Five in one

Here are four five pretty unrelated things that have been on my mind:

Entrepreneurs: sell vs befriend

I, like I am sure millions of other people, keep getting followed by all sorts of dealers who promise to “help small business” and lead to “explosive growth” on social media. Why do these people exist? How have they not been banned by everyone? Or will selling hope always be big business?

It would be nice to have a community of entrepreneurs. But what do entrepreneurs do? They sell and they compete. Trying to have a community of entrepreneurs is like trying to farm spiders. They will eat each other.

A community of this nature could only form based on prior friendship, where social bonds are stronger than the need to sell. But most of these communities offer to put you into a network for a small fee: this doesn’t exactly inspire warm and fuzzy feelings. The circular nature of their business is also worrying. Conferences, seminars, mindset trainings, honestly…

I have, on the other hand, made many friends online, who happen to be entrepreneurs, but never directly in connection with their entrepreneurship. (You know who you are. Perhaps, some of you would like to meet my recently acquired Buddhist friend.)

Nietzsche: is it all lies?

I am quite worried about how things are unfolding in the US.

Nietzsche keeps getting brought up. He has to be the most misunderstood philosopher. Did his relatives doctor his writings too much after he died? Or is he just forever contradicting himself?

Any Nietzsche scholars very welcome to comment on this article of Nietzsche and the alt-right.

Curate or censor?

In other news, Google recently stopped Gab, apparently a sort of Twitter for people who get banned from Twitter, from being able to be downloaded from their Playstore. Apple stopped them a little earlier this year. Also, Instagram’s Kevin Systrom wants to curate the Internet.

Taleb is in a new battle with the establishment.

Vaccinate or die

France is tightening vaccination requirements. I support vaccines, of course. As a society though, are we better off having people die from preventable diseases or limiting their freedoms?

Diabetes is a preventable disease, but I don’t see anyone being confined to a gym by law. Though the herd immunity argument makes vaccines different. In addition, the fact that it is children who are affected makes vaccines different, but then again we can’t stop some people overfeeding their children with junk. I’ve taken enough trips on routes that serve hospitals to know that you don’t have to be above one year of age to be served Coke in your bottle.

Control

There is a philosophy that suggests that taking responsibility for everything that happens to you is the best way to live (e.g. William James).

I think that the world is one giant furnace of entropy and within that we each have a small island we call the self, where we can affect things. I cannot force someone to ask me to come to their party, but there is a myriad of things I can do to try to gently weasel my way into it.

The single most damaging thing I do, my worst bad habit, is fretting about things I cannot control. In other words, I feel responsible for things that are beyond my reach. I sit there and feel like a failure if I am not invited to the metaphorical party.

The question is: does this fretting push me to look for solutions that I wouldn’t have found if I just rested within my boundaries? Or are parts of William James and his followers’ philosophy just soothingly empowering wishful thinking? Or am I even doing damage by fretting and preventing myself from seeing ways to get into the party? Please share your thoughts on this last thing.

P.S. I couldn’t find a picture of a weasel, so here is a nice chilled out otter. I must take some of my own pictures soon.

“There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think”

Shortly after I finished my medical degree, I pursued a master’s degree in finance. The 2008 market crash was pretty terrible for Ireland – and I was curious to find out get out of the medical bubble and learn about the world. After 5 years of medicine, everyone who wasn’t a doctor seemed well-rounded, but one of the most well-rounded wonderful friends I made during that masters suggested that I read Principles by Ray Dalio back in the day.

Dalio is the founder of (probably) the most successful hedge fund. Unlike all those 10-steps-to-success type books by various billionaires, Principles lacks the motivational element and has lots of cold rational logic. I found it to be a fascinating read.

You will find lots of free pdf copies of Principles online. The paid (expanded) version is a recent development. The book was in open access for years. The fact that it’s free is one of the things that made it different to books written by the likes of Richard Branson. I wonder what Dalio is up to with the paid version. The capitalist in him must be rebelling against giving out free stuff, I guess…

More recently, Dalio mentioned that reading Ayn Rand would be key to understanding the mindset of Trump era economics and politics. I poked around a few articles about Rand and was surprised to find that her philosophy was rejected by critics and academics. I’d never heard of these words in the same sentence. What does it mean to reject a philosophy? Turning to a family member beside me with this naive question, I received a less than naive answer: it is a situation where a philosophy isn’t politically expedient. Oh dear.

Nevertheless, her thoughts reminded me of Nietzsche. I don’t think he spoke about economics very much, but if he had, I am sure he would have said exactly what Rand had to say.

So I started with Atlas Shrugged.

Ayn Rand philosophy reviewed Atlas Shrugged

Is Atlas Shrugged a pleasant read?

Just like Brave New World, Atlas Shrugged a philosophical book dressed up as a novel. For the more analytical among us, it’s definitely a stimulating read. The characters are a little flat and improbable, but that’s just the nature of these type of works. A few cringy sex scenes. A touch of naive feminism.

Rand writes in impossibly long sentences and can seem excessively intellectual-for-the-sake-of-being-intellectual. Over 1,000 pages of that can get tiring.

Is Atlas Shrugged a worthwhile read?

The book addresses some issues we face today in the West in a way that nobody would ever dare in this day and age. We can barely take a breath without getting a licence, insurance and paying tax on it. We’re not actually free to speak our mind out here, even though we pride ourselves on it. There has been a lot of violence in US universities against right wing groups citing social justice as a legitimate justification.

In such a world, Rand’s writing is a breath of fresh air – but not for long. The discerning reader soon realises that Rand painted an impossible utopia, just like the communists she so hates, and that she is simply wrong in many of her sweeping statements.

What’s Atlas Shrugged about?

It’s about a (slightly) dystopian United States with a touch of sci fi. Prepare for a lot of talk about railways, oil, steel and trains. A government nationalises the major corporations in a fever of extorting socialism. You can hazard a guess where she got her inspiration.

Who is Ayn Rand?

She was an atheist woman of Russian Jewish bourgeoisie origins. As a 20 year old, she left the USSR and settled in the US. Interestingly, she became an atheist before it was cool strongly recommended by the Soviets. Her father was a businessman. He was stripped of his fortune during the Revolution of 1917. Legend has it that the first book she purchased in the US was Thus spoke Zarathustra. 

Incidentally, it is thought that she is an INTJ, so our ENTP crowd are likely to like her style.

Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand objectivism philosophy explained

What did Ayn Rand believe?

1. Rand believed that religion and socialism are evil

Rand isn’t just against religion, she believes that socialists are basically Religion 2.0.

Both [religion and socialism] demand the surrender of your mind, one to their revelations, the other to their reflexes. No matter how loudly they posture in the roles of irreconcilable antagonists, their moral codes are alike, and so are their aims: in matter—the enslavement of man’s body, in spirit—the destruction of his mind.

Neither religion nor socialism welcome questioning:

The purpose of man’s life, say both, is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question… Both kinds demand that you invalidate your own consciousness and surrender yourself into their power.

2. Rand rejected true world theories

Although Rand herself said “The only philosophical debt I can acknowledge is to Aristotle”, this is more or less straight out of Nietzsche:

[Religion and socialism] claim that they perceive a mode of being superior to your existence on this earth. The mystics of spirit call it ‘another dimension,’ which consists of denying dimensions. The mystics of muscle call it ‘the future,’ which consists of denying the present.


3. Rand thought that reality and perception are completely separate

Shakespeare said that nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Rand begs to differ:

They want to cheat the axiom of existence and consciousness, they want their consciousness to be an instrument not of perceiving but of creating existence, and existence to be not the object but the subject of their consciousness—they want to be that God they created in their image and likeness, who creates a universe out of a void by means of an arbitrary whim. But reality is not to be cheated.

A savage is a being who has not grasped that A is A and that reality is real. 

The fact that we can perceive things that aren’t what they initially seem doesn’t take away from the separation of reality and perception:

The day when he grasps that the reflection he sees in a mirror is not a delusion, that it is real, but it is not himself, that the mirage he sees in a desert is not a delusion, that the air and the light rays that cause it are real, but it is not a city, it is a city’s reflection—the day when he grasps that he is not a passive recipient of the sensations of any given moment, that his senses do not provide him with automatic knowledge in separate snatches independent of context, but only with the material of knowledge, which his mind must learn to integrate—the day when he grasps that his senses cannot deceive him, that physical objects cannot act without causes, that his organs of perception are physical and have no volition, no power to invent or to distort, that the evidence they give him is an absolute, but his mind must learn to understand it, his mind must discover the nature, the causes, the full context of his sensory material, his mind must identify things that he perceives—that is the day of his birth as a thinker and scientist. (Note that this is all one sentence!)

4. Rand postulated that a contradiction is the marker of a mistake

A touch of Aristotle:

Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.

Emotion that isn’t congruent with thought indicated an unresolved conflict:

An emotion that clashes with your reason, an emotion that you cannot explain or control, is only the carcass of that stale thinking which you forbade your mind to revise.

5. Rand believed that refusing to think is a crime

Much as I disagree with Rand on many points, I do agree with this:

There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think. 

To varying extents, we are all guilty of this – and our parents are, of making us trust authority over our own judgement:

A mystic is a man who surrendered his mind at its first encounter with the minds of others. Somewhere in the distant reaches of his childhood, when his own understanding of reality clashed with the assertions of others, with their arbitrary orders and contradictory demands, he gave in to so craven a fear of dependence that he renounced his rational faculty.

If you’ve given up on thinking, emotion is all that’s left:

From then on, afraid to think, he is left at the mercy of unidentified feelings. His feelings become his only guide, his only remnant of personal identity, he clings to them with ferocious possessiveness—and whatever thinking he does is devoted to the struggle of hiding from himself that the nature of his feelings is terror.

It’s not possible to be rational while only being rational about certain things:

Whenever you committed the evil of refusing to think and to see, of exempting from the absolute of reality some one small wish of yours, whenever you chose to say: Let me withdraw from the judgment of reason the cookies I stole, or the existence of God, let me have my one irrational whim and I will be a man of reason about all else—that was the act of subverting your consciousness, the act of corrupting your mind.

Resorting to mysticism means an inability to convince:

Every dictator is a mystic, and every mystic is a potential dictator… A mystic craves obedience from men, not their agreement.

If anyone wonders what it would be like to be Antichrist, just post the below on Instagram:

To a savage, the world is a place of unintelligible miracles where anything is possible to inanimate matter and nothing is possible to him.

6. Religion is a racket according to Rand

I went to an uber-Catholic school at one point. I recall my teacher telling me with great conviction that Jesus died for us. This thing we hear all the time is actually quite a confusing statement, so I asked why he had to die for us. The teacher proceeded to explain the concept of the original sin – and all I was thinking of, sure what have I to do with that? If forgiveness is more or less the ultimate virtue in Christianity, how come God is still holding Adam and Eve’s mischief against us? Rand seems to be of the same opinion:

The name of this monstrous absurdity is Original Sin. A sin without volition is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral.

Here is her summary of how religion rose to power:

For centuries, the mystics of spirit had existed by running a protection racket—by making life on earth unbearable, then charging you for consolation and relief, by forbidding all the virtues that make existence possible, then riding on the shoulders of your guilt, by declaring production and joy to be sins, then collecting blackmail from the sinners.

7. Universal basic income has no place in a Randian world

Rand is pointing out the Ponzi scheme in UBI:

They proclaim that every man born is entitled to exist without labor and, the laws of reality to the contrary notwithstanding, is entitled to receive his ‘minimum sustenance’—his food, his clothes, his shelter—with no effort on his part, as his due and his birthright. To receive it—from whom? Blank-out.

8. Decisions: make them or die, says Rand

Rand advocates extreme responsibility. It one of the main virtues to her. A person who doesn’t take responsibility doesn’t deserve to live:

Calmly and impersonally, she [the main character], who would have hesitated to fire at an animal, pulled the trigger and fired straight at the heart of a man who had wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness.

9. Trade is the ultimate human relationship

There is a lot of worshipping of the dollar in the book. Rand says that trade is great because it is consensual and it creates value for both parties:

Money rests on the axiom that every man is the owner of his mind and his effort. Money allows no power to prescribe the value of your effort except the voluntary choice of the man who is willing to trade you his effort in return. Money permits you to obtain for your goods and your labor that which they are worth to the men who buy them, but no more. Money permits no deals except those to mutual benefit by the unforced judgment of the traders. Money demands of you the recognition that men must work for their own benefit, not for their own injury, for their gain, not their loss—the recognition that they are not beasts of burden, born to carry the weight of your misery—that you must offer them values, not wounds—that the common bond among men is not the exchange of suffering, but the exchange of goods.

Money demands that you sell, not your weakness to men’s stupidity, but your talent to their reason; it demands that you buy, not the shoddiest they offer, but the best that your money can find. And when men live by trade—with reason, not force, as their final arbiter—it is the best product that wins, the best performance, the man of best judgment and highest ability—and the degree of a man’s productiveness is the degree of his reward. 

But what about love, I hear you ask? Her views on love are all about self-interest. Ultimately, love is a deal people make.

The Randian Ubermensch:

  • unconditionally loves life
  • has infinite belief in himself
  • is driven by intellect and self-interest
  • doesn’t wallow in weakness
  • takes responsibility for absolutely everything that happens to him
  • does not sacrifice and takes the oath: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man nor ask another man to live for mine.”

ayn rand objectivism is wrong

Holes in Rand’s philosophy

1. Rand doesn’t address the issue of chance

Rand says:

As there can be no causeless wealth, so there can be no causeless love or any sort of causeless emotion. 

There are all of these things in real life. Not for good reason, but they do exists. This is the main reason her philosophy isn’t useful: Rand doesn’t address the issue of chance.

Very often people who succeed overdefine their successes (and failures). It’s almost like survivor’s guilt: “I made it because I tried. If you haven’t made it, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough.” We all know that that’s not how things are in reality. In the long term, yes, Fortune favours the bold – or so I tell myself.

Most of the main characters appear to have inherited their fortune. John Galt, the real hero of the story, the inventor of the marvellous engine, didn’t. He wouldn’t have risen to the top by inventing an engine in real life. His invention would have been coopted by the owner of the huge corporation he worked for. He would probably get a gift voucher at the Christmas party. Where is the guy who invented the internet now? “It wasn’t one person.” True. But it wasn’t one person who made computers, smartphones, Facebook or whatever – yet we can put a name to these things because someone managed to make it into their own business.

Ayn Rand opposes that horrible Soviet-like “Equalisation of Opportunity” act in her novel, but this is why her philosophy has done little to address the downsides of socialism: she doesn’t address their main concern – that chance plays a large part in one’s life.

2. Rand looks for patterns where there aren’t any

A closely related point is that Rand believes that everything can be made into science.

The links you strive to drown are causal connections. The enemy you seek to defeat is the law of causality: it permits you no miracles.

Causality is a very ambitious concept to manoeuvre with. During my study of statistics I understood that causality is all smoke and mirrors. All we have are some intuitive concepts of what causes what. There is no real way to prove causality.

Looking for patterns in randomness has always been a hobby of the human race. Rain is caused by the generous sacrifices to the goddess of agriculture in the previous years. Investment returns are caused by prior results. A successful career follows from great interview performance. No. They aren’t. Some things are just random. Rand didn’t understand that.

3. Rand rejects the idea that there are things outside of our control

…it cannot be done to you without your consent. If you permit it to be done, you deserve it.

Here is more of Rand’s blame-the-victim philosophy. In certain contexts, the above is true, but it’s not quite as black and white as Rand makes out. What if your parents are addicted to drugs and you are addicted now too. Did you deserve it? Were you wrong to trust the people who gave you life and basically were your life for a long time?

This is how people get to be neurotic in the modern world: beating themselves up for not being able to control things… that they cannot possibly control. Rand rejects the idea that there are things outside of our control.

4. Rand confuses useful assumptions and absolutes

‘We know that we know nothing,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are claiming knowledge—’There are no absolutes,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are uttering an absolute—’You cannot prove that you exist or that you’re conscious,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge: the existence of something to know, of a consciousness able to know it, and of a knowledge that has learned to distinguish between such concepts as the proved and the unproved.

Socrates got a beating there. To my mind, Rand is overambitious. A reasonable human being will operate on her assumptions, but they will not take them to be the only possibility.

5. Rand forgets the darker side of trade

To trade by means of money is the code of the men of good will.

What about selling heroin, Ayn?

And, Ayn, if you don’t hire me to be your security guard, I will break your windows.

It’s not just the Church that blackmails people.

6. Rand believes we live in a meritocracy of irreplaceable minds

In Atlas Shrugged, the brightest, most industrious people escape into a hidden world one by one as their creations get nationalised. This leads to a failed state; everything comes to a stand-still. Would this happen in reality?

This assumes that we live in a meritocracy. I believe in the power of genetics more than most people, but not everyone who inherits their parent’s empire is going to be as good as them. Rand acknowledges this fact in her character Jim Taggart, but seems to imply that the best will still rise to the top.

I don’t think that the world would be quite so helpless without its aristocracy. Every significant change of power in history has led to the destruction of the previous regime’s nobility. They just kept going anyway though: new nobility found its feet pretty quickly. When Atlas gets tired, he just adjusts his grip.

7. Rand states that happiness is the purpose of life

What a nice and simple formula. Only it is as foggy as dividing by zero. What does it mean to be happy, Ayn?

ayn rand nietzsche philosophy

What is my verdict on Rand’s philosophy?

I do agree that reality exists without our consciousness (this is the central idea of objectivism).

I admire her love of life, reality, intellect and industrious creation of value.

I think she simplified the complex and destroyed her credibility.

Her work is more of an ideology with defined values than a philosophy that helps to understand the word.

 

Love of labour: a bad romance with the illusion of security

The more things change, the more they stay the same. But this time it is really different:

employment is an illusion of security

What an uncomfortable graph. Sometimes when things scale, they are just a bigger version of the small thing. However, at times, they also develop new properties. A population of cells becomes an organ – and has new properties. A large teddy bear can be used as a pillow, while a small one cannot.

What can a large human population do that a small one couldn’t? What does it mean for the individual?

The above graph of world population vs time scares me because we’re going into the unknown. In a sense, each one of us is less important. It takes much more to compete. If you are “one in a thousand”, in 1800 that would have got you places. Today, not so much.

What does that mean for individuals? Can such a demand for food, water and energy be met, never mind sustainably? How do we find a place in such a competitive imminently expanding world? Albeit we’re no longer accelerating the growth, the sheer numbers are a little bit unnerving.

competing with a growing population

Not to fall into conspiracy theories or 1984/Brave New World despair, but for the sake of an analogy, consider cows, or minks, or any other farmed animal. I’ve always felt that breeding animals to kill them is a kind of (?necessary) evil, but it is somehow made better by the fact that they are bred. They don’t have to worry about food and get to have lots of babies. In a roundabout way, they have won in the Darwinian casino.

But then I wondered: if cows and minks are bred for their meat and their fur, are we kind of… bred for economic growth?

Each one of us has to comply with the assertion that success comes from having lots and lots of things in order for this to be perpetuated. Few people look for fame and fortune to exercise some kind of power (if you prefer “change the world”) – and to be fair I have respect for such people.

employment in the context of a growing population
“Idle as trout in light”

I get the sense though that to most people, fame and fortune is an end in itself. Furthermore, I suspect it is a product of our culture rather than just hedonism. For a proper first principles hedonist, it would never make sense to work so hard to have things they will never get time to enjoy.

I’ve always found it fascinating that the very people I know from school that were so rebellious that they just wouldn’t comply with the simplest of instruction become exemplars of compliance and obedience when there is a paycheck involved.

It’s someone’s birthday?

“I’ve work tomorrow.”

Can’t stand the sight of the boss?

“I have to go to work.”

Wife giving birth?

“I better get to work, so.”

It seems that no amount of personal problems can stand in the way of being at work. And when it does happen, the rest of the working tribe treats it as some kind of weakness and/or deceit to get out of doing work.

Buckminster Fuller comes to mind:

“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

“Inspectors of inspectors”… The irony. A friend of mine, a former employee of a multinational once pointed out: we have trackers for trackers. Entire days are spent changing amber to green and red to amber.

Some also theorise that very few jobs require 9-5 x 5 days a week. A lot of time is spent being idle. Why then do the employers insist of you being there? I would argue it isn’t the employer: it’s the culture. Some people won’t take their job seriously if they are given the autonomy to manage their own time (though I always bet on the opposite when looking for people in my own ventures).

If you think about it, it’s kind of disrespectful to insist that someone is there just so that their boss has the option of coopting them into some work engagement. Another interesting (?side) effect is that predictably a person has no strength to create anything outside of work. An eight hour day of being surveyed and judged, a draining commute, an uncomfortable suit and a toilet seat you cannot sit on… As Taleb puts it:

“In short, every organization wants a certain number of people associated with it to be deprived of a certain share of their freedom. How do you own these people? First, by conditioning and psychological manipulation; second by tweaking them to have some skin in the game, forcing them to have something significant to lose if they were to disobey authority –something hard to do with gyrovague beggars who flouted they scorn of material possessions.”

I wonder if it is becoming harder, though, to be a gyrating roaming monk (these days they have a Mac and are called digital nomads) given that the population is growing. Is there room to be an individual? Nietzsche has his concerns:

“Those who commend work. – In the glorification of ‘work’, in the unwearied talk of the ‘blessing of work’, I see the same covert idea as in the praise of useful impersonal actions: that of fear of everything individual. Fundamentally, one now feels at the sight of work – one always means by work that hard industriousness from early till late – that such work is the best policeman, that it keeps everyone in bounds and can mightily hinder the development of reason, covetousness, desire for independence. For it uses up an extraordinary amount of nervous energy, which is thus denied to reflection, brooding, dreaming, worrying, loving, hating; it sets a small goal always in sight and guarantees easy and regular satisfactions. Thus a society in which there is continual hard work will have more security: and security is now worshipped as the supreme divinity. – And now! Horror! Precisely the ‘worker’ has become dangerous! The place is swarming with ‘dangerous individuals’! And behind them the danger of dangers – the individual!”

It’s pretty clear that Nietzsche’s talking about institutional employment.

This essay of mine isn’t about robbing the rich or some other way of getting out of work. It’s not promoting Zuckerberg’s universal basic income. It’s about the fact that work is indeed glorified. Much of what is called work is being trapped in purposelessness.

employment is an illusion of security

And it’s not even work that is glorified: nobody cares about the labour of a painter who hasn’t (yet) made their hobby into a job or a blogger, or whoever. It is the stamp of approval from some institution that people really respect. Perhaps, it is just easier to relate to.

I suppose, being Russian, I can’t help but be reminded of how easily institutions fail. Countless Russian firms have risen to unbelievable heights and quickly died in the last 20 years. Even the USSR itself: seeing such a behemoth collapse shatters one’s faith in institutions.

And it wasn’t even that weak, with real industry and gargantuan natural resources. In a completely different context, where I am now – Ireland – also has become a State and gone through a couple of different names in the XX century. That empire disappeared too.

Nietzsche above and Taleb (in multiple works) have spoken about this security that people look for. The security that people trade a portion of their freedom for. Clearly though, it is an illusion. Remember 2008?

nietzsche fuller taleb on work and employment
The chap in the pink shirt knows how to party like it’s 1728

Meanwhile, the seaside restaurant beside me boasts having been established in 1728. Chin chin, Mr Taleb, and chin chin to everyone being creative and working hard to not lose your individuality among the impending billions.

philosophers on employment
Chin chin!

 

Why Nietzsche was so critical of Buddhism

I have to be honest: my interest in mindfulness started off, and still is, almost completely secular. I do not aspire to awakening and all those other big things that spiritual teachers preach (market). For me, it is more about resting the brain so as to allow it to function at its peak. This may sound cold and clinical, but all it is really is that I don’t have massive expectations.

All the same, I figured that if I am to get good at mindfulness, I need to explore it properly. The language used to explain mindfulness: non-attachment, non-judgement, acceptance – seemed very confusing to me. Confusing to the point of seeming to defy basic human nature.

The best way I can phrase it now is that the practice of mindfulness requires us to treat thoughts and emotions as if we are just watching them.

 

But it did beg the question: how do you make sense of acceptance and non-judgement? How does that gel with constant resistance and overpowering ourselves that we are all so familiar with? How, and why, do we set and strive for goals if we are meant to be just accepting? I did wonder if there is a certain nihilism to the teachings behind mindfulness.

So who better to ask than Professor Nietzsche, nihilism-connoisseur in chief?

Nguyên Giác and I like to explore the thinking behind Buddhism, so in this latest piece I discuss Nietzsche’s understanding, rejection and emulation of Buddhism in his philosophy and explain the logic behind his claim that it is a nihilistic religion.

If you want the quick version, here it is:

  • Nietzsche misunderstood the concepts of Buddhism by mistaking interdependence for emptiness, probably due to lack of context and good translations
  • He defined Buddhism as a “true-world theory”, meaning that Buddhism claims there is another, superior form of existence (Buddho, Nirvana, etc) and that inherently defies the value of our common, normal, unawakened life, hence it is nihilistic
  • Despite Nietzsche’s rejection of Buddhism, his own philosophy is, in places, remarkably similar to it.

GnoTruth

Nihilism? Decadence? Will to power? Superman? True World? Eternal Recurrence? Nietzsche was a complex guy. Read this to learn more about how his ideas stood in comparison to those commonly put forward by Buddhist traditions.

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Mindfulness is pointless – and that’s the point

It seems that the focus of many bloggers and mindfulness advocates is to promote mindfulness as yet another miracle fix on the way to flat abs and a yacht. Mindfulness isn’t a shortcut to effortless positive thinking.

The fact that the 440×220 pixel Twitter platitudes with a stock sunset background and a quote from a Buddhist have become so popular reflects the growing misunderstanding surrounding mindfulness.

psychology of mindfulness

While mindfulness does help with depression, anxiety and other difficult mental states, achieving a certain mental state – or indeed happiness – isn’t the purpose of mindfulness. While it isn’t necessary to buy into the philosophy behind mindfulness to practice it, it’s important to understand what it is one’s getting themselves into.There’s nothing at all wrong with “secular” mindfulness, the kind pedalled by corporations, promoted to children, etc. Indeed, I am in no way a Buddhist. However, I believe that hiding from this philosophy and still expecting to get experience mindfulness to the full is futile. The philosophy states that…

At the root of all suffering is attachment.

Non-attachment is a key tenet of the Buddhism. Attachment is our attempt to deny the fact that everything is impermanent, hence is causes a dissonance between reality and perception ultimately resulting in suffering. The concept seems at odds with out common view of happiness that involves the strife to get through a checklist of experiences and things – and walk of into the sunset in permanent bliss. However, the concept of non-attachment is echoed in the philosophy of Stoicism, the thoughts of Friedrich Nietzsche and modern talking therapies such as CBT and REBT. Indeed, I struggle with the concept again and again. It seem that Buddhism advocates that we live our lives a bit like plants: accept everything that comes our way and adapt.

mindfulness philosophy psychology

Using mindfulness as some kind of trick to accomplish certain goals just doesn’t make sense.

Google, having a finger in virtually every pie, have a Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. It’s mission is stated as:

Born at Google and based on brain science, SIY uses the practices of mindfulness to train Emotional Intelligence skills, leading to resilience, positive mindset, and centred leadership. In the midst of complexity, it’s about finding the inner capacity to create, to thrive, to lead. And it’s surprisingly fun. Backed by some of the world’s leading experts in neuroscience and mindfulness, SIY is changing thousands of lives in over a dozen countries.

Here’s a book they propose. I haven’t seen the inside, but if I may judge by its cover, I find it wanting.

mindfulness isn't a positive psychology hack

Indirectly, insights into how to achieve goals may be precisely the result of the practice. However, a realisation of the irrelevance of those goals may also be the outcome. Being in the moment involves not knowing how it will all turn out. Barry Magid is an American psychiatrist who went against the current. He argued against using meditation as yet another vehicle en route to the conventional happiness prescription, i.e. maximum pleasant feelings and thoughts, minimum unpleasant feelings and thoughts.

Magid’s understanding of mindfulness is that it is a way to stop trying to “fix” ones’ experience of things.

His argument is somewhat routed in mythology: struggling to escape one’s demons is what gives them their power.

The fight for a vision of happiness is the cause of the problem, not the solution to it.

Freud’s seemingly basic idea of our psychology was that we seek pleasure and avoid pain (and we avoid pain much more than we seek pleasure). He argued that our subconscious was a big long list of everything we avoid. The Buddha confronted suffering, he didn’t move away – he moved into the pain – and that is how he became free.

As a doctor, I know that it’s very worrying when a patient doesn’t flinch away from a painful stimulus. I am starting to come around to the idea that for our higher cognition, the non-reflex, non-fight-or-flight, it is better to not flinch away from mental pain.

That’s how I understand mindfulness. It’s not sitting there thoughtless. In fact, trying hard to fix the busy mind is yet another trap. The way I understand it is that it is necessary to observe it without clinging or fleeing. Like I discussed with Bela,

For me the experience of mindfulness is a bit like being on a tight rope: the abyss of clinging to the left and of fleeing to the right. Sometimes of the past to the left and of the future to the right. Just like it takes a lot of awareness to remain on the tight rope, flexing the right muscles, adjusting to the wind, it takes the same kind of awareness to stay in the moment.

Seneca, Freud, the Buddha – and our new friend the living psychiatrist Magid all seem to think that flinching away from suffering is what makes it worse.

The Abhidhamma, a central text for Buddhism, teaches that the mind is a bit like a sense organ. Thoughts and feelings come in just like smells, sounds and tastes. Recently, I observed a thought that seemed completely extraneous to me: having relaxed after non-stop worrying about a sick animals, I found it strange how someone else would get so upset about a pet in hospital. Not every thought and emotion belongs to us. Why do certain songs cling to our minds? In what way are they ours?

We could consider the inescapable nature of the smell of cigarettes – or the taste of toothpaste every morning as a way to understand the presence of certain thoughts and feelings.

It gets a little bit “meta” – as we are more abstractly thinking (one may say observing non-judgementally) of regular thinking (to do list, he said, she said, itchy, hungry, Never mind I’ll find someone like you, and other assorted circular randomness) – and saying that regular thinking is just like an organ of perception. What does that say about abstract thinking? Is that the “real” thinking? Somewhat over-simplistically, I suspect that this abstract thinking is a process of the prefrontal cortex, while the regular thinking is carried out by more basic circuitry we share with many animals.

philosophy behind mindfulness
Observing the clouds pass by without chasing them

In this vein, not being able to get the motivation to do something because one’s sad doesn’t make sense. One needn’t feel pumped to do work. If thoughts and feelings are like smells and sounds, one can still muster the agency to do what needs to be done. The Stoics would argue like this also.

In a sense, this still means that mindfulness is a route to happiness, only I changed the goal posts of what happiness is. In a sense, mindfulness is a fight to stay on the tightrope of the present moment – and thus a fight for happiness. This is all difficult to state in words, but I think you all know what I mean.

Mindfulness doesn’t have a purpose, except perhaps to reconcile perception and reality – which is so obvious, it is a bit embarrassing to state as a purpose.

mindfulness non attachment

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Fear: a millennial perspective

Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level

Ernest Becker

Fear of the passage of time

I recently came across the term chronophobia in the context of people doing exams: knowing that exam day is ever closer makes people anxious. Chronophobia was defined as an experience of unease and anxiety about time, a feeling that events are moving too fast and are thus hard to make sense of, in “Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s” by Pamela Lee.

Chronophobia isn’t a formal diagnosis, neither does it feature in scientific literature. In other words, it’s not really a phobia. It is more of an unpleasant feeling – one that is often expressed in art.

It is common in prison inmates, students in long academic programs and the elderly. When one is anxious, it is not only possible to be anxious about the event, but also its inescapable approach. Chronophobia is less about the doom and more about it being impending.

chronophobia anxiety about passage of time
Salvador Dali: The Persistence of Memory, 1931. The melting clock describes the feeling of chronophobia rather well

Chronophobia appears to be connected with heightened awareness of the passage of time that is inherent in distant deadlines for significant events.

This morning during my 10 minutes of mindfulness, something interesting bubbled up. I randomly remembered myself on an airplane travelling back to Moscow to visit family about 2 years ago. I felt a strong urge to be that person again, a bit like when I’m on vacation and towards the end, with a sigh, I think back to how liberating the first day off felt. Or when I reach the last bite of some dopamine-explosive dessert, I think back to how happy I felt when it was just put in front of me. We all love vacation and desert. However, my wish to be 2 years younger makes little sense. I was in the throes of a challenging 70-80 hours per week medical rota. It took much ingenuity to carve out enough time to travel. Is it regret? It wouldn’t be fair to say that the last 2 years were somehow a waste of time in any regard. Why do I feel so drawn to the thought of going back in time?

fear of the passage of time chronophobia
Salvador Dali: The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, 1954. Dali saw the fish as a symbol of life

Fear of opportunity cost

Aged 27, I frequently contemplate what it would go back to a previous point in time. I think it’s the understanding of the limited nature of time. I also worry about opportunity cost. In economics, there is the term opportunity (alternative) cost is the value of the option that we don’t choose when making a decision. [If I have 1 euro and buy a 1 euro can of Coke, I would have to forego the 1 euro Mars bar in order to have it. I would thus potentially worry about what it would have been like if they got a Mars bar instead.] The feeling is different to decision-anxiety. It’s not even about second guessing one’s choice, but more about imagining alternative paths.

The word decision literally means the cutting off – of other options. Thinking of the alternatives always reminds us of the unyielding nature of choice and how we really can’t literally “have it all”.

Robert Frost’s famous (infamous?) “The Road Not Taken” is a brilliant and often misinterpreted examination of the nature of choice. It is important to recognise the speaker’s deliberation: he says the roads are much the same: “just as fair”, “really about the same”, “equally lay”.

“The Road Not Taken”, a frequent feature of post-card philosophy, is often oversimplified to say that the speaker chose the less travelled road – and, woohoo, that’s amazing. It’s more complex than that.

The speaker admits that he left the first road “for another day”. While he knew he would never go back, the torment of admitting the final nature of choice is just too much. 

One can get very detailed when describing their particular fear. I certainly don’t support the idea of including “fear of opportunity cost”, “fear of the passage of time” or even “fear of choice” as phobias into the DSM. Indeed, this is perfect ground for thinking by induction. Is there a common thread here?

fear of death emotional coping mechanisms
Hans Holbein the Younger: The Ambassadors, 1533. Note the anamorphic skull in the foreground. It surely is a reminder of death

Boiling down fears to a common denominator: could it be death?

Why does chronophobia affect students? Time forces them to deal with events that will affect serious aspects of their lives such as their future careers – and thus even more permanent things like social class, the kind of people they will be likely to marry and so on. Exam results’ effects are by no means definitive, but probabilistically they are significant.

It has become popular to say that there are only 2 human emotions: fear and love.

Everything negative is a form of fear. It kind of makes sense: anger is a way of defending one’s point of view, property or whatever other boundary. Being sad is a fear that one will never be as happy as they were before as a result of an event (not talking about depression here). Disgust is a fear that something will negatively impact one’s existence. You get the gist.

The other popular thought is that all fear is a form of the ultimate fear – of death.

Going back to chronophobia again, why does it affect the elderly? Time threatens the existence of the elderly. It threatens all of our’s existence, but the elderly are more aware of it – mostly for social and cultural reasons. Now, none of us are deluded enough to actually think we’re not going to die. However, as Ernest Becker points out:

we have 2 ideas of the self: the physical and the symbolic.

In my opinion, our rationality only extends as far as the physical self. We are preoccupied with ways to immortalise our symbolic self. As per the “Mahabharata”:

“The most wondrous thing in the world is that although every day innumerable creatures go to the abode of death, still man thinks that he is immortal”.

fear of being insignificant
Salvador Dali: Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937. Dali had an interest in psychiatry

The recent debate that followed my discussion of the role of validation in our self-esteem sparked some follow on thoughts. In short, it showed that people with narcissistic tendencies experience much emptiness or even self-hatred – and validation is used to take the edge off. However, as all creatures who make choices, people with narcissistic tendencies are subject to avoiding pain and seeking pleasure (thank you, Dr. Freud). Clearly, they find narcissism more tolerable that the alternative. How could this be?

What if those who crave validation to feel good about themselves chose to be this way because the alternative – knowing that one is inherently valuable, without any validation – makes the thought of inevitable death absolutely intolerable? If one feels that they’re not that valuable, dying isn’t quite as scary or tragic.

Realising that a person is valuable, getting attached and then letting go is much harder than never getting attached – in this case to your self, as is the case with death. This devaluation allows people to cope with the fear of death. At the same time, the person with narcissistic tendencies maintains the upside of being able to work on “their immortality projects”, like winning medals and getting promotions. This is just a hypothesis of mine. I understand that I have no idea what Steve Jobs was really like. A lot of people say that he was an obnoxious narcissist. He said this, which happens to be congruent with my hypothesis:

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

There are other psychologically sneaky ways that we deal with the fear of death that have stood the test of time (well, since 1974 or so when “Denial of Death” was published):

Becker argues that everything we do: writing books, starting businesses, having children are all ways to transcend – and not have to deal with – death.

It makes sense too: the thought that everything one ever does will disappear into oblivion is so hard to accept that in order to keep going we find ways to defy death’s erasure of our existence by leaving a legacy.

fear of being insignificant

One’s own death is hard to imagine. It is as if we believe we will still be alive on some level after we die, but unable to act on our dreams and stuck reminiscing of the time we were alive and lamenting we didn’t do more.

If leaving a legacy isn’t an option, then one can choose to believe in the afterlife to help themselves cope with the concept death.

Paradoxically, dying may be a way to transcend death. Physical death could be a route to symbolic immortality. Just think of war heroes.

While death could explain a lot of our autopilot behaviour, we don’t seem to want to think about it very often. We are told to think positive thoughts instead.

To think, or not to think – about death

all fear is fear of death
...what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil…

Constant reminders of death were common all throughout the last millennium: having a skull on one’s desk was kind of like having sticky notes or an extra mouse. An experiment where people were asked to write about death before they were asked about their country’s war efforts showed that thinking of death made people more enthusiastic about war -as it adds meaning, purpose, a sense of belonging, a feeling of impact…

The Stoics came up with a variety of reasons and hacks to not fear death such as the symmetry argument: fearing death is like fearing the fact that one wasn’t alive before one was born. I won’t go down the rabbit hole of explaining how to fear death less.

The purpose of my reflection isn’t to say we shouldn’t fear death, and it will all be fine. It is more of an inquiry into what behaviours of ours are motivated by the fundamental, underlying fear, which so far appears to be that of death. However,…

It’s not death we fear, it is not having an impact

Is it really death we fear? I think a better way of putting it is that we fear that we’re inconsequential, insignificant, that we made no difference through our existence.

For those who insist that it is a fear of death: it’s that of the symbolic self. For those who insist that our biggest fear is to not be loved: to have someone love one is probably the biggest impact one can have on another human being. Perhaps, it is the ultimate, or the one that really count. I am not sure. However, my point remains: it is about impact.

It could just be a millennial’s take on it. With a lesser role of traditional religion in today’s society, millennials have the unfulfilled need for meaning – and have a habit of finding it in the most peculiar places.

My recent discussion of meaning according to Nietzsche prompted many to comment that the fact that we die and that the universe will ultimately end (something to do with the Sun and physics) implies that there could be no meaning in our lives. I don’t follow this argument. To me, it is like saying there’s no point in eating because you’ll get hungry again. Clearly though,

for a lot of people death is the ultimate enemy in a game rigged against them.

I used the word impact above for a reason. I could have said consequence or meaning, but something stopped me. Both of those words are overused and call to mind all kinds of associations. Furthermore, I thought of animals. They are driven largely by the same evolutionary forces as we are, and I think we overestimate the extent to which animals are different. They may not have insight, but they are a reflection at least of how nature intended things. To illustrate, I will use an example I recall from watching a BBC documentary on giraffes. Two massive male giraffes were fighting for a female. How on earth do giraffes fight, I hear you ask. Well, they violently swing their entire necks to strike. The force of the swing is enough to shatter their skulls. The battle went on to the point of near death… for the sake of a female. The giraffes decided/were driven by nature to go that far just to reproduce – so death is less important than an opportunity to have impact, which, for giraffes I think is reasonable to assume, is to have progeny.

I don’t think that the fear of not having an impact is the same as the fear of failure. One can fail, but still achieve a lot and have an impact. Failure is defined in terms of a percentage of the way to realising a dream. Impact, or lack thereof, is much more real.

I feel that a human being on their death bed is likely to think of what impact they have had, not where they ranked compared to their dream.

fear of not making a difference
Salvador Dali: The Elephants, 1948. Not quite giraffes, but close enough

On the bright side…

There is a “cure” for fear of choice

Going back to my own ENTP-torment of being more interested in talking about choices rather than actually making them, I am looking for some kind of resolution. N. N. Taleb, a favourite writer of mine, is popularising the concept of optionality. He argues that having options is a great thing:

Optionality is the property of asymmetric upside (preferably unlimited) with correspondingly limited downside (preferably tiny).

It’s not really a way to get out of making choices. Instead, it is a way to do what you were going to do anyway, but leaving cheap enough nets here and there to see if one day something nice washes up in one of them such that covers the cost of having had the nets n times over.

He argues against specialisation (i.e. going down too far in the decision tree of choices or going down to the end of just one branch). We are all familiar with specialisation success stories. The Nobel Prize goes to the person who studied a particular enzyme for 30 years. The startup that solves a specific problem in one particular niche is the one that does well. Kim Kardashian has one thing going for her, and she’s taken over the world…

Taleb reminds us that there are cemeteries of specialised ventures and people. Just because the successes that make into the media are specialised, doesn’t mean all of them are. Specialisation comes from the propensity to make choices. It is not the only way to achieve something. Hence, it is possible that the act of making choices is overvalued.

Richard Branson has over 400 companies. Is it because he is greedy – or perhaps because he understands that specialisation is a dangerous game to play? Venture capitalists and angel investors back things in a non-specialised way. All financial investors do. It may look like it is specialised on the surface, but it really isn’t. Biotech, or robotics, isn’t a specialisation. These are incredibly broad fields. It’s like saying blogging is a specialisation. Investors take directional bets once is a while, i.e. ones that really require a choice, but they do so in a way that for every 1 euro they invest, they stand to gain 10, and only invest a tiny fraction of their euros into these schemes. This is exactly congruent with Taleb’s definition of optionality.

I have fabulously rationalised away the pressure to make choices here. However, the real work is in putting oneself into situations where optionality can be exercised.

The older I get, the more I realise that there’s quite a lot of engineering involved in all of this. It’s not so much about going after specific visions, but creating situations where visions can flourish – and ultimately have an impact.

millennials fear not having an impact
Maybe, the millennial/Gen Y variety of man (and woman) are a bit different…

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Nietzsche’s meaning

Anthropologists have long known that when a tribe of people lose their feeling that their way of life is worthwhile they […] simply lie down and die beside streams full of fish.

Ernest Becker

What is nihilism?

Nihilism is a confusing term. It can mean rejection of societal norms (political nihilism). This is not what I am going to discuss here.

I will talk about Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism: the radical rejection of value, meaning* and desirability.

I think this communicates the most important concepts. Of course, there are more specific definitions, so I will get them out of the way here. There is moral nihilism that says that there is no right and wrong. Epistomological nihilism says there is no universal truth or meaning. Existential nihilism rejects meaning in life.

why we need meaning in life

Stoicism vs nihilism

Stoicism is really en vogue these days. Seneca’s writings have grabbed my attention early last year and haven’t really let go. First, his Moral Letters are incredibly easy to read – compared to most undigested original philosophical texts (e.g. A. Schopenhauer). Second, they make one feel good, a bit like after watching Pulp Fiction. I was starting to wonder – what’s the catch? My “too good to be true” radar was going off.

Here’s a short summary of Seneca’s views:

  • life is set in circumstances that we’ve no control over;
  • it is possible to get through life by working on our response – not on the circumstances;
  • there is no need to fear death because
    • it is just like the blissful nothingness that came before we were born;
    • it would, so to speak, “end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”;
    • we didn’t earn life – it was given to us by circumstance. Hence, we cannot expect to hang on to it.

Nietzsche on meaning of life and nihilism

This doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, it is quite resonant with the ultimate optimist Viktor Frankl: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves” and more or less the basis of modern day talking therapies like CBT and REBT. However, Seneca is quite pessimistic. Having re-read his letters a number of times, I picture him as a man who barely endured his life.

Any modern psychiatrist would say Seneca had a passive death wish.

It’s also interesting to remember that he was one of the wealthiest people of all time. Here’s a telling quotation from Letter 65:

“The wise man, the seeker after wisdom, is bound closely, indeed, to his body, but he is an absentee so far as his better self is concerned, and he concentrates his thoughts upon lofty things. Bound, so to speak, to his oath of allegiance, he regards the period of life as his term of service. He is so trained that he neither loves nor hates life; he endures a mortal lot, although he knows that an ampler lot is in store for him.”

Nietzsche famously pointed out that Christianity is nihilistic in the sense that it is denying the value of one’s current existence and instead placing it on a dream of a better afterlife.

By that same logic, Seneca too seems nihilistic. One might argue that in the context of Seneca thinking of death – it is kind of hopeful.

Nonetheless, Seneca belittles the value of the current life, encourages escapism and hope for, essentially, life in heaven after death.

At the same time, Seneca repeats that we have limited time on Earth and we better use it wisely. Just like Christianity, this philosophy appealed to all strata in society. Using either philosophy, anyone could be a hero by thinking themselves so. In a sense, one is less responsible for their actions as this world doesn’t really matter. Certainly, making the right choices matters – as it will be assessed for the purposes of a heaven vs hell decision, but it presents life as something that happens to a person – and the person has little agency. Having said that, much of what Seneca demands of Lucilius could safely be called overcoming-oneself, a cardinal virtue according to Nietzsche.

Nietzsche on nihilism

Meaning by school of thought

Unbound by any aspiration to philosophical scholarship, I have taken the liberty of making these one liners on how different schools/philosophers viewed meaning:

Stoics: there is meaning, it is to be wise and kind;

Schopenhauer: there is meaning; awareness of suffering and death create the need for meaning;

Buddhists: there is meaning, but it is ambiguous;

Hinduism: there is meaning; it is to shed the illusion and realise the unity of the universe;

Christianity: there is meaning; the meaning is to live so as to attain entry into a superior world;

Nietzsche: there is meaning; meaningful suffering is sought after, meaningless suffering is a curse – more on this later;

Nihilists: there is no meaning.

are stoics nihilist

A nihilist’s escape routes

Being a bone fide nihilist is intolerable: there’s nothing to wish for, nothing makes a difference – like the tribes that encountered Western culture described by E. Becker in the epigraph, one may as well lie down and die. It’s a state fundamentally indistinguishable from severe and enduring depression.

Those who proclaim they are nihilistic and still go on about their lives as if nothing’s wrong are probably hedonistic, or have some kind of meaning they simply don’t call meaning. Or, they are like Anony Mole who appears to think that meaning is a psychological hack to staying motivated to live on, but ultimately hypothesising that there is no meaning at all.

For someone who doesn’t see meaning in life there’s another option, however. It is to defer meaning to one’s next life. In this sense, Christianity is a form of escapism away from nihilism.

In Christianity, the purpose of life is to live one’s current life in a certain way and attain entry into an alternate, “real and true” world – heaven. At first glance, it would seem that Nietzsche is overreacting by accusing Christianity of being nihilist. Christianity is full of ways that make this life meaningful. On closer reflection, the motivation behind acting according to the tenets  of Christianity is that someone, from a place that we all really belong in, said that it is the right thing to do. This life is only a smoke and mirrors version of the blissful life in heaven. Nietzsche rejected true world theories as nonsense. He demonstrated that it was an assumption of his – and ultimately unknowable. Richard Dawkins says it’s intellectual cowardice to not come down on one side or the other. I think it is intellectual cowardice to not admit that there are certain things that we just don’t have a way of knowing.

Despite his rejection of true world theories, Nietzsche understood that they are the fabric that holds people’s lives together.

Of course, there are many more true world theories than Christianity, but it is the one that dominates the Wester world today. For example, Marxism is a true world theory – yearning for a future utopia. Nietzsche also argued that a Christian heaven helps the human sense of self: it is kind of validating to know that, really, one belongs in a special true world – not here.

Pema Chodron wrote about the psychology of our need for such a world in an accessible way. [There’s a funny story to go with that. I was sitting on the beach right after reading Chodron, reflecting on the ways in which we’re conditioned to want a fatherly God. An elderly man approached me and wondered if I was OK – I guess I must have looked distraught. It’s rather unusual for a man in his 80s to approach a random person on a beach, so I was wondering what’s going on. He didn’t say much, just asked again if I was ok and if I like reading. He reached to hand me a brochure – looking directly at me – and said only this one thing: “Oh, and there is a God”. I thanked him, mind-boggled. After he walked away, I looked at the brochure – turns out he was a Jehovah’s witness. I didn’t know they mind read.]

Besides turning to true world theories, there is another way to avert the pain of nihilism.

Like David Foster Wallace pointed out, there’s no such thing as atheism. We all believe something.

Science slowly becomes scientism and provides explanations for things it can and cannot explain. Following a political movement gives a sense of belonging. Our culture is a kaleidoscope of options for all tastes.

meaning of life nihilism

Searching for meaning is nihilistic

Nietzsche argued that asking the question “What is the meaning of life” and demanding an external answer by some superhuman authority diminished the value of the person asking – as if it comes from a lack one’s faith in their own ability to figure it out.

Nietzsche argued that nihilism arises when people get disillusioned with their default set of beliefs – let’s say beliefs that are inherent in one’s cultures – and take this disillusionment to more generally mean that no beliefs could ever be satisfactory.

This view of nihilism is once again almost indistinguishable from depression. Nietzsche expressed it best here:

“A new pride my ego taught me, and this I teach men: no longer to bury one’s head in the sand of heavenly things, but to bear it freely, an earthly head, which creates a meaning for the earth.”

nihilism in christianity and stoicism Nietzsche

Prof. Nietzsche’s meaning of life

So what did Nietzsche himself think the meaning of life was? It was to realise one’s inner potential.

Nietzsche believed in radical responsibility: it is only ourselves who we have to blame if we miss our life’s calling.

To him, we weren’t all born human. We become human by realising our potential. This is what he meant when he said “become who you are”. Fear and laziness are our ultimate enemies. Incidentally, this sounds like it is straight out of Seneca’s writings. Nietzsche claimed there was a higher self, a kind of will that dragged us to become who we are. To me this is terribly reminiscent of a true world theory albeit one confined to the self and to this life. His method was through setting difficult goals pursuing which elevates the soul. Congruent with the traditions of Buddhism, Nietzsche argued that suffering isn’t inherently bad – and one doesn’t need to immediately try and fix it or worse, distract oneself away from it. It is an opportunity for growth and wisdom, according to Nietzsche.

Nietzsche on meaning of life

I guess it comes down to awareness, adaptability and agency again. This whole piece makes me sound like a Nietzsche fan girl. In a sense, it’s true, but he was a bit too anti-social, self-contradicting and melancholic for my liking. I will put that in more analytical terms at a later stage.

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Kevin Simler’s reflections on meaning

Schopenhauer’s genius and mindful boredom

*[To be clear, we’re talking about meaning to a given person, not some universal, objective meta-meaning because ultimately an attempt at identifying this universal meaning will always be the meaning to the person thinking about it, or a projection thereof. This is one of the reasons humans are so naturally self-centred. David Foster Wallace describes it well here. As seen above, none of the major philosophies really even try to answer what the ultimate meaning of the universe is. This is probably because the question isn’t asked very often. This author is more interested in the tangible psychology of it – than the unknowable philosophy].