Here’s a free truth we have by virtue of classical logic:
- All self-contradictory claims are necessarily false.
This is very useful, and (of course) very intuitive. If Harriet says I’ve got the job, and Bernard says that I haven’t got the job, we know that “Both Harriet and Bernard are correct,” is a false claim.
If you’re like me, however, your brain did something funny upon reading the above sentence.
If you’re like me, the first thing you did — upon reading that brazen declaration of the claim being false — was re-read the premise and excitedly explore if there was a strange way that Harriet and Bernard might both be correct.
For example, it may be that the hiring team is definitely going to give me the job. So in a sense, Harriet is correct; the job is headed my way. But since I don’t yet have it officially, Bernard is correct when he says I don’t have it.
It’s important to recognize, however, that to make “Both Harriet and Bernard are correct” true, we had to add extra qualifiers to make Harriet’s sense of “got the job” and Bernard’s sense of “got the job” different.
In doing so, we actually changed the premise to, “Harriet says I’ve got the job in one sense, and Bernard says that I haven’t got the job, but in a different sense.”
And, of course, it no longer necessarily follows that “Both Harriet and Bernard are correct” is a false claim.
Paradoxes vs. Contradictions
A paradox is a claim that appears to be contradictory on the surface, whether or not it actually entails a contradiction.
Paradoxes are useful for conveying non-contradictions because, by looking like a contradiction at first, they excite and engage the reader. They pique the reader’s curiosity.
This is due to stimulation of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is correlated with reward-interested contemplation, and which is extra active when dealing with spikes of uncertainty or surprise, especially in anticipation of prospective rewards. These rewards can be solid (like a donut), imagined (like a promised donut inside an actually-empty box), or psychological (like feelings of self-validation).
In other words, the brain activates “nitro,” trying extra hard to untangle what just occurred, and/or to refine strategic expectations and hold on to important data. And this “nitro” experience is almost always euphoric.
It’s a brain chemical trick, in a sense, and the Bible frequently takes advantage of it for greater resonance, just as so many songs employ rhyming and so many novels employ plot twists.
Because “All actual contradictions are false” is a “free truth” that we know for certain, it follows that if some paradox is true, it must not entail a contradiction. There must be some way to resolve it, even if humans cannot yet know that way.
Sometimes, we can think for a brief moment and see that, even on its face, the paradox in question is just wordplay using antonyms.
- For example, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first” is a mere reversal of fortune; it’s not contradictory any more than saying, “He who is hired now shall be fired tomorrow.” Exchanges, like “You must give to receive,” are similarly obviously non-contradictory.
Sometimes, we can (like with the Harriet and Bernard example above) infer qualifiers that, when selectively applied, “split” a single term into two different terms.
- For instance, “When I am weak, then I am strong” is resolved through inference and context — “Ah! He’s saying, ‘When I am weak in myself, then I am strong in Christ.'”
Sometimes, we can resolve a paradox partially by the above method, but cannot “dig deeper” once we’ve reached the limit of human observation and divine revelation.
- The Trinitarian paradox — “both three and one” — is a good example. This would be contradictory, but we’re supposed to infer qualifiers that break the contradiction: “Three in persons, but one in essence.”
Do we know precisely what “persons” and “essence” are, in that sentence? Of course not; we’re dead-ended at grunting analogies at best.
But that’s okay. The paradox is resolved, even though we’re at the limits of explication.
Finally, we can resolve some of the most notorious paradoxes through philosophical deconstruction, especially through theological quietude: Refining terms that we erroneously thought were coherently defined, jettisoning unworkable garbage, and recognizing/accepting linguistic fuzziness and modality of communication.
Some examples of philosophical deconstruction through theological quietude:
- “God ‘changes moral rules’ while being himself unchanging” can be resolved by treating moral rules as functions that make references to, among other things, those being given the rules and of what they’re capable. Check out pivotal philosopher of language R. M. Hare’s “Angelic Ladder” figure for more about this.
- “God forbidding humans to do things he himself does” is similarly resolved through the “Angelic Ladder” (but is a bit more obvious, akin to having special rules for my dog that I don’t follow).
- “God willing evil come to pass while not willing that evil come to pass” is resolved by parsing the variety of senses of “willing” and “wanting” — just as we parsed the variety of senses of “got the job” in our earlier example. See “Is God the Author of Evil? (Semantics of ‘Want/Will’)“.
- “Human responsibility vs. sovereignty.” Paradoxes of sovereign (superordinate) ascription and subordinate ascription are resolved through the Bible’s heterophroneo.
The Doctrinal Refrigerator
While there are limits to human reason and the revelation we’ve been given, with most paradoxes of doctrine, I don’t think we should feel content “riding the dopamine wave” of perpetual tension — which many believers are prone to do — however exciting (and often very mystical-sounding) it might be to do so.
Like leftovers sitting in the back of the fridge, these things can breed and cultivate incoherent doctrine, especially since contradictions serve as powerful logical wildcards.
When you’re asked which of two contradictory doctrines is correct, it’s seldom the case that the answer is simply, “Yes!”
That’s a very cute, even mystical-sounding answer. But on many issues, a moldy answer.
We have the tools — in our noggins and in our Bibles — to explore and articulate the doctrines of our faith in a best, responsible attempt at coherence.
Why is belief in libertarian free will popular?
We’ve explored before how the popularity of an idea is a function of that idea’s memetic virulence and resilience.
- Memetics Pt. 1: Introduction, and the “Fitness” Snag
- Memetics Pt. 2: The Four Brothers (and Their Business Booths)
- Memetics Pt. 3: The Short Tower Problem
- Memetics Pt. 4: Short Towers + Secret Gnosis
The truth or falsity of such an idea is irrelevant for popularity except insofar as that truth or falsity helps or hurts virulence and resilience.
As such, “Um, because it’s correct, DUH!” is not the “easy answer” to our question!
(1) It’s the Default Feeling
As we’ve asserted several times on this blog, libertarian free will is not a “real thing.” It has several different definitions, but all definition attempts so far have been either non-positive abstractions, or vapid, or incoherent, or simply analytically false.
Our assertion, in other words: “We don’t have it. God doesn’t have it. Nobody has it. It’s not a ‘thing to be had.'”
So, what is “it”?
Libertarian free will could be described as an amorphous conceptual blob that roughly encapsulates 3 things nearly all of us feel “by default” and “in our guts.”
- First, we cannot sense the emergence of our thoughts from their underlying causes. Choices seem “ex nihilo,” or “made out of nothing,” because we lack this sense.
It’s similar to how our depth perception stops discriminating at a certain distance, giving a starry sky the false appearance of being a dome.
- Second, we surprise ourselves, and others surprise us, with our thoughts and behaviors. Choices often “seem spontaneous.”
- Finally, those of us with well-developed frontal lobes and vivid spatiotemporal faculties often imagine “multiple future worlds” floating out there. Using our imaginations, we “fill up” these “worlds” with likely details as a way to help us make decisions.
Thus, choices can seem like they elect a “world” into being, and the other “worlds” are still floating there. Prospective hypothetical thinking (“What happens if I do this?”) gives rise to counterfactual hypothetical thinking (“What would’ve happened if I hadn’t?”), giving us the false impression that we have the ability to “have done other than what we have done.”
So, libertarian free will is something like “My decisions have some measure of being uncaused and spontaneous, and they elect between really possible worlds.” Different advocates will quibble about the definition, but generally seek an end result wherein, “I have absolute culpability for my choices and I really could have done otherwise (I don’t just imagine being able).“
(This definition seems meaningful until we demand articulation of “done otherwise.”)
And right from the outset, thanks to these feelings, libertarian free will has a huge “head start” on any competing meme by being the one held “by default” by most of us.
(2) Kochab’s Errors are Sandbags Against Competition
Since it’s the default feeling, any competing meme is a “world-rocker.”
And as we’ve discussed before, when our “worlds are rocked,” they tend to be “TOO rocked,” and we conclude — or worry about concluding — zany conclusions that shouldn’t actually follow from the new information.
This we called Kochab’s Error, and the story of Kochab gave us an amusing way to think about it.
Here are a few Kochab’s Errors that act like “sandbags” against a rejection of libertarian free will:
- “Without libertarian free will, we couldn’t be held responsible for our actions.”
This comes from a “buck stops here,” folk idea of responsibility that we know — when we spend some time noodling — doesn’t make any sense. Folk responsibility doesn’t come together philosophically and, for us Christians, doesn’t come together Biblically.
For evidence of the folly of folk responsibility, check out the article, “Holding Folk Responsibility Responsible.”
- “Without libertarian free will, we couldn’t practice genuine love.”
This is likely the oldest Kochab’s Error related to libertarian free will in Christian theology, first asserted by 2nd century apologist Justin Martyr. And it’s been a common defense — though non-cogent — of libertarian free will ever since, repeated even today by popular speakers like Ravi Zacharias and others.
These speakers claim that “genuine love” is predicated on risk. For reasons why this is not the case, check out the article, “Genuineness by Association,” on this blog.
- “Without libertarian free will, we’d be robots or puppets.”
This is the most “Kochab” of the Kochab’s Errors, since it represents a severely irrational non sequitur from an acceptance of adequate determinism. We’re surprised that Kochab’s rethinking of the size of our world would affect the distance between two cities; it is similarly nonsensical to imagine that we “become” something lesser upon adequate determinism “becoming” true.
Consider the following thought experiment. Let’s pretend that God decided that on half the days of the year, humans would have libertarian free will. On the other half, their choices would be adequately deterministic (that is, our wills would be strict functions of who we are at a given moment).
How would we be able to tell which days were “on” and which were “off”?
The answer is, “We couldn’t, because the presence or lack of libertarian free will is 100% indiscernible and nonfunctional.” Think of it. The thought experiment above could very well be the way of things right now, and we’d have no way of knowing!
Put simply, whether or not adequate determinism is true, we can make the two benign assertions: First, that we have thoughts and emotions. And second, that robots and puppets do not. Everything else, like whether we make choices through biological mechanisms and/or whether our behavior is back-traceable to external causes, should be discussed on their own merits, without pejorative nicknames therefor.
For more, check out the article, “Does Determinism Make Us Robots?,” on this blog.
- “Without libertarian free will, all events would be reducible to God’s will, and God would be the author of evil.”
Whenever we talk about reducing, we need to make sure we aren’t radically reducing, and blasting past checkpoints of meaning that we know are important.
What’s the important checkpoint here? The reduction-stopper at play is the phenomenon of “deterministic chaos.” Because of the way our universe works, authorship “evaporates” over time unless deliberately reasserted. As such, things can emerge that cannot meaningfully be called God’s authorship, and we find it useful to draw a distinction between “primary causation” and “secondary causation.”
As you can see, each of these sandbags takes hard work to drain.
The whole endeavor requires scaling the scaffolding of things like ethics, semantics, and metaphysics.
Who has time for that?
Who has the patience?
Who has the driving interest?
Some folks do, but the vast majority of us don’t. As such, the memetic sandbags remain for almost everybody.
The Resilient Cocktail
The end result is an idea cocktail that is very resilient.
- First, it’s held by-default. It’s intuitive, even if it isn’t coherently articulable. It’s “gut true,” even if nobody can define it in a way that makes positive sense.
- Second, it resists competition by means of an array of Kochab-driven sandbags. This is especially true for us Christians, since some of these sandbags are traditional and theological.
And thus, libertarian free will remains extremely popular, irrespective of its truth or lack thereof.
It’s possible to talk about our free will while rejecting libertarian free will. We can do this through “compatibilism.” To see how this approach works using Scripture, check out, “Freedom & Sovereignty: The Heterophroneo.”
It is not necessary to accept Calvinism under Christian determinism. For a helicopter view of the “sovereignty situation,” see “The Big Three Sovereignties.”
The Book of Job is one of the most important of the entire Bible, and is a prerequisite to all discussions of Christian theology, particularly theodicy.
Unfortunately, two erroneous interpretations of Job’s theses are by far the most popular.
Job the Hero: The Sunday School Interpretation
In Sunday School as a child, the Book of Job was presented to me as the story of:
- Satan’s challenge to God,
- Job’s suffering as a result,
- Job courageously refusing to curse God through the suffering,
- and God rewarding that fortitude with recompense and a happy ending.
This is the story of Job in the shallow end of the Christian pool. Take a gander, for example, at Christian heavy metal band Tourniquet’s take on the story:
Bad Friends: The “No Heroes” Interpretation
The other popular “take-away” from Job is that when someone is suffering, words only make things worse, and each person who talked to Job was wrong.
Job’s friends Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad are indeed rebuked, in the end, by God himself. And Job’s complaints against his friends would seem to serve such a thesis.
Ravi Zacharias wrote in his recent book, “Why Suffering? Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense”:
“[A ‘negative reality’ emerged in] the colossal failure of [Job’s] friends. They were at their best when they took time out of their own lives just to be with him, saying nothing. The moment they began to give their own observations for why Job was suffering and offer their suggestions for remedying his situation, Job’s pain intensified. To be loved and feel cared about is what someone who is hurting needs from friends.”
Zacharias sees the problem of Job’s friends remedied only by God’s ultimate arrival:
“So the failure we see in the story of Job is the failure of friendship. Then comes the answer of God. God’s answer was not propositional, but relational. And that is what Job most needed. He simply needed to know that God was with him through his ordeal… that God had not abandoned him.”
The Problems With These Interpretations
The former interpretation accounts for Job chapters 1, chapter 2 verses 1 through 10, and chapter 42 verses 10 through 16. As such, it is missing about 40 chapters of content.
The latter interpretation has completely jettisoned the most overlooked prophet in the Old Testament: Elihu.
An Overview of Job
Job’s 42 chapters contain the following:
- An introduction to Job’s predicament.
- Job arguing with friends Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad about whether Job is righteous vs. whether God is just.
- Elihu arguing against both Job and Job’s 3 friends.
- The Storm of God arriving and boasting of His transcendent power, wisdom, and justice.
- The conclusion: Job repents, God rebukes Job’s 3 friends (not Elihu), and Job is given recompense (as far as it can be called that).
Notice how much material Elihu provides, material never thereafter rebutted, left to be punctuated by God himself. Isn’t it odd that he is so often forgotten, bundled as “just another friend” alongside Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad?
Elihu as Prophet
Elihu is not a shy character. He’s a young upstart, and makes no apologies about the wisdom he brings to the table:
“I thought, ‘Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.’ But it is the spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding. It is not only the old who are wise, not only the aged who understand what is right. … My words come from an upright heart; my lips sincerely speak what I know. The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life. … Be silent, [Job,] and I will teach you wisdom. … Hear my words, you wise men [Eliphaz, Zophar, Bildad]; listen to me, you men of learning. … So listen to me, you men of understanding. … If you have understanding, hear this; listen to what I say.”
All this, and God does not rebuke him like he rebukes everyone else.
Because Elihu really is providing us with truth and revelation.
He really is confronting Job, Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad and correcting their bad theology.
“Bear with me a little longer and I will show you that there is more to be said on God’s behalf. I get my knowledge from afar; I will ascribe justice to my Maker. Be assured that my words are not false; one who has perfect knowledge is with you.”
This isn’t some joke.
This is prophecy.
Elihu is on the scene to resolve the dispute, chastising both prior groups and offering the correct theological perspective.
Job’s Lamentation Theology
The calamity that befalls Job — and for which God is superordinately responsible (he deliberately gave permission to Satan here, after all) — prompts Job to regret the day he was born. He claims personal righteousness, and thus his misfortunes must be indicative (given that superordinate responsibility) of injustice in God, given that justice means, “He repays everyone for what they have done; he brings on them what their conduct deserves (Job 34).”
Job laments the fact that he cannot approach God personally with the case for his innocence; he yearns to do so! His friends aren’t “buying” that case, but Job surmises that a person lives that could vindicate him.
Job doesn’t relax God’s classical attributes. He fully endorses God’s omnipotence and superordinate responsibility (Job 12), as well as his cosmic wisdom (Job 28).
As such, Job’s theodicean solution — his “lamentation theology” — is to indict God’s benevolence.
“There is no justice,” Job says.
The Karmic Folk Theology of Eliphaz, Zophar, & Bildad
Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad have different emphases, but repeat some similar themes, and since are all rebuked, can be treated as a group.
Their argument is as follows: Since God is just (“He repays everyone for what they have done”) and superordinately responsible for what happens to a person, then if something bad happens to a person, it must be in response to something that person has done. Eliphaz articulates this “common sense” karmic folk theology:
“Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it.”
Bildad, for example, jumps to the conclusion that Job’s sons must have been sinners, too:
“Does God pervert justice? Does the Almighty pervert what is right? When your children sinned against him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin.”
Every time Job insists that he’s innocent, his friends go the opposite direction: Job must be super wicked, and trying to hide it. Zophar says:
“Though evil is sweet in [a wicked man’s] mouth, and he hides it under his tongue… [it] will turn sour in his stomach [and] become the venom of serpents within him.”
As Job proves adamant in his own defense, his friend Bildad retreats to that classic “catch-all” of total depravity: As a human, you are so beneath God that you are a worthless maggot and deserve whatever happens to you.
“How then can a mortal be righteous before God? How can one born of woman be pure? If even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in his eyes, how much less a mortal, who is but a maggot; a human being, who is only a worm!”
Eliphaz weaves a powerful figure: A wealthy man, portly and happy, brought down to shriveling, sickly misery.
Elihu’s Rejection of Job’s Lamentation Theology
First, Elihu sees it within human capacity to discern God’s justice in the abstract, even if we don’t know how it plays out day-by-day. He rejects the idea that God’s goodness and justice are completely inscrutable, as if something without human-appreciable meaning.
“For the ear tests words as the tongue tastes food. Let us discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good.”
Elihu further defines justice (“He repays everyone for what they have done”) and rejects the notion that God would pervert justice.
So, Elihu joins Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad against Job’s claim of innocence.
“His eyes are on the ways of mortals; he sees their every step. … Should God then reward you on your terms, when you refuse to repent? … [We all agree that] Job speaks without knowledge; his words lack insight. Oh, that Job might be tested to the utmost for answering like a wicked man! To his sin he adds rebellion; scornfully he claps his hands among us and multiplies his words against God.”
Elihu’s Rejection of Karmic Folk Theology
But here’s where it gets interesting.
Elihu agrees, Job has sinned, insofar as Job arrogantly indicted God for injustice, speaking “of things [he] did not understand”; Job’s plea, laden with such “empty talk,” was brazen, reckless, and cheap.
But he rejects the notion that man is a “maggot” who deserves whatever befalls him. The transcendence of God to man does not make man despised, but rather, makes man’s wickedness less impactful to God:
“Look up at the heavens and see; gaze at the clouds so high above you. If you sin, how does that affect him? If your sins are many, what does that do to him? … Your wickedness only affects humans like yourself.”
Instead of a “despised mankind” narrative, Elihu crafts a narrative in which God has an instrumental purpose for all he does:
“God is mighty, but despises no one; he is mighty, and firm in his purpose.”
In this way, God’s justice is comprehensible, but the intricacies of how that justice will be made manifest are mysterious. God is not a flayer; he’s a teacher:
“Who is a teacher like him? Who has prescribed his ways for him, or said to him, ‘You have done wrong’? … How great is God — beyond our understanding!”
It’s less about “vengeance,” but instead about correction, forebearing as long as that purpose has hope:
“He tells [the sinner] what they have done — that they have sinned arrogantly. He makes them listen to correction and commands them to repent of their evil.”
He recrafts Eliphaz’s tale of the sickened man into a narrative of redemption:
“Someone may be chastened on a bed of pain with constant distress in their bones, so that their body finds food repulsive and their soul loathes the choicest meal. Their flesh wastes away to nothing, and their bones, once hidden, now stick out. They draw near to the pit, and their life to the place of the dead.
Yet if there is an angel at their side, a messenger, one out of a thousand, sent to tell them how to be upright, and he is gracious to that person and says to God, ‘Spare them from going down to the pit; I have found a ransom for them — let their flesh be renewed like a child’s; let them be restored as in the days of their youth’ — then that person can pray to God and find favor with him, they will see God’s face and shout for joy; he will restore them to full well-being. … God does all these things to a person — twice, even three times — to turn them back from the pit, that the light of life may shine on them.”
Christ as Victor
We’ve talked before about how the existential dilemma of Ecclesiastes — ultimate meaninglessness — received a practical solution in Christ as conqueror of death.
In Job, we see the dilemma of justice, where the wicked may enjoy the peace of death without their due repayment, and where the playing-out of God’s justice may involve the unrewarded — in life — suffering of the faithful.
Christ, as conqueror of death, is also the final judge. The final judgment is not for God’s edification — Elihu correctly explains that God doesn’t need to hold a tribunal — but for ours. And through that process, all “loose ends” can be wrapped-up entirely:
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
Elihu as Bridge
From the Jewish Encyclopedia:
“[Elihu’s] meaning is ‘He is my God’ [in the sense of] ‘He remains my God and does not change.’ … [His] argument is as follows: God is the educator of mankind, who punishes only until the sinner has atoned for his sin and recognizes his wrong-doing. Then God has attained His object, to ‘bring back his soul from the pit, to be enlightened with the light of the living.’
Elihu, therefore, holds a middle ground, maintaining that God neither ‘takes away judgment,’ nor sends suffering merely as a punishment, but acts as the educator and teacher of mankind.”
Elihu is our “bridge” to Christ. His is a theological response that unites justice and mercy — not by conflating them, but by employing them as part of a single grand plan.
His is a rejection of pure retribution and an embrace of prospective instrumentality, an exaltation of a God who is mighty, despises no one, and is firm in his purpose.
Elihu, who heralds the Lord Himself:
“Out of the north he comes in golden splendor;
God comes in awesome majesty.
The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power;
in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress.”
What do you think “God’s sovereignty” means?
Your answer to this question likely dictates what soteriology (salvation theology) you follow, as well as to what eschatology (theology of last things) you adhere.
The following article outlines what I consider to be the “Big Three Sovereignties”:
- The “Free Will” brand, roughly represented by Erasmus of Rotterdam in the above image.
- The “Reformed” brand, roughly represented by John Calvin in the above image.
- The “Purgatorial” brand with the “Heterophroneo,” roughly represented by St. Isaac of Nineveh in the above image.
The first two brands are, by far, the most popular brands in modern Christianity.
What problems do the first two have, such that the adherents of the former “fight” so doggedly against the adherents of the latter, and vice versa?
The “Free Will” Brand
The first is the “Free Will” brand. This encapsulates all Christians who make appeals to free will in order to explain the evil that happens in the world, as well as the exclusive culpability a person has for their own damnation.
This includes everyone from Open Theists, to semi-Pelagians, to Arminians, to most Catholics, to most Eastern Orthodox, to Evangelicals that lack subscription to Reformed theology.
Some in this camp believe that humans, of their exclusive choice, cooperate with God for their redemption. Others believe that they must first be miraculously “activated” or “enabled” toward this ability. And there are many others still. I’ve abstracted this variety of specific articulations of soteriology within this brand by using a “half-gold, half-purple” arrow.
There are lots of different eschatologies, so “Endless Hell or Annihilation” represents those in which folks will be damned forever with no prospective point. These include endless torment in literal fire, endless torment due to the absence of God, endless torment due to the unsaved bathing in the white-hot fire of God’s presence, punish-then-annihilation, and “partial resurrection” conditionalism.
In order for God’s ordination to “move out of the way” for libertarian free will, one of the following statements must be rejected:
- Reject that God is omnipotent (having complete authority over creation to heal, stop, or functionally undo anything he pleases).
- Reject that God is omniscient (even if only about present states of affairs).
- Reject that God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
- Reject that God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.
The only other option is:
- Practice a form of cognitive dissonance or abandon reason to a mysterious contradiction.
(All of those seem pretty bad to me.)
Furthermore, even if granted libertarian free will, God ordained every single constraint. Everyone’s will has boundaries, and God ultimately chose what those would be (and/or chose not to alter them as they took shape).
I don’t have ultimate control over who I’ve become. Put another way, I didn’t knit myself in my mother’s womb, and thus I cannot have exclusive and exhaustive culpability.
What does this all mean (if we don’t jettison any of the first 4 bullets, nor take the 5th)? It means the “(And it’s completely your doing!)” is false. Libertarian free will wants the contributions to your fate to be “buck stops here,” but revelation + reason very plainly tell us this is wrong.
(Why does libertarian free will seem to “provide” something that is, upon consideration, plainly wrong? The answer to the ancient puzzle comes down to how responsibility works.)
The “Reformed” Brand
The second is the “Reformed” brand. This encapsulates all Christians who believe God’s teleology courses through everything, even if indirectly, to eventually accomplish his good pleasure — which necessarily involves the everlasting damnation of the reprobate. This brand includes most Calvinists and many Lutherans, among others.
In order to explain the evil that happens in the world, it makes appeals to the selective indirection of God’s will and/or his circumstantially incommensurable interests. When all is said and done, a perpetual appeal is made to a divine “glory-extraction” from the eternal suffering and/or obliteration of the unreconciled.
Notice that everything in the universe is “gold” — even if “shadowy gold” — which represents the fact that, under this paradigm, God’s sovereignty means that everything is part of his teleological plan, whether directly or indirectly. This proceeds logically from God’s attributes as explicated in Scripture, and aligns with Scriptural statements that God, though wholly benevolent, has superordinate responsibility even for the “bad stuff” — Heb. “raah” — because he instantiated everything and is only selectively interventionist.
But something is still purple, up there, isn’t it? There’s a lingering “(And it’s completely your doing!)” hiding out under the fate of the unsaved!
Where on Earth did that come from?
How could purple come out of gold, even shadowy gold?
It didn’t come from anywhere, but represents the lingering vestiges of libertarian freedom that even Calvinism harbors. This incongruity makes itself manifest in logically incoherent doctrines like “single predestination” and “sufficient for all, efficient for some.”
But this brand needs that purple.
Because it’s on-its-face cruel for God to set folks up for failure without some future instrumental justification. And when such sadness, despair, hopelessness, and loss is forever, a down-the-road payoff is impossible by definition.
The former is a brand of sovereignty+soteriology+eschatology often called “synergism.”
The latter is a brand of sovereignty+soteriology+eschatology often called “monergism.”
The situation is that these paradigms together:
- Are overwhelmingly dominant among Christians today.
- Both include a hopeless and prospectively-pointless forever-doom for many, if not most, of God’s “in the image of God” creatures.
- Require at least a dash of purple in order that “a man damns himself,” in an attempt to “excuse” God of the above “love problem.”
And here are three false statements about these two paradigms:
- Throughout the history of the church, these have been the only paradigms.
- In the early church, no other paradigm was popularly held by faithful Christians.
- Only the above paradigms have a robust Scriptural case to make.
The “Purgatorial” Brand (with the “Heterophroneo”)
There’s another brand, however, which lacks the logical incoherence and/or cruelty problems of the previous brands.
First, it bites the bullet on God’s “golden” sovereignty, but punts all purple. As a result, it’s free to say that our salvation is synergistic, because there’s always a valid synergistic perspective riding alongside God’s global sovereignty. (Notice how our salvation from punishment is colored cooperative.)
This “dual perspective” — which we can nickname “the heterophroneo” — uses compatibilism, the view of destiny preferred by the vast majority of philosophers, to solve the age-old “Christian puzzle.” And lest you think it is a modern retrofit, it also makes by far the most sense with Scripture at every juncture.
Second, it doesn’t need any purple because it doesn’t need to make excuses for an interminable doom (whether in torment or in obliteration) in response to human folly.
Rather, hell is purgatorial, a historical doctrine with popular subscription in the early Church.
From our last post on hell:
Evidence proves that by the late 4th century, there were at least two popular views of hell in the Church:
- “Hell is purgatorial.”
- “Hell is endless torment.”
The primary proof of this state of affairs comes “straight from the horse’s mouth”: The individual most pivotally responsible for the ubiquity of endless hell belief over the last 1500 years, St. Augustine, admitted the great popularity of purgatorialism in his day (Enchiridion 29).
(Note that St. Augustine agreed with the purgatorialists that there would be a purgatorial fire for at least some, but thought the wholly unsaved would be in torment forever.)
Purgatorialism wasn’t yet considered heretical; St. Augustine regarded it an “amicable controversy” (City of God 17) and purgatorialists “not… contrary to Scripture.”
But the 5th century saw a major shift in attitude, much in thanks to St. Augustine’s campaigning. A few decades later, it was conflated with wacky, violent Late Origenism, reckless bishops unofficially declared it anathema at the 5th Ecumenical Council, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The result is pretty amazing:
- Purgatorialism solves the indomitable theodicean problem of endless hell/doom by invalidating it as doctrinal error.
- “Heterophroneo” compatibilism ends the controversy of sovereignty and freedom, syncretizing both synergism and monergism.
So, what’s the catch?
- It requires calling into question the age-old belief in libertarian free will. We do have libertarian feelings, just as when we look up at a starry sky, it appears as if the sky is a light-speckled dome. We must instead adopt compatibilism, which most philosophers have already come to realize is the correct course.
- It requires rewinding before the Reformation, before St. Thomas Aquinas, calling St. Augustine into question, and heeding the early Church purgatorialists. See the Purgatorial Hell FAQ.
- It requires a deeper look at Biblical source languages and calling into question translations that recklessly translate Heb. olam and Gr. aion/aionios/aionion as “forever” and “everlasting” — when we know that’s not always what they meant.
Those three “requirements” aren’t trivial. They take scrutiny and hard work.
And hard work catalyzes memetic weakness. However beautiful and elegant a solution this might be, memetic weaknesses are like when you accidentally leave your car’s emergency brake on.
And there’s probably no way around this.
St. Isaac of Nineveh on the Folly of the First Two Brands
In 1983, documents written by the 7th century ascetic St. Isaac of Nineveh were discovered, confirming his advocacy of purgatorial hell, and his view on God’s “shades of gold” sovereignty — a conclusion he knew was unavoidable even with his fondness for free will (if he were here today, I venture, he might be a compatibilist alongside the majority of philosophers).
The following are excerpts from Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s citations of St. Isaac’s writings, which you can read in a must-have volume.
St. Isaac on the absurdity of a Benevolence knowingly creating beings in his image for ultimate doom:
“If someone says that [God] has put up with them here on earth in order that his patience may be known — with the idea that he would later punish them mercilessly — such a person thinks [wrongly about God because of his way of thinking]: he is removing from God his kindness, goodness, and compassion: all the things because of which he truly bears with sinners and wicked men.
Such a person is attributing to God enslavement to passion, imagining that he has not consented to their being chastised here with a view to a much greater misfortune he has prepared for them, in exchange for a short-lived patience. Not only does such a person fail to attribute something praiseworthy to God, but he also calumniates him.”
St. Isaac on “shades of gold” sovereignty and God’s cunning foreknowledge and planning:
“You should see that, while God’s caring is guiding us all the time to what he wishes for us, as things outwardly appear, it is from us that he takes the occasion to providing things, his aim being to carry out by every means what he has intended for our advantage.
All this is because he knew beforehand our inclination towards all sorts of wickedness, and so he cunningly made the harmful consequences which would result from this into a means of entry to the future good and the setting right of our corrupted state.”
St. Isaac on the consequential and instrumental nature of God’s teleology:
“These are things which are known only to him. But after we have been exercised and assisted little by little as a result of these consequences after they have occurred, we realize and perceive that it could not turn out otherwise than in accordance with what has been foreseen by him.
This is how everything works with him, even though things may seem otherwise to us: with him it is not a matter of [pure] retribution, but he is always looking beyond to the advantage that will come from his dealings with humanity. And one such thing is the matter of gehenna, [which is to say, the hell of judgment].”
St. Isaac on what things have fleeting patience and reactionary vengeance, and Who — of course — lacks these things:
“It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which he knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when he created them — and whom nonetheless he created. All the more since malicious foreplanning and the taking of vengeance are characteristic of the passions of created beings, and do not belong to the Creator.
For all this characterizes people who do not know or who are unaware of what they are doing… for as a result of some matter that has occurred unexpectedly to them they are incited by the vehemence of anger to take vengeance. Such action does not belong to the Creator who, even before the cycle of the depiction of creation has been portrayed, knew of all that was before and all that was after in connection with the actions and intentions of rational beings.”
St. Isaac on how his spiritual and doctrinal forebears lay for him, and for all of us, a foundation of thinking rationally and logically about God’s characteristics and what conclusions they necessitate.
“[The opinions of our church forefathers] will cast away from our way of thinking the… opinion of God expressed by those who introduce evil and passibility into his nature, saying that he is changed by circumstances and times.
At the same time these opinions will teach us about the nature of his chastisements and punishments, whether here or there, instructing us concerning what sort of compassionate intentions and purposes he has in allowing these to come upon us, what are the excellent outcomes resulting from them, how it is not the matter of our being destroyed by them or enduring the same for eternity, how he allows them to come in a fatherly way, and not vengefully — which would be a sign of hatred.
Their purpose was that, by thinking in this way, we might come to know about God, and wonder at him would draw us to love him, and as a result of that love we might feel ashamed at ourselves and set aright the conduct of our lives here.”
We know that doctrine develops.
Our theological understanding gets more detailed and more exhaustive.
But perhaps, when we “rewind” through Christianity — past late political councils and violent doctrinal controversies — we’ll find that on certain topics there are things yet to discover: Treasure troves of earlier sound logic and reason, buried by the sands of time, and quietly objecting to the loudness of memetically powerful mistakes.
Under any “shades of gold” sovereignty, it may appear that God authors evil. It’s important, at this juncture, to theologically dive into what “want/will” mean, God’s interest set, and how “shadowy gold” is God’s business only in a limited sense. Read “Is God the Author of Evil? (Semantics of ‘Want/Will’).”
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).”
God’s superordinate responsibility for absolutely everything that happens follows directly from his classical attributes:
- God is omnipotent (having complete authority over creation to heal, stop, or functionally undo anything he pleases).
- God is omniscient (even if only about the present).
- God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
- God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.
If those properties are accepted, there’s no coherently-expressible way to avoid that conclusion of complete superordinate responsibility.
But we don’t want to say that God is the author of evil, nor do we want to say that he meticulously micro-manages trivial events, like the precise manner in which a certain leaf is tossed-about by the wind.
Put another way, we hope to avoid saying that God deliberately “wanted”:
- Trivial things that have no significance.
- Horrible things that could have, theoretically, been miraculously averted.
Quietude to the Yawn-Inducing Rescue
The goal of theological Quietude is to remedy doctrinal disputes by identifying boring language problems responsible for the perpetuation of those disputes.
Whereas exciting, passionate, Loud theology would have us say, “There’s got to be more to it,” theological Quietude says, “That’s actually all there is to it.”
Quietude solves our problem.
First, Quietude asks the following (Quietude often asks clarifying questions):
What Does “Want” Even Mean?
As it turns out, the word “want” is horribly confusing, and nobody knows precisely what it means without additional inference or explication.
“Now hold on there, Stan,” you might be thinking. “‘Want’ is one of the first words we learn as children. It’s 4 letters. It’s a single syllable. It seems pretty dang straightforward!”
But It Isn’t
Here are five completely theologically distinct definitions of “want.”
Sense #1: “What you want” is any one of many desires within you.
For example, you can really want to make your wife happy by coming home on time, and you can also really want to make your boss happy by staying at work late.
Sense #2: “What you want” is the desire that “wins” and is ultimately expressed.
Sense #3: “What you want” refers to your higher-order desires only.
You may have the lower-order desire to give in to temptation and eat the sundae, but you have the higher-order desire to abstain in service of your diet. Abstaining is “what you want,” independent of which choice you ended up making.
This Sense #3 is the one used by Paul in Romans 7:15.
Can you see how crazy this is getting, yet? Senses #3 and #4 are complete opposites.
Sense #5: “What you want” refers to your grossly selfish desires only.
(The “you” is often emphasized here; there is an implied “for yourself” trailing subclause.)
The Sixth “Want”
But there is a Sense #6 as well. It’s very similar to Sense #2 (the desire that “wins”), with one key difference: It’s where no desire “wins,” but rather, the desire set is just “best-expressed,” and in a way that doesn’t fully satisfy any of them.
This can happen when two or more of those desires are incommensurable.
Let’s take the “come home / work late” scenario. In it, I could stay just 45 minutes late. I’d make my boss a little happy and a little disappointed, and my wife a little happy and a little disappointed.
I wouldn’t be perfectly expressing my desires, but I’d be optimally expressing my desires.
And, for the first time, the gold star of “want” is not placed on any of my driving desires, but rather the expression thereof:
A Perfecting Plan
Often, the incommensurability of desires is circumstantial. For example, if my wife is going to be at a school function late anyway, then I don’t need to come home on time in order to keep her happy.
If I find myself in a Sense #6 situation, I’ll want circumstances to change over time such that my optimal expression doesn’t seem so suboptimal anymore.
The best plan would be one which transforms mere optimization into perfection:
This would be a plan of “birthing pains,” to invoke Romans 8. Creation wasn’t finished at the Garden, to invoke Irenaeus.
These variants of “want” can be similarly applied to “will.”
Pretending as if the definition of “God’s will” is single-faced, instead of many-faced as shown above, causes all manner of meaningless discussion and fruitless contemplation.
Let’s journey through each of the senses and compare them against our classically sovereign God.
- In Sense #1 (competing, inner wants), it is not God’s will that evil exist.
- In Sense #2 (the inner want that wins), it is not God’s will that evil exist.
- In Sense #3 (the higher-order wants), it is not God’s will that evil exist.
- In Sense #4 (the lower-order wants), God wants for nothing; he is not like humans, who are pitifully ignorant and have volatile desire sets.
- In Sense #5 (the grossly-selfish wants), God wants for nothing; he is loving.
But in Sense #6 (the optimal expression of the total desire set, with temporary dissatisfaction), God did indeed will that evil exist.
But only in this limited, 6th Sense.
And this is indeed what we find in Scripture. For although God is benevolent and loving, he is superordinately responsible for the “bad stuff” — Heb. raah.
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil (Heb. raah): I the Lord do all these things.
Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil (Heb. raah) in a city, and the Lord has not done it?
Do not both evil (Heb. ha-ra-owt) and good come from the mouth of the Most High?
So, Is God the Author of Evil?
The answer is “No… that is, depending on what you mean by ‘author.'”
In the superordinate sense in which I say that “God owns my house,” he is. And, as we saw above, that’s also what the Bible says.
But that’s not what we usually mean when we talk about the authoring evil.
Usually, when we talk about authoring evil, we mean orchestrating events with consequentially ill intent — malice, destructive hedonism, gambling with lives, etc.
Willing “bad stuff” in one of the first 5 Senses, in other words.
In those senses, we would certainly not say that God is the author of evil, and these are the senses to which the early theologians are so averse.
If Natural Development is Valued…
If one of God’s desires is to stay mostly hands-off, letting nature take its course with minimal course-correcting intervention, then as part of that “perfecting plan,” we’ll plausibly see all sorts of “bad stuff” and “trivial stuff” — even such stuff with no prospective purpose except to satisfy that mostly-hands-off desire.
This conjecture would fit with the pattern we see in the Bible, where God intervenes directly and publicly only a few dozen times over millennia — where, for most, “He who is unseen” must be sought and found.
Of course, with the “bad stuff,” we hold a sacred hope that God’s genius and foreplanning would somehow use it for goodness, down the road, despite itself.
But this prospective utility is not assured for every “bad thing.” Natural protrusions of triviality and evil alone may satisfy a desire to “mostly let run,” if only that humanity look itself in the mirror. We dare not contrive theodicean prophecy in a misguided attempt to solve the experiential problem of evil. That’s completely above our paygrade.
To hope, however, is officially in our job description.
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.
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.
We can use the following figure to illustrate how consequentialism works:
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 immediate temptation is to ask, “What should be valued?” But since that’s a “should” question, it needs its own modular rig:
And if we continue to ask “What should be valued?” at every stage, we end up building a modular chain that never ends.
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.”
“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: