This page is outdated. The text below is from the first, 2007 draft of Meaningness. My understanding of the material has changed since then, and the style I write in too. Someday I would like to rewrite this; but I hope the 2007 version may be adequate for now.
This chapter discusses stances toward purpose.
For an introduction to this topic, see “An appetizer: purpose.”
The question of purpose is easy for both eternalism and nihilism. For a committed eternalist, your purpose is whatever the Cosmic Plan says it is; no problem. For a committed nihilist, there can be no purpose; no problem. Both stances are difficult to live up to. In practice, we usually fall into two other, confused stances: mission and materialism.
These confused stances share an underlying mistaken metaphysical assumption: that purposes can be classified as “mundane” or “higher,” and only one of those sorts is meaningful.
- Mundane purposes are those we share with other social mammals: food, security, reproduction, and position in social dominance hierarchies. They also include material altruism on behalf of one’s family or tribe.
- Higher purposes are those that transcend animal existence, such as creative production, disinterested altruism, and religious salvation. These are sometimes called “transcendent,” “eternal,” or “ultimate.” Their value should survive your physical death, or have significance in realms beyond the material.
Materialism is the stance that only mundane purposes count; it fixates their value, and denies higher purposes. We have no choice but to pursue sex, power, status, safety, pleasure and possessions; anything else is a delusion. Mission is its mirror image: it fixates higher purposes and denies mundane ones. We have a specific higher purpose, and pursuing others is wrong.
Death is a common problem of meaningness. One reason is that “you can’t take it with you.” Whatever mundane purposes we have satisfied in life are immediately and totally obviated by death. All our possessions, everything we have accumulated, the structures we have built to keep us safe and comfortable, the people who love us, our honors and accomplishments, our position in society—all are instantly torn away and we return to zero. Soon we are forgotten. Perhaps children remember us; but in a hundred years, no one will know or care in the least how much we had or whether we got what we wanted or not. How can something matter when no one still living even knows about it? In the big picture, it seems all the concerns that take up almost all the energy of almost everyone’s lives are completely meaningless.
There are two common responses to this. One is to observe that, since everything is a zero after we are dead, it is all the more urgent to get on with life now. Purportedly transcendent accomplishments are of zero value to me after I am gone. Better to get what I can while I can. That is materialism. The second possible response is to observe that, since all mundane purposes are nullified by death, there is no point whatsoever in pursuing them. Rather, all effort should be devoted to an eternal, higher purpose, whose accomplishment can survive my death. This is the stance of mission.
Mission often additionally claims that each person has a unique higher purpose; so it is mutually supportive with the stance of specialness. Materialism is concerned with purposes everyone shares; so it mutually supportive with ordinariness.
Both mission and materialism can be seen as muddled middles that try, and fail, to reconcile eternalism and nihilism. Both hold that certain purposes are definitely meaningful (like eternalism) and others are definitely not (as in nihilism).
Animal desires are the most emotionally obvious, and so materialism is more closely allied to nihilism, admitting the meaningfulness only of the material domain. It is easier to deny the meaning of higher purposes, because their objects are not immediately apparent. On the other hand, the meaninglessness of many mundane events is obvious. You missed the your usual bus to work because it left two minutes early; the Coke machine mistakenly gave you an extra coin in change; you spilled some of it on your shirt. So what? It’s hard to believe the eternal ordering principle cares about such things.
Mission is more closely allied with eternalism, admitting the nebulosity of only the material domain. It is easier to deny the nebulosity of the transcendent, because many higher purposes are too abstract to definitively refute.
As attempts at reconciliation of eternalism and nihilism, based on recognition of the errors of both, materialism and mission both also partake of the nature of the complete stance. However, they both are ultimately failures, and so in practice we oscillate between the two.
Alternatively, since both are unworkable, a muddled middle tries to find a further halfway point between them. It mingles materialism with mission, attempting to satisfy the demands of both in a single course of action. You might, for instance, pursue fame and glory leading a celebrity media campaign to save starving Africans from poverty. Motivations are usually mixed. When pursuing higher purposes, one almost always also hopes for some mundane reward.
The complete stance for purpose, enjoyable usefulness, rejects the mundane/eternal dichotomy. The value of both sorts of purposes is nebulous but patterned. This complete stance replaces the misleading question “what am I supposed to do” with “what can I do now to be useful and enjoy myself?”