In Christ are Hidden All the Treasures of Wisdom: Kant’s Transcendental Program Falls Short
By Mike Robinson
Immanuel Kant maintained that men can know rational truths through a synthesis of human sense perception and reason utilizing man’s intellectual autonomy. He attempts to discard God as the proper foundation of human reason. Additionally, he rejects scripture as the ultimate means to know that sense perception is generally dependable. There are operational features of experience men presuppose in order to offer critical analysis; men come to analytical pursuits with some embedded understanding—background assumptions that make rational examination possible. Without presupposing the existence of God, one cannot account for analytic assessments. Linguistic truths and communication utilized within critical analysis would be impossible without the biblical God since analytical ventures utilize immutable universals which God grounds. One source of Kantianism insufficiency: it cannot account for the essential operational features of reason, thus it lacks explanatory power to account for critical analysis.
Don’t let anyone capture you with vain philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking, … rather than from Christ (Colossians 2:8).
Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects. But all attempts to extend our knowledge of objects by establishing something in regard to them a priori, by means of concepts, have, on this assumption, ended in failure. We must therefore make trial whether we may not have more success in the tasks of metaphysics, if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge. This would agree better with what is desired, namely, that it should be possible to have knowledge of objects a priori, determining something in regard to them prior to their being given. We should then be proceeding precisely on the lines of Copernicus’ primary hypothesis. Failing of satisfactory progress in explaining the movements of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that they all revolved round the spectator, he tried whether he might not have better success if he made the spectator to revolve and the stars to remain at rest. A similar experiment can be tried in metaphysics, as regards the intuition of objects.1
Kant names his theoretical system “transcendental philosophy.”2 Kant’s transcendental idealism may have shaken the world, but in principle, it is arbitrary. This is the case since his Copernican revolution rests upon subjective human autonomy. The fatal flaw within Kant’s thought is the idea that the “knowledge transaction with respect to nature is complete without any reference to God.”3
Kant produced some valuable insights from his critical analysis (the epistemic need for the preconditions of operational features within human experience) but his scheme folds because he reposes his whole system upon ideas antithetical to scripture. “Van Til tells us that the very essence of knowledge is to bring our thoughts into agreement with God’s revealed Word.”4
Kant’s “Copernican revolution” was his doctrine that “objects must conform to our knowledge,” which seems to mean that certain basic features of the objects of our knowledge are due to the nature of our human cognitive faculties. We can know the world only “as it appears” to us; we cannot know it “as it is in itself.” The world as we experience it, the world of “appearances,” is thoroughly imbued with the forms of our perception (space and time) and the forms of our thought (the categories—the logical forms of judgments). The world as it is in itself may not be spatial or temporal… This “transcendental idealism” shook the foundations of all previous philosophy, and the reverberations have been felt ever since, not least in contemporary philosophical debates about realism and idealism.5
Kant maintained that we can know the principles that come from a type of synthesis of forms of human empirical sense and reason within man’s own rational autonomy. He rejects the very ground of human reason (God) and the means to know that human sensual functions are generally reliable (scripture).
Kant’s Moral Theory Miscarries
Kant’s moral metaphysic lolled upon human reason while he disregarded the Ten Commandments as God’s revelation and moral foundation. “As a preliminary to a Metaphysics of Morals … there is, to be sure, no other foundation of [moral] metaphysics than the critical examination of practical reason.”6 Kant attempted to ground universal moral duties on human reason. Nevertheless, human reason is flawed and disputable in contrast to God: the only possible source of universal moral duties. God is the unflawed one who indisputably knows all things. Kant again reveals his dependence on human autonomy whereas he values human dignity for the reason that men can obey only “those laws which they make themselves.”7 Kant’s ultimate maxim rejects God’s revealed law, for a man “ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.”8 This is subjective and one can hold this in a relativistic manner as well. Most importantly the maxim ignores the truth of the Decalogue as it attempts to place men on a throne that decrees universal moral duties.
An important feature of Kant’s Copernican revolution maintains that the preconditions in the mind are required for the apprehension of the diverse phenomena of human sense experience. But Kant posits nothing with the ontic clout that can ground the preconditions obligatory for reason inasmuch as he “makes man the ultimate source.”9
While Kant declared that the moral law within is compelling proof of God’s existence, he rejected the moral imperative to attend church and worship God in community. He ignores religious duties inasmuch as “Kant radically rejected the idea of authoritative revelation from God and asserted the autonomy of the human mind … The human mind is to be its own supreme authority, its own criterion of truth and right.”10 Consequently Kant aims by the authority of pure reason to allow believing faith in the noumena. This appears to be a way for a rational source to rent reason from faith; an idea that today has almost universal appeal for secularists and occultists.
Kant and Man’s Autonomy
Van Til offered this analysis: “Although Kant professed a kind of theism and an admiration for Jesus, he was clearly far from orthodox Christianity. Indeed, his major book on religion (Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone) has as its chief theme that the human mind must never subject itself to any authority beyond itself. Kant radically rejected the idea of authoritative revelation from God and asserted the autonomy of the human mind perhaps more clearly than had ever been done before (though secular philosophers had always maintained this notion). The human mind is to be its own supreme authority, its own criterion of truth and right.” Kant falls as he posits the fallible and deficient human mind as the organizing source of intelligibility.
Kant’s practical philosophy leaves with this fundamental, thought-provoking ambiguity between the hope for gradual social amelioration, with the corresponding resolution to contribute to it, and a more religious viewpoint that sees our only ultimate hope in divine grace, given to us in so far as we acknowledge our finitude and our faults and resolve to be better human beings as best we imperfectly can.11
Kant has certain noble goals in epistemology, ethics, and social science but his program fails since it rests upon borrowed Christian capital (selected ethical goals; language, culture, etc.); capital that Kant not only comingles within his scheme, but makes it depend upon human autonomy.
Kant seems to suggest that human experience is intelligible because of the ability our own minds alone. Frame observes: “Kant argues that what makes our experience intelligible is largely; perhaps entirely, our own minds. We do not know what the world is really like; we know only how it appears to us, and how it appears to us is largely what we make it out to be.”12 Thus men do not really know what things are like—we only know how things appear to be. Consequently human reason supplants God as the creator and organizer of the world and human experience.
God Reigns in Epistemology
“Heinrich Heine called Critique of Pure Reason an executioner’s sword, a destructive, world-destroying thought.”13 However the all-powerful God reigns and He rules over everything including knowledge and epistemic pursuits forasmuch as “the Lord God Omnipotent reigns…” And His is “Faithful and True,” and “out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations.”14 This battering includes all error and epistemic inaccuracy.
In contrast to Kant’s program, to truly know truth is to presuppose God in all our thinking. Men must honor God’s word as more important and more certain than any other truth (John 17:17). All law and rational criteria that knowledge requires are found in God revealed in the Bible (Colossians 2:3). God has universal power, position, and rule—and He provides the required a priori verity state of affairs for the universal laws of reason.15 This is an impregnable truth from a web of immutables, necessities, and universals that is unified and accounted for by Christian theism.
Carnell draws the applicable antithesis: “It is safe to conceive that Christianity and Kantianism are diametrically conceived for, whereas the latter looks upon motives that appeal to the ego as wholly unworthy and immoral, the former is founded squarely upon an appeal to the ego.”16 With their overlooking of God in the knowledge field, in principle, Kantians must adopt positions that disallow certainty, necessity, and universality. In the end, they must surrender not just the laws of reason, but epistemology, ontology, ethics, and everything in human experience—that which Kant strained to rescue.
Kantianism cannot justify universals, immutables, and necessities; and most factions do not seek such. Christian theism offers the rational man the foundation for the possibility of making assertions, even an assertion against Yahweh. Considering that the Triune God is the only possible epistemic ground, He is the lone source for immutable universals that are utilized in all assertions. The ground necessary for assertions must supply the explanatory power sufficient for general principles, unchanging laws, and universal operational facets of human rationality and intelligibility. The God of the Bible has these ontic credentials. Even the discussion of His existence presupposes that God lives. Without God, one cannot account for the laws of reason used in any conversation regarding the existence of God.
An ultimate epistemic criterion that has the explanatory power sufficient for general principles, unchanging laws, and universal operational facets of human thinking cannot be overturned merely by appeals to experience. It deals with the required pre-environment to make experience intelligible. The laws of logic are necessary to make experience coherent; yet one cannot appeal to experience to underwrite them, since experience is in constant flux. In contrast, the laws of logic are inviolably constant. Intelligible experience presupposes the laws of logic. Thus, A is A (Law of Identity: LOI) and A cannot be A and Non-A at the same time in the same manner (Law of Non-contradiction: LNC). What can supply the a priori truth conditions for these immutable laws? The Lord.
God your Savior … the Rock … (Isaiah 17:10).
Ultimately, a changeless, omniscient, omnipotent rational underpinning and infrastructure is required to understand and account for human experience: the immutable God. It is good news that Yahweh is the necessary constant that is required for the intelligibility of human experience.
God is the Truth
That by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie. … This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast… (Hebrews 6:18-19).
In contrast to Kantianism, I maintain that Yahweh furnishes all a priori essentials for the necessary epistemic equipment utilized in all knowledge and achievements. Yahweh has the actual ontic attributes of omniscience, immutability, and omnipotence (He has universal reach) thus He has the ontic capacity to be the ground for general principles, immutable laws, and universal operational aspects of human thinking and understanding. In Christian theism God can be known (John 17:1-3). Moreover, a position that rejects Yahweh as the epistemic (knowledge) base cannot be true, thus whatever evidence one discovers, must be discerned and processed with the rational tools that arise from Christian theism and the worldview that streams from the Triune God.
The true God is the elemental requirement for knowledge, proof, evidence, and logic. He is the a priori verity condition for the intelligibility of reality. This is the case inasmuch as the immaterial, transcendent, and immutable Triune God supplies the necessary pre-environment for the use of immaterial, transcendent, universal, and immutable laws of logic utilized in all knowledge pursuits including critical scrutiny. In principle, Kantianism cannot supply the necessary a priori truth conditions for the immutable universals (laws of logic, moral law, mathematical truths, etc.) hence it results in futility because of its internal weakness.
The Pre-essentials for Intelligibility
In Van Til’s view, only Christian theism provides the conditions that make such rational discourse possible. Therefore, the unbeliever’s very decision to argue against God refutes his position. The self-refutation is found not directly in the content of the assertion, but in the decision of a speaker to state that assertion (John Frame).
Kant’s view, valuable as it was, would, if tested by its own standard, defeat itself.17
Kantians presuppose the rational necessities that the Christian worldview underwrites while they verbally reject it. What are the obligatory conditions that make thought possible? The Triune God furnishes those preconditions to establish the rational flooring for intelligibility. Van Til called this “method of implication into the truth of God a transcendental method. That is, we must seek to determine what presuppositions are necessary to any object of knowledge in order that it may be intelligible to us.”18
Frame advocates God as the only suitable epistemic fount in his contrasting Kant with Van Til: “For Van Til, God is the Creator, the world is his creature. Over and over again in class Van Til would draw two circles on the blackboard: a large circle representing God and a smaller circle below representing the creation. He insisted that Christianity has a “two-circle” worldview, as opposed to the “one-circle” worldview of secular thought. Secular thought makes all reality equal. If there is a god, he is equal to the world. But in Christianity God is the supreme Creator and therefore the supreme authority over all human thought. Kant told us to ignore the demands of any alleged revelation external to ourselves. Van Til tells us that the very essence of knowledge is to bring our thoughts into agreement with God’s revealed Word.” God has moral and epistemic authority since He is God; additionally He alone has the ontic attributes required to furnish the preconditions necessary for reason, objective moral values, and critical analysis.
Background Rational Assumptions
There must be many things we presuppose in order to offer critical analysis; all men come to the critical enterprise with some tacit understanding. All those basic assumptions make critical inquiry possible. And without presupposing the existence of God, one cannot account for analytic quests. Language and communication utilized within these quests would be impossible without the biblical God since analytical ventures utilize immutable universals (LNC, LOI, moral law, mathematical truths, etc.) which God grounds. One cause of Kantianism failure: it cannot account for the essential operational features of reason, thus it lacks explanatory power to account for analytical criticism.
- Norman Kemp-Smith, trans. Immanuel Kant: Critique Of Pure Reason (NY: Bedford, 2008).
- Otfried Hoffe, Immanuel Kant, (Albany, NY: Suny, 1994), p. 32.
- Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 1998), p. 344.
- John Frame, Cornelius Van Til, www.frame-poythress.org/cornelius-van-til
- Leslie Stevenson, Ten Theories of Human Nature, (NY: Oxford, 2004),p. 114.
- Lewis White Back, Kant: Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, (Upper Saddle, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995), p. 7.
- Stevenson, p. 115.
- Bahnsen, p. 345.
- Stevenson, p. 115.
- Matthew Altman, A Companion to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2008), p. 28.
- Book of Revelation 19:6-15, NKJV.
- The Triune God is absolutely required because He is unchanging, universal in knowledge, aspatial, transcendent, and immaterial; and the laws of logic are unchanging, universal, aspatial, transcendent, and immaterial. The laws of logic are necessary for all assertions, investigations, ethics, evidence, and knowledge; hence, Yahweh provides the indispensable a priori truth conditions to make sense of our world and experience.
- Edward J, Carnell, Introduction to Christian Apologetics, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 330).
- Bahnsen, p. 354
- Ibid, see pp. 344-356 for Bahnsen’s analysis of Van Til’s view of Kantianism.
Article by Mike Robinson, Granbury, Texas. Robinson is long time minister at Christ Covenant Church.