“Nebulosity” means “cloud-like-ness.” Meaningness is cloud-like. It is real, but impossible to completely pin down.
Nebulosity is the key to understanding confusions about meaningness. That is a central point of this book.
“Nebulosity” refers to the intangible, transient, amorphous, non-separable, ambiguous nature of meaningness.1
- From a distance, clouds can look solid; close-up they are mere fog, which can even be so thin it becomes invisible when you enter it.
- If you watch a cloud for a few minutes, it may change shape and size, or evaporate into nothing. But it is impossible to find an exact moment at which it ceases to exist.
- Clouds often have vague boundaries and no particular shape.
- It can be impossible to say where one cloud ends and another begins; whether two bits of cloud are connected or not; or to count the number of clouds in a section of the sky.
- It can be impossible to say even whether there is a cloud in a particular place, or not.
Meanings behave in these ways, too.
The nebulosity of meaningness
“Meaning” can apply to many things: words, art works, or “life,” for example. The meanings even of words can never be fully specified. To varying degrees, they are ambiguous. Art is more extensively indefinite. The matters that might be called “spiritual”—which are the main topics of this book—are still more nebulous.
Because “spiritual” concerns are so insubstantial, perhaps it would be useful to look first at the nebulosity of the meaning of an art work, such as a piece of instrumental music.
- When you think of the piece as a whole, its meaningfulness can seem quite solid. But when listening to it, you cannot say “this bit means this, and that bit means that.” The meaning becomes thin and wispy, in a sense.
- What an art work means can change over time. Some songs that were tremendously meaningful when I was fifteen seem quite meaningless now. The meaning of the religious carvings of the Rapanui people of Easter Island is mostly permanently lost.
- It is very difficult to say anything about what instrumental music means—even when you are sure it is highly meaningful.
- Music comes in separate pieces (such as songs), maybe with separate meanings. But life does not come in well-defined chunks. “Spiritual” meanings are not clearly separable; they flow or shade into each other.
- Meaningfulness and meaninglessness also shade into each other. Meaningness has infinite gradations of intangibility. It can be impossible to say whether something has meaning or not.
People often disagree about meanings. This can be because one person is right and the other wrong. However, often the difficulty is not that we don’t know what the true meaning is, but that it is inherently ambiguous.2 It is a feature of reality, not of knowledge. As we will see later, meaningness is not objective—but it is not subjective, either.
Nebulosity is unwelcome
The nebulosity of meaningness causes various problems: practical, social, and psychological. (Much of this book describes such problems.) Often, people would like to get rid of nebulosity, or pretend that it is not there.
Confused stances are attitudes to meaningness that refuse to acknowledge nebulosity. One strategy is to fixate meanings, attempting to deny their nebulosity by trying to make them solid, eternal, and unambiguous. Another is to deny meaningfulness altogether, or to say that it is not important, or cannot be known.
Because meaningness is both nebulous and real, these confused stances fail, and cause new, worse problems.
- 1. I will not give a precise definition of “nebulosity” here. Instead, I present analogies. I apologize if the meaning of “nebulosity” seems frustratingly nebulous. I find that unsatisfactory myself. I hope that an understanding of the word will emerge from its use later in the book. I believe that a rigorous definition is possible; but it would be highly technical. I explain some reasons for that in my page on nebulosity and “emptiness.”
- 2. In the language of philosophy, nebulosity is an ontological fact, not an epistemological one. As a result, my accounts of eternalism and nihilism differ somewhat from the related accounts given by Robert Ellis. His philosophy is exclusively epistemological, and rejects ontological claims altogether.