"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Grenz on Death

As you may have guessed I've been preoccupied with school, work and family life these days. Sadly, this leaves little room for the blogging. Since I can't seem to find a spare moment to pick up the several blogging projects I've left hanging, I thought I'd perhaps post random tidbits from some of the reading I'm doing now days. That way I don't have to think too hard. ;-)

P.S. for any of you Facebook friends of mine I've recently posted some pics and videos from my latest mountain adventure. Good stuff.

Our ability to reflect on our own death brings to light the deeper dimension of this phenomenon. Not only is death the cessation of biological function, it marks the end of personal life. In this way, death calls personal existence into question. As the termination of a person's life, death speaks as it were the final word. Death, so it seems, undermines all our attempts to find meaning for our own lives. In the end, we all die. Whatever significance we may have constructed for life is abruptly breached. As the psalmist declared, "What man can life and not see death, or save himself from the power of the grave?" (Ps. 89:48).

The dark shadow that death casts across personal life suggests that life is a meaningless absurdity. This was the conclusion of the Preacher: "all share a common destiny — the righteous and the wicked, the good an the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not" (Eccles. 9:2). They all "join the dead" (v. 3).

In death, therefore, we face an enigma more problematic than the cessation of the function of a biological organism. We are confronted with a crisis of meaning produced by our inevitable death. As Ernest Becker poignantly observed, "The irony of man's condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive."

Does our Christian faith commitment shed light on the phenomenon of death: Does death carry and genuine significance, or is it indeed the ultimate absurdity?

Stanley Grenz - Theology For the Community of God

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Blogger Matt M said...

Death, so it seems, undermines all our attempts to find meaning for our own lives.

I've seen this comment made by various Christian individuals on the Internet, but I've never quite got what they mean by it - some are simply confusing meaning with absolute meaning, but is there more to it than that?

In order for something to have meaning it simply has to mean something to me - my life is meaningful because it means something to me, whether this is temporary or permanent makes no difference.

5:44 AM

Blogger Incitatus4Congress said...

"Accustom yourself to believing that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply the capacity for sensation, and death is the privation of all sentience; therefore a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life a limitless time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terrors for him who has thoroughly understood that there are no terrors for him in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer."


11:06 PM

Blogger Alex said...

Hey Matt,
I wonder if you and I have traditionally been using the word "meaning" in a contrary fashion. For my part when I use the word meaning (and I suspect this is the case with Grenz as well) I mean this:

Alex's Meaning Thesis {AMT} =
A thing or state of affairs to be properly considered meaningful if and only if it holds a conceptually significant place within a purposeful whole.

As I'm sure you've noticed, my use of the word meaning is closely bound up with the concept of "purpose."

I can, however, imagine that one could conceive of "meaning" in a slightly different, perhaps more emotive or existentially oriented, fashion. This would perhaps look something a bit like this:

Existentialist Meaning Thesis {EMT} =
A thing or state of affairs is to be properly considered meaningful if it strikes an observer as significant or "weighty" when filtered through one’s life experience.

Such a conception could unhinge meaning from all talk of purpose and allow it to be more of a free floating "experience."

Does this make any progress?

2:50 PM

Blogger Timmo said...


Actually, your way of formulating your disagreement with Matt is rather nice! Your view has a rather Aristotelian flavor to it, so perhaps I can draw out your response to the mechanistic conception of Nature which is inherent in modern science.

Let's formulate an argument for nihilism -- the view that human life is meaningless. Let's call this the Argument from Mechanism:

(1) Human life is properly considered meaningful only if it occupies an important role in the teleology of Nature. [premise]

(2) Nature behaves in a blind, mechanical fashion; there is no teleological order to Nature in which human beings can play an important role. [premise]

(3) Therefore, human life is not properly considered meaningful. [from 1,2]

Nobody here accepts the conclusion. Which premises do you deny and why?

4:12 PM

Blogger Matt M said...


I suspected we might be looking at things from different angles, but your comment sums it up far better than I could.

However, I think what the EMT describes is closer to value. In order for something to be valuable it has to be significant to us. In order for something to be meaningful I think it has to influence the way we see ourselves and the world we're in.

6:34 AM

Blogger Incitatus4Congress said...

I was recently reading through SEPs essays on teleology (this one and this one) in biology and the philosophy of mind etc.

It seems to me that we would have to preface a discussion of the reasoning you put forth with a discussion of whether or not a naturalism can sustain a kind of teleology of its own, if of a slightly different and subjective kind to the classical view. When you get right down to the heart of it, the emergence of function in biology can be so complicated and intricate as to be very difficult to separate from classical notions of design.

If we went with a more liberal view of teleology, then I would reject Premise 2 because it was false (i.e. we cannot say that there is no teleological order in nature - there arguably is, albeit variable).

I would accept Premise 1 in so much that an organisms behaviours do tend, albeit somewhat loosely, to mirror the process and direction of natural selection in its particular environment. Nature encourages the formation of entities that will be fruitful and multiply, and as a result those things that are fruitful and multiply will tend to reflect in their behaviours the qualities towards which natural selection, at that moment, is selective. e.g. we are altruistic because altruism is rewarded in the natural environment, and thus as altruistic organisms we are adhering to the apparent teleological narrative of that natural environment.

It is not our purpose to be altruistic, but by virtue of being a naturally occurring function necessary for our survival, it nevertheless contributes to a sense of meaning; the will to be fruitful and prosper.

5:48 PM

Blogger Alex said...

Hey Timmo,
That's a nice way of setting up the argument. In fact I was planning on doing something quite similar after haggling over definitional clarifications first.

I think you are right. EMT ends up confusing things more than helping them. It's more of an aesthetic signifier (which plays quite well in postmodern language games, but remains unhelpful all the same).

When you say, In order for something to be meaningful I think it has to influence the way we see ourselves and the world we're in. I think you are correct, though I could see someone set on EMT agreeing with this statement as well.

I may be presuming too much here, but I'm guessing that you reject AMT. Is that correct? (reworded below since I forgot to read the previous one prior to posting)

Alex's Meaning Thesis {AMT} =
A thing or state of affairs is to be considered properly meaningful only if it holds a conceptually significant place within a purposeful whole.

7:26 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

Is that correct?


I don't think talk of "proper" meaning makes much sense. Something is either meaningful to us or its not - and we have little control over which is which.

I'm tempted to refer to it as a properly basic belief.

8:55 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Okay, we can ditch "properly." It was a rather unnecessary term anyway.

If you deny that something needs to maintain a conceptually significant place within a purposeful whole (or in relation to the telos of the whole, as Timmo put it)and you deny that meaning is to be understood in a more existentialist light, what do you mean when you talk of meaning?

9:05 AM

Blogger Alex said...

I'm also curious to know why you deny AMT. (reworded yet again, per the "properly" objection and also to incorporate Timmo's wording [which I think is clearer])

Alex's Meaning Thesis {AMT} =
A thing or state of affairs is meaningful only if it holds a conceptually significant place in relation to the telos of the whole.

9:09 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

I'm so sure I deny EMT completely, I just think it needs to be clearer about the distinction between meaning and value - both are "significant" to us, but in slightly different ways, although there's probably quite a bit of overlap between the two concepts as well.

As for AMT, I suppose it depends on what you mean by "the whole", the whole what exactly? If you mean the whole personality then what really differentiates it from EMT? And the use of "only" strikes me as just a way of smuggling the concept of "proper" meaning back in under cover.

9:17 AM

Blogger Alex said...

there's probably quite a bit of overlap between the two concepts as well.

And this is part of the reason I reject EMT. EMT tries to make "meaning" out to be something it's not. Words like meaning and value must remain in conceptually separate categories or we start running into trouble. Meaning is more cognitive, whereas value is more emotive (though not without cognition). To obsfucate these two terms leads to absurdities.

Regarding AMT, you make a good distinction here. If "the whole" is just one's personality then, yes, you are left with EMT all over again (which seems to denote more value than meaning). For my purposes "the whole" ought to be seen as all reality. It seems to me that any attempt to draw a line and say, "here! This is as far as our meaning needs to go." is artificial.

As for the word "only," I'm not trying to smuggle anything in. It's been in every version of the thesis and is a necessary part of it's structure. If a thing or state of affairs does not hold a conceptually significant place in relation to the telos of the whole, then it's not meaningful. It's something else.

9:42 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

Meaning is more cognitive, whereas value is more emotive

I think the EMT can be rescued though - if a clear(er) distinction between the two can be found.

Something is valuable, I'd argue, simply if we'd rather have it than not. Something is meaningful if it affects the way we see ourselves and the world around us.

This separates the two: My 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' mug is valuable to me, but not meaningful. While the death of a loved one can be meaningful, but not valuable.

9:57 AM

Blogger Alex said...

Matt's Meaning Thesis {MMT} =
Something is meaningful if it affects the way we see ourselves and the world around us.

I can think of a defeater to this though: lots of booze, drugs, diseases that cause brain impairment, etc...

10:06 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

Oooh, good point.

But I don't think it's necessarily a defeater, as a meaningful event doesn't have to be a positive one. So I think destroying your brain would still count.

10:12 AM

Blogger Alex said...

gotta keep my head in the books for a while here. I'll get back soon.

10:15 AM

Blogger Tom Freeman said...

What does anyone think of this:

TMT: A thing or state of affairs is meaningful to the extent that it holds a conceptually significant place in relation to the telos of some thing or state of affairs.

It allows for variation of degree in terms of both the thing's significance within a purposeful scheme and in terms of what sort of meaningfulness such a scheme might itself have. It even allows for self-endowment of meaning, but without saying how strongly that card could be played in different cases.

7:47 AM

Blogger Alex said...

It wasn't the negativity of the above mentioned things that I see being a defeater.

Imagine that a fellow drinks himself to death one night. As he begins to drink, he becomes more and more depressed. Eventually nothing really seems to matter anymore and he's merely awash in his own stupor until the end.

Now using MMT I could argue that the booze itself was meaningful since if affected the way our subject saw the world.

This seems inadequate to me. We wouldn't look for the meaning in the booze. We'd look for what drove this person to do such a thing. At this point we are moving once again towards AMT.

7:51 AM

Blogger Alex said...

It's been awhile! Good to see you!

I've been rolling around the exact thesis you articulate for the last week, however I remain unsure of what to do with it.

TMT (which is amusingly close to TMNT btw.) would, in theory, allow for little pockets of meaning to exist within a system devoid of any sort of telos.

This, it seems to me, to be the hinge issue. I'm not sure that such a thing is possible. The only way it could be would be to accept (at some level) a brute emotional fact that "I desire X." All questions of, "well sure but why?" would need to be rejected at this point.

Let's have a look at it this way. Call it the factory thought experiment

The Factory Thought Experiment

Consider a factory. It sits somewhere out in northern Saskatchewan. The factory is completely automated and no one knows where it came from or who owns it. As a matter of fact it produces absolutely no product, service or output of any kind. It is completely and totally without purpose. It even runs as if by magic, needing no energy source to sustain itself.

Now on a random vacation to the area you are passing by this very odd factory and you notice a sign offering free tours. Not having anything else planned, you decide to have a look. Once inside you notice the factory is filled with all manner of frantic, automated activity.

Happening across a particularly complicated little piece of machinery you note the many intricate tasks it seems be be performing. Getting the attention of the tour guide you ask, "What is this little gizmo up to?" (how is it contributing to the telos of the system?)

The tour guide then begins to expound on how it contributes to the system in which it is a part. Having provided a satisfactory answer regarding how our little device participates in this system you ask the obvious question, "sure, but what does this system do?".

Keeping in mind that our factory ultimately serves no purpose whatsoever, to go on questioning in this fashion must eventually find a dead end.

From here we must ask, does this dead end not render questionable any purpose within the previously mentioned systems and relationships?

8:09 AM

Blogger Matt M said...


Yeah, I've been running things through my head and sort of agree with you there.

Although I'm yet to be convinced by the AMT either - the purpose of "reality" (whatever that might mean) is completely irrelevant to the experiences I find meaningful.

Besides, the two main flaws I can see with AMT is 1) It seems to be committing the naturalistic fallacy - just because the "purpose" of natural selection is to remove non-beneficial mutations from the gene pool doesn't mean that only actions which fit in with this purpose should be considered meaningful be any specific individual, and 2) purposes themselves can be considered meaningful and unmeaningful - which leaves you with a chicken and egg problem.

What I'm led back to is an expanded form of the EMT - all of the experiences I think as meaningful were ones that (a) influenced the way I see myself and the world I inhabit, and (b) I've considered valuable (either at the time, or later on).

9:07 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

The only way it could be would be to accept (at some level) a brute emotional fact that "I desire X." All questions of, "well sure but why?" would need to be rejected at this point.

Surely "why desire a desire?" is as meaningless a question as "why is reason rational?". It is just a brute fact that forms such a fundamental aspect of our understanding that it cannot be questioned in a meaningful way.

(If you ask me why I desire X you're asking me to provide rational arguments in support of it - but you're yet to justify your desire for rationality.)

9:12 AM


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