Nihilism is the belief in nothing. So one day you’re born, one day you die. Everything that happens in between you understand, but everything that happened before and will happen after you know nothing about.
As a result, it’s challenging to say the meaning or importance of being here. If we can’t tell how we came or where we came from, how can we know why we are here?
In the same vein, if we don’t know where we’re going or what we will become. How can we tell if any of our present actions have any significance at all?
It is this uncertainty of both our collective pasts and futures that has allowed the question “what is the meaning of life?” to plague humanity ever since we became sentient.
We’ve never been able to objectively answer this question as a species. However, many of us have found comfort in many different ideologies to at least subdue the anxiety that it causes.
In many different religions, a deity made the entire universe, put us all in it, and whatever we do on this Earth will be used to determine when and how we spend eternity afterwards.
For some others, the meaning of life is the love we share with friends, family, and our loved ones. Some others believe the existence of life in itself is what makes it worth living.
But for nihilists, life is meaningless. All action, suffering, emotions, both good and bad, are entirely senseless and pointless. This is Nihilism, the belief in nothing.
Many of us have faced nihilistic thoughts at some point in our lives. We’re hit by a strong sense of purposelessness like our lives have no meaning, and we have no intrinsic value.
Usually, this happens when we begin to question our old beliefs, but also just before we get new ones to hold on to. It’s in that phase where you’re growing out of your parent’s beliefs, learning new things, gaining new experiences, and forming your own views about the world.
And usually, all of these thoughts begin with a straightforward question – “Why?”
Why is a word capable like quicksand of dragging you into the misery that maybe, just maybe, your whole life hasn’t been what you thought it was.
Just pause and take a moment to think about your core values and ask the question- “Why?”
- Why do you believe those things?
- Where did they come from?
- Who did they come from?
Keep asking, and eventually, you’ll arrive at a point where there’s no longer an answer; you’ll arrive at nothing.
All the religions of the world, all scientific discovery, yet the question “why” is one we still cannot answer. And so, for the nihilist, it is at this point that they conclude that there is no why. There is no answer; there is simply nothing.
As Alan Watts wrote, “life is nothing more than a trip from the maternity ward to the crematorium.” It’s really in the name; the term “nihilism” comes from the Latin word “nihil”, which translates to “nothing,” and “ism”, which translates to ideology. So it’s the ideology of nothing, but that doesn’t help us understand it completely.
Usually, people confuse Nihilism for pessimism, but they are very different. Pessimists believe in the worst outcome. They have a down-trending view of the world and tend to focus on the negatives in life because they think that, in the end, evil will always overcome good. And this is what makes them different. Pessimists believe there’s good in the world, but they just don’t think humans can do it, at least in its entirety.
Nihilists, on the other hand, do not believe in anything. They don’t think that there is evil in the world, nor do they believe that there is good. In the mind of the nihilist, the world simply exists, and humans created morality, thereby creating good and evil.
Let’s take the glass full or half full metaphor, for instance. Optimists say you should see the glass as half full, while pessimists say we should see the glass as half empty. Nihilists? They say throw the entire thing away because what does it matter if it’s full or empty? Full, empty, good, bad, it’s all irrelevant; we’re all going to die anyway.
Nihilism is also often compared to several other philosophies like cynicism and apathy. But again, they are all very different from one another, and correctly categorising your thoughts in these baskets might be more complicated than you think.
Cynics believe that people are always motivated by self-interest. They do not think that anyone can have intrinsically good motives. They have no faith in the human species and believe we are all selfish, only fighting for our own benefit. However, the idea that humans are not good means that in the cynic’s mind, good exists out there somewhere, just not in humans.
In the mind of the nihilist, nothing exists out there; there’s no good or evil. They don’t see people as evil or as good because they don’t believe either of those things exists. They are simply traits we’ve applied to things.
Apathetic people don’t care. They might believe that there’s meaning to life, but they simply don’t care about it. On the other hand, Nihilism is the idea that there’s no grand design or purpose—nothing to believe in, therefore, no meaning.
This brings to mind the paradox of Nihilism. If you believe in nothing, then that nothing becomes something that you believe in. But since you now believe in something, then there is no nihilism because Nihilism is the belief that there is nothing.
Nihilism is quite different from other philosophical ideas because it was first a literary invention before it became philosophical. As a result, it’s not as clearly defined as many of the other philosophies that exist. Many different people explained it differently, but eventually, these various definitions got categorised, forming many different kinds of Nihilism.
There’s political Nihilism. Political nihilists believe that all political, social, and religious order must be destroyed for humanity to move forward as a species.
Then there’s ethical Nihilism. Ethical Nihilism rejects the idea of absolute ethical or moral values. With this type of Nihilism, good or bad is only defined by society, and as such, it shouldn’t be followed if we as a species will ever attain absolute individual freedom. We can kind of just do whatever we want.
And then we have existential Nihilism; it’s the understanding that life has no value or meaning. It’s the most popular kind of Nihilism.
For nihilists, things like the state, religious bodies, and even communal morality breach our freedom as individuals. If we cannot do absolutely anything we want to do, are we truly free? Or have we simply bound ourselves by some invisible mental chain for reasons we cannot explain?
If we cannot answer why we follow these rules, why do we choose to do it? Well, it might be because of the existential horror and the emotional anguish that comes with agreeing that life is meaningless.
Think about it for a minute; if life is truly meaningless, everything we’re doing has no value. Look at how far we’ve come, and then think about the fact that it all might just be a waste, a blip in time with no consequence whatsoever in the grand scheme of things. Knowing that all the things we experience, the ups and downs we go through, that in the end, it’s all for nothing.
Friedrich Nietzsche was a strange philosopher because he argued both for and against Nihilism at the same time. Arguing for, he explained that there is no objective structure or order in our world except the one we create for ourselves. He once said, “every belief, every considering something true is necessarily false because there is simply no true world.”
He believed Nihilism would expose all of humanity’s “beliefs” and “truths” as nothing but a symptom of a defective Western mythology. As he famously said, “God is dead.” He wasn’t talking about the actual deity of the religions; he was speaking metaphorically about the power that religious orders held at the time and how people were starting to chart their own paths, find their own meaning in life, denying what was the status quo at the time.
But then, in the same breath, Friedrich argued against Nihilism, saying that in the coming centuries, the advent of Nihilism would drive civilisation towards a catastrophe, a disaster waiting to implode. A river that has reached its end.
And if you look at the most destructive civilisations in human history, we can see that this is true. Long-standing cultural traditions, beliefs, religious institutions, and even financial systems are broken down, and nothingness starts creeping in.
Pause and look around you for a moment, observe everything that’s going on, particularly on social media. You can see that we as a species might just be heading for another nihilism outbreak.
Think about it; religion no longer holds any say in what is morally acceptable. People are destroying long-standing beliefs and cultural practices and are instead charting new courses
for themselves. Anything, no matter how despicable you think it is, now has a loyal fan base defending why they have a right to do whatever it is they want to do, and in reality, why not? That’s the question no one can answer.
Humanity will keep shifting the needle forward ever so slightly until one day, none of us will be able to tell the other that they’re wrong because “Why are they wrong?”
If life is truly meaningless and we have no purpose for being here, our response should be to make the best out of a bad situation.
Instead of seeing the glass half full or half empty, we can simply throw it out and drink directly from the tap until we’re satisfied. Because at the end of the day, life alone is reason enough for living. We get one life to do whatever we want, at least in this reality, make the most of it.