Starting points

The appeal of complete stances

Child sitting on the trig point on the Schiehallion peak

Sitting on top of the world. Specifically, the surveyors’ marker at the peak of Schiehallion.
Image courtesy Russel Wills

Complete stances resolve problems of meaningness: nihilistic depression, harms of blind faith, the anguish of ethical dilemmas, bafflement about what you should do with your life…

Misunderstanding meaningness makes many miserable. Overall, the book Meaningness aims to give you tools to shift from confused stances that cause unnecessary suffering into complete stances. Those are accurate understandings that engender enjoyment of the ways meaningness works in everyday life.

This chapter is the heart of the book: it explains how to find your way to complete stances, what you may find there, and why they might be attractive enough to commit to them. The chapter is somewhat abstract, so the following ones explain how to apply this understanding in specific sorts of situations.

Meaningness as a liberating practice

Breaking the chain of confusion

Mistaken ideas about meaningness inhibit creativity, constrict your life, and make you miserable. This book is meant as a practical manual for overcoming these confused stances, liberating you from their negative effects. It offers specific antidotes for particular confusions.

Thinking differently

A “stance” is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and acting. Each of the three reinforces the others two, and helps maintain the stance.

Most methods in this book introduce conceptual understandings that change thinking. However, I’ll make some suggestions about working with feelings and actions too.

The main method is to become familiar with the thoughts, feelings, and patterns of activity characteristic of each confused stance, so that you notice them as they occur; and then choose to think, feel, and act differently. Simply remembering that there is a better alternative—a complete stance—is often most of the battle. However, it’s also necessary to understand how and why this alternative is better, and that can take some work. If the complete stances were obviously better, no one would adopt the confused ones.

So how does meaningness work?

Machinery

This far into the book, you may be impatient. I’ve said a lot about how meaningness doesn’t work. But how does it work? I have said almost nothing, other than that it is nebulous. How unsatisfactory!

I would love to tell you exactly what meaning is. I’d love to explain Life, The Universe, and Everything in a way that solves all your problems.

Unfortunately, I can’t—and neither can anyone else. That sucks; but this is the actual situation we are in.

We have a choice of explanations of meaningness: ones that are simple, clear, harmful, and wrong; or ones that are complex, vague, helpful, and approximately right. I prefer the latter.

It seems to me that:

  • No one can say quite how meaning works.
  • Theories that pretend to explain are either eternalist or nihilist, and both are wrong and harmful.1
  • We aren’t likely to get a full explanation any time soon.
  • We can’t wait for a perfect understanding of meaning, because we have to live life now.
  • So we have to accept that our understanding is incomplete, and do the best we can. Life is fired at us point-blank;2 issues of ethics and purpose won’t wait for someone to find a perfect theory.
  • We can form a partial understanding of meaningness. We are not entirely ignorant, and vague understanding is better than none.
  • Incomplete understanding is not a huge obstacle to sensible action—which is another reason waiting for a perfect theory would be senseless.

What is meaningness?

Diogenes of Sinope by Jean-Léon Gérôme

This book is about meaningness. “Meaningness” is a word I invented, referring to the quality of being meaningful and/or meaningless.

The word “meaning” has two quite different meanings in English. It can refer to the meaning of symbols, such as words and road signs. This book is not about that kind of meaning.

People also speak of “the meaning of life.” That is the sort of meaningness this book is about. So I apply “meaningness” only to the sorts of things one could describe as “deeply meaningful” or “pretty meaningless.” The book is about matters such as purpose, ethics, and selfhood.

Meaningness is a quality, not a thing. I don’t think there is a definite meaning of life. Meaningness is always nebulous: indefinite, uncertain, ambiguous.

The suffix -ness constantly reminds one of this nebulosity. I mostly avoid the word “meaning,” because it builds in the assumption that something meaningful has one specific meaning. Often, that is wrong.

The puzzle of meaningness

Hands with wedding rings

Two years ago, well into a mainly happy marriage, you began a secret affair.

The attraction was overwhelming. The sex was scalding. You loved with a passion you had never felt before.

Your lover—also married—understood parts of you that your spouse did not. You were able to be a different person. You explored aspects of your personality that you had never been able to express before. You made different sorts of jokes. You went on adventurous dates, trying things your spouse—who you knew was sweet but a bit dull when you got married—would never have agreed to do.

After a year and a bit, the passion waned. Your secret meetings began to feel slightly repetitive. You found that your personalities would not be compatible in the long term. You wanted quite different things out of life.

It began to seem you were going through the motions. You had one meaningless fight about nothing. Then you discussed the future, and agreed to end the affair on good terms.

Now, you wonder: what did that mean?

Pop spirituality: monism goes mainstream

I feel a great disturbance in the Force, as if tens of millions of people suddenly started spouting nonsense. I fear something terrible has happened.

I could be wrong. I have no statistics. But in the past few years, suddenly I hear seemingly sensible people going about saying “ultimately, it’s all one, isn’t it?” and “when you find your true self, you find the whole universe,” and “all religions teach the same truth.”

Some think they are Christians, and seem unaware that these ideas directly contradict core principles of Christianity. Some think they are Buddhists, and believe these are Buddhist principles. They get indignant when I tell them that Buddhism says the opposite. Most are “spiritual but not religious,” or choose not to put themselves into any category.

Preview: eternalism and nihilism

Eternalism and nihilism are the simplest, and most extreme, stances toward meaningness.

  • Eternalism says that everything has a definite, true meaning.
  • Nihilism says that nothing really means anything.

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

However, almost everyone falls into them at times, triggered by particular contexts. Each stance is based on genuine insights, and a powerful, emotionally appealing pattern of thinking. They also can seem to be the only possible alternatives, so we are forced into one by the repulsive qualities of the other.

Understanding the logic of eternalism and nihilism, and the resolution of the fundamental problem they address, is key to unlocking the material covered in this book. Because they are simple and extreme, the logic of these two stances is particularly clear. The other confused stances arise mainly as failing attempts to find some compromise between them.

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General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book. Start with an appetizer, or the table of contents. Its “metablog” includes additional essays, not part the book.

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