Dialog Articles
A Journal of Theology

>>Ethical Meaning's Theistic Implications
>>Grace: God as Not Free Not to Love
>>The Logic of Death



Introduction to Philosophy
Text Book

Refections on


Philosophical Publications



DIALOG, Volume 14, Winter 1979 (48-53)

Duane Voskuil
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 point 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, but what 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 no memory.
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 my contributions?
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? Obviously none.
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.
Concrete-Abstract Dilemmas
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 on.
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 other subjects.
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 rivals?
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 so. 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 good.
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 been 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 ought to be lived by taking advantage of the best opportunities offered at each moment for enrichment. This will be the overcoming of particular evils and tragedies. God will always suffer them but not without also experiencing the redeeming positive values of existence.

>>Ethical Meaning's Theistic Implications
>>Grace: God as Not Free Not to Love
>>The Logic of Death

Home   Introduction   Refections   Letters   Publications   Resumé   Feedback