My World View – Nihilism

I am an atheist, a materialist, nihilist, and anti-theist. I speak for no other and no other speaks for me. I cannot claim that all my thoughts are original, but they seem that way to me.

So lets talk about the word nihilism.

Yeah, I know this word and label has a bad reputation. Many people seem to think that nihilism is a bad thing. Lets examine the word and its meanings today.

Our friends at Wikipedia say: (emphasis is mine)

Nihilism (play/ˈn.ɨlɪzəm/ or /ˈn.ɨlɪzəm/; from the Latinnihil, nothing) is the philosophicaldoctrine suggesting the negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.Moral nihilists assert that morality does not inherently exist, and that any established moral values are abstractly contrived. Nihilism can also take epistemological or metaphysical/ontologicalforms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or that reality does not actually exist.The term nihilism is sometimes used in association with anomie to explain the general mood of despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence that one may develop upon realising there are no necessary norms, rules, or laws. Movements such as Futurism and deconstruction, among others, have been identified by commentators as “nihilistic” at various times in various contexts.

Nihilism is also a characteristic that has been ascribed to time periods: for example, Jean Baudrillard and others have called postmodernity a nihilistic epoch, and some Christian theologians and figures of religious authority have asserted that postmodernity and many aspects of modernity represent a rejection of theism, and that rejection of their theistic doctrine entails nihilism.

Okay, there was a lot in there. What does it all mean?

Well, lets start from the beginning. My atheism is built on the rejection of gods and the supernatural. Add to that the lack of belief in objective morality. That one is a gimme because most of the people who claim there is objective morality do so to validate their belief in a god. So no gods, check. No objective morality, check.

Oddly enough, if you follow through on that, there is also a lack of explanation for meaning or purpose in life. I’m not saying that you have to arrive at this conclusion, but what other conclusion can you arrive at? (hit me up in the comments if you like)

Okay, so here I am. I don’t believe there is any objective morality nor is there objective purpose or meaning. Wait… isn’t that what nihilism is? Why yes, that is what it is. Does that mean that I don’t value life? Well, it could but what we have discussed so far has nothing to do with whether I value life or not. Lets do some math?

  • ‘I value life’ is not equal to ‘life has intrinsic objective value’
  • ‘Life has no intrinsic objective meaning’ is not equal to ‘life has no meaning for me’

Okay, not really math, or not much math beyond set theory. At this point we probably should take a detour.

  • Life has no meaning except what the observer ascribes to it. Hint: you are the observer
  • Morality is always subjective and context sensitive.

Meaning

If there is to be meaning in existence, then it must have the same truth behind it for the best of us and to the least of us. You may not like flatworms, but if existence has some truth or meaning it must be equally valid for hairless apes and flatworms without regard to how they each understand it. If it is necessary that understanding affects the value or truth of it, then it is not a truth like 2+2=4. I’m not saying it’s an objective thing, I’m saying that _IF_ there is one truth, it must be equal for both the best and the least of us. How many worms have you killed without a thought? Was there intrinsic objective value to their lives? Is there objective meaning to their lives? If your answers are no, then why do you ascribe such to your own existence? Yes, it really is that simple. If your life must have intrinsic objective value, then so must that of a flatworm, a virus, and bacteria. The contrary is true also… if these others have no intrinsic objective value for the existence of other life on this planet, then neither is there for your existence. Note that this is not a claim that life or existence has no subjective meaning or value.

Wait, you say, if there is no meaning to life what does it matter if I commit suicide tonight? Not a damn thing. Need a razor blade? You do what you have to do. Nobody can stop you if you really want to. Go on, top yourself. Take an overdose. Get on with it. It means nothing in the larger picture. You won’t be remembered. It’s just one of those things. Seriously, in 50 years no one will remember anything about you. Go ahead, top yourself. It’s not my fault they won’t remember you.

Morality

Now there are many that will argue that a nihilist must necessarily agree that the holocaust of WWII is of consequence but is not morally good nor morally bad. The trouble with this argument is that it assumes that there is objective morality. Morality is always subjective and always context sensitive. A nihilist, being a rational being, has subjective values. Those subjective values can determine that the holocaust was a morally bad thing, but that does not infer that it was objectively a morally bad thing. The statement that 2+2=4 is objective where 2+x=y is subjective and depends wholly upon the values of either x or y. Depending on the value substituted for x the value of y changes and will change for every unique substitution of x. Where one substitution is ‘food’ and another is ‘cheese’ we get different answers. Morality is like that. We may use the same framework for objective and subjective morality but objective morality requires you to substitute x with the same value every time. That is not how life works. Morality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. There is only subjective morality no matter how many people make the same moral judgement on a given thing it is still subjective morality. So while a thing does not have intrinsic moral good or moral bad character, that does not mean that the nihilist themselves will view the thing as devoid of moral characteristics. The thing is, it exists, and does so without moral characteristic until the observer says that thing is morally good or bad, and this only matters in terms of the observer’s sphere of influence. As a nihilist I deny that anything has intrinsic objective value or meaning, but I also claim that through the lens of my subjective values a thing can have meaning or value to myself. You may happen to choose the same meaning or value for yourself, but this does not infer a consensus or objective meaning or value.

In short, nothing has meaning or value except that which the observer assigns to it. This is true independent of the observers chosen social constructs or contracts. A nihilist does see value in things and does find moral characteristics in things, yet the nihilist admits readily that these are their own subjective observations and not an intrinsic objective characteristic of a thing observed.

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  1. I really appreciate your thoughtful articles. What do you think of this video by Alan Watts on the concept of nothingness?

    • A rather awesome video/talk. I’ve saved that for further exploration. My nihilism and materialism border on Buddhism quite often. I have never studied it, but find when ever I am introduced to some aspect of it, I think wow, yes, that is how I think… or something very close.

      I am a meat robot. An intelligence finally contemplating what it means to exist and be. I come from nothing and will return to nothing. The thing that is me exists only in my subjective world and only for a short time. Encapsulated in that small sphere is all that I can find of meaning or purpose or value. Even though I may find some fleeting transient speck of value, it is still nothing, a thing, a moment in time. From some perspective some ‘where’ the universe that we know is only a moment in time. All that I do, all that I hold true and valuable, all that I am is merely decoration in the prison cell in which I will spend the entirety of my existence. I am of no consequence except where a traveller passes by my cell and we are able to interact.

      Nothing, alone, extant… without meaning or purpose, without cause or destiny. I am as a flower or a bee. My arrival did not part the heavens and the universe will not notice when the “I” of me is gone. In this, I find great import for each moment, each experience, each perturbation of the silence of my cell. I move but only for me and I do so without a care what some future will be. There is no future, there is only now. I can plan for my next now, but I live only in now. Death is simply one last disturbance of the silence in my cell. Happiness comes not from the disturbances, but my acceptance of them… or not.

      We are nothing, but from the inside of nothing, nothing seems like a lot.

      Thanks for the link.

      • I feel similarly, except when dire concern washes over me when I remember, “Oh shit, I’ve brought another couple of humans into the world and I have no idea what their fate will be after I die, or my grandchildren or great-grandchildren.” What if my great-grandchildren are subjected to terrible cruelty in a society more vicious than the one we currently live in on a planet not nearly as beautiful? Then I feel fire in my bones and want to make a “contribution” while I live, because my life is so short, and there is so little time to look after them.

        • And so we choose to interact with the passer by and embrace the disturbances in ways that have meaning and purpose to us. You act and move for yourself, and perhaps convince other passersby to act in unity with you. Inside the nothing, nothing seems like a lot. Teach your children to act and embrace, for they too will realize one day that they are alone… no failure on your part, simply the realization of existence. My greatest experiences are those of compassion and giving, to aid those passersby in need. Not because there is some intrinsic meaning in such activity, but because it amused me to create a perceived good from the nothing that is. Like blowing a soap bubble to be amused as it floats in the air, knowing it will crash and be gone some time from now.

          We find many ways to worry and stress, yet if we keep a mind of the nothing and practice our movements of creation, we have done what is possible, perhaps a bit more. If your children learn, grow, become adept with the nothing, you have given them all that can be given. The universe does not worry in either case. From the inside, nothing seems like a lot. It does no harm to worry over the disturbances, to mother them, tend them, to shape and encourage them. They are all that there is aside from existence and the cell. If what you do with them pleases you, it is good. No other judgement really matters… even if the judgement of your children does to you, it is your choice to worry so.

          I claim my failures and weakness, my success and strengths. I share them as I can and try to not cause harm. We can work to undo harm or prevent it for the future now, but you cannot decorate nor design the cells for your children. You can only prepare them to understand it, and live happily in the disturbances they create in yours. The worry, as I understand it is terribly crushing at times, but the disturbance is yours to do with as you wish. Enjoy it or don’t, but I encourage you to embrace it, no matter how much pain you might feel, for you alone can enjoy the disturbances that your children will bring to you. You can accept them with joy or reel from them in pain.

          Know that you can only do so much and it seems best to not shoulder all the burden you see, share it out with the passersby. Teach your children to decide what is wrong, what is right. I think that when you see them stand on their own it will be the end of much of your worry, no matter what they choose to make of their cells. They have already started decorating them without knowing it.

          The status of those that come later is outside of the reach of your cell. Interact with those that are in reach, let them worry about those that you cannot reach. Your great grandchildren will not be upset that you were not the queen. They will be busy decorating the cells they are given, prepared for it by the children of the children that you teach now. If it is a gift you wish for your grandchildren, give it now to your own children and they will in turn pass it on. Make this moment the best one you know how. The cell walls will look after themselves.

          It is not an easy thing. It’s damn hard actually. I struggle too. I can only accomplish so much because much is out of my control. I must remember to be content with having done the best I can with what I can control or affect, and not beat myself up because the world is not perfect. My version of perfect is subjective and I need not project it on future generations. But then again, I need not pass to them a world that is worse than I found it when handed to me. Its a conundrum, a way to spend our time, our existence. Whatever you do, don’t forget do be content.

          • Contentment… *deep breath* …. Thank you again for your thoughtful writing. I’m going to revisit this post for encouragement on moonless nights.

            • I’m glad to share, and ‘amused’ in finding it pleases a passerby.

  2. ‘Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. Moral nihilists assert that morality does not inherently exist, and that any established moral values are abstractly contrived.’

    I think I would argue a few things against nihilism:

    1) I don’t think life is without meaning or value. I would argue, most people would agree. Sure, there is not an answer to this question that everyone is going to agree on, but I would say that life has whatever meaning you give to it and most people (not all to be sure) are able to assign something to that question: Family, job, money, etc…

    2) I strongly disagree that morals are abstractly contrived. They are hardwired in our brains from millions of years of trying to survive. These can be adjusted in minor ways by your environment, etc., but they are fairly common.

    For example, take ‘Thou shalt not kill (murder)’. That’s an easy one and you didn’t need Moses or anyone else to tell you that one. Why? Because we lived in hunter\gatherer groups for most of the time and killing someone in a small tribe weakened the tribe.

    Now that’s less critical today, because of technology, but it’s still hardwired from all those years ago and while you can make minor exceptions to the rules, going any deeper than that will threaten your civilization.

    • Hey TGA, thanks for stopping by to comment. If I restate your points, it is an argument for nihilism as I see it.

      When not everyone can agree on the meaning of life, then all meaning is subjective. Nihilism does not say it is without meaning, rather it says it has only subjective meaning. Nihilist such as myself do assign meaning to our lives, it’s just not objective meaning.

      The hardwired morality in our brains is the law of reciprocity upon which all other morality is based. It is, or appears to be, almost universal for life on this planet. Not objective, but near universal for life on _this_ planet. You seem to agree on this point.

      The law of reciprocity supports you and I making a social pact to not kill one another so that we may both flourish, a form of selfish behavior. So what I see that you have done is simply say you agree with nihilism as I explained it but you don’t quite see it with the same explanation as I gave.

  3. Yea, I can generally agree with that because your position is a little softer than I thought (likely not your bad, It’s been a long 24 hours with little sleep). Not sure I would call myself a Nihilist, until I had a feeling if your stance is in line with the general Nihilist community.

    I would argue that due to natural selection you can extend morality to all planets and not just this one. Natural Selection drives Morality.

    For example, why does everyone agree that lying is bad? Because we are a creature that greatly depends on each other to survive. Giving false information, breaks down trust and the ability to work together. We need each other, we don’t have claws or a bite that we can kill with like other animals. We have smart brains and each other.

    Piranhas work together to kill a cow, but they don’t attach either other. A simpler form of the same thing.

    So, I would say life does have meaning and morals do exist. They are flexable to be sure and not absolute, but finding a list that covers 90%+ of all life, anywhere is not that hard to do. Natural Selection applies everywhere.

    • Indeed, evolution would help to ensure that a successful social strategy becomes nearly universal over time. That is, I think, why we see the law of reciprocity as the basis for all morality in more or less all species.

      You are probably right about life being similar on all planets with life, we just don’t have any examples to help guide that thought, so I don’t assume it ni general.

      Nihilists that see no meaning in anything because life does not have intrinsic objective value are people that are incapable of understanding subjective value/meaning/morals and so must apply meaning in a universal objective way. They are of course wrong 🙂

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