Optimistic nihilism
September 11, 2017 11:16 AM   Subscribe

To live meaningfully in a meaningless universe, you must first make your own meaning. Existential nihilism , the philosophy that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. Optimistic nihilism, the view that, once one accepts that life lacks any intrinsic meaning or value, one can find joy and contentment by attributing their own sense of meaning or value to existence. posted by houseofleaves (87 comments total) 87 users marked this as a favorite
 
Nothing in Life Matters
posted by JDHarper at 11:26 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]


Optimistic nihilism seems very similar to absurdism. I used to struggle with existential depression - absurdism helped immensely.
posted by Stonkle at 11:30 AM on September 11 [14 favorites]


Read that as Opportunistic Nihilism, which is different.
posted by sammyo at 11:33 AM on September 11 [4 favorites]




Uhm, let me guess: What do Douglas Adams, Christopher Hitchens, Rick and Morty and Ricky Gervais have in common?
posted by Laotic at 11:50 AM on September 11


Yeah, on balance I'm pretty much an optimistic nihilist: there's no inherent meaning to the universe, no higher power to judge you so life's what you make it.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:51 AM on September 11 [7 favorites]


Optimistic nihilism seems very similar to absurdism. I used to struggle with existential depression - absurdism helped immensely.

Yeah, I am no philosopher or psychiatrist, but the half-assed benign nihilism I cobbled from Camus For Dummies & my atheism helps me a lot, though it's not great for my motivation/drive.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:53 AM on September 11 [6 favorites]


Kind of want to use the Optimistic Nihilism video as an instructional tool for my kid, tbh. Actually, I bet he'd dig a lot of these videos. He's the kid of second-generation atheists, a massive fan of dinosaurs, and totally unsentimental about death, extinction and scary cosmology, at least not in as much as he can understand about it at the age of five. Bookmarking.
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:57 AM on September 11 [2 favorites]


I have found a lot of comfort in optimistic nihilism but I fear Rick and Morty, which I find entertaining, is going to become the next South Park in leading a bunch of young white dudes down the path of anti-social apathy as the balm to their existential angst.
posted by danny the boy at 11:59 AM on September 11 [17 favorites]


I used to tell a joke about the death of an optimistic Egyptian fisherman, but no longer. The nileism in it always seemed to lead my listeners to despair.
posted by protorp at 12:00 PM on September 11 [22 favorites]


I was born into a Muslim household. I was later raised Catholic, including going to Catholic school awhile. I left the Church when I started high school, and came up with something like this from first principles over the next couple of years, referring to my own variant as 'cheerful nihilism.' It did me a world of good, and I hold those principles decades later.

I always thought it was strange that people found a lack of objective meaning to be a yawning abyss - to me, it just means that we're free to make our own decisions about what we want to do with our lives. It led me to be more outgoing, to try to be kinder and generally participate in life more than I did as a very self-isolating child.

To me, there's nothing more oppressive than the notion that gods are watching. That's existentially terrifying, and if I believed in such entities, I'd be trying to kill them on general principles.
posted by mordax at 12:02 PM on September 11 [43 favorites]



“I could try composing wonderful musical works, or day-long entertainment epics, but what would that do? Give people pleasure? My wiping this table gives me pleasure. And people come to a clean table, which gives them pleasure. And anyway" - the man laughed - "people die; stars die; universes die. What is any achievement, however great it was, once time itself is dead? Of course, if all I did was wipe tables, then of course it would seem a mean and despicable waste of my huge intellectual potential. But because I choose to do it, it gives me pleasure. And," the man said with a smile, "it's a good way of meeting people. So where are you from, anyway?”

Iain M. Banks, Use of Weapons
posted by lalochezia at 12:09 PM on September 11 [56 favorites]


The existentially nihilist universe eventually got sad about the universe having no meaning so she made the earth to make humans in order for us to to have the ability to give her the meanings we make up for her.

So it's a symbiotic kinda thing, it's totally bullshit of course, but it makes the universe happy so I make up all kinds of ridiculous shit for her just cause that's what I was made to do.
posted by Annika Cicada at 12:12 PM on September 11 [9 favorites]


But where do the beef & cheddar sandwiches fit in?
posted by delfin at 12:13 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


everywhere, delfin, everywhere. The sole purpose of the universe was to make beef and cheddar sammiches.
posted by Annika Cicada at 12:14 PM on September 11 [3 favorites]


Rorschach: You see, Doctor, God didn't kill that little girl. Fate didn't butcher her and destiny didn't feed her to those dogs. If God saw what any of us did that night he didn't seem to mind. From then on I knew... God doesn't make the world this way. We do.
posted by SPrintF at 12:22 PM on September 11 [7 favorites]


What if I believe that there is a raw, nonhuman animality inherent in the very fabric of the universe that enacts destruction and pain which will eventually result in the end of humanity via the capitalist death machine and then the heat death of the universe? What kind of nihilism is that?
posted by R.F.Simpson at 12:28 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


Celebrate it
Anticipate it
Yesterday's faded
Nothing can change it
Life's what you make it
posted by GuyZero at 12:30 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


What if I believe that there is a raw, nonhuman animality inherent in the very fabric of the universe that enacts destruction and pain which will eventually result in the end of humanity via the capitalist death machine and then the heat death of the universe? What kind of nihilism is that?

Schopenhauerian pessimism, up until the capitalist death machine part, which is all you
posted by thelonius at 12:32 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


I never took formal philosophy, but after watching this video, I realize I have been an optimistic nihilist for the last few years, and it's great!
posted by Pocahontas at 12:35 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]



I never took formal philosophy, but after watching this video, I realize I have been an optimistic nihilist for the last few years, and it's great!


I think it's also known as "Being an atheist, but not being a total dick to everyone."
posted by soren_lorensen at 12:37 PM on September 11 [30 favorites]


My purpose, today, is to make this post.

Behold, fellow sentry organs: This is our time, this is our universe, let's build a galactic human empire.

I meant to patron these guys for a while anyway, right?
posted by flamewise at 12:38 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


I don't find the realization that "there's no inherent meaning to life; only that which we give it" to be necessarily nihilistic unless there is a lack of concern and affection for one's fellow beings as well as oneself in that process of giving it meaning; that concern - love, if you will, not to put too fine a point on it - is what prevents that process from being merely nihilistic.
posted by Philofacts at 12:42 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


I think it's also known as "Being an atheist, but not being a total dick to everyone."

(I realize this was aimed at someone else, but I'd like to take this opportunity to shill apatheistic agnosticism over pure atheism.)
posted by mordax at 12:46 PM on September 11 [5 favorites]




See also Ken MacLeod's fictional ideology the True Knowledge, developed by crazed (IIRC) North Korean prisoners who only had access to a limited selection of philosophers?

Life is a process of breaking down and using other matter, and if need be, other life. Therefore, life is aggression, and successful life is successful aggression. Life is the scum of matter, and people are the scum of life. There is nothing but matter, forces, space and time, which together make power. Nothing matters, except what matters to you. Might makes right, and power makes freedom. You are free to do whatever is in your power, and if you want to survive and thrive you had better do whatever is in your interests. If your interests conflict with those of others, let the others pit their power against yours, everyone for theirselves. If your interests coincide with those of others, let them work together with you, and against the rest. We are what we eat, and we eat everything.
All that you really value, and the goodness and truth and beauty of life, have their roots in this apparently barren soil.

This is the true knowledge.

We had founded our idealism on the most nihilistic implications of science, our socialism on crass self-interest, our peace on our capacity for mutual destruction, and our liberty on determinism. We had replaced morality with convention, bravery with safety, frugality with plenty, philosophy with science, stoicism with anaesthetics and piety with immortality. The universal acid of the true knowledge had burned away a world of words, and exposed a universe of things.

Things we could use.

posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:07 PM on September 11 [6 favorites]


What if I believe that there is a raw, nonhuman animality inherent in the very fabric of the universe that enacts destruction and pain which will eventually result in the end of humanity via the capitalist death machine and then the heat death of the universe? What kind of nihilism is that?

Definitely not optimistic.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:10 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


Opportunistic Nihilism, which is different.

Something like this?
posted by sapagan at 1:25 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


Rick and Morty though seems to be all about how Rick's veneer of nihilism is belied by his actual caring about his family. I haven't watched a ton of South Park but I haven't seen the same heart in it.

The part of Rick and Morty that is troubling to me is the degree to which it is about how Rick being an asshole is forgiven by everyone because of his "greatness". I'm still not sure what it's trying to say, there.
posted by macrael at 1:29 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


nihilisms that focus on the potential or non-potential for human meaning within being are by definition anthropocentric; this anthropocentrism seems hopelessly jejune when matched up against the strangeness of being itself. "optimistic" or not, philosophies that focus on the universe specifically as it presents itself to humans just leave me wanting to shout "get over yourself!" at the people espousing them.

Not to hop directly on one of my old hobbyhorses or anything, but I really do think that thinking about ontological nihilism — the idea that being itself doesn't exist — is more fruitful than considering the various varieties of epistemological nihilism, which tend to be too wrapped up in the experience of angst (or the project of trying to soothe away angst) to say anything meaningful about the condition of being.

(no but really; the aporia or whatever that one reaches when taking ontological nihilism seriously is quite useful. Ontological nihilism is simultaneously the best explanation of the absurdity of the condition of existence, and also entirely self-undermining, since any affirmation of ontological nihilism, or even the existence of any entity capable of affirming or denying it, appears to itself be a refutation of ontological nihilism.

I mean look I'm going to go full arrogant on this: the project of metaphysics as a whole is the project of developing a theory of being with the explanatory power of ontological nihilism without the contradictions of same. This project is much more important than human angst about meaning or purpose or whatever.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:42 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


I've been getting more nihilistic (and less optimistic) lately. Weirdly enough, I think it was Trump's election that crossed some threshold for me. I'd spent a year saying 'there's no way he's in the Primaries/the GOP candidate/the next POTUS' and actually believing it. Somehow, on election night, some sort of faith I had in the universe to not be completely bonkers broke.

Which is weird, because I'm a 3rd gen atheist half-jew whose grandparents where born in and escaped from the Warsaw ghetto, so you'd think I wouldn't have that much faith to begin with. And I'm not even American (though I've lived in the US for a total of 7 years), but something about the absurd spectacle of Donald becoming president removed the last bit of 'it's all going to be OK'-ness I had.

I've always know intellectually that nothing matters, the only meaning is what you make, etc., but I think I still had some leftover faith in something. The Universe? Life? Everything? Not anymore. The sheer randomness of it all is too loud for me to pretend not to hear.

I've started buying more guitar gear, which I never did, and is great fun. I'm reading more. I'm making sure my wife is OK, and that we're OK, and we are. I spend as much time as I can with my son, and play with him and teach him things. My company's doing OK. Life is good. For me and my family. Right now. That's the sum total of meaning I'm capable of perceiving.

I'm still happy, probably happier than I've been in a while. Since nothing matters, and everything might, and probably will, go to hell the day after tomorrow, I'm gonna go hang out with my son and wife, and play some guitar afterwards.
posted by signal at 1:49 PM on September 11 [7 favorites]


Read that as Opportunistic Nihilism, which is different.

Opportunistic denialism is the one that will kill us all.
posted by adept256 at 1:55 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


Lately I've stumbled into the precincts of what I think of as Buddhist Nihilism: for those who don't believe in reincarnation and who also don't believe it likely to achieve nibbana in this lifetime, it can be sadly easy to fall into a Beckett-/Eeyore-inflected sense of joyless plodding...
posted by twsf at 2:01 PM on September 11


Grateful dead.
posted by Oyéah at 2:14 PM on September 11


But where do the beef & cheddar sandwiches fit in?

They fit in my mouth.

I look at the sky a lot. I'm not any good at remembering all the constellations, but I love the moon. I document the rising and setting of the sun to make sure it happens and because it is beautiful. And I embrace how insignificant and small it makes me feel, and occasionally how lucky I am I got to happen.
We are so tiny. So tiny and so strange. All we have is this, might as well stick googly eyes on it and make each other laugh.
posted by louche mustachio at 2:37 PM on September 11 [6 favorites]


but I really do think that thinking about ontological nihilism — the idea that being itself doesn't exist — is more fruitful than considering the various varieties of epistemological nihilism,

Y'all motherfuckers need Buddha. Guy had "Society of the Mind" down 1500 years before Minsky did. 'Self' and 'Being' are a mug's game of flawed underlying concepts.
posted by leotrotsky at 3:04 PM on September 11 [9 favorites]


I've been getting more nihilistic (and less optimistic) lately. Weirdly enough, I think it was Trump's election that crossed some threshold for me

The nice thing aboutt nihilism is it means you can stop caring about what Trump and company do. Destroy the government? Sell out to Russia? Fascists killing people in the streets? So what? It's all equally meaningless. Buy some toys and booze, and watch TV while laughing at the fools who care about things
posted by happyroach at 3:26 PM on September 11


"He's an optimistic nihilist."
"Mmm, that must be exhausting...and fun!"
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:33 PM on September 11


Y'all motherfuckers need Buddha

People always trot him out as if there were no possibility that he was just completely wrong.
posted by thelonius at 3:36 PM on September 11


Buddha would be the first person to tell you not to take his word for it.

Only after 'thorough investigation and reflection, you find to agree with reason and experience, as conducive to the good and benefit of one and all and of the world at large, accept only that as true, and shape your life in accordance with it.' (quoted paraphrase)

Buddha says "I've observed these things, find out for yourself if you observe them too."
posted by leotrotsky at 3:46 PM on September 11 [10 favorites]


I really do think that thinking about ontological nihilism — the idea that being itself doesn't exist — is more fruitful than considering the various varieties of epistemological nihilism

I don't have time for that; what's the thing where Nothing's Real Including Me, But It Seems Real To Me, So Let's Run With It Because If I Don't Pay The Not Real Hydro Bill My Not Real Baby's Gonna Freeze? Is that Descartes? Materialism? That seems more practical.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 3:49 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


Is that Descartes? Materialism? That seems more practical.

That's Johnson's refutation of Berkeley, actually.
posted by leotrotsky at 3:51 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


Ah, the classic Boris V. Xander debates of '89, I remember them well...

[Frantically tabs over to Wikipedia]
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 3:53 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


One thing that kinda got me rattled, and that I still haven't found a good answer for:
If nothing has any purpose, then happiness has no purpose. It is couched as an end of itself. Fulfillment has no purpose, the merits of a good life have no purpose, wife and kids and parents and family and memories have no purpose.

My rebuttal has been "Those things ARE important because they are good. And there is a purpose to good."

But there isn't. I'm believing something that is absolutely wrong because it's convenient and keeps me out of the bottom of a river. I don't have a better answer than "Lalalala you're wrong". It makes me feel foolish.
posted by Philipschall at 4:02 PM on September 11


The Universal Church Triumphant of the Apathetic Agnostic We don't know and we don't care. From the site: "Applications for ordination will continue to be processed."
posted by Death and Gravity at 4:24 PM on September 11 [3 favorites]


Buddha says "I've observed these things, find out for yourself if you observe them too."

That's great, but I've encountered some fairly dogmatic Buddhists, I guess.
posted by thelonius at 4:24 PM on September 11


If nothing has any purpose, then happiness has no purpose. It is couched as an end of itself. Fulfillment has no purpose, the merits of a good life have no purpose, wife and kids and parents and family and memories have no purpose.

I don't see the problem here.
posted by klanawa at 4:29 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


To say nothing has inherent meaning/purpose is not to say no thing has a meaning/purpose. There is nothing at all illegitimate or substandard about added meaning.

Consider that the meaning you derive from a book may be different than the meaning the author intended, but your reading is not automatically any less valid.

If you find meaning or purpose in promoting the good than that is good enough. Indeed it's no worse than being given a meaning (and many would argue it's much better).
posted by oddman at 4:52 PM on September 11 [3 favorites]


From the comments it seems like there are a lot of people who think nihilism means "everything is meaningless" rather than "there is no intrinsic meaning to anything".

Like this is before you even get to "optimistic" nihilism.

On preview: JINX oddman
posted by danny the boy at 4:55 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


That's great, but I've encountered some fairly dogmatic Buddhists, I guess.

Oh sure, you gotta go to the source. I mean in Sri Lanka there are even violent Buddhist nationalists. There's nothing in heaven and earth that can't be fucked up by assholes and morons. Same with everything, like as Gandhi said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."
posted by leotrotsky at 5:01 PM on September 11 [3 favorites]


> To me, there's nothing more oppressive than the notion that gods are watching. That's existentially terrifying, and if I believed in such entities, I'd be trying to kill them on general principles.

"Gods are asleep! Post—! ...what's the human species-wide equivalent to posting cute animal pictures?"

Which I think also addresses Philipschall's concern. There is a purpose to good, because you've created one. That's you posting cute animal pictures while the mods are asleep. Some people choose to do more nefarious things with their existentialist or absurdist freedoms, but that's a different part of the same issue. How can something be right or wrong, but also purposeless?

RE: Rick and Morty, there was actually a recent episode that (lightly) touched on the topic of how irrational yet inescapable it is to find meaning in caring for others. But as far as fucked up cartoons that directly address optimistic nihilism are concerned, Evangelion's director gets honorable mention for trying to tackle that some time ago.

"Congratulations, Shinji!"
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 5:07 PM on September 11


I can't believe no one has posted this yet!

Playboy: If life is so purposeless, do you feel its worth living?

Stanley Kubrick: Yes, for those who manage somehow to cope with our mortality. The very meaninglessness of life forces a man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre (a keen enjoyment of living), their idealism — and their assumption of immortality.

As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But if he’s reasonably strong — and lucky — he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s élan (enthusiastic and assured vigor and liveliness).

Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining.

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.
posted by pjsky at 5:43 PM on September 11 [15 favorites]


"Si vous faîtes attention aux signes, quand donc ferez vous attention à ce qu'ils signifient?"

-Rabelais
posted by clavdivs at 5:44 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


Mr. Natural understood.
posted by delfin at 6:41 PM on September 11


one can find joy and contentment by attributing their own sense of meaning or value to existence

So... festivus?
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:52 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre . . .

Oh yeah, she used to be on Hollywood Squares all the time. Probably even more eroded now.
 
posted by Herodios at 7:26 PM on September 11


Well, shit. Here I was, having thought I'd at least come to the concept of apathetic agnosticism on my own, but I think I only got there in 98 or so, meaning that website's been around a good deal longer.

Going with signal's comment, I do believe Trump winning broke something in me, some last little bit of faith in humanity, some small, silly hope that things do turn out for the good. I honestly didn't know it was still in me, that my faith that people couldn't possible be so monumentally hateful and lack any sense of enlightened self interest. I was wrong, just like *a lot* of us, and yeah, that last little fall hurt the hardest, and definitely the longest. I'd like to think I used to be something like an optimistic nihilist, but at this point, in response to an acquaintance trying to get me to talk about this stuff (seriously, I was trying to enjoy my beer, one of my last pure enjoyments), I realized the thing that keeps me going more than anything else is my obligations, responsibilities, and routines. I'm tired. I'm old. I have things I have to do, so I do them. Every once in a while, something is enjoyable. That'll have to be enough.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:12 PM on September 11 [3 favorites]


To say nothing has inherent meaning/purpose is not to say no thing has a meaning/purpose. There is nothing at all illegitimate or substandard about added meaning.

But all you've done is push the absence of meaning back a step. What's the meaning of you adding meaning? What's the point of making a point? It's like saying 'it's deeply dissatisfying to say that nothing created the universe, so I'll say God created the universe', and stopping there. What created God?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:17 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]


Not to harsh anyone's mellow, but what about people being capable of suffering and feeling compassion for suffering?
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:22 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


It's like saying 'it's deeply dissatisfying to say that nothing created the universe, so I'll say God created the universe', and stopping there. What created God?

You did, just then. Pretty neat trick, I must say.
posted by Sparx at 9:43 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


What do you call a position where having given the concepts of meaning and value careful consideration, one simply decides that although these are demonstrably both quite useful concepts there are vast numbers of things to which neither applies, and simply ceases attempting to apply them to life as a whole?

The very meaninglessness of life forces a man to create his own meaning.

...or to examine critically the idea of a search for meaning as an activity in and of itself, decide that much of it is not only a sheer waste of time but has for years been the driving force behind one's own crippling depressive episodes, and learn to get by contentedly without it.

Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre (a keen enjoyment of living), their idealism — and their assumption of immortality.

It's completely feasible to incorporate a keen awareness and appreciation of death and decay, being the fascinating natural processes that they are, into a worldview that retains an untarnished sense of wonder.
posted by flabdablet at 11:34 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


But all you've done is push the absence of meaning back a step. What's the meaning of you adding meaning? What's the point of making a point?

Whatever you want it to be. It's absence of meaning all the way down bro.

Less flippantly, the issue in play is the intrinsic-ness of meaning, not meaning itself. If you believe in naturalism (i.e., knowledge comes from what we can observe about the world around us) then you kind of have to believe there's no built-in meaning to existence because not only do we have no evidence of it, we don't have a possible framework in which it could exist.

A lack of intrinsic meaning means
• I can ignore anyone who tells me "the point of life is X, so you have to do Y"
• I can decide for myself that the point of life is family, or love, or justice, or art, or ice cream, or nothing at all.

Getting to decide what is important to you doesn't change the fact that what is important to you... is important to you. Why should it? Would you tell an architect that her career choice is meaningless because she chose it herself, rather than someone choosing it for her?


Not to harsh anyone's mellow, but what about people being capable of suffering and feeling compassion for suffering?

What about it? Not having a built-in set of rules means one person can decide that the point of life is to strive for freedom from suffering for all, and another person can decide it is to inflict as much suffering on others as possible. As you astutely point out, this is consistent with the world we observe.
posted by danny the boy at 12:41 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]


> Y'all motherfuckers need Buddha. Guy had "Society of the Mind" down 1500 years before Minsky did. 'Self' and 'Being' are a mug's game of flawed underlying concepts.

Absolutely — the buddhist idea of Śūnyatā is... I don't have the words for it, but it seems fundamentally sound in a way that most metaphysical concepts don't. I'd talk about it more when I'm on a "there's no such thing as a self and the objects of the world as they present themselves to what we think of as selves have nothing to do with objects as they are, insofar as they are" kick — but I'm pretty unread in buddhism, and as far as I can tell the ontological nihilist interpretation of śūnyatā is a minority position.

With regard to the "I don't have time to think about this I have to pay the bills" argument, it might be worthwhile to look into the strategy deployed by Buddha's near-contemporary Parmenides. The short of it is that he wrote two metaphysical stories: one, the "way of truth," which describes being as it really is — which is to say, absolutely nothing like what we perceive it to be — and the. the "way of opinion," which more closely resembled the accounts of the universe given by other presocratic greek philosophers, and which Parmenides presented as totally untrue but maybe useful in going about the business of living in the universe as it appears to exist.

Following this strategy, you can keep two sets of books in your head; one for dealing with the universe as it temporarily appears to us — the practical philosophy required to go about the tasks of bill-paying and work-going and revolution-planning — and one for approaching the larger problems of existence itself. Even if you don't have time or inclination to write the second book for yourself, keep a note in the first book reminding yourself that none of what's in it has any ontological foundation whatsoever.

Basically we're presented with a pair of problems: one, the problem that existence as it presents itself to us makes no sense, and appears to be self-contradictory, and two, even knowing this we have to figure out how to (temporarily) live within this absurdity for as long as it appears to exist.

Epistemological nihilisms (optimistic or non) fail to respond to either side of this problem; they treat the universe as straightforwardly existing in the form to which it presents itself to us. This, to my eye, misses the point of philosophy altogether; really, it yields a set of normative claims about what being should be without engaging at any point with what being is (or is not).
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 1:10 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]


Someone with a serious case of "epistemological nihilism" would have no trouble disposing of that kind of metaphysical just-so story, I'm afraid.
posted by thelonius at 3:58 AM on September 12


Watch these two groups fight over Mark Wahlberg's soul in I ♥ Huckabees
posted by Start with Dessert at 5:05 AM on September 12


Either way, I was trying to live "optimistic nihilism," more or less (though it was just existentialism as I understood it) for a number of years but the limits of the approach have become pretty obvious to me more recently. Meaning is socially constructed. I think Wittgenstein had that right. In any case, you won't necessarily find enough social support for whatever you find personally meaningful, even if it's something as seemingly dull and conventional as having a family and making parenting your main priority until your kids are past the most developmentally vulnerable years so they might have a better shot at finding sustained happiness in life than you or their other parent ever did. I had basically concluded after years of therapy and counseling that my own family history meant I and my ex would always have to live with extra pain and anxiety, but that if we took intelligent steps to minimize the impacts on our kids from our issues and were self aware enough about it, we could spare them the worst. That mission was really my own personal source of meaning and direction in life until recently, with the divorce. It's been really painful accepting that the meaning I'd found for myself that made life seem worthwhile is just gone now and the best I can hope for now is just harm reduction and doing all we can to keep the developmental harm and psychological and emotional toll on the kids to minimum, tolerable levels.

I'm still trying to figure out what anything means to me now, and I'm coming up blank except for try to staunch the bleeding by whatever means necessary.

That's what I get for trusting Sartre and thinking my closest social relations were on my side and were helping me in my own personal attempts to construct meaning and recover from the negligent abuse and kidnapping trauma I faced as a kid. My bad. They had no clue I was trying to be a code hero and make a meaningful framework of love and mutual caring and support to try to give my kids a shot at not having to live with the burdens of generational abuse trauma. All they knew, I guess, was that it seemed like I was getting too uptight or too focused on my family or something, I don't know, but social support for my own personal attempts to find meaning in this mess completely evaporated a couple of years ago and I've been foundering ever since with no real longer term sense of purpose or any sense of hope of ever finding long term life satisfaction I can live happily with.

I guess just offering my anecdote about what happens if you actually try to follow the existentialist prescription for life in practice: you still end up depending on society to help you construct meaning and society doesn't really care what your own individual story is or what you need from life to be happy and satisfied. Good luck following a personal code and counting on your closest friends and peers to understand and help support your efforts, because odds are, they have personal codes and missions to construct different meaningful frameworks for understanding and finding personal happiness of their own and if their immediate goals conflict with your own longer term ones, you're just out of luck, and the existentialist formula then just become a roadmap to misery.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:22 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]


I guess just offering my anecdote about what happens if you actually try to follow the existentialist prescription for life in practice: you still end up depending on society to help you construct meaning and society doesn't really care what your own individual story is or what you need from life to be happy and satisfied.

This is exactly what prompted me to start looking at the act of constructing meaning as a project in and of itself. So many people, myself included, seemed to take a need to do that for granted as some kind of fundamental human drive and make a huge deal out of it; but experience suggested that I actually sucked at it.

So the central question that occurred to me when I was about 35 years old is "what does meaning mean? In other words, what is this meaning I'm trying to construct for? Do I actually need to construct meaning at all? What kind of worldview and what kind of life do I end up with if I simply stop doing that?"

And it struck me that the act of constructing meaning necessarily involves paying attention selectively to those aspects of our experience that connect in a narrative way with stuff we already know. Having decided what any given experience means, we simply discard and ignore those parts of it that fail to fit. But so much of being alive and being a person simply doesn't fit into anything we already know how to deal with, and just is what it is.

To force my entire life to mean something is to insist that it be mean. If it's all the same to you, I'd rather just live it, let it be what it is, and take such nourishment from that as I can.

Since deliberately turning the result of those musings into something vaguely resembling policy, I find that meanings - plural - just arrive, spontaneously and plentifully and playfully. Some of those meanings stick around; others dry up and blow away. Sometimes life is just exquisite. Sometimes it truly sucks. Sometimes it's really interesting. Sometimes it's dull and uninspiring. Sometimes it makes perfect sense. Sometimes it's completely fucking absurd.

And sometimes it just is what it is.
posted by flabdablet at 6:32 AM on September 12 [5 favorites]


Also, nihilism in the sense of a grand pronouncement that nothing really means anything is a load of useless, non-actionable bullshit.
posted by flabdablet at 6:37 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]


This is similar to 'death of god theology', which I've been reading about (a direct consequence of having just watched Preacher season 1). The basic idea is that god (as a transcendent, all powerful guarantor of ultimate meaning), died on the cross in the form of Christ. The suffering and death of Christ is understood as the transcendent god emptying itself into the world, becoming immanant (in humanity, through the Holy Spirit), as opposed to transcendent. In this view, the revolutionary kernel of Christianity, is the revelation that we have moral agency and responsibility only because there is no god behind the scenes, pulling the strings, that ensures that all our suffering and folly serves some grand narrative.

Which is to say, yeah, there is no greater meaning in the universe - however, there is a far more compelling conclusion to draw than "do what feels good, bonus point for being kind". That is, the condition for meaning, for morality, is the human capacity to suffer. Because humans can and do suffer, we can't really act as though nothing matters, because suffering matters. It matters in ways that cut right through abstract metaphysical/cosmological considerations.

And this, for me (atheist, non-religious upbringing), is the best way to understand the (symbolic/metaphorical) significance of the crucifixion: it opens the possibility for human moral agency through the death of god AND it grounds morality, not in the next world or some afterlife, but in this one, in the suffering of actually existing human beings.
posted by thedamnbees at 9:27 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]


That is, the condition for meaning, for morality, is the human capacity to suffer. Because humans can and do suffer, we can't really act as though nothing matters, because suffering matters.

A nihilist philosophy will point out that suffering only matters if you decide it matters. Empathy is also a construct based on neurochemical patterns in the brain, probably designed to help species survival. It has no intrinsic meaning. There's no need to care about others suffering any more than anything else. And if one chooses to dislike whatever combination of neural activity is causing personal discomfort, well there's any number of ways to deal with that.

I dunno, I see people accepting the concept of nihilism, but recoiling from actually living life in a manner other than that of imposed philisophical beliefs. It's no wonder there's some major dissonance and discomfort going on.
posted by happyroach at 9:50 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]


Ah yes happyroach, but *punches nihilist*, I refute it thus!
posted by thedamnbees at 10:16 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]


The nihilist thanks you for making her point, which is that her suffering clearly doesn't matter to you.
posted by flabdablet at 10:48 AM on September 12


The nihilist thanks you for making her point, which is that her suffering clearly doesn't matter to you

That doesn't follow at all.
posted by PMdixon at 11:20 AM on September 12


More seriously though, the problem I see wrt nihilistic appeals to brain chemistry, or evolutionary necessity, is that it is little more than an appeal to the transcendent with the trappings of scientific rationalism. Just like religious folks who say 'god works in mysterious ways' or 'god has a plan', this sort of nihilist position dismisses the importance of actual human experience in favour of a world beyond human experience. Instead of god, the transcendent referent is the objective material universe, what Kant called noumena - the thing-in-itself, unmediated by human consciousness, and as such unknowable (hence, transcendent). The problem is, what is presented as real (matter, the laws of physics), can only be grasped by human consciousness as an abstraction from lived experience. In the end, it reduces to a Leibnizian affirmation that the world is as it must be, for reasons we ultimately cannot know - a conclusion that seems to contradict the basic nihilist position, I think.
posted by thedamnbees at 11:47 AM on September 12


the transcendent referent is the objective material universe, what Kant called noumena - the thing-in-itself, unmediated by human consciousness, and as such unknowable (hence, transcendent).

Exactly what's meant by "knowable" is the issue here, it seems to me. If the claim is that the thing-in-itself is unknowable, then the obvious question is: to what process or operation do you actually refer when you use the verb "to know"? What about all those repeatably testable attributes and aspects of the thing-in-itself that we actually do know quite a lot about? Does that knowledge count for nothing? Is it all to be airily dismissed on no better basis that it is not, and perhaps cannot be even in principle, complete?

The problem is, what is presented as real (matter, the laws of physics), can only be grasped by human consciousness as an abstraction from lived experience.

It seems to me that the idea of matter and the laws of physics both count completely legitimately as knowledge about reality. The thing-in-itself is demonstrably still quite capable of delivering endless surprises, and the more we know about it the more questions we think of to ask about it, but that doesn't render what we demonstrably do know about it useless or negligible or illusory.

In the end, it reduces to a Leibnizian affirmation that the world is as it must be, for reasons we ultimately cannot know - a conclusion that seems to contradict the basic nihilist position, I think.

I think that attaching "reasons we ultimately cannot know" to the observation that only what happens, happens and only what has happened, has happened and only what will happen, will happen - which I think is a reasonable paraphrase of "the world is as it must be" - is unjustified, and that the idea of reasons that cannot in principle be known at all is incoherent.

The thing-in-itself - well, not the whole of it, at any rate - does not require reasons for being as it is. Reasons are things we require, as one of our bases for forming knowledge. The extent to which the thing-in-itself requires reasons is the extent to which we - or more specifically, the reasoning parts of our consciousnesses - are parts of that thing.
posted by flabdablet at 12:32 PM on September 12


Well, I don't want to derail into an obscure philosophical debate, but for Kant, the unknowability of the thing-in-itself is tautological, and it does not at all imply that scientific knowledge is impossible.

More on topic - the significance of empathy, or suffering, cannot be reduced to mere chemical processes in the brain. A complete understanding of the material conditions and causes that give rise to pain (that is, the reasons we feel pain), in no way negates the phenomenal reality of pain, nor does it represent the experience of pain, nor does such an understanding provide any relief from pain.

So when someone claims that pain has no meaning, because IN FACT, pain is just the response of the nervous system to certain stimuli, they are claiming that the human experience of pain is somehow less real than the chemical processes that are presumed to be occurring according to a general scientific theory. Now, that theory may be an accurate representation of physical reality, but it is still only a representation, an abstraction. It refers to processes that transcend the particular, immediate experience of pain.
posted by thedamnbees at 3:38 PM on September 12 [2 favorites]


Folks always fuck up noumena. It's up there with misunderstanding Nietzsche as an indicator of philosophical inexperience.
posted by leotrotsky at 3:59 PM on September 12 [2 favorites]


leotrotsky, in fairness, nobody knows anything about noumena ;)
posted by thedamnbees at 4:04 PM on September 12 [4 favorites]


Another classic of "I took Philosophy 101" is learning about epistemology and becoming solipsistic.
posted by leotrotsky at 4:05 PM on September 12


leotrotsky, in fairness, nobody knows anything about noumena ;)

Socrates would be disappointed in you thedamnbees.
posted by leotrotsky at 4:07 PM on September 12


for Kant, the unknowability of the thing-in-itself is tautological

If it pleases followers of Kant to draw a distinction between those parts of reality we can know things about and the rest of it, and insist that only the latter counts as real by definition, I don't think there's anything I can or should do about that beyond stating that I have come to consider that position personally unhelpful.

the significance of empathy, or suffering, cannot be reduced to mere chemical processes in the brain.

"Significance" and "reduced" and "mere" strike me as the only troublesome words within that claim. I can't see any good reason to assume the uselessness of investigating such chemical processes as are demonstrably associated with suffering experienced by the person of whom those processes are a part.

A complete understanding of the material conditions and causes that give rise to pain (that is, the reasons we feel pain), in no way negates the phenomenal reality of pain

"Complete" is a troublesome word there, but I think it's possible to address what remains of the point after leaving it out.

Why would one expect such an understanding to negate such a phenomenal reality? Instances where understanding a phenomenon does negate that phenomenon would have to be quite rare; were this not the case, I would expect understanding things to be far less demonstrably useful.

nor does it represent the experience of pain

I see representation as a necessary though not sufficient part of understanding, so I'd have to disagree with that.

nor does such an understanding provide any relief from pain

If that were true, fentanyl would not be a thing.

theory may be an accurate representation of physical reality, but it is still only a representation, an abstraction. It refers to processes that transcend the particular, immediate experience of pain.

I'm unconvinced that people who choose to use the word "transcend" actually intend to clarify, rather than obfuscate (often even to themselves), the point they're attempting to make.

The entire point of scientific theory is to provide a reliable explanatory, predictive and above all communicable context to what might otherwise remain baffling aspects of physical reality.

The particular experience of pain in human beings, as well as the apparently similar experiences of other beings with which we communicate less clearly, has been reliably shown to involve certain chemical processes. Some of those processes are understood well enough to allow us to have designed drugs that interfere quite successfully with them. Whenever I hurt myself, I'm extremely glad that I have access to such drugs. I don't understand how I would go about convincing myself that scientific theory pertaining to pain is in any way insignificant, and I'm even less clear on why I'd want to.
posted by flabdablet at 9:26 PM on September 12


insist that only the latter counts as real by definition

I didn't make this claim.

I can't see any good reason to assume the uselessness of investigating such chemical processes as are demonstrably associated with suffering experienced by the person of whom those processes are a part.

Me neither. That's why I didn't say that such investigations were useless.

Why would one expect such an understanding to negate such a phenomenal reality?

I never proposed that anyone should have such an expectation.

"nor does it represent the experience of pain"

I see representation as a necessary though not sufficient part of understanding, so I'd have to disagree with that.


I have no idea what your point is here.

"nor does such an understanding provide any relief from pain"

If that were true, fentanyl would not be a thing.


No. If understanding the material causes of pain somehow relieved pain, THEN fentanyl would not be a thing.

...

Flabdablet, you seem to have mistakenly read into my comments some kind of radical critique of science that just isn't there. Maybe you know what you're talking about, but you definitely don't know what I'm talking about.
posted by thedamnbees at 10:40 PM on September 12


I suspect that there is much upon which we will eventually find ourselves in heated agreement, but for the time being the main thing I'm having trouble with is this apparently central paragraph:

More on topic - the significance of empathy, or suffering, cannot be reduced to mere chemical processes in the brain. A complete understanding of the material conditions and causes that give rise to pain (that is, the reasons we feel pain), in no way negates the phenomenal reality of pain, nor does it represent the experience of pain, nor does such an understanding provide any relief from pain.

You appear to be saying here that understanding the chemical aspects of pain provides no relief from it, and I can't currently agree with that, because such an understanding is the very basis upon which pain relieving drugs are designed.

If all you mean is that a drug chemist denied access to drugs or their precursors cannot get rid of a headache simply by knowing how to make the drugs that would relieve it, then sure, but that strikes me not as a deep philosophical principle about the unknowability of reality or the significance of subjective experience, but as a straightforward consequence of the common sense observation that knowing how to do stuff is not the same thing as doing it.
posted by flabdablet at 11:48 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]


I can never shake the suspicion that when people say they want a meaningful life, they really mean, they want a satisfying and fulfilling life, which is not the same thing, in this context. If someone sincerely was tormented by the idea that life is meaningless, then the best, most fulfilling life, with friends and loved ones and good works and accomplishments and difficulties overcome, wouldn't satisfy them, since there remains the question of what that's all really for. A religious solution wouldn't satisfy them - what's the point of, oh, the soul reuniting with God?
Why couldn't it have just remained with God, all along? For any meaning x, you can always ask, but is it really meaningful? Honestly, at some point I think this becomes a mental health problem, not a philosophy problem. What's the meaning of your dog's life? What's the meaning of your dinner? Just eat it.
posted by thelonius at 2:46 AM on September 13 [3 favorites]


You appear to be saying here that understanding the chemical aspects of pain provides no relief from it

Maybe this is a roundabout way of questioning whether internal meditative Know-Thyself-edness is sufficient by itself to generally escape existential suffering.

As is probably already evident, I've never taken a philosophy course, so maybe y'all have already talked past me on this without me noticing, but I'm thinking back to something saulgoodman said above:

That's what I get for trusting Sartre and thinking my closest social relations were on my side and were helping me in my own personal attempts to construct meaning

I feel like there is an inextricable social element to constructing meaning from experience, to one degree or another. And I feel like philosophical/meditation-al study in too much of a vacuum can lead to a dangerous mentality of, not solipsism exactly, but more this-man-IS-an-island-ism—the notion that a sufficiently educated and enlightened person can always overcome suffering through sheer focus, by themselves. And that as a consequence, if I'm still suffering, it's my individual failing—I'm not smart and enlightened enough yet.

We are tribal creatures. There is a "Social" dimension to our overall "wellness circle/pyramid/insert other memorable geographic shape." To the best of my understanding, there is science supporting that. And I'm sure some of you have had the experience of a social interaction that's innocuous and dull on the surface, meaningless really, nevertheless hitting you like a wondrously potent narcotic. Hell, we can get a warm frisson from some random stranger's MetaFilter comment about shoes or some shit.

So, I mean, is it theoretically possible to attain enlightenment and transcend suffering through ruggedly-individualistic intellectual and spiritual work? Yeah. Is it feasible for most people? Probably not. Is it feasible for most of us dwelling in the ever-more-isolating, ever-more-psychically-taxing post-Industrial West? I have serious doubts.

I'm basically wondering out loud about whether, in order to actually succeed at these pursuits, we've got to bring those around us into our practice—maybe as partners, maybe as inspirers, maybe as beneficiaries of our giving, maybe as mentors, maybe as mentees, maybe as models, maybe even as cautionary examples. We do comparisons like all of these all the time anyway for other, less spiritual purposes—as tribal creatures, it's sort of our default setting—but I'm talking about doing it with intention, as part of our conscious meaning-creation efforts. (Now sure, that opens us up to having a lot of "moving targets," as people enter and leave our social spheres. But that can't be helped, because one thing I know for sure is that the only guarantee that existence offers us is that things change. Maybe that means our self-constructed meaning must also be dynamic.)
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 11:48 AM on September 13


So when someone claims that pain has no meaning, because IN FACT, pain is just the response of the nervous system to certain stimuli, they are claiming that the human experience of pain is somehow less real than the chemical processes that are presumed to be occurring according to a general scientific theory

No, it's not that it's less real, it's that it's the product of nervous system activity. Not just the stimulous, but the experience, the reaction, it's all products of neurochemical activity. Nothing is separate from the brain, and all have the same intrinsic meaning. I mean, what does "less real" even mean in this context?

the significance of empathy, or suffering, cannot be reduced to mere chemical processes in the brain.

Sure it can. One neuron passes a message to others, causing a cascade of resctions, bs the end product is the thought "this is IMPORTANT". The action of attaching significance to something is as much a product of neurochemistry as anything else.

I mean, take a look at my panic attacks: a thought pops up, and my heart starts pounding, my gut clenches, vs my brain is screaming "Ohmygod, this is IMPORTANT!" But it's just a fight-or-flight reaction triggered by a neural cascade. My suffering has no meaning other than that I attach to it.

I can never shake the suspicion that when people say they want a meaningful life, they really mean, they want a satisfying and fulfilling life

I think you've got a really good point there. Somebody needs to get to work on a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment drug stat.

I mean, there's no reason that one couldn't create a drug that does that, or come up with some other way to stimulate the brain into inducing those emotions. After all, it's not like those feelings are directly linked to any external standard-people can be fulfilled by extremely different things- I would not be fulfilled by children for exsmple, but I would be by successfully publishing a book. Likewise, it should be possible to create a drug that deals with the referred suffering of empathy- and from a nihilistic point of view, no extrinsic reason not to.

I feel like there is an inextricable social element to constructing meaning from experience, to one degree or another.

I strongly agree with this- and I think nihilism is partially a response to that fact. It's why I think the ideal nihilist involves a degree of sociopathy: "I reject the tribal values of meanings as being no more universal than anything else." (Note that I'm not talking) about Hollywood sociopathy: I've known sociopaths that were model citizens- they simply reasoned their way into proper behavior in order to get what they want.) And they don't emoyionally care about socially basrd meaning.
posted by happyroach at 10:16 AM on September 14


i heard something like this on the radio the other day; i couldn't find it, but this came close!
Awareness of our mortality is uplifting because it means that every moment, every day and every relationship matters. Engaging deeply with the world and with other sentient beings brings meaning and purpose. We are each of us unique in the world and in history, geographically and chronologically. Our genomes and connectomes cannot be duplicated, so we are individuals vouchsafed with awareness of our mortality and self-awareness of what that means. What does it mean? Life is not some temporary staging before the big show hereafter—it is our personal proscenium in the drama of the cosmos here and now.
or petrarch's secretum :P
S. Augustine: We have wandered somewhat from our course, but we are slowly working back to our starting point. Or have you quite forgotten whence we set out?

Petrarch: I had begun to lose sight of it, but is coming back to me now.

S. Augustine: What I had set out to do with you was to make clear that the first step in avoiding the distresses of this mortal life and raising the soul to higher things is to practice meditation on death and on man's misery; and that the second is to have a vehement desire and purpose to rise. When these two things were present, I promised a comparatively easy ascent to the goal of our desire. Unless haply to you it seems otherwise?

Petrarch: I should certainly never venture to affirm this, for from my youth upwards I have had the increasing constriction that if in any matter I was inclined to think differently from yourself I was certain to be wrong.

S. Augustine: We will please waive all compliments. And as I observe you are inclined to limit the truth of my words more out of deference than conviction, pray feel at liberty to say whatever your real judgment suggests.
also btw...
-Humanism
-De Rerum Natura
-Parmenides previously
posted by kliuless at 4:56 AM on September 26


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