Forrest Cameranesi: Geek of all Trades

Against Transcendentalism


I am against something that I will call "transcendentalism" for lack of a better term. "Transcendent" in general means "going beyond", and the word has many different senses in philosophy and other fields, but the sense that I'm using here is as the antonym for "phenomenal" or "experiential", so this sense of "transcendent" means "beyond experience" or "beyond appearances".

Half of the kind of transcendentalism that I am against is what Immanuel Kant called "transcendental realism", which he also opposed, in contrast to what he called "empirical realism"; where "empirical", while etymologically meaning "experiential" in general, today usually means more to do with the experience of something seeming true or false, as via sight, sound, etc. But I am also opposed to what we might call "transcendental moralism", in contrast to what I would call "hedonic moralism", where "hedonic" means relating to pleasure and pain, enjoyment and suffering, the experience of something seeming good or bad.

In short, I am opposed to views of reality that hold it to be something transcending empirical observation (seeing, hearing, touching, etc), and views of morality that hold it to be something transcending hedonic flourishing (feeling pleasure or enjoyment, and not pain or suffering).

Pragmatic Justification

I oppose transcendentalism, thus understood, as a direct consequence of my position against dogmatism. While dogmatism is only a methodology, a process by which to accept or reject opinions, and does not in itself mean any set of such opinions, there are some kinds opinions that cannot possibly be justified except by dogmatic methods, so the rejection of dogmatism demands the rejection of such opinions. Transcendentalist opinions, as I mean the word, are precisely those that would demand appeals to faith to support them, because they make claims about things that nobody could ever check, those things being beyond all experience.

In the remainder of this essay I will argue that a variety of other philosophical views are effectively tantamount to transcendentalism of one sort or another. First, I will argue that supernaturalism is straightforwardly tantamount to transcendentalism about reality, and then that a prescriptive analogue to it that I term "supernurturalism" is likewise tantamount to transcendentalism about morality. Then I will argue that two different kinds of materialism, one of them a descriptive sense of the word and the other a prescriptive one, are each also more subtly tantamount to transcendentalism about either reality or morality, respectively.

Against Supernaturalism and Supernurturalism

The most archetypical kind of transcendentalist opinion is belief in the supernatural. "Natural" in the relevant sense here is roughly equivalent to "empirical": the natural world is the world that we can observe with our senses, directly or indirectly. That "indirectly" part is important for establishing the transcendence of the supernatural. We cannot, for example, see wind directly, but we can see that leaves move in response to the wind, and so find reason to suppose that wind exists, to cause that effect.

Much about the natural world posited by modern science has been discovered through increasingly sophisticated indirect observation of that sort. We cannot directly see, or hear, or touch, or otherwise observe, many subtle facets of the world that are posited by science today, but we can see the effects they have on other things that we can directly observe, including special instruments built for that purpose, and so we can indirectly observe those things.

Anything that has any effect on the observable world is consequently indirectly observable through that very effect, and is therefore itself to be reckoned as much a part of the natural world as anything else that we can indirectly observe. For something to be truly supernatural, then, it would have to have no observable effect at all on any observable thing.

Consequently, we would have no way to tell whether that supernatural thing actually existed, as the world that we experience would seem exactly the same one way or the other, so there could be no reason to suppose its existence, no test that could be done to suggest any answer to the question of its existence. And so if we held a belief in it anyway, we would have to do so only on faith; and if we reject appeals to faith, we consequently have to reject claims of the supernatural.

But in claiming that reality does not transcend empiricism, I am not supporting anything like solipsism, the position that only oneself exists and that everything else that seems to exist is just a figment of the imagination; or any form of subjectivism or relativism about reality. I am definitely a strong believer in the existence of a universal reality independent of anybody's mind. I am only rejecting any claims that there is anything about that reality that is fundamentally unobservable by anyone ever.

And I am not even, per se, rejecting the existence of supposed paranormal phenomena like ghosts haunting houses or the existence of angelic or demonic beings. Paranormal is not supernatural, but simply unusual and insufficiently explained. Things like that might well be real, at least so far as this rejection of transcendentalism goes, but if they are real things, their reality is dependent upon something about them being observable; if they are held to be real regardless of whether they produce any observable effect on the world, only then do I consider them transcendent, and reject them.

For the moral equivalent of supernaturalism I lack a clear common name, but we might term it "supernurturalism", as Latin-derived "nurture" bears the same relation to the Greek-derived "ethics" (both concerning cultivated qualities and material wellbeing) as Latin-derived "nature" bears to the Greek-derived "physics" (both concerning inborn qualities and material substances). This supernurturalism is to claim that something is good or bad regardless of how it makes anybody feel, hedonistically; regardless of the pleasure or pain that it causes.

It is, loosely speaking, the supposition that there is such a thing as a victimless moral crime: something that hurts nobody, but is nevertheless morally wrong. I hold hedonic feelings to be the moral equivalent of empirical senses, in that both of them are about having an experience of something seeming some way, one (empiricism) about it seeming true or false, and one (hedonism) about it seeming good or bad. You can empirically tell when it's true that there is a fire nearby because you can look around you and that just looks true. Similarly, you can hedonistically tell that getting burned is bad because when you touch that fire and it burns you it just feels bad.

It is of course possible that individual experiences like these might not tell the whole story: something that at first looks true might be false, something that at first feels good might be bad, and so on. But we add caveats and qualifications to the opinions we form by accounting for further experiences.

For example, something may look like a fire from one perspective but not from another, if it turns out to be some kind of illusion; but it's by accounting more thoroughly for how things look in other contexts that we find that out. Likewise, getting burned may feel bad in the moment but might circumvent even greater pain later, if for example the burn is medically necessary to cauterize a wound; and it is likewise by accounting more thoroughly for how things feel in other contexts that we find out about that.

Our concepts of what it means for things to be true or be good are grounded in these experiences of things seeming true or seeming good, merely accounting for all such experiences of things seeming some way; so for something to be called "good" or "bad" even though it doesn't hedonistically seem that way (to anyone, ever) is as indefensible without appeals to faith as supernaturalist claims that something is "true" or "false" even though it being that way would have never have any impact on how the world seemed to anyone.

But in claiming that morality does not transcend hedonism, I am not supporting egotism, or any form of subjectivism or relativism about morality. I am not saying that all that morally matters is what makes you feel good. I am very much in favor of altruism, inasmuch as that means that everybody is of moral importance, not just one's own self, and consequently of the possibility of universal, unbiased moral evaluations.

I am only saying that the criterion for making such evaluations, the thing that you should care about for other people, like for yourself, is that they feel good and not bad, that they experience pleasure and not pain, enjoyment and not suffering; rather than, say, that they be made "spiritually pure" or some such, in some way that disregards whether they actually enjoy that or not.

I am also not rejecting "living a spiritual life", in the sense of things like meditative or ritualistic practices. Those very well might be good things, so far as this rejection of transcendentalism goes, but if they are good things, their goodness is dependent upon them making people feel good somehow; if they are held to be good regardless of whether they make anyone feel good, only then do I consider them transcendent, and reject them.

Against Materialism

This rejection of transcendentalism is much subtler than just a blanket rejection of supernatualism and its moral equivalent, though. In a vernacular sense of the word, the total rejection of the supernatural might be called "materialism", but that term in a more technical sense as used within philosophy (by many thinkers, for thousands of years, spanning at least from Aristotle to John Locke) actually signifies a kind of transcendentalism, in the sense I'm using here, and so I reject such materialism as much as I reject supernaturalism.

That kind of materialism that I reject as transcendentalist is the kind that posits that there exists something more to the physical, observable things in the world than their observable properties, some kind of material substance in which those properties inhere, rather than the thing being just a bundle of those properties themselves. I reject the concept of material substances as transcendentalist because, as proponents of such bundle theories like David Hume elaborate, it is impossible to conceive of such a material substance itself, stripped of all of its observable properties: when we conceive of a thing, when we imagine it, we are picturing the properties that it has.

If not directly observable properties of the thing itself, then at least we picture the properties of the things we can directly observe, as they change in response to the thing; such as if we imagine what wind "looks" like, for even though we cannot see the wind itself, we can imagine things like leaves on trees moving in response to wind. If we were to try to imagine a substance supposedly underlying all the observable properties of that wind, yet without it causing leaves to visibly move, without causing a sound we can hear, or a feeling against our skin, or any other other observable property to change, then we could not really be said to be imagining anything at all. To posit that there is, nevertheless, such a thing as an unobservable substance, underlying all observable things, would be to make a claim that could only be taken on faith.

But in rejecting the existence of material substances, I am not at all rejecting physicalism, which is different from materialism in that sense. I am completely behind the claim that all of reality is reducible to physical things, the kinds of things that we can study with science. I am only opposed to any philosophical notion that there is some aspect of those things that goes beyond what can be empirically observed about them.

There is yet another sense of the word "materialism" that is roughly the moral analogue of the above sense of the word, which I am also opposed to as a kind of transcendentalism. Just as the above sense of the word colloquially describes a world with nothing supernatural, but more technically means something more than that, that I reject right along with the supernatural, so too this other sense is colloquially about valuing things other than the "spiritual", in a sense of that word that means roughly what I called "supernurturalism" above, yet I also reject it for the same reason as I reject that.

This kind of materialism is about considering things like wealth, survival, and reproduction as the things of ultimate value, the highest of goods, irrespective of the pleasure or pain brought about in the pursuit of them. I hold that all of those kinds of "material" things are of only instrumental value inasmuch as they bring pleasure and alleviate pain. If wealth, or survival, or reproduction, or any other material goods, were not going to bring pleasure or alleviate pain (for anyone, ever), then I ask in what sense could they be said to be "good"? To claim that they just are good, intrinsically, regardless of whether or not they seem good to anyone, is once again to make a claim that cannot be supported except by appeal to faith, and so is the kind of claim that must be rejected alongside dogmatism.

It's important to note here that I am not saying that these "material" things actually are not generally good things. I am very much an advocate for living a grounded, pragmatic life, striving hard to achieve plentiful access to things like food and medicine, clothing and shelter, transportation, labor-saving devices, communication and information technology, and so on; and of course for people surviving to enjoy all those things, and for there continuing to be future generations of people surviving to enjoy these things.

But I advocate that those things be pursued as means to the end of enjoying them, for their ability to alleviate suffering and to bring pleasure. If other means of enjoying life, in equal or greater measure, are available without pursuing those things, or if the pursuit of them would somehow lead to more suffering than enjoyment, then I say do whatever will bring about the greatest enjoyment, even if you nominally lose out on those normally-enjoyable material goods in the process.

Not Against All Objectivism

Objectivism vs Subjectivism

In rejecting transcendentalism, all I am saying is that there is nothing that is utterly beyond experience, in the sense of it being possible for someone to experience it, somewhere, some time, some how. But I am not rejecting any particular claims about what is real or what is moral here; only giving a criterion by which to judge whether or not to reject any particular claim.

And I am very much not saying that there is nothing but particular people's particular experiences. I am absolutely not saying that all of reality and morality are just in the minds of people; that would be to fall toward relativism, which I am also against, as elaborated in my earlier essay against relativism. I am only saying that all of reality and morality, in any sense that we could possibly understand those concepts, are fundamentally of a nature comprehensible to the mind, even if no particular person ever manages to fully comprehend them in their entirety.

Continue to the next essay, On Language and the Meaning of Words.