Good in the eyes of God: The philosophy of Immanuel Kant

Good in the eyes of God: The philosophy of Immanuel Kant

According to some accounts Kant was an incredibly pure and disciplined individual, driven only by his quest for philosophical, scientific, and spiritual truth. He was so methodical, they say, that the residents of the town of Konigsberg where he lived would set their watches by the time he passed their window on his morning walk. It is also rumoured that he never ventured more than 15 miles from his home town, finding everything that he needed in mental reflection and the production of philosophical works.

In other reports he was said to be a sociable and carefree individual who worked for only an hour or so in the morning each day before spending the rest of the day at leisure. Usually, in fact, in the pub. Quite how these two differing views have formed, developed, and survived alongside each other is typical of the vagaries of history.

What is more clear is that Kant can be regarded as one of the greatest writers of all time. His ideas are expressed with a clinical precision and beauty arguably unequalled in the history of philosophy, and this beauty is not lost in the English translations of his work. He was also widely regarded by those who knew him as a superlative conversationalist and one of the great oral teachers.

Although now more famous in philosophical circles, Kant was held in equal regard as a scientist in his time. In fact he made scientific predictions which could not be tested while he was alive but which have been validated today. Some of Kant's youthful insights have yielded long-lasting contributions to scientific knowledge. His hypothesis that tides slow down the Earth's rotation over time has been shown to be correct. He correctly explained that North-South winds suffer a Coriolis deflection due to the Earth's rotation in New Remarks toward an Elucidation of the theory of Winds. And accounts broadly deriving from Kant’s work on planetary formation have been dominant since the emergence of sophisticated nebular models in the 1970s.

The aim of his most famous work, the Critique of Pure Reason, was to show how it is possible that we can form scientific knowledge at all. It is from this work more than any other that modern philosophy of science sprang. The book performed what Kant called a “Copernican revolution in consciousness.” Copernicus had proposed a theory of the planets which placed the sun, rather than the earth, at the centre of the universe. Kant attempted to do the same thing for consciousness, by placing the mind rather than the external world, at the centre of experience.

God is the real nature of all objects

Kant believed that the minds of all people share the same basic categories which they impose over the world. He believed that the world as it is “in itself” (that is, the world independent of human perception) is something that we can never hope to know. Even time and space themselves, Kant reasoned, were imposed over the world by the human mind and were not independent features of the world which would be there without any observer to perceive them. The centrality of the perceiver, rather than the perceived, was Kant's revolution.

Kant reasoned that what was there independently of any modification by the mind was God. God was the “thing in itself.” The “thing in itself” was Kant’s phrase for the unreachable substance or entity which existed when any object was observed without the human mind imposing a form over it.

The image of a flower swaying gently in the light afternoon breeze outside my window is produced by the mind. According to a modern understanding, photons are reflected off the flower and are processed by the brain. The pattern of the photons is interpreted by the brain, and the image is projected back outwards. This is somewhat counter intuitive, but it is well established in physics and in the psychology of perception that this is what happens.

So I do not see the flower as it is “in itself.” I see an image of the flower as my mind has interpreted and constructed it based on the patterns of energy that it receives through my senses. What to most of us are red petals will be seen by some as green. So called “colour blindness” illustrates that what is seen by the mind and what is really out there in the world can differ, as the flower “in itself” cannot be both red and green.

But Kant went further than this and suggested that not only the colour of the flower (which the philosopher John Locke had called its “secondary qualities”) but also the “primary qualities” of the flower, such as its dimensions, and even the fact that it is perceived as existing in space and time at all, was also only projected by the mind and were not features of the flower (and the garden, and the world) as they are “in themselves.” For Kant what was there independently of the mind – what existed as the basic substance about which nothing could be known directly but only experienced through the lens of the mind – was God.

Kant would not have agreed with George Berkeley’s musing that a tree falling in a forest is heard and seen by God when no other being is there as witness: he would actually have gone further and claimed that the tree and the forest, independent of the limiting and reducing influence of the mind, were not heard and seen by God, but were God.

Above: For Kant, "God" was what remained, when all cultural and perceptual constructions of the mind were removed. (The image is a bad attempt by me to represent blankness!)


God for Kant was what was present everywhere, prior to any thought, and prior to any perceptual interpretation. Most physicists would currently agree that science substantiates Kant’s claim that space and time as we ordinarily know them are features of the mind, and not features of the world.

Although Kant rarely expressed it in this way, this is a view that is also quite in line with the literature on Eastern mystics, who seek to remove the “illusion” which the mind places over reality through meditation, ascetic practices, and similar things, in order to reveal the world’s divine nature.

From the Western philosophical spectrum, Kant’s view of God was rather like the “unmoved mover” of medieval philosophy. But while the unmoved mover was considered the aspect of God that could not be known to humans, Kant added the step that the unmoved mover can be known in the world through goodness. In fact, he identified God with the notion of “the good” which originated in ancient philosophy. Goodness in all its aspects – truth, beauty, justice, creativity – was the way in which God was known in the world.

Becoming “good in the eyes of God”

Kant sought to reconstruct religion following attacks by enlightenment atheists.  As is well known, Kant dismantled various simplistic arguments for the existence of God, including the so called “ontological argument” of the medieval philosopher Anselm and others, but his intention was to create a fresh start on which a firmer foundation for religion could be built.

His aim was to recreate religion on a rational or logical basis, rather than in a way that relied primarily on faith and belief. He called this “religion within the limits of reason.” He believed that it was a form of religion that was compatible with scientific thinking. The existence of God could be inferred by rational argument. The substance which he believed existed independently of perception, although we could know nothing about it for certain, seemed likely to have the traditional qualities ascribed to God, such as infinitude and eternity. This being so because the other categories which the mind imposed over substance would not be there, and infinite and eternal being would be all that was left.

If we accept Kant’s argument, we know that God must exist. Nonetheless, knowing that God must exist, we are still left knowing nothing about what God is actually like. This is where Kant left things at the end of his most famous work, the Critique of Pure Reason. In later work his views developed. God was no longer thought of as completely unknowable. Instead, we could come to know something of what God is like through a process of transformation in which we grow closer to God and become more like God.

Morality was crucial in this transformation. Morality was initially experienced as something inconvenient. It is often more convenient not to lend someone else a hand than to do so, for example. Moral actions are often bothersome. Yet – and this is the crucial point – we often feel compelled to do them anyway. As development progresses, moral action becomes a goal in itself. We realise that moral actions makes us happy. When morality becomes fully developed, behaving in a moral manner is the only thing to concern ourselves with, because it is the only thing that is truly satisfying. This sense of spontaneous goodness, Kant called the “Sovereign Good” or the “Highest Good.”

Another striking phrase that he coined – Kant is noted for striking phrases – is that the person who acts automatically in moral manner has become “good in the eyes of God.” What he meant by this was that the kind of moral behaviour that would be most pleasing in God’s eyes was the spontaneous kind: morality that was enacted for no reason, rather than morality that was enacted because we believe it will lead to a reward. Morality that flows out spontaneously. It was this kind of morality that Kant believed was of a higher kind than morality that stemmed from fear of punishment and hope of reward.

For Kant, we initially project our sense of moral obligation onto the idea of a God who rewards and punishes us. This idea engrains our sense of moral awareness. Once moral behaviour becomes engrained and automatic we begin to experience the real reward of moral action: we begin to experience the Highest Good. The Highest Good begins to be glimpsed in the sense of well-being that arises from knowing that we have done the right thing. In time, with further development, this experience comes to outshine all other experiences. It becomes the central aim of life.

Kant is clearly describing a very high level of moral development which appears to interface with the experiences of the saints and martyrs, but it is one that he believes that all of us can experience to one degree or another. Kant believed that complete holiness is never possible for humans, but the condition of striving towards complete holiness is. It is through engaging with this activity that we can come to have glimpses of the Highest Good.

All of this was the action of the real God on the individual (as opposed to the imaginary God of reward and punishment); the God which could not be known directly, but which could nonetheless exert a “teleological” pull over the trajectory of our lives. Hence, although nothing could be known of God in an absolute form, we could nonetheless acquire something of a knowledge of God by becoming more like God. We could progress towards God through moral development, and in this sense have knowledge of God through knowledge of the higher parts of ourselves, though God in an absolute form remained unknown.

Evolution and teleology

Although Kant and Hegel both came prior to the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, both produced spiritual systems of philosophy which made use of evolutionary ideas. Kant anticipated Darwinian evolution in many ways, and speculated as to the eventual evolution of human intelligence in present day species of ape. But the fixed nature of the interpretive capacity of the mind in his system prevented him from placing much emphasis on development.

Kant’s teleology did not involve a designer. Instead he saw a teleological purpose in the tendency of organisms to be suited to their environment - the fact that birds with powerful beaks live in tropical forests rich with hard nuts and seeds is an example. This came close to Darwin’s theory of the adaptation of organisms to their environment though natural selection, but in Kant’s day there was no knowledge of the process of natural selection through which adaptations happened, which was one of Darwin’s original contributions.

Kant argued that teleology “drives us to seek a theology.” This meant that the progressive nature of things in general that science revealed made the question of the ultimate end of evolution centrally relevant. If we are progressing, then where are we progressing towards? This question naturally interfaced with religious themes concerning the final condition of the soul and the universe.


Kant’s argument for the immortality of the human soul ran as follows: Because the highest good could not be fully realised in one life, and because evolutionary movement or progress was infused into the universe at all levels, there must be more than one life in order for the highest good to come to full fruition in each person. Moreover, because the highest good could not be realised in finite time at all, our lives must not only continue after physical death, but we must be eternal.

The two ideas of heaven which have coexisted in the religious literature were therefore conflated. The continuation of a future life or lives in a world beyond, which stretched out further and further through time, was brought together with the more esoteric theological notion of everlasting life not as endless time but as timelessness or eternity. Moreover, one notion of heaven entailed the other: a future life or lives in a further world was necessary in order for the process of growth towards God to continue.

A continued life beyond the present one, in a world beyond the present world, would allow the further development of the soul which would eventually end in a timeless or eternal heaven – a form of existence quite beyond anything we conventionally experience – in which the growth that we began through moral development in this life was finished, and the joy of the highest good became both complete and permanent.

Kant’s Christianity sits naturally with those Christians who believe that the Bible is a book that speaks to people at many levels of development. Kant regarded the primary function of Christ as being to remind us of what we all can be if we live up to our highest potential. He wrote that Christ came to show us that we could all become “Sons of God.”


Through his work The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant believed that he had shown that God’s existence was necessary, but that, other than God’s existence, nothing about the nature of God could actually be known.

The term “necessity” in philosophy has a meaning which is slightly different to what it means in general conversation. In philosophy something being necessary means that logic compels that things can be in no other way. For Kant, the way the world was entailed the necessary existence of God: God’s existence could be derived logically from contemplation of the world.

Any category that could be placed over the world, including space and time themselves, was a way of limiting or narrowing the world as it was “in itself.” The lens of the mind always limited reality in some way. If this lens was removed, what must be there independently of perception must be eternal and infinite, for the very reason that it is not limited at all.

Hence, although we could never remove the influence of the mind upon how we experienced the world, we could logically infer that God was what was left in the absence of the limiting influence of the mind, and that God was therefore not only real, but more real than any object in the world.

In later work Kant moved away from logic alone and towards feeling. Kant believed that human moral obligation derived from and was proof of God’s existence. This had both positive and negative consequences for Kant. He believed that it made sense of the experiences of the mystics, and that it allowed for the reconstruction of their insights in a manner consistent with rational philosophy.

But God as a literal father figure – an old man in the sky punishing our errors and rewarding our good deeds – was an idea he disparaged. He believed that the moral obligation led inevitably to the belief that a lawgiver existed, but this view of God, which he considered to be simplistic, only had a place at an earlier level of human development.

Instead a sense of profound peace and contentment, which derived from living in accordance with high moral standards, both drew us towards God and formed a secondary proof of the existence of God and of the immortality of the soul. Human development into awareness of the Highest Good could not be completed by any of us within a single human life, and could not, in fact, be completed within time at all – but only in the eternity of a spiritual world to come.

Kant’s views can be compared to those of Einstein, who was highly critical of simplistic understandings of God, but developed his own belief in God in an original intellectual manner.