It’s hard to define nihilism because the term is abused so commonly. People abuse the term nihilism because it sounds cool. Cool is whatever isn’t what is; in a herd of sheep, you want to be the one doing something different. And for most people, you don’t want to get that way the old fashioned way, which is to pick a discipline and work hard at it so that someday, you’re known as the guy who invented the anal extractor or a cure for cancer.
Because they don’t believe they’re going to succeed at anything real, and because they lack the will to do so and so are correct in that first estimation, most people choose instead to adopt a surrogate: social status, or how many people like them; money, or how much power they have over others; popularity, or how many friends they have in the mainstream or a niche; morality, or how they can feel superior for doing a human-centric “right thing” by individuals, instead of addressing the problem that includes all individuals, their environment and technology.
In this environment, picking a radical belief that doesn’t entail radical results is a clear winner. It lets you be “different” and rise above the pack, but you don’t actually have to pay the price. Why be a real revolutionary, who might die or kill others (which is unpopular)? Instead be popular by being an armchair revolutionary. Preach some radical belief you don’t believe, and fool others, who will then make themselves accessible to you as friends, sexual partners, business associates and so on.
Nihilism isn’t a philosophy to most people. It’s marketing. When a brand says “Better value for less money!” that’s not their philosophy; it’s their marketing. As they say about human beings, don’t listen to what they say — look at what they do. Does the product actually offer better value for the money? Sometimes but not necessarily. In the same way, do people who are nihilists generally live that way? No, a thousand times no. They live like any other hipster, scenester, socialite, hanger-on, toady or one of the crowd. They’re there to socialize.
In theory, nihilism could even be used to sell products, but only of the entertainment type. “This is the most nihilistic vacuum cleaner on the market!” somehow fails a basic test of credibility. But a rock band? We believe in nothing. A radical? Our belief is that nothing exists. A politician? Those nihilists are going to come and hate our freedom, or be racist like al-Qaeda. As with rock music, the news is entertainment, as is politics. It’s keeping the proles entertained and giving them very simple symbols to use as “reasons” for them doing whatever they do, or what you want them to do.
And at the end of the day, the most public “nihilists” are the ones most likely to be lower-case-c conservative: they sell a product, they make a ton of money, and they retire to gated communities where they spend their time golfing. Nihilism, or just good marketing?
What’s not nihilism
The marketing/social-friendly “nihilism” could more accurately be described as the intersection of fatalism, or believing that we have no control over the outcome of our actions, and selfishness, or the doctrine of acting only for the self. They are inherently materialistic — meaning that they recognize no dimension to reality except the physical comforts, wealth and convenience we can achieve — because they are based on removal of giving a damn.
However, they’re also completely destructive because they are limited in scope to right now. What do you want right now? How to look cool right now? Life is a process of many moments knitted together, and when we deny that future and past, we lose the ability to build. There is no need to be productive or constructive when you are living for one moment only, but if you live for many in sequence, you start wanting to have your life show its meaning in what you have done with it.
Fatalism and selfishness will be eternally popular because they’re the same thing. Don’t reach out into the world and challenge yourself; you’re fine just the way you are! Don’t strive for anything. Don’t grow. Just be, and you’re equal and we’re all happy. If people aren’t convinced, hide behind the idea that nothing ever changes and there’s no point doing anything, except living for your own comfort and convenience (of course).
In our modern time, we’ve elevated fatalism to a positive value. Instead of admitting that we need to evolve as a species, we’re looking inward and congratulating each other on how moral we are. Instead of striving so that we improve as individuals, and that we produce heroes and exceptional people, we’re going to focus on making sure we accept each other as equals. We’re all one, we’re all the same, we’re all OK, everyone wins!
This is the mindset of a solipsist who fears the world and doesn’t want to challenge himself or herself, so has created a social doctrine that demands no change to the status quo. When you think about it, equality and selfishness are the same idea, because with equality no one will strive and no one will tell you that you should strive, so you have ultimate freedom to consume, work, buy — anything but push yourself to achieve. And if you do, others will sabotage you with many pointless demands.
What is nihilism?
If we could successfully encapsulate philosophies in a paragraph, we would have far fewer philosophical tests or debates. However, any sufficiently unique idea requires explanation not so much for its essence as symbols, but for its implications. If I say that my philosophy is to eat only the brains of cretins, I’m going to need to explain how to harvest those brains, what the justification is, and what implications it has for a social order that needs to breed captive morons for slaughter. And that’s a super-simplified example.
The definition of nihilism expands. It’s like a doorway, more than an endpoint. We can start with the simplest definition:
Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
What do values, knowing and communication have in common? Each relies on us representing our world or parts of it with symbols. A symbol uses a part of the whole to communicate the whole, and depends on its audience knowing enough about the topic to know what the symbol represents. Even our memories are stored in symbolic form such that we recall a summary or a conclusion, but not the whole of what is going on. Many of us can remember the end result of a conversation in a room; few can remember the steps of conversation, or all of the objects in the room.
Nihilism is a rejection of the “false world” of symbols, memories and the “knowing” of others. When we say all values are baseless, we mean they are a choice and there is no writing on the wall or Word of God or scientific “proof” which can justify them. The world does not tell us what to believe; the world just is. Nothing is inherent and we cannot prove that some value or truth is inherent. We can only elect to believe them.
A nihilist for example recognizes that even if shown proof of some truth, people may choose to disbelieve or may simply not understand. A person with no short term memory can see people walking through two doors, a blue door and a red door, and observe that everyone going through the blue door gets a hollowpoint round to the forehead. But without that memory, even if told the blue door is death, they may have no idea of the context and walk through it anyway (thus curing their memory problem).
On a practical level, most human beings possess enough intelligence to be functional in a narrow range of tasks, but not to predict the outcome of some behavior they have not seen before. They therefore do not understand consequences of their actions beyond the immediate, and like basic algebra, are limited to measuring one variable at a time. Even worse, because they do not understand any idea more complex than one they have conceived, they view such ideas as wrong, and because they cannot see where their own thinking is limited, compare all ideas to their own and reject those which are not of their own conception — which includes all ideas more complex than their own.
When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, like Mr. Wheeler, they are left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine.
The skills needed to produce logically sound arguments, for instance, are the same skills that are necessary to recognize when a logically sound argument has been made. Thus, if people lack the skills to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to know when their answers, or anyone else’s, are right or wrong. They cannot recognize their responses as mistaken, or other people’s responses as superior to their own.
We see immediately a split in worldviews:
People who seek an inherent meaning in life, like writing on the wall appearing from a mystical world that is guaranteed to be 100% true 100% of the time, find nihilism depressing — they immediately see that they have no perfect argument to convince others they are right, and no perfect way of communicating it, so they give up on meaning entirely. Their view is that if meaning is not inherent to the same degree that, say, oxygen is, there’s no way to discover it or share it.
Others however do not share this view. They reason that without a being that can prove itself inherent, such as a god who can work miracles and communicate with us in a scientifically verifiable format, there is no way to prove anything inherent. The universe does not have a human consciousness, and will not give us truths in a form we can recognize as being similar to our memories. Instead, per the scientific method (otherwise known as any systematic method of discovery) we must observe, formulate theories about how the world works, test them and share as much as we can what we have learned.
In many ways, this is parallel to our transition from childhood to adulthood. A child needs parents or other adults to provide absolute right answers that the child can trust and act upon; an adult is comfortable with greater degrees of ambiguity, and at some point says “this makes sense to me” or “this is what I want” and so pursues it. Children need inherent or quasi-inherent values; adults view values as, well, value choices. Not everyone has the same values but much like not everyone gives the same answer to a test question, some answers are better than others.
What is passive nihilism?
Nihilism as a philosopical doctrine is simple: the denial of inherent meaning. Nothing inherently, automatically and irrefutably “means” anything. Meaning is a projection of the human mind and does not exist outside of it, much like while we may use a symbol for “God” we cannot say God exists in the human form we project; we’re using a variable or metaphor to describe God but that symbol is not equivalent to the thing itself.
When we look for inherent meaning, we are inevitably talking about morality of method. This type of morality assumes that the instance of any one thing is equivalent to its essence, like our word and conception of God being the same God who exists to other species on other planets. For a morality to be inherent, it must be a morality of outcomes (effects) and not their causes, or the effects they in turn create. The only moral object that is inherent is the action; its consequences unfold over time and so are not inherent in the same way that material change is.
For example, our civilization has become thoroughly neurotic about killing: murder is bad, except when we kill murderers, or wage war. If we wage war, we also need to be murdering murderers, or we are the aggressor who attacked first. However, if we murder a killer before he murders, or wage war against a civilization that by growing lots of cheap food will eventually produce an invasion force that will destroy us, we are committing immoral acts in terms of outcomes, but committing moral acts in terms of the effects of those outcomes.
Through this reasoning, we see that inherent morality is like tying a hand behind our backs. Outcomes and methods exist in the moment, and may cause us personal fear, but what we must look at is the long-term consequences of our actions. Our human instinct is to demand inherent morality from fear for ourselves, but what this shows us is that what we want to consider “inherent” to the world is inherent to a different globe entirely — the human head.
What is active nihilism?
When people ask how you can be a nihilist and still be striving for something other than self-pleasure, remember this: nihilism means denial of inherent value. It does not mean denial of functionality, or loss of a desire for our actions to be constructive and produce aesthetic beauty in life. Nihilism simply states that there is no inherent morality, or in other words no morality of method, so we must be willing to do immoral things for moral ends.
Nature parallels this vision. In nature, predators consume their prey with vicious violence but that consumption creates smarter animals. The majority of intelligent creatures are the predators; the majority of stupid creatures are primarily prey. There is no morality of murder, or other outcome-based judgment, because such logic would stop the whole process of evolution. Instead, nature works by a basic principle of morality of consequence: if the ends (evolution) require vicious means (predation), so be it.
When Plato wrote his metaphor of the cave, he was talking primarily about instance/essence confusions. (While most scholars prefer to think he is speaking of a dualistic world where perfect archetypes exist, his point is actually the opposite — no such world exists, because essence is defined not by duplicating instances in a purer form, but by being the attributes in common between all instances.)
In the Platonic view, most people are looking at instances (outcomes) and believing they see a pure essence (meaning), when really what they see is specific to their participation in the event — and therefore, like morality, is easily gamed into a “I demand freedom so you cannot force me to change, even as I force you to change to avoid inconveniencing me wherever I go,” which he identifies as the decay of a civilization.
When we are children, the difference between instance and essence is clearer to us. We have recently learned words like “chair,” and know that not all chairs are alike. We even draw the distinction “all chairs are like my chair” without assuming that all chairs spring from that one chair. But as time goes on, through a sleight of hand, we are convinced to build up an idealized, socially-driven version of more complex ideas that conflates to “all things like this are like the version I have most closely experienced.” For example, in morality we conclude that our deaths would be an injustice, therefore all killing is wrong — but how easily we are lured into paradox when it comes to killing those we perceive as threats.
The principle of active nihilism is one of ultimate reality: we are real, in a physical world that is real, with real consequences for any given action. There are no inherent goals, so we must pick one. If we like life, that goal is survival. If we want to maximize survival, we pick a systematic method (the scientific method) for discovering truth, or mental constructs that correspond to constructs existing in the physical world. After all, the one inherent thing to life is physical reality outside of us; everything else is up for grabs or ambiguous.
Thus there are two essential ideas in active nihilism:
Active nihilism denies inherent value but does not deny the inherency of reality. It tells us there are no default or universal judgments, and all that we can expect is that reality is consistent such that specific actions achieve similar results every time they are tried. This is the basis of all learning, and without it, even the basics of our understanding (gravity, time) would not make any sense because we could not expect them to be consistent.
Historically, the most popular theory of truth was the Correspondence Theory. First proposed in a vague form by Plato and by Aristotle in his Metaphysics, this realist theory says truth is what propositions have by corresponding to a way the world is. The theory says that a proposition is true provided there exists a fact corresponding to it. In other words, for any proposition p,
p is true if and only if p corresponds to a fact.
The theory’s answer to the question, “What is truth?” is that truth is a certain relationship — the relationship that holds between a proposition and its corresponding fact. – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
From this consistency we hope to construct truths, but it is understood these are not universal; they only apply in our minds, to such degree that our individual minds are ready at that moment to accept them. The most profound truth if told without context seems like arbitrary babble, or if told to an idiot, seems like pretentious drivel.
If active nihilism has a tenet, it is the denial of anthrocentric desires for “inherent” truth — really, consistent patterns to our consciousnesses that we would like to believe are inherent to the universe, but are an artifact of the object we are using to perceive, namely our brains: social preferences, feelings and emotions, the “official” declarations of public institutions or individuals, the promises of advertising — in preference for the adaptive model provided by the scientific method. “Deny no perception,” says the fatalist; “Deny no truth,” says the active nihilist.
Toward a non-Hollywood Nihilism
Nihilism will continue to confuse its audience because the actual concept is so much less emotionally satisfying than the false one. The kind of active fatalism that is required to deny anything but the self and the self’s material comfort in the present moment carries with it a satisfying rage against all that we dislike in the world. Nihilism itself however sees the rage of rejection and the errors of calcification as one, and provides an antidote: remove the human definition of “inherent” that is essentially solipsistic, and replace it with a knowledge of events over time as a sequence of causes.
It is for this reason that nihilism, unlike fatalism, does not proscribe striving for ideals, even ones that might overlap with what is considered “moral.” Nihilism denies the inherent nature of values, and by doing so, denies human solipsism; it does this as a means to having clarity about why we choose to be moral, which is a form of adaptive strategy similar to the scientific method where we observe the world and pick a response that is most likely to bring about positive results.
Nihilism may be our ultimate weapon against the consequence of human solipsism, which is backward rationalism. Because our selves are the formative archetype we know, we argue “from the self and toward the world” (instead of the converse). This means that when we find something we desire, we effect it, and then argue backwards from that effect toward a justification outside of the self.
“I’m just drinking this alcohol so no wayward kids get it” could well summarize human logic of this nature. We rationalize from what we have done to the reasons for doing it, using tokens that will manipulate our audience, usually of an emotionally universal or logically absolute (contextless) type. Nihilism denies this solipsism by denying these universals and absolutes, and by rejecting inherent values that are cornerstones for manipulation, forcing us instead to formulate forward logic: “I am doing this action for this effect toward this goal.”
The rejection of the idea of inherent values negates justification because it means there are no universals toward which we can always ascribe our actions; instead, each action must be considered situationally not by a moral standard of outcomes, but by a moral standard of goals which will be measured by the outcomes they claim (before the action) to be attempting to achieve.
For this reason nihilism is less a philosophy in itself (or like fatalism, a substitute for a philosophy) but a philosophical framework. When we understand like as not the false inherency of our solipsism, and as being composed of many moments knitted together by cause and effect where immediate outcome of an action is not its sole effect, life makes sense again. In the odd mode of paradox that afflicts many of nature’s greatest creations, in human life we must accept nothingness in order to find meaning in something.