Kant and the Divine Origin of Conscience (III.A: God’s Presence to Our Consciousness )

The thinkers from our last post presume the existence of God, and attempt to show that the good we know in our conscience comes from God.

In the 18th Century, Immanuel Kant looked at the reverse contention. Instead of assuming the existence of God and inferring his presence in our conscience, Kant begins with the moral obligation imposed by conscience and moves to the existence of God. He believed that the way in which the good was known through human consciousness entailed its divine origin:

Through the idea of the supreme good as object and final end of the pure practical reason the moral law leads to religion, that is, to the recognition of all duties as divine commands, not as sanctions, that is, as arbitrary commands of an alien will which are contingent in themselves, but as essential laws of every free will in itself, which, however, must be looked on as commands of the supreme Being, because it is only from a morally perfect (holy and good) and at the same time all-powerful will, and consequently only through harmony with this will, that we can hope to attain the highest good, which the moral law makes it our duty to take as the object of our endeavour.

The essence of Kant’s thought here may be summarized in two statements in his Opus Postumum: “In the moral-practical reason lies the categorical imperative to regard all human duties as divine commands;”  which causes him to view God as follows: “the concept of God is the concept of an obligation-imposing subject outside myself.”

Kant moves from an intrinsic awareness of an absolute moral duty (categorical imperative) to an awareness of a morally perfect will which is the source of that absolute duty, and then to an awareness of the Supreme Being who is an “obligation-imposing subject outside [himself].”

Notice that this transition of awareness is not a formal set of inferences, but rather an unfolding of the meaning of the absolute duty which is central to Kant’s consciousness.

For Kant, the good (within our consciousness) is embedded within an absolute duty to do that good, which in its turn, is embedded within a divine source of that absolute duty. He cannot conceive of the good without the duty to do it (for what makes the good recognizable is the duty or imperative to do it), and he cannot conceive of an absolute duty to do the good without an absolute obligation-imposing Subject outside himself.

Goods cannot be recognized without the duty to do them, and the absolute duty to do them cannot be recognized without an absolute obligation-imposing Subject outside ourselves.

This line of thought may seem unsatisfying to a skeptic, but Kant is not trying to prove anything to a skeptic. He is trying to shed light on the implications of the good within our consciousness.

For anyone who cares to probe the distinctive quality of the good within himself, God is an inescapable reality. Anyone who probes the qualities of that good will sense the presence of the “obligation-imposing Subject” within it.

If we allow the good to reveal itself within us, we will not only know of its divine origin, we will know that the Divine is present to us – at once outside of us and embedded in the absolute duty of the good within us.

This presence of the Divine within us makes us transcendental.

Notice that Kant has not constructed a formal proof of God here, but rather has given an existential inference to God.

He makes no use of deduction or logic, but rather is interested in the existential (concretely experienced) content of his interior recognition of the good.

The recognition of the good leads to the absolute duty that makes the good to be recognizable as good, and the absolute duty leads to the Supreme Subject who imposes that absolute duty.

Next: Newman and the Divine Origin of Conscience – Part 1

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