What is “Transcendence”?

You may have noticed number of writings on religious topics that make reference to “transcendence” or “the transcendent.” However, the word “transcendence” is usually not very well defined, if it is defined at all. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes several references to transcendence, but it’s not completely clear what transcendence means other than the infinite greatness of God, and the fact that God is “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable.” For those who value reason and precise arguments, this vagueness is unsatisfying. Astonishingly, the fifteen volume Catholic Encyclopedia (1907-1914) did not even have an entry on “transcendence,” though it did have an entry on “transcendentalism,” a largely secular philosophy with a variety of schools and meanings. (The New Catholic Encyclopedia in 1967 finally did have an entry on “transcendence.”)

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “transcendence” as “the action or fact of transcending, surmounting, or rising above . . . ; excelling, surpassing; also the condition or quality of being transcendent, surpassing eminence or excellence. . . .” The reference to “excellence” is probably key to understanding what “transcendence” is. In my previous essay on ancient Greek religion, I pointed out that areté, the Greek word for “excellence,” was a central idea of Greek culture and one cannot fully appreciate the ancient Greek pagan religion without recognizing that Greek devotion to excellence was central to their religion. The Greeks depicted their gods as human, but with perfect physical forms. And while the behavior of the Greek gods was often dubious from a moral standpoint, the Greek gods were still regarded as the givers of wisdom, order, justice, love, and all the institutions of human civilization.

The odd thing about transcendence is that because it seems to refer to a striving for an ideal or a goal that goes above and beyond an observed reality, transcendence has something of an unreal quality. It is easy to see that rocks and plants and stars and animals and humans exist. But the transcendent cannot be directly seen, and one cannot prove the transcendent exists. It is always beyond our reach.

Theologians refer to transcendence as one of the two natures of God, the other being “immanence.” Transcendence refers to the higher nature of God and immanence refers to God as He currently works in reality, i.e., the cosmic order. The division between those who believe in a personal God and those who believe in an impersonal God reflects the division between the transcendent and immanent view of God. It is no surprise that most scientists who believe in God tend more to the view of an impersonal God, because their whole life is dedicated to examining the reality of the cosmic order, which seems to operate according to a set of rules rather than personal supervision.

Of course, atheists don’t even believe in an impersonal God. One famous atheist, Sigmund Freud, argued that religion was an illusion, a simple exercise in “wish fulfillment.” According to Freud, human beings desired love, immortality, and an end to suffering and pain, so they gravitated to religion as a solution to the inevitable problems and limitations of mortal life. Marxists have a similar view of religion, seeing promises of an afterlife as a barrier to improving actual human life.

Another view was taken by the American philosopher George Santayana, whose book, Reason in Religion, is one of the very finest books ever written on the subject of religion. According to Santayana, religion was an imaginative and poetic interpretation of life; religion supplied ideal ends to which human beings could orient their lives. Religion failed only when it attributed literal truth to these imaginative ideal ends. Thus religions should be judged, according to Santayana, according to whether they were good or bad, not whether they were true or false.

This criteria for judging religion would appear to be irrational, both to rationalists and to those who cling to faith. People tend to equate worship of God with belief in God, and often see literalists and fundamentalists as the most devoted of all. But I would argue that worship is the act of submission to ideal ends, which hold value precisely because they are higher than actually existing things, and therefore cannot pass traditional tests of truth, which call for a correspondence to reality.

In essence, worship is submission to a transcendent Good. We see good in our lives all the time, but we know that the particular goods we experience are partial and perishable. Freud is right that we wish for goods that cannot be acquired completely in our lives and that we use our imaginations to project perfect and eternal goods, i.e. God and heaven. But isn’t it precisely these ideal ends that are sacred, not the flawed, perishable things that we see all around us? In the words of Santayana,

[I]n close association with superstition and fable we find piety and spirituality entering the world. Rational religion has these two phases: piety, or loyalty to necessary conditions, and spirituality, or devotion to ideal ends. These simple sanctities make the core of all the others. Piety drinks at the deep, elemental sources of power and order: it studies nature, honours the past, appropriates and continues its mission. Spirituality uses the strength thus acquired, remodeling all it receives, and looking to the future and the ideal. (Reason in Religion, Chapter XV)

People misunderstand ancient Greek religion when they think it is merely a set of stories about invisible personalities who fly around controlling nature and intervening in human affairs. Many Greek myths were understood to be poetic creations, not history; there were often multiple variations of each myth, and people felt free to modify the stories over time, create new gods and goddesses, and change the functions/responsibilities of each god. Rational consistency was not expected, and depictions of the appearance of any god or goddess in statues or painting could vary widely. For the Greeks, the gods were not just personalities, but transcendent forms of the Good. This is why Greek religion also worshipped idealized ends and virtues such as “Peace,” “Victory,” “Love,” “Democracy,” “Health,” “Order,” and “Wealth.” The Greeks represented these idealized ends and virtues as persons (usually females) in statues, built temples for them, and composed worshipful hymns to them. In fact, the tendency of the Greeks to depict any desired end or virtue as a person was so prevalent, it is sometimes difficult for historians to tell if a particular statue or temple was meant for an actual goddess/god or was a personified symbol. For the ancient Greeks, the distinction may not have been that important, for they tended to think in highly poetic and metaphorical terms.

This may be fine as an interpretation of religion, you may say, but does it make sense to conceive of imaginative transcendent forms as persons or spirits who can actually bring about the goods and virtues that we seek? Is there any reason to think that prayer to Athena will make us wise, that singing a hymn to Zeus will help us win a war, or that a sacrifice at the temples of “Peace” or “Health” will bring us peace or health? If these gods are not powerful persons or spirits that can hear our prayers or observe our sacrifices, but merely poetic representations or symbols, then what good are they and what good is worship?

My view is this: worship and prayer do not affect natural causation. Storms, earthquakes, disease, and all the other calamities that have afflicted humankind from the beginning are not affected by prayer. Addressing these calamities requires research into natural causation, planning, human intervention, and technology. What worship and prayer can do, if they are directed at the proper ends, is help us transcend ourselves, make ourselves better people, and thereby make our societies better.

In a previous essay, I reviewed the works of various physicists, who concluded that reality consists not of tiny, solid objects but rather bundles of properties and qualities that emerge from potentiality to actuality. I think this dynamic view of reality is what we need in order to understand the relationship between the transcendent and the actual. We worship the transcendent not because we can prove it exists, but because the transcendent is always drawing us to a higher life, one that excels or supersedes who we already are. The pantheism of Spinoza and Einstein is more rational than traditional myths that attributed natural events to a personal God who created the world in six days and subsequently punished evil by causing natural disasters. But pantheism is ultimately a poor basis for religion. What would be the point of worshipping the law of gravity or electromagnetism or the elements in the periodic table? These foundational parts of the universe are impressive, but I would argue that aspiring to something higher is fundamental not only to human nature but to the universe itself. The universe, after all, began simply with a concentrated point of energy; then space expanded and a few elements such as hydrogen and helium formed; only after hundreds of millions of years did the first stars, planets, and other elements necessary for life began to emerge.

Worshipping the transcendent orients the self to a higher good, out of the immediate here-and-now. And done properly, worship results in worthy accomplishments that improve life. We tend to think of human civilization as being based on the rational mastery of a body of knowledge. But all knowledge began with an imagined transcendent good. The very first lawgivers had no body of laws to study; the first ethicists had no texts on morals to consult; the first architects had no previous designs to emulate; the first mathematicians had no symbols to calculate with; the first musicians had no composers to study. All our knowledge and civilization began with an imagined transcendent good. This inspired experimentation with primitive forms; and then improvement on those initial primitive efforts. Only much later, after many centuries, did the fields of law, ethics, architecture, mathematics, and music become a body of knowledge requiring years of study. So we attribute these accomplishments to reason, forgetting the imaginative leaps that first spurred these fields.


Belief and Evidence

A common argument by atheists is that belief without evidence is irrational and unjustified, and that those arguing for the existence of God have the burden of proof.  Bertrand Russell famously argued that if one claims that there is a teapot orbiting the sun, the burden of proving the existence of the teapot is on the person who asserts the existence of the teapot, not the denier.  Christopher Hitchens has similarly argued that “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”  Hitchens has advanced this principle even further, arguing that “exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.”  (god is not Great, pp. 143, 150)  Sam Harris has argued that nearly every evil in human history “can be attributed to an insufficient taste for evidence” and that “We must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it.”   (The End of Faith, pp. 25, 48)

A demand for evidence is surely a legitimate requirement for most ordinary claims.  But it would be a mistake to turn this rule into a rigid and universal requirement, because many of the issues and problems we encounter in our lives are not always rich with evidence.  Some issues have a wealth of evidence, some issues have a small amount of indirect or circumstantial evidence, some issues have evidence compatible with a variety of radically different conclusions, and some issues have virtually no evidence.  What’s worse is that there appears to be an inverse relationship between the size and importance of the issue one is addressing and the amount of evidence that is available.  The bigger the question one has, the less evidence there is to address it.  The questions of how to obtain a secure and steady supply of food, water, and shelter, how to extend the human lifespan and increase the economic standard of living, all have scientific-technological answers backed by abundant evidence.  Other issues, such as the origins of the universe, the nature of the elementary particles, and the evolution of life, also have large amounts of evidence, albeit with significant gaps in certain details.  But some of the most important questions we face have such a scarcity of evidence that a variety of conflicting beliefs seems inevitable.  Why does the universe exist?  Is there intelligent life on other planets, and if so, how many planets have such life?  Where did the physical laws of the universe come from?  What should we do with our lives?  Will the human race survive the next 1000 years?  Are our efforts to be good people and follow moral codes all in vain?

In cases of scarce evidence, to demand that sufficient evidence exist before forming a belief is to put the cart before the horse.  If one looks at the origins and growth of knowledge in human civilization, belief begins with imagination — only later are beliefs tested and challenged.  Without imagination, there are no hypotheses to test.  In fact, one would not know what evidence to gather if one did not begin with a belief.  Knowledge would never advance.  As the philosopher George Santayana argued in his book Reason and Religion,

A good mythology cannot be produced without much culture and intelligence. Stupidity is not poetical. . . . The Hebrews, denying themselves a rich mythology, remained without science and plastic art; the Chinese, who seem to have attained legality and domestic arts and a tutored sentiment without passing through such imaginative tempests as have harassed us, remain at the same time without a serious science or philosophy. The Greeks, on the contrary, precisely the people with the richest and most irresponsible myths, first conceived the cosmos scientifically, and first wrote rational history and philosophy. So true it is that vitality in any mental function is favourable to vitality in the whole mind. Illusions incident to mythology are not dangerous in the end, because illusion finds in experience a natural though painful cure. . . .  A developed mythology shows that man has taken a deep and active interest both in the world and in himself, and has tried to link the two, and interpret the one by the other. Myth is therefore a natural prologue to philosophy, since the love of ideas is the root of both.

Modern critics of traditional religion are right to argue that we need to revise, reinterpret, or abandon myths when they conflict with new evidence.  As astronomy advanced, it was necessary to abandon the geocentric model of the universe.   As the evidence for evolution accumulated, it was no longer plausible to believe that the universe was created in the extremely short span of six days.  There is a difference between a belief formed in the face of a scarcity of evidence and a belief that goes against an abundance of evidence.  The former is permitted, and is even necessary to advance knowledge; the latter takes knowledge backward.

Today we have reached the point at which science is attempting to answer some very large questions, and science is running up against the limits of what is possible with observation, experimentation, and verification.  Increasingly, the scientific imagination is developing theories that are plausible, but have little or no evidence to back them up; in fact, for many of these theories we will probably never have sufficient evidence.  I am referring here to cosmological theories about the origins of the universe that propose a “multiverse,” that is, a large or even infinite collection of universes that exist alongside our own observable universe.

There are several different types of multiverse theories.  The first type, which many if not most cosmologists accept, proposes multiple universes with the same physical laws and constants as ours, but with different distributions of matter.  A second type, which is more controversial, proposes an infinite number of universes with different physical laws and constants.  A third type, also controversial, arises out of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics — in this view, every time an indeterminate event occurs (say, a six-sided die comes up a “four”), an entirely new universe splits off from our own.  Thus, the most extreme multiverse theories claim that all possibilities exist in some universe, somewhere.  There are even an infinite number of people like you, each with a slight variation in life history (i.e., turning left instead of turning right when leaving the house this morning).

The problem with these theories, however, is that is impossible to obtain solid evidence on the existence of other universes through observation — the universes either exist far beyond the limits of our observable universe, or they reside on a different branch of reality that we cannot reach.  Now it’s not unusual for a scientific theory to predict the existence of particles or forces or worlds that we cannot yet observe; historically, a number of such predictions have proved true when the particle or force or world was finally observed.  But many other predictions have not been proved true.  With the multiverse, it is unlikely that we will have definitive evidence one way or the other.  And a number of scientists have revolted at this development, arguing that cosmology at this level is no longer scientific.  According to physicist Paul Davies,

Extreme multiverse explanations are therefore reminiscent of theological discussions. Indeed, invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we do see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator. The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language, but in essence it requires the same leap of faith.

Likewise, Freeman Dyson insists:

[T]he multiverse is philosophy and not science. Science is about facts that can be tested and mysteries that can be explored, and I see no way of testing hypotheses of the multiverse. Philosophy is about ideas that can be imagined and stories that can be told. I put narrow limits on science, but I recognize other sources of human wisdom going beyond science. Other sources of wisdom are literature, art, history, religion, and philosophy. The multiverse has its place in philosophy and in literature.

Cosmologist George F.R. Ellis, in the August 2011 issue of Scientific American, notes that there are several ways of indirectly testing for the existence of multiple universes, but none are likely to be definitive.  He concludes: “Nothing is wrong with scientifically based philosophical speculation, which is what multiverse proposals are.  But we should name it for what it is.”

Given the thinness of the evidence for extreme multiverse theories, one might ask why modern day atheists do not seem to attack and mock such theorists for believing in something for which they cannot provide solid evidence.  At the very least, Christopher Hitchens’s claim that “exceptional claims require exceptional evidence” would seem to invalidate belief in any multiverse theory.  At best, at some future point we may have indirect or circumstantial evidence for the existence of some other universes; but we are never going to have exceptional evidence for an infinite number of universes consisting of all possibilities.  So why do we not hear of insulting analogies involving orbiting teapots and flying spaghetti monsters when some scientists propose an infinite number of universes based on different physical laws or an infinite number of versions of you?  I think it’s because scientists are respected authority figures in a modern, secular society.  If a scientist says there are multiple universes, we are inclined to believe them even in the absence of solid evidence, because scientists have social prestige, especially among atheists.

Ultimately, there is no solid evidence for the existence of God, no solid evidence for the existence of an infinite variety of universes, and no solid evidence for the existence of other versions of me.  Whether or not one chooses to believe any of these propositions depends on whether one decides to leap into the dark, and which direction one decides to  leap.  This does not mean that any religious belief is permissible — on issues which have abundant evidence, beliefs cannot go against evidence.  Evolution has abundant evidence, as does modern medical science, chemistry, and rocket science.  But where evidence is scarce, and a variety of beliefs are compatible with existing evidence, holding a particular belief cannot be regarded as wholly unjustified and irrational.