Nihilism confuses people. “How can you care about anything, or strive for anything, if you believe nothing means anything?” they ask.
In return, nihilists point to the assumption of inherent meaning and question that assumption. Do we need existence to mean anything? After all, existence stays out there no matter what we think of it. We can do with it what we will. Some of us will desire more beauty, more efficiency, more function or more truth — and others will not. Conflict results.
Nihilists who aren’t of the kiddie anarchist variety tend to draw a distinction between nihilism and fatalism. Nihilism says that nothing has meaning. Fatalists say that nothing has meaning, so nothing will have meaning for them personally. It’s the difference between having no authority figure to tell you what’s right, and giving up on the idea of doing anything since no one will affirm that what you’ve done is right.
What is nihilism?
As a nihilist, I recognize that meaning does not exist. If we exterminate ourselves as a species, and vaporize our beautiful world, the universe will not cry with us (a condition called the pathetic fallacy). No gods will intervene. It will just happen and then — and then the universe will go on. We will not be remembered. We will simply not be.
In the same way, I accept that when I die, the most likely outcome will be a cessation of being. I will at that moment cease to be the source of my thoughts and feelings. Those feelings having only existed inside of me, never did “exist” except as electro-chemical impulses, and will no longer be found when I am gone.
Even further, I recognize that there is no golden standard for life. If I note that living in a polluted wasteland is stupid and pointless, others may not see this. They may kill me when I mention it. And then they will go on, and I will not. Insensitive to their polluted wasteworld, they will keep living in it and suffering under it, oblivious to the existence of an option.
A tree falling in a forest unobserved makes a sound. The forest may not recognize this as a sound because a forest is many life forms interacting, not organized by some central principle or consciousness. They just do what they do. In the same way, playing Beethoven’s Ninth to a bowl of yeast will not elicit a response. The insensate remain unobservant, much like the universe itself.
Many people “feel” marginalized when they think of this. Where is the Great Father who will hear their thoughts, validate their emotions, and tell them with certainty what is true and what is not? Where is the writing on the wall, the final proof, the word of God? How do we know for certain that anything is true, and if it is true, that it’s important?
Meaning is the human attempt to mold the world in our own image. We need some meaning to our existence, but feel doubt when we try to proclaim it as a creation of ourselves. So we look for some external meaning that we can show others and have them agree that it exists. This forces us to start judging every idea we encounter as threatening or affirming of our projected external meaning.
This distanced mentality further affirms our tendency to find the world alienating to our consciousness. In our minds, cause and effect are the same; we use our will to formulate an idea and it is there, in symbolic form. When we take that idea to the world and try to implement it, however, we can estimate how the world will react but we are frequently wrong, and this causes us doubt.
As a result, we like to separate the world from our minds and live in a world created by our minds. In this humanist view, every human is important. Every human emotion is sacred. Every human preference needs to be respected. It is us against the world, trying to assert our projected reality where we can because we fear the lack of human-ness in the world at large.
Nihilism reverses this process. It replaces externalized meaning with two important viewpoints. The first is pragmatism; what matters are the consequences in physical reality, and if there is a spiritual realm, it must operate in parallel with physical reality. The second is preferentialism; instead of trying to “prove” meaning, we pick what appeals to us — and acknowledge that who we are biologically determines what we seek.
In rejecting anthropomorphic pathetic fallacies such as inherent “meaning,” nihilism allows us to toss out anthropomorphism. The idea of an absolute morality, or any value to human life, is discarded. What matters are consequences. Consequences are not measured by their impact on humans, but by their impact on reality as a whole. If a tree falls in a forest, it makes a sound; if I exterminate a species and no human sees it, it happened anyway.
Your dictionary will tell you that nihilism is “a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths.” It’s not a doctrine; it’s a method, like the scientific method, which starts by crawling out of the ghetto of our own minds. It is a quieting of the parts of our minds that want to insist that our human perspective is the only real one, and the universe must adapt to us, instead of the sane alternative of adapting to our universe.
In this view, nihilism is a gateway and an underpinning to philosophy, not a philosophy in itself. It is an end to anthropomorphism, narcissism and solipsism. It is humans finally fully evolving and getting control of their own minds. As such, it is a starting point from which we can return to philosophy and re-analyze it all, knowing that our perspective is closer to that of the reality outside our minds.
Although many interpret nihilism to negate spirituality, the only coherent statement of nihilism is that there is a lack of inherent meaning. This does not preclude spirituality, only a sense of calling it inherent. This means that nihilist spirituality is exclusively transcendentalist, meaning that by observing the world and finding beauty in it, we discover a spirituality emerging from it; we don’t require a separate spiritual authority or lack thereof.
It is incorrect to say that nihilism is atheistic or agnostic. Atheism is incoherent: claiming an inherent meaning to the negation of God is a false objectivity just like claiming we can prove there is a God. Agnosticism makes spirituality revolve around the concept of uncertainty over the idea of God. Secular humanism replaces God with an idealized individual. These are all pointless to a nihilist.
In the nihilist view, any divine beings would exist like the wind — a force of nature, without moral balance, without any inherent meaning to its existence. A nihilist could note the existence of a god, and then shrug and move on. Many things exist, after all. What is more important to a nihilist is not inherent meaning, but the design, patterns and interconnected elements of the universe. By observing these, we find a way to discover meaning through our interpretation.
This in turn enables us to make unforced moral choices. If we are relying on another world to reward us where we don’t get rewarded here, we are not making a sacrifice. If we believe that a God outside of the world must exist in order for it to be good, we are slandering the world. Even if we think there is an inherent right way of doing things, and that we may get rewarded for it, we are not making moral choices.
Moral choices occur when we realize there is no compelling force on us to make that decision except our inclination to care about the consequences. That in turn is contingent upon us being hardwired with enough intelligence to revere nature, the cosmos and all that has brought us consciousness. Indeed, the only way we will have such respect for the world is if we view consciousness and life as a gift, and therefore choose to enhance and complement the order of nature.
In a nihilist worldview, whether we live or die as a species has no inherent value. We could stay, or blow away like a dead leaf, and the universe doesn’t care a bit. Here we must separate judgment, or caring about consequences, from the consequences themselves. If I fire a gun at someone and he dies, the consequence is his death. If I have no judgment of it, that means nothing more than his permanent absence.
If the universe has the same absence of judgment, there is nothing more than his absence. No cosmic conclusions, no judging by gods (even if we choose to believe they exist), and no emotion shared by everyone. It is the event and nothing more, like a tree falling in a forest when no one is around to hear its crash.
Since there are no inherent judgments in our universe, and no absolute and objective sense of judgment, what matters is our preference regarding consequences. We may choose not to survive as a species, in which case insanity and sanity have the same value level, since survival no longer has a position of value for us. Our survival is not inherently judged to be good; it’s up to us to do that.
In nihilism, as in every sufficiently advanced philosophy, the ultimate goal is to make “everything just what it is,” or to decipher enough of our consciousness that we do not confuse the instrument (our minds) with its object (our world). To a nihilist, the greatest human problem is solipsism, or a confusion of the mind with the world; our solution is to point out that the human values we consider “objective” and “inherent” are only pretense.
Nihilism conditions us instead to actualize ourselves. It denies nothing of the lack of inherent meaning to existence, and does not create a false “objective” reality based on our perceptions of what we wish did exist. Instead, it charges us to choose what we wish existed, and to work toward making it occur in reality.
The fully actualized human is able to say: I studied how the world works; I know how to predict its responses with resonable success; I know what cause will create what effect. As a result, we can say, I am going to pick a certain effect I desire that is coherent with the organization of our world, so it will succeed.
This returns us to the question of whether beauty is discovered, or invented; some suggest that beauty is inherent to certain approaches to organization of form, while others think we can invent it of our own accord. A nihilist would say that the patterns that define beauty are not arbitrary, therefore have a precedent in the extra-human cosmos, and that our artists create beauty by perceiving the organization of our world and then transposing it to a new, human form.
Through the embrace of “ultimate reality” — or physical reality and the abstractions that directly describe its organization, in contrast to opinions and judgments — as the only inherent constant to life, nihilism forces humans to make the ultimate moral decision. In a world that requires both good and bad for survival, do we choose to strive for what’s good, even knowing that it may require us to use bad methods and face bad consequences?
The ultimate test of spirituality in nature is not whether we can proclaim universal love for all human beings, or declare ourselves pacifists. It is whether we can do what is necessary for survival and improvement of ourselves, as this is the only way to approach our world with a truly reverent attitude: to adopt its methods, and through an unforced moral preference, choose to rise and not descend.
We must make the leap of faith and choose to believe not in the existence of the divine, but in its possibility through the merging of our imagination with our knowledge of reality. Finding divinity in the venal and material world requires an epic transcendental viewpoint that finds in the working of an order a holiness, because that order provides the grounding that grants us our own consciousness. If we love life, we find it to be holy and become reverent to it, and thus as nihilists can rapidly discover transcendental mysticism and transcendental idealism.
From this viewpoint, it’s easy to see how nihilism can be compatible with any faith, including Christianity. As long as we do not confuse our interpretation of reality (“God”) with reality itself, we are transcendentalists who find our source of spiritualism in the organization of the physical world around us and our mental state, which we can see as having parallel and similar function. When people talk about God, a nihilist thinks of the patterns of trees.
How does a nihilist, or one who is beyond morality and the sanctity of human life and illusions, apply these principles in everyday life? The short answer is “very carefully.” Human history provides one story after another of how a few smart people started something good, then parasites encrusted it, and eventually formed a political movement to murder those who knew better, thus plunging that something good into disrepair.
The essence of nihilism is transcendence through eliminating a false “inherent” meaning that is a projection of our minds. When we have cleared away the illusion, and can look at reality as a continuum of cause and effect relationships, we can know how to adapt to that reality. This gets us over the fear of reality that causes us to retreat into our own minds, a condition known as solipsism.
This in turn leads to a kind of primal realism that rejects everything but the methods of nature. These are inherent to not only biology, but physics and the patterns of our own thoughts. We need no inherent meaning; we need only to adapt to our world and, from the palette of options offered, choose what we desire. Do we want to live in mud huts, or like the ancient Greeks and Romans strive for a society of advanced learning?
Most people confuse fatalism with nihilism. Fatalism, or the idea that things are as they are and will not change, relies on an inherent “meaning” being denied for its emotional power. Fatalism is a shrug and a wish that things could be different, but since they are not, we will ignore them. Nihilism is the opposite principle: a reverent acceptance of nature as functional and in fact genius, and a determination to master it.
This is not a philosophy for the weak of heart, mind or body. It demands that we look clear-eyed at truths that most find upsetting, and then force ourselves past them as a means of disciplining ourselves toward self-actualization. Much as nihilism removes false inherent meaning, self-actualization removes the drama of the externalized self and replaces it with a sense of purpose: what quest makes meaning out of my life?
Unlike Christianity and Buddhism which seek to destroy the ego, nihilism seeks to remove the groundwork that makes the ego seem like all we have. It negates both materialism, or living for physical comfort, and dualism, or living for a moral god in another world that does not parallel our own in function. Any spiritual realm will parallel this one, because since matter, energy and thoughts show parallel mechanisms in their patterning, any other force would do the same.
Further, ego-negation is a false form of inherent meaning. A meaning defined in negative terms flatters the object as much as its positive counterpart; to say I’m anti-vole is to affirm the need for voles. The only true freedom from the ego consists in finding a replacement object, or ur-consciousnessness to reality, to replace the voice of personality which we often mistake for the world.
Our human problems on earth do not distill to simplifications like the narratives offered by the press because they are popular: we the people are exceptional, except when oppressed by kings, government, corporations or the beautiful people. Our human problems begin and end in our inability to recognize reality and enforce it upon ourselves; we instead opt for pleasant illusions, and generate the negative consequences one might expect.
If we do not get rid of our fears, they rule us. If we have created a false antidote to our fears, like a false sense of inherent meaning, we have doubly enslaved ourselves to those fears: first, the fears persist because we have no logical answer to them, and second, we are now indebted to the dogma that supposedly dispels them. This is why human problems have remained relatively unchanged for centuries.
As a philosophical groundwork, nihilism gives us a tool with which to approach all parts of life and make sense of them. Unlike merely political or religious solutions, it underlies all of our thinking, and by removing false hope, gives us a hope in the work of our own two hands. Where others rage against the world, we rage for it — and in doing so, provide a saner future.