I'd like to point out that I have basically no knowledgeable background in philosophy, but this question has been troubling me as of late, and I need an informed take on this.

I was watching a video by Dr. Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto (who is quite more well known as of late) on the psyche that motivates school shooters. It can be watched here. He spoke about Leo Tolstoy's spiritual crisis, which he wrote about in A Confession, where he slumped into a deep depression and at one point concluded that the most logical and bravest thing a man can do is commit suicide and murder, from what I gathered. He later realized, which recovered him, is that faith in something is the ultimate meaning in life, and the key to not cause man's fall into despair.

This deeply troubled me. This was an extremely clever person, and far more philosophically in tuned than I, basically saying that without some kind of religion or belief in what is not concrete that man will slump into hopelessness and prefer to be dead. I desperately want to label him as flatly wrong and ridiculous, but I cannot deny his reputation. Carl Jung is another example.

From what I've gathered, it seems that very clever people, more informed on philosophical matters than I, have concluded that life is meaningless, or meaningless unless I believe in the infinite. This is extremely depressing, and I desperately want to believe this is not true.

I suppose I am in fear of being 'indoctrinated' in this 'correct view of the universe' and slump into some depression that will deprive me my ability to attain my goals via an existential crisis.

Is it really true that life is this bleak? I know this sounds naive, but I'm uninformed on this subject?

In my view, I've thought along William James's lines, that nihilism is a byproduct of depression and not some arrogant declaration of understanding of how the universe works, and I still do -- but it still bothers me that people more knowledgeable than I can say these things are rational -- it's deeply depressing.

Do I need faith not to slump into nihilistic despair? Is life as tragic as it's being painted out to be by these people?


I think I’ve failed to identify one particular question of mine as well. The first part of this question above the addendum has been answered satisfactorily for me, but the following is something I desire more thoughts on:

Is no view of the world any more legitimate than the other? Are Tolstoy’s beliefs any more valid than my own, even if I have less of a background in this philosophy? Or are they merely an interpretation of the world based on their own circumstances, as humans require explanations to things. If so, how can anyone value the opinion of a celebrated mind’s view of the world if it’s entirely subjective, and thus worthless to universal applications? If our interpretation of the world depends entirely on what has happened to us, what good is there in wanting to know what someone’s world view is?

In my view, Tolstoy became depressed due to things not apparent to him the time (I believe it was cognitive dissonance between what he did and what he preached, such as owning slaves and living as a high brow elite up until his late years) and then tried to identify his depression with his malarkey in A Confession. His freedom was found from going back to living humbly, which was what he needed all that time but got lucky from his mental ramblings. Thus, his mood effected his thoughts which effected his world view and interpretations. How can someone identify with this if he couldn’t even directly identify his cause of depression?

How are his beliefs at this time not discarded as foolish? Those who would believe would have to be depressed and hopeless from external factors in the first place. Why do we give it any credence? Why is he celebrated? Can any view of existentialism be justified? How is it not just all subjective rubbish?

I've added a followup question here which I think is a realization of my true question.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – user2953
    Commented Mar 15, 2018 at 6:40
  • I can't say for you. I can for myself. My life is meaningless. I am not a mere tool with meaning ascribed by a creator.
    – rus9384
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 12:41

14 Answers 14


I will focus on answering these questions in your addendum

Is no view of the world any more legitimate than the other? Are Tolstoy’s beliefs any more valid than my own, even if I have less of a background in this philosophy? Or are they merely an interpretation of the world based on their own circumstances, as humans require explanations to things. If so, how can anyone value the opinion of a celebrated mind’s view of the world if it’s entirely subjective, and thus worthless to universal applications? If our interpretation of the world depends entirely on what has happened to us, what good is there in wanting to know what someone’s world view is?

I aim to do so with specific reference to the history of nihilism and examples from the real world, because while I think a lot of the answers so far are correct, it is often easy to push philosophical arguments aside as not realistic.

So first of all, I believe that existential nihilism is fallacious. It is important to remember that nihilism is a term that was first introduced by Christians (in this case Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi) in order to explain why one should go back to faith. Nihilists only took this term and embraced it, and so nihilism is very much tied to the culture and context of Christianity.

However, Christianity and many other Abrahamic religions are actually very strange when compared to other religious cultures. They are strange in that they have faith and belief as a core tenet, and thus, in the west, we often take for granted the claim that in order for something to have meaning, we have to believe it.

Western atheism is an example of how this idea is embedded in our culture. This concept of identifying as an atheist is fairly unique to cultures that are dominated by Abrahamic religions. In Japan, for example, most of the population says they are "not religious" when surveyed, and yet still take part in worship and ceremonies that most westerners would certainly call religious. In this sense, the distinction between "atheist" and "believer" is not entirely clear with respect to Shintoism and Buddhism, because neither religion demands a strict belief system or adherence to a specific code of conduct in Japan. Even those who do not believe in Shinto deities may often take part in worship ceremonies because it is comforting and enjoyable regardless.

Even in the west we find a great amount of joy and purpose in things that we know aren't real. Anyone who enjoys video games, books, or movies and who believes they can have an impact on people's lives has seen that things which are not real can have an immense amount of meaning. And so clearly the claim that one has to have faith in order to find meaning or purpose in things is false.

As a specific (maybe unexpected) example, Minecraft is one of the best selling games of all time, and besides the fact that it is completely fake, it has no goal or purpose set by the developers. It is not fun in spite of a subjective purpose; it is fun precisely because its purpose is subjective, and the same can be said for life. And so, in my opinion, Minecraft is one of the most glaring counter examples to the tenets of existential nihilism.

So life does not have to have intrinsic or objective meaning to have meaning. The idea that it does stems mostly from Christianity and other Abrahamic religions. This is the fallacy of nihilism. Just because you are the one who gives life meaning does not mean that this meaning is worthless and it certainly does not mean that we cannot find happiness. And perhaps more importantly, just because you do not believe in something does not mean you cannot go to it for happiness or purpose.

So I will answer the questions in your addendum coming from this perspective.

Is no view of the world any more legitimate than the other? Are Tolstoy’s beliefs any more valid than my own, even if I have less of a background in this philosophy?

A view of the world is more legitimate for you if it makes you legitimately happy. For me personally, the reason I do not follow Christianity is not because it is illogical (even though I believe that it is illogical). The main reason I do not follow it is because many of the tenets and stories in the bible trouble me on an emotional level.

How can anyone value the opinion of a celebrated mind’s view of the world if it’s entirely subjective, and thus worthless to universal applications? If our interpretation of the world depends entirely on what has happened to us, what good is there in wanting to know what someone’s world view is?

The fallacy is that a view of the world being subjective makes it necessarily worthless. You can learn from someone else's world view even if it is subjective. If someone else's view of the world works for you and makes you happy, then so be it, if it doesn't, then that is okay too. You shouldn't elevate someone else's point of view on happiness just because they are a "celebrated mind". Happiness and purpose has little to do with intellect. It is subjective, and that is perfectly okay.

  • 4
    Minecraft was a beautiful analogy. This answers my question. Thank you!
    – sangstar
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 13:51
  • 5
    @Andrew I reject its truth-hood on the grounds of its implausibility. But I do not participate in Christianity on the grounds that I am emotionally troubled by it, not because of its implausibility. That is the difference I am trying to highlight in this answer. You do not have to believe in something in order to participate in it and derive enjoyment out of it. Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 14:59
  • 6
    @Andrew It sounds like that would defeat your purpose (and the purposes of others who think as you do) but would not necessarily defeat anyone else's purposes. For example, if a person's purpose is specifically to "derive enjoyment", and that person derives enjoyment from going to church even if they don't believe in the tenets of the church, then they have fulfilled their purpose, not defeated it. Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 19:27
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    @Andrew I was baptized and raised Catholic, by early teens I no longer believed, however I still enjoyed going to church. I still do, though my participation is now limited to weddings, christenings, and funerals (and I don't take communion). I enjoy the sense of community, connection with the family, the pageantry, and the 'presence' of the grand buildings. (I get much the same from attending the services of other religions, going to the theater, and other community events.)
    – Mr.Mindor
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 19:57
  • 2
    @William Oliver: I am intrigued how you come to define books, games and movies as not real. I always regarded these as different mediums of Information. I would think that Information to be as real as any physical object. I can see that Information is not bound to be in a specific physical form but does this make it any less real?
    – Daniel
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 8:33

The short answer is No.

A slightly longer one is this; I know many atheists who lead highly moral lives, not because they believe they'll go to hell if they don't, but because they want to. On the other hand, how many Jihadists have strapped suicide vests on themselves in the firm faith that they will be rewarded in heaven?

If I may be blunt, this argument is a non-sense based on a small sample set. If anything, murder-suicide actions are more tightly correlated (note not caused by) attitude than faith. Ted Kaczyncski (the unabomber) didn't do what he did because he had no faith; sure, he was a gifted mathematician but ALL of the gifted mathematicians I know have a kill count of exactly zero. His attitude on the other hand was horrendous. So is that of those who are prepared to go out and kill others by blowing themselves up, sure in their faith that they'll be rewarded.

Depression is a serious illness and should not be trifled with. Sometimes, it's caused by chemical imbalances. Sometimes, by the inability to see life from any perspective other than the most pessimistic viewpoint possible. The former requires medicine to treat it and bring things back into balance; the latter needs a change in perspective, which will be brought on by a change in attitude.

People with faith (in a religion, science, themselves, the therapist, etc.) have a crack in the ice, so to speak, from which new attitudes can be reached by building upon that faith. People with no faith in anything need a different set of experiences that are designed to draw them out and see that not all the things they see in the world have to be bad. Such a therapy may well be as simple as getting them to serve at a soup kitchen and see the practical benefits of their work with people worse off than they are, but in any case, it will be a change of perspective, a change in attitude, that will yield the real results.

To be fair, many find a faith in something to be the one item that consistently lifts them from a fog of depression and the loss of personal meaning in life. That will continue to be the case. Nevertheless it is important to note that what faith is doing in this instance is acting as a focal point for an attitude adjustment. In that sense, it is certainly useful, but it isn't the important element that drives change.

Mark Twain once said 'Thunder is loud. Thunder is impressive. But, it's lightning that does all the real work'. In that sense, faith is impressive, but it's attitude doing all the real work in the background in many people's lives.

  • 2
    In this context, attitude can be defined as 'the predisposition to act in accordance with a subset of possible choices coherent with that person's demeanour and experiences'. In other words, a naturally angry person may always fight even if it's not the best approach. A naturally optimistic person may negotiate instead. Someone who's never seen success before may simply give up, and this is an attitude which is more likely to lead to depression in my view.
    – Tim B II
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 1:49
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    You seem to be conflating faith with deific allegiance here, do you mean to be doing that? Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 9:32
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    @sgf the only thing in common between atheists is that they don't believe in gods, so your questions don't have a single answer. In my case, I do it for an hedonistic/epicurean reason: doing immoral things makes me feel guilt, which is a kind of pain. Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 11:16
  • 4
    Firstly no, I'm not conflating faith with deific allegiance. As I said, faith in anything (including science, oneself, etc.) has a role, but its absence doesn't mean there is nothing to live for. As for atheists leading a moral life, that is not a matter of faith, merely a matter of choice. Sure, in some cases it's a desire to stay out of jail or to avoid conflict, but in most cases it's because they believe it's the right thing. It's important here to be careful not to confuse belief and faith; I believe the light will turn on when I flip the switch because I know the science, not for faith.
    – Tim B II
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 11:24
  • 3
    If we use the Bible's definition of faith (Hebrews 11:1) that 'Faith is the assured expectation of things... not yet beheld' then the difference is that faith is belief without evidence or proof. An atheist knows that leaving the world a better place has benefits for him or herself, and for others because they've seen that. They believe that it's a good idea and practice it. I believe in Quantum Electodynamics, but if I believed everything (say) Richard Feynmann ever said about QED but didn't check out the results of experimentation in the field, then I'd be demonstrating faith in him.
    – Tim B II
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 22:26

I would say the answer is yes, but with the addendum that the faith need not be in god or a higher power.

As we go through life we have faith that certain things will happen. The sun will rise, the rain will stop, etc. These seem so simple because we take them for granted. We do not know that the sun will rise tomorrow. It is totally possible (though unlikely) that it will not. Yet you still plan your day and night around the event.

The same is true on much smaller scales. You plan a family get-together, you have faith that Netflix will work, and that you will watch your movie together. You don't know that it will work. In fact there is a really good chance that it doesn't for one reason or another. But you have faith that when you press that button you will be able to watch movies.

The lack of faith on the other hand, in the extreme, does lead to despair. Imagine really not being sure if the sun will rise, if the water from the tap is safe, if when you go to sleep you will wake up. Think what it must be like to have no faith in anything working. Not faith that things won't work, but absolute uncertainty about your actions.

We need faith, we thrive on it. We need to know that when we turn the knob the door will open. We don't really know that. We need to know that the other side of the door is safe. We don't really know that either. Faith helps us take that action. That is why victims of certain kinds of abuse and violence have a measurable difference in the way their brain chemistry works. They don't have that faith (that opening the door is safe) so their brains have to wire themselves differently to not care if it's safe, else they would never be able to open the door.

  • I doubt Tolstoy was tormented by the doubt of whether the sun would rise again. Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 11:18
  • 4
    We do not know that the sun will rise tomorrow Eh . . . yes we do. Or do you mean this figuratively? To mean we can't be sure what disasters may fall, but we continue on as if everything will be ok? Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 11:50
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    This answer certainly fits my experience, when I convinced myself that pure rational logic can disprove itself much more readily than it can support itself. @BinaryWorrier the issue, at least for me, is that there doesn't seem to be a way to know anything without first having faith in some basic ontology (e.g., "logic works", or "empiricism works", or "I am not a Boltzman brain, or in the Matrix, or similar").
    – Soron
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 12:20
  • 2
    @BinaryWorrier what if a tragic event happens to completely cover the sky (the sun only "rises" from our perspective - if we don't see it, does it rise?)? What if a cosmic event obliterates Earth? What if we are all a brain a jar inside a simulation? These may all be very, very unlikely, but not impossible. Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 14:37
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    Umm, This post seems to conflate faith with similar notions in trust, confidence, induction and experience, etc. e.g. You don't have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow or that the water dispensed from the tap is noxious - you use induction to justifiably believe that X will behave the same way it always has. To me atleast, faith is the something on the other end of the scale that we turn to beyond anything we can tangentially access in this realm (call it God, religion/spirituality, mysticism, etc).
    – shalomb
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 17:53

Do I need faith not to slump into nihilistic despair? Is life as tragic as it's being painted out to be by these people?

Tolstoy argues yes. Below is my attempt to explain his argument, since I think that is the best way to answer this question of yours.

Originally he thought the purpose of life was to experience happiness, by which he seems to mean sensual pleasure. Some people experience happiness from intellectual pursuits, and his argument still stands if that is included in the definition of happiness. At the time Tolstoy had his crisis, he had plenty of money, was an elite in his society, and had a very active social life. It was easy for him to obtain happiness. The problem was death.

All of us are going to die regardless of what we experience or do. From the perspective of a person's entire life, from birth to death, a person who rarely experiences happiness because of their circumstances is equivalent to a person whose life is regularly filled with happiness. Both still died, and both experience the same thing after death: nothing.

Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come (and they have already arrived) to those dear to me, and to myself, and nothing will remain other than the stench and the worms. Sooner or later my deeds, whatever they may have been, will be forgotten and will no longer exist. (pg 31)

That 'nothing' is why he considered life to be meaningless. The amount of happiness experienced does not change the ultimate outcome of our lives, and so trying to achieve that purpose is futile. The purpose of experiencing happiness is illusory. It is something that people who have not seen life from that broader perspective can do because they don't realize the futility of their actions, but once you have seen life from that broader perspective you cannot go back to living a futile life.

The delusion of the joys of life that had formerly stifled my fear of the dragon [death] no longer deceived me. No matter how many times I am told: you cannot understand the meaning of life, do not think about it but live, I cannot do so because I have already done it for too long. Now I cannot help seeing day and night chasing me and leading me to my death. This is all I can see because it is the only truth. All the rest is a lie. (pg 32)

The futility was reinforced by the fact that our ability to obtain happiness is heavily influenced by our birth (i.e., circumstances completely outside our control). Tolstoy had a 'good' birth, in that he had access to plenty of resources that could provide him with happiness. The average person in Feudal Russia had very little access to happiness and had plenty of suffering. Furthermore, accidental events can completely remove our ability to achieve happiness. Environmental disasters, disease, war, etc. can destroy our wealth, body, and brain and often these events can happen regardless of what we do. Thus, not only is achieving happiness irrelevant at the end of our lives but during our lives it is heavily based on chance and outside of our control.

Well, what about avoiding pain? If we have limited ability to maximize happiness, do we at least have control of avoiding pain? Yes, but through suicide. Since after death we experience nothing, no pleasure and no pain, then after death is the point of minimal pain. Since we can commit suicide at any time, even when we have limited physical capacity by not eating, we have far more control over our ability to minimize pain than to maximize happiness.

Tolstoy felt that there were four solutions people typically follow to address the meaningless of life (see Chapter 7):

  1. ignore it entirely or avoid ever being exposed to the possibility of realizing our futility in seeking happiness
  2. while knowing that the purpose of life is meaningless focus instead on the now, the immediate joy we can experience in any our actions
  3. commit suicide
  4. remain hopeless, depressed, and live the rest of your life that way

Tolstoy rejected 1 since he couldn't become ignorant.

There was nothing I could learn from them [the ignorant], for we can never cease knowing what we know (pg 45)

He rejected 2, what he considered a way of merely pretending to do option 1, because he couldn't:

I could not imitate these people, for not sharing their dullness of imagination I could not create it artificially in myself. (pg 46)

He rejected 3 because he wasn't strong enough, and thus remained with option 4:

People in this category know that death is preferable to life but, lacking the strength to act rationally and bring a quick end to the deception by killing themselves, they seem to wait for something. This is the escape of weakness, for if I know of something better and it is within my reach, then why not yield to it? (pg 46)

Note that I'm not saying he rationally chose to become depressed. Rather that he was already very troubled by the supposed purposelessness of life and tried, through reading the lives and ideas of many others, to determine the logical possibilities. These were the four options that he came up with.

Tolstoy further reflected and eventually came to the conclusion that the entire "purpose of life" question was problematic. This led to his solution that creating a connection to the eternal avoids the problem of death. If our lives are somehow eternal, then our actions have meaning (i.e., they have an effect regardless of when and how we die).

I had asked: what meaning has life beyond time, beyond space and beyond cause? And I was answering the question: 'What is the meaning of my life within time, space and cause?' The result was that after long and laboured thought I could only answer: none. (pg 52)

Whatever answer faith gives, regardless of which faith, or to whom the answers are given, such answers always give an infinite meaning to the finite existence of man; a meaning that is not destroyed by suffering, deprivation or death. (pg 54)

Although Tolstoy uses the term faith here, I have emphasized the idea of eternity because I think it fits better with his definition of faith:

Faith is a knowledge of the meaning of human life, the consequences of which is that man does not kill himself but lives. Faith is the force of life. If a man lives, then he must believe in something. If he did not believe that there was something he must live for he would not live. If he does not see and comprehend the illusion of the finite he will believe in the finite. If he does understand the illusion of the finite, he is bound to believe in the infinite. Without faith it is impossible to live. (pg 54)

His particular connection to the eternal was through Jesus Christ, but I don't think his argument in A Confession does much to explain why that particular connection is the best or preferred one. The strength of his argument is mainly in favor of the necessity of a connection to eternity.

Likewise, it's important to realize that although he became Christian he was harshly critical of the Christian church. And not just any one Church, but the whole of organized Christianity:

I first turned to believers from my own circle, to learned people, Orthodox theologian, elder monks, theologians of the newest types of Orthodoxy, and even to the so-called New Christians who taught salvation through faith in redemption. … I could not accept the faith of these people. I saw that what they took to be faith gave no explanation to the meaning of life but obscured it, and that they themselves did not profess their faith in response to the question of life, that had led me to faith, but for some other reasons which were alien to me. (pg 57)

Thus, his argument is not "Without Faith in Jesus, life is meaningless" but rather "only a connection to the infinite gives meaning to life."

How are his beliefs at this time not discarded as foolish?

Hopefully you can see that Tolstoy's argument is a general one, not dependent on any particular time and place. The purpose of obtaining happiness (seeking pleasure and avoiding pain) is still highly considered the purpose of life, and so his argument remains relevant. Another purpose could be sought out, but then we run into the problem of death again (i.e., the problem of finite actions). Living for one's family, living for self perfection, living for intellectual affairs and advancement of science, living for the development of humanity, and so on can all be considered using the same argument since the effects of all actions made in pursuit of those goals will eventually disappear. Those goal, actions, and effects are all finite in nature.

Why do we give it any credence? Why is he celebrated?

For a person who comes from a background where religious faith is already present to some degree then it can be reassuring that someone more wealthy, intelligent, and worldly successful reached a familiar conclusion. Thus, it's easy to celebrate his argument among circles that are already amenable to religious faith as necessary for life (even though he largely rejects the whole of organized religion).

For philosophers, his argument can be celebrated because it encourages people to reflect on the purpose of life, provides an example of the necessity of this reflection, and provides a step-by-step sequence of how he came to that point. His logic (elaborated far more in the book than what I included here) is a useful case study for why some people might accept nihilism and how to reject nihilism.

It is probably given credence though because, historically, most people don't use logic to make decisions but instead rely on supposedly obvious signs of credibility (e.g., worldly success and/or fame, intellectual prowess, authority, etc.) and then agree with whatever that person said. We didn't have the capacity or time to look into arguments with detail, use logic, think about the argument for ourselves, or relate it to our experiences and engage in reflection. Tolstoy was a very famous and successful author for his time, and his financial success, intellectual capacity, and skill with writing was well respected. This gave him credibility for his philosophical arguments. Is that a valid reason to have credibility? Maybe, but we often have difficulty gauging what makes a person credible or reliable, especially when we lack knowledge of the domain in which someone claims credibility.

I highly recommend you read Tolstoy's work, use it as a mirror to reflect upon purpose in your own life, and decide whether it is worthy of credence. My description here is biased, but so is Dr Peterson's, and the only way to get through that bias is to see the original for yourself.

Quotes are from the 1987 Penguin Classic translation by Jane Kentish title Leo Tolstoy: A Confession and other religious writings.

  • Very nice! I like! :) +1 Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 5:33
  • Am I obligated to give him any credence though? Am I perfectly justified as viewing his belief as rubbish? Because I think it is. He seems to imply that pursuing finite causes are pointless as they will be lost to you when you die, but I would argue they are what is necessary to live a life of happiness in and of itself - and that all good and bad things will be erased with us in time, so there is only any good sense in trying to maximize happiness and minimize pain in the lives we live now. Does his reputation and knowledge demand I give his views any credit?
    – sangstar
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 12:03
  • Like, his views seem weak and pathetic. Just because finite achievements will be lost with time doesn’t necessarily prove their pointlessness - you’ll enjoy them while you live! It doesn’t matter if they last after you’re dead because you’ll be dead. I don’t see the necessity for eternal pursuits. The finite achievements are what make your life good while you’re alive! They’re everything.
    – sangstar
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 12:06
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    @sangstar No, I don't think you're obligated to him credence. More intelligent, eloquent, and insightful individuals may have better ability to create and express a logical argument, but the strength of an argument should be independent of the person making it. It's actually a logical fallacy (appeal to authority) to accept an argument as true because person X is the one making the argument.
    – AquaTsar
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 3:11
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    @sangstar The counter-argument you've made is about defining value and meaning. I'm unaware of any conclusive answer in philosophy about that. Thus, rejecting Tolstoy's argument on the grounds that you think meaning can be ascribed to finite experiences is of course justifiable. Epicureanism is one example that would ascribe meaning to finite experiences. Tolstoy considered that position as option 2 and rejected it but you shouldn't reject it simply because he does. I give it as an example of a philosophical position that agrees with you to some extent but I'm sure there are others.
    – AquaTsar
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 3:55

Is it really true that life is this bleak?

By way of answering your question - no, this is not true. Life is neither bleak nor non-bleak, because neither life nor anything else (except for abstract ethical concepts) has any inherent ethical value.

One says in philosophy that "ethics is freestanding", meaning that there exists no valid argument whose premises are all non-ethical yet whose conclusion is ethical, and neither does there exist any valid argument whose premises are all ethical yet whose conclusion is non-ethical.

This makes ethics completely disconnected from any other human field of enquiry, hence rather arbitrary when compared with most other fields, including the rest of philosophy but especially all of the sciences.

This is not nihilism, incidentally.

I doubt this answer is satisfying to you in the slightest, and I apologise for that. Following is an attempt to give a more satisfying non-answer.

Whether life is bleak or not is partly under your control. Any given human experiences only a small subset of the huge number of potential experiences that our large and complex world offers, and that subset is partly under the individual's control. Therefore, if you seek out (and dwell on) non-bleak experiences, and avoid (even disregard, or at least do not dwell on) bleak experiences, then your life will likely be less bleak than it otherwise would have been.

Do I need faith not to slump into nihilistic despair?

I cannot speak for you, but I have no faith (defined as conscious belief that is either not based on, or contrary to, available evidence), yet I have not slumped into nihilism or despair. If I (and many others) can do this, then it is at least theoretically possible that you can too.

Is life as tragic as it's being painted out to be by these people?

Their lives may have been as tragic as they describe, but that does not mean yours has to be. Again, life in general is neither inherently tragic nor inherently non-tragic; instead, each human decides whether they regard any given stimulus or set of circumstance(s) as tragic.

The thinkers you mention date from a time when religion was more important to society than it is now, and from cultures whose predominant religion, Christianity, values belief not based on (even running completely against) available evidence ("faith"). This is a small and increasingly irrelevant subset of potential reading.

I respectfully suggest that you widen your reading to include:

  • Non-religious thinkers, for example Richard Dawkins, and
  • Non-Christian religious thinkers, for example the Quran. As far as I understand it, Islam considers itself to be based on sound evidence, such that there is no need for faith.
  • I'd add Ken Wilber to the reading list, and for this questioner I'd especially point to "Theory of Everything" as a book worth considering, even though dated, because it makes the points accessibly.
    – Stilez
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 14:48
  • Remarkable book but you have to get about 100 pages into it to see where it's going... It goes to places that are "off the radar" so to speak, if one were judging by the first few dozen pages (which in hindsight just set up terminology/framework for the main thrust of the book). If you do read it, let me know what you thought.
    – Stilez
    Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 17:02
  • See my comments on William Oliver's answer regarding faith. I disagree with your understanding of it.
    – Andrew
    Commented Mar 13, 2018 at 14:43
  • @Andrew, see the OED's entry for faith: en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/faith Apparently you choose sense 1, whereas I choose sense 2. However to me, sense 2 is clearly more applicable in a religious context (which was the OP's context). Also, the Bible uses the word in both senses, but the usual definition used by Christians in my experience is sense 2. See for example the story of Doubting Thomas, with which I'd have hoped you'd have been familiar. Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 1:52
  • @AnotherSmellyGeek I don't believe in such a thing as "spiritual conviction", nor is that taught anywhere in scripture. Sense 2 is not "clearly more applicable", I disagree.
    – Andrew
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 16:57

Of course

It's not so bleak, though.

So, you and the people you are speaking with here seem to be defining 'faith in something' equivalently to the belief that there exists intrinsic value; that is, to have faith in something here seems to mean that one acknowledges the intrinsic value present in that thing. Deific adoration, then, presupposes faith, since it is necessary to acknowledge God's intrinsic value to worship Him. Moreover, though, faith 'in something else', if it is to be differentiated from the ordinary faith of expectation, is most reasonably understood as a holding of that 'something else' in the place of God (c.f. idolatry). Since to take something as God requires the attribution of the intrinsic value due God, this, too, seems to map well.

Given that that is the definition we are dealing with, it should be no surprise that faith is necessary to avoid perceived meaninglessness; indeed faith is definitionally that which is necessary for meaningfulness!

So, the statements made by these speakers are true, but vacuously so. They don't really reflect on the nature of Man's relationship to God nor Man's need for that relationship, and neither do they say anything which legitimately concerns mass shootings, depression, or the other Scary Social Things that they mention. They merely say "If you believe that anything has intrinsic value, then you don't believe that there is nothing of intrinsic value", and also "If you believe that there is nothing of intrinsic value, then you don't believe there is anything with intrinsic value", both of which are obviously true. The problem is that the speakers are trying to imply things that may or may not be true via other meanings and implications attached to the specific words employed. Essentially, those points which are argued by implication ('suicidal acts of violence are the result of not having enough faith', for example) are argued only via equivocation.


I found this quote by Matt Dillahunty (a well-known atheist) extremely helpful:

How completely and utterly depressingly sad that is, that you think the only thing--the only reason you can get through the day after waking up is that god is looking out for you. It's great to be able to take advantage of the knowledge that you're in control of your life, that you have friends and family around you that you care for, that you care for them too, that when the going gets tough you can depend on those friends and yourself and do things with your hands--instead of hitting your knees and hoping that god will miracle your ass out of whatever trouble you're in.


Great questions, You had quite a number of them in your post. I'll be sharing my thoughts on this one:

Is no view of the world any more legitimate than the other?

I'm working under the axiomatic assumption that all human beings have a goal of being happy and avoiding pain and sorrow. There may be some exceptions such as sadists, but I've never actually met, or read about some one who enjoyed pain for pains sake. Typically they are using one form of pain to escape or distract form another more painful type of pain.

The problem as you've noticed is that every one develops their own world view (beliefs) based on their own interpretation of their life's experience. So does this mean that their is no truth no right way to believe and live?

No, Some modes of belief (world views) lead to behaviors that cause us (and/or those around us) more pain, while other beliefs lead to behaviors that mitigate pain, and maybe (don't call me an optimist here) even lead to a bit of happiness.

If one set of belief -> behaviors is better than another set of belief -> behaviors at helping us live and enjoy it, then their must be one that is best of all.

The most legitimate view of the world would be the one that helps us the most to live and thrive.

Notice I did not say the one that helps us achieve our goals. Every one I know (including myself) has had at some point a goal that was antithetical to enjoying life.

Also not I used us not we. Because we are all interconnected. And As the venerable JP has said, The best choice is whats best for you now and 10 years from now, and whats best for your family now and 10 years from now and whats best for all you neighbors now and 10 years from now, etc. . . (paraphrased)

So during the time that Tolstoy was considering suicide, his view of the world was obviously not one that was helping him want to continue living. So for me that would be a view of the world I would not want to adopt. I should note however that he overcame these urges and continued living. Which suggests that he changed his world view to one that was more useful. And I've actually found his later works such as the death of Ivan Ilych to be incredibly insightful and inspiring.

And now I can't help myself, Though you've said the first part of your question was answered to your satisfaction. I'm going to add my 2 cents, (because that's all it's worth). So no need to read further.

You stated about Tolstoy's later beliefs that helped him escape his suicidal state of mind,

. . . that faith in something is the ultimate meaning in life, and the key to not cause man's fall into despair.

Yes, if you are going to survive suffering than you have to believe in something that is more important than the suffering is painful. In other words if your are suffering something so intense that you wish to end it all, the only way to keep living is to believe that there is something important enough for you to continue living for that thing, despite the suffering your going through.

And being that life seems to have not only an endless supply of suffering but no cap to its intensity, my conclusion is that the only something infinite would have sufficient purpose and meaning to transcend all of the potential suffering in life.

  • My first time on philosophy stack exchange. As such feedback is not only welcome but probably very much needed. Commented Mar 12, 2018 at 15:48

Is faith necessary for man to survive?

No, faith isn't necessary for surviving, is it necessary for living. Faith isn't about being moral, doing or not doing. Faith is the engine of moral, the source of doing or not doing. You do not put a mile to something and then do it. You have faith and then you just reach that mile.

There are two possibilities:

  • You have no faith but you are moral. You don't kill, you don't steal, you don't insult, you love your wife, not cheat her and you are in peace with others. You've reached the moral level, but that's it. On the inside, you are still angry, maybe greedy, upset, arrogant and have hidden addictions that only you know about. The thing about no faith+morality is that it reaches only a small part of the eternity. A small part of about 70-80 years for most. The thing about atheist for example... is that they are a gain for the world. Meaning that most of them are moral, maybe some of them are researchers or Nobel Prisers, but they are not a gain for themselves. The world is winning, they are losing.
  • You have faith. Faith, as I said earlier(also the greatest philosopher ever promoted this), is the engine of morality. If you have a honest and true faith, specially in the Love-God, you cannot be something else than love. You have love for your God, which brings peace between you and Him, you have peace with yourself and as a consequence... you have and make peace with others.Love brings action and if you love a person you cannot insult him but even more... you cannot even think anything bad about him. You do cannot kill a person, curse but even more... you cannot even hate. You do not steal, but even more... you do not even cheat by a penny. And that's the greatest philosophy ever brought to human kind, by the greatest philosopher ever existed. I've analyzed the philosophy of the famous Jesus. I mean, somebody hits Him, the law gives Him the right to defend and hit back but He... forgive. What greater philosophy for human existence ever existed? It's beyond ration. It is something that simply cannot be explained. That's a true living philosophy, for people that want to live.

Why is existentialism valued if it is unsubstantiated?

Because existentialism is an empirical current. It's focused only on what it can be seen. Existentialism doesn't admit the existence of something more. What can be seen, is what it exists. So... it is easier. Some of the people values it because they haven't the courage to have faith, to accept the possibility that there is more(a "more" which you simply cannot see if you have no faith). Some others values it because of snobbery. Some, because they had bad experiences with some people with faith. And each existentialism follower has it's own reason.

  • 2
    I agree with your answer. I think your points are "dead on"!
    – Guill
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 17:50

It depends on what you mean by "faith".

Dictionary.com gives several definitions of faith, but the first two are sufficient to show what I mean:

  1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another's ability.
  2. belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.

If you mean the first definition, then the answer is almost certainly 'yes'. If you would have no trust in your chair (for example), you would not sit on it because it might break. It is hard to imagine surviving in a world where you can trust literally nothing and nobody. (It could be that my imagination is simply not sufficient, that is whay I said "almost certainly".)

If you mean the second definition, then the answer is certainly 'no', which is demonstrated by the many skeptic atheists living happy lives without believing in something that has no proof.

I don't know which definition of faith was used by Tolstoy or Jung.


The first thing you need to know is that reputation counts for nothing in philosophy. In philosophy we do not recognise authority or standing when it comes to assessing the strength of an argument or the validity of a viewpoint.

It is true that faith or belief in a loving God can give meaning to your life; your life makes sense in terms of a relationship, which you believe to exist, with a loving God.

So faith in a loving God is in this sense sufficient for life to have (a sense of) meaning.

I can see no basis, though, for saying that it is necessary. Life can have, or be perceived to have and experienced as having, meaning even if there is no God, higher power, supreme being or whatever and no belief in the same.

Meaning, or a sense of meaning, can derive from a broad variety of sources - family, personal relationships, a life project or career, and even political or social activism. Take personal relationships : If I love my partner then this gives an enormous sense of meaning to my life. I see love as a self-validating good; whatever the situation, if love is present this is always one good element in it. And this is so whether there is a God, a higher power, supreme being or even a Devil ! From the other side, if my love is returned this is a huge source of validation from another person.

How can a life of mutual love, or even one-sided love, lack meaning ? It is said that 'God is love' : but why can't love be a value that gives meaning to life even if there is no God ?


In psychological therapy, the psychologist can do one of two things with a patient's defense mechanism, he can help the patient build it up, or he can work with the patient to make it unnecessary. The latter is much harder work. The psychologist is looking at this from a societal, psychosocial viewpoint. What will allow a cohesiveness so we don't have these terrible anti-social acts, like mass murder? Well, as a defense, have a big story, a religion.

Keep in mind, not all religions even have the concept of an afterlife. But still there is a type of cohesion among the members. So the psychologist is asking: what will keep the social frabric from tearing apart? This is my guess.

As far as you yourself, you normally don't have any anxiety over this issue, until you listen to a show like this. In other words, you don't need a defense mechanism right now in your life to prevent anxiety about meaning. (I am speaking purely from a psychological perspective). You may never need one. Who knows what your future will bring? Some people have "conversion experiences" etc., like a miracle. Who am I to question them? It is unlikely you will ever have a simple faith, but you may have a complicated faith one day, or you may not. Again, who knows? Of course you know yourself better than I do, but none of us know the future.

I am not saying that the psychologist is not genuine in his religious beliefs, what I am saying is that he is a product of his life experience, professional experience, and his eduction: psychology, social psychology and so on. This all goes to make up the person he is today, and he recommends religion or a big belief of some kind.

What of the larger questions here? Here is a little YouTube of Derrida: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=r3fScS2cnB0 I don't know much about Derrida, and frankly I don't know all that he's driving at, but I've always thought this was interesting.

We have this thing called "spooky action at a distance"? What is it? I don't know. Does science really know? My point is, do we know everything yet? I don't think so. We are certainly trained to look for a natural explanation, the odds favor that course, but do we know everything even as regards method? Of course, the fact that we don't know everything does not mean there is a god or gods etc, but it should give us some humility I think.


This might be hogwash to professional philosophers, it is more targetted at the OP's personal problem...

From what I've gathered, it seems that very clever people, more informed on philosophical matters than I, have concluded that life is meaningless,

Not only very clever people, but also a lot of them - if you add Buddhism (or at least non-religious/non-mystical Western Buddhism).

This is extremely depressing, and I desperately want to believe this is not true.

This single sentence is, to me, the core of your problem, and it has little to do with philosophy.

All the philosophies and thoughts you have mentioned in your question are filtered through your own sentiments. You seem to be looking to make sense out of your existence, and this is all fine and well, but there are definitely people out there who believe (sic) that life is utterly meaningless, and who are not only not depressed by that thought, but lead a very nice life because of it. They are not shallow or dead inside, either.

It is awfully hard to use philosophy to structure your own life - simply because there is so much of it, and so many philosophical opinions are in direct contradiction with each other. Plus, many philosophical works are just darn hard to understand or interpret correctly.

Take Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, as arbitrary examples. Some of their thoughts are surely greatly inspiring, but some of them... not so much. It would surely be something else to base your life on one of those two. Take Kant - I dare you, no double-dare you to read his works and claim that you understood what he said. His more accessible concepts, like the Categorical Imperative, are not that hard, but don't give your life meaning either.

Searching for religion and depression turns up some very interesting reading. Finally, it seems that high intelligence is correlated with depression, for whatever reason (see https://vantagepointrecovery.com/intelligence-and-depression/ for inspiration, though there seems to be no final verdict yet). So the reasoning "even an ultra-intelligent person like Tolstoy was depressed, so I have no chance to get away from depression" is not correct.

In your case, you need to either find meaning in your life (and we cannot give you that, you need to find it yourself, or together with a good therapist; it might be as simple as deciding that your meaning in life is to create at least 2 offspring to make your genes survive; or to plant at least 100 trees; or to help at least one human every day; or ...); or you need to find a way to live a meaningless life without committing suicide. Both is possible. "It's all just in your head."

Some reading for you, with plenty of links to more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telos_(philosophy), https://www.artofmanliness.com/2018/03/12/modern-morality-shrill/ . You are certainly not the only one thinking about purpose in life.

  • This is useful, thank you. I’m not in any mental or existential crisis or anything - I’m just someone who sometimes confuses fears and worries of becoming something with actually becoming something. I’m perfectly happy, it’s just a thing I’ve not been able to dismiss easily.
    – sangstar
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 2:20
  • Great to hear that, @sangstar. I'm pretty sure you'll find a solution!
    – AnoE
    Commented Mar 14, 2018 at 7:16

This deeply troubled me. This was an extremely clever person, and far more philosophically in tuned than I, basically saying that without some kind of religion or belief in what is not concrete that man will slump into hopelessness and prefer to be dead.

This sounds (to me) like you are valuing Jordan Peterson's view on whether you prefer to be dead over your own. You might not be well read in philosophy (neither am I) but you are well equipped to decide if you depend on faith to keep you from despair. If you don't well then, in your case, he's wrong.

I have heard good arguments that rejection of any kind of supernaturalism in fact compels us to find our own meaning and ambitions, and that belief in the "infinite" compels us to essentially give up and submit to a higher power, rejecting most or all ability to self-determine our future. So perhaps faith is really the nihilistic path.

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