Climbing beyond

Are there limits to knowledge?

In a piece linked by Maria Popova, "transcendence" is described as real and unquantifiable. You recognize that feeling from watching the sun set, or, if you're anything like me, watching the sun set on Mars. You recognize that intense otherness if you've ever watched the birth of your children, or witnessed an act of self-sacrifice or valor. You know transcendence as that sensation of somehow being simultaneously united and scattered. And taking issue with Oliver Sacks, Richard Gunderman suggests you know something neuroscience doesn't.


When I listen to music, or at least certain kinds of music, I feel transported to another place, my mood is elevated, I feel a new sense of harmony, and I am able to focus more clearly on what seems to matter most. A physicist might come along and say that what I call music is merely the scraping of horse's hairs across cat gut, a mechanical vibration in a particular frequency range. A neurologist might come along and explain that I am merely experiencing the transduction of kinetic energy into electrical energy as processed by neurons in the auditory and higher associative cortices of the brain. And yet, there is something about the music that is hard to reckon in such terms. It would be like saying that a passionate embrace is merely the pressing of flesh on flesh....

Of course, not every composer is a Mahler, nor every painter a Van Gogh, every poet a Yeats, or every scientist an Einstein. Great music is real, but so is bad music, and the same can be said regarding art, poetry, and science. Sometimes people simply get it wrong. But getting it wrong, no less than getting it right, is associated with certain neurochemical changes in the brain. In other words, the mere fact that neurochemical changes are taking place does nothing to help us distinguish between good and bad, the great and the merely insipid. The truth or falsehood of such expressions is not simply a matter of correspondence with some verifiable material state. It is also a matter of elegance, rhythm, balance, and above all, beauty, qualities that are to some degree transcendent.

Essentially making the knowledge argument, Gunderman faults material-only explanations for experiences of wonder and awe, not because biology isn't foundational - it clearly is - but because there are limits to what our bodies, as marvelous as they are, can deduce. In the words of philosopher of mind David Chalmers, "there is something that it is to be like you," the person reason this blog post, that is different from every other person on the planet. Similarly, the best that neuroscience can do at the moment is to point to our brains during moments of transcendence and say, "see there!" And there! And over there! But the snap crackle and pop of our brains at work is correlative, not causative. Transcendence, like the first-person experience, adds "something that it is like" to "climb beyond" that simply can't be quantified.

It can only be experienced.


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