In search of the transcendent (update)

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.

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.

Dr. Robert A. Heineman

Dr. Robert A. Heineman

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.


Srinivasa Ramanujan

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.

Ronald Dworkin

Ronald Dworkin

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.

Thomas Nagel

Thomas Nagel

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.

Quentin Meillassoux

Quentin Meillassoux

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

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3 Responses to “In search of the transcendent (update)”

  1. John Belli Says:

    A very excellent answer, Phil.
    – John “Jack” Belli


  2. Ted Lechman Says:

    Re: “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”…”

    There are no better definitions of “the Transcendent” then there are of “the Material”. They form a dialectical pair whose definitions depend on the negation of the other. It is usually claimed that the transcendent is that which does not exist and that the material is that which does exist.

    It is presumed that the material, in order to exist, much be somehow perceptible and tangible and somehow amenable to “work”. Thus orthodox Marxists, who have defined “materialism” for the rest of us since the 19th century, believe that numbers, much less various infinities, do not exist. That “number” can only be correctly used as an adjective to describe material objects – such as there are 5 ball bearings in my hand. Materialists reject the use of “number” as a noun. They would consider that a language error, and ignore mathematical existence proofs out of hand. They would deny that mathematics can prove the existence of mathematical entities or structures but instead hold that mathematical truth simply implies the validity of a particular mathematical language move within a particular mathematical language game, with no implications towards the “real world”.

    It should be pointed out that orthodox Marxists also reject Evolution by Natural Selection, Special Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics as violating the requirements of a Materialist Science.

    It is fair to say that the three most common basic requirements for “Materiality”are:
    – to able to be perceived by the senses or by instruments
    – to able to be handled or worked in some fashion
    – to able to be understood within a rational or scientific framework

    This implies that the materiality of an object depends on the human perceptual apparatus for proof of existence as well as a well-defined location within a human-constructed theoretical framework to be considered as consistent material object. The limitations of this approach are obvious if you consider “the real” to be not dependent on human perception or human explanatory systems.

    The real world must never be a consequence of a theory, i.e. the world is not caused by a theory. Instead some subset of the behaviour of the real world is only partially approximated by a particular theory. The real world will thus always appear contingent, a posteriori, with respect to a theory.

    So in an important sense the real world is both known and unknown and always will be. That is, we will always have theories of every increasing power that increasingly explains the real world in ever increasing complexity and precision. Yet the more we learn, the greater the area and scope of our ignorance becomes clearer to us as well as the inadequacy of our theories. To use Donald Rumsfeld terminology: “ as the known knowns increase, the known unknowns increase even faster, and the more stupefying the number of unknown unknowns.”

    In other words the paradox is that the following two facts are true simultaneously: (1) there are no fields that science cannot conquer. (2) The Universe is much too large and complex for science to “complete” before end of the Universe.

    My view, and that of others, is that “Materialism” is an obsolete term that was common in the 19th century when everything was “matter” which consisted of “particles”. This was the age of steam and thermodynamics and Laplace’s formulation of a deterministic universe that can be completely predicted given its initial conditions. It was a world of hard facts suitable for a pragmatic nation of shopkeepers.

    The 20th century has rendered this notion of Materialism as invalid, and in fact the only people that still use it are non-scientists usually intent on enlisting pseudo-science in some political enterprise. Our measurements are no longer thought of as reflecting the state of some permanent hard material object, but rather the particular selection from the superposition of all indistinguishable possibilities that a particular system represents. Probabilities, potentials, singularities and infinities as well as mathematical structures have a much more powerful explanatory reach then older 19th century Materialist ideas. Howard Blair has in the past made presentations trying to make this clear. But as a friend of mine one said – “There’s no religious problem that three more funerals won’t solve.”

    Its time to drop the notion of “Materialism” and realize that the non-Material is at the heart of contemporary science. It also needs to be understood that the “non-Material” is much more rational and scientific then simply ill defined terms such as God and angels and such.

    BUT, you say, all we are doing with the term Materialism is trying to differentiate science and rationalism from religious superstition and dogmatism. But one can equally say that the problem of religion is in fact the Materiality of God – this can be seen by the materiality of God who is a “person” who has a “personal relationships” with people, and who acts materially within a material world using miracles. It so happens that religion also follows the three common basic requirements of “Materiality”: people perceive God and “his” presence, God works the world miraculously and also in keeping the existential plumbing in proper order, and God also exists within a rational framework that is called Systematic Theology. To repeat, the problem with the God that “Materialists” struggle with is in fact God’s materiality. It seems that both Atheists and Religious Fundamentalists are equally Materialist.

    Theodore W. Lechman
    Rochester, NY
    April 7, 2016


  3. philebersole Says:

    I received this from Robert Heineman via e-mail.

      Robert Heineman’s Response to Phil Ebersole’s Response

    I appreciate Phil Ebersole’s thoughtful reply to presentation on the limitations of modern philosophy in terms of its failure to treat the transcendent in a meaningful and constructive fashion. My thoughts in response are as follows.

    1) I think that a definition of the transcendent runs into serious problems in terms of the flexibility to adjust to change, although a working definition may have some value. My point is that confining thought to the tangible is simply wrong-headed.

    2) It is clear that the universe is infinite. No serious scientist or scholar disputes this. Thus, there has to be a domain far beyond the tangible.

    3) Some have answered the above with the “Big Bang Theory,” which posits a beginning to the universe. But, of course, this touches on the very essence of my case. If the Big Bang Theory is true, it completely undermines the approaches propounded by the secularists. These approaches utilize a logic and a scientific approach that use deduction and cause and effect. These cannot explain the Big Bang Theory, because the question of what preceded the Big Bang remains.

    4) Consequently, I argue that one cannot be agnostic about the transcendent by accepting the validity of current approaches to logic and science as means of explaining everything. At the very least there have to be other ways of explaining who and where we are.

    5) When we talk about the transcendent, there, of course, is a tendency to see religion as encompassing the transcendent. I am not arguing that, although I am certainly not arguing against religion and its role in the universe. Here, however, I want to caution that the transcendent does not by any logical or scientific reasoning need to result in a utopia or even pleasant state. It is quite possible that existing beyond the immediate and tangible may not be pleasant at all.

    I appreciate as well Ted Lechman’s response, and I must say that generally I agree with him on the materiality issue, which he states very well. I might note that the Marxists, despite important contributions in historical, social, and economic analysis, when they moved to theory itself accepted the importance of the transcendent in their utterly utopian vision of the world that a classless society would bring. I would like to delve further into Ted’s concluding remarks on religion, with which I have some reservations, but that begins to move away from our main focus here.

    I am certainly pleased with the responses to my thoughts and the willingness of folks to take up the cudgels of debate. It seems to me that this subject still has ample room for analysis and clarification.

    Robert Heineman


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