Nihilism concurs: nothing in our everyday world is absolute, therefore there is no meaning. You should be very, very sad.
“Absolute” is the first of several rhetorical tricks we’ll examine that deflect attention from pragmatic concrete meanings to highfalutin’ metaphysical abstractions. That’s a powerful eternalist move, because you can make abstractions say whatever you want, whereas concrete meanings are inconveniently stubborn in meaning what they want to mean. Nihilism, which mostly just inverts eternalist trickery, points out that the metaphysical absolutes don’t exist, so the dinner plate is empty—while hiding inconvenient actual meaningfulness under its table napkin.
Unlike “transcendent meaning,” “ultimate meaning,” and “eternal meaning,” the phrase “absolute meaning” is rare; but “absolute truth” and “moral absolutes” feature in both eternalist and nihilist manifestos. Absolute truth, if it existed, might offer absolute certainty, and moral absolutes absolute control (of the afterlife, at least). These are eternalist promises, and nihilism gets upset that they won’t be kept.
Meanings rely on facts. Whether you are guilty of a moral infraction depends in part on what in fact you did; your identity depends in part on your factual history; and so on. Absolute meanings require absolute factual truths.
Absolute truths are just plain true: no ifs, ands, or buts. Unfortunately for eternalism, nebulosity makes absolute truth impossible, and nebulosity is pervasive in the kind of world we live in. It’s pretty much true that the raven is black, but it is not absolutely true; it’s somewhat gray and green and blue and purple. Its color is somewhat nebulous. It’s impossible to be certain about matters in which there is no absolute truth, only more-or-less truth. Recognizing the pervasiveness of nebulosity, and mistaking it for meaninglessness, is a route into nihilism.
The meanings of the Biblical religions depend on the factual claims of the Bible. In the 1700s, it became clear that many are false. That led to the development of nihilism as a recognized problem in the 1800s. In response, religions split themselves between two strategies, modernism and fundamentalism.
Religious modernism jettisoned most factual claims in order to preserve the absolute truth of an essential core. Those are the minimal claims needed to glue meaning firmly in place, such as the omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence of God. Conveniently, these claims are nearly all abstract and metaphysical, and therefore resist refutation on the basis of factual evidence.1 Abstract metaphysical claims also escape nebulosity: it’s as plausible that God is absolutely omniscient as that He’s just widely knowledgeable.
Inconveniently, abstract metaphysical claims also cannot be supported with factual evidence. Faith in them depends solely on the inherent emotional attraction of eternalism itself. In practice, religious modernism collapses from the specificity of genuine Christianity into a vague feel-good secular eternalism. When stressed, with nothing concrete anchoring it, this “moralistic therapeutic deism” slides gently into lite nihilism—or more often materialism or some other other closely allied stance.
Recognizing this slippery slope, the fundamentalist alternative insists on the absolute, literal truth of every word of the Bible. This renders fundamentalism brittle. As long as you can pretend to believe absurd falsehoods, you are lashed securely to the mast. When you break free, you are thrown into the storm-tossed open ocean of fluctuating nebulosity and pattern. Losing faith in fundamentalism is a common route to hardcore nihilism.
We want to know things about cottage cheese and dance moves and puppy training—but nothing is absolutely true about them. Obviously, all sorts of things are true about them, in a common sense way. But we can’t even say definitely whether or not something is cottage cheese. There are always marginal cases, like cottage cheese that has been in the refrigerator too long and is gradually turning into something else. Nor is it absolutely true that cottage cheese is white. That is only “more-or-less true”; examined closely, it’s slightly yellowish.
Most true statements are not absolutely true. They may be true enough for all practical purposes; true in some sense; officially true, but effectively meaningless; true, other things being equal; true, as far as it goes; or true in theory, but not in practice.
Some things are just plain wrong.2 When it comes to moral absolutes, there is no wiggle room. As with absolute factual truths, there can be no ifs, ands, or buts.
A morality of absolute rules is reassuringly straightforward: easy to understand fully. It offers the possibility of blamelessness: full control of one’s own moral adequacy. It also provides tools to control others by condemning and punishing their unambiguously wrong acts.
Absolute morality is appropriate for people who don’t yet have the cognitive sophistication to deal with moral complexity. This includes children and some—not many—adults. They may find a more accurate ethics baffling, and be unable to make use of it, despite good intentions. Or they may perceive a more complex system as just “everything is gray, nothing is really wrong, so I can do whatever I like, as long as I can get away with it.” A simplistic, absolute morality is sometimes inaccurate, but far better than unconstrained self-interest.
When you recognize the inadequacy of the ethics you previously subscribed to, you may adopt or even commit to moral nihilism. This is a common route into nihilism overall. Whereas supposedly absolute factual truths are usually supported by some specific evidence and reasoning, the support for supposed moral absolutes is usually quite vague. Many factual questions are only slightly nebulous, where ethical ones may be thoroughly cloudy.
Logically, moral nihilism is a special case of general nihilism: nihilism denies all meaning, whereas moral nihilism denies only ethical meaning. However, its dynamics are quite different, so I’ll discuss it separately later, in the chapter on ethics. For example, moral nihilism is often gleeful, where general nihilism is depressed. It’s possible to maintain a lite general nihilism fairly consistently for many years, whereas most people—psychopaths excepted—snap out of moral nihilism pretty quickly. When someone behaves badly at work, it’s quite difficult not to notice your moral judgement of them, however committed you may claim to be to “there is no right or wrong.”
Relativism isn’t a thing
Eternalists sometimes contrast absolute truth or morality with “relativism.” This term has no clear definition, and is used to refer to several quite different views. It is mainly a pejorative: few serious thinkers currently defend broad concepts of either “relative truth” or “moral relativism.”3
Most views condemned as “relativism” are types of subjectivism. They hold that truth, meaning, or morality are exclusively a matter of either arbitrary social agreement or arbitrary individual opinion. Proponents of such views usually describe them with some other, more specific term.
Eternalism equates relativism, and subjectivism in general, with nihilism. This is not formally correct, but it is pretty much true in practice. “Meanings” chosen arbitrarily, or held subjectively without external support, are hard to maintain. Truth and ethics are neither subjective nor absolute. A more sophisticated ethics recognizes that there are no moral absolutes, and right and wrong depend on many factors, including intentions and circumstances as well as the act itself; but that does not make ethics a matter of individual choice, nor of cultural consensus.
How badly do you want absolute assurance?
Mostly we do fine without absolute truth or absolute morality.
There are no absolute truths about eggplants, but that causes no trouble when you make ratatouille. There are few absolute truths even in science and engineering. We’ve found ways to work effectively with the gloppiness of the physical world.4
We almost always agree on whether everyday actions are morally wrong, without having to comment or even think about it. We pass over this moral unproblematicness without noticing it. The rare disagreements, mainly invented to help Facebook sell ads, are noteworthy because they are rare and upsetting (although usually distant).
Desire for absolutes is a regression to the illusory safety of childhood, when your parents had all the answers. Are you adult enough to accept that the world offers no guarantee of safety? If you can’t, your choices are to try to believe eternalism’s comforting lies, or to hide in the dark pit of nihilistic depression.
If you can, there are pragmatic methods for increasing your knowledge, insight, power, and security—although they are not 100% reliable. That is what the complete stance recommends. It offers tools that help you understand, and come to trust, meanings that are somewhat nebulous, but patterned enough to be adequate most of the time.
1.Metaphysical claims remain vulnerable to a priori reasoning, though. In this case, that’s the “Problem of Evil”: why does God permit it? Admitting there is no good answer is a common route to atheism, and sometimes nihilism.
2.Masturbation, for example: Catechism of the Catholic Church 2352.
4.Unfortunately, although philosophers have long recognized that “absolute truth” mostly isn’t a thing, they’ve never bothered to work out a coherent story about how we work effectively with “more-or-less truths.” Parts Two and Three of In the Cells of the Eggplant do that.