I don’t just mean this thoughts in terms of what cannot be said in some particular language, or what cannot be calculated in a mathematical formula of some kind. I mean what transcends the limits of our existence itself. I no longer believe there can be any such transcendent; if there was, it would be so alien to us that we couldn’t include it in any of our philosophies. It would be an entirely different mode of existence, such that we couldn’t even say it exists. It would be nonsense to matter and energy themselves, and make nonsense of them.
So I prefer to think of existence as a huge sprawl of complex bodies interacting with each other. They are strange, and very diverse, but everything in the universe can be understood if we think hard enough. There’s nothing that transcends existence, or that transcends the ability of something that exists (or at least could exist) to understand it.
This is an optimistic, hopeful picture of the universe: there are no permanently closed books. It makes me wonder why so many people are seduced by transcendence. This blog isn’t, of course, the first place this question was asked. I’m only having a little exploration of a topic that Nietzsche, for a much better example than me, explored with incredible rigor, creativity, and originality. Nonetheless, I thought I would at least publish some thoughts this morning on the idea, which some find inescapably necessary for the world to make sense, that there is that which is beyond being.
It might be a little strange given my angry thoughts about Jacques Derrida’s philosophy yesterday, but the only way I could really get behind a conception of reality that involved a transcendent dimension is negative theology. As far as I can say from my perspective (limited as it is in knowledge of the neo-Platonists and their influence over Medieval Christian philosophy), this idea says that there is a transcendent dimension to reality, but we can’t know anything about it and we can’t even be really sure that it effects us.* If there is a God, I can’t believe that an infinite, omniscient being would care that much about a small planet with a few self-important technological primates all over it.
* Of course this ignores the entire theory of emanation that Plotinus developed, which is how the material world is generated from the activity of the transcendent.
This is, I think, the major difference between me and people with traditionally religious sentiments and perspectives (at least of Christian heritage, of which I’ve known the most). Here's a funny image on the internet: you scroll down from a panel of Earth to the Sol system, to the Milky Way, our galactic cluster, and the second-last image is a map of the entire observable universe. The very last image is an angry, hand-painted Jesus standing next to the observable universe and screaming “Don’t masturbate!”
It was crude, and it was silly, but I laughed for a second. It communicated in a second what I think is a profound mistake of some Christians who I’ve spoken to, and many who hold prominent positions in media, business, and politics: that the entire universe is all about us, humanity, that all this exists for the sake of our morality only.
The first time I ever performed a conference presentation in philosophy, it was at a graduate student conference at Dominican College in Ottawa in 2007. I presented a paper about the limits of scientific investigation to describe the human mind, specifically arguing against the idea that whatever is subject to scientific knowledge is strictly determinist. Essentially, it was about relating the freedom-determinism problem to problems about the nature of mind. I should have anticipated this from a conference hosted by a department that was half philosophy and half Christian theology, but one of the other students asked me about the role of God in my ideas. I gave an honest answer: She doesn’t have one.
That’s the only transcendence I can really endorse. If there is a God, then God wouldn’t care about us. We like to think God cares about us because the universe is a bleak, huge, scary, complicated place, and it’s comforting to know that there’s a fundamental principle of being that cares about our moral behaviour. This is my own interpretation of Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy: the concepts of God and the immortal soul don’t correspond to anything that really exists, but we need to posit (ie. pretend) that they exist because humans would only be good to each other if we believe that an omnipotent God is judging us for every little infraction, and could punish us if He wanted.
And this is actually what a lot of Christians believe. I can’t speak for people of most other religions, because I haven’t had this kind of conversation with many people outside Christianity, and I was raised in a Christian culture where ideas like this floated around. But it’s a popular attitude that you can’t understand the beauty and majesty of nature if you don’t believe in the God that created it, or hold yourself to moral principles without believing that God will judge and punish you for destructive and cruel acts.
Those who know me know that I’m an atheist. My argument for atheism is simply that we don’t need God for these roles. The human intellect, with enough practice, knowledge, and attitude, can understand the immense complexity of the universe. This is another point I made yesterday about my immanent atheism: there is nothing that, by definition or essence, is beyond the power to understand. Ethics rests in our relationships with people around us, knowing how our actions directly and indirectly affect ourselves, others, and the world. It’s an ethics with obligations and bonds, but without judgment and punishment.