Share This Episode
Renewing Your Mind R.C. Sproul Logo

Kant’s Moral Argument

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
January 27, 2024 12:01 am

Kant’s Moral Argument

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

On-Demand Podcasts NEW!

This broadcaster has 1599 podcast archives available on-demand.

Broadcaster's Links

Keep up-to-date with this broadcaster on social media and their website.

January 27, 2024 12:01 am

Our sense of duty to do good can only have meaning if it comes from God. Is this enough to prove that God exists? Today, R.C. Sproul responds to the influential and problematic views of Immanuel Kant.

Get R.C. Sproul's 'The Consequences of Ideas' 35-Part DVD Series and the Digital Study Guide for Your Gift of Any Amount:

Don't forget to make your home for daily in-depth Bible study and Christian resources.

A donor-supported outreach of Ligonier Ministries. Explore all of our podcasts:


If Kant is right, then manifestly Paul is wrong. And if Paul is right, then Kant has made an error. And I'm obviously convinced that Paul is right, and why I've been a stick in the mud with respect to classical apologetics is that I'm saying that the task of the Christian philosopher in our day is to knock this wall down and not just lie down and play dead at the feet of Kant. What are the consequences of our ideas? Why is it that today it's a commonly held belief that we can only know that which we can see with our eyes or see through a microscope? That wasn't what was always believed, and we as Christians certainly don't believe that.

The apostle Paul didn't believe or teach that. It's good to have you with us for this Saturday edition of Renewing Your Mind. We've been spending time on Saturdays considering the philosophical ideas and the fallout of the Enlightenment as we feature a portion of R.C. Sproul's overview of philosophy titled, The Consequences of Ideas.

You can request the entire series and learn more at So what did Immanuel Kant believe about God, and in what way did he disagree with what Paul teaches in Romans 1? And why did he oppose the classical arguments for the existence of God?

Here's Dr. Sproul. If we were to try to capture the agnosticism of Immanuel Kant with respect to theology and metaphysics, it would be with the common expression that you hear, quote, you can't get there from here. Kant is famous for building, as it were, an unscalable wall between this world and the transcendent realm. The wall is so solid, so impregnable, so high you can't get over it, so low you can't get under it, so wide you can't get around it, and so thick you can't burrow through it. Following up on another philosopher's theory, whose name was Lessing, who gave us the famous metaphor of Lessing's ditch, where Lessing argued that the contingent truths of history cannot get you to the eternal truths of God.

You can't get there from here. Well, in this schema, Kant made a distinction that has perhaps been more famous than anything else that he's done and also perhaps more significant than anything else that he's done, and that is he distinguishes between two realms. One is called the numinal realm, and the other is called the phenomenal realm. Now, the phenomenal realm is the realm of sensations.

It is the realm of appearances. It is the concrete material realm where the scientist is engaged in his exploration and in his inquiry. It is the realm where sensations occur, so we might call it the sensational realm. Sensational not in the sense of fantastic or exciting, but sensational in a more literal sense in the sense of it is the realm in which we have sensations or perceptions of physical things, the external world to us. And the phenomenal world is basically the arena of investigation for the scientist.

The scientist is exploring and measuring and experimenting with things that he can perceive. Now the numinal realm is the realm of metaphysics. And for Kant, there are three things that he puts in the numinal world, that is, three notions or categories, and they are God, the self, and what he calls the dingsiches, or what we would call essences.

And let's look at those in reverse order. What he's speaking about as essences are those metaphysical realities that all of the previous philosophers have been struggling with, with their concepts of substance or the substrate. And remember when we looked at Locke, and Locke made a distinction between primary and secondary qualities, and then Berkeley challenged that, saying that all the qualities were secondary. And we remember Aristotle, his distinction between substance and accidents. Everybody assumes that there is some kind of substratum of reality that exists beyond what we can perceive, that there are real essences. For Plato, those essences were the ideas that are the eternal ideas.

For Aristotle, they adhere in objects themselves. But whether you're a Platonist or an Aristotelian, you still had some concept of substance, some ontology, some sense of being. But Kant is saying you never have a perception of substance. You never have a sensation of essence or of being.

All that we can perceive are the external manifestations of these things. And so we can't know what that essence is. In fact, we can't even know that there is an essence that underlies these perceptions. Now that doesn't mean that he didn't believe in essences or in substances. What he's saying is we can't know them. He's agnostic about them, and that science cannot learn anything about essences, so we might as well abandon any pursuit of it. And metaphysics becomes more and more speculative and less and less scientific as long as it's trying to go to the meta realm, to the realm beyond physics into the metaphysical realm, trying to get to this essence. Now remember, our study in the history of philosophy began with Thales and with the ancient quest for ultimate reality. Basically what Kant is saying here is that that quest that has gone on from time immemorial is a fool's errand.

You can't get there from here. Well, what about the self? Remember Descartes came to conclusion that the one thing he knew with absolute certainty was that he existed.

I think, therefore, I am. Now, Kant said yes, but in order to get there, he's assuming a causal relationship between his thinking and his being, and he still never has a sensation or a perception of his own self, so that the self is something that is speculated by Descartes on the basis of a logical deduction from his thought. Now, I'll come back to that logical deduction element for a moment, but Kant coined a phrase to describe our knowledge of the self, and it was the phrase, and it was the phrase, the transcendental apperception of the ego.

This is one of the reasons why people who aren't trained in philosophy have a very difficult time reading Immanuel Kant because he seems to be fond of creating a whole new vocabulary and a whole new language. What in the world is a transcendental apperception of this ego? Well, again, this is kind of an intuitive thing where we have a sort of, you've got to have a sort of immediate intuitive awareness of yourself as a self. It's not something that you can know theoretically, but you just go with it, sort of like the pure intuitions of space and time that I mentioned earlier. But you can't penetrate to the core of the being of the person.

All you're left with are sensations and observed behavioral patterns and that sort of thing. You can't really get to know the self because the self remains unknowable in the theoretical sense. But when we look at this division between the noumenal world and the phenomenal world, it's not so much the self and the essences that have created the consternation as a result of Kant's agnosticism. It's the third concept, the notion of God. Now, Kant grew up in a religious home and he professed a certain belief in the existence of God. But he said that we cannot prove the existence of God with rational or scientific arguments. He said that the traditional arguments, the teleological argument, which was the one that impressed him the most, which was the argument from design, that is that this world manifests an incredible pattern of design and purpose and harmony, and such design points to a cosmic designer.

How can you possibly have design without a designer? And Kant, his deathbed, was very much impressed with that argument, but he said it wasn't conclusive because we're not sure that that design is not something that we are adding to this experience that we're having. So then maybe we are the ones who are imposing design with our own minds, and it's not something that we're simply encountering. But the other arguments, the cosmological argument and the ontological argument, are usually distinguished from one another. And the cosmological argument usually means that you reason back to the existence of God as the first cause for the world that we perceive.

And that is based upon cause and effect, or on the law of causality. So we reason back from this finite, contingent world back to an infinite and independent, eternal, self-existent being, as we've seen with Thomas Aquinas. You remember when we had a brief look at Anselm that Anselm posed his version of the ontological argument. And the ontological argument of Anselm was recast both by Descartes and then by a later philosopher by the name of Christian Wolff.

And Christian Wolff was the one that Kant critiqued most sharply. And he basically says this, that all of the arguments for the existence of God in the final analysis come back to the ontological argument. They are arguments from being. And he says, that is, Kant says, that existence is not an attribute. And that fundamentally, he made the same argument against the ontological argument that Gondola did against Anselm's argument, that in terms of the idea of God, there is no difference between the idea of a fictional God and the idea of an existing God. Remember when Anselm said, God is that which no greater than can be conceived? And Gondola said, hey, I have this imaginary island, the most perfect island conceivable. Just because I can conceive of a perfect island does not mean that that island actually exists in reality.

And Anselm replied by saying, well, that's true with respect to islands, but we're talking here about the most perfect being. And that being cannot be conceived as not being, because if you're thinking of it as not being, you're not really thinking of what we're talking about here. Well, Kant talked again about this difference between a hundred guilders or golden hundred dollars, imaginary dollars and a hundred real dollars in terms of the idea of dollars.

There's no difference. You still have the same idea of a dollar, whether it exists or doesn't exist. And so he rejected ontological arguments for God and at the same time rejected the cosmological argument for God, because he said, even though he was committed to the law of non-contradiction and the law of causality that are necessary to his categories to order, he rejected ontological order, the sensations that we have. The assumption that is made by classical theists is that those categories that work and are necessary transcendentally to sort out sensations in this world, like the law of causality and the law of non-contradiction, without which you can't sort out this mass of sensations that you have. How do we know that we can transfer those things to the metaphysical realm?

Just because a raindrop requires a cause doesn't mean that we can move from the phenomenal world where causality works and jump over this to the nominal world, because we have no perception of it, no sensation of it. Now, to buttress his critique of classical theism, he also set up a case of what he calls antinomies. He says, if you argue philosophically for the existence of God, you run into irreconcilable contradictions, where you can talk about free will or sovereignty, issues of that kind, and one school of thought argues for the ultimacy of human freedom, the other one for the ultimacy of sovereignty, and those two are incompatible, and so that rational speculation leads you ultimately to contradictions. And because these antinomies persist in philanthropy, in philosophical speculation about God, you can't really know which one of the poles of the contradiction is true, or even if you can apply logic to this supra-metaphysical world. Just because it applies here in this realm, Kant would argue, does not mean that it must apply up here. So, with logic, causality, intuition, all of the things that we have, we can't get over this wall.

Now, much of subsequent philosophy is an attempt to smash that wall down, or somehow to get around the wall, to recover and to restore a ground basis for metaphysics and or for theology. I've often said, for example, that Paul in Romans 1 argues that God is known, He is known through the creature, through the creation, through the things that are made. Kant is saying you cannot know that God exists from the phenomenal realm.

Now, I say this if I can be transcendental for a second. If Kant is right, then manifestly Paul is wrong. And if Paul is right, then Kant has made an error.

And I'm obviously convinced that Paul is right, and why I've been a stick in the mud with respect to classical apologetics is that I'm saying that the task of the Christian philosopher in our day is to knock this wall down and not just lie down and play dead at the feet of Kant. But many theologians have abandoned natural reason and natural theology altogether because of the Kantian critique. Now, quickly in the time that we have left, though Kant says we cannot know the existence of God through theoretical thought, in addition to his critique of pure reason, he also wrote his critique of practical reason, where he kicked God out of the front door of the philosopher's house. He ran around to the side door and to the kitchen door and tried to sneak God back in the back door because he said even though we can't know God theoretically, for all practical purposes, we must assume the existence of God.

God's existence is a practical necessity. And to show that, he developed his moral argument for the existence of God, and again, following his transcendental method. You've probably all heard of Kant's theories with respect to ethics, where he talks about the famous concept of the categorical imperative, kind of Kant's version of the golden rule. He says that it is the experience of people to realize that everybody has some sense of oughtness, some sense of duty, or what we would say in simple terms, some sense of right and wrong.

Now again, he's not going to argue psychologically for this, where some psychologist might come in and say, well, the reason for that is that because the whole world's become neurotic as a result of Queen Victoria or the Puritans or whatever, and that's why everybody has troubled consciences, Kant wasn't looking at this from a psychological perspective. Again, he approaches the question transcendentally. He says, okay, we all have this moral sense, this categorical imperative, an absolute sense of duty to do what is right. And he asks this question, what would have to be true for that to be meaningful? Or to put it another way, what would have to be true for ethics to be meaningful?

And bottom line, what he concludes is there has to be a God. As Dostoevsky mentioned later, if there is no God, all things are permissible, because without an absolute standard of righteousness, then all ethics become are personal preferences, either of the individual or of the group who is in power. But for ethics to be meaningful, ultimately, there has to be a standard. And basically, Kant reasons this way, for ethics to be meaningful, ultimately, there must be meaningful, ultimately, there must be justice. Because if in the final analysis, the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer and injustice prevails, there is no practical reason to seek to be ethical, because crime pays and justice doesn't. So, for ethics to be meaningful, the first necessary condition is justice. Well, then he asks the question, what would be necessary for justice to be real?

Well, obviously, we live in a world that's topsy-turvy, that's upside down, and justice does not always prevail. So, for there to be ultimate justice, something else must happen. There must be life after death.

You have to survive the grave. There has to be a personal continuity of consciousness, or you can never experience the full measure of justice. Well, suppose you do survive the grave, is that enough to ensure justice? No, there has to be a judgment. And that judgment must be perfect. And for there to be perfect judgment and perfect justice, there must be a perfect judgment and a perfect judge. And in the perfections of that judge, that judge must know all the facts of the case, all the mitigating circumstances. He has to have a perfect understanding of every transaction before him if he's going to give a perfect verdict. But not only must he have all knowledge, but he must be righteous, because you could have a judge who knows all the facts, still corrupt, and could be susceptible to the bribe. So, this judge has to be impeccable in his character. But even that's not enough to guarantee justice, because he must also have the power to implement his justice.

He must have the power to enforce the laws of justice. And as you can see, before you know it, you have an omnipotent, omniscient, righteous, and holy judge judging people. And he says without that, there can be no grounds for ethics. Well, of course, he said, for practical purposes, for civilization to survive, we must live as if there is a God. Now, of course, the next generation, the Nietzsche's of this world, came up and said, okay, ethics aren't meaningful. There is no God. Ethics are meaningless. Civilization is a joke.

Let's face it and bite the bullet. And that's where we are, trying to be suspended between the meaningful and the meaningless. And as long as that wall is there, the only thing you have is an existential, you know, hope that maybe something's out there, and that if you jump into the abyss, maybe God will catch you. But we'll look at the responses to Kant as we continue later.

That was R.C. Sproul from his series, The Consequences of Ideas. The history of philosophy did not begin with Immanuel Kant. His ideas built upon those who went before him. And as Dr. Sproul reminded us today on Renewing Your Mind, there would be those who would follow Kant, respond to him, and even move further away from what the Bible clearly teaches. You can trace the history of Western philosophy when you study Dr. Sproul's complete 35-message overview. You can request your copy on a special edition DVD that includes digital access to the messages and study guide when you give a gift of any amount at This series is used by many homeschool families and has helped Christians around the world see where the world, rather than the Word of God, has influenced their thinking, or the thinking of their neighbors. Request your copy until midnight today at Next Saturday, we meet a man who responded to Immanuel Kant and ushered in a new chapter in the history of philosophy. So join us then here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-02-21 13:20:24 / 2024-02-21 13:28:34 / 8

Get The Truth Mobile App and Listen to your Favorite Station Anytime