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Comments are for the page: Reasons to be cheerless, part 3
Does your definition of meaning contain some criterion about “objectivity” or “non-arbitrariness” , or anything like that? I come at nihilism from Agrippa’s Trilemma - but I suppose in that case the nihilism I’m advocating is epistemological rather than existential.
If you don’t think meaning needs to be objective or non-arbitrary, or have some basis in what can be proven or demonstrated, then I can agree that nihilism (at least in the meaning-sense) isn’t necessarily valid - but I feel like most people who consider nihilism valid consider objectivity and non-arbitrariness to be relatively important when it comes to meaning.
Perhaps I’m also missing some underlying scaffold here and need to read more of your work - let me know if this is the case.
To be clear, this is a blog post that is an informal preliminary to writing book sections. It’s not arguing for anything, and (as you suggest) much of the relevant conceptual scaffolding hasn’t been presented yet.
Meaning is definitely non-arbitrary. Cats agree with us that food is meaningful, and presumably space aliens (if any) do too.
“Objective” is tricky; there are no coherent definitions of “objectivity” as far as I can tell. That said, I would agree that meaning is—informally, intuitively—not objective. However, it’s not subjective, either. Subjective theories of meaning (like existentialism) don’t work.
I suppose in that case the nihilism I'm advocating is epistemological rather than existential
It would seem so, yes.
FWIW, since we do know things, it’s pretty obvious that there’s something wrong with the trilemma. Since this site is mostly not concerned with epistemology, I’ll refrain from speculating about what :-)
I’m not sure if this helps, but the list item I think is most true is 25, for a very non-nihilistic reason.
My framework is that meaning is a pointing relationship inherent in language and the structure of our cognition, so it’s as real as our cognition, which is very real. Meaning-finding and meaning-having are valuable both as palliatives against suffering and sources of pleasure, and bring us together cognitively.
At the core of our game-theory-addled social brains is empathy and compassion (as well as other fairness emotions like spite). Suffering is terrible, not meaningless. The most important duty is to prevent and relieve suffering. Life causes suffering to innocent beings, so a reason to live is to prevent more suffering and, if possible, prevent more life.
It is only because suffering is extremely meaningful (and bad) that it is important to prevent life - otherwise it wouldn’t matter (a la Nagel in The Absurd). Meaning-finding and pleasure-causing and enjoyment are important as ways to relieve and prevent suffering.
Thanks! Yes, that seems like an argument against nihilism—although the two do get confused. (And, of course, “nihilism” has no Correct Definition, so people can legitimately use it to mean different things.)
Maybe the reason they do sometimes get lumped together is that nihilism holds out a promise of zero? When life seems worse than nothing, “you don’t have to care, because nothing means anything” is seductive. You can try to convince yourself that suffering is an illusion, so life is less bad than it seems.
FWIW, I’m not convinced that life is worse than nothing. It certainly is often awful; but not always. It seems natural to consider enjoyment as well as suffering. I don’t think they can be summed exactly, as utilitarians would like, but it’s reasonable to get an intuitive overall sense. And for some people, at some times (or even always) that may be negative, and at others (or even always) positive.
I agree that (e.g.) having children is morally dubious, for this reason.
Is there a word for “life is always worse than nothing”-ism?
Sutric Buddhism is an instance of that…
I think some philosophers use “pessimism,” but that normally refers to beliefs about the future, rather than life considered over time in general.
I hereby dub it “yucchism” unless someone comes up with something better. Many arguments supposedly supporting nihilism are actually about yucchism, when examined.
Is there a word for “life is always worse than nothing”-ism?
“Antinatalism” comes to mind.
Is there a word for “life is always worse than nothing”-ism?
“Antinatalism” comes to mind.
One of the main contemporary works in philosophy on nihilism is Ray Brassiers Nihil Unbound. I guess the general gist of the book is that “the disenchament of the world” is just an unavoidable consequence of attacking any area of human meaning with critical reason. Also, this is a project we should pursue rather than try to fight of (it is actually the natural extension of the enlightenment).
It seems to me, most people today would consider their own experience to be the last safe haven for meaning (“I know meaning doesn’t exist out there, but at least it feels meaningful to me”) while some trends in cognitive science are working hard on trying to root this out as well (epiphenomenalism etc).
Full disclaimar: I don’t believe meaning is only happening inside human subjects and I think epiphenomenalism is false :)
Probably swimming into the deep end here where I don’t belong but two things occurred to me on this topic. First, that if for no other reason, nihilism is a cantilever or balance against eternalism. I need something to put face-to-face with eternalism merely to understand the full range of my perception of reality. So nihilism may not be a system I want to function within, but more like a tool that can tell me where my thinking is at any given moment.
Second is a philosopher I came across, Thomas Nagel, and a paper he wrote on absurdism, “The Absurd.” I mention it because he speaks about our interest in meaning and that even though one will sooner or later come to the conclusion that there is no meaning, that in itself then, has no meaning. I’m probably not conveying the gist of his paper well but it struck me as relevant to your overall topic. http://fege.narod.ru/librarium/nagel.htm
How about this from Nietzsche as advocating a basic Nihilist stance:
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence - even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!"
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?... Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
Plan for an unfinished book: The Eternal Recurrence
My philosophy brings the triumphant idea of which all other modes of thought will ultimately perish. It is the great cultivating idea: the races that cannot bear it stand condemned; those who find it the greatest benefit are chosen to rule...
I want to teach the idea that gives many the right to erase themselves - the great cultivating idea...
Everything becomes and recurs eternally - escape is impossible!
And this as a nihilist practice:
To endure the idea of the recurrence one needs: freedom from morality; new means against the fact of pain ( pain conceived as a tool, as the father of pleasure...); the enjoyment of all kinds of uncertainty, experimentalism, as a counterweight to this extreme fatalism; abolition of the concept of necessity; abolition of the "will"; abolition of "knowledge-in-itself."
Greatest elevation of the consciousness of strength in man, as he creates the overman.
Nietzsche, taking into account his life, suffering, insanity and death, is qualified to answer you question on other than rational/analytic grounds, although I don’t think he can be faulted there either. But maybe you want to keep the discussion at that rational level (which is also good)
There is something in the way you put that list of questions that disturbs me though; as if by speaking – I was going to say in plain English but that not quite what your doing —idiomatically, colloquially, you succeed in making life poorer for lack of ornament (as someone I cant remember once said in reply to the demand for plain speech.) The length of the list too seems to drain the meaning away, so that the effort to think seems futile.
There is a connection between passion, speech and meaning, despite the platonic bias against rhetoric. Not that idiomatic language cant evoke a powerful ground of meaning. It just needs to be supplemented with the odd expletive.
To be explicit: I think each of these is fucking wrong, and intend to explain to you cocksuckers exactly why.
Meaning might be no more than an agitated nervous system, but does that lessen its significance for subjects caught in the drama of a real delusion.
As here in my favourite tele - series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgaEYyIjykM
For whatever reason – could be intellectual failing, could be humanistic common sense – I have never been troubled by these sort of nihilistic thoughts, despite suffering my fair share of cheerlessness and depression. I just never thought it was tied to the metaphysics of the universe. The inadequacies of my own existence trouble me, but I don՚t generalize that to the cosmos. It doesn՚t bother me if the universe as a whole is meaningless; humans construct their own mini-meanings as they live, suffer and die. If all meanings are transitory and local, even local to just me, well, that՚s just the way it is.
People who reason themselves into nihilism (or anti-natalism, for that matter) seem to lack one of the basic heuristics of thought: if your thinking undermines the conditions for its own existence, then there is something wrong with it and you should change it. Real life trumps your conceptualization. If you have that pragmatic rule, you don՚t get stuck in these dead ends.
Still people do get stuck in all kinds of ways, so a catalog of those ways (what David Stove, in a somewhat different context, called a nosology of thought) is useful.
Thank you all for helpful & interesting discussion!
Antinatalism seems a bit different from yucchism, although they certainly overlap. One can be an antinatalist on environmental grounds, which are not yucchist. Also one can take the view that:
skepticism about whether many if not most people are well positioned to create persons is a genuine possibility worth taking very seriously. This skeptical worry should not be confused with a related but much stronger version of the argument, which says that all human lives are very bad and not worth starting
I’m probably in that camp—I’m tentatively an antinatalist, but not a yucchist.
I know I “ought” to read Nihil Unbound, but it looks exceedingly tedious and stupid. I’ve read various summaries, and hope to get away with no more than that!
It seems to me, most people today would consider their own experience to be the last safe haven for meaning ("I know meaning doesn't exist out there, but at least it feels meaningful to me")
Yes; and I don’t think this is right. Meaning is not subjective or personal. (It’s also not objective or inherent.) I plan to explain that at length.
nihilism is a cantilever or balance against eternalism
Yes, absolutely! And for this purpose it may be a useful, perhaps even temporarily necessary, expedient. The tricky thing is finding a way to the complete stance that includes what’s right in each of eternalism and nihilism, and omits what’s wrong in each.
Thank you very much indeed for the recommendation of Nagel’s essay on absurdity! It’s excellent, and highly relevant.
He both points out why “in a million years our lives will be irrelevant” is not a logically sound argument for nihilism, and why it is emotionally appealing. This is what I intend to do for the 26 other arguments too.
(Which is going to be a lot of somewhat tiresome work. Why do I always get stuck doing things like this? Nihilism has been around for long enough that someone else ought to have done this job. Geez.)
I gather that there’s something close to consensus that it’s impossible to know quite what Nietzsche was driving at with the Eternal Recurrence. That said, it doesn’t seem to point toward nihilism, to me. (Am I missing something?) On the whole, quite the opposite: “crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal”!
Patrick, the passage you cite as “practice” seems to me consonant with the complete stance, rather than nihilism. Nihilism and the complete stance are similar in rejecting eternalist meanings, but different in that nihilism concludes that nothing is meaningful at all, whereas the compete stance affirms non-eternal meanings.
maybe you want to keep the discussion at that rational level
Throughout the book, I try to address emotional (and social) aspects, even more than rational ones, because confusions about meaning are mainly motivated emotionally, not rationally.
On the other hand, rationality gets co-opted to support emotional conclusions, and this seems to happen particularly in the case of nihilism. There’s a widespread perception that “science has proven that nothing means anything”; in fact, this seems to be the main point of Brassier’s book. That’s the motivation for this blog post: to show this is nonsense, I need to go through all the rational arguments for nihilism and show rationally that they are wrong. This is easy for any one of them (they are all transparently fallacious), but there’s at least 27, so it’s a lot of work.
There is something in the way you put that list of questions that disturbs me though; as if by speaking – I was going to say in plain English but that not quite what your doing ---idiomatically, colloquially, you succeed in making life poorer for lack of ornament (as someone I cant remember once said in reply to the demand for plain speech.) The length of the list too seems to drain the meaning away, so that the effort to think seems futile.
That’s extremely interesting… Possibly this was unconsciously deliberate. The point of this exercise is deflationary. I want to show that nihilism’s pretense to rationality is nonsense. When someone deploys, say, four of these 27 arguments, it may seem convincing. When you see the list of 27, the impression is not one of overwhelming logical force, but of grasping at straws. Further, put baldly and briefly, without the passionate sturm und drang that usually accompanies them, each individual argument looks like a dying minnow, not a looming Lovecraftian Leviathan, as the Speculative Realists like to make them out to be.
Generally, my writing runs to the florid and fantastical.
Yes. I love that essay of Stove’s, and this project is very much that.
On reflection, it seems that, although the trilemma as stated is epistemological, it’s straightforward to convert it into an argument against meaningfulness, so I’ve done that and added it as #29. Thank you Connor!
For me the most compelling arguments for nihilism that I can’t ever seem to get around deal with the objectivity of meaning – that I don’t think it could ever be objective.
Points 5 and 9 capture this well.
Points and 11 and 12 seem to be the type of justification I would use to support it.
I’ve read some of your suggestions so far that objectivity comes from the interplay and relationship between multiple people and life-forms. This seems interesting, but again I can’t help but argue that all of the participants of an action are “observers” and therefore it can only be subjective to each of them.
Thanks, yes, I agree that meaning isn’t objective. (Setting aside some issues about the definition of “objective.”) That doesn’t mean that it’s subjective—but it will take quite a lot of work to explain that clearly. I hope to get to that sometime before I die :-)
I’m most aligned with mtraven and GregH in the comments so far. I’m wondering though if the problem here is thinking that one can construct a sensible statement that begins “meaning is …”? Another facet: It seems to me that nihilism is itself a supporting strut in the holder’s orientation to (their) life and is necessarily therefore part of their meaning system.
We are apparently driven to make sense of our being and experience and “there is no sense” is often a desperate attempt at asserting a perception of at least that much sense.
This may be approximately the direction in which you’re heading. I’m heading that way under the combined influence of buddhist thought ( a la yourself, Jayarava Attwood, Sue Hamilton and others) and a psychotherapy based on our development of (the experience of) self.
Therein, meaning is (uh-oh, I’ve stepped in it) agreed/asserted intersubjectively; between ourselves as individuals and groups.
No ideas on nihilism, but this might interest you: http://www.sofn.org.uk/ , especially the Sofia Magazines.
Honestly, your best bets for cheerlessness and nihilism would be through some books. Things written by EM Cioran, and Schopenhauer. There’s an essay by Schopenhauer entitled “On the futility of Existence.”
Another book, which I’ve seen you comment that you own, would be Thomas Ligotti’s Conspiracy Against the Human Race. In my opinion, he’s just stating what Schopenhauer has said, but he’s just dressing it in this aesthetically dark language. I’d check that out if you’re looking for a pessimistic, depressing look at nihilism.
I was mulling over this post and thought of people who agree with you saying that despair and dread don’t necessarily follow from Nihilism. Besides Camus, two other big names that argued for it are Joel Feinberg and Thomas Nagel. They both wrote two great, short pieces, written in philosophy journals. I put a link to Nagel’s paper and a summary of Feinberg’s paper below.
Thomas Nagel’s The Absurd: https://philosophy.as.uky.edu/sites/default/files/The%20Absurd%20-%20Thomas%20Nagel.pdf
Joel Feinberg’s Absurd Self-Fulfillment:
Thank you very much for these recommendations!
Can’t think of a better, more concise surrogate for ‘philosophical pessimism’ than ‘yucchism’. Well done!
It might indeed be ‘yucchism’ that people struggle more seriously with, given its hefty emotional component - in hindsight, I think that was what I was trying to get at in the speculative realism discussion over at the BFV site. To me nihilism, taken as the process of negation towards meaning and value, has always come in two guises, depending on the interpretation of this process’ aftermath. There’s Nice Nihilism, which entails a pragmatic acceptance of the fact that things appear meaningless, and attempts to work around this - Camus et al. Then there’s Nasty Nihilism (or ‘yucchism’.) This asserts that things appearing as meaningless is a horrendous and terrible thing, and we should be feeling horrendous and terrible about it all the time.
There seem to be two basic suppositions to the cold-yet-strangely-histrionic Brassier-style ‘science tells us our lives are meaningless/aren’t we pathetic!’ rhetoric:
1) The ‘truth’ will always hurt, because over our history we’ve constructed a set of religious narratives about life, the universe and everything that have become engrained.
And 2) Humanity can’t live without these religious narratives (i.e. God, and his various substitutes).
I don’t know what you think about these. My intuition has always been that nihilists-yucchists have a habit of pathologizing humanity as a whole, when it’s very clear that the whole world doesn’t fret about meaninglessness - only certain types of people who I won’t try to identify by throwing a blanket over them here.
Of course, this might be answered by nihilist-yucchists by stating that the fact that the whole world isn’t up in arms about meaninglessness means everyone else is in denial of meaninglessness (because this denial is evolutionarily adaptive, of course.) Nihilist-yucchists are the enlightened ones, and have the rub on the fact that the world is, in fact, objectively awful.
I think that’s insightful and correct. As I wrote, the negative emotions of nihilism stem from the realization of being scammed by eternalism, and vowing never to get fooled again.
“Yucchists” have been hurt so badly they can’t let go and allow any meaningfulness, lest they get conned once more. I would guess most are people who were once deeply committed to some eternalist system and then saw through it. Whereas most people are never more than luke-warm eternalists, and don’t take religion/politics/etc. all that seriously.
Maybe you know this one, but Living in the epilogue: Social Policy as Palliative Care by Sister Sarah touches on these issues.
The idea is that there is no point to the universe and the stories we have made up are false. This fucking sucks and makes it kind of hard to function. I think it’s an emotionally compelling case, roughly corresponding to your points 24 - 26.
Thanks! Yes, that’s a great piece. She included it in her recent book Every Cradle Is a Grave, which I recommend highly.
I agree with almost everything in it. One partial difference is that she tends toward “yucchism.” (I think I’ll call that “miserabilism” officially.) I’m not sure she’s a full-blown yucchist, though. She considers that her life is awful, and that most are; but even in the piece you linked, she seems to say that some may not be. (Whereas a committed yucchist believes that everyone‘s life is awful, and if they think they are happy, they are mistaken.)
My opinion about my own life is that I can’t aggregate the bad and good aspects of it into an overall measure. (This was one point of my “Charnel Ground“/”Pure Land” duology.) Actually, she says something like that in her “Epilogue,” too, and quotes Ray Brassier to the same effect.
She has sometimes referred to herself as a “nice nihilist,” but I think she doesn’t qualify as a nihilist according to the particular definition I’ve used in Meaningness. She says that life as a whole has no ultimate, objective meaning—and I agree strongly. I don’t think she’d deny that specific acts or events have non-ultimate, non-objective meanings.
FWIW, I don’t think it sucks that there is no point to the universe. It’s not about us, so why should we care if it has a point?
I also don’t think all stories are false. Eternalist stories (such as those involving God) are false (and harmful), but many stories are true. Many more are useful even if not exactly true (because they are helpful ways of looking at things).
Stories about personal destiny are false and harmful; those seem to be the ones she’s writing about in “epilogue.” Stories like “I wrote a book about suicide; it was a difficult and sometimes fun, and now it’s published, and many people seem to like it” may be true and helpful.
(this is Sarah Perry, the Sarah above is me)
I think meaning has very little to do with whether life is bad, except that finding meaning can make life a little less bad.
Nagel is a very honest philosopher in that he admits that he is a very cheerful person in general and can’t really understand suffering, and also, unlike Camus, admits that philosophy has nothing to say about suicide. His essay on the absurd, which I mention above and certian others have mentioned, suggests that the mere fact that life is absurd should apply on a meta-level. Here, I think Camus is more honest, in that the problem is not a logical one, but a human one - we seek and expect to find a particular kind of meaning in life, but it is not there to find. Nagel has no answer to suffering, although his paper is very clever.
Whether life is a good thing is a separate question from whether meaning exists. I see meaning more as a palliative against the suffering of life, never as a justification for life’s suffering (unless chosen by the person living, such as choosing to endure suffering because he finds e.g. climbing Mt. Everest to be meaningful).
Whether life is good or bad is a difficult question for our brains to handle. There are many cognitive pitfalls, and the social status-seeking nature of our special human minds will tend toward particular biases. One of the biggest problems is the idea that good and bad are on a (balance) scale and trade off against each other - either within a life, or between lives. (I.e., if more good than bad happens then a life is good, or if there are more good lives than bad lives then overall life is good.) I think this is a silly and overly simplistic idea. Lives are probably on something like a normal scale with a heavy middle and a larger bad than good tail (fewer people who are ecstatically joyful all the time than miserable, mostly people just vaguely okay). We tend to compare our lives to other human lives rather than to possible lives in evaluating them; my life looks pretty good compared to an average human life, especially going back a few thousand years. But it’s not an arithmetic problem. Bad lives are still tragedies; bad things happening to people are still tragedies and not “made up for” by good things. Most forms of suffering are probably heritable; sad people have more of a duty not to breed than happy people, although happy people have no idea whether their children will lead happy lives, except probabilistically.
Meaning is something that we can do together to ease the horror of life, if we find it horrible; the people William James describes as the “once-born” (extremely joyous people with no concept of suffering) have no need of meaning, only suffering people do.
Wasn’t sure where to post this one - apologies if you’re covering neuroscience/philosophy of mind elsewhere - but seeing as it often seems to impact on discussions of meaning and non-meaning, and this particular idea purports to make a strong case for the latter, this seemed like a right enough place.
Bakker’s a fantasy/sci-fi author whose books I haven’t read, but whose blog I dip into every now and again when I’m feeling masochistic. He’s got a few years’ worth of posts behind his belt on this subject, which seems to be, broadly, the Churchlands on steroids. If I understand BBT correctly - and to be charitable to Bakker, I’m still not sure if I do, fully - then what it seems to suggest is that what is commonly understood as meaningful can only arise when we’re kept ‘blind’ to the brain’s own meaning-making processes; suggestive, of course, that meaning doesn’t exist. (In this way, it’s more purely nihilistic than some of the things that have been mistaken for nihilism here.)
Historically, we’ve been kept in the dark in order to function properly, but Bakker suggests neuroscience will eventually overturn this completely and the consequences will be dire. (So that’s the pessimism covered too.)
Wondered what your thoughts might be…
Hi, thanks for the link!
I’ve read only the abstract. It seems to concern consciousness, rather than meaning. There’s probably some connection between the two, but if so it is rarely, if ever, made clear. (If he does explain a connection in the body of the paper, I will actually read the relevant part?)
Some nihilists do make the leap from “neuroscience proves there is no consciousness” to “neuroscience proves there is no meaning,” usually without, as far as I can tell, noticing that they have done this. (Ray Brasier appears to make this leap in http://www.kronos.org.pl/index.php?23151,896 for instance.)
I don’t think neuroscience proves there’s no consciousness, and I don’t know how you would get to nihilism from that even if it did.
Just to follow up on “I don’t think neuroscience proves there’s no consciousness.” (It’s not really relevant to any part of Meaningness, because I’m not interested in the mind/body problem, but this claim does lead some people to nihilistic depression, so it’s worth trying to point out what’s wrong with it.)
This line of argument is beating a dead horse, namely substance dualism. Substance dualism holds that mental things work in some way nearly unconnected with material things. Almost no educated person has believed this in a century. It’s clear that mental things are, at least, intimately connected with material things. Neuroscience does show this.
The second step depends on the idea that the only alternative to substance dualism is monist brain physicalism (mental things are nothing other than brain things). There is no very good argument for this, although it’s plausible.
The key third step is that that because mental things are brain things, they don’t exist. That makes no sense at all. If consciousness were a brain thing, which could eventually be entirely explained by neuroscience, that would mean it does exist.
This nonsense goes back to the “cognitive revolution” of the 1960s, which was all about explaining mental stuff without invoking spooks. (Substance dualism allows for spooks, i.e. mental things without a physical basis.) They were right to try to eliminate spooks, but were wrong that consciousness is a spook that needs to be killed off.
“Here’s how consciousness works, therefore there is no consciousness” makes no sense. What they actually mean is “here’s a hand-wavey story about how consciousness might be produced by brains, therefore there is no God.” The hand-wavey stories are probably wrong. Also, we have much better reasons for believing there is no God.
What I posted was what I thought might be the closest thing to a summary of his views, but if he didn’t spell out how his theory impacts on meaning there then he certainly has done in many of his blog posts. (I’d find a pertinent one but that’s a daunting task.) He’s fond of doing the Brassier thing of suggesting that science and ‘human self-esteem’ will forever be opposed - he’s even criticised Brassier, of all people, for being too flattering towards the latter! He also goes on a lot about the ‘end of intentionality and intentional philosophy’, so likes to scoff at people making standard philosophical arguments against his apparently non-standard philosophical argument…
I’m in basic agreement that the mind/body problem isn’t that interesting - neither is the endless back and forth over free will for that matter. The nihilism that may stem from certain conceptions of both seems to share a common disgust and frustration at being a biological being, contingent upon and largely dictated by external influences, as opposed to whatever we were before. Contrary to Bakker, Brassier and the rest, I tend to think it’s possible to survive the death of this old, pernicious conception and find meaning in whatever we are now (which, if true, we always were anyway.) I suppose this is what’s driven me to your sites.
Thanks, I’ll take another look!
“The end of intentionality” is a clue. He’s probably right about this, in a narrow sense. The representational theory of mind (the centerpiece of the cognitive revolution) is an attempt to rescue meaning from nihilism. It had become clear by the 1800s that meanings weren’t objectively out-in-the-world. It was thought that meant they must be in-the-head instead. The past couple hundred years have had a lot of different in-the-head theories (Romantic subjectivism down to existentialism in the Continental tradition; various brands of representationalism in the Anglophone one).
But, in fact, you can’t make in-the-head theories of meaning work either. Hence the despair in the Continental tradition at the end of existentialism, and the subsequent de facto nihilism of postmodernism. In the Anglophone tradition, representationalism in cognitive science stopped being credible around 1990 (and I helped that happen), but it’s come back from the dead in neuroscience.
Anyway, if his story is that either meanings are out-in-the-world or in-the-head, and that the clearly aren’t either, and therefore nihilism, then he’s right except for the first premise. They aren’t either. They are interactional dynamics that, to the extent they are located at all, could be said to cross the inside/outside boundary.
And so, as you say, we can (and constantly do) find meaning where we are—because that is where meaning is, not in our brains.
I’ve found your blog fascinating. However, I think there are two possible arguments/stances (not that I agree with them) in favor of nihilism that are not addressed (at least for what I’ve read so far, so sorry if you do cover them). I think both of them may be even related.
1) Nothing is meaningful, and there is nothing wrong with that.
- All living beings are the product of evolution, and evolution, just as nature in general, lacks intention. It just happens. Living beings do not exist to acomplish any purpose, they just exist because they can exist.
- However, lacking an intention and “ultimate” purpose is not necessarily bad, and life does not even need a purpose, for living beings have a “natural drive” to survive and produce offspring. Furthermore, that “natural drive” does not give any purpose to a particular individual, for even the existence of its whole species does not have any ultimate purpose. It just exists.
- This idea can be generalized to even the planet Earth, the Solar System, and so forth; they too are the result of stellar evolution, which also lacks intention.
- However, focusing on the lack of meaning is unbearable and may bring depression, angst, etc. Hence, instead of looking for a meaning, humans should embrace its lack of existence and look for constant and stable happiness, even if it has no meaning, as long as it doesn’t harm others.
According to the outline, there will be a page for each of these.
This part of the book has been back-burnered mostly for 10 years, due to circumstances, unfortunately. I very much hope to return to it soon.
The whole eliminativism about consciousness trend has bothered me greatly along with my sense of meaning. To clarify for the sake of your curiosity I’ll explain why in form of a rough argument:
When I was a hardcore utilitarian, this was especially terrible to think about since I considered them the only sources of meaning, making this a highway to nihilism. I especially tied the meaning of these phenomena to their mental appearance (since this seems to give them valence), as opposed to a neurological description of them. It leads to terribly destructive thought-loops such as a) neurotically trying to prove to yourself that sensory experience exists by repeatedly pointing out instances of it, or b) maybe feeling a bit of joy or pain and then doubting their existence, removing the joy and doubling the suffering, subsequently triggering loop a) again. And when gripped with these doubts it became nigh-impossible to try to calm myself with meditation, since the experiences one focuses on in meditation would too be an illusion. It sucked the productivity and joy out of whatever I was doing, because essentially everything became a possible illusion to be doubted.
The weirdest part is that I wouldn’t say that I ever really believed in eliminativism. I just wondered if I was wrong in my disbelief, and the implications of that were dreadful. Luckily, this problem doesn’t really bother me that much anymore. I’ve read up on why people might believe that, but still just don’t find myself convinced. They could be wrong; so be it. But I still, I do find that position disheartening.
My nihilism began through evolutionary nihilism like Diego has said above. Why are we afraid of death? Because we have been biologically programmed so. Why do we instinctively try to eat food when we are starving? Because we are biologically programmed so. Why do we experience pleasure upon having sex? Because we are biologically programmed so, since sex is necessary for reproduction, to maintain our population. And so on and so forth.
All the meaning we find in our life, in anything at all, is ultimately a result of our biology. We treat Cortana, the Mainframe, SkyNet and Dragon as having artificial intelligence, and therefore being below us, not as meaningful as us. But the truth is we are programmed too - just biologically, not digitally.
But now I have found another reason, which is less logical but arguably harder to refute.
We are all living in a fake world. And I am breaking the fourth wall right now.
This arises from the fact that we still haven’t been able to find a theory of everything. Quantum Field Theory and General Relativity remain as incompatible as ever, and when applied together give some truly absurd results. Be it dark matter, negative energy, fine structure constant, or numerous other issues, we are simply unable to explain everything in the universe even though our last theoretical physics breakthrough was dozens of years ago.
This means only one thing. There is no theory of everything in the first place. Our universe is not real.
It may be a simulated world like in the Matrix, or perhaps we are living inside a story. I know, it sounds absurd, but that’s what I said. It’s not very logical, but unless and until a theory of everything is discovered, I will not be refuted.
There is a much simpler reason to be nihilistic: it is true.
You’ve provided no evidence to refute it, and just as you have said meaning is obviously real in many other pages, I can instantly counter with “no it isn’t”.
This is the problem with not actually backing your point, with simply asserting that something is not true; someone can instantly take the counter argument with equal validity.
Nihilism is true; I need no further reasoning, so even if you knock down these strawmen, you will do nothing to attack my argument.
So why can’t you do that instead?
I’m interested in two things in your responses.
First, exactly what do you mean by “nihilism”? I mean the stance that “everything is meaningless.” Is that what you mean?
Second, you sound angry and defiant and defensive. This is characteristic of nihilism. (There’s supposed to a lengthy discussion of that coming up.) Why are you angry and defiant and defensive? If everything is meaningless, including my claim that not everything is meaningless, how could you be angry about that?
I am not angry, defiant, or defensive; I simply disagree with you.
Please do not interpret disagreement to have an inherent emotional tone; it’s intellectually dishonest and is not compelling.
I’m not angry; I disagree with you.
Please acknowledge that there can be reasonable disagreement, and that it is not unreasonable to ask for evidence to a claim.
Purpose is a dimension of meaning. What is your purpose in commenting here? Are you doing it without any purpose at all? Or would you say that your purpose is not a meaning?
Hi Dave, as title suggests - increasingly I see this trend in discourse online and otherwise.
To repeat old ground, it is the characteristic of the nihilist to regard nothing as meaningful, ergo it is innate to those truly engaged within that they not experience the aforementioned ‘upset’ emotional reactions.
Your previous reply declares anger, defiance and defensiveness as a characteristic of the nihilst but I would consider this uniquely the hallmark of the overly emotional philosopher; those who define themselves in singular philosophies and stubbornly defend these against the challenges of others, rather than considering, reflecting and challenging, are innately invested in their views to a degree encroaching the dogmatic and it becomes such that attacks upon the ideology are then seen as an attack upon the self - one needs only consider the religious as a compelling example of historical and continuing behaviour of this kind, though it can also be seen in the modern political landscape and in the likes of modern pop philosophers a la Dawkins and Peterson.
Paradoxically, often does the rationalist recognise that the influence of emotion weakens open minded argumentation and therein they discover the duality of their own insecurity; they cannot be the emotional one, for that would make them the weak one! And if the self is weak, the ideology as the self is weak, and the ideology cannot be weak, for then the self is weak!
Therefore within this looping insecurity produced by the attack that undermines both the self and the ideology of the thinker, this emotion they are experiencing must be that of the ‘aggressor’, the ‘attacker’ of the ideology as the imagined self. For only then may their personal reality be sustained in a non-damaging manner; the self-assurance of “I am feeling upset due to the aggression, defiance and defensiveness of the other” functions as a self-soothing, borderline masturbatory protection mechanism that undermines open discourse and the continual reflective growth that should define discussion yet is so often interfered with by emotion - it is, in truth, that the attack is found offensive, insulting, and undermining to the self and the ideology.
Thus I present for your consideration that the recognition and thereafter removal of these unwanted, undesirable and unproductive emotional reactions will result in a more open mind reception to contrary ideas and a deeper growth of the self.
Something to consider moving forward.
I disagree that I need a purpose to perform an action.
Is the sun purposeful when it moves across the sky?
Does it find meaning in that motion?
I would also deny that purpose is inherently meaningful nor a dimension of meaning.
Does a wrench find meaning in its purpose?
If I make a clone for the purpose of harvesting its organs, would it necessarily find that meaningful?
This is exactly what I mean by you make assertions without evidence; you seem to think that I should accept your premise without comment, and that when I do not, that I am acting emotionally or irrationally.
I am not stonewalling you; I genuinely do not think as you do.
Therefore, I refute your premises which are not based on evidence.
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