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Apr 24 2013

Beyond or just beyondish?

What about transcendence?

I don’t like the word. I’m suspicious of it.

James Croft and Tom Flynn just had an interesting discussion of that on Facebook, with contributions from me and Alex Gabriel and Valerie Tarico among others.

What do we mean by it? It seems to need some pinning down; once there is pinning down there is more agreement. Are we talking about Something Beyond, or are we talking about this world experiences that feel beyondish but in fact are still this world experiences? The second, as it turns out, but with different views of words like “transcendent.” James likes them, you won’t be surprised to know; Tom and I not so much.

Tom said one thing that echoed something I was thinking yesterday, in the wake of disagreeing with Mehdi Hasan on the “meaningful” answer to questions about How It All Began.

We could have evolved to expect — even demand — that reality display a pattern analogous to that of human intention, when it just doesn’t.

I was thinking much the same thing yesterday. To me, it seems odd to find it satisfying to say “God” is the answer to questions about How It All Began, because of the obvious and much-cited problem that it just raises the same question. I was thinking about that, and why Hasan and many others don’t see it that way, and so I was thinking about the possibility – likelihood really – that it’s just part of the human cognitive equipment to see questions like that in familiar terms. How did it begin? Somebody made it begin. It’s a natural thing for us to think, in other words, so it’s hard or at least peculiar to overcome it or veto it.

(That thought doesn’t really solve the problem with people like Hasan, though, because he’s an intellectual. Overcoming our first thoughts or intuitions is something intellectuals do.)

Alex’s reply is amusing, as is so often the case.

I think very often, religion drills a God-shaped hole where one wasn’t before, so that it might claim to fill it.

I like the word “drills” there.

25 comments

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  1. 1
    nkrishna

    I guess I can’t be suspicious of the word “transcendence”; I rather like the word and shall use it more often in non-woo contexts (i.e. every time I go to the gym, I’m trying to transcend my physical limitations, one rep at a time). I do resent how goddy types take perfectly good words and make their use anathema to scientific inquiry.

    I’m no neuroscientist, but I think that things “Beyond” will eventually be shown to be “beyondish,” and will actually add to the sense of wonder at the experience, because it’ll mean that the kludgy computer that is the brain housed in the bag of bones and water that is the human body is still capable of producing those beyond(ish) experiences.

    I take an issue with the word “supernatural” similar to what I think your issue is with “transcendence.” If a phenomenon exists (i.e. is objectively real), doesn’t it follow that it has some kind of explainable, natural cause?

  2. 2
    sailor1031

    “Are we talking about Something Beyond, or are we talking about this world experiences that feel beyondish but in fact are still this world experiences?”

    Apart from a few Astronauts and Cosmonauts no-one in this world has ever had any “beyond this world” experience. Even after death experiences, if there were such, would not qualify because the person having the experience was no longer in this world. Near death experiences are obviously not extra-worldly, the person not yet having left. I don’t see an issue here…..

  3. 3
    Eamon Knight

    I’m not surprised Flynn doesn’t like “transcendence” — he’s even (unreasonably, IMV) down on all the words derived from “spirit”, eg. “inspiration”. My reaction to “transcendence” is the same as to “spiritual” — tell me what you mean by it, and then we can discuss whether is has any objective referent, and how important it is. And my further reaction is also similar: trying to make it a Thing is a bad idea, and seems to arise from a desire to create a false common ground with kum-ba-yah religion.

  4. 4
    hoary puccoon

    nkrishna @1–

    I don’t think it does follow that any phenomenon that is objectively real *must* necessarily have some explainable, natural cause. It’s simply the case that every time a cause has been identified for an objectively real phenomenon, it *has* had explainable, natural cause. Of course, with so many instances of natural causes explaining phenomena, Bayes theorem tells us to look very, very long and hard for a natural cause before we jump to any other conclusion.

  5. 5
    Ophelia Benson

    Or to put it another way – it may be logically possible that there could be a phenomenon that is objectively real but doesn’t have some explainable, natural cause, without there being any reason at all to think there is such a thing.

  6. 6
    David Hart

    nkrishna @1: I always like to wave a flag for Richard Carrier’s definition of supernatural phenomena – things which have ontologically basic mental components – i.e. things which have the properties of minds (such as being able to think stuff and know stuff) without being built of smaller units that do not have mental properties (such as neurons or, depending on how sci-fi you want to get, silicon chips). If you ask religious people what God is made of, if you can get an answer out of them at all, they’ll usually say that he is made of spirit, or some such – and be utterly unreceptive to the idea that the mind of God may be made of working parts. Likewise souls, ghosts, and lots of other phenomena that could conceivably be real, but are never argued to have a physical cause.

  7. 7
    Stacy

    To me, it seems odd to find it satisfying to say “God” is the answer to questions about How It All Began, because of the obvious and much-cited problem that it just raises the same question. I was thinking about that, and why Hasan and many others don’t see it that way, and so I was thinking about the possibility – likelihood really – that it’s just part of the human cognitive equipment to see questions like that in familiar terms. How did it begin? Somebody made it begin. It’s a natural thing for us to think, in other words, so it’s hard or at least peculiar to overcome it or veto it.

    This is how I think about the closely related “why is there something rather than nothing” question. There always has been something (if only some minimal quantum field of energy), and contemporary physics tells us (so I’m told) that Something is actually the ground state of being–Nothing would be unstable. OK, I don’t understand why–I take that part on authoriteh–but I know that it goes against human expectation and intuition. I think it’s fair to say we have a cognitive bias that Nothing is the default. But the opposite is true.

    Goddidit is satisfying because (I think) it comes from the same sort of cognitive bias. We see what looks to us to be empty air, or an empty field, and then a human or some other animal agent comes along and does something, and hey presto, there’s Something where there used to be (what appeared to us to be) Nothing. That’s as far as you really need to go to get along, cognitively, in the sort of basic environment we evolved in, isn’t it? So it feels like a satisfying answer.

  8. 8
    Stacy

    And agent detection is a major part of why it’s natural to think Somebody made itall. It’s very easy to see why agent detection evolved. It’s very basic; other animals have it. With our big complex brains our agent detection works overtime.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_detection

  9. 9
    moleatthecounter

    ‘The other way of knowing’ –

    *winks*

  10. 10
    CJO

    Nothing would be unstable. OK, I don’t understand why–I take that part on authoriteh

    Unstable because true nothingness has to be perfectly, absolutely symmetrical: nothing at all, anywhere. The slightest fluctuation means an asymmetry, and, bang! that means there’s something.

  11. 11
    Gretchen Robinson

    oy, are we struggling with words like ‘transcendance’ again.”

    I cite Freud and others on ‘the uncanny’ as this beyondish stuff has a prescedent.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny

    Just keep away from the supernatural and I’ll be happy.

  12. 12
    bad Jim

    Brad DeLong had some fun with Thomas Nagel and his notion of “transcendent access to objective reality”.

    Here’s a sample of this famous philosopher’s fatuousness:

    [A] theory of everything has to explain…. the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value…. In light of the remarkable character of reason, it is hard to imagine what a naturalistic explanation of it, either constitutive or historical, could be like…

    All I can add is that when I’ve had teeth yanked I’ve never declined anesthetic in order to transcend dental medication.

  13. 13
    'dirigible

    Also “numinous”.

  14. 14
    Dunc

    Overcoming our first thoughts or intuitions is something intellectuals do.

    Ha! It’s certainly something intellectuals ought to do, but all too often, they just spend their time coming up with more sophisticated justifications for them.

  15. 15
    Michael Scott

    Also “numinous”.

    Bingo!

    There ought to be a group word to describe all these non-words. Or does ‘deepity’ cover it?

  16. 16
    jonathangray

    CJO:

    Nothing would be unstable. OK, I don’t understand why–I take that part on authoriteh

    Unstable because true nothingness has to be perfectly, absolutely symmetrical: nothing at all, anywhere. The slightest fluctuation means an asymmetry, and, bang! that means there’s something.

    But that’s just a semantic game, like saying my dog’s state of dogness is intrinsically unstable because any transformation into a goldfish would mean it’s no longer a dog.

    There can be no fluctuations in a state of nothingness because there is nothing to fluctuate.

    To say the universe came into being from nothing is to say the laws of physics gave rise to themselves according to themselves, which is a logical absurdity.

    “Nothing will come of nothing, speak again.”

  17. 17
    Stacy

    But that’s just a semantic game

    No, it really isn’t. It’s shorthand for something mathematical and complicated. Vic Stenger goes into a tiny bit more detail here:

    http://www.csicop.org/sb/show/why_is_there_something_rather_than_nothing

    Still over my head, but the premise is derived from quantum mechanics; it isn’t semantic.

    To say the universe came into being from nothing is to say the laws of physics gave rise to themselves according to themselves, which is a logical absurdity

    The thinking here is not that the universe came into being from nothing. It’s that there has always been something.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vacuum#Quantum_mechanics

  18. 18
    Ophelia Benson

    Ah it’s not fair to trouble Jonathan Gray with physics; he knows he’s right because there’s that line from Lear. In italics, at that.

  19. 19
    daniellavine

    jonathangray:

    Do you object to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle? It implies that “nothing” is actually impossible.

    To say the universe came into being from nothing is to say the laws of physics gave rise to themselves according to themselves, which is a logical absurdity.

    Actually, you’re making implicit assumptions about the metaphysics of “the laws of physics” here. For example, you’re assuming that “the laws of physics,” properly understood, are part of the universe. But suppose that “the laws of physics” are actually the boundary conditions of the universe and not part of the universe itself. Is a beach a part of the ocean? “To say that the shoreline is defined by the extent of the ocean is to say that the shoreline gave rise to itself which is a logical absurdity.” And yet I can go to the beach and confirm that it is indeed defined by the extent of the ocean. So where’s my (actually your) logical error in the above?

  20. 20
    jonathangray

    OB:

    Ah it’s not fair to trouble Jonathan Gray with physics; he knows he’s right because there’s that line from Lear.

    And it’s not fair to trouble physicists with logic; they know they’re right because … “something mathematical and complicated”.

    Stacy:

    Vic Stenger goes into a tiny bit more detail here:

    There seems to be a fair bit of handwaving & bafflegab in that article, in particular equivocation over the meaning of the word ‘nothing’. He postulates “a physical definition of nothing … a physical system that has no properties”. God only knows what he means by that, but surely if anything can be described as ‘physical’ it is not nothing; it is something.

    The thinking here is not that the universe came into being from nothing. It’s that there has always been something.

    To say there “has always been something” is to say the universe has always existed ( – being mindful of a possible equivocation over the meaning of ‘universe’, as referring to either physical reality per se or merely its current state after the big bang). But to say that the universe has always existed — ie there has always been something — doesn’t answer the question of why it exists, why there is something rather than nothing.

    daniellavine:

    Do you object to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle? It implies that “nothing” is actually impossible.

    Can you explain how in layman’s terms?

    Actually, you’re making implicit assumptions about the metaphysics of “the laws of physics” here. For example, you’re assuming that “the laws of physics,” properly understood, are part of the universe. But suppose that “the laws of physics” are actually the boundary conditions of the universe and not part of the universe itself.

    Not sure what you mean. The ‘laws of physics’ are just abstractions from a physical reality that behaves in certain ways. They cannot therefore exist apart from or prior to that physical reality.

  21. 21
    Stacy

    jonathan gray:

    There seems to be a fair bit of handwaving & bafflegab in that article, in particular equivocation over the meaning of the word ‘nothing’. He postulates “a physical definition of nothing … a physical system that has no properties”. God only knows what he means by that, but surely if anything can be described as ‘physical’ it is not nothing; it is something.

    No. There is neither handwaving nor bafflegab there.

    (Protip: physicists aren’t inclined toward equivocation and bafflegab.) He is not equivocating over the meaning of “nothing.” The problem is he is trying to explain something to laypeople that really requires a great deal of background to understand.

    He starts by pointing out the conceptual problems with the word and defining it. The word “nothing” does not mean the same thing to physicists as it does to laypeople.

    Stenger:

    Instead of using numbers from the current universe, we can visualize a vacuum with equal numbers of bosons and fermions. Such a vacuum might have existed at the very beginning of the big bang. Indeed this is exactly what is to be expected if the vacuum out of which the universe emerged was supersymmetric-that is made no distinction between bosons and fermions.

    This suggests a more precise definition of nothing. Nothing is a state that is the simplest of all conceivable states. It has no mass, no energy, no space, no time, no spin, no bosons, no fermions-nothing.

    Then why is there something rather than nothing? Because something is the more natural state of affairs and is thus more likely than nothing-more than twice as likely according to one calculation. We can infer this from the processes of nature where simple systems tend to be unstable and often spontaneously transform into more complex ones. Theoretical models such as the inflationary model of the early universe bear this out

    jonathangray:

    The thinking here is not that the universe came into being from nothing. It’s that there has always been something.

    To say there “has always been something” is to say the universe has always existed ( – being mindful of a possible equivocation over the meaning of ‘universe’, as referring to either physical reality per se or merely its current state after the big bang).

    No. Not at all. Not even sure how you got from “There has always been something” to “the universe has always existed.” Read more carefully.

    There has always been energy, in some form or other. Even a ground state, or vacuum, is not “nothing” (in layperson’s terms) though a physicist like Krauss might call it “nothing”.

  22. 22
    Stacy

    Can you explain how in layman’s terms?

    I’m not daniellavine, but I’ll take a crack at this one:

    Feynman, Hawking, Victor Stenger, Lawrence Krauss, Sean M. Carroll and others have written books on the subject. You should probably start there. It ain’t something that can be communicated in a comment on a blog post.

  23. 23
    Stacy

    And it’s not fair to trouble physicists with logic; they know they’re right because … “something mathematical and complicated”

    Mathematics isn’t logical? *Scooby Doo Huh? noise*

    (Meta: Sorry for triple posting Ophelia.)

  24. 24
    Ophelia Benson

    Eh? Do not be sorry!

  25. 25
    jonathangray

    Stacy:

    He is not equivocating over the meaning of “nothing.” The problem is he is trying to explain something to laypeople that really requires a great deal of background to understand.

    He starts by pointing out the conceptual problems with the word and defining it. The word “nothing” does not mean the same thing to physicists as it does to laypeople.

    &

    Even a ground state, or vacuum, is not “nothing” (in layperson’s terms) though a physicist like Krauss might call it “nothing”.

    And therein lies the equivocation, or ambiguity if you prefer. Philosophical questions like “why is there something rather than nothing” and “how can something come from nothing” are using ‘nothing’ as a layman would understand the term. In this instance the ‘lay understanding’ accurately corresponds to genuine philosophical problems.

    Now certainly you can argue that such questions are incoherent or unanswerable or that theism is an unsatisfactory answer to them.

    And if physicists wish to have their own private definition of ‘nothing’ to refer to some kind of ‘ground state’, fine.

    But physicists shouldn’t suppose or pretend that they are addressing those philosophical questions by pointing out how this ‘ground state’ tends to produce complexity because of its inherent instability. Stenger’s description of the forces that produce such complexity as “the processes of nature” makes this abundantly clear.

    Not even sure how you got from “There has always been something” to “the universe has always existed … There has always been energy, in some form or other.”

    Well if ‘the universe’ is defined as the totality of physical reality, ‘energy’ is part of that universe. Therefore if there has always been energy, there has always been a universe. Again, if physicists wish to define ‘universe’ more narrowly as physical reality’s current state or structure (or hypothetical multiplicity of such states or structures), fine.

    Mathematics isn’t logical?

    I never said mathematics isn’t logical. I said that if physicists claimed something could come from nothing, they would be guilty of proposing a logical absurdity. It now seems they don’t, in fact, claim something can come from nothing; rather they claim something complex can come from something simple, which they then call “nothing” so they can sell books claiming physics has decisively answered a philosophical question and disproved the logical necessity of theism.

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