The German thinker Immanuel Kant is regarded by many to be the greatest thinker of modern philosophy. There are numerous introductions to Kant and his thinking available, a few of which I will list at the end of these thoughts. One of Kant’s many areas of thinking was on thinking itself. Kant introduced a concept into philosophy which he called transcendental idealism. This term is often intimidating to newcomers to philosophy, but the basic idea is not complicated. However, the implications of the idea are radical to our common experience of reality.
Transcendental idealism is the idea that the mind organizes sensory information, speculation, and memory in such a way that the the meaning transcends the individual ingredients of information. Think of it this way, a cake has separate ingredients that when ordered in a certain way become what we call a cake. Kant’s idealism could be thought of as ideaism -ideas construct our experience of reality. An example might help to understand this idea. We can have water droplets and sunshine, but the rainbow needs a conscious mind to become a “rainbow”.
One of the native features of the human mind, Kant said, was our tendency to organize information into causal relationships. This idea feels strange when we first encounter it. Attributing cause and effect to two events is how the mind is set-up to function. Most of the time the mind is right in establishing a relationship between two things, say smoke being caused by fire. The mind organizes this into a causal experience naturally, and it was of great benefit not only to our evolutionary ancestors, but also to modern humans. However, the relationships that exist between two events are not always related causally. Rain, sunlight, and an observing person do not cause the rainbow, they are interactions that manifest the process of the phenomenon we call a rainbow. More accurately, this is not a rainbow, but rather a rainbowing. We see process rather than object.
Idealism uncovered a way of seeing the world that emphasized process rather than object. The implications have been immense -and controversial. We could spend many years discussing the implications, but I would like to focus on an aspect of our everyday experience. The implications of this on our daily lives is monumental and will lead to a veering off into a new way of experiencing the world we live in.
Before we begin, I would like to clear-up any confusion that might take place between Kant’s Transcendental idealism, and R.W. Emerson’s New England Transcendentalism. Those of you who read my work know that I often refer to R. W. Emerson, so I would like to clear-up a common confusion from the start. Although Emerson was influenced by Kant, his transcendentalism is something different than what Kant was describing and what we are talking about here. For the sake of brevity, I would suggest thinking of Emerson’s transcendentalism as something that is more spiritual. It is a concept largely rooted in Hindu thought. Kant’s transcendental thought is more like contemporary cognitive psychology theory, in which sensory information (bottom-up processing) and mindful thought (top-down processing) combines to create reality.
Today we understand that how the human mind organizes experience varies between culture to culture, native languages, eras, and individuals. If anything, Kant’s radical idea (it caused an event in philosophy known as the Kantian split) was in fact more radical than he realized. The fact that we can find the idea occurring 2,500 years earlier in both Eastern and Pre-Socratic thought is a topic for another day! The point is this: Just as the heart pumps, he brain minds information into knowledge.
Take for example two assumptions we make about how we become who we are; this idea we call the self or me. Depending on one’s way-of-experiencing the world, how we become who we are is often broadly attributed to one of two causes: our upbringing and our genetics. Traditionally in psychology this is called the nature-nurture debate. Although most contemporary psychologists claim they do not take an either-or approach to this, it has been my experience that they do. Talking about 40% nature and 60% nurture is like talking about choice in the potato chip aisle at the supermarket. It still comes down to potato chips -or nature versus nurture- despite the apparent differences in packaging.
Some folks, and their professions not only follow but energize their way-of-thinking, see the biological determinism in everything. Addiction, sexual desires, moods, personality, and motivation are largely viewed in biological terms. These are the proponents of the four Fs way of seeing the world: we are driven by fighting, fleeing, feeding, & fornicating. In other words, all aspects of why we do what we do can be understood by survival or passing on our genes. We are largely expressing biological drives. This is one way of experiencing the world, and for those who choose this point of view, the world will concede. These individuals understand themselves and others as biological automatons, and their way-of-being in the world corresponds to this belief. The biological determinists point-of-view leads one to understand themselves and others in an evolutionary, biological, or neuroscientific way. Who am I? I am a function of my biology.
On the other hand we have the environmental determinists. These are people who believe that who we are is determined by how we were raised, our socioeconomic class, or our education. Ask this person how they became who they are and they will point to how they were parented (for better or worse) or how they are a product of which neighborhood they happened to grow-up in. The environmental determinist point-of-view leads one to understand the themselves and others in a sociological or social psychological way. Who am I? I am how and where I was raised and live.
How one comes to view themselves and others will largely determine which way-of-experiencing the world they will be drawn towards. Once they arrive at an understanding, they will often evidence to support their assumptions. Largely this leads to a kind stagnation that confirms their point-of-view. The argument between the nativists and the empiricists largely reinforces the either-or point of view, much like political parties. Evidence is a matter of point-or-view, as we saw in the People’s Choice Studies of the 1930s. These studies found that Democratic campaign ads reinforces the beliefs of Republicans. In other words, evidence compliments the ideology of the individual. The lesson here is to become aware of how our belief pre-establishes what we see in the world.
One such thinker did just this. Deeply invested in a biological determinism, William James found himself in a crisis. In his own words:
“I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the fist part of Renouvier’s second “Essais” and see no reason why his definition of free will–“the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts”–need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present–until next year– that is it no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will… Hitherto when I have felt like taking a free initiative, like daring to act originally, without carefully waiting for contemplation of the external world to determine all for me, suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into; now I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe it as well; believe in my own individual reality and creative power.”
What has happened in William James’ thought is monumental. So monumental that it changed his life forever. When James gave himself permission to believe in what he felt, namely that there was an option beyond determinism, he became free to experience and live as-if her were free. Once freed from the logic of biological and environmental determinism, he flourish in the logic of autonomous, volitional, free-will. What this means for us is as profound today as it was for James in the nineteenth century. In a culture in which we are lead to believe that who we are, what we are capable of, and how we act is determined by our upbringing, our income, or our biology, we are free to choose how to react to our past, our present, and our future. Free-will has practical consequences in how we live. Rather than becoming marionettes to genetics or circumstances, we choose how to react to our biological and environmental histories and circumstances. This is the ultimate act of free-will: to chose to believe in free-will. This is an empowering lesson that we can live by to transform how we understand ourselves, and how we manifest our lives in a creative process.