Kantian mechanics

This article from Discover Magazine encourages metaphysical idealism. Time and space are all in your mind it says, and so is the universe-

Figuring out the nature of the real world has obsessed scientists and philosophers for millennia. Three hundred years ago, the Irish empiricist George Berkeley contributed a particularly prescient observation: The only thing we can perceive are our perceptions. In other words, consciousness is the matrix upon which the cosmos is apprehended. Color, sound, temperature, and the like exist only as perceptions in our head, not as absolute essences. In the broadest sense, we cannot be sure of an outside universe at all.

For centuries, scientists regarded Berkeley’s argument as a philosophical sideshow and continued to build physical models based on the assumption of a separate universe “out there” into which we have each individually arrived. These models presume the existence of one essential reality that prevails with us or without us. Yet since the 1920s, quantum physics experiments have routinely shown the opposite: Results do depend on whether anyone is observing. This is perhaps most vividly illustrated by the famous two-slit experiment. When someone watches a subatomic particle or a bit of light pass through the slits, the particle behaves like a bullet, passing through one hole or the other. But if no one observes the particle, it exhibits the behavior of a wave that can inhabit all possibilities—including somehow passing through both holes at the same time.

Some of the greatest physicists have described these results as so confounding they are impossible to comprehend fully, beyond the reach of metaphor, visualization, and language itself. But there is another interpretation that makes them sensible. Instead of assuming a reality that predates life and even creates it, we propose a biocentric picture of reality. From this point of view, life—particularly consciousness—creates the universe, and the universe could not exist without us.


According to biocentrism, time does not exist independently of the life that notices it. The reality of time has long been questioned by an odd alliance of philosophers and physicists. The former argue that the past exists only as ideas in the mind, which themselves are neuroelectrical events occurring strictly in the present moment. Physicists, for their part, note that all of their working models, from Isaac Newton’s laws through quantum mechanics, do not actually describe the nature of time. The real point is that no actual entity of time is needed, nor does it play a role in any of their equations. When they speak of time, they inevitably describe it in terms of change. But change is not the same thing as time.


There is a peculiar intangibility to space, as well. We cannot pick it up and bring it to the laboratory. Like time, space is neither physical nor fundamentally real in our view. Rather, it is a mode of interpretation and understanding. It is part of an animal’s mental software that molds sensations into multidimensional objects…

Kant didn’t agree with the second part, but he did with the first. From “The Critique of Pure Reason”

What, then, are space and time? Are they real existences? Are they only determinations or relations of things, yet such as would belong to things even if they were not intuited? Or are space and time such that they belong only to the form of intuition, and therefore to the subjective constitution of our mind, apart from which they could not be ascribed to anything whatsoever?


Space does not represent any property of things in themselves, nor does it represent them in their relation to one another. That is to say, space does not represent any determination that attaches to the objects themselves, and which remains even when abstraction has been made of all the subjective conditions of intuition. For no determinations, whether absolute or relative, can be intuited prior to the existence of the things to which they belong, and none, therefore, can be intuited a priori.


It is, therefore, solely from the human standpoint that we can speak of space, of extended things, etc. If we depart from the subjective condition under which alone we can have outer intuition, namely, liability to be affected by objects, the representation of space stands for nothing whatsoever.


With the sole exception of space there is no subjective representation, referring to something outer, which could be entitled [at once] objective [and] a priori. For there is no other subjective representation from which we can derive a priori synthetic propositions, as we can from intuition in space. Strictly speaking, therefore, these other representations have no ideality, although they agree with the representation of space in this respect, that they belong merely to the subjective constitution of our manner of sensibility, for instance, of sight, hearing, touch, as in the case of the sensations of colours, sounds, and heat, which, since they are mere sensations and not intuitions, do not of themselves yield knowledge of any object, least of all any a priori knowledge.

The above remark is intended only to guard anyone from supposing that the ideality of space as here asserted can be illustrated by examples so altogether insufficient as colours, taste, etc. For these cannot rightly be regarded as properties of things, but only as changes in the subject, changes which may, indeed, be different for different men. In such examples as these, that which originally is itself only appearance, for instance, a rose, is being treated by the empirical understanding as a thing in itself, which, nevertheless, in respect of its colour, can appear differently to every observer. The transcendental concept of appearances in space, on the other hand, is a critical reminder that nothing intuited in space is a thing in itself, that space is not a form inhering in things in themselves as their intrinsic property, that objects in themselves are quite unknown to us, and that what we call outer objects are nothing but mere representations of our sensibility, the form of which is space. The true correlate of sensibility, the thing in itself, is not known, and cannot be known, through these representations; and in experience no question is ever asked in regard to it.


[W]e deny to time all claim to absolute reality; that is to say, we deny that it belongs to things absolutely, as their condition or property, independently of any reference to the form of our sensible intuition; properties that belong to things in themselves can never be given to us through the senses. This, then, is what constitutes the transcendental ideality of time. What we mean by this phrase is that if we abstract from the subjective conditions of sensible intuition, time is nothing, and cannot be ascribed to objects in themselves (apart from their relation to our intuition) in the way either of subsistence or inherence.

I can’t take any such argument – that the universe is the product of our consciousness, that time and space are subjective in nature etc – at face value. Quantum mechanics, whatever it is supposed to mean, is increasingly becoming what can be termed as quantum mysticism. The existence of the universe is a fact. So is the existence of time and space.

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  • Varuna  On May 3, 2009 at 10:29 am

    There is, I think, a school of thought that believes physics and mysticism tend to overlap (Fritjof Capra?). Philosophy can only speculate and make you wonder, it cannot provide proofs. Which leaves you with so much that is mysterious at the end of the day. I wish I could be as certain as you that time and space do exist. But knowing my level of ignorance i always feel i must conclude that I don’t know.

    [I moved it here from the “Bankruptcy” post – ATG]

    • Aristotle The Geek  On May 3, 2009 at 2:14 pm

      I looked the name up, and yes he does seem to think that.

      Its not philosophy’s job to provide explanations of phenomena – that’s what science is for. Philosophy can only talk about human life, and what is to be done with it. And physics, or biology, or chemistry, cannot answer such questions, unless they somehow prove determinism (which is not possible in my opinion because “anything” I “choose” to do would be a result of determinism, “anything”). The problem as I see it is that the scientists often confuse hypotheses and theories with facts. I will quote King here-

      Propositions derived by inference from scientific data:

      Assumption – something accepted without proof. It is incorrect to speak of an assumption as either true or false, since there is no way of proving it to be either. (If there were, it would no longer be an assumption.) It is better to consider assumptions as either useful or useless, depending on whether or not deductions made from them lead to a firmer grasp of reality.

      Conjecture – a speculative idea which, although backed by little or no evidence, can serve as a guide for further investigation.

      Hypothesis – a tentative explanation backed by too little evidence to support a firm chain of cause-and-effect. One formulates a hypothesis being guided by one’s knowledge of fact. The hypothesis should explain the greatest number of, and/or the most fundamental, aspects of the phenomenon. Using the hypothesis, one next deduces how entities under certain conditions should act. Then, if one observes such action and, within the context of one’s knowledge can account for it only by the hypothesis which predicted it, it follows that the hypothesis has been confirmed. But because we are not omniscient, that same context of knowledge might give rise to other hypotheses. This is why we need the process of experimental confirmation.

      Theory – a working model supported by a preponderance of the evidence.

      Law – a description that has been found to be always invariable under the same conditions.


      Always remember this: the words “chance” and “random” do not really describe the world of Reality. What they do describe is the state of human knowledge. To be precise, they are terms that describe a state of human ignorance. When I say that an event happens by “mere chance” all I am really saying is that I do not precisely know what are the causal factors of that event. Personally, I would much rather admit to my own ignorance of the world than to invent, as an absolution for that ignorance, a Divinity to account for things I cannot yet explain.

      Heisenberg: “The laws of nature which we formulate mathematically in quantum theory deal no longer with the elementary particles themselves but with our knowledge of the particles.”

      Bohr: “We can understand quantum mechanics if we realize that science is not describing how nature is but rather expresses what we can say about nature.”

      As for certainty of existence of time and space, the fact that people are born, grow old and die, the fact that clocks work in a specific manner, the fact that people don’t walk off a cliff like they walk down a staircase etc is proof enough. Reality “is” the proof.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On May 3, 2009 at 2:24 pm

      Not directly related, but some introductory books on physics, calculus etc are available here.

  • Varuna  On May 3, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    I just meant that non-belief in god leaves many questions, such as the nature of existence, unanswered. There is therefore much that is mysterious and unknown. As you yourself admit:

    Personally, I would much rather admit to my own ignorance of the world than to invent, as an absolution for that ignorance, a Divinity to account for things I cannot yet explain.

    For those who believe in god things are so much simpler, don’t you think? Not that i envy such a state. To not know and yet to believe you know everything is the end of any kind of rational thinking.

    And thanks for the recommended reading on physics, but though i’ve tried that’s one subject that goes right over my head.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On May 3, 2009 at 9:04 pm

      # “I just meant that non-belief in god leaves many questions…”
      On God, follow this exchange between wgreen and me. I will reproduce a passage from Durant’s book-

      What [Herbert Spencer] finds at once is that every theory of the origin of the universe drives us into inconceivabilities. The atheist tries to think of a self-existent world, uncaused and without beginning; but we cannot conceive of anything beginning-less or uncaused. The theist merely puts back the difficulty by a step; and to the theologian who says, “God made the world,” the child’s unanswerable query comes, “Who made God?” All ultimate religious ideas are logically inconceivable.

      # “As you yourself admit…”
      I don’t mind admitting, or quoting King and then saying I agree, that its better to concede one’s ignorance and continue the search for truth rather than explain it away using God.

      # “For those who believe in god things are so much simpler, don’t you think? Not that i envy such a state.”
      There is this minor difference between really believing that God created the universe, and conceding defeat and using the supernatural as a means of covering up one’s ignorance. As for envy as regards a state of satisfaction, two names – Voltaire and JS Mill-

      It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinions, it is because they only know their side of the question.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On May 3, 2009 at 9:25 pm

      On not believing in God, as Spencer realized, the “first cause” doesn’t really explain things. I used to think about all this when I was a kid, beginning with infinity – “where does space end?” And I realized that it doesn’t. The universe expands into infinity. Even if you consider something like the Big Bang, what filled all this space before the bang happened? You simply cannot conceive of “empty” space. Thus the only thing that explains existence is existence itself – “it” has always been there. Other explanations can explain specific phenomena, the origin of life, the laws that govern the universe etc, but not existence. I will simply quote Branden from a comment on this post

      Existence is the first cause. The universe is the total of that which exists. Within the universe, the emergence of new entities can be explained in terms of the actions of entities that already exist. All actions presuppose the existence of entities. All causality presupposes the existence of something that acts as a cause. To demand a cause for all of existence is to demand a contradiction: if the cause exists, it is part of existence: if it does not exist, it cannot be a cause. Nothing cannot be the cause of something. Nothing does not exist. Nothing is not just another kind of something–it is nothing. Existence exists; you cannot go outside it, you cannot get under it, on top of it or behind it. Existence exists–and only existence exists; there is nowhere else to go. The universe did not begin–it did not, at some point in time, spring into being. Time is a measurement of motion. Motion presupposes entities that move. If nothing existed, there could be no time. Time is ‘in’ the universe; the universe is not ‘in’ time.

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