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Transcendence can mean an awful lot of things in many different contexts. But it is a word that carries some heft in philosophical and theological discussions. I have to say, though, that my opinion is that there is often equivocation going on in its usage. This entails that its meaning can shift or be unclear when used by people that—and it can shift within the same discussion.

It’s a slippery sucker. Let’s try to pin it down.

What I don’t want to talk about is “transcendentalism” as a spiritual phenomenon, just to narrow down the discussion I do want to have. As a word, “transcend” means to go or climb beyond, so in spiritual terms, this would be some form of self-actualization where the mind can go beyond its normal boundaries.

There is also the modern philosophical area of phenomenology—philosospeak for the study and area of conscious experience. We might go beyond ourselves to experience another object, or suchlike.

These ideas are somewhat connected, as we can see from the Encyclopedia Britannica’s introduction to “Transcendentalism”:

Transcendentalism, 19th-century movement of writers and philosophers in New England who were loosely bound together by adherence to an idealistic system of thought based on a belief in the essential unity of all creation, the innate goodness of humanity, and the supremacy of insight over logic and experience for the revelation of the deepest truths.  German transcendentalism (especially as it was refracted by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle), Platonism and Neoplatonism, the Indian and Chinese scriptures, and the writings of such mystics as Emanuel Swedenborg and Jakob Böhme were sources to which the New England Transcendentalists turned in their search for a liberating philosophy.

There’s a lot to unpack there.

However, what I really want to talk about is the idea of transcendence that is implied when Christians or other theists talk about a soul, or the Good, or morality. In fact, they mention or apply “transcendence” in an awful lot of scenarios and to an awful lot of other concepts. I just think they are often using the word in different ways. They equivocate.

A friend of mine recently wrote the following in a section “Proximate and Transcendent Ends” in a larger piece on psychotherapy:

Values are subjective. Sort of. They describe what matters to us. But our values, arguably, do not sit in a moral vacuum–they sit, merely in a social and historical context if you are secular, and in a broader social, historical and metaphysical context if you are spiritual/ religious (in Buddhism perhaps less so). When we say something is valued, we are describing proximate goods–aims that take us towards something worthwhile, something good, and yet, these proximate goods indicate a broader Good we all incessantly desire. Philosopher of religion, David Bentley Hart puts it like this:

“no finite thing is desirable simply in itself, if only in the trivial sense that whatever we find desireable about that thing must correspond to some prior and more general disposition of the appetites and will. I might, for example, conceive a longing for some particularly beautiful object out of the purest aesthetic motives; but this still means I cannot regard that object as its own index of value. Rather, I am moved by a more constant and general desire for beauty as such, as an absolute value of which I have some sort of intentional grasp…there is always a kind of deferral of finite desire towards ultimate ends, and there is always a greater and more remote purpose for the sake of which one wants whatever one wants.”

THE EXPERIENCE OF GOD: BEING, CONSCIOUSNESS, BLISS
P.241-242

If I, and Hart, are right, our values are not merely subjective, they are transcendent longings that indicate a broader spiritual horizon–the Good itself–the horizon of all valuing.

What if My Values are Confused? A Theological Perspective on ACT’s Values,
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Shaping Souls: A Psychotherapist Explores

And this is what got me thinking about the term.

In this context, the author is talking about “the Good” being transcendent, or perhaps even Hart’s “desire towards ultimate ends” such that there is a more “remote purpose” that drives all of our levels of desire.

These kinds of claims about transcendence, or ideas and entities being transcendent, are ten-a-penny.

How is this transcendence? Is this not to say that people just always desire stuff? There is no transcendence but rather a commonality.

What I am getting at here is that this looks more like the philosophical idea of universals.

Perfect opportunity for some philosophy. Long-time readers of mine who have followed me from there to here will know that I am what is known as a conceptual nominalist. What this means is that I deny the ontic existence (the objective existence, out there) of universals.

What the heck does that mean?

Well, a universal is a property that is shared by many things. So a green apple might have “greenness” that is shared by a leaf, another apple, a car and so on, and appleness that is shred by other apples. Universals can come in all sorts of different guises. Greek philosopher Plato proposed universals in the context of his Theory of Forms: 

In basic terms, Plato’s Theory of Forms asserts that the physical world is not really the ‘real’ world; instead, ultimate reality exists beyond our physical world….

So what are these Forms, according to Plato? The Forms are abstract, perfect, unchanging concepts or ideals that transcend [there’s that word! – JP] time and space; they exist in the Realm of Forms. Even though the Forms are abstract, that doesn’t mean they are not real. In fact, the Forms are more ‘real’ than any individual physical objects. So, concepts like Redness, Roundness, Beauty, Justice, or Goodness are Forms (and thus they are commonly capitalized). Individual objects like a red book, a round ball, a beautiful girl, a just action, or a good person reside in the physical realm and are simply different examples of the Forms.

The Theory of Forms by Plato: Definition & Examples, Study.com

Realists who adhere to such philosophy think that there exist, outside of human minds, some aether or ontological plane where abstract ideas and universals and forms exist (or some combination or version thereof).

But, again, what does it mean to transcend the space between us and God? I have a strong suspicion that this is just a soundbite.

Someone like myself denies this. All these things exist conceptually in our heads and in the particular instances where we see these (for example, green) things—instantiations.

We, individually, conceive of these things—here, a green apple (where realists would say there exist the universals of “greenness” and “appleness” and whatever other universals might be involved). Another green thing or another apple will instantiate these properties. These are similar or common properties, but that relationship is conceptual and dependent upon the experiencer. These objects don’t draw on some objective universal existing in some abstract dimension.

To relate this all back to transcendence, what I think Hart and the interpretation of his writing above indicate is the idea of universals.

So when we all desire things, and the theist here (Hart is a universalist, for your information, believing we will all access heaven etc.), the observation is that there is some transcendent “Good” or “desire.”

But, to me, I just see commonality. It’s not that this idea of goodness or desire connects all people together, or that we are all drawing from some perfect form or something out in the aether. We just all desire goodness, or whatever is being proposed.

We all move. So does that mean that “movement” is transcendent?

I would argue that this makes little sense. We just all move.

Colors

Part of the problem with Platonic realism and the idea of universals is exactly how they are transcendent. How does a green apple access the universals of “greenness” and “appleness”? What is going on there? One must assume that there is another abstract dimension or aether where these universals just kind of exist in the abstract, but then also propose not only a relationship between the actual green apple and the universals (is the relationship real or conceptual – see the problem of Bradley’s Regress), but also that there is some sort of tangible connection between them.

What connects greenness to all green things?

Is there even such a thing as green?

No. Not outside of our heads. Don’t confuse the properties of an object that lead us, as an observer, to interpret that object as green. Don’t confuse the map (what we use to navigate reality—our mental frameworks and interpretation or perception) with the terrain (actual reality).

And this is where I present to you my favorite picture:

Do "colors" exist?

There is arguably no such thing as an individual color (red or green) outside of our subjective conceptual labeling, our truncating, or slicing and dicing, of an arbitrary section of the color spectrum. When we agree—because we have similar brains, societies, and cultures—we create encyclopedias, dictionaries, art lessons, and color wheels. But these ideas of color will die with us. They are not…transcendent. Not in any objective sense. Yes, they transcend time and space as we progress through history and still maintain a sense of these colours.

This is where it gets interesting to note that there was no word for the color blue until modern times. No ancient culture appeared to “have” this color. Homer, in The Odyssey, described the “wine-dark sea.” Ides of color and language are fascinating:

Interestingly, the ways that languages categorize color vary widely. Nonindustrialized cultures typically have far fewer words for colors than industrialized cultures. So while English has 11 words that everyone knows, the Papua-New Guinean language Berinmo has only five, and the Bolivian Amazonian language Tsimane’ has only three words that everyone knows, corresponding to black, white and red.


Languages don’t all have the same number of terms for colors – scientists have a new theory why, The Converstion

What is going on here, materially speaking? What does exist outside of our minds are the photons of light hitting different objects and then hitting our eyes and being interpreted by our minds. A red car will have different interpretations among humans (think colorblindness), and will be interpreted in other ways by a cat, a snake, a mantis shrimp, and an alien.

There is not an objective point above where blue turns to red, as seen above. We can give each individual version, each variation of color, a code on Photoshop, but gathering a bunch of colors together under one term is conceptual and arbitrary, to a large degree. And those codes aren’t objective truths, but pragmatic assignations to able computers to work.

Souls

The transcendence of souls is a whole other type of transcendence and this could well exemplify an equivocation of the term. What theists believe here is in a vehicle that more obviously (apparently) transcend different domains of existence—lowly earthly life, heaven, and hell.

When we die, they argue, there is some aspect of our body and mind duality, or eathly existence, that maintains and goes beyond material reality to take our being into heaven or hell, depending on what God has predetermined designed created ordained bestowed grace upon (or not) known in advance allowed to come to pass.

I can understand this sort of transcendence. I mean, the soul doesn’t exist and, as I have taken pains to explain on countless occasions, heaven and hell are entirely incoherent in light of OmniGod (all-knowing, -powerful, and -loving). This sort of transcendence makes some kind of sense, even if it doesn’t actually happen.

Other religious transcendence

I’m just not sure any other kind of transcendence makes sense. What is often happening is that the theist is saying:

  1. God is good (just, merciful, rational, etc.).
  2. When humans are being good (etc.), they are accessing or drawing on God’s goodness, tanscending the border between God and humanity.
  3. Therefore, goodness is transcendent.

But, again, what does it mean to transcend the space between us here and God? I have a strong suspicion that this is just a soundbite and nothing more.

Wikipedia, in its subheading of “Religious Definition” for its article on “Transcendence (philosophy)”, states:

In religion, transcendence refers to the aspect of God’s nature and power which is wholly independent of the material universe, beyond all physical laws. This is contrasted with immanence, where a god is said to be fully present in the physical world and thus accessible to creatures in various ways. In religious experience transcendence is a state of being that has overcome the limitations of physical existence and by some definitions has also become independent of it. This is typically manifested in prayer, séance, meditation, psychedelics and paranormal “visions”.

It is affirmed in various religious traditions’ concept of the divine, which contrasts with the notion of a god (or, the Absolute) that exists exclusively in the physical order (immanentism), or indistinguishable from it (pantheism). Transcendence can be attributed to the divine not only in its being, but also in its knowledge. Thus, God may transcend both the universe and knowledge (is beyond the grasp of the human mind).

Although transcendence is defined as the opposite of immanence, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Some theologians and metaphysicians of various religious traditions affirm that a god is both within and beyond the universe (panentheism); in it, but not of it; simultaneously pervading it and surpassing it.

“Transcendence (philosophy)”, Wikipedia

What we are looking at is what is going on with the verb, when we go through the process and transcend material reality to partake in, reflect, or access some property of God like morality.

We might also get into the Euthyphro Dilemma here where we wonder what makes something good: God declaring it so (might is right) or moral reasoning independent of God (such that we don’t need God for morality)?

Are humans and God accessing moral reasoning? if so, then it is really just rationality or reasoning that is transcendent here. But, to return to my previous counter-example, would this not just be instances of using or doing the same thing? This simpler explanation seems far more plausible. Does the fact that we all (including God) move, or think, of love, actually make movement, thought, or love transcendent?

What does it mean to “draw from,” “access,” or “reflect” in the context that in our loving or being good we are “drawing from,” “accessing,” or “reflecting” God’s love or goodness?

If we all do something or all have a property, it does not mean that there is a universal of this property, and you can’t just assert that there is.

Even if we could make sense of God embodying some objective version of whatever abstract idea we are talking about—love, justice, mercy—then by we humans embodying those ideas is nothing more than an instantiation of those ideas. We conceive of an idea such as mercy, and when people are being merciful, they are just doing the thing that we understand as mercy.

And that’s all.

There is no need to confuse matters with grandiose notions of transcendence, that when parsed, are pretty unintelligible.

Reflections

In material reality, a reflection is light from an object hitting a reflective surface and bouncing back to be observed by something sensitive to light—an eye, for example. There is not so much a relationship between the object and the reflection, but a physical process taking place that is being observed. We might conceptualize a relationship, but, in reality, there is just physical stuff happening to things in the universe that we have cut up, conceptualized, and labeled: Vanessa, photons of light, mirror, image in the mirror, photons of light, eyes, me perceiving.

But this is not analogous to reflecting God’s morality, for example. Here, we complete a moral action and somehow this reflects God, or even accesses God in some way. The transcendence is that we cross the physical border of the universe to dip into the well of God’s morality, wherever that resides, and whatever that means.

To me, that is God being moral, and humans being moral in the same way that I am walking or seeing or being aware just like that fox is walking or seeing or being aware. The latter example is not transcendence and I would argue that the former example is not, either.

When I teach someone something, perhaps my child to write the letter Q, I am not partaking in transcendence in any way other than a very weak conceptual sort of one (my legacy is transcending time and place in giving a skill to another to take on and use, or some such claim).

Religious people really need to thrash out what they actually believe is going on when they say something is transcendent, whether that be love, morality, a soul, or whatever. Because in doing so, they often imply a sort of grandiosity and superiority to their worldview and claims.

But, really, the emperor has no clothes.

“Transcendence”: one of those high-falutin words that does an awful lot less in reality than theists think it does.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...