I often flit between thinking myself a nihilist and not. It often depends how I have been primed and how I am looking at the issue. I think I have found a way of properly describing my position on the issue. I am a nihilist who values things.
I think the problem comes from maintaining this blog. The conversations get wrapped up in rhetoric and the best of the debaters have been able to use rhetoric to prime my thinking. But over time I have noticed that their rhetoric gives me the benchmark against which to fully illuminate my position as a non-nihilistic nihilist. That benchmark is religious nihilism.
Religious nihilism is the stance that all things are meaningless, except with God. It is simultaneously the pronunciation of a nihilistic universe and an external God who can imbue all things with value. It is top-down value.
I reject that philosophy. Although many religious people seem very comfortable having that philosophy themselves, and announcing to atheists that they must be nihilistic because their view of the world lacks this external value-giver, I don’t accept it. I think things can be their own shining beacon of value and worth. I believe in grassroots value.
You’ll notice this isn’t absolute nihilism; it is the enunciation of value. It is only nihilism insofar as it rejects extrinsic value. I believe in grassroots, dependent value. It’s easy to dismiss “dependent value” as not existing at all, making ‘extrinsic nihilism’ identical to ‘absolute nihilism’. But I think that misses the point. Imagine a CD in a universe devoid of technology to read it, or a book written in a dead language. In what sense of the word do these things convey ‘meaning’? They don’t. There is only any meaning contained in the CD or conveyed by language when something is there to understand it. (If you want to really blow your mind, try to imagine writing Microsoft Office in a universe without material; you can’t! Meaning also depends on a physical medium.) And so it is with value. An object must be valued to have value. It emerges from the relationship between the person and the object. A vase, for example, would have no value after the extinction of all creatures that might relate to its creation.
It is from here, as an extrinsic nihilist, I started to see how an absolute nihilist might talk about objective morality. Consider any situation where you have an assortment of choices as to how you might proceed. (I tend to imagine medical scenarios within a content of health insurance and I am the doctor.) All the choices you have can be labelled. There’s the one that benefits you, the one that best profits the hospital, doing best by the patient and trying to maximise wellbeing even if it means making hard decisions. The ‘absolute nihilist’ can recognise the ‘moral’ choice as a linguistic notion. They won’t see any value in it, necessarily. But maximising wellbeing is synonymous with what most people mean when they say morality. And from there, I can talk about an extrinsic nihilistic morality. It’s the exact same thing, except with a recognition of value in wellbeing.
So, the religious narrative accusing all views of the world devoid of a God as nihilistic doesn’t carry the pejorative tone they hope it does. Being a nihilist is about recognising you are a part of the process of creating meaning and value. It also doesn’t silence your ability to discuss morality, because if you can get to objective morality from absolute nihilism, you can certainly get there from extrinsic nihilism, and if you only want relativism, you can achieve that too.