For example, in the United States and UK, our right-wing tends to view itself as a bastion of defense against “nihilism,” which is a nifty Nietzschean shorthand for the fact that leftists don’t believe in reality. If you don’t believe in reality, you can’t be a consequentialist, which leaves preference utilitarianism which is conveniently very popular.
Consequentialists say “only the results matter” and so tend to be goal-oriented; utilitarians say that only mass perception of the results matter, so if you coat the planet in twelve feet of feces and yet most people think that things are better than ever before, they must be better — or at least considered that way.
In turn, the left whose philosophy derives from the Christian ideal of a universal moral standard, are cleaving to relativism and the idea that there is no central truth of any kind. The kiddie Nihilists out there think this is “nihilism” because it does not believe in a single standard for reality.
All three groups are off their heads and have no idea what Nietzsche was saying about nihilism. He implied a distinction between passive nihilism and active nihilism; passive nihilism, upon discovering a lack of immediate tangible reward to the individual, threw out anything but the individual and immediate.
The individual, to the individual, is the only verifiable part of reality; passive nihilism is thus the intersection between narcissism, solipsism and fatalism, or a lack of belief that life outside the self is worth even attempting. You might call it depression if you want to find the ultimate shorthand for its type of belief.
To Nietzsche, passive nihilism was the tendency not to not believe in any truth, but to believe in the individual as the only truth, and in doing so, to change the concept of “truth” from “verifiable tendency in reality” to “popular notion.” Nihilism was a lack of belief in reality itself.
Active nihilism, on the other hand, is more of what he shows in his character Zarathustra. Zarathustra realizes that there are three options: belief in self, belief in world, and (surprise) belief in self as a component of the world. Either of the first two is a loss of belief in the goodness of the outcome of human life, which is self and world together.
I’ll take this even further: passive nihilism is fatalism, or self-pity; active nihilism is a scientific outlook on the world that reduces it to the inherent; and finally, most importantly, nihilism is necessary for spiritual experience.
(There should be a moment of silence here for you to throw things at the screens, pitch a fit, question with wonder, assemble pitchforks and napalm to burn the heretic, etc. These are all just choices and none is more valid than any other. And if you believe that, you are probably very confused in reading this blog.)
Fatalism is what occurs when you stop believing that you have any efficacy on the world or, in extreme cases, on yourself. If you truly think that nothing you do can change or influence the world, you will — in all but a few cases — quit trying and focus instead on taking from the world what you can for yourself. This belief is not only rather narcissistic, but also in a perverse twist, self-destructive. If you believe the external world has what you need to be happy, you have given up on yourself, on your soul (character, personality, soul: about the same, from a distance) and on your future happiness. You’re hoping you win the lottery; otherwise, all is gloom. You do not view your happiness as being in your own hands. Thus, your happiness is left up to chance, since you do not have efficacy on the world, and so you are not only feeling out of control of your life, but also pitying yourself for being in such a situation. End result: you don’t trust the goodness of the world, you don’t trust the goodness of yourself, and as a result you are in a permanent state of resentment, even if you get what you desire, because it won’t be able to cure the hole within.
Inherency is perhaps the biggest question in philosophy. What is true? — at the very barebones level a nihilist will insist upon, the only thing that is true is reality itself. Even our statements about it are degrading as we make them, since they attempt to make equivalencies between complex dynamic systems and fixed, reductionist symbols. Few people point out that the symbols themselves are actually fluid, and change with the system around them; this is too much time, particularly past our own mortal ends, for the brain to grasp in most cases. We have plenty of people however who think “the problem with humanity” is that we use symbols and that these symbols, or sentence structures using to-be verbs, are the essence of our failure as a species. None of these seem to be able to admit that even if our symbols are wrong, the world they symbolize still exists and is vital; in fact, the deniers are making the same mistake as the affirmers, which is to confuse image/symbol/token/memory with the whole. Life goes on and the world keeps turning. That is why we say that reality itself is the only inherent thing; of course, that’s unsatisfying, as it leaves open the question of what we can know about reality. Fatalists say we can know nothing; active nihilists point out that even saying “we know nothing” is affirming an absolutist, universal thought, and for that reason, prefer to say it’s more complex, this knowing what we know thing.
Spirituality occurs when we view invisible orders to reality that are not linear causal (golf club hitting a ball) but immanent, or emerging from the interaction of interconnected parts, like a neural network or storm system. As a result, spirituality of all forms will never be “prove-able” because it is not a solely material concept, and only solely material or pure linear logic concepts (which resemble material) can be proved or disproved. The atheist has no problem pointing to a believer and saying, “There goes an ignorant man,” but if we are honest, we realize we cannot disprove belief, either. As I’m fond of saying, if it were that easy, we wouldn’t be having this debate. Instead, we have to realize that we cannot prove or disprove faith, so both atheism and deism are choices by the believer. Further, these are not preferential choices, where there is no right answer, but choices in the “correspondence theory of truth” school where whatever choice corresponds most to the order found in reality wins. Spirituality and belief are not lifestyle choices, but choices to accept a form of non-linear logic that sees an underlying invisible order to reality and is willing to prioritize that above pure linearly orders. This is the “leap of faith” in its oldest sense.
Given these pieces of the truth, we can see how nihilism is necessary for spirituality. If we institute a false belief in the inherency of God, and claim his presence is obvious among us, we’re denying the choice necessary to spirituality by making God seem like an unavoidable realization.
If we, like the usual callow modern atheists and scientific literalists, choose to sub-divide our world into the smallest linear causes, we end up throwing out consciousness, choice, love, aesthetics and any other complex thoughts in favor of small results. Science does well with finding isolated causes, but for anything more complex, it ends up become one large “correlation does not equal causation” error.
Without nihilism, we either become asserters of a false reality, or deducers of a false reality owing to rationalist, linear, deconstruction and reductionist analysis being applied to a place (existence) that is less the material properties of objects and more the infinite possibilities of their interaction.
People are barking up the wrong tree by blaming nihilism for our problems.
Let us indulge in heresy, you and me — it will perhaps be delicious. The problem with our society is not a lack of belief, but false belief, such as self-worship that occludes the world and precludes giving a hoot about reality and thus, the consistency of consequences of our actions.
The source of our downfall is not that we are oppressed, but that we oppress ourselves by refusing to cooperate, and by refusing to have any kind of consensus of values, we determine that we will be ruled by tyrants, corporations or anyone else who is authoritarian enough to clean up the mess we make. Corporations respond to our actions by offering the products we want at prices we are willing to pay; we hate to admit it, but we the consumers are responsible for the horrible things they do, because we just don’t care. The corporations reflect what we are willing to endure.
In our fantasy world, we like to think that the problem is some external force that is crushing our souls. More likely, the problem is what it has been since before we were humans: biological traits are assigned randomly, and only the best must persist for us to succeed; social forces, however, encourage inclusiveness without judgment, so that all persist even the criminal, perverse, idiotic and cruel. In religious terms, we are struggling so that the good be rewarded and the bad smote, which is the personality/soul equivalent of natural selection. All of life is based on this, much like all ideas occur when your brain generates a few thousand impulses in response to a stimulus, and then picks the most appropriate one. The reality of humanity is that we are unequal and for us to thrive, we must reward the good and kick out the bad. Since we don’t do that, it’s not surprising we live in a time of jerks. Many if not most of the people in our society have mental problems in addition to chronic selfishness, and they act it out on the rest of us, justifying it however they want. In fact, it’s usually the ones with the most altruistic and inclusive philosophies who are the most selfish. People don’t want to hear that; it’s harder than thinking we’re all victims of a cosmic corporate conspiracy.
Our society isn’t falling apart because of a lack of belief; it’s falling apart because we’ve redefined “inherent” to be a political construct, not a construct of reality.
Nihilism did not cause this; if people truly were nihilists, they would go back to living as beasts, if they lived at all, and this would solve these problems of false values. Nihilism is in fact the greatest assertion of reality ever created: it throws out all inherency except reality itself. It does not preclude conservative politics or even Christian religion, just says they are a choice and that choice like all choices reflects what’s in our souls. If two homeless men are given $20 each, and one buys a wheelbarrow and starts work and the other buys booze, we’re kidding ourselves if we say these decisions are equal.
In the hands of a health person, nihilism rejects any theory or notion that does not correspond to reality. Nihilism is like a form of realism that rejects the notion that we “know” reality and can transcribe it into our symbols, emotions and human constructions. Rather, reality is something against which we compare our crazy notions and actions. What will the consequences of this action be? We don’t need morality to judge these; morality is easy. What we do need is the step before moralizing, which is to know what is real and what is not.
While Nietzsche meant well, he misnamed his “nihilism,” but it’s forgivable because we have no word for what he was describing. It is fatalism, narcissism, depression, and selfishness, all wrapped up around a core idea of philosophical individualism, or placing of the individual — body, preferences, emotions, notions and illusions — before any concept of ultimate reality, including consequentialism.
As shown many times, the problem in our society is not nihilism. It’s disorganization, lack of consensus, and the low character of many of our people. We’ve made this problem worse through relativism, which in the scientifically-illiterate hands of our intellectual paparazzi, becomes the idea of having an absolute moral standard but making exceptions for the underdog, a way of forcing equality through forcing tolerance of our worst examples, thus by definition accepting everyone. But at the end of the day, there is only one reality, and thus, only one sensible path for adapting to it and through that, not only surviving but thriving.