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.