Troubles with the Transcendent

5 min read

Some thoughts on why the transcendent is crucial to understanding religion, and its implications for the ‘God’ debate, theology and more.

Photo by Madhu Shesharam on Unsplash
God’s essence is supposed to guarantee his existence — what this really means is that what is at issue here is not the existence of something.
 Couldn’t one actually say equally well that the essence of colour guarantees its existence? As opposed, say, to white elephants. Because all that really means is: I cannot explain what ‘colour’ is, what the word ‘colour’ means, except with the help of a colour sample. So in this case there is no such thing as explaining ‘what it would be like if colours were to exist’ — Wittgenstein
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ — Exodus 3, 14

The basic problem

The Wittgenstein and Exodus quotations above very interesting. They say that God is self-defining — ‘I am who I am’ — and cannot be defined in terms of other phenomena. Wittgenstein gives the example of colour; any description or attempt to convey the colour ‘red’ will require the colour itself.

Insofar as experience of God is transcendental and is fundamentally different from experiences we normally have (e.g. colour, sight, smell, ideas) we have a language issue. We learn words and their meanings from them being out there in a world which is common to us. Yet when someone talks about God, if they have ‘experienced’ him then someone who lacks that reference point will not be able to understand. This raises two problems:

1. It’s not accessible to people who haven’t experienced it. Arguments dependent on that reference point will be non-verifiable for these people.

2. It is impossible to know people mean the same thing. If I disagree with you about redness, we resolve that difficulty by pointing to the same object in the world. But the transcendental lacks this shared reference point and the language to describe it. Two people who have experienced the ‘same’ transcendental experience would be unable to know if they had actually had the same transcendental experience. (i.e. multiple transcendental experiences would imply even theologians could not be sure they were referring to the same thing)

This leads to my trouble with talk about the transcendental: 1 and 2 imply that no-one can talk to someone else about the transcendental and know they are talking about the same thing.

First implication: belief is not a choice

This leads to the most important theological consideration. As we have defined God, it is not possible to understand except through experience. Those who lack the transcendental experiences cannot believe in God. This seems to remove the free will aspect out of unbelief?

Implications for the ‘God’ debate

If God is a concept impossible to capture in earthly terms and language, the whole idea of a ‘God’ debate is bizarre. Those arguing against it wouldn’t know what they are really arguing against. (If we agree with Wittgenstein, then this would be akin to a blind man arguing about colour).

The flip side is that this creates a wall of convenience. If someone had merely persuaded themselves that they had had a transcendental experience, they could hind behind the convenient barrier that no-one else could prove them wrong.

God and probability

Another interesting implication is that concepts of probability — dependent upon counterfactuals and the possibility of other outcomes — become meaningless. You couldn’t ‘suppose’ red didn’t exist as it isn’t a valid counterfactual (because the word/concept red implies the concept being there). Yet arguments such as the fine-tuning argument seem to rely on probabilities. The argument runs that it is unlikely that the physical constants could have turned out so well-tuned, so it is more likely God exists than it came out be chance. The probability theory required to make this argument requires the counter factual of God not existing.

Fourth implication — God’s existence as a syllogism?

From an atheist perspective, this talk of transcendence is nonsense. The definition of God for them is no more than God as an anthropological phenomenon (i.e. a set of beliefs and actions by humans). This is clearly different to the self-defining characteristic for a Christian. In other words, a self-defining non-existent thing is a contradiction. Colours self-define, so for them not to exist is a contradiction as ‘to not exist’ requires the concept, which in turn is reliant on colours’ existence.

God is defined anthropologically for the atheist and exists in this sense. God is defined by transcendent experience for the Christian and thus exists.

Remaining questions

1. Even if the experience is necessary for belief in God, does having the experience guarantee belief? Why do some people lose their faith?

2. When an unbeliever writes about theology and makes sense, how is this so? (e.g. I was always fairly convinced by historical accounts re: Jesus etc when younger but think that if I had experienced God I would know esp. as I know many people who say they have experienced God.)

2. Implications for this about human mind? Where is our capacity for experiencing the transcendent coming from?

4. I am not entirely convinced by the Wittgenstein view. The colour analogy aside, you can prove properties and existence of things which you cannot understand, perceive or comprehend. E.g. I can prove the existence of primes larger than any which could be computed using the entire computing power of the universe. (There are theorems which have been proven to have proofs, but the complexity is so great that the universe lacks computational power to find the solution).

5. If a transcendent experience is required to understand God, does that mean a theologian has to recall transcendental experiences every time they think about God for their thinking to have meaning?

This article was written by the Sociable Solipsist, an Economics student at Cambridge. He writes about Philosophy, theology, ethics and the foundations of mathematics and probability. He is not averse to writing flattering biographies of himself in the third person.