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Nihilism

Nihilism, in short, is a small branch of philosophy that consists of saying life has no meaning or purpose. It is connected with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who used the phrase “god is dead” in the sense that at his time, the nineteenth century, the ancient concept of gods no longer played much of a role in the decisions of people, specifically, those in his circle. It is hard to make sense of this. In a previous post, a series of examples was given, in which some individual assigned some purpose to some bit of life. Perhaps this doesn’t qualify under Nietzsche’s definition, as it would seem he was mostly referring to human life.

 

Rather than go into word play, let’s just consider one or more examples of this in order to try and clarify what is being meant. Suppose we have an individual human being, ‘Joe’, who says he has no purpose in his life. How old is Joe? Suppose he is ten years old, and precocious enough to have some idea of what the word purpose means. So he says he has no purpose in his life, and then we ask his parents, who disagree and say he has the purpose of getting an education and building a good character. Who is right? A ten-year-old is legally under the control of his parents, limited to be sure, but substantially, and so he doesn’t get to pick his purpose as he cannot use that to choose his actions. If instead of nothing, he said his purpose was to steal hubcaps, his purpose would not be that, as he would be sufficiently controlled by his parents, we assume, so that he doesn’t get anyone’s hubcaps, or if he does, he has to give them back. Instead, he has to go to school. So, his purpose would clearly seem to be getting an education and whatever else his parents decide he will do. He may refuse to learn there, but the non-completion of a purpose does not mean the purpose does not exist, just that it has not been satisfied.

 

After Joe grows up and turns eighteen, his parents no longer have any legal sway over him, so he is forced to decide on his own purpose. He can decide to fulfill his childhood hope of stealing hubcaps, or if his parents planted their own values deep in his juvenile mind, he might decide to continue his education and become an auto body mechanic, with the purpose of removing dents from cars and otherwise making them operational and even beautiful again. He does have a purpose, and even if he says he has no purpose, watching him get up every weekday and go down to the car shop, where he labors for the full day fixing auto bodies, should convince anyone what purpose he has given himself in life. He could easily add other purposes, such as being a father and raising children who become dental hygienists or accountants, which would indicate what their purpose was, or at least one of them.

 

Joe could decide to be less independent and when he turned eighteen, to ask his parents what he should do. Doing what they say converts their phantom purpose for him, which they cannot set because they do not control him, into his purpose. Joe may get his purpose from someone else, or from some Twitter comment that he finds especially motivating, or from some blog he happens to read. But he makes the choice, and it is him that assigns purpose and meaning to his life.

 

Joe might be home one day, and notice that he has no potatoes. His life is a void as far as potatoes goes, as he has not bought any recently, has not grown any in his home garden, has not stolen any, or obtained any as a gift from potato-bearing friends. Joe can correctly conclude that he has no potatoes. He might be sitting on a couch in his living room, where he has been for days except for short breaks, and might conclude he has no purpose and his life has no meaning. He has chosen nothing to be his purpose, not working in an autobody shop and making auto owners happy with their repaired cars, not playing cards in an attempt to gamble his way to prosperity, not doing anything at all except sitting on the couch, which hardly qualifies as a purpose. Joe, like Nietzsche, can correctly conclude that life has no meaning, at least as far as his own life goes. However, unlike Nietzsche, Joe can realize that his life has no meaning because he hasn’t chosen one, and, not being a slave or a serf, he has no owner or master to give him one.

 

Nietzsche missed this point, as he was only looking for glorious purposes, such that a god might give to a human. Unfortunately, people can do what they want, and if some god message is received in their brain, such as ‘go work at an autobody shop’, the person getting the message may choose to ignore it, to accept it and perform it, or to accept it as a purpose but simply fail totally to complete it. That is because under our laws, people get to choose their own meaning for their lives. If Joe doesn’t have one, perhaps because he was as depressed as Nietzsche often was, then that is his choice.

 

Some people often say that anyone who has no purpose in life must turn out to be a hedonist. Joe, sitting on his couch, can have absolutely no purpose in his life, but because of his depression, or because his parents taught him to be a good person, or because of a lack of instincts in that direction, is anything but a hedonist. Actually, being a hedonist is tantamount to choosing a purpose for your life, specifically, maximizing the amount of pleasure you get, subject to whatever restrictions you place on your actions and conditional on what you actually enjoy. Unless Joe enjoys sitting more than most people could imagine, he is a nihilist without being a hedonist, and actually might be extreme examples of both of them. Most depressed people would fall into that category, and so would some very lazy examples. So, hedonism and nihilism seem to be more opposites than correlates.

 

Nietzsche might have grown up without much independence, being limited by parents or by his own fraility or by something else, and so didn’t realize immediately that purposes in any modern society are chosen by the individual. It doesn’t matter if theology has burnt out, as a god can’t give any purpose to an individual, only provide a suggestion, short of physically taking control of the person and subjecting them to his/her/its control. There is a bit more complication here, however, in that if the god or god-like person or messenger from god or agent of god or whatever role-player connected with some god can use some weapons to induce someone to follow their demands, they could be considered as providing a purpose, just as a slave-master does. The mechanism by which these demands could be imposed might be threats, which must be believed to be able to convey the demands. An uneducated person might be likely to believe a more educated person concerning threats. Likewise, promises could be made that might induce an individual to accept some god person’s demands, and again, a less educated person would be more likely to accept the statements of an educated one.

 

Some people make the strange assumption that any purpose someone gives themselves in life is immaterial, unimportant, irrelevant, or nonsensical because the person dies. The only way this statement can be made is to change the definition of purpose to include infinite extent. Why would someone stretch out something to eternity, as there is nothing that lasts to eternity in the universe? They play on the word meaning to refer only to infinitely long-lasting things, and therefore can conclude, using this weird definition, that there is no meaning to life or the world or the sun or anything because, and solely because, these things all have finite lifetimes. This assumption is so incomprehensible that it is hard to imagine what would motivate it, except possibly an inordinate love of calculus. It is quite true that purpose can be short term or long term, such as fixing the car in front of me or helping mankind learn the mechanisms of solar fusion in detail, but for any of these, finiteness is mandatory.

 

Meaning in life can be thought of as a higher order purpose than just a simple purpose that one takes on. Joe, our venerable example, in his auto-body role, fixes cars and so his purpose in life can be thought of as being to fix auto bodies, as well as some other less time-consuming choices. But if we change the meaning of the word ‘meaning’, without diving into recursive soup, to refer to a limited set of allowable purposes or extracted purposes, we could say his life does not have the meaning of beautiful car production, but of happy car repair customers, which might be a subset of one category of allowable purposes, making people happy or providing them with the means to buy groceries and other essentials, or something like that. No one who is involved in writing about meaning of life seems to pay much attention to the difficulty of categorizing all the goals and extracted goals that a person’s activities might have, so the search for meaning in life becomes rather vague and ambiguous, owing to the lack of good definitions.

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