In Search of the Transcendental
As a teenager I read Desmond Morris’s Naked Ape and was amused by the zoologist’s study of man as an animal species. It was only much later as an adult that the grim truth of this analogy became apparent to me. I was once struck by the thought of how mankind might appear to an observing alien consciousness. And once I saw man as the herd animal that he surely is, I was never able to erase the horror of this image from my mind.
It was one of those thoughts that you wish you never had, but once it has broken through the threshold of consciousness there is no going back.
What is your most dangerous idea?
A couple of years ago I read a book titled ‘What is your most dangerous idea?‘ put out by The Edge an organization dedicated to asking each year a single question to a cross section of the world’s leading intellectuals, with particular emphasis on the scientific community. I would recommend it as an excellent read for those seeking to temper an innocent or over zealous, enthusiasm for the wonder of life. Actually their annual question which usually appears as a published anthology is always a good read.
Some of the themes, I found arresting, were the limitations of scientific investigative theory and research to penetrate the veil of the unknown. So for those of a secular and rational disposition there appears to be a real limitation to what can ultimately be known by science in terms of understanding the fundamental mystery of existence. Although none say it explicitly, I surmise that, much as millenniums of philosophy and religion have failed to either transform man’s intrinsic nature or appease his thirst for existential understanding, science too will fail in its appointed role as moderns man’s Messiah.
The effect of science on the soul of man
More than this though what is apparent is the way in which science will, in the future, shatter much of what mankind hold sacred, much of what man believes about himself in as much as he sees himself differentiated and holding a unique position in existence. Concepts such as an inviolate, individual human soul, the uniqueness of man as a species, the integrity of the individual self and free will are a few of the vestments, of the dignity of man, which are sure to be left irreparably tattered by the advent of modern scientific investigation. What Copernicus and Darwin started, a thousand bright, young minds will finish; the complete reduction and obliteration of the dignity of man. At least as that dignity has been defined and understood by theologians and philosophers over the last two and a half millennium.
The anthro-centric view of man’s role in the universe is being torn to shreds by the advent of science. Now this won’t come as news to modern man, in fact those of a secular disposition welcome the sweeping away of the cobwebs of superstition and the tyranny of God under which, for too long a time, man labored. However I suspect most welcome it because it has not yet become apparent how far down the rabbit hole this path will take us. Pandora’s Box has not yet fully displayed the full force of her destructive power.
Where do we find the Godhead?
So in the midst of this all this I ask a simple question, wherein do we find the transcendental? What is it about being alive that makes the journey worthwhile? As a young person growing up and into adulthood this question is not felt, or if it is, it is easily dismissed as fanciful. For the first half of life, as has been correctly described by Jung, is about the fulfillment of the instinctive drive. And it must be admitted that this in itself has moments of transcendent beauty and joy. However I cannot help but ask is there no greater purpose, no greater meaning to the human condition than the perpetuation of the species?
This is the question which plagued my soul as far back as I can remember. Where can we find this transcendental moment, the divine ecstasy, the sublime beauty that allows us to endure and to strive and to find meaning in being a human being?
I think this question is central to man’s existential conundrum, far more important than most people recognize. What purpose does progress serve if not the upliftment of man?
Whilst the continuous reductionism of science may serve its own ends, does it necessarily serve man? Depending on the science in question, that is assuming it is ‘good’ science, looking at it from the point of view of materialism the answer is probably yes. Certainly living in the twentieth century we are all the beneficiaries of the technological and digital revolution. Whilst we might agree that this revolution has not come without its own price, on the whole, from a secular point of view, I wouldn’t choose to change places with anyone from an earlier time.
Having conceded that point, I do not believe that secular progress alone can, or should be, be the goal. Let me use an example which, in a sense, is counter my argument. Were science to inadvertently create a technology, as is often portrayed in science fiction, which gives rise to the next evolutionary ‘life’ form, but at the expense of man, this would surely not be considered a success by man and science?
What is the goal?
The point being simply that we should not loose sight of the goal of evolutionary progress. The goal, I would like to believe, being the benefit of future generations of man, not simply progress or evolution for its own sake. We have come so far down this road already that many would dispute that the goal is actually about the upliftment of man anymore. The drive for truth has no doubt acquired its own momentum and seeks the realization of its own agenda.
Nevertheless working off the premise that we seek progress which creates a greater quality of life for ourselves and our offspring, we have marginalized the spirit of man at our own detriment. The man who realized this, more than any other, in twentieth century and who championed the cause of man’s soul was Carl Gustav Jung.
Finding meaning and purpose to our existence is not something whimsical as many of a modern materialistic orientation would suggest. It is the central tenant of our existence.Many scientists are fond of criticizing philosophy as a useless pursuit. I would argue the opposite; it is philosophers who are attempting to answer the most important questions, rather than the scientific materialists who are mechanically realizing the deterministic path of evolution.
I do not believe that mans existence should be viewed purely as a functional challenge; it is to quote agent Smith purpose that lies at the centre our lives.
That is an archetypal, incontestable truth of what is to be a human being. It is as much a part of instinctive and genetic makeup as eating, breathing and sleeping. It is possibly what some may define as God. Unfortunately I contend that although God is conceptually sound, the term itself has become a metaphor for an institutional and dogmatic agenda and in this has largely lost its inherent numinousaty.
Where do those who do not find the transcendental in conventional religious practice look?
Firstly, I would contend that this is, at this point in our evolution, the majority of humanity.
The fact that so many have turned their back of God and that a rational, reductionistic science has become the modern religion has in no manner or form freed man from the spiritual necessity to connect with the transcendent.
God or at least the pursuit of God, in as much as this word denotes the expression of an Ultimate Good and/or Meaning for man, is an observable, empirical axiom of psychic and cultural life. Each in his own way pays homage to and builds his life around the glorification and realization of his own god, in as much as he has projected God onto a particular area of existence.
This projection takes many varied forms in different cultures, times and between different individuals. We see this explicitly in conventional religious practice; the worship of an anthropomorphic deity or deities or the deification of nature or a specific manifestation of that nature e.g. the common practice of sun worship, or more recently the deification of the planet, of Gaia and the green movement. More subtly, but no less real, in the deification of wealth, power and prestige, immortality in what ever form, knowledge, truth, achievement, political, social and secular values, science, hedonism, idealism and so on, the list being virtually endless.
Then worth mentioning separately is the idealization of love, family values, friendship and altruism towards one’s loved ones. And then self sacrifice, love, altruism, the value of hard work and other idealized practices in a general sense.
All of the aforementioned being deification. Pursuit of and projection of the inborn, instinctive and archetypal realization of the transcendental principal. Man does not live by bread alone.
God is actaully more ubiquitous than you might think
So we observe that even the most secularly minded individual is motivated by the underlying belief that their actions will lead to an ultimate realization of some form or another, either for themselves and/or for others. Either consciously or unconsciously they are subscribing to a platonic value, which they use as a psychic beacon.
I think we can reasonably say that this transcendent or platonic value lies at the heart of all hope and all action that is based on the creation of a defined future.
Science seeks to increase man’s dominion over the phenomenal universe, religion seeks union with the Godhead, philosophy the discovery of ultimate truth, meaning and value, the secular minded the optimum realization of man’ earthly and material existence, art the expression of the human spirit in artistic form and so on.
With what aim are we as humans motivated to subscribe to such a value or icon? Is it happiness we pursue, beauty, truth, meaning, goodness, power or lust?
Whilst I cannot answer the question with any sense of certainty it seems to me to an important one and a question which we should each ask ourselves. Where do I find God and what is the nature of this God?