This book is about
meaningness. “Meaningness” is a word I invented, referring to the quality of being meaningful and/or meaningless.
The word “meaning” has two quite different meanings in English. It can refer to the meaning of symbols, such as words and road signs. This book is not about that kind of meaning.
People also speak of “the meaning of life.” That is the sort of meaningness this book is about. So I apply “meaningness” only to the sorts of things one could describe as “deeply meaningful” or “pretty meaningless.” The book is about matters such as purpose, ethics, and selfhood.
Meaningness is a quality, not a thing. I don’t think there is
a definite meaning of life. Meaningness is always : indefinite, uncertain, ambiguous. nebulous
-ness constantly reminds one of this nebulosity. I mostly avoid the word “meaning,” because it builds in the assumption that something meaning ful has one specific meaning. Often, that is wrong.
I use “meaningness” in three closely-related ways, referring to:
It should be clear from context which way I’m using the word in each case.
A curiously missing word
I invented the word “meaningness” because the topic of this book seemed to have no name. There seems to be no -ology or -osophy devoted to it.
There are various -ologies devoted to
meanings. For example, semantics studies the meanings of words. This book is not about that.
of meaningness dimensions are discussed in religion and philosophy; but, strangely, the topic as a whole is never addressed. Neither religion nor philosophy
My approach in this book is non-religious and non-philosophical. It is meant for readers who have rejected religious answers. Those who have figured out that philosophy also lacks answers may be even more intrigued.
It will be obvious that the book is non-religious. It’s
anti-religious to the extent that most religions are , and rejection of eternalism is one of my main themes. I take eternalist atheism as a given; it’s barely worth mentioning, much less arguing for.
Less obviously, the book is also non-philosophical, and perhaps even anti-philosophical. It is meant as a practical manual. I hope it is useful to anyone who struggles with questions like “what should I do with my life?” and “how ethical should I be?” and “do I have a special destiny, or is my life going to have no meaning beyond the ordinary?”
Isn’t it odd that philosophy has no branch devoted to meaningness?
Especially since meaningness is exactly what regular people, who haven’t studied philosophy, usually think philosophy is about?
In ancient times, philosophers did ask the big questions of meaningness. (I’m fond of
Diogenes, whose picture heads this page.) Nowadays, big questions are considered embarrassingly naive. The proper job of a philosopher is to make tiny technical corrections in esoteric theories that probably have no connection with reality.
In recent philosophical history, existentialism was an exception. It was willing to ask the important questions. It avoided the error of
, by rejecting definite, objective meanings. However, it wrongly supposed that meaningness is merely subjective, and thereby came to an acknowledged eternalism dead end. nihilistic
Particular branches of current philosophy address particular
of meaningness. For instance, dimensions normative moral philosophy tries to answer some questions about ethics—one dimension of meaningness. Later in the book, I argue that nearly all current ethical theories are either eternalist or nihilist, and therefore wrong. The wrong answers come from asking wrong questions. I will suggest better questions, and beginnings of answers.
There is an
audio version of this page, read by Matt Arnold.
Meaningness is a book, best read in order.
Start with an appetizer, or the table of contents.
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The book is a work in progress; pages marked ⚒︎ are under construction.
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plus a metablog of news and commentary.
You can read recent comments and join the discussion.
Hover or click on terms with
to read a definition.
Informally introducing the central themes of the Meaningness book.
Stances: responses to meaningness
The overall conceptual framework: “stances” are simple patterns of thinking and feeling about meaningness.
Stances trump systems
People think they approach meaning in terms of religions or philosophies, but in practice, "stances" matter more.
Stances are unstable
Stances—responses to meaning—are unstable thought-patterns. Often we adopt several contradictory ones in rapid succession.
Meaningness is cloud-like: nebulous. It is real, but impossible to completely pin down.
Brains automatically find meaning and pattern; we need them to act. Unfortunately, brains also find meaning and pattern where there are none.
Fixation and denial
Fixation and denial are the two simplest ways of refusing to deal with the nebulosity of meaningness.
Confused stances come in pairs
Wrong ideas about meaning come in mirror-image pairs, which fixate and deny opposite aspects of reality.
No middle way
Polarized pairs of confused stances cannot be resolved by compromise. There is no middle way between them.
Accepting nebulosity resolves confusions about meaning
Confusions about meaning can be resolved using a method for looking at ways nebulosity affects the subject matter.
Confusion, completion, misery and joy
Properly understanding meaning eliminates needless suffering. An application: ethics.
Meaningness as a liberating practice
A practice of replacing confused, dysfunctional patterns of thinking and feeling about meaning with accurate ones.
The psychological anatomy of a stance
The key aspects of a stance toward meaning, and how to use them effectively.
Adopting, committing, accomplishing, wavering, appropriating
Concerning relationships one may have with stances: basic attitudes toward meaningness.
The Big Three stance combinations
Dualism, nihilism, and monism are the three main approaches to fundamental questions of meaning. This book proposes a better, fourth alternative.
Schematic overview: all dimensions
A complete summary overview of all the dimensions of meaningness, with all the common stances one can take to them.
Meaning and meaninglessness
Eternalism fixates meaning; nihilism denies it. Recognizing that meaning is both nebulous and patterned resolves this false dichotomy.
The puzzle of meaningness
What is the meaning of an extra-marital affair—or any relationship? A philosophical short story illustrates the puzzle of the nebulosity of meaningness.
Meaningfulness and meaninglessness
Some things are meaningful, and others aren't. This is obvious; yet most confusions about meaning begin by denying it.
Extreme examples, eternalism and nihilism
Claims that everything is meaningful, or that nothing is, are motivated by fears: fear of the opposite.
⚒︎ No cosmic plan
Great confusions about meaningness stem from the mistaken assumption that there must be some sort of eternal ordering principle.
So how does meaningness work?
We have a choice of explanations: ones that are simple, clear, harmful, and wrong; or ones that are complex, vague, helpful, and approximately right.
Rumcake and rainbows
Meaning cannot be either objective or subjective. But meaning does exist: as interaction.
Schematic overview: meaningness
A schematic overview of eternalism and nihilism as confused responses to meaningness.
Eternalism: the fixation of meaning
Eternalism is the wrong idea that everything has a definite meaning, fixed by an external ordering principle.
I get duped by eternalism in a casino
Gambling, religion, and addiction: a personal story.
The appeal of eternalism
Eternalism promises everything you could want from meaning: safety, support, certainty, reassurance, and control. Solid ground!
The promise of certainty
What we want most from meaning is guarantees. Religions, political ideologies, and other eternalist systems promise certainty; but they cannot deliver.
The illusion of understanding
It’s deluded to think we mostly understand issues of meaning (ethics, purpose, value, politics). Ideologies deliberately create and sustain that illusion.
The fantasy of control
Eternalism promises complete control over life—but that is an impossible fantasy. Influence through collaboration and improvisation are possible, however.
The wheel of fortune
Eternalism promises answers about good and bad—the meanings we care about most—but cannot deliver.
Eternalism as the only salvation from nihilism
Eternalism's final promise is to keep nihilism at bay. There is a better alternative to both!
Eternalism is harmful
Eternalism—belief in fixed meanings—makes promises it can't keep. It makes us do stupid, crazy, evil things. And we still love it and keep going back for more.
Systems such as religions and political ideologies reinforce eternalism. They dispel doubt by denying nebulosity.
Accomplishing eternalism would would mean knowing the meaning of everything, and acting accordingly. This is impossible, because there are no fixed meanings.
Learning skills for escaping the grip of eternalism—the delusion that everything is meaningful.
Eternalist ploys and their antidotes
Ploys—ways of thinking, feeling, talking, and acting—which stabilize eternalism; and antidotes to use against them.
⚒︎ Imposing fixed meanings
Forcing fixed meanings on experience always eventually results in unpleasant shocks when reality refuses to conform to your pre-determined categories.
⚒︎ Smearing meaning all over everything
Monist eternalism—the New Age and SBNR, for example—say everything is meaningful, but leaves vague what the meanings are.
⚒︎ Magical thinking
Magical thinking—hallucinating causal connections—is powerfully synergistic with eternalism (the stance that everything has a fixed meaning).
Hope is harmful in devaluing the present and shifting attention to imaginary futures that may never exist.
Eternalist religions and political systems are always partly make-believe, like children playing at being pirates.
⚒︎ Colluding for eternalism
Because eternalist delusion is so desirable, we collude to maintain it. To save each other from nihilism, we support each other in not-seeing nebulosity.
⚒︎ Hiding from nebulosity
Hiding from nebulosity is a ploy to preserve eternalism by physically avoiding ambiguous situations and information.
⚒︎ Kitsch and naïveté
Eternalist kitsch is the denial of the possibility of meaninglessness. This leads to willfully idiotic sentimentality.
⚒︎ Armed & armored eternalism
When nebulosity becomes obvious, eternalism fails to fit reality. You can armor yourself against evidence, and arm yourself to destroy it.
Privileging faith over experience is an eternalist ploy for blinding yourself to signs of nebulosity.
⚒︎ Thought suppression
Thought suppression is a ploy for maintaining faith in non-existent meanings. It leads to deliberate stupidity, inability to express oneself, and inaction.
⚒︎ Bargaining and recommitment
When eternalism lets you down, you are tempted to make a bargain with it. Eternalism will behave itself better, and in return you renew your faith in it.
⚒︎ Wistful certainty
Wistful certainty is a ploy for reinforcing eternalism based on the thought that there must exist whatever it takes to make eternalism seem to work.
⚒︎ Faithful bafflement
Faithful bafflement is a ploy for maintaining the eternalist stance that remains committed but begins to doubt.
Mystification uses thoughts as a weapon against authentic thinking. It creates glib, bogus metaphysical explanations that sweep meaninglessness under the rug.
⚒︎ Rehearsing the horrors of nihilism
Reminding yourself and others of how bad nihilism is can help maintain the eternalist stance. This is the hellfire and brimstone of eternalist preaching.
Purity is an obsessive focus for dualist eternalism. It mobilizes emotions of disgust, guilt, shame, and self-righteous anger.
⚒︎ Fortress eternalism
In the face of undeserved suffering, is difficult not to fall into the stance that most things are God’s will, but not the horrible bits.
Nihilism: denying meaning
Nihilism is the wrong idea that nothing is meaningful, based on the accurate realization that there is no external, eternal source of meaning.
You’ve got nihilism wrong
Whether you think you are a nihilist, or think you are not—I think you are mistaken. Nihilism is impossible—but so is avoiding it.
Cold comfort: the promise of nihilism
Nihilism promises you don’t have to care, because nothing means anything. But you do care—and you can’t escape that.
The emotional dynamics of nihilism
Nihilism relies on three emotional strategies to deny meaning: rage, intellectualization, and depression. It also causes anxiety.
What is it like to be a nihilist?
The end-state of nihilism is not suicide, but catatonia.
Nihilism is black magic
Nihilism has a taboo allure of forbidden power—because everyone knows eternalism is wrong.
Sexy cynicism and nihilist elitism
Recognizing meaninglessness requires unusual intelligence, courage, and toughness. Nihilist elitism renders you stupid, cowardly, and helpless, though.
The nihilist apocalypse
A world of total license: the catastrophe some fear if nihilistic views become widespread.
“Nihilism is OK” is not OK
“Nihilism is inevitable, but not a problem.” This is mistaken: it makes you miserable and ineffective, and erodes social and cultural capacity.
⚒︎ Nihilistic rage and clarity
Nihilistic rage wants to destroy whatever has meaning, and whoever points to meaning.
⚒︎ Nihilistic intellectualization and understanding
When desperate to deny all meanings, we use absurd pseudo-rational, pseudo-scientific, intellectual arguments to justify nihilism.
The uncanny absence of nihil –ism
Nihilism, like botulism, is not an ideology or conceptual system. It is a stance: an emotionally-charged way of being.
190-proof vs. lite nihilism
Nihilism says nothing means anything—but no one actually believes that. Lite nihilism weakens the claim, to make it plausible.
⚒︎ Qualities of nihilistic thought
Nihilistic thinking is slow, repetitive, abstract, general, meta, vague, arrogant, and absolutist. It exalts rationality but violates basic logic.
Nihilistic reasoning errors
The many justifications for nihilism rely on a handful of mistaken patterns of reasoning.
Lite nihilism, on the way to completion
Lite nihilism includes a valuable, accurate analysis of the failure of eternalism.
Not really meaningful
“Nothing REALLY means anything” sounds plausible when you feel nihilistic. What does “really” mean, though?
No extra-special fancy meanings
Nihilism rightly denies objective, ultimate, transcendent, absolute, cosmic, and eternal meanings. What is left?
No absolute meaning
Are you adult enough to accept that the world offers no absolute guarantees?
No transcendent meaning
If meaning lives only in Neverland, we can’t make much use of it. Fortunately, it’s here, now.
No ultimate meaning
“Ultimate” means “at the end of a scale.” What is the scale of meaning? Should you want to be at the end of it?
No eternal meaning
Meanings come and go; they are not eternally stable—and that is fine.
No cosmic meaning
Intuitions of “cosmic meaning” root in hunger for personal significance, and in encounters with vastness.
⚒︎ No objective meaning
Whether something counts as “objective” is often a matter of degree, and dependent on circumstances.
⚒︎ No universal meaning
Must meanings apply uniformly to everyone, maybe even space aliens in other galaxies, in order to count?
⚒︎ No unique individual meaning
Do you have to do something uniquely important for your life to count as meaningful?
⚒︎ No meaning of life as a whole
Misunderstanding “a life” as an objecti leads to the complaint that, although meanings exist, life is meaningless overall.
⚒︎ No higher meaning
Lite nihilism complains that, although “base” meanings exist, “higher” ones do not.
⚒︎ Not enough meaning
Perception that life is not meaningful enough may involve an unrealistic standard; or ways of increasing meaningfulness may help.
Reason your way out of 190-proof nihilism
Nihilism defends itself from the obviousness of meanings with spurious intellectual arguments. Here’s how to dispel them.
⚒︎ Nihilistic depression illuminates the shadow
Realizing that eternalism will always fail can result in anguish, pessimism, depression, stoicism, alienation, apathy, exhaustion, and paralysis.
⚒︎ Nihilistic anxiety opens into play
Anxiety is a natural reaction to uncertainty. In nihilism, pervasive loss of meaning makes everything uncertain; existential angst is a response.
⚒︎ Sartre’s ghost and the corpse of God
Existentialism, a hopeful alternative to rigid meanings, makes wrong metaphysical assumptions, and cannot work. It collapses inevitably into nihilism.
The complete stance
Meaning is nebulous, yet patterned; meaningfulness and meaninglessness intermingle. Recognizing this frees us from metaphysical delusions.
The appeal of complete stances
Resolving problems of meaning by recognizing inseparable pattern and nebulosity will improve your life.
Peak experiences and the complete stance are similar in texture, but differ in intensity, conceptual content, and causes.
Obstacles to the complete stance
Meaning and meaninglessness, pattern and nebulosity all obviously exist—yet we resist recognizing and admitting this. Why?
⚒︎ Observing meaningness
How to catch meaningness in action; ways of watching confused and complete stances.
Finding the complete stance
The fundamental method for resolving problems of meaning: by finding nebulosity, pattern, and their inseparable relationship.
Textures of completion
Patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting in the complete stance, which resolves problems of meaning.
Wonder at the vastness, beauty, and intricacy of the phenomenal world: a texture of the complete stance.
Open-ended curiosity gives you the freedom to interact with the world without metaphysical presuppositions.
Recognizing the inseparability of nebulosity and pattern gives experience a texture of good humor, and the funny sort too!
Playfulness, which recognizes the mingled pattern and nebulosity of meaning, is a characteristic texture of activity in the complete stance.
⚒︎ Enjoying the dance of nebulosity and pattern
Enjoyment of the intertwining dance of nebulosity and pattern is a characteristic texture of the complete stance to meaning.
Creation is the characteristic activity of the complete stance; its densest texture.
Stabilizing the complete stance
Going beyond resolutions of specific problems: consistently maintaining an accurate stance toward meaningness.
Unity and diversity
Stances concerning connection and separateness: monism, dualism, and participation.
Abandoning selflessness and egoism equally, we can play with the ambiguous self/other boundary; supple, skillful selfing for successful, satisfying interaction.
Schematic overview: self
A schematic overview of stances regarding the meaningness of the self: non-self, True Self, and intermittently continuing.
⚒︎ A billion tiny spooks
Representationalism tried to exorcise the ghost in the machine, but succeeded only in splitting it into innumerable tiny ghosts.
⚒︎ The true self
Monism and dualism both offer concepts of the supposed true self as a coherent entity.
Several views of selflessness, in different religions and philosophies.
⚒︎ Intermittently continuing
An optimistic view of the self as incoherent, but not non-existent, and not necessarily problematic.
Dividing purposes into higher and mundane, mission pursues higher ends and rejects pragmatism; materialism seeks only selfish goals. Both are mistakes.
⚒︎ Personal value
Agonizing over whether you are ordinary or special—or feeling smug about one or the other—can be resolved by choosing to be noble instead.
Schematic overview: value
A schematic overview of stances toward personal value: specialness, ordinariness, and nobility.
Specialness is a sense of having been picked out for destiny by the Cosmic Plan. That causes you and others much trouble.
If we could just manage to be ordinary, we would not have the responsibility of living up to our potential. Fortunately, ordinariness is impossible.
Nobility is the aspiration to manifest glory for the benefit of others.
Resolving a false dichotomy between unrealistic views: being a helpless victim and being totally responsible for your circumstances.
Schematic overview: capability
A schematic overview of stances regarding issues of capability.
⚒︎ Total responsibility
The delusion that we are, or can be, totally responsible for reality is prevalent in some religious and psychotherapeutic circles.
Victim-think is a strategy for denying all responsibility—on the part of individuals and social groups.
Playfully co-create reality in collaboration with each other and the world.
Available ethical theories are either eternalist or nihilist; both are useless. We must recognize that ethics are both nebulous and meaningful.
Schematic overview: ethics
A schematic overview of fundamental stances regarding ethics.
⚒︎ Ethical eternalism
An ethical system that reliably delivers correct moral judgements is a wishful fantasy. No such system is possible.
⚒︎ Ethical nihilism
Ethical nihilism is the denial of all ethical rightness and wrongness.
⚒︎ Ethical responsiveness
Ethics is centrally important to humans, and is not a matter of choice, but is fluid and has no definite source.
A better alternative to the dysfunctional stances of mindlessly opposing authority and mindlessly obeying.
Resolving the twin delusions that nothing is sacred and that the only sacred things are those designated by some authority.
Schematic overview: sacredness
Schematic overview of stances toward sacredness: religiosity, secularism, kadag.
Religiosity is the confused, eternalistic view that the sacred and profane can be clearly separated.
Secularism is the stance that sacredness is mere superstition; nothing is sacred.
Kadag: Because nothing is inherently sacred, everything can be sacred.
Meaningness and Time: past, present, future
The problems of meaningness we face now are dramatically different from those of the past. We also sense new opportunities, and have new resources.
How meaning fell apart
Over the past century, systems of meaning gradually disintegrated, and a series of new modes of meaningness developed.
A gigantic chart that explains absolutely everything
This chart is an overview of Meaningness and Time: the past, present, and future of culture, society, and our selves.
In praise of choicelessness
The choiceless mode of understanding meaning has no “becauses.” Explanations are unnecessary because you are unaware of any alternatives.
The glory of systems
Systems of society, culture, and the self were the foundation of the modern world. Their glories have passed.
Invented traditions and timeworn futures
Invented traditions and timeworn futures are ideological time-distortion strategies. Highly effective in propaganda.
Systems of meaning all in flames
How and why modernity failed. All systems of meaning—religious, political, artistic, psychological—began to fall apart. Nihilism seemed the only alternative.
Countercultures: modernity’s last gasp
The hippies and the Moral Majority both tried to rescue systematic eternalism—and failed. We live amongst their wreckage.
What makes a counterculture?
Countercultures defined as new, alternative, universalist, eternalist, anti-rational systems: there were two in the late 20th century.
Hippies and Evangelicals: monist and dualist countercultures
The hippie counterculture was structurally and functionally similar to the Moral Majority Christian Right counterculture a decade later.
⚒︎ The hippie family who invented contemporary conservatism
The Schaeffer family, hippie gurus, created the American Religious Right. Too late, they realized they had created a monster: a tragedy in the ancient style.
Renegotiating self and society
How—and why!—countercultures sought to reform psychologies and polities: to counteract alienation, anxiety, and anomie.
Rejecting rationality, reinventing religion, reconfiguring the self
The 1960s-80s countercultures abandoned rationality because they believed it negated all meaning. They were wrong.
The personal is political
The 1960s-80s countercultures dissolved the boundaries between self and society, ethical and political—setting us up for decades of culture war.
Rotating politics ninety degrees clockwise
In the 1960s-80s, American politics shifted from economic to sacredness issues. This damaged public discourse, but created a new two-track class system.
⚒︎ Countercultures: modern mythologies
The Religious Right and New Age Left both promoted time-distorting meta-myths—imaginary past golden ages and implausible future utopias—to hide their defects.
Fundamentalism is countercultural modernism
Fundamentalism is not traditional; it is a modern, countercultural movement, opposed to tradition and to post-modernity.
⚒︎ Counter-cultures: thick and wide
The hippie and Moral Majority movements both developed broad, deep cultures, with innovative approaches to every aspect of life, from music to dentistry.
Why both countercultures failed
Failure to find new foundations for meaning, to recognize diversity, to provide community, and to transcend opposition: all doomed counterculturalism.
Wreckage: the culture war
The culture war, political polarization, Baby Boomer bafflement: the unending zombie slugfest pairing the two countercultures of the 1960s-80s.
Completing the countercultures
At root, the culture war is not about abortion, gay marriage, or marijuana. It is about shared misunderstandings of the nature of meaning.
Subcultures: the diversity of meaning
The subcultural era (1975-2000) recognized the diversity of meanings, and provided a new type of supportive, voluntary social group.
Atomization: the kaleidoscope of meaning
The global internet atomizes cultures, societies, and selves into tiny brilliant shards. Meaning has lost context and coherence. Now what?
⚒︎ Fluidity: a preview
Fluidity addresses the atomization of culture, society, and self with ships that sail the sea of meaning: collaborative, improvised, intimate, and playful.
Modes of meaningness, eternalism and nihilism
From fundamentalism to atomization, different modes of relating to meaning overemphasize pattern or nebulosity.
Desiderata for any future mode of meaningness
A positive and realistic vision for the future of society, culture, and self, drawing lessons from recent history.
⚒︎ Sailing the seas of meaningness
Social, cultural, and personal fluidity create vessels to navigate the ocean of atomized meanings, steering between nihilism and eternalism.
⚒︎ Fluid understanding: meta-rationality
Meta-rationality uses rational systems more effectively by taking them as nebulous tools, not eternal truths.
⚒︎ Fluid self in relationship
Fluidity recognizes that you have selves, rather than being a self, and that the self/other distinction is nebulous though patterned.
⚒︎ Fluid society
A fluid society ideally provides the benefits of tradition, modernity, and postmodernity, while avoiding their defects.
⚒︎ Fluid culture: metamodernism
Metamodernism resolves the modernity/postmodernity conflict in favor of reconstruction, collaboration, ambiguity, and engagement.
A series of appendices, including a glossary and suggestions for further reading elsewhere.