Good news for nihilists? Life is meaningless after all, say philosophers
Researchers underline that this is not bad news
*Originally published on May 6, 2021.
If a second year of shutdowns, social restrictions, health risks, and existential dread has eroded your sense of life's ultimate meaning and purpose, a new report by philosophers in Britain and Australia may offer a double whammy of encouragement.
First, you're absolutely right, they say. Life is meaningless.
Second, this fact poses no significant problems or threats.
"In fact, there are good things that might come out of it," said Tracy Llanera, research fellow at the University of Notre Dame Australia in Sydney and assistant research professor at the University of Connecticut.
"I think that shift in perspective will just open a lot more philosophical and practical possibilities for people."
Llanera co-authored the 70-page study, entitled A Defence of Nihilism, with the British philosopher James Tartaglia, a professor at Keele University. His earlier books include Philosophy in a Meaningless Life.
"I'm passionate about nihilism," said Tartaglia. "It's so badly misunderstood."
Nihilist viewpoints begin with a refusal to believe that human life draws meaning from a greater context, such as the will or purpose of a divine being, or another external force such as fate or moral goodness, or any measure of the worth and quality of human life. In some interpretations, a purely nihilistic outlook disdains any attempt to attribute value or meaning to anything at all.
Such views traditionally receive bad press and blunt condemnation from thought leaders across the world. During the pandemic, critics on the political left and right have targeted "nihilism" as a root cause for what they perceive as widespread cultural and moral malaise.
Writing in Politico in April 2021, Charles Sykes accused the U.S. Republican Party of abandoning its principles in favour of a "free-floating nihilism." He was objecting to what he perceived as the party's attempt to gain power without consideration for moral, economic or democratic justifications or traditions.
Two of Pakistan's most senior medical experts, Saira Afzal and Khalid Masud Gonal, have accused countries of "medical nihilism" for failing to take seriously the threat of COVID-19.
In their view, an apparent willingness by some governments to let the virus spread—and even to encourage behaviours known to result in more deaths—amounted to an abdication of responsibility that reminded them of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's definition of a nihilist: someone who believes "nothing in the world has a material existence or value."
Fighting back for nihilism
And The Guardian reported this winter on the "lonely repetition and growing nihilism" characterizing the lives of Australia's young adults after months of wildfires and pandemic-related news and restrictions. The nihilism in this case entails a sense of apathy with a loss of psychological ability to face the future and take actions aimed at achieving happiness.
Llanera told Ideas host Nahlah Ayed that a constant barrage of anti-nihilist sentiment from acquaintances and the media helped prompt her to fight back on nihilism's behalf.
"Defending it really makes me feel like the madman in Friedrich Nietzsche's The Gay Science," said Llanera. "You know, 'You've come too early! It's not yet time! Don't rock the boat!' But we think that it's about time and that's why we're making the case."
The philosophers' case depends on separating the premise that life has no cosmic meaning from the many negative conclusions people tend to draw as a consequence. Tartaglia points to a common fear that a person who considers life ultimately meaningless will embark on a destructive rejection of life itself, potentially endangering others or at least falling into despair.
"That's the one major misunderstanding," Tartaglia said. "The other one is that you concern yourself with trivia because you failed to see the important things in life." He often sees the latter fear expressed in relation to the time people spend online or purchasing consumer goods instead of participating in some activity deemed essential to a meaningful life by whoever is making the criticism.
The most monstrous nihilists in popular culture include Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker in the 2008 Batman film, The Dark Knight. He ridicules moral codes and rules as groundless, and sees order itself as an illusion created in a desperate bid for an arbitrary happiness. To the movie's audience, these beliefs seem tied to the Joker's penchant for chaos, crime and sociopathy.
Tartaglia said that figures such as the Joker might correctly be described as nihilists to the extent that they reject the idea of an overall meaning for their actions coming from some non-human source.
'A particularly evil nihilist'
"But I don't see any reason why that view would push you to go around destroying people and holding knives to their throats," said Tartaglia. "He's a particularly evil nihilist."
Historically, German philosopher and soldier Ernst Jünger blamed rampant nihilism after the First World War for his country's descent into Nazism.
Although such associations continue to influence perceptions of those willing to call life ultimately meaningless, the merely trivial nihilist is perhaps the more common caricature now.
An especially well-known example is the squad of cartoonish German-accented antagonists to Jeff Bridges' character, the Dude, in the film, The Big Lebowski. These self-announced nihilists seem to embody both major ingredients of the philosophy's poor image: violence and foolishness.
Llanera finds no compelling logical connection between nihilism and antisocial behaviour or a choice to waste one's life on trivial, unrewarding obsessions.
And while a lack of ultimate sources for the meaning of one's life cannot directly justify good behaviour either, it can release people from harmful mistaken beliefs and damaging mindsets.
Llanera hears often from students that they consider themselves "not religious, but spiritual," a description she finds potentially concerning.
"It strikes me that people are always looking for something to hold onto — tarot cards, the luck of the stars. I think [that's] being used to fight against this threat that life will become meaningless," Llanera said.
'The problem is egotism'
She criticizes some non-nihilist philosophers for spreading the message that the best way to respond to a sense of meaninglessness is to tap into non-human sources, such as a sacred entity or magical realm. In her view, this amounts to misdiagnosing the problem.
"The problem is egotism," Llanera said, "our attitudes of wanting to have an authority controlling and giving us answers, rather than being responsible for our own lives."
Despite her passion for defending nihilism, Llanera considers the central point about life's meaninglessness to be neutral, rather than good news or bad news for humankind. She hopes that more people will simply outgrow their sense that the cosmic meaninglessness of their lives poses a threat. In her view, life does not need a larger context of meaning to add weight to a private or social sense of morality or joie de vivre.
"Those things could be understood in a familiar, ordinary sense, like you need to take responsibility for your dog, you need to not cheat on your partner or you need to protest horrendous acts of genocide or ethnic cleansing. All of those things are part of the human condition," said Llanera.
"They matter and they mean something to our individual lives and to human society. But this kind of meaning doesn't extend beyond our human context. And we think that those who defend the meaning of life, they're just very uncomfortable with that idea."
The philosophers' attempt to distance nihilism's core claims from the undesirable behaviours associated with the word itself has drawn protest from some colleagues in the field. The University of Edinburgh's Guy Bennett-Hunter disputes that self-professed nihilists can enjoy a social meaning to their lives while also calling life itself ultimately meaningless.
"I'd stress that the social meanings, which James [Tartaglia] accepts, logically as well as psychologically require a transcendent context of meaning for life — which he rejects," Bennett-Hunter said. He also argues that Tartaglia's nihilism fails to account for the possibility that an 'ultimate meaning of life' may not be factual in a prosaic sense, but nevertheless exist and be poetically true, as with creation myths.
Tartaglia argues that his interpretation of nihilism relates to its history and the intellectual battles surrounding claims to know a factual reality, especially in European thought.
He points out that the widespread use of the word "nihilism" and the phrase "meaning of life" originates in a single decade at the end of the 1700s, when religious certainties broke down among scholars while scientific beliefs gained power. Tartaglia sees most modern anti-nihilist fears as a continuation of the intellectual panic that ensued back then.
During that period, French religious conservatives railed against almost any form of reasoning and learning. To them, such pursuits risked a descent into nihilism as a result of extinguishing all divine mysteries. The supposedly threatening concept of nihilism often seemed inextricable from atheism or free thinking.
'Life is the common ground'
Today, however, Tartaglia feels he must defend nihilism from both religious and atheist world views, since the latter have tended towards replacing the divine meanings of life with another non-human equivalent, such as a worshipful attitude toward technology. Tartaglia worries that too many leaders perceive technological advance as a force that must be allowed to progress regardless of whether humans desire the consequences or not.
"It could go in very bad directions," Tartaglia said. "And that's why nihilism seems worthwhile."
On the positive side, Tartaglia argues that nihilistic attitudes offer a potential common ground upon which extremes of religion and secularism could meet, since it dispenses with all their competing claims to an ultimate meaning of life.
"Life is the common ground," said Tartaglia. "If you're a nihilist, you don't think that anything goes beyond life. If you're not a nihilist, you think there's something extra. OK, but there's still this massive common ground. Fundamentalists on one side or the anti-religionist brigade … [with nihilism] we can all understand each other, right? We can all agree on life."
Tartaglia's optimism in this regard might appear out of all proportion with the world's many unending and brutal conflicts over much smaller doctrinal differences between all manner of groups, religious or otherwise. But then, a nihilist can dream.
About the author
Tom Howell is a producer for Ideas on CBC Radio.