Designing the Mind

Existential Optimism

A TOUR OF NIHILISM, EXISTENTIALISM, AND ABSURDISM

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We begin with a realization: There is no external authority on what is true, good, or worth pursuing in life. We have no objectively right goals or monolithic instruction manual, and human life is without intrinsic purpose or meaning.

In itself, this isn’t a problem. But add in irrational human beings, a deep longing for meaning, and thousands of years of religious culture providing it, and this realization can be like a psychological bomb.

We’re left with the question, where do we go from here? And several different schools of thought formed around this question – namely nihilism, absurdism, and existentialism.

The study of man permits us to recognize that the need for a common system of orientation and for an object of devotion is deeply rooted in the conditions of human existence.

Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion

Hello psychitects. I’ve had quite a few conversations with readers with readers who have struggled with feelings of meaninglessness and cynicism. It has made me quite passionate about countering the views of those who feel justified in their pessimism. But to demonstrate why it makes sense to keep an optimistic attitude toward life, we have to examine a few different schools of thought that have addressed this point.

Around the 19th century, the metaphysical scaffolding on which much of social reality was built was quickly crumbling. Religion and monotheism were on the decline, and a scientific view of the world was prevailing.

But contrary to what many atheists would have argued, simply replacing mythology with science, saying “problem solved,” and calling it a day is not enough to put our deepest questions and longings to rest. Humans don’t just want to know what really happened thousands of years ago or how earth and humanity were created.

We want to know how we should live our lives. Which direction, which goals, which principles should guide our choices? And the universe responds to these questions only with silence. Here are three philosophies that have emerged in response to this silence:


Nihilism

We know of nihilism as a depressing and edgy philosophy, centered around the rejection of… everything. There is no meaning, no values, no truth, and no hope.

As a result, there can be no point to life – no value even in living over dying. And unsurprisingly, it’s characterized by a sense of despair.

I’d like to say that this popular view is a distortion of the real, philosophical nihilism. And it is possible to apply nihilism only to certain topics, like moral nihilism. But when taken in full, it really does seem to be a bleak rejection of all reason to live and be happy.

So is this view simply the inevitable product of questioning our illusions? Must we all become nihilists if we reject the doctrines of traditional religion? I think doing so would be irresponsible, both for our own happiness, and for the sake of rational coherence.

I think nihilism rejects most, but not all of the religious dogmas our culture has acquired. Yes, it rejects the idea that there are objective, mind-independent values.

But it fails to reject the idea that there must be objective, mind-independent values. I would even go so far as to call it “traditional” by failing to question this assumption and observe that there really is nothing wrong with values residing in human minds.

I see nihilism as a reactionary pendulum-swing away from traditional notions of value and truth. It may be a necessary stage for those who are just beginning to question the systems meaning they have always followed. But after a while, no-man’s land gets old, and we realize we can go beyond the ruins of tradition and rebuild what was lost with a better foundation.

Sometimes Friedrich Nietzsche is mistaken for a nihilist, despite the fact that he was its most famously outspoken critic. Some people hear his famous phrase, “God is dead” and assume it must be a triumphant, atheistic battle cry. It’s actually a dire lamentation and warning. Here’s the full quote:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

 – Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche believed dangerous psychological and societal effects could result from the complete flattening of all human values. He thought many people would be lost in the absence of traditional religion – that they would be disoriented and depressed without a system of ideals and principles. And he was right.

Nietzsche believed we should strive to be able to affirm life and say “yes” to every aspect of it and ourselves. And as you can see in that table, nihilism is the exact opposite of this spirit, saying “no” to everything. It is the willful ignorance of the powerful values that reside in each of our minds.

The idea of “optimistic nihilism” has become popular in recent years. But those who are familiar with philosophy know this is an oxymoron. When people talk about approaching the lack of objective meaning with optimism, they are talking about another school of thought, like:

Absurdism

Absurdism is the school of thought associated with French philosopher Albert Camus. Camus argued that the idea of “the absurd” was born out of the juxtaposition between our deeply human desire for objective meaning, and the universe’s cold indifference and refusal to provide it.

He believed that the meaninglessness of the world was the cause of great confusion and suffering for humans who were so motivated to find it. And this confusion and suffering was enough to lead people to commit suicide – of two different kinds.

Some, who were so depressed by the futility of trying to live a meaningful life, would commit actual suicide, ending their lives to escape the void. Others would commit “philosophical suicide” by succumbing to the comfort of religious faith. Camus saw both as cowardly.

The only courageous reaction, he believed, was to live defiantly and authentically, in rebellion against the meaningless universe. To quit trying to make sense of life and laugh off the absurdity, and our psychological tensions and pain in response to it.

Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.

– Albert Camus 

We live in a world where people get terminal diseases. A world that is constantly at war, despite the fact that exactly zero of us enjoy war. A world where we spend much of our time proving to robots that we aren’t robots, and where entry-level jobs ask for five years of experience. We live in a world where DJ Khaled… exists.

So why not lean into the absurdity of it all? Why not give the uncaring cosmos the finger while squeezing as much joy out of it all as we can?

There was a time when I would have called myself an absurdist. Shortly after turning away from theistic religion, calling reality absurd and laughing off its many paradoxes was one of the only ways I could make sense of it.

But with the help of a number of realizations since then, particularly the understanding provided by evolutionary psychology, reality makes far more sense, and seems far less absurd to me now. I now probably fall most closely into the camp of:

Existentialism

Existentialism is the hardest of the schools to summarize, because its thinkers have adopted such diverse approaches. No two philosophers have the same take on life, and few if any actually identified as existentialists during their lifetime. Yet there were common themes that pervaded their approaches.

Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei, author of On Being and Becoming, points to three related concerns that connect all existential philosophers.

  1. They all validate concrete, individual experience over abstract systems.
  2. They all expose the inadequacy of traditional interpretations of the meaning of life and the consequences that obtain from it.
  3. They promote free action on the part of the human subject toward the creation of new meaning.

Existentialists respond to the lack of objective meaning by urging individuals to create their own. They don’t waste time mourning the pointlessness of life or rebelling against the absurd universe. They choose to use their personal freedom to make choices that feel meaningful and authentic.

She writes:

Your most important decisions come with no reliable prediction of the ensuing results. In order to live you must constantly press beyond the limits of what you can know for certain, venturing beyond the borders of what is comfortable, taking risks. In order to find fulfillment, you might ask whether it is necessary, as Kierkegaard wrote in relation to himself, to find that idea or purpose for which you would be willing to live and die.

The famous slogan of existentialism is “existence precedes essence.” In other words, where older philosophies had attempted to define the exact essence of each concept, including the essence of the individual, existentialism argues that no such universal essence can be found.

Instead, we should examine the observable aspects of human experience – consciousness and individuality. Instead of trying to define human values and identity, let’s acknowledge that each individual has the freedom and responsibility to construct their own.

Existentialist philosophy recognizes the difficult emotions that can come through accepting the universe’s lack of intrinsic meaning, the absence of a divine lawgiver to tell us what is right, or the finality of death without belief in an afterlife. And in paying attention to these struggles and emotions, we can be better positioned to design solutions and remedies for them.

Unlike nihilism, existentialism does not take a pessimistic view on the great void of meaning and value. It is a fundamentally affirmative invitation to build a life worth living. To construct a system of meaning and purpose to guide your life. And to create a self you are proud to be.

Existentialist thinkers disqualify traditional values and reassurances, detailing the anxieties attending this loss of sources of meaning. Yet all of them promote creative responses to this situation, issuing, in Camus’s words, a “lucid invitation to live and to create.” They affirm the freedom of our yet to be determined possibilities. And they credit each existing individual an intrinsic dignity, grounded in the liberty to establish new values by which to live and to create.Existentialism offers a means to reflect on the world in this way and on shaping yourself as to take up your own place in it. It allows you to think about your being here, your existence, as an active, creative becoming. For existentialism argues that each of us is not to be regarded as a finished being with a predetermined purpose, or as merely a member of a species, or as a statistic. You are a unique individual, shot through with possibility. You can take up what you are given and transform it. You do not arrive in the world a finished self, but must, as Friedrich Nietzsche insisted, “become who you are.””

But if crafting our meaning is entirely up to us – if nothing is inherently meaningful, why be an optimist? Existentialism is, after all, popularly associated with a sense of dread or angst. The keep-you-up-at-night questions about whether life is worth living and what it all means. For some people, these reflections lead to pessimistic attitudes, despair, and maybe worst of all, a smug sense of superiority over those who are happy.

Upon describing myself as a happy, optimistic person, I have had people try to “debate” me, and argue that the universe is a cruel and meaningless place. That life isn’t of value, and that one must be delusional or blissfully ignorant to be happy.

This existential cynicism is a problematic perspective to say the least, both in the sense that it doesn’t serve the person who holds it, and that it betrays reason in the process. And this is why it is one of the psychological tendencies I feel strongly about helping people work their way through.

Most people at some point in their lives will experience moments of suffering that have an existential cast. This is suffering that impacts your sense of self, making you wonder who you really are or ought to be, making you wonder about the purpose of your existence. The works of existentialist philosophers elaborate on such phenomena as despair, anxiety, dread, angst, forlornness, the tragic, the absurd, nothingness, being-toward-death, ennui, oppression, and inauthenticity.

– Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei

At some point in our lives, most of us find ourselves reflecting on the big questions about life, troubled by the seemingly depressing implications. We may experience terror over the possibility that the universe has no meaning, life has no inherent worth, and our death will mark the permanent end of our short existence.

And after decades of contemplation, I have personally come to a conclusion about these possibilities. They’re all true! All of the terrifying existential anxieties about the meaningless void are correct.

And guess what? I don’t find it the slightest bit depressing. I am personally not troubled or kept up at night by the great existential questions of meaning and value, or death and finitude. But the reason is that I have already confronted, accepted, and integrated these realities into my worldview.

I have accepted what few have even fully grasped – that humans are fundamentally gene replication machines, designed for one arbitrary purpose alone. It is a given for me that there is no objective meaning or purpose in the universe – that all life on earth is a tiny speck of insignificance in the great cosmic dance of reality. I assume that I will die in what will feel like no time at all, with no eternal existence in an afterlife. I am aware of the immense amounts of suffering in the world, the flaws in human nature, and the unsustainability of humanity’s current trajectory.

I think the universe cares less about the entire human race than you and I care about the life of a single bacteria on the floor of a Chili’s bathroom. You’re not edgy, nihilists—wipe that smug frown off your face!

The people who are troubled by existential realities are still, in some way, in denial of them. They have not fully transitioned to a worldview that accepts and embraces reality as it is.

Facts about the world don’t make you depressed. Being depressed gives you a negative attitude toward those facts. People often make the mistake of attributing their depression to these realities, when it actually goes the other way around.

You being unhappy helps no one. No one. Your depression isn’t helping solve climate change. It’s actually making you less motivated and less capable of contributing to solutions. Your bad mood doesn’t improve the lives of people suffering around the globe – it only adds one more sufferer to them. Your depression isn’t good for anyone, and it certainly isn’t good for you.

Strong people alone know how to organize their suffering so as to bear only the most necessary pain.

—Emil Dorian, The Quality of Witness

Make the decision to be a realist – to view reality with unflinching incisiveness. To understand the world clearly, and maybe even contribute to improving it in some way. But learn to view it with a healthy, effective, and positive attitude. When you can accept negative realities without using them to justify your misery, you can become the best, happiest, and most genuinely useful version of yourself.

Have you managed to build an optimistic attitude in spite of the harsh absurdity of the universe, or have you succumbed to existential cynicism?

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