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Searching for Signals of Transcendence

Updated on October 4, 2017
John Paul Quester profile image

A mostly retired academic, I hold advanced degrees in philosophy and psychology.

The Telescope, by Rene Magritte (1898-1967)
The Telescope, by Rene Magritte (1898-1967)

I share with many a profound appreciation of the sophistication and power of the scientific account of nature, and of the virtues of rational discourse and critical thinking more generally. Yet, after a long period of untrammeled enthusiasm, I have recently come to feel that science as currently construed may fail to do full justice to the richness, depth and complexities of human experience, and perhaps of the ultimate nature of reality itself. I am also more confident that the materialistic worldview, which purports to derive its tenets from an interpretation of scientific findings, can be robustly challenged on thoroughly rational grounds. In particular, I am no longer entirely convinced that one should forgo the notion of a larger reality - an ‘unseen spiritual order’ as William James called it - that transcends the purely physical domain.

Indeed, I would gladly embrace such a perspective, since it enriches immeasurably one’s view of reality. However, my intellectual commitments limit the options I feel at liberty to pursue. Assuming that some readers may find themselves in a frame of mind not too unlike my own, and that those who do not may yet find some interest in it, I propose here to delineate the bent of my attempts at negotiating these deep waters. Perhaps readers who can see farther and deeper than I will come to my rescue.

Queen of the Sciences?

Of course, one of the well trodden ways of acknowledging the presence of a spiritual order of reality is by adhering to a religious outlook on the world on the basis of articles of faith elaborated over the centuries by established Churches, such the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Although appreciative of the wealth of doctrine, history, and personal experiences to be found in these harbours of faith, I am unable to drop anchor there.

I have also great respect for the intellectual depth of theology, that former ‘queen of sciences’, defined by Saint Augustine as a ‘rational discussion’ about God. Over the millennia, this discipline elaborated a number of impressive ‘arguments’ about the existence of a deity, that put to shame the shrill, superficial criticism of religious belief popularized recently by a number of bestsellers promoting atheism as the only viewpoint compatible with a scientific and rationally defensible world view.

I have in mind here among others the cosmological arguments, which derive the existence of a necessary supreme being from the contingent existence of the world as it is. And the ontological argument, which seeks to prove the existence of God on the basis of purely logical inferences. First proposed in the 11th century by Saint Anselm (1033-1109), further elaborated by the likes of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Gottfried W. Leibniz (1646-1716) - the great philosopher and co-discoverer of calculus - this argument was more recently re-proposed in terms of a type of logic unknown in earlier times. Modal logic, unlike ordinary logic - which addresses what is or is not the case - concerns itself with what ‘might’, ‘could not’, or ‘must’ be the case (Holt, 2012). The Austrian born Kurt Godel (1906-1978) - one of the greatest logicians of all time - articulated a powerful ontological argument based upon this logic. The extraordinary thing about it is that it only requires the acceptance of a seemingly innocuous, straightforward assumption: that it is ‘at least possible that God exists’. If one is willing to accept this premise, the inescapably logical conclusion of the argument is that it is then necessary that God exists.

A truly formidable, unassailable argument. Or so it seems. Unfortunately, if we were to accept instead the premise that God just possibly does NOT exist, then the same line of reasoning leads to the conclusion that God necessarily does not exist. And if we find no a priori reason – as I do not – to privilege one premise over the other, we are back to square one.

Thus, despite the considerable sophistication of the arguments, and the undoubted brilliance and profundity of the thinkers who sought to prove God’s existence - as perhaps best exemplified by the history of the ontological argument - nearly one thousand years of theological thought have not brought us closer to a rationally compelling decision in favor of - or against - God’s existence, and of a transcendent reality more generally.

If the ‘Way of Faith’ and the ‘Way of Logical Reasoning’ cannot help one steer toward the unseen anchorage, what remains to explore is the domain of human experience, searching its depths for signals of transcendence.

Here is what I found, so far.

Children Playing on the Beach, by M. Cassat, (1884)
Children Playing on the Beach, by M. Cassat, (1884) | Source

Where the Beyond is Hidden in Plain Sight

Sociologist of religion Peter Berger (1970) has proposed an ‘inductive’ approach to belief in a transcendent reality. Unlike the ‘deductive’ theological approach, which starts with unprovable assumptions about God (e.g., those attributed to divine revelation) to next descend to an interpretation of human existence, Berger takes its departure from phenomena that are constitutive of humankind’s ­­essential nature, and that although part of its everyday reality yet seem to point beyond it. This approach therefore is ‘inductive’ in the sense that it moves from ordinary human experience to the affirmation of a supernatural order of reality.

To illustrate: one fundamental human trait, according to Berger, is the propensity for order, as manifested in any functioning society. This propensity is in turn based upon a fundamental trust that reality itself in the broadest sense is ‘in order’, ‘all right’, ‘as it should be’. Perhaps the most fundamental of all ‘ordering gestures’ is the one by which a mother reassures her child who wakes up in the middle of the night, shrouded in darkness, besieged by imaginary fears. Out of this primeval chaos the child calls out for his mother. To whom he, however unconsciously, grants the power to restore the world to its orderly, benign form. ‘Everything is all right, everything is in order’ says the mother’s presence.

What are we to make of this gesture? If the natural order is all that exists, the mother, albeit out of love, yet is lying to the child. For the reality that he is implicitly asked to put his trust in is in fact one which in the end will annihilate both. The chaos from which the child is temporarily rescued is terminally real.

On the other hand, the mother is not lying if her reassurance is based upon a broader reality which transcends naked nature and guarantees the order and meaning of the universe at large. As Berger writes, ‘the human’s ordering propensity implies a transcendent order, and each ordering gesture is a signal of transcendence. The parental role is not based on a loving lie. On the contrary it is witness to the ultimate truth of man’s situation in reality’.

In another illustration of this approach, Berger argues that in joyful play one steps from time into eternity. Children at play, so completely intent on their activities, so content and totally at ease in the moment, so oblivious of the world surrounding them, point to a reality beyond time and death, where joy resides. Adults too in their more joyful moments however achieved can drink at this fount of timelessness: for joy wills eternity, as Nietsche put it.

Berger finds other signals of transcendence in his analysis of hope, courage, humor, even in the feeling of being damned.

Needless to say, this approach will not persuade many, since alternative interpretations of these traits of human nature can be provided that place then firmly within the purview of social, historical, cultural, and even evolutionary explanations without a recourse to any form of transcendence. They are far more 'economical', one might say.

On the other hand, Berger’s views deserve to stand alongside these other interpretations. An ever deeper analysis of the human condition along these lines is well worth pursuing.

Jacob's Dream by Jose de Ribera (1591-1652)
Jacob's Dream by Jose de Ribera (1591-1652) | Source

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

If Berger explored the dayside of human experience, a nocturnal dimension of it that can be mined for intimations of transcendence is dreams, especially those which occur to the aged, and before death, whether unexpected or anticipated. Carl Jung (1875-1961), the founder of analytical psychology, repeatedly observed that as people get older, death-themed dreams increase in frequency and significance. Marie Louise von Franz, one of his collaborators, devoted a fine scholarly work (von Franz, 1987; see also Hillman, 1979) to this very topic. Her analysis of the symbolism of death related dreams, especially by individuals approaching death, suggested to her that the unconscious strongly ‘believes’ that the psychic life of the individual continues beyond the decay of the physical body, in a transcendent dimension. According to her, these dreams are not best understood as wish fulfilling expressions of a natural desire that life may not end, since the unconscious mind is quite ruthless is underscoring the finality of physical existence. Yet, with similar equanimity, it seems to prepare the psyche of the dying individual for a continuation of life in another world, one that Jung himself once described as ‘grand and terrible’.

Much as I would like to agree with von Franz's views, I do not find her confutation of the 'wish fulfillment' hypothesis truly persuasive. Yet, the exploration of the nocturnal side of our mental life as we come closer to the end of our existence strikes me as eminently worth pursuing.


 Hieronymous Bosch (ca. 1490)
Hieronymous Bosch (ca. 1490)

Beyond Ordinary Human Experience

Along with the quest for pointers to transcendence within ordinary life, one should not ignore the experiences that religious scholar Rudolf Otto referred to as “numinous” (1923/1957): contacts with a deeply mysterious reality appearing as entirely other than the physical one, and inducing feelings of dread along with fascination in those touched by it.

Whether spontaneously occurring, or induced by a variety of spiritual practices, experiences that fall more broadly under the much abused term ‘mysticism’ are beyond the reach of most of us, and as such are very difficult to assess, especially since those who underwent them are nearly unanimous in denouncing as entirely inadequate their own efforts at verbalizing them. Even so, the attempts to pathologize them by reducing them to elaborate delusions brought about by regimens of physical deprivation, or to symptoms of neurological disorder, seem in many cases badly misdirected. However, this remains a difficult area of enquiry, which demands a case by case detailed analysis and a preparedness to follow the data wherever they may lead.

Also worth considering with well honed discernment is the domain of so-called anomalous experiences, which yet appear to involve a significant proportion of people across cultures and times. Many of these experiences, ‘transitional’ in nature, seem to many to point to the possibility of conscious life in a non physical dimension of reality.

They include phenomena such as the near death experience (e.g., Moody, 1975/2001), mediumship (e.g., Blum, 2006; Braude, 2003), and other so-called transcendent end of life experiences (see link to ‘At the Hour of Death’), including deathbed visions of deceased relatives; the dying person appearing to remotely located relatives or friends; relatives suddenly acquiring the certainty (later confirmed) that a relative just died; a seeming ability on the part of the dying person to transit to and from realities; synchronistic phenomena occurring at the moment of death; unusual animal behavior; the sensing of recently dead persons still lingering in a hospital room. No less baffling is the phenomenon of terminal lucidity, defined as ‘the unexpected return of mental clarity and memory shortly before death in patients suffering from severe psychiatric and neurological disorders’ (Nahm et al., 2012). The fact that these individuals are temporarily restored to normal psychological functioning under conditions characterized in some cases by irreversible and massive brain damage suggests to some that as the mind approaches death it starts disengaging itself from the body, thereby reacquiring some of the lucidity that its entanglement with the diseased brain had rendered impossible.

Yet another class of experiences, generally classified as ‘parapsychological’, include a wealth of laboratory based and anedoctal data about extra sensory perception, (telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, and telekinesis; see, e.g., Radin, 1997). As I argued in previous hubs, anyone willing to take an unbiased look at the best empirical and theoretical literature on this subject will not fail to be impressed by it, and will become open to the possibility that some at least of these paranormal phenomena may be real, and should be placed on the table as legitimate data if a more complete account of the world is ever to be arrived at.

What all these data collectively suggest is that under certain - sometime extreme - circumstances humans may acquire information about events in this world, and perhaps in some as yet unknown dimension of reality, by means other than those gathered by ordinary perceptual and cognitive functioning. A far reaching conclusion, if it will ever be accepted by mainstream science.

... And Then There Is the Hard Problem of Consciousness.

Along with the opportunities afforded by a more open minded outlook on the full expanse of human experience, more leverage for breaking away from a strictly materialistic account of reality is offered by the current debate upon the nature of consciousness.

As I attempted to show in a number of previous hubs (e.g., ‘Is a Non-Materialistic View of the Nature of Mind Defensible?’), consciousness studies offer fertile ground for exposing the amply acknowledged weaknesses of a materialistic account of a universe which yet has hatched this most mysterious of human - and some other species' - endowments, and for opening the way to non materialistic views of the mind brain relationship (e.g., Koons and Bealer, 2010). Unfortunately, the level of theoretical articulation of non-materialistic accounts of consciousness remains extremely unsatisfactory; and very little progress if any has been made over the decades.

Coda

In sum, even those who find it too difficult to adhere to the tenets of an existing religious tradition may yet find within the world of human experience 'signals' of transcendence - however faint and ambiguous - that could encourage them not to foreclose - in the name of a narrow and dogmatic materialism - the possibility that both humanity and overall reality itself are far more mysterious and awe inspiring that most of us imagine, or even can imagine.

An unseen spiritual order might yet exist, just possibly.

References

Berger, P. L. (1970). A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Bloom, D. (2006). Ghost Hunterrs. New York: Penguin Books.

Braude, S. E. (2003). Immortal Remains: The Evidence for Life After Death. Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield.

Brayne, S., Lovelace, H., Fenwick, P. (2008). End of Life Experiences and the Dying Process in a Gloustershire Nursing Home as Reported by Nurses and Care Assistants. American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care, 25, 195-206.

Hillman, J. (1979). The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper and Row.

Holt, W. (2012). Why Does the World Exist? New York: W. W. Norton.

Koons, R. C. and Bealer, G. (Eds). (2010). The Waning of Materialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Moody, R. A. (2001). Life After Life. New York: Harper One

Nahm, M., Greyson, B., Kelly, E. W., and Haraldsson, E. (2012). Terminal Lucidity: A Review and a Case Collection. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 55, 138-142.

Otto, R. (1958) The Idea of the Holy. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Radin, D. (1997). The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. New York: HarperHedge.

Von Franz, M-L. (1989). On Dreams and Death. Boston: Shambala

© 2017 John Paul Quester

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