A Theological Payoff of Meaning’s Funny Foundation

napkin

As we’ve talked about before on this blog, the determination or judgment of a right decision — a “should” — is made up of what is valued (preferences, interests, goals, etc.) and what thing(s) would happen as a result of various decisions.consequentialismBoth of the above pieces are required.

  • If you’re not looking at prospective results, you’ll have nothing to gauge.
  • If you’re not looking at what is valued — at least implicitly — then you’ll have no metric (like weighing a bowl of cereal without any reference to “grams” or “ounces”).

The following illustrates how goofy it is to weigh things while lacking one or the other:

scales

This isn’t some stretched analogy, as if this double contingency is a requirement for cereal-weighing but not for decision-gauging. Try to build a decisionmaking A.I. without both of these. It can’t be done without building a pure deontological A.I. (what’s called an “expert system,” which blindly follows a pile of “If this do that” rules).

Most of us understand that prospects are important. Unfortunately, we forget that the value definition is equally as important. It’s just that we normally define that value implicitly and ambiguously — it’s usually some vague amalgamation of things like happiness, satisfaction, contentment, fulfilled aspiration, liberty, delight, and nonsuffering.

That we think these things are “good” does not require some ultimately rational appeal. In fact, if we go groping for a rational “justification” for “liking satisfaction,” we’ll end up making appeals endlessly. That’s because each value justification must, in turn, have a justifying value, giving us a disaster like this:

infinite

 

The Funny Solution

The strange, unsatisfying solution is to admit that our decision judgments, while containing rational and objective components (“What thing(s) would result?”), also necessarily contain non-rational parts that represent values we “just have.”

You could say that they’re “part of us” or “part of our nature,” but because we’re causal and contingent and mutable beings, we have to remember that “who we are” is dynamic and can change.

So, at the end of the day, we’re stuck with this: There’s stuff we just like, and some of it can be changed, and some of it can’t, and it cannot be ultimately rationally justified.

It’s — ultimately — non-rational.

Is That Biblical?

Ecclesiastes tells us that there is no ultimately objective meaning, and that this is an “upright and true” teaching.

We dealt with this before:

But the fact of the Bible teaching us about a certain philosophy does not mean that this philosophy is useful to us as we develop and criticize theology. It might just be a ball-and-chain we must “endure.”

In my experience, this is one of the most common reactions to the Bible’s existential view of meaning.

“Sure, the Bible says it,” one might admit. “But all that means is that we’re now burdened to deal with this sad, useless, but true philosophy.”

But what if the non-rational basis of value was theologically useful? What if the Bible told about the ultimate non-rationality of meaning not just to burden us, but to help solve some of our most vexing problems when thinking about God, his will, and his plan?

It’s Theologically Useful

The essential non-rationality of meaning serves as a reduction-stopper, which aids us significantly toward solve questions of God’s interests, theodicean problems, and maintaining the difference between God’s direct and indirect orchestration.

Let’s talk about two examples of reduction-stopping that we employ for the every-day concepts of:

  • Appreciating pets
  • Recognizing altruism

Appreciating Pets

I know that my dog is material. He is a complicated machine, a collection or colony of cells.

In turn, those cells are colonies of organic molecules, which are in turn bundles of atoms. My dog is, thus, a bundle of atoms when we fully reduce.

I also know that a dirty napkin is also, at its fundamental level, a bundle of atoms when we fully reduce.

Given these facts, are these my only two options?:

  • Treat my dog and a dirty napkin equivalently
  • Deny that they are both, ultimately, collections of atoms

No, of course not.

The third option is reduction-stopping.

I love my dog. I interact with him, and like doing that. He does all sorts of things that resonate with me, in good ways and bad. He keeps me occupied and energized and satisfied.

A dirty napkin, by contrast, cannot do those things I like.

As such, I can stop that radical reduction as it suits my interests, and proclaim, “My dog is quite meaningfully different from this dirty napkin.”

Where did that meaning come from? My interests. Do I need to justify those interests? No; such a justification is ultimately impossible (as we discussed), and it’s moot. The fact is that I have those interests and, as such, a meaningful distinction is appreciated.

Recognizing Altruism

There are selfish motivations and altruistic motivations.

But I know that even altruistic motivations are driven by my own interests. In a very real sense, even sacrificing my life is an egoistic act, since it is a product of self-satisfaction, where the part of myself interested in preserving others is taking control over that of which is interested in preserving myself — but it’s still my interest!

Some folks say, then, that we can practice “eliminative egoism” and call all willed actions “selfish.”

But do we have to do this?

No, because we are also interested in a meaningful difference between actions that are grossly in self-service, often at the expense of others, versus those that overflowingly serve others!

It’s true that both are merely “actions in the world” and that both “proceed from self’s interests in the self’s brain,” but we appreciate the difference such that we stop that reduction, and proclaim, “Some actions are selfish, others altruistic.”

Direct and Indirect Orchestration

Those of us who “bite the bullet” on God’s complete sovereignty realize the difficulty in admitting that God is superordinately responsible for the “bad stuff” — Heb. raah.

We take some comfort in the fact that, when we parse out the different senses of “wanting” and “willing,” God creates evil only in one very limited and special sense, and does not create it in the 5 other, more common senses.

We talked about this a few weeks ago in the following article:

But even if we accept this approach (and I think we should), there’s still a problem of the reduction of orchestration. After all, the above argument only “works” if God finds value in being “hands off” — that he loves his creation, but prefers that it develop mostly naturally, in a “chaotic garden bloom” of emergence.

This yields the “bloom vestiges” of trivialities and non-instrumental evils (or, instrumental, but only insofar as it satisfies that “mostly hands-off” interest). It also explains God’s preference to remain invisible but be sought, explains his indirection through prophets and the like, and syncs-up very well with Scripture’s holistic picture of God’s activity (which, as it so happens, doesn’t involve a high frequency of public miracles).

But what’s the difference, if God ultimately orchestrates it all?

After all, under this theory, God set up the initial “rules,” as well as the initial conditions, of the “garden.” His sovereign “paint” covers the Earth and, as such, even indirect products of his plan can be reduced to “it was up to him.”

In other words, direct action and indirect actions (often through what’s termed “permissive will”) can both be reduced to “orchestration,” like how a napkin and my dog can both be reduced to “a bundle of atoms.”

This is where God “just preferring” to be mostly hands-off becomes useful. When we don’t require some ultimately rational justification for that interest — which, again, is impossible — this frees us to say, “God just prefers it.”

And this serves as our reduction-stopper.

God’s omniscience and omnipotence know no boundaries, and as such, his sovereign plan encompasses everything.

But just as God can appreciate the difference between a napkin vs. a dog according to his interests, and altruistic motivation vs. selfish motivation according to his interests, he can also appreciate direct intervention vs. indirect teleology according to his interests.

What a payoff! The “non-rational” foundation of meaning empowers reduction-stopping in all three cases.

By biting the bullet on the impossibility of “ultimately rational meaning,” a truth the Bible teaches anyway, we’re no longer (as theologians trying to understand and share the reality of God) burdened to justify — in an “ultimately rational” way — the point at which a reduction is halted.

And this allows us to say, “God is mostly hands-off because that’s what he prefers. And this preference, alongside his other interests (like to intervene when absolutely vital), yields everything that comes to pass.”

 

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Incoherence Revealed by Nonsensical Tethers

doubledown

It’s notoriously difficult to show that an incoherent concept is incoherent, particularly because those concepts nonetheless spark images and real meaning in our minds.

Incoherent concepts also have rhetorical utility, so those who wield them are afraid to give them up. This loss-aversion creates an extra barrier to understanding that incoherence.

In an earlier post, I called these things “logical wildcards” and showed, in the abstract, how irritatingly useful they can be. Like a KFC Double Down, they’re delicious in the lower-order/short-term but deleterious in the higher-order/long-term.

In that previous article, I talked about how logical wildcards can serve as “bridge-makers” and “bridge-breakers.”

  • Bridge-makers: Concepts that link premises to a conclusion when that conclusion should be a non sequitur. Especially useful when we desperately want something that we believe true to be provably true.
  • Bridge-breakers: Concepts that serve only to deny the link from premises to a conclusion. Especially useful when benign premises lead to difficult conclusions. Difficulty makes us sad.

Bridge-making and bridge-breaking, however, may have side-effects.

  • When you bridge-make, you may — as a side-effect — yield conclusions that obviously shouldn’t be connected to those premises.
  • When you bridge-break, you may — as a side-effect — posit a statement of “X makes Y impossible” that doesn’t actually make any sense.

When these two things happen, it’s an excellent red flag that the original concept that allowed that bridge-breaking or bridge-making was incoherent to begin with.

I believe, once these patterns are recognized in the abstract, this can serve as our most effective weapon against incoherent concepts.

Purgatorialism vs. Libertarian Free Will

One of the best examples of this comes up when we discuss purgatorial universal reconciliation, purgatorialism, or “PUR theology.”

Purgatorialism says that hell is purgatorial rather than endless, and eventually all will be reconciled.

Wrote St. Gregory of Nyssa, the most eloquent purgatorialist in the early Church:

“It will be useless to talk of [the contingency upon earthly failures] then, and to imagine that objections based upon such things can prove God’s power to be impeded in arriving at His end. His end is one, and one only; it is this: when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last — some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by the Fire.”

Libertarian free will is the vague notion that our decisions somehow lack external origination.

To protect this “self-origination” — usually out of a mistaken view that it is required for ascription of responsibility — “Open” fans of libertarian free will posit that no decision of man can be completely predicted, even by God himself. The “non-Open” folk will say that God can foreknow, but not predetermine.

Now, under purgatorialism, if GIVEN that God’s willed end is a full reconciliation, and GIVEN an omnipotence shall meet his willed ends eventually, there logically follows a 100% certain prediction that everyone will eventually choose God, even if after a purgatorial hell.

Uh oh! That’s a problem. “Open” fans of libertarian free will cannot tolerate a 100% certain prediction with regard to the choices of man. And “non-Open” fans of libertarian free will cannot tolerate a blanket eventual destiny — something about that reconciliatory hope is bleakly oppressive to them.

So, the argument goes, “Purgatorialism must be false because it would destroy libertarian free will.”

Here’s the rhetorical question:

  • Why on Earth would the manner in which we make decisions make an eventual universal reconciliation impossible? Through what mechanism or tether would this be the case?

The answer to this rhetorical question is:

  • There is no such mechanism or tether.

And this is a huge red flag for the incoherence of libertarian free will.

(Any deterministic paradigm, by contrast, has such a tether: The “domino chain” serves that role.)

Is the Prediction the Problem?

The stalwart, “Open” libertarian free will fan might say, “All this means is that God can’t make the prediction with certainty. Purgatorialism may be true, but not even God knows whether it’s true.”

They forget that this collapses into, “God cannot predict with certainty that anyone will be saved, nor can he say that anyone will be punished.” For “a mix will come to pass” is also a prediction made with certainty, and is ostensibly defiable by libertarian free will.

Any predictive prophecy, if given as “certain to happen eventually,” precludes libertarian free will if the fulfillment thereof could be delayed or affected by decisions of people, even if that prophecy is, “Some will be saved, others will be punished.”

This is the “mix problem” of prophecy + libertarian free will. We’d like to think that only sweeping proclamations would invalidate libertarian free will. But “Some will X, some will Y” has the same invalidating strength.

Weird, huh?

The Response

The response ought not be to rack one’s brain for a creative salvage of libertarian free will.

The simple response is, “This incoherent concept is spawning, as a side-effect, declarations that make no sense.”

The problem: Such a response is boring, and discussion ending, and difficult. Those qualities, especially in tandem, are memetically selected-against.

And that means we have to get ultra-excited about it and ultra-courageous about grappling with its challenges.


 

 

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Video Introduction to “The Angelic Ladder”

prolevideo

I recommend reading every post on this blog!

But one of the posts I’d especially recommend is the one entitled “The Angelic Ladder.” It articulates the intersection between deontology — “morality is all about the rules” — and consequentialism — “morality is all about what works.”

For us Christians, this affects:

  • Theodicy.
  • Theories of justice and responsibility.
  • Applied morality under the New Covenant.
  • And many, many more topics of theological vitality.

To help make it as easy as possible, I’d like to offer the following video introduction.

After watching the video, definitely follow-up by reading the article, “The Angelic Ladder.” It contains diagrams, extra details, and some more examples to really impart the importance of building our meta-ethics on the “ladder.”

 

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Correlation & Causation Pt. 2: Undead Philosophy

mummy

This is the second in a two-part series on correlation and causation, and how conflating the two can dramatically distort our perceptions and thinking.

The first part was about the exploitation by media, and the second part (below) is about the related philosophical and theological “bugs” that we must work to root-out.


Commission & Omission

undead1

Jimmy Fallon’s “Your Company’s Computer Guy,” about to recommend omitting action.

 

You’ve noticed that when confronted with a situation in which you must either commit action or omit action, you often take the omissive route due to a lack of information.

Acting recklessly beyond what is known can create all sorts of problems, which you know.

As a result, omissive action becomes generally correlated with “more correct” action.

But does this make omission less morally intense than commission? Is it always slightly more grevious, for example, to kill by commission than by omission?

No.

But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

Retribution & Remediation

undead2

Corporal punishment from the movie, “Catching Fire.”

 

You’ve noticed that when faced with the bad decision of someone over whom you have authority, you want to react in a way that teaches that person a lesson and corrects the problem, now and for the future.

This is the remedial prospect of assigning judgment.

But you’ve also noticed that, often, the response is something punitive — frequently, Pavlovian behavior modification that requires only that the person be repaid in proportion to how much you were wronged.

As a result, justice becomes generally correlated with “retributory” action.

But does this mean that this is the “point” of justice? Is the prospective “goal” merely to repay?

No.

But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

Assigning Responsibility

undead3

Gaius Baltar from “Battlestar Galactica”: Very blameworthy.

 

You’ve noticed that bad results can often be attributed to a single person making a single bad decision.

Usually, we’re all working as hard as we can for productive results, and when that goal is undermined, it’s usually because someone screwed up. If the cofactor was something mindless — like a broken pipe for which nobody has responsibility — then we often say, “Nobody is responsible.”

Thus, finding responsibility becomes generally correlated with finding a single, blameworthy decisionmaker.

But does this mean that this is how responsibility “works”? Is there always a single person solely responsible? And is it useful to limit responsible cofactors exclusively to decisionmakers? And is responsibility always about blameworthiness, never about creditworthiness?

The answer to all three is, “No.”

But it can feel like “Yes” due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

“Finding” Value

undead4

An invaluable gold statue of Michael Jackson.

 

You’ve noticed that when you look at an object of value, you think of the value “living inside” that object.

You also value things without consciously valuing them; you value food not because your rational mind is convinced of its utility, but because without food you feel hunger. That feeling is out of your control, and so it further feels like the food “contains” value.

You’ve also noticed that an object “becomes” more valuable the more work it would take to acquire or reacquire, which is not something over which you have arbitrary control.

Finally, you’ve been taught that certain things are valuable — even those things, which, if you hadn’t been taught as such, you wouldn’t value.

Thus, this constant bombardment of correlative lessons can make you feel like an object can have “intrinsic value.”

But can it, really? Would gold be valuable if there were no valuing things — that is, minds with interests — to respect it? Is value purely objective?

No.

But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

Objective Taste

undead5

A veggie pizza from Maurizio’s.

 

We all agree that taste is a matter of taste. Some people are going to prefer Armanno’s Pizza on 12th and some people are going to prefer Maurizio’s Pizza on Washington.

You’ve just been hired, however, to head up local marketing for Maurizio’s. What do you do, given that taste is a matter of taste?

You could run a blind taste-test in service of finding the “aggregate taste,” such that you could boast, “Most people prefer Maurizio’s!”

Unfortunately, the results indicate that most people, in fact, prefer Armanno’s.

Uh oh.

How about this.

You put together a campaign that proclaims Maurizio’s is just better. It just “tastes better.”

It’ll be true for some people, right?

And by wrapping it in objective language, you’ve divorced it from fickle personal preferences and given it the mystique of objectivity. Its superiority has been enshrined on a pedestal that no filthy human hands have touched.

If you weren’t the marketer, someone else would be. And they’d eventually start playing around with objective language. That’s because there’s selective memetic momentum toward enshrining things preference-based as objective, preference-less facts.

Pretty sleazy, right?

But, what if the success of Maurizio’s had some huge, higher-order payoff for everyone? What if that connection was hard to show, or hard to articulate, but nonetheless 100% true? What if, in the here and now, it’s absolutely vital for society that folks be convinced to go against their personal impulsive pizza tastes and gravitate toward Maurizio’s?

Suddenly, wrapping the marketing of Maurizio’s pizza within incomplete, “objective” language, however sloppy and technically erroneous, starts to have utilitarian merit.

The language “bug” becomes useful.

But does this mean that it isn’t a bug? Does this selective momentum suggest that these things really are a matter of purely objective worth and purely objective “rightness”?

No.

But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

Correlative Bugs

Each of these examples have been of myths, driving persistent philosophical questions, from ancient debates to contemporary contemplation.

Is commission more morally intense than omission? No. Omission is just more often correct, because it usually is less reckless (but is sometimes more negligent).

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

Is justice about pure retribution? No. Justice is about fixing a person or that which he represents in the abstract, but retribution is a very common, intuitive, and historically effective way of employing such fix attempts (even if the “fix” is “repair that which a murderer represents by locking him away forever”).

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

Is assigning responsibility about finding a single blameworthy decisionmaker? No. Assigning responsibility is about finding all causal cofactors in service of what needs to be fixed or encouraged. This just, very often, points to a single person’s behavior in need of repair.

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

Is there “intrinsic value”? No. Value is imputed by evaluators with interests. But there are all sorts of complications that make value seem, conceptually, “within object.”

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

Are there “objective interests”? No. “Subjective-as-objective” language errors are just very often useful for behavior modification, and behavior modification has been historically effective — perhaps even necessary – for social stability.

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

 

But the Undead are Entertaining

There’s a natural selective bias toward things that are exciting. It’s more fun to chatter than to sit in silence. Controversy is more entertaining than complacency. Story arcs sell better than story flatlines.

Remember that popular philosophy, just like anything else with the “popular” qualifier, is much more a product of memetics than of coherence or truth.


More reading:

 

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Let Him Who Hath Understanding Reckon 616

nero

There are lots of different ways to convert names to numbers, in order to get “the number of a man.”

It’s a bit tough, but occasionally, you’ll find that a person you don’t like has a name that “adds up” to 666 using one method or alphabet or another.

For example, if you’re a nutcase living in 1990, you might think that the Catholic Church is the “Whore of Babylon” and that Pope John Paul II is the “Beast of Revelation.”

Of course, Pope John Paul II is dead now. But, pretend it’s 1990.

Well, as it turns out, you can take the Latin name “IOANES PAVLVS SECVNDO,” add up the Roman numerals within, and the result is 666.

Coincidence? “Impossible! Pope John Paul II certainly will accompany the end of the world… perhaps a few years from now, in 1999!”

I guess the fact that he’s now dead, though, puts a damper on that theory.

But wait! Look at the Pope’s title, “VICARIUS FILII DEI”! That also adds up to 666! Hah! Pope Francis I must actually be “the Beast!”

But hold the phone!

It turns out that the founder of Seventh Day Adventism, “ELLEN GOULD WHITE,” also has a 666 name!

Man alive!

Back to Reality

Okay, maybe we need to demand more evidence than just name coincidences. After all, some guy named Dick X. Vale in Akron, Ohio would be “the Beast,” too.

For fun, let’s approach the situation with the premise that John actually intended for his readers — particularly “him who hath understanding” — to know who he was talking about. It would need to be a historical, villainous figure.

Second, let’s also employ the premise that John would have a reason to hide the person’s name using a number, like to avoid scandal or other socio-political problems.

Finally, let’s look at our source texts. There we actually find two numbers of the Beast. Some manuscripts have 666, others have 616. Let’s also have the premise that whoever the Beast is, his name must match both numbers depending on that name’s rendering. And, of course, that name would need to have multiple plausible and contemporaneous renderings in order to qualify.

That third premise is actually rather tough. It’s one thing to fit one number, but to fit both, that is, one or the other depending on the rendering? That’s a challenge.

These are some pretty big shoes to fill.

If we found a name that managed it, we’d have practical certainty that this name would be “the Beast.”

We Found a Name that Managed It

That name is Nero Caesar.

Is he a historical, villainous figure? Oh, you betcha.

Eusebius, a 4th century Christian historian in Rome, wrote:

“Publicly announcing himself as the first among God’s chief enemies, [Nero] was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero.”

He further wrote, quoting Tertullian a century earlier:

“Examine your records. There you will find that Nero was the first that persecuted this doctrine, particularly then when after subduing all the east, he exercised his cruelty against all at Rome. We glory in having such a man the leader in our punishment. For whoever knows him can understand that nothing was condemned by Nero unless it was something of great excellence.”

Not only were the Neronic persecutions of Christians a major atrocity, but Nero was the emperor who declared war against Jerusalem, a war which led to the prophetic destruction of the Temple.

2nd century St. Clement of Alexandria wrote of the abomination of the desolation as “the abomination of Nero.” Though he was dead by the time the Temple was destroyed, Clement wrote that, “[Nero] placed the abomination… in the holy city Jerusalem.”

Would John have had a reason to hide the person’s name using a number? Of course. Depending on the early historian we read, John wrote his Revelation either under Domitian with a retrospective in an apocalyptic literary mode, or under Nero himself.

Both emperors were notorious persecutors of Christians, and John was not about to provide new excuses for further abuse, like by overtly defaming present or past Roman emperors in his written material.

And finally, does Nero’s name, depending on the rendering, convert either to 666 or to 616 through the Hebrew Gematria? The answer is, astoundingly, “Yes.”

  • By the Hebrew rendering, NRWN QSR, his “number of a man” is 666.
  • By the Latin rendering, NRW QSR, his “number of a man” is 616.

In Revelation, the Beast, with the name of Nero Caesar, may have broadly represented the ancient power of imperial Rome, especially when set against God’s people, as Nero himself exemplified; “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?”

Partial Preterism

Partial preterism is the Christian eschatological view where a big chunk of Revelation has already occurred, describing first-century historical events through apocalyptic literature.

It has historically been the dominant eschatology among Christian theologians, although the 19th and 20th centuries saw revivals among “full futurist” groups.

One of the main reasons, and very good reasons, for its historical dominance is the fact that John addressed his Revelation to specific ancient, contemporaneous churches in and around what is modern-day Turkey. If John wrote a note beginning, “Dear Mother,” it would be silly and anachronistic to say that he meant it primarily for far-future audiences that were not his mom.

Where’s the “Split”?

If part of Revelation is about first century events and part is about events yet to occur, where’s the “split” between the two chunks?

The “split” that makes most sense for many partial preterists is the “millennium” of Revelation 20. Good early evidence for this “split” comes from St. Augustine’s City of God, where he found fault with those who thought the first resurrection of 20:5 was “yet to come.”

Since “thousand years” is taken figuratively, this form of partial preterism is “amillennial.”

The Nero Nail

The recent discoveries of the “616 manuscripts” confirm Nero’s “Beastship” and have supplied a nail in the coffin for much of the out-of-control conjecture and theory about Revelation that have cropped up over the last century or so, perpetuated by apocalyptic excitement and those who would profit by it.

As a Christian, I believe the Judgment has yet to occur. But the evidence to which we have access indicates that much of Revelation has already happened, way back in the tumultuous first century — where Christians were slain, the Temple was destroyed, and millions in the Holy Land perished — and was conveyed to John’s readers through apocalyptic literature.

 

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Correlation & Causation Pt. 1: Exploitation by Media

studies

This is the first in a two-part series on correlation and causation, and how conflating the two can dramatically distort our perceptions and thinking.

The first part will be about the exploitation by media, and the second part will be about the related philosophical and theological “bugs” that we must work to root-out.


Let’s take a look at event patterns in the world.

When we notice, through some study, that pattern A is correlated with pattern B, what does it tell us?

  • Does it mean that A makes B more likely?
  • Does it mean that B makes A more likely?
  • Does it mean that a third pattern, C, makes both A and B more likely?
  • Or, was the coincidence of A and B simply random noise?

The sad fact is that we don’t know which of these causal possibilities (and a non-causal possibility) is actually true. This is why we say, “Correlation does not equal causation.”

It turns out, though, that the brain is very eager — dopamine stimulated — to jump to causal conclusions. Furthermore, we’re most excited at the possibility — of the above four — that is most startling and weird.

It “feels” like new revelation.

And Commercial Media Knows This

Let’s say there’s a study that correlates non-married cohabitation with a higher incidence of physical abuse. What is the most sensible, boring explanatory possibility?

The most sensible, boring explanatory possibility is that there is a third factor C — likely something to do with socio-economic status, and population density, and the cultural byproducts therefrom — that makes non-married cohabitation and physical abuse rise in tandem, without being causally related to one another with any statistical significance.

But that’s “boring.” It doesn’t sell tabloid newspapers and doesn’t serve as social clickbait.

The more “exciting” possibility is that being non-married causes abuse.

This would have us conclude, “To lower partner abuse, those partners should get married.”

Which is, of course, precisely the opposite strategy one should employ.

The problem is, again, that we love counterintuitive revelations. There’s a measured “second opinion bias” that has us feel excited about having the “privilege” of being an honest devil’s advocate. As soon as we’re tricked into thinking that some bizarre claim is merely misunderstood, or deceived into thinking it has statistical backing, its “bizarreness” becomes extra fuel to fight on its side with conviction.

Whenever you read, or hear from a friend, about a study showing some A-to-B causation, do the following in your brain:

  • Un-cause the causation. Separate the two parts into “A” and “B.”
  • Run through the four explanatory possibilities mentioned before.
  • Evaluate which possibility makes the most sense. Extra points if it’s also boring, which is a memetic weakness.

But Remember: Common Sense Isn’t Infallible

At the same time, remember that certain systems in the world really are very complex, and can yield causal relationships that are both counterintuitive and true. Common sense gets you past the exploitive headlines, but it’s no replacement for an actual, knee-deep understanding of complicated systems.

In other words, common sense isn’t “common,” but it also isn’t always “sense.”

And Remember: Studies Can Be Awesome or Crap

When I did product management for social games, one of my jobs was user experimentation and data analysis in order to make design decisions that optimized the interests of the customer and company.

The reality is this: Data is absolutely vital for getting a correlative, and ultimately causal, understanding of how the world works.

At the same time: There’s no shortage of ways to screw it up, and even maliciously fudge the data, and perhaps even get away with it. We’ve seen this happen with the “vaccines cause autism” fiasco, where an atrocious study catalyzed a tragic memetic bloom that, today, continues to threaten the health of our children.

Conclusion

I think, if we all get a healthy scrutiny against urban myths about causal claims, and fight hard for the “boring,” we’ll go a long way toward killing memetically strong falsehoods, which is necessary to optimize peace, wisdom, virtue, and charity in the world.

For more about memetics and how to avoid the value pitfalls therein, rewind to the four-part series we ran earlier this year.

 

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The Gift Game & Prudent Hermeneutics

giftgame

Let’s play the Gift Game! It’s the hottest new game around.

The Gift Game tests your ability to extract the meaning of an unknown term by means of investigating the surrounding context.

But beware! The Gift Game can be sneaky, and if you’re not careful, you could end up practicing reckless hermeneutics.

Let’s begin!

- Round 1 -

guitarist1Okay. Take a look at the above passage. The Christmas gift represents a single word or phrase — used twice in the above sentence — whose meaning is unknown. You have to figure it out!

So, can you do it? Are you able to discern the contents of those gifts?

The correct move in the Gift Game, at this juncture, is to say, “I don’t know yet. I don’t have enough information.”

Okay, that round was easy. Let’s try the next one.

- Round 2 -

guitarist2Oh my! That’s an interesting addition. Does this provide us sufficient clues to “unwrap” the gift in our noggins?

Unfortunately, as might be apparent to you, we still don’t have enough information. The gift might contain “perfect,” as we Christians say that our God is perfect. But it might also just contain, “great.”

If it contained “great,” that wouldn’t mean that God lacks something. It just means that he is great. And that’s great! Lots of things are great across various metrics of measurement, finite and infinite.

- Round 3 -

guitarist3Yes, that’s more like it! Now we know that my daughter is an impeccable guitarist. Surely that means the gift contains something like “perfect” or “immaculate” or “infallible,” right?

No, I suppose not.

We’re still lacking vital information. The gift still could contain just “great.” What a challenging game the Gift Game is!

- Round 4 -

guitarist4Now we’re onto something! Given that last sentence, we now know enough to say that the gift contains something like “great” or “awesome” or “impressive.”

WE KNOW It does not contain “perfect,” because my son makes mistakes occasionally.

HOWEVER… This admission does not mean that we’re saying God is imperfect. That would be a non sequitur from the above admission.

Let’s open the gift box and see if we were right:

reveal1Excellent. “Hermeneutical Hero” achievement unlocked!

Round 5 presents us with a new set of sentences.

- Round 5 -

aion1Watch out now! Remember what we learned before. It might be tempting to rush into assuming that the gift box contains “forever,” but that’s a trick of the Gift Game. It included the third sentence so that you would jump to that conclusion.

If we’re to be prudent sleuths, we need to recognize how much we know and how much we don’t. The gift box could, for example, contain “a long time” or “the future.”

- Round 6 -

aion2

Look at that! We were right not to make our guess just yet. Now, with these new sentences, WE KNOW that the gift box does not entail “forever.” HOWEVER… we can say this even as we believe that God’s dominion will endure forever. This is because God’s dominion will also endure for a long time and into the future, two softer statements that are nonetheless true.

When we examine these sentences, it looks like each of the gift-boxes contains something that means “age-related” or “of an age” or “of ages.” We also notice that it has certain overtones of significance (as in the case of the age of Moses) and perhaps long domain (like Isaiah’s patient silence or God’s dominion).

Let’s open the box.

reveal2Congratulations! We’ve beaten the Gift Game.

The Real Gift Box

The latter gift box corresponds to a real word family we find in Scripture.

  • The Hebrew word is olam.
  • The Greek words are aion, aionios, and aionion. In the Greek Septuagint, likely the Bible with which Jesus and the Apostles were familiar, these words are often used in verses where the Hebrew was olam.

The Hermeneutical Error

There are intelligent, rational scholars today — and indeed scholars in ancient Christendom — who when confronted with Round 5 of the Gift Game, proclaimed, “The gift box contains ‘forever.’”

This is because the Gift Game’s tricky way of telling them that the life was forever, and contrasting the “life” destination with the “punishment” destination in the very same sentence.

We’ve talked about this problem before, when we covered St. Augustine’s dispute with the theology of St. Gregory of Nyssa. If you remember, St. Augustine wrote in his Enchiridion:

“Even so, if they suppose that the text applies to all men, there is no ground for them further to suppose that there can be an end [of punishment] for those of whom it is said, ‘Thus these shall go into [aionion] punishment.’ Otherwise, it can as well be thought that there will also be an end to the happiness of those of whom the antithesis was said: ‘But the righteous into [aionion] life.’”

In this case, St. Augustine — obviously an intimidating intellectual — nonetheless “lost the Gift Game.”

Here’s theologian Dr. Todd Miles, from his book, A God of Many Understandings? (emphasis mine):

“Since the biblical testimony is clear that the life granted by faith in Christ is eternal, the only possible interpretation of Matt 25:46 is that the punishment of the wicked is likewise eternal.”

Here’s pastors Dr. Francis Chan and Dr. Preston Sprinkle, from their book, Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up (emphasis mine):

“While it is true that aionios doesn’t always mean ‘everlasting,’ when used here to describe things in the ‘age to come,’ it probably does have this meaning. Think about it: Because the life in this age will never end, given the parallel, it also seems that the punishment in this age will never end.”

As you’ve seen, each of these brilliant men were nonetheless caught off-guard when it came to the Gift Game.

WE KNOW olam (and aion/aionios/aionion) does not ever mean “everlasting,” just as “great” never means “perfect,” and “broad” never means “infinite in broadness.”

HOWEVER… this fact does not imply that olam means “not-everlasting,” just as “great” doesn’t mean “not-perfect,” and “broad” doesn’t mean “limited in broadness.”

And the parallelism tells us literally nothing beyond this, just as “The great king Solomon owed his wisdom to his great God” would not imply that Solomon was perfect, or of equal greatness to God.

To win the Gift Game on olam (and the Biblical usage of aion/aionios/aionion), the answer is to stick to the only definition we can derive. If it leaves us with ambiguity, then so be it; theological quietism demands that we boldly embrace the boring ambiguity and not use it as a platform for reckless conjecture.

This is why I applaud Dr. Chan and Dr. Sprinkle for the following:

“What about the word aionios? Bible scholars have debated the meaning of this term for what seems like an eternity, so we’re not going to settle the issue here. It’s important to note that however we translate aionios, the passage still refers to punishment for the wicked… The debate about hell’s duration is much more complex than I first assumed. While I lean heavily on the side that says it is everlasting, I am not ready to claim that with complete certainty. I encourage you to continue researching, but don’t get so caught up in this debate that you miss the point of what Jesus was trying to communicate…. I believe His intention was to stir a fear in us that would cause us to take hell seriously and avoid it at all costs.”

Amen!

 

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