We Believe in Nothing, Lebowski!

Note: I have to give credit where credit is due. This is kind of in reaction to Ryan’s blog. His question was why do people bother to call themselves agnostic? It seems like one of those PC labels that people use when they don’t want to say that they are atheists, because it “offends” people if you tell them you don’t believe in god. Oh, and I’ve given up on censoring all my foul language. You can blame John Goodman.

Now, at various points in my life, I have been accused of being (among other things) a nihilist, and it’s highly likely that my beliefs do fit under certain definitions of nihilism.

Nihilism can refer to different things. It can mean that values do not exist but are invented OR specifically that there are no moral values OR that life itself is without meaning or purpose.

And on some days[1] I likely fit under the first, definitely under the second, and probably under the third.

But can you really be a full-blown, believe-in-nothing nihilist?


Nihilist #1: We believe in nothing, Lebowski!

It doesn’t seem possible to really believe in NOTHING. Don’t you at least believe that you believe in nothing? Really this could devolve into a semantic debate about what one means by “belief,” and I would like to avoid such things. But even the most disbelieving person surely must think that certain things are true, or always the case. As I write this, surely I believe, for instance, that I am writing in English, that CCR is playing in the coffee shop as I write, and that all the people around me are physically present with me in said coffee shop.

Of course sometimes I do doubt if any of this is real.

And if I’m perfectly honest, I don’t think that words really mean anything apart from their arbitrary assignment in our language.

But within the context of my day to day experience, when I’m not thinking about it, I seem to act as though I believe in a lot of things.

So I think it’s probably impossible to be THAT kind of nihilist.

But is it possible to be another type of nihilist? Is it possible that there are no moral decisions? Is it possible that the little voice you get in your head when you see an injustice taking place is 100% socially constructed?


Walter Sobchak: No, without a hostage, there is no ransom. That’s what ransom is. Those are the fucking rules.
Nihilist #2: His girlfriend gave up her toe!
Nihilist #3: She thought we’d be getting million dollars!
Nihilist #2: Is not fair!

In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Salman Rushdie wrote that: “A photograph is a moral decision taken in one eighth of a second.”

In an ethics course I took a couple years ago, I entertained the idea of arguing with my professor that I could make a moral theory based on the idea that the highest good is that Sky Blue Sky is a good album. But it’s impossible to have that kind of discussion with someone who believes that “the good” is real.

Though I still think I could do it.

It need not be Sky Blue Sky. It could be Revolver, which might make more sense. Or Talking Book. Or Nashville Skyline. The crux is not that these are all exceptionally good albums, because surely not everyone would agree with me on this[2]; it’s all just a matter of taste. Nor does this need to have anything to do with music. It just does for me.

Because even though I don’t buy into a system of belief, a system of right and wrong, universal truths, spirits, souls, gods, karma, governments, constitutions, most scientific findings…

I do believe that there might be something other than all the bullshit.

Superficial and trivial to most, but I have a profound relationship to Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. When I listen to it I have the same feeling I get when I lose myself in the night sky. Or when I’m in the middle of the woods away from everything. These are the things that make me lose my Self, dissolve my Ego, make me feel connected.

I suspect that truly religious people get a similar feeling when they are lost in worship. But just because I don’t follow a canon, there are many who would condemn me, call me a nihilist.

But the label doesn’t matter.

The important thing is that at least I have something.

[1] Are they the good days or the bad days? I don’t know.
[2] Though I cannot fathom how someone could NOT like Talking Book.

6 thoughts on “We Believe in Nothing, Lebowski!

  1. Ah, but remember Freud’s comments at the beginning of Civilization and its Discontents regarding the “oceanic feeling.” Although I will grant that meditation or deep relaxation does bring about some kind of slipping away from oneself. But so does drinking.
    Conversations about nihilism are interesting to me because people view that word in so many different ways. I consider myself a nihilist in that I would be an existentialist but I think that this philosophy (and I realize I’m a lot together here, but I mostly mean Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir) doesn’t completely unfold or follow through on the implications of its arguments, or doesn’t explore them far enough. I’ll start with the uncontroversial idea that there is no meaning to life “out there.” The existentialists say we must make our own. But Sartre points out that we are too self-aware and that we can always change what this meaning is. Which, in my mind, cheapens it to the point that I feel like you’re just kidding yourself; that is, intentionally setting up a meaning to your life is in itself a form of bad faith. Any meaning you create is always extremely contingent and can be wiped out with one thought or action. But maybe this kind of meaning is fine with people. I think I just have a personality that doesn’t feel the need to have any meaning. I don’t think it’s a necessary project. And I’ll disagree with Sartre that we can’t help but create meaning with our actions. Actions are just a necessity of existence. I suppose by acting we are showing that we give preference for one thing over another, but that doesn’t mean we need an explanation for it. That’s just what we chose at that moment or over time. But I’ll stop here because I think I’m no longer putting forth an argument but rather am rambling. I’ll have to think it through some more.

    • Ah, the oceanic feeling. I once had a student on an exam define the oceanic feeling as “the feeling of swimming in the ocean.” Somehow I don’t think they a) read Freud or b) had ever gone swimming in the ocean.

      But anyway, I don’t think that’s the type of feeling I’m trying to describe, nor is drinking or drugs or any other such escapism. (Not that I don’t appreciate the merits of escapism.) Because the feeling I’m describing is not just a loss of self, because it requires an acute sense of awareness. You are both self and not self at the same time.

      I think most people are content with contingent meaning, mostly because they don’t realize that it’s contingent. I’m with you though, I don’t seem to need meaning either, and I am willing to be accused of being a nihilist in that respect. I don’t need a belief system or to think my life has some purpose. What I do need is a way to live my life that doesn’t result in me being constantly annoyed and disappointed by everything around me. And the only way I’ve found that I can do that is when I’m really in tune with the fact that I am utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things and that I shouldn’t take any of this bullshit too seriously.

      Because Paul Simon has essentially already said everything I’ve ever wanted to say, and I am on a teeny, tiny planet in a vast universe.

  2. Pingback: triple exxxistentialism | the avant guardian

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