The theory of nihilism contends that life is meaningless and the content and character of our lives do not matter. I argue that this view of the world is flawed. Some may see the argument against nihilism as unnecessary and self-evident. I am not so sure.
Issues with mental health have become a crisis in the United States, and anxiety and depression rates have surged at alarming levels. This trend has permeated our campus where there has been a rise in mental health concerns.
I think that anxiety and depression are in part derived from nihilistic feelings of despair, inadequacy and helplessness. The world can seem indifferent, and our ability to combat that indifference can seem small. This view appears tragic, but I think it is reasonable.
There are 10 billion galaxies in the observable universe, with an estimated total of one billion trillion stars. The universe expands indefinitely, while the scope of Earth in relation to the universe will continue to shrink. Our lives seem minuscule, even when confined to our planet of over seven billion people and its 25,000-mile circumference.
Facing this daunting backdrop, many may wonder whether their lives have meaning at all. They may even ask why they should live a life of purpose.
Living a life of purpose takes effort. Doing the right thing forces us to make hard choices and sacrifice things we care about in order to achieve a higher state of aspiration. If nihilism is right and there is no higher purpose, then it makes sense to avoid sacrifice when it is inconvenient. We ultimately come to terms with a life that lacks meaning.
Yet it is not rational to accept a nihilistic perspective. I think a simple reframing of Pascal’s Wager helps to prove this point. Consider these two options:
- Live life as though it has meaning. If we live our lives as though they have meaning and nihilism is true, then doing so is just as meaningless as living our lives as though there is no meaning.
- Live life as though it does not have meaning. If we live our lives as though they do not have meaning and it turns out that they do, then we have wasted enormous human potential.
We should therefore assume that our lives have meaning. If option 1 is true, it would cost us nothing to act accordingly. If option 2 is true, then living a life of meaning would allow us to realize vast human potential. We could justify our existence as more than transient animals in an uncaring universe.
According to this argument, any rational people playing the game of life should hedge their bets and play as though option 2 is correct and our lives have meaning. Although this argument does not disprove nihilism, it does show that accepting it as true is irrational.
Realizing our human potential gives us dignity, while failing to achieve this noble aim strips our lives of dignity. Without purpose, our lives are insignificant.
However, caring for ourselves and others can give us a purpose to strive for. In this way realizing our human potential gives our lives meaning. I think philosopher Ronald Dworkin captured this idea best when he wrote: “Without dignity our lives are only blinks of duration. But if we manage to lead a good life well, we create something more. We write a subscript to our mortality. We make our lives tiny diamonds in the cosmic sands.”
Depression and anxiety may make it seem as if our lives may be worthless and that we have no potential as individuals. We should not settle with this belief.
We should operate under the assumptions that our lives have dignity and that we have large human potential before us. Our lives and the lives of those around us have meaning.
It is hard to write a meaningful subscript to our mortality, but I sincerely hope that we are ready and willing to meet this challenge.
Contact opinions writer Alec Greven at firstname.lastname@example.org.