Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Non-Transcendence Problem (A Philosophy of Potatoes, Part II)

My approach to philosophy (that consummate bogeyman) is to simplify things. I am not saying that I dumb things down so that their true meaning is lost. What I do mean is that I strive to cut through all the jargon and blather and find the most fundamental expression of an idea or issue. Personal experience has taught me that any philosophic position (no matter how monstrously opaque) can be boiled down by certain degrees to a single, simple statement that sums up what is really being said. Furthermore, personal experience has also taught me that once that single, simple statement has been reached, the rest of the jargon and blather (of both the original position and even its derivatives) takes on a sudden clarity. Thus, I've found the practice of simplifying things to be highly practical for reasons in addition to making philosophy less terrifying than it already is.

An example of this came to me recently while reading through Roger Scruton's Modern Philosophy. Despite its dull and formidable sounding name, the book reveals Scruton's penchant for making philosophic concepts (as best as can be) digestible for the man or woman on the street as well as acceptable to the academic. What I've learned so far has been exciting as well as enlightening, and I feel lead to share my recent discoveries.

Modern philosophy begins with Descartes, who (besides saying, "I think, therefore I am") created what has been the most perplexing issue for modern philosophy. It is an issue of epistemology (i.e., how we can have true knowledge), and it is rather disturbing. He postulated two scenarios that utterly questioned our ability to know anything at all. The first can be called "Descartes dream," i.e., the world that we know and see and feel is all an illusion created by our own minds, similar to a dream. An idea somewhat echoed recently in Inception, reality (the "waking" world) is beyond us, and we are so effectively wrapped up in the dream of our own making that we can never even know that the real world exists. If this scenario is true, then how can we ever have true knowledge?

The second scenario is even more disturbing. It is called "Descartes demon," i.e., the world that we know and see and feel is all an illusion created by a "demon" who whispers it in our ear and weaves it in our mind. Similar to The Matrix, this scenario is troubling to many because (unlike the "dream") there is no reality outside of the illusion except for the "demon". Thus, there is nothing to "wake up" to.

You may ask why someone would postulate such a scenario and scare the rest of us to death. The answer is that he is trying to figure out how we can have true knowledge, i.e., how can we breach the dream, defeat the demon, and arrive at truth. Modern philosophy can be seen as continual attempts to do just that.

There are the Realists, those old-fashioned followers of Plato, who assert that truth/reality is in another realm beyond us that we can reach through our reasoning powers. If you want to know what is true justice or true love (or whatever else), then spend your time contemplating the idea of justice or love, devoid of the distracting particulars of this realm.

The problem, however, is that our reasoning powers (being a part of us) seems incapable of rising above "this realm" in order to get to "that realm" of truth/reality. In the end, the demon laughs in the face of our futile reason.

Then there are the Idealists, those inscrutable followers of Kant, who assert that if we would objectively analyze thought itself, then we could discover which kinds of arguments and modes of thinking are the best for arriving at truth/reality.

The problem, however, is that we must use thinking in order to do this, and how exactly does one use thinking to transcend thinking in order to study thinking? Our very apparatus of flight is the very anchor that weighs us down.

Then there are the Phenomenologist, those mystical followers of Husserl, who assert that if we would only objectively study consciousness itself (i.e., the act of perceiving and attaching meaning), then we would unlock the secrets to truth/reality.

The problem, however, is that we must use consciousness in order to do this, and how exactly does one objectively study consciousness with their own consciousness? It is like the wings of Icarus: the closer we get to the sun, the more the wax melts away.

Finally, there are the Nominalists, those dastardly followers of Nietzsche (and his bastard philosophic children of the 20th century), who assent to the reality of the "demon" but choose to localize it in societal institutions (family, religion, tradition, custom, government, etc.) and internalize it in the self. Life is an illusion controlled by others, and the only thing to do is to wrest control from them and give it to ourselves, so that we may make our "real" self according to our own liking and in our own image.

The problem, however, is twofold: (1) We cannot (for whatever reason) function in an illusion, even one of our own making. We yearn for truth/reality, for "the real". (2) We know (though perhaps we lack the words to express it) that Nominalism is simply not true; there are realities that are real and truths that are true in spite of either us or our institutions. We will not submit to becoming the demon, nor will we admit that he is all that there is "outside".

Every single one of these rebuttals to the demon and the dream all hit the same problem (except for Nominalism, which simply accepts the demon/dream). I call it the "non-transcendence problem," and it goes something like this: (1) We know (in some way) that truth/reality exists. (2) We know (in some way) that truth/reality is beyond us. (3) We know (in some way) that we are incapable of reaching it. All of our attempts (and there have been some fantastic and terrifying attempts) to breach the glass ceiling between us and truth/reality seems to fail, and thus we are left here on our silent plant, haunted by inklings and vague apparitions that point us to a place that we can never reach. What, then, do we do?

There are typically two responses to this. First is the nihilistic surrender to life without truth/reality, a position that few take seriously. The other is far more common, and it is the position of heroic existentialism, with its rather pretentious slogan, "Have the courage to be." As odd as that sounds, most people fall into that category. They admit (perhaps subconsciously) that truth/reality is beyond them, but they are still going to strive to approximate it as best as they can. By a lifelong series of efforts, they will be as moral, factual, and authentic as they can (though without truth/reality to measure themselves by, they will never truly know how moral, factual, and authentic they are). This is the default mindset of the average secular person, even if they have never thought about it or found adequate words to express it.

I would like to posit (if I may) a third, wholly different response to the demon/dream, far more radical and essentially Christian in its essence. It goes something like this: (1) We know that truth/reality exists. (2) We know that it is beyond us. (3) We know that we cannot reach it. (4) If we cannot go to it, then our only hope is if it comes to us. The Christian Faith has a term for when truth/reality "comes to us"; it is called incarnation:

"In the beginning was the Word [logos: truth, reality; the primal voice that speaks all else into existence]...and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us" (John 1:1, 14).

In one simple, solely Christian phrase, the solution is found and declared: "the Word became flesh," truth/reality has come down to us. This is what theologian Oswald Chambers called the "personality of truth" (131). If truth/reality is merely a coalition of abstract maxims (profound yet dead), then it is all on us to reach them, which cannot be done. However, if truth/reality is a person, with their own powers of activity and volition, then they can reach back to us; and according to the Christian Faith, He has.

"God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in times past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in this last days spoken unto us by His Son, whom He hath appointed Heir of all things, and by whom He also made the worlds" (Heb. 1:1-2).


Scruton, Roger. Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1994.

Chambers, Oswald. Biblical Ethics / The Moral Foundations of Life / The Philosophy of Sin. Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House, 1998.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011


  1. Beautifully written, Jon! What would you call your "philosophy"? Perhaps an article to various periodicals should be submitted for a wider consideration of your viewpoint...which oddly is much like my own!

  2. My "philosophy" (or at least a major part of it) is summed up in the "Christian response" to the demon that I mentioned: Christ is the solution to all philosophic quandaries (just like He's the solution to everything else).