The Examined Life

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Re-discovering the Nihilistic Dilemma

When I was twenty (in 1967), I had hand written a three-page essay on lined notepaper that I called the "Nihilistic Dilemma". This essay was a kind of secret because I never showed it to anyone. I really felt no one could understand it.

I had been reading some philosophy books and had come across Frederick Nietzsche. In the most exquisite of ironies I had concluded from the concepts of nihilism and existentialism the exact opposite of the view that is commonly held.

I am presenting this document here exactly as it was written because in 2001 I re-discovered the significance in my life of what I had written over 30 years previously. The important lesson for me in re-discovering this has been to understand that those things that have been significant even early in my life like a touchstone, still are, and always will be. In loosing touch with what I had discovered at the age of twenty, I had indeed lost touch with something I desperately needed to be constantly mindful of that had subconsciously defined my life. Re-discovering and reading the words I had written has resulted in a reaffirming and rejuvenating experience in my life. Of all the other papers from that time I could have I kept, it was this paper, and this paper alone, that I kept tucked away in the binder with my high school diploma. Somehow I knew there was something profound about what I had written. So without further ado, I give you “The Nihilistic Dilemma”.

The Nihilistic Dilemma

Let us consider for a moment the emptiness of space. Consider the concept of a void where nothing exists. We know that this condition does exist out in space just as we know that matter exists on our planet earth. We can stand here on our planet in the midst of all the matter and conceive of an entirely void universe with no matter or energy at all. It is not inconceivable. In fact it seems as probable if not more probable that the universe be empty rather than filled with matter and energy. That is, it might be easier to justify the existence of a void universe than a full one.

Consider the significance of the existence of anyone or anything. We live our lives affecting the things we touch and that touch us. When we consider the relative effect of our lives to the universe around us, we see that we affect those things close to us to the greatest degree and our affect diminishes as distance increases. If we consider our effect on life elsewhere in the universe we must admit that we have no effect on life outside that on our own planet. If there is life on some planet revolving about the nearest star to us, this is relatively unimportant to us and I suppose we to them. In fact, if we conceive of the most important and significant facet of lives, to someone somewhere else in the universe it is no significance or value at all. Realizing thus that all value and significance does not derive from some unchangeable rule but only from the relation that they hold with one another, we are left with a dilemma.

Why do we treat things as though they have unquestionable value when we realize that when put in relation to other circumstances or other people they have no value at all? Why do we feel that our lives are important? Why do we feel that a full universe is any more desirable than the empty one we considered earlier? The proceeding contemplation that I have related I call the Nihilistic Dilemma. The concept is Nihilistic because nothing seems to have any intrinsic value but only relative value and a dilemma because all life seems to deny the conclusion that there is no intrinsic value in the universe.

At this point you may find yourself questioning the value of your own existence. You might like to feel that there is something intrinsically valuable about your life but it is disconcerting to realize that each of us simply occupy some relative position of value on a scale that has no top or bottom. But wait; what we have realized is a blessing in disguise. When we realize that everything in the universe has only relative value and nothing has any more real value than anything else, we then have the freedom to choose anything we like to be of value. We can’t possibly make a wrong choice. We realize of course that any choice we may make is a folly and only important because we make it so. Once we realize this we are then in control and therefore able to choose our follies with greater wisdom and insight.

We must now concede what at first appears to be a side issue will turn out to be the most significant part of this entire investigation. What we call life when we refer to ourselves I see as the existence of consciousness. This might be expressed as Descartes did who contends that he exists because he thinks. I do not intend to discuss the question of life after death but remain agnostic on this question. To our knowledge then a person who is dead no longer has the consciousness we call life. To our knowledge a person who is dead does not have the choice of life or death (at least no one has returned from death thus indicating the existence of a choice). It is also obvious that a person who is dead no longer has any choices at all. We have earlier established that all choices are relative and therefore of the same value. I contend here now that we have discovered that something that seems to lie outside the limits of the relativity that I pointed out before. It is the choice. Without life we have no choice of follies. The choice is the only thing that has any real value. Life is the only way we can have the choice. And even though life is the key to the possibility of making the choice of an infinite number of inconsequential choices, the existence of the choice lies outside the relativity of all our other choices. Life is the only choice we can make that is the key to all our other choices. We have the choice of life or death. Yes, death is a choice but as far as we know it is an irreversible choice.