Friday, October 28, 2016

A Nihilist's Guide to Meaning

I've never been plagued by the big existential questions. You know, like What's my purpose? or What does it all mean?

Growing up I was a very science-minded kid — still am — and from an early age I learned to accept the basic meaninglessness of the universe. Science taught me that it's all just atoms and the void, so there can't be any deeper point or purpose to the whole thing; the kind of meaning most people yearn for — Ultimate Meaning — simply doesn't exist.

Nor was I satisfied with the obligatory secular follow-up, that you have to "make your own meaning." I knew what that was: a consolation prize. And since I wasn't a sore loser, I decided I didn't need meaning of either variety, Ultimate or man-made.

In lieu of meaning, I mostly adopted the attitude of Alan Watts. Existence, he says, is fundamentally playful. It's less like a journey, and more like a piece of music or a dance. And the point of dancing isn't to arrive at a particular spot on the floor; the point of dancing is simply to dance. Vonnegut expresses a similar sentiment when he says, "We are here on Earth to fart around."

This may be nihilism, but at least it's good-humored.

Now, to be honest, I'm not sure whether I'm a full-bodied practitioner of Watts's or Vonnegut's brand of nihilism. Deep down, maybe I still yearn for more than dancing and farting. But by accepting nihilism, at least as an intellectual plausibility, I've mostly kept the specter of meaning from haunting me late at night. (...)

What follows is my attempt at figuring out what people mean when they talk about meaning. In particular, I want to rehabilitate the word — to cleanse it of wishy-washy spiritual associations, give it the respectable trappings of materialism, and socialize it back into my worldview. This is a personal project, but I hope some of my readers will find value in it for themselves.

by Kevin Simler, Melting Asphalt |  Read more:
Images: Melting Asphalt

[ed. Really quite excellent, read the whole thing.]