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Neo-Transcendentalist Philosophy

Chris Lucas

"The philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos."

William James, Pragmatism, 1907, Lecture 1

"Complexity is the property of a real world system that is manifest in the inability of any one formalism being adequate to capture all its properties. It requires that we find distinctly different ways of interacting with systems. Distinctly different in the sense that when we make successful models, the formal systems needed to describe each distinct aspect are NOT derivable from each other."

Don Mikulecky, The Complexity of Nature


If we are to go beyond the ideas of objective reality, beyond even the ideas of the subjective mind, and into a new vista of evolutionary abstract thought, then we need to walk a tightrope between the chaotic vagaries of much mystical thought and the static determinism of the mathematical equivalent. This edge-of-chaos transcendental thinking we call here neo-Transcendentalism.

It is characterised by taking the best aspects from spiritual thinking, adding the down to earth approach of science, merging with the creative flexibility of mind and then stirring the whole with the lure of a better future via evolutionary choice. This is not Utopian, it is not Other Worldly, nor is it Materialistic. It transcends those static categories and offers a dynamic, complexity related, way of thinking that treats the whole not the part, one eminently suitable for the 21st Century.


The objective view relates to a consensus about what exists. This is often mistakenly assumed to be Reality itself, and scientific theories and doctrines are often claimed to be infallible Truths or Laws of Nature. The history of science however disproves this, and we can now see that whatever laws or predictions we make, however good the mathematics, still relate only to a relatively narrow view of a world based upon human nature, our values and interests.

Nethertheless, the methods of science are validated by its success in understanding many natural phenomena and in allowing us to exercise control over our lives and direction by the use of science-based technology. Scientific methods relate to the testing of ideas, and we can freely adopt them in all areas of life, not just in the materialist realm so beloved of experimental science. Agreement in this new view is science, where we overcome our differences (by whatever form of testing that we are able to use - discussion, logic, experiment, etc.) and reach what can best perhaps be described as a probabilistic consensus.


The subjective viewpoint relates then not to the agreements between people but to their disagreements. It is often claimed that since all people are different then there are no absolute criteria for any agreements between them. In the sense that there is no one-to-one correspondence between any two humans that is certainly true, yet for any particular issue we care to choose, from the thousands of possible interests that we possess, we find agreements between groups of people on that issue. It is this local agreement about difference that often leads to the conflicts that define relativistic thought, with the formation of dogmatic pressure groups.

What subjectivism teaches us should instead be tolerance, a love of diversity. It is from the presence of alternative viewpoints that much of the interest and value arises in our societies. Humans have curiosity, and this manifests as a search for the new, whether through thoughts, objects or sensations. This aspect relates to the creativity within our world and without this both science and life itself would stagnate and decay.


This invented section title relates to our tendency to retreat away from the material or animal world and occupy an inner world of unreal ideas. These ideas may be inventions (from mythical monsters, via games to perpetual motion machines) that manifest later in art or technology, they may be abstract techniques like symbolic mathematics or religions that affect our lives in derived ways, or they may be concepts that remain for ever imaginary (e.g. dreams of stardom).

This ability to generate multiple mental realities is highly important, both in terms of our evolution and in our ability to test our ideas. In the former case it allows us to generate new possibilities at great speed and with total freedom, and in the latter it enables us to choose between them to select for action only the best ideas. This, almost uniquely perhaps, enables humans to direct their lives in beneficial (or otherwise) ways. This form of teleology does not conflict with science, and in fact usefully shapes the direction in which we study the world. It would be fair to say however that humans no longer live predominently in the material world but exist largely in non-material realities - abstract worlds.

Idealism and Realism

Rather oddly, we have a tendency to separate out our abstractions into two classes of thought, those related to our material world and those going beyond it. In the first grouping we find such areas as mathematics, where generalisations (e.g. geometric figures) are given lives of their own (for example in Plato's world of ideal forms). Some people consider such worlds to genuinely exist, occasionally imbuing such creations with a reality even more real than that of the material world.

Mostly however these worlds are recognised as human creations and have no independent reality. They are of use to us in modelling our wider reality and in shaping it. Whether we take the philosophical idealist stance that the world doesn't exist outside such thought or take the realist version that the world itself gave rise to the thought matters less than the recognition that such abstractions are instrumental in determining how we behave. They themselves do have reality and are causally effective, but at a higher level than material objects, and are what we call in complexity thinking 'emergent properties'.


The second abstractionist grouping relates to what is usually called religious. We will ignore the external aspects here (the social practices) and concentrate on the abstract ideas behind such concepts. In this view, other worlds also exist beyond our material one and we are able (in the common meaning of spiritualism) to communicate with them in some way. These worlds may be regarded as being distinct from our own (e.g. heaven and hell) or may inhabit other dimensions not yet known to science (e.g. the astral planes)

Given that there are multiple alternative viewpoints adopted regarding this issue, we may employ the methods of science to test their implications, in the hope of determining the most appropriate model for our purposes. The structure of that isn't important here, but the idea that we may need to take account of several alternative realities or worlds in any such judgement is crucial. Completeness or generality is an highly important measure of any scientific theory, and a world of multiple levels is clearly richer and more complete than a model based only upon a single, material, level. This implies that truth is a multidimensional concept, a set of layers all of which must be included for validity, and this is also the case within complexity thinking.


One of the more recent transcendentalist movements was that associated with Emerson and Thoreau in the mid 19th Century. This supported educational innovation and reform of society also, within an individual worldview that committed to intuition as a way of knowing and proffered belief in the divinity of both man and nature. Despite a generally non-scientific approach, this went along with the earlier transcendental idealism of Kant, in which all knowledge relates to the interplay of senses, reason and intuition, and cannot be derived by any one in isolation.

Kant's use of transcendental relates primarily to the idea that we must transcend our senses to understand the world. In other words we need to invent the rules interrelating our sense data in such a way that they prove useful to us, and it is in this sense that we use the term here. What is important is that there are many ways of doing this, thus reality isn't a predetermined system waiting to be discovered but is an open system on which we can impose alternative views and structures.


These alternatives often relate to our values. For a traditional physicist perhaps only current material composition is important, whilst for a biologist or geologist historical development figures highly. More human issues can relate to desired future societies or to creativity. It is natural to contrast what is current (in any field) with what could be, and many writers have imagined Utopias that met their ideals for society. Such futurism or looking ahead can follow two modes, evolutionary or revolutionary. We are more familiar in history with the latter, with its tendency to sweep away the good as well as the bad from current society. In complexity terms this invariably lowers overall quality of life for the affected societies (at least in the short term) - it is negative-sum.

The alternative mode of gradual change came more to the fore following Darwin, and remains heavily influential in biology. Often this is regarded as an undirected or random form of progress, yet all creatures make decisions of some sort, especially humans. Thus the direction of evolution is not so much random as unpredictable, being the net result of billions of interacting decisions (along with random events) accumulating over time. This dynamism permits us to treat reality in a way that brings together all the ideas we have raised in the previous sections.

Complexism or Connectionism

A new way of thinking, complexity philosophy or complexism (sometimes called the connectionist viewpoint or perhaps connectionism), relates to complex systems, in other words to the interaction or coevolution of multiple diverse connected entities. It relies heavily on the concept of fitness, the idea that alternatives will vary in their ability to perform tasks and that it is our role to choose the fittest one, i.e. the one that will give best overall result.

Taking the creativity of subjective intuition, the modelling of idealism, the testing of objective science, the detached contemplation of abstraction, the multiple goals of spiritualism and merging these with the interactional fitnesses of complexity we obtain a new transcendental philosophy. This gives us a basis with which to quantify areas of life that have previously seemed unapproachable. We call this neo-Transcendentalist Philosophy.

What's in a Name ?

Although we have invented yet another new name, it must be said that none of the existing ones seem to suffice. We have here a viewpoint specifically designed to approach, in a scientific way, multiple-level systems (nested realities), containing multidimensional values (parallel goals). Most previous philosophical treatments (e.g. Humanist, Transpersonal) relate only to a single higher level and neglect the very real existence of lower levels of reality, which from a complexity viewpoint are of equal importance.

The idea of transcendence, of going beyond what has gone before, and doing so in a way exceeding that of the 18th and 19th Century uses suggests the term neo-Transcendence. The attempt by the New England (Emerson) group to combine a view of higher reality (transcendence) with its social applications at lower level (immanence) nicely incorporates our viewpoint. We add however to their romanticist approach, and to Kant's philosophy our own complexity science emphasis, in the folding back of the higher levels to encompass also the lower ones from which they arose.

Principles of Neo-Transcendentalism

Let us briefly state the main points of our new philosophy. Each of these is regarded as provable within complexity science or to be seen as self-evident with introspection:

Application Examples

To get a feel for what this philosophy means in practice, we can consider a few examples, based upon typical human choices and how we can approach them using the new methodology:

Playing Music

This gives us pleasure, but affects others also. We must balance our individual gain with possible multiple losses. These latter are contextual and depend upon time of day, loudness of music, whether played indoors or not, type of music (tonal/rhythmic content). Unwanted music is noise pollution to others, thus ecological considerations also apply. We would also wish to consider the effect of the music on us, what purposes do we wish it to serve - do they have positive evolutionary advantages ? What alternatives can we find at present - do any of these give a better overall fitness ? How could we change the future to present better alternatives ?

Scientific Research

We wish to gain valid knowledge but of what ? Here we should consider which values are involved in our motivation. What is our aim for the knowledge once we have it ? Are we choosing a field where we lack much knowledge, such that we can improve our overall balance or does our choice worsen this balance ? What assumptions constrain our possible methods and are there better ones to adopt ? Does our search worsen quality of life in any other areas (e.g. by destructive experimentation) - if so is there a better approach ?

Educating a Child

Explain how his/her actions affect their own fitness, the physical world's, that of other people. List all the values affected by an action to gain a multidimensional understanding. Highlight coevolutionary consequences (e.g. retribution). Explore alternatives, ways of generating new ones and how their fitnesses compare. Show how a balanced action can help and not hinder group fitness. Investigate learning from the past and extrapolating actions into the future.

Personal Creativity

Our options to create require us to go into new territory, to break out of our existing world. We can look for new combinations of parts to highlight untried options. We can check what constraints we can relax to allow us to enter new territory. We can try to consider alternative values, other people, the planet, larger or smaller viewpoints. We can combine levels, use nested structures, try to merge what is usually separate. We can try to generate new emergent properties.


Do adverts enhance or reduce our fitness ? Is the information provided compensated by the time wasted by them ? Is the information valid data in the first place ? Does the payment made by the advertiser benefit the end recipient ? Have we taken into account the fitnesses of the uninterested majority ? What about the wasted resources in materials ? Are the overall fitness benefits balanced across all levels or selfishly allocated ?


The world comprises many interconnected levels, which form a continuum from atomic to social systems. Each level has new emergent properties and these all require consideration if we are to optimise the decisions which affect our lives and those of others. Balancing the values at all levels needs a form of multidimensional fitness evaluation, and this can best be provided by using the concepts of complexity science. Merging this scientific viewpoint with the world views of earlier holistic traditions leads us to the form of philosophy that we have called neo-Transcendentalism.

This viewpoint recognises that each level transcends the properties of the last, in a way not treatable by reductionist methods (which discard the important emergent properties). This means that an holistic, systems approach must be used instead, in which all levels are integrated in order to evaluate the overall fitness. In human terms we must employ a more intuitive methodology to achieve this, in preference to the single-dimensional intellectual methodology common to both traditional science and philosophy. We have outlined such a coevolutionary multidimensional methodology here.

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