If you claim to be a nihilist, that can mean a whole host of different things. I do consider myself a nihilist, but it is important to specify exactly what I mean when I say that. To communicate this, I will boil nihilism down into three specific categories: there is existential nihilism, moral nihilism, and rational nihilism. The first two of these reflect my view of the world quite well, while the last one is a bit more complicated, as you will see.
Existential nihilism is the belief that life, specifically human life, is ultimately meaningless, or that it has no purpose. Since I consider myself an atheist, this belief naturally follows. There is no evidence of a god out there, particularly one that cares about human beings and holds them up as his prized creation. We simply exist as a result of many causal actions. Whatever meaning that is applied to our existences is self-applied, which is only natural for self-aware beings to do. This is a rather common belief amongst most atheists, but I am going to take it a step further. Even within the context of our own self-constructed world of meaning, there is really no purpose to be found. Even in the world constructed by humans, I likely won’t ever have an effect. The only reason why I follow politics and post these writings online to my scant following is because I am human, just like everyone else: cursed by a desire to matter in a world where that is impossible.
There is another dimension to my lack of purpose in this human world. For most people, having a purpose is tied to being a good person. A person’s purpose in life usually has to do with them helping others, in one way or another, but, being the pessimist that I am, I see this desire to do well to others as a way of making you feel better. You see yourself being “good,” and the resulting feeling encourages repetition of that behavior. I have two things to say in response: one, I don’t care for having a purpose or being “good” if it’s down to only good feelings; and two, more importantly, I think it is entirely fruitless. I have realized quite a while ago that there is no such thing as a “good guy.” Even the best of us have dark sides, and no matter what we do, people will suffer and die. So I don’t care about being good, I care about achieving my own political aims. This is no different from anyone else. A good example to illustrate this would be the migrant crisis. The left views itself as the moral stance on the subject. They see people fleeing from their country, which is at war, and they know they must help. These are the kinds of people with a childish view of the world. They have a simplistic understanding of what it takes to do something like this and they end up justifying horrible things to get this “moral” end they stand with. John Oliver has claimed that he has no care for how many people die in the terror attacks that result from letting in the migrants. He believes that all the death brought down on the American people is simply a worthy “risk” to take. And he naively thinks that he is still a “good guy,” or, he at least still has the gall to morally posture in front of everyone.
And this is seen on the other side of the aisle, as well, though not nearly as often. Some right-wing nationalists jump at the chance to show how immoral the left has become when they say things along the same lines as John Oliver. After a terrorist attack at a college university, at least one student blamed his fellow Americans, saying their racism drove the killer to do what he did. The right-wingers rightly pointed out the horror of this sentiment, but it was clear that they thought they held the morally correct position. They want to help the American people, so that is why they are supporting Muslim bans or other immigration crackdowns.
In my view, neither of these positions is moral. In both cases, people will die. If we let the refugees in, people’s lives will be risked in potential terrorist attacks; if we keep them out, people’s lives will be risked in their war torn country. To act like either position is morally better than the other is absurd. So, I have given up on having a moral purpose in my life. I am not a good person, and I don’t strive to be. I have values on which my political aims are based, but I no longer think this makes me a good person, nor do I think it gives me purpose. I’m just another cockroach, scrambling towards what I want in this world.
Since having a purpose in life is usually intrinsically tied to morality, in that our purpose is striving to do well to others, this a perfect segue into the next topic: moral nihilism. I consider myself to be a moral nihilist. This is simply an acknowledgement that there is no such thing as an objective morality outside of the human species. In fact, I consider morality to be a social delusion (a common belief among those in society that does not exist due to reason or evidence). Morality is humans’ flawed attempt at trying to understand why there are behavior trends within human populations. As a result, I don’t think anyone has moral authority behind their words, not even myself, even though I play along with this social delusion from time to time.
But this is not to say that there is no reason for these aforementioned behavioral trends. If you want to understand this, you need to step back from the moral framework of right and wrong and instead look at things according to evolution. Things should now be looked at according to what is evolutionarily advantageous, rather than what is right and what is wrong. People get antsy when I say this, but it is important to note that I am not trying to argue for why some things, which are typically considered immoral, should be considered moral, but am simply providing an explanation for why these typically immoral things are considered immoral.
To begin: a brief explanation of evolution, to clear up any false assumptions. Evolution is the change of the overall genetic make up of a species over time. Through processes like natural selection, some genes are selected for more often than others, and, over time, these genes become more plentiful, thus evolving the species as a whole. This selection process happens primarily at the level of the individual. Basically, what this means is individuals that have traits that help ensure the spread and survival of their genes are the individuals that pass on their genes most often. As a result, they come to represent the species.
But there is another level at which selection must occur. This is at the group level. When something is selected for at the group level, a trait not only benefits an individual, it also benefits the group as a whole. This is an important point to make because, if a trait is selected for at the individual level, it does not necessitate it being beneficial for the group as a whole. If it isn’t beneficial, it is either selected against or the species dies out.
For example: if you only take into account what is selected for at the individual level, then something like rape would be selected for. Individuals that most successfully spread their genes are the ones most likely to survive, so, naturally, rapists would become more common. But this ignores selection at the group level. A rapist’s behavior may be beneficial for that individual, but it is not beneficial for the group, so it is selected against at the group level. This is because the only way the human species could survive is by evolving empathy. This empathy allows us to be social beings, in which we work together to survive. We were handicapped evolutionarily by the fact that human women can only give birth to one child at a time, generally, and only every year, at best. Our social behavior (empathy included) was compensation for this. By forming into groups, especially familial groups, we ensure the survival of our genes. It shouldn’t be a surprise that our species has a better chance of survival if we form into pockets for mutual survival, than if the men go around raping as many women as they can; and since these two behaviors are mutually exclusive, one will be selected for at the expense of the other.
Once this is established, this explains why behaviors like rape, murder and even simpler ones like lying are considered wrong by humans. The important thing to note is that we don’t think rape and murder are wrong because they are morally bad, but because that behavior is detrimental for our survival. We are biologically inclined not to do these things.
As I stated earlier in the post, I do play along with the social delusion of morality. Since I am human, I do have a capacity for empathy that leads me to formulate opinions about how people ought to behave. But I will say that my opinions have absolutely no authority behind them, no more than any other person in this world. It is simply my goal to convince others of my opinions on morality, rather than assert that I am objectively right.
The third, and the last, form of nihilism that I will discuss here is rational nihilism. This form of nihilism is the belief that reason and logic, or rationality, is a social delusion. The argument is that if it makes no sense to assert that there is an objective morality due to there being no known source for it, then it makes no sense to assert that there is such thing as rationality without naming a source. Not only that, but everything, including rationality is based off of our understanding of the universe, and since our understanding of the universe is restricted to our own perceptions, it can only be considered subjective. There is no way anyone can say rationality would be the same if we stepped outside of our perceptions of the universe and saw it unrestricted. These arguments make sense on the face of it, but I don’t consider myself a rational nihilist because these arguments are self-refuting. I am using rationality to prove that there is no such thing as rationality. The more rock solid the argument I make for rationality being non-existent, the more I implicitly contradict that. No matter what I do, it is impossible for me to show rationality to be non-existent, because all of my thinking is based off of rationality. So, the only thing to do is to put this to rest.
To sum up all of this: of the three forms of nihilism that I discussed here—existential nihilism, moral nihilism, and rational nihilism—I consider myself to be two of them. I find it irrational to have any sort purpose to your life, especially if that purpose paints you as the “good guy” in the world, so I am an existential nihilist. There is no such thing as an objective morality. Morality is a social delusion, and a flawed attempt at understanding why human populations have certain behavioral trends. These trends are simply a result of us evolving into social beings for our common survival. So these acknowledgements lead me to be a moral nihilist. And finally, it is possible for rationality to be considered subjective, but the only way to reach that conclusion is to use rationality as if it is objective, so rational nihilism is self-refuting. All in all, my worldview is quite happy and invigorating.