Love of All Wisdom

The supernatural without Ascent

by on Nov.04, 2012, under Early and Theravāda, Flourishing, God, Social Science, Supernatural, Vedas and Mīmāṃsā

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.

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20 Comments for this entry

  • lokatakki

    A very curious idea of the ancient Indo-European world was of the stars as gods. Not only do we have yAska defining “deva” explicitly so (N7.15: devo dAnAd vA pIpanAdvA dyotanAdvA dyusthAno bhavati iti vA), we also have Aristotle elaborating that the stars are gods because they are even as creatures of the waters and the earth, possessing intelligence (De Natura Deorum 2.15).

    What puzzles me is that there seems to be no equivalent to the Epicurean stand (“don’t worry, the gods aren’t bothered by what we do anyway”) in the Indo-Aryan/Hindu world (even the chArvAka is not reported to have said anything at all on deities). Ditto for an Euhemerus: do you think the aitihAsika stream that yAska speaks of was really that into historical interpretation?

    • Amod Lele

      Are you sure there’s no Indian equivalent to the attitude that the gods are not bothered by what we do? I’ve often tended to think that early Buddhism works just this way. When I think of the gods in Pali texts, I think of the point in the vinaya where the gods dutifully help the Buddha with his laundry. I guess Māra is bothered by what we do, but we’ve got good reason to keep on doing it anyway.

  • skholiast

    “Ascent and decent is about us” is a very succinct and elegant summary. I presume you would say the same as regards Intimacy and Integrity. So in some ways, these axes are soteriological (if that’s not too loaded a word), and not really (primarily) cosmological or ontological. In the wake of one of Elisa’s comment to me I have been thinking about this a good deal and contemplating the degree to which such axes do or do not involve us in anthropocentrism. Would you agree that some extent this is part and parcel of “philosophy as a way of life”?

    • Amod Lele

      Yes, I would. I suppose I’d probably also say some form of anthropocentrism is essential to philosophy as well – and, probably, just to being human. But I would say that these orientations do tend to extend into cosmology and ontology as well as ethics, soteriology and epistemology. I think they kind of have to.

  • Thill

    This raises the interesting issue of the relations among the central triad of concepts: ascent, transcendence, and the supernatural.

    If “ascent” has to do with transcendence of the physical or material cosmos, then clearly it presupposes a “space”, an order of reality other than the physical or material cosmos, into which one merges or emerges in the process of transcendence.

    Now, it can’t be really a case of “transcendence” if one still remains subject to the laws, entities, forces, and processes of the physical or material cosmos, e.g., I cannot be said to have “transcended” my physical body if I am still subject to its processes.

    Therefore, the concept of transcendence of the physical or material cosmos requires not merely the notion of an order of reality OTHER THAN the physical or material cosmos, but also the notion that this OTHER order of reality is free from subjection to the laws, entities, processes, and forces of the physical or material cosmos.

    But, then, this is “supernaturalism”, the notion that there is an order of reality other than and independent of the physical or material cosmos!

    Hence, the notions of “ascent” and “transcendence” here do presuppose “supernaturalism”.

    Now, does this entail that we have to hold that ethical values are supernatural?

    This would depend on whether we are required to conceive of ethical values in terms of elements or factors transcending the physical or material cosmos.

    2. That which is supernatural is not necessarily bereft of (one way) causal efficacy in relation to the physical or material cosmos. In fact, the traditional concept of the supernatural involves causal interventions by supernatural agents in the physical or material world.

    Hence, the concepts of the supernatural and of transcendence do not imply lack of causal efficacy in relation to the physical or material cosmos.

    But, of course, they do imply the freedom from subjection to the causal processes in the physical or material world.

    Two interesting questions arise here:

    A. What could possibly be the mechanism of intervention by supernatural agents in the physical or material cosmos?

    B. How is it possible for a supernatural agent to intervene in the physical or material cosmos without being subject to, or affected by, its laws and processes?

    3. If one’s concept of “transcendence” of the physical world is that of Stoic endurance and fortitude in the face of its vicissitudes, then the word “ascent” becomes somewhat misleading.

    Stoic “transcendence” is simply a psychological condition (leaving aside the question of its feasibility and desirability for human beings) in which one is master of how one reacts to the world, or whether one reacts at all to it.

    Clearly, although such a psychological condition could be nurtured or sustained by supernaturalism, it does not require or imply the latter.

  • Thill

    There are only three mutually exclusive possibilities concerning the supernatural and the natural:

    1. There is no relation between them. The supernatural is a simply an order of reality “parallel” to the natural order.

    2. The supernatural order is independent of the natural order, but acts on the latter (without, of course, being acted on by the latter).

    3. There is an interaction between the natural and the supernatural orders of reality.

    The traditional conception of the supernatural, occult lore, and so forth, countenances both (2) and (3), and, therefore, suffers from incoherence.

    I think that (2) is truly the statement of the view of “supernaturalism”.

    The view stated in (3) faces the problem of demarcation of the natural and the supernatural. If an alleged supernatural “something” is still subject to the laws, forces, and processes of the natural order, why should we deem it “supernatural” rather than an extension of the natural order?

    The view stated in (1) implies that the supernatural is not relevant to understanding the natural order. It also implies that the natural order could not possibly contain any evidence for the existence of a supernatural order. If so, other than mere logical possibility, we don’t have any basis for taking the notion of a supernatural order seriously.

    Thus, we come back to (2) as the best candidate for understanding the basic view of “supernaturalism”.

  • Thill

    Harbingers of synthetic philosophy ought to be interested in the following opposition:

    1. Eliminative Naturalism: There is no supernatural reality. Alleged supernatural phenomena are reducible to natural phenomena.

    2. Eliminative “Supernaturalism”: There is no purely natural reality. All alleged natural phenomena are in reality transfigured and truncated supernatural phenomena. Material reality is a transfigured and delimited from of supernatural reality.

  • Thill

    “Material reality is a transfigured and delimited from of supernatural reality.”

    should read

    “Material reality is a transfigured and delimited FORM of supernatural reality.”

  • Thill

    Note also that the issue of whether the supernatural order (assuming that it exists for the sake of argument or conceptual exploration) transcends the natural order, or is immanent in the latter, is logically independent of the issue of whether the former has a causal influence on the latter and the nature of this influence.

    In other words, the claim that

    A. The supernatural has a causal influence on the natural order.

    is logically independent of the following claims (B) and (C):

    B. The supernatural transcends the natural order.

    C. The supernatural is immanent in the natural order.

    In any case, (B) is the authentic statement of the “supernaturalist” view.

    The claim in (C) calls for an analysis of the obscure concept of immanence in this context.

  • Thill

    As I meditated on the massacre of children in Newtown, Conn., yesterday, by one of America’s growing ranks of “psycho youth”, a “weird” thought wafted into my “mental space”: “examine whether there was a massacre of children in the Newtown area or its vicinity in the past.”

    Sure enough, there was a huge massacre at a Pequot Village in Mystic (Misistuck), not far from from present-day Newtown, in May 1637, in which hundreds of defenseless Pequot (Indian) women and children were slaughtered by the English forces under the command of Captain John Mason.

    • JimWilton

      Interesting. Maybe some karma here — simple cause and effect.

      To the extent we have a common culture with the Puritans and that culture accepts violence of this sort as justifiable, what is the effect of that culture on a mentally unstable youth 300 years later?

      • Thill


        1. You may be surprised, but my inquiry into child prodigies has convinced me that reincarnation is very probable and constitutes the best explanation of the universal fact that there are child prodigies. Since reincarnation is a supernatural process, I have concluded that there can be no complete naturalist or scientific account of reality.

        Further, reincarnation is a (supernatural) process of consciousness. Obviously, it implies the survival and continuity of consciousness after the death of the brain. Hence, there is something supernatural about consciousness. Therefore, there cannot be a complete naturalist or scientific account of consciousness. Since consciousness is at the core of who we are, it follows that there cannot be a complete or adequate naturalist or scientific account of who we are.

        2. I am not convinced that naturalist psychological or sociological explanations in terms of “mental instability” and/or exposure to a “culture of violence” are satisfactory in the context of the Newtown massacre.

        Millions have some form of “mental instability” and/or exposure to a “culture of violence” without even entertaining the possibility of killing their mothers and/or children at school! So, these factors do not satisfactorily explain why the perpetrator did what he did.

        Hence, I was thinking of a supernatural explanation, one which invokes reincarnation (and in this context it would bring in its wake the notion that an agent could be impelled by “Vāsanās”, or memories, of being a victim of a massacre in a previous life and the desire for revenge) and “karma” (understood in terms of a “spiritual law” which brings it about that an agent has to pay the price, in one form or another, at some time or another, for inflicting harm on others). I don’t think that “simple cause and effect” captures the workings of “karma” in this sense.

        3. There are, of course, other forms of supernatural explanations in this context, e.g., influence exerted by a supernatural agent over the consciousness of the perpetrator, perhaps, one of the angry and vengeful “spirits” of the victims of the Mystic massacre of 1637, etc.

        Contrary to the impression that there is no way to adjudicate between these competing supernatural explanations, I think that considerations of internal consistency and “explanatory fit” with the event in question may help to adjudicate between competing supernatural explanations.

        4. It is imperative to note that explanation, natural or supernatural, and (moral) justification are distinct and logically independent. Hence, any explanation, natural or supernatural, of an event does not necessarily imply that the event is morally justified or good. Therefore, recourse to a supernatural explanation of the Newtown massacre does not imply any moral justification of that event.

        • JimWilton

          I am surprised. For myself, I’ve found great depth and wisdom in Tibetan Buddhism. Tibet is a culture that accepts what many would call supernatural events in many different contexts — from supplications to protectors, to testimony of delogs (persons who recall near death experiences), to meditation masters who leave footprints in solid rock, to discoveries of earth terma (revealed teachings dug from mountainsides). Some unusual events (inner heat generated from tummo practice) have been documented — others have not. I try not to take definitive views on these events, but I’m a Westerner. I find it easier to understand karma in the context of cause and effect in the material world and in the broader culture and much of esoteric buddhist teachings (protectors, etc.) in the context of psychology.

          I think there is a lot of merit in not taking positions on some of these events — as Keats said in a different context — having “negative capability” and being able to sit with contradictions without irritating grasping after fact and reason. This approach, I think, is not far from Amod’s views on “humbleness”.

          • Amod Lele

            I do think there’s something intrinsically bad about contradictions, something that needs to be resolved, and that contradictions always ultimately tend to that resolution; I don’t think that point should be minimized. On the other hand, there is so much out there in the world that we don’t know, that the way to resolve those contradictions is often not clear. I think it’s good and important to feel that the contradiction is a problem to be resolved; but I think it’s also important that we be able to live with the contradiction – or at the very least, with the appearance of contradiction – in the meantime.

          • Thill

            (A) “I’ve found great depth and wisdom in Tibetan Buddhism.”

            (B) “being able to sit with contradictions without irritating grasping after fact and reason.”

            (A) implies that you have judged certain elements of TB in terms of “fact and reason”. It implies that those parts of it you deem deep and wise are free from contradictions. It also implies that you have accepted some affirmative and negative claims made in TB.

            I see no virtue in wanting to perpetuate a state of cognitive dissonance, one in which the mind holds contradictory beliefs. In fact, it strikes me as rather irrational.

            If one is not sure which of any two contradictory beliefs is true, then the wise thing to do is to suspend believing in either of them.

            Acceptance of supernaturalism, i.e., the view that there are aspects of reality which transcend, and, are, therefore, irreducible to natural phenomena, does not imply that “anything goes” concerning claims about supernatural phenomena.

            Thus, if I accept that reincarnation is highly probable, it doesn’t imply that I have to accept all the drivel dished out on the topic. If I consider seriously a supernatural explanation of a particular event, it doesn’t mean that I have to always consider supernatural explanations for every event.

            The relations among humility, diffidence, confidence, and arrogance need exploration. “Epistemic diffidence” is not necessarily humility and “epistemic confidence” is not necessarily arrogance. In certain conditions, “epistemic diffidence” may be a vice and “epistemic confidence” a virtue.

            The Buddha’s first discourse was on the four noble truths, not four noble possibilities or probabilities! Do his categorical affirmations belie a lack of “epistemic humility”? I don’t think so.

            Bahina Bai calls a person who disbelieves in reincarnation a “fool”. She asserts that she has clear memories of her past lives. Is she guilty of a lack of “epistemic humility” in making those assertions? I don’t think so!

            • JimWilton

              If you accept a path that involves the uncovering of ignorance and delusion — then that implies that, at early stages of the path, not everything will be free of confusion. So I think it is appropriate proceed cautiously.

              Also, if the test of a philosophy is realization (as it is in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies and religions), then you can miss the boat either by accepting teachings as true without experience of the truth (which leads at best to an intellectual understanding and at worst to dogmatic belief) or by rejecting teachings without taking the time and effort to understand them on an experiential level. The Buddhist teachings say that intellectual understanding based on logic and reason is a patch that falls off. Realization results in certainty — without a hair’s tip of doubt.

              The irony, of course, is that you have to start somewhere. I think some confidence can come from the relative teachings — which are subject to intellectual understanding. The difficulty is in finding confidence in absolute truth, dealing with subjects such as shunyata. For these, meditation practice, including various devotional practices that somehow seem to break down barriers to experience of absolute truth, is necessary. Actually, devotional practices may not be strictly necessary for all practitioners — but it is an easier and more certain approach.

              It is also not as if the goal of enlightenment is everything. That is, actually, a confused approach. Practices oriented toward developing compassion, cultivating generosity, etc. relieve a great deal of suffering and are a good starting place. Even shamatha practice, limited as it is, very effectively ventilates mental fixation and attachment and can be a real benefit.

              • Thill

                All these inner paths require “Śraddhā” or “faith”, not merely “some confidence”, but a great deal of it.

                Of course, it is achieved progressively by a process which involves neither the suppression of doubt nor addiction to it.

                As doubts arise, “grasping after fact and reason”, or recourse to them, directly, or indirectly by means of reliable testimonies, is one of the important means of their resolution. Unresolved doubts tend to manifest themselves in the aberrant defensive forms of dogmatism, fanaticism, persecution of critics, etc.

                Having spent a few months in a TB monastery, I appreciate a few things in TB, notably, the emphasis on compassion, but I am unable to embrace TB, or Buddhism generally, because of the serious lacuna in accounting for the existence and structure of the cosmos and the deep-seated incoherence in denying the self and its continuity and at the same time advocating the pursuit of ethical values and spiritual goals, not to mention reincarnation and karma.

                The prescription and pursuit of any goal is meaningful only if we presuppose a continuity between the self which pursues it, or is asked to pursue it, and the self which treads the path and eventually achieves the goal.

                Curiously, the very notion of an “account of the life of the Buddha” implies this continuity in the self of that person, albeit shorn of selfishness.

                It is also helpful to be wary of fixating on Shunyata. Shunyata or emptiness is a mode, but not the only mode, of ultimate reality. “Fullness” or “Purnam” is also a mode of ultimate reality.

  • Thill

    Re: Reincarnation

    I recently read the autobiography, “Atmamanivedana”, of a remarkable woman mystic, Bahina Bai (1628 – 1700), from Maharashtra, India, in an abridged English translation by Justin Abbott.

    In this autobiography, which offers an eloquent testimony to her sincerity and simplicity, she offers her recollections of thirteen of her previous lives and claims she has the same clarity of perception of them as she has of her image in a mirror in front of her.

    She proclaims that “Desire is in truth the cause of births. This I know by experience”.

    In her account, the details of her past lives are fragmentary, but it appears that she did not intend to give an exhaustive account of them and only wanted to communicate to her son that they were also closely related in their previous lives.

  • Thill

    Re: Bahina Bai’s recollections of her past lives

    “In this autobiography, which offers an eloquent testimony to her sincerity and simplicity, she offers her recollections of thirteen of her previous lives and claims she has the same clarity of perception of them as she has of her image in a mirror in front of her.”

    Correction: She describes only twelve of her past lives, but says that although she has recollections of more lives than that, she has chosen not to describe these other lives:

    “Just as one sees one’s image in a mirror, so all my births appear to my eyes. Fools….regard falsehoods as true. One should not talk to such. Only when the crow smells the musk, then only can a fool have the skill of understanding former births. I can remember everything previous to my (previous) thirteen births, but there is no good served in stating it.” (Autobiography, pp.58-59, translated by Justin Abbott)

  • Thill

    “irritating grasping after fact and reason.”

    This strike me as anti-truth in temper. Grasping after fact and reason is constitutive of any commitment to the value of truth and the search for truth.

    It’s better to be grasping after fact and reason rather than chimera and unreason, or worse, to exhibit an indifference to fact and reason.

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