History of ideas

The value of meaninglessness

G.W.F. Hegel

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Self-consciousness recognizes its positive relation as its negative, and its negative as its positive; or, in other words, recognizes these opposite activities as the same, i.e. it recognizes pure Thought or Being as self-identity, and this again as separation.

—G. W. F. Hegel1

Do you believe that?

What would it even mean to believe that?2

Depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is


Samoyed courtesy Harold Dixon

The problem with sentences is that it’s often unclear what they mean. Does “St. Trinian’s is a pretty little girls’ school” refer to a pretty school for little girls, or a fairly small school, or one for girls who are pretty and little?

Are these “little” girls young, or of modest stature? Is the “school” a building, a co-moving grouping (as of fish), or an intellectual lineage?1

We want our beliefs to be true, but if we don’t even know what they mean, we’re in trouble. A single sentence might be true in some sense, false in some other sense, and meaningless in a third. If you believe “St. Trinian’s is a pretty little girls’ school,” what do you believe?

Positive and logical

Bertrand Russell in 1957

Bertrand Russell, leader of logical positivism

The great thing about math is that it’s certain. If something is mathematically true, you can be absolutely sure of it, because a mathematical proof is unarguably correct.

The set of rules for mathematical proofs is predicate logic, which guarantees absolute truth, so—some rationalists believe—they are the essence of rationality.

In the first half of the twentieth century, logical positivism attempted to marry predicate logic with scientific empiricism—which means generalizing from specific experimental data to universal truths.1 Proponents expected to create a complete and unassailable proof that this theory of rationality was correct.

Logical positivism conclusively failed around 1960, after multiple unfixable classes of trouble appeared. It was, however, the last serious attempt to build a general-purpose rationalism.

By “serious,” I mean that there was no known reason the project should fail when it began. In fact, there was every reason for excitement that it would succeed. Since its failure, no serious version of rationalism has been attempted, because no one has found plausible ways of dealing with the problems logical positivism encountered.

Podcast: Buddhism and cognitivism

The Cybersyn ops room

The Cybersyn ops room

This is a 19 minute audio monologue about the intellectual history of some interactions between Buddhism and cognitive science, prompted by a blog discussion of doubts about modern meditation systems.

It’s a podcast, sort of? It’s an experiment… I deliver pedantic rambles like this practically every day, hours in a row sometimes. Rin’dzin recently started recording some and encouraging me to make them public. I’m reluctant because I want to be careful, and when I’m ranting off-the-cuff I say things that are false and/or offensive. On the other hand, I often cover material that’s unusual and could be useful or interesting for someone, and which I’m never going to have time to write up properly.

Appendix: Further reading

Meaningness mainly re-presents material well-understood elsewhere. I have gathered ideas from several fields and explained them in terms a different audience will understand. Since most of the book is not yet written, you may want to go back to my sources to fill the gaps. You may also want to know where the ideas came from, to understand them in their original context; or go deeper and further than Meaningness ever will.

This page describes some of the texts that have most influenced the work, with brief explanations of how they are relevant. Some are articles, but most are full-length books. (I’ve linked those to Amazon, who send me about $3/day in exchange. So they want me to say “As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.”)

I have roughly categorized them by subject. I plan to add more texts, and more categories, as work on Meaningness proceeds. Here are links to the current categories:

Interlude: Ontological remodeling

High-resolution MVIC image of Pluto in enhanced color to bring out differences in surface composition.
Object #134340

We have arrived at the midpoint of In the cells of the eggplant. In its first part, we saw how every attempt to make rationalism work failed, in each case because it denied ontological nebulosity. The second part explains how meta-rationality works with ontological nebulosity to resolve the problems rationalism encountered.

Formal rationality usually works within a fixed ontology, unquestioned and often implicit. That works well so long as the ontology is good enough for the job at hand. When it isn’t, total breakdown can result, because rationality has no way of repairing the breach.

Meta-rationality stands outside any particular ontology. It treats ontologies as malleable, and manipulates them explicitly. It evaluates, selects, combines, modifies, discovers, and creates alternative ones.

Ontological remodeling—the reconfiguration of individuation criteria, categories, properties, and relationships—is a relatively advanced meta-rational activity. Ideally, we would build up extensive conceptual prerequisites before discussing it. The topic might be best left to the end of The eggplant—or, in fact, to some other text.1

Except that we need this idea to explain what sort of thing meta-rationality is. Namely, meta-rationality is itself an ontological remodeling of rationality.



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.

Subscribe to new content by email. Click on terms with dotted underlining to read a definition. The book is a work in progress; pages marked ⚒︎ are under construction.