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What atheists Kant refute

OPINION: Reason must know its limits in order to be truly reasonable.

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Some critics have understood Kant to be denying the existence of external reality or of arguing that all of reality is "in the mind." Kant emphatically rejects this. He insists that the noumenon obviously exists because it is what gives rise to phenomena. In other words, our experience is an experience of something. Perhaps the best way to understand this is to see Kant as positing two kinds of reality: the material reality that we experience and reality itself. To many, the implication of Kant's argument is that reality as a whole is, in principle, inaccessible to human perception and human reason.

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So powerful is Kant's argument here that his critics have been able to answer him only with derision, as though his arguments are self-evidently fallacious. When I challenged Daniel Dennett to debunk Kant's argument, he responded on his website by saying several people had already refuted Kant. But he didn't provide any refutations and he didn't name any names. Basically, Mr. Dennett was relying on the ignorance of the audience. In fact, there are no such refutations.

Although Kant's argument seems counterintuitive – in the way that some of the greatest ideas from Copernicus to Einstein are counterintuitive — no one who understands the central doctrines of the world's leading religions should have any difficulty grasping his main point. Kant's philosophical vision is largely congruent with the teachings of many faiths that the empirical world is not the only world. Ours is a world of appearances only, in which we see things in a limited and distorted way – "through a glass, darkly," as the apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians. The spiritual reality constitutes the only permanent reality there is. Christianity teaches that while reason can point to the existence of this higher domain, it cannot on its own fully comprehend that domain.

Thus, when Christopher Hitchens and other atheists routinely dismiss religious claims on the grounds that "what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence," they are making what philosophers like to call a category mistake. We learn from Kant that within the domain of experience, human reason is sovereign, but it is in no way unreasonable to believe things on faith that simply cannot be adjudicated by reason.

When atheists summarily dismiss such common ideas as the immortality of the soul or the afterlife on the grounds that they have never found any empirical proofs for either, they are asking for experiential evidence in a domain that is entirely beyond the reach of the senses. In this domain, Kant argues, the absence of such evidence cannot be used as the evidence for absence.

Notice that Kant's argument is entirely secular: It does not employ any religious vocabulary, nor does it rely on any kind of faith. But in showing the limits of reason, Kant's philosophy "opens the door to faith," as the philosopher himself noted.

Kant exposes the ignorant boast of atheists that atheism operates on a higher intellectual plane than theism. He shows that reason must know its limits in order to be truly reasonable. Atheism foolishly presumes that reason is in principle capable of figuring out all that there is, while theism at least knows that there is a reality greater than, and beyond, that which our senses and our minds can ever apprehend.

Dinesh D'Souza's new book "What's So Great About Christianity," is out this week.

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