Since I'm a habitual highlighter of print books, it's been an interesting change of pace to page through screen after screen on my laptop without making any important!, I like!, or hmmmmm... marks.
All of the markings have been in my mind. So I'll consult my memory and share what has struck me the most about what Chapman says in his scientifically Buddhist'y fashion:
Life is best lived between extremes. But let's not make that adage into something extreme, since there are times when getting way out on an edge is fitting.
This may sound like the traditional Buddhist "middle way." And, well, in some ways it is. However, Chapman has a refreshing approach to discerning the proper course between two opposing poles, like eternalism and nihilism. He doesn't promote a middle way, preferring nebulosity.
Wrong ideas about meaningness show up as pairs of polarized, opposite stances. These appear to be extreme views. Surely the truth can be found somewhere between?
Unfortunately, no. The error underlying all confused stances is their refusal to allow nebulosity. Even if some middle ground could be found, it too would reject nebulosity, and so would also be unworkable.
In fact, it’s usually impossible to find a “middle” position anyway. In each pair of confused stances, one categorically denies what the other fixates.
For instance, the stance of true self holds that there is a mysterious essence of the person; the stance of selflessness holds that there is none. The reality of selfness might be described as “between” these extremes, once it is found. But “in the middle” is not a helpful hint for where to look. What is halfway between existence and non-existence?
To resolve confusions about meaningness, the helpful instruction is to head in the direction of nebulosity. Since both true self and selflessness are evasions of nebulosity, that direction is at right angles to the line between them.
OK, maybe this passage doesn't help you understand what nebulosity is all about. If so, I guess that's good. If "nebulous" is made all clear, crisp, and coherent, we'd be sacrificing the experiential meaning of it for a satisfyingly unambiguous definition.
Satisfying isn't the same as true, real, or workable.
Chapman correctly points out that we're drawn to extreme philosophical, political, or meaning-of-life positions because it feels comfortable there. We know where we stand. Other true believers in that position are with us. We are special, distinct, so much better off than those fools way over there on the opposite side from us.
Those fools, of course, look upon our position in the same way as we do theirs: as wrong, misguided, blind to oh-so-evident realities.
And so it goes. Religions, political parties, moralists, and such believing that they're 100% right while people with an opposing view are 100% wrong. Usually, though, the wisest stance is to embrace a more nebulous viewpoint that captures the best of both sides.
If I'd gotten a dollar every time my Tai Chi instructor has said, "there's no one right way," I'd have... um, a lot of dollars.
He's right. About there being many ways of being right. Doing what's right depends on the situation -- both inside and outside of us. Life isn't a cookbook or a lab experiment where doing A, B, and C always produces X, Y, and Z.
Ethical situations are unboundedly complex and variable. Any finite, fixed set of rules will sometimes require actions that are obviously harmful, for no reason beyond “that’s the rule.” In such cases, you are faced with the horrible choice of violating rules you believed sacred, or creating needless suffering by obeying them.
...If ethics are unavoidably nebulous, in many situations there is no one “right thing” to do. Instead, there are alternatives with subtle trade-offs. We have the duty to pay close attention to the details, while also maintaining openness to the situation as a whole.
We also often have the privilege of choice. Where there is no definite right answer, we are free. We can choose at will. We also have room for creative improvisation: finding ethical solutions that are not applications of general principles.
This stance requires letting go of the fantasy that we could always avoid culpability. We have to accept that, inevitably, we will sometimes make ethical mistakes.
Regretting ethical mistakes makes us less likely to repeat them. However, acknowledging their inevitability means that we can let go of ethical anxiety. Ethical maturity is measured by the ability to find good-enough solutions to ethical problems, not by the amount you punish yourself.