Nihilistic Realism

Nihilism is a difficult word to define despite how often the word is used in everyday language. Some equate it with godlessness, or with amorality, or with life lacking a purpose of meaning. Nihlism is often associated with the philosophy of Nietzsche, who characterized nihilism as “emptying the world and especially human existence of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value.”

Wiki defines nihilism as “the philosophical viewpoint that suggests the denial of, or lack of belief in, the reputedly meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.[1] Moral nihilists assert that morality does not exist at all. Nihilism may also take epistemological, ontological, or metaphysical forms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or reality does not actually exist.”

Most people, if asked, would not describe their worldview as nihilistic, because nihilism is often associated with gloom, darkness, despair, nothingness/emptiness, and people want to believe they have fulfilling and interesting lives. I think this reductionist framing of nihilism as a psychological condition elides how elements of nihilism are more commonplace in society than suggested by mere individual psychology alone.

Such is the basis for a new category, nihilistic realism. Nihilistic realism is congruent to existentialism and moral nihilism, as well as materialism and logical positivism. But aren’t nihilism and existentialism opposed to each other? Sorta. Someone who subscribes to a realism-based, morally nihilistic ethical framework can justify acts/behaviors that others–such as Christian idealists of the ‘right’ or idealist activists of the ‘left’, may deem amoral or reprehensible, to satisfy existentialist goals (the so-called ends justifying the means). Idealistic concepts such as ethics and morality are hard to quantify and be made precise in a materialistic, scientific sense.

I think nihilistic realism underpins a lot of contemporary society, whether in culture or online. It seeks to confront reality head-on, is divorced of and opposed to moralizing, sentimentalism, and activism. It’s a facts and data driven approach to life and understanding the world, that I think has become very popular as shown by the virality of a recent Farma Street article “Most of what you’re going to read today is pointless,” which received over 7-thousand ‘claps,’ indicating substantial reader agreement. This is a form of nihilis. But not nihilistic in the sense that life is meaningless, but that news, which is related to activism and idealism, are pointless. Activism involves imposing one’s will on society, but if society is deterministic, then this is futile. It’s also related to individualism and existentialism because by divorcing oneself from the outside world and its arbitrary and normative mores, allows one to fulfill or optimize one’s ‘personhood’. Same for not trying to impose one’s will on society or by getting too involved in things that are outside of one’s control.

As the aforementioned article says “The point is, most of what you read online today is pointless. It’s not important to your life. It’s not going to help you make better decisions. It’s not going to help you understand the world. It’s not going to help you develop deep and meaningful connections with the people around you. The only thing it’s really doing is altering your mood and perhaps your behavior.” So to take this to its logical conclusion, if a bunch of people die in a plane crash, one should pay no mind, because such a story is not directly applicable to one’s own life. Sentimentalism over this tragedy does nothing to improve one’s own life. This could be considered a cold, if not nihilistic, way of seeing the world, as the worth or value of a life is a function of the value one personally derives or extracts from it. Maybe the world is a better place when people grieve for the loss of total strangers.

Yet, there is a a contradiction between a materialism and existentialism, because the material world imposes barriers to what an individual can do, so such individualism in a materialist philosophical and ethical worldview is omits or limits the moralistic framework but upholds the scientific one. Existentialism can also be reconciled with societal and economic determinism, too, because one can optimize their choices and actions by understanding the underlying framework and how it unfolds rather than trying to change the framework, which is what activism and politics tries to do to varying degrees.