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.


In Terms of Popular Philosophy...

James Hansen's picture

The concept of nihilism and eternalism, in the domain of meaning, seem very intuitive. Yet, the term ‘nihilism’ is almost universally recognized, while ‘eternalism’ is not. It’s not just that the term ‘eternalism’ is not in common parlance, but the general idea is not at all widely recognized as being an ‘idea’. Why do you think this is? Isn’t it a bit strange?

Not that this is any steadfast metric, but when I enter the query, “Everything is meaningful” into Google, the first result is a link to one of your articles. Whereas when I search, “Nothing means anything” I find a vast area of philosophy-related resources instead.

I’m probably driving this into the ground, as you’re aware of the idea. Anyway, I wonder why this all is so.

A bit strange

Yes, I agree, it’s quite odd! And I don’t have any good theory.

My only guess would be that, in the Western tradition, “religion” is the category that wound up taking up the space where “eternalism” ought to have been.

That left blind spots where the two concepts fail to coincide. So (1) non-eternalist religions are misunderstood, and (2) non-eternalist religions are misunderstood.

As an example of (2), many Christians say that “atheism is just another religion,” and atheists push back with “no, it’s just the absence of a religion.” And in some sense they are both right. The atheists are right literally, but their critics are right that, as an organized movement, atheism can become highly eternalistic, and so displays many of the same characteristics as eternalistic religions. (Which is a problem, in my view.) The lack of a word for eternalism is part of the problem: atheists can’t see their own dysfunction, and critics don’t have good a way of pointing it out.

If Only

James Hansen's picture

Very interesting; now there’s a whole area of exploration in and of itself. If only there was a popular philosopher of the 20th century who could’ve enunciated this issue in the right way.

It seems that this may not have occurred, in part, because there are some major cultural factors which have led people to think about meaning in ‘prescribed’ ways. I think this is something you’ve written about here and there.

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This page introduces a section containing the following:

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

The previous page is Schematic overview: meaningness.

This page’s topic is Eternalism.

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