The Problems with “Optimistic Nihilism”
Written by Gabriel Rench on August 10, 2017
The world was made for us. It’s a comforting idea, isn’t it? And for many thousands of years, humans believed it was true. Our ancestors looked up at the sky and saw a bright yellow ball which lit our days and warmed our skin. There were plants and animals for us to eat. There was rain in the spring to water the crops and a harvest in the fall to see us through winter. It seemed that Someone made the world, and was watching over us. We met this Someone through our prophets and rituals. Though our existence was full of back-breaking toil, it seemed that this world was made for us, that we were home.
This is the sort of outdated, anthropocentric idea that Kurzgesagt seeks to counter. Kurzgesagt (German for “in a nutshell”) is a Munich-based outfit creating, as they put it, “videos explaining things,” mostly relating to the physics and technological change. Their videos are slickly-produced, well-narrated, and enjoyable in a blackly humorous way. Recent interesting videos have covered white dwarf stars and the rise of automation.
Their most recent video, though, is something different. It’s called Optimistic Nihilism. The video presents the well-articulated, beautifully animated, and altogether frightening philosophy of Kurzgesagt. At least in part this new video is a reaction to an oft-expressed complaint in the comments section of Kurzgesagt videos that, in their words, “our videos induce existential dread in many people.” They mean to counter it with this philosophy of optimistic nihilism. Here they go:
Have you ever questioned your faith, or other beliefs that make up the foundation of your life? Maybe as a result of this, you’ve questioned whether your life has any meaning or value? This is existential dread; those who feel it fear it. So we must suppose that it’s good that Kurzgesagt wants to help solve a problem they themselves have created.
Remember the story at the beginning–the idea that the world was made for us? Kurzgesagt has other ideas.
But the older we got, the more we learned about the world and ourselves…We learned that we’re 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’re made of many little dead things, which make up bigger things that are not dead, for some reason, and that we’re just another temporary stage in a history going back over a billion years.
We’re small and insignificant, I guess I agree with that. The really scary part is what happens next: death, in which
your biological processes will break down, and the dynamic pattern that is you will stop being dynamic. It will dissolve until there is no you left…This is less scary than it sounds, though. If you don’t remember the 13.75 billion years that went by before you existed, then the trillions and trillions and trillions of years that come after will pass in no time once you’re gone. Close your eyes. Count to one. That’s how long forever feels. And as far as we know, in the end, the universe itself will die and nothing will ever change again.
There are a couple factual problems with this. Death isn’t scary because of the long stretch of human history that takes place after we expire. It’s scary because we lose the relationships and little joys that make this life wonderful. It’s scary because without faith, death is a black hole where all our strivings and everything that seems to give this life meaning utterly dissolve. And let’s be clear about how long forever feels. If you were dead, you couldn’t feel forever. But if you could, it would feel like the longest stretch of time imaginable, squared. It wouldn’t feel like a count to one.
The video, so far, is making a pretty feeble case for nihilism, but a horrible case for being hopeful about it. And it doesn’t get better yet: “In a way, it feels like the cruelest joke in existence has been played on us. We became self-aware only to realize this story is not about us…Science doesn’t do a lot to make this less depressing.”
But if this, ahem, optimistic video hasn’t ruined your day yet, that’s good, because we’re about to get to the part that we’re supposed to not be sad about:
You only get one shot at life, which is scary, but it also sets you free. If the universe ends in heat death, every humiliation you suffer in your life will be forgotten…If our life is all we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters. If the universe has no principles, 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…If this is our one shot at life, there is no reason not to have fun and live as happily as possible…Do the things that make you feel good. You get to decide whatever this means for you.
Let’s not even get into the plausibility problems of this position, such as how we’re supposed to live happily in an avowedly meaningless universe. If “the only principles relevant are the ones we decide on,” then who are we? What if we think genocide or rape are in line with our principles? What if killing anyone who disagrees with our “optimistic nihilism” is the purpose we dictate for our existence and for the universe?
I know this video is low-hanging fruit. There were many whip-smart atheists in the last few centuries (J.S. Mill and A.J. Ayer come to mind) who would have torn this argument to shreds, philosophically, to say nothing of what Alvin Plantinga or even William Lane Craig could do to it. This isn’t philosophically, scientifically, or morally convincing. That’s not the point. The point is that people actually believe this. Ultimately, most people live as if the universe has no purpose, and they fill that void with egotism and lust. This is a popular video (more than three million views to date) that espouses a view of life that is not just wrong or dangerous–it’s inhuman.
Christians believe in something better. Christians believe in a God who made us and set our lives on a path. He made the universe to show His glory, and the world for our flourishing. When we fell, He saved us, and He is preparing a heavenly city to be filled with all those who call upon His name. I’d like to end with this video. It’s similar, in a few ways. They’re both popular YouTube videos with innovative animation styles. They both purport to tell the story of the universe. But only one does so in a way that allows humans to really love this world and really do good–as it is, not as we imagine it to be.