Are You A Nihilist?
A Defence of Nihilism
The Covid pandemic has led to lockdown around the world: stay at home, avoid crowds, don’t travel, etc. So here’s a question: has lockdown drained the meaning from your life? Or has your life always been meaningless, just like everybody else’s, so lockdown hasn’t made any difference in that regard?
The latter is what a nihilist would say, and it’s generally regarded as deeply pessimistic, perhaps even immoral. But is that right? Maybe the nihilist is just trying to state a fact, akin to the fact that life evolved on Earth. In that case it isn’t an evaluation of life, whether negative or positive. If I tell you that human life evolved on Earth, or that it’s carbon-based, then I’m not evaluating life, just relating a fact about it; I’m only evaluating it if I tell you that life is wonderful or terrible, for example. When the nihilist tells you that human life isn’t guided by a cosmic purpose called ‘the meaning of life’, they’re just trying to state a fact about the kind of reality we live in, namely one which isn’t a meaningful context that provides a goal or destiny for the human race. We’re not playing cosmic-chess, trying to achieve cosmic-checkmate, since life isn’t a game – that’s all the nihilist thinks. So why does nihilism have such a bad reputation?
The short answer is that it’s become mixed up with other ideas and it’s been misunderstood. Having a meaningless life sounds pretty bad, right? Well, it does if you use ‘meaningless’ as an evaluation. That’s because you’ve set up a scale of evaluation in which a meaningful life is a good life and a meaningless life is a bad one. The dominant religious traditions of our world do exactly that and we’ve now learned to do the same without the religious backdrop. So if you want an example of a meaningful life these days, it’s natural to look to the great achievers of this world, such as Einstein, Picasso, or Mandela – they all led exceptionally meaningful lives, you might say.
If, on the other hand, you wanted to condemn somebody for spending most of their waking hours playing video games, then you might say that their life is meaningless. But the nihilist isn’t evaluating at all – what they’re doing is rejecting this kind of evaluation, namely an evaluation of life as a whole, or of a particular person’s life, in terms of ‘meaning’. To think they’re being negative about life is like thinking that someone who tells you water is odourless is really saying it has a bad smell. The nihilist is saying that life doesn’t have either a good or a bad meaning, just as water doesn’t have either a good or a bad smell.
James Tartaglia and Tracy Llanera (2021): A Defence of Nihilism. (Routledge Focus on Philosophy). The author of this article, Prof James Tartaglia, has just published a book-length study of Nihilism. Click on the image to get it directly from Amazon!
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Why does the nihilist say this? Well for a start, because they think it’s true. They don’t think we live in a reality with a meaning of life set in stone by the creator. They don’t see any good reason to think this, and they’re made more sceptical still by the fact that the human race has never been able to agree on what this meaning is supposed to amount to. As the nihilist sees it, meaning is made by people setting themselves goals, and is ultimately a product of human beings wanting to do things.
So if you want to buy a house and the bank says you can’t have a mortgage, then the bank’s decision has a meaning for you, one you naturally evaluate as bad, since it interferes with your goal. We set up all kinds of meaningful contexts like this within our societies, such as football, for example, where we can immediately see a certain physical movement as a kick at goal and can then evaluate it as either a good effort, or a wasted opportunity to pass to another player. Such contexts exist within other kinds of animal life too – when a wolf is expelled from the pack, that means something bad to the wolf.
But meaning doesn’t extend beyond the context of life to encapsulate human life as a whole, according to nihilism, so in this sense, the cosmic one, life is meaningless. Human life is absolutely full to the brim with meaning – house-buying meaning, football meaning, you name it – and yet human life itself is meaningless. Think of it as like a picture-frame: everything inside the frame is covered with paint, but there’s no paint on the frame.
Another reason for asserting nihilism is a practical concern about the practice which has arisen of judging people’s lives as more or less meaningful in the absence of a religious meaning of life. How this arose is clear enough: within a religious context, having a meaningful life is our ultimate aim, and this attitude has survived among atheists, as well as people who just don’t give much thought to religion.
The problem, as the nihilist sees it, is that whereas the religious meanings of life have a moral component, these new judgements about meaning needn’t have anything to do with being a good person. Why single out Einstein, Picasso, or Mandela as examples of meaningful lives? Their lives had major social impact, so maybe that’s the measure. But then, should we say that Hitler, or some other murderous despot, lived an exceptionally meaningful life? If so, maybe we shouldn’t be condemning that gamer for living a meaningless life after all, because he might become a speedrunning star, with millions subscribing to his YouTube channel – in which case he’d have an exceptionally meaningful life according to this criterion.
Good News for Nihilists | Ideas with Nahlah Ayed | Live Radio | CBC Listen
Philosophers Tracy Llanera and James Tartaglia offer their cheerful defence of nihilism, the easy-to-carry, portable, multi-purpose, and aerodynamic attitude to life, the universe, and pretty much everything. To achieve it, they take up the classic objections to nihilism in turn, and attempt to make each of them disappear into… nothingness!
Listen to the CBC interview on the cbc.ca website: https://www.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-23-ideas/clip/15844916-good-news-nihilists
If that doesn’t sound right, then maybe the difference which rules out Hitler and the gamer is that Einstein, Picasso and Mandela all did something good. But who’s defining ‘good’? And even if we agree to make a positive evaluation of Einstein’s achievement in science, Picasso’s achievement in art, and Mandela’s achievement in politics, what are we adding by switching the focus away from science, art and politics, in order to say that all these achievements produced meaningful lives?
I don’t think these questions can be answered because the whole idea is a mess. An evaluative meaning of life makes sense if there’s a creator with a plan, but without one, we’ve just lumbered ourselves with a rather toxic way of judging each other – and ourselves - according to criteria which nobody can specify, because there aren’t any.
The nihilist has an even bigger concern, however, which is that secular substitutes for the meaning of life, can, and frequently are, applied to the human race itself. Ever since the French Enlightenment of the 18th century, the idea of using technology to build heaven on earth, rather than waiting for a heaven after death, has been an influential idea.
Many plans to make our future better with technology have worked, but we need to remember that they’re only plans, not candidates for the meaning of life. Plans sometimes need to be abandoned, when things go wrong, and if they’re collective plans affecting everyone, they need to be transparent and publicly debated. Treat them like man-made meanings of life, providing overall significance and destiny to the human race, and they become dangerous. For then you may start to think you’ve seen our true biological meaning, and hence the need to improve on the human race with eugenics, so that we can complete the process of perfecting ourselves which natural selection began; that idea went disastrously wrong in the 20th century, of course.
These days, now that we’re in the computer age, some are starting to see human life as an intelligence set to shed its biological form, because they think they’ve seen our true informational meaning. But if nihilism is true, the human race has no goal or inevitable destiny. We’re not destined to live with robots or to merge with them. We can try to do that if we want, but it should be a collective decision, and the ordinary people whose lives it will change should have a say.
The terminology of ‘nihilism’ and ‘the meaning of life’ emerged among a small group of German philosophers at the end of the 18th century who were worried about the French Enlightenment. The context of the discussion was religious, so ‘the meaning of life’ was the good guy and ‘nihilism’ was the bad guy; without religion and the meaning of life, our lives would lose their meaning and would become directionless, goalless, pointless, they thought.
But we didn’t lose our goal, we never had one. Nevertheless we can set ourselves goals and we do it all the time, it’s just that they’re chosen by us, and hence can never be something built into the nature of reality called ‘the meaning of life’. Without a religious context, the idea of a meaning of life becomes more trouble than it’s worth, as I’ve been trying to show, and the best way to get rid of a troublesome idea is to deny that it corresponds to anything real. That’s how we got rid of the idea of witchcraft, which led to women being drowned and burned. ‘There are no witches’, we said, just as the nihilist says, ‘there is no meaning of life’. So if you don’t have religious beliefs, and you don’t think the meaning of life is a good idea to preserve beyond religion, then consider becoming a nihilist. Look in wonder at the meaninglessness of the reality you belong to, enjoy the philosophical insight, and then get on with your life, throwing yourself enthusiastically into your projects, just like you did before.
So has the Covid pandemic drained the meaning from your life? No, it’s just that the projects in your life probably haven’t had the kind of meaning you’d have preferred, or at least not as much of it.
You’d have preferred to have met with that person face-to-face, rather than just talk to them on a video call, for instance. The latter didn’t have less meaning, just a different one, less in line with what you want to be doing with your ultimately meaningless life. Maybe calling your own life ‘meaningless’ still makes you feel a little queasy, but just remember that being a nihilist might take a bit of practice, because the other side have had a head-start of over two hundred years to spread their misconceptions; a lot longer if you go back before the terminology, because the meaning of life is one of the oldest ideas we have.
The fact that there are people out there who think that a nihilist is someone who rejects morality, who has given up on life, who hates the world, or who immerses themselves in trivia because they’ve forgotten what really matters … don’t worry about any of that.
The word is surrounded by misconceptions, the internet is full of them, and that helps the idea of the meaning of life to live on – for so long as nihilism is thought bad, then its opposite will be thought good. If you refuse to get on the evaluative ladder, however, then the whole issue appears in a new light.
Ask yourself: why would somebody who rejects cosmic meaning reject morality, or give up on life, or hate the world, or immerse themselves in trivia? No reason. Of course, you might reject cosmic meaning yourself, and yet still think that to describe somebody’s life as meaningful is to say something good about it.
But what? No idea.
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