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The Absence of Truth: My Journey into the Meaninglessness of Life
Exploring the role of God in a Nihilistic worldview.
Disclaimer: Some readers seem to take this story literally – although it's factually correct – the intended purpose was a thought experiment on rational irrationality rather than a memoir of life-struggle.
I'm naturally a reflective person – a euphemism for overthinking – and for a while I couldn't unplug myself from ethics, throwing every possible hypothesis against the wall in a vain attempt to discover moral principles that I could reliably rest on. Ultimately, I abandoned the idea that I would find a satisfying rationale and concluded that searching for truth in morality was hopeless and that instead, denying its existence at all seemed to be a reasonable approach to keeping me mentally sane. In essence, morality is subjective, and from that perspective, claiming the existence of higher purposes is nonsense. What makes equality a more worthwhile goal than freedom, pleasure, or anything else? In this respect, a politician presenting his policy as the right decision is no more different than someone claiming that blue is the best color because there is no objective way to justify it. As a result, I came to disbelieve that ideals could have inherent truth, subsequently discarding their validity, and assigning myself to the logos: there is no such thing as “Good” or “Bad”.
The absurdity of this situation made me lean towards Nihilism, which can sometimes be considered as a curse for pessimism – which I may have modestly expressed – albeit, I found it to be an exaggerated assumption. My desire to renounce relentlessly seeking truth resulted from witnessing an asymmetry between confidence and knowledge – which is seemingly at odds with the school of rationality as they're supposedly correlated. And in that sense, conforming to Nihilism was an emancipatory gateway, a straightforward manner to no longer give a fuck about doing the right thing or anticipating hearing triggering contentious that induce a strong desire to object because nothing matters, anymore.
Although the main idea behind Nihilism can be easily understood, its practical application is a different story. Generally speaking, adhering to a doctrine in a fundamental way will inevitably raise unrealistic expectations, such as attaining Nirvana in Buddhism is hard to believe, nor acting as a perfect utilitarian who carefully weighs each decision against future consequences, but leaning in this direction is certainly a more pragmatic option. Nihilism is quite unambiguous as its ultimate goal is meaninglessness, but since I had obligations to fulfill, such as work and subsistence, I was primarily interested in the moral aspects of Nihilism while delineating its implications was the most intriguing part. At the time, I was living in Morocco and had the good fortune to share my household with a political scientist. One day we discussed Speciesism and I explained to him that since there is no irrefutable argument to justify a hierarchy between humans and/or animals, theoretically my life is no more valuable than any other creature. Then he presented me with a hypothetical dilemma – a sort of Trolley problem – asking me if I had to choose between saving a human or a chicken, what would I do? I concluded that, intuitively, I'd very likely spare human life, although a pure fanatic would do nothing and let everyone die, which admittedly reinforced my earlier assumption that overriding my emotional wiring along nihilistic lines was out of scope.
More concretely, I challenged myself to follow Nihilism down to its inherent apolitical implications – which could be felt in the most mundane discussions – while at first, it seemed to be a convenient way of listening to different opinions with far less concern about their validity, it had undeniably become a direct path to the observer's seat without many privileges, except to act as a polite reminder that things don't matter. Eventually, it might become concerning if you don't express any moral convictions when people generally expect you to have opinions – at least on certain historical facts. I had another interaction with my fellow politologue and I asked him: “how can you believe that liberal policies are more beneficial overall when there is no definitive answer to support that claim on either side?”. Afterward, I jumped at the opportunity to formulate my argument tautologically: “absolute certainty is out of reach, therefore thinking in black or white is inaccurate given the complexity of things, thus taking sides is futile” – which, in retrospect, was merely a disguised way of signaling wisdom and avoiding to make an assumption by summing up the evidence.
In the end, Nihilism acted as a poor incentive to be better informed, as living with an allergy to uncertainty would shrink my mind to an empty state and further distance me from enlightenment. Meanwhile, I was considering adhering to a Theistic religion as, in the same vein as Nihilism, they both provide a framework for developing moral beliefs – that are most of the time, easier to put in place than consequentialism-based ones – while keeping the benefit of assigning you to a camp. On the other hand, absolute morals are not very flexible; although you can openly discuss them, they remain inherently undeniable. Another important element is the alienating aspect of religions, which makes people more inclined to feel peer pressure from implicit and coercive expectations to express certain values, which is comparatively less likely to occur within a community where nothing is believed.
Assessing the benefits of shifting from radically opposed beliefs for practical reasons, while overtly demonstrating awareness of the process, struck me as an unusual move, but in reality, it's something quite common.
Rational Irrationality is a term coined by the economist Bryan Caplan to explain the tendency of people to make irrational decisions despite being capable of acting rationally. The theory is likely to manifest itself when the following two assumptions are met: people have preferences over beliefs, in the sense that some ideas are more appealing for other reasons than their true value, and the cost of holding irrational beliefs is low. As an example, someone may believe in Protectionism as a way to signal patriotism, or display consistency with their respective political faction despite the policy having a negative effect on economic growth and welfare. Alternatively, a person may be tempted to believe they will win the lottery, but the cost of ending up broke for spending all their savings on a Ferrari is too high to act foolishly.
Following this possibility, the adoption of certain practices from a religious or spiritual tradition could be justified by convenient reasons, or as a utility for serving psychological needs, regardless of the underwhelming amount of evidence to support their effectiveness in modern societies. In the current context, holding a theistic creed may serve its intended function – drastically reducing the magnitude of effort involved in forming moral convictions – while having a ridiculously low cost compared to – in most cases – believing in the ability to fly off skyscrapers, making it a good candidate to be considered as rational irrational.
However, it makes sense to rigorously employ rational thinking when the outcome is irrational and to reconsider whether the intended utility will serve its purpose the most efficiently. Hypothetically, the adoption of a rigid morality could potentially improve a person's well-being by reducing the mental turmoil associated with the search for one's own meaning, but this decision would likely have an impact on other factors, which might also compete for the same goal. In other words, what is the compromise among different beliefs such as Theistic religions, Nihilism, or my former preference, Agnosticism? In reflecting on this question, I think that if I were to define a hierarchy between the different components that have had the most impact on fostering meaningful events in my life, I'd certainly attribute a fair amount to openness. And with that information in mind, I'd rather deal with an unresolved set of beliefs while remaining open to a wider range of ideas than feeling morally aligned but not being able to connect with the same number of people as a consequence of orthodoxy.
From Agnosticism to Agnosticism: the outcome of this experience left me with a bitter taste of returning to square one as I don't personally share an aesthetic preference for the concept of Agnosticism when it's commonly used as a fallback mechanism to signal “openness” when prior beliefs haven't been questioned – while holding this assumption has yet been a reliable predictor in that respect. In contrast, I never had as many reasons to justify my current philosophical position while the process of evaluating different belief systems has been fruitful in enabling an awareness of how following certain ideas out of convenience might be more beneficial than for the sake of truth. Finally, overcoming the grass-is-greener syndrome is generally a rewarding experience that provides insightful trade-offs, and a decent way to expand the underlying diagram involved in decision-making. Someone once asked me why I study ethics when there will never be an unequivocal solution. Indeed, it's virtually impossible to arrive at a conclusive answer when even the existence of objective truth is subject to debate in philosophy. Nevertheless, identifying and living in accordance with your values is certainly an unmistakable component of this discipline.