The Incredible Shrinking Thinking Man, Or, Cosmic Dignitarianism.
By Robert Hanna
You can also read or download a complete .pdf version this essay HERE.
The Incredible Shrinking Thinking Man, Or, Cosmic Dignitarianism
A few weeks ago, I re-watched Jack Arnold’s 1957 B-film masterpiece, The Incredible Shrinking Man, one of the best Cold War/McCarthy era science fiction movies.
In addition to expressing–effectively and subtly–that all-too-familiar anxiety about nuclear annihilation and mechanistic Big Science, it’s also an ingenious philosophical thought experiment about physical, biological, and mental scale and size: if, while preserving our conscious minds, we were somehow reduced to the scale and size of the most basic elements and structure of the natural universe, then what would it be like for “human, all-too-human” conscious minded animals like us?
Here’s the final voice-over monologue in the movie:
I was continuing to shrink, to become… What? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens, the universe, worlds beyond number. [Nature]’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of Man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon Nature. That existence begins and ends is Man’s conception, not Nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away and in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To [Nature], there is no zero. I still exist.[i]
Just to give this striking view a handy philosophical label, I’ll call it cosmic dignitarianism.
More specifically, my take on the movie’s thought-experiment is that it demonstrates (i) the inherent complementarity and integration of conscious minds like ours–that is, the conscious minds of rational human animals capable of free agency–with the underlying elements and structure of the natural universe, together with (ii) the profound recognition that this cosmic complementarity and integration of our conscious minds with the natural universe also fully fully preserves our human dignity.[ii]
Hence the movie could also have been called The Incredible Shrinking Thinking Man.
From the standpoint of systematic metaphysics, however, what is the-incredible-shrinking-thinking-man thought experiment telling us?
In my opinion, what it’s telling us is that in order to understand the nature of conscious minds like ours, that is, the conscious minds of rational human minded animals capable of free agency, then we need radically to re-think what Alfred North Whitehead so aptly called our concept of nature itself.[iii]
In so doing, we radically re-conceive nature as inherently processual and purposive (although without any metaphysical or normative appeal whatsoever to an external, God-imposed design, about which we remain radically agnostic, i.e., we know a priori that finite “human, all-too-human” cognizers like us simply cannot know one way or the other about such things), running from The Big Bang Singularity forward to organismic life, and then on to conscious animal minds in general and to rational conscious human animal minds in particular, together with their human dignity, which in turn entails including radically re-conceiving the mind-body relation, free agency, and emergence.
In a nutshell, my thesis is that there’s a single, unbroken metaphysical continuity between The Big Bang Singularity, organismic life, conscious human animal minds, their free agency, and their human dignity.[iv]
Upon further reflection, I realized that the other striking thing about the-incredible-shrinking-thinking-man thought experiment is that it’s the precise directional inverse of the set of conscious-mind-to-natural-cosmos relationships described by Kant’s famous remarks at the end of the Critique of Practical Reason:
[T]wo things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence (Ehrfurcht), the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not need to search for them and merely conjecture them as though they were veiled in obscurity or in the transcendent region beyond my horizon; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence. (CPrR 5: 161–162)[v]
What is Kant getting at here?
Kant discovered the metaphysics of transcendental idealism between the publication of his seminal proto-Critical essay of 1768, “Concerning the Ground of the Ultimate Differentiation of Directions in Space” (DDS 2: 375–383), and 1772.
Indeed, the philosophical implications of the “Directions in Space” essay almost certainly triggered the major proto-Critical philosophical break though that Kant famously reports when he says in one of the Reflexionen that “the year ’69 gave me great light” (R 5037, 18: 69).
More precisely, what Kant had discovered between 1768 and 1772 is what I’ve called transcendental idealism for sensibility.[vi]
In 1772, Kant told Marcus Herz that if the human mind conformed to the world, whether phenomenal or noumenal, then a priori knowledge would be impossible (C 10: 130–131); but by 1770 Kant already also held that a priori knowledge of the manifestly real apparent or phenomenal world is actual and therefore really possible in mathematics, hence the manifestly real apparent or phenomenal world must conform to the non-empirical sensible structure of the human mind, and more specifically must conform to our a priori representations of space and time, since that is what makes mathematics really possible (ID 2: 398–406).
So transcendental idealism for sensibility says that the manifestly real apparent or phenomenal world fundamentally conforms to the essentially non-conceptual a priori forms of human sensibility, our representations of space and time.
Kant worked out explicit proofs for transcendental idealism for sensibility in the Inaugural Dissertation and again in the Transcendental Aesthetic in the Critique of Pure Reason.
The simplest version of the proof, provided in the Transcendental Aesthetic, is the following.
ARGUMENT 1: Transcendental Idealism for Sensibility
1. Space and time are either (i) things-in-themselves (aka noumena), or (ii) properties of/relations between things-in-themselves, or (iii) transcendentally ideal.
2. If space and time were either things-in-themselves or properties of/relations between things-in-themselves, then a priori mathematical knowledge would be impossible.
3. But mathematical knowledge is actual, via our pure intuitions of space and time, and therefore really possible.
4. Therefore, space and time are transcendentally ideal. (CPR A 23/B37–38, A38–41/B55–58)
Briefly put, Kant’s thesis of transcendental idealism says that the basic structure of the manifestly real apparent or phenomenal world necessarily conforms to the pure or non-empirical (hence a priori) structure of human cognition, and not the converse (CPR B xvi-xviii).
Or in other words, Kant is saying that the manifestly real apparent or phenomenal world fundamentally conforms to the a priori structure of the human mind, and it is also not the case that the human mind fundamentally conforms to the manifestly real apparent or phenomenal world, or indeed to any non-apparent Really Real or noumenal world.
So if Kant is right about this, then he is correctly saying that the world in which we live, move, and have our being (by which I mean the manifestly real apparent or phenomenal natural and social world of our ordinary human existence) is fundamentally dependent on our “human, all-too-human” minded nature, and not the converse.
If transcendental idealism is true, then we cannot be inherently alienated from the world we are trying to know, as global epistemic skeptics claim, and human knowledge — not only a priori knowledge, but also a posteriori knowledge — is therefore really possible.[vii]
Now Kantian transcendental idealism for sensibility, when taken together with some central claims of Kantian aesthetics and some self-evident Kantian phenomenology, conjointly provide an argument for this thesis:
The natural universe is the metaphysical ground of all conscious minded human animals like us, our rational free agency, and our human dignity.
This is the very same thesis of cosmic dignitarianism that was yielded by the incredible-shrinking-thinking-man thought experiment, but demonstrated by precisely inverting the directionality of the set of conscious-mind-to-natural-cosmos relationships.
So Kant’s flip-sided (to Jack Arnold’s) but equally ingenious philosophical thought experiment in the famous text at the end of the Critique of Practical Reason is what I’ll call the-incredible-expanding-thinking-man.
Correspondingly, I’m going to present a seven-step argument for the cosmic dignitarianism thesis, that fuses the Transcendental Aesthetic of the first Critique with a Kantian aesthetics of the beautiful and the sublime in the natural environment in the third Critique, and also a Kantian self-evident phenomenology of our experience of “reverence” (Ehrfurcht) for the manifestly real natural universe and for our rational conscious minded animal nature, especially including our free agency and our human dignity, at the very end of the second Critique.
ARGUMENT 2: Cosmic Dignitarianism
1. Given the truth of transcendental idealism for sensibility, then we can take fully seriously the sensibility-grounded, conscious evidence provided by the aesthetic experience of beauty in the natural universe, as veridically tracking natural purposive form, without a purpose, in a way that is inherently disinterested and therefore divorced from all possible self-interest (CPJ 5: 204–211).
In short, our experience of beauty in the natural universe shows us that the natural universe cannot be and ought not to be regarded or treated purely instrumentally, that is, merely as a means, or exploited.
2. Given the truth of transcendental idealism for sensibility, and our experience of beauty in the natural universe, then we can also take fully seriously the reverential experience of what Kant calls “the mathematically sublime in nature,” for example, “the starry heavens above me.”
To make this kind of reverential experience phenomenologically vivid to yourself, either stand outside on a clear, moonless night at 2:00 am in a place without too many nearby city lights and then look straight up; or else consider, for example, Van Gogh’s 1889 masterpiece painting, “The Starry Night.”
3. Now since, according to Kant, via the human experience of the mathematically sublime in nature, the natural universe is thereby experienced as having a specific character and normative value that is expressible only as a transcendently infinite, transfinite, or non-denumerably infinite, quantity, it follows that the natural universe inherently cannot reduced to any denumerable quantity, no matter how great (CPJ 5: 244–260).
4. Hence the natural universe, experienced as mathematically sublime, cannot have a “market price” and is experienced as beyond price, or priceless, since all “market prices,” or exchangeable economic values (say, monetary values) “related to general human interests and needs” (GMM 4: 434), are expressible only as denumerable (natural number, rational number) quantities, even infinite ones.
Otherwise put, the specific character and normative value of the natural universe, experienced as mathematically sublime, inherently transcends any economic or otherwise strictly instrumental calculus.
5. Steps 1 to 4 jointly entail what I call the proto-dignity of the natural universe.
Dignity according to Kant, is the absolute, non-denumerably infinite, intrinsic, objective value of persons, or rational conscious minded animal free agents, especially including human persons.
The natural universe is not itself a person, and more specifically it is not itself a human person, and therefore it does not have dignity per se; nevertheless, the natural universe, as beautiful and sublime, inherently cannot (without eco-disaster) and inherently ought not (without moral scandal) be merely exploited, merely bought or sold, or otherwise treated as a mere capitalist resource or commodity (aka “commodified”).
6. But rational conscious human minded animal nature itself necessarily belongs to the natural universe.
7. Therefore transcendental idealism for sensibility, plus the self-evident phenomenology of our reverential experience of beauty/sublimity in the natural universe (“the starry heavens above me”), plus our equally reverential experience of respect for human dignity (“the moral law within me”), conjointly prove that the natural universe is the metaphysical ground of all conscious human minded animals like us, our rational free agency, and our human dignity.
That is: cosmic dignitarianism is true.
So, whether we’re incredibly shrinking or incredibly expanding, provided that we’re thinking, then the truly important philosophical upshot of the two thought experiments is identical: the natural universe, the cosmos, is not metaphysically alien to us–on the contrary, for better or worse, it’s our metaphysical home.
And in this way, metaphysics, physics, biology, mathematics, moral philosophy, social and political philosophy, environmental philosophy, and existential spirituality all coherently converge.
[i] In this quotation, I’ve replaced two occurrences of “God” by “Nature.” I’m sure that the God-talk was inserted only in order to satisfy McCarthy era religious-fundamentalist censors.
[ii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “A Theory of Human Dignity,” (Unpublished MS, 2021), available online HERE.
[iii] A.N. Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1971/1920).
[iv] See also J.S. Torday, W.B. Miller Jr, and R. Hanna, “Singularity, Life, and Mind: New Wave Organicism,” in J.S. Torday and W.B. Miller Jr, The Singularity of Nature: A Convergence of Biology, Chemistry and Physics (Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2020), ch. 20, pp. 206–246.
[v] For convenience, I refer to Kant’s works infratextually in parentheses. The references include both an abbreviation of the English title and the corresponding volume and page numbers in the standard “Akademie” edition of Kant’s works: Kants gesammelte Schriften, edited by the Königlich Preussischen (now Deutschen) Akademie der Wissenschaften (Berlin: G. Reimer [now de Gruyter], 1902-). I generally follow the standard English translations, but have occasionally modified them where appropriate. For references to the first Critique, I follow the common practice of giving page numbers from the A (1781) and B (1787) German editions only. ). For the reference to Kant’s Reflexionen, i.e., entries in Kants handschriftliche Nachlaß — which I abbreviate as ‘R’ — I give the entry number in addition to the Akademie volume and page numbers. Here is a list of the relevant abbreviations and English translations:
C Immanuel Kant: Correspondence, 1759–99. Trans. A. Zweig. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999.
CPJ Critique of the Power of Judgment. Trans. P. Guyer and E. Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000.
CPR Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. P. Guyer and A. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997.
CPrR Critique of Practical Reason. Trans. M. Gregor. In Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996. Pp. 139–271.
DDS “Concerning the Ultimate Ground of the Differentiation of Directions in Space.” Trans. D. Walford and R. Meerbote. In Immanuel Kant: Theoretical Philosophy: 1755–1770. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992. Pp. 365–372.
GMM Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. M. Gregor. In Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy. Pp. 43–108.
ID “On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World (Inaugural Dissertation).” Trans. D. Walford and R. Meerbote. In Immanuel Kant: Theoretical Philosophy: 1755–1770. Pp. 373–416.
[vi] See also R. Hanna, “Directions in Space, Non-Conceptual Form, and the Foundations of Transcendental Idealism,” in D. Schulting (ed.), Kantian Nonconceptualism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 99–115, also available online in preview HERE.
[vii] R. Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in Metaphysics (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 5), esp. chs. 3 and 6–8, available in preview HERE.
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