In the “Critique of Pure Reason,” Immanuel Kant writes that “all the interests of my reason,” theoretical as well as practical, boil down to just three questions: “What can I know?” “What ought I do?” and “What can I hope for?” In these three questions, Kant delineated the whole scope of philosophical thought. (h/t to Tom Whyman for reminding me of this)
I don’t fancy myself a Kant, and in fact, I never warmed up to that particular philosopher, as brilliant and influential as he undoubtedly was. But when I encounter something like the above I can’t help but looking at it as a challenge to clarify and sharpen my own thoughts. So here we go.
I. What can I know?
These days, a lot. Being lucky enough to be alive during the first part of the 21st century, I have access to technology that rapidly puts at my fingertips a vast reservoir of knowledge and insights accumulated across human cultures of the past several millennia.
My primary sources are science and philosophy. Science provides me with the best factual understanding of the world that is available to humankind, and philosophy gives me the thinking tools I need to make sense of what science puts at my disposal, both in terms of fitting scientific knowledge into the fabric of human life and in terms of applying such knowledge to my own personal experience and problems.
For instance, I am writing in the middle of the covid pandemic. Science tells me the basics of what I need to know about the nature of pandemics, of viral infections, of immune responses, and so forth. Philosophy helps me put the very notion of a pandemic in context, as plenty of other human beings have gone through plagues before, and plenty more will in the future. Philosophy also reminds me that I have inner resources that allow me to deal with the global setback, and that I should appreciate the fact that I’m amongst the lucky (so far).
The range of things I can know, of course, is not limited to science and philosophy. I have access to huge libraries of works of literature, for instance, as well as of history. I can go — virtually or in person — to countless museums of art around the planet. And I can listen to the best music humanity has produced, sometimes by attending live performances, at any time by turning on my Spotify app on my smartphone.
In other words, there is a huge amount — across a variety of fields and interests — that I can know. More, in fact, than the majority of human beings that have every lived. At the same time, philosophy also reminds me that my ignorance is still tremendously vast. As Newton put it:
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. (Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, 1855, by Sir David Brewster, volume II, ch. 27)
So it’s a good idea not to get too cocky. Hubris is an ugly and unbecoming thing to behold.
II. What ought I do?
Knowledge, Francis Bacon said, is power (Sacred Meditations, 1597). And as Spider-Man added, with great power come great responsibilities. Given that, as a denizen of the 21st century, I have access to a lot of knowledge, and given that I’ve been lucky enough in my life so far in several respects — including health and access to resources — I think I have an ethical duty to put such knowledge to good use.
This means, at a minimum, using my scientific and philosophical understanding in order to live a good and ethical life, as well as to help out my relatives and friends. I also consider part of that duty to teach others to the best of my abilities. Which partially explains my career as an academic, the importance I put on teaching my students, and the enormous amount of time I spend writing for and talking to the general public about whatever I think may be of benefit and about which I am sufficiently knowledgeable not to make an ass of myself.
Ever since I adopted Stoicism as my philosophy of life, I have had two handy tools at my disposal to help me with Kant’s second question: the four cardinal virtues, and the dichotomy of control. The cardinal virtues are: practical wisdom (knowledge of what is truly good or bad for me), courage (in the moral sense), justice (i.e., fairness toward others and respect for their humanity), and temperance (doing things in right measure, neither too much nor too little. I use these four reference points as a virtual moral compass, asking myself, before deciding whether to do or not to do something, if that something is in agreement with the four virtues or not. If it is, I try to do it. If it isn’t, I try to avoid it.
The dichotomy of control is the notion that some things are up to us, as the second century Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it, and other things are not up to us. Meaning that our agency is maximized in certain areas and minimized or ineffective in other areas. It stands to reason, then, that we should focus our efforts where our agency is efficacious. What about the rest? I try to develop an attitude of equanimity toward things that are not up to me. As an adult, I realize that sometimes in life things go my way and at other times they don’t, and I’m okay with that.
For instance, during the covid pandemic, what is up to me is to keep doing my best at work and with my loved ones, as well as to follow reasonable precautions so that I don’t catch the virus. What is not up to me includes a huge swath of things, from convincing others to behave reasonably during the crisis to magically making the pandemic go away.
III. What can I hope for?
This is perhaps the trickiest of Kant’s three questions. He thought that here the only sensible answer comes from belief in God. Which I don’t have because I have come to the conclusion that there aren’t sufficiently good reasons, not to mention evidence, to warrant such an extraordinary claim. What then?
I am a finite being with an unknown finite amount of time to live. That’s just the way it is, therefore it makes no sense to hope for things that I know I cannot achieve in my lifetime. And it makes even less sense to hope for some kind of immortality after the demise of my body. I am my body, especially my brain, and the human body doesn’t last more than a few decades, give or take. Yet, as much as I have a hard time convincing some of my friends of this, it is precisely because life is finite that it is precious (just think of the nightmare of Groundhog Day). This means that rather than indulge in fantasies of eternal life I need to redouble my efforts to live the one life I have to the fullest. Contra a popular American approach, I don’t need a “bucket list” in order to do that. Indeed, I need relatively little.
So what I hope for, in the foreseeable future, is: to keep my bodily and mental health for as long as possible; to work in order to keep the love of my wife, daughter, family, and friends; to be lucky enough to hold on to my job and the satisfaction and financial security that it affords me; and to be able to do my little part in making the human cosmopolis a slightly better place.
What about society at large, you say? I no longer harbor hopes for radical changes for the better. Homo sapiens is a wonderful animal in many respects, but it is also selfish, narrow-minded, and not terribly bright — on average. There are all sorts of things that people have long figured out we should fix, and yet that the majority among us simply refuses to fix: environmental degradation, for once; gross inequality; racial and gender injustice; tyranny; war. I don’t think any of these things will go away in my life time, or, probably, ever. So I don’t hope for them to go.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t think we cannot improve things, or that we don’t have a duty to try. As Marcus Aurelius put it:
Set yourself in motion, if it is in your power, and do not look about you to see if anyone will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter. (Meditations, IX.29)
Marcus meant this in the realm of ethics and social living. Another one of my reference points in life, the astronomer Carl Sagan, presented the notion that science — and by extension, I would say, reason — is like a candle in the dark. It is unrealistic to hope for the candle to vanquish the darkness. In fact, the other way around is far more likely. But we have an ethical duty to keep the candle going, to fight the darkness every step of the way. I just hope to continue to be able to do my small part in that larger fight, for so long as Fortuna will allow.
So, how would you answer Kant’s three questions?