The Transcendentalist Vision: Affirming Nature, Life, Mind, Meaning, Values and Hope

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There can be no doubt that “transcendentalal idealism” and “scientific naturalism” represent two divergent worldviews. Transcendentalists have no need to deny the partial truths and relative values of various theories and discoveries within the physical, natural, cognitive and social sciences, but they view reality as layered in such a way that a Higher Order of Reality informs and inhabits the physical dimension of existence. For  transcendentalists there is no need for a zero-sum debate as between Creationists and Evolutionists.  For transcendentalists the relation between transcendent Spirit and immanent Nature is not oppositional or even separate as in dualism. Conflict would only happen between the physical substance view and the mental ideation view if either the Naturalistic Perspective or the Transcendental Perspective were to dogmatically insist that it ALONE has perceived, discovered and contained the totality of reality and the summation of truth. Of course there are those who take this stance, but it is an unnecessary one.

Why does one who has been raised into the modern secular culture of scientific naturalism become a transcendentalist? Perhaps it is only when one has read the many bleak and pessimistic accounts of reality that have been given by various “sober naturalists” and has followed the “logic” of naturalism to its stark conclusion of nihilistic absurdity and existential despair that one might be ready to search for a viable alternative. “Sunny naturalists” deny any connection between naturalism and nihilism while sober ones not only admit it but wear it as a badge of honor, boasting that they at least have the stoic courage to admit that ultimately our entire existence is meaningless and futile. In my last blog I quoted three “sober naturalists” who express a vision of “meaningless existence” and “unyielding despair.” I could quote a dozen more. Yet “sunny naturalists” deny any link between naturalism and nihilism, and distance themselves from those naturalists with a more bleak assessment of man’s fragile and fleeting place within our accidental and unintended universe.

To be fair to scientific naturalism there are those writers like Paul Davies (a physicist), Ursula Goodenough (a biologist), and Loren Eiseley (a paleontologist) who do not drive a wedge between science and spirituality, immanence and transcendence, physics and metaphysics, but instead approach the Sacred Mystery within the context of their scientific disciplines. Their “religious naturalism” leans up against the door of transcendentalism without opening the door and walking through it.

The transcendentalist perspective begins with a spiritual intuition that the natural endowments of organic life, conscious mind, tacit knowledge and critical intelligence all point toward a Higher Source that informs and dwells within the physical dimension of existence but is not entirely limited or contained by it. It begins with the “tacit knowledge” that our temporal existence is rooted in Universal Being, and that the transcendental ideas of Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love are not merely nominal reification of linguistically and culturally constructed sentimentality but real and enduring insights into the fundamental nature of reality.

Of course this is where transcendentalists and naturalists must “agree to disagree.” Transcendentalists maintain that without these transcendental ideas from a higher source and our anticipatory future quest “to be and to know” are both ultimately frustrated. If our entire existence accidentally and pointlessly evolved from an originally  lifeless and mindless universe, and if all the processes of our human existence and experience can be fully explained by appeals to physical, chemical, psychological and social mechanisms, and if the whole cosmic, natural, historical and human drama ultimately ends in utter extinction and annihilation, then why should we care about the charade of our fleeting and ephemeral existence? “It’s all gonna fade.” Further, why should we trust our minds=brains to know the truth of “what is” if “mind” reduces to “brain” and “brain” reduces to the accidental, mechanistic, deterministic and probabilistic epiphenomenon of lifeless and mindless matter? Why should “life” and “mind” matter in a fundamentally mindless and lifeless universe that produced us as a sa kind of freak accident, a highly improbable fluke?

Naturalists, on the other hand, criticize transcendentalists for positing the timeless reality of metaphysical ideas such as Being, Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love “without a shred of scientific evidence” as understood within boundaries of empirical scientific method and the assumed worldview of scientific naturalism. Naturalists will maintain that while such “tacit knowledge” and “critical intelligence” that includes our experiences of subjectivity,  intersubjectivity, metaphors, aesthetics, symbols and rituals, art and music are personally meaningful and scientifically interesting, they are finally reducible to observable and measurable physical and bio-chemical processes, combined with psychological mechanisms and cultural socialization.  The need of and evidence for transcendental ideas is therefore categorically denied.

Transcendentalists respond by saying that unless our transitory and improbable existence is rooted in Transcendent Being, and unless our physical, biological, psychological and social existence is informed by the “innate ideas” of Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love, these words have no real meaning. In this case our quest for the truth of “what is” reduces “mind” to “brain” and “sentient life” to “dead matter” in a pointless universe in which the most honest response is one of futility and despair.

When those who formally deny any appeal to these transcendental ideas continue to live as if these ideas did make some existential and moral claim upon them, they are not being consistent with their own presuppositions. They are living a contradiction, declaring that life is ultimately meaningless and futile while continuing to live as if it were at least temporarily meaningful and hopeful, and as if the transcendental ideas still had some existential and moral value for them.

This was Nietzsche’s criticism of his fellow naturalists who did not see that the logic of naturalism demands a radical “transvaluation of values,” “the death of God” and with it the death the compassionate humanitarian values associated with democratic liberalism. Nietzshe viewed these as rooted in a synthesis of the transcendental ideals of the Socratic, Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, Jewish and Christian traditions, and so he wanted to replace them with the Promethean “anti-christ” and “super-man” for “whom might makes right.” In Nietzsche’s view the heroic “will to power” must replace the saintly “power of love” and the philosophical search for “eternal truth.”  “Sunny naturalists” want to continue  feeding upon the fruits of our civilization’s transcendental traditions while severing its roots. Nietzsche saw this as a cowardly evasion by sunny naturalists and liberal humanists.

Some transcendentalists emphasize the timeless and eternal nature of Being in Itself. These are identified with Neo-Platonism, Vedanta,  the Perennial Philosophy and The Traditionalists, among others.

The term Perennial philosophy was popularized in more recent times by Aldous Huxley, who was profoundly influenced by Vivekanda’s Neo-Vedanta and Universalism,[26] in his 1945 book: The Perennial Philosophy. He defined the perennial philosophy as:

“the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical to, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being; the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the perennial philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.”

Other transcendentalists emphasize the evolutionary, emergent, novel and creative nature of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being that is also the Lure of the Future. They include process philosophers and theologians, including the contributions of Tielhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, Henry Bergson, Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb and David Ray Griffin, among others. Ken Wilber and other Integral Thinkers have combined elements of both the Perennial and Process philosophical traditions, along several other traditions as well. Wilber’s placement of various major intellectual theorists within his four ontological and epistemological quadrants is brilliant and worth examining, but that will have to wait for another occasion.

Perennial Philosophers and Process Philosophers are both critics of the worldview of scientific naturalism, also called materialism and physicalism. Perennial Philosophers locate the transcendent reality metaphorically “above” the mundane world of the senses even while it dwells within it. Process Philosopher locate the transcendent reality “ahead” in the anticipatory future. Some Process Philosophers call themselves pan-en-theists to distinguish themselves from pantheists. They may also call themselves panpsychists or pan-experientialists to distinguish themselves from both dualists and idealists. A brief visit to Wikipedia will clarify these distinctions.

What Perennialists and process philosophers, pantheistic idealists and panentheistic panpsychists have in common is their view that the “later and more complex” emergence of Life and Mind, and  of tacit knowledge and critical intelligence are more disclosing of “what is” and “what may yet become” than the reductive naturalist’s appeal to “earlier and simpler” forms of inorganic matter various deterministic mechanisms.

Let me sum up: For transcendentalists of every kind there is a shared conviction that unless our temporal existence is grounded in Universal Being and our psychological and cultural values are rooted in an appeal to such transcendent ideas as Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love, the human enterprise must inevitably and ultimately be frustrated and end in meaningless and futility. I suspect that it is only when one becomes disillusioned with scientific naturalism as a total worldview that one considers alternatives such as transcendentalism. The reverse is also true. After the era of American transcendentalism that was led by such figures as Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Thoreau and Whitman, there was a counter-movement by the “anti-transcendentalists” who followed, expressed in the writings of Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Twain, Thomas Hardy, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, and others. The modern literary and philosophical movements of realism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, absurdism, parody and ironism tell a story of descent into the abyss, life rendered increasingly tragic, cruel, ridiculous, irrational, fatalistic, meaningless absurd. Scientific naturalism as a reductive and mechanistic worldview has nothing to offer us that will essentially alter this story of our collective cultural descent into the abyss. Transcendentalism matters because it affirms the primacy of life, mind, meaning and hope in a way that naturalism is not able to do.

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One thought on “The Transcendentalist Vision: Affirming Nature, Life, Mind, Meaning, Values and Hope”

  1. still..the naturalists are much closer to the truth of what you are and eventually become than the transcendent fantasies no matter how elaborate they become..

    don

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