Comments on “The Big Three stance combinations”


No ethics or no objective ethics?

Curt's picture

"If you accept that nothing is meaningful then you have to accept that there can be no ethics."
Is that statment factually correct? My suspicion is that one could say that they accept ethics.
One would say however that the ethics are subjective, or personal, or something along these lines. A person might add that the ethics one lives by might not have any ultimate meaning but they have meaning to me at least at the moment. Of course there is no objective right and wrong but some ethical stances will be more pleasing to me than others. I might perfer to avoid inflincting pain on others, with an occasional exception, but another person might enjoy infliciting pain others and that person is my exception. Both of our choices are objectively meaningless but subjectively meaningful.

Meaningless vs. subjective

Well, if everything were entirely meaningless, there would be no ethics. (Does that seem right?)

But, although sometimes people actually come out and say "nothing means anything", this is so obviously false that it's almost always watered down. "Meaning is purely subjective, so it doesn't count" is a common move. In that case, you can have subjective ethics. But there are lots of serious problems with "meaning is only subjective". One is that you can't be mistaken about meaning; but that's pretty clearly wrong.

I'm hoping to get to the "meaningness is neither subjective nor objective" page soon. It's a key one. I think "no objective ethics" is right; but "subjective" is not the right replacement.

You see similar watering-down moves with other stances, by the way. For example, the pure form of monism is "everything is One; I am God". Lots of people actually say that. But it's so obviously false that they then say "everything is part of God, who is just the entire universe". But "everything is part of the universe" is trivially true, so then it has to change to "everything is connected". Well, that's also trivially true—everything is connected by gravity. So then it becomes "everything is totally connected." At that point, monists hope you give up and don't ask what "totally" is supposed to mean.

Well, I look forward to

Curt's picture

Well, I look forward to reading about that. It has always looked to me like an either or proposition.

Is monism/dualism a practical distinction?

Hi David,
I love the picture!

What I'm not clear about here is why the distinction between monism and dualism is so practically important that you put it at the same level as that between eternalism and nihilism. Surely, practically speaking, monists end up doing very similar things and making similar appeals to dualist eternalists? The distinction is just one within the metaphysics used to justify the stance, but the justification works in exactly the same way each time. Some indication of this can be seen in the way that largely monistic Hinduism is still subject to fundamentalism in the same way as the religions that emphasise a transcendental God, such as Christianity and Islam.

Perhaps I could also draw your attention to the number of borderline cases. There's Marx and Marxism (see my other post today - Marx has many eternalist features), then there's Kantian and Utilitarian approaches. These are not just abstract philosophical issues. Marxism has had an obvious effect on history. Most democratic governments regularly make decisions based on utilitarian reasoning, but judicial organisations like courts of human rights tend to use Kantian reasoning. Are they eternalistic or nihilistic? If they both hit the Middle Way or the 'complete stance', why do they contradict each other so much? Then there's the environmental movement and Green ideologies, libertarianism, free market economic dogmas, and faith in technological progress. Many of these seem to contain metaphysical dogmas to me, but they don't obviously seem to fit any of your three stances.

Does monism vs. dualism matter?

Thank you for this challenge. It's a cogent point. I tend to agree that the monism/dualism distinction is less important than the eternalism/nihilism one, but I think it is much more important than most serious thinkers currently realize. I am going to lay out a case for that near the beginning of the book chapter on the topic.

I think the importance of monism is overlooked currently for three reasons. First, it had relatively few adherents until very recently. I believe—though actual data is scarce—that it is growing explosively. Second, until recently it was exclusively associated with New Age systems that are too silly to consider seriously. Third, its proponents have not presented it in a way that makes sense to non-monists, so from the outside it seems simply nonsensical.

One of my tasks is to make the best case I can for monism in terms that will make sense to non-monists. One reason to do that is to persuade non-monists that this is something that has to be taken seriously. Another is that you can't clearly see what's wrong with it until you see clearly what's right about it. And finally, the complete stance that resolves the monism/dualism dimension needs to incorporate what's right in both.

I think the monism/dualism distinction is important because monism is immune to most of the arguments made against dualist eternalism. (And that is precisely why it is enjoying explosive growth.) For example, monism identifies God with the self, and with the universe. A monist can agree with all the standard arguments against the existence of God, and reply that yes, that sort of God doesn't exist, but ones' self and the universe obviously do, so the monist God does exist. I don't think that's right, but quite different reasons are needed to see that.

And, the kinds of psychological harm done by monism are different from those done by dualistic eternalism. If you spend a few hours talking to a monist about the problems in their life, and compare that with a few hours talking to a dualist eternalist, they seem quite different. Monism produces a dreamy spaciness, a refusal to make any clear distinctions, a refusal to judge; which leads to drifting through life. Dualistic eternalism is just the opposite. It's hyperjudgemental, which leads to premature, mistaken commitments, and refusal to change course until a breaking point is reached.

About your final paragraph, on the classification of systems. A system may be eternalistic with respect to one issue and nihilistic with respect to another. That might suggest the eternalism/nihilism distinction isn't a good classification. However, most ideologies are complicated and not altogether coherent. I suggest that their appeal, with regards to particular issues, may often be better understood in terms of the dynamics of eternalism and nihilism than in their own terms. That is, if you want to understand why people invoke Christianity in a particular context, you might do well to ignore the mythology and metaphysics of Christianity, and look instead at the emotional appeal of eternalism.

That said, I agree that Marxism (considered as an ideology, rather than as an economic theory) is a 50/50 muddle of nihilism and eternalism (and not a middle way between them). The others you list all seem to me mainly eternalistic. Kantian and utilitarian ethics, for instance, both propose a single, ultimate, external standard. They're different standards, but both eternalistic (if they are applied as absolutes and in isolation).

Eco/green ideologies have substantial monist influence (and are eternalistic, as nearly all monism is). "We are all part of the great web of life." Marxism also has some monist tendencies (not surprisingly, given the influence of Hegel on Marx). The others you list seem clearly dualist.

or, well, even monihilsm?

Csaba's picture

Mumbling Winston Smith... the world he lived in, how he lived it, does that not align to monist nihilism?


A fine neologism!

Interesting, can you say what seems monist and what nihilist in the world of 1984?

Monism does tend to be associated with totalitarianism. It subordinates individuals to The Whole, and the state can be seen to stand for The Whole.

Totalitarian regimes seem to make good use of both eternalism and nihilism. Part of my analysis of eternalism is drawn from Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being, who describes kitsch as a totalitarian rhetorical strategy. The actual actions of totalitarian regimes often manifest ethical nihilism, though.

My most recent page attributes both monism and nihilism to post-modernism. So maybe I need to reevaluate my claim on this page that monist nihilism is rare.


Curt's picture

Are you sleeping?
I am still looking forward to how you escape the objective- subjective ethics dicotomy.

Snoozing, ethics, and -jectivity

Not actually sleeping, but busy, I'm afraid. I have had almost no time to write in the past couple of months. When I return, I hope to get the vampire novel back on track, and will prioritize that over this for a while.

Even if I were working on this full time, it would probably be a year or more before I'd have a detailed account of the non-{sub,ob}-jectivity of ethics. There's a lot of general groundwork to lay, concerned with the nebulosity of objectness, boundaries, and participatory interaction. There's some hints at this in “I seem to be a fiction” (which is part of why I wrote that just recently).

Here's a very short version:

-jectivity is about where something lives: inside or outside your head. Ethics isn't a thing, it's a participatory activity, so it doesn't have a location. (In that sense, it is neither sub nor ob.) And it always involves multiple people and other entities, with causal flows that go in and out of your head. (So in that sense it is both sub and ob.)

Evidently, the -jectivity framework doesn't apply. Trying to talk about ethics that way only obscures the relevant patterns of interaction.

The underlying mistake is to suppose that your skull necessarily forms a boundary that "cuts reality at the joints." In fact, dividing reality there splits each of the actually relevant processes into a zillion little bits, making clarity impossible. Instead, you have to find those actually-relevant entities criss-crossing the inside/outside non-boundary.

I look forward to both of

Curt's picture

I look forward to both of your projects.
Sometimes learning seems so ineffective, especially when the world is consumed by so many problems. But I just have to remember what my internet friend Charles says, the first step to changing your behavior is to change your thinking. It is not that I think that I need to change. I also do not think that I do not need to change. It could be that what ever I learn will not be really very relevent to my life at this time. What ever I learn may have come 30 years to late or might not be useful for 30 years. It is possible that what ever I learn I will not learn alone.
What I mean by that is although I am here in this basement reading alone in my interactions with other people I may pass on some of your ideas. Do not expect me to credit you for these ideas though. HeeeHeeeeHeeeee.

<technical> David, somehow I

Csaba's picture

David, somehow I didn't get notified of your answer, despite checking the "Replies to my comment" option. Is it a bug in the commenting software, or your answer was not placed as a reply to me in the technical sense? Anyway, what is considered to be a reply here? I just see a "Post new comment" form but not a reply button at earlier comments... Now trying the "All comments" option.

Comment notification nuisance

Hi, Csaba—sorry about that! Thanks for pointing out the problem. I recently changed the way comments worked, and it broke the "replies to my comment" option. I have disabled that, so now there is only a "Notify me when new comments are posted" option (which is equivalent to the old "all comments" one). Unfortunately, existing "replies to my comment" notifications probably won't work. (Also, "Notify me when new comments are posted" is not super-clear; it means "comments on this page", not "any comment on this site anywhere".) Computers—can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em!

moving being

Csaba's picture

So, re: "Interesting, can you say what seems monist and what nihilist in the world of 1984?"

I think the monist part needs not much explanation, as you note too, "Monism does tend to be associated with totalitarianism". The more totalitarian a society is, the more God-like the leader becomes. In 1984, its quite extremely totalitarian...

To get at the nihilism part, let's turn to a non-fiction example -- that of Mussolini. (Following thoughts are based on the exposition of the book Mussolini by Hungarian historian Mária Ormos [sorry, it's only in Hungarian].)

I don't say he was nihilist; what I say that at a stage of his career he manifested crystal clearly the movement which takes towards nihilism. Which movement, on the one hand, analogously to the way totaliarianism is taken forward in 1984 to extremities to get to monism, if taken forward to such extremities, leads us the nihilism of 1984 (ie., sort of, x / nihilism = totalitarianism / monism, and now I'm to characterize this x). On the other hand, this movement appears quite often in the repertoire of ("contemporary", I wanted to add, but become unsure how much would such a restriction be justified) politicians, just not with the archetypal clarity (unabashed cynicism) as with Mussolini.

This movement is voluntarism -- the movement the essence of which is movement (as in "being in move"). In the beginning, Mussolini was just one of the rebel red scum who shouted down with the king, down with the church. But he was more ambitious than to remain like that: as soon as he got some voice as the editor of a significant leftist newspaper, he started to propagate his own agenda. What his agenda was, that was quite flexible and always in flux, and got reshaped according to the upcoming events of that very unstable period. After being anti-war, pro-war, internationalist and nationalist, futurist and ultraconservative, the essence what one could distill of his agenda was... being in move. Be the force that makes the world turn in order to be the force that makes the world turn. Be the one with whom the momentum is. He sort of neglected the content aspect of his politics, in fact, pretty much explicitely, giving himself a hardly limited freedom in changing his views. "Avanti!", where that forward is, that's secondary -- being in move, foment the unrest, fight for the change (the Change), that was his point and a lot of people were willing to buy this (when you cannot articulate what is the cause of your pain, essentially you do not need any kind of incentive than the promise of fight again this pain; casually, it varies how much parcel you require around it; in this particular case, he was a good salesman for the the unadulterated agent). And those who didn't buy this first hand, became overwhelmed with the momentum of the masses (of that what at least appeared to be a critical mass... thus it became) who did. He who has the power to will he gets the power to rule, the rest is just details.

After coming to power, he became somewhat consolidated and solidified, therefore I don't say he took it to the extremities; but during his transitional period from the foamy mouthed leftist scribbler to the Duce of Italy, he manifested this quality clearly. (Sidenote: still he had flashbacks of these tendencies later on, as can be seen in his attitude to the arms race of the pre-WWII period -- he hardly took care about the state and actual military power of the army, or took notice of the pleas and complaints of his generals; what counted for him is to be in attack; he hoped to get his share aftermath if he demonstrates participation; and how this culminated in screwing up his Balkanese action was a large part of the reason why Hitler had to open a third front on the South...)

So he didn't go to extremities, neither in totalitarianism nor in voluntarism. That's why I rather took the fictitious example of 1984 than his real life one, to provide an example which actually qualifies for the attribute "monist nihilism". However, the genesis of this phenomenon is easier to examine through his example -- diluting all content (reference points to meaningness?) in favor of a rather elusive impulse, getting lost in self-referentiality is genuinely a nihilistic act.

Nihilistic movement

Thank you very much—I didn't know anything about Mussolini. That's very interesting—even purposeless movement can seem attractive if people don't have a coherent understanding of where their pain comes from.

That said, now I wonder where

Csaba's picture

That said, now I wonder where you'd place voluntarism in your coordinate system of stances (more basically, if you feel it significant / useful /expressive enough to feature it...).


Hmm... I don't think I know/understand enough about it to say. Possibly it is related to the total responsibility idea, inasmuch as Mussolini was trying to create his own reality through aimless movement.

More generally, I'm only intending to cover confused stances that arise from fixation and denial of nebulosity. There's probably lots of interesting ways of being that don't relate to those (in which case they are outside the scope of the book). This might be one of them.

Well, OK, with my question I

Csaba's picture

Well, OK, with my question I just tried to navigate away from the Mussolini case study, and ask a question of more of a general nature, from the perspective of primary theme of the book, fixation and denial of nebulosity.

Thought of, eg., adding a table (at least as a mental experiment, not imposing that you should actually add it) to the overview like (what I could imagine) Causality:: [ Stance | Fatalism | Voluntarism | Spontaneous arising ] (last one is quite wild guess)...

Not want to write your book, just testing my understanding of it with this mental experiment. Having taken the effort to make it, I can rephrase my previous comment like how apt do you feel these labels for the causality dimenson (is causality an instance of dimension? :) ).

Other possible point of connection with your book is voluntarism being a recurring theme of some German thinkers whom definitely have their brand on today's ideology market.

Causality and voluntarism

Yes, I have causality down as a stance within the "dimension" of "contingency", and voluntarism might fit in there. I haven't started working on that dimension yet—I just have some vague ideas. I didn't know that Schopenhauer's ideas were called "voluntarism"; I know only a very little about Schopenhauer, for his influence on Nietzsche. I guess my thoughts here are too unformed to be able to reply properly to your ideas!

Thanks David, I also know

Csaba's picture

Thanks David, I also know only stereotypes about these philosophers (ie. in my case incl. Nietzsche) (however I had "Schopenhauer and voluntarism" among these; even there was an old Hungarian goth band who sang "history if there is or not / manipulated mental fetter / Schopenhauer and the will-power / save yourself if you can" :) ).

Lack of posts

:-) :-) :-)

I'm working on Buddhism for Vampires at the moment. I've got two more episodes of the novel to write, to fill a gap, and then it can go on autopilot for 2+ months, and I'll return to Meaningness. Sorry for the delay.

The major thing next up here will be some pretty intense conceptual background for monism and dualism (drawing on my PhD thesis work). Dualism posits a world of isolated objects; monism holds that "all is One". Neither of these is coherent even conceptually. But, as usual, in order to debunk them, we first have figure out what their proponents are trying to say. We need to do their work for them to explain what their position would be if it made any sense.

Happy 50th

Ngakma Zer-me Dri&#039;med's picture

Happy 50th birthday, David. May there be 50 more. And lots of vampire chapters.

Another half-century of philosophical zombies

Thank you very much!

I had more than half of the vampire novel written a year ago—but I got stuck on the "first crush" episode. Part of the resolution for that was to split it in two (what are now "Sukhi" and "Dragonflies").

The next ten episodes are nearly-finished form, so I expect they'll run on a regular schedule, now, and I will be able to get back to writing Meaningness.

Incidentally, I've claimed all along that Buddhism for Vampires and this site are two presentations of the same material, which probably still seems improbable. But connections should start to become apparent soon.

We are not isolated

Ashley Yakeley's picture

We are not isolated individuals: we are socially connected.

Meaning comes from yourself and from other people. Especially, it comes from your particular culture.

Hm. I definitely think that,

John's picture

Hm. I definitely think that, eliding "mission", I'm an eternalist monist (specifically, a reincarnational solipsist). However, I take as true some extra axioms that seem to force a stance much more like your complete ones:

Existence of an experiencer
I trust this is obvious? I stub my toe, it hurts like the dickens, the hurtiness is experienced. The experiencer (God, if you like) seems separate from the material conditions of the experience.
Structure of experience
This, I don't have a pithy explanation of — but it seems like not any old thing can "carry" an experience. A certain kind of complexity and structure seem to be required to hook the experiencer. I think the teaching of the five skandhas and the various abhidharma are attempting to get at the structure of experience, but ... I've never quite understood them. The experiencer/experience relationship is enough to found a metaphysics on, I think.
Free will
It's not an illusion. We're less free than it seems, but we have wiggle room -- I've heard of the analogy of riding an elephant; if you're riding a balky elephant and want to go somewhere, it's easiest if you provide gentle guidance over a long period than if you try to make the elephant turn abruptly, with force.
Radical constraint
Can a god make a rock so heavy they can't lift it? Yes. The universe is seemingly like this — the 3+1 apparent dimensions available to us seem to be completely determined by conditions on the 2+1 dimensional boundary. So, from a fundamental physics point of view, not everything is permitted. And for there to be any experiencing at all, there is structure required on top of the fundamental physics constraint.

So what do I end up with?
Monism: the world is created by us (you, me, god) together, under collaborative constraint.
Intermittence: 1) we don't (and can't, because of the structure) experience the whole all at once (thus, reincarnational solipsism, "I am everybody, just not all at once") and 2) this particular experience of selfness is intermittent, fluid, and non-unitary.
Meaningness: because of radical constraint, there can be no unitary coherent "meaning of creation" to be exposed/discovered/revealed (beyond the trivial "the point of experience is to be experienced"). But there is fragmentary meaning, self-directed meaning, and collaborative meaning; there is also a healthy dose of randomness and irrelevance.
Participation and enjoyable usefulness: I think these are coherent. To some extent, they're the embodied perspective on the purpose of experience.
Ethical responsiveness: I'm not entirely sure about this (and you haven't finished the section on ethics!), because I see the bodhisattva vow as both a recognition of and submission to metaphysical necessity.
Meaning as collaborative / cultural effort: yes.

I happily concede that the entire stance is based on metaphysics for which there is no (and can be no) objective verification. Except that it does account for what I see as the two real outstanding mysteries (the metaphysical mysteries), "why does it seem like I have free will, when physics is pretty damn deterministic", and "why is there any experience at all". If you have a discussion of those, I'd love to read it.

Free will and the mind/body problem

Hi, John, thanks for the comment!

I don't have any position on free will or the mind/body problem. I don't understand them. I doubt anyone else does either!

This book is meant to be practical, rather than theoretical, and there don't seem to be any practical consequences that would follow from the different suggested solutions to either of these problems, so I feel it is best to mostly ignore them. Interesting to think about as intellectual puzzles, maybe.

The only semi-relevant things I've written in the past few decades are "A philosophical zombie" and "Can we hunt p-zombies with fMRI?". But these are mainly jokes.

Monist nihilism

Dunkelheit's picture

As a matter of exercise I tried to work out the consequences of monist nihilism. One possibility is to view the Universe as the giant clockwork which was created by some god and then left alone. In this Universe nothing and no one has any free will and everything that happens happens according to a fixed set of laws which we call laws of physics. One immediate contradiction one has to deal with is the subjective experience of free will. One choice is to proclaim it an illusion (this is hard and thus can explain relative unpopularity of this stance). Another choice is to adopt dualism and proclaim that one is sure of ones own free will and can tell nothing about free will of others (this reminds me of the plot of 'Breakfast of Champions'). Still another is to move everything inside one's mind and adopt solipsism (which can be classified as monist eternalism).

It is a pity that nobody understands free will, because otherwise everything would be much clearer!

The Big Three in Kabbalah?

Dan's picture

I've just been reading a book on Kabbalah and was amused to find a pretty similar list of three theological perversions:

The Satariel... represent the once-popular Gnostic attitude that sees Creation as evil, and rejects it in order to return to God [≈ dualist eternalism?]. The Augiel stand for the corresponding attitude, quite popular nowadays, that sees the created world as the only reality and God as an illusion [≈ nihilism?]. The Thaumiel, finally, symbolize the always popular attitude that identifies the self as God [≈ monism?].

(This is from a Hermetic magician; I have no idea how traditional it is.)

Monist nihilism, some ideas

Pobop's picture

Couple of things come to mind about monist nihilism. Don't know if it fits.
A kind of mixture of boundary dissolution and felt sense of ultimate meaninglessness sounds like something that could result either from a good dose of psychedelics (specifically phenetylamines) or intense spiritual/magical practice. Especially when combined and go wrong.
Meaning builds up and the suddenly collapses, but there's still a feeling of connectedness — there just isn't any foundation to it (in a bad way, not in a "luminous" way).
So that would make it a pretty reactive stance, leading to vacillating between creating meaning out of the huge mass of connections one is experiencing and seeing it repeatedly collapse. Maintaining monism, but going back and forth between eternalism and nihilism.

Also "pathologies of the soul", dark night, pit of the void, ascetics gone bad. UG Krishnamurti is weird and rare enough to fit. Describing highly unusual transformative events, but at the same time denouncing all spiritual seeking as bullshit.
Osho also comes to mind, in the category of "when saints go materialist". I once had a ~12000 page pdf, a collection of his talks and books. Somewhere in there he talks about how it's (human life, existence) all just chemical in nature anyway. Not in any spiritual way, but just atoms bouncing around. I think he was experimenting with nitrous oxide at the time.

Any sense in this?


Rita's picture

Is your proposed combination of stances just a form of relativism? Having read up until this point, it sounds like the following:

Nothing is true or false, nothing is right or wrong, nothing is static but mutates constantly over time, everything is interconnected and up to the circumstances and pecularities of the case at hand, there is no ultimate truth but ambiguity...


Rita, thanks for the comment!

Is your proposed combination of stances just a form of relativism?

No... relativism is usually pretty much the same as nihilism. The word "relativism" is not well-defined, but "nothing is true or false, nothing is right or wrong" is definitely nihilism.

nothing is static but mutates constantly over time

That is just straightforwardly true, so far as we know... mathematics and fundamental physics being likely exceptions.

everything is interconnected

This is monism (and mistaken). It is true inasmuch as every atom in the universe is connected with every other one by gravity, but mostly not true in any useful/interesting sense. Most things are not significantly connected with each other.

up to the circumstances and pecularities of the case at hand, there is no ultimate truth but ambiguity

That's, again, straightforwardly true of the macroscopic physical world. There may be other places where ultimate truth might be found (mathematics for instance); but what does "ultimate" mean, exactly?

In some cases, the choices

In some cases, the choices are forced. If you think nothing is meaningful (nihilism) then you have to accept that can be no ethics (ethical nihilism).

— Yes, but there can be biologically programmed “morals” or behavior codes. While those don't equal ethics, it does mean that (most) humans have a sense of (mostly) right/wrong.

Nihilism is impossible

Yes, you are quite right. This is one reason nihilism is actually impossible to accomplish (i.e. to adopt consistently). There will be a page about that Real Soon Now!

Our brains evolved to find meanings—notably ethical ones—and we can't stop them from doing so. Nor should we want to... but turning meaning off can seem desirable under the circumstances that make nihilism attractive: when everything seems awful or oppressive or idiotic.

Christianity = dualism?

Timothy Johnson's picture

I just started reading this book seriously tonight, and so far I'm really enjoying it. But I'm a Christian, and I thought I should point out that I don't think of Christianity as entirely dualist.

When Jesus prayed for the church on the eve of his crucifixion, he asked that we would be united in the same way that the Trinity is three persons, yet one God. Paul further explains that the ultimate destiny of the church is to be united into one body, with Christ as its head.

Your definition of dualism, being completely separate and distinct from everyone else, is what I would call Hell.

I don't expect that in Heaven I'll be absorbed as one indivisible part of God. But I also don't expect to be entirely distinct either.

I'm looking forward to your full page on Participation. It sounds much more like what I believe the Trinity is like, and what we humans are meant to experience someday.

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General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.