Was Kant an Atheist?

An interesting quote:

Scheffner was only too much aware of Kant’s belief that there was nothing to be expected after death. Though in his philosophy he had held out hope for eternal life and a future state, in his personal life he had been cold to such ideas. Scheffner had often heard Kant scoff at prayer and other religious practices. Organized religion filled him with ire. It was clear to anyone who knew Kant personally that he had no faith in a personal God. Having postulated God and immortality, he himself did not believe in either. His considered opinion was that such beliefs were just a matter of “individual needs.” Kant himself felt no such need.

(Source: Kant: A Biography, by Manfred Kuehn, p. 2-3)

There may be some controversy about this among Kant scholars.

Anthony Kenny on History of Philosophy

In this post, I will summarize Anthony Kenny’s description of his approach to history of philosophy, as given in the general introduction to his massive one volume history of philosophy, A New History of Western Philosophy.

Kenny first distinguishes his approach to history of philosophy from that of philosophers who view the history of philosophy as leading up to their own system, as, for example, Aristotle and Hegel did. Kenny says that he lacks the “supreme self-confidence as a philosopher” to approach history of philosophy like that, and for that matter, he thinks it is legitimate to question whether philosophy makes progress at all.

Kenny says that philosophy can be compared either to science or to art. If we compare it to science, we will see philosophy as producing an ever expanding body of scholarship that has surpassed the great philosophers of the past, like Plato. If we compare it to art, we will see a great work of philosophy as a product of individual genius that never gets outdated.

The view Kenny himself adopts, however, is in between these two views. Philosophy is not a matter of acquiring new knowledge but of organizing what we know, and this is so difficult that only a small number of geniuses can do it. The rest of us are forced to look up to them and take what we can from their ideas.

Kenny claims that philosophy is the discipline that the sciences emerge from, and that “a discipline remains philosophical as long as its concepts are unclarified and its methods are controversial.” He gives two examples. First, the issue of whether our ideas are innate or learned from experience was originally philosophical, but then was partly taken over by psychology, with certain issues pertaining to a priori knowledge remaining philosophical. Second, Aristotle believed that there was a branch of philosophy called “theology,” but “when we read what he says of it today, it seems to us a mix of astronomy and philosophy of religion.” Philosophy has no distinctive subject matter, only a set of methods.

At this point, Kenny considers the view that philosophy only has the therapeutic role of untangling confusions that people have gotten themselves into. To emphasize that this view is consistent with the existence of philosophical progress, Kenny gives the example of when Plato clarified Parmenides’ mistake over two senses of the verb “to be”:

Plato, in one of his dialogues, sorted out the issues so successfully that there has never again been an excuse for mixing them up: indeed, it now takes a great effort of philosophical imagination to work out exactly what led Parmenides into confusion in the first place.

Progress of this kind is often concealed by its very success: once a philosophical problem is resolved, no one regards it any more as a matter of philosophy.

Another example of philosophical progress that Kenny says is consistent with the therapeutic view of philosophy is making new distinctions; for example, philosophical discussions of free will are now required to take compatibilism into account, not merely phrase the issue as a dispute between libertarianism and hard determinism.

Another example of philosophical progress Kenny gives is reinterpreting classic works of philosophy, and he claims that one example of this is recent progress in scholarship on Aristotle and Plato. Here he makes a couple of points about history of philosophy. First, a historian of philosophy has to be a philosopher, because otherwise he would not be able to paraphrase past philosophers and fill in gaps in their reasoning as is required to do history of philosophy. Second, a historian of philosophy has to know about the historical context in which past philosophers wrote. He also points out that original philosophy requires engaging with the history of philosophy, as when Frege spent the first half of his book The Foundations of Arithmetic discussing rival theories.

Kenny next discusses exegesis. He distinguishes between internal exegesis, which attempts to provide a coherent and charitable interpretation of a philosophical text, and external exegesis, which attempts to relate one philosopher’s views to the views of other philosophers in order to bring out their significance. He also distinguishes between historical philosophy, which attempts to look for the justifications of the ideas in the text, and history of ideas, which looks for the motives that led a thinker to put forward the ideas that they did. He points out that a good original philosopher can be a poor exegete, as when Wittgenstein attempted to explain Augustine’s theory of language in the beginning of Philosophical Investigations.

Kenny points out that the skills of the historian can be more important than the skills of the philosopher or vice versa, depending on the purpose of the inquiry in question. The relative importance of these skill sets also varies depending on the area of philosophy in question. For example, ancient metaphysics will seem pointless to someone without a deep concern for the philosophical issues it addresses, and ancient political theory will probably be misinterpreted by a philosopher who projects democracy in its modern form back onto Plato or Aristotle.

Finally, Kenny concedes that he knows much less about the details of the philosophers he is discussing than a specialist on those philosophers would, but argues that it might still be valuable to provide a bird’s eye view of the history of philosophy.

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology: Chapter 1

In this post, I will summarize chapter 1 of Ayn Rand’s book, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. This chapter describes the stages a child goes through leading up to the ability to use concepts, as well as the basis for those steps in reality.

According to Rand, there are three stages that a child goes through:

First, the stage of sensations. Rand suggests that “an infant’s sensory experience is an undifferentiated chaos” which is forgotten by the time one becomes an adult. Adults can infer that they once experienced a sensation stage, but they cannot bring a sensation into their conscious awareness.

Second, the stage of percepts. Rand says “a percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism.” Adults are consciously aware of percepts, and they form the level at which we are directly aware of reality.

At the perceptual level, the child attains the (implicit, not yet explicit) concept of an existent, a thing that exists. This implicit concept develops through three sub-stages: “entity,” referring to the objects around him or her, “identity,” referring to the fact that he or she can distinguish these entities from the other things he or she sees, and “unit,” which refers to the fact that there are similarities and differences between these objects’ identities.

Rand next spends some time on the concept “unit.”

A unit is an existent regarded as a separate member of a group of two or more similar members. (Two stones are two units; so are two square feet of ground, if regarded as distinct parts of a continuous stretch of ground.) … Units are things viewed by a consciousness in certain existing relationships.

Rand points out that this concept allows us to extrapolate beyond our observations by defining a standard and thinking in terms of repetitions of the standard. I think what she has in mind here is primarily physics; physicists define a specific distance as the meter and then do physics in terms of repetitions or divisions of that standard meter. The point applies to any concept, though. For example, we can recognize more than one country as instances of the concept “country” because we can abstract from the specific number of people in the population, the specific geographic location, the specific system of government, etc. These are essentially just repetitions of the same thing, or of similar things we have seen elsewhere.

Summary in bullet points:

  1. Sensation stage
  2. Perceptual stage
    1. Existent
    2. Entity
    3. Identity
  3. Unit (Entry to conceptual stage)

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology: Forward

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (ITOE) was Ayn Rand’s attempt to provide a foundation for her epistemology and, derivatively, the rest of her philosophy. In this post, I will summarize the forward of ITOE and comment on it.

In the forward, Rand repeatedly emphasizes the importance of the “problem of universals.” She takes the problem of universals to be the problem of what our concepts refer to in reality. For example, when I describe three men as “men,” what about those men am I referring to, if anything?

Why does Rand think that this problem is important? For one thing, since our knowledge is composed of concepts, the invalidity of concepts would entail the invalidity of all knowledge. If concepts are invalid, then there is no objective difference between mathematics and mysticism. She is probably also concerned about scientific methodology – if scientists don’t know where their concepts come from, then they might make conceptual mistakes without realizing it.

Rand lists four alleged solutions to the problem of universals that past philosophers have proposed: extreme realism, moderate realism, nominalism, conceptualism, and extreme nominalism. Rand expresses contempt for these solutions, but reminds the reader of the importance of the issue at stake for civilization.

It is worth noting that Rand introduces the problem of universals in roughly the same way the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy does:

Often we predicate properties of individuals. When we say that both cherries and rubies are red, for instance, we seem to say individuals share common properties, those that make cherries cherries, those that make rubies rubies, and those that make both red. Predicates are said of many subjects, then, but is there anything in reality to match the linguistic one-over-many? Are there general truths? Is there commonality in nature, in reality; or is commonality imagined and illusory, perhaps a mere product of language? If the latter, how can we accommodate the intuition that it is the world, and not our conventions, that make predications true or false? The Problem of Universals arises when we ask these questions. Attempts to solve this problem divide into three broad strategies: Realism, Nominalism, and Conceptualism. We’ll take these in turn, and consider the pros and cons of each.


Rand concludes by reminding the reader that she will be taking for granted the validity of the senses and the axiom that existence exists.

Atheists Should Not be Moral Subjectivists

An atheist on CARM posted the following as the OP of a thread:

Many Christians have argued that there are objective moral values. Yet it seems as if all humans get their morals from reality and that morals vary from culture to culture and sometimes from person to person within a culture. If there are objective moral values, how would we know it? And what purpose would it serve if we all have morals based on reality?

I posted this in response:

Hi, I’m an atheist and I am near the end of a BA in philosophy.

I think it is mistaken, on both rational and polemical grounds, for atheists to argue against the existence of objective morality.

All living things face the alternative of life or death, and every living thing has a means of survival to keep them alive in the face of this alternative. Plants have their automatic chemical functions, and the lower animals have instincts. Human beings, however, use reason as their means of survival, which means that they have to exert effort and think about the way they live, not depend on their automatic functions. It is necessary for a human being to define a set of moral principles to live by, and the only rational standard for a moral code is life.

Most people sense that morality has a life preserving function. As a result, they react strongly to the idea that morality is merely subjective, and see this idea as destructive, although they may lack the conceptual tools to articulate this properly. If people have to choose between religion and moral subjectivism, then they will choose religion, as the fundamentalists on this forum illustrate daily.

The only hope for atheists is to articulate a set of secular values that are based on life and disseminate these values into the culture. Such a set of values has been defined by Ayn Rand, and she has provided the means for disseminating them by presenting them in the form of art, i.e., her novels.

You can find elaboration on the argument I made in the above post here.


Neuroscience and Philosophy of Mind

We normally think that our consciousness is unified. We think that our beliefs, desires, and perceptions all have the same subject. For example, it seems like my perception of a computer and my belief that coffee tastes good have the same subject, not multiple disconnected subjects.

However, it turns out that recent neuroscience has a bearing on this belief about consciousness.

From Philosophy of Mind: A Contemporary Introduction by John Heil (p. 85):

Another worry that I have left untouched concerns the unity of experience. On the one hand, the brain is a complex system encompassing endless subsystems. On the other hand, our mental lives are apparently unified. Although we all possess various distinguishable mental faculties, at any given time each of us confronts the universe as a single ego with a single point of view or perspective. (This is so, I suspect, even for persons said to possess multiple personalities.) How is this unity of experience to be reconciled with the widely dispersed and fragmented character of neurological processing?

In recent years, hopes for finding a neurological ‘central processing unit,’ a neurological analogue of a computing machine’s CPU, have receded.

There is no central location in the brain where everything comes together, and that has implications for how we think about the unity of consciousness. One way of interpreting this finding is to conclude that the unity of consciousness is an illusion, which is the interpretation taken by Daniel Dennett. Another way of interpreting this is to conclude that consciousness is unified and therefore distinct from the brain, which is consistent with the dualism of Jonathan Lowe.

This underlines how important it is for philosophers of mind to pay attention to neuroscience in formulating their theories.