A recent comment on this site brought to my attention the obvious and regrettable fact that there is a dearth of posts on this site about nihilism (and what it means to be optimistic despite it). Over the years I’ve answered a number of Quora questions about nihilism and thought that rounding up those answers here would be the best, little-new-writing-necessary way to remedy that.
My goal with this post - and with this site’s treatment of nihilism and outlook in general - is to help steer the larger conversation. Modern media and technology allow us to push around terms and ideas to best reflect how folks most active in the those circles feel.
I’d like to see our culture come to understand this topic the way I do. I think it is a path towards rationality and unity, rather than supernatrualism and divisiveness. Agreeing about the basic aspects of reality puts everyone on the same level playing field upon which we can build strong structures from shared foundations.
Everything below is mostly directly quoted from the Quora answers linked in the footnotes. I’ve edited here and there to keep the text cohesive as a whole unit as well as sometimes added the original question as a quote for context.
Definition of nihilism
Why do anything?
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 nihilst” 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 on a random 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 morally yourself.1
Utility; maybe nihilism is actually useful?
If we assume my definition of nihilism above, then: it can be helpful to have your worldview map closely onto the truth. Namely, the universe has no inherent meaning nor objective moral truths or laws.
Aligning your personal expectations of reality closely to how reality actually works means you’ll be less likely to have unrealistic expectations, such as: “good things happen to good people”, “X happened for a reason”, “if I do X and Y I’ll receive Z reward after I’m dead”. These are all bullshit and it’s typically unwise to use bullshit as a foundation for life strategies - like expecting gravity to work differently for you on the 15th floor, for instance.2
As mentioned at the top, I’m an advocate for humans breaking down information silos and attempting to agree on the facts of reality. The idea of meaning quietly and insidiously permeates all aspects of human culture and progress. Start paying attention to it and you’ll notice it everywhere.
Aligning on the nonexistence of this foundational fantasy is a progressive step towards civilizational unity.
Enjoyment / Happiness
How do you enjoy life?
The nonexistence of external meaning has no bearing on my enjoyment of life. Name a thing you enjoy - anything - do you enjoy it because it “means something” outside of human experience, or because …it brings you joy?
Food still has flavor whether or not life has some external meaning. Sex still feels good, sunsets are still beautiful, music still makes you feel alive. I find no dependence on external meaning in order to enjoy.3
Though I’d separate nihilism and optimism. I can still hope to expect good, joy-bringing things while accepting that there is no external meaning in the universe. Nihilism and optimism are not necessarily mutually exclusive.4
Doesn’t it wreck your ambition?
Anecdotally (speaking for myself), no, not at all. Might even have the opposite effect for me.
Knowing that there’s no objective meaning in the universe aside from the meaning I create for myself, I’m incentivized to learn as much as possible about the world and then apply my own interests and principles to that learning in order to shape a reality I appreciate.
I find this process of discovery and invention is much more rewarding than being spoon-fed :)5
How do we avoid nihilism?
Why do you presuppose that we should? I think your question is probably concerned with what you imagine may be (nihilistic) people’s resulting behavior, which I agree should be a matter of concern; how we treat eachother, what we value in society, etc. But it doesn’t follow that a nihilist would necessarily be on the other side of the aisle (towards violence and antisocial behavior) on these matters just because of his or her feelings about the validity of objective meaning.6
What’s a day in the life of a nihilist like?
Same as the day in the life of a non-nihilist. If the question is about the internal mental state of people with different beliefs in general I think the answer is too complicated to detail here.7
What does it feel like to be a nihilist?
Very little! ;)8
(ok, this is a cheeky pun - but it is quite cheeky, no?)
Society and Culture
Why is there still nihilism & angst in the 21st century?
Because nihilism has nothing to do with technological or social progress. The concept that there is no objective meaning is timeless and non-charged (that is, it isn’t good or bad relative to objective reality - it just is - sort of by definition). We might, as a species, make different decisions about what we prefer or would want to stay away from, subjectively, but those decisions and plans change nothing about the underlying cosmic indifference that existence at large “has” for us.
To the other part of your question: “angst” is an entirely unrelated concept which one may or may not feel, depending on their own makeup and their environment. There is no universal angst panacea :)9
Good short books on the topic?
Emil Cioran - The Trouble With Being Born. Easily. The entire work is relatively short, but better still: it’s composed entirely of short (a few sentences to a few paragraphs) meditations and reflections. You could read it for 20 seconds or 20 minutes at a time.
It is one of the greatest nihilist works, in my opinion.10
What happened to the Nihilism in Punk Rock?