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I’ve repeatedly returned on this blog to the concepts of Ascent and Descent, derived above all from Ken Wilber’s work and to a lesser extent from Martha Nussbaum’s. I have found that these concepts do a lot to help us understand the differences between philosophical traditions. I have not yet been precise about defining them, however, and I would like to think them through in some more detail.

The concept of Ascent has above all to do with transcendence; “transcendence” and “immanence” are close cousins to Ascent and Descent as I understand them. However, Ascent is not transcendence as such. The Latin root of “transcend” means to go beyond, to climb beyond – as opposed to “immanent”, which roughly means “dwelling within”. But to go beyond – or dwell within – what? Nussbaum’s “Transcending humanity” chapter in Love’s Knowledge is important here, for it points to what she herself calls “transcendence by descent”. For Nussbaum, what one properly transcends is one’s everyday limitations – to more fully realize one’s given capacities, as an athlete does.

But the transcendence involved in Ascent, as I understand it, has to do specifically with transcending the world – the material, physical world in which we find our lives. The strongest example of this is probably in the Jain traditions articulated by the Tattvārtha Sūtra, where one aspires to be a tīrthaṅkara – a powerful being who has broken the cycle of birth and death that characterizes the material world. One finds something similar in Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta, where the goal is to identify with an ultimate unity that underlies and goes beyond all the physical entities that appear to us. Christian traditions promise transcendence of the world through the hope of a better life in heaven. A weaker form of it is found in the Bhagavad Gītā or in Stoicism: you remain engaged in the world physically, but transcend it in your mind and emotions so that its external goods no longer matter to you.

The point I want to stress here, though, is that this Ascent is not the same as supernaturalism, let alone with the incoherent mess of concepts and phenomena typically lumped under the label of “religion”. Depending on how one defines “supernatural”, it might perhaps be the case that Ascent requires some sort of supernatural belief – though one had best be careful with that approach, as on some such definitions even ethical values would count as “supernatural”. Be that as it may, however, the converse is not true. That is, belief in the supernatural does not necessarily require Ascent at all.

Sometimes it is not just systematic philosophers who make such distinctions, but ordinary “religious” people with little education. Consider, for example, Martin Southwold’s Sinhala Buddhist informants in Sri Lanka. They recognize a distinction also comparable to Ascent and Descent, using the Sanskrit loanwords laukika and lōkōttara – roughly, worldly and otherworldly:

The word ‘āgama‘ is used to refer to (some of) what we would call a ‘religion’, e.g. to Christianity, Islam, or Hinduism. Though the word is foreign, it has become naturalised; for Buddhists, at any rate, it does not mean just what we mean by ‘religion’, since its sense is shaped by what is, for them, its primary application, to Buddhāgama. When I asked people to say what an āgama is, a common reply was that an āgama is concerned with lōkōttara matters as contrasted with laukika matters. Similarly, when I asked them if the cults of the gods and so forth were an āgama they said no, because these were concerned with laukika matters — and for the same reason they were no part of Buddhāgama. (Buddhism and Life p. 77)

As far as I can tell, these villagers are articulating concepts not far from my view of Ascent and Descent. The lōkōttara has to do with getting beyond this world to nirvana. But the gods are not lōkōttara! For the gods live in, and are part of, this world. They are a part of nature, immanent, not transcendent.

That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Many deities – and even more so other supernatural entities like faeries and demons and witches – are presented as explanations of natural phenomena. In the Vedas, the god Agni is fire; the Sanskrit word agni just means fire. Freud, in The Future of an Illusion, thought that this “personification of nature” was at the heart of theistic belief. But notice that this personification is of entities within the natural world around us, and indeed functions as an explanation of that world. In Robin Horton’s terms, it is secondary theory – ideas of unseen processes that explain the natural world, in a function very similar to the function that natural science holds for us. There is nothing transcendent here; it is entirely immanent. Such gods are Descended.

One could also, at least theoretically, have a worldview that recognized a transcendent deity or deities without being an Ascent tradition in the sense I understand. The reason: Ascent and Descent are about us. If gods are out there in their own heavenly realms, can we join them somehow? If not, it’s not an Ascent tradition.

EDIT (8 Nov 2012): Above where I said “That is, belief in the supernatural does not necessarily require Ascent at all.”, I had originally said accompany rather than require. That misstates my point; I was trying to point out that belief in the supernatural can occur without Ascent, whereas the original suggests the other way round.