Transcendence and Emergence

We’ve talked about transcendence a lot, including especially here and here.  It is a top-down understanding of phenomena we observe, or consider through rational thought, that can’t be explained purely as matter in motion.  The utility of a chair; the beauty of a painting; the harmony of music, are all emergent properties of the movement of atoms in the chair material; of the paint pigments; of the air through which sound waves pass.

Transcendence is also the explanation for things which are not material but are undoubtedly real, such as virtue, hatred, loyalty, xenophobia.  Even such “things” as the orientation we all share to such ordering principles as truth, rationality, and morality.

Transcendence can be described as a “top-down” way of looking at reality because it presupposes a divine origin for both material and non-material things, and the nature of those things is explainable from somewhere outside the closed system of the universe – by the presence of the Divine.  Things like chairs have purpose, and that purpose was engrafted onto the chair materials by a sentient person, through processes of the person’s mind, and that mind consists of more than just the molecules of the body; indeed all of reality is subject to the eternal, ineffable Mind in which it all resides.  We don’t look at a painting and see pigment, we see the expression of mind, and we are enabled to do it by the presence of the great Mind which created all.  It is the same with beautiful music.  We don’t listen because we find the perturbations of air waves interesting.


But there is an opposing point of view for those same things.  It is Emergence.  We talked about it here.  Emergence is a bottom-up understanding of the phenomena we observe.  It is the idea that everything we observe was not created, but was spontaneously generated, ultimately from nothing.  And not the something-as-nothing masquerading as nothing, that we have discussed in many posts (for example: It’s Not “Nothing“), but true nothing:  the absolute absence of any material, force, or mind.

The utility of a chair is an emergent property of the chair materials; the beauty of a painting is an emergent property of the particular combination of atoms comprising the pigment.  Beautiful music is an emergent property of the instruments, which is in turn an emergent property of the materials from which they are made.  Emergence is also thought to explain non-material but certainly true things, like immorality, love, disloyalty, credulousness.  Even the orientation to the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Emergence can be understood as a “bottom-up” way of looking at reality because it presupposes like Carl Sagan that “the cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be.”  Anything that exists, exists because of natural processes, with no divine intervention.  The mind that creates a chair is merely an emergent property of a human organ, the brain, and that mind develops ideas that are of purely natural origin.  That brain was evolved, over vast periods of time, to desire beautiful things because doing so involves survival value for the individual and population.  Even thoughts and tastes evolve, such that the beautiful painting or music survives as against the ugly.  Survival advantage inheres in the beautiful in a way that it does not in the ugly.

Emergence is “bottom-up” because the mind is an emergent property of the brain, and the brain is the result of numberless replications of individuals within a population, with environmental challenges acting upon the variation within the population, such that some traits are extinguished and others survive to the next generation, in a mind-less, goal-less, unguided, purposeless, and meaningless system.  People are meat machines, and what they create is an emergent property of those machines.

Their Opposition

Whether there is some goal for ourselves and for other things (a telos) or not, we all look about us and try to make sense of the world and the cosmos in which we live.  That’s what science is about.  It is an attempt to make sense of the physical environment in which we find ourselves.  We count on things acting in a predictable way in response to natural laws of physics and of matter, and for purposes of doing science, put questions of God or of any divinity to one side.  We count on the universe making sense, and of not being God itself, so that we can study it objectively and rationally.

Some of what we observe and experience can’t be explained by science, however.  We can’t reason a way to how something came from nothing; about how we have sense of the divine within us (a sensus divinitatis).  We can’t explain revelation to us that clearly transcends the natural, such as with the resurrection of Christ (assuming we believe that to be a true event).

What is Reality

In the course of trying to understand what is around us, we either adopt an empiricist attitude toward everything, adopting the naturalist assumption of science to an assumption about all of reality, or we remain open to a divine existence; a supernatural, which transcends the natural.  If matter is all there is, then everything we observe or to which we reason must be explained by matter subject to laws of physics.  Therefore, everything which is not material is an emergent property of matter.

If, on the other hand, we believe that there is something more; something beyond; and that material things are in some way subject to a higher and more real reality, then the non-material things we observe or experience may be regarded as transcendent.

Religious Words

The choice for humans could not be more stark.  We need to understand the difference between transcendence and emergent properties.  And the next time we want to say that the fall leaves are “transcendent,” it might be good to stop and consider what “transcendent” really means.  If one is a materialist, the colors are merely emergent properties of matter:  of the trees and the countless iterations of trees in the evolution of life from simpler life and from non-life and ultimately from nothing.  They’re not “transcendent” at all, and the word, “transcendent,” ought not be in the vocabulary at all, except to explain the history of an archaic but ultimately meaningless religious word.

Same with words like “redemption,” “faith,” hope,” and even “love.”

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