Eternalism and nihilism are the simplest, and most extreme, stances toward meaningness.
- Eternalism says that everything has a definite, true meaning.
- Nihilism says that nothing really means anything.
Both these stances are wrong, factually. They are also unworkable, in their implications for living.
However, almost everyone falls into them at times, triggered by particular contexts. Each stance is based on genuine insights, and a powerful, emotionally appealing pattern of thinking. They also can seem to be the only possible alternatives, so we are forced into one by the repulsive qualities of the other.
Understanding the logic of eternalism and nihilism, and the resolution of the fundamental problem they address, is key to unlocking the material covered in this book. Because they are simple and extreme, the logic of these two stances is particularly clear. The other confused stances arise mainly as failing attempts to find some compromise between them.
This page is a brief introduction to eternalism, nihilism, and the third possibility that resolves them. I cover the same topics in much greater detail later in the book.
Eternalism and its discontents
Eternalism and nihilism are both responses to the ambiguity of meaningness. In personal experience, meanings seem to resist focus, shift, and come and go. Moreover, people disagree about what things mean. Perhaps meanings are just a matter of opinion? Meaning is important enough that this uncertainty is emotionally unacceptable.
The strategy of eternalism is to deny the ambiguity. Despite appearances, it says, everything does have a clear and definite meaning, which is not merely subjective. We might not perceive it, or we might mistake it, but it exists.
If meanings are objective, not human creations, it may seem they must come from some ultimate, transcendant source. In many systems, that is a God. In others, it is an abstraction, like Fate or Reason or the Absolute. These are supposed to provide the sole source of meaning, purpose, value, and ethics. I refer to any such source as an eternal ordering principle or Cosmic Plan.
Luckily, there is no eternal ordering principle, so eternalism is false as a fact-claim. Arguments about that never seem to persuade anyone, however. So I take this hyper-atheism for granted, and instead ask: what are our options if eternalism is wrong?
Here it is helpful to understand what works, and doesn’t work, about eternalism (and the other confused stances) emotionally, rather than in terms of truth.
The appeal of eternalism is that questions of life-purpose and ethics have clear, simple answers. If you act in accordance with this Cosmic Plan, you are guaranteed a good outcome. You can be assured that seeming chaos and senseless misery are all orderly parts of the will of an all-good principle.
Even if it were factually true, eternalism could not deliver on this sales pitch. The compelling emotional logic breaks down in some contexts. In those situations, adopting the eternalist stance makes you think and act in ways that lead to big trouble.
It is difficult to see how the suffering caused by earthquakes could be willed by a benevolent God, or meaningful, or anything other than disasters that just happened. The difficulty of maintaining willful blindness to meaninglessness is an obstacle to eternalism. It is hard not to fall into the confused stance that most things are God’s will, but not the bad bits. Once you admit that some things are meaningless, the logic of eternalism starts to fall apart.
To defend against that, you have to hallucinate a pastel-colored Disneyfied world in which everything works out for the best in the end, there is a silver lining in every cloud, everyone is beautiful inside, and all the world needs is love.
Threats to this vision must be destroyed. Eternalist kitsch rapidly switches to self-righteous vengeance when contradicted.
Eternalism also requires you to submit to the Cosmic Plan, to do as it demands, rather than pursuing your own goals. It is often unclear what God wants you to do, and sometimes what he wants is insane and harmful. Then you either do the apparently right thing, which erodes your commitment to his ethical code, or you follow the prescription. If that has the expected bad result, you must blind yourself to that, and harden yourself against the temptation to weaken the code to fit reality.
Much good is left undone because eternalism did not recommend it, and much harm is done in its name. We also lose the freedom of courage: the freedom to risk, to take actions whose results we cannot predict. Armored eternalism condemns such creativity.
Nihilism and its discontents
Nihilism starts from the intelligent recognition that eternalism is false and unworkable. Most events are meaningless; meaning is not objective; there is no Cosmic Plan.
Nihilism then simply inverts the core claim of eternalism: everything is really meaningless. Seeming meanings are illusory or arbitrary or subjective, and therefore unreal or unimportant.
This stance is unworkable. Meaning is obvious everywhere, and it takes elaborate intellectualization to explain it away. Attempting to live without significance, purpose, or value leads to rage, anguish, alienation, depression, and exhaustion.
Kitsch is worthy of contempt, but—through fear of being duped again—we extend contempt beyond kitsch to anything that affirms meaning. This makes defiant nihilism actively hostile to more-or-less everything, but particularly beauty, virtue, kindness, and whatever else makes life worth living.
Eternalism blinds us by a simple effort of will, or faith. Such simple stupidity is insufficient for nihilism: it is not possible to use mere force to fool ourselves that there is no meaning in the world. Instead, nihilism uses intelligence against itself to produce stupidity. Somehow meaning must be explained away by intellectual sleight-of-hand. A theory is needed that can distract us from the obvious. This theory has to get complicated quickly in order to be sufficiently confusing, or so brilliantly insightful as to dazzle us into submission. This intellectual stupidity masquerades as intelligence.
Denying meaning blinds one to beauty, making all reality dull gray. Denying purpose produces paralysis, with no possibility of choice and so no action. Denying significance suggests that there is no urgency to do anything about it.
In depression, you recoil from the overwhelming vastness and complexity of reality. You feel lost in space. You put yourself in a box to create comforting limits. Nihilism shuts down emotions to deny passion.
A false dichotomy, and failing compromises
When in the eternalist stance, it may seem that the only alternative is nihilism, and vice versa. Because each has obvious dire faults, we adopt whichever seems less bad in a particular situation. Because one looks worse, we try to stabilize ourselves in the other, declaring allegiance to it and viewing the opposite as the enemy. But this is impossible. Instead, we often squirm back and forth between the two in a sneaky, panicked way. It’s common for people to switch between eternalism and nihilism repeatedly in the space of a few minutes. Once you start to see this pattern, and catch yourself doing it, it becomes funny.
An alternate strategy is to try to find a compromise. Without thinking about it carefully, we suppose that the world is somewhat governed by an eternal organizing principle (even if we are staunch atheists), and that the world is also somewhat horribly meaningless (even if we are committed eternalists). Some things, we suppose, have definite meaning, and others are definitely meaningless.
The various “confused stances” discussed later in this book arise in this way. Each is a bargain in which we reluctantly acknowledge meaninglessness in some parts of life, deny it in others, and try to get the world to accept that. But it doesn’t; so every compromise causes new trouble, and fails.
The wrong idea underlying all confused stances is that things must be either definitely meaningful or else effectively meaningless. Or, if meaning is not objective, it must be subjective. But these are not the only possibilities.
I have coined the word “meaningness” to express the ambiguous quality of meaningfulness and meaninglessness that we encounter in practice. According to the stance that recognizes meaningness, meaning is real but not definite. It is neither objective nor subjective. It is neither given by an external force nor a human invention.
I call this a “complete stance” because it acknowledges two qualities: nebulosity or indefiniteness, and pattern or regularity. A complete stance does not deny any aspect of meaningness.
From point of view of the complete stance, eternalism and nihilism are each half right. Eternalism rightly recognizes that the world is meaningful to us, and that it must be accepted as it is. This is the acknowledgement of pattern: the world in all its variety, pain and pleasure alike. Nihilism rightly recognizes that there is no eternal source of meaning, so there is no ultimate basis or necessity for rejecting anything. This is the acceptance of nebulosity: the chaos and contingency of the world, and the recognition that we are free from divine law.