in order to answer the question, I must use reason to do so; therefore presupposing a faith in the capacities of reason as a reliable tool, in order to justify its use as a reliable tool. By removing God from the equation, the circle only becomes smaller, rather than disappearing completely.
With this in mind, and moving on to Kant – as far as he was concerned, the faculty of reason is not something which can give us access to unlimited knowledge. That is:
“Knowledge of the world as a whole, or of entities that transcend this world (the immortal soul or God) is not humanly possible: it is not possible via experience, and reason has no power to supply knowledge in its place.”Williams, Garrath, “Kant’s Account of Reason”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, article here.
This is to say that there is a horizon, beyond which things cannot be known with certainty. Try as we might, things that lie beyond this horizon are forever out of our reach because of the innate limits put upon us by our senses and our finite abilities. When scientists say they are looking to establish a “theory of everything”, Kant would respond by saying that this is absurd. When the theologians say we can know with certainty that God exists, he would likewise call this out as failing to offer what it promises.
“Kant sees that the failures of metaphysics to establish secure ground—as to what we can know—has been more damaging than any critique. In the hands of theologians and metaphysicians, reason has claimed knowledge that it cannot have, leading to empty battles that invite outright skepticism. By contrast, Kant’s critique aims to clear the ground for rational claims that can be justified.”Williams, Garrath, “Kant’s Account of Reason”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, article here.
In other parts of CPR, he makes biblical comparisons to the Tower of Babel. In the attempt to build something that would pierce into the heavens, the people were made to speak various languages. Unable to communicate with one another, they became dispersed throughout the land. He considers this as no different from the efforts of the intelligentsia of his time. They reason their way beyond the horizon of possible knowledge and continue to build systems and arguments which are built on nothing more than sand; and thus, are destined to collapse. This is because their arguments claim to know things they do not, and because they are unable to see they have led themselves astray, there can be no hope of competing “beyond the horizon” arguments to ever come to an agreement; nor will they understand where each of them have gone wrong.
In order to overcome this, Kant posits in the CPR that reason must become “self-reflexive” and begin to examine itself, in order to clearly establish its limits.
I must say that I am somewhat sympathetic to Kant’s views on this – although not completely – and tend to intuitively incline to many of his ideas on the limits and functions of reason as a faculty. For example, I completely agree with this notion of a knowledge horizon. I will add to this however that I believe the horizon can shift (recede or expand) and so is not necessarily fixed. This, as far as I can tell, is in direct contrast to how Kant visualised it. To make my position on this clearer I will now give an analogy.
If you imagine knowledge in a similar way to how Kant describes it when he compares it to the Tower of Babel. Groups of people head out into the world and collect material (information), and they then use this material to build their towers (that is, use the information to establish patterns and systems to assist with further knowledge acquisition). What they create is either something useless and redundant which collapses and offers no benefit, or it is sturdy enough to continue to build upon. As generations pass by, the structures which last are added to and they can grow in “height”. Now as you climb a building and look to the horizon, the higher you climb the further you can see. The same can be said of knowledge. The more you collect, the more your intellectual “sight” expands; giving you deeper insight. However, if people add something weak to the top of the building which future generations add upon, this can lead to a structural collapse. The same can be said with knowledge. We may make valid discoveries along the way, but if at any point a mistake is made, and this mistake is built upon, it will be inevitable that any “progress” beyond this will lead to misguidance of some sort.
With this analogy, it is clear how one can see that the horizon of knowledge is not something static or fixed, but something which is in flux. Things which were previously beyond the horizon can, in time fall within our range of sight. But, there is not only the issue of the horizon, but also of other obstacles, such as clouds, mountains or fog. This can be transferred to the realm of knowledge as competing ideas, unfavourable states of mind which cloud judgement (alcohol and drugs for example), or certain events which demand so much attention that thinking about intellectual matters becomes difficult. Again, all of these things can have a direct effect on the knowledge horizon; which is sufficient to make my point. Things which lie beyond or within the horizon, will not necessarily be there forever.
Furthermore, on Kant’s point that the transcendent cannot be known, I find this too to be problematic. However, first of all, I do wish to state that Allah (swt) repeatedly refers to us as believers [مُؤْمِنُون (muʾminūn)] in the Quran rather than as knowers. This carries with it the connotation that we are those who have true faith in our religion and our Creator, and not direct knowledge; but rather knowledge built upon this faith. It is also important to make a distinction between the relationship people such as ourselves have with Allah (swt), and the type of relationship our Prophet (pbuh) had. We believe he ascended to the heaven’s and had a direct experience of Allah (swt), and so could rightly say that he had knowledge of Allah’s existence. If we refer to ourselves as knowers (in a direct sense), this dissolves the distinction between our experience and that of our Prophet’s (pbuh). Which is problematic. This isn’t to say that we don’t have any knowledge at all, but rather that our knowledge is characterised and underpinned by faith.
Now here is where my disagreement with Kant comes in. Whereas Kant argues that it is not possible to have knowledge of the transcendent (such as God, or of the soul), I would argue that the answer to this question completely depends on whether or not God actually exists. If it turns out the believers are correct and justified in their beliefs (which I believewe are), and if God does exist and is in fact communicating information to them about such truths, then this knowledge would in fact turn out to be genuine knowledge, and so we would have knowledge of the transcendent; contrary to Kant’s claim. The problem lies in establishing, through a discussion, whether or not this is genuine knowledge, and whether belief in this knowledge is justified, when the many people involved in the discussion commit to varying levels of skepticism. Not to mention that the actual answer can only be truly confirmed once death reaches us, at which point the discussion becomes impossible (between the living and the dead).
Take the Babel comparison I gave you earlier again. If someone who is situated beyond the horizon is sending messages to us (and this person has greater abilities, knowledge, sight, etc, than we do) and he tells us true information about what lies beyond the horizon, this information can be considered genuine knowledge if it turns out that this person is in fact telling us information that is true. But just as we do in theological discussions, someone can always instil some doubt. Regardless of how true this information is, and that is due to our finite nature. There are always blind spots. This means we can always reason in potential circumstances which can throw any information, no matter how true, into doubt. It’s not outside the realm of possibility for example, that the person who received the message was deceived to believe it was from beyond the horizon. Maybe it was an enemy hoping to give them false information and to misguide them. Maybe the person who says they received the message is the enemy. Its always possible to posit such potentials, and because we are so limited we can never fully know if there was some form of deception that took place in the 99.999…% of things that occur beyond our experiences. But if we succumb to such severe skepticism, we would likely never act, and necessarily be led to a point where we must become skeptical of our own skepticism; and what then? We rely on trust, faith and hope every day. To cease this altogether is counter-productive.
The point of this is simple: although we cannot be absolutely certain that this knowledge is correct, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t. There are many factors that lead to belief or disbelief in certain propositions, and even this itself might be beyond our capacities to understand fully, although we can still know it to be the case without knowing the finer details. The world is complex, and as we have finite abilities, this makes decision making regarding beliefs difficult, but it doesn’t effect the truth value of that which is believed.
Further on this, Neel Burton says the following, very interesting, statement:
To cut through all this complexity, we rely heavily on forces such as emotions and desires—which is why Aristotle’s Rhetoric on the art of arguing includes a detailed dissection of what used to be called the passions. Our emotions and desires define the aims or goals of our reasoning. They determine the parameters of any particular deliberation and carry to conscious attention only a small selection of all the available facts and counterfactuals. Brain injured people with a diminished capacity for emotion find it especially hard to make decisions, as do people with apathy, which is a symptom of severe depression and other mental disorders. Relying so heavily on the emotions comes at a cost, which is, of course, that emotions aren’t rational and, moreover, can distort reasoning. Fear alone can open the gate to all manner of self-deception. On the other hand, that emotions aren’t rational need not make them irrational.Neel Burton, “The Limits of reason”, Psychology today, article here.
We can see here that establishing what is true, and what is justified is a difficult task. It requires a lot of searching, a lot learning, and a lot of reflection. One needs to be sincere in one’s quest for truth, and constantly try to observe one’s own motivations and relative position, in order to be sure that one is not being led astray by the passions, or by reason itself. This is certainly as true for the believer as it is the non-believer.
Kant was correct to say that reason has its limits, and that we need to make an effort to understand what these limits are. I have explained how these limits can be visualised as a horizon, and that this horizon shifts depending on the circumstances of individuals/groups. Furthermore, I explain that Kant’s claim that we cannot have knowledge about the transcendent is totally dependent on the actual existence of God; and that if He does in fact exist, and does transmit messages to us via prophets and his holy books, then we are correct to say that we have knowledge about the transcendental when referring to scripture. However, the actual truth value of this knowledge is only something that can be confirmed absolutely upon death. Whether we accept or deny this information and consider it knowledge depends upon where we chose to have have faith, be that as a believer or disbeliever. This faith and hope is inescapable, and it only differs in direction.
To end this essay, I will finish with a relevant quote from the Quran:
وَأَنزَلْنَا إِلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ بِالْحَقِّ مُصَدِّقًا لِّمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ مِنَ الْكِتَابِ وَمُهَيْمِنًا عَلَيْهِ ۖ فَاحْكُم بَيْنَهُم بِمَا أَنزَلَ اللَّهُ ۖ وَلَا تَتَّبِعْ أَهْوَاءَهُمْ عَمَّا جَاءَكَ مِنَ الْحَقِّ ۚ لِكُلٍّ جَعَلْنَا مِنكُمْ شِرْعَةً وَمِنْهَاجًا ۚ وَلَوْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ لَجَعَلَكُمْ أُمَّةً وَاحِدَةً وَلَٰكِن لِّيَبْلُوَكُمْ فِي مَا آتَاكُمْ ۖ فَاسْتَبِقُوا الْخَيْرَاتِ ۚ إِلَى اللَّهِ مَرْجِعُكُمْ جَمِيعًا فَيُنَبِّئُكُم بِمَا كُنتُمْ فِيهِ تَخْتَلِفُونَ
“And We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it. So judge between them by what Allah has revealed and do not follow their inclinations away from what has come to you of the truth. To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ.”Quran [5:48], access here.