Nihilism: denying meaning

The Pillars of Creation (dust clouds in the Eagle Nebula) seen in infrared

Nihilism holds that there is no meaning or value anywhere. Questions about purpose, ethics, and sacredness are unanswerable because they are meaningless. You might as well ask about the sleep habits of colorless green ideas as about the meaning of life.

Nihilism is a mirror image of eternalism—the stance that everything is meaningful. (For an introduction, see “Preview: eternalism and nihilism.”) However, the two stances are not simply opposites; they share fundamental metaphysical assumptions.

Eternalism and nihilism both fail to recognize that nebulosity and pattern are inseparable. Therefore they suppose that “real” meaning would be absolutely patterned: perfectly definite and certain, unchanging and objective. This is their shared metaphysical error.

Eternalism insists that meaning really is like that. That is its second metaphysical error. Nihilism observes, accurately, that no such meaning is possible. This corrects the second error. However, because nihilism shares the first error, it concludes that meaning is impossible, period. This is also wrong; nebulous meanings are “real,” for any reasonable definition of “real.”

Nihilism is attractive to those who have explicitly recognized, understood, and rejected eternalism’s second error: belief in ultimate meaning. That is not easy. Nihilism is, therefore, the more intelligent stance. Or, at least, it’s a stance that tends to be adopted more often by more intelligent people. (It’s even more dysfunctional than eternalism, so we could also call it less intelligent.)

While most people are committed, however waveringly, to eternalism, only a few commit to nihilism. In denying all meaning, nihilism is wildly implausible. Only a few sociopaths, intellectuals, and depressives try to maintain it.

We’ll see, though, that almost everyone adopts the nihilistic stance at times, without noticing. When the complete stance is unknown, nihilism seems like the only possible defense against the harmful lies of eternalism. (Just as eternalism seems like the only possible salvation from the harmful lies of nihilism.)

Even if you are relatively immune to nihilism, it’s important to understand as a prototype. Many other confused stances are modified or limited forms of nihilism. They reject particular types of meanings, rather than rejecting all meaningfulness. That makes their distortions, harms, and emotional dynamics similar to nihilism’s.

Obstacles to nihilism

In a way, it’s a pity that it’s so hard to be a nihilist. Nihilism is mistaken and harmful, but its insights into what’s wrong with eternalism point toward the complete stance.

The obstacles to nihilism are that:

  1. It’s hard to give up hope that eternalism will someday deliver on its alluring promises
  2. There is a strong social and cultural taboo against adopting nihilism
  3. Meaningfulness is obvious, so nihilism is obviously wrong
  4. Nihilism is harmful, and its dire psychological side-effects make you miserable and useless

The first two are “bad” obstacles, in the sense that they are obstacles to the complete stance too. The second two are “good” obstacles, in that they can shift you out of nihilism into the complete stance. I’ll explain each of them further below.

These powerful obstacles might seem unsurmountable, except that eternalism is also obviously wrong and harmful. When you have been beaten up by eternalism often enough, nihilism may seem less bad.

In practice, because meaning is obvious, committed nihilists usually adopt some sort of Nihilism Lite. That is, wavering nihilism secretly admits certain kinds of meaning, while denying others.

What is it like?

Nihilism is attractive because it promises you don’t have to care. Nothing means anything, so why would you? Success and failure, suffering and pleasure, they’re all equally meaningless. You are always at zero; can’t get worse. You are freed from all demands.

That’s the promise. The reality is that loss of meaning results in rage, futile intellectual argument, depression, and anxiety. The endpoint of nihilism is catatonia. Most of this chapter concerns these emotional dynamics.

In addition, I address the content of nihilistic intellectualization. This is a collection of reasons for rejecting meanings as “not really meaningful”:

Antidotes to nihilism

As long as nihilism seems comfortable, you have no reason to find a way out. When you realize its costs exceed its benefits, you may want to escape. That may not be so easy.

Since nihilism is an emotional strategy, not a coherent philosophy, recognizing that its supporting reasoning doesn’t work has limited effect—but can be helpful for some people. You may be able to think your way out.

If eternalism seems like the only alternative to nihilism, nihilism may seem less bad. Understanding—experientially as well as intellectually—the complete stance as a better, third alternative helps.

The underlying emotional problem is usually not that you genuinely believe meaning doesn’t exist, nor that the right kind of meaning doesn’t exist, but that life doesn’t seem meaningful enough. This is a psychological and practical problem, not a philosophical one, so psychological and practical methods may help. There are many ways to intensify one’s experience of meaning, making it more powerful, more obvious, more compelling, and more enjoyable.