Saturday, July 30, 2022

Conclusion to a series on faith, doubt and anti-metanoia

 Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, conclusion.

Supernova remnant in the Large Magellanic Cloud. This image is in the public domain. My most important idea blew up on me. I’m learning to see what remains as wonderful.

I started out as a Christian. After a painful journey, I left Christianity (Part I has the personal story). The path out of Christianity involved intense thinking and reading. This blog post series has summaries of many works that I read, intermingled with my own commentary and opinions (Parts II, III, IV and V). Much of this writing was done in past years and I did not update all the places that have out-of-date opinions. In Part VI, I introduce, a work of David Chapman, which served the double purpose of helping me escape from nihilism and freeing me from the allure of adopting another total system of meaning. Now that I am “not a Christian,” what am I? I address my new identity in Part VII. I also had to escape from the latent nihilism that I had developed as the intellectual foil to Christianity and I speculate on how that could be done better in Part VIII. In Part IX, I consider some potential objections to my new approach to meaning. Finally, in Part X, I speculate on my future directions.

Because this blog usually appears in time order with the newest posts at the top, this post may be the first post of the series that you see. Reading in reverse order doesn’t make as much sense as reading chronologically. So here’s a concluding table of contents:

Faith, Doubt and Anti-metanoia series

These previous blog posts are given post-publication honorary inclusion status:

Reading guide

If you are a casual internet browser and you don’t know me personally, then I suggest that you start by reading instead of reading my posts. Then, come back and do your usual thing here. 

If you know me and you’re interested in learning more about me specifically, then Parts I, VI, VII and X are most relevant. 

If your interest is the Bible, then Parts II, IV and V are for you. 

If you’re confident in your disbelief of Christianity, then feel free to skip entire sections in Parts II to V. They may be tedious for you.

If you want to criticize me, then consider this work to be a mile set out for you to walk in my shoes. If you specifically want to bring me back around to Christianity, then I invite you to read every word in this series. If you want to come to me with a rebuttal, please also point out a typographical error as proof of your diligent reading. 

Part X: Next steps in meaning-space

 Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, Part X. For context, start at the introduction.

I used to follow a Christianity that had artificially definite meanings and that tried to force meanings into one complete, coherent system. The previous posts in this blog series explain how I stopped being a Christian and gained new ways of processing meaning. In this post, I’ll speculate on my anticipated next steps in meaning-space. 

My goal is to live as best I can. I mean this not in the sense of eating fine food on the deck of a large yacht, but in the sense of choosing the best action at each moment in time. This question has consumed Western thought at least since Aristotle. In the words of the Wikipedia article on Aristotelian ethics:

Aristotle first used the term ethics to name a field of study developed by his predecessors Socrates and Plato. In philosophy, ethics is the attempt to offer a rational response to the question of how humans should best live.


Painting of Aristotle by Francesco Hayez. Public domain.

To live best, I ought to continuously live better, that is, I must continue to grow as a person. After exiting Christianity, I was pretty tired of working on my self and my systems of meaning making, and I stopped for a while. Maybe this was a fatigue-induced shock reflex, or maybe it was a ‘vacation.’ But I can’t remain stopped forever. It’s not so much about quickly reaching a goal as it is about keeping growth going. I hope to live several more decades, so I have plenty of time to grow. I want to cultivate and sustain growth in a reasonable direction. 

In many ways, the direction is definite and pre-set: I know some of what “living better" means, and specifically those around me can imagine a "better Peter.” In other ways, “living better" is actually really vague. (The goal itself is nebulous and patterned.) I think that more technical capability is better than less, all other things being equal, but it’s mostly orthogonal to what I would term “meaning-space.” (Similar logic applies to athletic development of the body.) The more relevant thread is learning to make meaning in more capable ways by expanding my identity to be meta-systematic and meta-rational.

Since meaning is co-created with other people, a big part of doing meaning better is interacting with other people in better ways. Usually, interacting better means being more empathetic, humane, considerate and friendly. Growing in these kinds of ways is the path of virtue. People have been trying to chart the path of virtue for at least as long as history itself. I won’t be a source of virtue innovation; I only hope to more thoroughly apply what is already known.

Living the best I can also means helping other people grow. As a father, this means helping my kids grow. As a husband, it’s helping my wife grow. As a member of society at large, I have a responsibility to help everyone grow.

My overall direction in meaning-space is toward living better and personal growth, plus enabling better living and growth for those around me. Looking forward to the next steps is fundamentally speculative. Probably the most interesting directions are not apparent to me yet, but I ought to head toward my best guess at the frontier. Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself: 

  • How can I flow with nebulosity better?
  • How can I grow into a meta-systematic, meta-rational approach to life? Which systems should go in my toolbox?
  • After removing the supernatural, what is left of “spiritual” development?
  • What’s left of the process of leaving Christianity? How do I finish burying Christianity’s toxic bones so that they don’t have the power to poison me?
  • How can I get unstuck on making progress in those areas of life where I consistently make choices that I later regret?
  • How do I help my wife and children to live better?
  • How do I navigate social situations where I need to be respectful of people who disagree with me on matters that encroach on their and/or my identity?
  • In what ways does my exit from Christianity mirror broader social changes? 
  • How do we push society forward to embracing rationality and then meta-rationality? 
  • How do we build meanings that don’t rely on Eternalism for a large society? 
  • What glue would hold a global, meta-rational community together?

For me, these are open questions. I don’t know the answers. At the moment, I have only fractured, tentative ideas. Furthermore, I suspect that the best questions still haven’t come along. 

While drafting, I made several unsuccessful attempts at answering subsets of the above questions. But this post wants to remain unfinished, open-ended, semi-infinite. So after achieving the trivial lemma that I should live better and after kicking up the dust of a few confusing questions, the remainder is left as an exercise for the rest of my life.

Part IX: Answering Eternalist objections to the Complete Stance

Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, Part IX. For context, start at the introduction.

I was a Christian but then I stopped being one (Part I); way more on that in Parts II through V. I found (summarized in Part VIwhich reformed how I process meaning. Christianity was a big part of my identity, so I had to gain new ways of seeing my identity (Part VII). I had some really bad trouble along the way when I had a brush with nihilism (maybe you can avoid that, see part VII).

I'm still getting used to my new ways of interacting with meaning and on the surface the new ways can seem worse. This post attempts to defend of my new approach (called the Complete Stance) against three possible objections that could come from someone immersed in a belief system similar to what I once held (Eternalism):

  • The first objection is "where do meanings come from?", 
  • the second is about how to build and sustain community and 
  • the third is about staying positive in the face of nebulosity.
  1. The origins of meanings are often obscure, but that doesn't invalidate the meanings themselves.
  2. Community is harder to build without the artificially fixed meanings of Eternalism, but it's still possible.
  3. Meaning is real even if it's nebulous, so cheer up. Take care of your self and realize that other metaphysical approaches face other difficulties.
Objections beyond these are possible, of course. As I mentioned in Part VII, my zeal for defending my ideas is a lot lower than it has been in the past, but I still find some worth in clarifying my own thinking. However, I’m not specifically trying to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with me. Also, I'm still learning, so this is an essay also in the sense of being an "experimental trial" by a total amateur. Que sçay-je? Previous posts in this series are like canon shots to the middle of the hull, full of bluster and confidence, but this one is tentative and disquiet like dismantling an atomic bomb. (And without Bono's help.)

Photograph of a model of the Trinity Gadget (part of an atomic bomb) by Marcin Wichary, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

In this post, I assume familiarity with terms from, especially:

  • "Eternalism" describes the metaphysical error of considering meaning to be absolutely definite and eternally fixed. Examples of Eternalist systems include certain flavors of Christianity, Islam and Communism.
  • "An Eternalist" is someone who follows an Eteralist system. For example, me in 2010.
  • The Complete Stance is the position of embracing meaning as being both patterned and nebulous. This requires rejecting both Eternalism (that meaning is fixed and real) and nihilism (that fixed meaning cannot be real). Pattern and nebulousity are blended and fused together, like hills that flow and clouds caught in a photograph.

Beauty in the nebulous: clouds over ESO’s La Silla Observatory. Photograph by A. Fitzsimmons, courtesy of ESO, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.  The clouds are obviously nebulous, but for short time periods, they appear fixed. The hills are obviously fixed, but over long time periods, they morph, crumble and appear nebulous. 

Getting comfortable accepting meanings without knowing all the ‘whys’

One class of objection to the Complete Stance, from the Eternalist perspective, is to ask where certain meanings come from, usually starting with morality. This section discusses such objections. 

I thought that Christianity owned morality. I gave an example in Part I of a metal singer who lost his moral compass when he lost his faith and he tried to hire someone to kill his wife. His understanding of morality was subject to his Christianity. Having someone drifting through society without any morality is a big problem! So an Eternalist should ask serious questions of anyone who denies that Eternalist's system's very foundation of morality itself: "If you reject God and the Bible, then what's stopping you from doing whatever you want?" 

But it's not just morality – I thought that Christianity owned all meaning, hence the fear that nihilism is the only alternative. Here’s a quote from Chapman’s page on No Eternal Meaning:  “…that gloomy guff about the end of time is verbatim from perhaps the greatest nihilist manifesto ever written, by William Lane Craig.” The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end when I read that, because William Lane Craig is a Christian apologist and philosopher. When I was a Christian, I was also an unwitting nihilist apologist, if only to myself.

The threat of nihilism means that removing the Eternalist system puts the existence of all meanings at risk. The first step in the dance of dodging nihilism is to accept that many meanings still exist despite the absence of the Eternalist system. By studying, I see the obvious patterned-but-nebulous meanings, if I can stop myself from actively engaging in nihilism. Suppose such a line of argument: the existence of meaning is as plain as the nose on one's own face. I think we can still genuinely ask: when meanings don’t come from a favored Eternalist system, where do they come from? An Eternalist would identify this question as a weakness of the path of the Complete Stance. 

Eternalism enforces a Procrustean simplification of the origins of meaning, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a more accurate view of the origins of meaning would be more complicated, more confusing, less pithy and significantly less catchy. Instead of finding a skeleton key that explains all meanings, we struggle with long and complicated explanations for the origins of each particular meaning. Many meanings have obscure origins. Some meanings emerged in the evolution of human biology or culture. For example, maybe we came to value moral behavior because of group selection pressure. But we didn’t somehow evolve an accurate philosophical justification for morality — all we got was a tendency toward supernatural religion! Probing the origins of meanings is useful and creating new theories of their origins can enrich those meanings. For example, creating a new ethical framework can sometimes be useful.

In the end, we have to be willing to accept a degree of nebulousness in the origins and justifications of meanings. We can make a lot of progress with evolutionary or memetic arguments and analysis specific to a particular domain of meaning, but we won’t (and can’t expect to) find a final and definite answer. If we did seem to find a final answer, then we probably accidentally slid into Eternalism. That Eternalism could be a kind that we can readily identify ourselves, a kind that we don’t know ourselves but is actually old or perhaps we invented a new kind of Eternalism that was previously unknown. (I suppose Karl Marx is an example of someone who synthesized a new form of Eternalism. Sorry, world.) So, for the adherent of the Complete Stance, we have to grant meanings without always knowing the “why” behind each meaning. 

We also find the same depth of mystery in physics. Why is there gravity? Why does the strong nuclear force have 3 color charges while electromagnetism has only 2 polarities? Why did the universe begin? Physicists may make progress on some of these questions or even bring them to tidy conclusions. But for now, we accept the content of physics (at least tentatively) without knowing all the whys. In the same way that we can take physics and make use of it in engineering, despite the missing ‘whys,’ we can take meaning and make use of it in engaging with our community and living a full life. Existence is independent of justification. Wikipedia tells me that there are several competing theories for the origin of Earth’s moon. We can't say exactly why the moon is there, but it’s definitely there! The origins and justification for morality may be obscure, but that doesn’t mean that we have to reject morality. Similar reasoning applies for meanings other than morality.

This conclusion will not be satisfactory to the Eternalist. The Complete Stance does not reclaim meaning in the same shape that the Eternalist seeks. To extend the shape analogy, if you are looking for a living creature, actually a mastodon, and I present you with an elephant, saying “here it is,” then in some ways, you would be right to object that I have not found you a mastodon. But the original question contains a mistaken assumption. The proposed answer is the right answer to the projection of the original question onto the space of actually answerable questions. The Eternalist asks “Without my Eternalist System, where do meanings come from?” and she or he means absolute, eternal meanings (a living mastodon), but the answer is of nebulous-plus-patterned meanings (the elephant).

Stealthy elephant, photograph by Byrdyak, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Missing community

One key dimension of meaning is creating and reinforcing community. Eternalism is a fantastic tool for forging community; perhaps that could be viewed as Eternalism's evolutionary 'purpose.' The cost of minimizing group membership / identity beliefs (refer Part VII) is that you miss out on being a member of a fanatically well-knit group! Joining a church is to gain community the fast way. Actually, that’s a big part of why I do go to church. But I will never completely belong inside the doors of a church because I fail to make the group membership assertions that contravene reason. When I was a Christian, it seemed like Atheism was “the opposing team.” But now that I am no longer a Christian, it’s definitely not the case that I’ve joined a team. And I’m not particularly against Christianity now; publishing this series is the high water mark of my opposition. Being a Christian is like being part of a perfect silicon crystal lattice, but as “not a Christian,” I’m a helium atom floating by myself through the void, unconnected to all the other helium atom atheist/agnostics out there.

Photograph of a silicon crystal by Simon Fraser University Public Affairs and Media Relations, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Away from the roaring hot bonfire of Eternalist Community, one has to make do with communities that are linked together with weaker, less intoxicating meanings. I continue to get wonderful value from being a member of my extended family and from being a husband and a father. I have befriended people through various avenues. I also get meaning from my work, where I am an employee and a shareholder in a publicly traded, limited liability company. My company successfully coerces some Eternalist-style meanings but I can reasonably easily cut through those façades and focus on doing practical work that benefits customers. I’m a citizen of a country. That country has some amazing successful Eternalist mythology but I can still participate by following the laws, paying my taxes and receiving the benefits of peace and infrastructure that the government supplies. In the end, I have community in many different forms. 

One key is to accept community without requiring agreement. The Catholic Church “excommunicates” people who deny the tenets of the faith, that is, they deny that person communion, which is not only withholding the sacrement, it’s excluding them from the community. I do exactly the opposite: I offer bread and friendship to those who whole-heartedly disagree with me. By escaping the bind of basing community on shared assertions, I can refocus on the practical problem of making sure that I have and supply social support. I do not require or expect my friends to validate my beliefs with their agreement.

I haven't yet found a community specifically designed to help stabilize the Complete Stance, except perhaps Evolving Ground. I'm investigating Evolving Ground, but for me it has the significant downside of being Buddhist, at least ostensibly. The phrase "Complete Stance" was only recently invented, so perhaps some organizations do similar things under a different banner.

Emotional dynamics of facing nebulosity

It’s one thing to theoretically embrace the nebulous side of meaning, but it’s another to feel ok about it. Maintaining a cheerful outlook is important. In some ways, living out the Complete Stance is like balancing on a fence, teetering on the edges of both Eternalism and nihilism. Accidental momentary dips on the nihilist side are going to happen, especially for the inexperienced. What if the truth of reality was an unfit meme (in the original sense of the word)? Living outside Eternalism can be bad for you; it certainly is in those times and places where you get beheaded for being an apostate or burned at the stake for heresy. But even in a liberal democracy, living with one’s eyes really open to the nebulous nature of meaning can put one in friction with others and even one’s self.

For me, maintaining the Complete Stance takes deliberate, conscious effort and it’s an uphill emotional battle. Eternalism just feels so damn good. I really want everything in life to be coherent and be perfectly and completely meaningful. It took me decades to fully accept that "all" in natural language doesn't mean the same thing as universal qualification in mathematics. In addition to living most of my adult life inside an Eternalist system, I also unconsciously aimed my career away from the nebulous. I studied electrical engineering and got a job in software. With engineering and computers, I tried to hide from the nebulosity. Bits are either zero or one, no ambiguity. (It's obvious in hindsight, but nebulosity is still definitely present! People are involved and even individual bits in memory can accidentally switch state from cosmic rays.)

How can one gather the emotional energy required to stabilize the Complete Stance on an ongoing basis? Knowing on an intellectual level that meaning exists without Eternalism helps. When one rejects the phony absolute meanings of Eternalism, there can be a loss of comfort along with the loss of certainty. However, because non-absolute meanings really do exist, we can reap their emotional benefits. 

Body and mind self-care are both deeply important, but that's true regardless of one's metaphysical outlook. Here are a few suggestions based on my own self-care practices: 

If the practical problems with your self were better solved, wouldn't that make the metaphysical concerns easier to bear, or maybe even disappear entirely? I guess it works both ways: if one can figure out how to chill out about the metaphysical worries, then there's more mental space to deal with whatever else is happening in one's life. Ultimately, it makes sense to take a multi-pronged approach to feeling better: accept meaning as real and go for a long run (one example).

Actually, the Complete Stance offers me some emotional benefits of its own. I don't need to constantly hold the pose of defending my Eternalist system. For most of the time I was an Eternalist, I wasn't holding a defensive posture, because I didn't feel like my system was under attack. But once doubts in Christianity set in, it was work to resist them. Now, I'm free to relax: Meaning isn't going to fall apart if I stop trying to hold it together. Being free of my Eternalist Christianity lets me sample the smorgasbord of the world's ideas and techniques without concern for their religious provenance. For example, I can do yoga as exercise without feeling threatened by some latent Hinduism. Furthermore, from an emotionally well-defended adoption of the Complete Stance, one can use aspects of both nihilism and Eternalism as cute play things. For example, in music, I enjoy bands like Nine Inch Nails and Slipknot that often put on nihilist-type poses, and also Christian bands that obviously raise an Eternalist flag.

In order to further dismantle my aversion to nebulosity, I ask myself: when does nebulosity work against me? And when does nebulosity work for me? The answer to the first question seems more obvious: I feel like nebulosity works against me pretty much all the time. My wife says I don't like it. Maybe the second question is a more interesting approach. Here's one approach: I realized that every day, the patterns of meaning in my life fade out into nebulosity and then disappear completely – in sleep! Dreams are an inversion of the usual patterns of waking thought, sort of trading nebulosity for pattern and vice versa. Dreamless sleep is a kind of nirvana, free from any entanglement with meaning. But not exactly, because one wakes up again and finds the body healed and the head clear – pattern hiding inside the nebulosity. There are many other instances where the nebulous is aligned with my own interests, like when other people understand me when I grunt and gesture vaguely. Perhaps it's also useful to invert the search and try to align my interests with the forces of nebulosity that exist in the world, riding the flow of meaning and laughing at the thrilling turbulent rapids of the vague.

Photograph of white water on the Cheakamus River by Ruth Hartnup, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


It’s work to continually reject Eternalism and nihilism, at least for me. Part of that work is to continually accept meanings and to work with meaning making, including probing into the origins of those meanings. One cannot expect definite answers of the same form as in Eternalist systems. Another part of the work is to build and maintain community. Staying happy while staring at the unsatisfactory ambiguous confusing emptiness of reality is also a job unto itself. But one cannot expect the paths of truth and of ease to intrinsically coincide.

It might be work to do meaning in better ways, but the reward is to live veridically, in harmony with reality instead of insisting that my cute map is identical to the dirty ground. 

The Psalter world map, complete with dragon locations. Public domain.

My hope is that practice will improve my techniques of working with meaning and that the obstacles will feel less daunting in time. In the ideal case, I will look back on this blog post and cringe at how ham-handedly I distorted this subject matter. Mai j'ai essayé.