Tag Archives: Transcendentalism

Three Frames of Reality: The Natural, Human & Spiritual Dimensions

three overlapping circles

To what extent are we able to encompass and comprehend the Supreme Reality with our finite human minds? What if the Supreme Reality is an infinite and ever-expanding horizon? If the finite cannot encompass and comprehend the infinite, except perhaps in some tangential or partial way, how does this influence our perception of the encompassing and comprehensive?

With what “singular unitive frame”,”multiple pluralistic frames” or “overlapping integrative frame” of knowledge and experience are we to employ in order to symbolize, evoke and represent what we perceive to be the fundamental nature of reality?

For centuries human beings have created “cosmogonies”, that is, mental maps, models and paradigms to symbolize, evoke, express and represent what they conceive to be the ultimate and supreme reality. The impulse to envision, grasp, discover and express the Supreme Reality, what philosopher Karl Jaspers calls the Comprehensive and Encompassing, seems to be innate in human nature.

In attempting to envision, grasp, discover and express the Supreme Reality, ought we to rely primarily upon the Inductive Language of Empirical Science, the Deductive Language of Rational Philosophy, or the Chronological Event-Driven Language of History, or all three? What “epistemological status and explanatory role”, if any, ought we to grant the Symbolic, Archetypal, Metaphorical, Analogical, Parabolic, Dialogical, Narrative, Emotive, Aesthetic and Ethical ways of knowing and being? What attention ought we to pay, of any, to the primal, elliptical , intuitive and evocative “languages” that may include Revelation, Illumination, Vision, Dream, Epiphany, Theophany, Music, Art, Symbol, Ritual, Poetry, Myth, Parable, Narrative, Drama and the Arts?

Temperamental predisposition and epistemological preference will strongly influence which of these “ways of knowing and being” we choose to privilege as we inquire into the nature of the Supreme Reality of “What Is.” Just as there is “no way of accounting for taste,” so there may also be no way of accounting for psychological differences and epistemological preferences.

There are two books in my library by authors with very different casts of mind but that I think should be read back-to-back. The first of these books is Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius (the naturalist), Dante (the transcendentalist), and Goethe (the humanist), by George Santayana. The second of these books is The Cosmotheandric Experience: Emerging Religious Consciousness, by Raimon Panikkar.

Santayana is a scientific and empirical naturalist, an aesthetic and sacramental Roman Catholic, and a philosophical and literary humanist — with a love for the arts, learning, imagination and culture. He recognizes a dialectical tension between the naturalistic, spiritual and humanistic aspects of his own complex identity, but he believes it is the creative task of future “philosophical poets” will be to fuse these three horizons of meaning. His intellectual and cultural sensibilities are more European and American.

Panikkar famously remarked, “I left as a Christian, found myself as a Hindu, and returned as a Buddhist, and that without ceasing to be a Christian.” Throughout his scholarly career he distinguished himself as an articulate voice for “deep ecumenism” and “dialogical dialogue” not only between the world’s religions but also between religious, secular, humanistic and spiritual perspectives on life. He envisions them as differentiated yet overlapping and mutually corrective perspectives rather than mutually oppositional and antagonistic.

His approach is radically different from the “dualistic” mode of public discourse on science, art, philosophy, and religion that is common enough in today’s world. Panikkar differentiates and integrate the various horizons of human knowledge and experience, combining introspection and observation, because he is not an “absolutist” or “literalist” about religion, science, or philosophy. But neither is he a “post-modern relativistic  ironist.” His approach is relational and dialogical, valuing both the tacit and explicit ways of knowing, much like Michael Polanyi, author of Personal Knowledge and The Tacit Dimension. His epistemology cares about “Truth”. For Panikkar the search for “encompassing truth” about the phenomena of experience and the acquisition of knowledge must take into account both the contents of introspection and observation, intuition and sensation, emotion and cognition, participation and detachment, intimacy and grandeur, perception and judgment. 

In addition to The Cosmotheandric Experience, his other books include The Experience of God: Icons of the Mystery; The Unknown Christ of Hinduism; The Trinity and World Religions; The Vedic Experience; Invisible Harmony; and Cultural Disarmament: The Way of Peace.

Throughout all his writings Panikkar seeks to simultaneously  differentiate and integrate the Cosmic, Human and Transcendental dimensions of reality. He sees no need for a “culture war” between science and religion, and views such conflicts as largely rooted in misunderstandings and “reifications” concerning both the nature of science and the nature of religion.

Philosopher Keith Ward arrives as a similar conclusion in his book, The Big Questions in Science and Religion. In the chapter entitled “Has Science Made Belief in God Obsolete,” he writes:

“It is just possible that we are at the beginning of a fourth stage (of human historical evolution beyond the three stages of local pre-literate, classical and text-based reasoning, and informed critical inquiry) of a truly global consilience among many different cultures, and among religion, the humanities, and science….

“If religion is fully humanized and open to the critical methods and established truths of the sciences, and if science is used in the service of human welfare and the flourishing of all sentient beings, there can be a long and positive future for human life and for whatever forms of life may develop from it. That is only likely to occur if scientists and religious believers engage in serious, sensitive, and enquiring conversation. For that to happen, both fundamentalist religion and fundamentalist atheism will have to be set aside in favor of something more self-critical and humane. If that does happen, religion will not disappear, but it may, and it should, change.” Of course so will science continue to change as well.

Some writers and thinkers who engage the three frames of Nature, Humanity and Spirit will believe they have good reasons and strong evidences for preferring to reduce both Human Beings and Transcendent Spirit  to “epiphenomenon” of Nature, which they conceive as being exclusively immanent and physical. They therefore employ the strategies of “reductionism” (of mind to matter), elimination (of mind as “the ghost in the machine”) and “strong emergence” from primally lifeless and mindless matter to the spontaneous and contingent emergence of both life and mind.

Others will believe they have good reasons and strong evidences for preferring to conceive of both Nature and Human Beings as either Free Creations or Necessary Emanations of Spirit. Western “theistic” religions tend toward the idea of “free creation” while eastern “pantheistic” and “acosmic” religions tend toward the idea of necessary emanation of Transcendental Mind or Universal Spirit.

Still others believe they ahave good reasons and strong evidences for preferring to envision the Supreme Reality as Divided between the Realms of Spirit and Matter. This world view we call metaphysical or ontological dualism. Epistemological dualists believe that we know “the really real” in two ways that are related to these two realms of Spirit and Matter. We know the spiritual reality through the methods of illumination and intuition, introspection and contemplation. We know the natural reality through the methods of empirical science.

Still others will believe they have good reasons and strong evidences for preferring to envision Human Beings as a “dialectical tension and creative synthesis” between the dimensions of Invisible Spirit and Visible Nature, of eternal essence and temporal existence. They will regard Mind and Matter as mutally causal, although some who hold this middle view will tilt toward the primacy of Mind while others will tilt toward the primacy of Matter. Perhaps this is what Pascal had in mind when he said that “man is the glory and the scum of the universe.” We seem to possess two natures in one. Mind and Matter may not be dual realities so much as a single reality with two aspects, “the implicit order” and “the explicit order” as David Bohm put it. “Panpsychism”, “process pan-experientialism”, “neutral monism”, “dual-aspect idealism” and “non-materialist physicalism” are all associated with this integral view that seeks to stand mid-way between the worldviews of  Idealism and Materialism but without splitting into Cartesian Dualism.

In his books The Big Questions in Science and Religion, and again in More than Matter: Is There More to Life than molecules? Keith Ward summarizes each of these interpretative perspectives. His own orientation seems to a complex blend of “dual-aspect idealism” and “open or process theism”, but he offers a generally fair and informed treatment of other perspectives, including those like “materialism” with which he disagrees.

Being something of a “sober realist” about human nature and the prospects for the human future, I don’t expect to see a new breed of philosophical poets and transcendental humanists “set aside” the polarities between “religious fundamentalists” and “atheistic fundamentalists” any time soon, for each of these is having way “too much fun” demonizing, dehumanizing and ridiculing the other. If Chris Hedges, author of When Atheism Becomes a Religion, is right when he says that  “war is a cause that gives life meaning,” then it is also surekt true that engaging in “culture wars” must also give life meaning…at least for some folks who need “enemies” to conquer and vanquish.

One of the paradoxes is that the more they violently oppose and attack each other in their mutually exclusive objectivist and literalist ideologies that more similar they appear to those on the outside. A relational and dialogical epistemology and methodology that honors both the Tacit and Explicit dimensions of reality and ways of knowing has a different orientation than either pre-modern religious dogmatists, the modern scientific objectivists, and the post-modern ironic subjectivists.

“Culture wars” of many kinds – religious and secular, political and economic – are probably here to stay. But it is encouraging to consider the possibility that there remains the option of “The Third Culture” that transcends exclusive polarities and mutual hostilities. Nature, Humanity and Spirit remain as “three frames of reality” that will continue to reconfigure themselves in different kinds of relationships to each other from age to age. They each function as “master templates” to help us understand our relationship to the Encompassing and Comprehensive, to the Supreme Reality in which we “live and move and have our being.”

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.