It seems like I can’t go a day without seeing a political journalist writing some misinformed screed about nihilism wherein they strawman their gross misinterpretation of the definition of nihilism. They talk about the buzzword nihilism, people who believe in nothing and try to burn down the world, which began as a political movement in Russia in the 1860s. It’s a pop culture interpretation that has almost nothing to do with philosophical nihilism.
This is the definition that tends to be ascribed when people talk about movies like Joker or Fight Club, or Rick and Morty. But in philosophical nihilism, there are so many forms of nihilism it’s hard to keep track. The closest this buzzword comes to capturing any school of nihilism is moral nihilism. But this idea of believing in nothing and being destructive is not at all what philosophical nihilism and its offshoots existentialism and absurdism are about.
Philosophical nihilism is simply the recognition that there is no objective meaning to human activity (or any activity in the universe), because on the timeline and scale of the universe, nothing makes any lasting impact whatsoever. For example, if the Earth was destroyed by its expanding sun (an inevitable occurrence) before humans expanded into the cosmos, all of human existence would have made absolutely no change in the universe at all. However, nihilism suggests that subjective meaning is not only real, but of utmost importance because in the face of a lack of objective meaning, creating your own meaning is not only freeing but more fulfilling than relying on meaning prescribed by external authorities.
In nihilism, the oft-misinterpreted phrase “God is Dead” is really the view that human religious structures have exploited human stupidity, herd-mentality and inability to take responsibility for their own morality and happiness in order to create profitable hierarchical structures by selling prescribed meaning back to them.
Nihilism does not have no morality, except in particular schools of nihilism (which are not mainstream), because nihilism recognizes that humanity is an animal, a species of ape, which has evolved to have its own moral instincts. Within the context of its own species it, at least, knows right from wrong on an instinctive level.
Nihilism also doesn’t reject religion or spirituality. In the context of nihilism, you believe whatever gives you meaning, and nihilism suggests that existing religions are also nihilism because they know they’re selling unknowable mythology as a cure for lack of meaning. If you argue it down at the philosophical level, what gives meaning to humans is reducing suffering for humans, both the self and other humans, so anything that you choose to believe which accomplishes that is fair game.
I’m not going to fully explain nihilism in one post. You should read my book.
But, whenever you see someone in popular culture using nihilism as a sort of dismissive buzzword insult, that’s a telltale sign that they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. Nihilism is a deep and complex topic and its definition is not “believing in nothing and doing bad things”. Nihilism is much more accurately about searching for meaning.
It’s not even an ideology — it’s just the philosophical conclusion of how meaning in life functions; it’s true whether you believe it or not, just like how atoms are true whether you believe in them or not.