Cold comfort: the promise of nihilism


Nihilism’s promise is “you don’t have to care.” Nothing means anything, so why would you.

Nihilism promises evasion of all responsibility. You don’t have to do anything, because nothing matters.

Nihilism promises simplicity: an escape from the wearying complexity of intertwining nebulosity and pattern.

Nihilism promises cold comfort: you may be miserable, but nothing better than misery is possible. It takes you back to zero. Positive and negative meanings are equally impossible. You are not missing out on anything.

Nihilism promises certainty: there is definitely no meaning anywhere, so you can abandon the fruitless search for its ultimate source.

These promises are lies.

There is a better way.

The ease of oblivion

The onslaught of meanings is exhausting. A million times a day you get told you have to do this or that, because meanings. If you stop for a minute and take a step back… most of that junk is pretty meaningless. Somehow it seems you have to do it anyway.

On the other hand, you got a bad review at work, your back is acting up and sitting at a computer all day is making it hurt more every day, and your spouse has been sulking for weeks for no explainable reason. You can’t think of anything you can do about any of that. Heavy stuff is going badly and looks like it’s getting worse.

What you really don’t want is to have to deal with what that all means and how you feel about it.

If nothing matters, then you don’t.

On top of everything else, there is the hard, uncertain, endless worrying work of sorting out what is and isn’t meaningful and what to do about it.

You could just ignore it.

You could just stop.

Nihilism promises oblivion. Oblivion is rest. Oblivion is freedom.


Life is too complicated. The intertwining of nebulosity and pattern generates endless, kaleidoscopic hassles, opportunities, bafflements, projects, scenarios, commitments, conflicts, strategies, relationships, possessions, obsessions, appointments, disappointments, —

They all seem meaningful at times and meaningless at others. Which matter? How could you possibly keep track of all that? Can you care about everything all at once all the time? What do you drop on the floor when the crunch comes? What does it all mean, taken together? Does it mean anything at all?

No, promises nihilism. It’s simple: nothing means anything. You don’t have to bother with any of that stuff. That’s all the understanding you need.

Eternalism is also simple: it tells you the meaning of everything. When you realize eternalism is a pack of lies, simply inverting it is the obvious and simple move.

Nihilism shuns complex specifics, because they are too obviously meaningful. In their place, it substitutes conceptual abstractions and vague generalities. When your boss threatens to fire you because you can’t work because you are in too much pain and your spouse has left on a “business trip with a friend”—

—none of that matters, because you are just an automaton assembled by the random process of evolution, and in a million years no one will know it happened, much less care.

Getting back to zero

Life is a sickening blindfold rollercoaster ride of slow climbs and terrifying drops. It’s hope and fear, pleasure and pain, anticipation and disappointment. Some people seem to like that sort of thing? Maybe you’d rather get off—immediately.

You’re strapped in, but there’s anaesthesia. To suffer is to want things to be other than they are; but if nothing means anything, there is no reason to prefer anything over anything else.

You may feel pain, but pain is not suffering. Suffering is the rejection of pain. Who cares? Soon you will be dead, the sun will explode, the universe will run out of energy and it will freeze to death. Pain will be over.

Depression and senseless rage beat agony and terror.

Pleasure is meaningless. Joy is meaningless. There’s nothing better than misery. “Better” is a meaning. You are not missing out on anything.

Nihilism is attractive when life seems worse than zero. It promises you can get back to neutral. Like eternalism, it promises control: you can keep the thermostat set to zero.

It lies. You can dull your suffering with depression, but you can’t completely hide it from yourself. You’re trying to convince yourself you are at zero when you know you’re in the minus zone.

The story of the fox and the grapes, illustrated by John Tenniel

When you can’t get what you need for life to seem adequate, when everything seems out of control and out of reach, what’s left becomes meaningless. You might as well give up wanting, nihilism says. At least you won’t be disappointed.

Is there nothing left? There’s still bubble tea. If you got a bubble tea and enjoyed it, you would be reminded of everything you’d enjoy more and can’t have. You’d better give up bubble tea. It doesn’t mean anything, anyway.

You could go skateboarding in the park, but would that be fun? It seems like way too much effort. If it wasn’t fun, everything would be worse. If it was fun, you’d have to deal with your feelings about getting a little bit of fun, not enough. That would be super exhausting.

Nihilism promotes ascetic self-denial. If life goes even a bit into the positive, you aren’t at zero anymore. It’ll just swing back to negative and it’ll be even worse. So you ruthlessly amputate the small enjoyments that are the signposts on the way out of nihilism.


Nihilism promises certainty about the absence of meaning. You don’t have to wonder and guess about what really matters. It doesn’t.

Eternalism also promises certainty. These are the two most absolute stances. They are mirror images of each other.

What guarantees does it give that there is no meaning? Science has proven that meaning can’t exist! Or, so nihilism confidently asserts—without going into specifics. You’d think that if Science had proven that meaning doesn’t exist, you would remember which great scientist did that, and something about how their experiment worked.

Well, says nihilism, if you are even slightly rational, and not deluded by eternalism, the reasons are obvious! Spoiler: there isn’t any rational argument that everything is meaningless. What did happen was that scientific rationality disproved many religious claims that had supported eternalism. Eternalism is indeed false, but that does not imply nihilism.

Defense against eternalism

You got fooled by eternalism’s alluring lies about meaning. Repeatedly.

Maybe several different eternalist systems. You kept trying another, after you realized each one was a con. “You have to keep up hope,” right? That was fatal. It sucked you into manipulative cults, dangerous political movements, and wacko therapies.

You won’t get fooled again. You’ll never get swindled by faith again. You won’t get taken in by claims that some idiot thing is “meaningful.” It’s all lies.

If you refuse to believe in any meanings, you will be safe from trickery.

Eternalism claims to be the only salvation from nihilism, but now you realize nihilism is the only defense against eternalism.

Nihilism can’t deliver nothing

Nihilism promises you nothing, but it can’t deliver even that.

You are going to get meaning no matter what.

Sometimes, you get too much meaning.

When overwhelmed, you may have to retreat. Then nihilism may seem a way of avoiding self-blame for a breakdown. It’s better to recognize that sometimes life just is too much. It’s OK to admit that; it doesn’t make you a permanent failure.

When overwhelmed, it may be better to recognize that many of the things you were treating as meaningful… aren’t. Not so much. You could let go of some of them.

Sometimes, you can’t get enough meaning—or not of the right type.

Then in nihilism you pretend to believe meaning doesn’t exist. It’s a childish tantrum of rejection: if you can’t have chocolate ice cream, you are not going to have ice cream at all.

Inadequate meaning is not a metaphysical problem. It is a practical and psychological one. There are practical methods for increasing meaning in life. There are psychological methods for opening to perceiving and appreciating meanings you have overlooked.

Gaining confidence in an accurate understanding of how meaningness works is the best defense against both eternalism and nihilism. That understanding is the base for developing skill in working with meanings. That is the path into the complete stance.