Kant Touch This

Rev Dr Bruce Pass, Director of Postgraduate Studies, Lecturer in Christian Thought and History

On 10th June on ABC’s Q&A programme, acclaimed British particle physicist Brian Cox was asked, ‘Is there a place for God in science?’ As he began to answer the question, the presenter attempted to sharpen the question a little to provoke his esteemed guest to say whether he thinks there is a god. Cox strongly affirmed the possibility of being a religious scientist but his repeated answer was, ‘we don’t know’. Cox emphasized that in giving any answer to this question, we’re overstepping the mark. We shouldn’t pretend to know.

For some, Cox’s admission that we don’t know rather than a simple ‘no’ was a striking answer. His insistence that there is place for religious scientists in the industry seemed remarkably positive, even encouraging. Brian Cox affirms religion in science! But I’d like to suggest that for the Christian attending university seeking to be an effective witness in an intellectually charged environment, it is neither of those things.

Cox’s refusal to deny the validity of religion is no real cause for rejoicing nor does it offer any special hope for the Gospel. What it does, however, is remind us that the new atheism is a toothless tiger. Everybody is worried about the new atheism, but the Richard Dawkins of this world actually gain little traction with more thoughtful unbelievers like Brian Cox. It also reminds us that agnosticism rather than atheism is the Goliath who must be felled.

What I want to suggest, today is that in the same way David realized that the armour of Saul would be of no use to him, Christians should think twice about arguing against this answer. I also want to encourage you that we can be every bit as confident as David that the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ can be known.

I want to do this by addressing three questions: where did Cox’s answer come from, how it is right, and why is it incomplete? I want to address these questions by offering you a sketch of the history of ideas that delivers Brian Cox’s answer and also draw on this history to illustrate where we can potentially go wrong in answering Tony Jones’ question.

Where did this comes from?

Cox’s answer derives from the thinker who redrafted the way westerners think of the world, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant’s critique of knowledge, as it is set out in his three great works – Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, and Critique of the Power of Judgment, fundamentally changed the way western people think.

Pure reason, practical reason, and judgment refer to three sorts of mental activity and Kant ordered them one to another in such a way that he, like Brian Cox, would answer Tony Jones’ question with the words, ‘we don’t know’. What’s important to note in all this is that Kant was not saying that he wasn’t sure but rather that we cannot know. In saying anything about a supernatural deity, we are overstepping the mark and so, we shouldn’t pretend to know.

The Critique of Pure Reason forms the foundation of Kant’s paradigm. In this work, Kant was navigating a path between what he describes as dogmatism and skepticism, that is, between the kind of rationalism epitomized by Christian Wolff (1679-1754) and the empiricism of David Hume (1711-76). The best way to understand Kant is to get a handle on what he was rejecting, so a brief sketch of these thinkers’ leading ideas will help us understand what Kant was wanting to say.

Christian Wolff may be an unfamiliar name. The reason for this is that his influence was largely limited to German universities during and shortly after his lifetime. He was, nevertheless, a leading thinker of his day and a non-resident member of all four major European scientific academies. He was admitted to the Royal Society of London in 1709; the Berlin Academy in 1711; the St Petersburg Academy in 1725; and the Paris Academy in 1733.

Wolff’s leading idea is his principle of sufficient reason, the idea that everything, whether possible or actual, has a “sufficient reason” for why it is rather than is not. By simply reflecting on the nature of our understanding of the world, Wolff believed that we arrive at the self-evident truth of this principle of sufficient reason. God’s existence, therefore, is self-evident if you think about it long enough. The immortality of the soul, to take another example, is self-evident if you think about it long enough.

This mode of thinking is what Kant refers to under the term dogmatism and Kant described himself as being awakened from his dogmatic slumbers by the skepticism of David Hume. Hume claimed that Wolff’s principle doesn’t exist. Hume asserted that there is no such explanation of causality at all. There is only convention. You can’t even prove that the sun will rise tomorrow. All you can do is assert the probability of its rising based on past events. In stark contrast to Wolff, Hume argued that we cannot reason our way toward a necessary relation between cause and effect.

When Kant famously said that Hume’s skepticism awakened him from his dogmatic slumbers, he meant that Hume forced him to see that Wolff’s principle of sufficient reason was mistaken. Yet he also recognized that Hume’s critique was so radical that it had the potential to undermine knowledge completely. Kant thus sought a middle path between the two thinkers.

Kant wanted to affirm that we can know things, but what we can say about things is by no means self-evident. Kant achieved this equilibrium through his distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal. We can know phenomena. We can know what our senses tell us. But we cannot know things that do not present themselves to our senses and we cannot say for certain that what our senses present to us corresponds to what the object actually is. God, therefore, belongs to the noumena that can be believed in but cannot be known.

Kant famously stated in the preface to the second edition of his first Critique, ‘I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith’ (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B xxx). Thus, in the strict sense of the word, Kant was not an atheist. Kant was unwilling to affirm that we can know God after the manner of Wolff, but he was trying to preserve faith from Hume’s radical critique. He was wanting to arrive at a form of religion that respected the boundaries of a purified reason.

Kant thus powerfully undermined both the ‘dogmatic’ claim that God is subject to a principle of sufficient reason but he also undermined the skepticism that would deny God existence. He showed that both positions overstep the mark, and this where Brian Cox’s answer comes from. It is the abiding legacy of Kant. We cannot know, but we can still believe.

How is it right?

Before I say anything about how this is wrong I want us to spend some time thinking about how it is right. There is an very important sense in which Kant was right. God is not the subject of empirical verification. Nor is God the conclusion of a rational inference. The Christian who claims either claims too much.

The problem is, that a lot of what passes for apologetics these days gets stuck on attempting to show that God can somehow be empirically or rationally proven. On the one hand, we place too much weight on historical arguments. We think that if we can just show the historical proof for Jesus, that people will believe in him. On the other, we place too much weight on arguments that assert that a universe without God doesn’t make sense.

We forget that the apostles who had seen, heard, and touched Jesus doubted. Even at the ascension, Matthew tells us explicitly that some of the apostles doubted the Lord who stood before their very eyes. Matthew 28:17 says, ‘when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted’. We also forget that the truth is something that human beings suppress. Even if there were a principle of sufficient reason, we would deny it. Paul reminds us of this when in Romans 1:18 he speaks of the ‘ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth’.

Contemporary Christian apologists would do well to take note of lessons that can be learned from the history of ideas. For example, William Paley (1743-1805) was a Christian who claimed that God is the necessary conclusion from what we can observe. You may already know his illustration of the watchmaker from his book, Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802).

Let’s say you’re walking around and you find a watch on the ground. As you examine it, you marvel at the intricately complex interweaving of its parts, a means to an end. Surely you wouldn’t think this marvel would have come about by itself. The watch must have a maker. Just as the watch has such complex means to an end, so does nature to a much greater extent. Just look at the complexity of the human eye. Thus, we must conclude that nature has a maker too.

Paley’s argument is simple. The complexity and beauty of the world shows that it must have a designer. It could be no other way. Sir Isaac Newton agreed. He also viewed the physical laws he uncovered as proof of the mechanical perfection of the workings of the universe and that this perfection was akin to a watch and every watch must have its watchmaker.

But placing confidence in this kind of argumentation set the stage for Darwin and Nietzsche to totally undermine the claims of Christianity. Because Paley had put so much confidence in his argument from design, an alternative theory would completely discredit faith in God. Darwin showed that natural teleology could be proven from nature and Nietzsche showed that moral teleology could not be proven either.

Darwin showed that the divine watchmaker was not the only conclusion that could be drawn from the data. He showed that there was an alternative explanation. He showed that the functioning of the world could arise from natural selection. Hence, the function is not the result of design but mere adaptation. It is not the most beautiful or intelligent creatures that survive but rather the ones that for whatever reason are able to adapt.

Nietzsche showed that there may not be any moral purpose that governs the world. The following quote from his book, Will to Power illustrates his point well. Nietzsche writes, ‘And do you know what “the world” is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror? This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end … eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying … “beyond good and evil,” without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal … do you want a name for this world?  … This world is the will to power—and nothing besides!’ (Nietzsche, Will to Power, aph. 1067).

What made Darwin and Nietzsche’s alternatives so compelling was that Christian thinkers of the 18th century had overplayed their hand. The Christian God is certainly one possible interpretation of the data but it is not a necessary interpretation. Kant’s critique, however, shows that a denial of God’s existence similarly is not a necessary conclusion that must be derived from the data. Neither natural selection nor the will to power proves that God doesn’t exist. To make this claim would be to make the mirror image of Paley’s mistake.

This is why Kant’s critique of knowledge has such enduring force. It shows that there is a limited number things that we can know by rational deduction. And this is why Christians should not attempt to argue against what Brian Cox says. Empirical observation and radical deduction cannot deliver the knowledge of God and it is folly to argue that they can.

Why is it incomplete?

Christians need to acknowledge the element of truth in Kant’s critique of knowledge. We cannot reason our way towards God. Yet this does not mean that we should let Kant deliver the final word on whether God can or cannot be known. Kant’s whole paradigm discounts the possibility that God can make himself known. That is, he denies outright the possibility of revelation.

In Kant’s first Critique there is a passage in which we see Kant mock the possibility of revelation. Kant writes, ‘It would also be miraculous if what otherwise requires so much care in order to distinguish what is the substance and what is displayed in intuition … were given here so directly, in the poorest representation of all, as if by a revelation.’ (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, B 408)’

As if. Kant was not willing to deny the existence of God, nor was he seeking to deny the probity of worship, but he denies outright that God or anything else could make itself known. He thus denies the possibility of revelation. One of the remarkable features of the first Critique is the complete absence of any reflection on the possibility that God might make himself or other things known. This is simply excluded from the outset.

What we need to say in an culture that has drunk so deeply from the Kantian well is, in the words of Paul, ‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim’ (Acts 17:23). The unknowable God that thoughtful unbelievers are not quite ready to affirm yet are equally unwilling to deny is the God we should proclaim. Less weight should be accorded to argumentation and more weight accorded to proclamation.

This is not to say that we will fail to explore the inner logic of what we believe or the flaws in logic that is raised against us. We should and must use philosophical argumentation to ‘destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God’ (2 Cor 10:4-5). We ought not, however, overestimate the efficacy of these arguments in building a positive case for the Gospel. We are inclined to suppress the truth. This is why a principle of necessary reason would not be effective, even if it exists and this is why we should not portray God as the undeniable conclusion to an argument.

Instead, we proclaim God in Christ. We proclaim what God has done for us in and through Jesus Christ. We will proclaim the Gospel with a calm confidence that although the claims of Jesus or the existence of God cannot be historically or rationally proven, neither can they be falsified. Because they are true, there will be a God-shaped hole in history and science. The hole, however, is not a perfect fit!

This is what Paul is saying in Romans 1:19-20 when he says, ‘what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.’ God’s effects are evident. They are plain.

That also applies to the effects of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. What can be known is plain. The apostles witnessed Jesus’ eternal power and divine nature and bore witness to it. They clearly perceived what he did. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that their testimony will convince. For God to be known, he must open the eyes of our hearts to accept their testimony.

Hence, we need to affirm Kant’s major premise without ceding the validity of his conclusion. God cannot be known by inference or through the lens of a telescope, but that does not mean that he cannot be known. God can be known and if we want to commend Christ to thoughtful unbelievers we have need of a deeper confidence in God’s ability to reveal himself.

Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ (Rom 10:17). That word is sweet, sweeter than honey (Psa 19:10). It is more to be desired than much fine gold (Psa 19:10). And it is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16). It is, therefore, sharper than any double-edged sword (Heb 4:12). It pierces soul and of spirit, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb 4:12). It is like a hammer that breaks rock into pieces (Jer 23:29). But it also heals and, therefore, comforts (Psa 119:50).

God has exalted above all things his name and his word (Psa 138:2). A deeper confidence in God’s word is what will deliver us from the kind of nervousness that makes people claim too much for reason. If we possess this deeper confidence, we will grant the element of truth in Brian Cox’s statement without any fear of abandoning people to disbelief and we may even help people along the path toward faith.

Brian Cox

Towards the end of his interview, Brian Cox quoted an Australian Nobel Prize-winning scientist. Quoting this scientist Cox said, ‘what is the meaning of it all? We don’t know. But in admitting that we may have found the open channel’. I’d like to suggest that qualified agreement with Cox will more likely than not direct your friends and colleagues to the open channel that leads to the meaning of it all.


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