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.Both 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:
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:
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:
- Part 1: Ecclesiastes and Non-Objective Meaning
- Part 2: Christus Victor: Existentialism Faces Eternity
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
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.
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.”
This topic was later revisited, in a grander form, in “The Sun Also Rises (or, the Heterophroneo of Everything).”