In the previous posts, I’ve been pursuing the idea that our ability to understand experience – interpret it and offer explanations and justifications – requires making a Kantian move: we should postulate some structure inherent to our minds that formats experience and makes our understanding of it possible. I have also argued that this Kantian move cannot be identified with anything found through empirical psychology. But then what does such a “postulation” mean? Does the fact of this structure entail anything supernatural or spooky? I hope not.
In Mind and World, McDowell tries to answer this question by shifting the goal posts of what counts as natural, so that we do not limit what’s natural to the current domain of the natural sciences. Nature is bigger than that, he says. The basic situation, as well as McDowell’s response to it, is very clearly summarized by Jason Bridges in a review of a book by Richard Gaskin that responds to McDowell. According to McDowell’s view,
We are, or ought to be, attracted to the idea that perceptual experience is a “tribunal” — an occasion on which our thoughts are made to answer to the world they are about. Viewing experience as a tribunal involves supposing that experiences serve for the subject as reasons for and against judgments and attitudes, and in so doing, shape the subject’s judgments and attitudes. But there is a problem in seeing how this supposition could be borne out. On the one hand, human perceptual experience, being an instance of the more general phenomenon of an animal’s sensory capacities putting it in touch with the surrounding environment, is clearly a natural occurrence, and natural occurrences, as we moderns know, are the explanatory province of the natural sciences. On the other hand, we are attracted, or ought to be attracted, to the idea that the “space of reasons” is sui generis — that we cannot construct normative (justificatory, reason-involving) facts out of non-normative conceptual materials. This would exclude in particular the conceptual materials of the natural sciences, organized as they are around the concept of a natural law rather than that of a normative relationship. And so the question arises: how can we view an experience both as the natural phenomenon it evidently is and as belonging to the space of reasons — as the ‘tribunal’ conception requires?
Various philosophical views about experience, such as the myth of the Given and Davidsonian coherentism, can be construed as responses to an awareness, however inchoate or partial, of this problem. These views fail to solve the problem and are hopeless in themselves. A better solution is to see our way to a relaxed conception of the natural. We can give due respect to the role of the natural sciences in making the natural world intelligible to us while stopping short of presuming that everything that happens or is so in the natural world can be fully explained and understood in natural-scientific discourse. There is then no problem in countenancing an experience as natural even if some of the characteristic claims we make about that experience — as, for example, when we cite that experience as the subject’s reason for a belief — cannot be captured in natural-scientific terms.
So the dialectic is this. It seems like the domain of nature is the domain of causes. But the space of reasons is its own sort of domain, where reasons rule. McDowell’s gambit is to “relax” his conception of the natural domain so that it includes the space of reasons. I find this unsatisfying; it seems like a genuine conflict is being circumvented through creative rezoning.
In an earlier draft of this post, I tried out the idea that our ability to engage with reasons is the result of some virtual machine that runs on our brains’ hardware. The idea was appealing because, it seemed, I could insulate “what’s on the inside of the virtual machine” (reasons, explanations, justifications) from the causality of the hardware on which the virtual machine is running. But then I realized that such a ploy could not possibly deliver the sort of Kantian structure I am after; the virtual machine of reasons would be another empirical artifact, susceptible to natural forces and discoverable through cognitive science. So far as I can see, that can’t generate what I’m after.
The structure Kant and McDowell are postulating is transcendental; it must “take hold” prior to any understanding we achieve through efforts in cognitive science. This means it’s hopeless to base it on brain science. But then again, consider that when neuroscientists do their work, they approach it with a theory, and that theory, like any theory, is underdetermined by any evidence they find, and is also a structure through which evidence is parsed, understood, and assessed (see discussion of Kuhn, in part 1). The neuroscientists are also approaching their work, of course, with whatever fixtures are generally required by human understanding. These structures govern our interpretation of evidence and experience in just the way any lesser theory governs our interpretation of data; it’s just that it is a deeper theory, which has no alternatives. This means it’s not best to call it a “theory.” It’s a “theory” we cannot talk or reason ourselves out of: a fixed paradigm, a non-negotiable constraint upon our experience, or what Henry Allison (in Kant’s Transcendental Idealism) calls an “epistemic condition.”
But doesn’t such a fixed paradigm have to be grounded in material facts about us? Or, failing that, spiritual facts about our souls? This question launches us into Kant’s “paralogisms,” or the seemingly powerful but ultimately fruitless arguments about our nature as cognitive beings. He argues that we simply cannot answer this question; we cannot know ourselves. (It is worth noting that the motto of the CPR begins “De nobis ipsis silemus” – “Of ourselves we are silent”.) Thinking of this fixed paradigm merely as a paradigm, without trying to explain whose paradigm how how it came to be put in place, is as far as human inquiry can go.
For that reason, it is going too far to call this fixed paradigm “natural,” or (for that matter) to call it “unnatural” or “supernatural.” As the fixed limit of our understanding, it cannot be mapped into any domain subject to itself.
Nevertheless, I think Kant is right to see this as some kind of idealism. Not Berkeley’s idealism, of course. The view is idealistic in that its most basic fixture is something we arrive at through reflection, and posit as an apriori theory. A naturalist makes sense of experience by positing a world of objects, forces, and laws; a Kantian makes sense of experience by positing a fixed theory. While the Kantian cannot make claims about “the world in itself,” apart from all theories (they are more modest than the naturalist in this regard), we can say that the world humans experience is conditional upon something “theory-like.” That makes it idealism – or as Kant called it, “transcendental idealism.”