Both sides of the culture war now believe they are losing.
Both sides are wrong: they lost decades ago.
We all lost.
You don’t need me to tell you that politics has become dysfunctional. That it is polarized by a culture war. That too many people are turning to extremism because their governments can’t get anything done.
Both American countercultures have been dead for more than a quarter century. However, they are still locked in combat as decaying kaiju zombies: the culture war. Their trail of collateral damage scars our social landscape.
I defined the two countercultures as “new, alternative, universalist, eternalist, anti-rational systems.” This page expands that definition, explaining the characteristics shared by the two. It also begins to contrast them with subculturalism—the following mode of meaningness.
Recall that the two countercultures are the monist “radical” 1960s-70s youth movement and the dualist “conservative” movement of the 1970s-80s. The next page explains how these relate to monism and dualism. It also explains why I call the “Moral Majority” conservative movement a counterculture—but that should start to become clear already in this page.
The countercultural mode of the 1960s-80s marked the final attempts to rescue the glory of systems from the maw of nihilistic collapse. It failed, and we live in its wreckage.
It would be polite to say “enduring influence” but I’d rather call it “wreckage.” As civilization burned, we built two vast, fantastical, ornate galleons as escape ships. But they were not the slightest bit sea-worthy; and they collided and broke up in the harbor. The crash left a floating mass of broken spars and tangled lines, choking access to the exit.
Millions of people are still trying to live on that flotsam, so you call across: “It’s a pile of water-logged junk; the rest will sink soon; why don’t you come join us in our fleet of nimble new watercraft?” They jeer that your pathetic little boats are made of plastic, and you say “it’s not plastic, it’s a kevlar composite kayak,” and so on.
The first half of the twentieth century was awful. Not just materially; Western systems of meaning—social, cultural, and psychological—were falling apart. The glorious accomplishments of the systematic era could not hold civilization together, and seemed likely to be lost entirely in a global conflagration.
Many people even came to think those systems were the cause of all the catastrophes. We who live in the aftermath—we who have never experienced an intact system—we cannot fully appreciate how awful that loss of meaning felt.
This page analyzes the first phase of meaning’s disintegration, roughly 1914–1964. It should help explain the new positive alternatives offered by the countercultures and subcultures, which came next, and also why those failed.
All the events I recount will be familiar, but the way I relate them to my central themes of eternalism and nihilism, and to problems of meaning in the domains of society, culture, and self, may seem novel.
We still have no adequate response to these issues. Any future approach—such as fluidity—must grapple with problems that first became obvious in the early twentieth century.
Western culture, society, and selves all fell apart forty years ago. Or so say many theorists; and I agree. To understand how we relate to meaning now, and how we could better relate in the future, we need to understand that recent past.
A systematic culture answers “why” questions with “becauses.” The answers are reasonably consistent and coherent. A series of “why” questions eventually reaches an ultimate, eternal Truth. This Truth is the foundation of the system, which supposedly answers all questions for everyone, everywhere, eternally.
Religious systems, government systems, economic systems, aesthetic systems, philosophical systems, scientific systems, family systems: until a few decades ago, these provided iron frameworks for meaning. Meanings were held safely in place, certified by reliable structures.
This was an extraordinary accomplishment. Systems are not normal or natural. Almost no one has had them in the hundreds of thousands of years humans have been around. Nearly everyone has had to make do without becauses. Human progress over the past few centuries can be attributed almost entirely to systems.
Then, “because” stopped working. We are back in a becauseless world—like and unlike that of our pre-systematic ancestors.
We have not yet figured out how to live well without becauses. Suggestions about how to do that are the goal of Meaningness and Time. First, though, I will explain how “because” worked, how it stopped working, and where that leaves us.
Rationalist eternalism is the confused stance that there is a pattern to everything, that all patterns can be discovered by reasoning, and that they give everything meaning. The universe is reasonable, and so reason can master it. This stance is wrong and harmful, just as other eternalisms are.
Rationality, understood and used properly, is a good thing. In the everyday sense, it is wise to think clearly and to act sensibly. My criticism of rationalist eternalism does not reject reason for emotionalism, or for some sort of anti-rational spirituality. I think anti-rational stances are also wrong and harmful. (I’ll analyze their faults later, in the chapter on monism, and in the discussion of the anti-rationalism of the 1960s-80s countercultures.)
In addition to good common sense, there are technical methods of reasoning that can be importantly useful sometimes. I will criticize their misuse, but I value technical rationality itself.
My argument against eternalist rationality is that reasoning does not, in fact, provide explanations or meanings for everything. Reality is nebulous, so that is impossible.
The exaggerated claims of ideological rationality are obviously and undeniably false, and are predictably harmful—just as with all eternalism. Yet they are so attractive—to a certain sort of person—that they are also irresistible.
Eternalism is the confused stance that everything has a definite meaning. The form of eternalism that is most obvious in the West is religion: supposedly, God makes everything meaningful. However, non-theistic eternalism may actually be more influential and more harmful.
Non-theistic eternalism has all the same defects as the religious varieties, but this is less well-known, and therefore harder to defend against. Freeing ourselves from theism is only a first step toward freeing ourselves from a host of ubiquitous, harmful, mistaken ideas about meaningness.
It is easy for atheists to feel smug and superior about our more accurate worldview. Yet we commonly slide into malign non-theistic eternalism, which is just as distorted, and causes just as much trouble, as religion.
It is always tempting to find some ultimate source of meaning. (Especially when it seems the only alternative would be nihilism.) That temptation leads directly to eternalism, with all the harm that entails.
Belief in the supernatural is harmful, but several modern eternalist systems are thoroughly naturalistic (or pretend to be, anyway). I believe it is not mainly supernaturalism that is harmful about religion, it is eternalism.
Exit is rarely dramatic. Eternalism is so wrong that you drop it frequently, in the moment—but adopt it again a minute later. Stances are extremely unstable, and hard to maintain for long. Even if you are committed to an eternalistic system (a religion, for example), you ignore its claims about meaning many times a day, when they contradict practical reality.
If you are committed to a particular confused stance, growing understanding of its defects may lead eventually to a dramatic “deconversion experience”—of leaving a religious or non-religious eternalist system, for example. This book is mostly not about that.1 It’s about the unnoticed moment-to-moment movements of meaningness.
Exiting eternalism implies adopting an alternative stance toward meaningness.2 The specific way eternalism breaks down in a particular situation guides you into another stance, which seems to offer a solution.
This book advocates moving from confused stances (such as eternalism) to the complete stance. The complete stance is relatively inaccessible, so this is difficult at first. Generally one is tossed from one confused stance to another, without even noticing, much less understanding. A first step toward accomplishing the complete stance is noticing the transitions between other stances. Becoming aware of movements among stances, and what triggers them, helps you understand the emotional dynamics of each. Learning to recognize the promises a stance makes, and reflecting on its repeated failure to deliver, kills the allure for you—and then you can escape its grip.