What Does the Mind Tell Us About Mind-Independent Reality?

Immanuel Kant famously turned the empiricism-rationalism debate on its head by proposing that, instead of our mental representations of reality having to conform to objective reality, it is objective reality that must conform to our mental representations (if such objects are to be represented at all). Kant, of course, was steeped in ideas that the categories of understanding, which shape our experience of the external world, issue from some transcendental apperception – essentially a soul, or unique human rationality.

Although wrong on many details, I think it would be difficult to proffer a successful argument that our perception of reality isn’t at least in some way shaped by the peculiar form of our consciousness. Unlike Kant, though, I would make this argument from an evolutionary point of view.

Though, to be fair to Kant, he died before the theory of evolution was discovered. Interestingly, the very discovery of the theory could be applicable to Kant’s idea of the synthetic a priori – evidence of evolution was certainly available to people of Kant’s time, but it took Darwin to “discover” the mechanism of natural (and sexual) selection. Is the inferential movement from the disparate facts to an explanatory theory an instance of the synthetic a priori? Indeed, it almost seems analytic: organisms with features the confer on them better survival skills will survive.

Anyway, what I have in mind is the fact that, absent any sort of soul or unique human rationality separating humans eternally by an insurmountable gulf from other organisms, what can we say about how reality must conform to our minds, and what does this tell us about reality itself? We are, in fact, of the same “substance” as all other organisms, from the most humble bacterium to the greatest minds in human history, and what they all have in common is that they have been molded by the environment. Some aspects of the environment are transient – the day-to-day weather, and even the climate itself – but other aspects are eternal.

Examples of such (seeming) eternal features of our universe are some of the a priori categories identified by Kant: things like the spatiotemporality of the universe and cause-and-effect. Certainly, from an evolutionary point of view, being able to grasp such concepts must have conferred survival utility. Does that mean space, time, cause-and-effect, etc. are how the world exists in-itself, or are these concepts just incredibly useful tools that evolution came up with to aid in survival without actually corresponding to the way reality exists in-itself? Is it the case that perceiving and conceptualizing the world under such universal laws is some byproduct of a common ancestor of all organisms who operate under these concepts that, perhaps by mere chance, has not been superseded by some other way (whether more or less closely resembling reality in-itself) of navigating the world? Is it even possible to know anything outside of our umwelt?

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