I’ve been engaged in a conversation about the nature of the transcendent in recent days, with a group of folk who are, I think it would be fair to say, sceptics.
Their concerns, as I understand them, major on how the transcendent, whatever it might be, eludes scientific scrutiny. The fear is that it opens the door to all manner of mystification, religiosity and phooey. Alternatively, it implies strange processes by which apparently transcendent phenomena, notably consciousness/mind, emerge and float above, as it were, the material world with which science is comfortable. This is, in fact, leading some individuals entirely committed to naturalistic ways of describing the world to positing naturalistic ideas of the sacred, the transcendent and even the soul. Nicholas Humphrey comes to kind.
However, I tend to think that the word transcendent is treated as unnecessarily scary. I suspect it is often confused with the supernatural, the s-word often being deployed rhetorically to scare ‘sane and rational’ people off contemplating the transcendent. In truth, though, the transcendent is all around us.
For one thing, it is unclear to me what is meant by materialistic naturalism, if that is the philosophy which makes the transcendent inadmissible. And I bet if you ask most physicists these days, they’d be pretty unclear too. (I imagine biologists tend to more comfortable with calling on some kind of materialistic naturalism, mostly because they have a 19th century view of the nature of matter.) I prefer to follow Werner Heisenberg’s advice, in his book Physics and Philosophy: he argues that old fashioned materialism is too narrow a frame to find a place for all manner of facets of life, often associated with mind; so better to stand on the known facets of life than the shifting sands of sciences that are changing so fast and whose ramifications are not at all understood.
That noted, what does physics suggest? I did a physics degree at one point, and whilst that never took me beyond the wave equation for a hydrogen atom and a first look at special relativity, it exposed me enough to the subject to feel that the world of mathematics, which physicists typically experience as a process of discovery, provides quite a good example of exploring a transcendent world that links with the everyday world.
In fact, it could be that what can be called the transcendent is what makes the natural sciences possible. This would be the weight of the observation about mathematics. Then there’s also the philosophical point about laws of natural which, it seems to me, have to be in some sense transcendent in relation to the natural sciences, or else you embark upon an infinite regress where the laws of nature need secondary laws of nature that determine them, that need tertiary laws of nature etc etc… It is for this reason that in physics you get books about the ‘7 fundamental constants’ or whatever – fundamental being acceptable code for transcendent features; and in Dawkins-style evolution you get notions such as the immortality of the genes. I don’t buy that, but the general point is that the natural sciences do, in fact, appear to lead to transcendent concepts that are required as their ground.
I know there’s loads of debate about the nature of laws of nature. So more broadly again, on the transcendent in the everyday, I was reading about Abraham Maslow’s notion of D-cognition and B-cognition the other day. This is the idea that D-cognition – D for deficiency – is the kind of knowledge required in the daily business of striving and surviving, which is largely a process of finding what we lack. B-cognition – B for being – is the felt or intuited sense of participating in the world at a deeper level than the humdrum. It’s a different kind of knowing that can be linked to a sense of the transcendent.
Maslow has an example, from when he was once participating in a graduation ceremony. Apparently, he tended to think of such occasions as ‘silly rituals’. However, on this day he suddenly perceived a tremendous procession, beginning with the great figures at the origins of his discipline and reaching into the future with the generations not yet born. It was not a hallucination. Rather, the ritual conveyed a vivid and I would say transcendent representation of the deep meaning of university life.
In general, the function of mimetic, mythical, ritual, poetic, religious and other ways of exploring our participation in the world would be to show or perhaps unveil the transcendent. It strikes me as highly likely to be a very common way that people experience the world, alongside the humdrum. And entirely natural.