I find the idea of the transcendental kind of obvious, irrefutable and essential to understanding how science works, how ethics works and how education works so I constantly find it odd and confusing that so many people seem to think that they can do without the idea. It is as if Kant never existed. Doesn’t anybody read Kant anymore?
At its simplest the idea is that, as well as causes of things that we can see and encounter in experience there are causes of things that we do not see or encounter in experience. Kant put this very simply and clearly in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) when he defined the transcendental as that which is a condition of experience rather than a content of experience. So, for example, he pointed out that we do not actually directly experience space and time but we need them in order to experience anything at all because to experience something implies to locate it within a system of space and time.
I would have thought that even the most basic and superficial acquaintance with modern physics would confirm the need to have a concept of the transcendental. As well as what we see there are underlying invisible structures that are necessary pre-conditions for what we see. Because we cannot see them directly we cannot easily investigate them but we can work them out indirectly by creatively dreaming up theories that would explain what we see and then testing to find out if the theories seem to work. To take a classic example: we see apples falling from trees and we creatively construct a theory of gravity to explain this. We cannot experience gravity directly but we can test to see if our theory works by using it to explain the motion of the planets, for example.
Kant was an 18th Century philosopher and not a natural scientist and, to simplify greatly, he tried to divide off the world of experience dealt with by science (the empirical) from the world of timeless underlying truths dealt with by philosophy (the transcendental). He thereby gave some circumscribed support (I am simplifying greatly) to the delusion proposed by Bacon, Locke and others that science was essentially ‘empirical’, or based on experience alone. Perhaps this could appear to make sense in the 18th Century, a time when taxonomies of stuff were seen as exemplary of scientific practice, but by the late 20th century it was increasingly obvious that science was about investigating the underlying structures that are the preconditions of experience. According to most interpretations of quantum theory the experience of space, time and matter require an observer that triggers the collapse of the underlying quantum ‘wave function’ (see any modern account and also Penrose, 1989). This change in focus from stuff to the underlying causal mechanisms of stuff is the simple and rather obvious point of Bhaskar’s Realist Theory of Science (1975, 2008) which advocated a transcendental realist theory of science (later unfortunately converted, under the influence of his many Marxist social science friends, into the much less conceptually clear notion of ‘Critical Realism’)
A simple switch in perspective from empiricism to transcendentalism makes a difference. If we just imagine, like naïve empiricists Locke or, our contemporary, Dawkins, that there is a real ‘physical’ world of objects linked by real causal relations like measurable and visible levers and strings, then we can imagine that we can understand things just as they are. Any reference to mysterious underlying invisible causes which cannot easily be measured can be dismissed as nonsense or mumbo-jumbo. We can dream that there are simply true theories and simply false theories. But once we switch to understand that what science is really studying is not the empirical surface of things but the underlying transcendental realm of structures and causes that make that empirical surface possible then it becomes clear that the known is a tiny ripple on the sea of the unknown. Our theories about the invisible are never simply ‘correct’ because we cannot ever really know what we don’t know. However some theories are more ‘correct’ than others because they are more use in pursuing a given social project, a project such as mastery, prediction and control of aspects of nature, (eg flying to the moon through understanding gravity) and better theories are usually of more use because they match better than other theories the ‘true’ but unknowable real underlying structures and causal mechanism.
I am arguing here that pragmatism (the most true is the most useful) as an epistemology (theory of how we know and what we know) fits rather well with transcendental realism as an ontology (theory of what is really there). Let me explicate this with an illustration. For any given fact or event like an apple falling from a tree there are an indefinitely large number of possible theories. Maybe apples fall from trees because they want to go home to their mother, the earth (Aristotelian animism). But some theories are more useful than others for understanding things and getting things done. To say they are more useful implies a project that they are more useful for. Theories serve different functions in different social contexts depending on what people are trying to do. Newton’s theory of gravity as a force, still taught to millions if not billions of children as if it was ‘true’, is now known to be ‘false’. But of course, like all theories that last at all, it is not simply right or wrong but useful in a context. It was useful enough to guide the first human moon-landing in 1969 but does not work well when we try to understand ‘black holes’. Einstein’s view that gravity is not a force but an aspect of the local topography of space-time understands Newton’s theory and works better to predict a larger range of phenomena. Newton would have been confused by such a radically different understanding of the universe. We can be confident that there will be quite different understandings of gravity in the future that will seem just as extraordinary to us as the curvature of space-time would seem to Newton. These theories might also be ‘better’ theories if our project to master space travel through explaining gravity continues. An understanding of science as an endless conversation follows from a transcendental understanding of science in a way that it does not follow so obviously from an empiricist view of science. In this conversation our creative guesses can get closer to the ‘truth’ but never reach the final truth. And of course our conversation, the conversation of humanity, also concerns what our values are and what our projects should be so any given understanding of what progress towards the truth might look like will also shift in time. We might assume that what Habermas called a ‘technical interest’ (1971 ) to master nature will persist because we have bodies and need to eat and keep warm but that is not a given. For well over 1000 years Buddhist universities such as Nalanda in India, the oldest university in the world, studied the nature of reality without showing much progress in the technical interest sense but developing more and more subtle discriminations of the various types of nothingness.
But why exactly does it follow from transcendental realism that we can never have a grand theory of everything? There are two main reasons: firstly if science deals with underlying invisible structures through creative guesses (Pierce’s ‘abduction’ and Bhaskars ‘retroduction’) it follows that we only get to know about underlying mechanisms or processes that have an impact on experience. The second reason is that to understand reality would be to understand ourselves and it is not possible to do that in a theory. I will unpack these two reasons in turn.
Firstly the field of the transcendental outstrips and contains the field of the knowable. Some invisible things are close to experience and so we can work them out fairly easily like gravity, dna and atomic structures. We could call these the low-lying fruit of science. Other possible things that we have to posit as real to make sense of experience are more difficult to know because they have very little impact on experience such as dark matter, anti-matter, multiple dimensions and multiple parallel universes. It follows from transcendental realism that the area of unknown reality is bigger than the area of known reality and also that there are likely to be areas of reality that are intrinsically unknowable because they have no impact upon experience whatsoever. So, for example, if our universe was just a simulation created and observed by an advanced race of aliens in an entirely different encompassing ‘outside’ universe, there is no particular reason why we would ever get to find out about this but that does not mean that it might not be true (Bostrum 2003 http://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html).
The second more interesting reason why transcendental realism cannot support a Grand Theory of Everything or TOE is about reflectivity and leads us to be able to connect natural science and ethics. The ‘subjective’ structures and mechanisms – often social - through which we come to know things are as real and as much a part of the reality that we seek to explore and understand as all that apparently really ‘outside’ stuff we see and bump into like trees and rocks. Consciousness, for example, is often described as the next great mystery for science. But consciousness is not an empirical fact we bump into out there in the world, any more than we bump into space or time. Consciousness is exemplary of what is meant by the phrase ‘a pre-condition of experience’. It makes no sense to talk about location and matter without implicitly or explicitly assuming an observer who is conscious of these things. Consciousness is the ultimate transcendental. This means that if, for example, we create a model of the chemistry of neurons that we claim ‘explains’ consciousness it would still not explain the ‘location’ or ‘nature’ of that consciousness which is needed to be able to read and understand the theory. There can be no grand Theory of Everything that does not explain consciousness and no theory of consciousness can contain the consciousness that understands the theory.
Some might call the theory that I have just outlined a version of ‘post-positivism’ because it claims that we can make progress towards the truth through science but we can never arrive at the truth. We can make progress towards the truth because there is an underlying transcendental reality but we can never know the truth because we are part of that reality and to know it would mean that we would have to get outside ourselves and see the whole thing, self and all, as if from an outside position that is simply not available. I might be assuming here that we are part of complexly integrated whole in which each part is related to every other part both internally and externally but that is what our knowledge so far seems to tell us (see for example the EPR Paradox https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EPR_paradox). But my argument is not one of simple wholism because it claims that, for us, there can be no ‘whole’ because we cannot extract ourselves, roots and all, to observe the whole as if from the outside.
Levinas makes the transcendental the cornerstone of his ethically based philosophy. Part of the way, he pretty much follows Kant in his claim that other people are not like other things in the world precisely because they have a world of their own. We feature in their world. That means that they encompass us and, in a sense ‘comprehend’ us or might think that they do since we feature within their world. That means that they transcend us. We cannot pin them down and define them and think that we have understood them completely unless we treat them only as objects but we know that they are not only objects but also subjects who have a view about us. However we often try to pin people down and define them as if they were objects because we often suffer from the unethical delusion of our own sovereignty or what Levinas calls ‘egology’. A more ethical and, dare I say it, ‘enlightened’, position is to realise that there are other people in reality and each person is a centre of their own world just as we are a centre of our world. Notice that this assumes a notion of reality that is transcendental and not empirical. Naïve empiricists tend to reduce people to things and assume that, like objects, people inhabit a single shared world that both contains them and divides them. I live over here in my house and in my skin while you live over there in your house and in your skin. But from a more accurate contemporary scientific perspective it is better to say that we inhabit a shared transcendental reality within which and out of which each person or self, constructs their own unique world of experience or empirical reality. Hi.
But then Levinas goes beyond Kant in his recognition that others are not just separate individuals who need to be respected as ‘ends in themselves’ but that each ‘face of the other’ evokes or stands in for transcendental Otherness. His point here is that attending to ‘the face of the other’ disrupts our cosy sense of our own world with awareness of an outside. This outside is not simply other to us, so that we could acknowledge it, tolerate it, but remain indifferent to it, but it makes demands upon us and calls us to ethical responsibility. It undermines our sense of self-sovereignty. This happens because in reality we are not self-subsistent but depend in our essential nature upon otherness. The self begins not as an object, but as a response to a call. Otherness asks ‘are you there’ and a voice replies ‘me voici’ or ‘here I am’ (google Levinas – there are lots of pdfs on the web). According to Levinas we are like ‘hostages’ to otherness from the beginning or ‘in hoc’ as in indebted to otherness. This transcendental otherness therefore has a claim upon us which can reach out and grab us through our experience of the face of a specific other person.
The world of discourse in which Bhaskar is usually quoted is rather different from the world of discourse in which Levinas appears. But there is a connection. As Levinas pointsout (see Biesta 2015) his appeal to the call of the transcendental other (the Infinite Other) is a way to avoid moral relativism. This has been criticised. Derrida pointed out (1978) that my responsibility to one other, e.g my son who needs my time, might be irresponsibility to a different other, e.g my sick mother who also needs my time, and there is always another other making demands upon us so it is hard to make much practical sense of a responsibility to the Infinite Other. Basically this is a challenge to the implicit unity of a notion like the Infinite Other. Which other do you mean? There are always lots of them. But I think (and the later Derrida seems to agree really eg in his book the Gift of Death) that the Infinite Other is a useful concept. And the way in which the appeal to the transcendental is useful to avoid relativism in ethics is pretty much a version of the way in which it is useful to avoid relativism in science.
In making any decision there are multiple voices in play and I need to select which voice to listen to and to empower as ‘my voice’. One voice might come from the body, ‘I want that food’, another might come from the social image ‘it would be rude to grab, I want to be seen as the kind of person who does not grab’, another might be the voice of a stranger, ‘I have not eaten yet and have a greater claim than you to that food’. In practice it is possible to learn to make ethical decisions by only authorising the most authoritative voice in any situation and the most authoritative voice in a democracy (or an open mind) should that which takes into account all the other voices. This most authoritative voice is not simply my voice as it does not usually simply correspond to my own self-interest according to any of my self-images. Equally it is not simply the voice of any specific other, although it might seem to correspond to a specific other voice on occasion. This authoritative voice hits me as other (not self) but it is not empirically other (not a specific other self over there) and so it is rightly experienced as transcendentally other. It corresponds to Bakhtin’s notion of the superaddressee or the voice from a perspective that fully understands everything. Of course in reality any superaddressee voice is always constructed by culture but the idea of the Infinite Other is not a fixed form. It is not the same as a notion of ‘God’ if this implies some sort of ultimate fixed subject-object. In the conflict between the voices of different cultures, for example, we can also find ourselves moved by a more authoritative voice that seems to understand both sides and calls us to see things from a higher more encompassing perspective. In other words the Infinite Other is a process. It is a process of listening and going beyond self-image and all preconceptions to allow oneself to be moved by that which calls out to us as the right thing to do in the situation. It is ‘infinite’ because it always challenges, always questions, always carries us beyond what we think we know and who we think we are.
This version of the role of the Infinite Other in ethics is pretty much also how progress works in science. New theories are accepted because they seem better than the alternatives. This requires dialogue and interpretation. All theories have to come from a perspective. There is no view from no-where. Sometimes they are self-interested. Always they are influenced by a culture and tradition. In order to be able to experience what Habermas once called ‘the unforced force of the best argument’ it is necessary to project a position that is not partial and self-interested and try to see things as if from the highest most encompassing most complete perspective possible. This is the projection of an outside point of view. Getting outside to look back on the whole is not actually possible but it is a constant aspiration in science and progress in science depends upon the fact that it can partially succeed. While there is no god’s eye point of view or view from nowhere there is a process of transcending the given to see things as if from the outside. This process depends upon our ability to invoke and to listen to – to authorise - an outside voice that is not just our voice, but the voice of the Infinite Other. It is Infinite because it is not finite or fixed or bounded but is a constant challenge to go beyond and see things from an apparently ‘higher’ or more encompassing perspective.
This process in ethics and in science of being able to leapfrog positions to go beyond and see things from a higher perspective naturally seems to imply the widespread, but I think misguided, view that there must be an ultimate highest perspective. The perspective of God who sees all and understands all. Often this is the perspective implicitly being assumed by scientists when they think that they have understood something and claim it as simply ‘true’ and other views as simply ‘false’. But, as we have seen from arguments earlier in this blog post, this ultimate perspective is not available. All we have is the process of apparently going beyond with no arrival. Every truth is true only in a context and from a perspective.
Levinas sums up the paradox of the transcendental as a call without an arrival in lines he wrote on Descartes that I quoted in my earlier blog ‘A response to Biesta’ 29th Nov 2015:
‘The idea of God, the cogitatum of a cogitatio which to begin with contains that
cogitatio, signifies the non-contained par excellence. Is not that the very absolution
of the absolute? It overflows every capacity; the 'objective reality' of the
cogitatum breaks up the 'formal reality' of the cogitatio.’ (Levinas, 1989)
Levinas is writing about Descartes here and so implicitly invoking the famous ‘cogito’ argument for the existence of the self, the ‘I think therefore I am’ and he is saying that actually not so. I think about the infinite and so I find in that thinking that I am not. My cogito is undermined. His point is that to try to think from a point of view that already understands and contains that very thinking is not to attain to absolute certainty, ‘the mind of god’ as Steven Hawkins once referred to this dream of science. In fact to try to think as if from the outside, from the perspective of God, to grasp the whole, implies dissolving the self. This is not the invocation of a traditional God, it is not ‘an’ infinite but the infinite as a process. A constant self-undermining and self-giving process of ab-solution or setting free. It is setting free the self from bondage by setting free or ab-solving the idea of God as some sort of substantial thing. It is about discovering the God within, or truth, not as a thing (God the subject) or as a theory, the TOE, but as a movement: a constant flow from a centre outwards towards the ever receding horizon of otherness that calls to us but can never be reached precisely because we are it already in a certain sense. This is, of course, referring not to another idea but a certain kind of experience - unconditional love perhaps one could call it - the loss of self in becoming the whole fountaining movement of things.
Levinas tends to be seen as putting forward an ethics but quite similar points could be made about the real nature and motivation of science. Einstein, for example, wrote lines with some resonance to Levinas’s view in a letter to a friend who had recently lost his son:
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.” Einstein (http://www.lettersofnote.com/2011/11/delusion.html)
In other words we find peace (‘absolution’) not by attaining to a godlike perspective but in the constant effort to understand the larger (transcendental) reality of which we are a part. The sort of transcendental love of the Other that Levinas seems to be invoking is not in fact the opposite of knowledge nor necessarily so remote as he seems to assume from the motivation behind theory building in science. Einstein was not (just) building theories to help gain power over nature (God, the Universe etc) but (also) as part of a larger relationship in which he was drawn out by love for nature - a love that was not chosen by him but that first called him because of the real underlying (i.e transcendental) unity of apparently separated beings.
I did want to make a link here between the transcendental and education but this blog is already far too long for a single blog post. I hope that the link is obvious. As Gert Biesta constantly reminds us, education implies values. We have to decide what to teach and why. People hide behind claims that education is about serving the needs of the economy or inducting newcomers into a specific culture but these sort of claims betray a narrowness of vision. You do not need to think about the consequences of such views very hard to realise that, where they are the only vision informing education, they lead to misery and destruction. Humans should not be taught to think of themselves as just cogs in the economic machine. Induction into fixed separate cultures leads to violence and stupidity. The notion of the Infinite Other as a transcendental call to constantly go beyond self in the direction of otherness that I have mapped out here offers a much needed direction for education.
Some references and links
Bhaskar, R. A. (1997). A Realist Theory of Science. London: Verso. http://uberty.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Roy_Bhaskar_A_Realist_Theory_of_Science.pdf
Biesta, G. (2015). The Rediscovery of Teaching: On robot vacuum cleaners, non-egological education and the limits of the hermeneutical world view.Educational Philosophy and Theory, (ahead-of-print), 1-19. [http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00131857.2015.1041442]
Derrida , J (1978) "Violence and Metaphysics" in Writing and Difference, trans. Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Habermas, J. (2005). Knowledge and human interests: A general perspective.Continental philosophy of science, 310. (https://legacy.wlu.ca/documents/25372/Habermas,_%5C_KHI%5C_.pdf)
Levinas, E. (1989) God and Philosophy (A. Lingis, trans.), in S. Hand (ed.), The Levinas Reader. Oxford.
Kant, I. (1781) Critique of Pure Reason (http://files.libertyfund.org/files/1442/0330_Bk.pdf)
Penrose, 1989, The Emperor’s New Mind. (http://www.federaljack.com/ebooks/Consciousness%20Books%20Collection/Penrose,%20Roger%20-%20The%20Emperor's%20New%20Mind.pdf)
Wegerif, R. (2015) The rediscovery of education: a response to Biesta. Blog post. http://www.rupertwegerif.name/blog/the-rediscovery-of-education-response-to-biesta