Printed: 2019-09-21

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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The Existential Nihilist?

Kris Notaro

Ethical Technology

April 19, 2012

It’s a simple but very scary concept – that we live in an “Existential Atheistic Nihilist” world and universe. As Mike Treder wrote online “A clear comprehension and acceptance of existential reality, a recognition of ultimate truths – the absurd randomness, pointlessness, and futility of everything – can only be depressing for most of us and typically produces a bleak outlook.”... “This does not mean that existential nihilists, like me, must always be gloomy. We can and do still have fun, still care about others, still try to be good people. But we know, deep down, that it all adds up to nothing, and this leaves a dark hollowness at the center.”

One day, over 5 years ago,  I was walking and looking at the beautiful sky and trees. What we can call “Existential Atheistic Nihilism” hit me hard. When you realize such a concept its like someone punched you in the face, woke you up to the truth, and there is no escaping it forever. The existential “dark hollowness at the center” is something that I have direct experience with while thinking just like Mike did. For months I was engulfed in thinking about dialectical materialism, historical materialism, monism, the absurdity of life, materialism, physicalism, consciousness, and existence.

However I did not become a nihilist because of those concepts.

Instead one finds ways out of “Existential Atheistic Nihilism” or at least around these concepts:

  1. Moral theories presented by Kant, Mill, Simone de Beauvoir, and many others
  2. “Scientific value” of existence and all that exists, especially every living creature
  3. Ethics from nihilism – its basically called Anarchism and Socialism, respectfully
  4. If we do live in an atheistic universe then one should value scientific theory and discovery
  5. Existential angst, dread, and anxiety can be set aside and temporarily replaced with responsibility and rational logical thought about your next actions (assuming one is not mentally ill). Though still anxiety can arise, one can flip a coin, etc to minimize anxiety, dread, and angst when it comes to decision making, in the context of an existential world view
  6. This article, posted on the IEET, should not be afraid of also considering that in the future, egos, consciousnesses and selves will be networked together to feel these feelings collectively. These feelings will result in super computers that will calculate utilitarian calculus for us, destroying nihilism forever. Think about it!
  7. Aesthetics – Subjective or Objective? There is something to be said about the beauty of being a consciousness in the here-and-now to experience life, science, theory, law, and phenomenological reduction. I guess that is my opinion however.


Scientifically, so many of us continue to value things like finding “The Theory of Everything” or a “Grand Unified Theory”. We, also, as the scientific and philosophical community contemplate how we will not fall into the trap of extinction (the extinction of consciousness/mind/brain that is) by thinking very hard about catastrophic risks to our environment/world and to our solar system. We think of ways to keep going, to keep existence and experience thriving throughout the world for decades, and in some cases centuries to come. Why would we do this if we are true nihilists? It would make no sense.

Politically, its only rational to consider Socialism and Anarchism as the main political theory which leads to the most freedom and happiness for the greatest amount of people. Yes, we know what makes up happiness inside the brain, we know its just chemicals and electricity, but reductionism does not have to lead to a grim outlook on political theories that would make the most people happy. Instead lets think of these political theories as Emergent properties of consciousness instead of reducing them down to their atoms, waves, nano-properties and Calabi–Yau manifolds.

“The problem with a theory that posits some inbuilt drive (that is, the “drive to pleasure” or “tension reduction”) is that it is ultimately and devastatingly reductionistic. In this view [the human] is “nothing but…” (and here may follow any of an infinite array of formulas). Frankl’s favorite is: “Man is nothing but a complex biochemical mechanism powered by a combustion system which energizes computers with prodigious storage facilities for retaining encoded information” Correspondingly, love, or altruism, or the search for truth, or beauty, is “nothing but” the expression of one or the other of the basic drives in duality theory. From this reductionistic point of view, as Frankl points out, “all cultural creations of humanity become actually by-products of the drive for personal satisfaction.”(1)

It’s amazing what consciousness is able to produce, and without it, we would not be able to live together to think of the best ways in which a society should be run. Society, scientific inquiry, and family and friends…. Are they enough?

The Other is an important existentialist concept. For Simone de Beauvoir and John Macmurray the freedom of the Other is essential.  They both sway away from the idea that governments or people in power have the right to enforce very strict laws on others. de Beauvoir goes as far as to expose the tyranny of serious revolutions where people take away the freedom of other people in hopes of winning that revolution. The state or government does not act as a community, but a collective of a select few who take their ideas seriously enough to enforce it on everyone else.  Some revolutions have been controlled by the people, but many have ended up splitting the very community they tried to build, for example as in Russia where millions of non-revolutionaries were murdered.  “The organic conception of the human, as a practical ideal, is what we now call the totalitarian state.”  The individual cannot be looked at like a gear in a machine, or a predictable economic unit confined to laws of any revolution where the outcome of that revolution only change the connections, or order of the gears, but treat it in the same organic way.  To be free, to respect the freedom of others, and to have faith in community but not law, is to break away from the organic theory modal of the individual and community.

The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir is a very articulate and eloquent example of how we can have an existential world view while denying the Serious and an appreciation of the freedom of the Other. However, in having an appreciation of the Other de Beauvoir writes “To want existence, to want to disclose the world and to want [people] to be free are one and the same will” She goes on to say:

“Thus, we see that no existence can be validly fulfilled if it is limited to itself. It appeals to the existence of others. The idea of such a dependence is frightening, and the separation and multiplicity of existants raises highly disturbing problems. One can understand that men who are aware of the risks and the inevitable element of failure involved in any engagement in the world attempt to fulfill themselves outside of the world. Man is permitted to separate himself from this world by contemplation, to think about it, to create it anew. Some men, instead of building their existence upon the indefinite unfolding of time, propose to assert it in its eternal aspect and to achieve it as an absolute. They hope, thereby, to surmount the ambiguity of their condition.” … “We have seen that the serious contradicts itself by the fact that not everything can be taken seriously. It slips into a partial nihilism. But nihilism is unstable. It tends to return to the positive. Critical thought attempts to militate everywhere against all aspects of the serious but without foundering in the anguish of pure negation. It sets up a superior, universal, and timeless value, objective truth. And, correlatively, the critic defines himself positively as the independence of the mind. Crystallizing the negative movement of the criticism of values into a positive reality, he also crystallizes the negativity proper to all mind into a positive presence. Thus, he thinks that he himself escapes all earthly criticism. He does not have to choose between the highway and the native, between America and Russia, between production and freedom. He understands, dominates, and rejects, in the name of total truth, the necessarily partial truths which every human engagement discloses. But ambiguity is at the heart of his very attitude, for the independent man is still a man with his particular situation in the world, and what he defines as objective truth is the object of his own choice. His criticisms fall into the world of particular men. He docs not merely describe. He takes sides. If he does not assume the subjectivity of his judgment, he is inevitably caught in the trap of the serious. Instead of the independent mind he claims to be, he is only the shameful servant of a cause to which he has not chosen to rally.” (2)

Without consciousness utilizing emergentism (a concept outside of existentialism) to come up with “the absurd randomness, pointlessness, and futility of everything”, consciousness can utilize emergentism in great ways to both discover new things about the universe, put emphasis on scientific discovery, and to calm the mind down a bit from reductionism’s “absurdity”. Emergentism is also somewhat unpredictable – new exciting properties can arise in complex systems. One then feels a connection with other human beings (which are in reality complex emergent systems), the Other, and invites themselves into the game of life called society – striving for existential freedom for everyone.

I just might enjoy moments when my consciousness apathetically, absurdly, and nihilistically embraces the concept that nothing is explained or understood but that does not mean we don’t live in a kind of beautiful existence. A reason to keep willing oneself towards some kind of goal like increasing the freedom and happiness of the Other is enough, at least for me, to wash away any feelings of apathy and nihilism.

To further explain this concept, first I realize my surroundings are as “beautiful” as can be.  Second my consciousness embraces and then tries to integrate apathy and nihilism into the overall aesthetic experience that is being processed.  Third, I easily allow my brain to process data in such a way as to allow aesthetics to bring on a feeling of happiness and joy that I can live freely and live life for the freedom of the Other while experiencing my own subjective aesthetic, scientific, phenomenological beauty.

In the Ethics of Ambiguity, the adventurer-like person is one who is really free when they respect the freedom of others – according to de Beauvoir.  This is because they are living in an undefined, ambiguous reality where the anti-nihilist adventurer is not claiming to have all the answers on how to live but a sense of understanding that he/she must respect the freedom of others in order to be free themselves.  The adventurer (nihilist) however may use people as means and ends in their nihilist and ambiguous reality, therefore not respecting the freedom of others.  Macmurray’s conception of the free human being is similar in that the person who respects the personhood of others is living in a philosophical ethical way. de Beauvoir declares that if the adventurer respects others freedom in their explorations, then they have ceased to be an adventurer per se and become what she calls a “genuinely free person.”

I was going to end this article with a quote from either Richard Feynman’s The Meaning of it All, Chomsky’s The Responsibility of Intellectuals, or Lucretius’ On the Nature of the Universe – for the aesthetics and poetry of life is still going on – leading us always away from Existential Nihilism.

Instead I will end this article with a quote from Postmodernism For Beginners on the Enlightenment: “Reject religious authority! Down with old things like metaphysics, ignorance, superstition, intolerance and parochialism! Let the rational faculties of the mind, wedded to science, advance knowledge to ever expanding vistas! Let reason unlock the laws of nature and usher in an optimistic age! Let the practical discoveries of science allow men and women to get on with the proper business of seeking happiness! And happiness means political freedom! Let the happiness of humanity on earth mean the liberty – the liberation of humanity! All this means progress! Let science and reason bring progress and freedom!”


(1) Yalom, I. D. Existential psychotherapy. Basic Books (AZ), 1980. Print.

Feynman, Richard. The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist. Perseus Publishing, 1999. Print.

Powell, Jim. Postmodernism For Beginners. New York: Writers & Readers, 1998. Print.

Lucretius On the Nature of the Universe. London, England: Penguin Group, 2005. Print.

(2) De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Trans. Bernard Frechtman.
Citadel Press, New York. 1948, 1976.

Macmurray John. Persons in Relation. Humanity Books, Amherst, New York. 1961.

Existentialism, Robert C. Solomon, Oxford University Press, 2005

Kris Notaro served as Managing Director of the IEET from 2012 to 2015. He is currently an IEET Rights of the Person Program Director. He earned his BS in Philosophy from Charter Oak State College in Connecticut. He is currently the Bertrand Russell Society’s Vice-President for Website Technology. He has worked with the Bertrand Russell A/V Project at Central Connecticut State University, producing multimedia materials related to philosophy and ethics for classroom use. His major passions are in the technological advances in the areas of neuroscience, consciousness, brain, and mind.


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