No ultimate meaning

The Butterfly Nebula photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope

Some things are more meaningful than others. Some purposes are more important than others. Some ethical considerations outweigh others. Some aspects of your identity are core to who you are, whereas others are incidental.

But often it is hard to compare. What is the most important thing to do? Which choice should you make in an ethical dilemma of conflicting principles? Which parts of your identity are you least willing to let go of in difficult, changing circumstances?

Eternalism hijacks two accurate observations, that some things are clearly more meaningful than others, and that much suffering can come when a comparison is not clear. It promises an “ultimate” standard that would resolve all such questions.

“Ultimate” literally means “last.” What would the last meaning be? Last how?

“Ultimate” is also used to mean “greatest and most important.” Greatest how? Most important why? The word is extremely vague, but sounds impressive, like whoever says it must know what they are talking about. That makes it ideal as a weasel word, like “really.” Eternalism typically uses “ultimate meaning” non-specifically, as synonymous with “real meaning” or extra-special fancy meaning. That means “do whatever we say and don’t ask questions.”

Nihilism, on the other hand, often takes the word more seriously, asks what “ultimate meaning” would actually mean, and comes up with some specific answers. It observes that there isn’t any meaning like that, decides this is somehow awful, and descends into depression.

Is there a scale?

American Ermine
This fellow stole the bacon fat from the bird feeder. Courtesy Kurt Bauschardt

When someone invokes the potentially weasly word “ultimate,” questions you should ask include:

That some things can be weighed as greater or lesser does not imply that every two things can. Some people unambiguously sing better than some others, but there is no absolute scale of singing prowess, and comparison is often meaningless. There is no “ultimate singer” (despite music industry hype and teenage infatuations).

Maximal or infinite meaning

As types of special meaning, absolute meaning and transcendent meaning are binary, qualitative categories: they contrast absolutely with relative and mundane meaning. “Ultimate” implies the existence of a quantitative scale of greater and lesser meanings.

If there’s a scale of meaningfulness, then everywhere on the scale is somewhat meaningful (except maybe zero at the bottom). This would contradict nihilism (unless everything is at zero, in which case it’s not a scale after all).

If meaningfulness was on a scale of zero to ten, and if you were at seven, you could think “well, I’m doing pretty well, actually!” Often, though, lite nihilism implicitly imagines a threshold, maybe around three point two. If life is only one point nine meaningful, that doesn’t count, and it might as well be zero. (We’ll look into that possibility in “Not enough meaning” later.)

By invoking the metaphor of a scale, “ultimate meaning” makes itself seem intuitive and reasonable. However, by focusing only on the top endpoint, it becomes qualitative and absolute in effect. Like lite nihilism, eternalism wants to count intermediate points as effectively zero. Either meaning is ultimate, or it’s not worthy of notice. “Ultimate” highjacks the intuition of differences in importance to give credence to a bogus absolutism.

If the scale ran from zero to ten, it might not seem reasonable to treat nine point nine as effectively meaningless. The phrase “infinitely meaningful” counters that accurate intuition. If there’s something that is infinitely meaningful, then all finite meanings are equivalently inconsequential in comparison. Three divided by infinity and 9,748,023 divided by infinity are both zero. This is an eternalistic rhetorical trick to get you to drop everything other than some special (but imaginary) meaning.

Varieties of ultimacy

The next several pages consider various scales invoked by “ultimate meaning.” Each distorts some partly-accurate intuition about meaning to make it seem that nihilism is the only alternative to eternalism. They declare “ultimate” endpoints that are either spectacularly meaningless (directing attention away from midpoints where meaning is obvious), or simply nonexistent.

Meaning without a scale

Ultimate meaning would be convenient, if it existed and we had access to it. It doesn’t. That is inconvenient, but it doesn’t make everything meaningless. It doesn’t mean we can never make comparisons of importance.

Sometimes we have to make hard choices, without any ultimate standard.

We know for sure that we can do that, because we do do that.