The illusion of understanding

Can opener

Total understanding—the feeling that everything makes sense—is one of the most seductive promises of eternalism. The feeling is wonderful, but unfortunately the understanding is illusory.

Recent research shows how illusions of understanding arise, what their effects are, and how they can be dispelled. Most concretely, this includes studies of illusory understanding of everyday physical causality: common natural phenomena and household devices. That isn’t directly relevant to Meaningness. However, the same patterns of illusory understanding also apply to issues of meaningness, such as ethics and politics.

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?

Ethical eternalism

This page is unfinished. It may be a mere placeholder in the book outline. Or, the text below (if any) may be a summary, or a discussion of what the page will say, or a partial or rough draft.

There must be a correct ethical system that reliably determines right and wrong. Adopting it will guarantee we will always do and be good, not evil.


This page is unfinished. It may be a mere placeholder in the book outline. Or, the text below (if any) may be a summary, or a discussion of what the page will say, or a partial or rough draft.

[This chapter is mainly unwritten. In the mean time, I've written about ethics in a Buddhist framework on another site. The approach I take there is mainly consistent with what I will eventually write here. This page there sketches the path to a complete stance for ethics. This one fills in some more details, although in retrospect I find it unnecessarily obscure.]

Available systems of ethics are dysfunctional. They ignore nearly all the ethical questions people actually have. Academic and theological answers are useless, not because they are wrong, but because they address questions no one cares about.

Our most pressing ethical questions—such as “how ethical should I be?”—cannot even be asked within existing systems, much less answered correctly. And so, in practice, everyone has abandoned the systems.

Unconstrained by systems, ethical claims have proliferated as metastatic cancers of meaning, infiltrating tumors into every organ of culture.

Useful analysis has to start over—but not from scratch. We all do ask the questions that matter, and not all our answers are wrong. Everyday ethical experience goes most of the way toward an accurate ethical analysis.


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.