by Lawrence Rifkin MD
A rush of powerful, transforming emotion. A bolt of altered perspective. A love that overwhelms. An unmediated encounter with pure beauty. A profound realization of significance—or insignificance. When a humanist has a “wow” experience, by what name should we call it? Transcendence?
Transcendence is a word that makes many who embrace humanism and naturalism recoil. And for understandable reason, with its connotations to both supernaturalism and mumbo-jumbo. Can transcendence be expressed and understood in a way that is humanistic, rather than supernatural?
The answer is yes. For humanism to not explicitly embrace such experiences risks limiting humanism’s appeal and reducing its potential for personal meaning. If a culture does not provide explicit links between such profound experiences and a naturalistic interpretation, these powerful and possibly transformational experiences can easily be misinterpreted, by default, as being part of a provincial religious story.
The rush of naturalistic transcendence is available in several ways: when we glimpse universals, when we treasure particulars, and when we expand our consciousness. All these types of experiences can be both transcendent and fully understood as naturalistic phenomena in a naturalistic world.
One common understanding of transcendence is an encounter with a world beyond ourselves, beyond full comprehension. But why must this be interpreted as supernatural? A naturalistic world offers an abundance of experiences and understandings beyond our individual lives. There is deep time, extending unfathomably into the past and unfathomably into the future, with our entire lives constituting but a blip. There is deep space, with hundreds of billions of galaxies separated by incomprehensibly vast distances, in which Earth is but a speck. There are concepts of energy, mathematics, human history, and evolution. There is joy in the idea that consciousness even exists. There is the experience of love. Neither a deity nor a complete loss of individuality to a greater power is necessary to experience the grandeur of these great mysteries. There’s an awful lot that is bigger than any of us.
And when we get it, really get it, when intellect and emotions come rushing together, transcendence seems a powerful word for that experience. After he survived a heart attack, Abraham Maslow felt as if “everything gets doubly precious, gets piercingly important. You get stabbed by things, by flowers and by babies and by beautiful things…every single moment of every single day is transformed.” Charles Darwin, in a letter to his wife Emma in 1858, described the following experience: “I fell asleep on the grass, and awoke with a chorus of birds singing around me…and it was as pleasant and rural a scene as I ever saw, and I did not care one penny how any of the beasts and birds had been formed.”
Transcendence—experience beyond the ordinary—is perhaps most powerfully felt not in our encounter with universals, but when we are overcome by particulars, experiences that are supremely individual. For some, it is triggered by new romance, an exercise high, the culminating moment of a particular song, knowing in the core of your being that you are doing something good, sudden acceptance of profound insight, or sex. It’s a very personal thing. Every once in a while, out of the blue, I’ll look at my children doing something commonplace—playing sports, sleeping, or just laughing—and I’ll feel it. The wow of being a parent. The rush of life’s transience and joys. The sense of meaning. It’s the highest of highs tinged with sadness all at once. It’s intensely personal—these are my children, my life. Supernatural explanations at such times are as unnecessary as they are factually inaccurate.
Then there are transcendent experiences of consciousness that are not “about” anything in particular. These take many forms, from contemplative awareness, to hallucinogenic consciousness expansion, to self-actualized acceptance of self and world. Regarding the possibilities of meditation, Sam Harris notes a feeling of being utterly at ease in the world, a state which fully transcends the apparent boundaries of the self. “There are states of consciousness,” Harris writes, “for which phrases like ‘boundless love and compassion’ do not seem overblown.” Regarding his experience with psychedelic drugs Harris writes “It is one thing to be awestruck by the sight of a giant redwood and to be amazed at the details of its history and underlying biology. It is quite another to spend an apparent eternity in egoless communion with it.”
Humanists need not de-emphasize all these types of powerfully real human experiences. The important thing for those having the experience is to not discount reason, and not misinterpret the experience as part of some supernatural tale. Those who seek transcendent experiences and understandings need not seek religious or new-age groups as their only option. Numinous is not synonymous with miraculous.
Transcendence properly understood—a naturalistic transcendence—embraces the non-rational, not the irrational. For the good of individuals and society, irrationality must be confronted and kept out of public policy. Non-rational transcendent emotions, on the other hand, are harmonious with reason, evidence, and naturalism. They can be cherished as supreme human experiences.
(“Transcendence Without The Bull,” appeared in The New Humanism, Sept. 2011. Reprinted with the author’s permission.)
5 thoughts on “Transcendence Without The Bull”
Man is such an exquisite blend of reason and feeling that it’s folly to try to completely separate one from the other “ One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the Sages can”
Deism postulates something conceivable: that God existed and then died, or is no longer active. (Perhaps He retired to another cosmos.)
There are theories of parallel universes; and that we are living in a ‘sim’—or more than one sim.
God might be the software designer of our sim. Or God is the hardware and the sim designs automatically: the Genesis of Artificial intelligence.
The Sun will eventually expand and destroy the Earth, which might be the Earth’s sim’s expiration date. However, perhaps advanced beings could alter or replace such a sim. Maybe it was programmed into the sim that advanced beings would do so.
Being a SF writer must be more fun than a barrel of monkeys.
Really wish to add something, getting to the heart of it.
@Mr Kodagoda’s quote re the vernal wood:
one could look all over the world for spirituality, or merely out into one’s backyard to see the spiritualism of the vernal wood.
However, the ‘modern’ world doesn’t want us to spend much time enjoying the vernal wood; the modern world doesn’t appreciate any sort of navel-gazing.
There’s no time to be Good in the modern world, one is expected to bring home the Bacon—and some slaughter is involved in doing so. Slaughter appears to mean far more to the world than vernal wood does.
This really resonates with me. Throughout my studies (CS, math, biology) I’ve sometimes had moments where I realize how incredibly cool this world is. Recently while studying genetics I realized that the very processes I was learning about were responsible for the 13 billion cells created in my body that hour. Or, in computer science, how incredible it is that (through incredibly complicated hardware and software) I knew the capital of the Republic of the Congo within 5 seconds of thinking “what IS the capital”?
I think that being “deeply aware” is transcendental in a sense – going from the material act of “using Google” to the idea “Google has taken dozens of work-millennia”. A lot of our inventions are almost “superhuman” – if you gave a guy 80 years and all the raw materials he needed, he couldn’t recreate the Internet or a computer. I almost consider the “human knowledge base” superhuman itself. Humans made it, but a hundred people reading 24/7 couldn’t come close to keeping up with how fast it grows.
I love the story of the 3 blind men and the elephant. My spin on it is of a fractal, that being human knowledge itself. You can think of anything – say “genetics of bacteria” – and there’s hundreds of people who study that for their entire career, and dozens of subfields. You go around the fractal and there are hundreds of people studying the history of 13th-century Eastern Europe, beach sand, 18th-century French dance, etc. When I look up from using it to seeing it, I get a sense of connection to something greater – even if it’s not above humanity, it’s above any human.
thanks for the comments Nathan. I’ll forward them to Larry.