Enough of eternalism!

Exceedingly grotty subway exit
Image courtesy Thomas Hawk

Starting a couple years ago, I gradually added many pages to the eternalism chapter of Meaningness, without publicizing them via Twitter or the email subscription system.

That is because Meaningness is a book, not a blog. It is not a collection of stand-alone essays that can be understood individually. It is a unified, highly-structured work. Some of it may make little sense if read as individual web pages, out of context. (The “schematic overview: all dimensions” shows the overall structure of the main part of the book.)

Ideally, you would read Meaningness all at once together. For now, and the foreseeable future, that is impossible, because nearly all of it exists only as notes and drafts on my laptop.1 I add pages to the site as I finish them. However, reading pages as I publish them might often be confusing.

Enough of the eternalism chapter is finished now that I think it can be read and understood, so I will begin “releasing” the completed pages, through Twitter and email. I will trickle them out over the next couple of weeks; but it might be better to read the chapter as a whole now, so it all fits in your head at once.

Each of the chapters of the main part of the book covers one stance you can take toward meaningness. Each chapter has roughly the same internal structure, corresponding to the columns of the schematic overview tables. For eternalism, that structure is now complete, although some details are not. This is an important milestone, inasmuch as—for the first time—readers can get some sense of what the book is like overall.

Some of the meat is still missing, or posted only in summary form. The most in-depth material belongs in two unfinished sections, “Eternalist ploys and their antidotes” and “Non-theistic eternalism.”

The “ploys” section describes twenty-ish ways we lie to ourselves to preserve the comforting illusion that everything is meaningful—and gives antidotes for each. Each ploy gets its own page, and I have posted sketches for most; but none is complete. The sketches are enough that I hope you will be able to extrapolate details based on understanding the underlying principles, plus your personal experience of having used each ploy—and seen through it.

The chapter up through “Exiting eternalism” may seem mostly old hat to readers of a secular bent. My analysis of eternalism is mainly similar to analyses of the faults of theistic religions. That may make it underwhelming and obvious for atheists.

However, it’s critical to understand that these faults are not the result of theism, or supernaturalism, but of eternalism. The section “Non-theistic eternalism” will show that the same errors are pervasive in secular ideologies. The most obvious and most consequential example is eternalism in politics. Less obvious are eternalist distortions in various “rational” and “scientific” ideologies.

That non-theistic eternalism section is not only not complete; many of the pages in its outline are not yet on the web even as rough drafts. Gaps in the structure may make the published pages seem odd and disjointed. However, I think you will find several quite fun!

Much of the text in the eternalism chapter is from a draft of Meaningness I finished in 2006. I started publishing a version on the web in 2009. I completed the web book’s introduction late in 2014. The book is supposed to cover thirty different stances, and I am far from finishing the treatment of even the first. This is a problem.

The eternalism chapter will be longer than most, because it is the first, and because eternalism is the most fundamental of all the confused stances. On the other hand, eternalism is also the simplest stance. The monism chapter, for example, may be longer, because it needs more conceptual analysis. (That begins with “Boundaries, objects, and connections,” which will eventually contain a dozen or more web pages of explanation.)

The book, if it is ever finished, will be gigantic. That is why I decided to put it on the web: because it is simply too large for print; and because I want to make bits of it available as I finish them.

But will it ever be finished? At the current rate, obviously not. Something must change. The problem is not writer’s block, or anything like that. It’s partly a matter simply of getting any time to write. Beyond that, writing a large, structured book is entirely unlike writing stand-alone essays. I can turn out a blog post any time I get one day to write; the ideas are self-contained. To re-start work on Meaningness, I need three days of re-reading and digestion to get the structure back in my head; so it takes an uninterrupted working week to make significant progress. I rarely get that.

I will have to make compromises. I cannot write the book in the order in which ideally it should be read. I will block out the most important points first, leaving most detail for the indefinite future. I will spend less time polishing text to make it simple, clear, and engaging. I tend toward perfectionism, but I cannot afford to maintain the standard of quality I’ve aimed for. I originally intended the book for a general audience, assuming no academic background. That no longer seems feasible. Increasingly, the presentation may be accessible only to the highly educated. That is not what I want, but it may be all I can do in the time I have.

The explanation of eternalism is now complete enough to support material that comes much later in the book, which seems more important to write now. Especially, at the moment, an understanding of eternalism is essential background for what I want to write about politics—a topic that seems urgent, as the power structure of all developed nations appears increasingly unstable, and significant elections loom in several.

I aim to explain a global political shift as the logical result of recent changes in the ways we relate to meaningness. I’ve begun this in “Meaningness and time.” Existing political structures are eternalistic systems; but systematic eternalism has broken down, half a century ago. Eternalist states now confront atomized, quasi-nihilistic populaces. This mismatch is approaching a breaking point. A proper understanding of the dynamics might help prevent conflagration, and point toward opportunities for new social structures.

  1. 1.The laptop is backed up in six different ways, with copies in several geographical locations. However, I am not.