WHY SOFT NIHILISM IS SO POPULAR THESE DAYS
article by LiveReal Agents Grace and Blake
This might be the Golden Age of soft nihilism.
It’s invisible, of course. So as far as Golden Ages go, it’s not exactly the most glamorous.
But still: soft nihilism is in the air these days.
It’s like the carbon monoxide of worldviews. It’s colorless, odorless, and tasteless. So you could be sitting in the middle of a thick cloud of it right now, breathing it all in without suspecting a thing.
At least until the symptoms start showing up.
And it seems like symptoms have been showing up in a lot of places. They might be mild (general depression, boredom, aimlessness) or severe (more serious depression, anxiety, addictions, etc.)
But there seems to have been an outbreak over the past few decades. (Centuries, really). If we had a canary in this existential coal mine, it would have probably started feeling woozy quite a while ago.
Not many folks seem to want to talk about all this, of course.
Which is actually one of the symptoms. Exposure to high doses of soft nihilism tends to create an allergy to talking about The Big Questions of life, and even basic questions, like what the heck is going on? Why is it happening? And what we should we do about it?
So let’s talk about it.
“Hard nihilism” is essentially “belief in nothing.”
It’s the idea that life is meaningless, more or less.
The basic idea is that there’s no ultimate point to anything, that nobody really knows anything, and at the end of the day, the point of it all is…nothing. We’re born, we stumble around in the dark for a few decades or so, we die. There is no “point.”
“Soft nihilism” is pretty much the above, but without being so darn explicit about it. The hard edges are sanded down and rounded off, but the rest stays fully intact. It’s there. You just don’t talk about it.
Hard nihilism isn’t usually all that welcome in polite society.
Soft nihilism, on the other hand, seems to be having a bit of a heyday. It’s the little black dress of outlooks on life – it seems to fit in at almost any occasion.
If we wanted to stir up some trouble, we could do a survey: “raise your hands if you’re a secret soft nihilist!” This would reveal folks who are soft nihilists, but pretend not to be. They go through the motions in life, pretending to care, pretending it all means something, and often carrying on through sheer force of will and habit and lack of more attractive options.
And if we wanted to get downright naughty, we could start poking around for folks who are secretly soft nihilists, but aren’t even aware of it themselves. They’re also going through the motions, and don’t want to admit to themselves that there’s something more going on down there.
All to say, it’s probably more popular than it seems.
Because here’s the thing:
A hard nihilist is open and conscious about it.
A soft nihilist, on the other hand, probably never mentions the word. Or even thinks about it.
Soft nihilism is like silence: it’s defined not by what it is, but by what it’s missing. So there might be a flurry of activity – busy schedules, constantly exploding phones, to-do lists that are miles long – but at the center of it all is a black hole.
On the surface, it usually looks harmless: “just enjoy yourself!”
But lurking underneath it all, it’s there:
“Enjoy yourself…because life is short. And there’s no ultimate point to anything. Nobody really knows anything. It’s all basically meaningless. There is no ‘point.’ So, get whatever kicks you can, while you can.”
All this makes infection a little tricky to diagnose.
The headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, feelings of weakness and etc that come with actual carbon monoxide poisoning can be easy to spot in comparison.
But if you know what to look for and how to spot it, suddenly, all is revealed, and you start seeing it everywhere.
For example: a key tell is being willing to talk about anything and everything except for stuff that really matters.
It’s a raw angst at the core that’s like a wound too sensitive to touch. So it’s avoided at all costs. Which takes the form of talking – and thinking – about anything but that wound at the center.
“Hey, did you here about [insert latest news item]?” “Can you believe [insert latest something to be outraged about]?” “Oh, and OMG, stop the presses, because [insert celebrity gossip items 1-9,748].”
Of course, the above could be a simple, fun, harmless conversation. Nothing more.
Or, it could be a strategy of chattering about inconsequential nonsense in a desperate struggle to hide from a void of nothingness at the center of it all.
The crucial difference between the two is its purpose: whether its function is to avoid or embrace the elephant in the room. (The “room,” that is, inside all of us. And the elephant inside all of us.)
That elephant – the one folks are either talking about, or desperately trying to avoid talking about – is actually a group of questions.
They’re The Big Questions of life.
We aren’t going to explore whether soft nihilism is an accurate map of reality here.
Instead, I’m going to sketch out a theory of how we got here.
We’ll start with the premise that soft nihilism is popular these days.
And then ask: why?
To understand this, we’re going to have to rewind the tape, go back into history a little, and retrace our steps to see how we got here.
To start with: there was once time when we didn’t have this problem.
We only need to go back a few hundred years.
Of course – things weren’t perfect then. (Nobody (that I’ve ever heard) says they were.)
But at least one thing wasn’t a problem that was anything near the widespread scale it is today.
You guessed it: soft nihilism.
One of the key features of that time was that, for better or worse, religious worldviews were the norm.
Spiritual traditions – despite flaws that we’re all pretty well aware of – were successful in at least one job: they provided frameworks that kept nihilism at bay.
So the idea of “meaning in life” wasn’t really a problem.
For folks embedded within those frameworks, the problem of “the meaning of life” had been, for practical purposes, solved.
Let’s take a quick peek at a rough summary of one of those “solutions”:
“You were created by the Creator of the Universe – something or someone of more power, intelligence and beauty than anything you can understand – utterly beyond your comprehension – and you were uniquely created with a certain Almighty-envisioned end in mind, the way a light bulb is built for the explicit purpose of creating light. In this way, your life has a direct line to the very core of the universe. It matters.”
That’s just a small nibble from the perspective of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Or a somewhat different solution – one offered by Buddhism:
"Through adopting a certain way of life, you can experience a reality beyond the usual suffering of ordinary reality – a profound and life-transforming insight into life and the nature of the universe that can make it all ultimately 'worth it.'"
When those basic worldviews were fully functioning and at their best, there were still plenty of problems.
But nihilism wasn’t one of them.
But then things changed.
To boil it down to a single word: science.
Or, to be more accurate: at least in some places, what changed was our overreaction to the successes of science.
To start, let’s be totally clear here: we can all agree, hopefully, on the value and obvious successes of science.
Electricity. Airplanes. TV remote controls. Eradicating smallpox. Figuring out germs, vaccines, anesthesia. Rhoombas. Walking on the moon. We could go on.
Clear victories, for everyone. (Well, except maybe for smallpox. But hopefully nobody here was rooting for Team Smallpox.)
Science has been the source of wonderful achievements. Zero arguments there.
But what gets less attention are some side effects of all this.
There seems to be a strange Yin/Yang thing in the universe where success often contains the seeds of failure.
For example: You succeed -> you get complacent and comfortable -> you get soft -> you fail.
Or another example: you find something that works > you continue to apply it in more and more areas, until > you push it way too far.
These are norms.
Especially the latter. We tend to take something that works really well, and push it to the point that it becomes toxic. (At that point, hopefully, we see what’s going on and pull back. But not always.)
Let’s take a brief look at how this might have happened with science.
Science says: “show me the evidence.”
It operates through doubt: don’t trust, verify. Don’t tell me stories, show me evidence. Don’t believe, go see.
Religion, in contrast – at least as it’s often presented – says “believe.”
It says, essentially, “Here is a guide to life. If you accept this guide, and live by it, well, you’ll be better off.”
We even refer to a persons’ perspective on these matters as their “faith.” And “faith” – when it’s used in this way – is commonly defined as, “I don’t really know for sure, and I don’t really have hard evidence. And since I don’t have these things, I’ll have ‘faith.’”
Here’s where things get tricky.
These are two different epistemologies, or ways to know the universe.
One says, “doubt.” The way to know what’s really going on is through carefully examining hard evidence.
The other says “believe.” The best guide to what’s really going on comes through hearing about a revelation and believing in it. (That revelation is typically communicated in the form of a certain narrative, story or description.)
Some folks naturally gravitate to the “doubt and verify route.”
Others find that the “believe” approach works just fine.
Over time, these folks naturally divide up into camps.
And whenever folks divide into camps, it usually isn’t long before one camp starts giving the other the stink-eye. They divide up, identify with one side, root for the home-team, and from there it’s a short step to both sides seeing it as “us verses them.”
And over more time, without some kind of corrective force in play, suspicions become slights, slights become insults, insults become arguments, arguments become knife-fights. And “doubt/show-me-evidence” verses “faith/believe-in-revelation” eventually come to be seen as whole-hog rivals.
And from there, it’s game-on.
So we wind up with a situation of “my epistemology can beat up your epistemology.”
And in this epistemological dogfight, at least in one way, science seems to have a certain advantage.
Because it’s easier to communicate.
The successes of science are easy to demonstrate in three words.
Point to an airplane, a light bulb, an iPhone, a video of the moon landing. You can point to them and say, “science did that!” So clear and concrete, a German Shepherd could pretty much get the point.
But on the other side of the argument: religious folks often point to things like, say, “the foundations of modern culture.”
Which might be completely valid. But it’s abstract. And can be argued about endlessly.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to argue with a light bulb.
The simplicity and ease of an argument gives it power. The more nuance you require – especially in the age of the shrinking attention span – the more you’re at a disadvantage.
This makes “doubt and verify!” the easiest and most convenient approach for folks who don’t really geek out on this stuff.
And this leads to the average person walking down the street inhaling a cloud of ideas.
This cloud of ideas being roughly:
- Science uses an empirical, evidence-based approach to understanding the world.
- Science has clearly “works” in many undeniable ways.
- Therefore, the empirical, evidence-based approach is superior to the faith-based, revelation approach.
Again: it’s in the air these days.
And then, since we tend to take a good thing and push it too far: “Since this is a superior approach to understanding the universe, I’m going to apply it everywhere else, too. After all, if it works in one realm, it should probably work across other realms. (Right?)”
And that, of course, leads to:
“I’m going to use a “start with doubt and show me the evidence” as an approach to all of life, the universe, and everything in it.” After all, the thinking goes, if doubt (or the “show me the evidence”) approach succeeds in getting us to the moon, it should succeed in other areas, too.
Which then gets us looking to science to solve The Big Questions of life.
So now we look to science to help us tackle the existential riddles life throws at us. (What’s it all about? What’s the point? Who am I? How should I live? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What the heck is going on? Etc.)
And here, science does a face-plant.
Science clearly knows plenty about the moons of Jupiter and splitting atoms.
But it’s nowhere close to having clear, comprehensive and universally-accepted answers to those core questions we all face.
After all, we’re now in the realm of “social science,” at best. Way, way beyond the reach of hard physics, where science is on solid ground.
The point is: right now, in regards to The Big Questions of life, science generally tends to offer us either negative answers (“There is no point! It’s all an accident! It means nothing!”) or none at all.
(This point could obviously be unpacked a lot and debated endlessly, but we’ll stay on track.)
So, in many cases we’ve switched our epistemology from a “faith-based narrative” approach to a “doubt-based empirical evidence” approach. And that approach, as it’s typically used, winds up kicking the task of solving The Big Questions of life back on to our individual shoulders.
And this puts the average person in the position of bearing the burden of extremely difficult existential questions – ones that even the greatest minds in history have struggled with.
And doing it completely on their own.
- while also struggling to pay bills, raise families, and a thousand other things.
Usually at this point, it isn’t long before they declare the whole thing unsolvable.
But since much of life these days feels urgent and pressing – and existential riddles often don’t – folks will often abort any process of asking Big Questions, adopt some witty slogan or bumper-sticker, and move on to much smaller and more concrete topics like where to eat dinner and which celebrity is doing what to who.
And this lands us right in a nice big pot of – you guessed it: soft nihilism.
This is “The Death of God” on a personal level.
That is a brief sketch of where a lot of soft nihilism comes from.
It can seem like a small, effortless, commonsense move: “I’m going to live only by evidence instead of just accepting certain core narratives about life.”
This kind of movement has been going on for hundreds of years. Increasing numbers of folks seem to have been making it.
But here’s where things start to get really interesting.
In retracing our steps as we’ve done here, you can probably spot several errors we’ve made in our thinking along the way.
Once we spot these mistakes and fix them, we’re going to be in much better shape to resolve some of the more noxious problems this has brought about.
Much of the unpleasantness surrounding this is based on some big misunderstandings.
For example, one major error we can fix is this:
The idea that “religion and spirituality is simply a matter of hearing a story and believing in it really hard.” (This could take us into a conversation about what real “faith” is.)
There’s a fix for that.
And the fix is:
If you demand evidence in the areas of religion and spirituality, you can get it.
This idea is probably obvious to some and invisible to others. (Either way, it seems to be something a lot of folks either don’t know about or, if they know, don’t talk about much.)
So as a potential remedy for avoiding the carnival of angst we encountered above: if you don’t want to believe, no problem. You can doubt and demand evidence. There’s a valid path for that. And it helps you avoid breathing the silent-but-deadly fumes of nihilism.
But there’s a catch.
It requires doing certain things.
It’s one thing for someone to ask for evidence. It’s another thing entirely to sit back and expect the universe – or anyone else – to spoon-feed it to them.
Data doesn’t lie around waiting to be gathered. Somebody has to go gather it.
A scientist demands evidence, and they can get it. But it requires them to do something – to look through a microscope or telescope or work out the math. (Kuhn calls this an injunction – basically, if you want to know X, you must do Y.)
And if someone doesn’t do it…well, they won’t get their evidence.
It works the same way for tackling existential riddles of life.
If you want proof, you can get it.
But to get it, you’ll have to do certain things. You’ll need to perform certain injunctions.
Meaning, it takes work.
And this is why it’s easy to wind up with the worst of both worlds.
The “worst of both worlds” scenario can happen when someone rejects a traditional religious worldview – because they demand evidence –but then they don’t do the work necessary to validate spiritual truths first-hand.
This translates into rejecting one approach while half-heartedly throwing a hat at the other.
That’s a recipe for failure.
Or in our case, a Carnival of Angst.
It’s not entirely unlike quitting your hourly-rate job because you want to become a millionaire.
Folks can do it. Someone truly can quit their hourly job and become a millionaire. It’s 100% possible.
But it’s going to take a lot of work. Becoming a millionaire is usually more difficult and demanding than working a regular hourly-rate job.
In the same way, it’s possible to validate certain spiritual truths first-hand, through direct experience. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.
After all, someone who does that is asking for something extremely valuable.
They’re wanting to be an epistemological millionaire.
That demand can be met. But it means paying for it. It means doing the work necessary to validate spiritual truths first-hand.
And this is how it’s possible to wind up with the worst of both worlds.
If someone quits their hourly-wage job to try to become a millionaire, but then they don’t make any money on this new track, then all else equal, they wind up going broke.
(Nihilism is the equivalent of “being broke,” spiritually speaking.)
So, when a person 1) rejects a traditional narrative because they demand evidence instead of a narrative, then 2) doesn’t do the work required to gather enough evidence to satisfactorily answer their existential riddles, then 3) they’ve rejected one route, and barely made efforts at the other.
And so, they wind up with neither.
That’s soft nihilism.
And that’s why it’s so popular these days.
For those who are interested in and open to this kind of thing, there is a remedy for this situation.
The antidote lies in recognizing that these two approaches don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
If we retrace our steps, we can work our way back and heal the original split. So the two can work together instead of against each other.
The decision to choose only one route or another – either the route of revelation or the route of empirical evidence – is a false dilemma.
For this to be a dilemma, it requires a superficial understanding of science and/or a superficial understanding of religion or spirituality.
One remedy, then, means raising your game in the realm of spirituality.
Experiential spirituality takes the route of validating spiritual truths for oneself, first-hand. Here, science and religion converge on the same goal: the search for truth. They still have their differences, of course, but they aren’t working against each other.
What is this approach of “experiential spirituality”?
In short, it’s something like doing the work necessary to validate spiritual truths first-hand.
That’s some of what we’re working on here at LiveReal.
It’s not easy. But no great adventure ever is.
So, maybe we are in the Golden Age of soft nihilism.
But maybe there’s a next phase, beyond this one. One that’s much better.
(We aren’t sure what we’d call this. Maybe a “Platinum Age of Experiential Spirituality”? Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?)
But it’s not really hard to imagine a phase where some of the best qualities of earlier eras get preserved and their worst defects corrected.
Maybe we can opt out of our current Carnival of Angst, free ourselves to talk about things that actually matter, and let our canaries sing and fly.
And instead of accidentally breathing in invisible intellectual gas that shrinks our world to a hollow void of emptiness, maybe we can chart a different course. A course with clean, sweet, invigorating air. One that puts wind in our inner sails.