Monday, December 26, 2016

nihilism versus possibility

Nihilism, as commonly understood, is the felt-idea that "life is meaningless". After prolonged immersion in a nihilistic worldview, the meaning of words starts to drain away as well, and the phrase "life is meaningless" stops making sense: one wonders what sort of possible "meaningful life" could be the antithesis of the phrase. Not expressing any perceptible distinction, the phrase itself becomes meaningless.

Defining "meaning" is hard, and searching for "meaning" in itself may be harder. So a more helpful framing of nihilism for pragmatic use is: "possibilities are not real".

Nihilism might sometimes be associated with a related phrase, "there are no possibilities". I would argue, though, that this is rather "despair", which says that nothing can ever be different than the way it is (bad). Nihilism, on the other hand, is able to accommodate differences. It just asserts that they are "merely cosmetic" - on the order of which color t-shirt could be worn, except applied to every possible situation or state of affairs. "Possibilities" and the differences between them are not "real".

To understand what it might look like to be blind to possibilities and their differences, think of a disheveled teenager who refuses to be bound by conventions and does not understand that wearing ripped jeans and uncombed hair would disrupt the atmosphere of a wedding celebration. He would argue that there is no real difference: perhaps he's draped in a different color and texture of cloth, but this difference is "merely cosmetic", as the social-legal function of the ceremony can continue. But he is insensitive to the contrast in atmosphere between his own bitterness and the exaltation of the wedding party - insensitive to the fact that another way of being is possible and would result in palpable difference.

The way to combat these idea-formations is to move in the opposite direction: look for possibilities and their "reality". And the easiest way to do this is by imagining difference: could the situation, past, present, or future, be different? How? And how would it feel?

The response of nihilism might be "of course it could be different - a purple elephant could fall from the sky. If not one, then several." But nihilism is not really imaginative. After declaring something arbitrary it throws up its hands, doesn't offer any more ideas, and doesn't take the trouble to really imagine the ones that are already there. Probably this is - like everything else - "like a muscle" - and it's best to start small. Is the clean floor really no better than the filthy one? Even if the value judgement is not possible, is it at least possible to feel any sort of difference?