What's so bad about Nihilism?

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setzer777
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What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby setzer777 » Mon Nov 16, 2009 8:37 pm UTC

A common argument I hear against certain belief systems/moral assumptions/etc. is that they "ultimately lead to nihilism". The underlying assumption is that nihilism is something to be avoided. But why is this the common attitude? What's wrong with nihilism?

Going to the cliche example, it's usually something like: "Under nihilism the Nazi's morality is objectively no less correct than your own". But does that really make a difference? If you say: "Those people are threatening the fundamental moral assumptions that are the foundation for everything you and I care about and hold dear, we need to stop them." Does it really add much to say that (based on philosophical proof X) they are also objectively incorrect?

Or is the issue that people mean different things when they say "nihilism"? I'll admit, I used to think that nihilism implied a bleaker worldview than it really does, until I learned that simply the belief that moral statements do not have truth-values (i.e. all non-cognitivist views of morality) is enough to make one a "nihilist".
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby jakovasaur » Mon Nov 16, 2009 8:58 pm UTC

setzer777 wrote:A common argument I hear against certain belief systems/moral assumptions/etc. is that they "ultimately lead to nihilism". The underlying assumption is that nihilism is something to be avoided. But why is this the common attitude? What's wrong with nihilism?

Going to the cliche example, it's usually something like: "Under nihilism the Nazi's morality is objectively no less correct than your own". But does that really make a difference? If you say: "Those people are threatening the fundamental moral assumptions that are the foundation for everything you and I care about and hold dear, we need to stop them." Does it really add much to say that (based on philosophical proof X) they are also objectively incorrect?

Or is the issue that people mean different things when they say "nihilism"? I'll admit, I used to think that nihilism implied a bleaker worldview than it really does, until I learned that simply the belief that moral statements do not have truth-values (i.e. all non-cognitivist views of morality) is enough to make one a "nihilist".


On one level, it's kind of like that anti-atheism billboard that has a kid pointing a gun and says "If God doesnt matter to him, do you?" You don't want moral nihilism, because you don't want people running around who think that "killing you" and "not killing you" morally equivalent. That would be bad times. Also, it's hard for me to even imagine what a complete nihilist would actually do, other than kill himself, I guess. If there is no such thing as objective value, how do I decide between getting out of bed or just sleeping all day? If I say "I'll just flip a coin, because it doesn't matter", how did you decide to flip the coin? Life becomes one big Buridan's Ass, as far as I can tell. I dunno, ask Camus.

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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Azrael001 » Mon Nov 16, 2009 9:05 pm UTC

I don't see anything wrong with Nihilism myself. As far as a true nihilist just killing themself or staying in bed all day, I think that that is unrealistic. Just because one realizes that nothing actually matters, doesn't mean that they won't want to satisfy their various addictions (food, water, fun, companionship and the various chemicals that are associated with them). We are animals, and thus have animal impulses. Satisfying them is what motivates 'most everything we do.
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby setzer777 » Mon Nov 16, 2009 9:10 pm UTC

Azrael001 wrote:I don't see anything wrong with Nihilism myself. As far as a true nihilist just killing themself or staying in bed all day, I think that that is unrealistic. Just because one realizes that nothing actually matters, doesn't mean that they won't want to satisfy their various addictions (food, water, fun, companionship and the various chemicals that are associated with them). We are animals, and thus have animal impulses. Satisfying them is what motivates 'most everything we do.


Yeah, more broadly, just because nothing *inherently* matters, doesn't mean that it doesn't matter to me personally. You can still act on values even while recognizing they are subjective. It is true that you can't objectively say that you *should* act on those values, but so what? No every action has to answer the question: "Why should I do this?". The process can simply be: "I want to do this, and I'm going to" with no "should" involved at all.
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby mmmcannibalism » Mon Nov 16, 2009 9:54 pm UTC

It is a matter of differentiation. Someone can still be a good person even if they believe everything is ultimately meaningless, but everyone believing there is no value is probably going to cause some social trouble(hence the utility of fluff religions that lack anything other then lets all help each other).

Additionally, I think a lot of people are wired(or just culturally trained) to reject nihilism fundamentally. Whenever I start explaining fatalism(everything obeys laws, so everything follows a predetermined order) the usual counter argument I get is "that is stupid" regardless of intelligence.
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Azrael001 » Mon Nov 16, 2009 10:06 pm UTC

It's not stupid, it's irrelevant. Like determinism, if it's true then you have no control, and only if it is possible for you choose whether you believe it or not will you be wrong if you do.
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby fynthase » Mon Nov 16, 2009 10:12 pm UTC

setzer777 wrote:
Yeah, more broadly, just because nothing *inherently* matters, doesn't mean that it doesn't matter to me personally.

Exactly--in a nihilist society there wouldn't be any more chaos than normal. In fact, I think you'd find that everyone would typically agree on a moral set even while still acknowledging that there is no inherent truth to morality.

The argument that society would be in shambles if everyone were nihilists is pretty similar to the argument that society would collapse without religion. Since religion is really the only avenue to acknowledge objective morality, without it there's nihilism.

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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Gammashield » Mon Nov 16, 2009 10:48 pm UTC

I would say the major issue that's 'bad' about nihilism, from a philosophical viewpoint, is that it's uninteresting. Perhaps the worst of crimes.

What I mean is that after one makes the statement "Nihilism is true" or chooses axioms that lead to nihilism... then that's it. The philosophy of ethics is done, we don't really get to choose interesting ethical situations to look at (since nihilism will treat all situations identically), and the fact that it's true doesn't *do* anything for us or help us to make any choices. Ethics becomes a dead branch of philosophy that can in no way alter or guide our decisions.

It's the moral equivalent of the old objective reality argument "Maybe we can't trust our senses, and we aren't sensing reality." Yes, it's possible this is the case, we certainly can't disprove it. But if it is, then we can't make any more statements about reality. Which is less than helpful.


We could, of course, accept nihilism in principle and then ignore it in practice, working off some other ethical system like Utilitarianism, radical self-interest, Kant, or a religious set of ethics in order to get by day to day and help make our choices. If we're doing that, though... then why did we bother to accept nihilism in the first place? Ethics is about helping us to make our choices. Nihilism, in any form, fails to do that.

Of course, this objection likely has *nothing* to do with the 'commonplace' objections to nihilism, like "It's evil!" or "It will destroy society!". But those seem like silly and false reasons to me. "It's not interesting and it's not useful" seem like much firmer reasons to reject it. :)
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby mastered » Mon Nov 16, 2009 11:10 pm UTC

Nihilism sounds to me very similar to moral relativism, with which I identify. And if all morality is relative, then how is one to say any morals are objectively right or true? According to pure logic, it makes perfect sense, so if someone has a problem with it it's ultimately subjective.
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby schmiggen » Mon Nov 16, 2009 11:16 pm UTC

Gammashield wrote:What I mean is that after one makes the statement "Nihilism is true" or chooses axioms that lead to nihilism... then that's it. *snip* Ethics becomes a dead branch of philosophy that can in no way alter or guide our decisions.


Under Nihilism it seems like the study of ethics would become a form of pragmatism, but i don't see why it should become dead. Every ethical imperative would just have to begin with "if we want to work toward goal X" unless it's obviously understood what X would be, which is honestly the way I think ethics should work in general anyway. Without nihilism, you've basically got an implicit "if we want to satisfy axiom-like objective moral standards X" before every imperative.

In fact, supposing we lack an objective measure to distinguish between moral systems (whose, if anyone's, god is actually out there?), or we lack the means to agree on the matter, shouldn't nihilist ethics be the most productive form of ethics?
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Izawwlgood » Mon Nov 16, 2009 11:17 pm UTC

Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it's an ethos.
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby setzer777 » Mon Nov 16, 2009 11:17 pm UTC

I think you could still do ethics while subscribing to nihilism. Questions could be phrased as: "What's the best course of action in situation X if you hold both human life to be valuable and also want to maximize universal utility". Also, this might be a bit of a stretch, but I think nihilism can serve a useful role when discussing ethics, because it's a way to respond to endless assumption-questioning.

If you're trying to have a discussion of the ramifications of (let's say) censorship, it isn't necessarily useful to go down the path of answering: "Why should we value human freedom?", "Why should we value human life at all?", "Why should life, pleasure, and happiness be valued above death, suffering, and misery?" With nihilism you can respond with: "I'm not saying that one *should* value human life, simply that everyone in this discussion *does*, and therefore we are trying to find the best way to implement that fundamental value" and then get back to actually considering the ramifications of certain assumptions, rather than endlessly trying to justify one's assumptions.

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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby guenther » Tue Nov 17, 2009 12:06 am UTC

fynthase wrote:The argument that society would be in shambles if everyone were nihilists is pretty similar to the argument that society would collapse without religion. Since religion is really the only avenue to acknowledge objective morality, without it there's nihilism.

It's not just religious people that believe in objective right and wrong. I can't count how many times I've seen people write "You're wrong, period!" in these forums in regards to opinions on gay marriage, equal rights, racism, sexism, etc. They may not have a supernatural theory on how these rules are handed down from on high, but emotionally I think it's the same thing. People defend a certain moral stance much stronger than they defend an opinion on beauty or humor.

By way of explanation, I will use the analogy of morality is like economics. Economic value isn't defined in one person; it's an aggregation of many subjective viewpoints. I can't simply decide that an ipod should only be $5 and then pay that. I have to find someone willing to sell it for that much.

With morality, it's more fuzzy. I think we gain much value having a shared moral system much like with economics, but there's no quantitative exchange to anchor the values in place. Any person can simply say they don't value treating other people nicely anymore. So I think our belief in "rightness" is what anchors them. Culturally these beliefs have evolved through natural selection, and through indoctrination, we instill them in the next generation.

So I think the belief in moral truths is built into us. At least that's my theory.
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby jakovasaur » Tue Nov 17, 2009 12:31 am UTC

If I recall correctly, one can be several different degrees of nihilistic, and the most extreme position holds that knowledge is impossible and nothing at all can be said to be true.

schmiggen wrote:
Gammashield wrote:What I mean is that after one makes the statement "Nihilism is true" or chooses axioms that lead to nihilism... then that's it. *snip* Ethics becomes a dead branch of philosophy that can in no way alter or guide our decisions.


Under Nihilism it seems like the study of ethics would become a form of pragmatism, but i don't see why it should become dead. Every ethical imperative would just have to begin with "if we want to work toward goal X" unless it's obviously understood what X would be, which is honestly the way I think ethics should work in general anyway. Without nihilism, you've basically got an implicit "if we want to satisfy axiom-like objective moral standards X" before every imperative.


Wouldn't this rely on belief in the idea that our perceptions or empirical data has some kind of relation to the exterior world, if such a thing even exists? And if this is further than you guys are prepared to go (quite likely I'd imagine), I don't think you could do ethics in this pragmatic way either. Many of the hardest problems with ethics are exactly the kind of problems where two desirable outcomes are mutually exclusive. For example, with abortion, we want babies to be born, and we want women to have the right to make their own decisions. How could you possibly approach this from a nihilistic perspective? This issue has nothing to do with pragmatics, and everything to do with whether you place a higher value on unborn babies lives or living women's freedom. Or, for another example, try the trolley problem.

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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby TheAmazingRando » Tue Nov 17, 2009 12:42 am UTC

Seems to me that nihilism, most often, isn't really a philosophy in and of itself so much as it is a foundation for constructing a personal philosophy. I mean, I could say "there is no intrinsic truth or value" and be done with it, and stick with that maxim, and lead a life free of passion or drive. On the other hand, I could go on and say "therefore, I will construct it myself" and be passionate for whatever reasons I desire, even if I admit that they're baseless beyond my own subjective experience. I don't imagine it would be difficult to go from nihilism to utilitarianism, or existentialism. Just because there is no intrinsic value does not mean that it cannot be, for some reason or another, assigned.

I mean, I guess you could characterize nihilism as going beyond rejecting intrinsic value, and extend it to rejecting any constructed value, and from there I can see how it may be pointless. But I'm not sure how common that is, it seems more often to just be a means of creating a clean slate.

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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby jakovasaur » Tue Nov 17, 2009 1:24 am UTC

TheAmazingRando wrote:Seems to me that nihilism, most often, isn't really a philosophy in and of itself so much as it is a foundation for constructing a personal philosophy. I mean, I could say "there is no intrinsic truth or value" and be done with it, and stick with that maxim, and lead a life free of passion or drive. On the other hand, I could go on and say "therefore, I will construct it myself" and be passionate for whatever reasons I desire, even if I admit that they're baseless beyond my own subjective experience. I don't imagine it would be difficult to go from nihilism to utilitarianism, or existentialism. Just because there is no intrinsic value does not mean that it cannot be, for some reason or another, assigned.

I mean, I guess you could characterize nihilism as going beyond rejecting intrinsic value, and extend it to rejecting any constructed value, and from there I can see how it may be pointless. But I'm not sure how common that is, it seems more often to just be a means of creating a clean slate.

I agree. Nihilism is worthwhile in constructing the clean slate, but even existentialism, which is based on the rejection of any objective truths, always ends up advocating that you just pick some truth and go with it. That's not nihilism anymore. I think its Kierkegaard who advocated different ways this can manifest, like the aesthetic, or the ethical. These aren't nihilism. Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus" might go the farthest (in my opinion) toward nihilism, but still turns back and just refuses to accept suicide as the only option. But how could a nihilist justify not killing himself?

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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby setzer777 » Tue Nov 17, 2009 1:41 am UTC

What do you mean "Justify not killing himself?" A nihilist can easily justify it by saying: "I don't feel like killing myself". Or by "justifying" an action do you mean giving a logical argument about why one should (in the objective sense) perform that action? In that case the statement is misleading. A nihilist could neither justify not killing himself, nor justify killing himself. But that would simply be because to a nihilist choices aren't the kinds of things that are "justified" in that sense. You make certain choices because you want to (including the choice to value something like human life, freedom, etc.)
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Azrael001 » Tue Nov 17, 2009 1:41 am UTC

Because he doesn't want to?

Edit: That is, evolutionary processes have given humans a general desire to continue to live.
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby jakovasaur » Tue Nov 17, 2009 1:47 am UTC

Azrael001 wrote:Because he doesn't want to?

Edit: That is, evolutionary processes have given humans a general desire to continue to live.

Alright, I guess that would prevent a person from committing suicide. But where would any other decisions, besides those our instincts physically compel us to, come from? Are nihilists just evolutionary robots? Either our bodies/brains as designed by evolution are sufficient to determine our actions, or there is something else needed.

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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby achan1058 » Tue Nov 17, 2009 2:15 am UTC

jakovasaur wrote:Alright, I guess that would prevent a person from committing suicide. But where would any other decisions, besides those our instincts physically compel us to, come from? Are nihilists just evolutionary robots? Either our bodies/brains as designed by evolution are sufficient to determine our actions, or there is something else needed.
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Twistar » Tue Nov 17, 2009 4:14 am UTC

So, This debate seems to be an ongoing thing in my life and of late something interesting has come up. Here's a paraphrased quote:
"Everything thing is determined so you have no free will and nothing matters, therefore one should just live life and be happy."

This is coming from a nihilist. My problem with this is the last 3 words. "and be happy." if there is no free will then one doesn't have control over whether they are happy, and if nothing matters then being happy shouldn't have a priveledged position over being happy. With this final addition I personally call this an existentialists sentence and not a nihilist oen.

In some ways existentialism feels like a cop out from nihilism for people who don't like the concept of nihilism (and there are a lot of reasons not to like nihilism.) The problem is nihilism is implied by lack of free will and as far as I can tell there are no arguments for free will any more solid than those arguments that attack free will. The point of this is that an existentialists can "create meaning for themselves" which is a wonderful idea and I personally would call myself an existentialist. The problem is to create meaning nececitates free will. If humans can create meaning then humans are gods. That is how I rationalize it at least and I don't have a problem with that. I'm having trouble getting at what I'm trying to say...

Well what it comes down to is I justify my belief in existentialism on the quite unfounded belief that humans have free will. I have some crazy somewhat crackpot theories to argue againsts nihilists who might attack me but other than that it really is belief. One of the major reasons for this is as someone pointed out earlier determinism and nihilism are damn boring philosophically. I don't think legitimate moral discussion can occur between people wearing their nihilist hats. If discussion does occur they have in some way temporarily taken off their hats. Wearing my nihilists hat, I say that these people in a nihilists community are human animals just like religious people and not much is different I suppose.

I do agree that it is not right at all for people to attack nihilism by saying "that is stupid" but I think what it comes down to is that the perspective of nihilism is not as apparant as it feels once you understand it. I mean in my experience once you understand nihilism everything else has a tinge of crazyness or ignorance but what has to be realized is that people do not question that they have complete and utter free will. At times they recognize themselves as victims of circumstance but overall there is no way one can construe the notion that humans have no free will as intuitive.

I'm really sorry if this post wasn't coherent or on topic, I have a hard time staying entirely relevant in these types of threads.

Edit: in short response to the OP's question "what is so bad about nihilism?" most people have morals and believe them to be in some sense real and thus they will naturally take it as offence if someone says that their morals are not real because the latter person may act in ways the former would call immoral under their philosophy of nihilism.

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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby G.v.K » Tue Nov 17, 2009 4:40 am UTC

jakovasaur wrote:
Azrael001 wrote:Because he doesn't want to?

Edit: That is, evolutionary processes have given humans a general desire to continue to live.

Alright, I guess that would prevent a person from committing suicide. But where would any other decisions, besides those our instincts physically compel us to, come from? Are nihilists just evolutionary robots? Either our bodies/brains as designed by evolution are sufficient to determine our actions, or there is something else needed.


i've always thought of nihilism as similar to the Cartesian meditations but in the realm of morality. let's call into question every value and see what's left at the end. Descartes concluded that the mind cannot be doubted. but i wonder if in morality, it is actually the body which cannot be doubted. it at least forms the 'value judgements' pleasure and pain.

on the other, it seems equally clear that we can choose pain and we can even choose death. after that realisation, doesn't consciousness suddenly seem much more empowered? it can overrule even the body's value judgements. if it does so, isn't that evidence that it is acting according to some value judgement? at least, it must be in opposition to one.

i mean, isn't 'life is worthless' still a value judgement?

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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby setzer777 » Tue Nov 17, 2009 4:47 am UTC

I think a common misunderstanding is the idea that a nihilist "shouldn't" choose one value over another, because it's all equally meaningless. That somehow one is being a bad nihilist if one values things or strives to live one's life based on a set of moral guidelines. But that is not the case. I can be a perfectly fine nihilist while holding values and morals (and fighting for them passionately), as long as I realize that the things I value are valuable *to me* and not in any sort of objective (i.e. non-relational) sense.
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Twistar » Tue Nov 17, 2009 4:58 am UTC

But the problem is I would call those values that you just described real values even if they are not objective and thus the universe is not meaningless. I would call what you just described existentialism. You create your own set of values and live by them.

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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Cloud Walker » Tue Nov 17, 2009 6:17 am UTC

Gammashield wrote:I would say the major issue that's 'bad' about nihilism, from a philosophical viewpoint, is that it's uninteresting. Perhaps the worst of crimes.

What I mean is that after one makes the statement "Nihilism is true" or chooses axioms that lead to nihilism... then that's it. The philosophy of ethics is done, we don't really get to choose interesting ethical situations to look at (since nihilism will treat all situations identically), and the fact that it's true doesn't *do* anything for us or help us to make any choices. Ethics becomes a dead branch of philosophy that can in no way alter or guide our decisions.

It's the moral equivalent of the old objective reality argument "Maybe we can't trust our senses, and we aren't sensing reality." Yes, it's possible this is the case, we certainly can't disprove it. But if it is, then we can't make any more statements about reality. Which is less than helpful.


We could, of course, accept nihilism in principle and then ignore it in practice, working off some other ethical system like Utilitarianism, radical self-interest, Kant, or a religious set of ethics in order to get by day to day and help make our choices. If we're doing that, though... then why did we bother to accept nihilism in the first place? Ethics is about helping us to make our choices. Nihilism, in any form, fails to do that.

Of course, this objection likely has *nothing* to do with the 'commonplace' objections to nihilism, like "It's evil!" or "It will destroy society!". But those seem like silly and false reasons to me. "It's not interesting and it's not useful" seem like much firmer reasons to reject it. :)


I cannot reject something if it is true.

Nihilism, in any form, may fail to help us make our choices. But I don't accept nihilism because it helps. I accept it because it is true. What helps me make choices is how I feel about the choices. And, believe it or not, how I feel is similar to how most human beings feel, because, well, I am a human being as well. So while there is no way to make ethical decisions based on facts, there is still the possibility of emotional appeal.

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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Kyrn » Tue Nov 17, 2009 9:31 am UTC

Twistar wrote:But the problem is I would call those values that you just described real values even if they are not objective and thus the universe is not meaningless. I would call what you just described existentialism. You create your own set of values and live by them.


That doesn't make existentialism mutually exclusive from nihilism though, it only means that you are aware that the values you follow serve no value to anything but yourself (hence existentialism) and that you have no value to anything but yourself (since the value you hold are in relation to something which has no value, your values are still ultimately valueless, hence nihilism).

In short, I know I don't mean anything in the grand scale of things, but I don't care.

Also note that there are several layers of nihilism though. Thus far we are talking about existential nihilism, though if we go one step further and also argue that your personal self/existence/experience has no value (metaphysical nihilism), that would be incompatible with existentialism (but ALMOST compatible with Buddhism, depending on how you define existence).

The real issue with nihilism is not about it's non-possibility of "value"-ful life though (which isn't true). It's the possibility of "value"-destruction, since if one assumes that there's no value in everything, subtracting from nothing would still give nothing.
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Outchanter » Tue Nov 17, 2009 9:41 am UTC

jakovasaur wrote:Are nihilists just evolutionary robots? Either our bodies/brains as designed by evolution are sufficient to determine our actions, or there is something else needed.

Nihilists aren't a separate species ... if they're evolutionary robots, then all of us are.

But that sort of leads into the free will debate. If humans have no free will, then all the things we consider subjective (like morality to nihilists) are actually objectively predetermined.

Which just goes to show that the definition of 'subjective' is pretty fuzzy, much like the definition of 'free will'. Sure, there are definitions of free will that seem to make intuitive sense, but on closer examination they all just defer the causative factor by a (random or deterministic) step or two.

(Most of the time I don't think about free will, but if I ever start believing in its lack of existence for some reason, I think I'll have to bake cookies. Because then they'll be Cookies of Destiny, and all the more delicious.)

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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Kyrn » Tue Nov 17, 2009 9:57 am UTC

Outchanter wrote:
jakovasaur wrote:Are nihilists just evolutionary robots? Either our bodies/brains as designed by evolution are sufficient to determine our actions, or there is something else needed.

Nihilists aren't a separate species ... if they're evolutionary robots, then all of us are.

But that sort of leads into the free will debate. If humans have no free will, then all the things we consider subjective (like morality to nihilists) are actually objectively predetermined.

Which just goes to show that the definition of 'subjective' is pretty fuzzy, like the definition of 'free will'. Sure, there are definitions of free will that seem to make intuitive sense, but on closer examination they all just defer the causative factor by a (random or deterministic) step or two.

(Most of the time I don't think about free will, but if I ever believe in its lack of existence for some reason, I think I'll have to bake cookies. Because then they'll be Cookies of Destiny, and all the more delicious.)


Depending on the level of nihilism, one CAN assume that free will doesn't exist (it can't exist if existence itself is an illusion/doesn't exist), so it's not really subjective in terms of this argument. Or basically, we need to be clear what level of nihilism we are talking about: moral, existential, metaphysical (or others, but these three are the most commonly used)?
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Twistar » Tue Nov 17, 2009 7:10 pm UTC

Kyrn wrote:
Twistar wrote:But the problem is I would call those values that you just described real values even if they are not objective and thus the universe is not meaningless. I would call what you just described existentialism. You create your own set of values and live by them.


That doesn't make existentialism mutually exclusive from nihilism though, it only means that you are aware that the values you follow serve no value to anything but yourself (hence existentialism) and that you have no value to anything but yourself (since the value you hold are in relation to something which has no value, your values are still ultimately valueless, hence nihilism).

In short, I know I don't mean anything in the grand scale of things, but I don't care.

Also note that there are several layers of nihilism though. Thus far we are talking about existential nihilism, though if we go one step further and also argue that your personal self/existence/experience has no value (metaphysical nihilism), that would be incompatible with existentialism (but ALMOST compatible with Buddhism, depending on how you define existence).

The real issue with nihilism is not about it's non-possibility of "value"-ful life though (which isn't true). It's the possibility of "value"-destruction, since if one assumes that there's no value in everything, subtracting from nothing would still give nothing.


Ok, so I wasn't aware that a nihilist might distinguish themselves as an existential nihilist. This is a major major distinction in my mind though. I recognize that both existentialists and nihilists believe that the universe/world whatever is meaningless and that is a large ammount of common ground, but I would never call a person who creates meaning for themselves in this environment a nihilist. I would strictly call them an existentialists because I feel like there is a major difference between a person who does live by personal values and a person who lives entirely amoraly.

I mean, if I understand you correctly you are saying existentialism as a whole is basically a subset of nihilism?

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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Azrael001 » Tue Nov 17, 2009 10:52 pm UTC

Morals are a social construct bred into humanity to help ensure survival. Almost every civilization has very similar base codes, with major variations being ones based on often mistaken beliefs. Most people are not naturally murderers.

What do you mean by living amorally?
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Twistar » Tue Nov 17, 2009 11:02 pm UTC

hmm... well I guess by amorally I also mean without meaning. There's a difference between a person who genuinely thinks they're a robot and a person who creates meaning for themselves even if both think the universe is inherently meaningless.

Now, this statement is under the assumption that people are capable of creating meaning for themselves which means free will exists which is really a major assumption.

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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby mastered » Tue Nov 17, 2009 11:18 pm UTC

Amorality, if you've ever read The Stranger by Albert Camus, has nothing to do with life not having meaning. The existentialist belief that the universe is inherently meaningless does not preclude creating meaning for yourself, as you mentioned. An amoral person simply believes that morals are meaningless. How does one define good and evil objectively? It's ultimately just an interpretation. One person's garbage is another's gold and all that.
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Kyrn » Wed Nov 18, 2009 1:02 am UTC

Actually, before we further this argument, we need to set some variables straight, because we've been throwing around several definitions of nihilism.

From Wikipedia (I know Wikipedia's not fact, BUT it serves as a reasonably good guideline):

Moral nihilism, also known as ethical nihilism, is the meta-ethical view that morality does not exist; therefore no action is preferable to any other. For example, a moral nihilist would say that killing someone, for whatever reason, is not inherently right or wrong.

Existential nihilism is the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. It can stem from scientific analysis showing that only the physical laws contributed to our existence. With respect to the universe, a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant, without purpose and can make no real change in the totality of existence.

Epistemological nihilism: Nihilism of an epistemological form can be seen as an extreme form of skepticism in which all knowledge is denied.

Metaphysical nihilism is the philosophical theory that there might have be no objects at all, i.e. that there is a possible world in which there are no objects at all; or at least that there might have be no concrete objects at all, so even if every possible world contains some objects, there is at least one that contains only abstract objects.

An extreme form of metaphysical nihilism is commonly defined as the belief that existence itself does not exist.

Mereological nihilism (also called compositional nihilism) is the position that objects with proper parts do not exist (not only objects in space, but also objects existing in time do not have any temporal parts), and only basic building blocks without parts exist, and thus the world we see and experience full of objects with parts is a product of human misperception (i.e., if we could see clearly, we would not perceive compositive objects).
[OPINION] The above is similar to scientific breakdown, and also related to the belief of lack of free will. [/OPINION]

Political nihilism, a branch of nihilism, following the characteristic nihilist's rejection of non-rationalized or non-proven assertions, in this case the necessity of the most fundamental social and political structures, such as government, family or even law and law enforcement. The Nihilist movement in 19th century Russia espoused a similar doctrine.
[OPINION] The above doesn't have much to do with what we're talking about, but is just here to complete the set. [/OPINION]

Twistar wrote:I mean, if I understand you correctly you are saying existentialism as a whole is basically a subset of nihilism?


Not quite. It's also possible for one to accept that there's inherent value in everything, but your values are more important than others, thus overrides them. It's the difference between writing into a blank file, and overwriting an existing file.
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby setzer777 » Wed Nov 18, 2009 1:15 am UTC

Yeah, I was only thinking of moral and existential nihilism. Notice that they only require rejecting intrinsic, objective morality and meaning. You can be a nihilist and still consider (for example) general human welfare extremely important and valuable to you. You can also assume that people you talk to share certain basic values (such as valuing pleasure over pain) and try to convince them that a certain course of action is the best way to fulfill the morals and values they already accept.

The only thing you can't do is tell someone whose morals are fundamentally opposed to yours that their fundamental assumptions are wrong. And really, what good would that do anyway? Even if there is objective morality, there is clearly no way to prove it in a manner convincing to someone who rejects the basic moral assumptions most people start from.

EDIT: I do have some trouble knowing what exactly existentialists mean by "creating meaning". If they are talking about "meaning" in the sense that something can be subjectively meaningful to a particular mind or group of minds, this seems rather obvious and unenlightening. But if they're talking about "creating meaning" in some sort of sense beyond that, I don't see what distinguishes it from the every day sort of deciding: "Such and such is important to me".
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Kyrn » Wed Nov 18, 2009 1:40 am UTC

setzer777 wrote:Yeah, I was only thinking of moral and existential nihilism. Notice that they only require rejecting intrinsic, objective morality and meaning. You can be a nihilist and still consider (for example) general human welfare extremely important and valuable to you. You can also assume that people you talk to share certain basic values (such as valuing pleasure over pain) and try to convince them that a certain course of action is the best way to fulfill the morals and values they already accept.

The only thing you can't do is tell someone whose morals are fundamentally opposed to yours that their fundamental assumptions are wrong. And really, what good would that do anyway? Even if there is objective morality, there is clearly no way to prove it in a manner convincing to someone who rejects the basic moral assumptions most people start from.

EDIT: I do have some trouble knowing what exactly existentialists mean by "creating meaning". If they are talking about "meaning" in the sense that something can be subjectively meaningful to a particular mind or group of minds, this seems rather obvious and unenlightening. But if they're talking about "creating meaning" in some sort of sense beyond that, I don't see what distinguishes it from the every day sort of deciding: "Such and such is important to me".


1) Even basic values can be questionable, and must be confirmed beforehand: There are some which consider pain/pleasure to be subjective, and occasionally interlinks with nihilism, else where wouldn't be masochism.
2) When morals are questionable, you are right though that one has to start from basic values, and work upwards. For instance, one may consider the propagation of humanity to be a basic positive value, and the destruction of environment to be a basic negative value. How would one go about such that there's a net positive? What thresholds should one limit (aka meta-values)? In this way, one can argue against fundamentally opposite morals, so long as the basic values are agreed upon beforehand.
3) There's a difference between "Such and such is important to me" and "Such and such is important to society" (and yes, existentialists are by definition selfish); Even if one decides that importance to society has a naturally high value, the process is fundamentally different from society always outweighing self. However this is getting off-topic.
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby setzer777 » Wed Nov 18, 2009 1:51 am UTC

Kyrn wrote:
setzer777 wrote:Yeah, I was only thinking of moral and existential nihilism. Notice that they only require rejecting intrinsic, objective morality and meaning. You can be a nihilist and still consider (for example) general human welfare extremely important and valuable to you. You can also assume that people you talk to share certain basic values (such as valuing pleasure over pain) and try to convince them that a certain course of action is the best way to fulfill the morals and values they already accept.

The only thing you can't do is tell someone whose morals are fundamentally opposed to yours that their fundamental assumptions are wrong. And really, what good would that do anyway? Even if there is objective morality, there is clearly no way to prove it in a manner convincing to someone who rejects the basic moral assumptions most people start from.

EDIT: I do have some trouble knowing what exactly existentialists mean by "creating meaning". If they are talking about "meaning" in the sense that something can be subjectively meaningful to a particular mind or group of minds, this seems rather obvious and unenlightening. But if they're talking about "creating meaning" in some sort of sense beyond that, I don't see what distinguishes it from the every day sort of deciding: "Such and such is important to me".


1) Even basic values can be questionable, and must be confirmed beforehand: There are some which consider pain/pleasure to be subjective, and occasionally interlinks with nihilism, else where wouldn't be masochism.
2) When morals are questionable, you are right though that one has to start from basic values, and work upwards. For instance, one may consider the propagation of humanity to be a basic positive value, and the destruction of environment to be a basic negative value. How would one go about such that there's a net positive? What thresholds should one limit (aka meta-values)? In this way, one can argue against fundamentally opposite morals, so long as the basic values are agreed upon beforehand.
3) There's a difference between "Such and such is important to me" and "Such and such is important to society" (and yes, existentialists are by definition selfish); Even if one decides that importance to society has a naturally high value, the process is fundamentally different from society always outweighing self. However this is getting off-topic.


1) Right, I meant that in terms of having an ethical discussion you start at values that everyone in the discussion agrees with. Not "basic" in the sense of "unquestionable", because any value can be questioned.
2) By "fundamentally opposed morals" I meant morals based on fundamentally opposed starting assumptions/values/etc. I just meant (as you said) that basic values have to be agreed upon to have any useful ethical discussion.
3) That seems to distinguish an existentialist from someone who thinks that some non-subjective source of value exists (such as society), but how do you distinguish an existentialist from a nihilist? Or does any nihilist who holds anything subjectively meaningful to them personally become an existentialist?
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Twistar » Wed Nov 18, 2009 2:04 am UTC

setzer777 wrote:EDIT: I do have some trouble knowing what exactly existentialists mean by "creating meaning". If they are talking about "meaning" in the sense that something can be subjectively meaningful to a particular mind or group of minds, this seems rather obvious and unenlightening. But if they're talking about "creating meaning" in some sort of sense beyond that, I don't see what distinguishes it from the every day sort of deciding: "Such and such is important to me".

This is basically what I mean, though I do find it enlightening. Especially in light of nihilism as I understood it. The type of nihliists I envision would say to any moral or ethical statement: it doesn't matter, and therefore for them to hold some psuedo-morality (even if they explain it away as predetermining and not mattering) is contradictory. But, overall with these new definitions of terms I feel like I'm a lot more on the same page as you guys.

However, I would like to point out that definition of existential nihilism does not state that people can create meaningful values for themselves. As I pointed out earlier, I think this is the thin line between nihilism and existentialism.

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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby setzer777 » Wed Nov 18, 2009 2:09 am UTC

Twistar wrote:
setzer777 wrote:EDIT: I do have some trouble knowing what exactly existentialists mean by "creating meaning". If they are talking about "meaning" in the sense that something can be subjectively meaningful to a particular mind or group of minds, this seems rather obvious and unenlightening. But if they're talking about "creating meaning" in some sort of sense beyond that, I don't see what distinguishes it from the every day sort of deciding: "Such and such is important to me".

This is basically what I mean, though I do find it enlightening. Especially in light of nihilism as I understood it. The type of nihliists I envision would say to any moral or ethical statement: it doesn't matter, and therefore for them to hold some psuedo-morality (even if they explain it away as predetermining and not mattering) is contradictory. But, overall with these new definitions of terms I feel like I'm a lot more on the same page as you guys.

However, I would like to point out that definition of existential nihilism does not state that people can create meaningful values for themselves. As I pointed out earlier, I think this is the thin line between nihilism and existentialism.


Is it a line at all though? Because all nihilism says is that things are not *intrinsically* meaningful. It doesn't say that things are not relationally meaningful (i.e. meaningful in the sense of being important to a person's personal values/emotions/decision-making process). So unless existentialism claims that people create *intrinsic* meaning (which seems to go against the definition of "intrinsic" to me) I don't see what separates an existentialist from a nihilist.
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby Kyrn » Wed Nov 18, 2009 2:28 am UTC

setzer777 wrote:Is it a line at all though? Because all nihilism says is that things are not *intrinsically* meaningful. It doesn't say that things are not relationally meaningful (i.e. meaningful in the sense of being important to a person's personal values/emotions/decision-making process). So unless existentialism claims that people create *intrinsic* meaning (which seems to go against the definition of "intrinsic" to me) I don't see what separates an existentialist from a nihilist.


The difference is that existentialism doesn't necessarily claim that "things are not not *intrinsically* meaningful", just that one's relational meaning outweighs any intrinsic meaning (there's also the aspect of self being separate from the conventional subset of "things", therefore making relational meaning not a subset of intrinsic meaning). Or in short, there's an overlap between both, but existentialism is not a subset of existential nihilism.

Also, slowly going off-topic, I'd say that existentialism vs existential nihilism should get it's own topic.
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Re: What's so bad about Nihilism?

Postby xArvenx » Wed Nov 18, 2009 2:29 am UTC

I think, as someone previously stated, that there's a general misunderstanding of what nihilism is popularly considered as and a few definitions floating around here. Essentially, the nihilist recognizes that there can be no objective, unconditioned truth. All meaning stems from prejudice toward particular values with the falsification of others. No value is more objectively true than other -- there is no way that things are. The nihilist simply fails to ask the question "what now?" He is content to leave the world as a negation and often actively involved in propagating this negativity. A nihilist does not recognize any significance in values he or others might assert (some of you did not seem to make this distinction in your posts), but rather makes a value out of being valueless.

There are several compelling (to me) arguments as to why it is deemed wise to avoid. It is commonly argued to be an incoherent world view. Making a value out of being valueless is in itself choosing meaning and value and merely ignoring your responsibility in the creation of this value (argued by de Beauvoir, who imo is a much better writer than Sartre). This underlines another fact of human existence -- we cannot live without values. One cannot will oneself to be indifferent with all things equal and at once empty. Even in willing a void meaning to this void is conferred, thwarting itself. Without values, we would not know how to conduct ourselves and would follow whims without cease or preference. What it is that causes us to constantly make valuations, I really don't know. Furthermore, nihilism still judges value based on the standards of the independent, unconditioned truths that it has refuted. Since there cannot be any unconditioned truth, the nihilist sees everything as meaningless and without value, but this is only insofar as they fail to conform to previous notions of truth. Values are only meaningless insofar as you use archaic prejudices about what "truth" is. Existentialism and nihilism are SIGNIFICANTLY different, perhaps even fundamentally opposed -- there can be no meaning to the nihilist, while for the existentialist there is no way there can not be meaning. As Merleau-Ponty said in response to Sartre, "We are condemned to meaning." Perhaps the reason why nihilism and existentialism are so commonly associated is due to the negative perspective Camus and Sartre wrote from. Beauvoir on the other hand, has much more positive and useful things to say about it.

Creating meaning (or creating being), to the existentialists, is something much more than just deeming something as important. They see humans as a lack of being. What this means is that we are ambiguous in existence, that we are indeterminate beings (unlike animals and God who are the way that they are and can be nothing other than what they are). We are constantly engaged in giving ourselves being (often through projects -- going to school, becoming a doctor or a lawyer or so and so). There is no way to fulfill being something and cease creating being -- the future does not allow it, there is the constant necessity for justification and valuation and more projects. This process is termed as transcendence, for we are constantly transcending our previous being. This is where the existentialist idea of freedom comes from. There is no way that we are, we are indeterminate, free beings. Values do not come from any foreign absolutes, but rather are conferred by the individual. Because of this, human beings are even more responsible for what we do. It is only us -- there is no God who made the universe the way that it is and shall be regardless of our intervention. Beauvoir actually creates an ethic out of "choosing freedom," i.e. recognizing one's own participation in the creation of being and not restricting that of others (opposed to slipping into "bad faith").


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