Comments on “Preview: eternalism and nihilism”

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It's ok to lie

Rin'dzin Pamo 2010-10-26

Your post on the different stances mostly focused on ideation, regarding what goes on individually in relation to meaningness. I imagine that, for most of us, this cognitive process is habitual and out of awareness. That led me to think about the stances’ effect on behaviour, how that propels our flip-flopping from one to another - and how it might be a key to recognising our own underlying stances. This could be confusing: behaviours derived from a stance often appear to mean, and are received as their opposite. Someone with an eternalist agenda unintentionally fuels a nihilist response, or dualist action leaves a trail of monism behind it.

If I am looking for Cosmic Meaning in my experience, I begin to believe that every encounter I have must be meaningful in some way. My ability to discern between degrees or types of significance is eroded. The more the trivial becomes meaningful for me, the more someone encountering me is forced to perceive my behaviour as meaningless. Because I need to find meaning in everything, my discriminating perception is eroded and my action appears increasingly random. The more I behave according to an eternalist stance, the more likely I encounter nihilism. So I create around me the model behaviour for my next stance.

On the contrary, someone whose action really is random – because they perceive their encounters as ultimately meaningless – forces meaning despite him or herself. Mersault, the protagonist of Camus’ L’Etranger, is a classic example. His apparently random decision to kill taken in the heat of the moment renders everything he says, from then to his death, as significant - for the press, the public, the jurors, the priest, even the reader.

Although the specifics are unpredictable, it seems the mechanics of flip-flopping could be as much due to behavioural patterns of the stances, as cognitive recognition that a position is unworkable. That might have implications for how we figure out our relationship with meaningness.

Monism gives one the excuse to behave badly: if I have a true, transcendent self, by definition that self exists continuously. That makes it ok to lie, for example, without feeling too bad about it (because the me doing the lying is unrepresentative of the Real Me). Every time I lie, my transcendent self still exists, ‘holding’ the non-liar me. So my dishonesty in the moment doesn’t matter – it’s a transitory blip caused by circumstances annoyingly non-confirmatory of my transcendent reality – it’s not the Real Me. It’s impossible to live up to my True Self all the time… attempting to be Monist increases the division between my self-image and my behaviour.

I haven’t quite figured out how Dualist behaviour might force oneness in response. But contrary to Monism, the Dualist perspective seems to give rise to self-consciously virtuous behaviour. Maybe coercing others into receiving one’s goodwill is a form of bullying that denies the recipient’s expression of difference?

Rin’dzin

Interpersonal dynamics of confused stances

David Chapman 2010-10-31

This is insightful—I hadn’t thought about the instability of stances in terms of interpersonal interactions at all. I think you are right that this must be an important mechanism (and feel slightly stupid not to have recognized this point myself!).

The examples you give are suggestive; I think it would be good to look at a lot more cases of how behavior arising out of the various stances might be perceived and what responses they might provoke.

Lots of opportunities for future research (as every academic grant proposal puts it).

David

Questions on the "meaning" of your points

Jim Schubert 2012-03-22

First, you fail to support your claim “Meaning is obvious everywhere” and seem to use “obvious” as the tool to avoid clarification. If you use “meaning” to imply definition for the purpose of communication, you dodge the nihilist point. If you use it to refer to “purpose” to existence, you don’t actually argue your point.

You argue “[d]enying meaning blinds one to beauty, making all reality dull gray” without explaining how beauty implies meaning. Beauty derives from an aesthetically patterned perception aligning with our neurological wiring for pattern-recognition to create pleasure. The process requires no extra meaning. Nor does meaninglessness remove colour perception, emotional response or pattern-recognition.

Virtue and kindness vary by culture, so they don’t have a constant meaning. The ability to recognize congruence between a cultural value and a given behaviour don’t require anything more than memory and perception.

A life lived moving towards pleasure and away from pain, as our organism has evolved, produces choice and action without requiring meaning. And I include my point about aesthetics as a form of pleasure. An aesthetic pattern can not only occur in nature, but in music, mathematics, social interactions and anywhere patterns can form. For me, paralysis produces unpleasantness (mild pain), so it drives action by causing me to move away from the pain.

So, without getting too complex, I can say a meaningless life can evolve out of moving away from pain and toward pleasure.

The experience of “flow” states, generosity, and kindness can all produce pleasure too, by the way.

And to draw on the popular teaching of Yoda, as well as the more obscure work of Moshe Feldenkrais, “trying” to do anything tires and frustrates, while “doing” unfolds without excess strain or parasitic effort.

I don’t necessarily think you don’t have a point; I only think you haven’t proven it.

Nihilism and its discontents

David Chapman 2012-03-24

Hi, Jim—thank you for your comments! Sorry to be a bit slow to reply.

I’m not quite sure how to respond, because I’m not quite sure where you are coming from.

It seems that you hold a naturalistic world-view, which I do too, more-or-less. I believe that everything I write here is compatible with naturalism.

Naturalism can tend to lead to nihilism, but it need not. See the fine work on naturalist spirituality by Tom Clark.

I’m not sure whether you actively advocate nihilism, or if you see it as the only alternative to eternalism, or if you are just pointing out that this page does not refute nihilism.

This page is the introduction to the introduction to the introduction to what will eventually be a huge book. So it doesn’t attempt to prove or argue anything; it’s just giving some taste for what the central issues are.

One of the central points is that nihilism and eternalism are not the only alternatives. So, I think we would agree that there is no “ultimate” meaning to anything; that would be eternalism. But there are non-ultimate meanings and purposes, which are obvious and undeniable.

Rather than my explaining that in detail here: if you’d like to explore further, I’d suggest reading “Meaningfulness and meaninglessness” and “Extreme examples, eternalism and nihilism.”

“Denying meaning blinds one to beauty, making all reality dull gray” is not a first-principles deduction; it’s an empirical observation. It comes from my own experience of nihilistic depression, my observation of other people in that state, and the clinical literature.

Best wishes,

David

Another possible (likely) alternative...

ELT 2013-09-26

“People disagree about what things mean. Perhaps meanings are just a matter of opinion? Meaning is important enough that this uncertainty is emotionally unacceptable.”

“The wrong idea underlying all confused stances is that things must be either definitely meaningful or else effectively meaningless. Or, if meaning is not objective, it must be subjective. But these are not the only possibilities. Completion: meaningness”

“(On the stance of the author’s term “meaningness”) It is neither given by an external force nor a human invention.”

  • Ok, but couldn’t the more articulate description be an eternal force WITHIN you? That way it is neither external, nor a human invention - more like, a seed that sprouts, yes? Consider perhaps that “God” can be understood as “Eternal Life Force” that is eternally sprouting life. And for example, the natural disasters, diseases, etc, that are tragedies are a result of a falling out of ideal healthy ecology with the environment and ourselves with what is actually proper for human life, since humans act on the natural world with creative powers. The less conscious we are as a species at interacting with the environment and choosing what we will put in our bodies - due to loss of connection with ourselves and what is truly and emphatically and compellingly needed or wanted - warrants this empirical erosion of healthy body/planet ecology. There is a measure of privilege and responsibility contained within one’s own ecology, as an individual and how one moves through a larger collective whole, that really seems to bear most significantly on outcomes. (Sometimes the implications are wonderful!)

This article was worth at least a moment of my consideration, especially how nihilistic I can become learning more about the world.

Wobbling between eternalism and nihilism

David Chapman 2013-09-26

Hi, thanks for an interesting comment!

I thought the last few words were the most interesting. Learning more about the world can—and usually does—lead to nihilism, as you come to understand what’s wrong with eternalism.

But then, nihilism is also clearly wrong. And, there are clearly aspects of eternalism that are appealing, accurate, and intelligent. In the end, though, both eternalism and nihilism are unworkable and make you miserable.

This book is about a third possibility, that is neither eternalistic nor nihilistic (nor somewhere in-between). That possibility is not well-known, and can be hard to see. As a result, we tend to oscillate between eternalism and nihilism—which seems to be your experience as you’ve described it here.

The form of eternalism you describe is monist. Monist eternalism sees God impersonally, as a Cosmic Plan or eternal ordering principle that animates the universe. It tends to overemphasize connections and deemphasize specifics.

I’ve written about monist eternalism in several places, including in a series of historical essays that begin here.

Hi, found it!

Jackson 2015-02-12

Hi, found it!
This is an awesome navigation out of fractured post-modernity and all the fucked-upedness that brings, its clarity helped so much, thank you!

Please respond if I’ve missed the purpose of this discussion however, but monism (as I understand it) is not actually about meaning at all. Surely what eternalism is trying to get at is the clarification of that ‘one thing’ of monism. Although religion attempts to imbue that with meaning, and nihilism strips it of meaning, meaning is besides the point if that ‘one thing’ can be proved to be everything.

While scientific materialism is dismissed by the New Agers, and beliefs are dismissed by science, that one thing still goes unexplored.

I think you are closer to it with meaningness and meaninglessness, because that’s the debate of projection - if my meaning is different to your meaning, how can meaning be falsified? More than that, what other beliefs may I be projecting? What can I determine as infallible truth?

So to come round to solipsism, if ‘I am’ is the only thing we can 100% say for certain, it’s a short jump from there to monism - true monism:

Truth exists.
Untruth cannot exist, any more than non-being can be etc.
Truth must be absolute.

So,

if truth is all, and consciousness exists, then consciousness is all.

It’s a big jump, but the logic is sound, a no-belief required, airtight syllogism. All you have to do is disprove either statement.

I’d be eager to hear your response.

Idealism, probably

David Chapman 2015-02-12

Hi—I’m not sure quite what you are saying, or asking… It sounds like philosophical Idealism, probably.

I am reading this homepage

S 2016-03-10

I am reading this homepage with interest, and I have two comments:

1) Very different situations are described with the same notions. E.g., if the statement “the cup is full” corresponds to the fact referred to, then we call it true. This situation is common part of our daily experience. In contrast, the statement “god exists” is on a completely different level, and there is no generally acknowledged way how we could verify or falsify.

Therefore, I have doubts that the notion of e.g. truth can be applied uniformly to all kinds of statements on all kinds of levels.

2) As far as I understand you, Eternalism is the position, that there is an absolute reference, e.g. God, and that the corresponding statement “God exists” is true. Nihilism is the position that there is no absolute reference at all, and that all interpretations of the world are relative.

These two positions are both extremes, and both of them have shortcomings, as both of them are based on faith, just in opposite directions. In particular, Nihilism would be the faith that there is no absolute reference.

Referring to bullet point 1) above, I doubt that Nihilism or Eternalism are relevant for our daily experience.

Personally, I find the position of the critical rationalism of Popper intriguing, which assumes that there is an absolute reference as hypothesis, but which also states, that we never can be sure that our statements really represent the truth - instead we have to examine all subjectively formulated statements and evaluate them so as to come as close to the truth as possible.

I would be happy to hear your thoughts!

Thank you,
Stephan

Truth and relevance

David Chapman 2016-03-10
I have doubts that the notion of e.g. truth can be applied uniformly to all kinds of statements on all kinds of levels.

I agree.

These two positions are both extremes, and both of them have shortcomings

Yes, right, that’s the starting point for everything in the book.

Somebody out there on your wavelength

Anonymous 2016-03-12

Trailed across my FaceBook feed today:

<pre> AMBIGUITY-- </pre>

what happens in vagueness, stays in vagueness.

what happens in vagueness, stays in vagueness

David Chapman 2016-03-12

Nice, thanks!

Nietzsche and the active nihilism of the Übermensch

John 2016-04-29

I find it weird that you compare yourself to Nietzsche elsewhere(http://meaningness.com/no-middle-way) and yet speak of nihilism only as a passive nihilism of meaninglessness. Ignoring Nietzsche’s active nihilism that accepts the absence of objective meaning, but uses this opportunity to develop a subjective meaningful life.

Also you seem to be stating that Objective/Subjective is a false dichotomy. I would very much like to see some kind of reasoning behind this. How can something simultaneously depend and not depend on a subject?

I seems you were forced to deny this dichotomy because you associate subjectivity with meaninglessness. Which makes no sense; some event could be subjectively meaningless for someone while being the most subjectively meaningful event of my life.

But all in all I don’t think I actually disagree with what you’re trying to say, only with your terminology.

Active nihilism

David Chapman 2016-04-29

Yes, Nietzsche is a major influence. Unfortunately, due to his untimely death, he never worked out his positive vision, which might have been similar to what I am working toward here. I have described that as “joyful nihilism,” with the caveat that if nihilism is defined as “nothing is meaningful” then this is not really accurate.

The subjective theory of meaning was worked out by the existentialists, among others. They were directly in Nietzsche’s philosophical lineage (Nietzsche to Heidegger to Sartre, basically). Existentialism collapsed around 1960 because it definitely doesn’t work. Meaning isn’t (only) subjective, and trying to live on that basis leads to nihilism.

Eventually this book will explain that in detail. For now, there’s a brief explanation here.

A minor point: to be clear, I would never compare myself with Nietzsche. He was possibly the best philosopher of all time. I only said:

my approach is more similar to those of Nietzsche and Vajrayana Buddhism than to the Western or Buddhist mainstreams.

Response to "Nihilism and its Discontents"

Jim Schubert 2016-04-29

Hello David,

I apologize for for my extremely slow response to your response.

I am no longer quite sure where I was coming from, either. I do know it was from curiousity and a desire for clarification. You did provide that.

"I'm not sure whether you actively advocate nihilism, or if you see it as the only alternative to eternalism, or if you are just pointing out that this page does not refute nihilism."

The latter drove my response.

"This page is the introduction to the introduction to the introduction to what will eventually be a huge book. So it doesn't attempt to prove or argue anything; it's just giving some taste for what the central issues are."

That answers my core question.

'"Denying meaning blinds one to beauty, making all reality dull gray" is not a first-principles deduction; it's an empirical observation. It comes from my own experience of nihilistic depression, my observation of other people in that state, and the clinical literature.'

I can certainly attest to that. I have a neurological condition which causes biologically-based cycles of severe depression. The depression comes before the sense of meaninglessness for me. And that, for me, leads not to to reality becoming dull grey, but the colours become (subjectively) meaningless. That functionally equates, so I can support your point from the subjective side of a biological base. If that ever proves useful.

I find your work helpful and interesting, and I thank you for sharing it.

Subjectivity and What does ‘meaning’ mean?

John 2016-04-29

It seems your main argument against the subjectivity of ‘meaning’ is “If meaningness was merely subjective, it would not be possible to be wrong about it.”

Well this is where you confuse two definitions of the term ‘meaning’:

1- This is meaningful, as in this has a meaning, an implication.
This means/implies that X is true (i.e. The fact that I am winning this last rounds means/implies that I am loved by the universe, and will thus continue to enjoy good fortune).

This is an objective statement that can be empirically tested. And obviously the result is that the statement is false.

2- This is meaningful, as in this is important, it has significance, it is essential, crucial.

This is subjective and not empirically verifiable.
At most you could empirically verify this objective statement:
“That person finds X meaningful.”

But of course the truth value of this statement has no bearing on the objective meaningfulness of X.

Of course this does not mean that we fall into what you call lite nihilism. Because “nothing means anything” is not the same as “nothing objectively means anything”. The second allows for meaning to exist in all its splendor, but in the subjective realm.

“All meaning is subjective” Does not make meaningful things become any less meaningful. Not unless when you come to this realization you start giving them less meaning, but you don’t have to. You can give them as much meaning as possible.

Subjective meaning

David Chapman 2016-04-30

John, eventually I will explain why I think “You can give them as much meaning as possible” is not right. In short, individuals cannot choose how significant thing are. The explanation for that is quite long, so I can’t go into detail here. If you are interested, you can read about the reasons existentialism failed, and about (for instance) the ethnomethodological understanding of the situated construction of meaning.

Not actually what I meant : )

John 2016-04-30

“In short, individuals cannot choose how significant thing are.”

Oh yes I agree, meaning comes from a mix of natural instinct/cultural education/personal experience/emotional state etc.

One would have to have full control of the mind to make oneself find whatever one wanted as meaningful.

But this is irrelevant to my point. That meanings (as in attributions of importance) can’t be right or wrong or empirically tested. This perceived quality is due to a confusion of the definition of ‘meaning’.

I don’t understand how existentialism or its failings have any significance to this.

Existentialism is barely even a thing, more of an ad-hoc title for various philosophers that varied greatly on opinion and focus of topics.

And has little similarity with what I said about subjectivity and joyful nihilist.

It was also pretty gloomy. Angst, dread and despair often took central stage. This again has no resemblance to what I was saying.

In fact existential nihilist Donald A. Crosby disagrees with me; “There is no justification for life, but also no reason not to live. Those who claim to find meaning in their lives are either dishonest or deluded. In either case, they fail to face up to the harsh reality of the human situations”.

So to the existential nihilist nothing is meaningful subjectively or otherwise.

I could only find ethnomethodology writings talking about meaning as ‘symbol’ not meaning as ‘importance’. Regardless if the point was about the intersubjective creation of meaning. That doesn’t make meaning any less subjective.

Maybe the problem is with the definition of subjectivity. One may think that if the meaning of something depends both on outside factors and on input from the subject then it is neither objective nor subjective. But this is a misunderstanding of the words.

If something needs no input from a subject (i.e. can exist without a subj.) then it is objective.

If something needs input, no matter how small or constrained from a subject or subjects then it is subjective.

There is no in-between or outside.

Agreeing to disagree

David Chapman 2016-05-01

Hmm, I think we are going to have to agree to disagree for the time being. I haven’t yet explained my understanding of this, which is a fairly complex analysis, and probably won’t get a chance to do that for another couple years at best.

Conversely, your last comment seems to be an argument of the form “the true meaning of these words is what I say it is,” which rarely works. Philosophical terms, including “objective” and “subjective,” have multiple senses in different contexts, and typically none of them are clear-cut.

An Amazon search immediately shows up several books devoted simply to elucidating various sense of “objectivity,” for instance.

Ironically in agreement

John 2016-05-01

Actually I think that we agree on the facts; but due to having different personal definitions of the words; the same phrase has different meanings for us both.

It’s all just a matter of terminology/semantics as I said before.

I guess I was just being needlessly pedantic. If you have ever been in that position I’m sure you’ll accept my apologies.

Though I could strongly defend that I am using the mainstream definition. Actually I have never found any other.

The books you mentioned are not so much about the definition of objectivity but about how objectivity as been applied (or attempted to be reached) in the various fields of science. Along with some other books of various themes that simply happen to have the word in the title.

Regardless, I again apologize for the pedantism and will resume the (as of the moment 3) day marathon of reading your writings.

Buddhism and eternalism

Pamela Fox 2016-08-04

I have been reading texts on the sutrayana and vajrayana paths lately, and saw that they both say the purpose of the path is for you to become beneficial to all beings. I know that meaningness is inspired by your Buddhist practices, and I’m trying to understand why that purpose isn’t considered eternalistic. It sounds like an absolute purpose in life, a mission. It is not one given to us by a god necessarily, but by a lineage of people who believe it is clearly The Best Thing. Can you help me understand how that is not eternalistic? Thanks!

Buddhism and eternalism

David Chapman 2016-08-04

Well-spotted, yes. If “for the benefit of all sentient beings” becomes an absolute, it’s definitely eternalistic. And indeed that is common.

Buddhism is a vast sprawling mass of contradictions—a 2000+ year long conversation among millions of humans who were all confused to some degree and who had many divergent ideas and argued about them vigorously. All, or nearly all, of them (and us) were (and are) both eternalistic and nihilistic, in different ways, because those are always the easiest ways of thinking about meaning. It’s nearly impossible not to fall into them at times. In fact, according to some definitions, being a Buddha simply means managing to consistently avoid both errors.

As for purpose, generally Hinayana does not see benevolence as the ultimate purpose; the ultimate purpose is to stop yourself from being reborn. (Hinayana is itself a vast sprawling confusion, as are all branches of Buddhism, so it’s not altogether consistent about this.) Mahayana made “saving all sentient beings” the ultimate purpose (although again this is not entirely consistent). This is the “bodhisattva ideal.” Tantrayana (which is most of Vajrayana) mainly also takes that as the ultimate purpose (although in many texts you get the sense that this is just paying lip service to an official ideology and the authors weren’t that interested).

Dzogchen, my main source of conceptual inspiration in Buddhism, goes through all the other branches of Buddhism and points out how they are eternalistic and/or nihilistic. This analysis is useful partly as a series of examples of how you can find these errors in different ways of thinking; and it was my starting point when I began working on Meaningness more than ten years ago.

I haven’t looked at the Dzogchen texts in a few years. I don’t remember how much detail they go into about the eternalism of the bodhisattva ideal, or even if they discuss purpose at all. (I would guess yes, but locating a relevant passage would take some work.)

In general, Dzogchen was opposed by Tibetan authorities exactly because it pointed out the eternalism of the state religion. They considered it immoral because it relativized the supposed Law of Karma. Strong opposition from the theocratic state meant that Dzogchen authors had to be careful what they said. Especially when it comes to “moral” matters, there’s often some beating around the bush.

To come out and say “benevolence is good, by and large, but it’s not the ultimate purpose of existence, because there can’t be any such thing” would risk death by slow torture. (Benevolently administered by saintly religious authorities, for the benefit of all sentient beings.)

However, that’s my view, so I’m glad I don’t live in a Buddhist theocracy.

Buddhism & eternalism (continued...)

Pamela Fox 2016-08-04

Thanks for the reply, it’s helpful to hear your take. I felt myself getting resistant/cautious when I read the texts proclaiming that purpose, thinking “hm, am I being suckered into another mission?” It’s not such a bad mission to be suckered into, it’s just the suckering I’m wary of.
It does seem to me that I am generally better behaving towards others when my mind is more calm and spacious, but I’m at the stage where I want that result for my own sake more than for the people around me. I don’t like how I feel when I’m overly reactive, and I’m done with it. Bit selfish, perhaps.

A related observation: when I am in altered states, whether from biofeedback/improv/unmentionables, I am not particularly social. I am so enjoying of my own self that I don’t feel the need to play with others. I will play with them if they play with me, but I’m happy on my own. Eventually I get anxious when I realize this and think to myself, “oh gosh, humans are supposed to fundamentally want other humans, maybe I shouldn’t try to peel off the layers of my self that encourage me to play with other humans.”

That leads me to another possible eternalism that I spotted in your Dzogchen comments: “compassion is an inherent, pervasive, unchanging aspect of the basic nature of mind.” How do we know that? What if it isn’t? Is that another thing where you might say “it is helpful to pretend that compassion is inherent in humans, because holding that belief leads to benevolent actions. Benevolence is good, by and large - but it’s not the ultimate purpose of existence, because there can’t be any such thing.” I’m on board with that. I’m just so damn agnostic about everything that I have a hard time proclaiming 100% that “humans are inherently compassionate.” Or even 50%.

Compassion

David Chapman 2016-08-04

I felt myself getting resistant/cautious when I read the texts proclaiming that purpose, thinking “hm, am I being suckered into another mission?”

I think that is wise. Buddhists do frequently turn into eternalistic True Believers when they buy into these claims. This has bad consequences.

I’m at the stage where I want that result for my own sake more than for the people around me.

Yes. The official story is that when you have enough experience of non-reactive mind, you naturally find yourself wanting to help other people experience that too. I found that to be the case for me, but whether the sequence is universal, I have no idea. It seems plausible, but it’s an open empirical question. Anyway, the official story is that practicing for your own benefit is the right way to start. So there’s no need to feel like you are being selfish in a bad way.

I am so enjoying of my own self that I don’t feel the need to play with others.

I believe this is called “introversion,” technically :-)

According to my understanding of the Western psychological theory, there’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s not much you can do to change it, either. (Personally, I wish it were easier for me to switch into extroverted mode when that is more useful, but overall I’m glad to be introverted.)

“compassion is an inherent, pervasive, unchanging aspect of the basic nature of mind.”

Mmm… this was a religiously-couched answer to a religiously-couched question. I try to respond in something close to a question’s conceptual framework.

From an evopsych point of view—maybe that’s a more congenial framework for you?—compassion is a basic evolved function that everyone shares and that is always potentially available. This is uncontroversial in Western psychology, I think? (Leaving aside sociopathy and severe brain damage as potential sources of exceptions.) Of course aggression is also a basic evolved function that everyone shares and that is always potentially available. One deploys one or the other more-or-less skilfully, according to situational cues.

This is not actually different from the Buddhist view (including the Dzogchen view) except perhaps for moral valuation. But mostly the West views compassion as morally preferable to aggression, too.

The Dzogchen view might differ with the evopsych one in that it would say that compassion is “more natural” than aggression, in a specific technical sense. Dzogchen would agree that aggression is built-in potential in everyone, so that’s “natural” in the ordinary sense. For Dzogchen, “the natural state of mind” is that in which one is not doing eternalism or nihilism. But this is of course rare, so it’s not “natural” in an ordinary sense.

Buddhism & eternalism (the finale)

Pamela Fox 2016-08-05

Okay, I am on board with all of that. I can get behind both the philosophical and scientifically-grounded belief that compassion is a feature of the human brain, as long as it’s also agreed that less morally agreeable aspects like aggression are also features. And I believe that aggression is often misused and overused these days.

The whole introverted thing is a whole other discussion, as I tend to think I’m either an extrovert with social anxiety or an introvert who loves being the center of attention. It may be that even in my altered states, there’s a layer of social anxiety that has yet to be peeled off. I’ll report back in a year.

Anarchy != Meaninglessness

finn 2016-09-27

Why an anarchist symbol under the nihilism heading?

New! Improved! With nihilist flag

David Chapman 2016-09-27

You are right, that was lazy. (Or, was the best I could do ten years ago when I first published this page.)

I’ve replaced the anarchist symbol with the official nihilist flag.

(I’m not sure where that came from!)

Black or white

Nikos 2017-03-17

Hello

Although i am sure you mean well and this way of thinking is another defensive mechanism for helping people with the nature of Existence, this theory is not actually working. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is either black or white. Everything looks grey until we have deciphered it enough (i don’t pretend to have deciphered it enough myself). There is an objective truth nomatter if it is positive or negative for our minds. If there is meaning to the smallest thing or event in this universe then there is cosmic meaning behind everything. Otherwise meaninglessness is the truth. It does not matter what i believe (it is simply another axiomatic faith and everyone has his own), but the fact is that either meaning exists or futility is the truth. We cannot escape that realization although it is a scary one.
Hope you are well and all the best for you in this fight of existence we found ourselves trapped in.

Absurdism Re-Stated

Walter 2017-04-04

Yes, what Niko said. Your unstated major premise is that life has some inherent value, that it’s “good.” I refer you to Hume’s is/ought problem.

Sorry to butt in. David will

LPalmer 2017-04-05

Sorry to butt in. David will probably give a better response.

I don’t think he’s ever once suggested here, tacitly or otherwise, that life has some inherent value (that would be eternalistic). His discussion also attempts to sidestep the question of whether “life is good”.

All he’s arguing for is a pragmatic acceptance that meaning, as experienced by agents in their interactions with the world, actually exists. (The very idea that we can ask such a question such as “is life good or bad?” would appear to suggest that the asker acknowledges this to be the case.)

There was a really good discussion in one of his metablog posts called ‘Reasons to be Cheerless’ a while back which dealt with these slippery boundaries between nihilism, absurdism and pessimism. It’s worth finding.

Someday, probably!

David Chapman 2017-04-05

Thank you, LPalmer, that was helpful! Especially since I wasn’t planning on replying to Nikos and Walter anytime soon.

Reasons to be cheerless” attempted to collect all the arguments in favor of nihilism. At the time I wrote it, I thought I was just about to write up a comprehensive refutation. That will need a month of full-time work, which I thought I would have, but something interfered, and I didn’t get to write it, and now don’t know when I will get another month. Nor whether nihilism is the best thing to work on when I do!

The thing about arguments for nihilism is that none of them work, but there are a few dozen of them, and no one ever seems to have explained thoroughly why each fails. So, when you are in the grip of nihilism, if you are arguing for it, and someone points out that the reason you are adducing is nonsense, you just switch to another, and so on until eventually they get bored and go away.

Once I’ve written out the complete list of arguments, and why each is wrong, then when someone shows up and says “If there is meaning to the smallest thing or event in this universe then there is cosmic meaning behind everything,” I can say “yeah, that’s #16, go read why it wrong.”

Until I’ve done that, replying to committed nihilists would entail writing up bits of the month-long discussion piecemeal, which would be inefficient for all of us.

Absurdism Re-Stated

Walter 2017-04-05

“Committed nihilists?” I sincerely expected more nuance. I’m genuinely disappointed.

It's all just play!

Wes Hansen 2018-07-10

I haven’t read too much of your work here in that I just came to it from Medieval Thinking, but I would suggest that the essence of existence is play and any meaning or lack thereof should be analyzed from this perspective. Of course, I practice the Vajrayana myself, and have for numerous lifetimes, so I am a bit confused by your “athiest” stance in that, in the Vajrayana, we recognize the existence of the Tathagatagarbha/Dharmakaya!?! At any rate, imagine if you will, that you are a vast, indestructible intelligence - the Dharmakaya say, what would you do with your intelligence? I believe most would play, and there you have it, meaning emerges in the process of play. I mean, this is nothing novel to the Vajrayana - existence is the play of the Buddha-bodies and the only way to understand meaning, as you refer to it, is to cultivate the Buddha-bodies within your own mindstream - to join in the play! And a key aspect of this cultivation, this path to attainment, is the middle way between substantialism and nihilism. This middle way is expressed most efficiently by the Theory of Two Truths.

“By rereading Plato in light of Nietzsche’s interpretation, Heidegger thus came to clarify his own understanding of truth and Being in contrast to both the beginning and the end of the metaphysical tradition. In opposition to Nietzsche’s insistence that “truth” was an error, Heidegger argued that there was, in fact, truth, and that philosophers had articulated it. In his essay “On the Essence of Truth,” he pointed out that beings disclosed themselves as such only to those who inquired about their being. The e-mergence of truth was an essentially interactive process; human beings did not and could not simply project their own desires, perspectives, or orders onto the world. They dis-covered a truth that was there (da). This truth varied from time to time and place to place, but the reason it varied was not simply or solely the spatio-temporal limits of the human being who articulated it. Truth was not a property of human perception or thought; it emerged in the self-disclosure of the beings. But in the self-disclosure (a-letheia) of beings as beings, there was always something that remained hidden, forgotten, or concealed. What was hidden was what made it possible for the beings to disclose themselves as such, the Being of the beings. Because Being manifested itself only in and through the beings, Being itself could never be directly cognized. In contrast to the beings, it itself was never present or un-concealed. Because the ground of human knowledge was itself never present or cognizable, all truths, all disclosures of being were necessarily partial. As such, they were also false. There was and could be no unconcealment, truth, or dis-covery unaccompanied by concealment, error, and oblivion.”

From Caterine Zuckert’s, Postmodern Platos, Chapter 2, pages 55 and 56.

But I suppose I should probably read more . . .

A rough stab at a route to a life of meaning

Anton 2019-06-30

Perhaps: Meaning is an emergent property of a relatable self.

Where: A relatable self = a connected self = an effective self = a valued self = meaning.

Others might suggest a different order for those ‘selves’, but I’m coming at it from the perspective of emergence, hence this ordering.

I haven’t thought through all the ramifications of the above. The ‘valued’ self could be both believing oneself to be valued, and the fact of being valued by others (which is probably still the former, anyway).

So it doesn’t have to be seen as requiring external validation, nor requiring one to be extroverted in order to be of value (deep soul-searching could make one a more relatable self, for example).

Maybe I’m also upgrading ‘true self’ / ‘essence’ with ‘relatable self’. Don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but possibly a good thing as I’m not specifying how to arrive at ‘relatable self’, or that this even needs to be one’s ‘true self’ or ‘essence’, or even that those things exist.

But it seems safe enough to say that we need to relate to each other in order to live effective, fulfilling, non-miserable lives.

So maybe such a simple framework might allow us to drop some of the religious / spiritual jargon, being ‘good’, being ‘moral’, etc. etc., and leave us to explore for ourselves how to arrive at the ‘relatable self’; of which there may be a variety of different factors and approaches.

An entirely customisable, changeable, very personal, and non-dogmatic journey to discovering meaning in one’s life, through the lifelong nurturing / uncovering of the ‘relatable self’.

Nihilists/nihilism

Erica 2019-11-05

I often wonder if Nihilism is just an inverted set of defense mechanisms for Ideals that have been challenged by The World. As we age, it is ‘normal’ to become more Nihilistic, for the world challenges us on all levels until we head out. So, in a sense, Eternalists and Nihilists have a lot in common; one group or individuals of that group see themselves as ‘part of the Cosmos, or a greater whole,’ and Nihilists aren’t sure that is true just by looking at all the conflict in the world. Just some thoughts: both groups have equally high ideals…it’s how they think about those virtues that makes them different in terms of ‘the meaning of life.’ If one deeply feels that life should be meaningful, and at many points, it feels meaningless or worse, destructive ~ then Nihilism is a handy set of tools to get one through one’s days. That doesn’t mean the original ideals don’t matter; in fact, those ideals that create that sense of meaninglessness as a point of contrast with ‘what is happening’ might be an impetus to change things, or not, to just accept them. But this is all a dynamic reflective process, and one worth pondering. The antidote to both polarities is Action, but then of course, one then gets into Cause and Effect, the dilemma of Arjuna in his discussion with Krishna. In some esoteric religious texts, God is described as one Being, where each of us is a ‘shard of light’ (or darkness) comprised of the same material, each manifesting different ‘faces’ of the Cosmic Mind. This to me might be a ‘middle way’ between these two polarities: everything is meaningful, or nothing is. Thanks for the thoughtful blog.

I Don't Understand

Darya 2021-03-24

“Meaning is obvious everywhere, and it takes elaborate intellectualization to explain it away. Attempting to live without significance, purpose, or value leads to rage, anguish, alienation, depression, and exhaustion.”

I see no evidence to support this. Genuinely. Provide genuine, objective evidence, please. No really, if you CAN, this would change my life, so I would really appreciate it if you could try. Also, frankly, I found your explanation to not hold any actual meaning. I could just be misunderstanding your point, but it seems as if your point is that you dont think nihilism and eternalism are correct, so you’re throwing your hands up in the air and coining a new synonym for giving up: meaningness.

Am I understanding this correctly?

Meaning is obvious

David Chapman 2021-03-24

Well, read on. The rest of the book attempts to answer your questions.

If you want to skip ahead, you could try the “Extreme examples” page, which might be particularly relevant.

True Nihilist

Fhj 2021-06-18

I have found a perfect argument in favour of Nihilsm and have been living as a nihilist for the last few years and I have never felt rage, depression or any of the negative effects you have mentioned. I have been perfectly happy in fact, not that it means anything. The reason for this is I find my own emotions meaningless too.

And I truly find everything meaningless, including the entire universe, or my life. I actually attempted suicide sometime ago due to this and failed. Now I have decided even suicide is meaningless, so I will make no more attempts.

I have got interested in this book and will read it further to see if your arguments can break my perfect Nihilsm.

The obvious

Marcus Geduld 2021-08-21

Hi. I’m stumbling in the same place a couple of other folks are: “Meaning is obvious everywhere.” It’s such a huge roadblock, I have trouble reading past it. I understand that this is a work in progress, so I’m not criticizing. I just want to add a voice to others who are urging you to clarify what you mean by it being obvious. (Unless it’s unexplainable, in which case you might want to say, “This is a book for folks like me, for whom meaning is obvious.”)

This may be difficult or impossible to explain something that’s obvious to you. (I would have a hard time explaining consciousness to someone who said it wasn’t obvious to him that he was conscious.) Or it may be easy, but you haven’t bothered defining “meaning,” because you assumed we all already know the definition. I’m holding up my hand to say, “I don’t.” (In fact, I’m always confuses as to what people are talking about when they refer to the meaning of life. This isn’t intuitive to me, the way it seemingly is to them.)

If it really is obvious to you–in an immediate, visceral way–that meaning is everywhere, you may be unable to understand the minds of folks who ask, “How is it obvious?”

“My immediate reaction,” upon reading “meaning is obvious everywhere” is “Why isn’t it obvious to me?” You state that it’s obvious with such conviction, I feel like there’s something wrong with me, like someone has said “It’s obvious that whales are bigger than mice,” and I’m unable to see what they’re talking about.

I don’t get the sense that you’re making an intellectual claim. It sounds like you’re saying something like “Consciousness is obvious.” It’s obvious via lived experience. I get that. But I can’t say the same thing for “meaning.”

The reason why I’m curious about your definition is, upon reading it, I might think, “Oh that! THAT’S what he means by ‘meaning!’ Yes. Now that I know what he’s talking about, I agree. It is obvious.” So my confusion isn’t so much a sense of “no it’s not obvious,” but, rather, “I don’t know what this … thing … is that he’s claiming is obvious. Maybe if I knew, I’d agree with him.”

It’s close to true that when you write “Meaning is obvious,” I’m reading “Zzzlebrixst is obvious.” Maybe. What is zzzlebrixst?

So I start substituting in other words for “meaning,” with no real belief that these get at what you’re trying to say. A plan? No, it’s not obvious to me that there’s any sort of plan, not even in my own mind–as in a plan for myself.

Beauty? Well, yes, I find some things beautiful. I don’t get why one would call this “meaning.”

Is it “meaning” in the sense of “When I said ‘fruit,’ I didn’t mean tomatoes; I meant, like, peaches and apples…” Meaning as in stating the intention behind a piece of communication? I don’t get a sense of obviousness that this sort of meaning is coherent outside the context of communication, and it’s not obvious to me there’s any sort of “cosmic” communication going on.

Is it the feeling that things are connected, e.g. via the laws of physics, causation, history, etc? Yes, I do have a strong–undeniable–feeling of that (though I’m not sure how much credence to give it), but if that’s what you mean, I find “meaning” a very confusing word for it. I would just say “a sense that everything is connected” or “a sense that everything affects each other.”

Is it the idea that everything–all the way down past the lowest turtle–has an explanation? That’s not obvious to me at all.

Or, by “meaning,” do you mean something entirely different?

Regards

"What do you mean, 'meaning'?"

David Chapman 2021-09-03

Hi Marcus. Sorry to take a while to get to this; I have a big backlog of incoming, and this is not the quickest to answer!

I’m going to make a general point, and then address some of your specific questions, and then come back to the central general question.

For the general point, I’ll quote a good book I discovered only ten days ago, and recommend over pretty much anything else as a discussion of these sorts of issues. It’s Iddo Landau’s Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World:

Meaning is not only something up there in the sky, holy and exalted, the secular analogue of a mystical experience. One need not discuss it with a pounding heart, a choked-up throat, or a quivering hand. It is a much more normal, mundane phenomenon than it may at first seem. Many people treat the meaningful life (and their own lives) in an overly dramatic way.... One of the aims of this book is to oppose the view that there must be something mysterious in meaning. The notion of meaning is often overromanticized, to the disadvantage of those who consider it. Meaning is a normal aspect of life.

Maybe this is relevant to your:

My immediate reaction, upon reading “meaning is obvious everywhere” is “Why isn’t it obvious to me?”

You may have mis-taken me as using “meaning” to mean something fancy. I’m using it in an everyday, non-philosophical, non-religious, non-big-deal way.

It may be helpful to think about “meaning” in terms of its “dimensions,” enumerated in this chart.

  • The purpose of making an omelet is to have something nice to eat.
  • It’s wrong to bake your sister’s ski hat without permission.
  • You are capable both of cheering up a dejected co-worker (usefulness) and taking pleasure in the weather on your lunch break (enjoyment).

These are all examples of meaning. I’ve deliberately chosen small, nearly trivial examples, because they are spectacularly obvious. (I hope?)

Does this help? Is it now roughly clear what sorts of things I’m pointing at as “meaningful”? (If it does help, maybe I need to write this up more explicitly in the introduction somewhere.)

Some meanings are more dramatic. I’d suggest that they are best understood as intensified versions of small meanings, such as those I’ve just listed. This is relevant to your observation:

I’m always confused as to what people are talking about when they refer to the meaning of life.

You are confused because they are confused, I think! The idea that there is a The Meaning Of Life, one BIG meaning, the same for everyone, is (“obviously”) false.

To return to your overall question: I’m not going to provide a “definition” of meaning. I don’t think that’s possible, and I don’t think it would be useful if it were.

That’s not because meaning is particularly mysterious. I don’t think it is mysterious! I think it’s obvious, and I’m trying to point that out.

I can’t precisely define meaning because I can’t precisely define anything else (and neither can anyone else). I wrote about that in “Are eggplants fruits?.” You can’t define fruits, or eggplants, either.

You can give explanations of eggplants that are by-and-large accurate. This book tries to give by-and-large accurate explanations for meaning.

Relation to Advait Vedanta?

Adi 2021-10-28

Hi David,

As someone who is barely starting to understand various philosophies and schools of thought, I am a bit uncertain as to how various terms or ideas overlap. As I understand, your explanations are more rooted in Buddhist teachings, while I happen to be more familiar with terminology originating in Advait Vedanta. More specifically, I have been listening to neo-Vedantists like Rupert Spira, and I am trying to understand how phrases like meaningness, participation etc. map to that other system.

For reference, Rupert talks about two ‘phases’ so to speak (c.f. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WR-6lnpL6jQ ). From whatever I understood so far I can summarize it as follows. In the first phase, one realizes one’s true nature is different from that of one’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions. This is what he calls infinite consciousness, which might be like monism you refer to. The second phase, is more tantric, in which one ‘goes back’ to the world of experiences with that previous knowledge, and realizes that one is not in-fact separate from experience. This is the essence of non-duality, which I don’t think is the same as monism. I think it might be the same as participation you mention (if I remember the term correctly), but having just started out, I can’t say anything for sure.

Could you please clarify if there is any mapping firstly between what you are talking about and what Advait Vedant deals with (is it the same ‘truth’)? If not, where do you believe the schools diverge and why one is better than the other?

Advaita Vedanta

David Chapman 2021-10-28

Hi, it’s a good question, but I don’t know enough about Advaita Vedanta to say more than that your guesses seem plausible to me.

"Both these stances are wrong, factually. They are also unworkable, in their implications for living

Alice 2021-11-17

Citation needed. You’ve done nothing to prove nihilism false or unworkable; plenty of evidence exists to the contrary. My life, my very existence, denies your unproven point.

You can’t simply assert a point; you need to back it up.

You are dodging questions about meaning.

Jeff the happy nihilist 2022-04-15

You keep dodging the important questions raised about meaning. You deflect and refuse to answer, like a politician. You change the definition of “meaning” when you get asked about this. You say that, for example,
“The purpose of making an omelet is to have something nice to eat.” This is not meaning in the philosophical sense. It is a means to an end but does not imbue meaning.

I can still be a nihilist and think life is meaningless, but as a “happy nihilist” (which you seem to unfairly disparage and I’m unconvinced by your reasoning), I can still make and eat omelets because it allows me to continue to enjoy this strange (meaningless) trip through my life. You are playing sophomoric word games when you claim “making an omelet to have something nice to eat” imbues existence with any meaning. Consuming calories leads to my continued existence in this meaningless universe. That is causality not meaning.

I’m still trying to see what the real argument against “happy nihilism” is and all I get is that you try changing the name to something vague and obtuse that you can slap a trade mark on and claim to have invented.

Being nihilistic may lead many to get depressed, but that is a casual empirical observation you make. There may be others, like myself, who do not get depressed and apathetic just because we understand that life is meaningless. We decide to enjoy our meaningless existence for as long as we can. That becomes a purpose, not a meaning. Life just is, you can say “f— it, I’m going to burn everyhing, I’m going to sit on a rock and cry, or I’m going to enjoy it.” That does not create any meaning, it is a response to meaninglessness that you choose. You have no choice but to choose. Choosing to do nothing is a choice. I might as well choose to have my neurons stimulated in ways that make me feel happy - enjoy beauty (in my eye), the flow experience, socializing with and helping other meaningless humans, etc. None of these things are ultimately meaningful, they just exist. Maybe that idea makes you depressed. It doesn’t make me depressed, so please stop claiming it “leads to depression and misery”.

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