What Is Transcendence?

Recently I read a book about different world views. One of the questions that was used to describe each view was whether the universe was considered to be open or closed to transcendence. This is a short-hand way of saying that while the universe follows orderly (physical) processes, the universe may be viewed as open or closed to re-ordering by the actions of God and/or by human beings. For example, a completely mechanistic worldview does not accept that God exists and states that human beings are biological machines. Therefore, transcendence is impossible. The universe is closed.

I have a love/hate relationship with this terminology. On the one hand, I believe this is exactly how most people view the concept of transcendence in this age. As an accurate description of many cultural worldviews and personal mental maps, it is a useful way to look at how people think of themselves and their place in life. It affects how they look at the future (determinate or indeterminate). It explains how they view death and what motivates them in life.

On the other hand, I think it distorts the concept of transcendence. It redefines it into something that isn’t part of the reality we experience. In the book The Experience of God, David Bently Hart writes that we no longer have a common way to express the concept of God, so that we are often debating about is an image of God that’s closer to a demiurge than traditional religious views of God. I think that transcendence may be distorted in much the same way.

The concept of the universe as “open” or “closed” to transcendence is adapted from scientific terminology about open and closed physical systems. In Physics, a closed physical system is one where there exists a physical boundary that encloses a system and prevents it from gaining or losing matter. An isolated system is usually defined as one that is closed to losing or gaining energy. Often people conflate closed systems with isolated systems. I believe that is where the closed/open terminology comes from when talking about transcendence. Since it is a shorthand, it is a catch all for a lot of confused concepts about diverse subjects. So, we are already off to a bad start.

In reality, it is not possible to for us to create a truly closed or isolated physical system. We can only approximate one. Examples of closed systems are a pressure cooker, a cup of hot tea with a lid on it, a steam engine, and the combustion engines we use in our cars. But these systems are not perfectly closed off from our environment and eventually lose energy. Some people try to extend the idea of closed systems to the earth. This approximation is due to the sun supplies energy to the planet and gravity keeps all the matter of earth from flying off. But, like the cup of tea or the steam engine, this is also an approximate closed system. It is a practical approximation which allows us to create many useful tools and machines. But once again, in reality, we live in an open system where matter and energy exchanges occur over time. It is also the same reason why perpetual motion machines cannot exist. Matter and energy seep out into space beyond the Earth. And eventually the Earth will slow down and fall into the sun ages and ages from now.

An even bigger error is to apply the idea of an isolated system concept to the entire universe. By definition, the physical universe includes all matter and energy. Some people contend that this means that the universe is a perfectly isolated system. I remember wondering about this in my physics classes. My primary thought back then was: Has anyone been to the edge of the universe? Of course, not. So how could we know this is true?

Unfortunately, the answer I received was in the form of a circular roadblock: The universe must be an isolated system because it contains all the matter energy that exists, therefore – by definition – there can be no exchange with energy and matter outside of it. At that time, I knew there was something wrong with that explanation, I but could not figure out where it went wrong.

Redefining the universe as an isolated system does not, in fact, make it an isolated system. If the universe is isolated, what is it isolated from? Recall that the original definition of an isolated system is that it has a boundary with all other systems. The hot cup of tea is bounded from the surrounding environment by a cup and a lid. If the universe is bounded, what is it bounded by? And, even if there were a boundary to the universe, can we still call it “the universe”?

Boundlessness, like infinity are hard ideas for finite brains to conceptualize. The Pythagoreans first ran into the problem of infinity by trying to calculate √2 and were so alarmed by the discovery that the answer was an infinite string of numbers that they kept this information hidden from outsiders. We cannot completely wrap our brains around it and so we are always trying to find a way to wedge the concept of infinity into our finite brain’s mental maps in such a way that we can convince ourselves that we understand it.

The uncomfortable nature of infinity may have something in common with concept of transcendence. When we encounter large chunks of reality which are hard to grasp in our understanding, we try to approximate reality by breaking it down into finite “bites” that our brains can handle. This is the approach behind the branch of mathematics called Calculus. We cannot predict large changes in motion, but we can predict small ones. By knowing the original location and velocity of an object, we can predict the path of any type of projectile. But even these predictions are limited to non-living objects and are approximations – really good approximations, but still approximations. And, as we tend to reduce all things to non-living, predictable objects in our mental manipulations, we should never confuse the road map we create in our heads with reality.

So, getting back to our original question, I realize that many people do not believe in transcendence at all. They believe life is a process, not a substance. That means we are only made of physical substances and these substances, by following the laws of nature, produce living individuals. There are many scientists who believe cognition and the mental maps we create are solely the product of our brains. (The Brain Maps Out Ideas and Memories Like Spaces)

It is easy to see that some things are encoded into our mental maps by experience. For example, accidentally burning our hand on a hot stove is encoded into our mental map as hot stoves cause a burning pain and we should avoid them. Psychologists say that strong emotion or pain helps us to remember an event. These may be, in part, involuntary lessons. We may find the memory intrudes our thoughts. It is by encoding a solution into our mental maps (approach the stove cautiously so that you don’t burn yourself) that we “process” the trauma and can move on to other problems. Scientists speculate these encoding systems developed as part of the evolutionary process of natural selection. I do not doubt that an important part of our brain is involved in processing information from our environment and that many of these processes evolved over time.

But that explanation does answer the question about our own decisions to encode things such as the rote memorization of times tables or learning a new language. We may use the same neural circuitry to encode information that evolution produced, but what physical process could make us learn things that have nothing to do with survival?

It is true that some people believe that all our decisions are involuntary, and that free will is an illusion. (This is also the fundamental assumption behind many Artificial Intelligence schemes). However, even to think that is something of a contradiction. It is illogical to think that the brain produces the ability to reorder itself by itself.

In these times, people have forgotten that “substance” did not always mean a physical substance. Do we reorder our brains from some transcendent part of us? Is that a separate substance from the physical part of us or does this substance a part of us that affects our physical processes?

In the past, some have thought that mankind had two natures – a physical and a spiritual one. Like a ghost in a machine. At death, the physical dies, but the spiritual remains. Others believe that we are made of a single substance that produces both a physical body and personal soul. In this concept of life, the physical and the personal develop together, but eventually the physical part of the soul decays and dies off.

And that begs the question: What is the origin of the “life” substance? What could be the primary cause of life other than a Creator? It seems unreasonable to think that the universe could have created itself as much as it is impossible that the physical brain could reorder itself.

And this brings me back to why I am uncomfortable using the words “open” and “closed” in describing the transcendence in relation to the universe. I think it forms a picture in our modern minds of some something existing beyond the physical universe. But that “thing” is way, way off somewhere in the infinite distance and possibly bounded by a kind of physical/spiritual separation that is separate from us.

Rather the “thing” that we call transcendence must be in the universe and part of us. This Creative transcendence must in some way explain the existence of the physical universe. Whether it is part of the physical universe or not is a separate question.

Transcendence, then, is not just something that acts on the physical universe, but it is also experienced by transcendent creatures living in the physical universe. Then those transcendent creatures affect other transcendent creatures through their own transcendent, creative acts.

The problem with trying to understand the concept of transcendence in terms of an open or closed universe seems to be a way to avoid the messy business of dealing with one of the many mysteries of the universe. The effort to bind transcendence up and nail it down in our mental maps as something tangible will not change the reality that transcendence infuses and informs all life in and around us.

If we can accept our own individual existence is real and that we can change the course of our own lives, then we should be able to accept that transcendence is real. The fact that it exists can be understood by the limits we experience in the physical universe. How it works is a mystery beyond science which falls under the study of philosophy. The question of why it exists is what religion is for. But, while those aspects of transcendence may never be answered fully in this life, the realization that transcendence must exist is evident by the very act of accepting our own existence as reality. We cannot be self-aware of our own existence without transcending the physical universe.