Do you have a system of meaning, or does the system have you? When you discover you are owned by an ideology, you can escape. But better, you can own it—and others.
Religions, political theories, scientific rationalism, and psychotherapeutic models provide powerful resources for making sense of problems of meaningness. They also make false claims that may lead to confused thinking, painful emotions, and harmful activities. On the previous page, we saw how they stabilize, and in turn are stabilized by, eternalism—the mistaken and harmful stance that everything has a definite, knowable meaning.
When forced by experience to admit your system of meaning is unfixably flawed, it’s natural to look for a better one. After adopting several in succession, you may realize that the same flaw afflicts all of them: eternalism. Then you might try to reject all ideologies. That seems to be impossible, and also loses what is good and right in each.
It is better to retain systems’ insights, as ways of working with meaning, while letting go of their underlying eternalism. This requires adopting the complete stance: accepting the inseparability of pattern and nebulosity in meaning, in conceptual systems, in the world, in yourself, and in the relationships among all these.
When you commit to an eternalist system, what you commit is yourself. Your self.
Ideally, the system becomes your self. You “identify as” a rationalist, an anti-racist ally, or a QAnon digital soldier: you try to view yourself as identical to the system, or to make yourself as nearly as possible into the system’s ideal.1
When you commit to a system, it owns you. It’s normal, and passed over without notice, to say that you “belong to” a church or political party. Slavery is illegal, though?
Spirit possession might be a better analogy. In many cultures, a supernatural, immaterial person can enter you and displace your ordinary mind with their overwhelmingly powerful one. Then they speak through your mouth, and act with your body. Such spirits may be demonic and unwanted, or divine and sought out. Or it might be hard to tell.
Possessed by an ideology, you may feel that your speech is divinely inspired, or that the wisdom of the ancients is speaking through you. Or at minimum you can be absolutely certain of its truth without checking, because it unambiguously aligns with—it authentically expresses—the Higher Truth of the system itself.
As a whatever-ist, you speak for the whatever system. You look for opportunities to preach, and to argue with unbelievers. That may leave you bruised. It may not be to your advantage; you sacrifice yourself for the honor of the system. You take any insult to it as an attack on your self and your community, and might fight even unto death.
Yet the feeling of channeling the spirit may be exhilarating and welcome, because it confirms eternalist certainty. It feels best when possession is so complete that you are unaware of it. Righteously denouncing Whiteness or Wokeness, as the case may be, you do not notice any distinction between yourself and the hate-filled absurdities you are regurgitating from a hard-hitting video you watched a few hours earlier. You mistake the words of the spirit for your own thoughts.
You may not even recognize that an ideology is involved. Bad people have ideologies, which are deceitful and wicked; you just stand for what is good and right. That is not an ideology; it’s simple truth.
Or, you may be aware that you are possessed, but love it (when it is going well, at least). You are actually being an ally, or a digital soldier, not just “believing.” You punch Nazis, or invade the Capitol building—high as a kite on eternalist certainty.
Disidentification and deconversion
Whatever system of meaning you may have committed to, everyday experience will contradict it at times. This creates cognitive dissonance between the abstract framework and concrete reality. Typically, then, you apply eternalist ploys to obscure the conflict and to reinforce your commitment. These tricks don’t always work.
At times when the ghost loses its grip, you may have the surreal experience of hearing your mouth saying things—often absolute statements—and you aren’t even sure what they mean, much less whether or why you would believe them. That can be frightening, when you realize you are not in control of your voice. To avoid it you might either submerge yourself in possession again, or try to snap out of it altogether.
It may be better just to watch for a while, with friendly curiosity? There’s lots you can learn about selfness here, and a fascinating altered state of consciousness, so long as you can tolerate the vertigo.
Because any eternalist system often contradicts experience, your commitment can only ever be wavering, to various degrees. Gradually, enough friction accumulates that you can’t help admitting you have been owned. As you disidentify, you come to have the ideology, rather than being had by it. You realize it is a somewhat arbitrary construction, which you chose somewhat arbitrarily. It no longer seems absolutely compelling. Then, perhaps suddenly, your commitment may fail. You reject the system and break free.
That’s usually horrible.
Commitment to an eternalist system is similar to a marriage. In return for an enormous, sometimes difficult investment, you gain feelings of certainty and stability. Leaving a religion or other ideology can be much like a painful break-up or divorce.
Overwhelming feelings of betrayal, loss, regret, anger, shame, anxiety, and depression are common. Not coincidentally, these are symptoms of nihilism. When you have rejected the system you thought was the source of all meaning, everything may seem meaningless.
The system gave you feelings of understanding and belonging. Naturally, you want to get that back, but without the bad parts. The risk here is jumping straight into bed with some other eternalist system.
In a rebound romantic relationship, you’ll often pick someone who seems as different as possible from your ex. (Leaving a system based on God and sexual restrictions? Choose one that emphatically rejects the supernatural and says all sex among consenting adults is fine!) Then you may find that the superficial differences conceal deep similarities to your ex. (“My old religion promised me God’s true moral code, but it had nothing to say about some key ethical dilemmas I faced, and some of its rules were obviously wrong in retrospect. Then I adopted rationalist utilitarianism, which, well, had nothing to say about some key ethical dilemmas, and sometimes was obviously wrong in retrospect.”) A few years on, you may have another traumatic break-up.
Alternatively, if your romantic experience was good on the whole, you may spend years dating a series of similar people—because that is the sort of person you want. None of the relationships quite work out, but you keep expecting to find one who is fully satisfactory. It’s similarly common to spend years or decades drifting through New Age systems, getting excited about one after another, although none does much to solve your problems. It’s rare and courageous to recognize that these monist-eternalist systems all have the same attractions and the same defects, and then to extract yourself from that whole culture into some more realistic way of being.
“I keep making bad choices for commitment—why? Maybe the problem is with me?” In personal relationships, it may be a mistaken understanding of what a partner can do for you. For example, an unconscious hope to be re-parented is unrealistic, and can only lead to trouble. You’ll fall for people who (perhaps unconsciously) promise to do that for you, but cannot deliver. Likewise, you may be maintaining an unconscious hope that some new system of meaning could deliver on the false promises of the one you grew up with—the promises of eternalism. But that can only lead to destructive fanaticism, or to less dramatic disappointment and disenchantment.
Being without ideology
Much harm comes from specific demands of individual eternalist systems. However, much is due to eternalism itself. When you realize you have been a puppet to an ideology, or have been bought and sold by a series of them, you may recognize that the problem is not just particular systems, but ideology as such.
An ideology—a system of concepts—makes sense of meaning. But it seems concepts are deceptive; they obscure the truth of meaning. Maybe you could make better sense without them? Maybe you can perceive reality directly, instead? Maybe you can bypass concepts and gain ultimate insight by trusting your feelings?
This isn’t entirely wrong. Much of perception is non-conceptual. In uncommon states of awareness, in meditation for example, one may abide for hours without concepts, and find perception heightened. Significant but ineffable insights do sometimes spring from the unconscious, manifesting initially as peculiar feelings and mythic images, and may evolve into partially-verbal understandings.
Living in a non-conceptual or visionary realm full time is probably impossible, and certainly undesirable. We need concepts to deal with mundane reality, but also to engage with meaning. People who spend most of their time in exalted spiritual states are often ethically challenged, politically naive, surprisingly selfish, practically helpless, and all-round useless.
And taking conceptlessness as an ideal is itself a monist-eternalist ideology: anti-rational Romanticism mashed up with modernist Zen. Once again, rejecting your system of meaning has just led you into the embrace of another; one that denounces all others—just as all the others do.
Unpicking a system
You are not stupid. You committed to a system because much of it is true and good and useful. You don’t need to abandon your system immediately, or even at all.2 You can own it, instead of its owning you. You can continue to use it as a way of thinking, feeling, and acting—instead of its using you.
The complete stance recognizes both nebulosity and pattern. It recognizes nebulosity and pattern in the subject matter of an ideology, and in the system itself. Eternalist systems try to be perfectly definite, to have answers for everything. That is impossible, because meaningness is always somewhat indefinite. Ideologies blur and fudge when they run into nebulosity, or they insist on absurdities. Nevertheless, they provide often-valuable ways of looking at patterns of meaning.
Rather than suddenly and totally rejecting an ideology when its failings become too glaring to ignore, it’s better to unpick it like a seam. You unravel a seam with close examination, one stitch at a time. Ideologies are complex, with many details. Leaving the overall structure in place for a while lets you observe the operation of each piece.3 You will see how it functions and when it fails, and how you and others relate to it in different circumstances.
The aim cannot be just figuring out which bits are right and which are wrong. Because meaningness is inherently nebulous, it doesn’t support absolute statements. A system’s particular claims about meaningness are never either absolutely true or absolutely false. This invalidates any project of figuring out what claims about meaning are right and which are wrong in order to rescue the correct ones and assemble them into a new True System.
Because meaningness is patterned as well as nebulous, claims may be accurate enough often enough, or mistaken enough often enough, to accept or reject them as generalizations with exceptions. But in what sense are its claims more-or-less true? It is meaningful to speak of moral truths, or psychological truths, or mythical truths, which are distinct from factual truths, and from each other.
Typically, meanings are context and purpose dependent. When you observe a bit of a system working well or not, you could investigate specifically how and why. What factors make it valuable in some situations and misleading in others? How can it be applied usefully and when should it be ignored?
It’s also helpful to watch how you relate to the system when it works, and when it goes wrong:
When it is going smoothly, are you reassured by feelings of certainty, safety, and unambiguous understanding? If so, you could wonder whether that is realistic. As those feelings stop seeming convincing, it’s a sign that you are starting to use the system, rather than being used by it.
When the system lets you down, when it grates against reality, do you make excuses for it? Do you say to yourself “yes, but the alternative is much worse, so I will stick with it as it is?” Do you try to maintain your commitment using the eternalist ploys?
While unpicking, you may alternate between revulsion and recommitment. It can be emotionally difficult.
When you feel mainly revulsion, when you come to think all ideologies are mostly manipulative lies, it’s easy to fall into post-ideological nihilism.4 You may congratulate yourself for having figured out that all claims about meaning are false, and conclude that everything is meaningless. Then you may try to make an ideology of nihilism—but you can’t. You can make yourself miserable trying, though.
Open-ended curiosity —a texture of the complete stance—is the antidote to both eternalist and nihilist ideologies. The complete stance is both the best result of letting go of addiction to systems, and the best method for doing so.
Moving to metasystematicity
Committing yourself to a system makes you a tool for accomplishing its goals. The move to metasystematicity begins by inverting the relationship. For metasystematicity, systems can be tools for understanding.
Tools don’t do the work; you use tools to do the work. You can’t rely on a system to make sense of meaning for you. You make sense of meaning using systems.
You use different tools for different tasks. If you have one system, rather than being had by one, you can have several. You can use different ones in different contexts—or even several in a single situation.
Metasystematic use of systems requires some disassembly, to tease apart genuine insights from eternalistic overreaching. Most obviously, eternalist systems have different central topics. Theism mostly talks about God and salvation after death; scientism mostly talks about inanimate objects; psychotherapeutic ideology mostly talks about feelings. These systems are “functionally interchangeable” only for stabilizing eternalism. You may have switched allegiance from scientism to Jungianism, even though they are about entirely different things, just because they both make eternalist promises.
In principle, you could use scientism as a way of understanding inanimate things, and Jungianism as a way of understanding mythical things. This is not so easy, because eternalisms can’t resist trying to explain everything. Theistic religions just can’t help themselves from making false claims about scientific facts, no matter how badly that has gone. Scientism can’t help itself from making false claims about ethics, no matter how badly that has gone. So metasystematicity asks about the limits of reliability of a system. That is likely to be restricted to its central subject matter, at most.
Eternalist systems’ attempts to become Theories Of Everything mean they don’t get along well. Attempting to hold both scientism and Jungianism, restricting each to its main topic, would be difficult. Scientism couldn’t help yelling “all myths are false!”, and Jungianism couldn’t help insisting that the Soul and Sacred somehow escape physicality.
That is due to the –ism of both. Science has nothing to say about myths; only scient-ism does. Jung and his lineage developed valuable way of working with mythical material that you can (with some hard work) separate from the implicit metaphysics of Jungian-ism.
If you have systems, you can reflect on how to coordinate them; which takes precedence in what circumstances, and why, and how to combine aspects of two or more in a single situation. Nebulosity does not allow absolute truth, only more-or-less truth. This does not mean that everything is as true as anything else, or that anything goes. Metasystematicity involves figuring out in what sense a principle is true, and how and when and why to apply it.
When that is done, you can use two systems concerning the same subject matter, at the same time—even if they are contradictory. Contradiction is not necessarily a problem in the domain of meaning, because meaning is nebulous.
It is, for example, often helpful to apply contradictory moral frameworks when considering difficult ethical problems. Immanuel Kant famously defended an absolute moral duty to tell the truth, even when honesty would result in the murder of an innocent. Some utilitarians hold that lying is morally required whenever it increases the sum of pleasure in the world, no matter by how little. Nearly everyone else considers that lying is sometimes justified by its consequences, but usually you should tell the truth even if that causes minor harm. (Notably, but not only, when truth concerns your own wrong-doing, and the harmful consequence is to yourself.) Considerations of duties and of consequences are irreconcilable in general, but both may cast light on a single specific situation. Using the two at once is a form of moral metasystematicity.
Metasystematicity says “yes, and also, on the other hand…” This does not imply indecisiveness. It implies taking responsibility for your thinking, feeling, and acting. You understand situations; you cannot outsource your decision-making to an ideology, nor the blame it may entail. You are not subject to a system. Rather, you take the recommendations of systems into account, among other considerations.
Most eternalist systems promise vastness: becoming part of something far greater than yourself.5 Theism connects you with God, who is incomparably superior to the entirety of His Creation, and gives you a role to play in His Plan. Scientism’s sales pitches invoke the unimaginable scale of the astronomical universe, and promise complete understanding of it with physical laws that—like theism’s Biblical laws—are absolute truths. Political theories explain the millennial sweep of human history, and the global struggle for justice, in terms of immutable laws of society, and they offer you a starring role in determining whether future generations will live in an oppressive dystopia or glorious utopia.
None of these glittering promises can be kept. There is much less to ideology than meets the eye. There is no supernatural, most natural phenomena are too messy to be understood with scientific laws,6 and human beings are too diverse and ornery for any political ideology to explain or control society.
Nevertheless, eternalist systems are much bigger than your self. They span vast social and cultural groups, across space and time, and are ways of feeling and interacting, not just intellectual collections. Much of their operation is non-conceptual, and effectively incomprehensible. Weekly church-going may be good for you and for society, even if the eternalist sermons are nonsense. Subordinating yourself to a religion may restrain destructive egotism, and provide you with a small but meaningful role in a global social and cultural community.
Above, I suggested freeing yourself from ideology by shifting from being had by a system to having one, and then to having several. That is a useful way of understanding the process as you begin it, but it is a simplification, and not fully accurate. You cannot fit even one system inside yourself. Complete independence from systems, and complete inversion of the domination relationship, are impossible and undesirable.
Vaster than ideology
Relating accurately with the world’s vastness, including all its systems, requires changing your conception of self, and your relationship with your self. You can be bigger than any ideology—but it will no longer be a you, a self, that is bigger.
It always has been bigger, because it is not an it. You just didn’t notice. You are not a container. You do not have fixed boundaries. The distinction between you and everything else is nebulous.
Your understanding is mainly not personal; it is cultural. Your emotions are mainly not personal, they are relational. Your activity is mainly not personal, it is social.
You extend indefinitely across systems of meaning, from which you are not separate. This does not mean you are One With The Entire Universe. It means your self blurs together with everything you interact with, and selfness fades out with distance.
You cannot be a coherent, fixed, well-defined system. You never were one; but when you identified with an ideology, you tried to make yourself one. When you tried to have systems, you tried to make yourself a bigger, stronger one than them.
Skill in metasystematicity involves accepting your own non-systematic nebulosity with good humor, and without trying to bully your self into a fixed, fully-structured form. You are an indefinite, constantly changing jumble of involvements with people, projects, ideologies, material objects, social and cultural institutions, a vulnerable human body, the cycle of the seasons, and the vicissitudes of history.
This can be frightening, because it implies the impossibility of complete self-control. There is no clearly-defined self to do the controlling, and no way to control a “you” who extends vaguely throughout cultural history and across the globe. There is some danger of pathological ego dissociation here, if you mistake nebulosity of self for absence of any structure or boundary.
Better, you can play with interactions among all the phenomena of the world. Nebulosity does not imply chaotic discord. When conflict does occur, recognizing the inseparability of nebulosity and pattern may lead to creative syntheses or resolutions.
- 1.This page uses the grammatically indefinite “you” throughout to refer to the protagonist. If it seems accusatory at times, please do not take it personally. Nearly every failing I ascribe to “you” is part of my personal experience. The others are observations of patterns commonly seen in others—from close friends to anonymous online essayists.
- 2.Some systems are better (or worse) than others, of course. If you realize you are in an abusive cult, speedy exit may be wise. Even then, reflection on what it got right will prove valuable. It’s tempting to replace unrealistic idealization with unrealistic vilification. It was all-good; now it is all-bad. The violence of rejection is a defense against being pulled in again by its attractions. It’s also an excuse to avoid admitting your own gullibility and culpability. You try to convince yourself that the only possible explanation for your previous adherence was that the cult was overwhelmingly duplicitous and coercive. A realistic assessment of what was genuinely good as well as evil in it will be painful and difficult, but worth the effort.
- 3.This analogy doesn’t really work. If you unpick seams, the garment falls apart, but the pieces are left intact. When unpicking a system, you change your relationship with its whole fabric, while leaving the structure intact. I haven’t got a better analogy, and am keeping this one for its sorry pun: you also “unpick” in the sense of undoing your choice to commit to an ideology, without necessarily vilifying it.
- 4.For a detailed discussion of post-ideological nihilism, see Thomas Swan and Suzie Benack’s “Narcissism in the Epistemological Pit,” Journal of Adult Development, Vol. 9, No. 3, July 2002.
- 5.Vastness is not a promise of eternalism itself, which is why I did not cover it in “The appeal of eternalism.” Eternalism is just “everything means something,” and the something might be quite narrow.
- 6.See In the Cells of the Eggplant, particularly the chapters on reductionism and definition.