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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Should Hong Kong be Independent?

Should Hong Kong be Independent?

Living in Hong Kong at the time of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, I was shocked by the unprecedented size and violence of the protests. While protests are common in Hong Kong, never before had they caused so much disruption nor provoked such a heavy response from the government. There had been little sentiment for independence prior to the controversial electoral reform enacted that year. Unexpectedly, it descended into 79 days of civil unrest in the city’s central business district. Concerns of being ‘absorbed’ back into China had already been widespread leading up to the 1997 handover from the UK. Sentiment towards ‘returning to the homeland’ has however always been mixed. Some see a natural return to the historical status quo whilst some fear change and loss of the Hong Kong citizen’s unique way of life.

I am not ignorant to the glacial change in society’s structure and am empathetic to those who resist change due to fear of uncertainty. I do not however believe there to be a case for independence. I believe attempts should be made to protect the city’s way of life and individual freedoms whilst social integration between the HKSAR and China should not be resisted. ‘One chopstick is easily broken whilst a bundle of chopsticks is not’. Increased interconnectivity and trade will only be beneficial to both parties.

The Umbrella Movement: A Short Overview

The Yellow Umbrella Symbol for the Hong Kong Independence Movement
A Contest Entry for the 'Umbrella Revolution's' official poster

The democracy protests of 2014 began due to the NPCSC decision to pre-screen candidates for the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s chief executive. Electoral reform had stalled ever since a voting fiasco in which the Beijing loyalists failed to vote*. This resulted in the then groundbreaking proposal for universal suffrage of pre-screened candidates being rejected. Hong Kong now remains under the old system of a small ‘election committee’ in electing its chief executive. The occupation of the Central (and other) districts has been since called the ‘umbrella movement’, signified by a yellow umbrella. Inspired by the ‘Occupy Wall Street Movement’ in 2011, the Umbrella Movement ended after 79 days. Police cleared the area, but not without much controversy and accusations of violence from on both sides.


Hong Kong Independence: The Historical Argument

Hong Kong Streets are cordoned as protesters occupy the Central district
Hong Kong's Central District occupied by protesters during the 'Umbrella Revolution'

Despite all such commotion for an independent Hong Kong because of ‘opposing values’, there is little historical case for independence. Hong Kong had neither possessed sovereignty nor a separate identity from its Cantonese heritage in its history. Hong Kong was part of the Qing Empire and was first ceded to the UK as a colony during the First Opium War. It was then completely ceded and leased to the UK for 99 years through the 1860 Convention of Peking and 1898 Second Convention of Peking.

In 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration agreed the handover on 1 July 1997 under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle*. This meant Hong Kong would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy” for 50 years. Beijing however still had the final say as stated in Hong Kong’s constitution and Basic Law. As Article 1 of Hong Kong Basic Law states: the Hong Kong SAR is an inalienable part of the PRC, there is little case for independence historically.

* The Economist's explanation:

Political Complications

A political divide

The issue of Hong Kong Independence is especially complicated, due to difficulty in separating anti-Chinese and pro-independence sentiment. Hong Kong society had developed with a separate identity to the ‘mainland’ due to years of colonial rule and the development of ‘Western’ values, misaligning it from traditional Chinese thought. Although 57% said they were not proud to be Chinese, only 17.4% of overall respondents to a poll supported independence*. There also exists a divide between the city’s young and old. Nearly 40% of those between 15 and 24 supported independence.


The city’s wealthy are also more likely to be against independence, and politically this complicates matters due to the pre-existing divide between the ‘haves and have-nots’. Hong Kong possesses the world’s most expensive street and also simultaneously has citizen’s living in ‘cage-homes’. Hong Kong has the 9th highest GDP per capita (PPP), above that of the United States (World Bank 2017). However, it is also one of the most unequal cities in the world, with a Gini coefficient of 0.539 (2016). Such inequality is clear when the city's wealthiest 10% earned 44 times that of the poorest in 2017.

Hong Kong's Skyline and Financial District
Hong Kong's financial district
Hong Kong's Cage Homes, with appalling living conditions
'Cage homes' exist in Hong Kong despite the city's wealth

Snobbiness against 'Mainlanders'?

It can be said the Hong Kong independence movement was borne partly out of the city’s other systemic problems, such as inequality and its separate identity. Hong Kong citizens are also prone to seeing ‘mainlanders’ as uncivilised and see themselves above them, although I do not share such a sentiment. Some complain the ‘mainlanders’ are consuming local resources, especially ‘milk powder’, although a shortage had never really occurred. It is quite hypocritical as most Hong Kong citizens had themselves moved from ‘the mainland’ one or two generations ago, and certainly do not possess much better manners. Increased exposure to the ‘mainland’ has however increased tolerance and understanding, with the localist identity slowly undermined.


The Big Picture

A Chinese Overreaction

It can be argued that the Chinese bureaucracy may have overreacted to the independence movement leading to a counterproductive result. Anti-Chinese sentiment increases generally when there is what is deemed ‘unnecessary interference’ in Hong Kong politics. Pro-independence members of the legislature were ejected and those involved in the Umbrella Movement prosecuted for rioting and other charges. It may have been too ‘heavy-handed’ but their reaction is understandable given its situation with Taiwan. China is aware of how the movement may be politicised by ‘the West’ (especially by the US) and may want to prevent another weakness to be poked at.

Some may argue that the suppression of self-determination is not in the spirit of a ‘developed society’ etc. , although the reason the whole fiasco occurred is that Hong Kong does not possess a national security law. We must remember that even in the US, ‘the land of the free’, indefinite detention without trial still occurs in limited cases, whilst this has not occurred in Hong Kong. Sedition is illegal in most countries and I'm sure most governments would not be happy about any calls for independence (observe Madrid's response to Catalonian independence).

Hong Kong's umbrella-weilding protesters clash with riot police during the 'Umbrella Revolution'
Rioting during the 'Umbrella Revolution'

'Eastern' Values may differ

One of the largest differences outsiders fail to understand, is the difference in value placed upon individual freedom between Western and Eastern society. Eastern societies are in general more collectivist than individualist. Hence more value is placed upon the state of the whole rather than the agency of the individual. This may have developed due to a legacy of dynasties and the lack of real democracy.

This can be seen in Hong Kong in 2014. Although people were originally sympathetic to the Umbrella Movement and such libertarian values, it only took a few weeks for the public to turn against them, as their livelihoods were threatened. Taxi drivers complained of the traffic whilst business in ‘occupied’ districts were severely hit*, staging a protest in retaliation. With Hong Kong so severely reliant on China for trade, water, defence etc., I really do not see why such a commotion is being made. We are in other words, biting the hand that feeds us.


Final Thoughts

Eventual re-unification is the final goal, just as in the case of China and Taiwan (that is a long discussion for another day). Hong Kong independence would be counterproductive to social progress in both Hong Kong and China, as increased exposure to Hong Kong will only allow for increased diffusion of Western values to the ‘mainland’. The case for and against Hong Kong independence boils down to a difference in culture, but that does not form a basis for independence. If not, one might say, London independence anyone?However, such a thorny topic must continue to be discussed. Even if calls for independence are mistaken, resisting attempts to clamp down on individual rights and free speech is essential.

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Maybe Democritus Wasn’t So Bad

Maybe Democritus Wasn’t So Bad

This is a piece against dogmatism, fundamentalism in religion, scientific “fact” and political correctness. This is a piece against people, who refuse to think and who are too enthralled in their phones and daily habits and themselves to experience and learn about the world.

'Democritus meditating on the seat of the soul'

source: By Léon-Alexandre Delhomme – Jean-Louis Lascoux (13 January 2008), CC BY-SA 3.0,

Who am I?

I am a devout Christian and shall expound my views on the world in a series of these pieces. But I am fundamentally doubtful. My views are contradictory, complex and ill-formed because of neglecting to and straight up refusing to think about them enough up to now. I will have to change at least some of them. That does not scare me. What we do not understand is not necessarily wrong and there is much that I do not understand. We must strive to understand more and to accept the new truths that we discover.

How does this relate to Democritus at all?

Yes, yes. Lucretius (a philosopher and poet in the first century BC) wrote the “De Rerum Natura” (On the Nature of Things) which is an exposition of Epicurean philosophy and more importantly the atomic hypothesis. It considers the phenomenon of Brownian Motion[1] to explain the atomic hypothesis. This phenomenon (and much of the reasoning) was then used by Einstein, two thousand years later, to “prove” (to the satisfaction of the scientific community) the atomic hypothesis. TWO THOUSAND YEARS.

You still haven’t gotten anywhere with the explaining about Democritus thing.

Okay, okay. This atomic hypothesis is generally attributed to Leucippus (5th century BC) and his pupil Democritus (460-370BC). It is unclear whose ideas were whose, but it is known that Democritus also wrote about a vast number of other topics. Unfortunately, neither of their works directly survive. Fortunately, some of their ideas concerning the atomic hypothesis survive through rebuttal in the works of Aristotle. They cited many everyday physical phenomena, such as the gradual wearing down of a wheel, to support the theory.

Can you move?

But there is also a metaphysical grounding to the philosophy. They turned Zeno’s paradox on its head. They said that clearly, we can cross a room, so we must not be able to divide up distances infinitely and so there must be atoms.

They also combat Melissus’ argument that we shouldn’t be able to move because we would have to move into nothing. Melissus says that nothing does not exist, and Q.E.D. movement does not exist. They responded that we can move, so clearly nothing, or the void as they termed it, must exist.

In both cases their opponents had assumed that something was ridiculous because it didn’t immediately mesh with their worldview. In both cases it turned out that their worldview was too small, and they were simply refusing to extend it.

This is an interesting type of Philosophical argument. If a set of premises lead to a conclusion, yet you know that the conclusion is wrong, then one of the premises must be wrong. Rather than stick with the premises and conclude that motion doesn’t exist (which is absurd), we should ditch one of the premises.

But I don’t understand why you ever thought this guy was bad; he seems pretty great.

Upon reading Lucretius’ poem, it was very easy to say that it was just another crack-pot theory thought up by the Pre-Socratic Philosophers. It was thought that because the Pre-Socratics had also proposed ideas such as magnets having souls and there being atoms the size and shape of giraffes that all of their work should be dismissed.

It now seems obvious to us that matter is made up of atoms. But if someone now announced that through some abstract reasoning they had disproved the atomic hypothesis, would you be able to accept or even consider their argument? If someone told you that it is possible for a cat to be both dead and alive at the same time, would your first reaction be to say that that is ridiculous or to ask how and why? This proposition seems preposterous and challenges a fundamental part of our worldview. This is Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment and it comes from Quantum Mechanics, but examples can be chosen from any field: that your friends and family don’t actually exist or that Schoenberg might actually be beautiful or that there may be more to modern art.

Our worldviews are too narrow

I choose science because it illustrates the point well that our worldview is challenged because our worldview is too small. We do not exist on a quantum scale but that doesn’t mean that the rules governing the quantum scale are ridiculous.

It seems to me that if, just occasionally, we considered that there is a world beyond what our eyes and senses and mind and experiences can currently perceive and comprehend and if we were constantly searching for it, then we may be able to appreciate the beauty of the world around us a lot easier.

Plato's cave

Plato knew this millennia ago. We are trapped in a Plato’s cave! We must be careful not to miss the people who have escaped – they have seen a world which is much grander than our narrow worldview.

Democritus was inspired with an idea and it was the right one. He had a glimpse of a world beyond himself. All he had to do was to look for it. This glimpse was an intuition, a feeling, an idea – it was a correct one. There are some wrong ones. We are not infallible. We will see the mirage in the desert and may mistake it for an oasis, but this does not mean that every gypsy, shaman, priest, fortune-teller is scamming you. Only those who pretend to understand the world fully, who pretend that their hypotheses are facts, are scamming us.

Our Glimpses

We have all experienced things beyond ourselves. We have been on a walk and seen the beauty of nature. We have heard a piece of music or read a book or seen a play that inspired us. We have looked up at the stars and seen something more, something calling us. This may just be curiosity. And I know that, when I identify those experiences with my God and I tell you that I have experienced a small part of his infinity, that is not a proof to you. But it is enough to satisfy me. When people conclude that it is curiosity and they chase after it they have found their own God. When people deny that there is a world beyond what they currently know, when they don’t even convince themselves that they have found meaning, when they just blindly follow their assumptions – that is when they are truly lost.

Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. – Stephen Hawking.

This article was written by co-author 'Devout Doubtful'

[1] by which particles of dust are moved in macroscopically still air.

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