Ignorance is Bliss

I

“I know nothing” – thus sayeth Manuel, the waiter in Fawlty Towers. This is the greatest wisdom. He must have been familiar with the great philosophers, and particularly Kant. So to unwind this story I need to very briefly relate Kant’s revolutionary revelation that we do not know reality.

Our everyday experience takes place in space and time. These are constructs used by our minds to create a picture of reality, but they do not constitute reality itself. We dream in space and time – a fairly good indicator that these are constructs of mind. We also see the world as a chain of cause and effect – another construct of our mind. And we see the word as composed of stuff – yet another construct. Of course this is just hearsay until you have wrestled with The Critique of Pure Reason.

Here is what Kant has to say about space:

By means of outer sense (a property of our mind) we present objects as outside us, and present them one and all in space.

This sentence would take a whole article on its own to unwind, but the important parts are “a property of our mind” and the word “presents”. Space is a property of our mind and the mind represents things in space. But as Kant states explicitly elsewhere, space is not a feature of reality.

The truly disturbing thing about this is that we represent our own bodies in space. We only have a representation of our body – we do not know what the body is in reality.

The story becomes even more surreal when we consider time. Here is what Kant says about time:

By means of inner sense the mind intuits itself, or its inner state. Although inner sense provides no intuition of the soul itself as an object, yet there is a determinate form under which alone [as condition] we can intuit the soul’s inner state. [That form is time.]

Again, it would take too long to fully unwind this, but time is also a construct the mind uses to form a picture of reality. However we not only perceive the external world in time, we also perceive our internal world. Thoughts follow one after the other – in time. But time is a construct of the mind, and so this claim by Kant leads to some fairly startling conclusions. Since time is not a property of reality there is no birth and death. This does not negate the fact that our representation of reality includes birth and death, but reality itself is not within time and so birth and death are unknown to it. If you want scientific validation of the fact that time and space belong to the observer you need go no further than Einstein’s relativity – time and space are different for different observers.

The bottom line in all of this is that we do not know what we are. And even this statement assumes we are a “thing”, although no such assumption can be made. Depending on your mindset this is either liberating or depressing. This is why “ignorance is bliss”. One of Kant’s aims is to free us from our pretension to know things we cannot know, because our common experience is bounded by the structure of our minds.

This is the reason I personally have little time for the religious bigot and the secular bigots who claim to know what we are and what death of the body means. Out of the two the secular bigot who claims that death of the body is the end of the matter is most to be pitied.

By MB

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