Space

I’ve owned a copy of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for probably 20 years now. After an initial attempt at reading this, it has sat on my various bookshelves – usually far away from the Objectivist shelf – and tempted me with its evil. Finally, I picked it up a couple weeks ago and began trying to comprehend its pages, under the motivation of knowing one’s enemy. I am reading Kant gradually, as a challenge to my understanding of Objectivism, as an exercise in learning through contrast.

The basic premises of Kant are easily dismissed – this entire work rests on the falsedichotomy of Analytic versus Synthetic propositions, further supported by the presumption that the human mind comes pre-formed with a-priori knowledge. Nonetheless, it is equally important to resolve each of his detailed arguments into the categories of the completely incorrect in premise and argument, vs. the correct, but argued from erroneous assumptions. Where possible, I would like to be able to counter his erroneous conclusions with more than merely a negative evaluation,and providea positive explanation of an alternative conclusion.

In the opening sections of Kant’s text, after revealing his overall thesis in a lengthy introduction, he begins building evidence for the existence of a-priori synthetic knowledge by considering the concepts of Space and Time. The concept of space, he declares, is not arrived at through experience of the senses. The observation of individualized entities, separated in location, pre-supposes and invokes the concept of space. He places emphasis on the fact that while we can visualize objects being in space, we can also accept that space may exist devoid of objects. Because we can understand space in the absence of entities, we must therefore not need entities – and their observation – in order to comprehend the properties of space. Therefore, we must be able to intuit space without requiring experience. Space is then an a-priori synthetic concept.

Against this description, I offer the following. The newly born infant fails to comprehend the concept of space. His very first observations of the world through his sensory apparatus will not result immediately in an understanding of individuality of entities. All is a continuous blur of light, sound, smell, and touch.

In the very first moments of life, the infant begins the learning process. His limbs move about and make contact with objects. The brain begins to form connections between the motor movements of his various muscles and the sensations of touch from epidermal nerves. His other senses are also immediately active.The eyes at first are unfocussed. Through a rapid process of learning, the brain associates clarity of sight with levels of ciliary muscle contraction (the muscles controlling focus of the eye’s lens) for various content of his visual field. Both the sequence and magnitude of motor movements associated with various sensations of touch and sight, and the training of the focussing mechanism of the eye form the first yardsticks by which the concept of distance, and therefore of space, is learned. A third distance and orientation measuring sensation is hearing, which learns distance from the magnitude of a sound, and direction from the differential timing of the reception of sound between the two ears. (The use of differential timing to determine orientation is well-documented in neuroscience – I found this to be an amazing fact).

After a very short period of time – as little as a few hours, at most a day – the human infant will begin formulating an understanding of space from these sensual observations. The brain will accumulate remembered – trained – connections between motor movements and sensations. Space will be understood and measured by the muscular motions required to reach a nearby object. Sight and hearing will at first be secondary checks on the measurement of distance and orientation. As the space intuition matures, over weeks and months, sight and hearing will become increasingly the dominant source of spatial information. Finally, over a period of years, the spatial intuition will become increasingly generalized to account for distances beyond the child’s immediate experience.

As evidence that spatial intuition is gained through experience, and that the process of internalizing and learning the concept of space can last years, if not a lifetime, consider the following examples. A young child will only begin to understand the distance to a specific destination after having repeatedly travelled to that destination using the same means of transport.Say Iwalk my 2 year olddaughter to the end of our driveway repeatedly (a distance of about 400 ft), and then on other days walk her to a nearby park (a distance of about 1/4 mile). She will soon understand the relative length of time it takes us to cover these two distances, and since the mode of transportation is constant, she will begin to grasp the relative distances involved. If I then drive her past the end of the driveway, and past the park, and on into town (about 4 miles away), she will similarly begin to grasp those relative distances. Notably, there can result some confusion at first – specifically about the distance to the park – it will simultaneously seem far away at walking speed, and close at hand at driving speed. (As you can guess, I’ve heard thisconfusion in the form of a complaint – “Why does it take so long to get to the park, Dad?” “Because we’re walking there”).

In later years, it remains true that until an individual travels a given distance, or farther, it is hard to grasp that distance. Even though my geography is rather accurate, I didn’t fully understand the size of the United States until I flew from New York to San Diego a few years ago (and properly integrating that experience is definitely complicated by the changing of time zones – even though I abstractly understand the effect, I still “feel” that flying from California to New York takes more time than flying from New York to California). Saying that the Moon is 380,000 miles from Earth does not communicate its distance completely. Watching men travel on a spacecraft whichtravels100 miles to reacha lowEarth orbit in 30 minutes,forover threedays to reach the Moon brings clarity to the meaning of that distance (though this is a confused example physically, due to deceleration along the way,these flights still improvedour understanding of the distance). Similarly, it is undoubtably true that no one can claim an understanding of the distance to the nearest star, let alone the sizes of galaxies or distances between them.

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