Ecclesiastes and Non-Objective Meaning

Consequential decisionmaking says that given full information, an action is morally justified if the consequences are net-appreciative, and unjustified if the consequences are net-depreciative.

  • This appreciation and depreciation is in terms of what is valued.
  • By “net,” it means that you have to add up all of the consequences of the action – some might be appreciative and some might be depreciative – and figure out whether we come out ahead or behind.

Think of it like looking at your business’s quarterly results; you take your gross profits, subtract your costs, and see whether you enjoyed a net gain or suffered a net loss (you’re either doing this in hindsight, or with perfectly-informed foresight, which is equivalent).

This is a kind of meta-ethic, which means it’s a way to talk about ethics or morality without having any specific suggestions. It tells us that moral suggestions proceed from what is valued, but it doesn’t tell us what those values are.

It is a very grounded, mechanical way of talking about morality.

It is also very “general-use.” if you want to twist in a Phillips screw, given full information you should employ a Phillips screwdriver.

screwdrivers

This is a consequential fact that doesn’t really seem like a “moral” statement. But that’s okay, because we win big if we bite the bullet on treating moral decisions like any other decision with parameters and implications.

The Rig

We can use the following figure to illustrate how consequentialism works:

consequentialism

The circle on the left contains what is valued. The square on the right contains some understanding of how things are, including how things work in terms of causes and effects. Having full information — being omniscient — would afford us a square with maximally-defined content.

The round box at the bottom contains what we should do, and it follows completely from the circle’s content (what is valued) and the square’s content (what’ll happen).

The first issue that stands out is the question of the content of the circle. It isn’t enough to know how what’ll happen as a result of some prospective action; moral statements, suggestions and judgments require a value referent as well.

The Problem

The immediate temptation is to ask, “What should be valued?” But since that’s a “should” question, it needs its own modular rig:

reference

And if we continue to ask “What should be valued?” at every stage, we end up building a modular chain that never ends.

infinite

To see how these modules start chaining together, consider the earlier “screwdriver” illustration.

It’s fine to say that I value twisting in a screw, but of what “parent” goal is that in service? Certainly I don’t just like twisting screws; I have a higher goal. The successful screw-twisting might be in service of the goal of building a house. But that goal, in turn, proceeds from something that transcends it, like the goal of giving my family a comfortable place to live, among other things.

Eventually, you reach what looks like a dead end. Perhaps this happens at the point where you’re asked why you value your own happiness, or the happiness of your family. But even here, you’re asked to justify those values by appealing to a parent value.

When we insist upon continually asking, “What should be valued?,” like an incessant, implacable toddler asking “Why? Why? Why?,” the modules never stop chaining together, and we’ll never arrive at a conclusion that satisfactorily wraps everything up.

This “infinite reference” problem is the result of the following reality:

  • (A) For a value subscription to be rationally justified, it requires a justifying parent value.
  • (B) For a value to be ultimate, it must lack a parent contingency.
  • (A+B) No value can be both rationally justified and ultimate.

This problem vexed philosophers for centuries. It was only recently solved — that is, in popular fashion — in the 20th century with existentialism.

Existentialism’s solution was to stop asking “What should be valued?” at that ultimate, dead-end point. It makes the proposal that there comes a certain point, core to our very beings, when we cannot justify what we value using parent values, and so we just stop.

We might nickname such a dead end value an “axial value” (or set of axial values), because it represents the point from which other values proceed, but does not itself proceed from a parent value.

The Most Ancient Existentialist Work is In Your Bible

While both atheists and theists may count themselves among the existentialists (since existentialism doesn’t affirm or deny God), existentialism can be found in a work written thousands of years before the 20th century by a man of God whose work is found in inspired Scripture.

That Biblical book is Ecclesiastes, which expressed the futility of continuous question-asking to find ultimate moral answers. The authorship is traditionally given to Solomon, so we’ll run with that.

“Everything is meaningless,” says Solomon.

  • Do we find ultimate meaning in pleasure? No, because “What does laughter accomplish?”
  • Do we find ultimate meaning in wisdom? No, because “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”
  • Do we find ultimate meaning in ambition and accomplishment? Not there either; “All toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
  • What about wealth? Nope. “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.”

Ecclesiastes 8:17b

“No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.”

And so Solomon just stopped.

He concluded that enjoying our lives and our work constituted axial values, and advised obedience to God out of a sense of obligation, and because we’ll be punished if we don’t (which wouldn’t help the whole “enjoying life” thing).

The lack of ultimate meaning – in other words, the lack of a real conclusion to the infinite reference problem – troubled Solomon. In the 20th century, philosophers who realized this were themselves just as troubled, and split into two camps.

The smaller, sadder camp, called nihilism, declared that since there is no ultimate meaning, there must be no meaning at all.

The other camp, existentialism, concluded that there is no ultimate meaning because meaning and value are imputed by evaluators. Unlike the nihilists, the existentialists recognized that since evaluators are “creating” meaning in this way, there is meaning.

But, Objective Meaning is Useful

“Meaning” isn’t some ontological flower vase sitting on God’s coffee table. And “objective morality” is not required in order to make moral proclamations or stand up for what we believe in. It is, however, extremely useful for imposing our wills on others by taking implicit appeals to a consensus and pretending as if “It’s not just us or our God — the universe condemns you, too.”

“Objective meaning” and “objective morality” are incoherent by means of the “subjective-as-objective” error. This allows them to be employed as logical wildcards, which is a dangerous, memetically powerful, and vitally important thing to learn to recognize.

Logical wildcards are used in service of all manner of goals, and especially as “Godproofs.” Thus, it’s no surprise that you’ll see fellow believers trying to convince folks of objective morality as a way to open the door to a Royal Flush of “God must exist.”

This is one of many ways in which to gold-plate “Him who is unseen” in order to make him “visible to all” without need for his private intervention or a leap of faith — two things to which many misguided apologists are rather averse.

But, Not in the Bible

If I had a dollar for every time I heard an apologist say that objective meaning and objective morality are Biblical concepts!

They’re not. The constant refrain of the Bible is that God does indeed have the properties of goodness, love, wisdom, etc., but that those properties have been shown to his people in the past, and will be proven and demonstrated down the road.

If I say Usain Bolt is fast, I am saying that he has the property of fast-ness. I am not saying that he is what fast-ness is. And if I do say, “Usain Bolt is fast-ness itself,” it’s commonly understood that I am making a poetic flourish — I’ll get strange looks if I say that the restaurant down the street serves “Usain Bolt food.”

The notion that God is goodness itself, and thus the two can be used interchangeably as it suits the theologian, is an error for which we thank our Christian Neo-Platonist forebears. Not the Bible.

Needless to say, the insinuations that objective meaning and morality are Biblical, required for “The Christian worldview,” and that a lack thereof leads to nihilism are all insinuations that grind my gears, and ought to grind yours.

See the follow-up to this post:

 

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About stanrock

Husband, father. Professional game developer, software engineer, & social product analyst. Armchair theology debugger. Fun theology exercises and games at http://StanRock.net

9 responses to “Ecclesiastes and Non-Objective Meaning”

  1. tegthethird says :

    Uh oh… I think I might be “up a tree.”

    I accept easily that insisting God embodies objective morality is a dead end in terms of evangelism. After all, there are good people and good deeds performed every day without a belief in God, and insisting that the manifest morality comes from God requires a leap of faith. My gears have been ground.

    But does it necessarily follow that God doesn’t IN FACT embody objective morality? You need faith to get there, but once I start believing God is the sovereign glue that holds our world together, doesn’t it follow that I would start believing that goodness in this life has its source in a God who embodies Goodness with a capital ‘G’?

    “The universe condemns you,” yes, but God made the universe. The possible loss aversion, Kochab’s argument I perceive is that if God doesn’t embody objective good, then the universe he made is perfectly arbitrary. He could have just as easily made one where I must die in battle to get to Valhalla.

    • stanrock says :

      At the end of the day, God did indeed create the universe, and it is a product of his interests, and he is powerful and wise, and we ought obey him. These are the case whether or not the objective or subjective schema is correct. There isn’t THAT much at stake here, and relatively little fallout either way, until we get into the nitty-gritty. The trick is that, once we get into the nitty-gritty, little non-resolvable articulation problems start appearing under the objective schema.

      One confusing part about all of this is that “objective/subjective” have several subtly diverse definitions. Consider the dictionary. Is the dictionary a subjective or an objective source of word definitions? In one sense, it’s subjective, because it proceeds from human interests (“Where do we want to make distinctions?” “Where are the meaningful barriers between contexts?” etc.) and gradually changes. The origins of words themselves, rewinding to grunting primordial languages, were indeed products of subjective desires and interests, socially aggregating and accruing volume like a runaway snowball.

      But, in another sense, it’s objective, because it’s relatively stagnant, acts like a “touchstone” of reference, and serves as an impartial, non-whimsical mediator when I have a semantic dispute with somebody. Furthermore, word definitions weren’t just arbitrated or pulled out of thin air; we inherited our language from our forebears.

      The best description of the dictionary, then, might be, “A thing with ultimately subjective origins, and subjective tweaks here and there, but a thing which transcends the whims of individual humans, stabilizing itself as a touchstone object to which we’d do well to refer.”

      We can, roughly, say the same thing about morality and meaning. The “structure” of morality and meaning can only stand if it has an ultimately subjective foundation — in our discussion, those are “the interests of God,” the things he just prefers by his nature. But everything atop that foundation can still proceed objectively. And that’s why this is mostly just an academic correction (with payoffs for theology).

      • tegthethird says :

        So God’s just a really, really, really big touchstone?

      • stanrock says :

        He’s a

        1) really, really big “resonant” touchstone,

        2) who “fights back,” so to speak,

        3) and to whom we owe our existence,

        giving us 3 really amazing reasons to listen and defer to Him, even though the correct moral schema is ultimately subjective. And that’s why, at the end of the day, no moral significance is being denied God and obedience thereto, even after our “correction.”

  2. rsquaredreynolds says :

    So, I realize this is an old post and I am a new commenter, but it raised a few questions in my mind.
    [Quick disclaimer: I found your blog via reddit, and I’m not very well read with respect to theology and philosophy, so I most likely have some egregious misunderstandings of your meaning.]

    Considering this article in light of the Euthyphro dilemma, you essentially espouse Divine Command theory (again, please correct me if I’m wrong). However, I’ve always understood objective morality to simply be the divine will/command of an unchanging God. It certainly is “subjective” by a formal definition, since it relies on the interests of a subject, but if the subject in question (a deity) has interests which are unchanging, then morality/meaning aren’t subjective in any meaningful way (no irony intended). So, do you believe that God’s interests can change and will change? Isn’t the essential concept of Christian theism a deity whose unchanging behavior arbitrates morality and meaning?

  3. rsquaredreynolds says :

    So, I realize this is an old post and I am a new commenter, but it raised a few questions in my mind.
    [Quick disclaimer: I found your blog via reddit, and I’m not very well read with respect to theology and philosophy, so I most likely have some egregious misunderstandings of your meaning.]

    Considering this article in light of the Euthyphro dilemma, you essentially espouse Divine Command theory (again, please correct me if I’m wrong). However, I’ve always understood objective morality to simply be the divine will/command of an unchanging God. It certainly is “subjective” by a formal definition, since it relies on the interests of a subject, but if the subject in question (a deity) has interests which are unchanging, then morality/meaning aren’t subjective in any meaningful way (no irony intended). So, do you believe that God’s interests can change and will change? Isn’t the essential concept of Christian theism a deity whose unchanging behavior arbitrates morality and meaning?

    • stanrock says :

      I am not espousing DCT, no. Rather, my response to the Euthyphro Dilemma is to reject purely objective notions of goodness, instead regarding “goodness” like “commendability” and “good” like “commendable.” When you swap “commendable” into the Dilemma, you realize how trivially analytical it is; the gods consider commendable that which they commend. I’d highly recommend “The Language of Morals” by R. M. Hare, a pivotal 20th century Christian philosopher of language, who exhaustively parsed the “moral language game” and discovered this “commendability” resolution.

      You wrote, “So, do you believe that God’s interests can change and will change?”

      I don’t believe God’s interests change, although the manner in which they’re expressed to creation changes over time as creation changes.

      You wrote, “Isn’t the essential concept of Christian theism a deity whose unchanging behavior arbitrates morality and meaning?”

      Sort of. There are all sorts of senses of the above that we’d consider pretty essential.

      There is a sense, however, that some claim IS essential to the “Christian worldview” and I say is not (and also is a false sense). This is the sense in which God serves as a purely objective ground for morality and meaning. This is schematically incorrect because God is a subject (the Great Subject), and Biblically incorrect because Ecclesiastes upholds the ultimate hollowness of meaning as an “upright and true” teaching.

      When I say purely objective, I mean “without interests,” that is, “commendability without interest-driven commendation.” This would be a different definition than the one with which you’re familiar, which is something like “without interest dynamism”?

      The reason some apologists insist on a purely objective ground of meaning and morality is because they want to “Invoke the Universe” for compulsory moral force. They then (1) falsely say that this approach is necessary for any moral compulsion, (2) correctly posit that the lack of such moral compulsion is an absurdum, (3) and finally claim to have proven God’s existence through argumentum ad absurdum (the “Argument from Morality”). And once apologetics has decided that something is a Godproof, it’s nearly impossible to repair the bugs underneath.

      “Invoking the Universe”: https://stanrock.net/2015/03/02/invoking-the-universe/

  4. Daniel Bowden says :

    I am late but great article Stan! You have a great talent for this sort of thing in my opinion. Much of my philosophy is based on my thinking and logic rather than reading(but I do like scavenging philosophical ideas that resonate with me). Sometimes I will come across something that surprisingly matches something I thought up(or unconsciously adopted/scavenged) but could not articulate to others well. That always brings me enjoyment.

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