Meaning and meaninglessness

This book is based on the idea that meaning can be real but nebulous: ambiguous, variable, and context-dependent. This is an uncommon stance.

The more common stances are eternalism (that meanings are fixed and well-defined); and nihilism (that meaning is entirely non-existent). This chapter explains the psychological dynamics of these confused stances in detail.

The mistaken assumption shared by eternalism and nihilism is that meaning must be objective to be real. Existentialism took an alternative stance, that meanings are subjective and personal. This chapter begins to explain why that is also a mistake. A detailed account must be postponed into the next chapter, which investigates issues of the inside/outside boundary, mind and world, self and other. The view of Meaningness is that all these distinctions are nebulous, and that meaning is neither subjective nor objective. Instead, it is an interaction that crosses all these boundaries.

This chapter also begins to explain the complete stance, which allows for nebulous meaning. It only makes a beginning, because the nebulosity of meaning involves concepts that I can introduce only gradually. Understanding of the nature of meaning will, I hope, accumulate throughout your reading of the book. Ultimately, meaningness is itself a nebulous concept, and cannot be specified with complete precision.


This page introduces a section containing the following pages:

  • The puzzle of meaningness

    What is the meaning of an extra-marital affair—or any relationship? A philosophical short story illustrates the puzzle of the nebulosity of meaningness.

  • Meaningfulness and meaninglessness

    Some things are meaningful, and others aren't. This is obvious; yet most confusions about meaning begin by denying it.

  • Extreme examples, eternalism and nihilism

    Claims that everything is meaningful, or that nothing is, are motivated by fears: fear of the opposite.

  • So how does meaningness work?

    We have a choice of explanations: ones that are simple, clear, harmful, and wrong; or ones that are complex, vague, helpful, and approximately right.

  • Schematic overview: meaningness

    A schematic overview of eternalism and nihilism as confused responses to meaningness.

  • Eternalism: the fixation of meaning

    Eternalism is the wrong idea that everything has a definite meaning, fixed by an external ordering principle.

    • 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.

  • Nihilism: the denial of meaning

    Nihilism is the wrong idea that nothing is meaningful, based on the accurate realization that there is no external, eternal source of meaning.

    • You’ve got nihilism wrong

      Whether you think you are a nihilist, or think you are not—I think you are mistaken. Nihilism is impossible—but so is avoiding it.

    • Rumcake and rainbows

      Nihilism recognizes, accurately, that meaning cannot be either objective or subjective. But meaning does exist: as interaction.

    • ⚒︎ Cold comfort: the false promise of nihilism

      Nihilism promises you don’t have to care, because nothing means anything. But you do care—and you can’t escape that.

    • ⚒︎ The nihilist elite

      Nihilism requires unusual intelligence, courage, and grit. Nihilists know this, and consider themselves an elite class. Membership is a major attraction.

    • ⚒︎ Nihilism is hard

      It’s a pity that it’s so hard to be a nihilist. Nihilism is mistaken and harmful, but its insights into what’s wrong with eternalism are accurate and useful.

    • Spam from God

      Nihilism starts with the intelligent recognition that we have been conned by eternalism—ideologies of ultimate meaning.

    • The emotional dynamics of nihilism

      Nihilism relies on three emotional strategies to deny meaning: rage, intellectualization, and depression. It also causes anxiety.

      • ⚒︎ Nihilistic depression

        Realizing that eternalism will always fail can result in anguish, pessimism, depression, stoicism, alienation, apathy, exhaustion, and paralysis.

      • ⚒︎ Nihilistic intellectualization

        When desperate to deny all meanings, we use absurd pseudo-rational, pseudo-scientific, intellectual arguments to justify nihilism.

      • ⚒︎ Nihilistic rage

        Nihilistic rage wants to destroy whatever has meaning, and whoever points to meaning.

      • ⚒︎ Nihilistic anxiety

        Anxiety is a natural reaction to uncertainty. In nihilism, pervasive loss of meaning makes everything uncertain; existential angst is a response.

    • 190-proof vs. lite nihilism

      Nihilism says nothing means anything—but no one actually believes that. Lite nihilism weakens the claim, to make it plausible.

    • 190-proof nihilism: intoxicating intellectual idiocy

      Nihilism defends itself from the obviousness of meanings with spurious intellectual arguments. Here’s how to dispel them.

  • ⚒︎ Sartre’s ghost and the corpse of God

    Existentialism, a hopeful alternative to rigid meanings, makes wrong metaphysical assumptions, and cannot work. It collapses inevitably into nihilism.

  • Meaningness: the complete stance

    Meaning is nebulous, yet patterned; meaningfulness and meaninglessness intermingle. Recognizing this frees us from metaphysical delusions.

    • The appeal of complete stances

      Resolving problems of meaning by recognizing inseparable pattern and nebulosity will improve your life.

    • Peak experiences

      Peak experiences and the complete stance are similar in texture, but differ in intensity, conceptual content, and causes.

    • Obstacles to the complete stance

      Meaning and meaninglessness, pattern and nebulosity all obviously exist—yet we resist recognizing and admitting this. Why?

    • ⚒︎ Observing meaningness

      How to catch meaningness in action; ways of watching confused and complete stances.

    • Finding the complete stance

      The fundamental method for resolving problems of meaning: by finding nebulosity, pattern, and their inseparable relationship.

    • Textures of completion

      Patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting in the complete stance, which resolves problems of meaning.

      • Wonder

        Wonder at the vastness, beauty, and intricacy of the phenomenal world: a texture of the complete stance.

      • Open-ended curiosity

        Open-ended curiosity gives you the freedom to interact with the world without metaphysical presuppositions.

      • ⚒︎ Humor

        Recognizing the inseparability of nebulosity and pattern gives experience a texture of good humor, and the funny sort too!

      • ⚒︎ Play

        Playfulness, which recognizes the mingled pattern and nebulosity of meaning, is a characteristic texture of activity in the complete stance.

      • ⚒︎ Enjoying the dance of nebulosity and pattern

        Enjoyment of the intertwining dance of nebulosity and pattern is a characteristic texture of the complete stance to meaning.

      • ⚒︎ Creation

        Creation is the characteristic activity of the complete stance; its densest texture.

    • Stabilizing the complete stance

      Going beyond resolutions of specific problems: consistently maintaining an accurate stance toward meaningness.

This page is in the section Doing meaning better.

The previous page is Schematic overview: all dimensions.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book. Start with an appetizer, or the table of contents. Its “metablog” includes additional essays that are not part of the book.

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The book is a work in progress; pages marked ⚒︎ are under construction.