Concerning Kant and the Status of Objects
December 7, 2013
A Rehearsal in Anti-correlationism
1. With mathematical proofs, for the first time, as Kant says, objects are made to conform to cognition. But if we pay close attention to this formulation the success of mathematics not only lies in objects being made to conform to a cognitive design but also, seemingly, in a pre-existing correlation between mind and object. That seems to be the revolution ignited by mathematical science, a revolution that would change the intellectual landscape of Europe that was long before divided between dogmatic and skeptical persuasions. This revolution however was more than what it had been acknowledge for.
2. If we are to radicalize this revolution in terms of the conditions of possibility of knowledge, mathematical science discovered the critical correlation between mind and object, and for there to be something like an objective conformity to mathematical proofs this correlation must pre-exist mathematics. Naively put, take away one term in the correlation and there would be no mathematical proof. So far that makes sense. But, in spite of appearances, this correlation exhibits a metaphysical tendency. Taken to its extreme, the pre-existing correlation between mind and object guarantees a certain positive telos to our quest for certainty. It may take time to achieve certainty but it is guaranteed by the correlation. But this telos is not only applicable to the future but much more to the past. Here, we can mention a certain intelligible design or the metaphysics of a pre-ordered cosmos.
3. For instance, what can we make of phenomena that preceded the advent of human intelligence? Certainly, there was no correlation in this dimension of the past when humans were yet to emerge in the planet. What about the Big Bang? What about the Nebulae theory of Kant (with Laplace) when certainly there was no human in the scene? By invoking the correlation in the investigation of past phenomena, we end up with the anthropic principle—that the universe is created such that it would evolve into a situation in which physical and organic conditions are ripe for the emergence of the human species. This is obviously metaphysical in the dogmatic sense—what appeared to be independent of all experiences, which is how we define metaphysics, suddenly becomes without explication dependent on human emergence. In other words, there is no metaphysics apart from the fact that human signification forces its realization into exclusive communicable codes.
4. Initially, this answers the question of the possibility of metaphysics. It was there all along, but, as Althusser would put it, reified. As a human disposition it was there already but whether it can lead to any real knowledge is questionable, especially, when a metaphysician does not acknowledge his self-generating power to do metaphysics, meaning, when he otherwise believes that metaphysics is independent of the immanent conditions of reasoning that can produce metaphysics. But only metaphysics can redeem itself from its pre-critical disposition, hence, the reason Kant calls his metaphysics critical. In other words, metaphysics cannot be deployed to understand the world itself but only how our own faculties deploy themselves in understanding and judging our own acts. This makes critical metaphysics a proper ethical discipline. Put in radical terms, however, the world is unknown to a self-understanding reason, that we cannot approach the world through the categories of reason. Now, there’s the rub.
5. We cannot understand the world but can will a world instead that will have to be unknown to reason granting that Kant is right about the world resistant to human categories. In the final analysis, the correlation between mind and world or nature or anything outside the mind holds tight in Kant. There has to be an unknown world for there to be a cognitive activity and this world has to be willed rather than understood. Let us say, in light of contemporary problems, there has to be climate change, an ungraspable phenomenon after all by virtue of its occurrence in the world that is resistant to human signification, for there to be such response as mitigation and reduction of carbon emissions. What this formulation neglects, aside from the absurdity it conveys, is that by rendering the world unknown we deny our contribution to how this world turns out to be. We cannot know if our carbon emissions are really changing the physical laws of the planet. Does this amount to stating that we have all the reasons to deny that climate change is happening and that it is happening because of the way we have treated the world as unresponsive to human acts? The culprit in this form of climate change denial is the presupposition that humans must will a world according to how they structure their minds, and they have obviously structured their minds in such a way that the world is for the mind a potential for metaphysics to become dogmatic in terms of applying metaphysics to the world. (This prefigures the ascetic ideal that Nietzsche attributed to Kant—the subtle but dangerous denial of the world). But the consequence of not applying metaphysics to the world reveals a more dangerous tendency: the world is turned into an unresponsive hyperobject which puts the blame of climate change on the world itself by not being responsive to human abuse which could have otherwise rechanneled human inertia into to a more desirable direction. The world becomes a hyperobject in proportion to how it is blown out of proportion by giving it incredible substances and properties such as would fit the cognitive construction of a world indifferent to human values. Here, we can see the danger of Kantian correlation that puts much premium on the subject which alone can mobilize the correlation such as between mind and object.
6. Another problematic value we can detect in the Kantian correlation is, where there is a mind objects can be made to become part of a cognitive design which makes objects belong to nature. The reason I mention nature here has something to do with the function of mathematics to science. Through mathematics, science can naturalize objects in terms of determining them as a prioris of the mathematical mind, which is also a scientific mind. Through mathematical proofs science can make objects belong to a domain called Nature that, in spite of appearances, is constructed by man, contrary to the prevailing claim that Nature is non-constructible by man. There is a particular man invoked here, that is, the mathematical or scientific man, not man in the universal sense. But this man is also a metaphysical term in the dogmatic sense for it conceals its particularity in mathematical and scientific activity. Taking Heidegger’s cue, this is no less a metaphysics of subjectivity.
7. Another metaphysical value we can identify with these mathematical and scientific endeavours (as Kant understood them) has something to do with how through mathematics science constructs Nature. There is no Nature to begin with other than what science can determine of objects that conform to its idea of what constitutes Nature. Science can determine objects as prioris in a constructible domain of Nature in the sense of naturalizing them. What we obtain here is a politics of nature, or naturalizing Nature by non-natural means, not Nature, say, as wilderness or untamed. We can say this is metaphysical in the sense that we are led to believe that Nature is an objective phenomenon, totally apart from human signification or construction. In this light, there is the Heideggerian sense of concealment.
8. But, and this goes through the heart of Heidegger’s concept of aletheia: what gets unconcealed or really discovered in the process of scientific naturalization of objects are those objects which cannot be placed under scientific experiment guided by empirical and theoretical principles, after much scientific work is done. These unconcealed objects challenge the a prioris of scientific mind. For instance, what about objects of nature such as those produced by a mysterious leap of genetic mutation? These molecular objects are produced by sheer chance and accident. They cannot become part of the constructible design of scientific a prioris. By all means it is an Event, that is to say, it is unpredictable. Hence, they escape the categories of understanding or the a priori principles of reason.
9. Most crucially, concerning the status of objects, what becomes of the debris or waste materials generated by scientific experiments, and those by technological and economic production spurred by scientific advancement? As waste or toxic materials, are they still part of the constellation of objects determined by science as belonging to Nature? When these toxic materials penetrate the earth’s crust, they are assuming the function of Nature in the sense that they are determining the laws of life on earth, but no longer Nature as it were for they are not induced by Nature understood as that which stands apart from humans capable of doing science that is capable of naturalizing Nature. Certainly, they are induced through the uncanny concept of scientific Nature extended into technological and biopolitical forms of inventing Nature to be harnessed for human ends. Now, the question we raise for Kant—what is the reality of this Nature he is talking about when he mentions mathematics and science as determinative of objects of Nature according to certain definable a prioris?
10. But it is more complicated than that. The necessary dualism that is invoked by science in constructing Nature from not-yet-constructible Nature, or the Alien Other that is yet to penetrate the language of science through placing this Other under scientific experiment by means of validating and nullifying a given hypothesis, becomes non-functional in the sense that the real dualism that is secretly invoked by science is to be found rather within a self-dividing act of the scientific mind. In other words, the scientific mind traverses both the constructible and the not-yet-constructible. But the not-yet-constructible is also given in advance by a constructing mind of science or what belongs to Nature not-yet. This not-yet Nature is illegitimate until science can make objects in the not-yet conform to what is intelligible based on a given set of a prioris. In the final analysis, there is no dualism between mind and Nature, or between phenomena and noumena, from the objective or non-subjective standpoint. But this standpoint is impossible. No science can occupy an external objective standpoint. There is only dualism from a strictly subjective standpoint. Hence, there are no real objects to begin with. The radical implication of which is to deny climate change, for instance. What is climate change if not the phenomenon of objects asserting they are real? That is to say, real in the sense that they cannot be tamed by the categories of reason.
In light of our ecological crisis, this calls for a new approach to objects. But there are only real subjects, arguing from what we can radicalize of Kant. Again, back to the metaphysics of subjectivity.