No extra-special fancy meanings

Man standing on a rock at night looking at the Milky Way
Image courtesy Greg Rakozy

Objective meaning. Ultimate meaning. Transcendent meaning. Cosmic meaning. Eternal meaning. Absolute meaning.

We don’t have any of these extra-special fancy meanings, and we can’t get them. Should we be very, very sad?1

Especially when one first loses faith in eternalism and enters the nihilist stance, it may seem one should, and must. One still has a wistful longing to belive eternalism’s false promises of certainty, perfect understanding, control, and security. The function of special meanings is to guarantee those promises. The feeling of their loss can be intensely painful.

I will suggest figuring out, with atypical specificity, what we want from meaningness, and also what we can realistically get. No meaning can guarantee certainty, but there are many for which we can be quite confident. We cannot fully understand meaningness, but we can we can gain a much more accurate and detailed understanding than eternalism provides. And so on.

This is the work of the complete stance. It is a way out of nihilism; and probably also out of its pain. The sorts of meaning we can get may prove adequately satisfactory, with their powers and limits both understood.

A cynical take on special meanings

Terms such as “objective meaning” and “ultimate meaning” are rarely defined clearly, and all those special words get used almost interchangeably. They refer to the hypothetical variety of meaning that could somehow deliver on eternalism’s promises—whatever that sort of meaning would be. Eliezer Yudkowsky describes terms like these as “applause lights”: they don’t have any specific content, but tell the studio audience when to clap and smile and nod and yell “hooray!”

Since no sort of meaning can deliver on eternalism’s promises, it prefers to leave the category as vague as possible. An eternalist rhetorical trick is to deflect your attention from concrete meanings to metaphysical abstractions. The less that is said about “transcendent meaning,” the harder it is to argue—or even notice—that it doesn’t exist.

Cynicism is justified here. Claims of special meaning often serve as power grabs: assertions of authority. “Transcendent” can mean “you better do whatever the priests tell you to, or else.” These are the real meanings you must pay attention to—and obey!—neglecting the other, supposedly defective meanings, which you would care about otherwise.

The function is to compel agreement. The vacuity of the terms, and the lack of any support from evidence or reason, makes that easier to enforce. You can always argue with ordinary meanings. Special meanings, you can’t. They are declared “holy ineffable mysteries” if you ask difficult questions, meaning “shut and stop causing us trouble.”

Nihilism starts here… and ends

Committed nihilism often starts here, when you stop trying to argue with nonsense and conclude flatly that “none of this makes any sense; none of it exists; meaning isn’t real.”

You could notice that some songs are real and meaningful, and your love for your family, and work you do. Then you would avoid or escape nihilism. But, somehow, those may not seem enough. As eternalism insisted, they aren’t really meaningful.

What is missing? What do you actually want here? Which parts of the promise of “transcendent meaning” can you actually get (if any?), and which are pure fantasy?

Work to answer such questions may repay the complicated and difficult effort. That work is not just conceptual. It may require feeling, remembrance, and experimentation. I cannot tell you what you will discover, nor promise it will be satisfactory.

You may find you may lack practical assurance of security; a resolution to estrangement from yourself; a consistent feeling of being loved; a way of prioritizing personal versus altruistic purposes, or sensible short-term goals versus imaginative long-term ones; connection with sacred vastness; confidence in your moral adequacy; or other possibilities, which perhaps neither you nor I can imagine as you begin. There are ways of gaining such benefits of meaning that are non-special, and achievable in practice. They do come without eternalism’s alluring guarantees, however.

Varieties of specialness

In pages that follow, I discuss each of the supposed special types of meaning. I will treat them with perhaps more serious consideration than they deserve. Through somewhat lengthy analyses, I hope to explain why it’s not necessary to mourn their absence, and also to uncover valid intuitions about meaningness some conceal.

Non-ordinary meaning

I’ll also describe a little-understood category: meaningness that is neither special nor ordinary. By “not special,” I mean that it does not support eternalism’s claims. By “not ordinary,” I mean not often encountered in everyday life, and unusually difficult to locate, understand, and articulate. Types of meaning found through—for instance—intuitive leaps, meditation, and psychedelic drugs may be “non-ordinary.”

Non-ordinary meaning is wrongly dismissed by nihilism as non-existent or defective: illusory or merely subjective. If you are feeling both nihilistic and that something critically important is missing from your life, it may be non-ordinary meaning.

  1. 1.This alludes to a recent nihilist manifesto, Rivka Weinberg’s “Ultimate Meaning: We Don’t Have It, We Can’t Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad,” Journal of Controversial Ideas, 2021. She uses “ultimate meaning” to mean “the purpose of a particular individual’s life when considered as a whole.” I discuss this paper later.