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I philosophically align with nihilism, but I find it incredibly disheartening. What's the best way to still feel hopeful and to enjoy life while being nihilistic? Or at least a rebuttal to it?

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    God created us in His own image, so, if it weren't for sin, our natural inclination would be to seek eternal communion with our Creator. Nihilism, on the other hand, is a denial of what we essentially are. Therefore, if you choose to embrace that sort of meaninglessness, there's no reason to expect anything more than despair.
    – user3017
    Dec 30 '17 at 1:40
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    Could you define what you mean by nihilism? You seem to be seeing it as a state of mind rather than a philosophical theory.
    – user20253
    Dec 30 '17 at 12:01
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    Just ignore it, you'll die eventually then it won't matter.
    – JeffUK
    Dec 30 '17 at 19:36
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    @JeffUK gets it
    – CriglCragl
    Feb 26 '18 at 22:10
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    more seriously, but also as an aside, i think you have to, rather than study philosophy per se, find something you are good at or enjoy.
    – user38026
    Oct 6 '19 at 15:00

12 Answers 12

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Ahh, you are where I was a few years ago :) ..

A good way to deal with nihilism would be to contrast it with the diametrically opposite possibility. A situation where there is perfect meaning to life, with perfect happiness, no sorrow or injustice, and where the progress of nature ensures this in every way. If you see the psychological issues humans would have with this, you will begin to appreciate the necessity of the psychological factors that also lead one to nihilism.

On how to deal with it, you could probably read Nietzsche. Nietzsche had replaced Plato's idea of self knowledge, with the notion of self creation, the drive to take control and mould nature in the way you want, and find meaningful. So what ever be the factors that make you lose hope ------ death, despair, sickness, love, failure etc. the essence of the human spirit is to be able to take control and react, and thus find meaning in at least the effort, if not in its success.

The stoic and platonic philosophers offer another perspective on this. Use the mind to understand the world around you, including yourself, and find meaning through this process.

Another approach is offered by philosophers like Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, which involves accepting nihilism as a given, and psychologically adapting to it in some way.

The answers that try to do some kind of empirical psychology on this question, (you can't be completely nihilistic because you wake up every morning) are missing the main point.

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The work of the thinkers and writers we typically classify as "existentialist" (although few of them loved the term), Kierkegaard, Sartre, Dostoevsky, Camus, de Beauvoir, and so forth, can be viewed as collectively comprising responses to the conditions of life and the basic metaphysical assumptions that otherwise lead to nihilism. So if you want to start from nihilistic assumptions and find a way to keep on living, those would be good places to start.

On the other hand, if you want a refutation of nihilism, the best one I know is the Neoplatonic idea that only the good, beautiful and meaningful things in the world truly demand an explanation, because all the bad, ugly and meaningless things are easy enough to explain as deficiencies. We don't need to ask where cold or darkness come from, because they are just lack of warmth and brightness. What really demands an explanation is heat and light.

Similarly, it's useless and counterproductive to focus on all the bad and evil of the world, all the cruel vagaries of fate. It's when we turn our attention to the mysterious, inexplicable existence of good in the world that we truly learn whatever there is in life that is worth knowing.

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Based on Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”, when we “philosophically align with nihilism” we have made an intuitive decision to accept nihilism and then task our brains to rationalize that decision. The reasoning process may alter the decision somewhat but the intuitive decision is non-rational. See YouTube for some of Haidt’s views in particular “Intuition First, Reasoning Second

The point is one can find almost any position rationalized through philosophy or science including nihilism, whatever nihilism happens to be. Given this wide variety of differing views, how do we know that nihilism is true? If one wants to believe in it, that is, one’s gut decision says yes, then one can come up with reasons. As Haidt mentioned in the video I referenced just use Google to find them. The same goes for rejecting nihilism.

If one is not happy with nihilism that complicates matters. It is like saying that one has intuitively decided to put one’s hand in a fire and the brain has rationalized doing so, but one doesn’t like the feeling of one’s hand getting burned. How can one not feel the pain of the burned hand and still put one’s hand in the fire? One could wear gloves which in the case of nihilism might be maintaining a healthy body, being wealthy and/or watching a lot of comedies to keep one’s spirits up. Alternatively, one could make an intuitive decision to reject nihilism and use one’s reasoning powers (and Google) to rationalize that new decision.

The way I see it, life is short and happiness, I suspect, is easier to achieve without nihilism. It is like Pascal’s wager and the heaven I hope to enjoy can start right now.

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    I agree with you, however I could not have given such a good answer myself! Now I will be at least a little more prepared when my younger relatives ask me such questions. It seems to be an active topic today.
    – Gordon
    Feb 17 '18 at 20:03
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    @mcchucklezz Like Frank says(+1): the way to deal with nihilism is to rise above it, to impose meaning and purpose on the world; if not for this what would be the purpose of Will to power.
    – christo183
    Oct 7 '19 at 8:00
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I think the necessity of practicallity overcomes nihilism rather well.

If you leave a general skepticism aside, you are a being in time, in the world. The passing of time itself creates a necessity to decide upon actions that lead to different possible worlds. The not doing anything is itself one possible option of infinitly many. Therefore deciding to do anything or nothing automatically asserts value to said specific action, giving it more meaning then the other options. Even a picking an action randomly would give value to deciding to assert more meaning to the random choosing over the calculated observation based on outcome.

Some meaning assertions are better for biological systems. Asserting more meaning to eating then not eating or mating over not mating create a survivable system while the other ones don't.

One can hypothetically imagine a system where meaning is not given but this system is free of an observer and options. Observing something and therefore being a subject itself presupposes meaning for such an entity to arise.

This presupposition is given in the human on multiple layers like, wanting to eat, go to the toillet, ect. on a regular basis, having a heartbeat or brainactivity, observing the world and structuring it based on certain principles, using language to transmitt meaning and so on.

So existing as human is itself a meaningfull structure which is needed for nihilsm to exist. The actions choosen and the perceptions one has therefore negate nihilism. Nihilism is analog to the sentence "This sentence doesn't exist." negating required presuppositions and therefore failing.

To me nihilsm seems to make a mistake in it's conclusion that can be best described with this analogy: Theres no natural number with the highest value(ultimate meaning), therefore the numbers have no value(theres no meaning) or are relativly small (relativly meaningless) in comparison.

I think a lot of people make this mistake when searching for the meaning of their life. However in the personal case you describe the specific practical options have different values that can be compared. Rather then being sad about not getting the ultimate meaning you should be happy about you choosing the highest possible option and how big it's value is compared to the other realistic options you had.

Note: I am aware that there are multiple notions of nihilism. I didn't exactly know which you ment so I addressed a general notion.

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  • +1. And my own comment to the question mostly says about same or similar.
    – ttnphns
    Dec 31 '17 at 9:27
  • "One can hypothetically imagine a system where meaning is not given[,] but [it means] this system is free of an observer and options". Did I thus understand this correctly?
    – ttnphns
    Dec 31 '17 at 9:32
  • @ttnphns Yes. The being free of an observer, is only on one specific virtual layer. It's not completley free of meaning since it needs a meaningfull structure that instantiates this layer. So it rather is the abstraction of certain meaning. I think this is analog to existance where we can abstract existance in a certain framework with a specific definition. F.e. material existance where ideas are not existant. But we can't negate existance (of ideas) completley. Yes and you said it way more compact then I did. I am still practicing this skill you already got.
    – CaZaNOx
    Dec 31 '17 at 12:40
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"We swim in a sea of generosity, of many daily acts of consideration, reciprocity, benevolence, compassion, kindness, helpfulness, warmth, appreciation, respect, patience .." - Rick Hanson, "Just One Thing" p.168.

Possibly it's not philosophy but its empirical evidence. We tend to notice the one thing that goes wrong rather than the 50 things that go right daily because our brains our wired to be aware of danger. The book "The Better Angels of Our Nature" also offers a lot of research and empirical evidence about the direction of events during the last 2000 years.

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I go with "Nihilism is not a choice or intellectual commitment, but a thing that comes upon you" quoted from https://aeon.co/ideas/whence-comes-nihilism-the-uncanniest-of-all-guests This article makes a convincing case for the origin of nihilism, in a loss of shared values because those of previous culture have become 'illegible', that is fail to sway you, or to be livable in or with.

Lots of people will say, they have some values to share, cling on to them! But, they were answers for a different time, for different people. Trying to expand being now, present, aware, is surely the only way to a new 'metis'. This is the shaman-like purpose of philosophy surely, to find something that will sway us in new times, that can hold us together in some better, new, ways.

Hakuin describes Zen practice as needing three essentials "A great root of faith. A great ball of doubt. A fierce tenacity of purpose" This article https://absoluteirony.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/nagarjuna-nietzsche-rorty-and-their-strange-looping-trick links key philosopher to Zen Nagarjuna, with methods of Nietzsche and other Western thinkers. I take faith to be in the sense of, try meditating, and ideally go on a retreat - Zen is the least religious religion you can imagine, but it has tools that can help. Fierce tenacity of purpose is about, don't let go of this mystery, don't give up on questioning and go back to sleep because everyone else is.

But the most important bit, and my reason for this quote, is the ball of doubt. On these boards, in every academic setting, and most discussions, we are encouraged to jump to answers. If we sat with not knowing, with doubt, we might learn far more about the question, and bring our whole being toward an answer. I feel this is the only way to find new truly livable values, the counterpoint to nihilism. It is to find a way to be with the meaningless, without jumping for old patterns, for comfort blankets or distractions.

I don't see an intrinsic meaning in "feel hopeful and to enjoy life", or need for a rebuttal of nihilism for the sake of. A not truly satisfying rebuttal is worse than none. Camus talks about ways to be in an absurd, meaningless world. Stoics also, put forward tools which are about investigating your own capacities and options, and no longer worrying about what you cannot know or change.

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I too am a nihilist. I believe there is no God but man, and that life is not inherently special in the cosmos.

In terms of lifeforms though we have the minds to perceive ourselves, we're not totally unique in that respect. We are clearly the only lifeforms with our level of intelligence, but we are by no means the only emotional, or social, or cultural lifeforms on our planet. That being said I still believe we are extraordinarily fortunate to be able to observe and comment on our own existence. For me that is enough.

I think our need to be special gets the better of us at times and drives us to invent reasons for things that don't particularly demand an explanation. Like "why did this happen to me?" or "what is the significance of this event" be it our existence or some other circumstance. I think knowing that things can just happen outside our control gives us the freedom to accept things without torturing ourselves for a larger answer. That being said I think we can still enjoy the illusion of luck or fate, even if we know the existence of such a concept is purely an ego based illusion. It's our ego that wants us to think we are divinely selected to be the bearer of luck, or an organized fate from a higher power. I think knowing when our ego is feeding us an illusion gives us more control over ourselves and the ability to think rationally.

As a nihilist, I don't believe in an afterlife. I believe death will be like a dreamless sleep in which we will simply cease to exist. I believe we are actually more familiar with the experience of death than we want to believe and it isn't as extraordinary as we would like to make it. I believe the fact that we're still alive isn't the will of fate, but merely the fact that we haven't yet experienced an event that would cause our death. Personally my stance is "I do not want to die, but I also do not fear death". I find comfort in the idea that when I'm gone that's it. I won't be eternally damned or eternally rewarded, or brought back to do it all over again. It's just going back to non-existence just like any other dreamless night.

As for the divine, it's clear to me we have no evidence of such a being. I grew up believing in a God, and believing I had a special connection or fate, but I always had some lingering doubt. The sources I used to remove that doubt were all one by one proven to be fraudulent as I got older. I know now that our minds are fully capable of inventing supernatural experiences if we try hard enough, and that we are deceptively good at hiding our own biases from ourselves. I think if there were a God it would make itself known in a plain and true way without needing to hide in the realm of skeptic belief. My stance is "If there is a God, I've never met it nor any proof of it in all my attempts". God seems to exist only for those who want it to exist, if it were different then I would believe it. If by some chance a God does exist despite all the lacking evidence, I'd expect it would understand my difficulty with discovering it. So instead in the absence of any evidence I can only conclude that God is a creation of man. For me a world without a supernatural aspect is clear and knowable even if there is still a lot that is yet to be understood. It's actually very helpful to not be taken in by claims of the supernatural. For me I sleep more soundly not fearing a monster under my bed.

I believe a world in which there is no God means that we as people have to right the worlds wrongs. I think that's actually an empowering thing even if it feels daunting. Knowing there is no divine hand forcing the world to be better, or keeping it from getting worse means that we have to take up that role.

Personally for me, my life has forced me to acknowledge that I will not have any children, and that my death will be the death of my family's name. It may seem sad, but there's no reason why that should be so. I don't see it as a particular success or failure, just another eventuality. The fate of humanity doesn't rely on my procreation, and from where I stand I'm not sure how much time humanity has left. The future seems more bleak by each year with no reasonable expectation of improvement. If my life experience has been any indicator I'm not sure I'd want to condemn my children to try to make a comfortable living in the future we're moving towards. That being said there are children born into this world everyday some with parents that don't want them, and would be happy to be wanted and cared for and taught to help the world towards a better future. I think adoption or mentoring is a great compromise from procreating. Though our lives might be ultimately futile, it doesn't mean we should just give up. Instead I think we can do a lot to try and minimize suffering in the world and champion knowledge and agency in the people we assist.

I think we can still see the world as beautiful on its own terms even if we're selecting just the good parts to highlight. Yes there is plenty of bad, and in the span of our lives we might not be able to change it. But if we truly feel we're on a sinking ship, then at least be happy to know you'll be gone before it's completely sunk. We've had a good run, and we've done some amazing things in our time. Some good gems amidst the oceans of terrible acts.

At the end of the day, the best we can do is try and help others to be free and to hopefully reduce suffering as much as possible.

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I too suffer from nihilism. I found the best way to defeat this is to distract myself.

I tend to use parties or drugs and other adrenaline inducing activities, but for the long term the only way is to create your own purpose in the meaninglessness of everything. Some of the most successful people who defeated it had kids or had gotten married.

They still know it’s all meaningless, but to them these activities gives meaning. For those of us who have not created meaning or who have not gained anything we consider of value, we will suffer indefinitely. The only way to kill nihilism is existentialism.

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  • I made an edit which you may roll back or continue editing. You can see the versions by clicking on the "edited" link above. One thing you might add is any reference to existentialism for example that you found valuable. This would give the reader some place to go for more information and strengthen your answer. Welcome! Sep 5 '18 at 12:52
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Since nihilism is a product of eternalism, you might consider looking at the reasons behind eternalism then consider what the implications are if none of it is true and then find a way to deal with the anxieties caused by deconstructing eternalism that are true to your own vision of life. For instance, eternalism promises eternal.happiness after you die. If that is not true, then you don't have much time before your life ends permanently. Without the promise of eternal life, how should you live your life anew? For me, it suggested that on one hand life lacks any ultimate meaning so I have to choose my own and commit to it despite the absurdity of such a choice since it won't make any ultimate difference as before. On the other hand, you may decide there is no point to life and fall into a catatonic despair. Good luck.

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  • I don't see how nihilism is "a product of eternalism". If you have references to those who take a similar view this would help support your argument and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome! Oct 6 '19 at 18:07
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Freedom from the constraints of a presupposed purpose.

Because nothing matters that means you can fail as many times at something as you like, you can be good or bad or anything in between. You can be anything you want and change your mind as much as you feel satisfied. You don't have to care too much what anyone thinks. You don't have to do anything important with your life, just existing is fine as far as the universe is concerned. Reality is such that every living thing intrinsically by it's very existence has the greatest gift of all, ultimate freedom.

That for me at least is the root in the back of my mind, which in a funny way actually makes me want to be a part of the future and spend my days increasing my knowledge for the greater good of the species. Imagine the endless possibilities of what can be.

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  • If you have references to those who take a similar view it would give readers a place to go for more information. Oct 6 '19 at 23:40
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There were a lot of great answers given here. I think the following two from previous users kind of pinch the problem below:

"The two are not logically related. If you find a relation between them, then you are not really a nihilist, because you feel at some level a connection between a sense of purpose and your own happiness. If you have not yet let that go, it is a belief. If you do let that go, why would nihilism make you unhappy? How can there be a best way to do anything if nothing is real and all things consequently have equal value?" - User9166

"Based on Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”, when we “philosophically align with nihilism” we have made an intuitive decision to accept nihilism and then task our brains to rationalize that decision. The reasoning process may alter the decision somewhat but the intuitive decision is non-rational." - Frank Hubney

The statement (assuming that this is taken to be an axiom that is attributed to the notion) "everything is essentially meaningless" would, by extension, render itself meaningless unless an exception can be granted by the person who is saying it. Which begs the question. It is like the Cretan liar. A paradox that cannot hold for long before it implodes!

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Nihilism isn't just a modern phenomena. Humanity has always questioned why, and the most determined and curious became the first philosophers. Arguably, religions serve to help people and communities to accept the ultimate truth of existence. Consider this quote from Pliny the Elder: "Hope is the pillar that holds up the world. Hope is the dream of a waking [hu]man[ity]".

Nihilism could be considered a (one) reasonable conclusion to the deeply intrapersonal process of contemplation and reflection, where many seeking to know will tend to reach the same conclusion, and will often keep their ideas locked within their own minds, never shared with others. In this condition, one might become unsure about how to address or resolve the paradox of nihilism.

The stoic Marcus Aurelius may recommend ignoring the paradox, and instead accept all that is, as it is, and remain committed to doing the best one can in light of circumstance.

Since you have asked the question, I would suggest you have reached what one might consider to be The Nihilism Stage of your own rational inquiry, and you're now attempting to resolve whatever truth you have discovered.

Perhaps some nihilists wouldn't even bother asking such a question, never mind going to the effort of contemplating the idea of nothing.

I would like to present two ancient examples of attempts to resolve the paradox of nihilism. One from 1st century BC Pompeii, and the other from Hellenistic Greece. Each presenting a different perspective on life - the first: resignation, the second: affirmative.

1. Pompeii graffiti. Title: Nihil Durare Potest, Latin. "All passes" (YouTube)

Nihil durare potest tempore perpetuo / Cum bene Sol nituit redditur / Oceano Decrescit Phoebe quae modo plena fuit Ventorum feritas saepe / fit aura levis

Proposed translation:

Nothing can last for all time / When the Sun has shone brightly it returns to Ocean / The Moon wanes, which recently was full / Even so the fierceness of Venus often becomes a puff of wind

2. Song of Seikilos (YouTube) OR this more melancholic version

While you live, shine / have no grief at all / life exists only for a short while / and Time demands his due

Finally, considering a contemporary version of what we might term positive affirmative nihilism, that is: The Life of Brian - Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.

I consider this song to be both harrowing (for the form of punishment) and a perfect form of tragic comedy and irony. Being able to find at least some solace, humour and even joy in the unfolding story of life, the comedy and tragedy, is part of being alive.

Perhaps a logical conclusion to nihilism may be: nostalgia and melancholy. Both having been the impetus for great works of art and literature, and music, such as those listed here, and even the comforting resignation of Petite Fleur by Chris Barber.

Also, considering nihilism and stoic philosophy.

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