Protesilaos Stavrou
Philosopher. Polymath.

On Nihilism

About being agnostic towards the meaning of human life

I was asked a question along the lines of:

What do you think about the claim that everything humans do is in vein because in the grand scheme of things we are just a random event in the universe?

My answer follows right below.

I think the observation that the human presence is a minor factor in the grand scheme of things is undeniable. We are but a single species on a small planet that contains millions of other life forms (possibly much more). For there to be a human presence, there is a complex web of relations between systems in our immediate environment that influences, frames, determines, enables our life. The human body itself is an incredibly elaborate network of systems with subsystems inside of them. There are local and emergent phenomena therein, governed by rules that are peculiar to each subsystem or the stratum of emergence respectively (i.e. between subsystems, giving rise to a certain supersystem as seen from their side).

Now think how insignificant the role of human beings are, in terms of their overall impact, when it is clear that a few tweaks to the orbit of the moon can have devastating effects on our life, or how a rather small increase in average temperature levels can annihilate us (and other life forms on planet Earth).

Extend that to the fact that our sun is but a single star in a galaxy that contains billions of them with an order of magnitude of more planets, asteroids, and the like. That is billions, thousands of millions, thousands upon thousands of thousands! And if that boggles the mind, it only gets greater from there! Our galaxy is but one in a multitude and so on. This scales to a level that could, in the realm of possibility, form supersystems that are emergent from those factors we currently are aware of. How incredible would it be if all known galaxies are the equivalent of a molecule in the human body? Are we in a position to know, with certainty, that the orders of emergence I already alluded to end at the specimen called “human” and that there can be no other supersystem from then on?

This is rampant speculation from my side which, nonetheless, remains a logical extension of observations we are most certain of. It would seem weird if the stratification of systems from the level of the atoms, to the molecules, to the organs, to the specimen “human”, somehow stops there. What is the mechanism that would determine such a termination of emergent realities? The truth is that we do not know; we do not know anything of the sort, at least not for the time being. We can theorise and hypothesise and develop new research programmes from there. All good, if done in a spirit of dialectic.

Now on to the argument that follows the realisation of this practically infinite cobweb of systems, of which we are but a tiny fragment: the claim that our relative weight as a factor in the universe is negligible and, therefore, we do not matter. I believe it is easy to fathom all this complexity and reach a nihilist conclusion. You might think to yourself: Why am I even typing this? My life is in vein. Our collective experience amounts to nothing when compared to the vastness out there; even the vastness of this planet alone.

It is easy to belittle yourself and humankind in general. Just as it is easy to commit a certain fallacy that disregards what I call the “mode of application”. Every thought we make, every observation, is a pattern that is applicable to a certain system that we have conceived; to a stratum of application. In that we can understand relations between factors and reason about causality and the like. Whatever we make out of it is probably false once we try to change the scope but keep the conclusions constant.

To be more concrete: we can understand human emotions at the level of interpersonal relations, but our findings do not make sense once we shift from that level to, say, the microbiology of the human body.

I think it would constitute a reductionist fallacy to suggest that human relations are meaningless because an emotion is just a chain of chemical reactions that are parsed by the mind in such a way as to deliver the impression in our conscious state that something is currently being felt.

While it might be true that underlying our intersubjective experience are subsystems that operate differently than we do, it still is the case that at our level of emergence, what matters is the phenomena that are specific to it, not their underpinnings. Those matter as well. It just is about the scope of application; the stratum at which the [emergent] phenomena occur.

Consequently, I am of the view that the infinity of the universe is irrelevant when thinking about human affairs. It is what it is. If there are higher forms of being that emerge from the stratum of application we operate in, then whatever consideration of it needs to also be couched in terms of that stratum. To conflate or altogether disregard such stratification is a failure to apply the mode of application that is necessary for proper reasoning of phenomena and their interplay.

This brings us to the salient point of meaninglessness. Here I hold the same view as with all other matters where there exists no definitive answer. I am agnostic. It would be arbitrary, indeed hubris, to argue that our life is entirely meaningless (also see my latest book On Hubris). This would constitute an error, a subtle one indeed, where we would claim to know more than we actually do. Think again about the complexity of the universe. We barely know anything about it, so how can we possibly be certain that there is no meaning of some sort.

Similarly, I cannot side with teleological views on the matter. Those that would posit that the human kind is a clear indication of the universe having some sort of purpose and that the specimen “human” is a clear step in a long process that must be leading somewhere. Again, I remain aporetic. We can speculate all we want, provided we recognise as much. But the truth is that we do not know. I would not exclude the possibility of knowing, nor would I oppose any research in that direction. I just withhold ultimate judgement for this and indeed for every other subject that remains open to investigation (which is “practically a lot”).

In the face of such uncertainty we can only be sure about the pretences of those who not only side with a certain general view of things, but also have the temerity to postulate all sorts of detailed explanations about practically every individual aspect of the topic at hand; and to know with precision what happened before and what will follow afterwards. If it is clear that the issue remains unsettled, it follows that all putative certainties about it are false. Again, I reiterate my agnosticism and clarify that the argument in favour of scepticism—the “we do not know”—is not dogmatic. We might know. But not just yet. Not in our current state. Not with the available data or research programmes.

To remain sceptical is about honesty. You recognise your limits. You do not commit hubris. It should, however, be noted that agnosticism does not mean that all views are the same: those who are absolutely certain despite the evidence to the contrary are clearly forwarding an agenda. They are not interested in genuine research that seeks to approximate the truth. Their task is to peddle some narrative or even force it upon us.

In conclusion, we must remain calm. Do what is in your nature and do not worry about some ultimate meaning in your life, that of humanity, the solar system, the Milky Way, etc. Are you reading this? Do you experience something different than prior to reading it? It does not matter whether there is an infinitely complex chain of dependencies for you to feel something other than nothing. What matter for you is that you operate in this world and respond to feedback loops. Whether this is because of some ultimate meaning in the stars or just sheer luck is secondary to the fact that you live a certain way.

If we ever get a definite answer on this topic, we can reconsider our stance. We are not “team sceptic”, for being dogmatically in favour of a given view is not scepticism at all.