We can easily confuse it with fatalism, which I define handily as “a belief in a lack of order or purpose to life itself.” Such thinking is obviously self-contradictory since we exist in a universe with logical rules, and in which species are squeezed by natural selection until we get higher-level species like humans. There may not be a “purpose,” since purpose is a matter of human faith and interpretation, but there is an order and a sense of a goal.
Nihilism, on the other hand, is an absence of faith in faith.
As self-conscious beings, we become aware of our separation from the universe at large. It is our environment; in it, we appear to be independent actors. This immediately prompts two viewpoints, each pivoting on one of the two actors:
- Human-centric. In this view, everything that happens to us has a purpose because we are the intended target. What matters is our desires, judgments and fears. The universe exists to serve us, and may in fact be part of our perception and under our control.
- Cosmos-centric. Those who take this view see themselves as the smaller of the two parties, and events as having bigger significance and incidental consequences on the self. The self exists as part of this bigger motion.
In the former, we have a reversed cause/effect relationship. We see ourselves as the initiating goal of actions that happen to us, as if we were the center of the universe. As a result, we judge actions by their effects (as we perceive them on ourselves) and not their actual cause.
Faith is what allows us to draw that fundamental assumption that actions in the world are somehow directed at us because they include us. When drought strikes, we wonder at first if we are cursed by the gods; only later does it occur to us that drought struck our whole region because of sunspot activity. In the same way, we make a mysticism out of science where we correlate one activity with a certain result and assume that the correlation implies cause.
If people who drink wine at dinner live longer, it must be the wine, not the relative opulence or healthy activities of people who like to drink wine at dinner. The implication is that if any random person starts drinking wine at dinner, they will live longer, because the wine must be the causal agent even though we have seen no proof of the exclusivity of that relationship.
The exclusivity factor is what bonds one action to a result as cause. When we mis-attribute this for reasons of our own desiring, we call that a type of faith. We can have faith in anything, including as mentioned above, science; when we inject faith into anything, including science, we corrupt it from having a view of the world as a functional sphere to viewing the world as a reaction to us personally, with intent regarding us instead of an agenda of its own in which we are caught up.
Nihilism rejects faith in favor of an understanding of causal relationships. Nihilists reject the first pivot mentioned above, where a human sees the universe as somehow convergent upon the human being. In seeking such a view, a nihilist arrives at clarity regarding the relationship of human to universe: we are small components within a far larger and more complex system.
In doing so, nihilists throw away all reasons centered in what a human wants to believe, and instead focus on what it is logical to deduce or induce from the world at large, keeping in mind that humans are but a tiny portion of that world. It is a removal of anthropomorphism, a rejection of solipsism and narcissism, and a militant refusal to let “faith” stand in for understanding.
That being said, a nihilist who found a credible logical pathway to any “belief” would not reject it, nor would he or she reject a belief because of a lack of proof for what cannot be proved. Nihilists are not atheists, but agnostics, meaning that they are not going to make positive or negative claims on that which they cannot know. If someone says the Loch Ness monster is real, a nihilist will take a middle path and say “Perhaps — but I will need proof to be interested.”
In turn this means the nihilist is aware of how little we know of our universe and ourselves. In our view, it is just as much an article of faith to assume that the material world is all that we see, as to assume that a mysterious sky god exists who judges our every movement and at death, sorts us between good and evil.
As we explore the world, the gap between what would “seem” to be how reality works, and how it works, lengthens:
The concept of time as a way to measure the duration of events is not only deeply intuitive, it also plays an important role in our mathematical descriptions of physical systems. For instance, we define an object’s speed as its displacement per a given time. But some researchers theorize that this Newtonian idea of time as an absolute quantity that flows on its own, along with the idea that time is the fourth dimension of spacetime, are incorrect. They propose to replace these concepts of time with a view that corresponds more accurately to the physical world: time as a measure of the numerical order of change. – PhysOrg
Time is iteration-space, meaning that the sequential interaction between objects in the cosmos creates time. Where there is no interaction, no time exists.
And space, is it relative, too?
Gravity warps space and time, and rotating objects like Earth stir up space and time around them, two of Einstein’s predictions from his theory of relativity confirmed by NASA’s Gravity Probe B, according to the space agency. – The Star
Space is relative to the objects within it, and is distorted by their presence. Another way to view this is that objects define the space around them. From this we see how both space, and time, are dependent upon the interactions of the objects within them. In this light our infinitely expanding universe could not be so much expanding in itself, but growing to accommodate the objects within it.
We even get a violation of all known rules, thanks to relativity:
At the center of a black hole lies the singularity, where matter is crushed to infinite density, the pull of gravity is infinitely strong, and spacetime has infinite curvature. Here it’s no longer meaningful to speak of space and time, much less spacetime. Jumbled up at the singularity, space and time cease to exist as we know them.
At the singularity, though, the laws of physics, including General Relativity, break down. Enter the strange world of quantum gravity. In this bizzare realm in which space and time are broken apart, cause and effect cannot be unraveled. Even today, there is no satisfactory theory for what happens at and beyond the singularity.
It’s no surprise that throughout his life Einstein rejected the possibility of singularities. So disturbing were the implications that, by the late 1960s, physicists conjectured that the universe forbade “naked singularities.” After all, if a singularity were “naked,” it could alter the whole universe unpredictably. – NCSA
We learn quickly how little we know.
At the extremes of relativity, the rules break down entirely and we have no idea what exists. When cause and effect are no longer linear, time does not exist; without any dimension to space, interaction does not exist. A strange state of both stasis and infinite change could exist, but in an acausal, non-temporal and placeless state.
Nihilism can accept the logical dimensions of what scientists tell us, and extend relativism to another idea: if non-causal parts of our universe exist, non-causality must be a fundamental part of how our universe is ordered. This means we can no longer separate our cosmos into matter and form as separate, but must look at the idea of an order the two have in common.
The idea of non-duality, or no separation between mind and universe as well as no “second realm” (like a heaven or hell) where the normal rules do not apply, is called monism. Under monism, there is one order to all and it manifests itself in both physical (matter) and informational (form) channels. Both physicality and idea obey the same set of rules.
Nihilism is a form of scientific monism. In it, we accept all of the uncertainty in the universe, including that as Kant suggested, we may be perceivers journeying through a vast data field and assembling a reality from the parts of it our brains can handle. How much of the universe do we know? If a bigger rule-set than the strictly material exists, we may know less than one percent, or even a hundredth of a percent.
Time and space reduce to idea. Physicality becomes an after-effect of a larger order. Do we claim we see God? We only know that we cannot know. What we do know is that we will not project ourselves onto this volatile situation, and will remain curious explorers, looking to further understand this magical place in which we exist.