Life Goes On
Most people, accepting the textbook definition that nihilism is “a belief that nothing means anything,” have no concept of why it is useful. However, if we look at the primary error of humankind – an inability to tell reality from fantasy, illusion or misperception – we can immediately see the value of nihilism: it strips away all arbitrary values, except those physically inherent in the world, and returns us from a delusional human world to a focus on life as an ongoing process. Nihilism is “a belief in nothingness,” and since most people live exclusively in fantasy (even if of a socially-prescribed and “scientifically”-justified type), they have little use for something that negates what they take for granted.
Yet our reality is fragile. Death and disease descend like predators, and suddenly the world centered in the I is revealed to be within a much larger process which periodically intrudes, and changes the hermetically-sealed tidy little existence of the self; we are not kings in our own realm, but a realm in a larger realm where many other things are king. Imagine that today someone comes to your door with a 12 gauge shotgun, and catches you unaware; as blood flows from your cooling body you realize that indeed, the world does as it likes, and we adapt and sometimes have no choice but to submit – such as in death.
Arbitrary value is what humans assign to events in reality; it is arbitrary because humanity is not the seat of godhead in the universe, and thus not any form of absolute judgment over it, but we are small creatures like the birds, rodents and lizards, and thus are subject to its rules as well. A lizard, were it a “rational” creature, might come up with a morality also where predation is the ultimate evil, but even after that judgment has passed – well, here comes the hawk – life goes on. So it is with humans also, and the primary error of our society from the end of the middle ages onward is that we believe in our projected reality and not in the literal physical existence which created and maintains us.
The Oxford English Dictionary takes a cautious definition of nihilism: “Total rejection of current religious beliefs or moral principles, often involving a general sense of despair and the belief that life is devoid of meaning.” Although this is an excellent starting definition, and of greater quality than one finds in various writers of “philosophy,” especially on the populist Internet, it looks at nihilism as an example in our current time. Nihilism is a belief in nothingness, which if interpreted from the human perspective in which it is defined, means a human nothingness; it is a recognition that human reality is secondary to the natural world and its laws and operations.
Our knowledge of the world consists of abstractions; we perceive, but are separate from the mechanism that creates exactly what we predict in the formulae into which we translate observation to prediction of its consistency through law or principle. Thus, when we say that gravity is a law, we have no guarantee of its absolute nature and consistency, only a faith that since it has always recurred, it will always recur. Since our formulae are not of the essence of whatever creates consistent effects in our world, and are observations of it, they can never necessarily see its full structure and thus are prone to error which remains unseen until a case revealing the presence of additional attributes arises. Nihilism is a method of affirming that our observations are thus arbitrary, and that a human nothingness reveals that the larger world operates outside of our mental constructs.
It seems a trivial argument, at first, because why would one devote a philosophy to nothingness? The answer is that in that revelation of a larger world, we escape what is essentially externally-projected infighting over the “official” value of things, and can return to observing the larger process and our place in it. Politically, this means an end to the dominion of the crowd, as we recognize that the individual is not the most important agent active in our world, and thus that we must select better individuals and affirm inequality in order to adapt. It also underscores the beliefs of “deep ecology” by pointing out that we, as humans, do not rule our world; we might think of “nature” as forests and lakes, but really, nature is the entire system of the cosmos, and we have not and cannot master it by the principle described in the preceding paragraph.
Even further, on a personal level, it returns meaning to our lives. We are no longer as obsessed with our self-construct, as we realize how impermanent it is, but we focus on the one part of our lives over which we do have control: our experience. We wish to experience things of a meaningful nature, and by virtue of nihilism’s rejection of anthrocentric ideals, we are able to see how hedonism and morality alike lead to a grey, deadened state of no meaning. What matters is accomplishment, bonds between people and nature, learning and joy – usually in creation, or achievement, or in the “normal life” matters such as family, children, friends and community, which although seen as “mundane” by some theorists in actual experience offer some of the greatest comfort and pleasure that can be derived.
Nihilism has its dark side: when one leaves the comfortable world of human-centered illusion, and rejects its values, there is a void created which threatens our very fabric as people until we get to the other side of it. To realize, for the first time, that even if we are murdered in cold blood, or the human species wipes itself out, life will go on in the sense of the larger cosmos conducting its processes, even life on other planets occurring, we are profoundly alone in the way that a birth from the womb must be. However, we are also afforded a comfort; anything we achieve in this world is ours alone, and although it is all of a transient nature, the experience (not the physical thing) is ultimately what we own.
For this reason, nihilism somewhat fits the textbook definition – nothing “means” anything, except what means something to the individual. This isn’t some form of individualistic palaver – individualism seeks to create an abstract value to the individual that prevents the world of larger issues, including predation, to intrude, and thus is not the device of the thinking individual but of the unthinking crowd, and from it the greatest errors of history – populist Christianity, utilitarian government, free enterprise (“greed-based”) industry, and egalitarian theory – arise. Nihilism is a rejection of individualism as an objective concept, and an affirmation of both (1) the objective world of events and objects, e.g. something which is consistent and ongoing regardless of human perception, and (2) the subjective world of meaning, which is where we can assign value to events and objects, realizing that this value is centered in the individual and dies with it.
When we are raised in a populist, utilitarian time, this is difficult to accept, as the very assumptions upon which our society and sense of self-worth are built are suddenly yanked away, leaving a yawning nothingness. Perhaps maybe it is best to think of nihilism as the realization that, on a cold night, the only inherent warmth comes from within, and if we build a fire, it warms only ourselves – but that is enough, in itself, to enjoy the experience of stars above and life below. In this sense, unlike most philosophies, nihilism is not a prescription, but a tool for finding self-discipline and rationality in a delusional time.
Vijay Prozak, 17 February 2005