The mundane and beyond

My boss (so to speak – the editor of Free Inquiry) Tom Flynn takes on the notion of “transcendence” in his editorial in the current issue.

In a 2013 Guardian blog post bewailing atheism’s poverty as a supporting matrix for secular ceremonies, British writer Suzanne Moore wrote: “We may find the fuzziness of new age thinking with its emphasis on ‘nature’ and ‘spirit’ impure, but to dismiss the human need to express transcendence and connection with others as stupid is itself stupid.”

If you’ve been looking for an elevator speech about the differences between religious and secular humanism, this is a great place to start. Religious humanists may well yearn to “express transcendence and connection with others.” How do secular humanists differ? While we cherish “connection with others” as warmly as anyone else, insofar as we are secular, we reject “transcendence” out of hand. For secular humanists, there’s simply no such thing as transcendence or the transcendent.

A core aspect of the secular view is the insight, rooted in science, that reality is mundane. Reality is the domain of matter, energy, their interactions, and (so far as we can tell) nothing else. On the secular view, then, words such as spirit and transcendence simply have no referents. To the degree that reverence is understood transitively—as denoting awe, veneration, or respect toward something beyond—it has no referents either. The domain of everyday experience can’t be transcended. There is nothing above it, nothing beyond or over it, nothing to revere . . . only reality. That’s not to say that secular humanists can’t have sweeping aesthetic or emotional experiences—but we understand them naturalistically.

How about “elevated”? Elevated emotions, language, experiences, that sort of thing.

That’s not a woo-ish or pseudo-goddy word is it? Poetry often uses elevated language, and so does some prose. (And then there’s the bathetic sort of prose that tries for elevated and just gets windy.)

Also I don’t think it’s exactly true that there is nothing beyond or above or over the domain of everyday experience – because sure there is: there’s the cosmos, for one thing, and all the particulars of the cosmos, for another thing (or rather billions of billions of things). They’re literally beyond the domain of everyday experience, and they’re beyond it in other senses too. They’re naturalistically beyond it, as far as I know, but still beyond it. Way the hell beyond it. Thinking about that can make you feel small and pointless and mournful, or small and pointless and exhilarated, or it can make you feel lost in infinity. What it doesn’t much do, I think, is remind you of fried eggs and getting batteries at Target and doing the laundry.


  1. Tom Flynn says

    Me your boss, Ophelia? [Chortle.] Actually I wouldn’t be so quick to say the cosmos is beyond the domain of everyday experience. I can look up on a clear dark night and see a bunch of it. With various sensory extensions (telescope, radio telescope, X-ray telescope and suchlike), all natural in their functioning, I can become aware of aspects of the cosmos I can’t see with unaided vision. It might come down to a matter of taste, but I see the domain of everyday experience as encompassing pretty much anything discoverable by physical science. Given that, the domains firmly beyond that of everyday experience are mostly domains of woo, spirit, ectoplasm, and so forth — and naturalist that I am, I’m pretty confident there’s just no there there. –Tom Flynn

  2. says

    All I mean, Tom, is that most of the cosmos is beyond our actual experience. We can have the experience of knowing there’s a whole lotta cosmos, but that’s not the same as experience of the whole cosmos. There’s more out there than we little apes can ever grasp. But I mean that as a literal kind of beyond, not a fuzzy sparkly woo beyond.

  3. Enkidum says

    Everyday experience is reasonably good (or at least not too awful) at tracking what philosophers refer to as “medium-sized dry goods” – the stuff that we generally care about in day-to-day life. It’s pretty horrendous at tracking anything else – obvious examples being relativistic or quantum mechanical processes. Yes, I can have experiences of equations describing these processes, and of readouts from machinery of various kinds that measures aspects of these processes, and if I’m one of a very select few I might even have some kind of insight into the way these processes actually are. But the idea that there is a substantial overlap between my experiences and the ultimate ordering of reality is… well, it just seems silly to me. (And, I would suspect, to virtually the entire philosophical tradition.)

    So the idea that there is something important beyond experience is not woo-ish or irrational, it’s just an accurate description of the relationship between experience and the rest of the universe. Transcendent can be taken to mean “transcending our limited experiences”, not “magic”. To be fair, the distinction between the two is often conflated by people who use words like “transcendent” a lot. But it needn’t be.

  4. iasasai says

    I can’t, in any way, see the vast cosmos as being “beyond” everyday experience. It is knowable, if not by me personally, then someone somewhere somewhen. If I were to take the notion that since it has no part whatsoever of my living everyday experience it transcends or is elevated beyond ordinary experience, then I would have to say the same of Germany. Or France. Or Belgium. Or Cygnux X-1. All places I will never go, will never be able to go, but no more transcendent or amazing than the little patch of of the tellurian I’m stuck in.

    In short, they are all there. The transcendent, when people aren’t invoking it as metaphor or poetic license (and thus making it mean whatever it is they want it to mean), is decidedly NOT there. [Or at least, I have a degree of confidence in that similar to Tom Flynn, above.] Those far flung galaxies which have emitted light but are now even too far away to ever interact with ever period? They’re there. Had we not missed the boat, we could have interacted with them billions of years ago.

    I guess it boils down to how far you’re willing to cast out the net of “everyday experience”. For some the net is clearly only as large as their hometown – others as large as their country – others as large as the planet – still others cast it wide indeed.

  5. says

    Ah but I’m not talking about the transcendent. I’m talking only about beyond.

    The cosmos is knowable in principle (as far as I know), but we don’t know whether or not it’s knowable in fact.

    What Enkidum said. That’s my view of it.

  6. Seth says

    Surely there are secular ideals (not to mention ideas) which transcend everyday experience; among others, we have human rights, equality, sorority, literature, and culture, which can all rise above the ‘mundane’ in the sense that they allow us to imagine ourselves as part of a greater whole of humanity, a greater story than a single human lifetime or even an individual human experience. By definition, then, these things ‘transcend’ the mundane (even as they are products of synapses firing inside billions of brains all linked together through networks of reading, writing, and spoken communication that all emerge from the physical interaction of atoms according to the laws of physics and chemistry). These are examples of referents to transcendental ideals and states of being which have nothing at all to do with gods or goddists.

    It remains a brute fact of neurochemistry that humans have evolved the capacity to experience what Christopher Hitchens termed ‘the numinous’. Religions and fakirs and woo-peddlers have hijacked this capacity, have monopolised the spaces of these experiences, have dictated the terms of their understanding for thousands of years; in order to transcend the artifice and institution of religion, we must reclaim these experiential spaces in purely secular terms. Rejecting these experiences out of hand only cedes the monopoly to the goddists, when the monopoly must be contested, broken up, and ultimately disintegrated.

    Conversely, there is much which the sciences grasp which is decidedly beyond ‘everyday experience’, but is nonetheless a result of purely physical processes. The entire discipline of quantum mechanics describes a reality of physics which lay utterly beyond (or, rather, beneath) our perception and common sense; matter and energy at the level of the quark and the neutrino behave in ways entirely alien to our everyday expectations. In no sense is the behaviour of a photon within the realm of ‘everyday experience’. To say that it is possible for anybody to do the work of acquiring a PhD in physics or mathematics and acquire access to the national and international laboratories to gain access to experience of photonic phenomena is no different than saying it is possible for someone to retire to a cave for twenty years and practice introspection and transcendental meditation eighteen hours per day to gain access to numinous and profound experiences within the human brain.

    It does not make sense to simply dismiss the latter activity out of hand and then to call the former activity ‘mundane’. Both experiences are amenable to scientific inquiry; both are comprehensible in perfectly secular, rationalist terms. The latter sort of experience happens to be the sort of fertile ground in which religious dogma and irrationality sprouts like a weed; it does the secular cause absolutely no credit to shrug one’s shoulders and allow the frocked, bearded priests dominion over that range of human experience. Much like understanding the phenomenology of a rose in terms of chemistry and optics does nothing to diminish its nasal and visual beauty, understanding the phenomenology of transcendence in terms of chemistry and neurology will make it no less real to the billions of people who experience it. Indeed, we must claim that experiential ground in the name of rationality and science if we ever hope to break the power of the priests.

  7. John Morales says

    Shorter Seth: transcendence is but an experiential mind-state, and thus entirely subjective.

    You could say that about yogic flying, too — it’s real, it’s just that the feeling of flying is not actually flying any more than the experience of the transcendent is actually transcendent.

  8. chigau (違う) says

    In my teen years, I occasionally consumed hallucinogenic drugs.
    I got alot of transcendence.

  9. Ed says

    Transcendence is a word some people use to describe states of consciousness that are much more intense, focussed and meaningful than typical day to day life. A believer in the supernatural will almost certainly consider such an experience an example of encountering a god or some kind of magic force. An unbeliever will not. Religion doesn’t own consciousness and I’m not going to diminish my ability to speak about my inner life out of fear of stepping into supposedly exclusive religious territory.

  10. John Morales says

    Ed @13,

    A believer in the supernatural will almost certainly consider such an experience an example of encountering a god or some kind of magic force. An unbeliever will not.

    Right; a believer will perceive your claims about a transcendent experience as contact with the transcendent and you will perceive their claims as a mind-state. This problematic polysemy complicates communications, because she will see you as being in denial and you will see her as being deluded.

    (It’s a semantic problem, not a linguistic one)

    Religion doesn’t own consciousness and I’m not going to diminish my ability to speak about my inner life out of fear of stepping into supposedly exclusive religious territory.

    And why should you!

    I note it’s merely dualistic and therefore not exclusively religious.

  11. Ed says

    You have a good point about possible miscommunication. Sometimes though, the words suggested as replacement for religious and dualistic-sounding terms feel inadequate.

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