Wanted: A Few Good Nihilists

Earlier today I was browsing at one of my favorite group blogs when I ran across a post that made the following claim: “Without transcendence of some kind, however, it is difficult to see how to avoid nihilism: there is no source of meaning if there is no transcendence.” The claim is that materialism lacks “a coherent notion of transcendence” and thus any adequate ground for meaning. The problem with this claim is that there are plenty of materialists around but not many that are card-carrying nihilists. People seem quite capable of attributing meaning to life and adopting values to live by with complete disregard for the lack of transcendence they ascribe to the Universe. How can they do this?

First, in defense of modern materialists. Modern biology pushes the evolutionary saga, the emergence and development of genetic material that forms the basis of life on Earth, back three billion years. That’s quite a heritage to contemplate. Furthermore, modern genetics shows how truly superficial are the physical differences between different human populations that have formed the basis for group conflict and intolerance for millennia. Modern genetics does as much or more to advance “the brotherhood of humankind” as other philosophical, religious, or cultural ideas. Finally, modern ecology has shown how deeply our existence is intertwined with and interdependent on animals, plants, and the land around us. If we aren’t one with Mother Earth, there is at least a close and dependent relationship.

What’s my point? Much of the meaning that religious systems or mystics have held forth under the banner of transcendence relate to our human heritage (spark of the transcendent divine), the unity of humankind, and some sort of stewardship or link to the living world around us. But these are the same values that many steeped in modern scientific views, as materialist and untranscendent as they are, profess, as outlined in the prior paragraph. I don’t think it works to say that if the perspective isn’t transcendent then the professed meaning or value somehow isn’t real or sincere. Transcendence simply doesn’t seem to be the hinge on which human perception of meaning turns.

Second, we should reject the “materialist = nihilist” equation because Mormonism comes across to many as embracing materialism. “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter …. We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.D&C 131:7-8. Now there are creative ways to read this passage, but enthusiasm for transcendence is not one of them. One can squeeze the Mormon rock pretty hard and not get much transcendence out of it. Maybe materialism isn’t so bad.

Third, I frankly doubt whether there are any true nihilists out there. Go check out Nihilists.net — no, I don’t think they really get it. True nihilists don’t host film festivals. In LA. The best depiction of nihilists I know of is in The Big Lebowski, which tells us something, doesn’t it? If three guys with bowling balls can stand up to nihilism, I think we’re safe for the time being.


  1. Justin H says:

    Be careful, Dude, or zuh nihilists ofer at zat ozer blog vill cut off somesing of yours.

  2. I think people who insist that meaning only comes through transcendance fear the idea of “not being.”

  3. Of course, even though you wrote it eight or nine times, I would spell transcendence wrong…

    It was because I was so excited about having a post of Dave’s to reply to!

  4. I think part of the game in the transcendence post Dave links to is this: raising the bar on the existence of meaning. In the real world, people routinely manage to find meaning in fiction–narratives that are not only often not transcendent, but not even materially existing. If people can find meaning in “Friends,” why should we suppose that they will be unable to find meaning in life–regardless of their philosophical perspective?

    That connects with a second aspect of the strategy on the original post–to inflate the practical importance of abstract theology and philosophy for people’s beliefs and life experiences. It may be the case that, for some definition of transcendence and some definition of meaning, an absense of one logically precludes the existence of the other. But, in actual fact, we people really just muddle by constructing meaning out of what we can get our hands on.

    In other words, I think the original post here priviledges philosophy at the expense of psychology and culture–the place we should probably look if we want to understand how and when people are able to construct meaning out of a particular worldview.

  5. Nihilists!? I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.

  6. Mega Eagle says:

    Wanted: a few good discussion topics!

  7. Wanted: a few good comments!

  8. I think your arguments are cogent, David. I go further, though. Transcendence strikes me as an utterly unintelligible notion in the first place. Nothing could possibly count as evidence for or against transcendence. Thus, even if things were “transcendent” in some sense, we’d cannot possibly determine that this is the case.

    Once one realizes the poverty of this concept of transcendence, if the best he can come up with is nihilism, then that’s a problem of an entirely different order.

    On a side note, I once tried to imagine a world populated with people just like myself, and boy, what a mess! Mostly, everyone was arguing, “I’m a nihilist!” — “No. I’m a nihilist!”

  9. I have to wonder whether Dave read the entirety of the post he references, especially since the post itself recognizes that Mormons are materialists and, in the last paragraph, rejects the idea that materialism precludes transcendence.

    First, my claim was not that materialism entails nihilism. It was that many philosohers have assumed that materialism entails nihilism. In addition, the question is not whether card-carrying materialists claim to be nihilists. The question is whether nihilism is implied by their understanding of the world, regardless of what they believe. People often have contradictory beliefs.

    Finally, Dave and DKL seem to assume that “transcendence” must mean what it means (or is intended to mean) in traditional theology. I, too, think that usage is probably meaningless, as my second paragraph suggests.

    I don’t claim that the post was absolutely clear. Indeed, I tried to clarify it a couple of times. But I think it was fairly obvious that the question was, by asking the question of the kinds of substance there are, also a question of what transcendence means rather than a claim about what it means.

    I have no problem with objections, but if you’re going to object, at least get right the position you’re objecting to.


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