Complex ideologies are based on collections of simple stances: fundamental attitudes toward meaningness. Some stances (addressing different dimensions of meaningness) work together well; others clash. Most systems align with one of three common combinations.
These combinations are:
- Dualist eternalism: everything is given a definite meaning by something separate from you. Christianity and Islam are based on this combination; God is what gives everything meaning.
- Monist eternalism: you, God, and the universe are a single thing, which is definitely meaningful. Advaita Hinduism is monist and eternalist, as is much current pop spirituality.
- Dualist nihilism: we are isolated individuals, wandering in a meaningless universe. Existentialism, postmodernism, and scientism tend to dualist nihilism.
Each of the three primary combinations typically comes with a corresponding collection of secondary stances; I’ll get to that in a minute.
The apparent lack of alternatives
Regarding the fundamental questions of meaning—does it exist, and where does it come from?—these three are the only well-known possibilities. I think all three are wrong; this book advocates a fourth combination of stances (about which I’ll say something at the end of this page).
Each of the Big Three has serious, obvious defects. However, people often commit to one of them primarily because it looks less bad than the other two.
Understanding this, you can see that much of the rhetoric supporting systems boils down to “less bad”:
- “God must exist, because otherwise there is no purpose in living, and you have no way of telling right from wrong.”
- “A God who is someone somewhere else cannot end your alienation from other beings. Enlightenment is possible only here, now. Only by being God can you overcome the isolation and limitations of material embodiment.”
- “You have to admit that everything is meaningless, because we know God is a fairy tale.”
No monist nihilism
Considering the two primary axes eternalism/nihilism and monism/dualism, there is a fourth possibility: monist nihilism. That is the view that “all is One, and it is meaningless.” Although this is conceptually coherent, it has few (if any) advocates. Apparently it is not emotionally attractive in the way the other combinations are.1
So, in practice, monism always implies eternalism, and nihilism always implies dualism. In the rest of this book, I’ll often speak simply of “monism” or “nihilism,” and you can take the eternalism and dualism for granted.
Other stances in the Big Three combinations
In addition to the four stances to fundamental questions of meaningness, there are stances to more specific dimensions such as purpose, ethics, and the nature of the self. These are commonly folded in with the Big Three combinations when people build ideological systems.
In some cases, the choices are forced. If you think nothing is meaningful (nihilism) then you have to accept that there can be no ethics (ethical nihilism).
More often, the choices of stance toward specific dimensions of meaningness are logically independent. For example, both reasonable respectability and romantic rebellion are logically consistent with eternalism.
However, each of the Big Three has a typical emotional texture, which may be more or less compatible with other stances. Dualist eternalism generally combines with reasonable respectability, not romantic rebellion; that is far more likely to go along with nihilism. Dualist eternalism has meaning coming from some Cosmic Plan, and you had better obey what it says.
Most (if not all) systems are somewhat incoherent, and one system may take opposing stances to different specific cases. The psychological instability of stances reinforces this.
Dualist eternalism: typical combinations
Typically, dualist eternalism combines with:
- Mission: your purpose is to carry out the Cosmic Plan.
- Ethical eternalism: the eternal ordering principle says what is right and wrong.
- Reasonable respectability: society is a reflection of the Cosmic Plan, and you should obey authority.
- Religiosity: the eternal ordering principle says what is sacred and what is profane.
- Causality: everything happens for the best, in accord with the Cosmic Plan. (Except free will lets us do evil.)
Nihilism: typical combinations
The typical emotional texture of nihilism is defiant negativity. It sucks that the universe is meaningless, but you hate (and want to shout down) eternalists who proclaim the lie of meaningfulness.
Typically, nihilism combines with:
- Materialism: since there is no real purpose to life, you might as well get stuff you want.
- Ethical nihilism: ethics are as meaningless as everything else.
- Romantic rebellion: society is an oppressive, meaningless fiction.
- Secularism: nothing is sacred.
- Chaos: the universe is random; nothing happens for any particular reason.
Monism: typical combinations
The typical emotional texture of monism is smug stupidity. Convinced you are God, you believe you understand everything effortlessly, so you don’t need to try to figure anything out.
Typically, monism combines with:
- Mission: your purpose is to realize your Godhood, and then help others realize theirs.
- True self: your essential nature is indivisible from God.
- Total responsibility: as God, you create the entire universe.
- Specialness: as God, you are the only valuable thing in existence.
- Causality: everything that occurs is your own doing.
Complete stances align with each other
This book advocates a fourth combination of stances: the ones I describe as complete.
Its typical emotional texture is appreciative curiosity.
Here’s how some complete stances align:
- Meaningness: things may be meaningful, meaningless, or may be ambiguously between. It’s worth investigating meanings, but you can’t always expect answers.
- Participation: there is no one right way of drawing boundaries; things can be connected in many different ways, and can also have no significant connection. Finding unexpected connections and redrawing boundaries is often valuable; so is recognizing irrelevance.
- Intermittently continuing: selfness is valuable and should not be rejected; it can usefully be explored, but it has no essential nature.
- Enjoyable usefulness: purposes are co-created in an appreciative, compassionate dance with the world.
- Ethical responsiveness: ethics are not a matter of personal or cultural choice, but are fluid and have no definite source.
- 1. You might enjoy working out some consequences of monist nihilism. If you are a philosophy geek, you might also wonder whether there are any historical figures who fit the category.
- 2. These textures are tendencies, not absolutes. Some committed dualist eternalists are free from self-righteousness, for instance.