Archive | July 2014

A Theological Payoff of Meaning’s Funny Foundation

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 reductionstopper, 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 reductionstopping 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 reductionstopping.

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 reductionstopper.

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 reductionstopping 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.”


This topic was later revisited, in a grander form, in The Sun Also Rises (or, the Heterophroneo of Everything).

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Incoherence Revealed by Nonsensical Tethers

It’s notoriously difficult to show that an incoherent concept is incoherent, particularly because such a concept nonetheless sparks 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 purgatorialism.

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 who deny purgatorialism 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 + “Open” 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”

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

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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