Confused stances, such as eternalism and nihilism, are obviously wrong—and yet we frequently adopt them. That should make the complete stance obviously right—and yet it is difficult even to notice. It seems invisible when needed.
How come? This page covers several common obstacles to recognizing and adopting the complete stance.
Confusion seems simpler than completion
From a distance, the complete stance appears complex, muddled, and uncertain.
Eternalism and nihilism have a spurious simplicity, clarity, and stability about them.
- Eternalism: each thing has a meaning; here it is.
- Nihilism: nothing has a meaning; done.
- Completion: well, you see, there’s this thing you haven’t heard of called nebulosity, which takes a whole book to explain, and it means that meanings don’t work like everyone thinks: they are not clearly identifiable so you never know quite what they are; but actually nebulosity is the same thing as pattern, which is its opposite, so—
The confused stances are simple opposites; mirror-images of each other. When it becomes obvious that one of them is wrong, the easiest thing is just to invert it, which takes you to the other.
Eternalism and nihilism both take for granted the split between pattern and nebulosity. From both standpoints, fixed meaning seems the only possible meaning. Once that split is made, the complete stance seems paradoxical. It appears to attempt to combine contradictory claims. Whereas eternalism looks wrong from the standpoint of nihilism—and vice versa—the complete stance looks nonsensical when viewed from any confused stance. Not false: just gibberish.
Completion is invisible—inconceivable—until it is apprehended on its own terms.
Mistaking the complete stance for a confused one
In our attempts to stabilize eternalism, we learned to violently reject evidence that meanings are nebulous—because that seems the slippery slope down to nihilism. In our attempts to stabilize nihilism, we learned to violently reject evidence that meanings are real and important—because that seems the slippery slope down to eternalism.
The complete stance accepts both sorts of evidence. So it incorporates the valid parts of eternalism’s critique of nihilism, and of nihilism’s critique of eternalism.
From point of view of eternalism, anything that contradicts eternalism looks like nihilism: the rejection of meaning. From point of view of nihilism, anything that contradicts nihilism looks like eternalism: an insistence on universal meaningfulness. Thus, from eternalism, the complete stance is indistinguishable from nihilism; and from nihilism, the complete stance is indistinguishable from eternalism. Either way, it becomes effectively invisible.
Too close to see
Whatever you do, however boringly mundane, takes into account the meanings active in your situation. That includes concrete, immediate aspects, such as the usefulness of a potato-masher for mashing potatoes; and also longer-term, more abstract ones, such as the symbolism of vegetables versus meat in your culture. Usually you are not particularly aware of such meanings, you just mash potatoes; but your activity makes sense, and it makes sense only because of them.1
Whatever you do, however exalted your mission, you ignore innumerable meaningless details; irrelevant events that occur for no particular reason and don’t affect your project. You cannot avoid momentarily noticing such features, but you usually dismiss and forget them as quickly as possible.
You are, therefore, always already implicitly in the complete stance. You recognize, at some level, that both meaningfulness and meaninglessness are pervasive.
This is inescapably obvious. It is like the blurred image of your nose, always present in your visual field but almost never noticed. It is so obvious, so much a taken-for-granted aspect of everything you do, that you constantly pass over it without reflective consideration; without thinking through what its implications might be.2
The complete stance can be defined in several ways, all ridiculously simple:
- Recognizing that meaning and meaninglessness both exist
- Recognizing that meanings are both real and indefinite
- Abstaining from both eternalism and nihilism
That’s all? That’s it?? That’s your Answer to Life, The Universe, And Everything?!
I’m sorry you were hoping for something complicated and difficult. That might make you feel like you’d got something when you finally understood it, so you’d have made progress and could feel better about yourself.
There are implications… and applications… and practices… and… enormous conceptual complexities? You are now only a small way through the book Meaningness. Maybe the rest will be more satisfying?
It’s just looking at particular patterns of meaning to see how they are nebulous and what that means, though.
Lack of understandable explanation
Because the complete stance is too simple to accept, it needs a complicated explanation. The Fundamental Texts section of the Meaningness Further Reading Appendix describes several. Unfortunately, each of these is in some way inaccessible for most readers.
The complete stance is invisible simply because no one has explained it in a way many people could follow. What’s missing, and needed, is a complicated conceptual explanation that is nonetheless as plain-spoken and straightforward as possible.
Meaningness aims to be that.
Lack of cultural and social support
Popular culture is all about the confused stances. TV sitcom plots and dialog perform confused stances. Song lyrics express confused stances. “Politics” is the collision of confused stances.
Songs expressing the complete stance are… uncommon.
Many social institutions support confused stances. Most religions enforce eternalism. Most NGOs are infested with mission. The consumer economy promotes materialism.
Institutions promoting the complete stance are… uncommon.
The complete stance is not part of our current everyday world. It is invisible simply because it is unknown.
Sailing the Seas of Meaningness, a much later part of Meaningness, suggests ways the complete stance might become a taken-for-granted aspect of our culture, society, and psychology, in the way the confused stances are now.
Missing emotional pay-offs
Eternalism offers the comfort of certainty of meanings, of a benevolent Cosmic Plan; nihilism offers the comfort that suffering is meaningless and you don’t have to care. The complete stance makes no such comforting promises.
The resolution offered by the complete stance does not take the form of answers. We want answers, because they seem solid, although resolution is what we need. The primordial separation of pattern and nebulosity itself arises from the urge to categorize; to find definite answers. In terms of problems of meaning, we want concrete answers to “should I have sex with my wife’s sister” and “which political cause should I devote my life to.” We do not want an abstract explanation of the ultimate unanswerability of questions of ethics and purpose. That does not seem useful.
The complete stance does offer emotional goods, but they are less obviously appealing. More like healthy vegetables than eternalist candy or nihilist Everclear.
Eternalism and nihilism both produce constricted views on the world. To maintain either, you must blind yourself to much of what would otherwise be visible. You must un-see the constantly evolving rearrangements of meaning and meaninglessness, of pattern and nebulosity, of understanding and baffled wonderment.
Beginning to see interweaving pattern and nebulosity opens a bigger, richer, stranger world. This can induce agoraphobia—a sense of lost bearings, of exposure in untracked vastness.
The complete stance, when first encountered, can seem emotionally overwhelming. The dynamic tension between meaning and meaninglessness manifests as boiling energy which may be simultaneously frightening and attractive. One’s familiar ways of understanding, of thinking and feeling about meanings—the confused stances—no longer work. Lacking a map of the new world, one may naturally recoil in shock. Retreating to the seeming safety of a renewed commitment to a confused stance is a common first reaction to a glimpse of the complete stance.
It is best then to proceed gently. Rushing development into the complete stance can backfire. Apply the antidotes to the confused stances, and the practices for stabilizing the complete stance, only when you feel relatively emotionally secure.
- 1.This alludes to an atypically humorous passage in Thomas Ligotti’s miserabilist manifesto The Conspiracy against the Human Race. In contrast with 190-proof nihilism, miserabilism admits that some things are marginally meaningful. “A potato masher is not useless if you want to mash potatoes… Buddhists have no problem with a potato-masher system of being because for them there are no absolutes. What they need to realize is that everything is related to everything else in a great network of potato mashers that are always interacting with each other.” Ligotti rightly points out that this does not, as claimed, solve the problem of suffering. (pp. 76-78 in the 2010 edition.)
- 2.Buddhists may find it interesting to compare some of the obstacles I describe here with the doctrine of “The Four (Seeming) Faults of Natural Awareness.” In this context, “natural awareness” means the non-dual view that perceives form and emptiness simultaneously. It is “natural” not in being common, but in being the default state if you are not actively avoiding seeing emptiness or seeing form—because otherwise both are obvious. In An Arrow to the Heart, Ken McLeod translates the Faults as: “So close you can’t see it; So deep you can’t fathom it; So simple you can’t believe it; So good you can’t accept it.” They are discussed in Ngakpa Chögyam’s Wearing the Body of Visions, pp. 64-65.