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Absolving the Abyss: A Musing on Nihilism

Original Question (from Quora): Are you a nihilist? If so, why?

Yes, I am.

Explaining why requires clearing up some issues with nomenclature, popular culture, and traditional conceptions of how ethics works. Because most people are not nihilists, you’re probably going to end up disagreeing with me on at least a few of my conclusions and supporting arguments, so I ask you to keep an open mind for the sake of intellectual discussion.

The origin of nihilism is often attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche, a prominent 19th century German philosopher and cultural critic whose ideas have profoundly influenced Western philosophy, but his views more accurately reflect a man fighting nihilism, not embracing it. He spent much of his time speaking about how society was becoming nihilistic, and decadent as a consequence. His famous quote, “God is dead and we have killed him”, is a summary of this opinion. But while Nietzsche didn’t believe in the idea of external, objective meaning being a real thing (hence why he treated society’s widespread embrace of nihilism as inevitable), he did believe in the idea that one could create their own meaning in life. In fact, he describes the need for this in his philosophical novel, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Nietzsche thought people treat morality as an all-encompassing guiding hand, rebelling and rising against flawed systems only to embrace new ones in a forgetful cry for stability, a repetitive dance he described as the ‘master-slave cycle of morality’. But a figure named Zarathustra would serve as the Übermensch, or the ‘overman’ - a man who could rise above the idea of willingly shackling oneself to ideology and belief, and determine the rules for his existence based on necessity and prosperity alone. Nietzsche thought of this as humanity’s best possible end state, a civilization prepared to handle independence and autonomy. Humans are to be the transitional stage between apes and the Übermensch - as apes are considered an embarrassment and laughingstocks to humans, so too shall humans be considered such by the Übermensch, until they find the will to stride forth to their grand destiny.

One of Nietzsche’s trademark concerns was Christianity, the dominant religion of European society at the time. Lacking belief in Christian notions of an eternal afterlife or even a God, he infused Zarathustra with a sense of intense disapproval regarding humanity’s obsession and delusion in their dealings with the ultimate enemy: death. It’s a common theme in many of his works, but especially prominent here, given the subject matter. That’s why he took nihilism so seriously: to live life devoid of purpose and then submit to the end was, to him, a cosmically monumental waste of potential, and a tragic fate for our species.

These ideas can at least partly explain the later rise of absurdism, two centuries later, pioneered by a French philosopher named Albert Camus. He spent a great deal of time arguing against nihilism, not from an existential perspective, but rather from an ethical one. In other words, Camus didn’t care much about whether life was meaningless or not, so much as he cared about what the appropriate human response ought to be. In many letters and works, Camus outlines a conflict known as ‘The Absurd’: an existential paradox created by humans seeking meaning, and finding none. He expressed this in a number of ways throughout his career, but ultimately sums up the problem as one of suicide - if we cannot find a reason to live, should not suicide be our course? Because Camus did not have religious or secular faith in the objective value of ideals and morals, he saw such things ultimately as attempts to escape the Absurd, rather than solve it. The closest he ever gets to a solution is in his philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus - in describing the plight of Sisyphus, a famous Greek figure condemned to eternally roll a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down on its own, Camus wonders how Sisyphus is capable of handling the clear lack of meaning his existence and task holds, and makes a sobering conclusion.

Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Now, the reason I’ve told you all of this is to give you a historical perspective on what nihilism is, and what it’s often confused for. I am not a follower of Nietzschean principles, and his ideas do not encompass the entirety of what nihilism is. In fact, Nietzsche never spends much time explaining why he finds nihilism to be a compelling and accurate perspective of the world, and neither does Camus, because both their primary concerns were nihilism’s capacity to corrupt. Calling myself a nihilist does not necessarily mean that I am advocating for the validity of the Übermensch, or am an absurdist, or anything similar; these are different ideas and need to be treated as such.

The closest name for my stance on the subject would be “existential nihilist”, but I have a number of opinions that diverge from that of traditional existential nihilism, and names are supposed to remove confusion, not add it. Hence, I only call myself a “nihilist” - no prefixes attached. The name is also formally used for differentiating one’s views from moral nihilism and certain kinds of solipsism, but that will become clear in itself as I explain myself further. It’s possible you already have at least a few stereotypes of me forming in your mind at this information, but I’m planning to address them all, so sit tight.

We should start by talking about purpose and meaning. Contrary to the instruction of some popular beliefs, I treat them as two separate concepts.

‘Purpose’ denotes an inherently subjective reason to do things. My purpose for writing this or any other essay is to express my thoughts and feelings, but that doesn’t imply anything more profound; it’s just a way to describe how I am acting, and why. Similarly, my purpose in being a good citizen, a good friend, a good son, or basically anything else, is that I want to or that I feel it’s a necessary step towards getting something else I want. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I value those things in and of themselves, or that I would do them in the absence of the desire or need to do them.

‘Meaning’, on the other hand, is something I denote with inherent and objective value. I write for the sake of my own satisfaction, so whether my writing is meaningful depends on whether it has value beyond my personal investment in it. Same principle with the other examples I used. The reason this is the case is actually quite simple: without inherent value outside the reasons we do things, any given act is ultimately reducible to hedonism. I write in order to recreate the good feelings that are produced when my brain secretes oxytocin, dopamine, and cortisol. I act as a decent human being because it gives others a higher quality of life, which I want because it in turn gives me a higher quality society to live in as well as fulfillment of my social need to act with compassion, thus making it ultimately a hedonistic act. Etcetera, etcetera. Everything traditionally considered selfless can be reduced to selfishness in this way; it’s not a pessimistic or cynical outlook, so much as it is an exercise in philosophical honesty.

Most people are aware of this separation on some level even if they use different words to describe it, which is why every culture has a concept of inherent value - a recognized distinction between the temporary and the permanent. It’s just the conclusions made on the basis of this duality that I often heavily disagree with.

Religion is a common solution that I find to be vastly insufficient. Contrary to almost all perceptions of nihilism, atheism is completely irrelevant here; you could, quite easily in fact, be a theist as well as a nihilist. It all depends on your attitude towards God - more specifically, the difference between the eternal and the fundamental. God is often considered to be both, but I would argue he can only be the former because he is, by definition, the embodiment of effect-without-cause. If you were to ask why God does something, there is no legitimate answer. God did it because God did it, and as was said to Moses, “I am that I am”. With regards to meaning, what this demonstrates is a fundamentally arbitrary nature to God; he is good and not evil simply by virtue of coincidence, and he exists rather than doesn’t exist for the same lack of reason. God cannot be the fundamental arbiter or source of meaning because he himself lacks an inherent purpose or meaning for doing anything at all. None of this is to say that effects-without-cause are necessarily impossible, but rather that them being such doesn’t matter.

For the same reason, God-centric morality is baseless. A reworded version of Euthypro’s Dilemma governs all of it: are things loved by God because they are meaningful, or are things meaningful because they are loved by God? In either case, you face a fundamental arbitrariness. Things are ultimately good because they satisfy one’s hedonistic impulses, either to obey a divine authority for the sake of satisfying spiritual cravings, or to avoid material problems so as to satisfy a physical craving of some kind. Evil is thus the shorthand term used to describe hedonistic acts that can be argued to not work out to one’s benefit, in one way or another. The only exception is acts that negatively affect others without harming or depriving yourself in any way, which we collectively consider evil for the sake of reinforced group benefits, which is ultimately just indirect hedonism.

Meaning follows the same argument and, therefore, does not exist.

Can it be created by us, though? Can we create meaning in our lives? That seems to be the central question for many secular humanists.

I say no. As far as I’ve seen, the confusion with this concept lies in nomenclature issues translating into conceptual problems. What we are capable of creating for ourselves is purpose, a given reason to do anything. As stated before, a purpose does not need to be supported with yet another purpose; it just needs to exist for the sake of making evident the motivations and goals behind an act. Meaning, however, must be fundamentally defensible, and humanistic acts simply aren’t. As shown earlier, everything we do for the benefit of humanity is ultimately selfish and hedonistic one way or another, and therefore completely pointless as soon as we lose interest. Morality is a necessary charade that people can and do dispense with as soon as it no longer serves their interests; even the greatest stories of altruism only occurred because someone’s compassion overwhelmed self-preservation as the dominant craving to satisfy. That’s not misanthropy, by the way - it’s just the truth, as I’ve ascertained it.

Hence, nihilism.

Although my explanation of why I personally am a nihilist is now finished, I’d like to address one more major problem/misconception people tend to have with nihilism: the idea that it’s dangerous.

Now, I generally consider people to be responsible for their own actions. If you decide to kill someone, then it doesn’t really matter how you justify it to yourself - you did it because you didn’t value that person’s life enough to refrain. If you steal, you don’t care about the owner’s welfare as much as you care about success. So on and so forth. You can dick around with utilitarian ideals and realpolitik and so forth all you like, but ultimately, your impulses and actions did not line up in a way that would lead to a decent outcome for all parties involved. That’s the bottom line and true nature of any given crime, misdemeanor, and offense.

So when I see nihilism blamed for Stalinist murders, communist atrocities, and of course, the “eternal creep of moral decay” that people have been bitching and moaning about since the time of Aristotle, it irks me just slightly to see an existential philosophy blamed for humanity’s utter stupidity. Nihilism isn’t ethical: it does not and cannot dictate what you should and shouldn’t do. That is against its very definition. Nothing can be justified or condemned with nihilism because nihilism is fundamentally AMORAL. Not immoral, but amoral; it rejects morality entirely and does not concern itself with ethics. Anyone who says otherwise has completely misunderstood basic definitions.

You want to see world peace and humanity risen to its greatest potential? Find a way to effectively tackle the inverse correlation between group size and collective intelligence. Lift people out of poverty so they have the capacity to be less stupid. Volunteer at a suicide hotline. Do anything productive. Stop blaming philosophy for what blithering idiots and lazy hypocrites are ultimately responsible for.

Because if we’re really going to assign the worth of a philosophy based on the people “it” has killed, impoverished, or even slighted in some way, I can condemn practically everything humans have ever come up with. Christianity has slaughtered millions, with the millennium-old Constantinian “just war” ethic used to motivate the countless sieges, several crusades (some of which were explicitly against Jewish people) launched always at least partially in Jesus’ name (and that’s not even mentioning Nazi Germany, most of which identified as some Christian denomination). Islam with its numerous examples of caliphate and later citizen violence justified using the words and advocation of sharia law has its fair share of blood on its hands as well. Even Judaism, the eternal victim and pacifist throughout all of history, has had instances of explicitly advocating and practicing severe punishments for a wide variety of crimes, minor and major alike. Communism, as mentioned, has a number of atrocities attached to it, but ultimately, so does capitalism - indirect impoverishment of part of the masses through greedy pursuit of misguided economic ideology occurs with the help of both.

See how stupid and unfair this metric of comparison is? Blame the human for their actions, not the human’s mascot. A self-proclaimed violent nihilist does not make nihilism an enemy.