*Posted by Joe Wooddell
Three weeks ago I met, for the first time in my life, a living, breathing nihilist, and would you believe it? – We had an argument! Oh, it was quite civil, I assure you. Thankfully, he didn’t act out one of the many possibilities of his view and simply destroy me.
What is a nihilist, you ask? Someone who believes in nihilism, of course, which Alan Pratt defines as:
The belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy (“Nihilism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/).
In short, the nihilist believes life is meaningless. Pratt mentions nihilism in conjunction with Friedrich Nietzsche:
It has been over a century now since Nietzsche explored nihilism and its implications for civilization. As he predicted, nihilism’s impact on the culture and values of the 20th century has been pervasive, its apocalyptic tenor spawning a mood of gloom and a good deal of anxiety, anger, and terror (ibid.).
The nihilist I met was, in fact, gloomy, anxious, angry, and terrified. Commenting on some nearby Christmas decorations he basically said, “bah, humbug! Life is meaningless.” “You don’t believe that,” I said. “I certainly do! I wish I’d never been born,” he replied. I was dumbfounded, and felt sad for him. Never personally had I heard anyone say such things before. Then he launched into a diatribe about how bad the world is, how much evil, pain, and suffering exists, and how he was just trying to do his small share to make the world a better place. So perhaps I have spoken too soon. Perhaps he’s not truly a nihilist, since Pratt says (above), “A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties. . . .” Not even to humanity or a greater good.
Ironically, the man of whom I speak is a rather “good” man. He’s given away large amounts of money to some very good causes. He is typically kind, helpful, and good-natured. But in any lengthy conversation, the subject matter usually turns toward how bad things are: his health, the Islamists, other of life’s difficulties, etc. Of course, he’s also an atheist, and a firm believer in science as the ultimate arbiter of truth. So perhaps this whole discussion is collapsing back into my previous post on how atheists don’t really live out their atheism, thank God! (Click here to check out this previous post, which received several replies/comments.)
Here’s the point: just like most atheists don’t actually live like there’s no God, neither do most people who say life is meaningless. The “nihilist” I met said life is meaningless, but he gets upset when people commit evil acts and cause others to suffer, and he thinks science is the way to truth. So it sounds like he thinks there are “better” and “worse” ways to live, and that truth is attainable. In fact, I’d call him an ethical and epistemological objectivist, both of which I think are inconsistent with atheism and nihilism. He wants it all: he finds himself believing there’s no God (or perhaps even hoping there’s no God) and no meaning in life, but he also wants to assert “right,” “wrong,” “knowledge,” and “truth.”
Everyone begins with faith of some sort or another. If one’s statement of faith, however, contradicts other beliefs one holds, that’s a problem. As I see it, that’s exactly what’s happening with the nihilist I met. He says life is meaningless, but he thinks it is wrong for Islamists to blow people up! Of course, if he’s truly a nihilist, then not even logic and contradiction should concern him. So while such an argument might not prove compelling to him, perhaps such an argument would help sway someone teetering on the fence, someone considering embracing nihilism, but who still has enough sense to value logical consistency. Probably even more compelling would be such an argument spoken truthfully and lovingly, buttressed by a Christ-like example in every other area of life by the person making the argument.