Kant, Schopenhauer, and the Problem of Evil

Boris Brejcha, “You Will Rise”

The Problem of Evil (PoE), as formulated within the philosophical & theological tradition, presupposes that one acknowledges a magisterial god who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good. If such a being exists, then the existence of evil becomes a moral mystery. On the face of things, an all good God would eliminate evil; an all-knowing God would know how to eliminate evil, an all-powerful God would be able to eliminate evil, an all-good God would desire to eliminate evil. Evil shouldn’t exist, if God exists, because everything should already be perfect, precisely because the world is the creation of a perfect creator.

Nonetheless, it is apparent, quite painfully, that the world is thoroughly soaked with suffering everywhere. Therefore, either God doesn’t exist or God has reasons to allow evil to exist, although such reasons might be inscrutable to human beings. Given the existence of evil, one must therefore either give up the belief in God’s perfectly allied omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence, or, accepting such a God exists, discern the divine reasons for the existence of evil, or, failing the suprarational effort, engage in humanely reasonable speculations about God’s mysterious ways. At most, and ultimately, one is left to submit oneself faithfully to the complete mystery of God’s ways, content that there are good, albeit inscrutable, reasons why the world contains the misery it does.

Given the traditional framework, there are many solutions to the PoE:

  • Each instance of evil prevents a greater evil from occurring, or serves as a necessary precondition for a greater good.
  • Evil is the person’s fault, not God, because God gave humans free will, and this gift is routinely abused.
  • Evil is God’s just punishment for our endless crimes.
  • If there were no evil, then the concept of “good” would not make any sense.
  • Without evil, there wouldn’t be any way to positively build character.
  • Satan, not God, is responsible for evil.

All these answers presuppose that the world is intelligible and that there’s a reason for everything, even if only God knows it. Theoretically, I remain unmoved by such theistic formulations of the PoE. However, I’m not insensitive of the general philosophical desideratum to understand the nature of suffering, and neither am I content to accept evil as a naked and brute fact.

Schopenhauer’s understanding seems similar to one of the traditional solutions that man is the chief culprit, and not God. This solution claims that people are almost entirely responsible for evil, because God gave them free will, and they have chosen to abuse their gifts. This explanation, however, fails to account for natural evil, such as disease, earthquakes, floods, Katrina, etc., but it does shed light on the pain people experience. If they stopped hurting one another, the world would be far less threatening and more peaceful place in which to live.

Schopenhauer’s view is intellectual, for evil is the byproduct of human nature. This indicates something truly diseased about man. Catch some of George Carlin’s stand up acts, and you’ll appreciate the finer points of this implication. Instead of mere free will, Schopenhauer goes further and insists that it is the rationalizing and the will-infected human consciousness itself that is largely responsible for the world’s evil. In order to understand Schopenhauer’s view of the human mind, we must first look at Kant’s formulation. For both Kant and Schopenhauer, the human mind is not a quiet and passive mirror that immediately reflects towards which it is aimed. It is more of an active processor, the mind actively organizes and gives form to sensory data directly present to it, just like a computer organizing bits of binary code into the readable images appearing on the monitor screen.

Technically, the human mind organizes this sensory data – the material for touch, smell, hearing, vision, taste – in a way that reflects the mind’s own rational structure. According to Kant the structure of the mind organizes the sensory data in both a rational order and into a sequential order in terms of space & time. Both Kant & Schopenhauer maintain the world as it appears within experience – as causally ordered world of individual things in space & time – is partially and yet ineradicably due to the way we organize and inform what is given to us in sensation. For both, there is more artificality, artifactuality and artistry in our perception of the world than most naively thought. Thus, the world of daily experience is a synthetic byproduct.

Kant’s account seems now common-sensical, because cpu processing is familiar that can retrospectively inform his 18th century view, but if we look closer at the implications of Kant’s proposal, our natural perspective is turned inside-out.

Kant’s theory suggests our minds are cookie-cutters that impresses their form upon the “given” cookie dough, not a mirror that never touches what they reflect. This is the self-styled copernican revolution in philosophy, the proposal that the observed daily movements of the sun and stars across the sky are not explained by referring the movements of those bodies, but actually in reference to our own movement. Now, we know that the observed movements of the stars across the sky is due to the spinning of the earth. Much like how the landscape spins when you’re on the merry-go-round, Kant expanded this merry go round with the claim that the “out-there-ness” of things – space itself- is better understood by analogy with the movement of suns and stars, the world that appears out there, is the construction of our own mental activity. He did acknowledge a foundational being that can be said to “be” quite independent of us, but the “out-there-ness” of this being is an attribution projected from our minds. For all we know, the true being – the thing-in-itself – could be independent of space & time, just as God is assumed to be independent of space-time.

Much like how the experience of the salty taste of salt isn’t “in” the salt itself as it sits untasted in the shaker, the space & time, the individual things which are all causally and scientifically connected to each other with our experience – in other words, the entire physical universe as we experience it – do not represent in a pure and transcendent way the innermost reality of the way things are in themselves. We live in a world of appearances and phenomena. For Kant, the philosophical status of the world of daily experience, particularly in reference to its dependable geometric and mathematical structure, is more analogous to the taste of salt – a quality of human experience that arises internally when the salt crystals stimulate the tongue – than it is like the crystals as they are in themselves before they are tasted. Looking at an object in space is like tasting salt – both involve experience whose qualities are as due to our own constitution as they are due to the constitution to whatever we happen to be tasting or looking at. For Kant, this means humans aren’t in a position to know the exact nature of ultimate reality.

Each Kantian sees through a glass darkly, and they think everyone else’s perception is just as limited. Therefore, the mind stands in the way of knowing the ultimate truth, because the mind is finite and must inform whatever it knows in its own limited way. Our perception of reality echoes our own modes of perception. Kant philosophically extends this past the senses to the limits of our intellect, in conjunction to the limits of our spatial & temporal awareness.

Although Schopenhauer was more optimistic about humans being able to know or come close to knowing the ultimate reality, he agreed with Kant that the world of space & time is largely a human fabrication and that with respect of the way things are in themselves, independently of human existence, space & time doesn’t necessarily apply. Reality in itself – that which remains if there weren’t any humans – could be spaceless and timeless. Given this kantian view of the mind and the world of human experience, the realm of human suffering (spatial & temporal world) becomes an artifact of human artifice and a direct reflection of human nature’s activity.

Schopenhauer, pace Kant, maintains that people are themselves the creators of evil in the world, insofar as their minds express the general conditions through which evil is made possible. For Schopenhauer, the mind structures raw fields of disjointed sensory data into a single world, which contains individuals arranged across a spatial & temporal expanse. If there were no individuals, there wouldn’t be any suffering. If there were no humans, there wouldn’t be any individuals, pace the Kantian theory of existence. Schopenhauer describes our creation of our experienced world as Wille, or reality in itself, shining through our minds as if they were “magic lanterns” and as if reality was a single and undivided light. This poetic metaphor paints Schopenhauer’s explanation for the existence of evil itself and why he turns away from the miserable world.

…just as a magic lantern shows a multitude of different pictures, all of which are illuminated by one and the same flame, so it is within all the manifold appearances which together fill the world, or which follow each other as events, that only one will appears, whose visibility the objectivity of everything is, and which remains unmoved throughout each change. (World as Will and Representation I § 28)

The magic lantern is our mind that apprehends as it expresses the more encompassing universal will under the condition that this single will appears as fractured into innumerable objects that are distributed mosaically across space and time. The sands of time are the sands of our own mindscape, and the infinity of space is, as far as can be known, nothing more than the concept of infinity projected by our own consciousness. Schopenhauer observes that this renders the mind responsible for constructing an appearance, or a movie screen that involves animals fighting, killing and eating each other, people inflicting and suffering countless harm endlessly. We humans, given our ability to organize diverse sensory data into individual things – due to our capacity to know anything at all – reveals ourselves at bottom to be sadistic film directors that are the architect of a monstrous vision. This is the bitter fruit of knowledge.

You may moan and complain that Kant has ascribed godlike powers to the human being, because according to him they are the very architects of space and time. Schopenhauer, almost ironically, notes that if humans are architects, then they are the inventors of a warlike scene: the infinity projecting human nature gives birth to terror. Therefore, it isn’t the abuse of free will, but the very presence of the rational human consciousness in its quest for knowledge!

We have no choice but to generate evil and suffering, if, as Schopenhauer claims, the world itself is Wille. Once the Wille is divided against itself, conflict is inevitable. The human condition is doubly fabulous and frightening, terrific and terrible, condemned to surprising and sickening ourselves. In the early days of the 19th century, the less than reputable aspects of man was slowly becoming more explicitly thematized, and emerged as a serious subject for reflection. However, this initial apprehension of the irrational was still analyzed under the restricting framework of traditional morality that maintained a powerful psychological hold on speculation. These many monstrous apprehensions were initially expressed within a wider and more generous thematic. Fichte expressed an early formulation only to reject the idea of a purposeless universe as psychologically unbearable:

” I should eat and drink, only in order to hunger and thirst again, and eat and drink, merely until the open grave under my feet swallows me up as a meal for the earth? Should I create more beings like myself, so that they can eat and drink and die, and so they can leave behind beings of their own, so that they can do the same as I have already done? What is the point of this continual, self-contained and ever-returning circle, this repetitive game that always starts again in the same way, in which everything is, in order to fade away, and fades away, only in order to return again as it was – this monster, continually devouring itself in order to reproduce itself, and reproduce itself, in order to devour itself?” (Vocation of Man, Book III, faith part II)

Fichte rejected this ouroboric scenario for the sake of a more linear weltanschaaung within which everything acts naturally and inevitably and prorgressively towards a moral and harmonious end, even if this end is permanently beyond the horizon. Fichte did lift the veil from the thoroughly purposeless world for a second’s peek, but only for a second, and let the comforting prospect of a rational & meaningful world return to its properly fundamental place. Schopenhauer too held the veil up, a bit longer, but eventually he retreated to another sort of salvation that involved the dissolution of one’s individuality & a flight into the universal forms of consciousness. Nietzsche gazed at this abyss for much longer, and, being burnt by the medusa of paralyzing meaninglessness, he opted for an existentially centered view in light of such a threatening experience.

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...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.