Nihilism, hedonism, faith

There are only three rational options to dealing with our impermanence

We’re all going to die. I wrote a bit about this in the wake of Pastor Tim Keller’s death last year. But something has been on my mind since writing that article.

If we’re all going to die, what’s the point? Now, I know what the point is to me, but that’s mainly because of my faith. But what about for others? What about those of you to whom a supernatural creator seems absurd?

Don’t worry, this isn’t an attempt to convince you to change your ways. No altar calls here today.

That being said, it seems there are really only three rational options to dealing with our impermanence as mere mortals. And I struggle to see how two of them are tenable frameworks for navigating life. This isn’t meant to be a cohesive argument for my faith, but an airing of grievances with the other two options presented to us in faith’s absence.

Here’s a quick oversimplification of the three, and some thoughts on how they steer our lives:

Option 1: Nihilism

The common definition of Nihilism is “the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated.” It comes from the Latin nihil, meaning “nothing”.

Nihilism, then, is nothing-sim. Nothing lasts, nothing matters, nothing is really worth doing in the grand scheme of things.

But there’s a contradiction inherent here. Nihilism has seeped into our common discourse. Climate doomerism, fearmongering of the fascist/socialist takeover of our government, and so-called “realists” guaranteeing a nuclear war if we don’t cede Ukraine and Taiwan to Russia and China are just a few examples.

So if nothing matters, why does Nihilism so often become political? If nothing matters, why do politics matter?

Political Nihilism says that because values are baseless and nothing matters, the foundations and institutions that underpin our world and our society don’t matter. This drives a desire to tear those institutions, cultural norms, etc. down. But in the process, these desires themselves become values.

Much like anarchism inherently leads to some government forming, nihilism inherently leads to some value formation. The vacuum must be filled.

The same goes for Nihilism elsewhere in life. The belief that nothing matters cannot be held in perpetuity. Meaning sprouts up in life. We form connections, preferences, desires, loves, and value comes with all of those, whether we want it to or not.

Option 2: Hedonism

So if Nihilism doesn’t work, what about Hedonism? The core idea of Hedonism is that if nothing lasts and we are impermanent, then the main goal in life is to have a good time.

And at first glance, this sounds great! Who’s not for having a good time? But one has to look at the history of hedonistic movements to see why it fails as a core belief system.

Take, for example, the hippie movement of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Good vibes all around. Free love, free weed, free people.

This sounds awful to me. As Tom Wolfe notes in this article, the hippies experienced a plethora of diseases that hadn’t been seen for centuries. The “no rules rules” mentality that so often accompanies hedonistic movements rapidly devolves into anarchism, filth, pain, and disease.

Other times, like in Seattle’s famous “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone”, the hedonistic groups quickly become corrupted as the pleasure of the individual (the supposed highest and most important thing) is put at odds with the pleasure of the group. Crime runs rampant. Gang leaders take over in pursuit of their own pleasure. The system falls apart.

When there is no common meaning beyond the highly subjective “pleasure” that binds a group together, that group cannot last. So why would the worldview?

There is story time and time again of the couple who has no children because they would prefer to live a life of leisure, only to deeply regret their decisions decades later (This isn’t a critique of not having kids, but people should take care to ensure that whatever decision they make is done for the right reasons, not pleasure alone).

Nihilism cannot keep meaning at bay. Hedonism stumbles upon meaning by learning hard lessons too late. So what else is there?

Option 3: Faith

The last option is the belief that there is something more worth living for. This is not the only reason that I have for having faith (I happen to actually believe the factual claims of the faith as well). But it is one of them.

If there is nothing worth living for, what is the meaning to life? To existence?

If there is no meaning, why does it keep cropping up no matter how hard we try to squash it? Why does it continuously reveal itself to us if it does not exist?

To believe that we are nothing more than ants on a pale blue dot in a vast universe which itself will one day die is to force oneself to believe either in nihilism or hedonism.

If it all goes to zero, either have a good time or just wallow in your existence until you’re gone. Right? The values that you stumble upon in life aren’t any cosmic, spiritual, or supernatural rules that you have encountered but psychological abstractions, right? Just neurons firing in the entropic stew that is the universe? A simple coincidence? That happens over and over and over agian, whether you want it to or not?

I’m sorry, but on that front, call me a skeptic. I don’t have enough faith to live without faith.


or to participate.