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Comments are for the page: Extreme examples, eternalism and nihilism
Thanks for this thought provoking and well-written page. However, I think you are not taking into account two important features of eternalism and nihilism - their brittleness and their counter-dependency.
The brittleness of eternalism and nihilism comes from the lack of security with which they are held. People very rapidly switch from one to the other. For example, people have sudden evangelical conversions to Christianity on the rebound from feeling the world is meaningless. Then they might just as suddenly lose their faith. If eternalism and nihilism were just about opposing senses of the world being meaningful or meaningless, it would not explain how quickly we can bounce from one extreme to the other. Eternalism and nihilism are astoundingly similar and only formally and brittly opposed, which is why they also tend to combine into unholy alliances. This is why I suggest that eternalism and nihilism are better defined as opposing beliefs about moral justification.
This brittleness is accompanied by counter-dependency. You do recognise counter-dependency here in the sense that one position is based on fear of the other. However, the counter-dependency goes further than this. Eternalism and nihilism do not make sense without each other and without their shared rejection of non-dualist alternatives. They also unite in their dualistic tendency to classify all attempted alternatives as on one side of the dualism or the other - us or them.
You’ve undoubtedly identified some important features of eternalism and nihilism, but I don’t think you can really explain them without reference to both beliefs and psychology. The traditional Buddhist accounts include both these,sometimes in a contradictory or over-narrow form, but nevertheless they are there for a reason, because to some extent beliefs and psychology make up people’s experience of eternalism and nihilism.
Thanks for this helpful analysis. I think we are probably in agreement on most of these points (but may disagree on one).
Your description of brittleness seems exactly right to me. Does my discussion of the “instability” of confused stances seem to you to cover the same point?
Regarding the similarity of eternalism and nihilism, and their tendency to “combine in unholy alliances” (a fine phrase!): Do this and this seem to make the same point?
Eternalism and nihilism do not make sense without each other and without their shared rejection of non-dualist alternatives. They also unite in their dualistic tendency to classify all attempted alternatives as on one side of the dualism or the other—us or them.
Yes; the Aro analysis (which I start from) is that “from the standpoint of eternalism, non-duality looks like nihilism, and from the standpoint of nihilism, non-duality looks like eternalism.” (This may be a common Buddhist view, but offhand I can’t remember a non-Aro source.) My draft has a discussion of this that has not yet made it onto the web site.
Regarding psychology: I have just posted a page about the emotional dynamics of nihilism (plus a brief stub on kitsch, one of the emotional dynamics of eternalism.) Is this the sort of thing you have in mind?
I had to jump quite a long way ahead to post this material; there’s still a ton of introduction left before we properly get to that sort of thing. But I thought it important to get some of this up on the site, because the bulk of the book has much more of this flavor than the dry technical introduction does. I think several readers have been puzzled and annoyed by the dull abstraction of much of what I’ve posted to date. That stuff is just conceptual background to the central portion of the book, which mainly looks at the feeling qualities of stances, and their applications in everyday life. The main part is quite lively.
Regarding belief: it’s possible we disagree about this. In philosophy of mind, “belief” is often taken as an unanalyzed primitive. The assumption is that there is a simple fact of the matter as to whether or not “Harry believes God exists”; whereas I think this is actually complex and ambiguous, and the word “belief” often obscures more than it clarifies.
I think it may have been Dawkins who observed that much “belief” would better be understood as “proclamation”. Metaphysical “beliefs” often seem to function as badges of tribal identification. They are insisted upon, but they don’t seem to function in the same way as everyday beliefs (like “I still have three clean pairs of underwear”), because they are not subject to empirical test, do not influence action in the same ways, and are defended in different ways.
With regards to meaningness, I’m more interested in “stances” than beliefs, where I take “stances” to be fundamental attitudes and styles of thinking-feeling, rather than truth-claims.
I agree that “beliefs” are critical to analyzing systems (such as religions). But I think systems are largely bogus, and want to get at a more basic level of mind, where I may have a longer lever-arm.
The pages you have linked do give a description of brittleness/ instability and pairing/ counter-dependency. I guess what I feel is missing is more of an explanation or theoretical model as to how these different aspects of dualism are linked. Perhaps you will say that’s not what you’re trying to do.
I think we probably do disagree about belief. However, I don’t think that belief is in any way ‘a simple fact of the matter’. Rather belief is a psychological state of having a representation of a supposed ‘reality’ in mind and having some degree of commitment to this representation being provisionally or absolutely true. Belief cannot be confined to explicit belief (or ‘proclamation’) but can also be implicit. The difference between metaphysical beliefs and everyday ones lies only in the degree of attachment we have to the ‘truth’ of the belief and how easily we can let go of it. A metaphysical belief cannot be let go of in response to degrees of evidence because it is necessarily absolute, whereas other, more justified beliefs can be examined in the light of experience.
I’m not sure about your distinction between ‘stances’ and more systematic beliefs: you seem to be imposing a discontinuity here onto differences that are incremental. Our mere ‘stances’ may often be taken to imply whole philosophies, whether or not these have been consciously considered (though obviously we should also be cautious in drawing these implications), because they involve an imaginative process of identifying with a particular vision of how things are.
Generally, so far your assertions about dualistic beliefs and their effects don’t seem to be necessarily linked to what you say about meaningfulness. For example, one could have a metaphysical belief in nebulosity or in non-dualism, or one could have a strong emotional experience of meaningfulness whilst avoiding metaphysical interpretations of it. You haven’t told us what is wrong with metaphysical beliefs in the first place because, it seems, of your commitment to putting the whole case in terms of meaningness.
These are all interesting issues… I’m not sure I understand everything in your comment completely, but probably over time as we calibrate our concepts and vocabulary, such things will clarify.
We’re using the words “eternalism” and “nihilism” to mean somewhat different things. Both of us started from Buddhist philosophy, and headed in roughly, but not quite, the same direction. Neither of us is using the words quite as they were in Buddhism (which itself has several meanings for them, anyway). This is bound to cause confusion. That seems unavoidable, but maybe for the benefit of both our readers, we can try and sort out exactly how our uses differ.
For each of the specific pairs of stances, I will explain how the false opposition works—why they seem to be the only alternatives. Also, how these two stances relate to other pairs (particularly, to nihilism and eternalism). Would that constitute the “theoretical model for how different aspects of dualism are linked”?
I don’t plan to make a general argument against metaphysical beliefs. I think you’ve done a good job of that. I do intend to explain why I think some specific metaphysical beliefs are wrong. Along with that, I will suggest the reasons people hold them anyway.
There’s several classes of reasons people hold metaphysical beliefs. Maybe the most interesting one is that metaphysical entities may seem to have physical consequences. That can be used as an argument for or against the entities (depending on whether the physical consequences are observed).
For example, I think the Problem of Evil is a good argument against the existence of Gods. If there were a God (capital G implying omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence), we ought not to see undeserved suffering (a physical effect); but we do. Conversely, miracles would be an argument in favor of a God, if we encountered any. (Neither argument is conclusive, but either is incremental evidence. There are theodicies that address the Problem of Evil, but none seem credible, so this is a good argument. There could be many explanations for miracles (if there were any) besides Gods, so that’s not a good argument—but it’s still something.)
I agree that simple stances can have complex philosophical consequences. I intend to draw out those consequences, because the stances are typically adopted without thinking the consequences through. Confused stances are less attractive when you see their implications clearly. (I’m particularly hot to do this for monism now, because I see huge numbers of people buying into it without recognizing the problems it causes them.)
Thanks for this response. It’s probably what you say about miracles and the problem of evil that shows our disagreement most clearly here. I do not accept thNoat there is any incremental evidence either for or against metaphysical claims. People attach metaphysical claims to observations such as miracles, but miracles in themselves are at best unexplained phenomena. This point can be demonstrated by the argument that any given metaphysical explanation of a miracle is as good as another - if Jesus walks on water, say, this may be because he’s the son of God, or it might be because of Satan’s intervention, or it might be some stray aliens hovering above who are engaging in some localised interference with the laws of physics for a lark. Imagination is the limit here, and it is only social expectations that lead people to assume that particular kinds of metaphysical explanation for phenomena are the only possible ones. Once you take leave of experience, you can claim anything you like, and the extent to which you can manipulate people by doing so is limited only by their gullibility.
That’s why it’s essential to be even-handed with metaphysical claims and be just as rigorous with the negative ones as with the positive ones. It is not as though the negation of metaphysical claims is subject to incremental evidence that positive claims are not subject to (pace Richard Dawkins, who I think is deeply inconsistent on this).
Anyway, we’ve had some of this debate before on my discussion board in regard to atheism - see http://www.moralobjectivity.net/forum/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=13&sid=70ca0f13a4194d98f9ff12f572dbdc6e . I don’t think we reached a resolution then either!
Having recently come across your web stuff I’ve been enjoying it tremendously, I think you’re doing good work, keep it up! :)
Just one minor quibble here. I think when you say “objective” I might prefer to say “intrinsic”. Objective meaning and truth are unproblematic I think. Once you have a measuring rod, things fall out objectively as having this or that length; but they don’t intrinsically (i.e. apart from being matched up with a measuring rod, should we get it into our heads to undertake such a peculiar practice) have length, they don’t have length “in and of themselves.” What you are calling “nebulousness” I think comes in the fact that things have the potential (or openness-to, perhaps another sense of “emptiness”) to have meaning according to any number of (subjectively cooked-up) measuring rods (even the vagaries of a cloud could in theory be specified through chaos mathematics or whatever), but in practice it’s either too difficult or there’s no need, or if there is a need, but it’s impossible, the uncertainty - nebulosity - just has to be lived with.
Essentially, both nature and the mind work on a “generate-and-test” principle. We have no backdoor hotline to how things are, so we throw out possible ways it might be, as punts, and test them logically via modus tollens - if the corollaries of how things should turn out if the theory is true don’t pan out, then we have to try another idea, or if we like our idea, adust it somewhat. In this sense, incidentally, truth may never be attained, or we may even attain it but not know we have attained it; but it is always regulatory as an ideal, and functional in terms of reductio ad absurdam (science is just generalized reductio :) ). We may not know that a thing is true, but we know that if it’s true certain things logically must follow, and that we can test. That’s all perfectly fine and objective truth. But it is never intrinsic truth - never truth coming solely from the world’s side, that doesn’t involve some kind of participation from us - which is what the eternalist would prefer there to be, and what the nihilist clearly sees doesn’t exist.
Btw, I noticed on another of your pages somewhere you talk about it being ok not to know. The locus classicus of this is that great Western wisdom teacher Richard Feynman, on Youtube he says it somewhere, with characteristic vim and vigour! The trouble with so many religions of the past is that people confabulated to fill in the space of stuff we don’t know. In really primitive times, that was understandable, for the universe can be terrifying and dangerous, and we needed the emotional crutch of pretending to have it all down pat. It’s less and less excusable as progress marches on :)
Thanks, George, I’m glad you are enjoying it!
I’m guessing your concern here is with what philosophers call “realism,” or “is there a world independent of our knowledge or opinions?” We both think the answer is “yes!”
The term “objective” is sometimes used to point to this issue of realism. However, it has been used to mean several different things in several different fields, and none of them are particularly clearly defined. So using it without specification is risky; but (to varying extents) that’s true of all words. The best I can do is to try and be clear about what I mean by “objective” when I get to write about that in more detail.
I think I probably mean by “objective” pretty much the same as you mean by “intrinsic.” Eventually I plan to write a lot about that. So far, most of what I’ve said is in “So how does meaningness work?“; have you read that?
I’m not sure whether our understandings of these issues line up entirely, though. You wrote:
the vagaries of a cloud could in theory be specified through chaos mathematics
which I think is importantly incorrect. Fundamental physical theories talk about the motion of particles, not “clouds.” If you choose some set of particles as “the cloud,” a theory could tell you how the particle states would evolve. [Setting aside here, for the sake of the argument, several important issues—fields, the non-predictability of chaotic dynamics, and quantum weirdness.] What physics can’t tell you is which particles should count as “part of the cloud,” nor when “the cloud splits into two clouds” or “evaporates altogether.”
I’ve started to discuss that in “Boundaries, objects, and connections.”
Feynman made this same point; I quoted his analysis in “How To Think Real Good.”
As you say, Feynman was a great wisdom teacher. He was a much better philosopher than virtually all professional philosophers. I borrowed some other ideas from him in How To Think, and have quoted him in various other places.
I don’t think that matters since the behaviour of whatever collection of particles we call “cloud” will be specifiable (at least in principle), the rest is just language (driven usually by utility perspective). Again, it’s the same thing as the measuring rod. Choice of rod (mathematical pattern to subsume events under) is arbitrary, in the sense that what measuring rod to use is our free choice, comes purely from our side; but once we superimpose the pattern, what eventuates (as a response from nature to our superimposition) either happens to fit the pattern we’ve made up or it doesn’t.
This isn’t quite Realism, because Realism is more specifically a claim about Universals, namely that things are categorized as x on account of something intrinsic that they have in common (other than sheerly being called “x”), which we are “reading off” them. IOW, Realism is really the notion that we call things what we call them (and therefore categorize them as we categorize them) on account of something intrinsic to them that we’re “reading off” (namely the supposed shared property). Whereas in actual fact objectivity is not intrinsic reality, it is more of a policy, a program, a recipe or algorithm, to take nature’s responses to our questioning and probing (under the “if … then”, reductio, modus tollens logic described in the previous post) as final, to let our arguments settle there (as a matter of convention), and the sense that nature runs its own course independently of our experience is a natural corollary of that investigative policy decision.
Incidentally, one of the clearest understandings of “Maya” or “illusion” in traditional Advaita Vedanta (the traditional cognitive-based stuff that’s based on “unfolding” of Vedic/Upanishadic scripture by qualified teachers, as expressed by teachers like Swami Dayananda, some of whose marvellous lectures are available on Youtube) is just this point, this relativity of the thinginess of things to, first of all our interests, then the way our interests make us sort things (again, number itself originates out of the practice of sorting!), is precisely the “illusion” spoken of, which makes “illusion” rather a misleading translation of “Maya” - in fact, “interdependent origination” would be more suitable! But Swami Dayananda even just translates “Maya” simply as “relativity”.
With the term “Maya” the objective reality of things isn’t being denied (after all, under the theory, the objective reality - in the Realism/Eternalism sense - of things is “Consciousness” with a big “C”), but rather, again, what’s being denied is their intrinsically being the way we experience them. It’s nonsense to imagine that what only appears in the course of our interaction with (i.e. experience of) things is a property they could have themselves outside of that interaction (part of Kant’s point too, I believe).
Re. physicalism, I think there’s an interesting approach that could ground all this nondual stuff in ordinary scientific physicalism. Check out Riccardo Manzotti’s “Process Externalism”. Basically “consciousness” is a surd, being is enough, and our conscious experience is just the very existence of causal chains between things like trees and our brains (including the whole brainstorm precipitated by the causal intrusion from the sensory organ inwards). There is no such thing as “representation”, and the tree itself, the physical tree, is itself part of the process we call “consciousness,” which is distributed throughout the causal nexus. This is almost identical to “Consciousness is All”, but replacing “consciousness” (and things like “self”, and other dangling ghosts, etc.) with a more mature, scientific understanding of what’s actually going on (namely what we call “physical - matter/energy - processes”). One is, in reality the whole system (that is causally involved), and one’s thoughts are no more intrinsically personal than a meteor flashing through the sky, and are made of the same substance (which we are).
Sorry, rambling a bit there, but as you know, all these things are connected :D
I’ll let you get on lol
Hi George, thanks for an extremely interesting comment! I’m sorry not to have replied yet. And even sorrier that this isn’t an actual reply either.
You make several fascinating points, and I’ll need to spend a couple of hours at least on a response. This week has been hectic, and shows no signs of abating yet, so it may be several more days before I do reply properly.
David, just wondered if you’d come across Jordan Peterson?
He’s in the middle of a controversy for refusing to use gender neutral pronouns - which is how I first heard about him via a news feed.
Then I looked him up and came across this introductory video of his which touches on all kinds of fascinating themes relating to what you’re doing here: meaning, nihilism, pathological belief systems, “things shining forth”, the importance of following what interests you, and “bearing the terrible conditions of existence without becoming corrupt”. Powerful stuff.
And he’s written Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief
Thank you for this! Yes, someone commenting here recommended his work a few years ago. I spent an hour reading his web site and thought “this is highly relevant, I need to spend much more time here” and then—I am embarrassed to say—never got around to it. (I have had the browser tab open ever since. Along with—currently—about 750 others.)
When I saw the name “Jordan Peterson” in the context of the pronouns controversy, I thought “wait, that’s not that interesting guy at Toronto is it?” And found that it was. And took another quick look at his web site and thought “Yeah, I really do need to read this guy’s stuff.”
I don’t have enough of a grasp on either his work on meaningness or his position on pronouns to have an opinion about that.
I’m now watching another video of his, Maps of Meaning: Introduction and Overview.
It starts with him talking about the Cold War and how close we got to nuclear annihilation, and all the questions about ideologies and meanings that threw up for him. Then moves on to the Holocaust and the nature of evil… and then more.
So he’s grappling with some serious, heavy stuff, to say the least. And there’s a great quote of his from a recent interview (re. safe spaces etc.):
“Ideas should scare you to your bones. Thats when you know you’re being educated.”
(By the way, I don’t think that’s entirely true. Great ideas could equally inspire you, for example. But it gives a flavour of his seriousness and intent, which I find pretty compelling).
Is science, in the form of universal causality and principle of sufficient reason, a form of eternalism?
In something like the “butterfly effect”, the pebble’s motion on some remote uninhabited planet will (or at least might) have rippling and unforeseen consequences down through the passage of time. So it is at least potentially “meaningful” (in the sense of having an important effect on the universe, and on the lives of conscious beings).
Science isn’t inherently eternalistic, but it can be misunderstood that way. I begin to explain that here; there’s supposed to be more about that confusion eventually.
Jordan Peterson did two podcasts with Sam Harris. The first one was an interesting example of eternalism in action. I like both of them so I listened to the whole thing, which was a mess. They spent an hour or two trying to articulate their respective positions on the nature of reality and truth without reaching any sort of consensus or having the sense to move on.
Harris thinks there’s an objective truth, while Peterson thinks we should not define as true something that is ultimately destructive (he quotes Nietzsche on this: Philosophy in service of life). So if mankind was to blow themselves up with nukes, then the physics which allowed for the nukes would not be ‘true enough’.
So Harris counters: A member of a strange cult takes you hostage. If you have an even number of body hairs, they will venerate you. If you have an odd number of body hairs, they will kill you. So in this case it seems that your life could depend on the knowledge of the numbers of body hairs you have (you could for example pluck one off if you found out you have an odd number). Yet it would be crazy to state that the truth of the matter changes whether you end up venerated or dead. Dead or alive, knowing in or not, it is rational to assume that you have either an even or odd number of body hairs.
This is all discussed with a straight face. Neither of them seem to think there’s anything odd about having this strange scene as a test of a truth position. I think it’s very revealing on how Harris thinks about the world though. In the language of this site he would be a dualist eternalist. (Incidentally I think Peterson is a monist eternalist, but that’s another topic entirely).
Harris seems to imagine the world as containing Objects that hold values. Humans are walking around the world and they have strictly defined properties. Maybe these properties change. Age changes when people grow older, height changes slightly when gravity pulls our vertebrae down as we go about our day, the number of body hairs change as some drop off and new ones grow.
But what is assumed is that these values are real (and real numbers, haha, since that is what physics mostly uses) and they exist whether we know them or not, or whether we can even find out or not.
What is not assumed, or even noticed, is that it’s impossible to clearly define objective criteria for body hair in a way that would allow us to count them. If I shave my hair with a razor, have I reduced the number of hair on my body? Most people would say yes, but in fact the bulb of those hairs would still be intact. If I just use scissors to cut my hair most people would say I have the same number of hair on my head.
This goes back to the issue of borders. Which for most objects in daily life is clear enough if you don’t look too closely. But to state that body hairs have crystal clear and objective borders such that we can in principle count them, seems to me an absurdity. It’s a trolley problem type of an example. Remove the context because the example wouldn’t work otherwise. Then act like the context doesn’t matter because the example proves a principle.
Thank you very much; this was interesting and informative!
That podcast sounds … odd.
Your last two paragraphs seem importantly correct to me.
This is part of why I say Meaningness is not philosophy. Philosophy mostly asks dumb questions that have no answer because they are stated wrongly, and then wastes everyone’s time arguing over which obviously-wrong solution you should adopt.
I’m quite curious about why you think Jordan Peterson is a monist-eternalist.
Also: that podcast was indeed odd… as far as I can tell, the deadlock was primarily a semantic one. Peterson is informed by Pragmatism, in this regard. “True”, to him, refers to a general quality, in the sense of ‘truing a wheel’, that something has which makes it useful (in the Darwinian sense i.e. adaptation). On the other hand, to Harris, something is”True” if it is a valid statement.
I listened to that first podcast and heard Peterson continually try to tease apart that distinction with Harris countering by insisting that statements are true regardless of any question about adaptive advantages.
I’ve been looking more into Jordan Peterson, and I think I see examples of how he tends towards Eternalism. It may be important, though, that this is the case, because just as David is addressing the crucial STEM crowd, Peterson is addressing the humanities crowd (as well as ‘young Christians, and those two crowds need to talk more anyway).
If Peterson is coming from, as seems to be the case, an often idealism-heavy approach, that could help bridge a gap which will contribute to saving people from getting sucked into the eternal stage 4.5 of a humanities education.
David: Glad you found it helpful.
I noticed my last comment, titled “Jordan Peterson”, was much more about the argument Harris made, so to maintain cosmic balance I’ve titled this “Sam Harris”.
James: Good that you asked. I was thinking about that after writing, but might have not commented on it without someone prompting me.
I was quite confused about this, so I had to think. In the context of the conversation between Harris and Peterson, I would say that it makes sense to characterize Peterson as monist. Beyond that, I think it’s not very useful to label him as that. What could be useful is to outline a few cases where he’s doing eternalism, monism and dualism. He’s not some hippie new ager or a creationist. He actually makes many useful distinctions, can make sensible and complex arguments and engages in meta-systematic thinking. In terms of meaningness, I think he is often able to approximate the complete stance! I still feel he’s got it wrong on a few key issues.
Eternalism is the easy one. Peterson builds his morality on absolutes. He argues that once you read about the nazi and communist atrocities, you pretty damn well know what absolute evil is. So then you can start figuring out how not to do that and maybe there’s something like absolute good too. Truth is another big one. Again this is not just for the sake of utility (though according to him it does that too), but it’s a virtue. IIRC he’s stated that the Western world has both the most developed concept of Good vs. Evil and the most respect for speaking the truth (as embodied by the mythological Jesus figure). This is quite startling. It’s simultaneously dumb and amazing. I’m amazed that he’s gobbled together what seems to be a somewhat workable solution in the western religious/philosophical tradition. And he’s trying to pass it on. Via the internet.
When he talks about how humans fundamentally perceive the world as Chaos/Order, well that comes off as strongly dualist. It’s not that fixated though, since when he gets to the examples he’s clearly aware that the boundary between the two is constantly shifting as we go about our lives. That’s fine, that’s an intelligent distinction. But I think he muddles it up a little by presenting it as an absolute in the first place. To him it’s paramount to take this distinction as primary and take it very very seriously.
As for monism, I think it comes out most strongly in his interpretation of religion and storytelling.
I grew up reading a lot of Robert A. Wilson and for a while I was fascinated by his tales of connections between seemingly differing religions, ideas, belief systems and esoteric worldviews. It took me a while to figure out what was wrong with this sort of comparative religion/mythology. Yvain a.k.a Scott Alexander has written a great and humorous critique of this at lesswrong (http://lesswrong.com/lw/2w/are_you_a_solar_deity/). He comes to the conclusion that “[…] any technique powerful enough to prove that Hercules is a solar myth is also powerful enough to prove that anyone is a solar myth”. I think this is correct. There are other problems with this, but this is a big part of the problem of going overboard with the connections.
Actually I think R.A.W was quite clear that it’s a great technique for altering consciousness. When Peterson does comparative mythology though, he’s in it for personal development. Apparently it’s one of his more popular topics. Many of his youtube videos have his fans making references to Pinocchio, since that’s one of the things he’s used as an example. He’s also done a video where he explains the deep archetypal significance of Pepe the Frog.
You mentioned he’s possibly bridging the 4.5 gap in humanities. I think this is a big part of his popularity. People recognize that what he stands for is something that’s missing these days. A humanities professor that not only passes on knowledge, but teaches his view on how to live a good life. Someone described him as a “small c conservative” and I agree. He goes a long way by just making the case for becoming a sensible, responsible adult.
This is getting pretty long, so maybe I’ll leave it at that.
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