meaning

I’m happy to be accused of ‘middle-ism’ ((Painting two extremes and arguing that the middle is best or most correct)), but with regard to the question of inherent meaning in/to any things or events ((In a sense, things are events??)), it seems that meaningfulness is between the extreme on one hand of seeing too little – or no – meaning (nihilism) ((from Latin nihil – ‘nothing’)), and the extreme on the other of seeing too much meaning (superstition) ((from Latin superstitio – ‘over-standing’)).

The spectrum seems an honest one.

Nihilism is as far as you can go in the direction of denying any/all kinds of meaning, purpose or value.  Superstition is as far as you can go in the direction of affirming any/all kinds of meaning, purpose or value.  Judaeo-Christian monotheism opposes both.

In opposition to nihilism, monotheism says that there is inherent meaning, purpose and value to things/events ((Interestingly, however, Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, thought that – at some level of experience – ‘everything is meaningless’.)).  Life is seen to have at least some kind of purpose, meaning and value – even if non-omniscient humans cannot omnisciently know the content of them ((Stop and ask, however: Isn’t our utter inability to know everything one of the first things we can truly know?  And doesn’t this overturn full-on agnosticism?)).  Life (from amoeba to anthropos) is seen as the result of a purpose, desire/will, intent – and not a meaningless accident with no purpose.

In opposition to superstition, monotheism resists falsely attributed meaning to things like cats walking under ladders, mirrors breaking, crystals, idols, necklaces (yes, even cross-shaped ones).  It is not that ladders, necklaces, cats, crystals and mirrors have no meaning or value, but that meaning/value is falsely attributed to them.  Ladders evidence human tool-making, and necklaces their art; cats and crystals show the creativity of the Creator (and the natural processes employed), and broken mirrors point to anything from carelessness to human art/illustration ((I shattered a mirror in a camp talk making the point about how sin shatters human nature which like a mirror reflects God into the world.)).

There are other points on the spectrum on both sides of monotheism that (in both directions) gradually approach nihilism and superstition.  Something like this gradient seems accurate: nihilism (atheism), pantheism, panentheism, deism, monotheism, henotheism, polytheism, animism, voodoo/spiritism.

Pantheism (I like to say) is characterised by a rejection of all particular beliefs, whilst affirming the general notion of some kind of universal ‘energy’ that can be appreciated, sensed, or ‘felt’ etc.  Even ‘prayed to’; there are degrees within pantheism, too ((I’ve heard people talk of putting thoughts ‘out into the universe’ which will return, etc.)).  Pantheism ((Atheism and pantheism are mere millimetres apart.)) is very tolerable and acceptable as it allows people to identify as ‘spiritual’, without having to bother with ‘doctrine’.  It prefers general over the particular.

Polytheism, however, has a myriad of gods whose action is attributed to all manner of things/events.  The sun god brings out the sun, the corn king provides corn, etc. ad infinitum.

To the nihilst/atheist, all other positions (including monotheism) are superstition.  To the polytheist, monotheism is a kind of nihilism/atheism.  The early Christians, for example, were called atheists – for they were ‘atheists’ about the Roman idol gods ((Ah, but ‘some of us just go one God further’ is the Dawkinsesque line.  But as we’ve seen, the spectrum is not like that – killing off all meaning is a bit harder than killing off extreme superstition.)).

4 thoughts on “meaning”

  1. Just a quick pointer about nihilism: no objective purpose or meaning. This says nothing about applying all manner of subjective purpose or meaning (The myth of Sisyphus explores exactly this), but it is a denial of inherent purpose or meaning.

  2. indeed, even those who believe in no objective/inherent meaning rarely actually live as though nothing mattered. Few philosophical nihilists are ethical/moral nihilists in practice. What they cannot do is complain about anything being inherently/actually/truly wrong, etc. Wrong according to his/her subjective meaning, fine. But not wrong inherently/objectively.

  3. There is often a misperception about atheism and those who hold a nihilistic position that without belief in an objective meaning these people must reject all meaning. I don’t know why this false dichotomy is so willingly and gullibly accepted as true and then misused by many to spread what amounts to a general and purposeful lie about atheists: they are people who believe that all of us live meaningless lives. Your use of the word ‘even’ suggests a leaning towards believing this same false dichotomy as does your assertion that one needs an objective morality into order to complain about behaviour and consequences that are actually wrong.

  4. I think you’ll find that ‘actual’ means (in the relevant sense) having objective reference outside the perceiving subject. When we say ‘that IS wrong’ we are not saying (i.e.) ‘that feels wrong to me’.

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