Tag Archives: Scientism

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


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.


On Scientific Method Without “Reductive Scientism”

Multi-Functional Mind

Today there are many excellent introductions to the nature and methods of science available to read on the Web, and of course in textbooks. For our purposes it is sufficient to reference the beginning of the Wikipedia article on scientific method:

The scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge.To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the scientific method as: “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

What, then, is “reductive scientism” as distinct from “scientific method?” Allow me once more to reference the Wikipedia article on that topic:

Scientism is a term used to refer to belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints. It has been defined as “the view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society.” An individual who subscribes to scientism is referred to as a scientismist. The term scientism frequently implies a critique of the more extreme expressions of logical positivism and has been used by social scientists such as Friedrich Hayek,philosophers of science such as Karl Popper, and philosophers such as Hilary Putnam and Tzvetan Todorov to describe the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable. ‘Scientism’ has also been taken over as a name for the view that science is the only reliable source of knowledge by philosophers such as Alexander Rosenberg.

Scientism may refer to science applied “in excess”. The term scientism can apply in either of two senses:

  1. To indicate the improper usage of science or scientific claims. This usage applies equally in contexts where science might not apply,such as when the topic is perceived to be beyond the scope of scientific inquiry, and in contexts where there is insufficient empirical evidence to justify a scientific conclusion. It includes an excessive deference to claims made by scientists or an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific. In this case, the term is a counter argument to appeals to scientific authority.
  2. To refer to “the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in natural science, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry,” or that “science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective” with a concomitant “elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience.”

The term is also used by historians, philosophers, and cultural critics to highlight the possible dangers of lapses towards excessive reductionism in all fields of human knowledge.

Obviously one may have great appreciation and respect for “scientific method” without falling prey to the excesses of “scientism,” that is: (1) excessive deference to claims made by scientists and an uncritical eagerness to accept any result described as scientific; and (2) the belief that the methods of natural science, or the categories and things recognized in them, form the only proper elements in any philosophical or other inquiry;” or that “science, and only science, describes the world as it is in itself, independent of perspective” with a concomitant “elimination of the psychological dimensions of experience.”

My discussion of “tacit and explicit knowledge” in the last two blogs makes evident the tacit if not explicit presence of the philosophical, ethical, psychological and social dimensions of experience, regardless of whether one is engaging the humanities, arts, or sciences.  It has been a myth of modern scientism (not science as such) that empirical truth-claims presented as “scientific” are objectively true, and that measurable and quantifiable “explicit knowledge” eliminates the subjective and inter-subjective personal and cultural influence of the tacit dimension. Philosophers and scientists like Michael Polanyi have come to realize that this assumption is intellectually simplistic and naive. Even scientists are human beings first (with tacit assumptions, perceptions, judgment, beliefs, values and commitments) before they are scientists, during their scientific experiments, and after they are done with their scientific work. There is no way to entirely remove the tacit dimension. All knowledge is embodied human knowledge and human knowledge is not “value neutral.”

Like anyone who has long been interested in various scientific as well as philosophical, religious, historical, literary and artistic accounts of the world, I’ve encountered countless physical, natural, cognitive and social scientists who have set forth different Theories of Everything. Sometimes these “grand theorists” cross over quite unknowingly from scientific method to reductive scientism. Many popular theories within the physical, biological, cognitive and social sciences have have attempted to elevate themselves — through scientistic reductionism — to universal explanatory principles or Theories of Everything. These have included Neo-Darwinian survival of the fittest, Dawkins’s selfish genes, Freud’s projection theory, Jung’s archetype fixation, Marx’s class struggle, Feminist’s oppressive patriarchy, Skinner’s operant conditioning, physicist’s Quantum Everything, Santayana’s animal faith, and Frans de Waal’s animal empathy. There are countless others. As partial accounts of the world they may be useful. As totalizing accounts they become ideology. If reality is more than we know, and if what we know is always more than we can tell, and if what we can tell is what we can effectively communicate to the understanding of others, then we will recognize that there is always “a surplus of meaning” that our language never fully encompasses. We never communicate the “totality of reality,” without remainder.

Of course not all physical, natural, cognitive and social scientists present their questions, hypotheses, predictions, tests, analyses and conclusions as Theories of Everything, but only as partial and probably explanations with limited rather than universal extension. But the hubristic temptation is to assume that one has “finally discovered” the Rosetta Stone, is key to all knowledge and understanding of the fundamental nature of reality.

There are several aspects to reductionism. One involves explaining (or explaining away) all religious, philosophical, ethical, historical, literary, artistic and aesthetic phenomena as “really reducible to” sociological, psychological, biological, neurological, physiological and/or computational, algorithmic and mathematical. Another aspect of reductionism involves fierce competition between the various reductive scientistic explanations within physics, biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology and economics that have all generated multiple and competing Theories of Everything.

Each of these reductive scientistic theories plays the game of King of the Mountain, seeking to be the interpretative key to all fundamental phenomena. As one listens for years to the exaggerated and grandiose claims of these various  and competing grand theories it is not surprising that some people have developed a post-modern allergy and suspicion toward Grand Narratives and Theories of Everything, including those that claim the imprimatur of science, god of the modern age.

The shift from scientific method to reductive scientism coincides with the tacit or explicit adoption of a materialistic, physicalist, mechanistic and deterministic worldview, as if it were the only show in town. Those who adopt dualist, theist, realist-idealist, neutral monist and pan-psychist worldviews may also engage the scientific enterprise with rigor and intelligence but perceive the world differently.

The tacit/explicit (softer/harder, autopoietic/representational, participation/reification) model of Michael Polanyi and others offers a way to temper the polarizing impulses toward post-modern relativistic subjectivism and ironism on the one hand and modern scientistic objectivism and reductionism on the other.

What is needed today is a recovery of the wisdom of the middle way. What is needed is a “third culture” that mediates between the humanities and the arts on one side and the sciences and technologies on the other. We can have reason without hyper-rationalism, science without scientism, psychology without psychologism, economics without economism, ethics without moralism, spirituality without fundamentalism, history without historicism, literature without escapism, and art without effetism. Liberal arts and cultural literacy are not our problem. Our problem is entrenched ideologies and totalizing dogmas, and they are never more pernicious than when they mask their agendas behind one or more of the liberal arts, including the great and liberating human enterprise we call science.


The God-Question: What It’s Really All About


Today especially among “the new atheists” it has become fashionable to bash all faith and belief in God, whatever is meant by the word and symbol of “God.” It is usually the Judeo-Christian theistic God that is being attacked. We are told that faith and belief in God is silly, superstitious, antiquated, bad for society and harmful to your health.

It may be worthwhile to point out that the so-called “God Question” actually translates into several existential questions: “Does life have a meaning and purpose that death will not utterly destroy?” “Is there any hope of a new dimension of life beyond the grave?” “Do we live and die in vain?” The question of God is really the question of whether there is any realistic basis for existential meaning, purpose, values and hope in the face of the apparent meaninglessness and randomness of our births, lives and deaths in a strictly naturalistic and indifferent universe. It is to ask whether there is a viable alternative to the nihilism, absurdity, futility and despair that are the offspring of reductive, mechanistic, deterministic and materialistic naturalism. It is to ask whether there might be more to reality than that which is disclosed through the naturalistic method and implicit naturalistic worldview of scientific empiricism.

In literary terms, the “God Question” is asking whether there might be a transcendent alternative to the nihilistic view that is lyrically expressed in such words as: “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing;” “Life is just one damn thing after another;” “Life’s a bitch and then you die;” “God is dead and we have killed him;” “Hollow men, chestless men;” “The horror, the horror!” “The only sure foundation for the future of philosophy is one of unyielding despair.”

The God Question for most people translates into the existential and ethical questions as to whether life is supremely meaningful and grounded in enduring values, or whether it is finally pointless and meaningless in the face of death? Is there nothing that grounds our human quest for enduring meaning, values, purpose and hope that death will not utterly annihilate? Is life, after all, a foolish charade, a cruel joke, an insane asylum, a senseless farce? Does the human search for the recognition and realization of beauty, truth, justice, love, freedom, dignity, nobility and hope turn to dust and ashes in the oblivion of our personal death and species extinction? In such a pointless world what is the point of living? Is it only to know that Nature rides us like a machine and is indifferent to our existence?

Those who ironically find the supreme meaning in their lives by telling others that there is no enduring meaning to life ought to at least own up to what they are doing, which is crushing the life out of those who require some eternal meaning and transcendent hope as the necessary “oxygen for their souls” in order breathe freely and live boldly amidst the daunting challenges of our global age.

They ought to at least admit that they are fueling the fires of nihilism, absurdity, meaninglessness and despair among those who can only hear their words as the death not only of God but also of Man and of Meaning, Purpose, Values and Hope in a vast, indifferent universe that has no pre-vision, purpose and destiny for us except futile struggle and final extinction. They ought to admit that they are “liberating” humanity from the old god of religious transcendence in order to recruit “true believers”  of the new god of scientific reductionism.

But “scientism” cannot provide us with answers to the great religious, philosophical, existential and ethical questions, except to reduce the phenomena of Life, Sentience, Intelligence, Consciousness, Creativity, Compassion, Courage, Civility and Culture to the reductive vocabularies of mathematics, chemistry, physics and biology. Scientism fails as a new religion. It will never satisfy the human quest for meaning, purpose, transcendence and hope. It can only offer us a “philosophy of unyielding despair,” or else change the subject to the reductive explanations and quantitative measurements of math, physics, chemistry and biology, treating them at totalizing explanations of Reality while pretending that the profound ontological and existential questions no longer matter. The God question is really not about the word “God” at all. It is about “intimations” of “the ultimate, the infinite, the mysterious, the unknown, and the unseizable.” And it is about the perennial search for transcendent meaning, purpose, values and hope that death will not totally destroy. The word/symbol of “God” may come in and go out of fashion from time to time, but the real questions behind it will never die.