Recognizing possibilities of transcendence

There are positive metaphysics which make assertions about reality beyond what can be experienced, and there are negative metaphysics which deny the possibility of making such assertions.

A person who has worked at thinking through problems that started out unthinkable — who had to begin with confronting unthinkability and overcoming it by finding new modes of thinking capable of rendering the unthinkable thinkable — will gradually come to see “beyond experience” differently.

Beyond experience stops being an object of thought, a truth, and rather becomes a zone of indeterminate possibility — with distinctive characteristics one can recognize and about which one can make positive assertions:

  • It compels: we are attracted to it by something within us to transcend our current way of thinking.
  • It repels: the exits from our limitations fill us with anxiety and engulf us in dread.
  • It demands intuition: It can be navigated only by a wordless intelligence that knows, does and values without any ability to explain or justify itself.
  • It demands sacrifice: how we used to think is the chief obstacle to the new way of thinking.
  • It demands rethinking: much of what we once knew will have to be understood anew (metanoia).
  • It generates rebirth: the rethinking changes one’s basic experience of everything, all at once.
  • It is fruitful: it produces new ideas, understandings, interconnections and possibilities that were imperceptible, and in fact, unthinkable prior to transcendence. (Added July 16, 2020. Thanks to Nick Gall.)
  • It increases truth: what came before was not false, but what comes after is more true.
  • It is radically unexpected: with each transcendence truths come into view that were literally unimaginable prior to transcendence.
  • It intensifies expectation: experiencing the radically unexpected assures us that the unimaginable is entirely possible.
  • It is ubiquitous: once we learn to recognize these characteristics, we start noticing them everywhere we look. Existence is pregnant with shocking possibility.

This is why I love philosophy.

This is why I have become religious.

3 thoughts on “Recognizing possibilities of transcendence

  1. I like your characteristics of the zone of indeterminate possibility. I recently came across another characteristic that I personally feel is the first among equals: fruitfulness. If I were to add a characteristic to your list, it might read:

    * It is fruitful: it opens up whole new ways of thinking, it presents new problems to be solved, it enables new applications, and in some cases founds entire new disciplines.

    My inspiration for highlighting fruitfulness as the sine qua non of “thinking the unthinkable” and transcendence is mathematics. For example, Cantor helped us think the unthinkable regarding mathematical infinity. Calculus did the same for quantifying change.

    A book that helped me see the ubiquity of fruitfulness as a sign of deep transcendence is Penelope Maddy’s “Defending the Axioms”. In it, she highlights the essential goal of pure mathematics:

    ‘For [the pragmatist], the be-all and end-all of mathematics isn’t a remote metaphysics that we access through some rational faculty, but the entirely palpable facts of mathematical [fruitfulness]. She seeks concepts and assumptions that illuminate previously intractable problems, that reveal surprising interconnections, that open up new areas of mathematical understanding, and she does so using the familiar methods of mathematics itself, all carefully honed for just this undertaking. From this point of view, being part of our current concept only matters insofar as that concept is well-chosen; presented with a fruitful avenue that runs counter to current thinking, the [pragmatist] will happily throw the old concept over and embrace the new without regret. Indeed for her the often vexed distinction between ?nding out more about an existing concept and changing to a new one matters not at all. What does matter, all that really matters, is the fruitfulness and promise of the mathematics itself.’

    And when I say the ubiquity of the importance of fruitfulness, I mean ubiquity. For example, in Genesis, what were god’s first words to humans? They were “Be fruitful”. And Jesus reinforces how essential fruitfulness is in his sermon on the mount:

    ‘”Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. “You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? “Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”’
    Matthew 7:15-20

    I saw your blog post, “Thou shalt transcend”: . I claim the injunction, “Thou shalt be fruitful”, is equivalent, except that the latter highlights the proof of transcendence: By it’s fruits you will know a transcendence.

    1. Have you read Thomas Kuhn’s essay on theory choice? Fruitfulness is in his list. (The article is in my crazy wiki, which is at

      You are making a very important point, and it highlights a key difference between what motivates me and what seems to motivate most leftists (epitomized by Levinas) which is a demand for infinite compassion to the exclusion of all else. Once there is nothing pitiable or endangered left in the world, then, maybe we are entitled to turn our attention to other matters. (It’s a drab post-puritan bodhisattvaism.) Until then, we are obligated to seek out suffering and injustice and right all wrongs. In theory, this seems fair and benevolent, but in practice, it makes life leaden and joyless. In some epochs a general absence of any positive love of life causes far more suffering than the presence of specific ills, and it creates a mood (in the technical Heideggerian sense) of depression. I literally become depressed reading Levinas.

      What makes me desire transcendent reality is not obligation, but precisely that explosive fruitfulness that comes with learning a new mode of thought that rips through my personal backlog of unresolved (even unrecognized) problems, and transfigures whole regions or even the entirety of my life experience. The world literally looks different after this happens, and I can’t get enough of it.

      The best religion in infused with this constant epiphanic transfigurative possibility, and to me, this is our best evidence of God, or, better, since we are both Pragmatists, why belief in God is a good belief. Believing that what transcends our own mind exists and has valuable disruptive lessons to teach us, and that what it teaches and how it teaches is radically unpredictable, and is nearly ubiquitous if we invite it — is conducive to epiphanic transfiguration. I was lucky enough to have escaped traumatic religious experiences as a child, so I find God to be a fine, historically-grounding expression of this infinite possibility, but because of its very infinitude, myriad redescriptions of the condition of situatedness-within-infinity are possible, including atheistic ones.

      What fascinates me most (and it is this fascination that makes it possible for me to tolerate the workworld) are the obstructions to awareness of infinitude, and how these obstructions are experienced. I am convinced we are culturally trained to misread the waters — and that we are teaching young people to respond to their misreadings in ways that make second readings and deeper readings extremely unlikely.

    2. I updated the post to add fruitfulness. It feels more complete, now, and the addition probably makes transcendence more compelling and relevant to many more types of people. Thanks.

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