Finding meaning with Nihilism: rejecting Fatalism

Nihilism is the belief that nothing has … any final meaning. … “What the hell difference is it going to make, in a thousand years what we do today, or a hundred years for that matter?” It’s a rational reduction of all the experiences of life to rational insignificance: nothing has any final meaning. So the question is … “why do anything?” … “why bear suffering?”

Jordan Peterson – Youtube clip

For Jordan Peterson, nihilism is an inexcusable rejection of meaning. It is the rejection of personal responsibility exchanged for disposable moments of no consequence. What he calls nihilism, the depressive, flippant, and destructive psychology that can follow the rejection of inherent meaning, I call fatalism. Despite our difference terms, it is understandable why Peterson, a clinical psychologist, rails against the growing presence of fatalism in modernity.

In “Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity”, author Brett Stevens characterises fatalism as ” … selfishness…” and the “[belief] that we have no control over the outcome of our actions.” He goes further, pointing out that fatalism is inherently destructive and materialistic because, according to the worldview, all meaning is derived from “physical comforts, wealth and convenience” and the immediate moment.

As a psychologist, Peterson is met with people afflicted by fatalism — people struggling to find purpose, struggling to just get by. What Peterson misses, though, is that the rejection of meaning does not imply fatalism philosophically speaking. So even when he correctly characterises nihilism as rejecting objective meaning, he then connects it to fatalism as if this implication is necessary. This misstep occurs because he accepts the flawed logic that a meaningless universe implies apathy and self-destruction. It does not.

Meaning, values, memory and symbols are artifacts of judging, perceiving minds. Without humanity, the world just is… However, lack of inherent meaning does not preclude humans from choosing meaning, or noticing that they as humans will find some things more meaningful than others…

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

At its core, nihilism is a worldview that rejects inherent meaning: nothing means anything else. For example, democracy is not “good” or “bad”, it is just democracy. The consequences of democracy are the consequences of democracy — and not anything else. The nihilistic worldview flows from a subjective value for truth. “Nihilism is the removal of all values to things except reality itself” (Stevens, 2004). Put another way, nihilism attempts to evaluate reality as it is, free from human bias and representation. It merely begins by rejecting objective meaning and universal narratives.

Nihilism as a philosophical doctrine is simple: the denial of inherent meaning. Nothing inherently, automatically and irrefutably “means” anything. Meaning is a projection of the human mind and does not exist outside of it.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

By deconstructing nihilism, we can identify passive-nihilism, which is the negative component of nihilism: the act of stripping away assumptions, narratives, and belief in inherent value/meaning. By itself, passive-nihilism is nothing more than pure skepticism. This is contrasted by active-nihilism, the positive component of nihilism, which we will explain shortly.

Passive nihilism is the rejection of all inherent meaning. It tends to reduce life to what can be measured and observed, and to file everything else as unproven.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

It is worth noting, logically speaking, that passive-nihilism does not imply fatalism. Just as one could admit meaninglessness and retreat into recklessness, one could just as unreasonably acknowledge the lack of meaning present in the world and conclude that there is no reason not to start a charity. Neither apathy nor affinity for life follow logically from the meaningless universe we find ourselves in. More generally, facts do not imply values. Fatalism values materialism and selfishness –but values cannot be derived from nature.

Unlike active nihilism, passive nihilism does not then reconstruct meaning by assembling what is known into patterns and deriving a sense of cosmic and natural order from those. It merely rejects all; what separates it from fatalism is that passive nihilism also rejects individualism and the group conformist idea that humans can define reality. It thus sets the stage for active nihilism. [bold added]

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

Despite this, many people (for reasons Peterson could probably explain), do jump to fatalism from passive-nihilism. In this sense, you could say that fatalism is one response to passive-nihilism. Another response might be depression, which could accompany the newly acknowledged the meaningless universe. But sadness, like that felt from losing Santa from a childhood fantasy, is eventually lost and our mood returns to normal as we accept reality.

A positive response to passive-nihilism is active nihilism. Active-nihilism is the process of asserting subjective meaning as enough. Active-nihilist, of the Nietzschean variety strive for something greater, something not necessarily in the immediate moment, they pursue greatness, accept challenge, and responsibility. Since subjective meaning is all there is, and that there are no necessary implications to be derived from this, an active nihilist could assert any values –Nietzschean or otherwise. Fundamentally, an active-nihilist is one that admits personal preferences are all there are and does not seek to deny them.

Steven’s points out, that nihilists can value the transcendental. Transcendental nihilism is the appreciation of the world’s design and significance, the forgiveness of the world for our suffering, and being grateful for our small place in it. It is seeing life and death as neither “good” and “bad” respectively, but meta-good, for being at all. In this sense, nature/reality is meta-good. It is something that transcends the individual and can be valued subjectively.

Praising what is right in a holistic sense over what is advantageous to the individual is the primary trait of all heroic, idealistic and nihilist philosophies.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism : A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

My journey to nihilism was prompted through existential questions as cliché as they come: “What does life mean? What should I do? How do I justify my beliefs? What is important?” It truly began with an awareness that God is dead, and that this changes everything. No longer could I assume my values are right (or wrong), or that there was correct answer to ethical questions (outside the context of a given preference and situational factors).

A lack of meaning does not mean that one cannot have preferences, even logical ones.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

Nihilism is just the beginning of one’s personal journey in philosophy. You see, the nihilist has more ethical decisions to make than any moralist does. For people that believe there are moral facts (moralists), the world is full of rules. Once these moral rules are discovered and codified, they guide us through life’s various dilemmas. It’s pretty simple, all considered: the moralist either acts well or not (and is “good” or “bad” accordingly), but in either case, they (think) they know what it is that they should do. The nihilist doesn’t have it so cut-and-dry. There are no pre-ordained rules for nihilists to follow.

Just because a nihilist rejects the assumption that moral facts exist, does not say anything with respect to the fundamental question of ethics which is: “What should shall I do?” To address this question, a nihilist assesses their desires, and is motivated towards their fulfillment. There is no obligation to act, nor any external standard to ethically judge/measuring their desires. This analysis is a purely descriptive model of human action.

Nihilists, use and update their mappings of reality (derived through their faulty lens of human perception, empirical experience) to effectively achieve their desired aim. Their mappings of reality may be in the form of conscious rules, Gestalts, traditions, rules-of-thumb, or instinctive/pre-conscious muscle memory, and so on. These rules relate to the mechanisms of how the universe objectively behaves, whether physically, socially, economically, or however. There really is no limit to the topics that might give a nihilist potential to form an understanding of reality, that is useful in serving their ends. Successfully attained desires are obtained through the good, and the bad thwarts their efforts.*

Nihilism means denial of inherent values. It does not mean denial of functionality, or loss of a desire for our actions to be constructive and produce aesthetic beautify in life.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

The nihilist, like all sentient beings, have undeniable desires. This provides fuel to answer the question of ethics: “What should I do?” Joel Marks answers this with his philosophy of Desirism: “Figure out what you really want, that is, the hierarchy of your desires all things considered, and then figure out how to achieve or acquire it by means that are themselves consonant with that prioritized set of your considered desires.” (Ethics without Morals: In Defense of Amorality, 2013).

“The principle of active nihilism is one of ultimate reality: we are real, in a physical world that is real, with real consequences for any given action. There are no inherent goals, so we must pick one. If we like life, that goal is survival…

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

As pragmatic realists, nihilist answer a related question “How do I get what I want?” by studying the constraints of a reality that works mechanically as per the laws of nature. Given their values they must operate within the laws of the universe to obtain their goals. This is the realism that nihilism embraces.

Active nihilism denies inherent values but does not deny the inherency of reality. It tells us there are no default or universal judgments, and all that we can expect is that reality is consistent such that specific actions achieve similar results every time they are tried.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

Nihilism is not fatalism. Rightly so, Peterson critiques the psychology of purposelessness. Nihilists however are pragmatic and realistic, they study the world and its mechanics. They accept reality and responsibility. The nihilist is part of the world, a human part. There is no escaping human desire, which motivate us to achieve our goals. This purpose might only be subjective, but it can be in accordance with reality and transcendent rather than materialistic.

Nihilism: personal aims constrained and informed by reality. I think Peterson would approve.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity: available here

*A fair critique may be that we don't know how to judge our scientific or philosophical understandings of objective reality except without making certain assumptions that are themselves subjective. If this critique holds water, then the case being made in this post reduces to the negative critique that fatalism is not implied by the lack objective meanings, and the positive case (that nihilist can refer to anything external, even reality itself stripped of interpretation, for reference in subjective decision making) falls apart, leaving the nihilist to refer to subjective desires which may include a desire for objective, scientific/philosophical truth, but does not imply it. Thanks to Joel Marks for giving me the idea to clarify this point.

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