Troubles with the Transcendent

Troubles with the Transcendent

Some thoughts on why the transcendent is crucial to understanding religion, and its implications for the ‘God’ debate, theology and more.

Photo by Madhu Shesharam on Unsplash

God’s essence is supposed to guarantee his existence — what this really means is that what is at issue here is not the existence of something.
 Couldn’t one actually say equally well that the essence of colour guarantees its existence? As opposed, say, to white elephants. Because all that really means is: I cannot explain what ‘colour’ is, what the word ‘colour’ means, except with the help of a colour sample. So in this case there is no such thing as explaining ‘what it would be like if colours were to exist’ — Wittgenstein

God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ — Exodus 3, 14

The basic problem

The Wittgenstein and Exodus quotations above very interesting. They say that God is self-defining — ‘I am who I am’ — and cannot be defined in terms of other phenomena. Wittgenstein gives the example of colour; any description or attempt to convey the colour ‘red’ will require the colour itself.

Insofar as experience of God is transcendental and is fundamentally different from experiences we normally have (e.g. colour, sight, smell, ideas) we have a language issue. We learn words and their meanings from them being out there in a world which is common to us. Yet when someone talks about God, if they have ‘experienced’ him then someone who lacks that reference point will not be able to understand. This raises two problems:

1. It’s not accessible to people who haven’t experienced it. Arguments dependent on that reference point will be non-verifiable for these people.

2. It is impossible to know people mean the same thing. If I disagree with you about redness, we resolve that difficulty by pointing to the same object in the world. But the transcendental lacks this shared reference point and the language to describe it. Two people who have experienced the ‘same’ transcendental experience would be unable to know if they had actually had the same transcendental experience. (i.e. multiple transcendental experiences would imply even theologians could not be sure they were referring to the same thing)

This leads to my trouble with talk about the transcendental: 1 and 2 imply that no-one can talk to someone else about the transcendental and know they are talking about the same thing.

First implication: belief is not a choice

This leads to the most important theological consideration. As we have defined God, it is not possible to understand except through experience. Those who lack the transcendental experiences cannot believe in God. This seems to remove the free will aspect out of unbelief?

Implications for the ‘God’ debate

If God is a concept impossible to capture in earthly terms and language, the whole idea of a ‘God’ debate is bizarre. Those arguing against it wouldn’t know what they are really arguing against. (If we agree with Wittgenstein, then this would be akin to a blind man arguing about colour).

The flip side is that this creates a wall of convenience. If someone had merely persuaded themselves that they had had a transcendental experience, they could hind behind the convenient barrier that no-one else could prove them wrong.

God and probability

Another interesting implication is that concepts of probability — dependent upon counterfactuals and the possibility of other outcomes — become meaningless. You couldn’t ‘suppose’ red didn’t exist as it isn’t a valid counterfactual (because the word/concept red implies the concept being there). Yet arguments such as the fine-tuning argument seem to rely on probabilities. The argument runs that it is unlikely that the physical constants could have turned out so well-tuned, so it is more likely God exists than it came out be chance. The probability theory required to make this argument requires the counter factual of God not existing.

Fourth implication — God’s existence as a syllogism?

From an atheist perspective, this talk of transcendence is nonsense. The definition of God for them is no more than God as an anthropological phenomenon (i.e. a set of beliefs and actions by humans). This is clearly different to the self-defining characteristic for a Christian. In other words, a self-defining non-existent thing is a contradiction. Colours self-define, so for them not to exist is a contradiction as ‘to not exist’ requires the concept, which in turn is reliant on colours’ existence.

God is defined anthropologically for the atheist and exists in this sense. God is defined by transcendent experience for the Christian and thus exists.

Remaining questions

1. Even if the experience is necessary for belief in God, does having the experience guarantee belief? Why do some people lose their faith?

2. When an unbeliever writes about theology and makes sense, how is this so? (e.g. I was always fairly convinced by historical accounts re: Jesus etc when younger but think that if I had experienced God I would know esp. as I know many people who say they have experienced God.)

2. Implications for this about human mind? Where is our capacity for experiencing the transcendent coming from?

4. I am not entirely convinced by the Wittgenstein view. The colour analogy aside, you can prove properties and existence of things which you cannot understand, perceive or comprehend. E.g. I can prove the existence of primes larger than any which could be computed using the entire computing power of the universe. (There are theorems which have been proven to have proofs, but the complexity is so great that the universe lacks computational power to find the solution).

5. If a transcendent experience is required to understand God, does that mean a theologian has to recall transcendental experiences every time they think about God for their thinking to have meaning?

This article was written by the Sociable Solipsist, an Economics student at Cambridge. He writes about Philosophy, theology, ethics and the foundations of mathematics and probability. He is not averse to writing flattering biographies of himself in the third person.

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A Critique of Veganism

A Critique of Veganism

There are nearly 7 chickens alive right now in cages if you are a meat-guzzler, but 0 if you are a Vegan. Whether it is right to fund this industry matters. (2009, The Economist reported 6.84 chickens alive per person in the US). And yes, it's more than 'meat tastes so good'. (Which it does). I'm going to have a look at some philosophical flaws of Veganism (and Vegetarianism) regarding animal ethics.

Good flock, bad flock

So, we know that animals can be treated badly in captivity, which isn't nice. If you doubt this, remember that the farmer's incentive is nohrmally to keep costs low – I mean, do you even know how cheap chicken is!? Like any mammals with advanced nervous systems, animals have needs and requirements. You can keep an animal alive by providing the bare minimum to grow the meat needed. For example, provide a really cheap diet fortified with antibiotics and near no space. The chicken will survive and you can make it large, despite that its evolutionary desire not to be sitting in faeces with its beak cut off is ignored.

The Easy Response

So, the easy answer against Veganism and Vegetarianism is that we should just eat better sourced meat (and probably less of it). Unnecessary torture is wrong. This might be a bit inconvenient, but in reality amounts to little more than checking the source of your meat (free range? Organic?). When consumers switch the meat they eat, companies change their sourcing. Take a look here:

If you are not convinced that animals are often treated badly, the nice folk at PETA have collected a whole bunch of graphic exposes to sear on your memory. Or you can take my word for it.

Vegans and Vegetarians go further. They say that animal meat or products, even if the animals are not treated badly, are wrong, or that those with the intention to eat ethically sourced meat won't manage it.

A Missed Opportunity

This ignores the flip side. If (a branch of) Veganism says that animals' lives are sacred in some way, and therefore killing them is wrong, we can turn this on its head. Would you rather those animals never lived at all? What if, in the right farming conditions, they even enjoyed their lives? Preventing meat eating would only ensure they never lived at all – people are hardly going to raise chickens in industrial quantities for a laugh. In fact, as animal numbers are so large, while there mistreatment results in a grievous atrocity, to pass out on an opportunity for them to be raised well and enjoy their lives likewise misses a huge opportunity for fulfilled lives. The choice here isn't between a pig dying early or it living into retirement with grand kids, it's about whether it lives at all.

Animal Approved

It is convincing that living in faeces and with removed beaks for a chicken would not be 'fun' for them (for evolutionary reasons), this does not mean we can extent human thinking onto these animals. Chickens may be perfectly happy living without much freedom provided they have a degree of space, get food and are warm and safe, even if a human isn't. When I drove past Stonehenge on holiday, there are pigs which live outside in a fairly muddy field. It's hardly a concrete pen with no movement. Living safely in a fairly natural environment before an anaesthetised late death (later than never having lived!) does not scream out EVIL to me.

Oh! What sorrowful eyes

FYI, Stonehenge is a pile of rocks built in the UK which us England venerate. Embarrassingly it was built at the same time as some of the much more impressive pyramids.

What about the climate?

Animals contribute to climate change. This does not necessarily imply cutting them from your diet, more that you should reduce your carbon footprint, potentially by cutting down meat or something else. Is the correct response to global warming to live in a shack, eating berries? Probably not. Vegans and Vegetarians implicitly take this approach normally, they might use a car or go on holiday abroad. You might eat meat but then choose not to fly abroad for your holiday, and switch from beef, with a higher carbon footprint, or chicken.

Where veganism has a point

Yet. What many meat-eaters now want to ask is,

'Am I justified in still eating my deliciously cheap meat?'

This question hits upon a real moral quandary.

More ethically farmed meat will be more expensive and have higher greenhouse gas emissions. This will likely mean people it less of it because of the cost (realistically) and to avoid higher emissions (optimistically). Therefore, is it better to have a fewer number of lives lived well or many lived worse?

I'd argue for the former. To say life has intrinsic value in this way is misleading. It has intrinsic value only as far as it is possible, when alive, to experience certain genuinely worthwhile things. A life with sparking moments of love, friendship even with pain is worthwhile.

To say life is intrinsic then apply this meaning to battery-farmed chickens is to take a work out of its context, and thus dupe us. Our lives, if they inevitably consisted merely of agony and torment would not be 'intrinsically valuable', as they would never have the chance to include the things which can make life valuable and bearable.

Likewise, to take the word 'life', which is filled with our connotations of the full breadth of experience we have and apply it to a chicken living in filth, beak (which is very sensitive for a chicken) removed and jammed with its limbs up against a cage is absurd. That's not life, that's survival, and breathing but not living.

A word in favour of vegans and veganism

This is never going to be an exact science – the mysteries of consciousness still elude us! Yet, that is no excuse to use the uncertainty present as a get out of jail free. Your actions have very real consequences to living creatures. Vegans have typically sacrificed something very tasty out of this concern. You can honestly disagree with them, but that includes a moral imperative to eat meat responsibly.

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