Epistemic and metaphysical transcendence
This post is an effort to clarify to myself what I think and mean by transcendence. Also I want to point out that conceding transcendence over theoretical thinking does not need to paralyzing doubt about the reliability and accuracy of our thinking; especially about religious truth.
When I write about getting the truth, I write as a representative realist. I write about our representations representing correctly or incorrectly a represented reality. Typically, the represented reality is thought of as not being a representation.
But what is the thought of not being a representation? A systemic feature of representative realism comes from it being reflective thinking, viz., thinking about thinking. In this theoretical thinking we are always thinking of representations. Consequently, while thinking as a representative realist, we cannot think of realities which are not representations. Thus, representative realists posit realities beyond thought as truth conditions for thoughts. This is epistemic transcendence.
However, acceptance of epistemic transcendence is a result from theoretical thinking about our thinking. It does not follow that when using practical reasoning we do not think directly about the realities which are beyond thought when using theoretical reasoning. For instance, when driving a car in traffic one is thinking directly about what is in the traffic; not representations of what is in the traffic. You are thinking about the car in front of you; not on how thoughts about the car can be correct.
A metaphysical argument for an ultimate reality on which all other realities depend is conducted in reflective theoretical thinking. A result is reached that an ultimate being is different from anything which can be thought. This theoretical result that there can be no thought of the Transcendent is metaphysical transcendence.
In both cases, we have theoretical claims that something cannot be thought in theoretical thinking. This concession should not lead to paralyzing doubt about our ability to think reliably and accurately.
First, it is almost impossible to separate our theoretical thinking, which is reflective thinking, from our practical thinking which, for all that we can say, deals directly with non-representational realities.
Even in the most austere theoretical thinking such as metaphysics and epistemology, we engage in the practical thinking of what words effectively express our thoughts and how to use technologies for writing those thoughts. Even in the most mundane technical projects such as washing dishes or painting a wall, we do the theoretical thinking of remembering what we have just done. For roughly the same reasons that we cannot think of things in themselves (non-representations), we cannot think of realities merely given to thought for practical reasoning. So, thinking which is totally theoretical and thinking which is totally practical probably transcend thought.
I take this as a basis for believing that for most of our thinking we do not need worry about the limitations of thought in epistemology and metaphysics.
Second, epistemic transcendence leads only to the mild skepticism that we cannot know that we know. See We cannot know that we know.
Third, metaphysical transcendence need only lead to decision that the “high metaphysical” thinking which posits the unthinkable Transcendent is not the only way to attain religiously significant truths. If the high metaphysics were the only way of attaining religious truths, true religion would be a mysticism indistinguishable from totally agnosticism or atheism.
There does, however, remain the problem of developing a religious epistemology showing how there can be truth conditions for religiously significant theories, such as a divine command moral theory, even if those truth conditions transcend our thought. These religiously significant propositions will be in that middle ground between purely theoretical thought and purely practical thought. We have noted that there is such a middle ground. It will be faith seeking understanding which motivates developing such a religious epistemology. And, yes, in this epistemology, we will concede for religious knowledge that we can never know that we know.