This essay is acollection of thoughts about Nihilism. It is the culmination of a lifetime ofobserving sincere individuals struggling with the concepts and consequences ofnihilistic thoughts. Over the years it has varied in content, from a fairlylong book to the current short essay, which is basically four chapters takenfrom our books. It is primarily meant tointroduce the discussion which is presented in the books.
Perhaps there isexistential meaning in a purely physical life, yet the unquestioned acceptanceof this possibility by rational thinkers is no more supported by scientificanalysis than the possibility of a non‐physical existence. I believe that theassumption by those who do not believe in a non‐physical life after death thatphysical life has existential meaning may itself be an irrational myth, andthat belief in the possibility that there is a non‐physical life after death isthe logical, rational, hope for humankind. The goal of this essay is to presentstraightforward arguments for my conclusions.
Many major historical figures in philosophy have provided an answer tothe question of what, if anything, makes life meaningful, althoughthey typically have not put it in these terms. Consider, for instance,Aristotle on the human function, Aquinas on the beatific vision, andKant on the highest good. While these concepts have some bearing onhappiness and morality, they are straightforwardly construed asaccounts of which final ends a person ought to realize in order tohave a life that matters. Despite the venerable pedigree, it is onlyin the last 50 years or so that something approaching a distinct fieldon the meaning of life has been established in Anglo-Americanphilosophy, and it is only in the last 30 years that debate with realdepth has appeared. Concomitant with the demise of positivism and ofutilitarianism in the post-war era has been the rise of analyticalenquiry into non-hedonistic conceptions of value, includingconceptions of meaning in life, grounded on relatively uncontroversial(but not certain or universally shared) judgments of cases, oftencalled “intuitions.” English-speaking philosophers can beexpected to continue to find life's meaning of interest as theyincreasingly realize that it is a distinct topic that admits ofrational enquiry to no less a degree than more familiar ethicalcategories such as well-being, virtuous character, and rightaction.
The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitschwould be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fullymatured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, andperfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of forits own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems,rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discardsthe rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoirof accumulated experience. This is what is really meant when itis said that the popular art and literature of today were oncethe daring, esoteric art and literature of yesterday. Of course,no such thing is true. What is meant is that when enough timehas elapsed the new is looted for new "twists," whichare then watered down and served up as kitsch. Self-evidently,all kitsch is academic; and conversely, all that's academic iskitsch. For what is called the academic as such no longer hasan independent existence, but has become the stuffed-shirt "front"for kitsch. The methods of industrialism displace the handicrafts.
Supernaturalist thinkers in the monotheistic tradition are usefully divided into those with God-centered views and soul-centered views. The former take some kind of connection with God (understood to be a spiritual person who is all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful and who is the ground of the physical universe) to constitute meaning in life, even if one lacks a soul (construed as an immortal, spiritual substance). The latter deem having a soul and putting it into a certain state to be what makes life meaningful, even if God does not exist. Of course, many supernaturalists believe that certain relationships with God and a soul are jointly necessary and sufficient for a significant existence. However, the simpler view is common, and often arguments proffered for the more complex view fail to support it any more than the simpler view.
There are two other, more circumscribed arguments for subjectivism. One is that subjectivism is plausible since it is reasonable to thinkthat a meaningful life is an authentic one (Frankfurt 1982). If a person's life is significant insofar as she is true to herself or herdeepest nature, then we have some reason to believe that meaning simply is a function of satisfying certain desires held by the individual or realizing certain ends of hers. Another argument is that meaning intuitively comes from losing oneself, i.e., in becomingabsorbed in an activity or experience (Frankfurt 1982). Work that concentrates the mind and relationships that are engrossing seem central to meaning and to be so because of the subjective element involved, that is, because of the concentration and engrossment.
However, both arguments are still plagued by a problem facing theoriginal versions; even if they show that meaning depends onimmortality, they do not yet show that it depends on havinga soul. By definition, if one has a soul, then one isimmortal, but it is not clearly true that if one is immortal, then onehas a soul. Perhaps being able to upload one's consciousness into aninfinite succession of different bodies in an everlasting universewould count as an instance of immortality without a soul. Such apossibility would not require an individual to have an immortalspiritual substance (imagine that when in between bodies, theinformation constitutive of one's consciousness were temporarilystored in a computer). What reason is there to think that one musthave a soul in particular for life to be significant?
Edmund Burke re-expressed this doctrine of "to each his own"when, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, he wrote oftrue natural rights: "Men have a right to the fruits of theirindustry, and to the means of making their industry fruitful. Theyhave a right to the acquisitions of their parents, to thenourishment and improvement of their offspring, to instruction inlife, and to consolation in death. Whatever each man can separatelydo, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do forhimself; and he has a right to all which society, with all itscombinations of skill and force, can do in his favor."
A “pure” objectivist thinks that being the object of aperson's mental states plays no role in making that person's lifemeaningful. Relatively few objectivists are pure, so construed. Thatis, a large majority of them believe that a life is more meaningfulnot merely because of objective factors, but also in part because ofsubjective ones such as cognition, affection, and emotion. Mostcommonly held is the hybrid view captured by Susan Wolf's pithyslogan: “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meetsobjective attractiveness” (Wolf 1997a, 211; see also Hepburn1965; Kekes 1986, 2000; Wiggins 1988; Wolf 1997b, 2002, 2010; Dworkin2000, ch. 6; Raz 2001, ch. 1; Schmidtz 2001; Starkey 2006; Mintoff2008). This theory implies that no meaning accrues to one's life ifone believes in, is satisfied by, or cares about a project that is notworthwhile, or if one takes up a worthwhile project but fails to judgeit important, be satisfied by it, care about it or otherwise identifywith it. Different versions of this theory will have differentaccounts of the appropriate mental states and of worthwhileness.
Even though this book is not yet considered a classic novel, it is still significant because it teaches readers about valuable lessons of friendship, demonstrates how to deal with difficult situations and understand the true meaning of life....
Beyond the humandesire for meaning in life, we would suggest that the logical consequences ofwhat philosophers call a nihilistic death require the search for alternativesto nihilism. Those who believe that the nihilistic void is approaching are, bythe very nature of their humanity, required to search for something to believein other than the void. While it appears to be impossible to scientificallyprove that life has meaning and value, it is equally impossible to prove thatlife has no meaning and value. No matter what the person who concludes thatlife is meaningless believes to be true now or at any other particular time intheir life, the possibility always exists that he or she may eventually findtrue meaning and value.