How Immanuel Kant Solved One Of The Greatest Dilemmas Of All Human Thought

This blogpost was first published on the u2tuition blog. If you want to learn more about Kant, I recommend watching or listening to this lecture series by Dan Robinson.

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who was born in 1724 and lived until 1804. He was also one of the most important philosophers who has ever lived. His contributions to the study of metaphysics (questions relating to the nature of reality) and the study epistemology (questions relating to knowledge) have had a profound influence on all philosophers who came after him.

This is all because he went about philosophy in a unique way. Before Kant, philosophers had tried to answer questions such as: what is the soul? Is all matter made of the same substance? What can we have knowledge of? And does God exist?

Kant instead begun by asking a more fundamental question, which he claims has to be answered before asking any other questions. This question is: how do we attain knowledge of the world? What conditions must be satisfied in order to have any knowledge at all? Only when we have an answer to this question can further questions be asked about the nature of the world. Kant’s answer to this question, and the consequences of his answer, form his ‘critical philosophy.’1

The main idea is this: instead of humans passively receiving information from the world around us via the sensory data collected by the sense organs, the human mind instead actively plays a part in shaping the world that we experience. This means that everything which we experience does not come to us already shaped. Instead, we play a part in shaping how our experiences are structured.

This idea is not that controversial: current researchers in neuroscience and psychology agree with this. Anil Seth, a cognitive neuroscientist and the co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, describes it as your brain ‘hallucinating’ the conscious reality you experience.2

It also makes sense of our understanding of how animals perceive the world. Consider two animals: dogs and flies. Dogs are red-green colour-blind, so cannot perceive the same range of visible light that humans can. Flies experience the world in a way we are thoroughly unable to comprehend, as they have prismatic vision, so only experience a ‘prismatic’ word.3

Photo of dog

An example of one of the specific ways in which Kant thinks we shape the world is to do with causal relations. According to Kant, we only ever perceive two events as being causally related because we sculpt them as being causally related. (This view of causality is meant to solve Hume’s famous problem of causality;5 Kant claims that it was Hume who awoke him from his “dogmatic slumber”).

A consequence of this is that all we ever experience is a world of appearances. We never directly experience any kind of objective reality, which Kant refers to as the world as it is in itself (or Ding an sich).6 This view is controversial, but it allows Kant to provide a solution to a problem that raged between the greatest philosophers in the centuries preceding him.

The Greatest Dilemma In All Human Thought

Before Kant, there were two conflicting answers to the question: what can you know using the pure faculty of reason? Think about this for a moment. If you were sat in an armchair with your eyes closed, could you know anything? What would you be justified in claiming knowledge of?

Before we answer let me introduce a distinction between four types of knowledge:7

  • Knowledge that is analytic doesn’t introduce anything new which isn’t already contained within the meaning of the words. The propositions “all triangles have three sides” and “this bachelor is an unmarried man” are examples of analytic propositions.
  • Knowledge that is synthetic adds something to a concept. For example, the propositions “the grass is green” or “tomorrow it will rain” are both synthetic propositions, as new knowledge is gained.
  • Knowledge that is a posteriori is derived from sense experience. The above example “the grass is green” is a posteriori, as we come to know it by looking at the grass.
  • Knowledge that is a priori is derived from reason alone. One example would be the claim “god is supremely good;” if a person were to know that proposition, they wouldn’t be able to know it via experience, so would know it a priori.

The rationalist philosophers (Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza and others) thought we could have synthetic a priori knowledge. This meant that we would be able to know things only by using our faculty of reason. Descartes’ famous Meditations make use of this. From his armchair, Descartes conducts a thought experiment: what if everything we experience is an illusion caused by an evil demon? He claims that this isn’t the case, by a series of steps that only use his faculty of reason. He first realises that he is a thinking being (this is the famous “I think, therefore I am,” which is often called the cogito). He then reasons that, as he clearly and distinctly knows that he is a thinking thing, anything he thinks clearly and distinctly must be true. He continues to reason in a similar way, to reach conclusions about the existence of God and the nature of his soul. All of this is done without any appeal to the world of experience. It all happens from his armchair.

Photo of armchair

The empiricist philosophers (Hume, Locke, Berkeley and others) thought that we could not have synthetic a priori knowledge. Hume famously writes in the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (12:34) “Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” By this he means that we only allowed to claim knowledge of truths that are synthetic a posteriori or analytic a priori, and nothing else.

This leaves us in this situation:

  a priori a posteriori
synthetic Rationalist: yes / Empiricist: no Rationalist: yes / Empiricist: yes
analytic Rationalist: yes / Empiricist: yes na

Synthetic a priori truths are ones that we can’t get from external experience, but still increase our knowledge. Answers to metaphysical questions, like what is the nature of the world, or can events cause other events, or does God exist, are all synthetic a priori. It is supremely important that we are able to give answers to such questions instead of just remaining sceptical about them; if we can’t give answers, all of metaphysical enquiry is doomed, as Hume thought it was. But the rationalist solution is no good either – there clearly seems to be something wrong with laying claim to grand ideas about God and the world purely using reason.

Kant’s Solution

Kant provides an incredibly clever solution to this problem. Instead of siding with either the rationalists or the empiricists, he synthesises their two answers into one position, claiming that the two sets of philosophers before him were just “wrestling with shadows.”

Quick recap of earlier: Kant’s great idea was that we actively shape the world we experience. Sensations don’t passively arrive to us fully formed, entering our brain; instead our brain creates our reality. As he writes, “up to now it ha[d] been assumed that all cognition must conform to the objects… let us now assume that he objects must conform to our cognition [of them].” The direction of explanation changes: instead of the limits of what we experience being the limits of our cognition, it is the limits of our cognition itself that become the limits of what we can experience. The world we experience is thus only a world of appearances, and not an underlying objective reality.

This gives Kant an answer to what we can know solely by using our faculty of pure reason:

  • Our experience of objects is known a priori. This is because we shape that experience using categories which are innate, i.e. using part of our faculty of reason.8 This experience is also synthetic, as having knowledge of objects in the world is gaining new knowledge. So Kant disagrees with the empiricists: we can have synthetic a priori knowledge.

  • Our knowledge is limited to what we can experience. Because we shape what we experience, we can never know anything beyond the world of appearance. So, while Kant thinks we can have synthetic a priori knowledge, he still disagrees with the rationalists. This is because he denies that we can know anything about God, the soul, and so on. There are limits to what we can know because of how we know things.

Kant’s synthesis thus provides a way out of this grand dilemma.

How This Has Impacted Everything Since

Before Kant, philosophers and scientists were roughly the same thing. They both investigated the nature of the world. But during and after Kant’s time, new scientific and mathematical methods were being developed. This led to the distinction between philosophy and science becoming stronger. The job of the philosopher became to support science, by finding a ground that justified all the discoveries of the scientist.

Kant was writing in the time of Newton. Newton was making leaps and bounds in the fields of mathematics and science; meanwhile, the philosophers were unable to even know whether one event had caused another. Kant’s project was thus incredibly important at that time. His writing was hunting for a metaphysical system that was able to ground the objectivity required by the scientists.

*Could there be a more consequential philosophical project? Kant’s ideas about the world respect the cognitive and perceptual resources that come to bear on every knowledge claim that we make. His ideas provide a metaphysical analysis that manages to accommodate the unique stamp of human cognition, without lapsing into rampant subjectivity. And most importantly, Kant’s project is able to inform the sciences on what precisely it is that makes the sciences successful.

Photo of bee

I stand in the garden, observing the beautiful yellow sunflowers that have just bloomed. A honeybee is alongside me. The peak spectral sensitivity of normal human vision is 555 nanometres, whereas honeybees have three types of photoreceptor that all peak in the ultraviolet range of light. I.e., honeybees can see thing that are outside the range of what we have anthropocentrically refer to as ‘visible light.’ The honeybee sees nothing that is yellow. I see nothing that is ultraviolet. Are we both hallucinating? No – we both perceive something that really does exist. Kant’s argument is what allows us to explain that objectivity of shared experience, while also retaining the uniquely human subjectivity that we bring to the situation. Building on this, all of science is possible.

1 Kant’s philosophy is called the ‘critical philosophy’ because he proposes it across the three Critiques, namely the Critique of Pure Reason (1781/87), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790).

2 See Seth’s TED Talk for more information:

3 We know that creatures different from humans experience the world differently by examining their sense organs. However, we can never really know what the conscious experience of another creature is like. This is related to the hard problem of consciousness. For more on this, see Thomas Nagel’s brief essay on ‘What Is It Like to Be A Bat?’

4 According to Kant, the way that we ‘shape’ or ‘mould’ our experience is done using a set of innately held categories that are schematised. Kant was incredibly precise about this list of categories and how we derive them from a set of logical forms. This has led some to accuse him of an unnecessary “architectonic mania” – meaning that he subdivides things excessively and irrationally, trying to find patterns that aren’t really there.

5 According to Hume, causality is a habit of the mind, fabricated out of repeated experiences. When we experience two events repeatedly occurring together, we assume that one event causes the other, just because of habit. There is no deeper ‘causal power.’

6 Claiming that objects are in some way dependent on our mind is a stance known as idealism. Kant’s idealism is different from Berkleian idealism, however. For Berkeley, all objects exist in the mind. For Kant, objects still exist physically, but the conditions of our experience of those objects is mind-dependent. This results in his idealism being labelled transcendental idealism, as transcendental means relating to preconditions of experience.

7 To be precise, when Kant writes about these distinctions, they apply to judgements (Urteil) about our cognition (Erkenntnis). Cognition is slightly different to what Kant calls knowledge (Wissen) – however, for our purposes these finer details aren’t relevant.

8 Here I am simplifying again; Kant uses the word ‘reason’ in a very specific way differently to how I write about it here, but which isn’t relevant to our purposes.

‘The Garden’ and other cool things at Future Fest 2018

Last weekend, I went to the first day of FutureFest with a friend. FutureFest is a conference organised by Nesta about what the future will be like. It had loads of talks and panel sessions, filled with academics, politicians, artists and musicians, as well as interactive art installations and other exhibits. I wanted to write a brief summary of some of the cool things I saw in order to remember them.

The Garden

The Garden was an installation by London Glades (a pair of ‘ecological landscape designers’) about re-imagining humanity’s relationship with nature, and redefining the idea of ‘rewilding.’. And oh what a cool installation it was. Especially considering they’d built the whole thing indoors at Tobacco Docks for the weekend.

The Garden

The installation was divided into four sections: detached, unresolved, inspired and balanced. Visitors could amble through, and throughout the day, tours of the garden as well as short talks were being given in the garden. (One talk was by Åsmund Asdal, the co-ordinator of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault! If you haven’t heard of the Seed Vault then you gotta listen to this podcast about it).

The first section, ‘detached,’ had remnants of man-made constructions, like concrete motorway barriers and lopsided bus stops, that were slowly decaying away. It had ‘pioneer species,’ which is the name given to the first plants on the scene. These are annuals, and are what in a garden we think of as weeds, but are actually the plants all around us. They are the plants that start getting some compost going.

The next section was full of tension. Nature in the UK if left alone wants to become a forest, so here we saw pioneer species continuing to build towards that. But the relationship between people and nature was unresolved. There is a tension, coming from humanity’s need to control things. ‘Rewilding’ in terms of removing all human elements and replacing them solely with ‘natural’ elements is not the future. Some kind of balance is needed.

The third section was nature’s newly emerged forest; nature had reclaimed this area. The floor was damp, the soundscape had no human sounds in it. All 7 layers of the forest were present. Was this the future we wanted?

The last layer was harmony. It looked similar to the previous layer, in that it was totally wild. But there was an aesthetic quality to it, a warmth. It had been designed by humans and was very much a part of the urban landscape, rather than part of the ‘wild’. The abundance of trees and layered canopies held a secret: every plant was edible in some form and permaculture. There was a wealth of biodiversity; perennials were growing rather than annuals. The soundscape featured all the sounds from nature, paired with children laughing. This section embraced the fact that we as humans are nature. This was the vision of an ecologically-centred city.

Other cool things, in brief:

  • Akala spoke about Britain’s identity crisis, the lessons we can learn from history, and why he is optimistic
  • There was a powerful, frightening and kind of really cool exhibit called the Black Box Bellagio, where you could trade in your personal data for casino chips (more about this here)
  • Guerilla Science and the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science had an interactive exhibit called Escape to Reality about consciousness and neuroscience
  • Lydia Nicholas did a great comedy set, where she pointed out that obviously insects are going to taste gross when cooked by rich white men
  • CrimeForce: LoveTeam used audience decisions about the future of pop music and political unrest to envision an episode of a police procedural, in which a member of hit boyband LoveTeam was murdered
  • Bec Hill did her thing, she’s great, you should watch her videos here
  • We went to panels and talks about gig economy in the near-future (i.e. when Deliveroo and Uber models for jobs are ruining lives, before universal basic income takes over), robots, humanity 2.0 / transhumanism and more

The Third Rule of Magic

While working at Long Lake Camp for the Arts, where I taught magic to 8 - 16 year old kids for two and a half months, I wrote out five rules of magic for the kids.

These were by no means objective rules; instead were just ones I’d written myself. I wrote these specifically for helping 8 - 16 year olds learn how to perform magic well, and to match the tricks I was teaching.

The Rules

Most wanted to learn card tricks, presumably due to my background in card magic and the prevalence of card magic in the media. As much as possible I tried to avoid mathematical tricks — while often self-working and therefore easy for children to learn, they have the tendency to be quite dry.

Tricks where cards were treated less as cards (i.e. where the suit / value of the card was important) and were treated more like ordinary objects were ideal. The main thing I was pushing was telling good stories, and giving reasons for doing the things that had to be done for the magic. Hence, avoiding dealing three piles of 7 cards and all that bs.

As a side note, a trick which was great for this was David Jade’s Static. It ticks all the boxes; it:

  • required some basic sleight of hand (namely learning a swing cut)
  • involved creating a simple gimmick
  • gave the kids a special prop to look after (responsibility + also exciting to have a secret prop!)
  • was open-ended enough so that they could come up for their own story as to why the deck moves
  • was a crazy powerful trick, that still used just a deck of cards, but looks miraculous when done right

If you’re a magician and don’t do a haunted deck trick, I can’t recommend this one enough. It’s so much less fiddly than the ‘classic’ way of doing a haunted deck and is totally hands-off when done on a table; you can even do it as a rising card in your own hand (like Eoin O’Hare’s Sleeper). A really, really great trick.

Anyway, back to the rules. They were:

  1. Don’t tell anyone the secrets!

  2. Practice lots! Knowing how a trick works doesn’t mean you can do it.

  3. Magic isn’t really real! It’s all about acting well.

  4. Give a reason for why you do your tricks.

  5. Center your tricks around a magical focal point. (If you can’t think of one, try snapping your fingers or blowing!)

I hope it’s clear how these tried to encourage the kids to give their magic performance a motivation or justification. We had lots of fun stories about Dr Strange and Himalayan monks and Matilda for the haunted deck plot.

Here I want to focus on rule 3.

Real Magic

“Magic isn’t real” isn’t something you’d normally think to teach children. But we had a lot of fun with it. Like all the above rules, it made them think more about why they were performing, and how to act as if it were real. Walking around the camp we also had some fun: we’d show people my hands were empty, cup them together, get someone to put their hands on my hands, get more people to join in, eventually gathering a big crowd. Then do a big, loud dramatic countdown, and then, at zero, shout ‘magic isn’t real!’ and run off.

Sometimes the kids were gutted by rule 3. I think everyone is when they find out that magic isn’t real. But it was important to have it in there, so that they realised they needed to act instead of just doing-the-moves. They came to realise that they themselves had to believe in the magic they did, in order for their audiences to believe in it.

But since coming home I’ve been reading some of my notes and books, and found an essay in a pamphlet by Benjamin Earl about real magic.

Earl advocates a paradigm shift. He suggests making

an even deeper commitment, not just presentation or ‘patter’ but a comprehensive understanding and identification with the real nature of magic and allowing it to inform your work.

He defines real magic by the following assumptions. We must assume that:

  • magic is real: it is a dimension of subjective experience

  • magic performances are comprised of real skills and real abilities

He also advocates developing language that is compatible with these assumptions.

His full post can be found here. I find this really interesting. It challenges the commonly held view that we, as magicians, have to be liars or have to deceive people. We can be genuine: not only in creating a genuine sense of wonder in our spectators, but in having the genuine belief that what the sense of wonder stems from is something really real.

Does this mean going so far as to be honest about methodology? Earl discusses Chan Canasta, and a contemporary example comes from how Penn and Teller present. Apparently

Chan would state that any questions could be asked about his methods and he would explain everything

Food for thought.

I’ve got more to say on this, linking it to notions of ‘real’ with a capital ‘R,’ i.e. a metaphysical thing-in-itself, and one of my favourite passages of philosophy, ‘How the true world finally became an error.’ But will save all that for another time.

Thanks for reading!


The Lottery Illusion

I recently returned to the UK having spent the summer working as the magic instructor (or ‘Director of Magic’ I suppose) at Long Lake Camp for the Arts. I spent my days teaching magic to 8 - 16 year olds, most of whom were total beginners. It was a blast and I have a lot of great stories and great memories from the past three months.

Over that time we put together three short magic shows, on the last weekend of each session of camp, for parents and guardians of the children to watch when they came to collect them. Camp was awesome because we had a huge scope to try out lots of things, so I had the opportunity to cobble together a version of my favourite trick, the lottery illusion. (This is the best way I’ve seen it done before. I’ve also seen a different version performed live in Oxford by Dynamo!) I thought I’d share my version:

The Effect:

There is a large potted plant awkwardly placed in the middle of the audience.

Six people in the audience are randomly chosen. They each stand where they are, and are given the following rules: think of a number between 1 and 50, everyone’s number must be different, if someone chooses the number you wanted before your turn you’ve gotta quickly think of a new one and change it.

We end up with six numbers. After faffing around with a barstool which has a little slot in it covered by a silk handkerchief we produce a wallet which has a lottery ticket strapped into it. A lottery ticket from the local corner shop, bought earlier that day. And the six numbers on that lottery ticket…

…don’t match.

Crap. Try to laugh it off. Shrug your shoulders and conceal your disappointment. Make a joke about none of your plants being in the audience tonight, so that’s why the trick didn’t work…

Oh wait! There is a plant in the audience. Venture off the stage into the audience, lift up this super heavy potted plant, and, underneath, show there is a lottery ticket which has the correct six numbers.

(I’m so so sorry.)


Powerball ticket

Quotes on Magic

A week or so ago I made a super simple site. I made the majority of it in a day but have been constantly tweaking it (mainly the CSS!) and adding content. It’s a site that displays a random quote about magic / a quote by a magician.

The site is now live at

The idea comes from this challenge on freeCodeCamp, a really cool online course for learning to code. The challenge said to host on Codepen, but I’ve hosted on Github Pages (and the whole thing is here on GitHub if you want to take a look).

The challenge had these requirements:

  • click a button to show a random quote
  • click a button to tweet the quote, trimming characters as appropriate

This site has both those things. I’ve also set it so it will tag the person whose quote it is on Twitter if they’re on Twitter, by adding an extra field to the (json) list of quotes.

The whole thing is really light-weight. Just vanilla JavaScript (that great framework by that dude Brendan ;)) in one JS file, most of it being a huge object with the content. Even has space for an easter egg if you’re not on mobile. Also a reset plus a 275 line CSS file, most of which is for the cool link hover effects (from Lots of hacky CSS to get it to look nice cross-device, but it seems like it’s all working fine glitch-free. Definitely wasn’t made mobile first though. Just the old school developer style of adding more and more rules to fix things you previously broke. (Two CSS properties walk into a bar. A barstool in a totally different bar falls over.) And submit page is done all static / frontend only by using Formspree.

Some things that could be added are:

  • a permalink to each quote (right now this happens on the /all page, as when that generates each quote it gives it an id=”#”. but would be cool to do something to solve this with address bar hashing)
  • a better random (or rather, a less random) algorithm so we don’t get same quote twice in a row when cycling through
  • a better way of storing all the content instead of just in that JS file (anyone got any ideas?)
  • a better way of submitting quotes (though no idea how to do this without a backend)

Also, the big white circle was meant to have a little reload icon in it, but I quite like how it looks as is. Supe minimal. Also also, I was going to use a random background image of fixed size using Unsplash Source, but I didn’t like the load times and I didn’t like how often it gave images I didn’t like. However, might use this idea (it’s just a single line that’s commented out at the mo) if this ever becomes a Chrome extension new tab page. (That might be a fun thing to code up? Never made a Chrome extension before).

Domain will stay up for a year or so, so if you’re reading this in 2018 and the above link doesn’t work try hitting up this link instead.

Lastly, if you have more suggestions for quotes to add please send them my way!