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Monday, December 06, 2010

Nihilism

One of the concerns often brought up by religious leaders is nihilism, the idea that aspects of life have no intrinsic value. The philosopher most identified with nihilism may be Nietzsche - I'd like to say I know a lot about him and nihilism but I never studied either in school, so I was interested to see the latest post at the NYT's philosophy blog - Navigating Past Nihilism by Harvard philosophy professor Sean D. Kelley.

Here's the beginning of the post ...

“Nihilism stands at the door,” wrote Nietzsche. “Whence comes this uncanniest of all guests?” The year was 1885 or 1886, and Nietzsche was writing in a notebook whose contents were not intended for publication. The discussion of nihilism ─ the sense that it is no longer obvious what our most fundamental commitments are, or what matters in a life of distinction and worth, the sense that the world is an abyss of meaning rather than its God-given preserve ─ finds no sustained treatment in the works that Nietzsche prepared for publication during his lifetime. But a few years earlier, in 1882, the German philosopher had already published a possible answer to the question of nihilism’s ultimate source. “God is dead,” Nietzsche wrote in a famous passage from “The Gay Science.” “God remains dead. And we have killed him.”

There is much debate about the meaning of Nietzsche’s famous claim, and I will not attempt to settle that scholarly dispute here. But at least one of the things that Nietzsche could have meant is that the social role that the Judeo-Christian God plays in our culture is radically different from the one he has traditionally played in prior epochs of the West. For it used to be the case in the European Middle Ages for example ─ that the mainstream of society was grounded so firmly in its Christian beliefs that someone who did not share those beliefs could therefore not be taken seriously as living an even potentially admirable life. Indeed, a life outside the Church was not only execrable but condemnable, and in certain periods of European history it invited a close encounter with a burning pyre. Whatever role religion plays in our society today, it is not this one ......


The post goes on to mention the downside of nihilism as expressed by David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide not long ago ....

[T]hey [people experiencing nihilism] may feel the kind of “stomach level sadness” that David Foster Wallace described, a sadness that drives them to distract themselves by any number of entertainments, addictions, competitions, or arbitrary goals, each of which leaves them feeling emptier than the last.

I feel this way sometimes myself, but when I'm in that mood I try to remember another philosopher who believed there were no intrinsic values but who managed to still find value in life, a value no less valuable because it was self-given instead of revealed ... Sartre (existentialism). The writer of the NYT post chooses someone else as an antidote to nihilism - Herman Melville ...

Herman Melville seems to have articulated and hoped for this kind of possibility. Writing 30 years before Nietzsche, in his great novel “Moby Dick,” the canonical American author encourages us to “lower the conceit of attainable felicity”; to find happiness and meaning, in other words, not in some universal religious account of the order of the universe that holds for everyone at all times, but rather in the local and small-scale commitments that animate a life well-lived .... To give a name to Melville’s new possibility — a name with an appropriately rich range of historical resonances — we could call it polytheism.

I have to say, I like Sartre and his idea of no God at all better than I like Melville and his "polytheism" - Sartre seems more honest.

Even better, though, I like hoping that there are intrinsic values after all.


10 Comments:

Blogger Cura Animarum said...

Hi Crystal,

Interesting that you post about this. I've found myself encountering more and more comments about topics like this over the last few weeks, most with respect to atheism and it's rise in the West.

My difficulty with Sartre and most of the modern day vocal members of the atheistic movement is precisely that they seem to lack the courage to really admit to what Nietzsche and others of that earlier nihlilism movement were aluding to, or even out-right saying...that outside of a God of some kind, or to even take it beyond the realm of specific religion and/spirituality; outside of an external life-sustaining force in the universe to which we owe not just our existence and the Universe's as well...then life is not much more than an absurdity and nothing we do has any truly lasting meaning.

On one level I might find myself saying, if there is no God and life, the universe and everything is an unintended, cosmic accident of physics and chance molecular attractions...then from my perspective nothing I really do or say and indeed nothing in the universe or on this world really matters. If I'm really honest with myself it doesn't matter one lick whether I live life well and good,with honesty, integrity and generosity or poorly with my actions defined by greed, self-interest, and unbridled avarice. Either way, in the end I die and it's just the end of it all...no moral better or worse I just was - and now I am not. My actions were, and then they were not.

In this kind of universe am I remembered for doing good? Perhaps, but those who remember will meet their end too and even the echoes of my goodness are lost. Am I remembered for evil, for being a source of suffering and pain? Perhaps, but even those who I've hurt or who recall those hurts will meet their end and even those echoes of evil will be lost forever.

When the universe reaches it's scientifically predicted cold, dark and lonely end and all atomic and molecular movement comes to a halt taking all life, sentient or otherwise...what can we say we did of lasting value that gave meaning to it all? Nothing, for at the end of all things in the truly pure and brutally honest nihilist's POV there is not inherent meaning to anything, there is no god or God or gods and we, lacking divinity ourselves cannot create nothing from nothing...even meaning and purpose.

I think there are a great many outspoken people today who are trying very hard to convince others and themselves that we can create our own meaning and purpose within this vacuum of nothingness they perceive. Unfortunately their meaning is not much more than a self-delusion, a fancy self-created window dressing to hide the true end result of their underlying philosophy...that all life and all existence really has no purpose at all and in the end it doesn't matter what we do, or how, or why or even if we do anything or nothing at all.

For me, this is the true message of nihilism...and it's just too depressing for any modern nihilists to stomach.

11:18 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Cura,

I haven't really read Nietzsche, but I've read a little of the more modern existentialists - Sartre, Kafka, Camus - though it's been a long time since I have.

I think they do indeed admit that life is absurd without God and that there's no meaning in anything if God doesn't exist. They go to that absurd place first, but they just don't completely stay there, like Nietzsche apparently did. I think they were more corageous than him, actually.

Let's say, for the moment, that there is no God, and that that means that everything we do and feel and think has no intrinsic meaning.

I do feel this way sometimes. But then I think about how I feel about my loved ones, how much I love them, or I think about something like tortture, or cruelty to animals, how much that stuff hurts me to think about, and I come to the conclusion that even if God dosn't exist, that stuff still has meaning ... for me. It may not be a God-given intrinsic meaning, maybe it's a meaning I just made up, but it feels real to me, and no amount of absurdity or meaninglessness can make (for me) hurting an animal ok nor can it make my loved ones less loveable. I don't believe love or friendship or kindness or courage or integrity or fairness need God to exist in order to be meaningful and valuable. If it's just me who makes them so, then I can live with that, but I refuse to believe that if God doesn't exist those things cease to matter.

I think this is what the existentialists did - they looked meaningless absurdity in the face and instead of crumbling, like Nietzsche (who went crazy, btw :), they decided to find meaning in a world without God. I can't fault them for that.

Havinf said that, I don't dispute that it is disheartening to imagine that God doesn't exist, and it does make life seem pointless, purposeless, meaningless. But I don't think that that nihilistic angst is a good enough reason to believe in God's existence. I'd rather find some positive reason to believe in him, and most of the time, I do :)

2:45 PM  
Anonymous Victor said...

>>I'd rather find some positive reason to believe in Him, and most of the time, I do :)<<

Good for you Crystal

God Bless

8:43 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Victor :)

9:33 PM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

Morning Crystal!

I agree completely, preferring to approach God from positives rather than negatives. ;o)

I also have to admit that I have not studied Nietzsche, Sartre or other Nihilist-based philosophers and thinkers so I'm only really able to comment on what you're presenting coupled with what I see as the roots of many of the 'New Atheist's' arguments as presented by Hitchens, Dawkins and others.

I get that a fabricated moral framework can 'feel real' and real enough to work I just don't really see it as all that commendable or courageous to, as you said to look "meaningless absurdity in the face and instead of crumbling, like Nietzsche...they decided to find meaning..."

I'm not at all surprised that Nietzsche lost his mind staring into that abyss...it's the only logical conclusion to a meaningless existence. That, or creating (as I would argue rather than 'finding') a lie to cover up the horrifying truth...that love and respect and treating others and the world with dignity and compassion doesn't really matter because none of it really exists. It's all baloney. It might be tasty, and it might satisfy for awhile (especially on toast with copious amounts of mustard!)...it may even make this ridicuous life tolerable for the short time I'm in it...but we can't (or shouldn't) really try to live on it...our bodies are designed to need more than fillers and semi-meat-like by products to survive.

Now...do I personally believe that Hitchens or Dawkins or those past thinkers like Sartre who determined to live moral lives are living lives of love and empathetic compassion (if they are...I don't know them so can't comment really on that) are living out of a wholly false and fabricated moral framework? Not at all. I believe that those things exist and 'feel real' precisely because they are real, they do exist whether a single life-form in the universe acknowledges them or not. "Faith, Hope and Love, these three are eternal, and the greatest of these is love". Eternal...existed before all, and will continue after all...sounds like someone we both know. ;O)

Have a blessed day Crystal, filled with faith, hope and love!

7:12 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

CA, your argument is a wonderful wish---but to use a wish as evidence or proof just doesn't make sense.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

Hey Mark,

I'm not using anything to prove anything...just taking the arguments of true nihilism to their furthest, most logical conclusion. From pure nihilism's perspective there's nothing to prove anyways and anything you add is just a "wonderful wish".

I guess that's the beauty and attraction of it or the existential route others have taken from it...in the end we can all wish for what we want and it doesn't really matter at all.

12:00 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Cura,

that love and respect and treating others and the world with dignity and compassion doesn't really matter because none of it really exists. It's all baloney.

It's hard to talk about this because you and I do think God exists and so it's hard to imagine a world without God and how we would feel. And so we say that atheists, when they are compassionate, feel love, etc., are actually participating in the lover of God, though unaware. But that's to not really give the thought experiment of there being no God a chance. I think it's hard to really criticize athesits when we don't first try to see things from their point of view. I think that if God did not exist but we still did, there would still be love and self-sacrifice, and all the other good human qualities, and that it wouldn't matter what their origin was as long as they were extant. But there's no way to prove that would be true or not and as Kant said (I think), there's no way to prove if God exists really either, and so people "vote" with their lives ... they live their lives as if they believe he does exist, or as if they believe he doesn't .... and most of those who believe he doesn't esist still believe in and act out values and ethics. If any of that makes any sense :)

3:21 PM  
Blogger CynicalNihilist said...

The idea of nihilism is quite possibly as true as a philosophy can gey because it relies upon the idea that there is no such thing as absolute value. i made a post detailing the concept of value on my blog at
http://cynicalnihilist-thehumancondition.blogspot.com/

8:02 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Thanks for the link.

1:39 PM  

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