Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason – Lecture 1

September 30, 2012

Those who have attended my lectures in the past know that I do not go in for intellectual biography.  I am interested in Kant the philosopher, the writer, and not Kant the man.  This does not mean of course that the social situation in which Kant wrote had no significance whatsoever on what he wrote, but the twist and turns of the relation between life and writing are far more complex and intertwining than any intellectual biography with its supposedly significant events and happenings of human life, like so many birthdays and Christmases, can give. So here are the dates if anyone wants them: Kant was born  April 22, 1724, in Königsberg, Prussia (now Kalingrad in Western Russia) and died on February 12th 1804.

Even from are position of being absolute beginners we can get something from this The Critique of Pure Reason.  And that is what we should be happy with. Why do we think that philosophical works are simply vessels of information that we can dip our hands into and get what we want without really making an effort?  On the other hand, let’s not sanctify Kant too much. Let us admit that in reading the Critique the fogs of Königsberg appear to drift across our minds making everything obscure and indistinct.  Kant was a veritable machine of concepts. This means that above all he invented a whole new language. Anyone who has attempted to learn a language knows how difficult this is, because it is not merely a matter of understanding, but of putting something in an alien expression into your own words. Reading Kant could be compared with reading Chinese in this regard. One hardly knows how to advance through the strange hieroglyphs.[1]

What is it that Kant was meant to have invented, and which we shall be trying to get our heads around this lecture?  The answer to this question is transcendental idealism.[2] Now like any philosophical doctrine the best way to begin to understand it is to grasp what it is a reaction against. No philosopher writes in isolation, but always in reaction to those who have written before hand, because no problem simple falls from the heavens.  Transcendental idealism is a reaction against two kinds of philosophy of the 18th century, empiricism and rationalism (Kant himself invented these labels or at least their use). This might seem very peculiar to us, since we might think that these two kinds of philosophy are the only two ways of doing philosophy, and thus to reject both is to reject philosophy altogether.  How can there be a philosophy that is neither rational nor empirical? You can see why Kant had to invent a whole new language of philosophy to express this third alternative, which does not fit into the traditional way of talking about things, even amongst those who disagreed vehemently against one another.

We said that transcendental idealism is opposed to both rationalism and empiricism, but it would be just as well to say that it is an amalgam of both. What it is opposed to is their pure separation into two opposed spheres.  Perhaps though, and we shall see that this can only be the most preliminary and loose explanation, we can come to the first definition of transcendental idealism as a kind of rational empiricism or empiricist rationalism. We can see that this might mean by looking at some quotes from Kant, though we shall not be quoted the Critique of Pure Reason, but what is called Prolegomena to every Future Metaphysics, and which Kant wrote as a kind of guide to the much bigger and more complicated first book, but which is unfortunately not much simpler:

I openly confess that a reminder by David Hume was the very thing which many years ago first interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave my investigations in the field of speculative philosophy quite a new direction.[…] If we start from a well-founded though undeveloped thought which another has bequeathed to us, we may well hope by continued reflection to advance farther than the acute man to whom we owe the first spark of light. (Kant 1988, p.159)

Let us not get lost in trying here to find out what it was that Hume reminded Kant of (we shall do that in another lecture), but simply pay attention to the rather ambiguous nature of this passage.  In one sense, Kant’s philosophy owes everything to Hume’s empirical scepticism, but in another it goes quite further than it.  In what way is transcendental idealism more than empiricism? Not an easy question, as we shall see, but let us here begin to set the ground as how it will be answered.

The question is how we can get to know something and to see how Kant gets awoken from his ‘dogmatic slumber’ we need to go back to Descartes. As you all remember, Descartes put forward the interesting idea that I could doubt the whole existence of the world, but the one thing that I could not doubt is the cogito ergo sum, for even if I doubt everything I cannot doubt the I that is doubting.  This means that everything that is contained in this I also cannot be doubted.  I can think of a cup.  I might doubt the existence of cup in the real world, it might be a figment of my imagination, but I cannot doubt the idea of the cup in my mind, for it wholly present to the thought that thinks it.  The problem for Descartes is how we get from the certainty of my inner mental world, to the uncertainty of my knowledge of the external world.  The answer is God, which is why Descartes needs the philosophical proofs of God’s existence.  If God exists, which Descartes believes can be demonstrated philosophically in the form of the ontological argument, then this God must be a just, since an unjust God would be imperfect and thus contradicts His essence.  A just God ensures that the external world, which he created, corresponds to my inner world.  Thus I can be sure that my idea of the cup, which I am entirely certain of, is the same as the actual cup which exists in the external world.

What Kant calls a ‘dogmatic slumber’ is this heady mix of theology and philosophy. Kant’s argument will be how can philosophy be certain of its knowledge of the external world, when it basis its certainty on what cannot be experienced, namely God (thus, as we shall see, it is just as important for Kant to show that there can be no proof for God’s existence, as it is for Descartes to have this proof).  It would mean that our knowledge of the cup could only be guaranteed by divine intervention, and an intervention that we ourselves could have no insight into.

The fact that theology has sneaked into philosophy tells us something has gone wrong. Theology in this form (as opposed to theology proper) is usually philosophy gone a bit mad.  This can make philosophical theology interesting, but also a little suspect in its own commitment to an immanent source of human knowledge. Thus what we need to do is go back to the relation of knowledge itself, and see what really appears there without introducing a deus ex machina, or other metaphysical hobgoblins.  First of all there is subject and there is an object that confronts this subject.  What the subject knows about this object, in one sense comes from the object itself, and in another sense comes from the subject  (when we come to look at the subject in greater detail we will need to ask who this subject is – is it me or you or something greater than both of us?).  We can say therefore that unlike Descartes and all the other metaphysical dogmatists, Kant tries to understand our world immanently, rather than appealing to something transcendent.[3]

Kant is rejecting Descartes’ transcendent argument that we can only know the object by the mediation of the divine power, but at the same time he will also reject the Humean argument that we know the object simply by ‘adding up’ our sense impressions. This is because we can make a distinction between the form of our experiences and the content of our experiences. This is why transcendental idealism cannot be understood simply as the unity of rationalism and empiricism. Let us say something briefly now about why, even though Hume awakens Kant from his ‘dogmatic slumber’, he rejects crude empiricism.

Now the content of our experience does belong to the object, and Kant will call this, perhaps slightly confusingly for our purposes, sensible intuition.  But this intuition does not merely have content but also a form, and it is this form that transcends both the individual object and the subject.  It is this transcendence that Kant is referring to in the expression ‘transcendental’. It is the proof of these forms that Kant hopes to demonstrate in The Critique of Pure Reason. They are space and time, and the categories of the understanding.  What is significant here, and we shall go both in their demonstration and description by Kant later, is that these forms of the object, which are true of every object of human experience, belong to the subject. This is why Kant’s explanation of the world is immanent, for he makes no appeal to anything that might go beyond the subject that experiences. Yet, this subject, which is the source of the form of objects, is not any subject.  It is neither you nor me, for example, but is the form of the subjectivity itself; that is to say, the form of pure thought. For this subject is nothing else than reason or rationality itself.  It is this last idea which is perhaps the most difficult to explain and to grasp, as it is to understand the heart of transcendental idealism itself.

How then the Critique of Pure Reason [hereafter CPR] organised and what is does Kant think that he is doing in it? Let us look at the content page.[4] The book is divided into two parts, the ‘Doctrine of Elements’ and the ‘Doctrine of Method’. In traditional logic books in Germany at the time, this distinction between two doctrines expressed a difference between two kinds of logic, ‘general logic’ and ‘applied logic’. With Kant, however, they had a specific meaning. In the ‘Doctrine of Elements’, he treats the a priori nature of human knowledge and what are its limits, and in the ‘Doctrine of Method’, what are the implications or consequence of this a priori knowledge and its limits and how does this method differ from other methods, such as mathematical reasoning, or other ways of doing philosophy. ‘The Doctrine of Elements’ itself is also divided into two: ‘Transcendental Aesthetic’ and ‘Transcendental Logic’, which is a division that he got from a contemporary German philosopher Baumgarten.[5] The ‘Transcendental Aesthetic’ treats human sensibility and especially the pure forms of time and space, whereas the ‘Transcendental Logic’ is a description of the pure categories of the understanding. One side, therefore, has to do with sensation or sensibility, and the other, the intellect. These for Kant are the two and the only two sources of human knowledge: intuitions and concepts. The ‘Transcendental Logic’ is then also split into two, the ‘Transcendental Analytic’ and the ‘Transcendental Dialectic’.  The first has to with the positive contribution of the pure categories of the understanding to human knowledge, and the second with the negative; that is, how the misuse of these categories leads to philosophical disputes that are never ending and thus false problems. The ‘Transcendental Analytic’ itself is then further divided into two parts, the ‘Analytic of Concepts’ and the ‘Analytic of Principle’, where the first has to do with the proof of the pure categories and their number, and the second with their empirical application. Finally, the ‘Transcendental Dialectic’ is divided into two into the ‘On the Concepts of Pure Reason’ and ‘On the Dialectical Inferences of Pure Reason’, where the latter itself is divided into three, ‘The Paralogisms of Pure Reason’, ‘The Antinomy of Pure Reason’ and ‘The Ideal of Pure Reason’, which have to do with nature of the soul, the universe and God respectively and again which are basic divisions in metaphysics and logic that Kant would know at the time. His method is both positive and negative. Negative, in that he wants to demolish the old metaphysics which he believes can no longer resist the new scepticism embodied by such philosophers like Hume, and positive, in that want to replace this old metaphysics with a new one that has a more secure founding in the necessary limits of human reason. This dual approach is what Kant means by ‘critique’, which he believed was a new method in philosophy, and is why this book is called the Critique of Pure Reason.

Works Cited

Caygill, H., 1995. A Kant Dictionary, Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Kant, I., 1998. Critique of Pure Reason P. Guyer & A. W. Wood, eds., Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kant, I., 1988. Kant : Selections L. W. Beck, ed., New York; London: Macmillan ; Collier Macmillan.


[1] There is salvation near at hand though in A Kant Dictionary (Caygill 1995).

[2] Let us say right from the start that transcendental here has not mystical or spiritual meaning as ‘transcendental meditation’.

[3] It is important here to make a clear distinction between transcendence and transcendental in Kant’s philosophy.  Transcendence is anything that appeals to a region beyond human sensibility, and in our tradition that is usually God.  The meaning of transcendental is obviously going to be more difficult and we are only going to get to its meaning by going back to this relation between the subject and the object.

[4] See the introduction to the Cambridge edition of the CPR, which gives a good explanation of its origin and structure (Kant 1998).

[5] For many years Kant used his textbook on logic to teach metaphysics to his students, so would have been very familiar with his works. Aesthetics here must be sharply distinguished from aesthetics as the study of art, thought confusing Baumgarten was the first philosopher to use this word for precisely that purpose, and later on Kant, in the Critique of Judgment also used it in that way. In the CPR, however, the word still has its ancient Greek meaning which is ‘sensation’ in the general sense and not the specific experience of artworks.

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Spinoza’s Ethics – Lecture 1

September 30, 2012

Ancient philosophy sought to understand the power of emotions through the division of the mind against itself, like Plato’s famous image of the chariot in the Phaedrus, where the irrational part of the mind fights against the rational part. Spinoza, on the contrary, like Descartes, wants to understand emotions through the relation of the body to the mind. The human mind for Spinoza is only the idea of the body. We only have a limited understanding of what the body can do, and how it interacts with other bodies. Ethics, for Spinoza, is knowledge of our bodies. To truly understand ourselves is therefore to understand our bodies. As Spinoza writes at the end of the preface to the third part of the Ethics, ‘I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies.’ (EIII preface)

When we normally think about ethics, we assume there is some kind moral system that would prescribe our actions in advance. This moral system would be based on and defend some kind of moral ideal that separates human beings from the rest of nature. Only human beings are capable of moral action, because only human beings can have moral ideas such as responsibility, freedom and duty. To be moral is not to follow one’s nature, but quite the opposite; it is to go against nature. For Spinoza, on the contrary, ethics is only possible by understanding our own nature. There is no fact/value distinction for Spinoza. What is good is what follows our nature, and nature is to be understood in terms of our desires or appetites. We do not desire something, as Spinoza writes in the scholium to proposition 9 in part 3, because we say it is good, rather we say something is good because we desire it:

We neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it. (EIIIP9Sc)

Such a statement is precisely the opposite to any kind of idealistic morality that believes in the existence of moral ideas in advance that determine how we ought to act. There is no ‘ought’ for Spinoza if we imagine this to be the contrary to our desires, since what we are is our desires and nothing more. We have to see ourselves as part of nature and not, as Spinoza writes at the start of the preface to the third part of the Ethics, a ‘dominion within a dominion’ (imperium in imperio) (EIIIpref). This is just the case with morality as it is with any other sphere of human activity.

It is in Deleuze lectures on Spinoza that we might find the best explanation of the full scope of Spinoza’s ethics (Deleuze 1978). Why does Spinoza call his ontology an ethics? This is very peculiar, since we normally think of ethics and ontology being very different things. First of all we have to ask ourselves what is Spinoza’s ontology. It is the unique infinite substance which is being. This means that individual beings, singular things, including ourselves, are only modes of this one infinite substance. What does mode mean in Spinoza? Deleuze replies that we should understand the word ‘mode’ as meaning ‘a way of being’ or a state, in the way that we say that green is a state of grass (as opposed to brown). So a tree is a way of being of substance, just as we are ‘a way of being’ of substance. He writes: ‘Et un mode c’est quoi? C’est une manière d’être. Les étants ou les existants ne sont pas des êtres, il n’y a comme être que la substance absolument infinie’ [And a mode is what? It is a way of being. Beings or existents are not being; there is only being as an infinite absolute substance] (Deleuze 1978). He adds that if we are to think of ethics in a Spinozist sense then we have to sharply distinguish it from morality. Ethics has to do with our ‘way of being’ as a mode of infinite substance. As a ‘way of being’, it is better to understand ethics in the same way that we understand ethnology; that is, the study of human behaviour, in the same way that we study the behaviour of other animals for example.

How is this different from a morality? Morality, Deleuze answers, has to do with knotting of two key concepts, essence and value. Morality indicates what our essence is through values. This has nothing to do with ontology, since values are meant to point beyond being (think of the idea of the Good in Plato, which is ‘beyond being’). They indicate what being should be rather than what it is. The aim of every morality, he continues to explain, is the realisation of one’s essence. This means that one’s essence, is for the most part, not realised; something is always lacking or absent. Thus Aristotle, in book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, will define our essence to be eudemonia and the object of ethics is to reach this essence. The reason that we do not realise our essence is that we don’t act in a rational way, since we lack knowledge of what it means to go beyond our being in order to reach its moral realisation. This moral end, which allows us to reach our essence, what it means to be a human being, is supplied by our values. Thus we see how in morality essence and values are ultimately tied together.

When we come to Spinoza’s ethics, Deleuze says, we have to stop thinking in terms of essence and value. An essence is not a general definition of something, like the definition of what it means to be a human being; rather essence always means a singular thing. As Deleuze says, there is an essence of this or that, but not of human beings in general. Another way of thinking of this change in the meaning of the word ‘essence’ is to say that what really interests Spinoza is existence not essence understood as a general term. For what is general is only the unique infinite substance, everything else is a mode, which is a determinate mode of infinite substance. Thus what truly differentiates one thing from another is existence not essence, since there is only one essence, strictly speaking, which is the infinite substance itself. An ethics, then, Deleuze argues, as opposed to a morality, is interested not in general abstractions, but the existence of singular things. But why is this different from morality? Deleuze gives a concrete example.

With morality the following operation always ensues: you do something, you say something and you judge yourself. Morality has always to do with judgement and it is a double system of judgement: you judge yourself and you are judged by someone else. Those who have a taste for morality always have a taste for judging themselves and others. To judge, Deleuze insists, is always to have a relation of superiority to being and it is value that expresses this superiority. But in ethics something quite different happens. In ethics there is no judgement at all, however strange that might appear to be. Someone says or does something. You do not refer this to a value which is superior to it; rather you say ‘how is this possible?’; that is to say, you only refer the statement or activity as a way of being in the same way that one might refer the activity of a lion hunting a gazelle – you don’t judge this being bad or good in relation to a value that is superior to it. The question of ethics, then for Spinoza, is not is this good or bad, but ‘what am I capable of?’ Which really means, ‘what is my body capable of?’ ‘Qu’est-ce que tu dois en vertu de ton essence, c’est qu’est-ce que tu peux, toi, en vertu de ta puissance’ [what you have in virtue of your essence, is what you are capable of, you yourself, in virtue of your power] (Deleuze 1978).

The most important aspect of the existence of any singular thing is the desire to preserve its existence, which Spinoza calls conatus and defines as follows in IIIP6: ‘Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to preserve in its being.’ This is not just a definition of human existence, but all existence as such, whether we are talking about a stone, a plant or even a human being. To the extent that nothing prevents it from existing, everything that does exist will strive to preserve itself in its existence. Thus, to use Curley’s example, if doing X preserves its existence, then it will desire to do X unless a more powerful external cause prevents it from doing so (Curley 1988, p.108).

Spinoza’s argument for believing that this is case follows from his definition of essence. We tend to understand the meaning of essence, as we explained via Deleuze above, from Aristotle as the general definition of a thing which defines its nature in advance, but this is not how Spinoza understands ‘essence’. For him essence does not just define what something is, rather a good definition ought to be able to tell us how a thing is produced. Thus, if I want to properly define a circle what I have to be able to do is not just say what a circle is, but how a circle might be constructed. So again to use Curley’s example, the proper definition of a circle would be ‘a figure produced by the rotation of a line around a point’ (Curley 1988, p.111). The essence of something tells me how it and why it exists, and also why it continues to exist. It is, so to speak, its power of existence. We can see why, therefore, conatus, the striving to continue to exist, would be the same as the essence of something and any activity that went against it could not be properly speaking an activity at all, but caused by some external cause, and therefore passive.

How do we apply this conatus doctrine to ethics? The answer is that everything which helps me to preserve my existence I take to be good and everything that goes against my existence I take to be bad. What is good is what is useful, relative to my existence, and what is bad, is what dangerous, relatively speaking, to my continued existence. This striving is not only a striving for self-preservation, but also, as we shall see in the next lecture, an increase in the power of action, since in relation to the external causes that would extinguish my existence, all I have is my power to act against them.

What then is an affect? An affect is not a feeling for Spinoza, but a representation. My mind represents my body and states of that body. My mind is nothing more than this, nor is my thoughts anything more than this representation. Of course states of my mind can be caused by things outside of my body, but my body can only represent these external things through the states of my body itself. Since effects, for Spinoza, represent causes, in representing these effects, I represent the external things in some way through the power of my body to be affected by them.

As we saw above, the essence of something is its power to act. But just as much as a body has a power to act (I can swim ten lengths of a pool) so does a mind. The mind’s power to act is contained by what it is capable of representing. But remember what the mind contains for Spinoza is the representation of the body and states of the body, so that the more that the body is capable of the more it can think. Thus, for Spinoza, the reason why the human mind has more power to act than the cabbage’s mind (and Spinoza argued that all bodies have a mind to some extent) is that the human body is capable of more. So an affect is the representation of the body whose power to act has either increased or decreased as he defines it in the third definition of part three:

By affect I understand affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections. (EIIID3)

Every individual being strives to exist. Such a striving is a desire. I desire that which preserves my being. To preserve my being I must increase my power to act, since power is my essence. Every time I increase my power to act, I experience joy, and conversely, every that my power to act is decreased then I experience sadness. So what we mean by emotion is the power of the mind to be affected from within or without. All the emotions or affects that we speak of are merely modifications of these three fundamental affects.  To understand or affects, then, is to bring them back to joy and sadness and how my existence is increased or decreased in relation to them. The aim of the Ethics is to show how using our reason we should be able to promote the former over the latter.

What is decisive, however, in Spinoza’s understanding of affects, is that they are representational. They are representation of the body and states of the body in the mind. If the origin of the transition for joy to sadness is external to my mind, then it is a passive affect. If it is internal to the mind then it is an active affect. The aim of life, therefore, is to replace passive affects with active ones, which means to understand the true origin of our affects, which is to understand that the idea in my mind is also an idea in God’s or my mind is nothing else than an idea in the mind of God.

Works Cited

Curley, E., 1988. Behind the Geometrical Method : a Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, Princeton  N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Deleuze, G., 1978. Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze. Sur Spinoza. Available at: http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 [Accessed September 30, 2012].


Science and Knowledge – Lecture 1

September 26, 2012

This is a course about the place of science in our everyday lives. Most of us are not scientists and do not even plan to be scientists, but nonetheless science dominates our conception of the world. Most of us also, I suppose, believe that science tells us the truth about the universe, and that generally what scientists say can be trusted. If we want to know the answer to something, or to a problem, then it is to science that we turn. But why do we trust science so much, even when many of us do not do science or have very little knowledge of what it is that scientists do?

Is this because science, for us, has become like a religion? How ironic this might be, since many scientists, if not the most famous (though it is not the case that all of them are so) are atheists and would see science as completely the opposite to religious belief. Think for example of the recent publication of Dawkin’s The God Delusion and the publicity around it.[1] Personally, I do not think that science and religion are making the same claims, though there are many religious people who think they do. If religion is a science, then I am certain it can only be a pseudo-science, and can make no proper scientific claims at all. But equally, if religion is not a science, which I think it is not, then it absurd to argue that it is a pseudo-science and perhaps religion and science and doing different things, and making different claims?

But what do we mean by a science and what does science do that religion does not? The answer might be that science has to do with facts and religion beliefs. But are we absolutely sure what we mean by facts and how are they the basis of the science? A fact seems to be something that I observe. I say, ‘There is a table in front of me’ and there really is a table there in front of me. How do I know that? I can, because I can see it with my eyes. Facts then are then something verified with the senses, in this case sight, whereas beliefs do not appear to be so. If a Christian says that Jesus was resurrected on the third day how can it be verified by simply looking at it? At most it is a report, but I cannot verify it myself. Religion does not seem to be about facts at all. It is something subjective, personal and a matter of faith rather than reason.

Is this opposition watertight though? Perhaps not if we think that difference between religion and science is just that one is about facts and the other not. Are facts really that simple? Isn’t there more to facts, so to speak, than meets the eye? If I did not have an understanding of what a chair was, would I see a chair at all? Let us imagine that rather than being a member of my culture, where coming across chairs was pretty common, I was born in a tribe in deepest Amazon that had never come across chairs before or even Western civilisation for that matter. Let us imagine again, that for some unknown reason, a chair that was being transported by air carrier fell out of the plane and landed in a clearing in my forest that I used every day to hunt. Would I see a chair? No I certainly would not. No doubt I would have an image of a chair on my retina and that image would travel down my optic nerve into my brain, but I would not see a chair, because I have no concept of chair.[2]

How do we pick up concepts of things? Not simply by looking at them, otherwise we’d be right back at the same paradox again. Rather they are part of the conceptual background that makes up our world, and this conceptual background is something we learn in any given culture.[3] Only in this way can I recognise something as something, rather than just a mysterious object that has suddenly appeared in my world, like the chair in the clearing of the jungle. The meaning of the chair, the fact that I can see it as a chair, is given by the context of its use. In this sense, if we were to apply this to our idea of science, scientific practice might define what a fact is and what it is not in advance of the research itself which is meant to explain these facts. In other words theories are not justified by facts, because in reality theories precede facts.

This is exactly the case when we look at the practice of scientists. They don’t just look at things in isolation and then base their theories upon them, rather their theories already tell them where to look and what they should be looking for in order that they know what the relevant facts are. If you like, facts are not just facts. They are not just perceptions; rather they are perceptions plus understanding, and the perception does not come first, and then the understanding second, but they both arrive together. They are part of the same conceptual or if you prefer, phenomenological whole, how we actually see the world within a given context, whether we are scientists or not.[4]

Science already makes us aware of this because when we think of a fact, we don’t just think about a state of affairs but a statement of a state of affairs. The fact isn’t that they are mountains on Mars, but that someone says that there are mountains are Mars, and that someone else can observe them and agree. There would be mountains on Mars whether there was science or not, or even human beings. It only becomes part of a scientific theory when some says it. ‘There are mountains on Mars’ and then someone else gets a telescope and sees that this statement is true.

Rather than saying that science is based on facts, perhaps it would be better to say that it is founded upon statements which can be verified through observation.[5] Yet aren’t we faced with the same problems that we found with the chair? What we find as relevant in an observation again will be determined by the conceptual background that we inhabit. Chalmers uses an example from the history of science to explain this (Chalmers, 1999, p. 16). Before scientific revolution of the 17th century, it was taken as given that the earth was stationary. The observable phenomena seem to corroborate this. When I jump upwards, I do not fall back to a different place on the earth, which would seem to the case if it were moving. Of course the reason why this is not the case is inertia. I and the earth are moving in the same direction and thus the same forces are acting upon us (for the same reason a tennis ball that you throw up in the air in a moving car falls back into your hand, because you and the car are moving in the same direction and speed). But because no-one knew the theory of inertia at the time, what was observed did appear to prove the earth was stationary (and I imagine there are some who still believe this for the very same reason).

Does this mean that science is just subjective and what you see is just what you need to see? Then there would not be any difference between science and religion, for it clearly is the case the religion is subjective.[6] Rather, what is required, to clearly delineate science, is a better definition of observation. For this is precisely what scientist do. Rather, than seeing observation as something private and passive, where I see the chair and the image is projected on my retina, we should see it as public and active. Active, because the observer is always involved in what they see, correcting and changing their observations in relation to their understanding and interpretation, and public because these observations are always shared with others who can interpret the results.

Chalmers gives us two examples of how scientists actually work (Chalmers, 1999, pp. 21-4). One is Hooke’s pictures of the eye of fly under a microscope. First of all the image of the eye was affected by the very instruments that he was using, such that he had to work out how to use a light source that did not affect what he was looking at (candle light through brine, eventually). Secondly, he published what he saw, and told people how he had seen it, so that they too could do the same for themselves and see if they came out with the same results. In the case of Galileo, he saw in his telescope the moons of Jupiter, but he needed to prove them to his fellow scientists. For this he had to modify his telescope so that he could gain an accurate measurement of their trajectory to show that they were moving around the planet, and finally when he had obtained these results he published them, so everyone else could test them for their reliability.

What is important in this process is to understand that these observations are not infallible. The difference between science and religion is not that one in infallible and the other isn’t (however you might want to understand this). On the contrary observation is fallible. What we see is determined by how we look and how we look by the conceptual background we find ourselves in. But anyone can come along and show us that this background is incorrect and it is preventing us from seeing something. What is important, however, is how they do this. They do it by pointing to what is observable when we do change our theories, but also that this hypothesis can be tested by others. They do not do so by simply asserting a belief about something. The moon is made out of cheese, for example. So Chalmers can define science in this way: ‘According to the view put forward here, observations suitable for constituting the basis for scientific knowledge are both objective and fallible’ (Chalmers, 1999, p. 25). This means that objectivity is not the same as absolute truth, but quite the opposite: what is objective can be corrected and changed through observable evidence, whereas what is subjective cannot. A religious belief that was based on observation would not be a religious belief at, but an inferior and poor scientific point of view.

Works Cited

Ayer, A. J. (2001). Language, Truth and Logic. London: Penguin.

Chalmers, A. F. (1999). What is this Thing Called Science. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Dreyfus, H. (1990). Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gardner, S. (1999). Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason. London: Routledge.

Jebens, H. (Ed.). (2004). Cargo, Cult and Culture Critique. University of Hawaii Press.


[1] You can hear his defence of this book on NPR here, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9180871.

[2] I am thinking here of what are called ‘cargo cults’, though the evidence of such practices is controversial (Jebens, 2004).

[3] We might ask further whether this conceptual background is even first. Are we not first of all living in a world before we understand it? This is the basis of Dreyfus’s stress on the importance of Heidegger’s philosophy (Dreyfus, 1990).

[4] The key issue here is whether this position would lead to relativism. This depends on how one understands the truth and objectivity of science. This will be at the heart of our reading of Kuhn in the second half of this course.

[5] Such a position is what is called logical positivism, whose most vocal defender is A. J. Ayer (Ayer, 2001).

[6] This is not a criticism, for what is subjective is not necessarily worse than what is objective, and indeed the objective might have its basis in the subjective, but it all depends on what you mean by the subjective. This was certainly Kant’s view, who placed practical reason (subjective, though in a special way) above theoretical reason (Gardner, 1999, pp. 319-25). The ultimate end of reason is not knowledge for its own sake, but the Good. We might call this position humanist.