Update: This was originally posted on March 31, 2016. Robert Heineman replied on June 6, 2016. His reply can be found in the comment thread. Click on this for his original talk.
A RESPONSE TO ROBERT HEINEMAN
By Philip Ebersole
My friend Dr. Robert A. Heineman gave a talk to the Rochester Russell Forum on March 10, 2016, saying that modern philosophy is a failure to the extend that it denies the reality of the “transcendent.”
He unfortunately did not provide a good five-cent definition of “transcendent,” so I resorted to my old Webster’s dictionary. Here is what I found:
TRANSCENDENT: (1) exceeding usual limits, (2) extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience, (3) beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge, (4) transcending the universe or material existence.
I would not deny that there are forces, entities and laws not only beyond ordinary experience, but beyond all possible experience and knowledge. Our knowledge is a drop, as William James is quoted as saying, and our ignorance is an ocean.
My question is: How do you philosophize about something that is beyond the limits of all possible experience and knowledge and transcends the universe itself? My second question is: What relevance would things beyond all possible knowledge and experience have to me and the people I know?
Dr. Heineman looks for answers in the findings and limitations of modern science. He makes three points.
First, he argues that contemporary science has produced concepts such as “quantum entanglement” that appear to defy logic and certainly defy common sense, but appear to fit the facts.
It may be, as the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane said, that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.
Second, he argues there are certain questions that science can’t answer and may never be able to answer.
I think this is true, and important to keep in mind. Dr. Heineman is very right to push back against reductionist arguments that claim metaphysical questions can be answered in terms of chemistry and physics.
Scientific inquiry reveals much that is important about how things work and that is relevant to philosophical understanding – for example, about how brain activity and brain chemistry are correlated with human thought and emotion.
But neurology and biochemistry do not explain how my experience of being a conscious, thinking, decision-making human being arises from brain activity. In fact, I can’t define what an explanation would consist of.
Third, he argues that the structure of mathematics is an example of transcendence. The Pythagorean Theorem is not tangible. It is not part of everyday human experience. Yet it is objectively real, not a human creation like literature. Mathematicians are continually making new discoveries that other mathematicians verify.
Mathematics and logic appear to be a key to understanding scientific law, even though there’s no obvious reason why this should be so. The most mysterious thing about the universe, as Albert Einstein said, is its comprehensibility.
Dr. Heineman mentioned the mathematical prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan, born to a struggling Hindu family in a backward part of India, who despite a lack of formal training, grasped the most advanced mathematical principles and ideas.
His understanding appeared to be intuitive, a mystic insight of a world equivalent to Plato’s forms, which underly the world of appearances.
Mathematical Platonism implies the possibility of other hidden, intangible structures – the laws of musical harmony, for example. It implies the possibility even of a natural moral law, rooted in the cosmos and not in the human mind, which is something I would very much like to believe in.
There is an alternative, however, which is that mathematics, logic and even musical harmony are equivalent to the structure of language. The alternative is that the structure of mathematics reflects not the cosmos, but the structure of the human mind and of possible human thought. In this alternative, it would reflect not the cosmos, but human perception of the cosmos.
I have no proof that the second alternative is true. I just say I don’t know
Dr. Heineman touched on three other philosophers.
The first philosopher is the legal scholar, Ronald Dworkin, who pointed out that there seem to be certain universal moral principles found in all cultures that are more than just what is useful to society. He said there also seems to be a universal common religious belief in the transcendent.
I met this argument years ago in The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. He said there was a common moral understanding that he called the Tao, and argued belief in God or a divine principle was necessary both to explain the existence of morality, and to provide a sufficient justification for morality.
It is true that human beings have a moral nature, which can be nurtured, distorted or stifled by culture, but still exists in all normal humans. Experimental psychologists have found that human infants and higher animals have a sense of compassion, a sense of gratitude and a sense of fair play, which are the foundation of any moral philosophy.
It also is true that religion is a powerful force in helping people to be upright, brave, kind, patient, self-disciplined, dutiful and humble, and a lifeline in helping people to free themselves from rage, addictions and despair.
The problem is that religion is not always a force for good. It can be and sometimes is a force that justifies economic and political oppression, willful ignorance, intolerance, persecution, unjust war and mass killing.
If you judge something about a religion as being bad – the religious defense of slavery, for example – the basis of your judgment has to be something outside the religion. I say it comes from your basic human nature, which is a rational nation as well as an intuitive nature and a moral nature. You may say that human nature has a transcendent origin. Maybe so and maybe not.
The second philosopher is Thomas Nagel, whose book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, is being read by both Dr. Heineman and me as part of an informal philosophy seminar hosted by our friend Paul Mitacek.
I haven’t finished reading the book, so I can’t do justice to Nagel’s full argument. He contends that Darwin’s theory of natural selection cannot fully explain the origins of life nor of consciousness, intentionality, meaning and value.
I think this is true, but I don’t see that anything follows from this, except increased awareness of the overall mysteriousness of human existence.
I don’t, for example, see the limitations of Darwinism as an argument for the theory of Intelligent Design. And even if the theory of Intelligent Design were true, I don’t see this as evidence for the Heavenly Father of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions. An Intelligent Designer, if such existed, would stand in the same relation to humanity as a biologist to bacteria in a Petri dish.
The third is Quentin Meillassoux, a French philosopher with whom I am not familiar. Dr. Heineman said Meillassoux says that science has outpaced philosophy in recognizing a realm of power and persistence unaffected by human existence.
I’ve not read Meillassoux’s book, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, but based on reviews I’ve read on the Internet, I understand his argument to be that the only thing we can know for sure is contingency.
That is, the universe could easily be something different from what it happens to be. Not only could there be different scientific laws from the ones we know, there is nothing to stop the universe from flipping over into a new set of laws at any time. Nor can we be sure there is any such thing as cause and effect.
The extension of the universe in time and space is beyond the power of the human mind to comprehend, he argued; therefore Kant’s question of whether we ever can know things as they are in themselves, or merely appearances, is irrelevant.
Beyond this, I admit I don’t understand what Miellassoux is getting at. He appears to regard mathematics as a way of getting beyond the limits of human understanding, and he praises efforts to see things from the cosmic view, which he calls Copernican, rather than the human-centered view, which he calls Ptolemaic.
Ptolemaic, or Earth-centered, astronomy does, however, is still used—in navigation. Sailors orient themselves by reference to the Celestial Sphere of fixed stars. It is only a human convention, but we need it.
I think there is value in trying to imagine things from a cosmic point of view. It is a valuable exercise. Among other things, it helps me to vaccinate myself against thinking of myself as the center of the universe. But I am most interested in a human-centered, humanistic philosophy, that will help people navigate through life and find wisdom and contentment.
The word “transcendent” is most commonly used to label a kind of human experience, an epiphany in which people feel a unity with God and the cosmos. This is what Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau and the other New England Transcendentalists felt, and what they tried to communicate to others.
I think the transcendent experience is valuable, and more common than most non-religious people recognize. But some supposed transcendent experience is simply delusional, and the difference is not always obvious—especially if you reject human reason and common sense.
A philosopher who takes up the subject of transcendence should try to define the subject of transcendent experience – something “out there” in the cosmos” or something deep inside the individual human mind or soul or both at the same time.
Photo credits: Alfred University; Mike Hoffman, USNA; New York University; Strange Notions; Christopher Watkin, Monash University