Comments on “What is it like to be a nihilist?”

Is "meaning" the same as "significance"?

Brent 2021-08-28

I think it’s not.

I think “significance” is like “value”, in that it has degrees. Do things have degrees of meaning? I don’t think so. I think meaning is a binary state. Of course, you could retort that it can be used in both ways, and I have no way to contradict that. But I like “meaning” as it relates to information: if the information content is greater than zero, then the signal has meaning. If it’s zero, because it is undetectable or indistinguishable from noise, then it has no meaning.

Everything you notice in your environment has meaning. Anything that doesn’t have meaning, you won’t notice. You are unaware of it. The brain notices anything that is even slightly meaningful. But it ranks meaningful parts of the environment according to their significance.

Significance is the degree of import of something—how much it can impact the observer in predictable ways.

OK, so a nihilist could respond that I’m being semantic: they believe that nothing has significance, or not enough significance to alter their behaviour. But if a nihilist is communicating at all, that, to me, gives the lie to their assertion, and implies they are, instead, dealing with a lot of uncertainty, ambiguity, or contradiction, not a lack of significance.

Nihilism is an attempt to explain this phenomenon, which may be a result of some kind of cognitive dissonance, or depression. It is a symptom of poor mental health or an impasse in competing interpretations of the environment. The person—their mind—is unable to make a connection between the import of various stimuli and appropriate responses. Or more subtly, there is no clear superior action that is indicated, based on the stimuli they are receiving. So they become passive or static.

The universe is nothing but meaning. Everything in the universe has meaning to everything else. The physical forces of nature, energy fields, and radiative energy are all meaningful. Every single particle of matter is meaningful, in that it affects spacetime, which in turn affects every particle of matter.

If a nihilist tried to argue that the entire universe itself has no significance, that would be presumptuous of them. Firstly, because they are claiming to know the entire universe, which is impossible. Secondly, even if they could define the universe as a whole, without knowing its entire nature, they would be claiming to know whatever might exist that is not encapsulated by “the universe”: parallel universes, meta-universes, or whatever. They can’t know. So they can’t speak to it.

Problems with interpreting the environment that lead to feelings of doubt and uncertainty, and claims of nihilism, are very personal and individual. It is an error to project that personal experience onto everything and everyone else.

What it really means is that these people need help and attention, in order to address whatever cognitive or emotional confusion is hampering their ability to function.

Psychiatric drugs

Nikita 2021-08-29

That’s unfortunate, because apparently treatment with anti-anxiety drugs is usually highly effective.

Oh please, David, don’t say that. Anti-anxiety drugs dull your pain and acuteness for a little bit, but give you only rebound anxiety in the end. Tolerance builds up. They aren’t effective.

Likewise other psychiatric drugs. I’ve never had any serious suicidal tendencies until starting taking SSRIs, which are known to increase suicide risk in teenagers (which I was).

Emergency use

David Chapman 2021-08-30

This referred to emergency treatment of catatonia, which can be life-threatening, with intravenous lorazepam (Ativan). I have no special knowledge of this, but several reliable sources say this is the standard hospital treatment, and usually reverses catatonia within minutes or at most hours.

I have no opinion about the more common use of anxiolytic pills as an on-going treatment. Note that lorazepam is not an SSRI, however.

Predictive processing models

Matt C. Wilson 2021-09-13

David - regarding Nikita’s concern, perhaps a little more specificity in the book text about “treating catatonia with lorazepam” over “anti-anxiety drugs” would be more clear? (since N = 1, “drugs” is inaccurate, at least)

Anyway, what this article really puts me in mind of is Scott Alexander’s writing on predictive processing models in the brain.

To respond to Brent, and you, a little - I think there’s a risk of grounding out the term “meaningful” in semantic nebulousity if we’re not careful. Brent, I think you and David are both agreeing that nearly every event has some sort of associated consequence - even if only as an instance of a possibly observable phenomenon. And that yes, at the same time, humans are only going to generally concern themselves with events of a certain level if “significance.” If a virtual particle pair materializes and co-annihilates in the dark forest of space, etc etc.

What I’d put forward is - perhaps a useful definition for “significant”, that preserves the binary of meaningfulness AND the spectrum of significance is: does knowledge or experience of the event motivate a human to act or change their behavior in some way?

I think this idea - what matters enough for me to be affected and adjust - is at the heart of how our minds work and therefore at the heart of “what meaning means.”

Nihilistic toddlers

Oleg S. 2021-09-15

Dear David,

You treat nihilism as something inherently negative. What about toddlers? They don’t look like a particularly unhappy beings to me, but know very little of meaning. Do they qualify as nihilists?

More generally, what if one adopts a nihilistic stance temporarily to dissolve all meanings, just to reconstruct meanings anew?

Toddlers and black magic

David Chapman 2021-09-18

toddlers know very little of meaning

They don’t know much about religion or other eternalist systems, but they know an enormous amount about meaning in practice. For example, what it means when a parent begins to set the dinner table.

Do they qualify as nihilists?

The nihilist stance consists of denying meanings. Toddlers don’t do much of that!

what if one adopts a nihilistic stance temporarily to dissolve all meanings

That can work, as a way toward the complete stance, and it may even be necessary! The page on nihilism as black magic discusses this possibility. There is another unwritten one—I hope to get to it soon—tentatively titled “Nihilism: Jewel beyond price” that will take a more positive view of the same move.

just to reconstruct meanings anew

I’m not sure what you had in mind here?

The existentialist stance begins by deciding that everything is inherently meaningless, and then trying to remake meaning on one’s own terms. This doesn’t work. It’s mostly impossible to make meaning as an individual. And, it’s mistaken about the nature of meaning: it’s not that everything is inherently meaningless, it’s that nothing is inherently meaningful—because meaning is not a sort of thing that can be inherent. It is found in interaction, not in objects.

As you emerge from nihilism, moving perhaps toward the complete stance, it is better to allow meaning, and to cultivate it, than to search for it or to try to construct it out of nothing.

A note on lorazepam for treating catatonia

Jackson 2024-01-11

I’m a licensed clinical therapist, and I worked as a clinical manager at a hospital for a while. Lorazepam is absolutely effective as an urgent, short-term treatment for catatonia. Once catatonia is lifted, one is often treated with antipsychotic medication (since catatonia is largely seen in patients with schizophrenia). I did not personally witness patients admitted for catatonia associated with depression without psychosis. Excited catatonia often followed true catatonia during the treatment episode, usually as the lorazepam started really working.

My only contention with your description of the treatment is that it need not be intravenous. It is more often administered via intramuscular injection. Needles are involved either way, of course, but this difference is quite relevant in inpatient treatment settings.