No eternal meaning

Throne of Cthulhu
In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.
“That is not dead which can eternal lie /
And with strange aeons even death may die”
Image (CC) IceNeuro

The universe is expanding, and everything in it is growing farther and farther apart. As it does so, it grows colder and colder, and its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out and all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes. There will be no light at all; there will be no heat; there will be no life; only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies, ever expanding into the endless darkness and the cold recesses of space—a universe in ruins. So not only is the life of each individual person doomed; the entire human race is doomed. There is no escape. There is no hope.

The contributions of the scientist to the advance of human knowledge, the researches of the doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, the efforts of the diplomat to secure peace in the world, the sacrifices of good men everywhere to better the lot of the human race—all these come to nothing. In the end they don’t make one bit of difference, not one bit.

Great nihilist sales pitch! I’ll pull it apart at the end of this page.

But first…

What is “eternal meaning”?

“Eternal meaning” often gets used as a vague, generic term for the supposed special type of meaning that could deliver on eternalism’s promises: perfect certainty, understanding, and control. Used that way, it means the same as “absolute,” “transcendent,” or “ultimate meaning.” Some writers—both nihilists and eternalists—explicitly equate these.

However, sometimes it’s meant literally: meanings that last forever. About those, we might ask:

Are there eternal meanings?

Probably not. Eventual human extinction seems likely. We do share some meanings with other terrestrial species (hunger, for instance), and if there are sentient aliens elsewhere in the universe, we might share meanings with them as well. There may be hungry extraterrestrials long after there are no humans. However, in time, the universe may effectively end, and presumably that would end meaning as well.1

Are non-eternal meanings non-existent?

Potato masher
Potato masher courtesy Grannie’s Kitchen

No. They are obvious everywhere, so we know that’s false.

The claim also proves too much. A potato masher is not eternal, but it is a potato masher anyway, because it was made to mash potatoes and you can still use it for that.2 Insisting that potato mashers don’t exist today because they won’t survive the explosion of the sun billions of years from now would be silly.3

Should we care that there are no eternal meanings?

Probably not.

People care about all sorts of things that seem pretty meaningless to me, like football scores. So I can’t say “no, you shouldn’t care.” What I can say is that most of the specific reasons people use to explain their caring about eternal meaning are mistaken.

What’s special about eternal meanings?

Just being eternal wouldn’t make something particularly meaningful. No one cares whether hangnails will retain their slight meaning past the end of the universe. In fact, it seems that “eternal” is something of a red herring.

Special meanings—ones that could deliver on eternalism’s promises—are the underlying issue. From everyday experience, we know meaning comes and goes, sometimes without any apparent cause. When meanings change, our hopes for certainty, understanding, and control are dashed. Therefore, it seems that it is not that eternal meanings are special; it’s that special meanings have to be eternal.

This isn’t a knock-down argument. For instance, it’s imaginable that one set of special meanings could deliver temporarily, and be replaced with a different set as soon as the first lot expired. (Christian Dispensationalism does claim this.) Also, eternal meanings whose truth you were uncertain of, or didn’t understand, would not deliver as promised.

Nevertheless, eternalism wants to claim meaning doesn’t change; but obviously it does. So instead it says that real meanings never change; and ones that do, don’t count.

Unfortunately, the specific meanings eternalist systems declare eternal and special are imaginary. God, who is supposed to guarantee eternally fixed meanings from outside of time, doesn’t exist. It’s more plausible that methods of formal rationality do exist outside of time, but all attempts to use them to establish truths about ethics, purpose, or value fail due to nebulosity. Communism has no coherent vision of its fantasy of an eternal post-revolution utopia. And so on.

Lite nihilism recognizes that all such attempts to establish eternal meanings must fail, and rejects them. Unfortunately, it fails to accept the obvious fact that changeable meanings are not merely all we’ve got, but do count.

Are non-eternal meanings adequate?

Although both eternalism and lite nihilism sometimes deny the existence of non-eternal meaningfulness, their underlying demand is that you must reject and ignore them. Many eternalist systems say explicitly that you must not care about non-eternal meanings at all. You must sacrifice everything meaningful in your transitory life to get into heaven, or to bring about the eternal utopia that follows the glorious communist revolution. Nihilism often retains this harmful, impossible to satisfy moral principle.

Wishing eternal meanings existed, so they could guarantee eternalism’s false promises, doesn’t make non-eternal meanings valueless. You might consider them less valuable, but not zero. You can reasonably insist that you are dissatisfied with non-eternal meanings, but not that they don’t exist, and not that you don’t care about them at all.

Pretending they don’t exist is a deliberate, motivated confusion: to avoid inquiry into the nature of meanings. If you admitted they exist, it would be natural to ask specifically what makes them inadequate; and you suspect you won’t like the answer. In fact, you already know it: accepting the interplay of nebulosity and pattern of meaningness reveals that it is real and important, so you have to deal with it; but you can’t get the comforting guarantees you hoped for. In other words, both nihilism and eternalism are wrong.

So, should you be upset that eternal meanings don’t exist? Are non-special meanings unacceptably inadequate? There is no cosmically correct standard of evaluation by which one could answer this question. It’s not even a well-formed question: adequate for what?

However, it seems better to accept moderate uncertainty, incomplete understanding, and imperfect control than to refuse to deal with our actual situation. That requires accepting that meanings may suddenly disintegrate; the rug may be pulled out from under you at any moment. In exchange, you may find that life is, after all, deeply meaningful, here and now.

That is the complete stance. It may seem unattractive and difficult—until you get used to it—but it’s better than the alternatives. And seeing how meanings come and go, and joining in their evolving dance, is at minimum fascinating; sometimes highly enjoyable.

The scene-change sales trick

I know what it’s like, Mr. and Mrs. Mark. It’s the bitter end of January. It’s cold and dark and it’s been raining for weeks. You’re cooped up with the kids and they’re so bored and maybe acting out a bit. They’re too unhappy to do their schoolwork, and you’ve started even snapping at each other. There’s no escape from your apartment. There’s never any time off from the endless drag. The days go slower and slower, and you feel winter will never end, just stretching on forever…

You need a vacation! But what a hassle that can be. Arguing about where to go and when, looking for a decent hotel that has a room at a reasonable price, packing and unpacking, trying to find your way around an unfamiliar, maybe scary place. You’re so exhausted you think “I need a vacation from my vacation!”

Now imagine you own your own familiar, safe home away from home you can go each year. Your ultra-clean and comfortable luxury condo already has everything you need; no worry about forgetting to pack anything. Picture yourselves on the private beach: the kids are frolicking in the swimming area under the watchful eye of the lifeguard, and the two of you are discovering the restorative power of time off in the sun with a delicious tropical drink—reconnecting with each other! Your precious time away is special, and the familiar faces of our accommodating staff are dedicated to making the most of the magic.

On island time, it seems like your stay lasts forever. Looking back years from now, you remember your timeshare as the backdrop for some of life’s most celebrated, unforgettable milestones, and you think “this was one of the best decisions of our life—an investment in family well-being that keeps paying dividends in cherished experiences!”

And, Mr. and Mrs. Mark, I have more good news for you! My manager has prequalified you for purchase, so I can give you your key right now, after you’re done with the paperwork!

You can use this pitch to sell vacation condo timeshares, or God, or meaninglessness.

The trick is to get the mark to do your work for you by messing with their perception of time and space. You hypnotize them into creating their own mental imagery to accompany the feelings you conjure in them by supplying just enough button-push elements that they’ll fill in the details with what’s most meaningful for them.

Then you transport them in imagination to a bad place and time, and make them make themselves as miserable as they can. They feel the awful scene as if it were here and now.

And then you whisk them away to paradise, and get them to feel vast relief at the contrast. And then the closing: that good feeling can be prolonged eternally when they commit!

Remember all that stuff about the universe dying that I quoted at the top of this page? (You might like to go back and read it again, to see the similarity.) I wrote the timeshare sales pitch myself, but that gloomy guff about the end of time is verbatim from perhaps the greatest nihilist manifesto ever written, by William Lane Craig.

To sell nihilism, you transport the mark to a time and place devoid of meaning, and you ditch them there. There’s no second half to the pitch.

We’ll see this pattern repeatedly in upcoming pages—starting with the next one, “No cosmic meaning.” There, nihilism takes you a distant, lifeless galaxy, and strands you in the cold dark meaningless emptiness of interstellar space. More generally, nihilistic intellectualization tricks you into looking away from your obviously meaningful—if unsatisfactory—concrete situation, and gets you to ruminate on meaningless metaphysical abstractions, which it claims are all that really count, from which you are supposed to deduce the meaninglessness of everything. “Interstellar space is meaningless, therefore so is everything else.”

The “No eternal meaning” schtick—every nihilist manifesto includes this—teleports you to the end of time, where (your guide explains, reasonably enough) there is no meaning. Fear and sadness about the death of the universe is displaced fear and sadness about significant endings in your own life. The sense is that the universe is bigger than anything else, so we should be sadder and more afraid about its imminent demise than about anything else.

You feel the horror—and then nihilism tells you there is no way out. Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, one of the best-regarded recent books advocating nihilism, makes this explicit: the sun has already exploded; the human race is already extinct; you, the reader, are already dead.4

I quoted William Lane Craig’s “The Absurdity of Life without God,” which conveniently collects and concisely summarizes much nihilist rhetoric. He’s arguing for Christianity, despite that: if you don’t believe in God, then the only alternative is nihilism, which is utterly horrific. Therefore, God must exist.

Say no to nihilism

Timeshare operators are famous for abusive hard-sell sales “presentations,” in which a whole series of salespeople keep going over and over the pitch, trying out different deceptive tricks on you, for hours and hours. There’s many pages of advice on the web about how to survive these ordeals, without buying. They boil down to the magic word “no.”

When nihilism tries to get you to imagine that you are already dead, or the human race is extinct, or you are in the Andromeda Galaxy, just say—

No. That is not happening now. I can see I am here, in this place.

  1. 1.The “heat death of the universe” seems much less certain now than a few decades ago, when cosmology was considered a pretty much solved problem. There are now both empirical and theoretical anomalies that suggest current understanding is incomplete and uncertain.
  2. 2.Despite Plato’s claim that they aren’t real potato mashers, because they are just shadowy imitations of the One True Potato Masher, which we cannot perceive because it lives in the Transcendent Realm of Ideal Forms. I don’t understand why anyone takes anything he says seriously.
  3. 3.Is there some way this analogy fails, due to a relevant, essential difference between meanings and potato mashers? They are more alike than you might suppose: meanings are tools for living.
  4. 4.It doesn’t seem he meant this as a metaphor, although it’s hard to tell, because his writing shows the characteristic cognitive distortions of nihilism, and mostly doesn’t make sense. However, it reads more like he was having a delusional, depressive mental health crisis while writing it than that “we are all already dead” was supposed to be some sort of poetic simile.