Immanuel Kant and the Noumenon

The Limits of Reason

Rational argument leads one to the conclusion both (1) that Time must have had a beginning and (2) that Time cannot have had a beginning.
Also (1) that Space must have a boundary, and (2) that it cannot have a boundary.
For when we try to imagine each wing of these contradictions, we find ourselves (at the same time) obliged to imagine its contradictory.
Rather similarly we find it equally possible to imagine (1) that we have Free Will, and (2) that we are causally determined.

Kant argues therefore that reason can lead us into contradictions. It is not therefore wholly to be trusted. Reality cannot wholly correspond to what reason tells us; and thus we cannot understand reality by the use of reason alone. We must therefore turn to experience.

The Limits of Experience

However, experience cannot provide certain knowledge of independent reality since (1) it cannot ever be confirmed that our sense-perceptions actually correspond in every detail to external objects. For we cannot step outside our own consciousness to check whether that consciousness is telling us ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ about external objects.
It is in any case clear that what our senses tell us about the objects around us is (at least to a large extent) relative to our senses. For example, the colours that we see in external objects are phenomena which are relative to our brain- and/or mind-processes.
Secondly (2) we cannot form any conception of objects independently of the categories of experience and thought, and all of these are subject-dependent. For instance, when I see any object, I see it as existing in time and space, as being of a certain colour, uttering certain sounds, smelling in a certain way, etc. In short I cannot see it independently of my mental conceptions and of my nervous system.

Our perception of the world is thus limited. Behind appearances therefore there must lie things which, by definition, could never figure in experience.

Among the things we cannot ever directly perceive, but which we assume exist, are the laws of causality. According to Kant (who received this insight from Hume) the causal connexion between events is a thing that we suppose on the basis of observation and experience, certainly, but which we can never observe. It too lies outside experience.
It must however be supposed; for without assuming causal laws we could not make sense of the world. Similarly, without assuming the reality of space and time, the world would make no sense to us.

There are thus features of the empirical world which we must necessarily assume, though these are neither observable nor logically deducible. But we have to presuppose them because we would not ‘understand ’ the world without them. Certain preconditions have to be met before there can be any experience at all; these preconditions are constitutive of experience. Brian Magee puts this particularly clearly:

If we think in terms of the metaphor of catching things in the network of experience, these are the meshes of our nets. Only what can be caught in them is available to us. Anything that passes through them untouched will not be picked up by us, and nor will whatever falls outside our nets altogether. Only what our nets catch will be ours, and only what they can catch can be ours.

Scientific law itself is in exactly the same position as ordinary experience. It is subject to the limitations of human understanding; it is obliged to work with such basic categories of the understanding as causality, time, space, the existence of objects, etc. Scientific law simply cannot step outside certain preconditions. It therefore cannot possibly assert its own immunity to the arguments of Kant. It is as much a human creation as any other aspect of the human world.

We find therefore that there are limits to our understanding: what our physical & mental equipment cannot mediate cannot be experienced by us. This does not imply that what our physical & mental equipment cannot mediate cannot exist. Far from it. That would be a logical fallacy obvious to the most down-to-earth common sense; though it is one which unfortunately most materialist philosophers fell into long ago.

On the contrary there are no grounds whatever for pretending that reality must conform to the narrow limits of what we human beings can understand, grasp or know. Indeed, the whole of the preceding argument shows that we must admit that, since there are visibly limits to our understanding, the universe must therefore contain a reality or realities outside the possibility of these being known by human beings.

This independent reality outside the possibility of experience is termed by Kant the noumenon. He names it this in opposition to the ordinary world of appearances or of phenomena. ‘Since all forms of experience are inevitably subject-dependent, therefore whatever the nature of independent reality may be, it must lie permanently outside all possibility of experience.’ For experience is an ‘interpreter’s translation’ of reality: whatever the ‘real reality’ may be, when we experience it, it has been transformed by our experiential apparatus into something which expresses it differently, approximately and/or partially.

The Five Ms

We attempt to overcome these problems by pooling our isolated experiences (our subjective perceptions) in negotiated collective agreements as to ‘What appears to be the case to most of us.’ We call these agreements ‘objectivity’ – though they are actually purely derivative and provisional. So-called ‘objective fact’, whether in science or in everyday life, derives entirely from a pooling of individual subjective experience. We elicit from these claims to ‘objectivity’ our notions of the Four Ms, namely matter, materialism, models and mechanism. These notions are often thought to constitute a total explanation of the world.

It will be seen that the alleged totality of this explanation is a Fifth M. I.e. a Mistake.

The Evolutionary Argument

It has sometimes been argued that we must know the nature of the world with some accuracy, since our evolutionary survival depends on it. However evolution will ensure only the minimum amount of knowledge (whether real or approximate) which suffices for survival. It cannot entail total knowledge.

Ultimate Reality and Free Will

Must we accept that there is indeed such an unknown as Kant’s noumenon? One of Kant’s most famous arguments is as follows. We do (most of us) have moral concepts which we do (most of the time) regard as meaningful. But for the application of these concepts to be practicable, such terms as ‘right, wrong, fairness, duty, ought, should not, choice, integrity, honesty’ need to be meaningful. But for them to be meaningful, we human beings need to possess Free Will.

Unfortunately, if determinist philosophers are right, there is no such thing as Free Will. Everything (they say) is controlled by the blind forces of causality which, if you trace them far enough, will reach right back to the Big Bang. And those things which are not controlled by blind causality are the result of equally blind chance. Such materialist philosophers (and also certain materialist scientists) believe that we human beings are simply mechanical objects of an extraordinarily complex kind, and hence we must be subject to the universal scientific laws of causality. Our belief that we have Free Will is simply a prescientific delusion. I call this stance “vimfortism” (from the Latin vim = by force, and forte = by chance

But, says Kant, “Ought implies can.’ In short, unless we can act autonomously, our feeling that we ought to has no explanation. If it is impossible for me to act as I know I should, all morality is false.

Some determinists go so far as to say that, yes indeed, morality is meaningless. But do they act like that? Do they in fact disregard all fairness and justice; do they transgress all notions of morality, value or compassion? Has any of them ever faced up to what such behaviour would entail? Of how others would begin to treat them if they did behave in this way? Of how they themselves would begin to bitterly complain of ‘injustice’ and of ‘being unfairly treated’, and would appeal in short to precisely those values whose existence (in their comfortable lecture halls) they deny!

We must conclude that the determinists refute themselves. We must assert that ‘Ought’ does imply ‘Can’. Moral values must be real; and our ability to act morally must be real too.

This carries with it a devastating conclusion. Neither moral values nor Free Will can be explicable materially. They must lie quite outside the mechanically functioning laws of nature,’ i.e. outside vimfortism. It follows that some part of the normal human being lies, not inside the empirical world, but outside it. ‘In this way … the fact of the existence of a transcendental realm, a part of reality that is not the empirical world, is rationally demonstrable, and is therefore known by us with certainty.’

We thus find a part of the noumenon present in ourselves.

What lies in the Noumenon?

Free Will is intimately connected with consciousness. And since materialist explanations of consciousness fail, consciousness itself must also be part of the noumenon. What else, however, lies in the noumenon cannot be known, since it is outside our ability to experience it. We cannot know whether there is a God, or whether there is life after death. But equally we cannot know that there is not a God, or that we don’t have life after death. Both the position of the believer and of the atheist are equally a matter of faith or trust.

It is however evident, from the fact that (if you start from materialist and rationalist principles) Free Will is inexplicable, that the transcendental realm of the noumenon must be held to contain / constitute / possess certain attributes of a non-material and spiritual reality. The remarkable insights of Kant thus provide powerful support for an anti-materialist philosophy.


Guyer, Paul (1992) ed. Cambridge Companion to Kant, CUP. Cambridge & New
Magee, Brian (1997) Confessions of a Philosopher, Weidenfeld, London



[“Css” = consciousness]

Is it possible we might survive death? To hazard an answer to this question we shall start with the most fundamental (and traditionally impossible) question of all.


Why is there anything rather than nothing?

As Robert Nozick reports, his daughter Emily, then aged 12, suggested the following: something cannot be created from nothing. Therefore something is the natural state.

I would add to this luminous insight the fact that consciousness cannot be created from unconsciousness, i.e. css cannot be created from matter. Consciousness is therefore the kind of something which is the natural state.

It logically follows from this that the Universe was created by a Consciousness.

It will be asked what created that Css, and then in turn what created that? But this question in fact will not do. We cannot have an infinite regression backwards in time, since in the real world (as opposed to the theoretical world of mathematics) completed infinities are impossible. (This is because the very definition of “infinity” means that an infinity cannot be complete or completed.) Time will therefore have been created at the same moment as the Universe itself. (In fact this is the orthodox contemporary view among scientists.)

This means therefore that at the beginning of things, “before” or rather “outside” the creation of Time itself, there was a “self-caused Mind”, “ens causa sui”, or the fact that explains itself. I would suggest that this “fact that explains itself” is the pure fact of css. The beginning of everything, or rather the stable eternal fact, is Mind.


If this is accepted, then it follows that the Universe exists because of css. It is either there so that css can be there, or it is there because css has created it.

And indeed we do need to suppose a Creator. For, as a famous calculation of Roger Penrose points out, the odds against the Universe being created by chance are so huge as to make such chance creation inconceivable.

We have found a purpose to the U. That purpose is the existence of a conscious Being or beings. There is good reason therefore to hope for our survival.


“Where” is css? And “when” is css? It is always here and now. We have customarily got this question upside down, for css is the locator, not the located. The events of life occur inside the space of phenomenal css.

The Upanishads’ “second bird” (the css that watches, not the phenomenal css that feeds, enjoys, sings, has sex) is, “at the back of” phenomenal surface css, the deep css which quietly and changelessly observes the passage of time. If you sit quietly enough you can (almost) feel it.

There is thus phenomenal css which lives through the everyday affairs of life; and deep css hidden (some say invisibly) within it.

Time is unlike other dimensions in that it is incomplete. For one can move only forwards in time, not to and fro as in the other three dimensions. Phenomenal css, we may speculate, is the result of the dimension of time having had one of its halves removed, thus causing the forward movement of time. Since deep css sits and watches changelessly, we presume that the latter is complete, i.e. still possesses both halves of its dimensionality. This is why it continues changelessly, and is recognizably the same when I am 78 as when I was 7.

Note the importance of css from a cosmological point of view. It is entangled with, and very likely causes, the forward movement of time.

We might speculate that deep css is “set back” in the Quantum Vacuum, from which phenomenal css drives time in the World. Certainly it feels as if our css is set back from the World, gazing as it were from one room into another through a false mirror. In short the world resembles a virtual reality. If it is a virtual reality, then clearly when death comes we survive the world.

However, if the phenomenal world is “inside” our csses, then the phenomenal Universe is presumably “inside” a total css which we might term that of “God”.


Materialism is the belief that there is nothing apart from what we apprehend with our senses. (Should one seriously believe something both so arrogant and so narrow?)

We may compare the brain to a television set, whose workings we can carefully examine and work out just how it works. But none of this will tell us anything about the programmes which are broadcast to the set. Similarly even an exhaustive knowledge of the machinery of the brain is not going to tell you anything about the phenomenal life of css.

We must reject materialism. It would be strange if css were created by matter, since matter is a set of appearances, and the phenomenal field is what creates the appearances of matter, namely the way we “see”, “touch” or hear” it via our physical senses. Whatever matter may “really” be, our css is shut out from, as in the series of paintings by Magritte entitled The Human Condition – in which the reality of a scene is concealed by one’s own picture of it.

Matter and css are connected through their mutual opposition. Css is percipere, matter is percipi. Css entirely and solely perceives and cannot be perceived, matter is entirely and solely perceived and cannot perceive. Neither shares any of the features that the other has. This is their definition. Css is therefore entirely active, matter is entirely passive. It follows that matter is locked into its own unconscious nature as matter. It must be a creation not a creator, and bears the same relation to css as the dream does to the dreamer. It is css which is the creator.

Apart from their obvious contradictoriness, or rather complementarity, the nature of the connexion between css and matter, as between mind and brain, is unknown. It obviously cannot be known – or at least cannot be known in a scientific way. This is because of the inaccessibility of css to investigation of the scientific sort. One should compare the impossibility of observing Free Will at work, or of understanding its workings rationally.

Css’s whole nature is that it perceives but cannot be perceived, whereas matter’s whole nature is that it can be perceived but is incapable of perceiving. Css is an impregnable castle. Not only is it impossible to look into anyone else’s css, but even if one could do so, then one would still be seeing what is going on in that css “through one’s own eyes”: in other words one would not be seeing through their eyes after all. Thus, not only can css not be stepped into from outside; equally css cannot step into either css or matter from outside.

These appear to be metaphysical restrictions embedded in the nature of things; and it is no good scientists, however ingenious, imagining that we can get round them. Particularly since css, being of the nature of the observer not of the observed, cannot be observed (except to a very limited extent indirectly).

As I mentioned above, the nature of the connexion between mind and body is unknown and, I assume, unknowable scientifically – though this does not exclude philosophical theories. However, there can be no doubt that there is such a connexion: every minute of every hour we experience our bodies responding to the commands of our minds, and our minds responding to the messages of our senses. This is known practically; to deny it is absurd.

Materialist science nowadays asserts (as its presuppositions demand of it) that css “must” be the product of physical processes. However, this is impossible. For how can css arise from what is, by definition, incapable of css? Since matter possesses none of the qualities of css, it is logically impossible that css can be derived from it. In fact – as one can quite easily find out by trying — it is impossible to imagine how anything conscious could be “manufactured” out of unconscious ingredients. Feedback is sometimes suggested as a model. However, this plainly won’t do, because the issue is not feedback, but consciousness of feedback.


Css is thus (1) interlocked with one of the four basic dimensions of the U, namely time. It
(2) is the opposite / inverse of matter;
(3) cannot be created by matter;
(4) must therefore either have been created independently of matter
or be an eternal denizen of the Universe.
But if it were created independently, as it were, out of some material the opposite of matter –then what would that substance be? It would be css. Thus css must indeed be an eternal denizen of the U.


Moreover matter is an affair of temporary appearances;
Whereas phenomenal css is involved with passing time, and “drives” it; deep css seems to be in harmony with permanent, still, eternal time.

Note that css is sometimes described as “ghost-like”, resembling gossamer, or a faint breeze – as if it had nothing “solid”, “substantial” about it. But no, this is delusory. Where do the experiences of “solidity”, “substantiality” originate? In the senses, i.e. in the qualia, the fundamental data of consciousness itself. It is the senses which give us the experiences of solidity and substance– the reason we think the world to be full of solid, sharp, uncomfortable things, so “unlike” our csses!

Actually therefore the whole opinion that we need a special explanation how “solid matter” could interact with “ghostly awareness” rests upon a failure to see that awareness is the solid thing, and matter the ghost. Of course phenomenal css can be conscious of matter, for it’s what phenomenal css does and is for. (As for seeing how it’s done, we’re not going to be able to do that, because css cannot be entered into from outside, as I observed above.)


Since css cannot be created by matter, it cannot have been created at our births but, as Wordsworth famously says in “Intimations of Immortality”, bequeathed to us from another world. But this is a misleading way to put it. We are our css, we therefore came from this other world. But if css cannot be created by matter, then it cannot be destroyed by matter, and it is impossible that in themselves the decay, collapse and death of the physical body could affect the survival of the soul.

“Death” is after all the collapse of physical processes, i.e. it is an affair of matter not mind. It’s true that towards the ends of their lives people often “lose their minds”. But this is surely a physical thing: css is cut off by physical deterioration from brain activities such as vision, hearing, short term memory, etc. It’s like the machine breaking down while the activator of the machine sits helpless and frustrated.


Why are we ignorant about these matters?

Kant very convincingly argued as follows. We have not been given certainty about an afterlife, God, etc, because that would lead to our bribing and flattering God in the hope of reward, rather than working out a sincere moral path for ourselves. For the same reason we must not be provided by religion with a ready-made set of “commandments”; for then we might act only so as to benefit ourselves. It is morally necessary for us to be uncertain about life after death.

VIII: Conclusion

Nonetheless the arguments are powerful; and there is therefore a strong likelihood that our css continues after death, though in quite what manner it is impossible (from this side of that dark curtain) to see.



Hofstadter, Douglas (2007) I am a Strange Loop, Basic Books, New York
Martin, Graham Dunstan (2005) Does It Matter? Floris, Edinburgh
Nozick, Robert (1984) Philosophical Explanations, OUP. Oxford
Penrose, Roger (1989) The Emperor’s New Mind, OUP. Oxford & NY


Of God & Science

Finite absolutes are dangerous. Only infinite ones might possibly do. (GDM)

Once you adopt an ideology, you have placed a screen between yourself and what you claim to be observing. (GDM)

First Lunatic: ‘God spoke to me!’
Second Lunatic: ‘I did no such thing!’
(Idries Shah, Learning How to Learn, p 152)

The condition of my hearing what you say, is that you hear what I say. All human communication rests upon this, and thus the one who first refuses to listen is the aggressor. (GDM)

‘Surely you don’t believe in horseshoes, Professor Pauli.’
‘Of course not. What a silly idea. But I’m told that horseshoes bring you luck even if you don’t believe in them.’

‘Logically, a scientific theory should never be believed. It is best regarded as a sophisticated statement of ignorance, a way of formulating possible ideas so that they can be tested, rather than an attempted statement of final truth.’ Donald Hebb 1972, p 4.

‘There’s a cynical saying in science. A professor’s eminence is measured by how long he’s held up progress in his field.’ (Liz Jensen, The Rapture, p 87.)

‘No position is so absurd that a philosopher cannot be found to argue for it.’ (Michael Lockwood)

‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.’ (Upton Sinclair)

‘Not everything that counts can be counted; not everything that can be counted counts.’ (Einstein)

Let us beware of the word ‘scientific’ on the lips of a materialist philosopher. It is treacherous ground. It is designed (like a bog in the Scottish Highlands) to suck your boots off you. (GDM)

G.K.Chesterton: ‘If ordinary men may not discuss existence, why should they be asked to conduct it?’

‘Anyone who isn’t confused, really doesn’t understand the situation.’ (Ed Murrow)

New Scientist, Christmas 1997, (p 100) suggested that an important headline to be hoped for in 1998 was ‘Found! The gene that causes belief in genetic determinism.’

Samuel Johnson: ‘Prejudice, not being founded on reason, cannot be removed by argument.’

Goethe: ‘Everyone hears only what he understands.’

Schopenhauer: ‘The great majority of people are not capable of thinking but only of believing.’

Edward Sheldrick: ‘Most people desire eternal life, without knowing how to get through the rest of the weekend.’

William Blake: ‘What is now proved was once only imagined.’

Is there a God? John C. Lennox agrees there are no fairies at the bottom of gardens. But there’s always a gardener. (God’s Undertaker, 2007, p 39.)

Paul Valéry: ‘Ce qui a été cru partout, toujours, par tous, a toutes les chances d’être faux.’ (What has been believed for ever, everywhere, by everyone, has every likelihood of being wrong.)

Susan Greenfield, scientist, in the Independent on Sunday, 4 Aug 96: ‘If computers cannot feel, they cannot think.’

Hippocrates: ‘Life is short, art is long, opportunity is fugitive, experience is delusive, judgment is difficult.’ (ο βιος βραχυς η δε τεχνη μακρη ο δε καιρος οξυς η δε πειρα σφαλερη η δε κρισις χαλεπη)

The reason why X’s work has never been taken seriously is that X speaks plain English. This makes it impossible for academic chair-climbers to take his stuff away and turn it into mystification.

Fundamentalism derives from a misunderstanding as to the nature of language. Fundamentalists think that language represents reality clearly, completely and without ambiguity. So no fundamentalist understands the language he speaks. And therefore he cannot understand his own Sacred Book

Michel Serres: ‘Le clair qui n’avoue pas son ombre est une tromperie.’ (The light which won’t admit its shadow is a deception.)

C.P. Snow: The Two Cultures, C.U.P. 1993, ed. Collini: p 65:
‘The number two is a very dangerous number [...] Attempts to divide anything into two ought to be regarded with much suspicion.’

Novalis: ‘In reality we live inside an animal of which we are the parasites. The constitution of this animal determines ours and vice-versa.’

Of Poetry & People

What is poetry? Think of the needles used to measure an earthquake which happens in China on the other side of the Globe. That is what language is about. (GDM)

Patience (Definition by Ambrose Bierce): ‘A form of mild despair, misinterpreted as a virtue.’

Gordon MacGregor: ‘At what tipping point, we must ask ourselves, does everything become forbidden except that which is compulsory?’

‘There is no way in which two persons may meet in this world of men: we can but exchange, from afar, despairing friendly signals, in the sure knowledge they will be misinterpreted.’ (Cabell, Figures of Earth, p 121.)

David Kidd, quoted in Alex Kerr Lost Japan: “Humour is one of the four pillars of the Universe. I forget what the other three are.”

Note also: the Japanese distinction, quoted on p 99 of Alex Kerr, between tatamae and honne. The former means your officially expressed view. The latter means your actually held opinion. The former means what everybody says is true but which everybody knows to be untrue. The latter means what nobody says but which everybody knows to be true. Clearly, the Japanese have understood.

The word ‘elitist’ simply means someone who thinks some things are better than others. Now, everybody thinks this. The reason why people object to elitists is that they can tell you why.

If the only thing that makes you laugh is jokes, then you don’t have a sense of humour.

An idea that is not dangerous is not worthy of being called an idea at all.
(Oscar Wilde: The Critic as Artist)
When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong. (ibidem)

Sandy McCall Smith: ‘In Mma Ramotse, nothing happens. But this is a great relief, since in the real world far too much happens.’