Religious Value and
the Antinomies of Transcendence,

after Kant

Thus it is wrong to say that the content of the divine commandments is the result of the Creator's whim, and equally wrong to say that the Creator is subject to external laws, ready-made rules that exist independently of Him which it is not in His power to invalidate. The first would question God's infinite wisdom, the second His omnipotence.

Leszek Koakowski (1927-2009), "On Natural Law" Is God Happy? Selected Essays [Basic Books, 2013, p.245-246], see the Ninth & Tenth Antinomies

A major element, perhaps the principal element, of historical religions are explanations about the ultimate, transcendent constituents of reality. Other issues, like the Problem of Evil, are explained in such terms: e.g. God's purposes and plans for the universe and our own fate after death.

Immanuel Kant's Antinomies, from the Critique of Pure Reason, are contradictions that he believed follow necessarily from our attempts to conceive the nature of transcendent reality. Kant thought that certain of his Antinomies (God and Freedom) could be resolved as "Postulates of Practical Reason." Here the view is that the Antinomies cannot be resolved and that attempts to conceive the transcendent will always produce irresolvable contradictions. This does not mean that there is no transcendent or that attempts to conceive the transcendent are meaningless. They are, just as Kant said, necessitated by reason itself. It does mean, however, that the transcendent defeats rational representation.

What follows are Kant's four Antinomies, omitting Kant's lengthy proofs for each, and six more possible Antinomies relevant to other transcendent objects, theology, and the Problem of Evil, with brief arguments:

Kant's Antinomies
The First Antinomy, of Space and Time:
THESIS
The world has a beginning in time, and is also limited as regards space.
ANTI-THESIS
The world has no beginning, and no limits in space; it is infinite as regards both time and space.[1]
The Second Antinomy, of Atomism:
THESIS
Every composite substance in the world is made up of simple parts, and nothing anywhere exists save the simple or what is composed of the simple.[2]
ANTI-THESIS
No composite thing in the world is made up of simple parts, and there nowhere exists in the world anything simple.
The Third Antinomy, of Freedom:
THESIS
Causality in accordance with laws of nature is not the only causality from which the appearances of the world can one and all be derived. To explain these appearances it is necessary to assume that there is also another causality, that of freedom.
ANTI-THESIS
There is no freedom; everything in the world takes place solely in accordance with laws of nature.
The Fourth Antinomy, of God:
THESIS
There belongs to the world, either as its part or as its cause, a being that is absolutely necessary.
ANTI-THESIS
An absolutely necessary being nowhere exists in the world, nor does it exist outside the world as its cause.
Additional Antinomies, supplemental to Kant
The Fifth Antinomy, of Immortality:
THESIS
People are immortal; for if people are not immortal, then death is absolutely real and crimes like murder involve an absolute and irremediable injury for which no retribution, however severe, is adequate.
ANTI-THESIS
People are not immortal; for if people are immortal, then there is no death and crimes like murder are unreal, making them ultimately of no moral consequence. People would have no compunction about committing murders.[3]
The Sixth Antinomy, of Purpose [4]:
THESIS
The world has a purpose; for if the world is supposed not to have a purpose, this means that nothing is for anything, which makes life and the world pointless and meaningless, and it also means that evils serve no good end, which makes them intolerable.
ANTI-THESIS
The world has no purpose; for if the world is supposed to have a purpose, then it is merely an instrumental good, existing merely for the intrinsic good of the end. This devalues the things of the world completely, rendering life intrinsically meaningless and without value.
The Seventh Antinomy, of Suffering:
THESIS
The suffering of life is for some good purpose; for if the suffering of life is not for some purpose, a "greater good," then this renders the sufferings absolutely pointless and meaningless and insults the suffering of the sufferers.
ANTI-THESIS
The suffering of life is not for some good purpose; for if the suffering of life is for some purpose, a "greater good," this trivializes and dismisses the sufferings themselves, makes the end the only thing of value, means that the sufferers are only being used for some ulterior motive, and insults the suffering of the sufferers.
The Eighth Antinomy, of Theodicy [5]:
THESIS
The world is essentially good, and this is our comfort in suffering; for if the world is supposed not to be essentially good, this absolutizes evil, rendering the sufferings of life senseless, since they are experienced for nothing. Suffering and evil must be for something, otherwise they make life completely meaningless; and if there is an omnipotent God, then everything that happens must have a purpose, however difficult it is for us to understand.
ANTI-THESIS
The world is essentially not good; for if the world is supposed to be essentially good, this trivializes the presence of evil, especially very great or on-going evils. Evils would become instrumental goods and thus meaningless in themselves; and we are put in the position of mocking and insulting the victims of evil by telling them that what happens to them is really good. Surely if there is an omnipotent God, He could accomplish His purposes in some other way than through the kind of horrors that people have suffered in the course of human history.
The Ninth Antinomy, of Theology, God's Will:
THESIS (Leibniz's Thesis)
God does not have an absolutely free and arbitrary will but always does what is good, indeed, the best; for if God does not always do what is the best, then He would do what is either evil or just pointless, and this would be intolerable and contradict our conception of a benevolent and loving God.
ANTI-THESIS (Spinoza's Thesis [6])
God has an absolutely free and arbitrary will and does not always do what would appear to be good; for if God always does what is good, this would limit God's omnipotence and contradict our conception of God as the Creator of everything. If God is the Creator of everything, then He is also the creator of all standards of goodness, which means that whatever He does is good by definition. If what God does or allows to happen does not appear to be good to us, it is meaningless for us to reproach God with it, since, even if we think we are not mistaken about what is good, the good is no standard independent of God to compare with God's actions.
The Tenth Antinomy, of Theology, God & the Good;
The Antinomy of the
Euthyphro:
THESIS (the Greek Thesis)
"The pious is loved by the gods because it is pious" (Euthyphro 10a). Thus, more generally, God is good, recognizes the good, conforms Himself to the good, and does the good. Therefore, the good exists prior and independent of God, and standards of value do not depend on the desires or actions of God. Praising God as good meaningfully attributes to God virtues that, conceivably, He might not have.[7]
ANTI-THESIS (the Islâmic Thesis)
"The pious is pious because it is loved by the gods" (Euthyphro 10a). Thus, more generally, the good, by definition, is whatever God wishes or does. God is the creator of everything, including all the standards of value. It is consequently meaningless to question the goodness of God, and praising God for His goodness is redundant and superfluous. [Compare, Ninth Antinomy]

The "solution" to Antinomies is that we cannot know how to resolve them. We must suspend judgment in the matter. This was the recommendation of the Greek Skeptic Pyrrho of Elis (Pyrrhôn Êleîos), who did not believe that any knowledge, about anything, was possible. This solution for the Problem of Evil and knowledge of transcendent objects, therefore, I would call, on the pattern of Kant's "Transcendental Idealism" (where most people have no idea what Kant meant by "idealism"), "Transcendental Pyrrhonism."

A full bodied "Transcendental Pyrrhonism" would be that we cannot know whether or not there is a God, whether or not there is a soul, whether or not there is really freedom, whether or not there is immortality, whether or not there is a purpose to the world, whether or not suffering has meaning, whether or not life has meaning, and whether God has a benevolent or an absolutely free and arbitrary will. This is stronger that the traditional viewpoint of Buddhism, which does assert that there is no soul (âtman) and that there is no God (Brahman), even though the Buddha himself simply refused to "elucidate" these things and even though we might expect the Four-Fold Negation to be applied to the soul and God as much as to other things. And, of course, the Buddha did assert the meaningfulness of life through the achievement of Nirvân.a.

Curiously, Pyrrho of Elis may have derived inspiration directly from the Four-Fold Negation itself, for Pyrrho had traveled to India with his teacher Anaxarchus in the army of Alexander the Great, "with the result that he even associated with the Naked Philosophers (Gymnosophistaí) in India and with the Magi (Mágois)" [Diogenes Laertius]. The most striking sign of this possible influence is how Pyrrho expressed himself in the actual form of the Four-Fold Negation: "...but we should be unopinionated, uncommitted, and unwavering, saying concerning each individual thing that it no more is than is not, or it both is and is not, or it neither is nor is not" [Aristocles]. The entire tradition of Hellenistic skepticism may thus have Buddhist roots. And since the Hellenistic Academic Skeptics based their skepticism on the idea that equally good arguments can be offered for any thesis, which is the form of Kant's Antinomies, we might even say that Kant's own doctrine owes something to Buddhist influence.

We might ask about "Transcendental Pyrrhonism," "How can we live like this?" Of course, having accepted any particular religion, one does not need to live like this. Having rejected all religion, one may also live on any terms that one may have accepted. On the other hand, living with "Transcendental Pyrrhonism" might mean that one must live as though there is a God, who is watching over us, and as though there is not, which leaves us on our own. This might seem rather difficult. Living as though we were immortal and as though we were not might be clearer, since the former requires us to plan for the future, while the latter requires us to value the day as though there is no tomorrow. Both attitudes, indeed, seem to address the human condition. We should devalue neither the day nor the future. Similarly, we might think that it is only up to us to testify to what is right and good and beautiful, doing what is right for its own sake, even as we hope that some ultimate remedy awaits wrongs and evils that we cannot address. Kant asked "What can we hope?" But "hope" is not the word to use if we were to know what the future holds, or does not hold. To hope is to confess our ignorance.

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Religious Value and the Antinomies of Transcendence, Note 1


Compare: "These theories which The Blessed One [The Buddha] has left unelucidated, has set aside and rejected,--that the world is eternal, that the world is not eternal, that the world is finite, that the world is infinite..." from the Majjhima-Nikâya, Sutta 63, in Buddhism in Translations, by Henry Clarke Warren, Atheneum, 1987.

The interpretation of this in Buddhism may be either, (1) that the question whether the world is finite or infinite is unimportant, "unefidying," and so may be disregarded, or (2) that the question cannot be answered because in the nature of things it is undecidable. The Kantian interpretation, of course, as well as most historical Buddhist interpretation, is for the latter.

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Religious Value and the Antinomies of Transcendence, Note 2


The issue here is whether matter is infinitely divisible. The "simple" would be an atom, which cannot be divided further. Modern atoms, of course, can be divided, but then they consist of sub-atomic particles, which do appear to be "simple." If Kant's argument against simple parts is based on the divisibility of space, it fails for modern elementary sub-atomic particles (quarks and leptons), which, as Dirac Point Particles, do not have any spatial extension and so are not spatially divisible. On the other hand, sub-atomic particles have other kinds of "parts"--charge, mass, lepton number, baryon number, strangeness, etc.--and the interaction of these means that particles can change into other kinds of particles. "Simple" had always implied indestructible in ancient and mediaeval metaphysics. Only mass-energy (E=mc2), in whatever form, may now be regarded as indestructible.

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Religious Value and the Antinomies of Transcendence, Note 3


Compare: "These theories which The Blessed One [The Buddha] has left unelucidated, has set aside and rejected...that the soul and the body are identical, that the soul is one thing and the body another, that the saint exists after death, that the saint does not exist after death, that the saint both exists and does not exist after death, that the saint neither exists nor does not exist after death..." from the Majjhima-Nikâya, Sutta 63, op. cit.

This would be another "unedifying" issue for Buddhism. Its undecidability has less the moral dimension of the arguments of the Antinomy than the metaphysical one of whether the "saint exists after death." If the saint cannot be said either to exist or not or both or neither, then this is conformable to the Kantian point about the impossibility of a consistent metaphysical theory of transcendent objects, like souls.

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Religious Value and the Antinomies of Transcendence, Note 4


The Antinomy of Purpose could be called the "Forrest Gump" Antinomy, since, at the end of the 1995 movie Forrest Gump, the title character, Forrest Gump, asks whether things happen because of "destiny," i.e. a purpose, or because everything is just floating around "accidental like," i.e. purposeless. He concludes that it is "both," which is a suitably paradoxical take on it and at least the beginning of a Pyrrhonian or Buddhist approach.

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Religious Value and the Antinomies of Transcendence, Note 5


The idea of the Antinomy of Theodicy was inspired by a comment from Leora Batnitzky, currently in the Religion Department at Princeton University. At a dissertation defense on Leibniz, Dr. Batnistzky commented that there seemed to be two kinds of people, those who are comforted by Theodicy, and those who are offended by it. The former would certainly agree with the Thesis of the Antinomy; the latter might tend to agree with the Anti-Thesis.

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Religious Value and the Antinomies of Transcendence, Note 6


Baruch Spinoza actually doesn't believe that God has a will at all, but he does affirm that this view is closer to the truth than the common view of the rationality and goodness of God, subsequently supported by Leibniz. As with so much of Spinoza, it is noteworthy that his theology is much closer to orthodox Islâm (Occasionalism, denying free will, rejecting theodicy, etc.) than to traditional Judaism or Christianity.

Compare:  , Allâhu yaf'alu mâ yashâ'u, "God does what He wishes" [Qur'ân, Surah 3:40, or 3:35]. Or, as translated by Ahmed Ali [Al-Qur'ân, Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 215, Surah 13:31], "Have the believers not learnt that if God had so willed He could have guided all mankind?" See discussion A.J. Wensick, The Muslim Creed, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., London, 1965, p. 84.

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Religious Value and the Antinomies of Transcendence, Note 7


Consider: "God saw that it was good" [Hebrew, Wayyare' Elôhîm kî tôbh] (Genesis 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, 1:21, 1:25); and "And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). If whatever God does is good by definition, then it would not be necessary for God to "see" that His work was good.

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