Kant and Neuroscience

Neuroscience is a significant subject in recent times. Psychoanalysis began with Charcot and Freud in the late 19th and early 20th century; these studies gave rise to the desire for a biological explanation of psychological phenomena. The philosophy of mind rose with that in mind – i.e. with figures like Searle, Dennett, Chalmers, etc.. Neurobiology has taught humans much about how the mind works and its essential functions, but much of what individuals have learned has been speculation and predicted many, many years before by philosophers and reiterated in the rise of psychoanalysis in Freud and Charcot. The unconscious, the part of a human’s psyche that controls the ‘id’ drives but will never allow itself to fully manifest is something that Freud initially discovered and is affirmed by neuroscientists of today.

One of the most interesting things humans have learned in the discipline of neuroscience is about narratives. A series of visual representations is presented to the eye. Neurons travel through the eye, past the optic nerve, to the thalamus (the portion of the brain that sits between the eyes), and then back toward the visual cortex (which is located at the back side of the brain). This is all known by the most common of persons and does not take much more than undivided observation. The most interesting part about this, though, is that for about every synapse moving in the direction of the visual cortex at the backside of the brain, there are ten times as many moving in the opposite direction. visual system

This may seem confusing at first, but not after careful study. This piece of information means that every human brain is creating a self-styled narrative for itself and only acquiring little pieces of information from the actual visual perception through the eyes. Heidegger spends a good chunk of time on this same problem – someone who is from suburban America will see a lectern differently than a native of an African tribe – each attempting to contextualize it with their former schemes of the world. The suburban living American may see the lectern for what its intended purpose was – a place for a professor to stand behind, to keep their notes and provide a lecture. A native of the African tribe may see it as anything (I myself have difficulty because I have already fallen into the problem of contextualizing for myself) – for example something to stand on in order to speak to various others in a crowd (albeit ineffectively at that). It all depends on the cultural context of what something is ready-to-hand (Heidegger’s term).

Kant is sometimes thought of as the first philosopher of mind. He was theorizing about the mind and its interaction with the world outside of itself long before neuroscientists were (due to technology). Though he was blamed by Hegel for creating a philosophy of mind rather than a phenomenology of mind – this is actually exactly what Kant did. Kant split his opus, the Critique of Pure Reason into two sections – the Transcendental Analytic and Dialectic. The Analytic holds to its subject matter in the analysis of the faculties of the mind (if that is not evident enough). How the intuition gives representations taken from the senses to the understanding which in turn synthesizes those into concepts to then be synthesized once more by reason into principles. The Dialectic portion gets more expansive. It deals with paralogisms, antinomies and ideals (psychology, cosmology, and theology respectively). Basically, what pure reason can know epistemologically based on the Analytic – the conditioned unto the unconditioned.

Leaving aside the Dialectic for now, the categories are the famous theory hypothesized in the Analytic. Purposely taking the same name as Aristotle, these categories are twelve in number and create the conditions for the possibility of experience. It was David Hume’s famous argument against causality that woke Kant from his ‘dogmatic slumbers’ and is partially the reason for these categories (to sum up, Hume’s argument goes like this: human cannot deduce what something will cause merely by examining it – the person with perfect reason, the epitome of reason, would never be able to tell that fire is hot until it is experienced. Experience must then be held as supreme with regard to causation. The ground of a human’s idea of causation is based on habit and custom, and at that point is mere probability – constant conjunction to use Humean terms – it can never be certain).

Not to get too deeply into Kant’s attempted answer (which is not the point of this essay), he reverses the order of the form that Hume uses in his argument. Causality for Kant is a category, a pure concept of the understanding, and that means that it gives the possibility of experience before experience itself – a priori. Hume attempted to derive the pure concept of the understanding from experience, while Kant creates the category (or simply discovers it) for it – meaning causality is giving ground for the A to B causal connection – thus the reverse. The point of this paper, though, lies not in the explanation of philosophers arguing about causality or anything else for that matter. It is about how to tie philosophy with neuroscience if such a connection can exist – specifically with the categories.

To bring a cliché from Einstein, “logic will get you from A to B, imagination will take you everywhere.” In this case, and more generally, it is my contention that science plays the part of logic in this equation, philosophy with imagination. Exhibited in this example, Kant is attempting to answer the ‘what,’ while neuroscience the ‘how.’ Our brains are creating a narrative for context and humans are using visual perceptions to feed that. Kant is saying, without knowing it, that our brains, our visual systems are sending the neurons to create this narrative and to give the possibility for everything outside of our mind to occur. In a way he is theorizing with meticulousness about the answer to the question of what is exactly going on in the synapses from visual cortex to optic nerves. Philosophy has been doing this ever since it originated – describing and hypothesizing about worldly (and sometimes, un- worldly) mysteries with analysis, rigor and imagination. Science is equally helpful in making empirical determinations, but philosophy plays an important role in the imaginative side of things, phenomena that cannot be answered with science.

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