A year after coming out with Nihilism and Technology, Dr. Nolen Gertz wrote just plain Nihilism, an "examination of the meaning of meaninglessness: why it matters that nothing matters." It's a really short book, but it took a while to wade through it all. Here it all is even more briefly assembled with my own understanding here and there.
We typically think of nihilism as very simply meaning, "we believe in nothing" (4), but he counters that from the start with the polar opposite definition of Russian nihilism via Wendell Phillips in 1881: "the righteous and honorable resistance of a people crushed under an iron rule . . . the last weapon of victims choked and manacled beyond all other resistance" (2), and then takes us through Western philosophy to get to a view that, "Nihilism is about evading reality rather than confronting it, about believing in other worlds rather than accepting this one, and about trying to make ourselves feel powerful rather than admitting our own weaknesses" (73).
I didn't love this epistemology section, but the book picks up speed afterwards.
First, on Socrates, Descartes, and Hume and nihilism via our inability to know stuff: Anti-nihilists "inspire others to question and ultimately reject the foundations of their beliefs" (21). Socrates (a social reformer) provoked people to question everything. Then Descartes (a self-reformer) warned that can lead to "inextricable darkness" (21). "For Descartes we embrace illusions because our reach exceeds our grasp, because our desire to know (the will) exceeds our power to know (the intellect)" (22). Then he gets to Hume's fork: For Hume, we can only know things we experience directly and things that are true by definition, and, Hume famously said, all else must be committed to the flames, so "supporting an idea may not be so different from supporting a sports team" (25). Gertz's conclusion so far: "From a Socratic perspective, nihilism can be overcome by enlightenment. From a Cartesian perspective, nihilism can be overcome by self-restraint. But from a Humean perspective, nihilism cannot be overcome. It is simply a product of human psychology" (28).
He claims that Hume just ignores the reality that we can't really know things, and plays some backgammon instead (which Hume says after clarifying that cause and effect is an unreliable basis for anything, much less ALL OF SCIENCE). But I feel like that ignores Hume's insistence that we still have a basis of a morality since we have sentiments in common. Even though we can't have certainty, we can still have agreement. We can't just believe nothing. In Hume's words,
He must here, therefore, depart from his private and particular situation, and must choose a point of view, common to him with others; he must move some universal principle of the human frame, and touch a string to which all mankind have an accord and symphony. If he means, therefore, to express that this man possesses qualities, whose tendency is pernicious to society, he has chosen this common point of view, and has touched the principle of humanity, in which every man, in some degree, concurs. While the human heart is compounded of the same elements as at present, it will never be wholly indifferent to public good, nor entirely unaffected with the tendency of characters and manners. And though this affection of humanity may not generally be esteemed so strong as vanity or ambition, yet, being common to all men, it can alone be the foundation of morals.
Hume argued that we can't know science for sure because it's possible for the effect of a cause to be different tomorrow than it was today, but then Kant argued that experience is largely consistent. I've never thoroughly gotten my head around Kant's transcendental idealism because it all sounds so out there to me, but here's Gertz's summary of it:
"What we experience is based on our mental faculties but is based on our mental faculties operating in conjunction with reality . . . reality exists both 'phenomenally' (appearances) and 'noumenally' (in itself), and that though we do not have access to the noumenal world, its existence is certain." (31)
So, Hume said we can't know anything (a skeptical empiricist), and Kant said we can too know stuff. Then Friedrich Jacobi, in 1799, and Heinrich von Kleist in 1801, used the word 'nihilism' in explaining that, even though Kant was arguing for a knowledge of reality, Kant dividing everything into two worlds - how they appear to us and how they actually are - essentially reduces life to nothing. That is, since our knowledge of the noumenal is impossible, we can never know things as they are, but can only ever know how they appear to us. Gertz's conclusion: "Kant thus moves us away from what we could call epistemological nihilism (believing that knowledge is impossible) and instead moves us toward what we could call existential nihilism (believing that life has no meaning)" (33).
Then there's this interesting bit: For Kant, freedom means obeying the self, and, since our desires aren't within our control (we discover our tastes rather than choose them), our desires aren't within our freedom but are "forced upon us." So, true freedom (and morality) can only be understood as obedience to reason. Kant "reduces morality to a math problem" and then opens a door to "what we could call political nihilism (believing that traditional human values are worthless because they are contrary to genuine human freedom)" (36). Kant provoked a form of nihilism that rejects anything merely human, seeking freedom in the form of overcoming human attachments, including a whole political movement in Russia from 1860 to 1881 hoping to free society by destroying it "as they believed that only what could survive destruction was worth saving" (36), even though we typically credit Nietzsche for that perspective!
Here's a bit of what Nietzsche wrote on nihilism:
"Distress, whether of the soul, body, or intellect, cannot of itself give birth to nihilism (i.e., the radical repudiation of value, meaning, and desirability). Such distress always permits a variety of interpretations. Rather: it is in one particular interpretation, the Christian moral one, that nihilism is rooted. What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devalue themselves. . . . The philosophical nihilist is convinced that all that happens is meaningless and in vain; and that there ought not to be anything meaningless and in vain." (37)
To Nietzsche, there isn't one universal morality, but "the end result of a war between rival moralities" (41), and the morality of the Christian church was against life itself. Gertz has a great analogy for Nietzsche's understanding of his time in history: there are masters, slave, and priests. The masters are the jocks who are strong and take what they want. The slaves are nerds who have to use their cunning to play a long game or be passive-aggressive to get their needs met. And the priests are the preppy kids who don't get their hands dirty fighting for power, like the jocks, but automatically have power. The slaves defeated the masters through the rise of Christianity, which overthrew life-affirming values for values of abstinence and self-sacrifice. If you can't beat them, convert them (45). We've been conditioned to renounce strength in favour of group safety, but "repressing an instinct is not the same as removing that instinct . . . since it was 'immoral' to be cruel to others, members of society could only maintain their morality by redirecting their cruelty at themselves. This self-cruelty is what became known as 'guilt'" (46). "In other words, what we think of as 'morality' was not discovered in pure reason by Kant but was designed to ensure that the meek shall inherit the Earth. . . . The priests created an ascetic society that has helped us to stay alive. But our survival has been achieved by encouraging us to avoid living" (49). He later explains that the priests act like bad doctors, treating the symptoms of the problems with society by giving us painkillers through the promise of an afterlife and distracting us with rituals. His former book gets into detail on that.
What's all this got to do with nihilism? Suffering through life under the false hope of a better life in the great beyond means that we're back to Socrates: "humans are to be understood as prisoners, forced to live meaningless lives in a meaningless world. The key difference though is that, with Christianity, we humans know who has imprisoned us, that our jailer is a good and perfect God, a God who created this prison even though its only purpose seems to be to test whether the prisoners can get released for good behaviour" (51). If God is responsible for everything, then we're responsible for nothing, and our existence has no meaning. But now we have science to take the blame for it all instead: "science is not the enemy of religion, but is instead a new religion. . . . The priests of science elevated scientific values like 'objectivity' to superhuman heights, leading society to feel 'enlightened,' to feel that it had progressed beyond the 'dark ages' of Christianity" (55).
"Nietzsche's primary concern was with the idea of nihilism as the evasion of what it means to be human. Nietzsche identified such nihilistic evasiveness in Christianity, in Buddhism, in philosophy, in art, in science, and in culture. Nietzsche's diagnosis was that what these various versions of nihilistic evasiveness have in common is that they are a result of the repression required to live in civilized society. . . . Nihilistic behaviour is much more mundane than we realize, as popular culture came to be seen as a vehicle for promoting nihilism. Identifying nihilism thus came more and more to be viewed as not just an academic exercise but rather as part of a political struggle against the normalization of self-destructive practice, and against the demonization of anyone who would criticize what is normal." (57)
So, as far as I understand it all, we started with the idea that if we know universal ideas, then we can have meaning in life through an understanding of the world or of ourselves, but then we gained confidence with our knowledge (first with God, then with science), but lost meaning as we renounced responsibility for our lives by giving all the glory and blame to God and/or science. Meaning in our lives is inextricably tied to responsibility or taking ownership of our lives, and without that, then we're left with nothing. But that's just the beginning of the book!
FINDING WHAT IT IS THROUGH WHAT IT ISN'T:
Pessimism ≠ nihilism: Pessimists embrace despair. "pessimism is the opposite of nihilism . . . these two roads diverge over the question of whether we dwell on our despair or hide from it . . . nihilism is all about hiding from despair rather than dwelling on it" (60). "Nihilism is actually much closer to optimism . . . ignoring what is missing so as to avoid having to see change. . . . It is by believing in the existence of superhuman goals and superhuman purposes that we lose sight of human goals and human purposes" (63). So, when we maintain hope that things will work out in the end, the hope is without action or effort but looks to some external force to right the wrongs. The same happens when we look to leaders as more than human in order to avoid any responsibility for any situation we encounter. Nihilists just wait to be saved.
Cynicism ≠ nihilism: Cynics are more about disdain for people, mistrustful of any evidence for anything and refusing to believe in the possibility of altruism, which can look like believing in nothing, but what they believe in is their own self-interest. They seek out ulterior motives for anyone else's actions. They think of themselves as realists, focusing on what people do rather than any hopes or ambitions, whereas nihilism is closer to idealism, focusing on people's intentions and aspirations (67).
Apathy ≠ nihilism: Apathy means to be without feeling or desire, to not care about anything. It's a personal feeling rather than a claim about how everyone should feel. Apathetic people reveal nihilists when the apathetic is challenged to try to care, and the nihilist can't come up with a good reason. The nihilist has strong feelings about nothing. According to Nietzsche, nihilists fall into the morality of pity, which is,
"not about helping others, but about elevating oneself by reducing others, by reducing others to their neediness, to a neediness that we do not have and that reveals how much we do have by contrast. Pity is nihilistic insofar as it allows us to evade reality, such as by allowing us to feel that we are better than we are, and that we are better than those in need. . . . then we are motivated only to help the individuals we feel pity for rather than to help end the systemic injustices that create such pitiful situations . . . clearly, pity is instead more likely to motivate us to perpetuate injustice by perpetuating the conditions that allow us to help the needy, that allow us to see ourselves as good for helping those we see only as needy. . . . To force oneself to become apathetic is nihilistic, as to do so is to evade our feelings rather than to confront them. There is thus an important difference between being apathetic and becoming apathetic" (71-2).
FOUR WAYS OF THINKING ABOUT NIHILISM
Nihilism as Denial - Nihilism isn't a fact about reality but a reaction to reality. For Nietzsche, it's "discovering life is meaningless and yet going on with our lives anyway. . . . meaninglessness of life is due not to the nature of the universe, but to the nature of our culture. Life is meaningful, but only if we live. . . . Trying to live the lives that we should want is what makes us nihilistic" (79-80).
Nihilism as the Denial of Death - Influenced by Heidegger's notion of the inauthenticity of life that's "occupied with pointless activities like chitchat that help us to avoid the anxiety of confronting death," existentialists living during WWII (Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus) sought to acknowledge death. "By maintaining order, regularity, and discipline we are able to reduce ourselves and the world to the most mundane concerns and so avoid having to think about anything more than what we're going to eat for dinner. . . We act as if life doesn't matter, but we do this because we believe that death doesn't matter" (83). "To recognize that we could die at any moment would require that we take every moment of our lives seriously, as seriously as if it were our last" (87). Essentialist narratives around how to be are comforting as they replace absurdity with clarity, but they take us further from reality. "Black-and-white labels make life easier, but they do so by making life lifeless. Existentialism reveals that in trying to avoid responsibility, we end up avoiding freedom, and that in trying to avoid death, we end up avoiding life" (87). We need to remove the false sources of meaning (God or DNA) in order to recognize that only we can give ourselves meaning.
Nihilism as the Denial of the Death of Meaning - Postmodernist Lyotard argued that "every field of knowledge operates through specific narratives with their own gamelike rules in order not only to transmit knowledge but even to legitimate its claims as knowledge" (88) called metanarratives. These are losing their power through technology and the idea that knowledge = information to the point that,
"what is true has become less important than what is profitable. Consequently, the humanities have less funding. . . . Yet the bifurcation of humanities and STEM has eroded the legitimacy of both. Humanities produced the metanarratives that legitimated scientific knowledge . . . language games of spirituality and of morality were replaced by the language games of output and of profit. . . . Lyotard writes, 'Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives.' . . . the values we use to give life meaning are empty shells . . and values have always been empty shells. The rise of computer technology did not undermine the fabric of society; instead it revealed it, and what was revealed was that beneath the fabric there was nothing" (92).
For postmodernists, it's good that we finally understand that meaning is a human production and there is no universal meaning to is all. Reality has no foundation other than accepted practice, and "meaning is and always has been socially constructed. . . . Nihilism arises due to a rejection of the death of meaning. . . . Postmodernism would appear to see existentialism as nihilistic for having constructed a foundationalism centered on death having an eternal and immutable meaning. . . . In both cases, though, nihilism is understood to be an evasion or reality . . . in the form of an evasion of freedom" (93-6).
Nihilism as the Denial of the Death of the Meaning of Childhood - This is a beautiful, provocative section of the book, inspiring many dog-eared corners, about de Beauvoir's The Ethics of Ambiguity. Gertz explains, "Inspired by Descartes's claim that adults are unhappy due to having previously been children, de Beauvoir describes how nihilism is related to the attempt to become a kid again" (96). She compares the type of freedoms we have as a child to those we should aspire to have as adults, and the problem when people bring their childlike expectations of freedom into adulthood, what she calls the spirit of seriousness:
"Serious people evade freedom and responsibility through seeking infantilism and paternalism. Serious people turn themselves into children, wanting nothing more than definitions to learn and rules to obey. They thus require some external authority that can provide such definitions and such rules. . . . [However] no external authority can prevent either children or serious people from having to confront the ambiguity, the volatility, and the inexplicability of life" (98).
This sheds a new perspective on the Jordan Peterson popularity phenomenon through his ridiculous rules of life. He attracted the serious people who seek the freedom of childhood and require a mentor to help them make every little decision. But then these serious people, when faced with the suffering of life, further regress into nihilism. She writes, "Conscious of being unable to be anything, man then decides to be nothing. . . . Nihilism is disappointed seriousness turned back against itself. It appears . . . among men who wish to rid themselves of the anxiety of their freedom by denying the world and themselves" (98-9). When people who avoid personal responsibility through rule-following (I believe, not unlike Kierkegaard's ethical stage) then end up unable to find any proof of meaning in their lives, they end up rejecting meaning altogether, and they take their ball and go home, "for in a world with no external authority the disappointed serious person prefers the annihilation of nihilism to the anxiety of freedom. . . . Nihilism is thus an antidote to the anxiety of freedom because it severs freedom from responsibility and so severs freedom from anxiety. . . . so rather than be anxious, we should just try to relax and be carefree" (100).
For de Beauvoir,
"To be a serious person is to try to escape anxiety by outsourcing the responsibility of freedom to an external authority. To be a nihilist is to try to annihilate anxiety by annihilating freedoms, and to do so by denying the meaningfulness of decision-making. . . . Freedom can also be annihilated--as is described by postmodernism--by thinking of meaning as not worth worrying about. . . . as de Beauvoir suggests by likening nihilism to a 'radical disorder,' to be nihilistic is to deny the possibility of seriousness and to do so instinctively in a way similar to what Freud meant by a 'defense mechanism.' . . . The nihilist does not see actions as capable of being defended and so undermines the practice of reason-giving itself" (102-3).
And then he brings in Hannah Arendt:
"Arendt viewed nihilism as a way of thinking that can look rational but is really an attack on the purpose of rationality. Just as de Beauvoir defined nihilism as seriousness turned against seriousness, Arendt defined nihilism as thinking turned against thinking. . . . 'the desire to find results that would make further thinking unnecessary' . . . [for example] taking such a microscopic and decontextualized view of actions as to make them seem too ridiculous to care about. . . . [Gertz explains] Nihilism is 'dangerous' not only because it is self-destructive but also because it can be contagious. . . . Nihilism in an individual is a disorder, but nihilism in a society is a disease. . . . the disappointed serious person does not turn against a seriousness that is personal, but a seriousness that is cultural. . . . To the extent that the nihilist succeeds in enjoying life like a child, it is not from finding a new parent as the serious person believes is required, but simply from adopting the uncaring attitude of a child" (105-7).
WHERE IS NIHILISM?
At home, movies and shows are helping to make the nihilistic attitude contagious. The programming is formulaic, following external rules that we understand, and consequences for our actions aren't necessary. There's often no moral compass character to show us the way. This can be seen in the recent show Euphoria, which has every character blindly following the sexual guidance of pornography for showy but inauthentic sexual experiences. I kept waiting for some character to talk about it as an issue, but they're all too immersed it to be remotely in touch with themselves. And beyond the formulas, the act of passive viewing "not only is considered to be doing something but is increasingly becoming the only way we know how to do anything" (116).
At school, teachers have to compete with screens for attention, where teachers are trained to talk while students listen. Demanding student participation in the process is an affront to their freedoms. The currency is information, with "teachers as instruments of information storage and distribution," so plagiarism is increasing. Gertz draws on Freire to come to the conclusion that the solution is for students and teachers to regard one another as equals in order to "speak with each other" (122). I had an obsession with Freire for a time years ago, and I practice the 'speaking with each other' thing in philosophy classes pretty easily. But I can't picture it working in a math or science class where one person really needs to explain how things work for a group of people. The only way it can work with the teacher as an equal is to bring in a different authority for all to learn from together. Sometimes there really is a need for an authority in the room for any learning to happen, but are teachers necessarily perpetuating nihilism through any type of direct instruction? Or is it all attitude?
At work, the system is largely dehumanizing, and Gertz looks at the ways that, "trying to make money can end up making us less human, and the various ways in which we become blinded by money so that we also end up caring more about the dream of being rich than the reality of not being human" (125). This is all Marx's alienation of labour. We used to actually create products to sell with our identity firmly embedded in our creations, but now we are all pawns in the machine. Labour shifted "from a source of identity to a source of misery. . . . To become defined by a paycheque is to become defined by what one can consume rather than by what one can create" (128). This lack of meaningful identity leads to emptiness, which provokes us to buy more stuff in a quest to be someone. But the more we accept nihilism, the more we become susceptible to exploitation (137).
Politically (this is another fun, meaty part of the book), "politics today is basically everything we elect representatives to think about so we don't have to" (139). In Ancient Greece, it was an activity that "defined what it means to be human," not just a means to an end of forming good (or profitable) policy. "Politics was not originally about protecting life so that we could individually enjoy our freedom, it was about creating freedom so that collectively life could be made meaningful" (144). "In the modern era we have greatly increased the number of people who can participate in politics, but because we have greatly reduced the scope of politics, we have made such participation meaningless" (145). Arendt blames Plato for making the Academy about seeking Truth instead of seeking consensus: he started us down the road of trusting only experts.
"But if debating our judgments about reality with each other is how we become human, then replacing our judgment with the judgment of experts is to replace the political project of becoming human with the scientific project of becoming certain. . . . For this reason in politic too consensus has been replaced with certainty as democracy has been replaced with bureaucracy. Citizens no longer participate in political debates but instead participate in the act of voting to choose representatives . . . to choose policies . . . managed by bureaucrats, by political experts who apply the methodologies of science to the problems of life. . . . Arendt argues that our faith in scientific progress has led us not to truth and certainty, but to nihilism and disaster. . . . it is not an accident that the scientific politics of bureaucracies would have led to world wars. . . . the freedom of the liberated was not political freedom, it was only the freedom to join the labour market. . .. The distrust of experience that has stretched from Platonic metaphysics to Christian theology to capitalist bureaucracy has left us incapable of judging experience for ourselves, leading us to become much less willing to try to reach consensus with each other, and much more willing (and much more able) to try to destroy each other instead. . . . the loss of trust in judgments from experience has left us with only our prejudices to rely on" (149-53).
Arendt says, "Insofar as psychology tries to 'help' us, it helps us 'adjust' to these conditions, taking away our only hope, namely that we, who are not of the desert though we live in it, are able to transform it into a human world" (155). Our anxiety is telling us we don't belong is this system. But any individualistic response can't overcome nihilism. We need to come together again to debate and form consensus for the experience of being human, not for the goal of any particular policy.
This last bit hits home for me as a teacher navigating a year of sudden and dramatic changes from the ministry, the board, and my school admin, an outrageously bureaucratic system in which nobody seems to understand any of the rationale for anything we're asked to do, and, worse, nobody can figure out who even made any of the rules. It's a system governed by nobody that works for nobody!
SO, HOW DO WE MOVE FORWARD?
"From the Nietzschean perspective, then, the question that we need to ask is this: What are the ideals in the present that we must oppose in order to create a future without nihilism?"
Stop being apathetic, and look for aspects of life where you can take responsibility (and thereby get a glimpse at adult freedoms). De Beauvoir says, "At the age of twenty, they are convinced that their thought is futile, their good intentions ineffective. .. . In America, the individual is nothing. He is made into an abstract object of worship, by persuading him of his individual value, one stifles the awakening of a collective spirit in him" (166). Gertz explains,
"Individualism and autonomy are thus destructive insofar as they lead us to become obsessed with personal happiness and to view our unhappiness as something that divides us from others, as something that makes us abnormal, and as something that must be cured. . . . the pursuit of happiness can induce nihilism by treating lifelessness, oppression, and unhappiness as personal feelings, as feelings that reveal a person's pathological inability to be happy, the result of which is that we respond to our suffering with the nihilistic desire to change ourselves rather than with the political demand to change the system" (169).
For Heidegger, "the logic of modern technology is characterized as the logic of 'setting in order,' a logic that reduces reality--all reality--to the logic of means and ends, the logic where everything has meaning only insofar as w can use it in order to get something we want" (172). We think instrumentally because we've come to identify with our technological tools to the point that we try to align our ends with the ends of our devices. In other words, we have become dehumanized, "reduced to a power source that can be called upon on demand. . . . It should come as no surprise therefore that political decisions rarely, if ever, come into conflict with technological progress. . . . like abusers, they know we have nowhere else to go" (174-5). Even our sense of privacy has changed to the point that "people who still want to live in accordance with a more traditional sense of privacy have come to be seen as antisocial" (177).
Gertz goes on to explain that we're being reduced to data sets, and it's all pretty bad. His only way out seems to be "that we could become so nihilistic, that we could become so destructive, that we could destroy even our nihilistic values and the nihilistic systems that sustain them. . . . In other words, if nihilism doesn't kill us, it might make us stronger" (184). I don't find that a useful way forward. I think awareness of the miasma we're wallowing in can help us to recognize a less destructive path. I draw on Chomsky and Chris Hedges and Timothy Snyder for the call to wake up and think about what's happening in the world and in ourselves. If we turn back to de Beauvoir, can we not lift ourselves out of that childlike sense of freedom and embrace an adult freedom that comes with responsibility? If we start there, taking personal responsibility and then work towards developing a collective, then could we undo societal nihilism from the bottom up? What would have to happen to us to collectively confront reality, accept this world, and admit our own weaknesses? Reading books like this is, at least, a first step.