What Nietzsche calls “nihilism” in the passive sense is what I and others refer to as fatalism: a belief that no matter what choices are made, or beliefs undertaken, the outcome won’t vary.
I often joke about how modern people have one philosophy, which is to say Give Up Now and then go back to doing whatever dumb things — television, sex, drugs, movies, video games, token moral activities — please them enough to distract but not enough to fill the holes in their souls arising from lack of real purpose in life.
Today we’re going to analyze one of the net’s nihilist screeds and see how it stands up. It is unsourced, since it came from a mailing list associated with CounterOrder.
A common (but incorrect) description of nihilism is the ‘belief in nothing’.
But a far more useful one would substitute ‘faith’ for ‘belief’ where faith is defined as the “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”
A universal definition of nihilism could then well be the rejection of that which requires faith for salvation or actualization and would span to include anything from theology to secular ideology.
This is the core of the statement, and starts out very promising: rejection of all beliefs which do not rest on provable suppositions.
Then a political agenda gets mixed in:
Within nihilism faith and similar values are discarded because they’ve no absolute, objective substance, they are invalid serving only as yet another exploitable lie never producing any strategically beneficial outcome.
Faith is an imperative hazard to group and individual because it compels suspension of reason, critical analysis and common sense. Faith is “don’t let those pesky facts get in the way of our political plan or our mystically ordained path to heaven”; faith is “do what I tell you because I said so”. All things that can’t be disproved need faith, utopia needs faith, idealism needs faith, spiritual salvation needs faith. F**k faith.
Here, two things combine: distrust of In-Group/Out-Group reasoning, and distrust of organized society. At some level, all hierarchies demand faith in leaders or in abstractions because there is no way to “prove,” immediately and clearly (and doubly, immediately and clearly to all members) that some action will work. Think of all the politically-unpopular moves that have turned out to be the right thing to do.
The second element nihilism rejects is the belief in final purpose, that the universe is built upon non-random events and that everything is structured towards an eventual conclusive revelation.
This is called teleology and it’s the fatal flaw plaguing the whole rainbow of false solutions from Marxism to Buddhism and everything in between. Teleology compels obedience towards the fulfillment of “destiny” or “progress” or similar such grandiose goals.
Teleology is used by despots and utopian dreamers alike as a coercive motivation leading only to yet another apocryphal apocalypse; the real way to lead humanity by the nose – tell them it’s all part of the big plan so play along or else! It may even seem reasonable but there is not now and never has been any evidence the universe operates teleologically – there is no final purpose. This is the simple beauty nihilism has that no other idea-set does. By breaking free from the tethers of teleology one is empowered in outlook and outcome because for the first time it’s possible to find answers without proceeding from pre-existing perceptions.
We’re finally free to find out what’s really out there and not just the partial evidence to support original pretext and faulty notions only making a hell on earth in the process. So f**k teleology too.
He makes a bit of a logical jump, here, from “no final purpose” to “find answers without proceeding from pre-existing perceptions.” He does this in order to make a sleight of hand, the first of several in this essay.
What he’s arguing against is the idea that life has an inherent purpose or goal; the sleight of hand is that he implies reality does not reward certain behaviors. They are not inherent, but immanent.
While the amoralism — “used by despots and utopian dreamers alike as a coercive motivation” — is a brave and useful thing to say, the lack of definition of purpose contra “sensible behavior” makes this an ambiguous statement.
This is why we do not get from “no final purpose” to “without proceeding from pre-existing perceptions.” The final purpose, being sleight of hand, is to have no correspondence to reality, which as any scientist will tell you, will reward some behaviors and not others. (If you don’t believe that’s true, try putting your hand in a fire.)
So from a promising start, we’re already heading back to a teleological morality, which is: I want to be independent from reality and consequence. Boring!
In a broader sense nihilism is set in two parts, the first is ‘social’ or metaphysical nihilism and the second is ‘political’ nihilism.
Social nihilism is manifest within the sense of isolation, futility, angst and the hopelessness of existence increasingly prevalent within the modern digital world sometimes referred to as the ‘downward spiral’. A better way to describe it might be ‘detachment form everything’.
Political nihilism is defined as “a doctrine or belief that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake independent of any constructive program or possibility.” It deals with authority and social structures rather than the introspective, personal emotions of metaphysical nihilism.
Social nihilism sounds like fatalism.
Political nihilism sounds like anarchy with an apocalyptic sense of revolution: things are bad, let’s destroy them. “It deals with authority” means “it hates authority because since our time is corrupt, all authority is presumed to be corrupt, since (proceeding from pre-existing perceptions) authority itself — and not the people in authority or their beliefs, but the method of authority — is what got us here.
Generally Nihilism’s Home Page deals with this next ‘political’ stage both for brevity and because the metaphysical angle when not stillborn generally leads to ‘political’ nihilism anyway.
Nihilism in total has many facets but usually leads to a weltanschauung that’s rational, logical, empirical, scientific and devoid of pointless emotion. It’s the logical psyche that distills everything down into what is known, what can be known and what can’t be known.
It’s the realization that all values are ultimately relativistic and in some ways the simplicity of nihilism is its own complexity.
An estimable definition of a nihilist, perhaps my favorite (so far): ” … a Nihilist is one who bows to no authority and accepts no doctrine, however widespread, that is not supported by proof. ” from The Catholic Encyclopedia. Clearly a true, mature nihilist is a very serious person with a sharp, cogent mind but one dealing with a double edged sword that can just as easily lead to damage as to enlightenment.
“The belief that destruction of existing political or social institutions is necessary for future improvement.” Â¹ To circumvent the paradox’s and internal negations inherent within ‘social’ nihilism is the course of the ‘political’ nihilism you’re reading about. I don’t want to use the philosophy lexicon any more than necessary nor the obfuscated verbosity of academia (just a few colorful adjectives where necessary); nihilism is the destruction of philosophy the negation of idealism, the negation of mythology, the destruction of perplexity and the disingenuous despots that profit from it as the monopolist interpreters of confusion.
Here incoherence sets in. This part: “rational, logical, empirical, scientific and devoid of pointless emotion. It’s the logical psyche that distills everything down into what is known, what can be known and what can’t be known,” sounds good, except that part of life is acting on the unknown and making suppositions heuristically based on previous experimental data.
Two final interesting points remain:
I think what’s most interesting about this little essay is how he starts out talking about liberation from the unprovable, and ends up dropping into the same negative dogma that has blighted anarchism for years — and doomed it to an audience of 18-year-old angry people and 35-year-old bitter basement dwellers.
If we’re going to think about nihilism, let’s stick to his coherent statement — we only believe in the provable — and call it “being scientific.” At that point, however, we’re no closer to anarchy than anything else, because we need to work out systems of proof and study so we can know truth.
I like the first part of his essay a lot, and find the second half disorganized and not logically following, mainly because he needs to create successive sleight of hand arguments for us not to notice he’s edging us toward something he can’t prove, namely his “nihilism = anarchy” formulation.