The Critique of Pure Reason (1781) by Kant, the central text of modern philosophy, contains one of the most famous passages of philosophy ever written by anyone anywhere, known as the Antinomies. In this passage, which covers a few pages, Kant aligns four propositions of metaphysics and shows how each cancels the meaning of the other, and each presupposes the proposition of the other, which is to say in plain language: you can’t have this without that. An example is theism and atheism. You cannot have one without the other. If you can say “There is a God” you can also say “there is not a God” and so on for every proposition on either side of the equation. To start with, you cannot logically assert one side of the equation without presupposing the other.

One might object and say this is not a matter of language and logic, but of which proposition is aligned with the fact of the matter: either there is a God or there is not a God. Either one or the other must be the case. This does not dispense with logic though, because it is a hypothetical proposition and subject to the laws of language that govern such propositions.

Kant’s point in the Antinomies is that both positions – both sides of the equation – can be necessarily rationally justified.

This is the problem with the TV debates that have been so popular in the United States and have boiled over into the U.K and Australia. But Kant’s point in the Antinomies is something that either side of the equation in the media debates have not realized. The “debate” is matching on either side because at the level of reason – the level at which the debate is carried out – the arguments are necessarily equal to each other, because they are equivalent. They are essentially the same thing carried out from two points of view. It is not actually a debate, but the simulation of one.

God exists is a sophistical assertion. God does not exist is a sophistical assertion. A sophistical assertion is an assertion made on a pure rational basis, which is to say an unconditional basis, for experience is always conditional. “Nevertheless,” Kant says, “these ideas are not arbitrary fictions, but reason, in a continuous progress of empirical synthesis, is necessarily led to them whenever it wants to free from all conditions and comprehend, in its uncontained totality, what according to the rules of experience can always be determined only conditionally.” (p.419 Penguin Tr.)

In other words, yes, whether there is a God or there is not a God is a problem of reason. But the problem is beyond the limits of reason, outside the sphere of reason, irreducible to the terms of reason on either side of the equation. And the criteria that apply when we discuss something within reason, such as whether the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square on other two sides, which we can apply to the examination of triangular objects, or in the abstract to the idea of a triangle, because at least there is an empirical correlate, does not apply when, as Kant says, the assertions are divested of everything empirical. For God is not an empirical datum, not a being among beings, not an idea, and moreover, Kant would say, “existence” is not a predicate.

The high profile and entertaining media events between atheists and theists is a bartering in pure reason from either side that no side can hope to win.

Linguistically, “God” is not the name of a thing. God is not the name of nothing. God is more like a black hole in language. A hole we try to fill with ideas or leave as is. For both theists and atheists the letters G-o-d are there. The capital G is acceptable on both sides, so neither side is talking about the letters g-o-d. An empty sense can persist that both sides are talking about the same “thing.” The talk itself and the whole staged situation conjures the illusion that something is up for discussion and that argument will be decisive.

Kant’s point is that reason and argument are useless, but that makes room for faith. Faith is a stance. The reasons faith may give are theological, not logical in the purely rational sense – which is not to mean they are therefore irrational, which would be to jump to conclusions. The logic of theologic is a particular idiom that only make sense within the spectrum defined by the faith stance. The logic of pure reason is limited, Kant showed 200 years ago, to the domain of knowledge, which begins with experience. Theology has not to do with knowledge, but with faith, hope and love – particularly the latter. Reason, Kant said, has “glittering pretensions” by which it extends itself beyond its domain for the reason that “it is always troubled by questions which it cannot ignore because they are prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, and which it cannot answer because they transcend the powers of human reason.” (Preface to the First Edition. Para.1. my italic) This is the double-bind of reason, the irony governing reasoning, and the paradox of reason.

The atheist/theist dispute is one such extension into the domain of this paradox.


Author: Matthew Del Nevo