What “transcendence” means to me first is an atypical state of the body/brain. The body has a default range of states giving rise to default states of consciousness. While the whole body is involved, I’ll focus on the brain for simplicity. Let’s say the brain operates via a system of modules and networks. These each have a default range of typical functions and states. While the modules normally function in specialized ways by default, they have a greater range of potential functionality and interconnectivity. This is often thought of as plasticity or maleability but I also think of it as *configurabilty*. Both modules and networks have typical configurations and typical functions under typical conditions, but they also have alternative possible configurations under atypical conditions. These atypical conditions can include voluntary practices like meditation, trances, chanting, moving the body in special ways, ingesting substances, doing art, etc. and they can include atypical external conditions like extreme danger.
The psychedelic experience has been the “kick starter” to many a journey of enlightenment or transcendence for many thousands of years, but I see great promise in modern cognitive neurobiology to demystify, dereligify, and despiritualize the process and cut through the snake oil and mumbo jumbo. Dr. John C. Lilly was a pioneer in this, interpreting the effects of pyschedelics and other altered states of the “human biocomputer”. I had the great privilege of spending two weeks with him and his isolation tank at the Feathered Pipe Ranch in the early 70s. Sam Harris is one of the recent contributors to this approach, particularly his work on communicating the meditation phenomena in modern terms, but I’m disappointed he’s been neglecting the neuroscience in favor of his celebrity career.
The transition from the esoteric mushroom cult, the shamans hut, the monastery, and the temple to the lab may leave some airy fairy folk disappointed in a loss of mystery, glamour, and romance, but eventually it may make cognitive hygiene and cognitive development, probably with the aid of immersive virtual reality based brain training, more available to the masses.
Of course what we call soul is “real” in many of the effects we attribute to it, but IMO soul is a metaphor or place holder for phenomenology we understand only vaguely. Its a little like optical illusions. They are real in one sense and unreal in another sense. Our perceptions are real but they are not faithful to what they are assumed to represent. Understandably many think of things science can’t yet explain as supernatural or magic. Since science is still in its infancy or perhaps adolescence, it has only explained a fraction of the world. The unexplained parts may seem spooky sometimes, but there is no reason to see them as supernatural or magical. They are simply indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C Clark’s third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.