Does Anything Mean Anything?

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Great Chain of BIs meaning correspondence and signification—one thing in relation to something else?

“Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:1, 9, 14 NIV).

Introduction

Terrorists violently kill people in cities, finding meaning to their lives in ideological terrorism. Survivors ask about why such evil exists. Where is the meaning?

Does anything mean anything?

If not, this sentence is nonsense. Less than nonsense, in fact, because if everything truly is meaningless, then neither “sense” nor “nonsense” makes sense.

Some people believe this: Life and everything else is senseless, meaningless. Most people don’t, because for most of us this seems intuitively wrong, and (for most of us, not all) it contradicts what we have been taught by our families and our culture.

If there is meaning in the universe, however, what does that mean? Where is it found? What is its basis?
This piece briefly explores those questions, starting first with one of the Great Ideas of human thinking.

The Great Chain of Being

One candidate for a principle of meaning and coherence in the universe is the idea of a Great Chain of Being. This was a common idea two thousand years ago, especially in Greek thought. In fact, our word ecology traces to this earlier Greek understanding. Ecology means the study of the “household”—oikos in Greek, source of our eco- (or earlier, oeco-) words. Ancient Greek thinkers used the words oikonomia and oikumene (the origin of our words economy and ecumenical) to speak about how everything in the city-state, and in fact everything in the cosmos, is connected. Thus economy is at base an ecological idea, though we haven’t thought of it that way in the Western world for two hundred years.

In Greek thought, this connectedness was often pictured as a Great Chain of Being. Commenting on the ideas of “chain” and ecology, the editor of Natural History wrote in 1968, somewhat prophetically:

That all things in the universe are intimately related is an ancient but still pervasive thought. . . . Not even today has it been banished as a popular notion of the moral order of the living world. . . . We are now . . . redefining and relinking the great chain. But instead of a system of rank based on a philosophical or theological scale of values, we are developing a system that recognizes the actual workings and consequences of relationships. . . . While many of us tend to endow the word that describes the science of the new chain—and that word is ecology—with mystical properties, the fact is that the science itself is concrete, precise, and empirical. Nevertheless, it is reordering our conception of the world, of the chain, as profoundly as a great religious idea might. (“Ecology: The New Great Chain of Being,” Natural History [December 1968], 8).

The “golden chain” or “great chain of being” concept, tracing back at least to Plato, has been highly influential in Western thought. The idea was commonplace in medieval Europe and even into the eighteenth century. The jurist John Fortescue wrote in the fifteenth century,

In this order hot things are in harmony with cold, dry with moist, heavy with light, great with little, high with low. In this order angel is set over angel, rank upon rank in the kingdom of heaven; man is set over man, beast over beast, bird over bird, and fish over fish, on the Earth in the air and in the sea: so that there is no worm that crawls upon the ground, no bird that flies on high, no fish that swims in the depths, which the chain of this order does not bind in most harmonious concord. (Quoted in “Ecology: The New Great Chain of Being,” 8.)

If you search the Internet, you will find many and diverse visualizations of the Great Chain.

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), the master medieval philosopher and theologian, spoke of a chain of being beginning with God and ranging down through angels, human beings, animals in the order of their intelligence, and then plants and nonliving things. Medieval cathedrals in their intricate carvings often depicted this chain of being. (See Jeffrey Burton Russell, Medieval Civilization [New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1968], 82, 510, 536.)

The eighteenth-century preacher and revivalist John Wesley (1703–1791), founder of Methodism, pictured the created order in its original state similarly: “Every part was exactly suited to the others, and conducive to the good of the whole. There was ‘a golden chain’ (to use the expression of Plato) ‘let down from the throne of God’—an exactly connected series of beings, from the highest to the lowest: from dead earth, through fossils, vegetables, animals, to man, created in the image of God, and designed to know, to love, and enjoy his Creator to all eternity.” (John Wesley, Sermon 56, “God’s Approbation of His Works,” in Frank Baker, ed., The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 2, Sermons II, ed. Albert Outler [Nashville: Abingdon, 1985], 396–97.) Wesley’s view is however less static than the traditional view because of his dynamically personal understanding of God and his strong stress on the image of God in men and women, making them “capable of God” (i.e., with the capacity for deep, transforming communion with God). Like most orthodox Christians, he viewed this original harmony as now fundamentally disordered because of sin.

This Platonic Chain of Being concept is attractive, even today. It insists on the relatedness of all things. It has a principle of coherence. It goes far to provide a sense of meaning and purpose in life. It possesses a certain harmony and symmetry, even a kind of ecology.

The Great Chain of Being is flawed, however. It is an inadequate basis for meaning in the modern world, for several reasons. It is hierarchical rather than truly organic. It is nonhistorical, failing to explain the real processes of history. As a philosophical idea it lacks a scientific foundation. The “chain” that holds all things together also serves as a chain of oppression, locking everything into a static structure. It really has no place for surprise. Its cultural implication is a social hierarchy where men dominate women, the rich rule the poor, and humans subdue and exploit all “inferior” beings, including Earth’s resources.

The instinct of connectedness is sound, but must be conceived more ecologically. In view of what we now know about the actual workings of nature and indeed of the cosmos, relatedness may be imagined not as a chain but as a web of being and meaning. Nature apparently has no vertical hierarchies, though it has order and system. And this complex web is historical. It is constantly shifting and changing through time, but in ways which (at least in hindsight) make good sense. Here is a view based on the observable, verifiable facts of ecology, not primarily on philosophical speculation. The order is there, in the stuff of the cosmos, not imposed by our minds.

This still leaves open the question of larger meaning and the nature of the coherence which seems to hold things in place. Is it blind evolution, God’s being and will, or something else which binds the universe together?

The emerging understanding of ecology is different from the old Greek one in two key ways. First, the Greek idea was heavily philosophical. It was grounded in mental speculation, not scientific investigation. Today’s notion of ecology, however, comes directly from scientific research into the linkages between plants and animals and their physical environment. In this sense it is inductive, not deductive. For example, learning how toxic substances work their way up the food chain, or how chemicals dumped in rivers affect the supply of fish in the Great Lakes, shows us connections we were not aware of. These discoveries lead in turn to others. Eventually we come to see that life is much more linked than we thought. Gradually we learn that tiny ecologies working in remote jungles or oceans tie into a much broader, grander ecology that touches all of life.

The second difference is that today’s ecological understanding is profoundly global. We have information—hard facts––about our globe, about its physical make-up and its place in the planetary system, not just in philosophical systems. We also know much more about the peoples of the Earth than was true two thousand years ago.

In medieval Europe a sort of ecological understanding persisted in Christian theology, tied to the Chain of Being idea. But this was increasingly spiritualized, losing touch with the Earth. This spiritualizing tendency also traced back to Greek philosophy. Greek thinking, especially that influenced by Plato, tended to view the Earth as an imperfect, shadowy place that was only a dim reflection of the “true,” ideal world of pure mind or spirit. The higher up the ladder, the more perfect and less material. (This is explored further in Howard A. Snyder with Joel Scandrett, Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace [Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2011], especially Chapter 4.)

Today the opposite is true, however. Ecology concerns the Earth—microbes, chemicals, insects, water, trees. So far it is mainly a matter of the body, not of the spirit—an equally onesided view. But a change is coming. It simply will not do to allow a gap between body and spirit if we really think ecologically. Increasingly, we are going to discover an expanded and expanding notion of ecology. This seems inevitable as science and imagination probe in new ways the interface of mind and matter, spirit and body.

Here is the real meaning of ecology. A whole ecology, not a piecemeal one. Once we learn that the lives of snails and sparrows are linked to those of human beings in a dozen ways, the meaning of ecology gradually expands to include every other aspect of human life and well-being. And somehow the link between matter and spirit must be part of this ecology.

The Ecology of Meaning

The most crucial meaning of ecology, however, is what it says about meaning itself. Ecology hints that meaning is found in relationship. A big part of the significance of any one thing is based in its connection to other things.

At one level, we know this instinctively. We speak of “meaningful relationships,” or “significant others.” While an individual human life may be seen as having meaning, a large part of that meaning is found in the relations that person has with other people and with the world around them. People without healthy relationships become a menace to society.

Ecology, then, provides one key to meaning in emerging global society. How important is a previously unknown plant or insect that is discovered in the jungles of Central America? We can’t answer until we really know its ecology––how it affects and is affected by its environment and other life forms. We may think the plant or insect is unimportant or “meaningless.” But suppose we find that it produces a chemical that can cure a dreaded human disease. Suddenly something thought unimportant becomes hugely significant! A new level of meaning emerges. (In fact this very example has happened repeatedly in recent decades.) And if the whole Earth has value, the significance of a plant or animal is not found only in its relationship to humans. The non-useful, nonmedicinal plant has just as much value, perhaps, in some larger universe of meaning.

Ecological science encourages us to presume, in fact, significance and meaning even where none has yet been found. Thus ecology really leads to a philosophical intuition: Everything has meaning simply because it connects with everything else. We may not yet understand the connection or all it means. But if anything is important and everything is linked, then every part is important. Whether equally important or not—a key question—depends on other considerations, as we shall see.

Put another way, ecology itself provides an element of meaning. The meaning of the universe is that everything is connected to everything else. This is certainly its real meaning, if not its total meaning. Nothing is insignificant because everything is linked. We find meaning here in two directions. First, every individual thing has meaning because it is part of a larger ecological whole. Second, the meaning of the universe is that everything is ecologically connected. Here then is a key insight: The meaning of the universe is that it shows complex patterns of interrelationship which in themselves suggest that the universe has meaning.

Is this a circular argument? Yes! It is more an intuition than a proof. One could argue (and many have) that the complex ecology of all things is still meaningless—if one has enough faith to believe that. But something about the ecology of our lives and minds tells us these intricate patterns of interrelationship constitute some deep meaning. We also sense, however, that this is not enough. Something still is lacking.

By definition, ecology must consider every dimension and influence that affects the life of a particular organism or ecosystem. Sometimes even ecologists forget this. A study of a city’s ecology, for instance, would be faulty if it failed to consider the effect of air pollution or the economic and cultural loss from the flight of middle class professionals. And it would have to consider much more remote influences, including those from the past and economic or climatic factors half a world away. (See Howard A. Snyder, “The Ecology of Urban Mission,” New Urban World Journal 2:1 [May, 2013], 47–60.)

Ecology insists, then, that every influencing factor be taken into account. When we apply this ecological thinking to society and culture, we discover that we must consider not only physical, economic, social, and political factors, but also the dimensions of mind and spirit. Ecology is not complete or whole if it ignores these more elusive factors, even though they are harder to quantify, analyze, and measure. We may suspect that here, however—in dimension of mind and spirit—are to be found something that gives some transcendent meaning to ecology.

The Meaning of Meaning

What then is the meaning of meaning? Ecology suggests two keys: Unity (or wholeness) and diversity (or distinction). To be ecology there must be parts—entities that can be numbered, counted—that make up the whole. Ecology requires number (whether people, insects, elements, particles, concepts, or whatever). And meaning arises from relationships between parts.

What then is meaning? Meaning is correspondence and signification: one thing in relation to something else. We can say something means (or “signifies”—literally, “signs”) something only by relating it to something else. This is in fact basic to language itself. Thus meaning requires relationship between two things. In fact, meaning involves patterns of twos and threes: One thing in relation to a second thing (and the second in terms of the first), and the meaning that arises as a third thing because of the first two—the meaning of the relationship itself. This relationship becomes, in a sense, the bond of unity between the two, and (at least metaphorically) the offspring of that relationship. (See Northrop Frye, The Secret Code: The Bible and Literature [New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981, 1982]; Words with Power: Being a Second Study of “The Bible and Literature” [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990].)

Meaning thus is ecological—even in a sense numerical. In this understanding every part, even the tiniest, takes on meaning in itself and as part of the whole. No influence can be disregarded; no number or fact can finally be “rounded off.” (Perhaps this is why mathematicians sometimes think that pure mathematics holds the key to the universe.)

This insight is neither strictly modern nor postmodern. A cogent criticism of modern worldviews is that they are “atomistic,” seeing the world as built of separate things, related mechanistically. Postmodern worldviews stress relationships and patterns over things, at times going to the other extreme of denying “things” or “parts.” But truth lies in affirming both. Ecology tells us this.

Relationships, patterns, and connections certainly imply that-which-is-connected, not just the connection itself, unless the connection be understood only as a Platonic idea. “Things” or “parts” can be understood in a not-exclusively-materialist sense, however. Further, one need not deny an encompassing unity and wholeness within which the parts both exist and are linked––even if that “existence” and that “linkage” are both equally necessary in a synergistic, mutually supportive sense. This is what I am arguing. Not atomism (or, conversely, monism).

In the Christian tradition, philosophers and theologians have dealt with this issue of meaning and relationship in part through the doctrine of the Trinity. Whatever or whoever God is, God is not only One. God is Three-in-One. The unity—perhaps the meaning—of God is found in the indivisible, ever-intercommunicating relationship of one-in-two, two-in-three, three-in-one. In the traditional Christian view, meaning is therefore trinitarian. God is Trinity—a personal unity of Father and Son, and the Holy Spirit as the bond of unity (love) between the two (as in St. Augustine’s formulation). Or better: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit bound together in loving intercommunion.

So profound is this relatedness in the being of God that it constitutes triunitive personhood: three persons in one (not two persons united by some impersonal energy or spirit). So that the love-bond is indeed the Person of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity is itself, therefore, an intriguing intimation of the essential twoness and threeness of the oneness of meaning. Interestingly, it is actually an ecological conception, not a mechanical or hierarchical one.

The Meaning of Ecology

Obviously these are not the only conclusions one could reach in examining the meaning of ecology and the ecology of meaning. One might admit the intricate interrelationships and symmetries of Earth’s biosphere, for instance, and yet say that this complex ecology means nothing. Seeing the patterns and linkages of the universe as disclosing, or at least signaling, fundamental meaning is more plausible and more consistent with the nature of human mind and experience, however, even if it is not convincing to everyone. (See Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural [New York: Doubleday, 1969].)

There are in fact four main options in accounting for such ecological realities:

1. All life, and therefore my life, has meaning and significance because it is ecologically related to all other life and to everything that exists. This is the line of argument I have been following so far.

2. Everything is ecologically related, but still the universe overall is meaningless. Relationship or connectedness in itself is not enough to prove or provide meaning. A river and its banks are related to each other, but so what? Meaning requires something more than relationship.

3. The only meaning is the meaning of my own life. I think and I feel; therefore, I am significant, at least to myself. Or at least that’s an illusion I can live with. Ecology has meaning only to the extent that it touches my own life. It does not tell me what the meaning of my life is. Rather, my life tells me what the significance of ecology is. Meaning can be found only in one’s own experience.

This seems to be a common assumption of many people in North Atlantic societies today. Essentially it derives from the logical conclusions of modernity and equates with postmodernist sensibility and a deconstructive postmodernist worldview.

4. A fourth option would be to look to a higher level or a greater multidimensionality, beyond both one’s personal existence and the ecological interconnectedness of all things. This view affirms the significance of ecology (option one). But like the second option, it says that the mere fact of ecology fails to provide ultimate meaning. In common with classical Greek philosophy and most religious views, this view argues that ultimately meaning resides in some dimension of being or existence beyond the known universe. Most fundamentally, meaning is grounded in the realm of mind or spirit, and ultimately in the being of God or in the realm of the gods.

I argue that only this fourth option is really adequate and coherent. The most consistent and credible view in fact is belief in a personal God who is both creative Source of the universe and also its sustainer, source of direction, and culmination. This is far from being an outmoded view. A chief strength of this view is precisely its believability today. It is credible partly because it coheres nicely with all the dimensions of human experience, including thinking, willing, acting, and storytelling.

In sum: The world is coming to a new ecological awareness. We are increasingly seeing that everything is connected to everything else, and much of the significance of individual things is found in their linkage to a global ecology.

If ecology means that all things are interdependently connected, the ecology of meaning is that meaning is a complex phenomenon of many interconnected parts. Meaning is not one thing by itself; it is many things in relation to each other. It is, for example, man and woman in mutual relationship; love in relation to truth; the person in relation to society; humanity in relation to the environment; the present in relation to past and future. It is mind in relation to matter; things in relation to the patterns of their relationships; symbol in relation to what is symbolized. The ecology of meaning is that meaning is both complex and simple; both whole and differentiated. It is complicated and yet coherent. It is like the parts of a vast computer software program. Each part is necessary to make the whole work, and conversely there is a “whole” of which each element is a part. Yet the universe is much more than a software program, for it is a reality which includes life and will, constituting the context where people (and their software!) may exist.

We may come to such an understanding of meaning and the nature of the universe through a process involving intuition and what philosopher Michael Polanyi called “tacit knowing” or “personal knowledge.” Polanyi cited the way we recognize a person’s face. When we see another person, we don’t separately analyze the nose, eyes, and other features and then finally deduce who the person is. Rather, we take in the person’s face at a glance and make a “tacit leap” of recognition. We know who the person is. Polanyi pointed out that this is neither a purely subjective nor objective transaction; it is both. It is personal knowledge. This is something like familiar perception games in which one is shown an ambiguous silhouette or pattern of dots and must decide what it is. (See Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1867].)

In the growing global market of worldviews and ideas, the most persuasive worldviews will those that take ecology seriously and prove personally real.

[Adapted from Howard A. Snyder, EarthCurrents: The Struggle for the World’s Soul (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1995), 239–46, 259. Subsequent chapters in the book extend the argument further, dealing with “Order, Surprise, and Beauty: the Coherence of Meaning,” “Story, History, and Truth,” and “Worldviews and Worldstory.”]

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International Representative, Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Has taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Snyder’s main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. Works include The Problem of Wineskins, Community of the King, and most recently, Jesus and Pocahontas: Gospel, Mission, and National Myth.

5 COMMENTS

  1. A friend sends along this comment:

    This is very interesting. It reminds me a lot of some things that I read

    when I was TAing for Environmental Ethics in grad school. There are a

    significant number of people in that field who think along these lines

    (that meaning rests at the level of systems, not individuals, and that

    connectedness is something important). I think Howard slides between

    two senses of meaning (one is linguistic, meaning=reference/signifier,

    one is moral, meaning=significance/worth/value), which undercuts the

    connections he tries to draw from an ecological understanding of life

    to specific moral or metaphysical conclusions. (So, for example, I

    think that the four options he considers at the end do not exhaust the

    relevant possibilities because although I think 2 is correct about the

    nature of meaning qua connectedness per se, I don’t think that

    endorsing 2 implies anything interesting about whether the

    world/individuals/etc. have meaning in the moral sense.)

    • Hmmm. But don’t the categories “linguistic meaning” and “moral meaning,” in order to make any sense at all, require some more comprehensive arena or dimension of “meaning” within which they function?

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