© Ruth Bancewicz

I am becoming more and more convinced that the vast majority of scientists value what one could call transcendent realities. I’m not talking about ‘religion’, which for some has negative connotations*. By ‘transcendent’ I mean experiences and ideals that are consonant with but go beyond scientific evidence: that feeling of pure joy when you find yourself discovering something for the first time; delight in the beauty of nature or scientific data; the standards we set for ourselves; or the importance we place on certain relationships.

I think nearly everything that’s fun in life has the potential to get a scientist talking like a mystic. For example, a cell biologist wins a new grant to study a tiny protein involved in signalling pathways, and she starts speaking about getting closer to the truth. A neurologist studying a particular sensory experience understands the neural mechanism but not how the individual perceives it, and he becomes interested in the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Or a developmental biologist is expecting her first child, and suddenly embryology takes on a whole new meaning.

The theologian and former biochemist Alister McGrath has written about transcendence and human perception his book The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology. The sorts of experiences that might be labelled as ‘transcendent’ include a sense of ‘the numinous’: a significant feeling of being part of something ‘wholly other’. There’s also the transient, almost mystical sense that one has grasped a deep truth about the unity of reality. Perhaps more common is the moment of ‘epiphany’, the unexpected and fleeting glimpses of clarity that so fascinated James Joyce.

Our search for meaning and moral guidance, as well as our aesthetic enjoyment of the world, draws on what might be termed ‘transcendent ideals’. The novelist and moral philosopher Iris Murdoch spent much of her career defending the reality of the transcendent ideal that we strive to meet in our search for ‘The Good Life’. Roy Bhaskar, who developed the concept of ‘critical realism’ that is so central to modern philosophy of science, was convinced that the aim of science is to discover an objectively knowable reality. Even John Dewey, one of the founders of pragmatist philosophy, thought that a transcendent ideal emerged through our interaction with nature.

In spite of everything, we keep on talking about God.

Alister McGrath, The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology, p23

But, as McGrath points out, epiphany doesn’t necessarily equal theophany. Murdoch did not believe in God, and neither does Bhaskar. Looking at nature, you will most likely end up with a set of values or experiences that depend on the personal schema that guides your thoughts. If there’s an objective reality out there, the only way to discover it is by investigating the claims of different belief systems to see what matches reality in the most satisfying way**.

I think that the majority of scientists do have transcendent ideal and experiences, and a sizeable proportion would self-identify as belonging to a faith tradition. But I’m interested to find out, is my evaluation too sweeping a generalisation? What’s your experience?

*It does for me at times too. The word ‘religion’ has a number of uses, and is often used to refer to sets of rituals or other external factors that may or may not have anything to do with a real experience of God.
**Realistic for me means looking at what actually happens in life, and not being gripped by cultural dogma, eg. The ‘natural-supernatural’ divide accepted by many or most in the West.

5 thoughts on “Transcendence

  1. Joseph Jimmy Hardcastle May 14, 2012 / 4:28 pm

    In my personal experience the transcendent experience is provoked by things like a sudden grasp of scale, a sudden insight or a moment of unity with others. I believe it’s a common and, though often claimed by the religious as part of their “personal experience” of their chosen god, quite natural feeling. This experience certainly cannot be claimed solely by the religious, though they may wish it to be so.

    As an aside, nice to see someone else who’s noticed the nonsense of the natural/supernatural divide. In my opinion the dichotomy is more natural/impotent, as anything that can affect this world falls neatly into the natural.


    • Ruth Bancewicz May 15, 2012 / 2:48 pm

      i agree to your first point – epiphany does not necessarily equal theophany. But its in the realm of value that I think transcendence kicks in. Where do we get those from, why do we decide something is of value long after an evolutionary psychologist has presented us with a mechanism – why do we value the experience? I think that’s because mechanism doesn’t determine meaning – meaning comes from somewhere else, and so far I’ve found that a lot of people, religious or otherwise agree. It’s something we have in common, but we would explain it in different ways – it’s up to people to decide which explanation makes the most sense!


  2. zoinch May 17, 2012 / 3:15 am

    We are naturally wired for transcendence, so to explain the phenomenon solely with theistic or supernatural interpretations is a mistake. As Jonathan Haidt suggests in his TED talk, self-transcendence likely evolved because of its survival value. When we forget the self, we become more concerned for others and thus, the group is better able to survive. (So says group selection theory.) So why avoid transcendence just because you may have a distaste for religion? It’s our birthright, embodied within us! We all know what it’s like because we experience it as small children, before our egos formed.

    I am a scientist and an atheist, but I am also one of those so-called “spiritual atheists.” I practice Zen Buddhism, a non-theistic practice that is a quest for transcendence, that is, Zen is a practice or “way” of forgetting the self. As Dogen said, “to study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe.” Enlightenment is nothing but this, right here and now, unencumbered by the filter of our ego. So I am quite happy with a naturalistic transcendence; in fact, it is the only transcendence worth having. After years of practice, everything starts to take on a transcendent glow. “Water in a pail, rice in a bowl, how do you like these common miracles?”


    • Ruth Bancewicz May 17, 2012 / 4:53 pm

      Thanks for your comment, I’ll need to watch that talk. I agree that there will be some scientific explanation for why we have these transcendent moments, or transcendent values, but I don’t think that rules out God – I think I’ve experienced him…


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