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* Book: Meaningness. By David Chapman.


Contextual Quote

"I have coined the word “meaningness” to express the ambiguous quality of meaningfulness and meaninglessness that we encounter in practice. According to the stance that recognizes meaningness, meaning is real but not definite. It is neither objective nor subjective. It is neither given by an external force nor a human invention.

I call this a “complete stance” because it acknowledges two qualities: nebulosity or indefiniteness, and pattern or regularity. A complete stance does not deny or fixate any aspect of meaningness.

From point of view of the complete stance, eternalism and nihilism are each half right. Eternalism rightly recognizes that the world is meaningful to us, and that it must be accepted as it is. This is the acknowledgement of pattern: the world in all its variety, pain and pleasure alike. Nihilism rightly recognizes that there is no eternal source of meaning, so there is no ultimate basis or necessity for rejecting anything. This is the acceptance of nebulosity: the chaos and contingency of the world, and the recognition that we are free from divine law."

- David Chapman [1]


David Chapman:


"Meaning is real (and cannot be denied), but is fluid (so it cannot be fixed). It is neither objective (given by God) nor subjective (chosen by individuals).

The book offers resolutions to problems of meaning that avoid denial, fixation, and the impossibility of total self-determination. These resolutions are non-obvious, and sometimes unattractive; but they are workable in ways the alternatives are not."



"I use “meaningness” in three closely-related ways, referring to:

  • the quality of being meaningful and/or meaningless
  • the study of, or ideas about, this quality
  • a particular stance toward the quality: the one that acknowledges both meaninglessness and meaningfulness, avoiding both fixation and denial."



David Chapman:

"Let’s talk about purpose. (Purpose is one of the dimensions of meaningness discussed in this book.)

Especially at turning points in life, people ask questions like:

  1. Is there any purpose at all in living? Or is everything completely pointless?
  2. What am I supposed to do?
  3. How can I choose among the many ways I could spend the rest of my life?
  4. Does everyone’s life have the same purpose, or does everyone have their own?
  5. Where does purpose come from? Does it have some ultimate source, or is it just a personal invention?

Various religions, philosophies, and systems claim to have answers. Some are complicated, and they all seem quite different. When you strip away the details, though, there are only a half dozen fundamental answers. Each is appealing in its own way, but also problematic. Understanding clearly what is right and wrong about each approach can resolve the underlying problem.

Let’s go through these alternatives briefly. I will explain each one in detail in the middle part of the book.



  • "Everything has a fixed purpose, given by some sort of fundamental ordering principle of the universe. (This might be God, or Fate, or the Cosmic Plan, or something.) Humans too have a specific role to play in the proper order of the universe."

This is the stance of eternalism. It may be comfortable. If you just follow the eternal law, everything will come out right. Unfortunately, it often seems that much of life has no purpose. At any rate, you cannot figure out what it is supposed to be. Priests or other authority figures claim to know what the cosmic purposes are, but their advice often seems wrong for particular situations.

For these reasons, even people who are explicitly committed to eternalism generally fall into other stances at times.


"Eternalism and nihilism are both responses to the ambiguity of meaningness. In personal experience, meanings seem to resist focus, shift, and come and go. Moreover, people disagree about what things mean. Perhaps meanings are just a matter of opinion? Meaning is important enough that this uncertainty is emotionally unacceptable.

The strategy of eternalism is to deny the ambiguity. Despite appearances, it says, everything does have a clear and definite meaning, which is not merely subjective. We might not perceive it, or we might mistake it, but it exists.

If meanings are objective, not human creations, it may seem they must come from some ultimate, transcendent source. In many systems, that is a God. In others, it is an abstraction, like Fate or Reason or the Absolute. These are supposed to provide the sole source of meaning, purpose, value, and ethics. I refer to any such source as an eternal ordering principle or Cosmic Plan.

Luckily, there is no eternal ordering principle, so eternalism is false as a fact-claim. Arguments about that never seem to persuade anyone, however. So I take this hyper-atheism for granted, and instead ask: what are our options if eternalism is wrong?

Here it is helpful to understand what works, and doesn’t work, about eternalism (and the other confused stances) emotionally, rather than in terms of truth.

The appeal of eternalism is that questions of life-purpose and ethics have clear, simple answers. If you act in accordance with this Cosmic Plan, you are guaranteed a good outcome. You can be assured that seeming chaos and senseless misery are all orderly parts of the will of an all-good principle.

Even if it were factually true, eternalism could not deliver on this sales pitch. The compelling emotional logic breaks down in some contexts. In those situations, adopting the eternalist stance makes you think and act in ways that lead to big trouble.

It is difficult to see how the suffering caused by earthquakes could be willed by a benevolent God, or meaningful, or anything other than disasters that just happened. The difficulty of maintaining willful blindness to meaninglessness is an obstacle to eternalism. It is hard not to fall into the confused stance that most things are God’s will, but not the bad bits. Once you admit that some things are meaningless, the logic of eternalism starts to fall apart.

To defend against that, you have to hallucinate a pastel-colored Disneyfied world in which everything works out for the best in the end, there is a silver lining in every cloud, everyone is beautiful inside, and all the world needs is love.

Threats to this vision must be destroyed. Eternalist kitsch rapidly switches to self-righteous vengeance when contradicted.

Eternalism also requires you to submit to the Cosmic Plan, to do as it demands, rather than pursuing your own goals. It is often unclear what God wants you to do, and sometimes what he wants is insane and harmful. Then you either do the apparently right thing, which erodes your commitment to his ethical code, or you follow the prescription. If that has the expected bad result, you must blind yourself to that, and harden yourself against the temptation to weaken the code to fit reality.

Much good is left undone because eternalism did not recommend it, and much harm is done in its name. We also lose the freedom of courage: the freedom to risk, to take actions whose results we cannot predict. Armored eternalism condemns such creativity."




* "Nothing has any purpose. Life is meaningless. Any purposes you imagine you have are illusions, errors, or lies."

This is the stance of nihilism. It appears quite logical. It might seem to follow naturally from some scientific facts: everything is made of subatomic particles; they certainly don’t have purposes; and you can’t get purpose by glomming together a bunch of purposeless bits.

It is easy to fall into nihilism in moments of despair; but, fortunately, it is difficult to maintain, and hardly anyone holds it for long. Nevertheless, the seemingly compelling logic of nihilism needs an answer. It turns out that it is quite wrong, as a matter again of science and logic. But because that is not obvious, three other stances try (and fail) to find a middle way between eternalism and nihilism.


"Nihilism starts from the intelligent recognition that eternalism is false and unworkable. Most events are meaningless; meaning is not objective; there is no Cosmic Plan.

Nihilism then simply inverts the core claim of eternalism: it says everything is really meaningless. Seeming meanings are illusory or arbitrary or subjective, and therefore unreal or unimportant.

This stance is unworkable. Meaning is obvious everywhere, and it takes elaborate intellectualization to explain it away. Attempting to live without significance, purpose, or value leads to rage, anguish, alienation, depression, and exhaustion.

Kitsch is worthy of contempt, but—through fear of being duped again—we extend contempt beyond kitsch to anything that affirms meaning. This makes defiant nihilism actively hostile to more-or-less everything, but particularly beauty, virtue, kindness, and whatever else makes life worth living.

Eternalism blinds us by a simple effort of will, or faith. Such simple stupidity is insufficient for nihilism: it is not possible to use mere force to fool ourselves that there is no meaning in the world. Instead, nihilism uses intelligence against itself to produce stupidity. Somehow meaning must be explained away by intellectual sleight-of-hand. A theory is needed that can distract us from the obvious. This theory has to get complicated quickly in order to be sufficiently confusing, or so brilliantly insightful as to dazzle us into submission. This intellectual stupidity masquerades as intelligence.

Denying meaning blinds one to beauty, making all reality dull gray. Denying purpose produces paralysis, with no possibility of choice and so no action. Denying significance suggests that there is no urgency to do anything about it.

In depression, you recoil from the overwhelming vastness and complexity of reality. You feel lost in space. You put yourself in a box to create comforting limits. Nihilism shuts down emotions to deny passion."



* "The supposed cosmic purposes are doubtful at best, but obviously, people do have goals. There are human purposes no one can seriously doubt: survival, health, sex, romance, fame, power, enjoyable experiences, children, beautiful things. Realistically, those are what everyone pursues anyway. You might as well drop the hypocritical pretense of “higher” purposes and go for what you really want."

This is the stance of materialism. Realistically, most people adopt this stance much of the time. However, at times everyone does recognize the value of altruistic and creative purposes, which this stance rejects. Moreover, most recognize that materialism is an endless treadmill: the enjoyment of new goodies wears off quickly, and then you are left craving the next, better thing.


* "You can’t take it with you. After you are dead, it is meaningless how many toys you had. What matters is how you live your life: whether you create something of beauty or value for others. You have unique capabilities to improve the world, and it’s your responsibility to find and act on your personal gift."

This is the stance of mission. The problem is that no one actually has a “unique personal gift.” God does not have plans for us. People waste a lot of time and effort trying to find “their purpose in life,” and are miserable when they fail. Besides that, rejecting material purposes causes you to overlook genuine opportunities for enjoyment and satisfaction.


* "Since the universe (or God) does not supply us with purposes, they are human creations. Mostly people mindlessly adopt purposes that are handed to them by society. You need to throw those off, and choose your own purposes, as an act of creative will."

This is the stance of existentialism. It is based on the assumption that if purposes are not objective, or externally given, they must be subjective, or internally created. Existentialism holds out hope for freedom. But it is not actually possible to create your own purposes. Choosing at random would be pointless, and impossible; and what purely personal basis could you have for choosing one purpose over another?"