While Kant 
offered a 
devastating critique of all previous philosophers before him, he said nothing about giant drills.

I'm a philosopher whose field is the history of philosophy. As a professor at the University of Washington, I spend some of my time thinking about the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, widely considered one of history's greatest geniuses. Off the clock, I spend time following news stories about Bertha, the currently indisposed, custom-built tunnel-boring machine (world's largest: 57 feet!) that Seattle enlisted as part of the tunnel project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

At first blush, Kant and Bertha appear unrelated. While Kant offered a devastating critique of all previous philosophers before him, he said nothing about giant drills. And while Kant modestly thought that future philosophers had to contend with his revolutionary synthesis of all philosophical traditions, he understandably remained silent on super-expensive transportation project boondoggles. But what Kant never could have known is that Bertha's failures actually provide insights into the four questions at the center of Kant's philosophy. Here's what those questions are and how they relate to Bertha.

1. What can we know?

What Kant tells us:

For Kant, everything we know is confined to the human standpoint; we can only know about the world as filtered through our minds. Knowing is perspective-dependent.

What Bertha tells us:

To date, Bertha's managed slightly more than 1,000 feet of the 9,270 feet it is tasked with digging, so about 11 percent of the project is complete, right? It's not that simple. From the perspective of state officials, the tunnel project was never just about digging a tunnel. The tunnel's entrances, its internal rings, and roadways into the tunnel are built, so according to them, really 70 percent of the project is complete. State officials are really pushing the limits of Kant's claim that knowing is perspective-dependent. To get my meaning, take this piece I'm writing at this moment. From the perspective of listing the four questions at the center of Kant's philosophy, I'm really only a quarter finished at this point. But from the perspective that understands writing an article involves more than just actually writing an article—you must gather information, brew some tea, open new documents on the computer—I'm almost done!

2. What ought we to do?

What Kant tells us:

Kant proposes that when faced with moral dilemmas, we ought to only act on principles we'd be willing to make into universal laws. Should I spend Saturday playing catch and drinking beers in Volunteer Park or buckle down and read the latest book about an obscure passage in Kant? Consider a world in which it's a universal law that people never work to develop their talents because there are always games and drinks they could be enjoying. Such a world would have no music, no art, and no philosophy. Thus, I have a moral duty to hit the books.

What Bertha tells us:

Imagine that the principle behind calls to abandon Bertha is followed universally: Give up on all projects every time those projects experience setbacks or there exists the possibility of future problems. Now ask: Would you want to live in a world in which people abandoned projects that quickly? Would such a world even have cars? If you asked Kant, he would say our moral duty is clear: We have to see the tunnel project through to completion.

3. What can we hope?

What Kant tells us:

For Kant, hope is irrational only if it's for things we can be certain are metaphysically impossible. We can't rationally hope, say, to square the circle. But we can rationally hope that fulfilling our moral duties as human beings will grant us happiness in our lifetime.

What Bertha tells us:

The rescue operation designed to get Bertha operational doesn't involve something metaphysically impossible. Improbable, maybe, but not impossible. The engineers have plans, a massive crane, and a non-Bertha-dug hole needed to get Bertha back on track. The engineers just need things to go exactly right. And it's at least not metaphysically impossible that, going forward, everything goes according to plan.

4. What is a human?

What Kant tells us:

Kant tells us that humans are rational agents with the radical freedom necessary to set and pursue any metaphysically possible goal.

What Bertha tells us:

Bertha tells us that despite having the rational capacity to set metaphysically possible, cost-effective goals to address the myriad problems posed by our extant transportation infrastructure and the radical freedom to adopt means necessary to achieve those goals, humans will still try to solve their problems by digging a big hole with a big drill. That's just what humans do. recommended