Monday, May 16, 2011

Events and Meanings

It seems to me that most of the time, the connection between action, meaning, and intent is fairly straightforward. It's one big ball mixed together.  "He was angry and punched the other guy."  Sure, there are times when the meaning of an event is not so clear, "What just happened here?"

What is the meaning of an event?  This question blurs into a swirl of other issues like, "What were the events that lead up to this event, and what were their causes?"  "What were the intentions and motives of the individuals who acted in this current event?"  "What will the consequences be of this current event?"

Human intent itself is no doubt more complicated than most of us imagine.  We usually speak and think of ourselves as single individuals, but we are no doubt a mixture of competing impulses deriving from physical brain structures and mixtures of chemicals affected by everything from what we ate for breakfast to how much sleep we had or whether we have just been exercising.

[By the way, I suspect that a realistic sense of human make-up makes a lot of theological speak about human will look ridiculous, e.g., Kierkegaard's idea of willing one thing.]

Albert Camus with his theater of the absurd capitalized on the disjunction between event and meaning.  In The Stranger a man ends up being hanged for killing someone largely without much intention at all.  Some of my friends at seminary used to joke about "Things that Change Your Life Forever."  One suggested that his seminary career might quickly come to an end if he goose stepped down the center aisle of Estes Chapel while then President McKenna was preaching.

I have moments where the disjunction between things I do and their significance stands out as a mystery to me.  Perhaps I am diagnosable ;-) Blogging I think especially causes this disjunction from time to time.  I don't foresee the effect my thoughts might have on others.  Humor especially can come off as quite unfunny to some even while hilarious to others.  

Philosophically, I do not think that events have intrinsic meanings, even if they can have clear causes and consequences.  I accept the fact-value divide as a real divide--the ascription of significance to events is a matter of minds and is not intrinsic to the world itself.  Thus, the idea of a moral structure to the universe seems incoherent to me.  

There are consequences.  There are causes and effects.  God assigns significance to events.  But significance is ascribed; it is a matter of minds looking on.  The idea of a moral fabric to the universe is a metaphor for God's ideal for the universe, the evaluation he makes of the universe.

I end with Paul's nominalist creed: "I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean" (Rom. 14:14, NRSV).  I extend this claim philosophically thus: Moral absolutes are those actions that God always considers wrong to do, wrong to do in every circumstance without exception.  This is not an aspect of the universe, but of God as he ascribes significance to the universe.   


Josh Wiley said...

In my time at IWU my friends and I talked about those "Things that Change Your Life Forever" kind of events. In fact I lived in a bit of a paranoid state at IWU thinking that I would some how (intentionally or unintentionally) find myself in a series of events that would end my time there:) Its funny to think of the implications that small moments in your life will take on for others and how they view you.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I agree with you Ken that minds bring about the interpretation/meaning. And what we use to interpret the meaning is our former experiences, and for Christians (people of religion), tradition/text. This is what the "mind"/reason uses, if one is not educated or prone to think self-critically.

When one is critical of even his own belief system and understanding and evaluates it through the prism of information, then one might change their understanding of the text/tradition. This inevitably changes one's views about "God", and faith itself. Faith is not longer in the text/tradition, but in self determined values that make life meaningful.

Even "God" himself is an idea, that is grasped by the mind (as all things are) but sometimes these ideas we are taught either directly or indirectly, are taken as real realities such that no one or nothing else can penetrate the "mind". Then, one is an absolutist in regards to what is "clean or unclean". And such thinking causes divisions because of keeping "pure" or "separated" from the contaminated.

The sacred is regarded as too sacred/important to compromise, so people become commodites of expenditure to their understanding of "God". And it is for the reason of resisting those that oppose "God" and his "purposes". Islam calls it "the infidel", while the Christian might call the person an atheist. This is the result of closed minded and closed hearted people, who cannot see the human element... and do not value liberty of conscience, which values life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all men, not just believers.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

But, I must add that the relgionists are not the only ones that discriminate. We all do, as this is how we identify ourselves and our values. It is just a painful experience to be discriminated against by those you thought would never do such a thing...but that is why expectations are so dangerous in relationships. Expectations set us up for loss, unless there has been clear communication where understanding can be met with negotiation and we all can grow from it.

But, most are too daunted by the fear of those that are threatening, for whatever reason. (none of us are beyond such behavior given the right kinds of people and circumstances!)...

FrGregACCA said...

It would be interesting to know what prompted this post.

It does beg the question of the relationship between the "subjectivity" of God and "objectivity" in the universe, no?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Sociologically, we understand ourselves within our group contexts, and if these group contexts are not open ones, then they define "us" for ourselves. They perpitiate a self-affirming and self-identifying mentality. One's group becomes the objective, whereas all of reality is limited and seen within that prism or those glasses.

In free societies, the individual can formulate his own identity and develop a "self" that stands apart or can distinguish "self" from the "collective". Such development may lead to a distancing from former value/commitments, as one assess for himself whether the context he was in, is one he values for its own sake. These are questions for the maturing young person/adult.

Without a "self" there can be no objective approach to information or experience, one's habits of thinking and being in the world is already written in stone, because one's very identity is dependent on their group's "glasses". (and there are more glasses "found" than Joseph Smith's -) )...

The moral absolutes of the universe are just not there, if anyone understands the different theories that can apply to the same subject matter. Even in our legal system we do take intentionality (pre-meditation) into consideration and what one does or does not know (accessory to a crime.

Groups cannot help but bring about the social death of other, because of their identification factors and the hierarhcal structuring that "order" mandates. "Becoming Evil" is a great book that describes how pleasing those that are in leadership will lead to the eventual osterization of those not in the "in group" (for whatever reason).

This is why our country values freedom of association, social contract, business ethics, transparency in government, innocent until proven guilty, statutu limitations, etc. These protections of the law give bouncaries around appropriate behavior that allows individuals the rights they have underst our Constitutional government!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

As a parent, I have learned that each child has his/her own ways of understanding.

For instance, our Dalmatian, Raisin, had to be put to sleep, due to a deformity of her kidneys. I thought Becka would never get over it.

Shortly thereafter, we took a trip to Niagra Falls and Becak fell off the monkey bars. She had to have surgury in Canada. Since the doctor was French speaking, he spoke French to Wim, Becka and I didn't understand. We told Becak that everything would be all right, after the doctor did the surgury, but that he had to put her to sleep. Can you imagine her interpretation??? She thought we were going to kill her!!! And we didn't know that that is how she understood things until many years later!!

Because of her special attachment to Raisin, she identified with Raisin's condition/demise more than the boys. I don't think the boys would have had the same understanding given the same circumstances. ( and some of that could be due to gender issues, too. )

The fact was that Raisin was put to sleep. The fact was that Beckah was to be put to sleep, but the outcomes would be completely different. Becak could not understand that due to her limited experience/exposure. Her meaning was grasped by only one meaning for "putting you to sleep"...

Adults in free societies are exposed to much more than those in closed societies, such as the Mennonite or Amish. Such communities build walls, but not bridges to the 'outside world'. And this breeds a particular understanding about the 'world and all that is'...