Saturday, May 7, 2022

Part VIII: Dodging nihilism better

Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, Part VIII. For context, start at the introduction. In this post, I assume familiarity with a number terms from Check out Part VI where I summarize, and, even better, read yourself.

The Nihilist by Paul Merwart [public domain].

This series has a lot on rejecting Christianity. My Christianity carried a Trojan horse dead man's switch nihilism. For this post, I adopt David Chapman's definition of nihilism:

Nihilism holds that there is no meaning or value anywhere. Questions about purpose, ethics, and sacredness are unanswerable because they are meaningless. You might as well ask about the sleep habits of colorless green ideas as about the meaning of life.

(As usual, Wikipedia is also a great source.)

This post speculates on how to jointly reject Christianity and nihilism, and whether or not the nihilistic angst can be avoided. Some of the pain was intrinsic to losing my religion specifically and would have been there even if I hadn’t had a close brush with nihilism. But nihilism was the existential threat. While Eternalist Christianity can be highly functional (perhaps even adaptive!), nihilism is really bad. Therefore, it’s more important to reject nihilism than it is to reject Christianity.

Not every Christian has a nihilistic tendency hiding inside of them. If you don't see nihilism as the "other option," that's great! You're ahead of where I was.

Artfully dodging nihilism is mostly a case of not actively flinging it upon oneself. For me, and I think a lot of Christians, nihilism grew up inside my own heart as the vengeful inverted image of Christianity and the only other logical option. (Theologian William Lane Craig has this view of nihilism too.) So after rejecting Christianity, I had to also reject nihilism. A better way to lose one’s faith would be to reject nihilism first and then reject Eternalism, but I’m not really sure how one could cause this set of belief-state transitions. It must be possible for some people, but for me, I don’t see how it could have worked. 

Consider two possible paths through belief-space:

Belief Trajectory 1, the general path I followed

  1. Christianity is true, therefore nihilism is false. (Hidden assumption: meaning is non-nebulous.)
  2. Christianity is false because too many statements in Christianity are not well supported by evidence. Nihilism must be true by process of elimination. (Hidden assumption: meaning is non-nebulous.)
  3. Nihilistic angst.
  4. Christianity and nihilism are both false, because meaning does have nebulous character.  

Belief Trajectory 2, a hypothetical path

  1. Christianity is true, therefore nihilism is false.  (Hidden assumption: meaning is non-nebulous.)
  2. Christianity is true. Nihilism is false because meaning does have nebulous character. 
  3. Oops, the nebulous nature of meaning threatens Christianity!

One could hope that one’s Christianity gradually becomes more weakly held and less intimately connected to one’s identity, so that the nebulous nature of meaning can creep in without coming into a head-on collision with the Christian Eternalism. In fact, some degree of realization of the nebulous nature of meaning did grow in my mind before I rejected Christianity. That germ of realization grew into an escape hatch from the deep-space vacuum of nihilism. Chapman’s somewhat bizarre assertion “You are, therefore, always already implicitly in the complete stance,” rings true to me.

My tour through nihilism was, in hindsight, short. It only lasted a few months. Therapy and a supportive environment were essential. In my heart, I also credit and thank David Chapman. His words accelerated my recovery, but I might have made it through anyway. However, I don’t see my dodge of nihilism as having been a 100% certainty. Ultimate failure was possible. 

The path through nihilistic angst is common and it’s reasonable to expect that a lot of people will have to walk through the valley of the shadow of the meaningless. We on the sidelines can help in two ways: by expounding the obviousness and immediate use of meaning (as Chapman does) and also by providing better symptomatic treatment for the pain, the angst and the depression. As a culture, we need to do better with our mental health. A simple step that we can all take is to start talking about our own mental health issues more openly. 

Perhaps Belief Trajectory 2 is not so unreasonable or improbable. A person could reject Christianity on the grounds of having embraced the nebulous nature of meaning directly, and simultaneously reject Christianity and nihilism. The person would have to reject the false dichotomy between Eternalism and nihilism before rejecting Eternalism. Effectively, that person would have to learn of the third option of the Complete Stance (either in the form presented by or any other). This is not the path I took, so I am less competent to be a guide along that path, but given the upside of avoiding a period of depression, it is the path that I would recommend. This blog post series describes my own path, and I really hope that the description is taken as a prescription. 

In conclusion, yes, leave your eternalist system. But first, reject nihilism. Fully embrace the true richness of meaning, the intrinsic value of life in general and your life specifically. It’s not complicated: a full belly is better than starving, life is better than no life and the beauty of humanity comes from the sum of its parts — including you. From a certain vantage point, the pervasiveness of meaning is obvious. Consider this tiny example: if you don’t accept the existence of meaning, then how are you reading these words?

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