Over the weekend, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about nihilism. He couldn’t see a way of avoiding nihilism as the conclusion of life, even on theism or Christianity. I tried my best to communicate that on Christianity the exact opposite of nihilism is true. Every life matters and every life has purpose.
I ultimately felt unsatisfied with my presentation during the conversation and wanted to express some thoughts on nihilism here.
Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. The latter half of that definition is obviously false. Nothing can be known? Except nihilism makes truth claims: there are no values; there is no knowledge; there is nothing to be communicated. That is to say, the latter half of the definition of nihilism is self-defeating.
But what about the first half? This is the definition we most commonly think of when we think of nihilism, or a nihilistic person. Nihilism determines that there is no purpose or value in life.
The conversation around nihilism is one that will keep you awake at night. A person contemplating nihilism could easily be contemplating something worse.
I would contend that the first half of the definition of nihilism is also self-defeating, just less obviously. I would contend that you can’t avoid purpose, meaning, and the good.
What is Morality?
When we speak of human values, or human morality, we are speaking of human action. This or that action is good or bad.
What do we mean by good or bad?
I like to take the example of an acorn. An acorn has the nature of, well, an acorn. We’ll call it acorn nature. And acorn nature tends toward acorn flourishing. What does acorn flourishing look like? An acorn flourishes as it grows toward becoming an oak tree. How does an acorn achieve this goal? It gets the right amount of water, sunlight, and nutrients. An acorn that does this is called a good acorn. An acorn that doesn’t is called a bad acorn.
Something similar is true of human beings. Like all things, we have a nature. And like every other nature, human nature tends in a direction. That direction can be generally identified as human flourishing. What does human flourishing look like? This is up for debate and a great conversation to be had. However, I do not need an exact definition of human flourishing to prove my point and the task of defining human flourishing would be too great for my purposes here.
Suffice it to say that all things have a nature and a corresponding end that their nature tends toward. For human beings then, an action is moral if it leads to human flourishing.
The Unavoidability of Moral Action
Here’s the key to the conversation surrounding nihilism: every action can be judged morally. When I say every action can be judged morally, I mean every action. Why? Because no action is taken without an end in mind, without a goal in mind, that is, without a good in mind.
I went to play golf yesterday. How could my decision and corresponding action to play golf possibly be judged morally? I determined it was good to go play golf. That determination can be judged on this basis: was it actually good for me to go play golf? Say my wife was at home sick in desperate need of me to take her to the hospital. Would it be morally good or bad for me to go play golf?
Moral judgments are inescapable. You cannot think of a human action that cannot be judged morally. By all means, give it a try. I’m going to skip to the human belief that claims all values are baseless: nihilism.
The Self-Defeating Nature of Nihilism
Nihilism claims there are no actual values and therefore life is meaningless. But again, I repeat, there is no human action (or inaction) that can be made without making a value judgment. This applies to the nihilist as well. Watch.
There is no value or purpose in life, therefore I’m going to do whatever I want.
There is no value or purpose in life, therefore I’m going to harm myself or others.
There is no value or purpose in life, therefore I’m going to do nothing.
All of those are value statements. The nihilist determines that it is good to do whatever she wants, to hurt himself and others, to do nothing based on the fact that life is meaningless. THAT IS A JUDGMENT OF VALUE.
Nihilism is self-defeating. You cannot avoid making judgments of value. The only question is, are your judgments actually good. The nihilist may determine that it is good to do whatever they please, but is it actually good? Depends on what they please to do. The nihilist may determine that it is good to harm themselves or others, but is that actually good? Not according to the unavoidable standard of human flourishing. Is it actually good to do nothing? This is just a slower process of harming one’s self and therefore also violates the standard of human flourishing.
Nihilism is not the avoidance of value judgments; that is impossible. Nihilism is the acceptance of bad judgments that appear good, given the false premise that life is meaningless.
You cannot avoid meaning. You cannot avoid value. You cannot escape moral judgments.
You can make the right choice.
Given the fact that you cannot avoid assigning meaning and value to your life and your choices, I invite you to assign the right meaning to your life.
If God exists, He is the author of human nature. He knows exactly how to flourish as human beings. He created human beings!
His written revelation to humanity, the Bible, makes it clear that following Him and His will for our lives will lead to the ultimate satisfaction and flourishment. Every other purpose in life may be said to be good in some sense, but it will pale in comparison to the purpose God has in store for his creation.
I’ll leave you with the words of Jesus. “The thief comes to steal and to kill, but I have come so that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”