Nihilism

Preview: eternalism and nihilism

Eternalism and nihilism are the simplest, and most extreme, stances toward meaningness.

  • Eternalism says that everything has a definite, true meaning.
  • Nihilism says that nothing really means anything.

Both these stances are wrong, factually. They are also unworkable, in their implications for living.

However, almost everyone falls into them at times, triggered by particular contexts. Each stance is based on genuine insights, and a powerful, emotionally appealing pattern of thinking. They also can seem to be the only possible alternatives, so we are forced into one by the repulsive qualities of the other.

Understanding the logic of eternalism and nihilism, and the resolution of the fundamental problem they address, is key to unlocking the material covered in this book. Because they are simple and extreme, the logic of these two stances is particularly clear. The other confused stances arise mainly as failing attempts to find some compromise between them.

Nihilism: the denial of meaning

The Pillars of Creation (dust clouds in the Eagle Nebula) seen in infrared

Nihilism holds that there is no meaning or value anywhere. Questions about purpose, ethics, and sacredness are unanswerable because they are meaningless. You might as well ask about the sleep habits of colorless green ideas as about the meaning of life.

Nihilism is a mirror image of eternalism—the stance that everything is meaningful. (For an introduction, see “Preview: eternalism and nihilism.”) However, the two stances are not simply opposites; they share fundamental metaphysical assumptions.

Eternalism and nihilism both fail to recognize that nebulosity and pattern are inseparable. Therefore they suppose that “real” meaning would be absolutely patterned: perfectly definite and certain, unchanging and objective. This is their shared metaphysical error.

Eternalism insists that meaning really is like that. That is its second metaphysical error. Nihilism observes, accurately, that no such meaning is possible. This corrects the second error. However, because nihilism shares the first error, it concludes that meaning is impossible, period. This is also wrong; nebulous meanings are “real,” for any reasonable definition of “real.”

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