It’s not surprising after several millennia of culturally enforced piety that many people believe in transcendence; contact with phenomena beyond the empirical world; and not just the faithful.
‘There must be something…’
…‘This can’t be all there is.’
People say things like this all the time, as if an assumption becomes a deductive truth. Conversely, some claim that limiting the world to naturalism reflects a form of faith itself, often labelled as scientism or dogma. This would imply a burden of proof on the naturalist to provide evidence (not faith) there is nothing beyond the natural world. Since this is demanding the impossible, it is an unreasonable demand. But is it equally unreasonable to reject the presumption of a non-empirical realm?
Cultural myths cast a shadow of otherworldliness upon our psyche. Even for non-believers it is natural to speculate on an afterlife. Offering an antidote for grief and a defeater to mortality, the cognitive bias that informs these beliefs seems watermarked into our consciousness. Wishful thinking is embedded in the phraseology of our language. Instead of dying we would much rather pass on or go to a better place in the next world, because death is not the end, but merely the beginning.
James Whitcomb Riley’s He is Not Dead:
I cannot say, and I will not say,
That he is dead. He is just away.
With a cheery smile, and a wave of the hand,
He has wandered into an unknown land.
Seeing death as the end of life is like seeing the horizon as the end of the ocean.
The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility… But that transcendentalism by which all men live has primarily much the position of the sun in the sky. We are conscious of it as of a kind of splendid confusion; it is something both shining and shapeless, at once a blaze and a blur.
Throughout history we witness the collaboration between assertion of the transcendent and an alibi for its absence. Unlike the sun at noonday which we can actually see, we can see no transcendence; not a blaze nor a blur, no shining or shapeless visage, no splendid confusion; only a crestfallen nothingness that leaves the assertion unfulfilled.
What if we accept the natural world is all; abandoning the afterlife and its promise of eternity? What sort of nihilism entails from this belief? Nietzsche articulates the insecurity entailed in his famous God is dead passage (from The Gay Science):
How could we drink up the sea?
Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?
What were we doing when we unchained this earth from the sun?
Whither it is moving now? Whither are we moving?
Away from all suns?
Are we not plunging continually?
Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions?
….Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?
Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God?
…God is dead.
God remains dead.
We have killed him
To abandon faith is to slay humanities’ dearest illusions. Marx postulated real happiness depends on this excision:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Both Marx and Nietzsche understood implicitly the human need fulfilled by religion, and so they sought its replacement. Giving up the addiction to superstition and consolation was never going to be easy, and even now, after a century of gradual secularisation and a movement away from faith in many western countries, the supernatural still has its appeal. There is something in our nature that desperately clutches on to it, like a child to a parent.
The allegation of scientism, a word which has become a snarl word for excessive reductionism, is made against those who deny a mystical dimension. Since science cannot disprove a spiritual dimension, it must admit its possibility; and presumably its accessibility. Reza Aslan:
What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims–be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth–are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science
The argument rests on the unknowability of metaphysical claims; since they are beyond the purview of science they cannot be denied by science. Yet, how are they to be understood by any other fields of inquiry if they cannot be known? Rather than just supposing that there is something beyond the impenetrable boundary of the universe, shouldn’t we be considering whether there is or isn’t? It is of course quite a grand claim after all.
Cosmologists theorize that the universe is a closed system. The sum total of our existential knowledge is the observable universe, and what operates within that universe does so invariably according its nature. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, p109:
It has likewise no impulse to self-preservation or impulses of any kind; neither does it know any laws. Let us beware of saying there are laws in nature. There are only necessities: there is no one to command, no one to obey, no one to transgress….
Nature is defined by the forces and entities that operate within it; it cannot observe laws, those laws are what we invent to describe its fundamental nature. Understanding the depth of Nietzsche’s point is appreciating that we should not expect miracles, or divine interventions; these are simply impossible. The natural order is impervious to prayer, worship, chance, and the wishful thinking of men.
If there is a supernatural or otherwise non-natural dimension outside the universe then it has stubbornly evaded detection. To presume its’ existence despite this, must surely entail an obligation to provide some evidence in support of it. We do not have to accept that people can communicate beyond the grave, or encode messages from deities, or are themselves reincarnated famous historical figures, or similar outlandish things.
If there is a path to knowledge beyond empirical inquiry then we should surely have some demonstrable effects of this knowledge. We should have solved some problems by non-natural means, and sought to harness its power. We should be able interrogate the veracity of supernatural claims. However, while attempts have been made, nothing has been proven. No-one has claimed James Randi’s prize.
If there is another type of reality beyond the universe we currently have no way of knowing anything about it. It is therefore impossible to know whether there is anything there, and if there is, what that thing or set of things might be. From a pure logic point of view it would be staggeringly unlikely that we should be able to guess what exists in another dimension or world without any relation to it.
And yet many people do predict what things might exist in an after-life, and the ways in which people might transcend the natural laws of this world. There is a wild assortment of transcendental beliefs; ghosts, gods, vampires, psychic abilities, magic, reincarnation, spirits, witches, goblins, fairies, werewolves, incubi and so on. How do we assess the validity of each of these claims based on having no knowledge or measurable relationship to them? Based on zero evidence, all we have to go on is the coherence of the claim. And perhaps this explains something. Those who describe the transcendent in contemporary literature seem to place high stock in wrapping the message in compelling, sometimes breathtaking language. Roger Scruton:
…the root of the human condition, points always towards the transcendental — the point on the edge of space and time, which is the subjectivity of the world.
sacred things are the ‘real presence’ of the supernatural, illuminated by a light that shines from the edge of the world.
Whilst they sound nice these statements are simply assertions without proof. This language carries over to the consideration of the transcendent as an activity in the observance religion and spiritualism. Through these meditations we can achieve greater insight into life, or enlightenment. The perceived value in religion is often expressed in phrases such as “pointing to the transcendent”, “its eternal, tranquil watchfulness,” or looking for the “sacred light of truth at the edge of the world.” Without question, there might be some introspective benefits to be obtained by these contemplations. But we should admit that they necessarily involve an effort of imagination and speculation to create an artificial experience. There is no real communication between this world and another one.
The search for genuine spirituality would assuredly be enhanced by a focus on achieving the individual experience rather than the fictional creation of other world-ness. Since we can have no knowledge, it is futile to accept faith in supernatural beings in a way that presumes precisely that somehow we do have knowledge; and that the supernatural being has an exacting and unambiguous plan which must all followed for our entire lives. Not only is it futile, it is counterproductive as we could be investing our time and intellects more wisely.
Kierkegaard’s paradox is essentially the human belief that we can know, what is by nature, unknowable, in relation to belief in God. We can somehow transcend our own rationality to perceive something without knowing how we perceive it. It is only a paradox if we choose to believe that there is something there that we cannot know about. Otherwise, it is not a paradox, it is a contradiction. One may object that if we perceive something without knowing how, we should be skeptical as to how we can know it. Other precedents for this type of knowledge include the hallucinations of those using illicit substances, and the delusions of the mentally ill. Even if we could argue that this knowledge is provided through some other means we are unconscious of, or only subliminally aware of, there is no way we can support the conclusion. Without accessible knowledge we have no way to verify or determine that this belief is justified. It is a license to claim the existence of any supernatural or natural entity. Greater care and diligence should be exercised before accepting of these type of beliefs, particularly considering that belief in God and observance of religion is to many people the most important and influential belief in their life. We cannot know what we cannot know. However we want to dress it up it is a case of special pleading, and we cannot rationalize our way to knowing what is unknowable. What is an existential mystery for Kierkegaard is also market opening for charlatans and cons.
To consider how the self might die, and then continue on to another reality is at odds with our medical knowledge. Sentience is a product of our brain. Our mind works because of the physical workings of our brain, which can be measured and studied in the realm of neuroscience. When the human body dies, the electrical impulses in the brain cease. There is no more consciousness; there are no more thoughts; there is a point which we can medically detect that sentience and life is gone. It seems incongruous that the mind will somehow kick start again without the brain, to allow a continuance in some other reality. In the event that it could, it would seem to indicate that the physical operation of the brain throughout life was an unnecessary redundancy, or a ruse to deceive us. Likewise it is problematic to imagine consciousness transferring to some other controller, our soul for instance, and still remaining a product of the same self. In addition, the soul remains undiscovered. If it is residing somewhere within our bodies, it is undetectable by the instruments of modern medicine. So in postulating transcendence or an afterlife, we do not even have a reasonable hypothesis for how our own identity continues to exist, never mind a clear idea of where that identity goes.
It is not unreasonable or dogmatic to reject belief in a non-empirical realm. There is no evidence, and it is only guesswork to speculate about it. Those who disagree are free to provide their evidence, and their explanation of how they know. It is clear that we must neither assume the existence, nor non-existence of a non-empirical realm. Though we should feel no obligation to award warrant for those who claim to hold knowledge of things that they are patently unable to demonstrate through evidence