Eternalism: the fixation of meaning

Kitschy romantic postcard image

Eternalism is the stance that everything has a fixed, clear-cut meaning. That’s an attractive fantasy, but it inevitably runs into the reality that meaningness is nebulous: variable, vague, and context-dependent. That collision can cause serious trouble.

This section provides tools for noticing when you have assumed the eternalist stance; for seeing how it is harmful; and for shifting into the complete stance instead.

If you haven’t already read “Preview: eternalism and nihilism” in the book’s introduction, you may want to do that first.

Eternalism is wrong and harmful, yet appealing

It’s obvious that many things are meaningless, and most meanings are somewhat vague. In other words, we all know that eternalism is wrong. We’re only tempted to adopt eternalism at times when meaninglessness or ambiguity is emotionally threatening. (See “Extreme examples” for a preview.)

Since it’s obviously wrong, I won’t argue against eternalism in detail. That would not be particularly helpful. We always already know it’s mistaken, and yet we fall into it anyway. (If you are committed to an eternalist system, I send good wishes, and suggest that you won’t find this book to your taste.)

Even if you specifically reject eternalism, you will find that you adopt it at times, unwittingly. (Or I do, anyway!) This is particularly true for those who waver in their relationship with eternalism. That includes agnostics, spiritual seekers, and miscellaneous “other”s who remain uncommitted to any stance.

Understanding why we are vulnerable to eternalism is the first step toward avoiding it. These emotional dynamics are independent of specific beliefs or commitments. I’ll start with a funny story about a time I got suckered by eternalism. Then I’ll explain more generally its emotional appeal.

Then I’ll point out ways it fails to deliver on its emotional promises, and causes harm and suffering. This can be hard to accept, because eternalism seems to offer hope, solace, purpose, ethical certainty, and all manner of other desirable meaning-goods. It promises control over your life—but cannot deliver. Seeing through this deceptive game lets you escape playing it.

Eternalism depends on a series of ploys to make it seem plausible. These are tricks we play on ourselves, and each other, to avoid seeing eternalism’s failures. I will explain how to recognize and disarm each of these tactics.

This is (mostly) not about religion

Religions—especially fundamentalist ones—are the most obvious forms of eternalism. However, eternalism is more basic than religion, or any other system. It’s not about specific beliefs; it is a fundamental attitude to meaningness. It can show up unaccompanied by any conceptual system. It can show up in non-ideological popular attitudes to meaning—for example, in idealized conceptions of romance, illustrated at the top of this page.

So, although parts of my discussion of eternalism may sound similar to familiar criticisms of religion, it applies to atheists, skeptics, and rationalists too. We are not immune. Dropping religious beliefs is only a first step towards freeing ourselves from eternalism.

Political ideologies—especially extremist ones—insist on fixed meanings. So do various other systems, including some brands of rationalism, psychotherapy, scientism, and so on. The final part of this chapter discusses these non-theistic forms of eternalism.


This page introduces a section containing the following pages:

  • I get duped by eternalism in a casino

    Gambling, religion, and addiction: a personal story.

  • ⚒︎ No cosmic plan

    Great confusions about meaningness stem from the mistaken assumption that there must be some sort of eternal ordering principle.

  • The appeal of eternalism

    Eternalism promises everything you could want from meaning: safety, support, certainty, reassurance, and control. Solid ground!

    • The promise of certainty

      What we want most from meaning is guarantees. Religions, political ideologies, and other eternalist systems promise certainty; but they cannot deliver.

    • The illusion of understanding

      It’s deluded to think we mostly understand issues of meaning (ethics, purpose, value, politics). Ideologies deliberately create and sustain that illusion.

    • The fantasy of control

      Eternalism promises complete control over life—but that is an impossible fantasy. Influence through collaboration and improvisation are possible, however.

    • The wheel of fortune

      Eternalism promises answers about good and bad—the meanings we care about most—but cannot deliver.

    • Eternalism as the only salvation from nihilism

      Eternalism's final promise is to keep nihilism at bay. There is a better alternative to both!

  • Eternalism is harmful

    Eternalism—belief in fixed meanings—makes promises it can't keep. It makes us do stupid, crazy, evil things. And we still love it and keep going back for more.

  • Eternalist ploys and their antidotes

    Ploys—ways of thinking, feeling, talking, and acting—which stabilize eternalism; and antidotes to use against them.

    • ⚒︎ Imposing fixed meanings

      Forcing fixed meanings on experience always eventually results in unpleasant shocks when reality refuses to conform to your pre-determined categories.

    • ⚒︎ Smearing meaning all over everything

      Monist eternalism—the New Age and SBNR, for example—say everything is meaningful, but leaves vague what the meanings are.

    • ⚒︎ Magical thinking

      Magical thinking—hallucinating causal connections—is powerfully synergistic with eternalism (the stance that everything has a fixed meaning).

    • ⚒︎ Hope

      Hope is harmful in devaluing the present and shifting attention to imaginary futures that may never exist.

    • ⚒︎ Pretending

      Eternalist religions and political systems are always partly make-believe, like children playing at being pirates.

    • ⚒︎ Colluding for eternalism

      Because eternalist delusion is so desirable, we collude to maintain it. To save each other from nihilism, we support each other in not-seeing nebulosity.

    • ⚒︎ Hiding from nebulosity

      Hiding from nebulosity is a ploy to preserve eternalism by physically avoiding ambiguous situations and information.

    • ⚒︎ Kitsch and naïveté

      Eternalist kitsch is the denial of the possibility of meaninglessness. This leads to willfully idiotic sentimentality.

    • ⚒︎ Armed & armored eternalism

      When nebulosity becomes obvious, eternalism fails to fit reality. You can armor yourself against evidence, and arm yourself to destroy it.

    • ⚒︎ Faith

      Privileging faith over experience is an eternalist ploy for blinding yourself to signs of nebulosity.

    • ⚒︎ Thought suppression

      Thought suppression is a ploy for maintaining faith in non-existent meanings. It leads to deliberate stupidity, inability to express oneself, and inaction.

    • ⚒︎ Bargaining and recommitment

      When eternalism lets you down, you are tempted to make a bargain with it. Eternalism will behave itself better, and in return you renew your faith in it.

    • ⚒︎ Wistful certainty

      Wistful certainty is a ploy for reinforcing eternalism based on the thought that there must exist whatever it takes to make eternalism seem to work.

    • ⚒︎ Faithful bafflement

      Faithful bafflement is a ploy for maintaining the eternalist stance that remains committed but begins to doubt.

    • ⚒︎ Mystification

      Mystification uses thoughts as a weapon against authentic thinking. It creates glib, bogus metaphysical explanations that sweep meaninglessness under the rug.

    • ⚒︎ Rehearsing the horrors of nihilism

      Reminding yourself and others of how bad nihilism is can help maintain the eternalist stance. This is the hellfire and brimstone of eternalist preaching.

    • ⚒︎ Purification

      Purity is an obsessive focus for dualist eternalism. It mobilizes emotions of disgust, guilt, shame, and self-righteous anger.

    • ⚒︎ Fortress eternalism

      In the face of undeserved suffering, is difficult not to fall into the stance that most things are God’s will, but not the horrible bits.

  • Accomplishing eternalism

    Accomplishing eternalism would would mean knowing the meaning of everything, and acting accordingly. This is impossible, because there are no fixed meanings.

  • Exiting eternalism

    Learning skills for escaping the grip of eternalism—the delusion that everything is meaningful.

  • Non-theistic eternalism

    Freeing ourselves from theism is only a first step toward freeing ourselves from a host of ubiquitous, harmful, mistaken ideas about meaningness.

This page is in the section Meaning and meaninglessness,
      which is in Doing meaning better.

The previous page is Schematic overview: meaningness.

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