For as long as I can remember, I've been puzzled by the fact that I live in the world. This is a fundamental condition of our lives from the moment we are born, kicking and screaming, into the world. We usually pay no attention to it and it seems a straightforward enough fact. We just get on and live our lives. But if we scratch its surface, we find this is a tenuous fact, dubious even. Descartes showed how we could doubt this basic proposition. What exactly is my relation to the world? Who am I? Am I just flesh and blood in a material world, or am I a disembodied spirit aloof from the world? And if the world is external to me, how can I be sure it really exists out there beyond me? Is the world just some kind of elaborate illusion? Idealist philosophers such as Berkeley have gone so far as to suggest that, fundamentally, we do not live in the world, but rather that the world is given in me. As absurd as this conclusion may sound, it has proved difficult to refute. I do not think kicking a stone is sufficient.
It is this problem of making sense of living in the world, in the face of scepticism, that puzzles me. I am driven by the wonder of finding myself in a world, but also by dread that I am blind to my true place in the world.
Immanuel Kant wrote the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. When I read it back in 1995, it was a revelation to me. Here was a book that developed a rigorous world view centred around our experience, by exploring the conditions necessary in order to have experience. It seems to me that Kant's critical philosophy is the most important methodological development in modern philosophy. He shows that we live in a natural world given directly in experience. On the other hand, there is a mysterious side to Kant's philosophy too, since he also argues that our world is manifest from an unknowable shadow world of things-in-themselves: an ultimate reality of noumena. Schopenhauer goes on to show that this ultimate reality cannot be a collection of things as we usually conceive them, since it is beyond conception, hence it is best thought of as One. Schopenhauer was aware of the parallel with Eastern ideas. I am particularly struck by the similarity between the notions of noumena and the Tao in the Chinese Taoist philosophy, first expounded by Lao Tzu (probably before 300 BCE). I find both Kantian and Taoist metaphysics converging from different times and cultures compelling. I would like to spend more time exploring these ideas. As both Kant and Lao Tzu realized, there is a limit to the power of analytic philosophy. Is it possible to explore beyond those limits using non-conceptual methods such as mindful meditation?
Kant was a man of his age and he was particularly inspired by the work of scientists such as Newton. He used many of the Newtonian concepts in his work, and one of his aims was to derive a Newtonian world view from first principles. Of course, Newtonian mechanics has now been superseded by the New Physics. Einstein has since developed relativity theory with a non-Euclidean model of physical space, and established quantum theory. Therefore, we can look back at Kant's work and criticize it for being too closely tied to Newtonian concepts. But I wonder how Kant might have developed his philosophy if he lived now? He was trying to develop a theory of knowledge based on solid analytic methods. In his own day, all he had was the Newtonian model, but if he lived today he would have a richer source of methods at hand, from the New Physics to information theory. In particular, I am interested in how we could marry Kant's critical philosophy with algorithmic information theory to form a theory of knowledge and learning from first principles. I hope to have some time in the future to research this further.
For me, philosophy is the path to understanding nature, exploring who we are, and transcending nature. These are not separable goals. To live full and authentic lives, we must first understand ourselves and the world fully and authentically.
"Though all our knowledge begins with experience,
Tony Bellotti July 2005