No Objective Meaning / What I Mean When I Use The Term Nihilism
This is an evolving post...
outside of human construction, the idea of “meaning” is an incoherent or, at best, useless concept.
goal: define what I mean when I use the term “nihilism”
For starters, my recent definition on a Quora answer might be helpful:
In my version of nihilism I believe that “meaning” is a nonsense concept outside of the realm of consciousness (probably specifically human consciousness). If we keep with that definition and assume “a nihilist” is someone who doesn’t believe in the concept of “meaning” in the universe beyond our species’ invention of it, we find someone who is for the most part just like whatever you’d expect “a non-nihilist” to be…
Healthy, sane people are mostly motivated by what they feel is right, what they feel is good or what makes them feel good - or some combination of those. One doesn’t need to ascribe objective meaning or ethics to the infinite void of space and nature in order to maintain those motivations.
Just because I don’t think “morality” exists for a given three million year old asteroid flying through space 12 light years away doesn’t mean I don’t think morality exists for me. If morality, say, is your motivator, you don’t need that asteroid to agree with you that morality exists in order to act in accordance with your own morals.
this one will be tough because there is so much scholarship on the topic that i am totally unaware of - and now that i’m peeking the tip of the iceberg (between Nietzsche and Cioran…) it’s resoundingly clear to me that none of my thoughts are original (unsurprisingly) and worse i’ll probably just be doing a poor approximation of (unknowingly) paraphrasing other philosophers’s work. We once again find ourselves at apologetics.
outside of human construction, the idea of “meaning” is a useless concept. some things are not useless concepts, in that they have large measurable effects - even if they don’t matter they still have cascading effects. a star’s evolution and the effect it has on the orbits of bodies nearby, an asteroid impact that changes the global environment enough to nudge a serious change in direction for the biosphere, the evolution of multi-cellular organisms and what that led to… The point is that these events and concepts have clear and complicated lines of cause and effect leading to and away from them - no matter how ‘significant’ we humans consider them to be. Unlike these physical processes, our concept of meaning does not have the same physical presence.
meaning depends on context. a thing or concept means something to someone or some system. intrinsic meaning is nonsense. for a pawn to have a meaning it requires an agent existing outside of its system - and the pawn can have a meaning to that agent - but it can’t mean something to itself (aside from any meaning that it decides to assign to itself - but who cares about that? that’s not very objective)
meaning only exists within the context of a heirarchy of utility (or maybe emotional gravity, but that can probably be considered some version of utility… sort of another topic altogether). utility is necessary for something to mean to someone. all different levels of context. A combustion engine has a purpose within the context of an automobile - it makes the wheels spin and propels the thing. outside of that context it doesn’t have a purpose. you could put it to use - say to smash a Dairy Queen’s window - and assign it a temporary purpose, but that impromptu purpose only exists as defined by you at that moment.
even in the best case scenario (“best” for the sake of meaning), which I guess would be presupposing god, the concept of meaning is still nonsensical. If our purpose is part of some god’s greater plan then we might have a purpose relative to the god, but the god has no purpose outside of itself. The standard deist’s position is usually something along the lines of “god is eternal” or “god doesn’t need an explanation” or some similar horseshit. If so, any meaning god provides ends there - at the borders of god (even if they are everywhere. hell, that’s even more depressing). As much as I loathe to entertain the supposition of a god, I think it really serves to illustrate the hopelessness of the prospect of objective meaning. If god creates meaning, then that is simply the extent of meaning. At the very best it can extend as far as an omniscient, omnipresent god - which is really just one level further than extending as far as human imagination. Under some examination the idea of meaning quickly evaporates or at best is demystified and contained to a rather unsatisfying, claustrophobia-inducingly small cage. 1
claustrophobia as a corollary to nihilistic hopelessness. They feel quite similar ↩