“Nothing really means anything.” That is the essence of Nihilism Lite. You’ve heard it a million times. You’ve probably had the thought yourself sometimes, even if you’ve never considered yourself a nihilist.
Lite nihilism divides meanings into “real” ones, which could do the job if they existed, and other ones, which are inadequate.
Nihilism just follows the lead of common eternalist systems here. They want to trick you into putting all your energy into their system. To do that, they make a two-pronged assault on your ability to perceive meaning accurately. They claim that their special meanings are supremely valuable; and that other meanings aren’t “really” meaningful at all.
- They say their special meanings are absolute, ultimate, objective, or transcendent. These are abstract metaphysical properties which supposedly somehow confer infinite value.
- The meanings you would otherwise naturally perceive are defective: they are made-up, illusory, trivial, or mundane, and therefore have little or no value.1
Nihilism agrees with this categorization, but denies that there are any of the first, “real” type of meaning. The Lite version grudgingly admits that the second, defective type does seem to exist. Full-strength nihilism says that those also aren’t meaningful at all.
Commonly, one falls into nihilism by seeing through only the first prong of eternalism’s propaganda. You realize an ideology’s supposed absolute meanings aren’t so special after all—and some of them are just wrong. What you don’t notice is that its denigration of other meanings is also a lie. Instead, unfortunately, you accept its framing of the actual world as an insignificant vale of tears. Then you are left with nearly nothing, which might not be a lot of fun.
Eternalism, in both its theistic and rationalistic versions, pounces at that point. Your rejection of its absolutes has made you miserable! And, look, if there were no God (or: if Science™️ could not deliver Absolute Truth), then nothing would “really” mean anything. That would be extremely bad because then there could be no ethics or purpose in life. Therefore, God exists (or: Science™️ is The Truth). That may be sufficient to rope you back in.
If, instead, you are confident in your rejection of the first prong—eternalism’s claim to absolute meaning—and if you want to avoid the harms of nihilism, it’s time to work on the second one.
“Really” is a weasel-word, “aimed at creating an impression that something specific and meaningful has been said, when in fact only a vague or ambiguous claim has been communicated.” “Against ‘really’” explains that it is used to intimidate you into accepting dubious metaphysical claims:
The power of “really” is to stop you from asking. If you can’t see that everything is meaningless, it means that you are just not smart enough to understand. “Really” means “shut up, kid—I’ve got all the answers. I have access to the real world and you don’t.”
These are huge, implausible metaphysical claims. Defending them would be difficult at best. “Really” is a way of intimidating you into accepting them without explanation.
When someone hands you a “really” claim, try making it into an “in some sense” claim, and then ask the obvious questions.
- Specifically what is un-real about the “wrong” kind of meanings? (The vagueness of “really” is part of what makes “nothing really means anything” sound convincing without any justification.)
- Is it accurate to describe these meanings as “not real”? (Or do they seem defective in some other, more concrete way?)
- Are the specific supposed defects of the “unreal” meanings problems we should be upset about? (Or are they just the ways actual meanings actually work, quite well?)
- What job is it that meanings are supposed to do, that the unreal ones are not capable of? (Are they in fact inadequate?)
Answering these questions may be quite a lot of work. When in the grip of nihilism, that is unwelcome. “Nothing really means anything” can seem correct when disappointed: when you realize something didn’t mean what you hoped. Nihilism’s promise is that you don’t have to care. Since nothing really means anything, you can forget about the complicated, difficult, on-going task of figuring out how meanings work.
I will suggest that what is true is that meanings are nebulous—but that does not make them non-existent, inadequate, or unreal, any more than clouds are non-existent, inadequate, or unreal.
In the following pages, we’ll investigate many specific alleged defects of meanings—for example, that they are not ultimate, objective, or authorized by space aliens. Each of these allegations has a valid underlying intuition. They also each involve a metaphysical confusion, usually with an emotional motivation.
Sorting out specifically how meanings work, and what they can and can’t do, is an antidote to nihilism. Let’s do it.
- 1.The second “prong” here is nihilistic. Ideologies whose overall thrust is eternalistic do sometimes resort to nihilism when convenient.