190-proof nihilism: intoxicating intellectual idiocy

Everclear 190-proof bottle
190-proof Everclear image courtesy Bighead

190-proof alcohol is the strongest you can get by conventional distillation. 190-proof nihilism is the strongest you can get by conceptual disputation.

190-proof nihilism is the stance that nothing means anything at all, period.

Nihilism is inherently unstable because it is obviously wrong; meanings are everywhere. However, it is emotionally attractive when it seems the only alternative to eternalism. Then you may commit to nihilism and attempt to stabilize it, typically with intellectual argumentation.

These arguments claim to prove that meaning cannot exist. They are abstract, reasoning from first principles.1 Most commit fallacies that render them silly as logic—never mind that they contradict obvious concrete examples. Many of them, for example, “prove too much”: if right, they would equally prove lots of other things can’t exist, like hammers or wings for example.

190-proof nihilism is so obviously wrong that it’s difficult to maintain for long. Instead, one slides into Lite Nihilism, a weaker stance: that some things have some sort of trivial meaning which doesn’t count.

Usually, one defends the 190-proof version only when backed into a corner by someone who is trying to rescue you from your commitment to nihilism. When they point out that some things are indeed meaningful, holding the line of absolute denial seems necessary to avoid stepping onto what seems like a slippery slope toward everything being meaningful—the eternalism you’ve rightly rejected.

Uncommonly, 190-proof nihilism can seem plausible and attractive when in extreme nihilistic depression. Then the emotional drive is toward oblivion. The hope is that intellectually convincing yourself that awfulness is meaningless will cut you off from your feelings of anguish and despair. This can work to a limited extent, for a limited period, but usually there are better options.

How to use this section

The web pages in this section go through many arguments for 190-proof nihilism. They point out why each is mistaken. This can function as an antidote, in two ways. However, there is a warning label on the medicine bottle. Taken the wrong way, it could reinforce your stuckness in nihilism instead.

  1. If you have reasoned yourself into nihilism, you can reason your way out. Recognizing that your thinking was logically faulty is a step forward. It’s usually not sufficient, though…
  2. You had powerful emotional motivations for the fallacious reasoning. Uncovering them enables you to work toward a better way of feeling about meaning, which includes the realistic aspects of nihilism without its harms. That is: the complete stance.
  3. You may experience powerful emotional resistance to accepting the counter-arguments in this section. You may feel driven to construct counter-counter-arguments to salvage your commitment. Then you will dig yourself in deeper, adding further intellectualization to the maze of twisty little arguments you are lost in. This is nearly guaranteed if you read the section as if it were abstract theorizing: philosophy. It is not philosophy. It’s an intervention in a dysfunctional way of being.

For the antidote to take effect, you have to want to exit nihilism, and entertain the possibility that you can. If you are committed to nihilism, and intend to pick holes in philosophical arguments, I suggest you stop now; reading on will be harmful for you.

I recommend paying attention to your emotional experience as you read this. Whenever you find yourself wanting to argue, ask yourself:

To help you avoid misunderstanding the section as philosophical analysis, I’ve made the counter-arguments humorous, playful, and brief. (Such humor is characteristic of the complete stance.) They simply point out that each argument for nihilism is silly. They deliberately refuse to take potential counter-counter-arguments seriously. No doubt there are counter-counter-arguments in each case—but those would also be silly. Creating an endless hall of mirrors of fallacious arguments in every direction is what nihilistic intellectualization does.

“Well, what about…?” If you want to exit nihilism, you need to drop that, not indulge it—and figure out why you want to go on arguing that way.

  1. 1.First-principles reasoning almost never works in the real world. Each step of deduction must be reality-tested. In the Cells of the Eggplant discusses the reasons for this in detail.