January/February 2015

Kant at the Bar: Transcendental Idealism in Daily Life

Written by Patrick Cannon

Patrick Cannon uses a popular sett ing to explain Kant's metaphysics.

It's Friday night and you're at the bar. It's packed. You snake through the sea of bodies.

"Ah! There's a free spot!" exclaims your friend, pointing to some stools across the counter. You part your way through a boisterous group of young women, sit down, and catch the bartender's eye. "Two beers, please," you say, holding up the peace sign.

"IDs please," she responds sceptically, holding her hand out.

"Uh!" You both harmonize, and dig through your wallets. She examines the two cards, carefully comparing each of you to your state-approved appearance. Finally, the incredulous bartender trades your IDs for two golden glasses of beer.
You toast your friend. You're glad the week is over; relieved you didn't finally throw your perpetually-jammed printer out the window. Taking a drink of the amber liquid, the carbonation tickles your mouth. There's a mild burn as you swallow. A group of men are playing pool in the next room, and billiard balls can be faintly heard cracking into one another through the ambient noise. A country song plays on the digital jukebox, but all that can be heard through the fogbank of conversation is a rhythmic drumming and a faint fiddle.

What you might not know is how much the moment is loaded with Kantian philosophy. Sitting at the bar, drinking a beer, thinking about the bartender who just carded you, are all perfect illustrations of Immanuel Kant's 'transcendental idealism'. For example, the bartender examining the correlation between you and your driver's license photo was wondering if the appearances laid before her - concerning both you and your ID - are an informative portrayal of reality. In other words, does either the appearance of you being over twentyone, or your ID saying that you are, genuinely reflect whether you are actually over twenty-one? In The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant was challenged with a similar question: 'Is appearance a reasonable reflection of reality?' He asked this on the way to answering the further question, 'Can we know what things are like beyond their appearance to us, that is, in and of themselves?' Kant is famous for concluding 'No' - that despite what we might think, there's very little we can know about what reality is like in and of itself, either from its appearance to us, or from any other source.

But what does this mean, 'reality in and of itself ?'

The word Kant uses for a thing in and of itself, is 'thing-initself ' ('ding-an-sich'); and the collective word for reality as it is in itself is 'noumenon', taken from the Greek word 'nous' roughly meaning 'intellect' or 'pure thought' or 'pure reason' (because Kant thinks what little we can know about it we can only know in terms of pure reason). This noumenal world is reality as it really is, divorced from or independent of our sense perceptions of it. Our sense perceptions of the world - the feeling of the cold glass in your hand, the taste of the beer, the smell of it as it nears your lips, the gold colour of the liquid - are referred to by Kant as 'phenomena'.

This way of dividing the world is both very interesting and very troubling. Take the mahogany bar counter before you. When you see the table, the dark topography of engrained lines, you experience phenomena, or sense experiences: colour, shape, sound when you set down your glass, and tactile feelings as you lean against it. While one may be inclined to believe one is simply experiencing the table as it is in and of itself that would be mistaken. These phenomena we experience are not the ultimate cause of the experience. For example, if I look up at the sky I can't change it from blue to pink just by thinking about it, which might be thought possible if all that existed were the experiences themselves. Instead, Kant was convinced that there was something beyond our immediate sensations causing these phenomena. There's something out there, insisted Kant, the source of these sense perceptions: something behind or beyond them called the noumenal world.

But aye, there's the rub. Kant maintained that although there is a noumenal world that is the initial cause of our subjective (phenomenal) experience of the world, we can never access that world directly. What then can we know directly? Kant thought that all we could know directly were our phenomena. But there's more to experience and reality than this. He maintained that the world as experienced is the product of a 'Matrix'.

Our Minds are the Matrix

In the first Matrix film (1999), Morpheus tells Neo, "If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain." Kant didn't believe in any robotic conspiracies to systematically delude humanity. Instead, Kant takes a position which I believe is just as striking: for him, our minds are the Matrix. This idea is at the heart of Kant's philosophy, and he called this position transcendental idealism. That is to say, the mind has structures which impose structure on the data our senses receive from the world, and so actually create our worlds in certain ways. These mental structures organize all our diverse sense data into experiential context for us, turning the physical data our senses receive from the world into our experienced sense perceptions of the world.

This means we're not perceiving or experiencing a pre-existing world. Rather, the structures of the mind are bringing forth phenomena, created as much by the workings of the mind as by (noumenal) reality, and thus the world as we experience it is dependent for its form upon the way the mind works.

The more you think about it, the more intuitive the idea of mind structuring the world we experience seems. For example, you get up to go to the bathroom, and on your way you see a painting of dogs playing poker. What are you really seeing? Paintings give the illusion of having 'organised meaning' - but in fact any painting, even da Vinci's Mona Lisa or van Gogh's The Starry Night, is just dots and streaks of colour smeared on canvas. Our minds apprehend these coloured blotches and make sense of them as images. And that's just the start of how our minds influence our experience. More radically, Kant thought that even time and space are aspects of our experience created by the mind, independent of reality in and of itself. Looking around the bar as you walk on, it's hard to see how this might be the case; but, then, how could we possibly organize our experience without the experiences being organized in space and time?

Take time. We all have something of a biological clock inside ticking away, allowing us to locate a given experience along a sequential continuum. Yet have too much beer and suddenly your psychological filter goes a little haywire, maybe everything seems to be on fast-forward; the girls next to you are waving their hands a little faster, and your friend's story about the dream they had last night is getting a little shorter (thank God). This experience is called 'temporal compression', and can be a very real first-hand experience when one ingests too much of a sedative like alcohol. Stimulants like caffeine or amphetamines can have the opposite effect, called 'temporal dilation', making it seem like the world has slowed down. The same holds for changes in body temperature. When your ambient body temperature is dramatically raised, say, in the case of a fever, it feels as if time is moving slowly. When exposed to extreme cold for long enough, it can feel like time is moving more quickly.

It would seem that Kant was right - time is indeed a subjective aspect of our experience.