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Kant's Proof of Immortality

Updated on July 5, 2014

Kant's Ethics

Kant's proof of immortality cannot be grasped without knowing something about his overall philosophic project and especially his moral philosophy.

Kant attempted to rescue the foundations of scientific reason that were assailed by philosophic skepticism. Even though science continues its work unabated insofar as it passes the pragmatic test whether it "works," it is obviously problematic to have unsolved problems - or, worse, paradoxes - in the foundations of the enterprise. As an example, the hopes that were deposited in set theory were dashed when it was discovered that certain set-theoretical paradoxes plague the foundations of this mathematical theory.

It is always controversial how Kant's philosophic project should be presented. Someone or other always has grave objections to any presentation of Kant's philosophy - and this is a telling sign of how difficult Kant's theoretical work is. We can say that Kant split the difference between Empiricism - whose demands for confirmatory evidence drove skepticism about the abstract things needed for science to work - and Idealism - which can solve foundational problems but only at the cost of accepting "weird" entities and often uncofirmable principles. Kant agreed with the Empiricists that essential things - things as they might be in themselves - cannot be known. He also salvaged the ways of the Idealists by claiming that knowledge, at any rate, is possible only because of the way in which the mental representations of whatever is out there are constituted. For instance, whether there are such things as space and time we cannot know; however, we cannot think of any object without taking it as being situated in space. So, although Kant is not a Realist about space (he does not commit himself to the view that space is a thing that actually exists even if no one is thinking about it), he still takes the category "space" to be conditioning our knowledge of the external world as we cannot think of objects without thinking of them as being in space. The sentence, then, "any object must be in space" is known as certainly as the sentence "a triangle has three angles." Notice that the first sentence, unlike the second, cannot be declared necessarily true because of the meanings of its words. You would think that it cannot be known with certainty but Kant's position is that it is known with incorrigible certainty! The school known as Analytic Philosophy is critical of this.

When it comes to knowledge of moral good, the condition under which the mind grasps moral matters is not nature but freedom: if we think of anything, including ourselves, as being natural entities, then we think of ourselves as being subject to the laws of nature. But when we think of agents like ourselves who are capable of exercising free choice, then we are in the realm of the ethical. Thinking of the good as a relevant category, we have to take our bearings from the "good will." Except for the good will, anything else that seems good at first glimpse needs to be qualified: health is good - provided that you don't use to do mischief; intelligence is good, provided you don't misapply it. And so on. The only exception is the good will - the will that wills only that good be done for no other reason but simply because it is the good thing. Famously, this gives raise to a moral theory that is called deontological: the morally right thing is absolute and unconditional as the proper object of the moral will, because of its inherent choiceworthiness and regardless of any consequences that may flow from doing it. This does not mean that you can place anything as the object of your will insofar as your only motive is to do the right thing; the content itself is determined in accordance with rational procedures. Only then is there assurance that you are giving yourself the moral law as your will's proper object. Any moral maxim that passes a rational test - known as the categorical imperative and having different but equivalent formulations - counts as a proper object of the good will. But a maxim that you might be contemplating may well fail to pass the test. The indication of failure is, fully spelled out, a logical contradiction. For instance, assuming lying at liberty to be a proper ethical maxim entails a contradiction: the liar wills lying but also does not will it as object of his moral will - because, were he to will it, lying would have to be ideally universal, and, as such, it would make lying itself ineffective: so the liar cannot possibly will it, yet we assumed that he wills it as a moral maxim. If a statement p implies a contradiction, then not-p must be true. This is the case here: assuming the lying-maxim, we derived a contradiction; therefore, the lying-maxim doesn't make it through as a principle of ethics.

The difficulty of the moral life consists, first and foremost, in that our morives, because of the admixture of nature with freedom, cannot be purely directed toward doing the right thing and nothing but the right thing for its own sake. Thinking under the category of freedom, we can derive the postualtes of the moral law. But acting inevitably involves situations in which the category of nature is brought into play. For instance, you may find it impossible to resist feeling happy that you have done the right thing only for its own sake; but this means that you are motivated in part by the conditional "if happiness, then do the right thing." So you fail to attain pure motivation, as you should, even as you come ever closer to it. You are acting out of a mixed, not a purely categorical, imperative. The moral law, which the will aspires to, is an ideal that can only be approximated. But can this ideal be reached? Asymptotically, says Kant. If you know geometry, then you know that the asymptote of an object is defined as meeting that object at the infinity-point!

What you need to take away as you prepare for the proof of immortality is that the demands of the moral life - rightly understood - are such that moral perfection remains elusive forever...

The Proof of Immortality

This proof can be regarded as falling under the category of "moral" proof of immortality. It is, however, more intricate than it appears at first and presupposes some grasp of Kantian philosophy in general.

A crude proof of immortality based on moral considerations would go like this: Let us assume that it is just that virtues are rewarded and vices punished. Yet, that the wicked actually prosper and, so, have the resources to avoid punishment - and the virtuous, on account of being virtuous, are helpless and even more likely to be persecuted and be defenselessly involved in a vicious cycle of more suffering and disempowerment. Therefore, if justice is to be meted out accordingly, then, if this cannot take place in this life, there ought to be an afterlife in which proper reckoning is finally applied. We notice that there are many conditional statements (if-then statements) in all this. So, for the proof to work, the antecedents of the conditionals (the p in if-p-then-q) must also be true. Those can be put down as true but then the proof is weakened because one could demand evidence that those are indeed true. And additional proofs that show these antecedents to be true might be hard to come by.

This is not Kant's proof. But, in a sense, Kant has a way, given his overall philosophy, for providing this general type of proof. Recall from above that there are certain irremovable mental conditions for what it takes to have a representation of the world. Whatever is "really" out there, the preconditions under which we make sense of it are non-negotiable. Whether there is space or not, no object can be thought of as objectively real unless it is thought of as being in space. In the sphere of moral action, similarly, we cannot think of an act as being morally right without thinking of it as being unconditionally willed by the pure good will. As we saw, above, a consequence of this is that the prospects of acting in accordance with the dictates of pure moral action retreat unto infinity. But we are also conditioned to think of this as feasible. It is like trying to think of a game that is not winnable; yet, you are thinking of it as a game: it ought to be winnable, in accordance with its specified rules if it is to be thought of as a game. Although the game-analogy reminds us of later philosophy, this is not a far-fetched parallel to use for making sense of Kant's proof. The point is this: if what it takes for attaining pure moral action is "forever" so to speak, then we have no option but to think of moral action as stretching to infinity. This, of course, means that we need to be immortal. More correctly, unless we think of ourselves as immortal we cannot make sense of the conditions under which we understand morality itself.

One can raise the question: why should the morality-game be winnable if, in Kant's moral theory, there is supposed to be NO reason for doing the right thing besides that it IS the right thing? Even if the right thing cannot be done purely - because the motives are always mixed with extramoral wishes - this sense of impossible success does not affect what we should do: we should still strive to approximate the pure will in our actions as far as possible.

The reason why we are drawn to considerations of attainability of the end have to do with this: not only do we think of moral goods as being choiceworthy for themselves alone - if they are moral goods. We also think of virtue as deserving rewards and of vice as deserving punishment. This seems to contradict the point about not paying any attention to consequences when it comes to moral decisionmaking. Indeed, this is a famous Kantian antinomy of what he calls "practical reason." The mental constituents that enter into the obective representation of what we take to be the natural or the moral world can indeed conflict with each other - but this is how things are. An example from the natural world, in which an antinomy arises, is this: we cannot make sense of space as coming to and end. Yet, we also cannot make sense of something as stretching forever as we look to demarcate succession of points. Space cannot be both - infinite and bounded - and yet this is how we think.

In the moral sphere, the pull toward wanting virtue rewarded and vice punished draws toward this kind of moral argument we presented. And the pure motivational requirements imposed on the good act draw us toward thinking of the moral game as taking as long as it takes for it to be in principle winnable - and this is forever, if that's what it takes!

Kant's Immortality Proof

Can you think of a game that cannot be won, as constructed, but still counts as a game?

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Is Kant's Proof of Immortality Religious?

Although Kant was privately religious, of pietistic Lutheran background, his moral theory and the proof of immortality stand on their own without needing any religious props. Some keen observers, like the philosopher Nietzsche, claimed to detect an underlying religious temperament at work but the elements of Kant's theory, and the immortality proof, stand on an analysis of how human reason works only.

Notice, for instance, how the immortality proof we saw above, has premises and conclusion that are not compatible with the orthodox Christian view. Christian apocalypse, with the end of the world and the final judgment, draws the curtain on moral improvement: after the end, no more schooling or trying in the moral arena; the game is indeed over and eternal heaven and hell loom for the recipients of judgment. Kant's proof, on the other hand, reaches the conclusion that moral perfectible ought to be in principle unrestricted by time. The notion that moral perfection can be theoretically attainable without dispensation of grace also challenges aspects of religious orthodoxy.

Justice and Immortality

Is immortality necessary if justice is to be attained?

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© 2014 Odysseus Makridis

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    • OdysseusMakridis profile image
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      Odysseus Makridis 3 years ago from Netcong, NJ

      Thank you very much. I appreciate it. I have been a student of philosophy my whole life. Sometimes, it is some terminological detail that makes something hard to follow.

      Kant's proof has been ridiculed, by the way, by Nietzsche who took it to be unmasking the "Christian" Kant underneath. It is hard to get traction starting from this observation because, clearly, no premises from revealed religion are used in Kant's proof.

    • BLynd Logyk profile image

      Travis Murphy 3 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      This is the most information packed and well written hub I've came across yet. You are very persuasive with your writing, and very technically detailed.

      Excellent work and fantastic representation of Kant's ideas. Still not convinced of certain conclusions that could be drawn. But, I also feel a little lost, this stuff is hard to understand for the average person, and I recognize that my skepticism of such ideas isn't really worth quite as much as somebody who is educated and trained to think about these things. Still, I enjoy pondering! :)

      Thanks for this great work!

    • OdysseusMakridis profile image
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      Odysseus Makridis 3 years ago from Netcong, NJ

      Thank you.

      You are using "immortal" in a different sense - not referring to personal immortality as commonly understood.

      The elephant in the room is consciousness and its continuation. Philosophy studies this under the worrisome problem of "personal identity."

      We say things like "I am immortal through my genes" but that doesn't mean personal immortality. The target in immortality proofs has been to establish that the person, constituted of mental states, is immortal.

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      Howard Schneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Very informative Hub, Odysseus. This Kantian "Proof of Immortality" is very complex and dense. I do not think it actually proves immortality though it shows that societies and mankind are a continuous ongoing entity that has evolving morals and norms. We all are a part of this immortality and our actions matter within it and in regards to others in our world.