What is it like to be a nihilist?

Sleeping bat
Snoozy bat courtesy Sally Dixon

We all slip into nihilizing at times: refusing to see meanings that are right in front of us. Generally we pop right back out of it. Some people commit to nihilism, and describe themselves as nihilists. To accomplish nihilism would be to see absolutely everything as entirely meaningless all the time. What would that be like?

It’s hard to imagine—just as it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be a bat. We can reason it out, though—and the answer does fit the experience of nihilizing.

This page discusses three plausible-seeming accounts of what accomplishing nihilism would be like: suicide, automaticity, and catatonia; and what these imply for momentary nihilizing. First, though, let’s distinguish some stances closely allied to nihilism, but distinct from it, which are more easily accomplished.

Accomplishing Lite nihilism and allied stances

“What is it like?” is often asked of self-described nihilists in web forums about nihilism. Questioners say they can’t imagine, and find it hard to believe that it’s even possible.

I think their skepticism is usually right. The answers internet nihilists give are usually consistent with stances other than full nihilism, in the sense of “nothing means anything.” The word does have other definitions, but it’s not uncommon for “nihilists” to assert that nothing means anything, and then go on to acknowledge that some things do mean things, without noticing the contradiction.

Most often, “nihilists” advocate existentialism, the stance that nothing intrinsically means anything, but that we create meanings, which work just fine, so there’s nothing to worry about. Or, they may advocate materialism: it’s true, they say, that fancy meanings like God and ethical absolutes are imaginary, but obviously we care about mundane things like having fun, which—they say—is a better way to live anyway. Others, less enthusiastically, adopt a Nihilism Lite, which admits that some things are slightly meaningful, sort of, but have a wrong, inadequate sort of meaning, or are not meaningful enough, and are only meaningful in some trivial sense.

These stances are all much easier to accomplish—to maintain consistently—than full-on nihilism. Not actually easy: they are unstable, and tend to slide into other allied stances when contradicted by reality.

But, for example, accomplishing Lite nihilism just requires stubbornly insisting “nope, not meaningful enough, hardly means anything at all” in every situation; and that is common enough in moderate depression.

Suicide

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.

That’s the first line of Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, a famous essay on nihilism, existentialism, and “the absurd.”

But this is confused. If there is no meaning, no purpose or standard of value, then there is no more reason to commit suicide than any other action. Of course, there would also be no reason not to commit suicide. But if we act out of mere habit and are not used to killing ourselves, or if we cease acting altogether, suicide is impossible. And if we acted at random, there are so many other things we might do that suicide would be extremely unlikely.

So, logically, suicide is the accomplishment of miserabilism—the stance that everything is awful—not nihilism. “Awful” is a meaning, so miserabilism is diametrically opposite to nihilism. However, the two stances taste the same: they cause rage and depression.

If you convince yourself that everything is meaningless, you may feel that there is some meaning to that, namely that it is awful! Much nihilistic writing implicitly makes this mistake. Logically, it makes no sense. If everything is meaningless, then it is meaningless that everything is meaningless, not awful, and there is no problem.

In practice, however, the nihilistic stance is usually accompanied by intense negative emotions, including depression, sometimes with suicidal feelings.

Depression is awful. This chapter of Meaningness hopes to help you avoid or escape it. Nihilistic depression can lead to suicide, even though the two are contradictory.

Automaticity

To accomplish nihilism would be to continuously regard all phenomena as meaningless and without value (positive or negative). Since we act only for meaningful reasons—or, at least, that’s what we usually claim—it would seem that if we ceased to perceive meaningfulness, we’d entirely cease to act.

However, some of what we do is automatic, or merely habitual. It may be meaningful in a bigger picture, or may once have been meaningful and lost its purpose; but it doesn’t require specific awareness of meaning as we act. How much of life is like this is hard to estimate. It seems to be a matter of degree, too. When doing some boring, familiar, necessary task, you may say “I was on autopilot” after noticing you’d made a baffling mistake a while back. If you go to work on four hours sleep, you may say “I’m a zombie today.” When doing some socially required but largely meaningless ritual (some work meetings), “just going through the motions” is a common description. Still, you have some intermittent awareness of purpose.

In clinical depression and anxiety, a more intense version of this is called “depersonalization-derealization disorder.” (Anxiety, like depression, is a common consequence of nihilism—“existential angst.”) The world seems unreal and meaningless, and you feel like there’s no one home in your skull. You may still function more-or-less normally: your body goes through the motions of living, although it seems you have been turned into a humanoid robot. If it’s more severe, you may become partially or even entirely incapacitated.

The usual lay understanding of “catatonia” implies immobility. However, psychiatry also describes “excited catatonia,” in which you perform meaningless, purposeless actions, repetitively or randomly.1 Excited catatonia is usually a symptom of severe anxiety or depression.

Catatonia

In catatonia’s more usual form, you gradually interact less and less, sometimes eventually becoming entirely motionless and unresponsive. In severe cases, it is fatal: you stop eating and drinking, and die of starvation or dehydration.

You might guess that catatonia would involve loss of awareness. It doesn’t. Some patients coming out of it say that they were fully conscious, remember everything that happened, and were thinking as normally as one can in a state of extreme anxiety or depression. Often eye movements are also normal; you track what is going on around you. This suggests that catatonia is in a sense deliberate. It is unwillingness to act, as much as inability. (That will connect with the account of nihilistic depression later in this chapter.)

Catatonia is much more common than I realized before researching this page. Dramatic cases of long-term hospitalization with total rigidity seem so extreme and alien! But, reading the list of symptoms, I recognized that several friends, and I myself, have had mild or moderate cases when depressed.

It’s an under-studied, ill-defined, and poorly-understood condition.2 Consequently it is under-diagnosed and under-treated. That’s unfortunate, because apparently intravenous lorazepam (an anti-anxiety drug) is usually highly effective.

So what?

Nihilism, as a stance, ranges from momentary and mild to committed and extreme.

Most people, probably everyone, nihilizes at least occasionally. We dismiss as “meaningless” a thought, feeling, or event whose meaning we don’t want to deal with. The harm done may be slight, if the refused meaning was slight, and if one doesn’t nihilize too often.

However, understanding the endpoint of nihilism, and its symptoms along the way, can help avoid even minor harms, as well as forestalling a slide into adopting it habitually. Casual nihilizing produces irritation, anxiety, and listlessness. It cuts off open-ended curiosity about nebulous meanings. Investigating those deepens meaning, and enables play, joy, and creativity.

It may seem that I am unfairly pathologizing a widely-held, benign philosophical system by associating it with severe mental disease. I don’t think so: