In the Third Part, Kant dismisses standard metaphysical questions and debates as pointless. He argues that these questions arise from a failure to distinguish between appearances and things in themselves, and from trying to apply the concepts of the understanding to something other than the objects of experience. In this conclusion, he shows us that reason and metaphysics do in fact have a very important value—just not the value we normally think of them as having.

The distinction between math and science on the one hand, and metaphysics on the other, rests on the important distinction Kant makes between limits and bounds. Math and science are limited, meaning that they cannot tell us everything. No mathematical equation can tell me whether cloning is wrong, and no scientific experiment can tell me whether or not God exists. (These limits, incidentally, become all the more important in an age when scientific advances pose increasingly complicated moral dilemmas.) However, there is no boundary to what math or science can solve within their particular realms. This is not to say we have solved or can solve all the problems in these fields, but just to say that there is no external constraint on what can be learned. There may be puzzles we will never solve, but they will nonetheless have solutions—just solutions we are incapable of finding. Neither math nor science will ever confront us with a puzzle to which there is no solution.

While math and science are limited, metaphysics is bounded. That means that there are metaphysical puzzles to which there is no solution. The ideas of reason deal with precisely that. "What is the nature of the soul?" is a question, says Kant, to which we cannot give an answer—not because we do not know the answer, but because there is no answer to give. Metaphysics tries to deal with things in themselves, but all our concepts and intuitions are suited only to dealing with appearances. Our reason poses riddles for us for which there is no answer. Metaphysics is an attempt to reach for things that are beyond our grasp.

If metaphysics is bounded in such a way that we can never answer any of the questions it poses, we might think of it as a useless discipline. Kant suggests, on the contrary, that its value lies precisely in the establishment of these bounds. We cannot know what is beyond experience, but in reaching for it, we know there is something beyond experience. If something is bounded, that suggests there is something outside those bounds. Limits do not teach us this.

If all we had were our faculties of sensibility and understanding without reason, and all we had was math and science without metaphysics, we would have no awareness of things in themselves. We would pursue math and science with the assumption that we were learning everything there is to learn. We would assume that the concepts of science can explain all natural phenomena, and that whatever science can't explain doesn't exist. For instance, we would assume that a mind is nothing more than a brain, and that thought is nothing more than the firing of neurons.

Though reason cannot teach us anything about things in themselves, it gives us an awareness that there are things in themselves, and thus gives us an awareness of the bounds placed upon our learning. Metaphysics is important to us precisely because it is bounded. It gives us perspective, something that none of the more complete sciences can give us. While math and science teach us what we can know, metaphysics teaches us what we can't know.

Popular pages: Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics