What comes after nihilism?
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
It’s the Golden Rule, and if you went to a public school in the United States in the last few decades you’ve probably heard of it. Be kind, give more, leave things better off than when you found them.
And sure, that works. It’s easy to do good and feel good as long as you don’t think too hard about what “Good” really means. But start thinking just a little and you’ll start to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
This question weighed heavy on my mind as I pondered how to spend my time and my life. My life’s “mission” had always been modeled on this simple idea, to do the most good that I could do for the world. At first, it was only a question of efficiency. There was never any doubt over whether or not there was an ultimate good, only the most effective way to accomplish it given my personal abilities. But, after time, I even began to question that. What is it that people ultimately need, and how could I give it to them? Is it better to feed a man or teach him how to fish? Should I volunteer my time, or spend it on personal development and donate my money? The more I thought, the less clear it all became.
The roots of morality lie in culture
Eventually, I came to the realization that even the foundation of my desire to do good was not innate. My desire to sacrifice my own happiness for the greater good had been embedded in me by societal messages hidden in the cartoons and movies I watched as a kid, the books I read and the lessons my parents and teachers taught me. And that by now they’ve become so ingrained that of course I believe them to be undeniable truths, but I also realize that they were created, in the same way that genes beneficial to an organism’s survival are naturally passed on to the next generation at a higher frequency than non-beneficial genes, these morals were the survivors which grease the wheels of society the best.
What comes after that realization? When you break down the values that have been your foundation for so long? You start by feeling lost. And after a while, you might start to pick up the pieces.
Here is the best answer I’ve been able to come up with:
The biological authority
You must first accept that the nature of reality does not grant your life a satisfactory purpose. You will feel this sting for a while, after having had an ultimate moral authority to guide you for your entire life. Remember, though, that we are animals evolved from single celled organisms which at one point were completely inorganic matter — singular molecules which grouped together through natural circumstance. Through eons of evolution we have evolved brains with the capacity to theorize over our existence.
Why is this important? Because it reveals to us that we are just products of chance and with no guarantee of perfection. With respect to philosophizing over the meaning of life, we are not strictly rational creatures, and cannot guarantee any moral framework based on pure logic will be satisfactory to us.
Accept that you’re human. We are controlled by our emotions, and our desire to be happy. We have built in signals which guide us towards positive and negative stimuli, even though rationally, there may be nothing separating the two. Humans have created the philosophy to guide us. Philosophy is a tool. A tool for human progress and happiness. We have to be wary when we take philosophy as a completely logical construct on its own. When philosophical inquiry threatens your sanity and happiness, you must make a choice. You must choose — the tool or the user.
What comes next?
What does it mean for you, who has just reached the logical bedrock of nihilism, and are still seeking the guidance of an absolute truth? You learn to temper your search for truth, or you accept what you get. The hope is always that there is the “answer” out there. Unfortunately, most people searching for the answer will only accept one that is satisfactory to them. They are simply looking for words that emotionally resonate and comfort them. We have already reached the conclusion — it is nihilism.
But relax. Morality is relative — but as humans, we share social values because they promote cooperation. And at the end of the day humans live, not philosophize.
I came across an article that captured the essence of nihilism fairly well: it’s not a philosophy that takes hold of happy people. And if you want to be happy, philosophy is likely a dead end. There is no absolute meaning — the closest thing is following the biological authority you’ve been born into. Be healthy, surround yourself with loved ones, don’t sit inside on a computer or reading books all day, and you‘ll probably be happy. But is that all there is to it? It’s your choice.
No, that title wasn’t a promise of an answer.
Really. What comes next for you?