The Crisis in the 21st Century – I.IV. Belief (Part II)
Part II, The Argument for the Transcendent
Atheists, and particularly the New Atheists (who think they have better arguments than the Old Atheists, but instead have no real conception as to what is being argued about), try persistently to claim that they have a monopoly on reason, and that those who believe in something higher than themselves do not actually examine life. Amusingly, a quote frequently, figuratively, pinned upon the lapels of these skeptical, materialist hardliners, is the oft-misused line from Plato’s Apology, in which Socrates is defending himself while on trial, that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The great irony in this is that either the people who abuse this quote are incapable of understanding much of anything or that they have never examined the context in which this quote is placed. After having defended himself against the charge of atheism, Socrates says, “If on the other hand I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living, you will be even less inclined to believe me.”1 What Socrates himself believed about reality is irrelevant at this juncture; what is relevant is that the examinations of which he spoke are those of things transcendental in nature, because it is in such that life truly consists.
What is transcendence? Perhaps the simplest way to comprehend what constitutes a thing’s transcendence is to consider a few very common examples; namely, those three things that are frequently called the transcendentals: the true, the good, and the beautiful (which will not be discussed in-depth).
That the nature of truth has been questioned for millennia is no big secret; it happened long before Pontius Pilate and continues to happen long after his death. Various definitions of truth have cropped up from time to time, only to be found inadequate or rejected by later generations, to be subject to revisions or repudiations. To the evidence-and-facts eye of the atheist, this would seem like an endless running in circles, a fruitless endeavor of mere talk which never produces any results or improvement, as a pursuit of a vague and imaginary immaterial concept which has not and which cannot be held. Thus the “true” has been reduced to the factual—as that which can be shown to happen in the proper conditions with a one-hundred-percent rate of success in past observation and thus a high statistical likelihood to happen again in the future. The word “truth” comes to be a signifier for nothing other than “that which the individual accepts because it has been empirically demonstrated to him.” An objective quality has all but disappeared from that which the word signifies. Much the same has been done to the good and the beautiful; for what is good is what is “good for you” and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
A systematic theoretical defense of each of the three transcendentals could not be written without many tens of thousands of words; and so a simpler, experiential defense is prudent. Indeed, it is not difficult to see that the transcendent is around man, and inescapably accepted by all, the time, in two general categories. The word transcendent, of course, primarily connotes the “beyondness” of something as that which is not within or limited to this world, to the material—or, to borrow Kantian terminology—the immanent. However, there is something transcendent, or at least like transcendence, throughout the immanent, material world: activity. Every action—by which is meant a wider category than merely those things that undergo movement—is unique, and yet subject to classification, to being identified and articulated in words and thus made evident as distinct from some other similar action. For example, let a particular motion be examined: soaring. It is said that an eagle soars, a falcon soars; but also that a spirit soars, or that a guitar solo soars. Does a spirit literally soar in the same way that an eagle does? Are guitars and falcons really the same? Obviously not (anyone who wants to debate the materialist similarity in the fact that they are both composed of quarks should take a long walk off a short pier; the air man breathes and the water he drinks are both made of quarks, too, so go try to breathe some water). Why then should one word be used for two very different things? An eagle literally goes up, in the three-dimensional sense of space, but a guitar solo does not. Yet in a way, the guitar solo does go up, not merely in pitch, but towards some end of elevation on the part of the listener; in fact, the soaring of the spirit is the end of the soaring of the guitar solo; and in a sense, so is the soaring of the eagle. Certainly there is a technical definition given to the sort of flying described as “soaring,” but language is always more principally driven by connotation than denotation, which is precisely why it can be said that a man’s spirit soars with equal accuracy as saying that a falcon soars: in whatever non-scientific context it is used, the word is linked to an idea of majesty, of greatness, grandeur, which is why it is generally not said that beetles soar, except in satire or extraordinary circumstances.
What this unity of relation between material things proves is not any real transcendence, however, for the actual conditions of their being in this way are yet in the world and material, and that which makes similar the two things can be dismissed, insularly, by mere coincidence of the association of action with human emotion as a neurological, psychological response to otherwise unrelated stimuli. However, that by which the “stimuli” are unified—in this case, the majesty that accompanies things said to be soaring—does indicate some transcendental universal characteristic; for while majesty is predicated only in the case that there is some perceiver to be positively impressed and somewhat awed by that which is majestic, the awe necessitates a recognition of some objective quality in the action itself for which the material being of the thing cannot itself account. What is this thing? Goodness. This goodness, however, could be difficult to see in the soaring of an eagle.
Something much more easily seen is the goodness in love. What is love? Thinking of love as a state, as some static condition in which individuals exist in time, is a sincere mistake. Love is, instead, the active sharing of self with another for the fulfillment of mutual good, in each appropriating the good of the other as his own. Subconsciously, this is acknowledged by all of those who have loving feelings toward another person, which is why those interested in love, and not its perversion in lust, will genuinely seek to get to know the other, to be with her, to enjoy her company, and, when the situation calls for it, not pursue physical intimacy or even deeper emotional, intellectual, or spiritual intimacy. Not being consciously aware of this, when other ideas about what constitutes love’s reality enter a person’s head, he is likely to mistake the true nature of love and thus consciously act contrary to the good subconsciously realized. But the good is subconsciously realized, as an end—not the termination, the finality, the reached limitation of something, but the persistent act of love-ing, the dynamic yet unchanging essential sharing of self with another for the fulfillment of mutual good, in each appropriating the good of the other as his own. Thus, acts of love as individual movements with their end individual end, stand as acts “of love” by participation in this higher sharing of self that is love-ing; the individual acts are the tangible manifestations of that which exists transcendentally, the end, the “for-the-sake-of.”
Every human activity aims at the achievement of some end; every end is taken, consciously or not, as something good, as fitting, as right, appropriate, correct. Thus every human action operates on the presupposition that there is a goodness to be had. Likewise, every human activity operates on the presupposition that some things are true, i.e., that they actually are in some definite, particular manner. Without such presupposition, the hand would not “know” to move for the light switch in a familiar room; unless the truth of the existence of the light switch were “acknowledged” in the subconscious of the person, the person would not act towards it, for he would not “acknowledge” it being there at all; and what is not acknowledged, to some degree, cannot be the recipient of action. Even actions which are unintentional follow along with this, for the scratching of one’s nose acknowledges both the implement of scratching, presumably the hand with attached finger and fingernail, and the object to be scratched, the nose, as true, as being there. It is from this subconscious belief that the conscious articulation is possible: initial recognition of the truth of the existence of one’s own nose allows one to say “That my nose exists is true.”
But while it is true that the nose exists, and the total act of real love is good, the true does not exist in the nose and the good does not exist in love; for while each is in each, it is in others, too. It is true that the finger exists, and that two objects added to two other objects and counted together equals four objects counted; eating is good, and so is the content of Aristotle’s Ethics even if not read. In fact, everything, insofar as it is, is true; and insofar as it is the way it ought to be, is good (a gun can be used to murder someone, or it can be used simply to shoot a target—which is a lot of fun, and therefore good, in that respect). Thus the true and the good are in everything, but are none of them; they can only, logically speaking, be in that which is all of them.
Part III, Conscious Belief will be posted in the coming days.
1 Plato. The Last Days of Socrates (New York: Penguin Books, 1993) 63, [38a].