An important note: this is not a defense of nihilism, but rather an exploration of its significance in the personal growth of individuals.
I love talking to people about philosophy.
(seriously, if you want to talk about philosophy anytime, setup a call with me!).
It's a great way to bring out some of their most fundamental beliefs (which deeply influence their actions and aspirations), and it usually results in very interesting conversations.
I find that through these conversations, I'm able to gain a variety of interesting and insightful perspectives to think through, many of which I end up adopting as my own (the amount of value I've gotten out of these conversations is unquantifiable, but that's a topic for another day).
After talking to many younger people about philosophy, I started to notice a trend in thinking that was common among many of the most thoughtful people I know - a trend that was very reminiscent of nihilism.
I've thought about this a couple times over the past few years, but struggled to figure out its relevance (it was like one of those passing thoughts that pops up sometimes in the right context). Over time though, I've started to realize the significance of this observation and why it's the case.
It seems that for many people nihilism is the natural stepping stone toward existentialism and awareness.
Hold up - what's nihilism again?
Before we get into why this is the case, it's probably a good idea to briefly discuss what nihilism is. According to Google, Nihilism is "the rejection of all religious and moral principles in the belief that life is meaningless."
I want to focus more on the "life is meaningless" part because that's the most essential aspect. While this usually comes coupled with an anti-religious sentiment, it isn't necessarily important to the concept of nihilism.
What we're really talking about is the belief that there's no point to anything and nothing has inherent meaning.
This can stem from an understanding of the impermanence of everything or a rejection of a previous moral framework (which I'll talk more about soon).
But if you were to condense the essence of nihilism into a single phrase (at least for the sake of this discussion), it would boil down to "the rejection of meaning."
What nihilism looks like in practice
Alright, so how does nihilism actually look in the real world? How do people even become nihilists? You've probably guessed that most baby's aren't born into nihilism, so what exactly converts them? Let's take a look at a common thought pattern for nihilists that leads them to their beliefs (maybe some of you will relate to this!):
- Most people start with a strong belief in a conventional belief system (often a religious one). When I say a "conventional belief system", I mean a set of beliefs that are widely accepted by large parts of society - which is why most religions fall under this category. Another important feature of these systems is their tendency to be present in people's youth. Especially for people born into families that observe specific religions (the majority of people), it's very common to grow up believing in whatever your parents do. In these scenarios, all you know and your perception of yourself and the world around you is often heavily influenced by your belief system.
- At some point, people start to recognize inconsistencies in their belief system (no system is perfect, so their are bound to be holes in almost any belief system that can be picked apart). This leads to a red pill/blue pill situation that represents the first major decision in this process of existential growth. Because belief systems are so deeply ingrained in how we think (especially after years of belief), thinking about the possibility that you have believed in something inaccurate is threatening. People are faced with a decision: either push yourself to keep questioning your beliefs and potentially watch them fall apart in front of you, or take the comforting path of pushing the questions away from your thoughts, never allowing them to come back up.
- People who choose to continue questioning their beliefs (after some time of course, making such a decision isn't always easy) start to see more and more flaws in their thinking. At some point, people decide to take the leap and deny their belief system entirely (due to the overwhelming amount of inconsistencies that they are able to see).
- This type of decision represents a radical and powerful mindset shift that changes how you think about everything (ex: going from genuinely believing that there is a higher power governing everything to denying it entirely). There's much more to such a mindset shift than meets the eye (these types of mindset shifts happen in many places - this is a deep topic for another day), but the bottom line is, your perception of everything around you can change very rapidly.
- This can often lead to some sadness or loneliness initially (which makes sense, considering how big of a change it is). Often, people can experience the thought of being alone in their nihilism (thinking that no one else has thought about it), they often think that there's no point to doing anything, everything becomes sad, etc.
- However, eventually people begin to come to terms with their thoughts/realizations. It initially begins with cynicism (which is often evident through cynical humor), but often develops into a general curiosity that can turn into many other philosophical beliefs. While some people will remain nihilists for longer periods of time, it's very common for people to start to branch off into other more unconventional belief systems.
- People realize that their existential beliefs are only the tip of the iceberg. There's so much more depth to explore with philosophy, existentialism, and introspection. However, the experience of initial denial of their belief system and the path toward nihilism served as the initial catalyst to get them thinking. After this step, people often learn about new philosophies and ways of thinking and sometimes turn back to religion (with a new deep and nuanced understanding of it), or they come to other forms of meaning making. But again, past this point is a topic for another day.
This is something like what a typical nihilists thought process could like like over time (I definitely can relate to some of this and I know lot's of people who have gone through a similar experience).
Ok… so what does this have to do with personal growth?
Now that we know what nihilism actually looks like in practice, we can talk about how this relates to my original claim.
First off, let's talk about why nihilism often points toward existentialism and personal growth, and why it's indicative of introspective people. The fact that someone has adopted a nihilist stance often indicates a few important things about them.
1. Escape from conformity
The first thing that nihilism indicates about someone who has adopted it is that they are willing to go beyond convention. They have to first (at least partially) reject the conventional belief system that they were raised with in order to affirm nihilism. This lack of fear to go beyond convention is important for later development.
The majority of existential thought, philosophy, and other such disciplines are not conventionally held beliefs. That's not to say that they're rejected by society, but more that they aren't widely accepted. In order to begin to adopt such beliefs and think about these topics freely, one needs to be willing to go beyond conventional beliefs in their own interest.
My point isn't that convention is inherently bad (it's not, there are plenty of things that are conventional for a reason), but that people must be willing to think about beliefs without taking convention into consideration in order to fully appreciate the breadth and depth of available knowledge in philosophical areas.
2. Willingness to question
If someone has adopted nihilism, it also points to the fact that they are willing to question the nature of their own perception of reality and the truth of their own belief systems. This is extremely important in any process of building awareness and practicing introspection.
Stubborn defense of beliefs is arguably the most common way that people can delude themselves. If you close yourself off to judging the verity of your beliefs, you close yourself off to the possibility of discovering the true nature of how things are.
The likelihood that you are born with a perfectly accurate understanding of everything is incredibly low (in fact it's probably clear that no one will every have such an understanding), so its to an individual's own benefit to question all beliefs (if they are interested in seeking the truth).
It's also very easy to construe your own perception of reality with reality itself, and given how much our understanding of reality influences our behaviors, this type of mental block can have a significant effect on our lives. Being open to questioning all aspects of one's own beliefs is one of the only ways to think through these types of situations.
For these reasons, willingness to question beliefs is one of the most significant indicators of someone who is able to think deeply and who is likely inclined toward deeper philosophical thought. Since nihilism is an early indicator of this willingness to question, it then also serves as an early indicator of the types of thoughts that allow for awareness and introspection.
3. Open mindedness toward other perspectives
Not only does nihilism indicate a willingness to question one's own beliefs, but it also points to an open mindedness toward external perspectives. By adopting nihilism, people effectively accept an external perspective over their own with the pursuit of truth in mind.
Since almost no one is open to nihilism, becoming a nihilist almost always represents a drastic switch in beliefs (potentially the first such significant belief switch in a person's life). Taking such a leap is to subscribe to different ideas is a common practice in exploring existentialism, as people become exposed to ideas that are often unconventional and esoteric. Thus, people who are willing to dive into such topics must be open minded in this way.
4. Acceptance of truth beyond individual desires
One of the more subtle things that accepting nihilism points to is the willingness to accept an idea in the pursuit of truth, despite an individual's wishes.
It's probably safe to say that most people (at least initially) don't want everything to be meaningless (they would much rather something nicer to be the case). However, the fact that they are able to accept that everything is meaningless, regardless of their strong desire for this not to be the case indicates a strong valuation of the pursuit of truth, regardless of what the pursuit reveals.
This is incredibly important because the pursuit of truth itself and inherent curiosity on such topics is often what drives people far into topics like existentialism where people seek to learn about the nature of themselves and of their existence.
How is nihilism the first stepping stone?
So now the connection between nihilism and existentialism/introspection and philosophy is hopefully becoming clear, but I still haven't explained why I said that nihilism is the natural stepping stone for most people toward growth in these areas.
There are a few key reasons why nihilism seems like the natural first step for many thoughtful people to test the waters of philosophical thought before diving into the depths of existentialism.
First (and possibly most importantly), nihilism is accessible to everyone. This is because it doesn't rely on a specific set of beliefs that is unique to an individual culture or group of people, but rather is indicative of a denial of other beliefs (which can fall into a wide variety of categories).
Once people start to question their own belief systems (especially those that are related to their understandings of meaning), they are only one step away from rejection of these systems, which is the direct cause of nihilism. Thus, nihilism is agnostic of people's backgrounds since people of all religions can and do become nihilists, and so it's equally accessible to all of these people.
Additionally, its relatively straightforward to come to the conclusion that nothing is meaningful, and is reachable for most people (compared to some of the more dense and esoteric philosophical theories).
This is because if someone questions their beliefs and decides to reject their belief system, they are naturally left close to nihilism (potentially without even knowing what nihilism is). If someone is to deny their belief system that provided them with a framework for defining what is meaningful in their lives, they are left with no framework for determining meaning, and thus affirming that life is meaningless is only one step around the corner.
3. Nihilism as a catalyst
Finally, nihilism is almost a tipping point for existential thought. If someone has taken the time to think through their belief system enough to become a nihilist, the process of doing so builds powerful mental frameworks (like the one's I discussed earlier) which naturally push individuals toward the truth.
Nihilism almost naturally serves as a filter for people with the inclination toward existential exploration since the people who are willing to take the leap to question their own beliefs are often naturally led to nihilism.
In this way, the thought processes that lead individuals toward nihilism also points them toward further exploration of philosophy and existentialism and further introspection and serves as a catalyst for growth.
Some final thoughts
For these reasons, it seems plausible to me (and maybe probable) that nihilism plays a significant role in many people's journey of personal growth. Hopefully, this can serve to identify and explain a common trend among thoughtful people and to help people conceptualize why this trend exists.
I'm curious to hear everyone's thoughts on this topic (if you got this far or just scrolled to the bottom!), be sure to let me know what you think and if you have any objections.
Thanks for reading!