Nihilistic reasoning errors

Sometimes we justify our nihilizing with logical-sounding reasoning. Sometimes we try to extend that into a full-blown nihilistic ideology. Sometimes we convince ourselves that we’ve succeeded.

This page explains broad categories of reasoning flaws found in many mistaken justifications for nihilism. They are useful as a framework for understanding the dozens of specific justifications discussed in the following pages.

You can also apply this understanding directly. When you find yourself justifying your nihilizing, you can notice that your reasoning is, for example, “proving too much,” and drop it. That shortcut saves remembering the details of why each of the justifications is wrong. It also may apply to other justifications I’ve missed covering.

Bare assertion

“We know that, rationally, everything is meaningless.” That is: of course every rational person knows this, and it doesn’t need any explanation, because the matter was long since settled.

Often this bare assertion recurs frequently, without expansion, both in nihilist texts and in one’s own stream of thought. This is the epitome of the generality, abstractness, and repetitiveness of nihilistic thinking. It is common in amateur nihilist manifestos. It also shows up surprisingly often in professional philosophy, probably because philosophers semiconsciously realize no specific argument for nihilism would pass muster in a Philosophy 101 term paper, so they avoid them.

“Every rational person agrees” is, of course, also not a logically valid argument. They might all be wrong; so one should ask what justification they have for their belief, and evaluate that instead.

“Everyone believes it” would still count as circumstantial evidence. However, it’s empirically false: most people trained in technical rationality are not nihilists. (Although we are more prone to nihilism than others, because we are better at recognizing that eternalism is wrong.)

Bare assertion works only when you have a powerful desire to believe; just as you nod along with flimsy arguments for the existence of God, when you want to believe that. It helps if your willingness and ability to ask specific questions has been degraded by nihilism.

Unexplained inferential gap

Here there is a premise and a conclusion, with a “therefore,” but a vast intermediate gap doesn’t get filled.

An example is “everything is just made of atoms, so it’s all meaningless.” How does “made of atoms” imply “meaningless”?

You vaguely suppose some famous philosopher or scientist proved this long ago, “as everyone knows,” even if the details don’t exactly come to mind.

Conflating special meaning with all meaning

This is a particular type of unexplained inferential gap. It is the main error in lite nihilist reasoning. It starts with some special kind of meaning claimed by eternalism, such as absolute, transcendent, eternal, or ultimate meaning. It observes that this sort of meaning does not exist—which is true, it doesn’t. It then leaps to “meaning doesn’t exist” without justification.

That would follow only if you had reason to believe that the special kind is the only kind. But lite nihilism never asserts, much less justifies, that. In fact, it tacitly or explicitly acknowledges that “mundane” meanings do exist.

The underlying felt sense, rarely explicitly thought or said, is that mundane meanings are no good, and therefore don’t count. “Doesn’t count” is not the same as “doesn’t exist,” though. And doesn’t count for what? What would count; what is the criterion? Why apply that criterion?

Jumping from “no special meaning” to “no meaning” lets you avoid examining specifically why the available meanings seem inadequate. That effort seems too emotionally difficult. It is too likely to reveal the actual situation: that that your life is seriously unsatisfactory, in some specific way; that attempts to improve it seem too likely to fail; and that dealing with it realistically is too painful to consider. Nihilistic reasoning distracts you with a metaphysical generalization that implies you don’t have to care.

Proving too much

An argument “proves too much” if it is a special case of one that would prove many other things that are obviously false. For example, if someone says “You can’t be an atheist, because it’s impossible to disprove the existence of God”, you can answer “That argument proves too much. If we accept it, we must also accept that you can’t disbelieve in Bigfoot, since it’s impossible to disprove his existence as well.”1

Many of the arguments for the non-existence of meaning would also prove the non-existence of wings, colors, thoughts, potato mashers, or frogs. Recognizing this in a particular case may be sufficient to dispel that justification for nihilizing. Recognizing that a whole slew of the arguments fail for this reason might help you avoid nihilizing altogether.

Proving too much is not itself a logical error; it just shows that there must be a mistake somewhere in the reasoning. It’s fair then to conclude that the argument doesn’t work, and move on. However, it’s often worth figuring out exactly where the flaw is, and why the argument might seem convincing anyway. Just because a line of reasoning fails, it doesn’t imply its conclusion is false. (Perhaps it’s impossible to be an atheist for some other reason.) Also, there may be some valid insight motivating an imperfect proof.

Or, maybe the conclusion is false, but the argument seems attractive because there’s some other implicit intuition justifying the claim. Then it’s good to uncover that, and figure out why it is both wrong and persuasive.

That’s true of many justifications for nihilism which prove too much. They resonate because implicitly they extrapolate from some mistaken, mechanistic theory of how meaning would have to work if it did exist.

Reasoning from a mistaken theory of mechanism

“If meaning existed, it would have to work like so-and-so, but that wouldn’t work, so it doesn’t exist.”

Here the assumption may be that meaning would have to be inherent in objects, or made of a spiritual fluid, or consist of mental representations, or depend on free will; or some other dubious metaphysical theory.

There’s two logical flaws here. First, it’s correct that meaning doesn’t work in any of those ways, but that doesn’t imply that it doesn’t exist. It could work some other way (and in fact it does).

Second, usually this proves too much. Usually the supposed metaphysical mechanism was supposed to underlie many other phenomena (for instance perception, knowledge, or choice). If disproving the mechanism disproved meaning, it would disprove the others equally, but their existence is mainly uncontroversial.

Reasoning from ignorance of mechanism

This jumps from “we don’t know how it works” to “it doesn’t exist.” That proves too much, because there are lots of definitely existing things whose mechanism we don’t know.

A stronger version reasons from “we can’t even imagine any way it could work” to “it doesn’t exist.” This would also prove that—for instance—gravity doesn’t exist. There is no currently plausible way of reconciling general relativity with quantum theory, even in theory. All the conceivable approaches have been tried, and they haven’t worked, and there’s good reasons to think that each won’t work. Nevertheless, gravity seems to be pretty much a thing.

Although the “we can’t even imagine” argument is logically fallacious, it may still seem convincing, given that most available theories of meaningness are clearly wrong. I hope the interactionist sketch of an understanding given in Meaningness can help with that. It’s not a worked-out theory of mechanism, but it may make it plausible that one could exist.

Reasoning from supposed knowledge of mechanism

“We do know how meaning works, therefore it doesn’t exist.”

Logically this seems bizarre, but it’s a common line of reasoning. “Meaning is just an evolved brain function, so it isn’t real, it’s just an illusion” is an example. “Meaning is just a made-up social agreement, not real” is another.

The underlying, implicit intuition is that mysteriousness or non-physicality is an essential property of meaning, so anything that lacks it isn’t meaningful. Eternalist claims about meaning do often rely on religious mystification or metaphysical woo, which we are right to reject. Those meanings usually are illusory. That doesn’t imply all meanings are.

The Gish creep

The “Gish gallop” was a technique used by the “young earth” creationist Duane Gish against evolutionary biology. It was wildly successful. In formal debates, Gish spewed as many arguments against evolution as quickly as he could. They were all fallacious, but in the time it would take to refute any one of them, he could produce ten more.

Similarly, all the justifications for nihilism are fallacious, but there sure are a lot of them. If you think (or say) “everything is meaningless because atoms,” and it becomes apparent that this doesn’t quite follow, you can think (or say) “everything is meaningless because galaxies,” without acknowledging that the first claim failed. Then you can move to “everything is meaningless because evolution,” and so on.

I call this a “Gish creep,” rather than a gallop, because nihilistic thinking is characteristically slow. It’s not that nihilism spews dozens of bogus arguments per minute, it’s that it sneaks from one to another without your noticing. You get a sense of certainty from the sheer number of supporting reasons, all pointing in the same direction. You may cycle through a few familiar ones, over and over, again without noticing that each fails.

My hope is that explaining in one place why all of them are wrong will weaken this strategy. When you see it laid out how each element in the pattern of nihilist discourse is mistaken, maybe it will catalyze a reevaluation of the stance as a whole.

As with the Gish gallop, refuting all of the spurious arguments is a large, tedious job. No one has previously attempted it.2 Any sane person just says “look, obviously meaning exists, you need to see a therapist and get over this and get on with life.” I am not a sane person. I am a vengeful deranged person, and I intend to put psychotherapists out of business. Or anyway, I am an unreasonably motivated person who wants to help everyone stop nihilizing.

Recycling rationalism v. religion

Christianity and rationalism are the two mainstream Western ideologies of meaning, and it’s natural to recycle pieces of them when trying to justify nihilism. They’ve been litigating meaningness for the past few centuries: from The Inquisition v. Copernicus down to New Atheism v. Evangelical Fundamentalism. Since both of their theories of meaning are wrong, each has been able to develop arguments that discredit the other effectively.

Christianity: Since God is the source of all meaning, you have to believe in Him, because otherwise you have to believe that meaning doesn’t exist. Then you’ll kill yourself or everyone else.

Rationalism: Hey, we don’t go around killing anyone! But obviously God doesn’t exist, and obviously meaning does exist.

Christianity: Yeah? So where does it come from, then?

Rationalism: It’s, um, it’s an intrinsic, universal property of reason itself.

Christianity: Really? How is that supposed to be an explanation of where it comes from?

Rationalism: Uh, something about evolution?

Christianity: Yeah, no, that doesn’t work. If ethics, for example, were merely evolved, there would be no way to condemn human sacrifice, which you claim evolved. Nor would there be any way to resolve moral disagreements, since you claim the views of both sides evolved through mere accident.

Rationalism: If God existed and was good, he wouldn’t allow bad things to happen. You can’t explain divine evil, which seems like a much bigger problem than human evil.

Christianity: That’s a boring old argument. No one takes it seriously any more. Some version of the free will defense is surely true.

Rationalism: You are reduced to insulting the question, because you don’t have an actual answer. At best, a free will defense can’t account for natural evil and pervasive suffering. That’s a fatal flaw.

Christianity: You still haven’t explained how merely human meaning is supposed to work.

Rationalism: It’s an individual choice! We humans make our own meanings. We don’t need God for that.

Christianity: Nope, if you could “individually choose” goldfish crackers as the meaning of life, you’d just be crazy and wrong.

And so on. These objections, and dozens more like them from each side, are all valid. Since there’s no widely-accepted alternative to the religious and rationalist theories, it is easy to mistake refutations of them as justifications for nihilism.

We fall into nihilism when we realize that eternalism is wrong; and the more committed we were to eternalism, the harder the fall. After a devout Christian loses faith, “If you don’t believe in God, then everything is meaningless” may remain convincing. Christianity’s rebuttals of rationalism are also valid reasons not to take up the alternative.3 After a devout rationalist loses faith, it’s natural to reason from “There’s no God to give things meaning, so our theory must be right” and “oops, our theory is wrong” to “meaning doesn’t exist.”

In fact, it seems that most, if not all, justifications for nihilism were taken over from rationalism’s critique of religion, and vice versa.

Eternalizing nihilism

Some try to make nihilism a conceptual system that explains the True, ultimate nature of reality. It’s extremely meaningful that everything is meaningless, they say. Maybe it’s The Answer To Life, The Universe, And Everything. Even short of that, arguments for nihilism are often passionate, full of sound and fury, thereby implicitly suggesting that meaninglessness is highly meaningful.

Taken literally, this is self-contradictory. The meaninglessness of everything would include the meaninglessness of the meaninglessness of everything. Being bad or interesting is a meaning, and if everything is meaningless, then that isn’t bad or interesting. It’s meaningless. No problem! But also not worth making into a grand theory of everything.

A slight variation makes the meaningfulness of meaninglessness not quite logically contradictory. In principle it’s possible that everything is meaningless except for the fact of everything being meaningless. I’ve heard people try to make that work. But that doesn’t seem to be the usual underlying intuition.

It’s more common to derive additional, specific, meaningful conclusions from “everything is meaningless.” Once you get started on that, you find that each thing is made meaningful by its own meaninglessness, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. Indeed, it’s a muddled middle, a failing attempt to reconcile an opposite pair of stances.

There’s several different directions this can go. One idea is that meaninglessness is meaningful in giving us freedom of choice, and is therefore good. This is common in “happy nihilism.” It confuses fixed meaning with meaning in general. It’s true that there is no fixed meaning, which is in fact good because it does give us freedom. It is not true that there is no meaning at all. Meanings are nebulous, not non-existent.

Less happily, existentialism also insists that meaninglessness is extremely meaningful. It says that everything is objectively meaningless, and we have complete freedom of choice, which has to be entirely arbitrary, because meaning has no intrinsic pattern at all. Historically, existentialists found this anguishing, because we can’t actually do that. They thought that this was The Human Predicament, and the Meaning of Existence, and behaved badly and used too many capital letters and were miserable. Don’t do this.

Still worse, miserabilism decides that it is awful that everything is meaningless, and each and every little thing is made cosmically awful by its meaninglessness, and overall life is utterly unbearably awful because it is meaningless. Please don’t do this either. It really isn’t much fun.

  1. 1.This example is verbatim from Scott Alexander’s excellent post “Proving too much”.
  2. 2.A partial exception is Iddo Landau’s Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, the only book on nihilism I can recommend. His approach is rather different from mine, but the motivation is the same, to give practical resources for escaping from nihilism, instead of gathering academic publication points. Surprisingly, the book never uses the word “nihilism,” but it does address many specific reasons people give to justify “everything is meaningless.”
  3. 3.For his catalog of justifications of nihilism, Landau drew heavily on Christian theologian William Lane Craig’s “The Absurdity of Life without God,” which conveniently collects arguments that Godlessness implies meaninglessness.