On Nihilism and Inventing Purpose


In the 1957 Swedish film, The Seventh Seal, directed by Ingmar Bergman, a man suffering from the bubonic plague during the Black Death pandemic in Europe, begs for water and comfort during his last moments,

Can’t you take pity on me? Help me…At least talk to me!….

I am going to die. What’s going to happen to me? Can’t you even comfort me? 

The response (not given to the man directly), though heart-rending, is true nonetheless.

It’s meaningless. It’s completely meaningless.

This film to me, is the essence, is the entirety, of the Nihilistic school of thought. This scene, dealing with the moral redundancy of helping a person, heading towards certain death, is not so much about the Existential Nihilism that people most commonly refer to when talking about the subject matter, but about Ethical Nihilism, the belief that morals are not universal constants, not even objectively derivable, but rather a changing,non-objective function of the social understanding of right and wrong at any given era.

But according to me, the film also deals with Existential Nihilism, when Death tricks the knight into a confession,

Knight:I want God to stretch out his hand, uncover his face and speak to me.

Death:But he remains silent.

Knight:I call out to him in the darkness. It’s as if there is no one there.

Death:Perhaps there isn’t anyone.

Knight:Then life is a preposterous horror. No man can live faced with Death knowing everything’s nothingness.

This has been the fear against nihilists all along–“‘nihilist’ is used to characterize the postmodern person, a dehumanized conformist, alienated, indifferent, and baffled, directing psychological energy into hedonistic narcissism or into a deep ressentiment that often explodes in violence.”[1]

If God(objective meaning,morals,etc) is dead, then doesn’t that eventually lead to degradation and destruction of all institutions?

And still, anyone who has a rudimentary understanding of the Scientific Method, finds it very difficult not to enter into the realms of Nihilism. The Nobel laureate in physics, Steven Weinberg notes in his work Dreams of a Final Theory: The Search for the Fundamental Laws of Nature (1993),

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

This quote has been used too many times in the wrong context. Contrary to the popular notion of gloom and doom associated with purposelessness and the insignificance of man, Weinberg takes the idea to a different conclusion. He points out that, “if there is no point in the universe that we discover by the methods of science, there is a point that we can give the universe by the way we live, by loving each other, by discovering things about nature, by creating works of art.[2]

This is a view that has also found its support among the Atheistic school of thought. But is it really such a good idea?

Can we really find a purpose for ourselves? I highly doubt it.

1.People change and so do beliefs.There is a psychological misconception called the End-of-History illusion. We (adults or young adults) think that our maturity, personal growth and tastes will remain mostly unchanged. We think we know who “we” are–we seem to know the Self. That is however,hardly the case. We evolve with time and as we do, our priorities, behaviour,  beliefs, also undergo change. So when we talk about creating a purpose for ourselves, can we really say, who this “self”, this “person” is, for whom we are creating a long-term purpose? I find it very hard to conceive, that a person,without any objective reference for morals or authority would be able to come up with such a purpose for themselves. This is a confirmation of the logical validity of Nihilism, as it shows the meaninglessness in trying to find an objective reference for a mutating entity,namely the “Self”,  but also a criticism of the idea, as it shows the caustic impact of nihilism in the society.

2. The Choice Paradox or Analysis Paralysis : In his book, The Paradox of Choice–Why More is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz notes,

Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.

When we have to choose every single thing, from our lives’ purpose to morals and values by ourselves, instead of feeling empowered, we feel daunted and anxious. There is a good TED talk on the topic of making choices by the said author,

We find that, even though nihilism makes complete intellectual sense,or I would even go on to say that it is the only logical philosophical ideology, its practical application, leads to tension, insecurity and pessimism at best.

Coming back to the movie, The Seventh Seal, Death says that we might be over-thinking the problem,for

Most people think neither of death nor nothingness

But for the ones who think about the “day you stand at the edge of life and face darkness”, the solution to me,for now, it seems, lies in the words of Voltaire,

..,if God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him. 

Alright then, enough of serious talk for today. Time to lighten the mood,

And also,I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.