Lite nihilism, on the way to completion

When you realize that eternalism’s promises are false and harmful, nihilism may seem compelling. Eternalism insisted that everything is meaningful; nihilism inverts that, and says nothing is. Many things obviously are meaningful, though, so nihilism is difficult to maintain. On the other hand, it may seem like the only defense against getting sucked back into eternalist delusion. What to do?

Lite nihilism is an attractive solution. It successfully refutes eternalism while avoiding the absurdity of the full-strength version.

Lite nihilism recognizes that eternalism’s promises rely on false claims about the nature of meaning itself: that it is, for instance, absolute, eternal, or objective. Lite nihilism accurately points out that these “special” sorts of meaning, which would make eternalism work by fixating pattern, don’t exist.

Eternalist systems maintain their plausibility by insisting that the meanings that matter are special, and so can guarantee its promises; and by sweeping under the rug all other meanings, which are not absolute, eternal, or objective. Those don’t count; they are trivial, mundane, and worthless.

Lite nihilism, unfortunately, accepts this ploy. Then nothing is really meaningful; the available kinds of meaning are all defective and inadequate. Everything might as well be meaningless. So this is a big problem, and you should probably be extremely upset about it. If you aren’t upset, it’s only because you can’t face the truth, so you are choosing to live in a fantasy world.

Lite nihilism, unlike the full-strength version, may seem perfectly sensible. It is somewhat wavering; it includes some grudging recognition of lite meaningfulness. It tries to get the benefit of nihilism (“you don’t have to care”) without going into full absurdity. This more-or-less works, so long as you avoid thinking about it clearly enough. It takes some work to see how it’s mistaken. Unfortunately, unlike full-strength nihilism, it’s possible to accomplish lite nihilism: to maintain it consistently for long periods. That can be awful.

When you keep the first part of lite nihilism—its rejection of eternalism’s false claims about special meanings—and drop the second—its acceptance of eternalism’s denigration of other meanings—you’ve adopted the complete stance. So passing through lite nihilism is probably necessary on the way to accomplishing the complete stance and maintaining a consistently accurate relationship with meaningness. We’ll come back to that at the end of this chapter, discussing nihilism as a valuable stage on that path.

This section of the book goes through a dozen common reasons people say meaning is inadequate: for example, that there is no cosmic meaning, no universal meaning, or no meaning of life as a whole.

Each of these negates an eternalist claim—correctly! But you may not have thought about exactly why the eternalist claim is false. We’ll do uncommonly detailed analysis, which may deepen your understanding of what’s wrong with eternalism, and strengthen your commitment and ability to reject it.

Lite nihilism admits that “some” meanings are “sort of” meaningful, but doesn’t want to say which. It wants to direct your attention away from the specifics of actual meanings, in order to maintain the illusion that you don’t have to care about them. When we analyze each of the claims of inadequacy, we’ll direct attention to the non-special types of meaning—for example, non-transcendent, non-objective, and non-unique ones. What exactly is wrong with these? Only that they can’t deliver on eternalism’s promises. “So what?” is the answer to most justifications for lite nihilism. “Meanings aren’t absolute!” Well, so what?

If you are genuinely willing to let go of hoping that somehow eternalism can deliver, then you can take a good hard look at whether specific meanings may be adequate, or more than adequate, anyway. I’ll suggest reasons each sort of non-special meaning is valuable.

Just noticing that you are doing lite nihilism, and dropping it, is the way out and into the complete stance. When you find yourself rejecting meaning in general because it lacks some special property: remind yourself that, yes, that specialness is an eternalist lie, but that does not negate the meaningfulness of your actual, specific situation. Then you can explore the details and flavor and texture of the meanings of that situation—and on that basis, take action.

This is a practice, that you can make a habit. There’ll be more about this at the end of this chapter, on exiting nihilism, and in the complete stance chapter.