Meaning, Intelligibility, Morality, and God: A Conversation with Joshua Rasmussen, Part 1

by Daniel A. Kaufman


The first of a two-part conversation with Joshua Rasmussen of Azusa Pacific University on a broad variety of issues, related to the meaning of life, morality, the intelligibility of the world, and God. Technical difficulties interrupted us, so the conversation is being presented in two parts.

02:50 Meaning in vs. meaning of life 36:00 The nature of value 49:50 Is value added by longevity? 54:00 Narratives, lives, and Joan Didion


12 responses to “Meaning, Intelligibility, Morality, and God: A Conversation with Joshua Rasmussen, Part 1”

  1. I think this is a great discussion, and look forward to Part 2.

    My response to the first part of the present video is this: I can’t resist a bit of oversimplification, as happens with all the grand questions that confront me these days: The meaning of life is easy – I ain’t dead yet. And value is what one makes of it.


    As the video went on, I think the discussion deepened quite a bit, and we should consider why that would be. The first half of the video is a philosophical discussion concerning general principles, and whether they can be properly distinguished and to what of generic reality they might apply, if at all, and in what way. Hence for instance the principle issue, the “meaning of” vs. the “meaning in.” the “meaning of” question, although attracting a great deal of investment, especially by those with faith in some larger subsuming ‘reality’ promised by some sacred text or by some esoteric interpretation of the universe, cannot be applied to human experience in any way other than that ritualized by the sacred text or the interpretation in question. That is, it certainly matters if it comes with a manual for every important behavior expected of one in a given ideology, otherwise it just lies there looking pretty.

    But as the conversation continues, the “meaning in” question also begins to tether apart, partly, as it turns out, because it relies on narrativistic connectivity. Obviously, we want it to rely on a standard of value, and it really cannot do so completely, because value just as such is an assigned given and temporally static – our concern for the present – the present good of eating or hugging a loved one or listening to music, etc. But what we want from it, as “meaning in” is a continuing connectivity with other moments of valued experience – sex leads to pregnancy- leads to birth- leads to parenting- leads to growing up- leads to school- leads to job- leads to romance- leads to sex- leads to pregnancy- and the story continues.

    Except that, although of such narrative seems inevitable, none of it actually makes sense. Why does this sex act conceive and not the ten previous? Why this parent or this child and not others? why growing up in a generally accommodating and affection-filled household and why growing up in emotionally abusive family abandoned by one or both parents? Why this school and these teachers? Why get stuck in certain jobs, and why the injury or disease that determines a whole course of treatments and activities one hardly could expect?

    I came from an emotionally abusive family, with which, in later years I tried repeatedly to reconcile – with catastrophic results, every time. Bu the stories of familial reconciliation are deeply embedded in our culture and helped motivate me to try and try again. What a waste of time. Now they’re all dead, and as the last of my kind I’ve had ten years to ask the fatal question, why? To which there is no answer that provides understanding.

    In sixth grade, I had a wonderful teacher who let me pursue my own interests, which were generally in advance of the curriculum. I read Homer, and history, and I loved algebra, which became a hobby of mine. In junior high, the next year, I had a teacher of arithmetic, a sour old crone named Mrs. Hutchinson. When she caught me doing algebra one day, she took my book away – “You don’t study that until ninth grade!” It was a determinant experience – I spent my time in her class daydreaming stories and never went back to math as an interest in life.

    Certain experiences in life are inevitable; such inevitability is made problematic by the stories we tell of it, as if it could be otherwise but for our decisions. And so it could be – if we were different people than who we are. Badgered by that teacher, that seventh grader from a dysfunctional family was not going to make the rebellious choice of continuing to study math surreptitiously – as undoubtedly another child might, who came from a different home. Think of it as a roll of dice in a game of craps. The roll itself comes up as a matter of chance; but within the larger game, the numbers that come up will have inevitable results. The report of these results seems to tie them into a narrative – but the story has to be told to somehow include the initial roll of the dice for sense to be made of it – for some understanding of it as part of a continuing series of events that lead up to some final pay-off – some ‘reason’ there was ever a game played at all. So some like to think that the roll of the dice was from some divine hand; others that physical laws of the universe necessitate it. But I’m the story of two drunks coming upon a tree in the forest with a single apple hanging from the branch, and pausing to bet on whether the apple would fall from it. Finally one just goes up, plucks it and eats it. The other says, “you bet it would fall, I said it wouldn’t, I win!” “Well, what were we betting for?” “The apple!” Now, did they both lose, or did they both win? What was the object of the game? And where is that apple?

  2. “Buddha once told a parable in sutra:

    A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

    Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!”


  3. terranbiped

    You are certainly a winner, in my book anyway. To tie it altogether, the apple seed was eventually expelled, via one avenue or another, germinated and started the whole process over, awaiting for the next pair of future drunks to come along.

    To, as you say, oversimplify, there is no directive meaning to life other than what we conjure in our own minds which in turn is at the mercy of our subjectivity forged by nature, circumstance and chance. Depending on the subjective mind of our poor mortal hanging between the contending jaws of the two hungry tigers; the serendipitous strawberry could just as easily been tasted as bittersweet or sour and spit out as readily as a sensitive precocious child’s fondness for algebra.

    Why so many have trouble grasping this concept is beyond me, other than they are just different from me. And ,therein lies the answer to almost everything that divides people into different camps. Not very profound, I know, and not very amenable to philosophical musings. [The biologists have an easier go at this. The meaning of life is to reproduce and pass the genes forward – full stop.]

  4. Ira Glazer

    You beat me to it

  5. Weird. That’s not the one I intended to post!

  6. Ira Glazer

    > It was a determinant experience

    I see what you did there

  7. Ira Glazer

    Isn’t Monty Python the first thing that comes to mind when one hears the phrase ‘the meaning of life’ ?

  8. Sure, but it was EJ’s remark about life being what you make of it that made me think of the song.

  9. jofrclark

    The of-in distinction is fascinating and seminal.

    I’d day “of” implies some abstract meaning that is objective/general and independent of the individual while “in” implies personal meaning that is subjective/circumstantial. This suggests different frames/forms of knowing.

    It’s also interesting to observe in the conversation that that much of the discussion of “value” “good” and “meaning” is framed in emotional terms such as joy, happiness, etc.

    Being intellectual embodies abstract (general), objective, mechanistic, dispassionate (unbiased) knowing. Thus intelligence is by nature nihilistic (devoid of value).
    Being emotional embodies circumstantial/narrative (personal), subjective, economic, passionate (biased) knowing. Thus emotience is by nature precious (infused with value).

    Meaning is order. God is order. Trying to understand meaning/God is essentially trying to understand the given/evident/manifest order that we perceive in existence. This observed order is not only the observed given order “of” existence beyond the self but the given order observed “in” existence within the self. “Of’ and “in” are both given and bothy necessary.

    Intelligibility is thus incapable of expressing/understanding the order of value and thus fully expressing life’s meaning.
    Emotionality is thus incapable of expressing/understanding mechanistic order and thus fully expressing life’s meaning.

    Even though each is diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive, both are needed in a ying-yang relation to fully know and understand life. Thus understanding meaning it not a question of “of” OR “in” but a question of “of” AND “in” and the tense relation of these two opposing fields of knowing that are each and both needed to fully know reality/God/existence.

  10. Seren

    There’s a small sub-plot in one of the Hitchhiker’s books in which a genius inventor is so irritated by his wife (or maybe it was his mother) and her petty, quotidian concerns that he invents a machine which gives the wearer an instantaneous perspective on the universe through all time and the (in)significance of their own place in it. For years after reading the books my memory was that the woman put the headset on, experienced the breadth of all-that-is, took it off and said, “That’s very nice, dear, shall I put the kettle on?” I was disappointed to come back, decades later, and read that in Adams’ version she is sent quite mad. I prefer my version. The size and age of the universe has little bearing on how good it is to share a freshly made cup of tea with a friend.