To most people, there are only two options: inherent belief to human purpose in the universe, or an absence of anything resembling purpose or belief. The latter are commonly called nihilists.
A sensible version of nihilism cuts to its core, which is distrust of all things perceived through the human mind:
Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence.
The fundamental separation here occurs through the recognition that values, communication and truth are proxies or intermediates for reality. Our brains will recognize conclusions about the world, encode them in tokens and share them with others, but then the tokens become more important than results in reality. The same happens with money, popularity, religion and systems of control.
For this reason, nihilism is not what most people think it is, which is giving up on knowing reality at all or caring about the consequences of our actions. Instead, it is a refusal to let the human symbols for reality supersede reality itself, a condition known as solipsism which is the root of most common human errors.
Since most people are solipsistic, they want an excuse to give up on reality itself, not its proxies. They do this by strengthening the proxies instead of focusing on reality, or cause-effect results in the world outside our heads. One way to do this is a fanatical “anti-relativism” that emphasizes devotional truths, but the other is fatalism, or proclaiming that all reality is pointless except that in the human mind.
The kiddie form of nihilism arises from this, and ends up being a brew of individualism and anarchism, or essentially an individual without obligations to be correct in his or her statements. This allows the individual to justify inaction and selfishness as some form of “higher truth.”
And so, what does nihilism say about faith? First, it rejects the idea of any belief; in other words, there must be a source of spiritual understanding based on the world and its patterns, much as we know anything else. Next, this spiritual understanding cannot be communicated, only achieved by those who go along the path of cumulative learning.
Nihilism thus rejects exoteric faiths, or those based on the idea that we can communicate metaphysical or spiritual understanding through tokens, or that faith can be adopted on that basis. Religious texts can inform our understanding, but the source of the understanding comes from finding similarities between what is there and what exists in the world.
The root of metaphysics through nihilism is the same radical skepticism toward humanity that is found in most religious texts. Most humans, being monkeys plus language, have low capacity for analytical thinking or any real passion. Instead, they focus on the ego, externalizing choice to factors such as bodily impulses, socializing with others, and following what the group does.
An examination of the external world however reveals a potent clue: patterns, not physical matter, rule the day. That is: matter arranged in patterns has properties beyond its immediate physical presence, and these patterns can appear in different forms of matter and have the same effect, which means that patterns are more important than materiality.
The classic example of this is a chair. It can be made out of wood, stone, metal, plastic or even human bones, and still serves the same function. The design of the chair — four legs, a platform and a back — is where the magic lies, not in the plastic or bone. In the same way, forms of organization of groups or ideas have greater power than what they are written on or the tokens used. The idea is all.
From this realization comes the first honest spirituality. When life is seen in terms of patterns, those patterns can be compared and arranged, showing how reality is structured. This is separate from purpose, because that is a choice of the individual human, but those choices reflect the moral composition, intelligence and honesty of those individuals.
In turn, this places an emphasis on thought, or at least thought that is consistent with the world around it, making it a continuation of the world in the mind. Here a fine line arises: the world is thought, but not just any thought, since most human thought is a closed-circuit feedback loop of the impulses of the body and ego, and unrelated to the broader world.
When one sees the world as thought, something better than inherent purpose emerges: a sense that the world is calculating, or transacting change toward an ongoing end like evolution itself. Our thoughts take the same pattern, which is that many options emerge and are slowly whittled down to a final model, which is then refined qualitatively or in terms of degree of efficiency, accuracy and elegance.
At that point, the world takes on a new perspective. Instead of the world being the cause of thoughts, thoughts — or the evolution thereof — are the cause of the world, and it reveals its tendencies toward beauty and goodness through the seemingly endless creativity of nature and the many possibilities it gives us.
Through eyes that have realized this truth, a forest becomes not just an object of beauty, but a sense of beauty joined to function, revealing a pattern of thought that emphasizes something we can only call holiness. It takes us beyond the requirements of mere utilitarianism and shows us that the universe points in a different direction, toward an experience of greatness and existential pleasure.
With that, we realize that life has given us a clue: it is not random after all, nor is it ugly. Instead, it is us that are ugly. We resist a world that would push us to greater heights because we fear losing control. And yet, the world tries for beauty, which is how we know that we are immortal and that striving for excellence is worthy. Only then do we join the eternal pattern of our cosmos.