Meaningness home page

Better ways of thinking, feeling, and acting—around problems of meaning and meaninglessness; self and society; ethics, purpose, and value.

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Book contents

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  • Why meaningness?

    Informally introducing the central themes of the Meaningness book.

  • Stances: responses to meaningness

    The overall conceptual framework: “stances” are simple patterns of thinking and feeling about meaningness.

  • Doing meaning better

    The main division of the Meaningness book: a catalog of specific stances toward meaning, and how to deal with each.

    • The Big Three stance combinations

      Dualism, nihilism, and monism are the three main approaches to fundamental questions of meaning. This book proposes a better, fourth alternative.

    • Schematic overview: all dimensions

      A complete summary overview of all the dimensions of meaningness, with all the common stances one can take to them.

    • Meaning and meaninglessness

      Eternalism fixates meaning; nihilism denies it. Recognizing that meaning is both nebulous and patterned resolves this false dichotomy.

      • The puzzle of meaningness

        What is the meaning of an extra-marital affair—or any relationship? A philosophical short story illustrates the puzzle of the nebulosity of meaningness.

      • Meaningfulness and meaninglessness

        Some things are meaningful, and others aren't. This is obvious; yet most confusions about meaning begin by denying it.

      • Extreme examples, eternalism and nihilism

        Claims that everything is meaningful, or that nothing is, are motivated by fears: fear of the opposite.

      • So how does meaningness work?

        We have a choice of explanations: ones that are simple, clear, harmful, and wrong; or ones that are complex, vague, helpful, and approximately right.

      • Schematic overview: meaningness

        A schematic overview of eternalism and nihilism as confused responses to meaningness.

      • Eternalism: the fixation of meaning

        Eternalism is the wrong idea that everything has a definite meaning, fixed by an external ordering principle.

        • I get duped by eternalism in a casino

          Gambling, religion, and addiction: a personal story.

        • ⚒︎ No cosmic plan

          Great confusions about meaningness stem from the mistaken assumption that there must be some sort of eternal ordering principle.

        • The appeal of eternalism

          Eternalism promises everything you could want from meaning: safety, support, certainty, reassurance, and control. Solid ground!

          • The promise of certainty

            What we want most from meaning is guarantees. Religions, political ideologies, and other eternalist systems promise certainty; but they cannot deliver.

          • The illusion of understanding

            It’s deluded to think we mostly understand issues of meaning (ethics, purpose, value, politics). Ideologies deliberately create and sustain that illusion.

          • The fantasy of control

            Eternalism promises complete control over life—but that is an impossible fantasy. Influence through collaboration and improvisation are possible, however.

          • The wheel of fortune

            Eternalism promises answers about good and bad—the meanings we care about most—but cannot deliver.

          • Eternalism as the only salvation from nihilism

            Eternalism's final promise is to keep nihilism at bay. There is a better alternative to both!

        • Eternalism is harmful

          Eternalism—belief in fixed meanings—makes promises it can't keep. It makes us do stupid, crazy, evil things. And we still love it and keep going back for more.

        • Eternalist ploys and their antidotes

          Ploys—ways of thinking, feeling, talking, and acting—which stabilize eternalism; and antidotes to use against them.

          • ⚒︎ Smearing meaning all over everything

            Monist eternalism—the New Age and SBNR, for example—say everything is meaningful, but leaves vague what the meanings are.

          • ⚒︎ Hope

            Hope is harmful in devaluing the present and shifting attention to imaginary futures that may never exist.

          • ⚒︎ Faithful bafflement

            Faithful bafflement is a ploy for maintaining the eternalist stance that remains committed but begins to doubt.

          • ⚒︎ Mystification

            Mystification uses thoughts as a weapon against authentic thinking. It creates glib, bogus metaphysical explanations that sweep meaninglessness under the rug.

        • Accomplishing eternalism

          Accomplishing eternalism would would mean knowing the meaning of everything, and acting accordingly. This is impossible, because there are no fixed meanings.

        • Exiting eternalism

          Learning skills for escaping the grip of eternalism—the delusion that everything is meaningful.

        • Non-theistic eternalism

          Freeing ourselves from theism is only a first step toward freeing ourselves from a host of ubiquitous, harmful, mistaken ideas about meaningness.

          • ⚒︎ Belief in belief

            The belief that beliefs are clear-cut entities, which people do or don't have, supports dysfunctional ideologies.

          • ⚒︎ How space aliens make everything meaningful

            UFO cults, which make no supernatural claims, disprove the rationalist belief that religion’s faults stem from supernaturalism.

          • Rationalist ideologies as eternalism

            Rationality is a valuable way of knowing, but cannot provide explanations or meanings for everything.

            • Wrong-way reductions

              Wrong-way reduction is a logical fallacy that turns messy, tractable problems into tidy, impossible ones.

            • ⚒︎ Eternalisms as wrong-way reductions

              Ideological rationalism usually turns difficult, messy problems into tidy but insoluble ones.

            • ⚒︎ Logic as eternalism

              Taken as an epistemology, logic is a wrong-way reduction: it turns difficult problems of practical reasoning into impossible feats of deduction.

            • ⚒︎ The continuum gambit

              The continuum gambit tries to eliminate ambiguity using numbers on a scale. This can only ever partially succeed, and may mislead badly.

            • ⚒︎ Bayesianism is an eternalism

              Bayesianism is a quasi-religious ideology of rationality and epistemology. It cannot deliver the meta-certainty it promises.

            • ⚒︎ Utilitiarianism is an eternalism

              Utilitarianism promises to eliminate ethical uncertainty, but instead replaces a difficult, messy problem with an impossible, tidy one.

            • Perfection Salad

              A history of supposedly-scientific nutritional theories illustrating pathologies of rationalism (scientism), with an analogy to cognitive science.

            • Nutrition offers its resignation. And the reply

              A satire: all nutritionists offer their resignation, having recognized their incompetence; but their employers refuse it.

            • Nutrition: the Emperor has no clothes

              Nutrition science has conclusively failed; it was myths invented to satisfy compulsive hunger for meaning. Now what?

      • Nihilism: the denial of meaning

        Nihilism is the wrong idea that nothing is meaningful, based on the accurate realization that there is no external, eternal source of meaning.

        • You’ve got nihilism wrong

          Whether you think you are a nihilist, or think you are not—I think you are mistaken. Nihilism is impossible—but so is avoiding it.

        • Rumcake and rainbows

          Nihilism recognizes, accurately, that meaning cannot be either objective or subjective. But meaning does exist: as interaction.

        • ⚒︎ Cold comfort: the false promise of nihilism

          Nihilism promises you don’t have to care, because nothing means anything. But you do care—and you can’t escape that.

        • ⚒︎ The nihilist elite

          Nihilism requires unusual intelligence, courage, and grit. Nihilists know this, and consider themselves an elite class. Membership is a major attraction.

        • ⚒︎ Nihilism is hard

          It’s a pity that it’s so hard to be a nihilist. Nihilism is mistaken and harmful, but its insights into what’s wrong with eternalism are accurate and useful.

        • Spam from God

          Nihilism starts with the intelligent recognition that we have been conned by eternalism—ideologies of ultimate meaning.

        • The emotional dynamics of nihilism

          Nihilism relies on three emotional strategies to deny meaning: rage, intellectualization, and depression. It also causes anxiety.

          • ⚒︎ Nihilistic intellectualization

            When desperate to deny all meanings, we use absurd pseudo-rational, pseudo-scientific, intellectual arguments to justify nihilism.

        • 190-proof vs. lite nihilism

          Nihilism says nothing means anything—but no one actually believes that. Lite nihilism weakens the claim, to make it plausible.

        • 190-proof nihilism: intoxicating intellectual idiocy

          Nihilism defends itself from the obviousness of meanings with spurious intellectual arguments. Here’s how to dispel them.

      • ⚒︎ Sartre’s ghost and the corpse of God

        Existentialism, a hopeful alternative to rigid meanings, makes wrong metaphysical assumptions, and cannot work. It collapses inevitably into nihilism.

      • Meaningness: the complete stance

        Meaning is nebulous, yet patterned; meaningfulness and meaninglessness intermingle. Recognizing this frees us from metaphysical delusions.

        • The appeal of complete stances

          Resolving problems of meaning by recognizing inseparable pattern and nebulosity will improve your life.

        • Peak experiences

          Peak experiences and the complete stance are similar in texture, but differ in intensity, conceptual content, and causes.

        • Obstacles to the complete stance

          Meaning and meaninglessness, pattern and nebulosity all obviously exist—yet we resist recognizing and admitting this. Why?

        • ⚒︎ Observing meaningness

          How to catch meaningness in action; ways of watching confused and complete stances.

        • Finding the complete stance

          The fundamental method for resolving problems of meaning: by finding nebulosity, pattern, and their inseparable relationship.

        • Textures of completion

          Patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting in the complete stance, which resolves problems of meaning.

          • Wonder

            Wonder at the vastness, beauty, and intricacy of the phenomenal world: a texture of the complete stance.

          • Open-ended curiosity

            Open-ended curiosity gives you the freedom to interact with the world without metaphysical presuppositions.

          • ⚒︎ Humor

            Recognizing the inseparability of nebulosity and pattern gives experience a texture of good humor, and the funny sort too!

          • ⚒︎ Play

            Playfulness, which recognizes the mingled pattern and nebulosity of meaning, is a characteristic texture of activity in the complete stance.

          • ⚒︎ Enjoying the dance of nebulosity and pattern

            Enjoyment of the intertwining dance of nebulosity and pattern is a characteristic texture of the complete stance to meaning.

          • ⚒︎ Creation

            Creation is the characteristic activity of the complete stance; its densest texture.

        • Stabilizing the complete stance

          Going beyond resolutions of specific problems: consistently maintaining an accurate stance toward meaningness.

    • Unity and diversity

      Stances concerning connection and separateness: monism, dualism, and participation.

    • Selfness

      Abandoning selflessness and egoism equally, we can play with the ambiguous self/other boundary; supple, skillful selfing for successful, satisfying interactions

      • Schematic overview: self

        A schematic overview of stances regarding the meaningness of the self: non-self, True Self, and intermittently continuing.

      • ⚒︎ A billion tiny spooks

        Representationalism tried to exorcise the ghost in the machine, but succeeded only in splitting it into innumerable tiny ghosts.

    • Purpose

      Dividing purposes into higher and mundane, mission pursues higher ends and rejects pragmatism; materialism seeks only selfish goals. Both are mistakes.

      • Mission

        It is attractive to think that we each have a unique, transcendent, ultimate purpose in life. Unfortunately, this belief is both false and harmful.

      • Materialism

        Materialism says that only mundane purposes like money, sex, and power count. It wrongly rejects higher purposes—but those too are not ultimate.

      • Mission and materialism mingled

        Mingling mission and materialism attempts to gain both self-indulgent and self-justifying goals—but loses both enjoyment and empathetic joy.

      • ⚒︎ Enjoyable usefulness

        Recognizing the nebulosity of purposes frees us to enjoy life and be useful to others.

        • ⚒︎ Want what you like

          Discovering what you actually like can be surprising, and supports enjoyable usefulness as your purpose in life.

    • ⚒︎ Personal value

      Agonizing over whether you are ordinary or special—or feeling smug about one or the other—can be resolved by choosing to be noble instead.

      • ⚒︎ Specialness

        Specialness is a sense of having been picked out for destiny by the Cosmic Plan. That causes you and others much trouble.

      • ⚒︎ Ordinariness

        If we could just manage to be ordinary, we would not have the responsibility of living up to our potential. Fortunately, ordinariness is impossible.

      • ⚒︎ Nobility

        Nobility is the aspiration to manifest glory for the benefit of others.

    • ⚒︎ Capability

      Resolving a false dichotomy between unrealistic views: being a helpless victim and being totally responsible for your circumstances.

      • ⚒︎ Victim-think

        Victim-think is a strategy for denying all responsibility—on the part of individuals and social groups.

    • ⚒︎ Ethics

      Available ethical theories are either eternalist or nihilist; both are useless. We must recognize that ethics are both nebulous and meaningful.

      • ⚒︎ Ethical eternalism

        An ethical system that reliably delivers correct moral judgements is a wishful fantasy. No such system is possible.

    • ⚒︎ Authority

      A better alternative to the dysfunctional stances of mindlessly opposing authority and mindlessly obeying.

      • ⚒︎ Romantic rebellion

        Romantic rebellion does not seriously try to overthrow the system; it is faux-heroic posturing. It can be harmful, but also inspires great art.

    • ⚒︎ Sacredness

      Resolving the twin delusions that nothing is sacred and that the only sacred things are those designated by some authority.

    • ⚒︎ Contingency

      Causality is inherently nebulous; many things have no definite cause, but still we can find useful patterns.

  • Meaningness and Time: past, present, future

    The problems of meaningness we face now are dramatically different from those of the past. We also sense new opportunities, and have new resources.

  • In the Cells of the Eggplant

    An introduction to meta-rationality: ways of using rational systems more effectively by understanding how they relate to their contexts.

    • Meta-rationality: An introduction

      Is this book for you? How meta-rationality can level up your work in science, technology, and engineering.

    • Part One: Taking rationalism seriously

      The hope that systematic rationality can reliably provide certainty, understanding, and control fails when it encounters nebulosity.

      • Rationality, rationalism, and alternatives

        Defining the subject matter: rationality, rationalism, reasonableness, and meta-rationality.

      • Rationalism’s responses to trouble

        Rationalism responds to its failures, in the face of nebulosity, by making more complicated formal theories.

      • Positive and logical

        Early 20th-century logical positivism was the last serious rationalism. Better understandings of rationality learn from its mistakes.

      • The world is everything that is the case

        Aristotelian logic was mistaken both in details and overall conception, yet its key ideas survive in contemporary rationalism.

      • Depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is

        Formal logic successfully addresses important defects in traditional, Aristotelian logic, but cannot deal with contextuality.

      • The value of meaninglessness

        Recognizing that some statements are neither true nor false was a major advance in early 20th-century rationalism.

      • The truth of the matter

        Formal rationality requires absolute truths, but those are rare in the eggplant-sized world. How do we do rationality without them?

      • Reductio ad reductionem

        Reduction is a powertool of rationality, but reductionism can’t work as a general theory; most rationality is not reduction.

      • Are eggplants fruits?

        Formal methods formally require impossibly precise definitions of terms. How do we use them effectively without that?

      • When will you go bald?

        “Shades of gray” is sometimes a good way to think about nebulosity—the world’s inherent fuzziness—but not always.

      • Overdriving approximation

        Approximation is a powerful technique, but is not applicable in all rational work, and so is not a good general theory of nebulosity.

      • Reference: rationalism’s reality problem

        The correspondence theory of truth doesn’t work by metaphysical magic. We must do the work to make it work—by any means necessary.

      • The National Omelet Registry

        Rationalism implicitly or explicitly assumes that every object in the universe has a unique ID number.

      • Objects, objectively

        Rational methods assume objects are objectively separable; but they aren’t. How do we use rationality effectively anyway?

      • Is this an eggplant which I see before me?

        Rationalist theories assume perception delivers an objective description of the world to rationality. It can’t, and doesn’t try to.

      • What can you believe?

        Propositions are whatever sort of thing it is you can believe. Nothing can play that role; so we need a different understanding of belief.

      • Where did you get that idea in the first place?

        Rationalism does not explain where hypotheses, theories, discoveries, inventions, or other new ideas come from.

      • The Spanish Inquisition

        Unboundedly many issues may be relevant to any practical problem, so mathematical logic does not work as advertised.

      • Probabilism

        Probability theory seems an attractive foundation for rationalism—but it is not up to the job.

      • Leaving the casino

        Probabilistic rationalism encourages you to view the whole world as a gigantic casino—but mostly it is not like that.

      • What probability can’t do

        If probability theory were an epistemology, we’d want it to tell us how confident to be in our beliefs. Unfortunately, it can’t do that.

      • The probability of green cheese

        A thought experiment shows why probability theory and statistics cannot address uncertainty in general.

      • Statistics and the replication crisis

        The mistaken belief that statistical methods can tell you what to believe drove the science replication crisis.

      • Acting on the truth

        Rationalist theories of action try to deduce optimal choices from true beliefs. This is rarely possible in practice.

    • Part Two: Taking reasonableness seriously

      Everyday reasonableness is the foundation of technical, formal, and systematic rationality.

      • This is not cognitive science

        The Eggplant is neither cognitive nor science, although it seeks a better understanding of some phenomena cognitive science has studied.

      • The ethnomethodological flip

        A dramatic perspective shift: understanding rationality as dependent on mere reasonableness to connect it with reality.

      • Aspects of reasonableness

        A summary explanation of everyday reasonable activity, with a tabular guide and a concrete example.

      • Reasonableness is meaningful activity

        Understanding concrete, purposeful activity is a prerequisite to understanding the formal rationality that depends on it.

      • You are accountable for reasonableness

        Accountability is the key concept in understanding mere reasonableness, as contrasted with systematic rationality.

      • Reasonableness is routine

        Routine activity usually goes smoothly overall, despite frequent minor glitches, because we have methods for repairing trouble.

      • Meaningful perception

        We actively work to perceive aspects of the world as meaningful, in terms of our purposes, in context.

      • The purpose of meaning

        Peculiar features of language make sense as tools to enable collaboration, rather than to express objective truths.

      • How we refer

        We accomplish reference by any means necessary: observable, improvised work that makes it clear what we are talking about in context.

      • ⚒︎ Reasonable ontology

        Reasonableness works with nebulous, tacit, interactive, accountable, purposeful ontologies, which enable everyday routine activity.

      • ⚒︎ Reasonable epistemology

        The epistemological categories—truth, belief, inference—are richer, more complex, diverse, and nebulous than rationalism supposes.

      • Instructed activity

        Using instructions requires figuring out what they mean in the context of your activity, and relative to your purposes.

    • ⚒︎ Part Three: Taking rationality seriously

      A pragmatic understanding of how systematic rationality works in practice can help you level up your technical work.

    • Interlude: Ontological remodeling

      Reconfiguring categories, properties, and relationships is a meta-rational skill—key in scientific revolutions.

  • Appendices

    A series of appendices, including a glossary and suggestions for further reading elsewhere.

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