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How to Prove that Transcendentalism is True


Editor's Note: This is a follow-up piece to Dr. Peter Kreeft's article from earlier in the week titled "Why Reality Includes More (Not Less) Than You Probably Think". Be sure to read that one first.


Merely refuting reductionism does not yet give us any positive evidence for transcendentalism, however, just as merely refuting atheism does not give you positive evidence for theism.  We might well be stuck in agnosticism, unable to prove either of the two contradictory propositions, that there is or that there is not a God, or a Santa Claus, or any S that is more than P. So today I a proof for transcendentalism, in one area of human experience: thinking, which corresponds to the ideal we all want: truth.

The Demonstration of Metaphysical Transcendence

The commonest form of metaphysical reductionism, and the most philosophically interesting and controversial one, is materialism, which is the claim that everything that is real is material; that there is not a second dimension or kind of reality that is immaterial, or spiritual, or mental, but that what we call mind and mental phenomena can be reduced to and explained as merely material phenomena.  According to materialism, all that happens when we calculate that 21+31=52, or when we judge that murder is evil, or when we believe that God exists, or that we perceive the sky as blue, or when we predict that we will die, is that certain bundles of physical energy are doing certain physical things, like moving across synapses or producing chemical reactions, in our brains.  The claim is that there are no immaterial phenomena that cannot be explained as material phenomena.

Now there is one very easy refutation of this argument for materialism.  It is simply that the premise does not entail the conclusion.  For even if we grant the premise that we find no immaterial phenomena that cannot be fully explained as material phenomena, this does not logically entail the conclusion that there are no immaterial phenomena, any more than the fact that we find no convex curve in the Canadian border of America that cannot be explained as a concave curve in the American border of Canada entails the fact that there is no Canada but only America.

In fact, the very same argument that the materialist uses to justify materialism can be used, with equal force, by an immaterialist, that is, by someone who believes that matter does not exist and all is mind.  For we can find no material phenomena that cannot be explained as immaterial phenomena, as projections of consciousness or forms of consciousness.  For as soon as you think about a thing, even if that thing is a supposedly material thing like a rock, that thing has become an ingredient in your consciousness.  It is in principle impossible to think of a rock that cannot be explained as the thought of a rock.

(And if the thought is true, by the most common definition of truth, there is nothing different in the thought than in the thing, that is, nothing different in the “rock” in quotation marks and the rock without quotation marks, except the quotation marks; and the quotation marks are not part of the material inside the quotation marks.  Insofar as there is any difference between the thought in the quotation marks and the thing outside the quotation marks, the thought designated by the quotation marks is not true, because it is not the same as the thing.)

You can explain all supposedly material phenomena as immaterial just as you can explain all supposedly immaterial phenomena as material.  Imagine the two sets of phenomena listed in two parallel columns.  There is no phenomenon in either of the two columns that does not have an identical twin in the other column.  The two columns match perfectly, so that monistic materialism, common sense dualism, and monistic spiritualism all explain the data.  (So does William James’ “neutral monism,” although that one neutral stuff that is neither matter nor spirit cannot be defined or conceived except negatively.)

But this leaves us undecided among the three (or four) alternative metaphysics.  It does not refute any one of them, all of which explain the data.  It only refutes the materialist’s claimed refutation of spirit and the immaterialist’s claimed refutation of matter.  I want to go farther: I want to refute materialism, as my primary example of metaphysical reductionism.

The Refutation of Materialism

The refutation depends on one simple and obvious premise: that the knowledge of a thing is not one of the parts of that thing.  I shall first prove this premise (that will take some time), and then I will use it to prove my conclusion that knowledge transcends matter (that will not take much time at all).

Let’s say you want to know x.  Let’s say x is Beatrice and you are Dante.  Now all knowing, insofar as it is knowing, is true, is accurate.  And this means, according to common sense, that it is all that the thing known is.  Aristotle’s “identity theory” of truth is simply what common sense means by truth.  A true thought matches the real thing so that there is nothing added or subtracted.  If there is a lack of identity between the objective thing and the subjective thought of it, there is a fault in the thought, a lack of knowledge.  There is no such thing as false knowledge.

Of course none of us can have complete knowledge of anything or anybody, not even a flea, much less Beatrice.  Only God is omniscient and infallible, by definition; that is, only God, the creator and designer of Beatrice, if He exists, could know everything there is to know about her. And we are not God.  (I apologize if this news upsets any of you.)  Yet not only do “all men by nature desire to know,” as Aristotle famously said, but we want to know everything there is to know about everything there is to know, in Bernard Lonergan’s formula.  That is what curiosity means.

Now let’s suppose you are Dante, and you know something new about Beatrice: that she ate a plum this morning.  Then that knowledge is a new fact about you, a new piece of knowing for you; but your knowing this new fact about Beatrice does not add anything new to Beatrice, as the plum did.  If it did, then that would falsify the Beatrice you want to know, which is Beatrice-as-she-is-in-herself, not merely Beatrice-as-known-by-you.  There is no problem at all in knowing Beatrice-as-known-by-you; that happens automatically, by definition.  You want to know more than that; you want to know Beatrice-as-she-really-is-in-herself; and because you usually do not succeed at this task, it is a struggle and not an automatic success.

If Beatrice sees you looking at her, this changes her; this is a new fact about her.  But if she does not see you looking at her, your looking does not change her, only you.  New facts about you do not of themselves constitute new facts about her.

(If you are thinking about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle here, and wondering whether the observation of B by A might not change B as well as A, I am here assuming that Einstein was right and Heisenberg wrong about the Uncertainty Principle; that the act of knowing a thing, mentally, does not change the thing, unless it also changes it physically, by interfering with light waves, for instance.  If the mental act of knowing B changed A (whether B is Beatrice or a subatomic particle), then knowledge of B would be impossible, because things would change and jump outside our knowledge as soon as we knew them, as if the target would jump away from the arrow just as the arrow was about to enter it, so that no arrow would ever hit its target; no knowledge would ever know its intended object—even the mental object labeled ‘Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.’  Thus the Uncertainty Principle, interpreted ontologically, seems self-contradictory, like all forms of universal skepticism.)

(I am also implicitly assuming an epistemological realism in assuming that we are like archers, and acts of knowing are like arrows, and bows are like minds, and targets are like the things we want to know.  I am assuming that ideas are not targets but arrows; that ideas are means-of-knowing or acts-of-knowing, not objects-of-knowing; that real things are our targets, or objects-of-knowing.  I am assuming that Aquinas is right in ST I, 85, 2 when he defines ideas as means of knowing and real things as objects of knowing, and that Locke is wrong in the very first sentence of his Essay, when he defines an idea as the object of knowing.  For if that were true, then we could never know whether or not any of our ideas corresponded to or were identical with the real world, and we would have to draw Hume’s skeptical conclusion.  We would be like prisoners in a jail cell who saw only pictures of the outside world on a TV screen; without a direct knowing of the outside world, we could never know which of the pictures were true and which were not.)

So Beatrice’s plum is a new part of Beatrice, not of me (Dante), and my knowing this is a new part of me, not of her.  That this must be so can be shown by a merely logical analysis.  Let us suppose that 9,000 facts about Beatrice constitute the whole Beatrice.  If my knowing these 9,000 facts constituted fact #9,001 about her, then I could not know her, because the Beatrice I knew would be “Beatrice minus fact #9,001,” and that is not the true Beatrice, any more than Beatrice-without-a-plum is not the true Beatrice this morning.

Knowledge cannot commit suicide in the very act of coming to life; and that is what it would do if each act of knowledge changed the old object to a new one in the very act of trying to know the old one.

From this crucial premise, that I have taken such a long time to expound, I quickly deduce the falsity of materialism.  I do this by adding just one more premise, namely that modern science is possible.  Modern science claims to know some principles that are true for the whole universe, principles like F=MA or E=MC squared.  Now since the universe is the sum total of all material things (matter, time, and space being correlative), it follows that modern science knows some truths about all of matter.

Now take this second premise—that by science we can know the universe, and combine it with our first premise, that the knowledge of any thing is not one of the parts of that thing, and you get the conclusion that our knowledge of the universe is not part of the universe, but an addition to it, transcending it.

The conclusion is shocking to the reductionist.  As C.S. Lewis puts it in Miracles, it gives us a metaphysic that is like the moon: a material body pockmarked with craters caused by things that came from outside, like meteors, fingerprints of transcendence.  Each of these meteors symbolizes an act of knowing.

  • Reductionism gives us a picture of reality that is like the moon with craters caused from within by its own volcanoes (which many astronomers believed to be the true source of lunar craters until the middle of the 20th century).
  • Transcendentalism gives us a picture of the universe that is like the moon with craters caused by meteors that come from beyond the moon.  Intelligent extraterrestrials looking at the farms and cities of our globe from their space ship would not explain these things in the same way as they would explain earth’s geological formations, for they are effects not just of material forces but of acts of knowing material forces and knowing how to change them.

The simple “bottom line” is that since any act of knowing transcends its object, the act of knowing the universe transcends the universe.
Originally published at PeterKreeft.com. Used with permission.
(Image credit: Unsplash)

Dr. Peter Kreeft

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Dr. Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and a noted Catholic apologist and philosopher. He is a convert to the Catholic Church from reformed Protestantism. He earned an A.B. degree from Calvin College, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Fordham University, followed by post-doctoral work at Yale University. He is a regular contributor to several Christian publications, is in wide demand as a speaker at conferences, and is the author of over 60 books including Making Sense Out of Suffering (Servant, 1986); Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics (Ignatius, 1988); Catholic Christianity (Ignatius, 2001); The Unaborted Socrates: A Dramatic Debate on the Issues Surrounding Abortion (IVP, 2002); and The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings (Ignatius, 2005). Many of Peter's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Find dozens of audio talks, essays, and book excerpts at his website, PeterKreeft.com.

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