Chapter 2. Ado about Nothing

My parishioners in the early 1940s were very generous toward me as a young fellow just starting out in the ministry. They didn’t expect very much more from me than I was able to give them. During those wartime years we shared with each other the vast resources of spiritual experience which had been bequeathed to us by the church. How grateful we were to faithful men and women of former generations. They had turned to God in just such dark days as those we were presently enduring and they had preserved for us lasting treasures of insight and revelation.

The roots of the faith we cherished ran away back into the painful history of the people of Israel. Despite perpetual perils, by the grace and gifts of God those persecuted people had managed to survive and flourish. For me and my people, old biblical stories of heroes of the faith once more came alive. The cross of Jesus, the tribulations of Saint Paul, and the suffering of the saints in the Book of the Revelation were very meaningful. The church’s faith, after all, had been hammered out while the structures of Roman civilization were collapsing.

The war was rubbing our noses in the realities of human iniquity, suffering and death. I was acutely aware that the existence of evil in a world created by a wise, loving and powerful God poses a terrible problem.

Because Jesus had suffered at human hands and died on a cross, the Christian faith has always had to confront squarely the problem of evil. The cross had once been an instrument of torture and death used by Roman executioners. That it had become a major symbol of Jesus’ victory over evil, indicated that Christian thinkers had arrived at surprisingly triumphant conclusions. Even if Christians couldn’t fully explain the cross, they felt that nevertheless they could trust God through sufferings and adversities. If no way had been found to spare the Son of God from the horrible agony and death of the cross, it can be assumed there must be some reason why evil is tolerated in God’s world.


In my days at university I had encountered students who were excited about some ideas that were drifting over from France and Germany. Some of these students called themselves nihilists.

In Latin, nihil means “nothing.” Nihilists believe in nothing and find nothing believable. Nihilism is the ultimate rejection of the authority of all social institutions and worldviews. Nihilists have no conscience or regard for others. They advocate whole-hearted self-centeredness, unrestrained freedom and even violent anarchy. Nothing really matters, because nothingness is our human destiny. From nothing we came and to nothing we return.

For the nihilists the grandiose conception that people call “God” is only a human fabrication which thinly conceals the abyss of ultimate nothingness. Human beings and institutions appear in the world only by mere chance. They continue to be pushed and pulled about entirely aimlessly by mindless events. In the vastness of the universe, humans are here today and gone tomorrow. They are important only to themselves. People are mere trifles that are easily replaceable. There are no lasting meanings or values for anything or anyone. Meanings, dignities and rights are manufactured to suit people’s own purposes. Values depend upon human whims. Other people are only objects to be exploited. Since people are nothings, there is no need to respect them, and no obligation to be responsible to them or for them. If lies and treachery can temporarily manipulate others, what’s wrong with that?

These nihilist notions had originated in Germany but quickly spread all over Europe. Such cynical ideas undoubtedly contributed to Nazi ruthlessness and to the undermining of French resistance.

Some aspects of nihilist ideology were taken over by the atheistic branch of a new philosophy called “existentialism.” The existentialists rebelled against intellectual abstractions and laws. They claimed that these merely justified corrupt social systems. For them, official institutions such as state and church seem impressive only because, like balloons, they have been inflated by ancient windy words. The rules and philosophical generalities of these institutions always disregard the real-life situation of the particular, lone human 2   individual. Thinkers should be concentrating on actual, concrete living, describing what happens when an existing individual is picking out his or her personal pathway from moment to moment among the alternatives offered by circumstances.

Despite its inconsistencies, contradictions and social cynicism, the existentialist policy of “live for yourself while you can” provided young people with a technique for surviving the war’s despair, anxiety and futility. Enough rang true in what existentialists were saying that they had to be taken seriously.

The official worldview of modern science played right into the hands of godless nihilists. The natural sciences seemed to be getting along perfectly well without including “God” in their list of basic concepts. The scientists were proud of science’s “objectivity,” meaning that they tried to keep human values and human purposes out of their work. Thermodynamics indicated that the universe was running down, that the sun would grow cold, and that the human story would eventually fizzle out in the universal chill of dead and endless space. Not much hope there!

My parishioners had not yet been exposed to these radical attacks on conventional views, but I knew that they could not escape them forever. My own soul cried out for assurance that the world does make sense, and that there is a source of meaning and value for the world and everything in it.

Nihilist philosophy directly attacked the church and its traditional theology. I felt compelled to defend the gospel. The strength of this defensive impulse in me revealed that my own faith was being threatened by the nihilists. Their probing fingers had found some spots in the body theological which were trembly and sick and sore. Long ago in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “the preacher” had eloquently expounded the same opinion: that the goals of human striving are only “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”1

Before I could mount a counterattack on nihilists, I had to learn more about that powerful non-thing which they call “nothingness.” I therefore began intensive research into the negative aspects of theology and philosophy.

The Fall

Classical theologians explained the origin of evil in God’s world by means of “the Fall of Man.”

This difficult doctrine was derived from a seemingly simple story in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis. God had set up a perfect botanical and zoological garden in Eden. He had created the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, appointing them to look after everything according to his instructions. In that idyllic garden nothing ever died. God warned Adam and Eve that they themselves, however, would die if they ever ate the fruit of a certain tree. A snake talked Eve into plucking the forbidden fruit and she persuaded Adam to eat it.

Although they did not die immediately, God laid certain curses upon the couple and upon the snake. They were exiled forever from the garden. Work henceforth became a grievous burden to Adam. Sexual subservience, child-bearing and dissatisfaction with her spouse became Eve’s burden. The snake was doomed to crawl on its belly in the dust, its life always in jeopardy. The descendants of Adam and Eve kept themselves alive by preying upon the vegetation, upon the animals and upon each other. Amid such troubles, Adam and Eve eked out their remaining days (centuries), clothed in leaves or animal skins, until they eventually died.

This sketchy story provided the foundations for an amazingly durable explanation of the way things are in the world. Certain details of this Garden of Eden story provided a rationale for a whole set of attitudes towards religion, science, family life, social authority, sexuality, labor, agriculture, diet, clothing and history. In short, the story justified a whole worldview.

Strangely enough the Old Testament itself makes no further explicit reference to the story of Adam and Eve. In official Jewish theology no doctrine of “The Fall of Man” emerged from this story. The prophets never used it to explain the origin and continuance of sin, evil and death in God’s world. Not until the period between the Old Testament and the New did underground folk religion develop that original simple story into a comprehensive explanation of the negative factors of human experience. From certain dubious books in the Apocrypha,2 these unofficial popular ideas seeped also into the New Testament.3 In dialogue with the world of the Greeks and the Romans, the church fathers grasped at these dubious suggestions and elaborated them as an explanation for everything opposed to the sovereignty of God.

For centuries it was impossible to explain the mission of Jesus without reference to Adam and Eve. Something of their “original sin” was believed to have been passed from parent to child via the sex act. Thus even before birth all human beings are corrupted, doomed to sin, misery and death.

Jesus was believed to have come to this world to break this awful chain of hereditary consequences. In order to avoid the infection of original sin, he was born of a virgin mother who was herself believed to be the product of a virgin birth (the Immaculate Conception). By his sufferings upon the cross, the pure and innocent Jesus took upon himself the residue of deadly punishment which should have been meted out to every human being. By always obeying God even unto death Jesus achieved a human life which was thoroughly right in the sight of God. Whereas Adam had failed, Jesus succeeded in pleasing God entirely. Jesus’ resurrection made his sinless, undying, divine-human nature available also for impartation to believers. This new nature, upon which the ancient Edenic curse did not rest, was what was imparted to people who received the sacraments.

Thus were the person and work of Jesus interpreted by an elaboration of the Adam and Eve story. This traditional conceptual framework, on which all the central Christian doctrines hung, came to be regarded with almost as much reverence as the Lord himself. To raise questions about the original story, or about the whole intellectual structure which had been built upon the way it had been traditionally understood, was to chop at the underpinnings of faith in the Savior.

In the course of time the whole of the created world and human history came to be viewed through the lenses provided by the story of Eden. That whole worldview, like its theological superstructure, became identified with the heart and core of Christianity. Any attack on this worldview was regarded as an attack on God and his church. People who had their doubts about the whole thing either quietly deserted the church, held their tongue, or were otherwise effectively silenced.

While the story of the “Fall” of Adam provided classical theologians with an acceptable explanation of the origin of evil, for me it didn’t. Temptation by a talking snake might somehow explain a woman’s sin, but it didn’t explain how evil intentions got into that serpent in the first place. If God had created all creatures and pronounced them “very good,” how could a being with such sinister motives ever have appeared in God’s good world? To identify a snake with a prehistoric angelic rebel—”Satan” or “Lucifer”—is simply to sweep the same dirty problems under another rug farther back in God’s house.

The story of the Fall enabled classical theologians to hold that death first entered God’s world when Adam took his first fateful bite of the forbidden fruit. Was this indeed the only time Adam had ever bitten into any fruit? If he had occasionally munched on other living vegetable tissues, did what he ate not suffer death? Had no carnivorous lion or shark eaten any flesh whatsoever until after Adam’s Fall? If such species had previously and unanimously behaved like good vegetarians, their digestive tracts must have been so vastly different from those of modern carnivores that they could hardly be called by the same name. In any case, is the death of a plant not as much a true death as the death of an animal?

Theologians believed that after Adam had fallen, he had to work desperately to obtain the food that for him would keep death at bay. Work became a curse to Adam, no longer a joyous service. Human work also became a curse upon the vegetable and animal kingdoms which humans exploited. After the Fall, weeds, bugs and all crop-eating creatures became the enemies of all death-fearing people. The need to kill and eat in order to sustain life turned the good earth into a wild, bloody and fearful jungle. “For the creation was subjected to futility . . . , the whole creation groans and suffers.”4

Thus the delinquent Adam—one single item among all those that God had created—was blamed for pulling down all misery, death and disaster upon his descendants and upon teeming multitudes of totally innocent subhuman creatures. To me this seemed to be neither a fair nor a wise arrangement. Why didn’t God bypass Adam immediately and start over again with a different person or creature?

The more I thought about the usual theological explanation of the origin of evil in God’s world, the unhappier I felt with it. To trace such enormously tragic consequences back to one seemingly trivial incident seemed to cast rather uncomplimentary reflections on God’s managerial capacity. No matter how I looked at it, God had to bear the responsibility for making a world that in some ways had turned out rather badly. Why then did he do it the way he did? The old story, despite its magnificent insights, was incomplete. As an explanation for evil it was as unconvincing to me as to a nihilist.

No wonder the traditional worldview based on the Garden of Eden story was being widely abandoned or treated lightly by so many educated people. I asked myself: is this worldview an essential ingredient of the gospel, one that is absolutely necessary for interpreting the life and work of Jesus? Does the whole credibility of the Christian message rest on this one foundation, on this thin crust of ice over which a thawing wind is blowing? Is there some other way of interpreting Jesus which is more immediately relevant to people’s own experience? At that time I could neither find nor put forward any alternative Christian worldview.

As I reread theological interpretations of the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, it became obvious that the theologians were by no means of one mind about such matters. Moreover the meanings of biblical words tended to shift considerably according to the point of view of the interpreter. One authority would emphasize that “one day” always meant a day of 24 hours—even if the sun had not yet been created.5 Another, who wanted to stretch the time-span a bit to allow for some years of evolution, would remind the reader that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”6

Sometimes the expression “The Fall of Man” meant the fall of a particular historical individual named Adam. At other times it referred to the failure of the whole human species to measure up to God’s hopes for it. At still other times it indicated that each and every historical individual lapses into sin. The meaning of the “original sin” which was allegedly inherited by Adam’s descendants was interpreted variously as the guilt of Adam’s sin, or a tendency to sin as Adam sinned, or the punishment of Adam’s sin.

As a philosopher trained to use words with precision and consistency, I was exasperated when, within the writings of one person, the meaning of some important word would suddenly undergo change. Nobody ever explained why “death” for an animal is quite different from death for a plant. Who can be sure about that? Although the mysterious creature that tempted Eve in the garden was called a “snake,” who can deny that it originally talked and traveled in very unsnakelike ways? Neither in the Genesis story, nor in the Old Testament, is the serpent ever called “Satan.” Who first, without batting an eyelash, quickly switched the identity of the snake to that of “Satan” in disguise? Such arbitrary redefinitions of words put me off.

Now please don’t misunderstand me here. It is not my intention to throw discredit upon the Genesis story itself. At that time I respected it for its profound insights, and I respect it even more so today. As written it is saturated with deep truths that resonate with the way things are. My quarrel was and is with the way church people have interpreted and elaborated the original story.

The power of negative thinking

During that first pastorate I tried to clarify and develop ideas that I had brought with me from university and theological college. I carried on with postgraduate studies extramurally. On stormy winter days, when traveling about in my snowbound parish was a little too difficult, I read and worked toward a doctoral degree in philosophy.

To me the solidest and most durable branch of philosophy seemed to be logic—the science of thinking straight and correctly. On some ground or other it is always possible to question the validity of scientific knowledge about the world of external, physical objects. Our minds may play tricks with reality. The kind of knowledge that is surest and least subject to error should come from logical thinking about logical thinking. For this enterprise no expensive or complicated apparatus is necessary—only one’s own mind. Logic can be studied and used anywhere anytime. This was undoubtedly a subject that I could handle extramurally.

I had the necessary motivation: I wanted to know how to arrive at clear and distinct ideas. What are the basic principles that lie behind the definition of words and the identification of things? How can I use terms correctly and say what I mean? How can I extract useful information out of what other people say? What are the basic principles of teaching and communicating? Enough questions there to keep me going for the rest of my life.

Eventually I had to settle upon a specific topic for my thesis. I decided to write about the use of negation in logic: what you mean when you say “no,” “not,” “none,” “nothing,” “nobody,” “zero,” and the like. Negation is a basic ingredient in all thinking and speaking. Although only a few people have ever paid much attention to the subject, it is as impossible to avoid negation in thinking as it is to deny the existence of denial without contradicting yourself.

My thesis topic was hard to explain to my wife and to parishioners. When people asked me what I was writing about, I would say, “Oh, nothing!” They didn’t know whether I was trying to be smart or was just uncommunicative. When I did undertake to explain to some of them what I was doing on those early mornings and late nights, none were very enthused. I myself didn’t realize at that time how important this study of negation would be in shaping my future view of the world.

Negation is what you do when your mind entirely rids itself of some perception, idea or relationship. You wipe such things right out of all your further consideration. You reject it, dismiss it entirely, reduce it to absolute insignificance. Negation makes an absence out of a presence. “I am not a bachelor.” That statement means: if you have an idea that I’m a bachelor, forget it! Annihilate such a notion so that it ceases forever to be a live possibility for your thinking.

I soon discovered that there are two basic kinds of negation. I shall call them “division” and “elimination.”

Division is the kind of negation that does away with the connections between things. A butcher chopping meat into chunks with a cleaver is practicing division. When the side of a tent is slashed with a knife, or wrapping paper is cut to fit a gift package, or a gingerbread man is stamped out of dough by a cookie cutter—that’s dividing. When you make a nice edge around your flower-bed or put up a fence between your place and your neighbor’s, you’ve been dividing. What once was joined together has now been put asunder.

Without actually cutting this page in two you can divide the top half of it from the bottom half conceptually. You simply consider a certain white space between two lines in midpage to be a divider, as if the page were slit across there, or slashed through the length of that space. Or you could pencil a circle around some word or set of words to isolate that block conceptually from everything else on the page. Circle or straight line, zigzag or wobble, your dividing line can separate what lies on one side of it from whatever lies on the other. Having abolished the conceptual connections between the two dissociated areas, you have used the “division” method of logical negation.

While you can actually divide the pupils of a certain school from their dogs by closing the school door between them, in your mind’s eye you can also conceptually impound all the schoolchildren of the world behind a purely imaginary wall to keep them apart from all theZ dogs in the world.

In logic, such an assemblage of all schoolchildren, apart from all dogs, cats, parents and everybody and everything else, would be called a “class.” All the dogs, apart from all kids, cats, sacks and wives, would also be called a “class.” A logical class consists of only those things which have in common at least one certain characteristic or one set of characteristics. A class is a convenient way of lumping together everything of the same kind under one name. It has nothing essentially to do with schoolteaching.

Not only does a logical class include similar things: it also excludes all dissimilar things. In logic it is implied that a boundary or fence, whether actual, conceptual or merely possible, could be set up to separate the members of any class from all nonmembers. A class, therefore, has always both positive and negative significance.

The “division” kind of negation, by disconnecting, uncoupling and disrelating things, thus creates “otherness.” By means of “dividing slashes,” This becomes distinguished from That, Here from There, Now from Then, One from the Others, Some from All, These from Those, and so on.

Division, however, is only a mode of partial negation. A bread knife can introduce that thin plane of nothingness which appears between successive slices of bread. To do away with the whole loaf, however, the mode of total negation, i.e., elimination, is required. Logical elimination can entirely suppress a whole subject or remove a major portion of it from further thought. Elimination is like covering something over, wiping it out, putting it away out of sight, turning your back on it, or leaving it behind. Eliminative negation is supposed to annihilate from your mind all traces of that item’s former relation to whatever was cut off from it by divisive negation.

Both the partial and total kinds of negation—i.e., division and elimination—are ways of wielding the destructive power of nothingness. Yet, paradoxically, it is by means of that same negating division and elimination that positive clarity and sharp definiteness are given to perceptions and ideas.

If you are holidaying at the shore and you want to describe your locale briefly for the folks back home, you might write, “Our cabin is on the shore of a little bay.” If you had merely told them that you were staying at the coast, they might have imagined you were living, not on a bay, but on some other kind of shore, say, a rocky point or a long, straight stretch of beach. They have long since learned how to divide the class of bays from the class of points and the class of straight beaches. When you tell them that you’re on a bay, they effortlessly dismiss from their minds all those other kinds of shores. There are, however, several kinds of bays, including estuaries, lagoons, inlets and fjords. If you further specify your situation by naming one of these special types of bay, your readers immediately eliminate the other possible kinds of bay from their minds. They then possess in their imagination or understanding a fairly clear and definite picture of your kind of location.

If you write to some friends and inform them that your son competed in the javelin throw at the Commonwealth Games, you eliminate the possibility that he may have been off during the Games sailing the South Seas, etc. Since you tell them he has been throwing the javelin, that eliminates shot put and discus. He came fifth. (That eliminates places 1 to 4, and 6 to 37.) Each “fact” you give them enables people to set up their mental dividers correctly, eliminate alternatives, and thus attain clear-enough knowledge of your boy’s activities.

Division and elimination must be used repeatedly when anyone wishes to arrive at clear and distinct ideas, definite perceptions and exact locations. The sequence of negating which produces the desired positive results generally runs through our minds so quickly and automatically that we are seldom aware of the process. When there is a puzzle to be solved, however, or a false impression to be corrected, or a complex situation to be understood, the “Divide and Eliminate” technique is the only reasonable substitute for mere guesswork. When you want to define a word or identify a specific thing, or class, or idea or event, these two steps of negation are almost indispensable. Such is the power of negative thinking.

Notice what happens when you look up somebody’s telephone number. You have this big book of names and addresses and numbers. In it somewhere is the number you want. Let’s see—the name is Strang. It begins with S. You open (divide) the book of alphabetically organized listings and quickly flip past (eliminate) all pages listing names beginning with letters other than S. An R automatically means “not-S,” so you ignore it. When you have located the S listings, you start looking for St or Stra, paying only enough attention to any other combinations of letters to drop them immediately. By thus dividing rather randomly but progressively, by `eliminating, using the conventional alphabetical ordering to keep you going in the right direction, you will finally arrive at the correct surname, with the proper initials and the right address.

Then you switch your attention entirely away from the name (i.e., eliminate it) and address (eliminate it), turning exclusively to the telephone number printed beside that listing. Reading from left to right, you dial the number, one digit at a time. Once you have dialed a digit, you drop it out of mind and go on to the next, until the whole telephone number has been eliminated from your operational plan. Your ear is now cocked to listen for the sound which indicates that the telephone is ringing at the Strang residence.

Throughout the whole searching and dialing procedure you followed the “Divide and Eliminate” method. For dividers you used the white spaces by means of which the printer separated letters, digits, words, lines and columns in the directory. You also used the spaces between the holes in your telephone dial, or between its push buttons.

At first when you walk into a display room in a museum, you get only a general impression that it contains a lot of things in showcases. If someone asked you immediately to describe in detail the items in any exhibit, you would find it impossible. As is the case with every brand-new experience, your grasp of the display-room situation is at first ill-defined, imprecise and unspecific. Before you can say anything very intelligent about it you have to choose a single showcase and fix your attention on its contents one item at a time. Then you observe an object’s materials, you note its coloring and trace out the intricacies of its design. To come out of that display room with definite, detailed, communicable knowledge about its contents, you must isolate a series of individual items, focusing on each one separately and excluding all others from your close scrutiny. By thus using the Divide and Eliminate technique, clear and definite ideas will emerge from the allover vagueness of your original fuzzy experience on entering the display room.

The single act of mentally or physically dividing an area originates three things: a separation where none previously existed; and two new edges, one at each side of the cleavage. Where there is no break, i.e., no discernible separation with edges, we consider that we are dealing with one simple, homogeneous thing. We know that a continuous spread of something has been divided if we come to an end of that kind of thing and then encounter something different. Even blindfolded we can tell where the lawn ends and the sidewalk begins. We’re sure to notice when we step off a curb or bump into a wall. Even a Ping-Pong ball, sailing through the airspace over a table, acts differently when it touches the net. The paper inside the figures in a child’s coloring book may look quite the same as the paper outside of them. A child quickly learns, however, that there is a considerable conceptual difference between the inside and the outside of those outline-figures. Parents make a fuss if the crayon somehow wanders outside them.

Consciousness is edgy

Edges are enormously important for consciousness. Without edges, and the different regions which they demark, there would be no consciousness at all, nor anything particular to see or to say. All things would meld together without distinction.

Psychologists have noted how well the retinas of our eyes are set up to capture the color contrasts which occur at the edges of things. When someone’s visual field is illuminated so that brightness at one side gradually becomes much darker towards the other, the field appears to be evenly illuminated. But if a very faint vertical shadow line is projected into the middle of the field, a sudden change in perception is produced. The total field immediately divides into a darker half and a brighter half. Each half is seen as uniformly illuminated throughout its area. The addition of the boundary between the halves dramatically accentuates the differences.

Our sensitivity to edges probably has great survival value. If the outline which edges delineate resembles that of something we have encountered before, we know what to expect from it and perhaps how to cope with it. Because we pay heed to edges, we avoid tumbling down from high places, stepping on a rattlesnake, or getting hit by a car. Edges warn us that familiar circumstances are about to end and that we should prepare to meet new and possibly dangerous conditions. By edges and outlines we can identify various portions of our environment. Using them as landmarks, we can orient our activities in useful directions, and estimate whether or not our resources will be sufficient to meet the demands. Without any edges or limits we may feel vulnerable, threatened and lost.

Edges are sometimes not what they seem to be. We know that the surface of velvet is actually a dense miniforest of upstanding fibers, but we persistently regard it as being smooth and continuous. Our eyes also tell us that a blade of couch grass has straight edges and a smooth surface. Running a finger along it, however, reveals that it is sharply picky and quite rough.

We tend to simplify unimportant boundaries, or those that are too complex for us to follow. The silhouette of a tree-covered hill actually presents a jaggedy outline against the sky. But if we were to draw it on paper, the uneven skyline would probably be reduced to a simple line with only a few angles and curves. For us that line would resemble the hilltop horizon well enough, but in fact it would seldom correspond to the ins and outs of the actual boundary between trees and sky.

Clearly defined edges are so desirable in our world that, if we can’t easily discern the actual edges of things, we invent edges to substitute for them. People in the Middle Ages were convinced that the flat earth had an outside edge over which foolhardy sailors might tumble into the abyss. I suspect that over the centuries the idea of an infinite God—quite edgeless and formless—has unnerved many people. It has always been more comfortable to believe in visualizable gods who dwell in limited bodily forms.

The existing boundaries of objects in the large-scale world are usually fairly easy to discern clearly. Some dividing lines, however, are not prescribed at all for us. They must be created by our own imagination and located by our decisions alone. In slicing a cake, the “correct” size and shape of the pieces is not given. You have to place the knife. The artist decides where to place the lines of a drawing on paper or canvas. Although the ocean lacks landmarks, driven stakes and clear-edged waves, politicians nevertheless decide where the offshore boundary of a maritime country is located. Few people realize that their mental map of the world is so arbitrary a construction.

There are many “dividing” questions for which the nonhuman world does not dictate exact answers. How long should this skirt be? Where on this lot should the new house be located? How many wieners will feed the crowd? When should the coffee be served? In these kinds of cases, the placing of the dividing lines, the creation of regions, the laying out of edges and the setting of limits are up to the person charged with making the necessary arbitrary decisions. The decider bears the weight of responsibility.

It is easy to see why there are so many different shapes, styles and kinds of things. The varieties of houses, decor, sports, speech, music, and human endeavors seem to be innumerable. In such optional cultural matters the responsibility for laying down operative dividing lines is usually taken by social authorities.

So, partly dictated by the physical world, partly decided by social authorities and partly generated by the imagination of individuals, the great assortment of cultures and views of the world comes into being. The presuppositions which guide the line drawing and decision making in one group of people may be quite different from those that direct other groups. It seems that the world’s cultures are separated from and at odds with each other because human beings, in order to be human, must draw dividing lines. Self-conscious humanity and negation are inseparable.

Perhaps the story of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis will always serve to remind us of the kinds of problems which inevitably arise from human self-consciousness and other aspects of logical dividing.

Adam and Eve were allowed to pluck and eat every fruit in God’s garden except one. One tree was excluded from the class of edibles and its boundaries were to be respected. Picking the forbidden fruit separated the fruit from the Tree. Biting a chunk out of the forbidden fruit also destroyed its wholeness, as did biting into any other fruit. The difference between ordinary plucking and eating and this particular instance of plucking and eating, lay not in the act of dividing, but in what specifically was divided, and in the motivation for the dividing. The decision to pluck the forbidden fruit was a deliberate, self-conscious act which set the plucker over against God. Previously the humans had taken their orders concerning the garden from God. Now they themselves were giving the orders to themselves and to everything else in the garden. They had cut themselves off from the will of God. Adam and Eve believed that by taking a portion of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would become wise about everything. In a way they were right. The act of dividing and eliminating is involved in all deliberate decisions, in all intellectual operations and in all definite knowledge.

Once self-conscious, self-directed, and self-centered human decisions had begun to divide up the world, the barred lgate, the rending of human flesh, the confusion of languages and the disruption of all mutually beneficial relationships would not take long to appear. These distressing developments would be inevitable if the wise dividings authorized by the one wise God were set aside for arbitrary dividings initiated by several human wills. Human intellectual powers can be a crown of glory, but they can also become a source of danger, inhumanity and shame.

The Laws of Clear Thinking

Philosophers are professionally interested in clear thinking. Without clear and distinct ideas there can be no clear thinking. To obtain definite ideas, precise dividing lines must be drawn. Classical philosophers believed that no thinking could go right if the basic authority, rights and privileges of logical dividers were not boldly asserted and uncompromisingly maintained.

Three “Laws of Clear Thinking” were therefore set forth long ago to uphold the high honor which should be rendered to logical dividing lines. The three laws are called the Law of Identity, the Law of Disjunction, and the Law of Noncontradiction. Each law states in a different way the same fundamental philosophical principle: that what has been divided by a correctly placed logical dividing line has been divided unchangeably, absolutely and unambiguously.

Let us now take a look at each of the three Laws of Clear Thinking.

The Law of Identity asserts that a thing must continue to be as it is at least until we have finished talking about it. Whatever we have defined by our dividing slashes must not change under any circumstances in any way while we are discussing it. Because it must remain the same, its boundary lines must not be flexible; they must neither wobble nor waver. Unless they stay put reliably, confusion will result, for then we might be talking about different things instead of about the same thing. This law is often expressed briefly as A is A, meaning that anything which we call a definite A must always fit perfectly the authoritative definition of an A. If a statement is true, it remains true.

The Law of Disjunction asserts that if a dividing slash is so drawn that all of the things which have a certain set of characteristics are to be found only on one side of the slash, then nothing with exactly the same set of characteristics can be found on the other side of the slash. It is obvious that anything you can think about will therefore belong on either one side of the slash or on the other. This law is often expressed briefly as Anything definite must be either an A or a not-A. This law states that any disjoining divider absolutely divides the universe into two entirely distinct and separate parts. Being thus held apart, there is thereafter no possibility of getting the two portions mixed up somewhere in between. If a statement is not true, it must be false, since it must be either true or false.

The Law of Noncontradiction says that when a proper dividing slash has been drawn between two classes, no member of either class may be found on both sides of the slash at the same time. This law is often stated briefly as Nothing definite can be both an A and a not-A at the same time or in the same way. No statement can be both true and false at the same time.

These three Laws of Clear Thinking are absolutely basic and essential for the rational approach to the world. Clear-thinking philosophers, scientists, theologians and mathematicians—including my old friend Euclid, the father of geometry—took them for granted. These Laws of Clear Thinking made the traditional classical view of the world what it characteristically was. There was an angel with a flaming sword at the gate of the Garden of Eden. When Adam was out, he was out for good. In Hebrew society, rational lawyers sought to draw clear lines to delineate correct behavior according to the Law of Moses, taken as the Law of God. By and through socially sanctioned definition, everything and everyone had a place and all belonged in their places. The greatest Greek philosophers saw the world as characterized by law and order and reason. Their world was basically neat, tidy and understandable because it respected their logical dividers.

Logic against logic

Throughout Western history nobody of a right mind dared to question those basic principles of logical division and definition that were held to govern both human minds and the universe itself. Even God was expected to think with logical clarity and to behave rationally. A world constructed in such a mysterious way that it could not be understood by scientists was, of course, unthinkable. No respectable teacher would dare to question the authority of classical logic or geometry. To give logical reasons for abandoning absolutely total acceptance of the basics of logical reasoning would be ridiculously paradoxical.

Nevertheless, my own studies of negation turned up certain aspects of dividing which for me placed unexpected limitations on the universal validity and value of the Laws of Clear Thinking. I came to see that a worldview based on the presuppositions of rational logic is no more exempt from problems than is a worldview based on the Genesis story.

The drawing of any line always means that something has been demoted, having been assigned reduced importance. Something has been left out or abandoned. Rejected alternatives, however, may contain untapped riches. The use of logical dividing lines may thus grievously impoverish my world by cutting me off from those other valuables.

Logical dividers never divide the actual world. They divide only our conceptual world. No line drawn on paper cuts apart the actual physical substance of the paper. It can divide only the value and significance we have given in thought to the two portions of the paper. The actual world may not correspond at all with some of our clearest ideas about it. A particular cleavage may not have been made at the right place.

The Law of Noncontradiction, which denies that A can ever be Not-A at the same time in the same way, is subject to at least one exception. A logical divider must never be allowed to divide itself. A dividing line could be so drawn that it would turn, loop back and cross over itself like a handwritten English e. This would create ambiguity concerning the divider’s function. At the crossover point it would be not only dividing a field of experience but dividing itself—executing two totally different functions at the same time. Such an ambiguity could easily turn into a self-contradictory paradox, such as would occur if a snake were ever to start swallowing its own tail.

By the Law of Disjunction, a dividing line is supposed to divide the whole world absolutely. Anything that you name can appear on only one side of that line. It’s an either-or situation. What you name must appear either on one side of the divider or on the other. But what about the divider itself? It appears neither on one side of itself nor on the other. Do logical dividers then not belong to the divisible world? Do they inhabit an otherworldly limbo somewhere beyond the formidable power of logical dividers?

And how about the Law of Identity, which requires that whatever was isolated by a divider must remain exactly the same until we have finished talking about it? Does anything in this changeable world of whirling particles ever remain exactly the same? The act of dividing what was previously undivided is itself an act that takes time—time enough for the introduction of significant change. How can there be an act of change that takes no time at all? The clarification of any vague idea—the process of definition—requires a lengthy series of mental operations. Each of these requires a stretch of time, however brief, to accomplish the change. The Law of Identity does not apply to the durational process of definition, but only to its static result: a clear and distinct idea. If the Law of Identity applies neither to our logical mental activities nor to the changeful physical world, does it actually apply to anything at all?

Nevertheless it does move

My theological and philosophical problems were still unresolved when we were called to another set of churches around Woodbridge near Toronto. Around the city during my nine years in that area, more and more young people were becoming disillusioned about social structures and standards. They simply didn’t believe the slogans and “truths” uttered by “the establishment.” They refused to honor the conventional lines which had been drawn between social classes and between the roles of the two sexes. “Anything goes—as long as you don’t hurt anyone else” was the only rule that remained for them. (They didn’t realize who they were actually hurting.) Music and art seemed to have gone wild. All the classical rules were being broken. Young people were tending to say “I feel . . . ,”followed by vague sentiments, rather than coming down hard with “I think . . . ,” followed by definite statements. As the grip of logic slacked off, the meanings of words migrated alarmingly. Clarity drifted out of reach at an accelerating rate.

The feelings of discontented young people were shared by many of the older generation, but the latter kept on mouthing the same old maxims that they themselves had been told. Their pronouncements sounded ever more hollow and meaningless, even to themselves. Young people openly yawned. The power that venerable patterns and definitions had once held over the population was definitely petering out. The old dikes our great-great-grandparents had built were crumbling. A wild sea of unknown power and dimensions was bursting in upon us. Some called it Nihilism. Others in blue-jean uniforms sang vague words about freedom.

Maybe there was some connection between the problems with which I was personally wrestling and what was happening to other young people all over the world. At the time I didn’t look for any connection. None of us understood what was happening to us. My shiny new doctoral degree gave me no help.

I only knew that we were steadily moving away from the kind of world in which I had once felt at home. Anything could happen. We hoped we were moving toward some new world whose shape and organization no one could yet even dimly make out.

What would we go through on the way?


1. Ecclesiastes 1:2.
2. 2 Esdras 3:21.
3. Romans 5:12; Revelation 12:9 and 20:2.
4. Romans 8:20, 22.
5. Genesis 1:5.
6. 2 Peter 3:8.