Born on April 22nd, 1724, Immanuel Kant was one of the most famous philosophers during the “Age of Enlightenment” at the end of the 18th century. In the latter stages of his life at the ripe old age of 57, Kant first published his major work, the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, which is still one of the most influential works from that period today. His message was largely a call for a return to principles, his studies focused around the ‘pure reason’ or logic which directs our actions, and through publishing his research he hoped to end the age of speculation based on empirical knowledge, or that knowledge which is generated or learned through experience, in lieu of a grander age of aspirations focused around loftier goals of existentialism.
Kant felt that knowledge and understanding related to its object in one of two ways, the first and least useful form comes from a theoretical standpoint where the knowledge or understanding is paramount to determining and outlying the concept of the object, the second from a practical standpoint of actuality or making it actual. Then, much as they do today, experts of the day lauded their skills and abilities to use empirical knowledge to conform data gleaned through experience to form objects into things in themselves, but Kant highlighted the fact that a priori knowledge, wisdom which is understood without the use of experience or influence from any of our senses, is far more valuable than empirical data.
Imagine for a moment that you have a rubber band set on the table in front of you, forming a perfect circle, which represents all human activity and knowledge. The tendency exhibited throughout history is to grasp firmly upon one field of science or perception and push as far as possible in that direction, until the circle is distorted to such a point that our efforts are no longer capable of withstanding the strain, and all force is subsequently rebounded back into the center. Kant pointed out that all experiences are perceived and tainted by the filter of our mind and argued that our reason or logic was reductive, in the sense that it did not lead us to more possibilities, but allowed us to refine our efforts and subdue our unhealthy or unprofitable desires. Over time, by using logic and reason, Kant felt that our actions would no longer require us to stretch the boundaries of what was acceptable or permissible, and to act more cohesively within the natural and beneficial boundaries of society and life.
Whenever one is working with theoretical questions or dealing with uncertainty, it is paramount to remember that things in reality are not always as we assume or understand them to be, rather that we are working from an incomplete set of information. We would not be forced to rely on theoretical hypothesis, insufficient information, or large amounts of uncertainty if we had merely experienced what we had known or expected, rather it is only because we have experienced the unknown and unprepared for that we find ourselves forced to transcend the limits of experience and knowledge.
So, what is one to do when powerful and vested interests are arguing that empirical knowledge conforms to objects as things as they are in reality but does not provide ample evidence to support that claim? Kant teaches that the unknown cannot be imagined without contradiction and speculation, for if we merely attempted to think of them as we currently do with limited understanding, we would obviously fail to come to any new conclusions and risk losing relevance over the course of our effort. He was of the mind that when understanding or knowledge was not allowed full investigation into their appearances and representations, that it could only be because there were some forces who were unwilling or ashamed of what would be discovered. Reason and logic do not allow for assumptions to become conclusions if they deny thorough examination by speculative reasoning, for this is a direct attack on a reasonable and logical approach to an incomplete understanding of any object.
Bringing the point full circle in regards to the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the steam generator issues, Kant’s arguments and observations couldn’t be more applicable to the situation that NRC officials and Edison employees find themselves mired in. The licensee has not found themselves in this quagmire due to circumstances which were publicly known or expectant of, rather due to a series of events which have lead to catastrophic ramifications which no one seemingly was prepared for.
Instead of providing the empirical data for investigation or consideration in light of the events leading to the rapid degradation witnessed in the steam generators, both the NRC and Edison have attempted to subvert or otherwise thwart a continuous stream of official and public requests for a thorough root-cause-analysis and all relevant information on the grounds that it is proprietary. Yet as it has been pointed out, multiple competitors were hired by the licensee to inspect the steam generators up close first hand and model them extensively with their own proprietary code, so it seems unlikely that any of the information disclosed would be outside of the scope of information given to or received from investigations led by competitive companies.
Simply, Kant argued that if progress was denied thorough examination by speculative reasoning, than the public could do nothing more appropriate than to question the practical or applicable sufficiency of the data and knowledge at hand, and there is no reason to think that he would have thought otherwise today.