Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Meaning of the World

­­­The human being is a primarily embodied, acting body. The human qua agent does things, and most of these things are bodily actions. We can most easily, then, approach an understanding of the human being from the point of view of bodily action. We can discover through this some elements of mental action, namely, purpose. This will lead us to concept and psyche formation. The aim, here, is to develop an understanding of how an infant might come to comprehend the world in a mostly empirical way.

First, bodily action: our bodies move, for some purpose. To count as an action, rather than a mere behavior, a mere bodily event, the bodily movement must be motivated. There must be an acceptance on the part of the one whose body it is that the “Why?” question has application. Thus, an action is a behavior for the sake of a purpose. The purpose might itself be an action. I may be digging a hole in order to unbury treasure, I might be lifting weights in order to get stronger in order to have an easier time carrying furniture up stairs, I might be cleaning in order to be a good husband, and so on.

Action, then, has in its nature the means-end relation. To phi as an action is always to phi for the sake of psi-ing, where psi-ing is also an action. Of course, these relations cannot go on forever. Some action or actions must be deemed to-be-done simply, without reference to some additional action or characterization of the action for which sake it is done. This requires that some action or actions be, by their very nature, to-be-done. For an action to simply be to-be-done requires that it follow from the nature of the agent that the agent should, to be a good one of its kind, do that action, that is, the action which is to-be-done simply for an agent is to be a good kind of the thing one is.

Our conception of the kind of thing we are, then, will naturally give rise to action. It sets the purpose of a being. Here we arrive at the question of how we form our conception of ourselves. I do not mean, here, to suppose that we do this intentionally, or even consciously. Rather, I take it that there is something from which and for the sake of which we act and that it could be construed as our beliefs, whether conscious or not, as to the kind of thing we are. This will also have to do with how our nature relates to the world. Let us call those elements of our action-generating concept which vary from situation to situation our concept of our situation. Within any given circumstance we will act on the basis of what we think we are capable of. This is our concept of ourselves. Our situations are usually defined with respect to ourselves.

Each action has consequences in the world and (often thereby) ourselves. We learn what precisely are the consequences of which actions over time, by experiencing the consequences multiple times. We learn how the world is by finding what we can do in relation to the world. Our concept of a tree begins when a tree’s existence has consequences for our actions. The discovery of the world is the discovery of what the world means for us, and how we can alter how the world is. The world is, then, in a sense, a text which we can edit. By editing this text, we discover the meaning of the world. Acting is, at an early stage, much like scribbling lines on paper and going, “Mommy, what does this say?” Very often, we might say, the meaning of an action is what it does in the world.

To understand the world is to understand what one should do, given certain ends. To say that ethics is objective is to say that there are things which everyone should do whatever their ends. To claim that everyone ought to do such-and-such whatever their other ends requires one of two things: either that any end an agent might hold require the doing of such-and-such, or that whatever end an agent holds, their wellbeing is bound up with doing such-and-such. These two are very similar, since people believe that what they are doing is contributive to their wellbeing. To show that something is necessary to the wellbeing of a person is to show that they should do it.


The seeking of the good for oneself involves a kind of hermeneutical circle. I enter the question of what is good with certain preconceptions, which I have gathered from my upbringing, my environment, and whatever other factors there may be. I presume that this is good for me. I then do the sorts of things I expect to be good. Movement happens when I find that this way of living is not conducive to my wellbeing. I find that living this way results in certain things which I take to be bad, rather than good. Thus, I find my view of what is conducive to my wellbeing to be inconsistent, and therefore requiring change.

The world, including my own body restricts plausible views of what is good by failing to present certain things in response to certain actions. To view smoking as good is possible, but requires viewing the benefits of smoking here and now as more important than the later benefits of avoiding smoking. One cannot view long life and smoking as both good without some story of why they do not fit together in most lives. Likewise, certain kinds of people may find the goods of social or intellectual life to drain or energize them more than others, and this will have consequences for what they find to be good for them.

This provides space for the right thing to do to vary depending on bodily makeup. Those with sensitive hearing may find that they should avoid loud music. Those who are hard of hearing find themselves in a quite different position. Those with disabilities finds themselves in this sort of situation with respect to whatever way they are disabled, and require different things for their good than others might. Just as we allow individuals to opt-out of activities that violate their religious convictions, we need to enable those embodied differently to be able to live in the way they need, since the moral demands on them are the same, albeit more empirically verifiably. Those who need to phi in order to reduce stress ought, all else being equal, to phi. Altering environments to be sensitive to varying sensory needs takes priority over altering sensory needs because the body imposes needs for all of us, because we depend on our bodily existence, and because it must be possible for the individual to live prior to alterations given that those alterations have not always existed. The environments which are problematic are newer than the sensory needs, and so violate the living spaces of those who, due to their bodily makeup, cannot function with them. Further, society ought to focus on enabling living in more conditions, rather than primarily trying to eliminate those conditions.


The problem of fitting disparate goods together is answered by a Christian ethics which attends to both the fallen present and the eschatological fulfillment. Why do the wicked benefit so often? Because the world is fallen. Why not say that what is good changed with the fall? There will be justice. Everything will be made right. Why bother doing good when we will suffer for it? Because your reward will be great in heaven. Why do we suffer for doing good? Because the world is fallen. No ethic devoid of this kind of picture of what is wrong with the world and what is to come can motivate and explain suffering for what is good.

This comes into play in the inward-turning ethics of hedonism, stoicism, and skepticism. Each refuses to legitimate suffering for good. The first makes the goal the avoidance of suffering by means of finding balance in things. It is the philosophy of dieting, of working hard for good, but not so hard it hurts. The second refuses to be affected by the external world. What is outside of the agent’s control is not permitted to hurt him, because happiness must be achievable, and it cannot be guaranteed when the external world might foul it up. This is a refusal of the current fallen state of the world, and a rejection of the need for it to be renewed. It is an utter allegiance to the sovereign self who must be able to be happy in and of himself (which is, again, the goal). The last, again, aims at happiness by not affirming anything, but holding everything with an open hand. Not even beliefs are permitted to taint the self with the fall. Each of these three philosophies aims at a happiness unharmed by how things actually are, increasingly trying to extricate the self from the effects of the fall. Each thereby denies the need for salvation and the renewal of all things. By denying the need for renewal, they give up any possibility for eschatological hope. Only an eschatological hope allows us to suffer for the good. All others require that we assume that if we are suffering, then we are not doing what is good.

It is true that a firm belief in the goodness of what one is doing supports a kind of joy, but I do not think it is a joy that excludes suffering, but, rather, we as Christians can rejoice in our sufferings because we are sharing in the sufferings of Christ. We can affirm suffering as true suffering because we can recognize it as a result of the fall, as to be swallowed up in victory in the last days. We can say “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18). We recognize that we are living according to the rules of a different world, but we live in this world as pilgrims. Our citizenship is in heaven, not here on earth in this present age.

How can I claim that we find what is good through action in the world, yet also say that, as Christians, we act according to the rules of a different world? It is because this world is fallen, and is being renewed. It is because this world still bears the marks of how it was made, and “will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). We live according to how God created the world, and so agree with God as to how the world should be by living according to the rules the world should present.

We claim that death is bad, and yet death surrounds us. Without an eschatology which held out to us the bodily resurrection of the dead, we would have to claim that the end of the body was to be accepted. It is only in light of the resurrection that we can fully proclaim that death is bad, and it is in light of the resurrection that death loses its sting. That death is bad in the present points to the glory of the resurrection. That there is a bodily resurrection vindicates our claim that death is bad for us. Because death is bad, it must be overcome in Christ Jesus. Because it is overcome, we need not fear it, but may live in the hope of eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

We live according to a view of our wellbeing which we can live according to. If we require, as part of our view of human wellbeing, the view that it is good for human bodily life to go on as long as possible, then we are required to explain why it does not, and why we may not accept the end as given. Why, if ongoing life is good, do people die? Why, if people do die, should we be sad about that? The bodily resurrection of the dead, and the curse of death which accompanied the fall, answers 
these questions in the only way I know.

This is the kind of thinking we are required to do in putting together a view of what is good for human beings. It is the interpretation of the world as a text, asking of each event how it fits into the whole, and of the whole, how it stands in light of the parts. We ask what we ought to desire if we are consistent in our values, and we ask whether those values are thereby evidenced in the whole. We ask what we would do best to value given our view of the whole, and we ask how we should then respond to parts in light of the whole. Each part demands a response, but what response we give depends on how we expect the whole of the world, unto eternity, to turn out. The parts have their value in the way they do, but this may be vindicated or refuted by how things turn out. Wealth, in and of itself, is good, but wealth by theft ends poorly.

Everyone, then, has a practical eschatology. Everyone has expectations of how the world will turn out, and they act according to these expectations. Eschatology is not unique to those of us who believe we have been told how it ends. People who live according to beliefs that history must turn out this way or that also hold an eschatology. Even those who hold a naturalistic view of things live according to how they expect things to turn out because how things turn out affects what the best thing for them to do now is. Our expectations are what we live toward. The Christian eschaton is the foremost expectation in the Christian’s mind. The direction of history, or stock market projections, or political predictions, or what-have-you are all expectations which people live toward, however: in fear, in anticipation, in hope. These drive action toward them, or, when it is “here is where things are headed if we don’t do something” in revolt against them. But our hope is higher and far more secure, and it drives us—If we understand and believe it—to act unto the glory of God in love for others.


Not long ago, people were talking about “what’s wrong with the ‘right/wrong side of history’ argument,” but what I hope is evident now is that the argument is not always fallacious. It is no more fallacious than appealing to a virtue term to appraise an action. The problem with the argument as it is often used is that there is disagreement over how history ends, just as there is sometimes difficulty using virtue terms when we disagree about what the terms mean. Where there is agreement over how history ends, the argument is valid. We all live toward how we expect history to end, and so pointing us to that expectation is a perfectly reasonable way to motivate us to live according to it. This is exactly what the passages dealing with the end times are there for! The Bible uses, without apology, the right side of history argument, it just looks to the very end of history, rather than the things in between which will pass away with the rest of the current order of things when that day comes.

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