On Transcendence

Religions that promote the reality, or existence, of the divine generally insist that the divine transcends reality. That very idea is self-contradictory. If the divine exists or is real then it is part of reality and so can’t transcend that which is real.

This conundrum illustrates a difficulty we have in thinking about the world around us. We speak of reality as something all-encompassing. Everything I experience is part of reality. Everything I can imagine is part of reality. Everything I dream or feel is part of reality. Everything that I or anyone else could possibly know or believe or understand is part of reality. So how is it possible for that which is all-encompassing to not include that which is beyond our capability of knowing– namely the divine?

Let us for the moment assume that there is a domain that we shall call “the Divine” that in some yet-to-be-defined sense transcends reality. Why should we expect it to be possible for beings trapped within the confines of reality to perceive or know or comprehend or understand anything that thrives in the realms of the Divine if those realms are truly “beyond” reality? There is in fact no reason to believe that any avenue to such knowledge exists.

But if there were such knowledge– if it were indeed possible for the residents of reality to apprehend the Divine– then that knowledge must be in all respects real or it would not be knowable to beings who dwell in our reality. This means that there must exist some mapping of the Divine onto apprehensions that are fully real. And do we have any certainty that such a mapping is in any sense comprehensive, or even representative? For example, imagine that beings of the Divine inhabit a realm of 100 dimensions, and imagine further that a human living in our four dimensional space-time were to gain knowledge of these Divine beings. Can we be sure that whatever vision the human has is representative of the true complexity of a being that resides in a realm of 100 dimensions?

The Judgment of Paris illustrates this problem perfectly. Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy, was asked by Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera to determine which of them was the most beautiful. But as the three beings whose beauty he was asked to judge were all goddesses, they could make themselves appear to their human judge however they liked. And they could offer him anything he might desire. Hera offered a kingdom. Athena offered him knowledge and skill. Aphrodite offered him possession of the most beautiful woman in the world– Helen, the wife of Menelaus. Rather than judge on the basis of beauty, Paris accepted the gift of Aphrodite and thereby precipitated the Trojan War.

The idea that humans, bound as we are to our four dimensional space-time, can know with certainty the nature of that which is beyond the reality of our four dimensional existence is at best a hypothesis. And it is one for which no proof is possible. We are incapable of perceiving anything in 100 dimensions, though we might be able to imagine it, and we are therefore incapable of measuring the degree to which our perception of a 100 dimensional being deviates from that being’s true nature.

Einstein once said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Regardless of whether it is greater than or less than knowledge, imagination is certainly not the same thing as knowledge. I can imagine a unicorn with blood of liquid gold, but such an imagining does not guarantee its reality.

We have a language that includes a word– transcend– that allows us to describe a state in which a thing or a being is “beyond” our knowledge, our experience, and our reality. The possession of this word doesn’t mean that there is any such thing as a transcendent being.

A religious apologist would argue that we have all the proof we need of the reality of the Divine. A Jew would say that we have the Torah. A Christian would say that we have that and the New Testament. A Muslim would say that we have the Koran. A Mormon would say that we have the Christian Bible and the Book of Mormon. All of these writings are considered by their advocates as proof of the reality of God as each is assumed to have been delivered directly by God.

It is important to note that the followers of these separate faiths view their scriptural writings as being exclusively the Word of God. When a Jew says that the Torah is the Word of God he or she really means that the Torah and only the Torah is the Word of God. The New Testament is not; the Koran is not; the Book of Mormon is not; the Mahabarata is not; and in fact no other religious writing on the planet is the Word of God.

The fact that the followers of these separate religions point to different texts as proof of the reality of their God is evidence that they do not perceive the divine in the same way. Hence we have every reason to reject the notion that humans are inherently able to experience or understand that which transcends reality.

But they can imagine it. A temple or cathedral or mosque or synagogue is a monument to the very human yearning to capture and experience the divine. Salvador Dali’s painting Last Supper conveys the transcendence of Jesus and God through the translucence of their physical forms. Alan Hovhaness’s Fra Angelico portrays the intercessions of angels with a series of trombone glissandos. Art of all forms has long sought to convey the transcendent through media that humans can experience in the real world.

There is an even more radical way in which humans can envision that which is truly transcendent– and that is through science and mathematics. The science of cosmology tells us that the universe was created about 13.8 billion years ago. That event began with a moment of quantum instability. And exactly what gave rise to that instability? We do not know with any certainty, but human imagination has framed a number of possibilities in the language of mathematics. Several of these explanations are based on spaces of more than four dimensions. It is even conceivable that one day these imaginings may be subjected to a test that could prove them either true or false. But until one of these hypotheses passes such a test they remain merely imaginings and cannot be regarded as real.

That, I assert, is the only avenue to the apprehension of the truly transcendent– through imagination, whether expressed in art, architecture, or science. It cannot be characterized as either knowledge or experience of the transcendent. But it may one day lead us to such knowledge.

Copyright (c) 2020, David S. Moore

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