Wednesday, April 07, 2010

A Brief Christian Critique of Nihilism

(I originally wrote this article as an assignment for my introduction to Philosophy class. When I handed in this essay to my teacher, I had to omit numerous portions to save space and conform to my teacher’s standards. This is the original, unabridged version of the article, containing all of the words and citations that I originally used. Since this is only an introductory level essay, more experienced philosophers are bound to find it to be less than convincing. However, this should help to provide a springboard, from which I can further develop my views, not to mention help to inform those who have no prior knowledge on the topic in question.)

The philosophical doctrine of nihilism (from the Latin word “nihil,” meaning nothing), which was developed in the nineteenth century, is a position which claims that life is utterly bereft of meaning. We humans are nothing more than the chance products of millions of years of evolution. Arthur Schopenhauer, who was one of the leading proponents of nihilism, stated that “We can regard our life as a uselessly disturbing episode in the blissful repose of nothingness…” with the conclusion that “Human existence must be a kind of error.” In summary, nothing matters, and thus, life has no purpose, no direction, no truth, no goodness and no evil. There is nothing but the blind, pitiless indifference of the universe we live in. They assert that everything that we work for will be in vain and value as it will all be vaporized into cosmic dust someday, and we ourselves will eventually return to the dirt from whence we came.

At this point, the flaws in the nihilist perspective should begin to be apparent. First of all, as has been pointed out by other philosophers, if nothing matters, then nihilism does not matter.[2] And if it does not matter, then this position turns out upon close inspection to be illogical and self-defeating, as there is no point even postulating it in the first place. It is as modern English philosopher Roger Scruton wrote, ‘A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is “merely negative”, is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.’[3]

In addition, by stating that our existence is “a kind of error,” Schopenhauer assumes categories that nihilism can not even account for. To say that existence (or anything else, for that matter) is a mistake is to presuppose that certain things are definitely right and wrong, and yet nihilism asserts that such metaphysical categories do not even exist. Even if they did, they can be neither known nor communicated.[4] If the nihilists are to be truly consistent, then they would not be able to provide any judgment as to whether life is an “error” or not. And by judging life as being an “error,” the nihilists are borrowing certain presuppositions from the theistic worldview which alone can account for objectivity as to what is and is not erroneous.

Finally, nihilism fails because one can not live consistently as a nihilist. Nihilists may proclaim to the skies all they want that there is nothing to life, but the simple fact is that none of them live can as though life is purposeless without losing sanity. Nobody demonstrates this better than Schopenhauer’s contemporary, the famous nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche may have bought into Schopenhauer’s nihilism, but he realized that he can not live as though life had no meaning. His thought on this went as follows:

“If objective truth [is] dead, the only thing that could save us from the abyss… [is] to create our own meaning by a sheer act of willpower. We will ourselves into believing something that will give us meaning.”[5]

Nietzsche failed, of course. He had a mental breakdown and spent the final years of his life in an insane asylum. So it can now be concluded by this point that nihilism, as propounded by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and their contemporaries, is a position that is both logically inconsistent and impossible to live by, and thus ought to be discarded.

There is only one alternative, and that is theism. To find a non-theistic position on the meaning of life simply will not work, as it’d lack any definite objective grounds for finding meaning or purpose, such that any meaning or purpose any given individual finds will just be that individual’s own flawed perception. Any such paradigm will inevitably reduce itself back to nihilism once followed to its logical conclusions, due to its lack of solid grounding. Only an infinite, transcendent creator (who must also necessarily be personal, since an impersonal deity would not care to give humanity any kind of purpose) such as believed in by theists can create humanity with a definite purpose and end in mind,[6] apart from which we are little more than glorified pond scum, doomed to drift from dust to dust and devoid of direction. The words of the great Saint Augustine ring true here when he says, “You [God] have made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.”[7]

End Notes
  1. Paquette, Paul G., et al. Philosophy: Questions and Theories. p. 169.
  2. ibid., p. 169.
  3. Cited in Blanchard, John. Can We Be Good Without God?. p. 12.
  4. Paquette, et al. p. 249.
  5. West, John G. C.S. Lewis and the Materialist Menace.
  6. Paquette, et al. p. 170.
  7. Augustine. Confessions. p 21.

  • Augustine. Confessions (translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin). Penguin Books, 1961.
  • Blanchard, John. Can We Be Good Without God?. Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2007.
  • Paquette, Paul G., et al. Philosophy: Questions and Theories. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 2003.
  • West, John G. C.S. Lewis and the Materialist Menace. Discovery Institute. July 15, 1996 (Accessed April 03, 2010), (
UPDATE (04/12/2010)
Shortly after writing this essay, somebody attempted to discredit my third argument by claiming that Nietzsche's mental breakdown was actually caused by syphilis. Needless to say, it took thirty seconds on Google to debunk that urban legend. Besides, even if the Syphilis was somehow true (and this has not been established), it would only mean that the disease was an aggravator that helped speed up Nietzsche's inevitable descent into madness.

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