Basic tenets of transcendentalism and challenge to the idea of a soul

Johnny asked:

I was wondering about a few of the basic tenets of Transcendentalism. As far as the Oversoul, or even Mind-Body Dualism, is there a particular philosophy which challenges the idea of a soul? Also, is Occam’s Razor really a good argument against the idea of a ‘God’ or higher being, or are there stronger arguments? And who should I be studying to get a strong basis for the argument of Altruism against Transcendentalism’s idea of individualism? My goal is to contrive as much information as possible to provide an alternative dissent to Transcendentalism.

Answer by Peter Jones

As someone new to this particular ‘ism’ I find myself unable to determine quite what the word ‘transcendentalism describes. This term seems to have been coined by opponents of various views held by a quite disparate group of philosophers. This group does at least seem to have had in common an appreciation of the Hindu scriptures, but this would make the term ‘transcendentalism’ inappropriate. I cannot comment on the basic tenets that define it.

In regard to which particular philosophies challenge the idea of an individual soul, there are probably more of these than there are philosophies that endorse it. Eastern philosophy generally rejects the idea. It is rejected by Hegel, Schopenhauer, Jung, Schroedinger and many other well known thinkers. Specific philosophies for which it is rejected would include Buddhism’s ‘Middle Way’ doctrine and, of course, atheism, materialism and others. For a precise and expert description of a philosophy that challenges the idea of an individual soul I would recommend Radhakrishnan’s The Philosophy of the Upanishads.

It seems to me that Occam’s Razor is a good argument against many of our ideas of God, When we explain a steam engine we do not need to invoke Him so we do not. If we can explain a phenomenon without invoking Him then why invoke Him? This is a very big ‘if’, however, and here is one problem with the principle of least hypothesis. We cannot know whether we require another hypothetical entity in our theory until we have completed the theory without requiring it. This is not a problem for steam engines, but in the case of the universe as a whole it is may be impossible to complete a theory without God in some form or other, and even if we do hypothesise God in some form or other it may still be impossible. We may need yet another hypothetical entity, or even two or three, or perhaps far fewer, or perhaps explanations of everything can never be complete by their very nature.

Are there are stronger arguments against God than the principle of least hypothesis? They would have to be addressed to quite specific definitions of ‘God’ and to quite specific instances of His supposed powers and properties, for otherwise their generality would render them ineffective. Each person may mean something different when they use this word ‘God’ and almost certainly they do. They may mean the bright shiny thing that rises every morning over the forest to which they occasionally sacrifice a virgin or two, or they may mean what your vicar or my priest means, or they may mean what the Sufi poet Rumi means, or what the biologist Dawkins means. Without knowing which God is our target no strong argument for or against would be possible. This is not to say that there either is or is not a way to define God such that there would be no strong argument against Him.

The next question appears a little odd to my eyes, for I struggle to see how there can be any opposition between altruism and individualism. The question of which of them is correct seems to be a clear example of a category error. If Thoreau, Emerson and the others took the Hindu vedas as a common inspiration then they must have been all for altruism and individualism, and also for selfishness and society. These would not be mutually exclusive categories for a philosophy of unity, as if we must choose between them, as the terms ‘nondualism’ and advaita imply when they refer to the Upanishadic teachings.

As for the final question, I doubt you will be able to find a good argument against Transcendentalism until it is defined more clearly than in any source I have yet found. It may be more a more practical plan to attack the ideas of people like Emerson and Thoreau directly without worrying about which ‘ism’ you have filed them under. It seems unlikely that they agreed about everything. Or better still attack the Upanishads rather than their interpreters.

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