Earlier this week a student at Harvard asked a great question in a small group meeting: How should a nihilist behave? When asked for the context, he said he had just had lunch with another student, who had proudly proclaimed his dedication to nihilism. The summary of the other student’s position? “There’s no purpose, no meaning, no morality, no God: I can do what I want to do and that sounds great!”
As the group processed the question of this rough-and-ready nihilism, we all agreed: if you are a true nihilist, it is foolish to announce this to the world. Everyone felt that they would be far less likely to trust someone who was so proudly selfish and fundamentally unconcerned about basic claims of morality. If your nihilism is a means of justifying selfishness, you’d do best to keep that to yourself. If nihilism is true, what’s the problem with shrewdly deceiving others and manipulating them to do your bidding?
The other problem is this: why be so dedicated to spreading the ‘good news’ about nihilism? In the absence of any identifiable purpose to life, the plans of this student to make money, be successful, build friendships, and seek happiness seemed absurd. Sure, we all want to be happy. But we typically think that being happy matters. But this student doesn’t think any of it matters – he denies any significance to anything.
Then the discussion got more personal. Ok, so nihilism is absurd and unlivable. What’s the escape from nihilism? How do we find purpose and meaning for life?
One student said, “I think we make it up.”
That’s true enough.
But if we just make it up – and we know we made it up – how can we say that it is real? If I say, “I love my imaginary friend Bob, he’s so nice to me!” isn’t that a delusion? And if a delusion, isn’t it better to reject that nonsense and believe what is real?
Some people have imaginary friends. Other people have imaginary morals and imaginary purposes. Why is murder wrong? Well, I just imagine that it is!
Other defenses were offered: to keep people from harming me, I choose not to harm them. That’s how society works. If we all kill each other, no one will continue to exist and survive. Our morality is necessary for our existence. Everyone agrees that murder is wrong, so it is.
But wait a second: why should humans exist? Where did we get our rights from? What’s so important about “society” that it needs to be protected and defended? What difference does it make if living things survive – or go extinct? Who cares what the majority says? Maybe the majority is wrong!
If we’re just making it up, we’re fooling ourselves.
If our genes make us believe it, so they can perpetuate their existence, then we’re being tricked by our biology.
If other people in our society make us buy into this ‘morality’, perhaps so they can manipulate us into not causing trouble for them, then we’re being used.
It is enough to make one proud to be an honest nihilist!
Better the hard truth than the delusions of our minds, our genes, or our society!
But our love for truth can lead us in another direction. It can lead us to God, a very real, perfectly good, purposeful, and reasonable Being, whose eternal existence and unchanging character is an objective grounding for morality, purpose and meaning.
Of course it is possible to make up a God to make up a foundation for our made-up morality and purpose. But I’m not recommending that course of action! I’m suggesting that there are many good reasons to believe that God exists.
But if God doesn’t exist, then we really are just making it up, to keep our ultimately meaningless journeys going, just because we happen to prefer prolonging our temporary existence to the equally meaningless and inevitable alternative of non-existence.
What keeps you from being a nihilist?