Comments on “The emotional dynamics of nihilism”

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Obvious?

Tina's picture

How exactly is it that meaningfulness is obvious at times? Is believing that meaning is entirely subjective part of nihilism?

Basically, I don’t know if I fully understand why nihilism is wrong, unless I don’t quite understand the definition of nihilism. If somethings are meaningful, does that mean it doesn’t have to matter that it is ultimately meaningful by some divine will?

Furthermore, what is the flaw in believing that “My life has meaning to me, and that’s all that matters!” You mention elsewhere this is a slippery slope…it seems like this is finding subjective meaning. If that is false, how can we say that anything is meaningful at all?

I know I must have some definition wrong, i’d appreciate some clarity. Thanks for your time, David!

Clarity about nihilism

Thanks, these are good questions, mostly on topics I need to write about “soon”! Sorry to be a little slow to answer—it took some thought and I was distracted…

How exactly is it that meaningfulness is obvious at times?

Well, if you haven’t eaten in a couple days, then the meaningfulness of food is obvious.

This isn’t a sophisticated case of meaning, but it’s one that’s pretty hard to deny. (One might say that the meaningfulness of food is just an illusion—but then one would have to explain what “real meaning” would be (as opposed to illusory meaning).)

If some things are meaningful, does that mean it doesn’t have to matter that it is ultimately meaningful by some divine will?

Yes, that’s my take on it, at least! There’s no ultimate meaning. It would be nice, in some ways, if there were—we’d be saved the effort of dealing with nebulosity (the ambiguity of meanings). On the other hand, nebulosity gives us freedoms that we wouldn’t have in a universe that had God in it. So maybe it’s a trade-off; but in any case, it’s how the world seems to me to be.

So then the point of the book is to sketch ways to live enjoyably and effectively in a world that is inextricably nebulous and patterned. Most of that, unfortunately, is unwritten!

I don’t know if I fully understand why nihilism is wrong, unless I don’t quite understand the definition of nihilism.

Well, I’m using it to mean the denial of all meaningfulness. That’s roughly the standard definition, but there’s subtle variations between authors…

it seems like this is finding subjective meaning. If that is false, how can we say that anything is meaningful at all?

What I wrote may be unclear because “subjective meaning” isn’t well-defined. I’m using it to mean “an individual, personal, mental meaning.” Most meanings are mostly not like that (although some are).

When you are sufficiently hungry, the meaning of food is not personal. You, personally, are hungry, but the meaning is shared with everyone else (and probably all other vertebrate animals). It’s not particularly “mental” either; it’s as much in your sensory organs and digestive system as in your brain. And it’s in the actions of your hands and mouth as you eat.

Similarly, the meaning of a handshake is not personal. You can’t redefine it to make it mean what you personally want. It is not individual, either; when you shake hands with someone, the meaning depends on a huge amount of cultural background, involving millions of people. It probably also depends to some extent on evolved biological functions we don’t know much about.

what is the flaw in believing that “My life has meaning to me, and that’s all that matters!” You mention elsewhere this is a slippery slope…

Well, a factual flaw is that it isn’t true. We’re all interconnected in webs of meaning that we don’t fully understand. They are incredibly complicated, and we don’t have access to relevant information about what we mean to others.

An ethical flaw is that, because we do have meanings for others, we have to take that into account. “My life has meaning to me, and that’s all that matters!” might justify ethical nihilism.

A psychological flaw is that, although this isn’t full-blown nihilism, it can tend to slide into that. That’s because we actually can’t mean anything much by ourselves; meaning is mostly a social and cultural activity. Narrowing one’s focus to supposedly personal meanings can lead to social and cultural alienation. And that tends to lead to nihilistic depression. (This is something I have more experience with than I would like!)

Because meaning is not personal, it constantly crosses one’s inside/outside, self/other non-boundary. Insisting that meaning is personal risks shutting out external stimuli that one perceives as meaningful. This is the fast road to hell…

In nihilistic depression, one actively cuts oneself off from meanings that are genuinely present, through denial of pattern. Denying the patterns of “is” produces blindness to beauty, and suspension of appreciation, which is what keeps one cheerful. Denying the patterns of “ought” results in paralysis, and the suspension of activity, which is what keeps one engaged.

Re: Clarity about nihilism

Tina's picture

Thank you David, thank you so much!

It seemed like I couldn’t figure out why nihilism and meaninglessness weren’t completely true and thus it was very easy to slip into feeling like life is ultimately meaningless as a result. So is the flaw of nihilism that one cannot define real meaning/illusory meaning?

That got me thinking, what about divine meaning would give substance to any meaning at all? If we live according to a predetermined purpose thought up by God, why would that give any existence or meaning than if that wasn’t the case? God created us to do whatever it wanted us to do…just because. Then we die and we get to live in a place that is nice and happy for eternity. That doesn’t seem any more meaningful, or purposeful than living in a messy world with no help from beyond.

I don’t know why, but I keep thinking “If nothing happens when we die, if we are just gone and dead with no trace left, what is the motivation to do anything? To help anyone? Is the goal of humanity to all live comfortably on this rock and then die?”

Am I just experiencing the mourning of the death of eternalism in my life? The thought that I am not some indivisible, immortal, living thing deep down is kind of scary… yet…

I began a spiritual search long ago in order to deepen my sense of oneness and wholeness. Some experiences were amazing and mystical, and I felt so connected, but I didn’t know why and those experiences were few and far between. Most of the time I felt despair and disconnect, but I thought these feelings were meaningful because the despair was a symptom of spiritual awakening. As the years went by though, it seemed much harder than ever before to connect with anyone and years went by and I felt more ineffective and insignificant than ever before.

I recently found out that I have obsessive compulsive disorder, and much of the spiritual search fueled it. It was like free, unlimited rocket fuel for OCD. When I realized how I was behaving, I dropped it, and with that, much of the despair and anxiety I felt constantly vanished. What I had been searching for with the spiritual search, I suddenly found, and it was a practical solution that didn’t require years of searching for something inside. I felt connected, I felt whole, I felt complete, I felt amazing now that I didn’t obsess over what the nature of reality was.

It wasn’t all good, however. I did have a bit of a crisis wondering what was going to happen with my spiritual search. Everything that I could’ve wanted, except maybe a guaranteed feeling of immortality, was found when I started treating OCD. So what was the point in devoting my life to sitting in my room, meditating, in hopes one day I would feel connected enough to fully interact with this world? I eventually decided to drop it and MAYBE revisit it one day when I am fully recovered from OCD, but for the most part, I was in shock at how well I could function and feel complete and whole without realizing anything special, or spiritual, really.

Since finding this site, I have felt strange. At first, I was a little jaded with spirituality and the writings here spoke to me. But then, I started to really contemplate what this existence would be like without any sense of immortality or continuity after death. It seems like I’m thinking “If we die and nothing happens, it seems like everything is pointless.” Death of eternalism in me. I used to feel like it was so easy to just enjoy things, but now I have to question why I should even sit outside on a park bench on a beautiful day…

I told you this whole story because I feel like it prefaces my next question: How should I go about living then? Is purpose, value, love, wholeness, and completeness intrinsic to believing there is an eternal quality about us that will live on?

I feel like my incessant questions are just thoughts I should pay no attention to, thoughts like any other. My experience with meditation and mindfulness is that many thoughts are just thoughts, some are intrusive, but these are thoughts nonetheless, and aren’t intrinsically more important than a thought about anything else.

To treat my OCD, I had to become accepting of uncertainty, and stop trying to answer the questions my brain would constantly throw at me. This is why the spiritual search was so miserable for me…I kept asking myself questions about reality and my relationship to it that I just couldn’t answer.

Practically speaking, is it okay for me to drop the idea of being immortal in some way or objective meaning and still live a life with the qualities I described above? I can’t outright reject monism, because that would require me to be certain about something which would activate my OCD, but just the IDEA of complete death is making me feel like this whole thing is pointless.

I want to drop these existential thoughts by treating them like any other thought and just accept that life and meaning is uncertain. I don’t know what happens when we die, and I can’t say for sure what the nature of reality or of self is…is this accepting nebulosity? I felt like I had completeness and purpose before, but I never really thought about how that happened, nor did I tie those qualities to eternalism in any conscious way…in fact, I felt so much more complete and purposeful when I stopped trying to look for a spiritual Self.

I know this was kind of the point of your book, but any answer, even brief would help me get out of this funk I find myself in. I don’t have any OCD behavior or spiritual reasoning to hide behind during this existential crisis, so I feel like I need some clarity from someone who understands.

Thank you so much for answering my questions and having this discussion with me, David. I seriously appreciate it.

Meaning and Boundaries

Tina's picture

“Because meaning is not personal, it constantly crosses one’s inside/outside, self/other non-boundary. Insisting that meaning is personal risks shutting out external stimuli that one perceives as meaningful. This is the fast road to hell…

How is it that if I think meaning is personal, I shut out external stimuli that I could perceive to be meaningful? I’m sorry, the wording seems a little out of my understanding.

I recently had a bout of a serious skin infection on my foot which set back my recovery efforts quite a bit, but I took it as a sign that I should stop screwing around and pursue a full recovery from my mental disorders. I took a meaning from this random situation…this was external stimuli, was it not? I constructed my own meaning from external stimuli? If you could elaborate with an example, and why it is the fast track to hell, I’d be grateful!

In nihilistic depression, one actively cuts oneself off from meanings that are genuinely present, through denial of pattern. Denying the patterns of “is” produces blindness to beauty, and suspension of appreciation, which is what keeps one cheerful. Denying the patterns of “ought” results in paralysis, and the suspension of activity, which is what keeps one engaged.

I feel like I understand this, but at the same time I find it a little vague. Denying patterns of “is”….of “ought”? What do these phrases mean?

Ugh, now I feel like I don’t even understand what “meaningful” means. Eternalism, nihilism, meaning, meaningless, meaningness…so many words and thoughts floating in my head.

Sorry David, just venting. I really am appreciative of your time.

Appreciation & encouragement

I have no training in mental health or counseling, so anything I might say may have little value. Still, I’ll try to reply in terms of the framework of the book…

It seemed like I couldn’t figure out why nihilism and meaninglessness weren’t completely true and thus it was very easy to slip into feeling like life is ultimately meaningless as a result. So is the flaw of nihilism that one cannot define real meaning/illusory meaning?

Well, the error is thinking that the only kind of meaning that counts is ultimate, eternal meaning, given by some Cosmic Plan. Eternalism makes the same error, but eternalism thinks that kind of meaning exists, and nihilism thinks it doesn’t exist. Nihilism is somewhat more correct, since that kind of meaning doesn’t exist (it seems to me).

But who says that only eternal, ultimate meanings count? This is not our typical experience, and I can’t see a good reason to believe it.

I keep thinking “If nothing happens when we die, if we are just gone and dead with no trace left, what is the motivation to do anything? To help anyone? Is the goal of humanity to all live comfortably on this rock and then die?”

Purposes vary, and are ambiguous. They are both nebulous and patterned (like everything else). It seems that enjoying yourself while helping other people enjoy themselves is a pretty good way to live, though.

The thought that I am not some indivisible, immortal, living thing deep down is kind of scary.

Yup. The spiritual approaches I respect agree, though, that realistically confronting mortality is a key to living well.

I began a spiritual search long ago in order to deepen my sense of oneness and wholeness. Some experiences were amazing and mystical, and I felt so connected, but I didn’t know why and those experiences were few and far between. Most of the time I felt despair and disconnect… As the years went by though, it seemed much harder than ever before to connect with anyone and years went by and I felt more ineffective and insignificant than ever before.

Yes… this is the problem with monism. It can’t deliver on its promises. If you pursue them anyway, what you get are despair, disconnect, and ineffectuality.

Wholeness and connection are nebulous & patterned, like everything else. So they come and go, they are ambiguous, partial, and unpredictable. I think it is best to enjoy them, and make use of them, as they arise, and to learn to be OK with fragmentation and disconnection as well. Those are not inherently negative; they can be enjoyable too.

I recently found out that I have obsessive compulsive disorder, and much of the spiritual search fueled it. It was like free, unlimited rocket fuel for OCD. When I realized how I was behaving, I dropped it, and with that, much of the despair and anxiety I felt constantly vanished. What I had been searching for with the spiritual search, I suddenly found, and it was a practical solution that didn’t require years of searching for something inside. I felt connected, I felt whole, I felt complete, I felt amazing now that I didn’t obsess over what the nature of reality was.

Oh, how interesting! That sounds splendid.

I was in shock at how well I could function and feel complete and whole without realizing anything special, or spiritual, really.

Yes… I think the search for “something special” is not only doomed to failure, it actively makes one miserable.

(This does not imply resigning oneself to mere materialism or ordinariness. I wrote about the false opposition between specialness and ordinariness, and the way to overcome both, on this page and on the five pages it encloses. “Nobility” is the approach to transcending the special/ordinary distinction.)

Since finding this site, I have felt strange.

Yes, some of it can be unsettling. The perspective is unusual, and it deals with fundamental existential questions, which can provoke anxiety.

How should I go about living then? Is purpose, value, love, wholeness, and completeness intrinsic to believing there is an eternal quality about us that will live on?

I believe we can find purpose, value, love, wholeness, and completeness without immortality.

I had to become accepting of uncertainty, and stop trying to answer the questions my brain would constantly throw at me.

Uncertainty is an aspect of “nebulosity”—and accepting nebulosity is central to the approach I advocate.

Practically speaking, is it okay for me to drop the idea of being immortal in some way or objective meaning and still live a life with the qualities I described above?

It seems so to me.

Our natural tendency is to waver between eternalism and nihilism… but both lead to misery, in different ways. And both are just factually inaccurate. As far as I can see, there are no ultimate meaning; but non-ultimate meaning is plenty compelling and beautiful. It works just fine.

So the ideas that “only ultimate meaning counts” and “these non-ultimate meanings are not really meaningful” are conceptual extras. They’re added-on interpretations that aren’t helpful. They don’t have anything to do with real life…

One value of meditation, as it seems you’ve found, is to suspend those sorts of interpretations, to find out what it’s like to sit there without them. And then, you find experience is no particular way. It varies… but the pattern of the woodgrain on the floor is lovely, and the light slanting in through the window, and … sometimes that’s enough!

Nothing special—and extraordinary when you look.

How is it that if I think meaning is personal, I shut out external stimuli that I could perceive to be meaningful?

In nihilistic depression, the tendency is to say “oh, that… that’s just whatever, it’s not really meaningful,” and then one semi-deliberately ignores it. That’s what I meant by the fast track to hell; it cuts one off from the spontaneously arising meaningfulness of the world, and that’s what sustains the depression.

If you leave it alone (without saying “not meaningful” to yourself), then it may show up as interesting, or sad, or beautiful, or as requiring your help. Meaningful, in other words!

Denying patterns of “is”….of “ought”? What do these phrases mean?

Sorry, this is philosophy jargon. Probably best to ignore it! My writing is highly conceptual, possibly because I tend toward the intellectualization mode of nihilism, as well as the depressive one. Conceptual understanding is not the way out of nihilistic depression (although it can help you from falling into it).

It seems the way out is:

  1. ask the voice that says “meaningless!” to stop, because (although it is intelligent and has good intentions) it isn’t currently helpful;
  2. appreciate everyday sensory experience, moment-by-moment, as often as one can remember to;
  3. do things one remembers one has enjoyed, even though it may not seem like they would be enjoyable or meaningful anymore.

Intensity is good, when one can manage it. Sufficiently intense experience is obviously meaningful, and thereby overwhelms concepts of meaninglessness.

Encouragement

Oh! I forgot to say the thing I intended to end with.

It’s a modern Zen story. An American Zen student asked his teacher: “What should I do when I’m discouraged?”

The teacher said: “Encourage others.”

This seems to be good advice.

Wow

Tina's picture

Thank you David, that brings such relief.

I was in the hospital for an infection, and I’ve been on meds the last 2 weeks and haven’t been eating well, so I don’t know if all that contributed to me feeling so terribly about all this and feeling unable to shake it off, or fully embrace it and let it pass.

Thank you for responding in the framework of your book. I mentioned all the OCD stuff not because I wanted your help in that particular area, but because it has been central to figuring out how I’ve behaved when it came to spirituality and figuring out reality. Incessant questioning led to obsession and there was no way out except to stop, which for some reason I’m finding very difficult to do now.

So the way out of these feelings and thoughts I’m having about existence, meaning, etc, is to stop giving into them? I know my OCD will never allow me to feel certain about anything conceptually, so I knew trying to think my way out of nihilism and meaninglessness will never occur for me. Part of the disorder is chronic doubt, and that circle of thinking dominated the majority of my spiritual experience.

I have some questions about what to do from here then.

-The fear, hopelessness, and negativity that stems from simply thinking I’m going to die and disappear makes the pull of nihilism still very strong. I’m doing my best to really accept these feelings and thoughts without saying anything about whether they are true or false, but still…the idea is just so sad. Is this because I have never truly faced this fear before? I always had a sense of eternalism to fall on, but I’m not doing that this time around. Is it just a matter of time before coming to terms with this fact and not letting it get in the way of living a full life?

-Simple meditation involving letting thoughts and feelings come and go without engaging them…perhaps focusing on breathing, and then sort of keeping this up and not giving into compulsive thinking or behaviors throughout my daily life has been AMAZINGLY helpful for tackling OCD. There is a site I found through one of yours that goes into silent sitting meditation: http://arointroduction.org/purpose.html

It promises a way out of the polarizing stances one finds themselves in by engaging in the non-conceptual space…i.e. meditating. One of the methods of achieving this was silent sitting meditation, which sounds right up my alley…but I read on another blog post of yours that meditations like that won’t help with feeling wholeness and connection…so I thought my methods for all these years were useless, even though it has helped tremendously…but my OCD is a drama queen.

Is sitting silently in meditation a good way to access the benefits listed on that page? I know I felt a lot of those benefits even when I did nothing but treat my OCD, so part of me feels like the silent meditation can help me overcome those feelings and naturally bring me to a place of wonder and awe (not all the time, I understand the opposite feelings can arise as well), without needing a magical universe to do so. Is this realistic?

From your other blog, it seems like you are a fan of tantra buddism? What does that entail?

-What is your experience in daily life? Do you worry about what will happen when you die, or have existential crises? Do you ever feel a sense of lightness and non-seriousness about this all despite all the uncertainties of life?

  • Even though you mentioned that mindfulness meditation does not bring about wholeness and connection, I practice this a lot because it helps me see through thoughts and emotions and then puts me in a state where I can go out and interact with the world and not feel like things are getting in my way mentally. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not cutting myself off from the world to get connection, I am actively engaging in it now and working toward feeling wholness and connection in that way. Like you said, it is nebulous and changing, which is a huge lesson i’ve learned recently, but my meditation seems to aid in that. Is that okay?

Sorry if I sound like a lost puppy. I’ve been riddled with constant anxiety and seemingly was unable to just drop these questions, but your answers have been helping greatly with that. Thanks again, your advice has been so clarifying!

Also

Tina's picture

Another meditation I learned before I started dropping them all was a loving introspection of all that arose.

Basically it was like focusing on the sense of presence…sense of self…and actively cultivating a feeling in my heart of love, and cultivating that feeling for everything that arose within, and then further helping to cultivate it by thinking about all the things, people, activities, etc. I love to do.

So it was like cultivating love while incorporating mindful meditation. Does this seem like an okay approach too?

In a nutshell: Dropping the existential or otherwise thoughts, appreciating things moment by moment, not engaging in any polarizing position or stance, work to accept the idea of total termination and continuing to live well despite it, and just carry on with enjoyable/useful activities even if right now it feels pointless to engage in?

Do I have it right?

I like it

Again I should say that I have no qualification to give advice, and this reply is just on an “it seems to me, but what do I know?” basis.

Incessant questioning led to obsession

Ah, I understand better now the connection with OCD. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it makes sense. Obsessive, circular thinking is connected with both “intellectualization” and “depression” as I’ve written about them—fast in the first case, and slow in the other.

So the way out of these feelings and thoughts I’m having about existence, meaning, etc, is to stop giving into them?

I would guess that’s a good idea in the short term, since they’re causing you acute distress.

On the other hand, I would guess that in the long term, when you feel ready to deal with them more calmly, it would be good to allow them again. Spiritual growth comes from processing these sorts of questions. But they can be overwhelming, and I don’t think they have any final answers. So one can’t expect to “get all that meaning stuff sorted out now, by trying really hard.” One has to keep coming back to them and chewing on them a little more—but not so much that choking ensues.

the idea [of death] is just so sad

Yes. I find it so.

Some people think religion exists mostly to shield us from that. That does seem to be one of its functions, although maybe “most” is an exaggeration.

Although death is sad, one doesn’t have to be sad about it all the time. Life has many other sad things in it, but also many joyful things. Neither negates the other! One can acknowledge, and maintain awareness, of both happiness and sadness, knowing that they come and go.

Is this because I have never truly faced this fear before? I always had a sense of eternalism to fall on

It sounds like that might be the case!

That seems like it could be very painful, for a while at least. I’ve always been an atheist, so I haven’t had to deal with that change of view.

I’m not sure what has led you to abandon eternalism… If it’s losing faith in the existence of God, it might be helpful to read about the many ways atheists have found purpose and inspiration without beliefs. It’s possible to be highly religious in some ways, without any eternalist beliefs.

About meditation. It is great that it has helped with your OCD! I can totally see how it would (by breaking up compulsive thoughts). It’s helped me in that way, too, although I don’t think of myself as having OCD. (Hmm… maybe I do…)

I have a theoretical concern with vipassana meditation, which is that it was designed to psychologically fragment you. That is not what Americans typically use it for; they seek wholeness, not fragmentation! So I worry that in some cases, meditators are applying a tool that leads in the opposite direction from where they want to go. And, this is consistent with increasingly common reports that vipassana can sometimes result in catastrophic psychological disintegration. However, since it breaks up mental activity, it might be ideal for OCD.

I practice in the Aro lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Its meditation methods are superficially similar to vipassana at first, but they point toward wholeness, not fragmentation. There’s a free Aro email meditation course that might be worth checking out.

Is sitting silently in meditation a good way to access the benefits listed on that page? I know I felt a lot of those benefits … naturally bring me to a place of wonder and awe … without needing a magical universe to do so. Is this realistic?

Yes, this has been my experience! Glad you have found the same.

From your other blog, it seems like you are a fan of tantra buddism? What does that entail?

Well… that’s a long story, which I’ve started telling on that other site.

If you have particular questions about Buddhist tantra, I’ll do my best to answer—but if so, let’s do it over there, rather than here. Or I can answer questions about Aro specifically over on Approaching Aro. (Geez, I have a lot of sites…)

Do you worry about what will happen when you die, or have existential crises?

Yes, sometimes.

Do you ever feel a sense of lightness and non-seriousness about this all despite all the uncertainties of life?

Yes, quite a bit more often than I feel upset about it.

I practice this a lot because it helps me see through thoughts and emotions and then puts me in a state where I can go out and interact with the world and not feel like things are getting in my way mentally. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not cutting myself off from the world to get connection, I am actively engaging in it now and working toward feeling wholness and connection in that way.

Yes… Modern American Buddhism, and the “mindfulness movement,” have shifted from the renunciative, anti-life attitude of mainstream traditional Asian Buddhism, toward an attitude more similar to tantric Buddhism. I find the result to be a bit of a mess, because there’s still a lot of the renunciative language, practices, and attitudes left over, poorly integrated with the pro-life, wholeness orientation. Much more about that over on the other site. Overall, I don’t yet understand this very well.

cultivating love while incorporating mindful meditation

That seems good to me…

Dropping the existential or otherwise thoughts, appreciating things moment by moment, not engaging in any polarizing position or stance, work to accept the idea of total termination and continuing to live well despite it, and just carry on with enjoyable/useful activities even if right now it feels pointless to engage in? Do I have it right?

I’m not in a position to say “right”!… But I can say, I like it!

Sounds great

Tina's picture

Hi David.

I’m feeling a lot less distressed today. I thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions! You are a very smart person with lots of interesting thoughts on things, and the most I’ve taken away from this is that eternalist beliefs are not required to live a fulfilling life. One does not need to obsess about death either, it’s pretty irrelevant to every day life until it happens anyway.

Since I do have OCD, my mind will never let me say anything with absolute certainty. So taking hard stances on anything sends my mind into a frenzy. I don’t have rock solid faith in eternalist beliefs anymore, but I cannot deny the possibility, nor can I deny nihilistic beliefs totally either. I find myself not solving this problem mentally, and it feels funky at first, but I find everything works out and live moves on regardless.

Despite whatever stance might be true or untrue, I know I would want to live a happy life and help other people be happy, so I will do that anyway!

Thanks for your help, David. I look forward to the book someday. Take care!

Hi David, I'm only beginning

Dunkelheit's picture

Hi David, I’m only beginning to explore your writings but it is obvious that you have thought very deeply about questions I find interesting so thank you for that.

I am interested whether you have read Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death” and what do you have to say about the discussion of “meaning” in it. Probably by your standards it is nihilistic to the highest degree. Also as it is draws on Freudian psychoanalysis it contains lengthy discussions of feces, so not entirely a pleasant read :). But still it contains valuable analysis on why nihilistic stance is unstable - basically it forces you to confront the terror of death head-on and that is unbearable for the human being.

Not sure where to respond,

Dunkelheit's picture

Not sure where to respond, here or on your other site :)

While you correctly assert that tracing everything to a single source is hugely overreaching (should I say “confused stance?”), it is also striking that for nearly all of the things generally considered highly meaningful the connection to the fear of death is evident.

Like, life and death matters. For this book you chose life and death of the Universe as an example of extreme meaningness. Or like raising children. Or artistic aspirations. Also it is revealing that the canonical place for glimpsing the ultimate meaning of life is the deathbed.

After some reflection I do not think it should be a bad thing after all. It is neutral and useful for predicting the degree of meaningness of things. For sure, inability to tackle fear of death directly is appalling for someone prone to macho intellectualism (which I certainly am prone to) but then no one finds it appalling that one has to put clothes on in the winter to go out of the house.

Death and meaningfulness

Yes, there definitely is an important connection! I can’t say I understand it fully, so it’s not something I plan to make a major theme of this book. It will show up in a few places, though. The stance of mission is partly an attempt to transcend death, for instance.

A few more thoughts on TMT

LPalmer's picture

The above comment on the BFV page was mine. Not sure if this the right place, but I have a few more thoughts on Becker/TMT.

Putting aside its grand aspirations to explain it all (or at least everything about the activity of homo sapiens), I’m not entirely sold on its so-called utility either. It seems to be to be identifying (everywhere) and obsessing over a problem which needn’t be treated as so vast and all-encompassing. Someone engaged in TMT research presumably witnesses death denial everywhere (they’ve got a theory to uphold, after all). But where is the utility in characterising human reality this way? If we all stared our deaths in the face as the HORRIBLE, YAWNING VOID (!!) Becker presumably advocates, are we to expect a positive effect? ‘The Denial of Death’ is certainly a remarkably honest book, but its honesty betrays the sense that it’s one man’s very singular take on the subject, and an odd choice for an entire research project. The three main authors involved in TMT research have described themselves (I forget where) as steeped in existential literature. While this makes a change from the onslaught of evo-psyche, it brings with it all the wrong-headed baggage we should expect, and piles it on all of humanity.

And of course, it’s yet another theory that fundamentally characterises the meaning we naturally find in things as being delusory/illusory. Why can’t we just settle for taking meanings as they are and as they come to us, without the talk of placebos and confidence tricks? That was the ‘eureka!’ moment with your writings, David - someone finally said straight-up that ‘meanings are real’ for once!

Macho rejection of meaning

Dan Vesty's picture

“For sure, inability to tackle fear of death directly is appalling for someone prone to macho intellectualism (which I certainly am prone to) but then no one finds it appalling that one has to put clothes on in the winter to go out of the house.” - this comment really resonated with me. As a recovering nihilistic depressive and macho intellectual with a (now hopefully healthy) interest in the whole question of meaningfulness one of the interesting things I noticed in myself was the emotional pay off of the nihilistic mindset - a kind of sick pride at being so aware of meaninglessness, but manfully soldiering on with the whole ‘sorry charade’ nonetheless. I think the concept of meaning as an illusion also stems from this macho drive - it’s the pay off of looking and sneering at all the poor ‘dupes’ out there who are terrified, wooly-minded or just plain stupid enough to be ‘taken in’ by the illusion of meaning, while only I know the ‘real truth’ of utterly horrid meaningfulness, and so am better and stronger than them because I can ‘stare into the void’ and still be standing….That whole way of thinking ended for me when I started really reflecting on the notion of illusions - and interestingly, the idea that showed me the exit from nihilism was the simple thought that even if meaning is just a chemical spurt in my brain or the patterned firing of some neurons, those are both real, physically existent things - and so the notion that meaning is an illusion is factually and intellectually incoherent.

Thank you for a very

Dan Vesty's picture

Thank you for a very interesting page - an awful lot of what you’ve written here is very familiar to me, and I look forward to reading more of this work in the future.

Trouble with Solution

Chris Petersen's picture

Read your article and was happy to read about the emotions of Nihilism rather than just it’s logical standpoint.

I understand that the reasoning to escape the depression is a duality between meaninglessness and meaningfulness, but I do not see how this is either acceptable or possible.

It appears to me a meaningless universe renders all things ultimately meaningless. Whatever meanings we invent for ourselves are swallowed up into being ultimately meaningless. This solution seems to be a step into ignorance- to forget the meaninglessness of the universe to commit to your created meaning.

Not only do I find this intellectually dishonest, but impossible. I know this from the desire to revert to logical certainty of my faith- you cannot force the mind to accept what it knows to be untrue- and if life has no meaning, our made meanings have no meaning.

I know this is why so many have dismissed pure Nihilism as unlivable, but if the only road to happiness is to either not know or distract ourselves from this truth, it would seem odd a universe would make a being that desires something it doesn’t have.

And this is why I’m still torn between some form of Deism and Nihilism. Reality shows little to microscopic intervention of a “God”, the existence of the natural desire for objective meaning points towards one.

I guess what I’m more than anything trying to ask is how you accept personal meaning in a meaningless universe. I cannot justify it as more than wordplay and “having your cake and eating it too”

Meaninglessness

Hi Chris,

I think you might find this page useful. Unfortunately, it is just an overview, and I haven’t yet had time to write the additional pages that explain in greater detail. But I think you may be able to figure out the details for yourself!

In short: you are quite right, we cannot invent personal meanings. That’s the existentialist approach, and it doesn’t work.

However, the universe doesn’t prevent or deny meaning; it’s just that meaning isn’t forced by it. The same is true of biological life, for instance: it’s not a direct consequence of physics, but arises naturally out of physics. Or, to take a less mysterious example, clouds. The universe doesn’t have any rule that says there must be clouds, nor one that says there can’t be.

Meaning arises naturally when circumstances are right, just as clouds do. Understanding the details of how this happens is complicated, but accepting that it happens is easy, because it’s obvious.

The more I think about this

Dan Vesty's picture

The more I think about this topic, the more I become convinced that the origin of the intuition that ‘the universe is meaningless’ is not a rational, or logical deduction but rather a highly emotional response to what could be described as an ‘excess of meaning.’ Like David, I think of meaning as something that arises naturally in the interaction between the human brain/mind and it’s physical/social environment - not something that is ‘created’ or ‘found’. The key point though is that meaning is not always, or maybe even not often a positive thing - something can be both profoundly painful and meaningful at the same time. So sometimes, depending on the temperament, life experience and behavioural tendencies of a given individual, in moments of the most severe emotional upset or in difficult life circumstances, the generation of meaning actually becomes excessive, painful and uncontrollable - and the depressive breakdown is a desperate attempt by the brain to ‘shut things down’ and catch a breather. This purely (and excessively) emotional experience is so shattering and exhausting for the brain/mind, that the very mechanism for generating meaning shuts down temporarily - a sensation which is then intellectualised as the ‘rational discovery’ that the universe is meaningless. However, as I have experienced for myself, if you can carve out time and space to recover from the original trauma, meaning returns quite naturally by itself - as long as you don’t force it by, for example, becoming an existentialist and trying to ‘create’ your own meaning, or becoming a deist and trying to adopt someone else’s meaning system.

But it seems in all of this,

Chris Petersen's picture

But it seems in all of this, our answers are simplified to “forgetting about it restores a sense of meaningfulness”, which brings us back to square one- that the best defense against the truths of Nihilism is to forget about them.

And it just seems odd to me that if we are talking about what is natural, Existentialism seems to fit that description, and to escape Existentialism, it seems like we propose to beat it with Nihilism, and then forget Nihilism to revert back to what is natural… which even if true, is difficult to set apart from a type of philosophical brainwashing! (What you naturally believe is false and nothing matters- yeah that sucks, so go back to being natural).

I get the argument that when it comes to the two types of “why”, the response on purpose isn’t guaranteed, but the belief itself I can’t find a way to fully embrace without being hypocritical- like it’s all a fancy justification of “adopt all things natural except Existentialism”, to which I don’t understand the clause for banning this one type of belief.

Not trying to be argumentative-at best I can’t see this train of thought is true, at worst I can’t see how it’s a benefit to deprive ourselves of such natural and seemingly psychological necessary ideas (and to embrace them to their fullest)

Arguments for nihilism

the origin of the intuition that ‘the universe is meaningless’ is not a rational, or logical deduction but rather a highly emotional response to what could be described as an ‘excess of meaning.’

That’s my take, yes.

the best defense against the truths of Nihilism is to forget about them

The best defense against the arguments for nihilism is to point out that they are logically fallacious, and unsupported by empirical evidence.

Unfortunately, going through the details of this has been on my “real soon now” queue for several years. There’s a summary of the analysis in “190-proof vs. lite nihilism,” but it is reasonable to be skeptical until I’ve presented the specifics.

On the other hand… do you seriously doubt that your purpose in going to the supermarket is to buy food and stuff? Or that purposes are meanings?

Thanks all!

Daniel Oor's picture

Thanks to everyone contributing here! The discussion on this page deepened my understanding of the distinction between meaningness and nihilism. Hearing stories from others in their journeys to greater understanding was inspirational to boot!

I think this in-depth discussion of the meaning of hunger and handshakes from David helped further my understanding a lot.

When you are sufficiently hungry, the meaning of food is not personal. You, personally, are hungry, but the meaning is shared with everyone else (and probably all other vertebrate animals). It’s not particularly “mental” either; it’s as much in your sensory organs and digestive system as in your brain. And it’s in the actions of your hands and mouth as you eat.
Similarly, the meaning of a handshake is not personal. You can’t redefine it to make it mean what you personally want. It is not individual, either; when you shake hands with someone, the meaning depends on a huge amount of cultural background, involving millions of people. It probably also depends to some extent on evolved biological functions we don’t know much about.

I have several friends who have successfully rejected eternalism and are trying to articulate something beyond nihilism. We have often referred to these ideas informally as “happy nihilism” or “friendly nihilism.”

I think one of the core strengths of Meaningness is the rich, fluid vocabulary it brings to these discussions. I look forward to referencing hunger and handshakes with my friends going forward.

Thanks again!

But not so fast...

Chris Petersen's picture

(I didn’t realize my comment was responded to)

But let’s not forget our hypocrisy here- the “meanings” behind our actions are completely meaningless in the scope of existence- they mean something to you, which actually means nothing.

Nihilism is the poison of Atheism that they must drink or otherwise become hypocrites. Meaninglessness absorbs all of our meanings (logically). All other beliefs commit the same logic sins that Theism does- just in a different way. If we are to live meaningfully in a Universe without meaning, it is as bad as tricking yourself into believing Santa and the Easter Bunny made Jupiter- they are both nonsensd- just one is “grown up nonsense”.

Shouldn’t our nature to deflect Nihilism indicate an issue with the philosophy, and thus if a belief system (Atheism) must lead to Nihilism (if Atheists were honest with themselves), it would logically follow that there is an issue with Atheism?

Peel the onion back one layer and you get “Miracles don’t happen”, pull the onion back another layer and you get “Meaning in a meaningless universe is irrational”. We are then forced two beliefs- either we acknowledge that we trick ourselves and we lose all critique on people’s art of tricking themselves, or we acknowledge that strict Atheism is false.

I’m just trying to say that the only way out of Nihilism is a type of Eternalism, and any escape from both is just a form of self hypocrisy.

What's the reasoning here?

they mean something to you, which actually means nothing

I would like to understand your reasoning here better.

What does “actually” mean here?

If you grant that something means something to you—that would seem to be a meaning. Is it a meaning, but not an “actual” meaning, perhaps? What would an “actual” meaning be? Why are other meanings not “actual”?

Also: what do you think of the passages that Daniel Oor just quoted? They are arguments that meanings are not just personal. Do they seem wrong? Or inadequate in some way?

It does in a sense play off

Chris Petersen's picture

It does in a sense play off of his quotes- if meaning isn’t personal, it’s objective. If the universe has no objective meaning, all meanings in it are subjective (which walks alongside Nihilism). This is what it means to say all meanings are meaningless- if the ultimate parameters of them are themselves meaningless by nature.

The idea of only holding meaning to be a human construct self defeats itself- because to the objectively meaningless universe, your meanings are objectively meaningless.

And this is the great hypocrisy that I mention- to believe anything actually matters because you think it does- either things actually matter objectively, or what matters to you subjectively doesn’t matter. This is the conundrum of Nihilism.

But why are there only two

Dan Vesty's picture

But why are there only two options - meaning is EITHER personal OR objective ? You are making a very bold, and if I may so so, fairly rigid claim here, which is that meaning has to fall into one of two categories: ‘personal’ (i.e. - ‘in here-) or objective (i.e. - ‘out there) - but isn’t this a false distinction ?

I can only speak from personal experience, but for me, the ‘conundrum of Nihilism’ disappeared completely after I’d spent a long time thinking about the word ‘actually’ - and realised that the atheistic/nihilistic concept of “the world as it ‘actually’ is” versus “the world as we think it is/would like it to be” is not quite as clear cut a question as hard-headed macho rationalism would like it to be.

There is no evidence for

Alan Watts Fan's picture

There is no evidence for eternalism by which I believe you mean that perhaps dualism is true and our spirits are immutable or that we go to some eternal meta physical afterlife after we die and all that stuff.

ZERO evidence for any of it. You can’t fault Nihilism for accepting this set of circumstances. You are also incorrect to suggest that people are looking for an excuse to deny things. That is simply not true for all of us. I accept whatever is likely to be true and things that have appropriate evidence and peer review.

The way I see it, it is likely we have no cosmic significance. There is no real reason that we are here. We are just here. If something presents itself to contradict that, I will be very interested in taking a look at it but there is no such thing that we are aware of today. Religion doesn’t satisfy that criteria.

Now, even if I take the more likely premise that I am as significant to the universe as an ant is, that doesn’t mean everything is meaningless. What it does mean is that meaning is fleeting and temporary. Meaning does not appear to be a constant immutable thing that so many people seem to want to find. It is here and there. It is here today, gone tomorrow and back again on Tuesday. It is all largely related to what you are doing at any given moment in time.

Meaning happens in moments. Just because those moments will not happen forever or last forever doesn’t mean they are not or were not meaningful at the time. That’s the realization that I’ve had.

For me, the question is how much freedom I have to experience moments like that and that’s the part that makes me depressed. We live in a society that effectively wants to plug the majority of its citizens into a mass production machine with no regard for them or where they derive their sense of meaning from.

If you take a person’s freedom away to do what gives their life purpose and meaning, what then do they have left? While we can’t fix the existential problems, that particular problem has a solution and for the most part, no one seems to care about the problem and that really is legitimately sad and depressing.

Unless the problem itself is

Chris Petersen's picture

Unless the problem itself is counted as evidence!

I don’t see how an evolutionary process could create a being that wants something. The universe can’t give it- hunger doesnt exist without food.

It’s like teaching a kid to walk on his hands, and he says “this sucks this doesn’t seem right” and the answer is “Sorry kid- the universe sucks.”- all the while he didn’t develop to walk on his hands! He’s only being forced into it because all other ideas are dismissed as wishful thinking (I bet you wish we could all walk on our feet kid!)

So this whole piece of Nihilism that denies all things “unprovable” cannot prove itself- so the ironic and worst thing about it is it uses reason to drag you into its prison, and then tosses reason out the window while you are stuck.

It says “Eternalism is false rationally”, and then you climb into the first layer of Nihilism, and then in the next breathe says “Reason is objectively meaningless”, and then it takes you into the second layer of Nihilism all the while disproving the door that let you into the philosophy in the first place.

It’s not so much “Nihilism sucks so I hope it’s not true”, it’s “Nihilism only makes sense on a surface level”. If we look at magicians, faked miracles, and delusional religious people- that’s the obvious door into Nihilism. Then when we use the same critical thinking on the next layer in, Nihilism implodes.

So what good is it to say “Nihilism is more true than Eternalism” only because you haven’t seen Eternalism? Nihilism already it’s itself, so if we can look at it for what it is rather than what looks obvious, it’s just a hyped-up base level illogical concept.

My openness to the idea of Eternalism comes from the inherant flaws of Nihilism.

Building a good society, without eternalism or nihilism

Alan Watts Fan: We are in complete agreement. Eternalism is wrong; nihilism is also wrong. Then the question is, how do we live? And one part of that is: what is a good society, and how do we build one?

This book, Meaningness, tries to answer those questions. Fortunately, there is a third alternative, which is neither eternalism nor nihilism. You might like to start reading about that here.

As for how to build a good society, this page is an overview. It’s rather abstract; I hope to fill in details in time.

Another option

Chris Petersen — I’m not sure I understood all of your comment, but your point that nihilism is wrong is one I agree with strongly.

My openness to the idea of Eternalism comes from the inherant flaws of Nihilism.

Fortunately (because eternalism is also wrong) these two are not the only options. You might like to start reading about the third possibility here.

Living in the epilogue

Hmm… this is a bit tricky, because I know her quite well in person, as she is in 2017. That essay is from 2010, and she’s not quite the same person now. (Neither am I quite the same person when I wrote the text of “The emotional dynamics of nihilism” in 2010. I expect to revise it, a little bit, soon.)

It’s also tricky because saying anything about the psychology of your friends is usually a really bad idea. Even if everything you might say is positive (and I have nothing negative to say about her), characterizing someone psychologically defines them, artificially; it puts them in a box. And that is not just inaccurate, it’s rude and potentially hurtful.

That said… in 2010, I didn’t know her in person, although I greatly admired her blog from a distance. When I read “Living in the epilogue,” my take was that this was a reflection on her movement from stage 4.5 to stage 5, in the terms of Kegan’s developmental theory. That is, it includes a clear rejection of fixed narratives (stage 4), and also of nihilistic depression (4.5), and it’s pointing toward an understanding of relative and nebulous meaning (although not yet clearly articulating it). My impression is that her more recent work reflects an unambiguously stage-5 view.

Thanks for the response.

Glassblower's picture

Thanks for the response.

Agreed re: discussing one’s friends.

I’ve read quite a bit of her more recent stuff as well.

I guess maybe my actual question is more like this:

The thesis of “Living In the Epilogue” seems to be something like “All meaning is made up, and that’s shitty because it’s not real / can’t give us what we would actually want as humans.”

Whereas I understand your project to be the idea that “All meaning is made up, and that’s ok, it’s not really a problem, the problem is our outsized expectations.”

And it’s sort of difficult (for me anyway) to see if there’s a fact of the matter here, or if the palatability of one over the other is just a function of one’s temperament.

For example, when you argue that people are wrong to expect their lives to contain some {cosmic, objective, transcendental} meaning, is that because they’re clearly not going to find it, or because it was a silly thing to wish for in the first place? Distinction without a difference?

(My model of you says something like, “temperamentally contingent, but we might have a better time if we jettisoned any deep notion that there is some way that the world ‘should’ be.”)

Apologies if I’ve mis-caricaturized either of you, past or present.

Made-up meanings

I understand your project to be the idea that “All meaning is made up, and that’s ok, it’s not really a problem, the problem is our outsized expectations.”

Not quite… We don’t get to choose, or invent, meanings. Definitely not as individuals, almost at all. We have some freedom of choice there, but very little. This is why existentialism failed.

And also not as cultures, or even as a species, to a large extent. Meanings are dependent on our evolved bodies, including but not exclusively our brains. They are also dependent on brute non-human facts, like conservation of energy. Hunger is highly meaningful when you haven’t eaten for a few days. That is not a matter of choice; nor is it a human thing. Other mammals also get hungry. So, I would guess, do ambulatory space aliens on Planet X, because hunger is a simple solution to an effort allocation problem that will arise just as much for them as for us.

when you argue that people are wrong to expect their lives to contain some {cosmic, objective, transcendental} meaning, is that because they’re clearly not going to find it, or because it was a silly thing to wish for in the first place? Distinction without a difference?

Probably “distinction without a difference,” yes. I mean, the myth that there are cosmic, objective, transcendental meanings seems to have been invented by self-interested priests a couple thousand years ago in order to swindle people by confusing them. If you think about them clearly, it’s not just that they’re unavailable, it’s that they’re logically incoherent.

Gregory Bateson’s analysis of “dormitive principles” is relevant here.

I guess I don’t have a really clear sense of what Sarah’s view of this would be in 2017, much less what was in 2010.

Eternalism is only wrong

Chris Petersen's picture

Eternalism is only wrong subjectively- let’s not make the jump from “We can’t prove it so why believe it?” all the way to “it’s false”.

And I don’t really see how any option other than Eternalism isn’t really just Nihilism in disguise. Either meaning is objective or it doesn’t really exist.

I just think it more rational to believe that our universe can only make man desire things it itself can give us (at least in concepts).

"Made Up" May Not Have Been the Best Phrasing

Glassblower's picture

Because of physics, evolution, culture, various other complicated things.

My confusion was with how much weight we give to the intuition that the unreal kind of meaning is the kind that counts. Which question I’m sort of losing my grip on anyway.

Thanks for the Vividness link.

I don’t think either of

I don’t think either of

When you are sufficiently hungry, the meaning of food is not personal….

and

Similarly, the meaning of a handshake is not personal….

align that well with how I use “meaning”, colloquially. And I suspect I’m not alone in that. I think I use “meaningful activity” to mean “activity that will bring me substantial future benefits” i.e. better transient emotional states in the future compared to alternative activities.

Maybe the hunger example can be integrated into that model, but the handshake one seems to refer to “meaning” in a very different sense of the word. I don’t see the connection with my definition above, or with how you’re using the term elsewhere.

I say “I’m not alone in that” because my use of the term is very consistent with the way people say “life has no meaning”, or similar. I think they’re generally saying that that they see no activities to perform now that have adequate payoffs over the long term, in terms of expected reward. My understanding, which I think is consistent with your wider writing, is that eternalist systems have traditionally been valued because they promise enormous long-term rewards (e.g. eternal bliss rather than eternal suffering).

Missed Comment

Chrrispy77's picture

Looks like I missed a comment from over a year ago. My reason for saying that meaning is objective or it doesn’t exist is because the awareness of subjectivity must be met with objectivity or else Nihilism swallows it up. I do not believe atoms or sunlight are subjective, and thus they exist without me saying so. To think that meaning only exists if I say so is to think that the whole clock of reality doesn’t have meaning, and to think this it stands to reason that meaning only exists in my mind, and if meaning only exists in my mind then it does not actually exist in the clock of the universe. Where all other things may be rooted in some sort of objectivity to explain their existence, meaning is reduced to “the desire to benefit yourself”, which ironically makes meaning meaningless.

This is what I mean by Nihilism swallowing up all reason. Either Eternalism (whatever truth or religion) provides a basework for meaning, or all our meanings are meaningless, and trying to have our cake and eat it too is not a cognitive dissonance I can live with. I cannot just “let” Nihilism turn everything into meaninglessness because it mkes meaningless the same rationalism that leads to Nihilism. This is what I mean by saying Nihilism gets you into the prison cell and then tosses the key.

When you say ‘the awareness

Dan Vesty's picture

When you say ‘the awareness of subjectivity must be met with objectivity’ do you mean that objectivity is some kind of solution to the problem of the unreliability of our subjective experience ?

"Madam, now we are just haggling about the price"

Rob — Eating something, and shaking hands, are “activities that will bring me some future benefits.” Maybe not enough to count? But once you grant that these have some slight degree of meaningfulness, we’ve established that “190-proof nihilism” is wrong, and we’re just haggling about how much meaning you require. You can still be a “Lite” nihilist by saying the world isn’t meaningful enough for you… that’s a different conversation.

On a different point… I’m not sure “no activities to perform now that have adequate payoffs over the long term, in terms of expected reward” is the only form of nihilism, or maybe even the most typical. It’s more what’s officially called “philosophical pessimism,” and which I call “miserabilism” in the 190-proof page. It’s more a failure of materialism than of eternalism.

The typical form of nihilism starts from realizing there is no Cosmic Plan or “eternal ordering principle.” That would be a much bigger thing than whether you personally are going to be happy. An eternalist is generally willing to sacrifice their personal well-being for the sake of the Cosmic Plan.

Having your rainbow and eating it too.

Chrispy77's picture

Yes I’ve read rainbows and rumcakes. I think it a fancy (and false) way of getting out of a dilemma. The rainbow does objectively exist, even though your location causes your ability to see it or not. You subjectively interpret an objective thing. I do not agree that things can exist outside of objectivity or subjectivity. I think these thing are rooted in the definitions of “is” and “is not”. That which “is” is objective- our interpretation (how we can relate with a thing) of what “is” is subjective. We put so much faith in the patterns of what we experience and reason into that we will jump out of airplanes trusting that the parachute will continue to do what we observe parachutes to do.

I really do think meanings are stuck being either objective or subjective. If meaning is our construct (in our minds), the universe doesn’t have one for us, and if the universe doesn’t have one for us, we desire something it cannot give us. Like you said- subjective meanings are not enough to combat the meaninglessness of Nihilism.

One day you will die, and your consciousness will leave forever. Everything that you did will amount to no lasting impact, as in the scope of eternity, all probabilities become certainties, and all life will cease to exist. If the only defense against this “truth” is to forget it, how could a universe produce a being that wants what it can’t give it? It’s not wishful thinking, it’s a reference back to a “Hunger assumes the food” reasoning.

Eternity

I have a nice stainless steel cooking pot that may well outlive me. It probably won’t exist in a few hundred years… almost certainly not in a few billion.

The pot works fine now. I like it a lot.

Why would I think “this pot is no good because it won’t last forever?”

Some things that are meaningful to me will outlive me… possibly by centuries… probably not by billions of years. Others may not last past next week.

Why should I think “those meanings are no good, they don’t even exist, because they won’t last forever?”

“I really do think meanings

Dan Vesty's picture

“I really do think meanings are stuck being either objective or subjective. If meaning is our construct (in our minds), the universe doesn’t have one for us, and if the universe doesn’t have one for us, we desire something it cannot give us.” - But what evidence do you have for the hypothesis that a) meanings are things b) that the only types of things there ‘really’ are are scientifically observable facts. Also, is it not possible (maybe even likely) that just because something is ‘in our minds’ it doesn’t necessarily follow that we constructed it ourselves ? And finally, for someone who claims to believe that meaning is an illusion, isn’t your story of an uncaring, unfeeling universe that eternally dangles the promise of something it can’t actually provide in front of poor suffering humanity kind of meaningful ? It’s not a positive meaning, granted, but it still feels like a meaning to me.

This is perhaps just about the price

Rob Alexander's picture

Looking at the page you link, WRT your “Full-strength nihilism” and “Nihilism lite” - yes, you’re right, I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about a middle region roughly corresponding to your “Miserabilism” and “Materialism”. I suspect the phenomenon I describe is common for people inhabiting that region, and is indeed a failure to maintain functioning materialism.

The Eternalist stance is a mystery to me, as I’ve give-or-take never been in it. Like many of my generation (born in the UK circa 1980), and perhaps most of my equivalent who are reaching adulthood now, I was raised a atheist. I didn’t meet an openly devout religious believer until I was already a man. The prevailing mode of my culture was (and is) materialism in your sense; the idea of someone genuinely believing in a “cosmic plan” is alien to me.

(I did a bit of searching for eternalist meanings in my 20s, but got no traction at all. I just don’t find them credible. I suspect this is not uncommon for my demographic and its successors.)

I have some minor comments on your specific definitions, and on your use of the term “subjective”. I’ll raise those on the most relevant pages.

Miserabilism vs nihilism

Ah! Great, glad we’ve cleared up that confusion. (This page is from a 2006 draft of the book, and needs revision partly for clarity, and partly to incorporate what I’ve learned since then.)

There’s supposed to be a brief section on miserabilism later in the book, but I haven’t written it yet.

I’m sorry you are suffering with this. It’s not a great place to find oneself. The emotional dynamics are similar to those of nihilism (in the way I’m using the word here), although not identical.

Generally, the way forward is recovering some appreciation for non-material (non-personal) meaningfulness. That can be through creative work (for its own sake and/or for others’ benefit); or through service work. Many people report that doing things for other people has lifted them out of this stance.

I’m sorry you are suffering

Rob Alexander's picture

I’m sorry you are suffering with this. It’s not a great place to find oneself. The emotional dynamics are similar to those of nihilism (in the way I’m using the word here), although not identical.

Ok, this suggests I’m still not understanding you. I am not particularly suffering, at least not from anything demonstrably related to this. And the majority in the “most of my generation” that I refer to above seem to suffer no more or less than the historical norm. What I’m calling “materialism” here does not seem to be necessarily non-functional.

I may, of course, be assuming a broader scope of “materialism” than you mean — perhaps something close to your enjoyable usefulness. And, on reflection, I may be exagerating the extent to which the culture I grew up in/inhabit is “materialist” in your terms.

"Materialism"

Glad to hear it!

“Materialism” in this sense is the denial of the meaningfulness of non-self-interested purposes. It’s not too bad, generally. However, it can lead to a crisis of “is this all there is?” at some point. Miserabilism is the answer “yes, and it’s inadequate.” The “inadequate” part is right (I think) but the “yes” isn’t.

Unlike philosophical positions, “stances” such as materialism are unstable, and generally we oscillate in and out of them fairly rapidly—although some are habitual for each of us. The dynamic of oscillating between materialism and “mission” (which denies the meaningfulness of mundane purposes) is pretty well universal.

An example… there’s a lot to like in the Effective Altruism movement, but it does tend to promote “mission,” which leads to a predictable series of emotional problems. (They are readily evident among Effective Altruists.)

I actually started writing the book to address the mission-vs-materialism dynamic. Then it went in other directions, and I still haven’t written the chapter about it. But there’s a sketch of an introduction here.

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The previous page is Spam from God.

This page’s topic is Nihilism.

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 ©2010–2018 David Chapman.