Nihilism: the denial of 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.


The first page in this section discusses several obstacles you must overcome to even get to nihilism. The main one is the obviousness of meaning. Even before that, you have to let go of the hope that eternalism can somehow be made to work. There are also strong social and cultural taboos against nihilism. Finally, nihilism has nasty psychological side-effects that make you miserable.

The second page explains briefly what it would mean to accomplish nihilism: a state of total apathy. This would, theoretically, end suffering (which is one reason nihilism is attractive). It’s probably impossible, although some religious systems seem to advocate it.

Most of my discussion of nihilism concerns its emotional dynamics. I begin with an analogy: eternalism is like one of those email scams that promises you millions of dollars in exchange for help getting money out of Nigeria. If you fall for that, catastrophic financial loss ensues.

Nihilism entails a similar catastrophic loss: the loss of meaning. The next page gives an overview of our psychological reactions to that loss: rage, intellectual argument, depression, and anxiety. Each gets its own, more detailed page.

In addition, I address the content of nihilistic intellectualization. This is a collection of reasons for rejecting obvious meanings as “not really meaningful.” They are supposedly the wrong kind of meaning; not ultimate, not objective, not eternal, not inherent, or not higher. So what? These arguments are bogus and nonsensical. They usually conceal a hidden motivation: the issue is not qualitative (the “wrong kind” of meaning) but quantitative (available meanings seem inadequately intense to the nihilist). 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.

The antidotes to nihilism are partly intellectual: realizing why it’s incorrect and harmful. Mainly, though, antidotes restore meaningfulness, by making it more powerful, more obvious, more compelling, more enjoyable.