Escaping Immanence

The following is an amplification to Footnote[11] of my post An Immanent Problem. After posting it, I have added some additional thoughts towards “escaping immanence” derived from philosophical thinking. These could provide the basis for a number of future posts, perhaps even a book. They address the fundamental question of immanence and transcendence: how does the matter and energy of the natural order relate to the source of that matter and energy? Does Nature somehow make itself out of some immanent “nothing,” or do the things of Nature come from a Source of an entirely different order? It makes a world of difference, to say the least, if the Source is different from the world.

Let me comment first that I find great value in physicist David Bohm’s concept of an “implicate order.” This does not mean that I necessarily embrace his interpretation of quantum physics. There is insufficient space to go into that now (but see footnote [7] of the original post). In brief, “implicate” as used here refers to a situation where the “parts” are related to and enfolded within a larger whole, where in one sense the “whole” has a priority over its “parts.” An implicate order is one of unbroken wholeness, where “parts” can not be fully intelligible if torn apart from a larger whole which gives them meaning. This is radically different from the nominalist mindset of the modern world, where separation, autonomy, and individuality takes precedence, and the enfolding whole in which the individual thing is situated is often invisible or thought to be unimportant. It is the intentional forced blindness of nominalist reductive positivism that I critique as inadequate to the actual (yet incomplete) knowledge of the real which human beings have achieved.

Footnote 11 occurs in the following text of the original:

We succumb to a blinding positivism if we think truth is only about the correctness of propositions. We must not forget that the linguistic root to the Greek (and New Testament) word for truth, ἀλήθεια (alethia), is a compound word bearing the sense of uncovering, unhiding, making manifest [11]. Truth has the dimension of a revelation of being, an epiphany of what is.

[11] As Martin Heidegger never tired of reminding us.

The following is my brief and all-too-short amplification of the original [11].

Heidegger’s discussions of alethia as unconcealment may be idiosyncratic, but undoubtedly captures something of the notion of truth that is also in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures and in Thomas Aquinas (I follow the Greek path here; a Hebrew path would track in related directions): if there is a real relation or conformity between what is in our minds and what is in the world, the things in the world are, in some sense, manifesting, unconcealing, revealing something of themselves faithfully to our minds. Heidegger’s phenomenology gets the unconcealing part right. See also my discussion of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the final class of a teaching series I did on science and faith. Coleridge’s insights point to the active role our minds play in giving us the “world” in which we live–we do not “make up” any world we like, but what we do with what we receive from the world counts towards how we engage with that world, with what it is to us. Coleridge and Aquinas are not inconsistent in how they see it; both have a rich implicate understanding. See also Charles Taylor’s 2016 book, The Language Animal, for how language forms us even as we form it. Heidegger considered language to be the “house of being;” “being” takes up its residence and finds its expression in the unbounded scope and shaping power of human language. It makes a difference what we say about things.

Truth involves more than correct propositions, and truth has an inescapably social aspect (i.e., a relational one). Perhaps we should put it this way: immanent truth participates in an implicate order involving the world, human beings with minds, and the transcendent source of both. Departing from an overemphasis on the autonomous self in modern thinking, I say “human beings with minds” since we all use language in conveying truth, and it takes an implicate order of many human beings with minds to have and use language. Human beings are inescapably social animals, and this colors their political, religious, scientific, and philosophical ways of being; we can only be human together, never alone. I say transcendent source since the very possibility of an implicate order of the language we use must be grounded in a prior order in which it is implicate (at the very least, before there can be carbon-based life with speaking beings like us there must first be an ordered cosmos that supports our being here as speaking beings). We depend on a source that exceeds us. The only question is whether the transcendent source is finite, immanent (as in Heidegger and most modern thought) or unbounded, truly transcendent, of an entirely different order (see my poem, “The hidden work of being”).

This transcendent grounding is not negated by the concept of immanent naturalistic emergence (a concept from the science of complex systems by which more complex entities arise from a simpler substrate), since such emergence is also implicate: the immanent and transcendent intertwined [1]. We must go deeper: “In the beginning [ἀρχή, arché] was the Word (Λόγος, Logos)” (John 1:1). John’s Gospel identifies the Word (Logos) both with God and with Jesus Christ, the transcendent and the immanent in intimate union: “The Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. John’s “beginning”, Greek ἀρχή, carries the sense of “in principle”, “originating source,” or “at the root or ground of.” The ἀρχή as source is not “back then” in time so much as it is the ever always now of the transcendent immanent grounding, a grounding that John identifies with the Word, the Logos. This is profoundly beautiful philosophical theology, as well as profoundly good news: our Universe is endowed with an inherent communicable intelligibility in its originating Source. We are never alone, autonomous, atomized, like moderns think we are, for, as John also says, without the Word, Logos, “was not any thing made that was made.” This is why I can not separate “science” and “theology,” although I can and should distinguish them: each is implicate in the other, and as such, each has a relative autonomy that can respect the other.

No “science” is possible without a transcending order, Logos, and all science must place a basic trust in the existence of such an order [2]. All things come together in their origin, ἀρχή, which is also their τέλος telos, end. The Logos says at the very end of the Greek Scriptures, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning [ἀρχή] and the end [τέλος].” John’s ἀρχή is fully cosmological in breadth, holding Word and world together; nothing is outside of its scope. Being is resident in Word.

The Universe manifests emergent intelligible order because at its root is intelligible transcendence (but note: intelligibility does not negate mystery, for the transcendent ἀρχή unboundedly exceeds what the immanent can lay hold of). The world’s order and its ἀρχή are intelligible because they manifest Logos, Word, Reason itself, although the ἀρχή is also hidden because it is utterly transcendent. It is perhaps surprising that, in a sense, the very radicality of the grounding transcendence (its utter “otherness”) makes itself almost invisible in what it effects. This invisibility can even be seen as an aspect of the goodness of the grounding transcendence, a “letting go” to secure the freedom latent in our human encounter with reality. I am indebted to the thinking of the German philosopher Ferdinand Ulrich (1931-2020) for insights along these lines, and to David C. Schindler of the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D. C. who has translated Ulrich’s work. Ulrich preeminently worked in the light of Thomas Aquinas as he developed an “existentialist” perspective through which one might understand being and the “real distinction” between being and beings. My sense is that a contemporary appropriation of Aquinas’s insights has merit for developing a “postmodern” realist metaphysics for understanding contemporary science, including quantum physics (a few hints are here).

Goodness, truth, and beauty are eminently real because they participate in immanent transcendence. Their absence is prime evidence in the classical philosophical tradition of the lack that we call evil. Their lack in our modern political order is also a clear indication of the evil driven by those who think they are doing good–it affects all parties, left and right alike. It is a horrific evil to drive truth and goodness from the public square. A radical thinking is essential if that evil is to be overcome.

Martin Heidegger

I will offer a few thought about Heidegger here but will need to deal with him in more detail elsewhere. Heidegger is challenging, deep, complex, brilliant, highly influential in 20th Century thought, and highly problematic also, not the least because of his association with the Nazis. I am not a Heideggerian, although I have learned much from his writings, some of which is profoundly beautiful, full of phenomenological insights. As Augustine taught long ago, we can learn much from those who are not of us but yet hold to the truth. The reason I can not follow Heidegger to the end is that his “transcendence” is ultimately immanent, as is his Being, and thus, like so much of “postmodern” thought, is ultimately predicated on nothingness, the nihil, unbounded negativity. Or so it seems in Heidegger, since his thought is complex and subtle and often difficult to see what he intends. By contrast, true Transcendence that grounds immanence is predicated upon unbounded positivity, although it is right to say that our immanent world is, in the sense of creatio ex nihilo, truly “from nothing.” It makes an enormous difference whether the “nothingness” over which we hover is grounded in unbounded positivity, the Ipsum Esse Subsistens [Subsistent Being Itself] of Thomas Aquinas from which all other things are ex nihilo, instead of being grounded in the negativity of an ultimate nihil, as it seems in Heidegger.

Let me just add, for the sake of ideas coming out of contemporary physics, that the “quantum vacuum” (from which a universe might spring) is anything but a “nothing.” Such a “vacuum” is, like all immanent things, a “some-thing” already ex nihilo and thus partaking of an essential positivity implicated in the real actuality of immanent being. A quantum vacuum makes nothing itself; it is made to be what it is ex nihilo as a freely given gift grounded in the unbounded positivity and goodness of Ipsum Esse Subsistens, from which anything whatsoever receives the capacity to be what it is and do what it does. In more ordinary language, we say all things, including the highly ordered “quantum vacuum,” come as a gift of the unbounded goodness and love of God, the One who gave His Name to Moses in the burning bush: “I AM.”(Exodus 3:14) Which is what Ipsum Esse Subsistens is trying to get at: God understood as Subsistent Being Itself (Thomas invokes Ex. 3:14 in his discussion of God near the beginning of Summa Theologiæ, Book I, Q2, A3). Aquinas knew well, however, that when it come to such ultimate things, our positive statements must come to an end, and we can only enter a darkness of unknowing where we can say no more (Aquinas is indebted to the Tradition for this, especially the intriguing pseudo-Dionysius; but Ludwig Wittgenstein also knew there is an end to what we can say, beyond which we must remain silent; the title of John Bell’s little book on physics also says it well: “Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics”). Heidegger’s insights illumine (but can not remove) that darkness and help us to see that it must be there–we deceive ourselves by too much positivity that forgets and fails to wonder at the ultimate ex nihilo grounding of immanent being.

The essence of my (and others) criticism of Bacon’s project is that it tends to a forgetfulness of the humility required by such essential darkness (To Richard Feynman’s credit, he understood the need for humility in our scientific quest). We need to be aware of the nihil lest we become prideful–humanity has a calling to an appropriate mastery within the natural order, yet we can only ever be masters of what is ultimately given ex nihilo from a Source to which we must answer. The darkness of the ex nihilo is not without its own paradoxical light. Saint Thomas knew about Saint Paul’s desire “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19, ESV). There is knowledge that surpasses knowledge. That is possible since we live in an implicate order of transcendence-in-immanence that is made manifest in the most concrete analogia entis (analogy of being) we have: the enfleshed Word, Jesus Christ, the ἀρχή and τέλος of all things. Love transcends immanent logic and spatiotemporal limitations. I would put it this way: the story of Jesus either has cosmological significance–everything depends on Word becoming flesh–or it has no significance at all–eat drink and be merry for all is nothing. Jesus tells us he is the alethia (John 14:6), the unique uncovering, unhiding, revealing, manifestation of the face of God to the world, and thus the way to full life. And he taught us that in naming God, the one personal “I AM,” we need to say Father, Son, and Spirit. Reality is in the end a surpassing personal positivity, not a nihil of unrelenting impersonal negativity. It is also everywhere relational, inescapably implicate.

If one turns Heidegger around and allows the grounding ἀρχή to be given in the ex nihilo rather than in a nihil–being as real gift rather than being as ultimate nothingness–then he has much to say on how we might overcome the dehumanizing dangers of a Baconian Technopolis. The Technopolis is blind because it forgets the ἀρχή and thus Being itself. Heidegger does good phenomenology, and he draws out something essential about the phenomena of which he thinks. His thinking is inescapably and beautifully implicate. As is the Logos, Alethia enfleshed.


  1. Developing this line of thinking requires going into a distinction between primary and secondary orders of causation; see for example, my very brief articles for Biologos and for the Anglican Way Magazine. I say this can be done in a way that answers a critique given, for example, by Sarah Lane Ritchie, “Dancing Around the Causal Joint: Challenging the Theological Turn in Divine Action Theories,” Zygon 52, no. 2 (2017). My use of Thomas seeks to be “developmental,” not merely “traditional,” about which I intend to write more. Our language is always already participating in an implicate order of being whenever we wish to speak about how we view phenomena within that order. There is no language without a tacit viewpoint. We make language and language makes us within its implicate enfolding, as being comes to saying (as I like to put it).
  2. Physicist Roland Omnes points out in his book, Quantum Philosophy: Understanding and Interpreting Contemporary Science,“… science is possible because there is order in Reality. …The whole of science suggests such an answer, but science alone cannot establish or even formulate it …”. Omnes does not hesitate to apply the Greek term Λόγος, Logos, to the order that makes science possible.