The Philosophy of “Optimistic Nihilism,” Or How to Find Purpose in a Meaningless Universe

In one account of human affairs, an all-pow­er­ful deity rules over every­thing. Noth­ing can occur with­out the knowl­edge and sanc­tion of the omnipo­tent cre­ator god. In a much more recent iter­a­tion, we inhab­it an unimag­in­ably com­plex com­put­er sim­u­la­tion, in which every thing—ourselves included—has been cre­at­ed by all-pow­er­ful pro­gram­mers. The first sce­nario gives mil­lions of peo­ple com­fort, the sec­ond… well, maybe only a hand­ful of cult-like Sil­i­con Val­ley techo-futur­ists. But in either case, the ques­tion inevitably aris­es: how is it pos­si­ble that there is any such thing as true free­dom? The idea that free will is an illu­sion has haunt­ed philo­soph­i­cal thought for at least a cou­ple thou­sand years.

But in the exis­ten­tial­ist view, the real fear is not that we may have too lit­tle free­dom, but that we may have too much—indeed that we may have the ulti­mate free­dom, that of con­scious beings who appeared in the uni­verse unbid­den and by chance, and who can only deter­mine for them­selves what form and direc­tion their being might take. This was the ear­ly view of Jean-Paul Sartre. “We are left alone, with­out excuse”—he famous­ly wrote in his 1946 essay “Exis­ten­tial­ism is a Human­ism”—“This is what I mean when I say that man is con­demned to be free.” Free­dom is a bur­den; with­out gods, dev­ils, or soft­ware engi­neers to fault for our actions, or any pre­de­ter­mined course of action we might take, each of us alone bears the full weight of respon­si­bil­i­ty for our lives and choic­es.

Emerg­ing from com­fort­ing visions of human­i­ty as the cen­ter of the universe—says the nar­ra­tor in the video above from philo­soph­i­cal ani­ma­tion chan­nel Kurzge­sagt—“we learned that the twin­kling lights are not shin­ing beau­ti­ful­ly for us, they just are. We learned that we are not at the cen­ter of what we now call the uni­verse, and that it is much, much old­er than we thought.” We learned that we are alone in the cos­mos, on a com­plete­ly insignif­i­cant speck of space dust, more or less. Even the con­cepts we use to explain this over­whelm­ing sit­u­a­tion are total­ly arbi­trary in the face of our pro­found igno­rance. Add to this the prob­lem of our infin­i­tes­i­mal­ly brief lifes­pans and inevitable death and you’ve got the per­fect recipe for exis­ten­tial dread.

For this con­di­tion, Kurzge­sagt rec­om­mends a rem­e­dy: “Opti­mistic Nihilism,” a phi­los­o­phy that posits ulti­mate free­dom in the midst of, and sole­ly enabled by, the utter mean­ing­less­ness of exis­tence: “If our life is the only thing we get to expe­ri­ence, then it’s the only thing that mat­ters. If the uni­verse has no prin­ci­ples, then the only prin­ci­ples rel­e­vant are the ones we decide on. If the uni­verse has no pur­pose, then we get to dic­tate what its pur­pose is.” This is more or less a para­phrase of Sartre, who made vir­tu­al­ly iden­ti­cal claims in what he called his “athe­is­tic exis­ten­tial­ism,” but with the added force in his “doc­trine” that “there is no real­i­ty except in action… Man is noth­ing else but what he pur­pos­es, he exists only in so far as he real­izes him­self.” We not only get to deter­mine our pur­pose, he wrote, we have to do so, or we can­not be said to exist at all.

In the midst of this fright­en­ing­ly rad­i­cal free­dom, Sartre saw the ulti­mate oppor­tu­ni­ty: to make of our­selves what we will. But this dizzy­ing pos­si­bil­i­ty may send us run­ning back to com­fort­ing pre­fab illu­sions of mean­ing and pur­pose. How ter­ri­ble, to have to decide for your­self the pur­pose of the entire uni­verse, no? But the phi­los­o­phy of “Opti­mistic Nihilism” goes on to expound a the­sis sim­i­lar to that of the Zen pop­u­lar­iz­er, Alan Watts, who has soothed many a case of exis­ten­tial dread with his response to the idea that we are some­how sep­a­rate from the uni­verse, either hov­er­ing above it or crushed beneath it. Humans are not, as Watts col­or­ful­ly wrote, “iso­lat­ed ‘egos’ inside bags of skin.” Instead, as the video goes on, “We are as much the uni­verse as a neu­tron star, or a black hole, or a neb­u­la. Even bet­ter, actu­al­ly, we are its think­ing and feel­ing part, the sen­so­ry organs of the uni­verse.”

Nei­ther Sartre nor Watts, with their very dif­fer­ent approach­es to the same set of exis­ten­tial con­cerns, would like­ly endorse the tidy sum­ma­tion offered by the phi­los­o­phy of “Opti­mistic Nihilism.” But just as we would be fool­ish to expect a six-minute ani­mat­ed video to offer a com­plete phi­los­o­phy of life, we would be painful­ly naïve to think of free­dom as a con­di­tion of com­fort and ease, built on ratio­nal cer­tain­ties and absolute truths. For all of the dis­agree­ment about what we should do with rad­i­cal exis­ten­tial free­dom, every­one who rec­og­nizes it agrees that it entails rad­i­cal uncertainty—the ver­tig­i­nous sense of unknow­ing that is the source of our con­stant free-float­ing anx­i­ety.

If we are to act in the face of doubt, mys­tery, igno­rance, and the immen­si­ty of seem­ing­ly gra­tu­itous suf­fer­ing, we might heed John Keats’ pre­scrip­tion to devel­op “Neg­a­tive Capa­bil­i­ty,” the abil­i­ty to remain “con­tent with half-knowl­edge.” This was not, as Lionel Trilling writes in an intro­duc­tion to Keats’ let­ters, advice only for artists, but “a cer­tain way of deal­ing with life”—one in which, Keats wrote else­where, “the only means of strength­en­ing one’s intel­lect,” and thus a sense of iden­ti­ty, mean­ing, and pur­pose in life, “is to make up one’s mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thor­ough­fare for all thoughts.”

Keats’ is a very Zen sen­ti­ment, a moody ver­sion of the “don’t-know mind” that rec­og­nizes empti­ness and suf­fer­ing as hall­marks of exis­tence, and finds in them not a rea­son for opti­mism but for the indef­i­nite sus­pen­sion of judge­ment. Still, the approach of Roman­tic poets and Bud­dhist monks is not for every­one, and even Sartre even­tu­al­ly turned to ortho­dox Marx­ism to impose a mean­ing upon exis­tence that claimed depen­dence on the hard facts of mate­r­i­al con­di­tions rather than the unbound­ed abstrac­tions of the intel­lect.

Per­haps we are are free, at least, to com­mit to an ide­ol­o­gy to assuage our exis­ten­tial dread. We are also free to adopt the trag­ic defi­ance of anoth­er Marx­ist, Anto­nio Gram­sci, who con­fessed to some­thing of an “Opti­mistic Nihilism” of his own. Only he referred to it as a “pes­simism of the intel­lect” and “opti­mism of the will”—an atti­tude that rec­og­nizes the severe social and mate­r­i­al lim­its imposed on us by our often painful, short, seem­ing­ly mean­ing­less exis­tence in a mate­r­i­al world, and that strives nonethe­less toward impos­si­ble ideals.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

A Crash Course in Exis­ten­tial­ism: A Short Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Paul Sartre & Find­ing Mean­ing in a Mean­ing­less World

Alan Watts Explains the Mean­ing of the Tao, with the Help of the Great­est Nan­cy Pan­el Ever Drawn

Are We Liv­ing Inside a Com­put­er Sim­u­la­tion?: An Intro­duc­tion to the Mind-Bog­gling “Sim­u­la­tion Argu­ment”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • Jason White says:

    Hooray! Just what I expect­ed from OC on the 500th anniver­sary of Luther’s nail­ing of the 95 the­ses: an exten­sive, thor­ough essay and set of links to the Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion, one of the most sig­nif­i­cant his­tor­i­cal events/movements in the his­to­ry of the world. If only Luther were a gay, left-hand­ed, Marx­ist trans­gen­der per­son.…

  • Kohn Jeats says:

    Link bro­ken at “John Keats’ pre­scrip­tion to devel­op “Neg­a­tive Capa­bil­i­ty,””

  • thomas eggeling says:

    i’m inter­est­ing for nietsche’s phi­los­o­phy and the last gods by hei­deg­ger.

  • Paul Craven says:

    Sur­prised Camus isn’t men­tioned. His reflec­tion on The Myth of Sisy­phus cov­ers all of this pret­ty thor­ough­ly. See also his sto­ry The Guest for an illus­tra­tion of the per­ils of free will.

  • Emile Haas says:

    I know this post is super old, but any­ways. Quot­ing here from the text:

    Nei­ther Sartre nor Watts, with their very dif­fer­ent approach­es to the same set of exis­ten­tial con­cerns, would like­ly endorse the tidy sum­ma­tion offered by the phi­los­o­phy of “Opti­mistic Nihilism.”

    I’m pret­ty sure it was Watts him­self that said we are the sen­so­ry organs of the Uni­verse.
    I think it was on his book On the Taboo against know­ing Who You Are.

    Except for that, awe­some arti­cle.

  • Unleashed TIme says:

    If you called a 5‑months-old post “super old”, I can’t fath­om what would you call this response of me that’s reached far more than 4 years…

  • cloe says:

    whats it like being alive in 2023

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