Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Karl Jaspers and the Horror of our Cognitive Limits

Karl Jaspers’ existential philosophy is similar to Sartre’s, the main differences being their starting points and styles of writing. The early Sartre presupposed a literary version of phenomenology as a way of doing metaphysics, whereas Jaspers starts from science (psychology) and Kantian philosophy. Both end up with existential conclusions about the need to persevere despite the ultimate futility of thinking or living, but Jaspers’ psychology background gave objectivity a more prominent role in his philosophy, which in turn lends even more readily to a cosmicist interpretation of Jaspers.

Jaspers’ Existential Take on Transcendent Knowledge

Karl Jaspers
Whereas ancient and medieval philosophers in the West naively engaged in metaphysical speculation, early-modern philosophers realized there’s a problem about rational skepticism: how can we rationally justify such far-flung generalizations about the nature of reality, when the Scientific Revolution demonstrated that even the ordinary empirical claims we took for granted, such as that the Earth is at the center of the universe or that stones fall faster than feathers were bogus? Skeptical scientists or “natural philosophers” debunked many dogmas, so philosophers (as distinct from scientists) were tasked with distancing their discipline from theology, that is, from the main rationalization of our intuitions.

Descartes attempted to reestablish the foundation of philosophy on the bedrock of self-consciousness, but instead of venturing down the intensely personal, existentialist path—which had to wait until Kierkegaard (although Saint Augustine’s Confessions anticipated that development)—he compromised with dogmas, resorting to the gambit of validating personal experience by appealing to dubious proofs of God’s existence. David Hume brought the problem of unchained skepticism back into the philosophical mix, showing that we can’t be sure even about something as commonsensical as our concept of causality. This prompted Kant to concede that although metaphysical generalizations are groundless, we can investigate the transcendental space, as it were, of how our minds would have to be structured to generate the human form of experience. Analogously, biologists would later theorize that although the evolution of life is largely accidental, there is what Daniel Dennett called the “design space” which natural selection “discovers” and which accounts for convergence in the evolution of certain traits across species. Physics and chemistry constrain the workable solutions of evolutionary problems, by providing the possible niches that species can exploit. For example, there may be a niche for highly intelligent species, in which case if our mammalian ancestors hadn’t evolved intelligence or self-consciousness, perhaps a reptile, bird, or mollusk might have done so and there would have been octopus high-tech cityscapes instead of human ones. There may, then, be meta-laws about the body-types that will tend to evolve, due to the niches made possible by lower-level natural regularities.

Kant thus effectively redefined foundational philosophy as an analysis of the conditions of possible experience. He argued that there are “transcendental” conditions not of body-types but of forms of experience. For example, the concepts of space and of time are supposedly fundamental to our ways of sensing the world, and so while we shouldn’t be confident in generalizations about the nature of external reality, we can be certain about what Kant called “synthetic a priori” knowledge, meaning broad knowledge about ourselves—but specifically about how the human mind must be structured to generate the universal features of human experience. Kant thus posited certain categories that determine how we generally process sensory input, and he maintained that necessary truths that aren’t mere tautologies or word games apply only to that proto-psychological level of analysis. We do seek to transcend those limits, such as when we devise speculative ontologies about God, the immortal soul or the nature of being, but these ideas mislead us if we think we have direct access to such subject matters. Our knowledge necessarily passes through our most general modes of understanding and thus we inevitably project the image of human mentality, as it were, onto any subject of our inquiry.

Now whereas Kant’s writings were highly technical and abstract, Jaspers the psychologist-turned-philosopher saw that Kant’s transcendentalism could be given a more human face or brought further down to Earth, by delving into what it’s like actually to attempt to transcend the limits of human experience. While Kant denied that it makes sense even to speak about the noumenon (the mind-independent source of sensations, or the things in-themselves), as opposed to things in so far as they’re processed by a type of mind, Jaspers argued that our insatiable curiosity and our yearning to see our way past apparent limits give us an experience of transcendence, if not rigorous knowledge of any such thing. For example, Jaspers mapped out the steps in neo-Hegelian progress from an empiricist/objective/scientific approach to the world, to an existentialist/subjective/self-reflective one, to a religious/metaphysical/mystical outlook. At each stage, we’re confronted with the limits of that approach, which compels us to raise questions that push us towards the next stage. The empiricist is faced with the radical doubts voiced classically by such philosophers as Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, and Nietzsche. We’re forced to look within ourselves for answers as to how we can trust what we think we know about the external world. That interior line of inquiry leads us to what would later be called the postmodern malaise, to relativism, nihilism, or to the self-destructive solipsism of hyper-consumption—unless we jump yet again to a more encompassing conceptual framework.

Here, however, instead of siding with Pascal or with theology in general, which would call for religious faith to save us from the downfall of overactive reason, Jaspers argues that we have a rational obligation to avoid deceiving ourselves and thus to grasp the tragedy of our existential predicament. Our search for ultimate knowledge, for knowledge of what Jaspers called “the encompassing” or what Kant construed as the limit of human experience, is doomed from the outset—but not exactly for Kant’s reason. Kant said we posit God and other ultimate notions to regulate our thought processes even though we have no hope of understanding such presumed transcendent realities. Jaspers pointed out that although we can’t understand them, we do experience our yearning for them as well as the “cyphers of transcendence,” meaning hints or ambiguous messages sent out by the world that testify to the limits of our knowledge and thus to the existence of some transhuman reality. To make sense of the failure of the second stage of knowledge, then, Jaspers said we turn—desperately and futilely—to reading nature’s tea leaves, to interpreting patterns in our experience as clues to a metaphysical puzzle we can never solve. Jaspers eschewed organized religion precisely because dogmas prevent the personal growth made possible only by a fearless encounter with our limits. Instead of settling for conventional answers as though we could cognitively encompass so easily that which by definition transcends our ordinary ways of thinking, we can only wrestle with those limits and with the suspicion that there must therefore be some X on the other side.

As Kant said, we can’t know the noumenon as though it were a phenomenon, but contrary to Kant, that doesn’t mean there’s no sense in pondering the noumenon. We shouldn’t pretend we have systematic knowledge of that which transcends our ordinary ways of understanding the world, as in organized religion, but we should recognize the greater personal authenticity of those who grasp the need for metaphysical or religious reflections. The task for Jaspers isn’t so much to fully answer our ultimate questions, but to fulfill our potential by growing beyond artificial limits placed on philosophical subjects of discussion. Jaspers thus seems to view philosophy rather like the later Wittgenstein did, as a disorder that should be cured. But whereas Wittgenstein blamed limitations of ordinary language which bewitch us into asking meaningless questions, Jaspers blamed our inherent restlessness which must settle for philosophy’s frustrating incompleteness. Questions about transcendent reality may be “meaningless” according to empiricist standards, but we’re free to live by other standards. Moreover, if we don’t transcend the limits of positivism or scientism, we fail to mature as persons from something like a characterological standpoint. Jaspers thus connects existential philosophy to psychotherapy, the point being that our mental health depends on our dealing with the challenge presented by what Kant construed as the noumenon. We should indeed talk out the lacunas in our experience, says Jaspers, but we should do so humbly, appreciating Kant’s insights about the role of necessary limits in any attempt at understanding. Metaphysics or religion thus becomes a mystical kind of talk therapy, for Jaspers, a discourse that enables us to mature as individuals who heroically confront the possibility of the transcendent, aware both of our cognitive limits and of what come to look like frustrating clues about that which lies beyond what we can know.

Transhumanism, Late-Modern Physics, and Cosmicism

Jaspers’ notion of a transcendent limit that encompasses objective and subjective reasoning is similar to Sartre’s concept of God as the in-itself-for-itself, the impossible union of objective and subjective properties. Sartre insists that this concept is incoherent since the subject requires the freedom of self-definition, whereas the object lacks precisely that freedom. A neo-Kantian such as Jaspers would likely welcome that incoherence as a sign of genuine transcendence— assuming the concept of God isn’t the one belonging to some sterile, conventional religion but is the one that makes sense of genuine religious experience. For Jaspers, the concept of God isn’t so useful to empirical reasoning or personal decision-making, but in challenging all human endeavours with the threat of something radically transhuman. And a religious experience isn’t bound by any scriptural dogma, since this experience reveals, on the contrary, that all aspects of our ways of living are inadequate to what seems somehow to exist to have provided us with that type of experience. This disconcerting experience of the narrowness of our limits thus leaves us searching for a remedy for existential vertigo. Is the world fundamentally objective? What then of human subjectivity? Where do we fit into the objective world? And if we retreat further within subjectivity, as in the postmodern withdrawal into endless nostalgia and irony, we lose touch with the natural facts. The true purpose of metaphysics or of religion is to bridge this divide, not with pseudoscientific theories or creeds, but with informal, therapeutic discussions about the hints we receive that perhaps everything makes sense according from some nonhuman mode of thinking.

These existential-Kantian reflections on the nature of cognitive limits are perfectly adapted to cosmicist purposes, that is, to grasping the horrific implications of philosophical naturalism. The monsters, aliens, or gods that stand out in H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, for example, are symbolic precisely of the fear that our perspectives are limited compared to what likely exists. The upshot is a critique of anthropocentrism—not a reckless and indeed (for us) impossible abandonment of human ways of understanding, but a recognition that reason can grasp its limits, which leaves us with nonrational means of coping. One such nonrational response is, of course, terror in the face of the possibility of transhuman modes of being. This terror is found paradigmatically in the fear of death. Death is no mere intellectual conundrum, but an existential burden since we know in advance that our life is fundamentally limited. Jaspers’ point, though, is that the world’s hints that our systems are inadequate can come at any time and from any direction. Religions themselves, he points out, tend to hinder rather than facilitate healthy ways of thinking about our inadequacy. Indeed, the very notion that any way of thinking could be cognitively adequate to reality may be a wrongheaded remnant of anthropocentrism. If thinking in general is bound to be incomplete, because thinking is either objective or subjective, whereas reality encompasses both by way of some third, unknowable category, this only adds to the fear that even our ideal of perfect understanding is futile.

Note how this fear is expressed in the more recent way of speaking of these issues, in the context of evolutionary transhumanity that’s due to technological progress. While the Platonic and Christian assumption is that there’s a metaphysical hierarchy of entities, the post-Hegelian or Darwinian approach is to temporalize absolute being. We Western secularists think not so much of a timeless God which we’re destined to be united with, but of natural godhood lying in our future as a result of social and technological progress. We thus mitigate the concerns raised by Jaspers or Lovecraft, by naturalizing divinityWe assume that as we merge more and more with our technology, our species will attain godlike status—but only in a stepwise fashion that will give us time to adjust, as opposed to our dying and instantly finding ourselves in a transcendent realm of heaven or hell.

This is why the hypothesis of the imminent technological singularity is so distressing, since it returns us to the Jaspersian or cosmicist fear, to the jarring conviction that not just our paltry selves but our whole species and history are somehow cosmically deficient. If our techno-immortality and virtual omniscience and omnipotence will fall upon us like a thief in the night (to paraphrase Jesus), and yet we can’t know now what that transhuman life will be like on the other side of the societal event horizon, we might as well be dying and whisked off to an alien reality, as in a mind-melting psychedelic trip. Science fiction prepares us with what Jaspers would call cyphers of transcendence, and the transhumanist subgenre breaks down into the optimistic and pessimistic scenarios. Presumably, Jaspers would welcome both, since he emphasizes the need for faith in a transcendent “encompassing” and for rational doubts about any human representation of that limit. Again, the point of transhumanism is that we’re currently in the process of transcending our nature, which raises the specter of nonhuman intelligence that will indeed encompass everything we thought we knew prior to that ascendance. In short, it’s as though our religions posited caricatures of divinity only to foreshadow the natural arrival of the real gods that will happen as a result of human ingenuity.

Jaspers’ existential take on the limits of human ways of thinking is corroborated also by the anti-anthropocentric advances in physics, including quantum weirdness and the discovery of the universe’s true, mind-boggling scale in space and time. We’ve certainly learned that our instincts and capacity for intuition or snap judgment, which persist because of their primitive survival value, are misleading sources of knowledge, but we trust that scientific reason already transcends those parts of our nature. Our capacity for objectivity extracted us from the more limited, animal mindset of creature-centric instrumentalism, although Jaspers reverses the order of transcendence, from empirical reasoning to subjective, inward-directed inquiry. The naturalistic point would be that animals begin with an implicit subjective perspective, although most species lack the capacity for meta-representations; they react to stimuli, but their responses are largely hardwired, and the neural program has an implicit subjective viewpoint, the imperative being to protect the self at almost all costs (since the self carries the genes, and the genes write the program). With the advent of objectivity come meta-representations and a higher form of subjectivity, since we’re able to think more neutrally about the reality of things, including ourselves; at least, we’re able to detach from stimuli, from our reflexes and from the rest of our older neural programming, and to ponder what things really are, independent of their evolutionary value.

Objectivity leads us not just to the problem of hyperactive subjectivity, but to the physicist’s destabilizing picture of natural objects. In particular, we’ve discovered that the “clockwork,” Newtonian conception of “objects,” the neutrality and “givenness” of which conform with the underlying instrumental imperative of early-modern science, only approximates a deeper, stranger theory. Whereas the mechanical interpretation of natural objects or of events renders them submissive to the implicit designer (to God) or to agents of that designer (to us), quantum mechanics implicates the observer in a way that seems to blur the line between object and subject. There are no wholly given objects in quantum mechanics, since the subatomic particles occupy superpositions and take on definite values only in relation to an act of measurement or to other systems in the environment, which collapses the wave function or accounts for the rarity of strange quantum effects in our daily observations. In short, late-modern physics presents us with cyphers of transcendence, since the universe’s physical scale and the nature of matter are perfectly inhuman. Jaspers would add to the horror of that indifference to human preferences something like a leap of faith in a transhuman unity beyond the inhumanity. At least, metaphysics and religion are left to grapple with that prospect.

Jaspers would likely reject naturalism as this worldview is typically presented in contemporary philosophy, since the naturalist belittles subjectivity in favour of objectivity. The existential point of Jaspers’ philosophy is that the limits of empirical reasoning are indicated by reason in the broader sense that includes normative decision-making and artistic, philosophical, or otherwise creative speculation. Perhaps we realize that naturalism or a scientistic worldview that tends to objectify everything is incomplete because it leaves consciousness, meaning, and purpose out of the world. If this amounts to an argument merely from unpleasant consequences, according to which we reject naturalism because that worldview is horrifying, we’d be trusting in that gut reaction whereas perhaps the real world is purely objective and consciousness and moral or aesthetic values are illusions. Most naturalists, though, don’t take themselves to be eliminating the world’s subjective aspects; instead, naturalists typically compartmentalize these seemingly incompatible parts of their life. For example, the naturalist will turn to objectivity when refuting a foreign religion, but will presuppose various social conventions, such as those that govern secular Western culture, to avoid having to live as a late-modern monk. If there is a genuine conflict here between objectification and normativity, and it provokes us to search for a resolution that isn’t strictly rational, the transhuman interpretation should indeed make peace with horror, angst, compassion, and the other emotions that are important to existentialism. The fallacy would be to pretend that these emotions could rationally justify a proposition, whereas the existential task would be to add a worthy nonrational element to our worldview so as to be able to live well while appreciating the limits of both our objective and subjective perspectives.


  1. This was a really interesting essay. I have to admit, I was unfamiliar with Jaspers, I always saw him as a very transitional character in Existentialism and even German philosophy. I think I had a misconception about his religious leanings as well.

    His reaction to Kant, an existentialism flavored by it, it reminds me (just based on this essay) of Schopenhauer quite a bit. With very different conclusions about what that means for living life. I see Schopenhauer as a very cosmicist thinker in ways, but Jaspers seems like a more modern bridge. Definitely going to read more, thanks.

    1. I don't think Jaspers is one of the more profound existentialists. His perspective is interesting because it comes from a science background. He switched from psychology to philosophy, which means he likely saw the weakness of scientism (absolutist objectification) from firsthand experience. He's isn't radical as much a compromiser--like you say, a bridge-builder; that's how I see him too. I wrote this article on him mainly because his Kantian approach works very well with cosmicism (dark, pessimistic naturalism).

      Schopenhauer is certainly cosmicist as well, and he too comes from a Kantian background. Schopenhauer builds a bridge between Western and Eastern philosophy. Indeed, his philosophy reads like a neo-Kantian version of Hinduism.

      Next up in this existentialist series is Kierkegaard, then Nietzsche, and then my attempt at writing a phenomenological version of my blog's philosophy.

    2. All amazing topics. A toast to your prolific nature!