Nihilism: Really?

*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.

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3 Responses to Nihilism: Really?

  1. Crimini Reaper says:

    Interesting take, so forgive me if I come in rather late (just recently emplaced/embraced my nihilist superstructure in my head, now challenging it with apologist contenders) but I couldn’t let this one pass. While you do it both politely and nuancedly, I am tired of people calling nihilists hypocrites for having morals, not killing themselves recycling etc. We simply believe that life is meaningless and suffering is the only truth, the only known record of permanence (i.e all of recorded and remembered history is a tale of the agon), our most reliable interface with raw Nature. While we do not prescribe for others, we see nothing contradictory in personal attempts to diminish or avoid meaningless suffering.. and I’m sure lots of people became nihilists via logic, although even if I were christian I personally would rather not exist. I don’t find god’s plan appealing, not least because it wasn’t calibrated to my liking, bexause I’m not important enough to be consulted on my existence, only consoled after the fact with other facts (sike! Suck fdown this faith, gag on your own skepticism.) It goes like this:Indoctrinated> Positivist>Empiricist> Agnostic>Aheist>Existentialist>Nihilist>Antinatalist>……(efilism presents certain difficulties. Suicide becomes a matter of pain tolerance and mastery of imagination.)

    Face it man, were it not for suffering and the fear of death no-one would take anything on or about this blasted rock seriously, and we can see this with our precious ‘god’s eye view’ that we cherish in other applications. With our ‘body-chained’ view, our lowlier perspective (i.e Anthr ops) we are forced to take our daily routine seriously, and our mental baggage as well. Incidenlly, christians are nihilists about this ‘vale of tears’ too, so you can’t be surprised at a resigned nihilist who merely goes thru the motions. Personal conduct isn’t the last word on conviction, or do you never have cause to repent?

    Personally I’m interested as to what you say to his antinatalism. Is life intrinsically good? Because other than Buddhism, the most I could be is a Cathar, or sm kind of heretic who blames an evil and pretentious deity for this absurd slaughterhouse. To paraphrasethe intergalactic catholic (asin church, not universal) geneticist in speaker for the dead: Watch closely folks: here it is;Reality, the stupid little beast that devours itself. Just where does god’s goodness come into anything to do with anything relevant to a human scale? Or is Job’s ‘don’t second-guess me’ response to suffice for the rest of us, as did adam’s judgement? Existence is experienced as one deficit or another (or after another! or again and again!). Striving to fill these implies a deficit of peace. in such circumstances, where existence is a burden, the only way to win is not to play. Of course the paradox of life is resolvable only by paradox! But the gift of foresight and compassion should lend it palarability and coherence.

  2. Autumn James says:

    My brother is a nihilist, or so he says. I really don’t want him to die and go to Hell. I have tried many, many, many times but I just can’t do it. I have told him he is hurting me and my mom and dad. I have no idea what to do. I am a straight up Christian, and I believe God exist and all that stuff. I just don’t know how t explain faith to him. I’m lost if any one is like me please help. I need to really, really bad. By the way I’m and 16 and my brother is 18 soon to be 19. HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Digitality says:

    I’m not certain why many Christians abhor Nietzsche. Or view him as some form of an opponent. His body of work essentially said that man without God will descend into nihilism and he viewed it as something preferably avoided. Yet seeing it as inevitable given our drive to “Kill God” (not a straightforward literal concept either) he instead chose to attempt using nihilism as a tool to grow from. The last man is the man who descends into nihilism and finds himself trapped there. Left without will or motivation. No drive to create, or do anything, existing only to exist. Essentially no longer “human”. It isn’t a singular last man though, it means the very end of our humanity. The ubermensche is the anti-thesis of the last man. Through strength of will and character (the entire concept of will-to-power that Nietzsche wrote about) he overcomes and faces down the trap of nihilism and recreates himself anew. He is individual, he is greater, he creates, he strives, he LIVES. He is the man that has transcended the fallibility of his own intellect.

    A few things, semantically. Nihilism is not a belief system, it is the absence thereof. A real nihilist does not, and cannot “believe” in nihilism as a “truth”. It is not self-contradictory in that regard and the attempts to call it a logical fallacy are fallacious in doing so. It’s simply difficult to convey the concept within the confines of existing language. As I saw one commenter in another place once put it; it’s akin to explaining to a tribal people without a concept for ownership that you own the land they are trespassing on. Trying to encapsulate it in this way is a form of trying to give tangibility to the intangible.

    Second, nihilists are not immoral people, they are amoral. Nothing about nihilism is inherently inclined towards destruction. It’s not particularly inclined towards anything at all.

    Nihilism is best used as deconstructionist tool, with the intent to rebuild the self from the ground up. This requires a depth of understanding and preparedness. It is a place of inhumanity that shouldn’t be desired as an end point, but as a stepping stone to something beyond. Most nihilists I’ve known (myself included) eventually overcome their despair, anxieties, and sorrows (which are felt in varying degrees to each individual), and move into subjectivism or existentialism. I have known a few to succumb to severe depression and turn suicidal as well.

    Anyone that truly understands Nietzsche therefore knows that he did not believe nihilism was something to be glorified and aspired to, but a challenge for mankind to overcome.

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