That Kant be a Dinosaur: Immanuel Kant and Rabbi Time

In the following, we will expose the parallel that exists between the Rabbinic concept of ‘time’ and Kant’s concept of transcendental idealism. To start, I will offer a brief outline of Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic in which he concludes that the physical world is dependent upon man’s construction of the phenomenal world out of the noumenal presentation. Subsequently, I will offer two examples of how Rabbinic Judaism deals with time and bifurcates it into two categories, namely, Chronological time and Historical time. Then, I will show that the two approaches of time, the philosophical and the rabbinic, can really be understood as one and, consequently I’ll shed light on a novel way to view history.

According to the Biblical account of creation in Genesis, the formation of the world took place over six days and on the Seventh Day God rested. Not surprisingly, astro-physicists and theologians offer contradictory pictures of the earliest workings of the universe and the manner in which it evolved to exist as we experience it today. While scientists estimate that the universe is roughly fifteen billion years old, a literalist read of the Biblical account indirectly offers a more conservative estimation of less than six thousand years. Many scholars, conversant in both science and religion, have tackled this type of question in recent years, though more often than not, the proponent’s conclusions only reflect his or her original biases before attempting to tackle the problem. Nonetheless, usually one will find that the Biblical account is bent, through metaphoric or other non-literal interpretations, away from its apparent meaning in order to fit with modern scientific claims. Generally it is assumed that the biblical and the scientific accounts are mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, we will offer another remedy to this conflict: the transcendental idealist’s answer to this problem. Namely, when one views the world through Kant’s transcendental idealistic lens, all time discrepancies disappear.

I will start by offering a quick background from sections of Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic. We all have been exposed to versions of Kant’s vision of the noumenal world and the phenomenal world. Things are classified as either transcendentally ideal or phenomenally real. Those things that are part of the phenomenal reality are objects that exist in time and space. The noumena are, by contrast, neither temporal nor spatial. So how does man interpret the noumenal world? Kant argues that mankind must unconsciously perform various elaborate processes of synthesis upon the crude data of the senses. These various processes must function according to certain general rules and principles universal to all normally functioning minds. Thereby, the human mind combines a priori concepts and noumenal presentations to arrive at the crude sensation of experiencing a physical, interactive world of independent persisting things. Spatial and temporal characteristics are imposed by humans on the objects in which they perceive.

So in other words, when you put on your ‘time and space goggles,’ you see reality not as it is, but with a slight alteration. So when a foreign object affects a person’s mind and produces a modification, the human percipient reacts and thereby sees a world of physical objects.

So, objects act upon us and produce various mental modifications. But what is the relationship between these objects and what we see? I do not want to go into the various opinions of the one world vs. two world theories, but I think a beautiful insight can be drawn nonetheless. Kant says in the Critique, as opposed to the Leibnizian or Newtonian views of his day, that things ‘belong only to the form of intuition, and thereby to the subjective constitution of our minds, apart from which they could not be ascribed to anything at all’ (A23/B38).  Because the noumenal world can only be understood through negative categories, exactly like negative theology, the positive characteristics of spatiality and temporality cannot be applied to it. Kant sums this up by saying that in regards to both the spatial and temporal frameworks, ‘they belong only to appearance’ (B55/A38).

Because the noumenal world could only be understood through the veil of negative characteristics, one would assume that there shouldn’t be any division, or spatiality, or temporality within the noumenal world. Just as the Judeo-Christian transcendental God is Not spatial/ is Not temporal, the noumenal universe should be the same. So, regarding the foreign object which is presented to the self, how is it possible that only one single thing is presented; we just said that the noumenal world shouldn’t have any division! I propose, instead, that we look at the noumenal world like an algorithm. Because we should be agnostic about detailing any of the positive characteristics of the noumenal world according to Kant, I believe that the less guessing or random hypothesizing about the noumenal, the better, and this algorithm presents the least guess work.

According to Kant, mankind’s experiences in the physical world are due to his self arranging, systemizing, and interpreting the information presented to him from the noumenal. So because time is not an objective entity, and only once mankind has the faculties to phenomenologically interpret the noumenal universe, and thus create the physical world, does time have any practical existence or ramifications for mankind.  Therefore, can historical events truly be said to occur if no human experienced the physical event?

Technically, one could argue the same point by dinosaurs (but I do not want to get into the question of ‘if they could construct the physical universe’), namely, did they ever walk the earth if there is was no one to interpret the data, or, more classicly, did the tree make a sound when it fell in the forest? 

When we apply the aforementioned idea, that man’s faculties create temporality to Judaism, the dates and locations of countless events included in the Pentateuch seem even more superfluous than we at first thought. For example, the revelation at Mount Sinai took place in the third month, exactly fifty days from the Exodus from Egypt; also, in regards to the desert encampments enumerated in Numbers chapter 33, it says that the Israelites traveled from Ramses to Succos to Eisam to Pi-HaChoros etc., the splitting of the Red Sea took place at “the Red Sea”; all these events are spatially marked by a named location – they take place within the space-time continuum – marked by geographical and sometimes temporal descriptions. But, once we try to understand the Pentateuch from a Kantian perspective on time, it seems ridiculous and overly verbose to name all of this minutia when these categories are only a consequent of the human participants.

To understand why the Pentateuch needs to be grounded in the space-time continuum, we need first to understand two distinct concepts that Jose` Faur explicates in Homo Mysticus: chronological time and historical time. In rabbinic Judaism, the first official commandment found in the Pentateuch is “HaChodesh HaZeh Lachem” which is found in Exodus, (“It constitutes for you the firsts of the months of the year”) – that the new moon must be sanctified by the Sanhedrin, the high court. Rabbi Josef Soloveitchik explained that this commandment was the Jewish equivalent of the “emancipation proclamation.” This is because the Jewish nation was physically enslaved to their Egyptian masters: in mind as well as in body. They could not decide their own fate; their task masters defined their daily and life obligations. With the giving of this commandment, chronological time began for the Jewish nation and with that, freedom, not only freedom of time, but also of mind and body. Before this commandment, from the Jewish perspective, chronological time did not exist. In fact, because chronological time is understood as a consequent of this commandment, chronological time cannot be understood, or even exist, as independent of human construction; chronological time is man-made. Now we will offer two examples to see how this is manifest in Rabbinic Judaism.

Interestingly, when the high court in Jerusalem wishes to sanctify a new moon, as is required by rabbinic Judaism, the court never calculates in advance when the new moon will occur; instead, two witnesses testify before the court that they saw the new moon, and only once their testimony is accepted, is the new month proclaimed. So, the calendar is fully dependent upon man for sanctification and establishment; it does not exist independent of human constructions.

We should not be fooled by the practice of contemporary traditional Judaism in which the exact opposite is done – namely, the calendar is fixed and the months are already defined. But, this is only because in the fifth century, a sage named Hillel saw that the Jewish High Court was on the verge of being disbanded and without a High Court, there would be no way to sanctify the new month, and without the new month, rabbinic Jews would not be able to able to celebrate holidays which are contingent upon the sanctification of the new month. To enable the Jewish people to continue to celebrate Biblical holidays, Hillel sanctified all new months ad infinitum. So only by default are the new months inherently sanctified today, and if the High court was around today, the court would still need to sanctify the new moon. Without Hillel’s intervention, chronological time would have been lost forever.

In Tannaitic Literature, tractate Sanhedrin Chapter 5, the Mishna lists the seven questions a witness must answer before his testimony about an event is accepted: 1. Which jubilee cycle was the nation in; 2. which year of the jubilee cycle; 3. which month of the current year; 4. what day of the month; 5. what day of the week; 6. what hour of the day and; 7. what location did the event transpire. Surprisingly, these questions seem redundant to the point of silliness. Who cares if the witness doesn’t know which jubilee cycle the nation is currently in? Also, once we know the exact place and time, what other details do we really need?

The answer lies in the fact that in Judaism, time and location form the basic backbone and foundation for human discourse. If a witness is unable to identify the spatial and temporal framework in which he testifies about, if he cannot construct his thoughts and experiences in this space-time continuum, then he is excluded from testifying and is excluded from being a subject in the dialectical process of Israel.

Furthermore, the Mishna ends by asking what the requirements are for testifying about someone who worshiped an idol? The Mishna answers that the witness is only asked two questions: 1. Which idol did he worship and 2. how did he worship the idol. But, why would the Mishna leave out the other seven requirements of testimony when referring to idolatry? Really, it is because the case of idolatry is anomalous. The testimony asserts that another individual, the one who worships the idol, is not only not involved in the dialectical process, but is repudiating it. His action of worshiping the idol places him outside the rubric of rabbinic time; therefore, the normal categories of thought that apply to a Jew, the rabbinic space-time continuum, is inapplicable in this case. But why would Judaism construct a time contingent upon human perception?

Really, Judaism was responding to Pagan time. In contrast to the Judaic idea of time and revelation, the Pagan, or mythical, viewpoint on time allows cultures to abrogate the burdens of a causative and ‘responsibility accepting’ reality. The Torah insists on identifying the above mentioned locations, the Red Sea, the encampments, etc., in contradistinction to pagan and idolatrous cultures of the Biblical and rabbinic era. Pagans experience revelations and supra-psychic events, not in time and space, but in extratemporal time and in mythical time. Eliade explains in Sacred and the Profane, in chapter 1 “Myth of the Eternal Return,” that in the Pagan world, revelations take place at some primordial event in time; this time is cyclical in that the pagan culture attempts to repeatedly relive that event. Through the proper ritual, Pagans believe that it is possible to reverse time, to relive the mythical event that in some way is the root of the culture’s cosmology. Pagan revelations relate to events of the past that took place at the very earliest beginnings of the society.

Yet, in Judaism, aside from chronological time, there is Historical Time, which when understood as working together with chronological time, stand in stark opposition to the pagan idea of time. We will first connect the two to Kantian time in order to illustrate this point. While chronological time corresponds to the phenomenal universe, historical time corresponds to the noumenal universe. Just like chronological time exists only once the Jewish nation is commanded to sanctify the new moon and only as long as there is sanctification, phenomenal time only exists once a person’s mind exists to create the phenomenal world. If there is no human participation, these constructs cease to exist. On the other hand, historical time is as it is independent of human constructions, but because of it lacking any inherent impact on humanity, it is also without religious importance or significance. It exists as a staple for reference, in that all religious and sacred events take place against the backdrop of historical time; but, intrinsically this time cannot have a sacred or holy meaning. It exists only for reference: to differentiate it from the holy.

Accordingly, the Jewish Sabbath does not mark a primordial cosmological moment, but the beginning of historical time. According to rabbinic tradition, the first day of the Jewish calendar was the Sabbath, the Seventh Day, when G-d rested. So, not only was the Sabbath marking sacred/holy time, but also the beginning of desacralyzed time – the first day of historical time. The Jewish nation does not attempt to relive the first Sabbath, but rather commemorates it every week. Thereby, by setting up the two types of time constructs, the Pagan understanding of time is repudiated. Historical time allows for the mundane/the everyday, and chronological time allows for the holy to be imposed upon the mundane; but never do we allow the person to transcend the bounds of his or her own reality or spatial/ temporal framework.

Therefore, the Biblical account and the scientific account could be resolved, not by relegating the truth of one before the supremacy of the other, but by showing that the two estimations really are calculating time from two different vantage points and assuming two different foundations. Scientists measure time from the inception of the natural order; this natural order, though, only exists physically once humans impose a structure upon it; scientists could never say for sure that any events ever took place historically – that’s the philosophers job. Ironically, the empiricist David Hume would also be forced to agree and his belief that science only tells us about the past should be amended to say that science only tells us about the past events that have been studied, and any further back in time, we should be just as lost as in regards to future events. From a scientific perspective, one just assumes certain events took place without any deliberation about the philosophic consequences of this assumption. Yet, when one views time from the Kantian perspective, one cannot say that any event physically occurred unless there was some being who imposed a spatial/temporal framework on that event. Similarly, according to the rabbinic and biblical picture, unless one enters into the temporal framework of the Pentateuch, no individual could be said to take part in the dialectical process of Israel. In other words, their experiences are valueless religiously unless they could enter into the right temporal framework, namely chronological time. All desacralyzed time and events will fall into the framework of historical time and all religious events take place against the backdrop of historical time, but without human intervention and understanding, the events are profane.

So through analyzing time through the lens of Kant’s transcendental idealism, not only was the disparity between science’s and religion’s estimations found to be a misnomer, but we have gained a profound insight into the nature of the geography and temporal dating throughout the Pentateuch, and also the nature of rabbinic time.

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1 Comment

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One response to “That Kant be a Dinosaur: Immanuel Kant and Rabbi Time

  1. evanstonjew

    I don’t see how your reconciliation is Kantian. The thesis that to exist is to be perceived by some mind, (btw does the mind of God count?), is straight up Bishop Berkeley…who would ever need 3 Critiques if it were that easy. Midrash, Agadah and Tanach itself contain endless mythic material on the events in the heavenly court. Could we actually know anything God said to Moses or an angel if knowledge of noumenal events is indeed as Kant says Schwarmerei .

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