Philosopher Immanuel Kant will forever be known as the great thinker who changed the philosophical environment forever, and yet he is often thought to have thrown his towel in with the empiricists because of his statement “All knowledge begins with experience” (Lawhead, 123). Kant’s theory also states that in order for there to be common knowledge, the mind must organize the intuitions (raw sensory data) in a universal manner, which indicates that all people receiving the same intuition will have an identical experience. Through modern technology, we now know that not all brains are identical and that the environment, memories, prior experiences, and era play a large role in our knowledge and our experiences. However, through neuroscience and brain imaging we also know that healthy brains process information or stimulus in the same way to create conscious knowledge or experiences. If Kant had the technology, psychological data, and scientific knowledge that we have today, his theory would be slightly changed and nearly indisputable.
Revising Kant’s entire philosophical theory using current scientific research and technology, though necessary could take philosophers months if not years of research and contemplation. Therefore, only a portion of Kant’s theory will be revised and updated to reflect modern scientific data. The focus of Kant’s theory of how information or intuition is processed can now be recorded via Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) which has provided the scientific community the ability o further the understanding of how the brain works. Portions of Kant’s theory will be revised to reflect cognitive neuroscience as evidence or enhancements.
According to Kant, our a priori knowledge rests in the brain and provides us with the ability or tools to construct an experience which is a posteriori knowledge. Modern psychologists in the field of cognitive neuroscience have spent decades trying to determine the underlying processes within the brain that occur before conscious activity. Psychologists refer to this as the unconscious or subconscious, but it is commonly known in philosophy as the mind. Having determined that the subconscious operates simultaneous to conscious processing, they termed this phenomenon as dual processing. Neuroscientist, Benjamin Libet, conducted an experiment using biofeedback technology which records brain activity of the subject while he or she is performing either a physical or mental task. In this experiment Libet noted that brain activity begins approximately 0.35 seconds before conscious experience of a decision. The action of the decision takes place 0.2 seconds after conscious thought (Meyers, 87-89). In relating these precognitive brain states to theory, Kant’s conviction that we do have synthetic a priori knowledge is true because it is independent of experience and is universal and necessary.
According to Libet’s findings a person’s subconscious mind is working 0.35 seconds before they are aware that they want to move their hand, which is a necessary precognitive state for conscious recognition; therefore he or she does not have conscious thought of this and will not have synthetic a posteriori knowledge until they become aware of wanting to move their hand. For example, a man is sitting on his porch and sees a brown dog across the street. He experiences a brown dog across the street after several neural processes take place. The brown dog is the stimulus or data that Kant refers to as the intuition. Intuition is “the object of the mind’s direct awareness” (Lawhead, 128) which is in fact occurring on an unconscious level. Brain activity begins before conscious awareness of the actual object. Processing the sensory perceptions of the brown dog (intuition) is known in the scientific community as sensory perception. The intuition or sensory perception is processed through neural transactions, or as Kant would say, it is first placed in the proper transcendent aesthetic (spatial temporal grid) and then it is placed into the category of understanding (knowledge or experiences of the item such as dog and brown). After the intuition has been placed in time and space and given labels, the mind then constructs the results into a conscious awareness. This is the phenomena or experience. According to both science and Kant, the data is first recognized on an unconscious level, interpreted and processed to form the experience: I see a brown dog across the street.
Many philosophers may have discarded a portion of Kant’s theory on metaphysics because he states that the noumena, described as things-in-themselves that exist outside our experience, cannot be true. If all we can experience is our mind’s construction of reality as it appears to us, then how can reality exist without our knowledge or experience? How do we know that noumena does exist if we cannot or have not experienced it? Kant’s argument is that we cannot have knowledge of something that we cannot construct into experience. Scientists have made remarkable discoveries in this area through fetal cognitive studies. Recent research of fetal heart rates in relation to cognition (conscious awareness) concludes that when a fetus hears its mother’s voice, the fetal heart rate increases whereas there is no response to a stranger’s voice. The increased heart rate indicates recognition which is only possible through conscious awareness (Kisilevsky, 64). If the mother is the noumena, and she sends out an intuition (the sound of her voice) the fetus has processed the sound of its mother’s voice and the result is the experience of the voice, which appears to the fetus as independent from the mother. The fetus cannot experience the mother in her entirety and is not aware that it resides within her body. Since the fetus does not have an awareness of its mother, but can have knowledge of her voice, then Kant is correct in his statement that we cannot know that which we cannot experience.
Furthermore, Kant states that “perception is empirical consciousness” which is exactly what the fetus experienced. It perceived a familiar sound with which it associates as a constant in its existence. Does this mean that an infant is aware of self? Because Kant’s purpose was to throw away poor philosophy and unite the truths of both the rationalists and the empiricists, he would most likely say yes. Kant did not disagree with the 17th century rationalist, Rene Descartes on the matter of existence of the self. Descartes was eager to rebuild philosophy on an archimedean point that states “I think, therefore I am” which is now a famous quote world-wide (Lawhead, 69). If a being has conscious thought, they must exist. Fetal twins are aware of each other and of their own comfort, so they must be aware of themselves. According to Kisilevsky, when monitoring fetal twins, it was noted that one of the fetuses was typically more assertive and dominant in the womb. At times the dominant or alpha fetus would force the passive or beta twin to move in order to provide more stretching room for the itself. If the alpha twin is not only aware of its own comfort, but also of its relation to spatial existence, then this evidence further supports Kant’s theory that transcendental aesthetics are in fact innate a priori knowledge that is necessary and universal.
Though the empirical evidence supports Kant’s theory on the noumena, conceptual system (Categories of understanding and Transcendental Aesthetics), the processing and existence of intuition into experience, and both synthetic a prior and a posteriori knowledge, one last basic theory remains to be proven as fact: every human mind is constructed the exact same way. Taking into account that not much was scientifically known about neuro-processing, Kant formed his theory about the brain based on what little scientific knowledge was available. Through science and brain imaging, we now know for a fact that most brains are physically constructed the same way. As noted by Christian Baumann, Kant theorized that the magnitude and relation between sensations and stimuli (neurological responses to stimuli) could be measured and recorded for scientific study. Kant’s astounding insight into the applied science of mathematical recording of brain activity is a branch of natural science now known as psychophysics which did not exist during Kant’s life. Kant wanted to measure brain activity, but the scientists and mathematicians of his era discarded Kant’s idea as impossible. His brain construction theory is so close to the truth, that if he had the information of modern science, he may have stated “Most healthy human brains are physically constructed in the same way; however, individuals interpret the intuition at variable rates and their previous synthetic a posteriori knowledge and phenomena may alter or influence new experiences.”
Unfortunately, Kant did not have access to our current scientific knowledge of the brain, biochemistry, or technology; however, his theories should not be discounted entirely or even partially as they were not only philosophically revolutionary for his time, but also because they have revolutionized natural science (Baumann, 2). Psychologists and neuroscientists are discovering more about the human brain every day and also seek to answer the question, how does it work? Kant was ahead of his time in revolutionary thought, and with the proper research, time, and dedication his theory can be given a new life with empirical evidence to prove his theory as truth. Though it may require “his” compromise on some issues, I think he would agree.
Baumann, Christian. “Kant And The Magnitude Of Sensation: A Neglected Prologue To Modern Psychophysics.” Journal Of The History Of The Neurosciences 17.1 (2008): 1-7. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 July 2012.
Kisilevsky, Barbara S., and Sylvia M. J. Hains. “Exploring The Relationship Between Fetal Heart Rate And Cognition.” Infant & Child Development 19.1 (2010): 60-75. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 July 2012.
Lawhead, William F. The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach. 5th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2011. Print.
Meyers, David G. Psychology 9th ed. New York: Worth Publishers, 2010. Print.