“Optimistic Nihilism” and Whistling Past God’s Graveyard
The colorful six-minute animation from the YouTube channel Kurzgesagt recently raked in millions of views with a brief history of...well, everything. The narrator offers a naturalistic view of the entire universe, but carries it to nihilistic conclusions.
You’ve heard the story before: In its infancy, humanity believed in God, purpose, and the centrality of human life to cope with the scariness of earth. As we got “older,” science showed us how backwards these ideas were.
The condescension toward believers and the assumed conflict between faith and reason is not surprising. What is surprising is Kurzgesagt’s conclusion about what this all means in the end. In short, we come face to face with an inconceivably enormous universe that is from nothing, for nothing, and amounts to nothing, culminating finally in its own heat death.
Knowing just how crushing a realization this is, Kurzgesagt wants to change the way we think about it, countering “existential dread” with “optimistic nihilism”:
You only get one shot at life, which is scary, but it also sets you free. If the universe ends in heat death, every humiliation you suffer in your life will be forgotten. Every mistake you made will not matter in the end. Every bad thing you did will be voided. If our life is all we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters. If the universe has no principles, the only principles relevant are the ones we decide on. If the universe has no purpose, then we get to dictate what its purpose is. Humans will most certainly cease to exist at some point, but before we do, we get to explore ourselves and the world around us. We get to experience feelings. We get to experience food, books, sunrises, and being with each other …
If this is our one shot at life, there is no reason not to have fun and live as happy as possible. Bonus points if you made the life of other people better. More bonus points if you help build a galactic human empire. Do the things that make you feel good. You get to decide whatever this means for you.
This line of thinking is not uncommon. In a Big Think video on “Hope & Optimism,” theoretical physicist and atheist Lawrence Krauss argues that the secret to living in an accidental universe headed for a “miserable future” is this: “We make our own purpose. We make our own joy.” A recent New York Times article about “poetic naturalism” (which Brandon Vogt has written extensively about here at Strange Notions) and finding meaning in the mundane argues: “Meaning begins and ends with how we talk about our own lives, such as our myths and stories.” Then there is Justice Anthony Kennedy’s famous line from the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life …”
This might seem like a charming idea to some. It appeals to our modern sensibilities (of independence, creativity, and love of science) and to some our most basic desires (for meaning, connection, and joy). But charm is deceptive. The appeal is more a medicine show than a philosophy, and the elixir of “optimistic nihilism” so much snake oil.
In its entry on nihilism, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes almost immediately that nihilism is “often associated with extreme pessimism.” This isn’t the result of lazy thinking or an accident of history, but of dealing honestly with nihilistic premises. If the world has no inherent purpose, and if everything ends in oblivion with no God to gather it up, then hope becomes naiveté. When Shakespeare’s Macbeth sees the nothing that life signifies, he simultaneously sees the noise and idiocy of it all. And Nietzsche’s dictum “God is dead” isn’t uttered by a heroic secularist, but by a prophetic madman running through a marketplace with a lantern. He didn’t see nihilism as a positive development. It spelled incredible trouble for man.
So we whistle past God’s graveyard. But can’t we still “transvaluate” all values? Can we still find hope and happiness in our own constructions? The intellectual quagmires of relativism – Can’t one person’s happiness easily be another’s misery? Who can value certain behaviors as deserving “bonus points” if there are no values to begin with? – are well-known. But if the only moral rule we have is “do the things that make you feel good,” there’s no good reason to think humanity should find happiness, much less avoid disaster. Just as our chaotic weather events reflect the gradual warming of the globe, our chaotic social realities seem to reflect just such a gradual narrowing of the heart.
Optimistic Nihilism acknowledges that the story of the world ultimately isn’t about us – which is true. It’s not about us. But if it’s ultimately about nothing, then the universe stares blankly back at our own freedom to go beyond good and evil.
If philosophy and history have taught us anything, it’s that this is nothing to be optimistic about.
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