The Nihilistic Art

By Jin-yeong Yi

In discussing the marketability of nihilism, philosopher Vijay Prozak wrote, “In theory, nihilism could even be used to sell products, but only of the entertainment type. ‘This is the most nihilistic vacuum cleaner on the market!’ somehow fails a basic test of credibility.”[1]

Some weeks ago, it was my turn to clean one of the restrooms at the company I work at. Armed with a can of Scrubbing Bubbles, a mop doused in watered-down Lysol, and a ream of paper towels, I set to work, clearing the filth that had been accumulating on the sink, floor, and toilet.

As my rubber glove protected hands moved back and forth, carefully scraping away the dust, dirt, and dried urine, at some point it occurred to me that cleaning was not only an art, but also the most nihilistic of arts. In the same way that nihilism is about stripping away that which is unreal, cleaning is about stripping away that which is unnecessary. A cleaning tool, whether it be a broom, a mop, or a vacuum cleaner, is the artistic equivalent of a philosophical hammer. Ultimately, nothing is added to the thing that is cleaned–it’s all about subtracting, eradicating, erasing the unessential. Whereas most arts entail putting a picture on a canvas, cleaning entails removing superfluous and undesirable bits from an already-completed picture. To clean something means to restore it to its original state, nothing more.

In conclusion, I daresay that, pace Mr. Prozak, “This is the most nihilistic vacuum cleaner on the market!” can not only be a credible promo, but also a most fitting one.

Notes

[1] “Reality is Nihilism”

Meditating on Nothingness

By Jin-yeong Yi

Guatemala sinkhole

“There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that… is always but a vain and fleeting appearance….”

—Joseph Conrad

“Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”

—Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

In a universe where Murphy’s Law prevails, it’s all too easy to get disheartened and depressed, to feel that you’ve reached a dead end in life. If you happen to be caught up in the drama of existence, it may help to step back from it all and remember that there’s no “correct” way to feel about anything and that you’re not in any way obligated to feel the way you do.

Clear your mind.

If you accept the nihilist view like I do, you accept that there are only ‘is’s and no ‘ought’s, and that labels like “good” and “evil” are merely human projections onto the blank void of nothingness.

The universe is neither good nor evil. The universe just is.

Humanity is neither good nor evil. Humanity just is.

Life is neither good nor evil. Life just is.

Empty your heart.

We’re not here to serve a God. We’re not here to serve nature. We’re not here to serve each other. We’re not here to serve ourselves. We’re just–here.

There is no God but Nothingness. Nothing is sacred, nothing is holy. We were once nothing. We are responsible for nothing. We are obligated to do nothing. We deserve nothing. Our lives mean nothing. Before long, we will be nothing.

Vincent van Gogh - Wheatfield with Crows

Stare into the abyss. Contemplate its endlessness, its eternalness–and accept it. And if that doesn’t kill you, it just might make you stronger.

The world is your canvas. Paint on it what you will.

The Master, Motorcycles, and Meaninglessness

By Jin-yeong Yi

The Master motorcycle scene

“The formula for my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

One evening my brother-in-law and I went to see Paul Anderson’s The Master at the cinema. Afterwards, as we were driving back home, we discussed the scene where Lancaster and friends are in the desert, where they choose an arbitrary point in the distance and ride in its direction by motorcycle.

“That pretty much sums up [the pointlessness of their religious movement],” my devoutly Christian brother-in-law chortled. “Pick a point…and go for it!”

I thought about what he said, and I realized that, while the motorcycle exercise was indeed pointless, it was, in the grand context of things, not much more pointless than the other activities we do from day to day. I realized that the scene ironically did a good job of illustrating how a nihilist approaches the problem of finding purpose in life.

To have a goal is to have a certain end to work toward. If you are a working adult in a country with a relatively high degree of personal freedom, chances are that you have a number of hours each day in which you have nothing to do but what you will, empty stretches of time that you need to find some way to fill.

Let’s assume that you are a working adult with no hobbies. You have nothing to do after returning from the commute except watching TV or drinking at the local bar. But one day, you wake up and decide that you’re sick of having nothing except work and trivial pleasures to look forward to, so you decide that you’re going to take up an avocation to complement your vocation.

But where to start? There are so many options, and nothing in particular strikes your fancy. Learning death metal drumming looks about as appealing as learning computer programming, you have as much interest in studying Finnish as you do French, and you have as much motivation to write a novel as you do to paint a picture. You can’t think of a compelling reason to choose one goal over another.

What to do? You pick a point, any point, and go for it. Roll a die or flip a coin if you have to. Then you stick to your chosen course and don’t stop until you’ve reached your destination. It’s OK if the destination is arbitrary, because you just might be rewarded by the journey you take to reach it.

An Atheist Goes to Confession

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Conscience is the inner voice that warns us that someone might be looking.”

—H. L. Mencken

“The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me”

—Meister Eckhart

I went to confession last month in preparation for Easter.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic and was confirmed as a Catholic in my teenage years, shortly before becoming an atheist. Technically, I am still a Catholic. Like Martin Scorsese once said, “I’m a lapsed Catholic. But I am Roman Catholic, there’s no way out of it.” In addition to my qualifications, I attend Mass every Sunday morning and recite the prayers, sing the hymns, exchange signs of peace, and receive the body and blood of Christ. I do it because I think it gives my devoutly Catholic parents some comfort to know that their son is keeping in touch with the Lord.

My mother had called me about the mass confessions that were to take place at her church, and at first I refused to go. (“I have no sins to confess.”) Attending Mass was one thing, but going to confession was a bit much. I’d already gone last year, and, though I didn’t believe in right and wrong, I’d felt guilty about it, because in a way I’d been betraying the priest’s trust by pretending to be a believer. However, I didn’t want my mother to feel that I was missing out on the opportunity to receive God’s forgiveness, so I ended up going. This was to be my second confession as an atheist. Since I didn’t believe in sin, I would, like last time, enumerate the things I wasn’t proud of.

After a fairly brief wait at church, I walked into the confession room. There I was once again face to face with the elderly Irish priest I’d met last year.

The following is a rough reconstruction of the conversation that took place:

“How long has it been since your last confession?” the priest asked.

“Three, four months, I think.”

He nodded, as if in approval. I wondered if he remembered who I was.

“So, do you have any sins to confess?”

“Well, yes; that’s what I’m here for.”

If I was going to go through with this, I wanted to at least be sincere about it. My strategy this time around was to make use of Christian language. Last time, I’d spoken in such a way that the priest might have wondered if I was a closet secular humanist.

“I don’t honor my father and mother as much as they deserve,” I began. The priest nodded knowingly as I spoke.

I proceeded to the next item on the short list I’d written up. “Gluttony—I often eat more than I need to. Sloth—I often procrastinate, and don’t make the best use of my time. Wrath—I often get angry at others even while knowing that they’re ultimately not responsible for what I blame them for. Envy—oh, this is a big problem for me.” There was a hint of something resembling enthusiasm in my voice, and part of the reason for that was that envy really was one of my biggest problems, if not the biggest one. “I often feel envy when I see that someone has something that I don’t have, and I feel jealousy when I see that someone has something that I do have.”

Thus ended my confession.

“How are you feeling right now?” inquired the priest.

“How am I feeling?”

“Are you feeling good, or bad?”

“Well, I guess you can say I feel kind of bad.” (Because I’d failed myself, because I wasn’t able to meet my own expectations.)

Then the priest asked, “If you could ask God for one thing, what would it be?”

The million dollar question. I was prepared this time, or so I’d thought. For a moment I couldn’t remember what it was I wanted to say. I fumbled for words before the answer clicked back into place.

“I want determination.”

For some reason the priest couldn’t understand, so I tried “passion.”

“I want to have passion for my goals,” I clarified.

“Does anything about what you’ve just said strike you?” asked the priest.

“Strike me?” I racked my brains to try to figure out what that could possibly be.

After a long pause, the priest supplied the answer I wasn’t able to find.

“It’s somewhat self-centered. What about other people? Don’t you think about what you can do for others?”

“Well, yes. I do help others…but not as much as I can,” I said.

The priest waited for me to elaborate.

“It’s kind of the opposite of a slippery slope,” I explained, struggling to find the words.

“Ah,” the priest said, appearing to have immediately grasped what it was I was clumsily trying to convey.

“I can do things for others, but there’s always something more I can do,” I continued. “There’s no limit. There’s always…more.”

I thought of the countless ambitions I had, the personal goals that I would not be able to achieve in two lifetimes.

“Complete self-sacrifice…is something I can never do,” I concluded.

The priest administered my penance: 5 Our Father’s and 3 Hail Mary’s. I started to get up from my chair when the priest started to speak again.

“When I was about your age, I wanted to be a pilot,” he said.

“An airplane pilot?” For some reason I’d felt the need to ask for clarification.

“Yes. But my eyesight wasn’t good enough. So I became a missionary. I worked in Korea, then Koreatown, and…here I am.”

Then the priest asked me to pray for him. Not sure I’d heard him correctly, I got him to repeat what he’d said. After crossing myself and exchanging words of thanks, I got up, left the room, and headed toward the parking lot. I was puzzled. Why did he want me to pray for him? It was as if he’d somehow felt humbled by something I’d said.

Either way, I’d agreed to pray for him. So on the drive home, I, a godless nihilist, prayed for a Catholic priest. As far as I was concerned, I was talking to no one but myself. I don’t quite remember what I “prayed” for; I think it was for the laws of physics to operate in ways that would be favorable to the priest. Since the laws of physics were blind and indifferent, all one could do was hope. I also did my penance, reciting the Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s over the roar of Incantation’s “Blasphemous Cremation.” Why did I do it? Because the priest was trusting that I would do it, and because I wanted to honor the agreement between us. God wasn’t watching me, but I was.

In the same way, the confession was ultimately not between me and God, or even between me and the priest, but between me and myself.

The Freedom of Nothingness

By Jin-yeong Yi

Tasting the forbidden fruit

“Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”

—Thomas Jefferson

Atheistic nihilism isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Well, actually, it is objectively neither good nor bad, because according to nihilism, nothing is objectively good or bad. So trying to “sell” this viewpoint in the marketplace of ideas is pretty much a lost cause from the beginning. And I don’t think I would have it any other way; I like the idea that atheistic nihilism is territory that angels fear to tread.

Still, the question is worth addressing: “What’s so great about having no intrinsic meaning or purpose to life?”

Well, one advantage that the nihilist has, depending on how you look at it, is the fact that he can afford to get his hands dirty. Liberation from religion, liberation from my beliefs about sin and morality in particular, left me free to explore avenues of the mind and soul that I had hitherto never dreamed of exploring: the penetralia of science, of religion, of philosophy, of the occult, of sexuality. Of Life itself.

No longer am I bound by anything, except the limitations of my intellectual equipment and how far I dare to go. The forbidden fruit of knowledge is mine for the picking.

Voivod – “Technocratic Manipulators”

I’ve passed the entry of the system
They taught me with an anthem
It seems like I’m one of them
A kind of people I can’t describe
They got a number between their eyes
Identity has been commanded
Subconscious has recorded
The orders from the big head
I’m now a part of this machine
Supervised by the telescreen
That’s not for me, too much for me
That’s all for me
And they’re going nowhere
To find better somewhere
But can’t get out of there
During the night my soul is hearing
Usual advertising
Message that I’m still learning
One thousand times it’s a routine
Should be enough to fall asleep
That’s not for me, too much for me
That’s all for me
And they’re going nowhere
To find better somewhere
But can’t get out of there
Is it the same message
For the preconceived children ?
Let me know, before I go…
Death of their liberty
Feeds the supremacy
Under hypnosis I take a walk
Controlled people have to stop
Robotic voice starts to talk
Why we must be listening
I think we all had the same dreams
And they’re going nowhere
To find better somewhere
But can’t get out of there
I’d rather think
But there’s something strong
I’d rather think
But there’s something wrong
I’d rather think (6)
I’d rather think
Coz my mind despairs
I’d rather think
Coz I can’t live there
I’d rather think…think !

Nihilism and the Emotion Machine

By Jin-yeong Yi

Manga emotions

“Surely it is an excellent plan, when you are seated before delicacies and choice foods, to impress upon your imagination that this is the dead body of a fish, that the dead body of a bird or pig; and again, that the Falernian wine is grape juice and that robe of purple a lamb’s fleece dipped in shellfish’s blood; and in matters of sex intercourse, that it is attrition of an entrail and a convulsive expulsion of mere mucus. Surely these are excellent imaginations, going to the heart of actual facts and penetrating them so as to see the kind of things they really are. You should adopt this practice all through your life, and where things make an impression which is very plausible, uncover their nakedness, see into their cheapness, strip off the profession on which they vaunt themselves.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“The Humean predicament is the human predicament.”

—W. V. Quine

In c. 1935, analytic philosopher A. J. Ayer wrote:

“[T]he fundamental ethical concepts are unanalysable, inasmuch as there is no criterion by which one can test the validity of the judgements in which they occur. So far we are in agreement with the absolutists. But, unlike the absolutists, we are able to give an explanation of this fact about ethical concepts. We say that the reason why they are unanalysable is that they are mere pseudo-concepts. The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, ‘You acted wrongly in stealing that money,’ I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, ‘You stole that money.’ In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, ‘You stole that money,’ in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks. The tone, or the exclamation marks, adds nothing to the literal meaning of the sentence. It merely serves to show that the expression of it is attended by certain feelings in the speaker.”[1]

About 76 years later, literary critic S. T. Joshi echoed this analysis in his critique of Sam Harris’s updated scientific approach to morality:

All ethical judgments are expressions of a preference. They may be based on facts (or falsehoods), but they are not in themselves facts (or falsehoods).”[2] 

He also effectively explains how having preferences (i.e., not being indifferent to outcomes arising from cause and effect) is consistent with not believing in moral absolutes:

“D’Souza, in What’s So Great about Christianity, maintains absurdly that I would have no reason to object if D’Souza punched me in the face, because I would simply have to maintain that he and I share different moral standards based on our education, upbringing, etc. But my objection would stem from my preference that people not be punched in the face without reason; it violates my moral code even if that code is not itself a fact but a preference. I happen to like my preferences and, in certain circumstances, will go pretty far in defending them. 

Having accepted that there are no intrinsic “ought”s, that there is no inherent reason to favor one outcome over another, one eventually arrives at an unsettling and uncomfortable conclusion: the emotions that drive us are not absolute. While there are natural ways to feel about some things, there is no correct way to feel about anything. We don’t need to feel proud when we overcome an obstacle or achieve something. We don’t need to feel guilty about lying, cheating, or stealing. We don’t need to feel indignant when someone slanders us. We don’t need to feel jealous when a lover or spouse cheats on us. We don’t need to feel envious when a friend wins the lottery. We don’t need to feel horrified when we hear of a murder, rape, or genocide. We don’t need to feel afraid when we are told that civilization will self-destruct tomorrow or next week. Indeed, we don’t need to feel uncomfortable about this conclusion in the first place. It is natural to have these feelings, and it is certainly not “wrong” to have them, but there’s no inherent necessity, no obligation, no reason why we “ought” to have them.

Three years after the end of the Second World War, philosophers Frederick Copleston and Bertrand Russell debated the existence of God on BBC Radio. At one point, the Jesuit priest drove the atheist humanist into a corner:

R: You see, I feel that some things are good and that other things are bad. I love the things that are good, that I think are good, and I hate the things that I think are bad. I don’t say that these things are good because they participate in the Divine goodness.

C: Yes, but what’s your justification for distinguishing between good and bad or how do you view the distinction between them?

R: I don’t have any justification any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow. What is my justification for distinguishing between blue and yellow? I can see they are different.

C: Well, that is an excellent justification, I agree. You distinguish blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what faculty?

R: By my feelings.

C: By your feelings. Well, that’s what I was asking. You think that good and evil have reference simply to feeling?

R: Well, why does one type of object look yellow and another look blue? I can more or less give an answer to that thanks to the physicists, and as to why I think one sort of thing good and another evil, probably there is an answer of the same sort, but it hasn’t been gone into in the same way and I couldn’t give it [to] you.

In the end, the absence of objective morality does not change the fact that we are driven by our strongest motives. We act on them and make choices not so much because we are somehow “obligated” to do so, but simply because—we do. Because we are emotion machines. To have reason and nothing but reason is to be a computer. To have reason and emotions is to be human.

Somewhere between the 17th and 18th centuries, the French Catholic priest and closet atheist Jean Meslier penned these words to conclude his antireligious manifesto:

“After this, let people think, judge, say, and do whatever they want in the world; I do not really care.
Let men adapt themselves and be governed as they want, let them be wise or crazy, let them be good or vicious, let them say or even do with me whatever they want after my death: I really do not care in the least.
I already take almost no part in what is done in the world. The dead, whom I am about to join, no longer worry about anything, they no longer take part in anything, and they no longer care about anything.
So, I will finish this with nothing.
I am hardly more than nothing and soon I will be nothing.”

To be indifferent is to be dead. To care is to be alive.

“It is obvious, that when we have the prospect of pain or pleasure from any object, we feel a consequent emotion of aversion or propensity, and are carried to avoid or embrace what will give us this uneasiness or satisfaction. It is also obvious, that this emotion rests not here, but making us cast our view on every side, comprehends whatever objects are connected with its original one by the relation of cause and effect. Here then reasoning takes place to discover this relation; and according as our reasoning varies, our actions receive a subsequent variation. But it is evident in this case that the impulse arises not from reason, but is only directed by it. It is from the prospect of pain or pleasure that the aversion or propensity arises towards any object: And these emotions extend themselves to the causes and effects of that object, as they are pointed out to us by reason and experience. It can never in the least concern us to know, that such objects are causes, and such others effects, if both the causes and effects be indifferent to us. Where the objects themselves do not affect us, their connexion can never give them any influence; and it is plain, that as reason is nothing but the discovery of this connexion, it cannot be by its means that the objects are able to affect us.

Since reason alone can never produce any action, or give rise to volition, I infer, that the same faculty is as incapable of preventing volition, or of disputing the preference with any passion or emotion. This consequence is necessary. It is impossible reason could have the latter effect of preventing volition, but by giving an impulse in a contrary direction to our passion; and that impulse, had it operated alone, would have been able to produce volition. Nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion, but a contrary impulse; and if this contrary impulse ever arises from reason, that latter faculty must have an original influence on the will, and must be able to cause, as well as hinder any act of volition. But if reason has no original influence, it is impossible it can withstand any principle, which has such an efficacy, or ever keep the mind in suspense a moment. Thus it appears, that the principle, which opposes our passion, cannot be the same with reason, and is only called so in an improper sense. We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

—David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

Notes

[1] Language, Truth and Logic by Alfred Jules Ayer

[2] The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism by S. T. Joshi

Projection and Purpose (or, Meaning and Purpose in a Nihilistic Universe)

By Jin-yeong Yi

“The world is ambiguous. It does not come tagged ‘This is my Father’s world’ or ‘Life is a tale told by an idiot.’ It comes to us as a giant Rorschach inkblot. Psychologists use such blots to fish in the subterranean waters of their patients’ minds. The blots approach the patient as invitations: Come. What do you see here? What do you make of these contours? The sweep of philosophy supports this inkblot theory of the world conclusively. People have never agreed on the world’s meaning, and (it seems safe to say) never will.”

—Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Roland Barthes was on to something with his “Death of the Author”[1] concept, except that he apparently got it backwards: there is no such thing as inherent meaning in the text, only intended meaning, and intended meaning is not inherent meaning.

The best illustration of this fact can perhaps be found in language itself.[2] There is no intrinsic meaning to the collocations of lines, squiggles, and dots your retinae are picking up right now; the only reason why they mean anything to us is that we were trained to interpret them to mean something, that is, to refer to objects and ideas. In other words, we project meaning onto what is otherwise meaningless.

So while there is no inherent meaning in the sounds we utter or the symbols we put to paper, we can generally understand each other because we have a general agreement that certain sounds and symbols comprising a system of communication (what we call a “language”) denote certain things, and because we usually know what each other’s intentions are, given conditioning and context.

Needless to say, however, it is not always clear what someone is trying to communicate. This is why there are always clashing interpretations within literature, the conflict never being resolved when the author isn’t there to clarify what he or she meant by this or that.

Life is the same way, except that the story of life is written by no one, and its meaning and purpose are therefore open to infinite interpretations, which are, I daresay, equally true or false, because there is no inherent or intended meaning or purpose to it whatsoever. However, much as we can see sentences emerging from letters, and stories from sentences, we can see meaning emerge from the meaningless, and purpose from the purposeless. Though the meaning and purpose are, in the last analysis, merely human projections onto the black void of nothingness, I, for one, find them to be enough of a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Notes

[1] See the eponymous essay.

[2] See Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Chapter 8 (“The Brain Does Everything without Thinking About Anything at All”), for a detailed discussion of this topic.