We’ve all head the term nihilism, sometimes liberally thrown about as a synonym for pessimism or defeatism. But in philosophical circles worthy of the name, it’s an actual philosophical system with its own arguments and justifications.
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” So proclaimed the infamous declaration by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and hot on the heels soon after his announcement, the crisis of meaning spreads out throughout Europe like a mighty earthquake threatening the total erosion of an absolute basis for meaning, significance and morality—which all leads to nihilism. Moreover, we can also say that the ‘death of God’, is the death of metanarratives, because of the sense of aimlessness brought about by no longer being part of a story.
The proclamation that life or existence itself has no objective value is Nihilism’s core statement. Nihilism recognises that there are no inherent values in the universe because religious, moral, philosophical or political ideas are not eternal values created by the universe writ large. There is no grand destiny for the world or an ordering principle based on a cosmic plan.
Try to imagine you were a God-fearing Christian, just like the majority back then—except perhaps those pesky philosophers—and you’d believe that the entire world revolves around the Christian metanarrative, that reality and thus the world was created by an omnipotent God, that human beings were created in God’s image and therefore special, that moral actions have supernatural consequences in the afterlife and that Jesus Christ was the son of God who died for our sins.
Now as a nihilist, imagine everything you were made to believe in—religious values, political values, and humanistic values of anthropocentrism—was all a mistaken claim. Nihilism has revealed to you the truth, by tearing away the veil of objective value and exposing it as a crass illusion conditioned by human abstraction. You begin to realise that all value formations of meaning, purpose and significance are impermanent (finite, not eternal), circumstantial, conditioned by and dependent on a thinking species with the capability of language to exchange information. This means that grand narratives are not eternal, everlasting, inherent features of the universe but only the fancies of a newly arrived tailless primate on the stage of evolution.
Atheism removes God from the universe and nihilism likewise, but Nihilism goes further and negates all objective meaning: divine, natural and anthropomorphic. What’s common to all nihilism is that it always implies a negation or denial of some claim that life is more than what it is. Any affirmation of human significance, life and even existence itself is generally negated as baseless. Nihilism does not recognise humanity as the bedrock for objective meaning, but only as a source of subjective meaning interpreting the world in varied ways.
Humanists who proudly make the statement human beings are “a way for the universe to know itself”, unwittingly open up more questions than answers. How do we know that the universe is trying to understand itself? Are human beings given a special role by the universe? Does that imply the universe possess agency? Do you see how problematic this becomes!?
There are no eternal values because values—moral, cultural, philosophical, religious, political etc. —are conditioned mental products of human social formations subject to change over time. It’s not that God did it, but humans did it!
The universe has no need for human beings to justify its reasons for existing, in fact it doesn’t need the existence of humanity at all! To put it like this, the human body comes equipped with a variety of important organs carrying out functions necessary to support the continued existence of a person. If we remove any of these essential organs—heart, lungs, kidneys, liver—then death will soon follow, but in the case of the universe—ah on the contrary! To the universe, the total eradication of human beings would be like skin cells shedding off the epidermis. The universe will carry on its course along with its laws of physics and chemistry as it always does—just like it did with the dinosaurs millions of years before.
Nihilism is a wake-up call, it demands that we broaden our perspectives and see there is a vast universe out there populated by countless galaxies and stars and we aren’t the movie stars taking the leading role in the cosmic drama!