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Optimistic Nihilism


A student of mine just dropped an H-bomb of a term on me: Optimistic Nihilism.

This is not a term (and yeah, okay, it’s two terms, but … just … I mean … come on) I was familiar with before this, and I don’t know how, because it sums up my philosophy perfectly.

I’m an atheist, if you didn’t know, and along with that atheism comes the sense that there is no grand, divine purpose for existence — mine or anybody else’s, up to and including the entire human race. There’s no “reason” why we’re here outside of the fact that somehow life got started on this planet and after a few billion years in the martini shaker, we popped out the other side. Once you embrace that idea, it is a very short step indeed to come to the conclusion that nothing we do matters. One needs only consider this image, famously called the “pale blue dot”, from Voyager I as it flew past Saturn into the outer reaches of the solar system in 1990.

Voyager 1's Pale Blue Dot | NASA Solar System Exploration
For further inspiration/soul-crushing despair (depending on your predisposition), read Carl Sagan’s take on this picture.

When you consider that, from another vantage point, even a relatively close one in our galactic neighborhood, the Earth is nothing more than a speck, it is hard to see how human actions could make any difference at all in the scope of the universe.

This is hard to stomach, for some. So difficult is it, that Douglas Adams used it as a form of mental torture in a device called the “Total Perspective Vortex” in his Hitchhiker’s series. (Please to be reading it if you haven’t already.) The TPV, when entered by a victim, would immediately demonstrate to that victim their utter insignificance in the universe and reduce them to a babbling, psychologically disintegrated wreck.

So, there’s your nihilism. Nothing we do matters, our lives will come to nothing and those who knew us will themselves die and be forgotten, and none of it will make any difference.

I can’t make a difference on the scale of the universe, or the galaxy, or the solar system, or even on a scale as (relatively) small as our planet or our home country. But I *am* here, and I’m alive *now*, and I have other people in my life who I love and who love me, and maybe for the little time I have, I can bring some happiness to them and they can bring some to me. And we can make this life, which we all seem to be sharing (let’s steer away from the murky waters of solipsism today), a little less meaningless.

So there’s your optimism.

Optimistic Nihilism.

It’s got a bit of a ring to it.


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