Kant has a famous quote;

Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind

This suggests we can't understand anything without (independently of) the use of concepts, which are human and mental things. But evolution through natural selection seems to suppose a world that existed before our understanding and is independent of our concepts. Is this possible?

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    The idea that concepts are (exclusively) human things is a vast assumption. It would make a mockery of Kant. One has to think in terms of 'mind-in-general'. – user20253 Sep 16 '18 at 10:57
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    I see two problems in trying to answer the question. What "reality" do you have in mind? Personal, scientific, mathematical, religious, logical, etc.? Before we can make sense of it, we must know (or agree on a definition of) what reality IS! – Guill Sep 17 '18 at 21:28
  • Just to add the cite.Critique of Pure Reason: “thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind” (A51/B76). – Mark Andrews Sep 18 '18 at 5:09
  • I don't think the question does necessarily involve the mind body problem or dualism. Even if the mind is a separate substance from the physical universe it may or may not be possible for it to make sense of a reality that is independent of our understanding. You need to concentrate on the question, not on the mind body problem, or dualism. – Justin LeSaux Nov 22 '18 at 10:53

The answer depends on which "reality" you have in mind:

There is physical reality - independent of humans and their understandings.

There is personal reality - each human has their own "reflection" of reality inside their brain/consciousness.

There is religious reality - includes personal reality, deities, and intangible places.

In addition, we must come to an agreement on what we mean by "reality."


I think this is possible; by trying to see how the contents of a situation can THEMSELVES be sufficient to bring about what occurs, or what we are trying to understand. This does not PROVE that what we come up with is independent of our understanding, but in as far as we seem successful there is no evidence it does depend on our understanding.

An example of this is evolution through natural selection, which in turn was influenced by uniformitarianism; the view that the natural world should be explained by the continuation of objects properties and processes currently observable. It is by the continuation of these things that the contents of a situation can seem themselves sufficient.

This in turn gives a different answer to Hume's questions why we suppose the continued (and independent) existence of body; Because, if we can suppose the continued existence of some object as a situation develops, we don't have to draw a conclusion beyond its original existence, so the continuation of that objects original existence must appear sufficient for its part in the development of the situation. For example, if we suppose an object that travels to disappear behind a screen and then re-appears on the other side of the screen; if we can suppose it is the same existence that continues and re-appears, since we don't have to draw a conclusion beyond that original existence, it appears sufficient to account for the subsequent appearance. But if that original existence is to account in this way for the subsequent appearances it must exist behind the screen even in those parts we haven't imagined or thought of.

In this way cause and effect can be made objective sense of insofar as we can avoid drawing conclusions beyond factors in a situation, making the situation a re-arrangement. So, instead of Hume's example of the collision of two billiard balls, we can take an example similar to Archimedes's thinking, that of a ball being pushed into a bucket of water. Since the volume of ball and water continue, as do their other properties (known by experience) such as impermeability of the ball, and fluidity of and weight of the water; as the ball is pushed into the water volume of ball-plus water is more than volume of water alone so the water level rises (and I believe you can see why, if these things continue together in the situation that result should be necessary; no other result is compatible with their continued existence together in the situation). The effect is a re-arrangement, not something essentially new.

Since we are trying to avoid drawing conclusions beyond 'objects' this is different from having to add any description to the situation. So, again, what we are up to is not something obviously added to the situation by us. But of course, it is not the only possible way/attitude towards handing the situation.

  • "In as far as we seem successful there is no evidence it does depend on our understanding"??? The usual position is that what we know obviously depends on our concepts, the idea then is to figure out some weaker sense of "independent" that might still apply. Unfortunately I do not see anything in that direction in what you say. "Avoid drawing conclusions beyond factors in a situation" does not help, already the "factors", or the "situation" for that matter, are human concepts that can not be "objective" in an unrestricted sense. – Conifold Sep 15 '18 at 22:14
  • what do you make of the argument that the world of evolution through natural selection can't essentially depend on anything human because for most of the time it operated there were no humans, or their minds, or language or concepts, and these are all accidental products of it?--we might have to employ some of these things in order to realise its true, but what we realise is true can't depend on them. – Justin LeSaux Sep 18 '18 at 10:17
  • "The world of evolution", "minds", "accidents", etc., are all human concepts themselves, and what we realize as true depends on their meaning, hence is itself laced with our understanding. To get an argument you can not operate with the naive unanalyzed concept of "independent", and even more sophisticated attempts to do so by various philosophers are controversial. – Conifold Sep 18 '18 at 17:47
  • So according to you we have a concept of a world, and a concept of evolution through natural selection, and a concept of being accidental, and a concept of existing for hundreds of millions of years. But although in combining these concepts we get the perhaps true concept that humans and their concepts didn’t exist for hundreds of millions of years and it is just luck if they ever do exist, we are unable to make sense of this ‘existing for hundreds of millions of years independently of concepts’ because that’s just our concept? – Justin LeSaux Sep 19 '18 at 8:43
  • Or perhaps you think that we can make some sense of a world independently of our concepts, but it will be inevitably tainted by our concepts? But how is there something we can see is tainted by our concepts unless we can get some sort of inkling of it independently of our concepts? If everything is conceptual, there isn’t anything left to be tainted. – Justin LeSaux Sep 19 '18 at 8:44

" Let me get this straight, you are saying that you can look at a "situation" and understand what is happing without prior knowledge of any concepts to facilitate such understandings? I could believe that if you can describe to me such an instance, i.e. describe a concept that noone has heard before without using composites of known concepts – christo183 2 "

The thing is why you say something is conceptual? Because someone's heard of it before? Or perhaps because there are alternative ways of handling 'reality'? I don't think either of these require it must be conceptual. If a ball being pushed into a bucket of water makes the water level rise because the volume of the ball + water is greater than the water volume alone, so the water must go somewhere else, so it rises in the bucket. This shows how the ball being pushed into the water is sufficient for the effect, but if it needed to depend on our concepts the ball and the water could themselves be sufficient.

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