Sunday, June 12, 2011

What Immanuel Kant and Daniel Have in Common

Immanuel Kant was one of the most influential philosophers in the modern era. But, did you know that one of his driving assumptions was very similar to a remarkable turn that happens in the Scriptures, particularly in the 2nd half of Daniel? I've never heard anyone make this connection before, so bear with me and please, please, correct me if I'm wrong.

Kant wrote three massive and dense "critiques," where he tried to look at the possibility of the true, the good, and the beautiful - which are the 3 primary divisions in philosophy of knowing, doing, and feeling. In his first critique - The Critique of Pure Reason - Kant argued that 'knowing' is limited to the synthesis of percepts and concepts. That is, we only truly know something if we have a perception to accompany our conception of it. A concept of unicorns, for example, has no real life perception to accompany it. We can only 'know' it as a fiction, an imaginative thing that we depict in pictures or ideas. A concept of apples, on the other hand, we can know as a real and edible thing because we've got a real and edible experience to accompany our idea of apples. Get it? (Dear philosophy geeks: Yes, I'm simplifying. It's a blog, for crying out loud! Go back to your hovels!)

By limiting 'knowing' in this way, Kant ruled out 3 things that we cannot know as reality other than ideas: God, human freedom and the immortality of the soul. (It's complicated, but it's also consistent with his limitation of knowing.) Of course, the 'immortality of the soul' has been a staple of philosophy since Socrates, so this was a very radical limitation on what one can 'know.'

In his second critique, however, Kant brings back a way of embracing God, freedom, and immortality. If there is such a thing as 'the good,' there must be a "God" who rewards the good and punishes the bad and there must be human freedom to do the good or the bad. We can look at those arguments some other time, but suffice it to say that - while we cannot 'know' God and freedom - we have to "postulate" them as real in order for morality to exist. And, to our point today, Kant argued that we must postulate the "immortality of the soul." Why? Because it is plainly evident that the good is not always rewarded and the bad is not always punished in this life. Ergo, it must be rewarded and punished beyond this life, which presupposes that the soul exists beyond the death of the body.

Again, that's the gist of a very complicated argument - this mortal life that we 'know' cannot be all there is because the good often goes unrewarded and the bad often goes unpunished.

The 2nd half of Daniel introduces a very similar line of argument. Of course, Daniel is not writing dense philosophy, but writes with poetic brilliance. The underlying theme of the 2nd half of Daniel, however, is very similar to Kant's line of reason. God's promises were not being fulfilled for Daniel's people. The land was invaded by the Greek empire; the king was a puppet of that empire; and the Temple was desecrated by a beast named Antiochus Epiphanes, who sacrificed a pig on the holy altar to Zeus. If God were the kind of God that immediately rewarded the good and punished the evil, those Greeks would have been slaughtered by the Israelite army, or even by a divine act of punishment. But, instead, they just kept thumping along and conquering other places.

For Daniel, either God was non-existent or else punishment and reward was not immediate in history. That's why Daniel's visions were not focused on the immediate experience that he and his people were having, but on the future. It was a radical shift for the people of Israel, whose primary vein of theology was to look backwards at the covenant that God made with Abraham and the fulfillment of it through Moses and Joshua. Now, with the immediate reality looking grim, Daniel looks forward, in the trans-historical realm of 'eternity' as the time/place where God's promises are ultimately fulfilled.

Who would have thought the didactic Kant and the wildly imaginative Daniel had something in common?

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