14, Winter 1979 (48-53)
ETHICAL MEANING'S THEISTIC IMPLICATIONS
University of North Dakota
Meaning as Making a Difference
Why did the chicken cross the street? The hackneyed answer, to get to the
other side of the street, is supposed to express the meaninglessness of
the crossing. It is assumed one side is as good or bad as the other, and
if it is, no difference will be made in the action. Likewise, despite attempts
to glorify Sisyphus' rock rolling, the futility of his so-called action
that never brings a result into existence and, therefore, cannot make a
difference anywhere to the world, is all too apparent. Yet these attempts
to express meaningless action are necessarily qualified because a difference
of some kind is (and the following argument will try to establish, must
be) made somewhere: to the driver dodging the flying feathers or the bug
left behind, or to Sisyphus' attitude or to the gods' enjoyment.
My grandfather, a farmer before the age of power machines, stood one sun-burning
harvest day with his hands tucked behind his bibbed overalls on a half-stubbled
oat field contemplating the labor-saving combine that refused to start.
After several exhausting bouts with the crank, he finally asked how long
I would crank the Wisconsin engine if I knew it would not start. Of course,
I said I would stop immediately. He then wanted to know how long I would
continue if I were paid to do so. I had no answer. The money would be the
way of making a difference, but if one never stopped cranking, the money
could not be used to make a difference. Meanwhile, though no difference
was being made to the machine by my action except, perhaps, wearing it
out, I was changing nevertheless and would have eventually died psychologically,
if not physically. Only by keeping in mind that there will be an end, a
difference (and even a valuable difference) made by persistence, can one
continue to live.
Three Possible Loci of Differences Made
Nothing one does makes sense (or can even be meaningfully said to be something
done) unless it makes a difference somewhere. Where is it possible for
differences to be made? I think a moment's reflection will establish that
differences must be made in units. A difference can be made in a whole
because it depends on its parts. The parts are the differences made.
Usually there is not much reflection on where the possible wholes are and
one simply asks, What difference does it make to me? Each of us does directly
experience the unity of one's self. We know that things we do for ourselves
do make differences in the way we as individual units are at each moment
and for as long as we continue to contain, i.e., remember what was done.
But we can make differences to others. Each of the others we change must
also be a whole individual, be the others people cells, atomic events,
or whatever. We only change a group by changing the members of the group.
And, finally, it is necessary, in order to be logically exhaustive, to
consider the Whole that is not one whole amongst others but is inclusive
of all parts, a Whole in which everything that is makes its difference.
Meaningfulness and Longevity
Before considering further where differences are made and how they ought
to be made, there is one more major point about the meaning of "meaningfulness," namely,
the length of time the differences must be made to be meaningful. The possibilities
are logically exhausted if we consider making a difference (1) for sometime
or (2) forever. If what one does is wiped out, one feels his effort was
wasted since it did not accomplish something in the long run. This is why
one writes his name in wet cement or wants to "go down in history." His
having passed this way is still making a difference. Yet only rarely
do we consciously consider the logical effect of annihilation at any
in the future no matter how remote. To make a difference in something
that makes a difference in something, and so on, is to be meaningful,
if the whole series of differences has a last difference beyond which
nothing is changed, beyond which no difference is made because nothing
of the past
doings were saved by anything? The last member is meaningless since it
makes no difference anywhere, and it is impossible to maintain that anything
can be meaningful by contributing to something that is meaningless.
Logic of Egoism
Before taking up the question of what kind of difference one ought make,
let's return to the three loci in which differences can be made to see
how or whether they can logically satisfy the necessity of differences
to be everlasting.
One's self seems to be more intimate with the doings and thoughts of one's
own past than any other. We save ourselves by retaining our experiences
in memory as part of our present whole. The traditional notion of the "soul" is
the supposed unity of (beneath or behind) the sequence of presented experiential
unities. But two problems arise with this thesis, forgetfulness and death.
That all one has experienced makes a difference to the present self seems
far from self-evident. Even if there is some effect, the fullness of the
past is not making its difference in the present, e.g., the conscious feelings
one had have gone. At death one makes no difference at all to oneself,
unless, of course, one is not really dead. The necessity that one not be
really dead in order to allow the ego to function as the savior of meaning
underlies the logic of transmigration and everlasting heavenly (or even
hellish) life. This can be an empty ploy for meaning if the new life does
not contain or is not made different by the old life, i.e., if there be
Logic of Environmentalism
Social salvation or making a difference to others, can seemingly handle
the problem of death since the group goes on despite loss of particular
individuals. But does the group go on forever? It is necessary for one
who maintains this position to always believe that there will be an ark
to get thru the bad times. But the second major problem here is the lack
of retention of all but the most abstract aspects of one's life, if even
that. No one feels my feelings in their particularity, so what is their
significance? What difference does it make how I feel, by this thesis,
if it does not make a lasting difference to other members of a society
(of whatever kind) because either they cease themselves to be or they forget
Traditional Logic of Theism
The cosmically inclusive Whole (or God) is often conceived so that nothing
one does could make a difference to God. If God is now, always has been
and will be complete, nothing else I do could make a further difference.
If on the other hand, God is a Whole changed by us as parts, then how is
God still a complete Whole, and how could God have been complete the moment
before? Another question arises if God is thought of as a final Whole:
What is the meaning of it? What difference does this final Whole make?
Meaning as Fulfilling Ultimate Purpose
A more adequate theistic concept will come to grips not only with where
and how long the differences are made, but also with what the reason or
purpose for making differences is. Is there an end for which all our actions
are means? One goes to class to get a degree, one gets a degree to become
a teacher, one teaches to be something else. It seems that every end becomes
a means to another end. Each end is a more or less complex situation fulfilled
in one or more concrete units. Is there, however, an ultimate end? Is there,
as Aristotle puts it, an end that is not a means to any other end?
An ultimate purpose would necessarily be one without a rival; there could
be no reason for doing anything that would not be in some way a means
to achieving it. The very possibility of an alternative must be impossible
if "ultimate" in an unqualified sense makes sense. And if it
does, everyone must have the same ultimate goal for his life.
Since we tend to identify "goal" and "end" with "purpose",
and since we are very familiar with fulfilling goals of the moment, week,
year, etc., the natural tendency is to look upon an "ultimate goal" as
the last thing to be done, the final goal of which all our other accomplishments
are in turn means. Yet two very serious logical problems stalk this naive
approach: (1) the last thing done, as pointed out earlier, makes no difference
anywhere and so is meaningless by that criterion, and (2) anything done,
any concrete accomplishment; must be a selection amongst other possible
results. It is logically necessary, therefore, that every contribution
be a contribution to a whole (even if cosmically inclusive) that has
a possible rival (tho thecosmic Whole could have no actual rival).
Ultimate" means "necessary", and "necessary" means "without
conceivable alternative." Yet the whole subject of ethics is concerned
with choices, i.e., with the evaluation of a number of possible alternatives
which one has or had the power to bring about. "Contingency" is
a property of every conceivable concrete doing. Obviously if "neccessity" makes
sense, it cannot be one possibility for fulfillment amongst others; it
must instead be a property of all alternatives. Something common to, i.e.,
a property of, more than one concrete whole is itself not a whole, but
an abstraction. Abstractions are factors (parts of wholes) not facts (wholes).
Most abstractions are abstractable from some concretes. These are scientific
generalizations. But necessities, if meaningful, would be abstractable
from, or exhibited by, all actual and all possibly actual concretes. So
an "ultimate goal" could be necessary, but only as a universal
abstraction. It would be a metaphysical generalization.
Now abstractions are (1) changeless, as the Pythagoreans and Plato first
correctly emphasized, and (2) not capable of independent existence apart
from embodiment in concrete wholes, something Plato could not clearly formulate.
So we are left with two seemingly inescapable dilemmas: (1) all concretes
are contingent, yet they must be, if anything is, the locus of necessities,
and (2) all meaning depends on differences made in something, and yet one
cannot make a difference to an ultimate.
An obvious out might be to try to deny that life has any ultimate meaning.
But the logical cost is very high. When fully thought out, I think, this
denial is nothing less than the assertion that it really does not make
any difference which side of the street the chicken is on, that there is
no way to evaluate one person's, culture's, or species' contributions against
another, that all is relative to specific, arbitrary (non ultimate) purposes
and that the only meaning to right and wrong, good or bad, ugly or beautiful
is that one just so decides, or just decides to accept someone nelsons
arbitrary decision. Every question as to why one so decides or accepts
would be unanswerable because it would always be a question asking for
another arbitrary reason, which would raise the same question again and
So again, the dilemma is: (1) One cannot ultimately contribute to one concrete
ultimate since every concrete is a whole and contingent on previous concretes
for how it is, i.e., all concretes necessarily have alternatives, and yet
one must contribute to be meaningful and all contributions must be to some
concrete whole, yet (2) one cannot contribute to any abstract ultimate
since all ultimates are necessary and without possible alternatives, so
that they are completely changeless; and one cannot make a difference or
contribute to something changeless since a contribution, to be such, must
make the receiver different.
Subject-Object as Whole-Part
I have not wanted to introduce earlier the notions of "subject" and "object" nor
can space be used here to argue at length for the identification of "object" with "part
of a whole," and "subject" with "whole with objec-parts;" but
there is much agreement that only subjects can be wholes, from Plato's
argument for the simplicity of the soul to Lenin's monads or Whitehead's
actual entities. There is less general agreement that objects cannot
exist except in subjects.
Objects cannot contribute to, or make a difference in, other objects, as
Democritus and atomists since have maintained, since objects are mutual
contemporaries and, therefore, external to each other. Neither can subjects
make differences as subjects in other subjects. Subjects are wholes, and
all wholes are present, and all presents are also mutually contemporary,
i.e., causally independent. Objects, however, can contribute to the makeup
of subjects. Objects, being, as Parmenides would say, what they are, cannot
be or become other than they are. Objects are changeless, and anything
changeless is an object, and all objects are factors conditioning subjects.
An abstraction is an object. A concrete is a subject. What is done,
settled, i.e., as it is/was, is an object in, a part of, the present.
What is present
is a whole containing (1) past objectified acts, and (2) abstract objects
such as (a) principles found in all subjects, i.e., necessary abstractions,
and (b) possibilities found only in some subjects. When one of these
alternative possibilities is fulfilled, it then becomes an actual object for
Revised Logic of Theism
The decisions one makes (the important ones are usually called moral decisions)
are struggled with in vain unless they have everlasting consequences. Egoism
with its forgetfulness, its narrow scope excluding much of the environmental
reality, and the necessity for it to maintain everlasting subjectivity
of less than divine realities, seems forced and inadequate. Yet social
or environmental salvation (or meaningfulness) with its inadequate retention
of intimate values and possible group annihilation is hardly better. Let
us try for a moment to escape the apparent dilemma presented by theism.
Complete knowledge of an act would be equivalent to the reality of the
result of the act itself. So if God is conceived as an omniscient subject,
the entire universe must be seen as object-parts of God's subject-wholeness.
Since every whole is somewhat as it is because of its parts, new parts
imply a new whole, and not as is often contradictorily maintained, a new
state of the same, old whole. God's complete knowledge of the concrete,
ever-changing worldly decisions must be with the facts, not before them,
or they would necessarily have already happened, making ethical considerations
absurd. Why is there not, then, a new God each moment, which in effect
would deny the meaningfulness of God as a unique reality with no possible
One Concrete Subject or One Series of Concrete Subjects
The enduring unity of God, as the enduring unity of anyone must be a function
of the relation of units that come to be and remain, not a function of
one changing unit. One remains the same person through time by exhibiting
the same factors or abstractable aspects in each of the concrete moments
of that person. Two of the factors under consideration here are total inclusion
of all things that have occurred (i.e., omniscience) and immortality, namely,
the divine attributes of unrestricted spatial and temporal scope.
Each present theistic moment is a Whole subject contingent on all others
as its parts. One of the others that exists as something now done and so
is an object to be a part of the present cosmic Whole, is the result of
the previous cosmic moment. There exists a series of moments each one cosmically
and unrestrictively inclusive when it is occurring. With the completion
of its act, it then exists as an accomplished fact, as an object for other
subjects. Less than divine subjects include less than all that the past
was. They are influenced by the moments of God's series but are not influenced
by everything that was. Each of the Subject Wholes of the unique divine
series are influenced by all, i.e., are omniscient of the total previous
moment and, therefore, are effected by all of the past. Nothing ceases
to make its difference since there is no last moment and since each moment
is effected by all previous decisions, large and small. God is a series
of contingent, concrete Wholes, but God must necessarily exist if the possibility
of everything ceasing to make a difference and really being meaningless
is to be avoided. It is necessary that God always have new contingent moments
of existence. How God exists is contingent on the past and God's present
decision, but it is necessary that God exist i.e., have some how or other.
Necessity" is the factor that all possible contingencies have in
common. It is not contingent that wholes are contingent; it is necessarily
Every whole necessarily exhibits contingency and, therefore, necessarily
exhibits necessities. It is a fallacy, however, to assume that because
something is contingent as a whole fact that all its factors are contingent.
The ultimate purpose discussed earlier can be rationally conceived as
a factor to some degree in all possible facts, i.e., as a necessary abstraction,
embodied by all facts and necessarily embodied by some facts or other,
therefore the necessity for there being no last fact.
The largeness or smallness of a decision is based on this noncontingent
purpose (i.e., the Good) relative to how much or little the decision will
affect the outcome of the moment in light of the Good.
Recapitulation of the Main Points
(1) One must contribute or make a difference to be meaningful.
(2) Only complete inclusion of something saves its full meaning.
(3) A last difference made is meaningless.
(4) A whole that changes with new parts is self-contradictory.
(5) All wholes as whole are contingent in the way they exist.
(6) Decisions not capable of valuation in light of one necessary value
are not capable of being assigned a value and therefore are purposeless.
(7) Decisions (actually fulfilled or only entertained as possibilities)
that are not simultaneously objects for one subject cannot be evaluated,
i.e. weighed against each other (by that subject) even if the subject knows
what the necessary principle of Good or Value is.
(8) Only God is logically capable of assigning the value of one's objective
accomplishments. Only with knowledge of all the parts together with each
other in the whole is it possible to weigh the exact significance of any
part in the whole result. Also, God would have indisputable knowledge of
the ultimate weighing principle of evaluation, i.e., the meaning of unqualified
Good, though there is nothing in principle that makes it (with any abstraction)
unknowable to others other than God.
Value judgments exhibit a simple syllogistic structure:
Major Premise or General Principle of Value, e.g., saving electricity is
Minor Premise or Specific Factual State of Affairs, e.g., Jill left the
basement light on.
Conclusion, in this case, Jill's action was not good. However, the conclusion
is justified only if there is no other value premise that enters in that
is more valuable than the one about saving electricity. Of course, if saving
electricity is the ultimate value, none could qualify it and Kilos action
would necessarily be wrong. Something good for a restricted purpose may
not be good. However, one should not forget that nothing can be good unless
it is also good for a local purpose: Loving God is in how one loves others,
namely, loving others so as to enrich the series of theistic Wholes.
Only in an adequately formed theism can the ultimate principle of value
(let me suggest it is the Enrichment of Experience) be applied without
appealing to another ultimate principle of distribution, namely, a principle
that expresses whose experience ought to be enriched, e.g., (the inadequate
one) treat all men equally. God's direct experiences cannot avoid the immediate
experience of the formative value of each object-part of the world each
of us, or anything, has done. What one does or should have done, i.e.,
whom one should have enriched, be it himself, and/or others and which others
and to what degree, is all together in the one balance of God's experience.
Our myopic situation makes it difficult to know we are making the right
judgment, but this psychological relativism does not touch the logical
meaningfulness of objectively right or wrong acts. It would be meaningless
to say we are ignorant if there were nothing to be ignorant of, namely,
reality as it is. And if reality as it objectively is can only be in a
subject-whole at each moment then objectification and valuation are inseparable.
To be is to be a difference of some one or more valuative kinds: painful
or pleasurable, happy or sad, advancing or receding, intense or low key.
Tragedy or Evil
Not all negative experience is the result of a deliberate judgment to do
wrong. Most of it is brought about because of ignorance of the real consequences
of the action. Knowing the facts is imperative for right action: science
is essential to ethics. Also knowledge of the principle of value to judge
the facts by is necessary: Philosophy is essential to ethics. Negative
action carried out in unavoidable ignorance is tragic. No one is to blame;
it is certainly not an "act of God" that valuable life is wiped
out by cancer or storm, but the result of the confluence of blind, cumulative
freedoms. God could conceivably have prevented a particular tragedy,
but the world would not have been any better for it so far as God's control
is involved. The world could be better but only because we could have
more aware or luckier in the differences we made, but once made, they
are made forever. However, even tragedies and evil results do offer enriching
possibilities though not those as enriching as could have been. Life
to be lived by taking advantage of the best opportunities offered at
each moment for enrichment. This will be the overcoming of particular
and tragedies. God will always suffer them but not without also experiencing
the redeeming positive values of existence.
Meaning's Theistic Implications
>>Grace: God as Not
Free Not to Love
>>The Logic of Death