Nihilism

I seem to be a fiction

Ken Wilber, Boomeritis, and artificial intelligence

It’s the perfect postmodern nightmare. You wake up to discover that you are the anti-hero character in a novel. Worse, it is a famously badly written novel. It is, in fact, an endlessly long philosophical diatribe pretending to be a novel. And it uses all the tiresome technical tricks of postmodern fiction. It is convolutedly self-referential; a novel about a novel that is an endlessly long philosophical diatribe pretending to be a novel about a novel about…

I’ve just read Ken Wilber’s Boomeritis. It’s all that.1

And it seems to be about me. I mean, me personally.

The book diagnoses the psychology of a generation. Many readers have said it is about them, in the sense that they are of that generation, and they discovered ruefully that Boomeritis painted an accurate portrait.

But the central character in the book is a student at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory who discovers Continental philosophy and social theory, realizes that AI is on a fundamentally wrong track, and sets about reforming the field to incorporate those other viewpoints.

That describes precisely two people in the real world: me, and my sometime-collaborator Phil Agre.

The Big Three stance combinations

Three silly stances: a hair metal trio

Complex ideologies are based on collections of simple stances: fundamental attitudes toward meaningness. Some stances (addressing different dimensions of meaningness) work together well; others clash. Most systems align with one of three common combinations.

These combinations are:

  • Dualist eternalism: everything is given a definite meaning by something separate from you. Christianity and Islam are based on this combination; God is what gives everything meaning.
  • Monist eternalism: you, God, and the universe are a single thing, which is definitely meaningful. Advaita Hinduism is monist and eternalist, as is much current pop spirituality.
  • Dualist nihilism: we are isolated individuals, wandering in a meaningless universe. Existentialism, postmodernism, and scientism tend to dualist nihilism.

The emotional dynamics of nihilism

The Who—Won’t Get Fooled Again

Nihilism begins with the intelligent recognition that you have been conned by eternalism. Nihilism is the defiant determination not to get fooled again. Having been swindled over and over by false promises of meaning, the nihilist stance refuses to acknowledge even the most obvious manifestations of meaningfulness—lest they, too, turn out to be illusory.

Betrayal and loss

Eternalism makes seductive promises: that you are always loved, that the universe is in good order, that right and wrong can be known for certain, that your suffering has meaning, that you have a special role in creation, that there will be cosmic justice after death.

When you have been disappointed often enough, you start to realize these sweet lies are poison. Such grand promises cannot be kept. Discovering that you have been betrayed by eternalism, and have lost out on the promises it made, is a horrendous emotional blow.

Extreme examples, eternalism and nihilism

Many people believe in UFOs because they make life meaningful

Why would anyone want to claim that everything is meaningful, or that everything is meaningless, defying our everyday experience that some things are meaningful and some not?

Here I’ll give an example of extreme meaninglessness, and one of extreme meaningfulness. Because it is difficult to deny their meaninglessness and meaningfulness, these help uncover the reasons people might want to do that.

Pages

Navigation

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

To hear about new content, Subscribe by email subscribe to my email newsletter, Follow Meaningness on Twitter follow me on Twitter, use the Syndicate content RSS feed, or see the list of recent pages.

Click on terms with dotted underlining to read a definition.

The book is a work in progress; pages marked ⚒︎ are under construction.