This year I have finished university, and just recently graduated. For my final year I was required to write a 10,000+ word essay on a subject of my choice, although I did go over this (around 13,000 words in total for the essay & 2,000+ for the footnotes). I chose to write about Nihilism, as put forward by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and explore how we might respond to the issue’s he raises. This was a subject very close to my heart, as I myself suffered from Nihilism prior to becoming a Muslim; and so it is a subject I am very passionate about. I have decided to upload my final piece to my blog. It is quite long, but I broke it up into 3 parts to make it more manageable. I hope you enjoy it! Please share, like and comment if you do!

IMPORTANT NOTE: This essay was originally typed up on a word document, and had footnotes on each page. However, due to the format on this website, footnotes on this same document would have created something rather chaotic looking. So instead, the way the footnotes have been organised is that when one is present, it will be represented in squared brackets as such: [+footnote number]; for example [1]. If you wish to read the footnote, you will need to check it with the corresponding footnote number on a separate article which you can find here; or alternatively, click the link provided on each footnote reference number within this essay to be directed to it. I do recommend opening up the footnotes page in a seperate tab so that you can find them quicker, rather than having to open the page every time one appears.

A Response to Nihilism

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Part I – Life, Meaning & Nihilism.
  • §1: Meaning and the Modern Predicament 
  • §2: Nietzsche’s Nihilism
  • Part II – How did people respond to Nihilism in the past?
  • §1: The Knight of Faith
  • §2: The Myth of Sisyphus
  • §3: The Leap of Faith
  • Part III – How Should We Respond Today?
  • §1: The Will to Meaning and its Derivatives
  • §2: Our Destiny is to Suffer
  • §3: Free Will vs Determinism
  • §4: Taking Responsibility
  • Conclusion

Introduction

The aim of this dissertation is to come to an understanding of how, in the 21st century, one should respond to the problem of Nihilism as it presents itself. In order to do this, I will approach the problem in stages. First of all, in part one, I will focus on two tasks. I will begin by briefly exploring the question “what is the meaning of life?”; particularly from a conceptual viewpoint and with a focus on the meaning of ‘meaning’. That is, I will need to explore what exactly it is that we mean when we say a life is meaningful, and why is it so important. I will also look at particular conditions faced by modern societies that might justiably be considered a threat to meaning. After confronting this, I will then move on to detailing the problem of Nihilism as a social phenomenon, which unfolds as a result of a society’s inability to sustain any sort of lasting meaning; which is to say that the meaning of life ceases to be ‘something’, and is instead replaced by a ‘nothing’. This will be explored mainly through the lens of Friedrich Nietzsche’s writing. He has had great insights into the matter and there are a large range of materials covering the subject either through him, or being at least influenced by him, in one way or another. It is important to start here in particular as in order to confront the problem and be able to offer any sort of valuable solution, I must first understand and explain what the problem comprises of, and what its potential consequences are. 

From here I will then move to part two, which will focus on how certain thinkers have responded to the experience of the apparent absurdity of life. The specific responses I will be observing will be that of Sören Kierkegaard, and Albert Camus. I will explore Kierkegaard’s notion of “The Knight of Faith”, and Camus’ consideration of “The Myth of Sisyphus”; the former being a theistic approach to absurdity, and the latter being secular. Despite their differences however, both share a common existentialist theme in that they see life as absurd and incomprehensible, and that nonetheless this must still be overcome. I will focus on highlighting these connections and also with respect to how both writers make an appeal to “a leap of faith” — Kierkegaard explicitly so, and Camus implicitly [1]. I hope to show that due to our being finite creatures with limited experiences and frames of reference, that faith becomes absolutely necessary if one wishes to incline to concepts on either side of a conceptual dichotomy [2].

Last of all, in part three, I will use what has been brought to light in parts one and two in order to better understand whether it is possible to combat nihilism through a leap of faith with respect to both freedom and “the will to meaning”, which will be complimented by a commitment to absolute responsibility in choosing one’s attitude to life, and an affirmation of a tragic optimism. Throughout this section, I will make a special reference to Viktor E. Frankl in order to elucidate the concepts I have put forward. I believe his work is vital as a means of responding to the inevitable suffering that one must face in life, which would otherwise make one incline towards hopelessness and nihilism.

Part I – Life, Meaning & Nihilism.

§1: Meaning and the Modern Predicament 

Many books have been written professing to have an answer to the meaning of life, and these answers are always varied and often in conflict with one another. Despite this however, and before even engaging with the material, one might still ask: why is it so important for us to know whether or not our lives have meaning? Is it really essential in order for us to go on living? According to Martin Heidegger, what makes the human being distinct from all other beings is that its existence is a problem for it [3]; and so it cannot avoid having to confront the meaning of its life. One must always venture forth into the world and determine how one is going to exist. From this it can be inferred that grappling with life’s significance is something everyone must inevitably deal with. The process itself involving self-reflection, affirming one’s condition, and making decisions on how to act and what to do. Unfortunately, it is also this element of reflection and having to make choices in the face of an absurd complexity that can be extremely daunting. This can sometimes lead to a lack of action altogether due to being overwhelmed or even the onset of depression and feelings of emptiness; worse still, it can lead to suicide. Looking at what has been in the past; what could have been done better; what might have happened or could still happen in the future; all of this is a source of uncertainty. Especially for any finite beings naïvely trying to encompass it. There are a large number of variables and a single mind just does not have the cognitive capacity to take in all that information and process it.

One of the most disturbing features of the desire for meaning is that it can be an incredibly devastating force due to its ability to push humanity into conflict and slaughter. Many will gladly kill or be killed for the sake of meaning so long as in the end it instills their life with a sense of significance; whether or not they die is of no concern. Although Heidegger’s description above gives an explanation as to why we may begin a search for meaning, it does not explain why anyone would become so brutal in order to attain it. Why is it that important? Death and murder are a big deal; the average person would likely never get to such an extremes. However, conflict has occurred consistently enough throughout history to suggest that so long as humanity is present, the potential for destruction is always possible. I am sure one could say that such examples are just evidence of a rare madness, or that dwelling on it is pointless. Nevertheless, such answers are hardly philosophically satisfying and do not put themselves forward as being completely honest. If I want to comprehend the matter, I must enquire into the meaning of ‘meaning’ further to understand why it can become so dangerous. Furthermore, this concept is central for an understanding of nihilism, which is a central concept for this essay.

The author Terry Eagleton, in The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, outlines three potential ways of using the word ‘meaning’. He says the following:

One is to do with intending something or having it in mind; in fact, the word ‘meaning’ is etymologically related to the word ‘mind’. Another category concerns the idea of signifying, while the third runs the first two categories together by indicating the act of intending or having it in mind to signify something.

Eagleton, T., The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, p.34 [4]

From this, we have (1) intention; (2) signification; and (3) intending to signify, or (1) + (2). In any case, according to this definition it is clear that we cannot talk about meaning without reference to a subject (or a mind) that experiences it. Both intention and signification require a conscious subject who is intending, or able to comprehend what is being signified, as both are conscious practices. In addition, this all presupposes that conscious subjects must already have a grasp of meaning in order for such questions to be asked in the first place. However, that is not to say that the meaning of ‘meaning’ has now become obvious, only that the human being must have a pre-cognitive understanding of what ‘meaning’ is

It can be difficult to explain what meaning is when considering its relation to life, then maybe if we explore what it is not, this may help clarify some things. Thaddeus Metz attempts to explain what a meaningful life is not when he says that it must be distinct from a life that is pleasurable, or happy [5]. It is not impossible to think of examples where a life might still be meaningful despite being void of such qualities. For example, a life could become meaningful as the result of sacrificing pleasure or happiness. Also, significance in  life does not necessarily equate to it being a moral life. For example, scientific discoveries such as the atom bomb exhibit this point quite significantly. Metz concludes that “Meaningfulness analytically concerns a variable and gradient final good in a person’s life that is conceptually distinct from happiness, rightness, and worthwhileness” [6]. This information means brings us a step closer to understanding what meaning is, but unfortunately it is still a very vague answer. If anything, the pursuit of trying to understand the question of what a meaningful life is seems to be so far removed from the actual experience of one that hopes of an analytical explanation dwindle away. 

Despite all of this however, it would be a mistake to claim that because finding a sufficiently logical and philosophical answer turns out to be incredibly illusive and difficult, that this means we should give up on the idea of a meaningful life altogether. There are plenty of examples to show that meaning has been achieved by great individuals in the past, and that this meaning has echoed for generations after them. Meaning must be achievable, and as mentioned above, it is presupposed in the human ability to ask such questions in the first place. A meaningful life therefore, as well as being conceptually distinct from happiness and pleasure, could also be distinct from logic and reason. Just as its not impossible to think of a meaningful life that is tragic and without pleasure, it is also possible to think of one that is based on ‘passions’ or ‘intuitions’, rather than on ‘logic’ or ‘rationality’. However we conceive it, we know there must already be an understanding of meaning, even if that understanding itself, paradoxically, cannot be comprehended.  

In his book, Realms of Meaning, Philip H. Phenix puts forward the argument that education is itself something that can facilitate the experience of meaning if done correctly. Furthermore, he states that the human situation is such that there is always a danger of that meaning being threatened by forces which can instil feelings of ‘futility, frustration and doubt’ [7]. As far as he is concerned, human experience is inherently meaningful, and existence is the process of recognising the patterns of meaning contained within it. In this view it is not a case of having to understand the meaning, but merely to discover it. Just as the explorer does not have to ‘understand’ the lands he explores, he need only find and investigate them with a keen eye. 

Contrary to Aristotle who considered man to be a rational animal [8], Phenix argues that this is an overly simplistic view of mankind. Man is not always rational and can be irrational at times, but he is always engaged with the world meaningfully. Even if he tries to negate it, it is still inescapably a  relation in the form of meaning. 

The proposed philosophical answer to the question about the nature of man, then, is that humans are beings that discover, create and express meanings. Moreover, human meanings extend across a broad spectrum, encompassing all the unique qualities of mind described by the scientists and scholars who study human nature. 

Realms of Meaning.., p.21 [9]

From this it can be understand that, as stated in my previous point, a meaningful life is conceptually distinct from a ‘rational’ one. If this evaluation is correct, then it may make little sense to attempt understand the meaning of ‘meaning’ analytically. If meaning can be categorised as an arational quality of life [10], one is not likely to bear any fruits in attempts to break it down into its logical components. This also explains the great difficulty that scholars have had in their attempts to fully comprehend the subject matter and come to an agreement on what exactly it is they are dealing with in such discussions.

Phenix further points out that, unfortunately, the “perennial threat to meaning is intensified under the conditions of modern industrial civilisation” [11]. The four factors that are listed as threats are: (1) the spirit of criticism and skepticism which dominate the domains of science and philosophy, among many other fields [12]; (2) the tendency towards depersonalisation and the fragmenting of complex societies due to industrialisation and alienation [13]; (3) overabundance of both things and information, inevitably overwhelming the modern citizen [14]; and (4) rapid rates of change which leave a constant feeling of impermanence and a lack of security [15]. All of these factors contribute towards a sense of meaninglessness, and the experience of an inner void; which can also further contribute to rates of suicide, depression and substance abuse in a society [16].

These conditions have not always been present however. All four factors could be said to be the result of the enlightenment and industrial revolution which began in the 18th century [17]. For a long time prior to this, conditions were very different. The spirit of skepticism was not as tolerated, societies were less industrialised, things and information were not abundant, and rates of change were relatively slow. Furthermore, there was a widespread belief in God (across the western world in particular). With an eternal Creator, anything done in relation to Him would, by necessity, always be meaningful; even beyond material death. Unlike modern (secular) societies where belief in God has dwindled and meaning appears more fleeting in contrast. After all, if there is no eternal creator to sustain that meaning for eternity, then meaning can only last for as long as one is alive, or for as long as one is remembered by other; all of whom eventually die and become forgotten. Beyond the heat death of the universe, it seems rather bleak and unlikely that any meaning would survive at all. As Christians, most Europeans found meaning by directing their lives towards the afterlife in which they would be judged [18]. This guaranteed meaning in the lives of all (irrespective of social divides) and provided a means to deal with the suffering and death that all people inevitably experienced. For many it gave pain a purpose, as all things were a part of God’s grand plan; and so they pushed on despite their circumstances.

But as I say, modern society has changed, and the belief in God is not as ingrained into wider western society as it used to be. I have no intention of proving the existence of God in this essay, but I do seek to explore the potential consequences of a collective disbelief and postulate on how we should respond to it. I wish to explore this because, for better or for worse, it is what ‘the West’ is currently undergoing. Atheism is on the rise more now than ever [19], and so its consequences must be understood if we wish to comprehend how this may affect our globalised societies moving forward. It is here that I will now transition to nihilism: What is it exactly? How should it be understood, and why is it a problem that deserves our attention?

§2 Nietzsche’s Nihilism

I will begin this section by looking at the work of the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, and his ideas on nihilism. He offers great descriptions of nihilism and the reasons why he believes it to be affecting the west. So what is nihilism exactly? Nietzsche says it is that “there is no goal, no answer to the question: why? What is the significance of nihilism? — that the highest values devalue themselves[20]. This is key to understanding nihilism for Nietzsche, along with his notion of the ‘death of God’ as he puts it forward in the famous aphorism of the madman [21]. But first I will ask: what does it mean for values devalue themselves?

A great example that illustrates this is how Nietzsche sees the emergence of science as being the result of Christianity making truth a ‘higher value’, and that this decision eventually becomes self-undermining. On this, Ullrich Haase says the following:

When Nietzsche says that the sciences are shadows of the dead God, he means to say that we ought not to understand our age as the result of a scientific spirit revolting against the Christian spirit. Rather he speaks of a victory of the Christian conscience against itself, of the Christian will to truth turning its sting against itself. Finally, this conscience ‘forbids itself the lie of faith in God’

Haase, U., Starting With Nietzsche, p. 114 [22]

In this sense, the scientific methods are themselves the remains of Christianity which lived on past the ‘death of God’; hence why he refers to it as “a shadow of the dead God”. In order to get science as we know it today, it was necessary to make the will to truth an absolute moral commitment. Over time, it is because of this that the establishment of the scientific endeavour became inevitable. The death of God, as Nietzsche puts it, is not to be thought of in a literal sense; it is the symbolic representation of the Christian people relinquishing themselves of faith in the transcendent, as a result of their commitment to ‘truth’, and it is this that gives way to nihilism.

Once this self-undermining of values has occurred, a void is left in its place. If there are no higher values remaining, then the meaning of life itself becomes problematic. There is no longer any explanation as to why things happen the way they do. There is no reason to explain away the suffering. When one is in pain it is simply without purpose, and life has become absurd; the meaning of all things has become ‘nothing’.

But what of the question of life’s meaning prior to the ‘death’ of God? Before this occurred He was very much alive as far as the Christian populous were concerned. Christianity supplied meaning via a relationship to God, and so their lives were innately and unquestioningly ingrained with a purpose (just so long as they submitted to the prevailing religion). In Europe, Nietzsche says that Christianity was that which:

prevented men from feeling contempt for themselves as human beings, from siding against life and from being driven to despair by their ignorance; it was a means of self-preservation – in sum, morality was the great antidote to practical and theoretical nihilism.

F. Nietzsche, Will to Power.., p.16 [23]

Given that Christianity is here seen as ‘the antidote’, it presupposes that nihilism is not just a threat now, but always has been. Systems such as Christianity grew and developed in response to a sense of meaninglessness and lack of purpose. Furthermore, the notion of nihilism is not an ideological threat, like communism or fascism; rather, it is “an intermediate pathological state” [24]. One cannot simply choose to be a nihilist as far as Nietzsche is concerned. One undergoes nihilism as an historical malady, and that is whether or not there is an awareness of the condition. Further on this pathological state, Nietzsche says it involves the “immense generalisation, the inference that life has no meaning whatsoever[25]. It is a coming to the belief that all which has ever been accomplished was only an attempt to combat the ever creeping threat of the universes absolute meaninglessness.

In The Gay Science, the aphorism I mentioned earlier, titled “The Madman” (§125), tells of a man in search for God at the marketplace, and it is through this which Nietzsche proclaims we have arrived in the age of nihilism [26]. The madman runs to the people in the town and cries “I’m looking for God!”, to which the people respond with ridicule and laughter. They do not take him seriously and find no reason to consider his arrival as anything significant; he appears to them as foolish. It is made clear the towns people have already lost their faith, however they had not yet comprehended the consequences of their loss. The madman goes on to say that “We have killed him [God]you and I! We are all his murderers” [27]. But what is meant by this? It seems somewhat counter-intuitive. As I briefly alluded to earlier, if “we” have killed God and he is now dead, this implies he was once alive. However, if he was alive how can he die? Is He not supposed to be a necessary and eternal being? The first and the last [28]. On this, Ullrich Haase points out that Nietzsche is not arguing to convince his reader to believe or disbelieve in the existence of God in an ontological sense. That is, “whatever we might believe or not believe does not make a big difference” [29]. Nietzsche is describing his observations as he sees them. He “saw the signs of his time”, and we (the secular west) move “inescapably and with remorseful necessity, into nihilism” [30]. Throughout our philosophical history, from Plato, to Anselm, and through to Descartes onwards, there have been constant attempts to rationally prove the existence of God. But now, as a result of this endeavour, we have lost that which had grounded us in the first place and gave a foundation from which to push forward. 

What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving now? Where are we moving to? Away from all suns? Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sidewards, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an up and a down? Aren’t we straying as though through an infinite nothing?

The Gay Science §125 [31]

With the death of God, as is made very clear in this quote, we are left without a foundation. And with no reference point, we are aimlessly drifting through a ceaseless void with no solid justification for our beliefs or values; no absolute truths; no genuine sense of good or evil. We no longer have anything from which to cling to, and so long as this is the case life will be meaningless. God was that which previously granted us a universal value, and therefore, we could have a meaningful life insofar as we understood ourselves in relation to Him. That is, belief in Him was the source of our meaning and is what made life’s suffering bearable. But now, according to Nietzsche: “God is dead!” and “God remains dead!”. This suggests that there is no returning to the old ways beyond this point. Europe cannot simply become devoutly Christian again, it must go through nihilism, overcome it, and create something new in response to it. 

He continues the aphorism by asking: how are we to overcome such a tremendous loss? “Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it?” [32] Upon concluding, the madman looks at the people of the marketplace, finding them in stark contrast to how they were at the beginning of the encounter. Although at first they were joyfully mocking him, now they are uncomfortable and silent. The madman is too early; there is a societal lag. The people do not yet know what they have done. Nihilism has arrived, but no one has noticed. Apart from the madman of course, that is, Nietzsche. 

One may assert here that it does not matter whether “God is dead”, or Christianity is lost, we have science now! And with that, we know more now in our secular scientific age than we ever did in our dogmatically religious past! Science has freed us from our superstitions and replaced the old ways. However, as Haase elaborates in the following passage:

… Nietzsche argues that there is nothing new in the ‘scientific world view’. As we will see, the age of science cannot be understood as a new age, containing ‘something new, mighty, original and a promise of life’ (HL 45), but is the phenomenon of the demise of Christianity itself. It is the same will to truth that operates in modern science; it is the nihilistic phenomenon of knowledge turning its sting against itself, positing the question of whether this will to truth is itself in truth. Insofar as the ‘scientific world view’ reduces the world to a sum total of facts, it does not leave any space for such a will, which is to say that it does not leave a space for life itself. But as Nietzsche argued [..], every value, including the value of knowing, has to be seen from the perspective of life, so that the modern sciences appear themselves to be nihilistic.

Haase, Starting With Nietzsche.., p.102 [33]

Science, in trying to achieve a ‘perspectiveless perspective’ — that is, to gain access to an objective truth that does not rely on the conditions of the human subject — has effectively tried to achieve the impossible. Human beings cannot help but look at the world from the perspective of life, and therefore cannot by any means become “perspectiveless”. Science should not be seen as a new revelation or a new way of doing things, it is the remains of christianity and so is just as inherently and innately nihilistic. It flushes away the meaning in the world in order to create an objective knowledge structure  void of any subjectivity, all as a result of its valuing ‘truth’ as a virtue; which itself arises out of Christianity’s moral system. Science is not diametrically opposed to christianity, but a modification of it. This is the inevitable result of the highest values devaluing themselves, and brings to full fruition of the age of nihilism. As far as Nietzsche would be considered, the rising imperative we have put into the query of life’s meaning is only a symptom of this illness and a sign that we have still yet to comprehend the magnitude of our deeds. The residual bits of meaning we have remaining are merely interactions with the remains of a divine corpse.

Part II – How did people respond to Nihilism in the past?

In part one, I tried to explain the meaning of ‘meaning’, the conditions of modern industrialised society, and Nietzsche’s conception of nihilism, all in order to show how modern western society is suffering from an inevitable experience of meaninglessness and dissatisfaction with life. I will now move on to look at two philosophers; the pre-Nietzschean “grand-father” of existentialism: Sören Kierkegaard; and the other his successor, a post-Nietzschean named Albert Camus. These two philosophers, along with Nietzsche, form a line of thinkers who deal with the experience of life as absurd [34]. I mention Kierkegaard and Camus as responses to Nietzsche’s conception of nihilism because they both put forward their own methods of dealing with existential crisis. That is, in the face of the absurd, both offer a way to respond to it. 

I begin part two with a brief introduction to Kierkegaard’s conception of ‘The Knight of Faith’, who is the individual that is able to make leaps of faith in a transition from one mode of being into another [35]; the leap he himself focuses on is that into religiousness, namely Christianity. I will not be arguing in favour of this religion however, but I mention it so I may show the necessity of faith as an inescapable part of life that must be affirmed in order to avoid falling into error. Once I have shown this sufficiently, I will then explain Camus’ account of The Myth of Sisyphus, and how he conceives of Sisyphus as being happy, despite his punishment being to repeatedly push a rock up a mountain for eternity. Once these accounts have been given, I can then make a comparison between the two; both in how they differ and in their similarities. My main goal with this part of the essay is to show that, despite their differences, they both make an appeal to a ‘leap of faith’ of some sort. I wish to show that all human beings, regardless of whether they choose to value faith or explicitly reject it, must inevitably make leaps of faith as the result of their finitude. Furthermore, that being conscious of what exactly one is making leaps of faith in is necessary in order to achieve an understanding of one’s own condition. I do this so that I may then transition to part three, where I will attempt to show that faith is necessary in order to allow meaning to fill one’s life; especially after having undergone nihilism and experiencing life as absurd. 

§1 The Knight of Faith

In his book, Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard discusses God’s command to Abraham that he sacrifice his son. This is mentioned in order to draw attention to its ethical implications, but most importantly, to elucidate the concept of faith, its signifinance, and the problems it may entail. The concept of faith is something he feels has been neglected by the intelligentsia of his time, and on this he says the following:

Love, after all, has its priests in the poets, and occasionally one hears a voice that knows how to keep it in shape; but about faith one hears not a word, who speaks in this passion’s praises? Philosophy goes further. Theology sits all painted at the window courting philosophy’s favour, offering philosophy its delights. It is said to be hard to understand Hegel, while understanding Abraham is the simplest of all.

Kierkegaard, S., Fear and Trembling, p. 62 [36]

But is it so simple to understand Abraham and his predicament? The answer for Kierkegaard is no; not at all. He finds Abraham’s story absolutely perplexing. Ethically speaking, it can be argued that it is obvious one should not willingly end the life of a child; especially one’s own. This act is widely considered abhorrent, as the parent is in a position of trust and it would be condemned as murder. However, in stark contrast to this we have a story of a man who intended to do such a thing, and yet he is commended as morally upright and loved dearly by his Creator and all those who adopted the Abrahamic religions [37]. This presents itself as a paradox, yet, through faith believers around the world submit to it, despite the obvious conflict in values the story represents. 

Kierkegaard considered Abraham to be the ‘father of faith’ [38], and used his example to map out his idea of the ‘Knight of Faith’. He speaks of faith as something valuable — as that which should not be so readily dismissed or thrown to philosophers who would just dissect it analytically and never come close to grasping what it is. 

I by no means think that faith is therefore something inferior, on the contrary that it is the highest, at the same time believing it dishonest of philosophy to offer something else instead and to slight faith. Philosophy cannot and should not give us an account of faith, but should understand itself and know just what it has indeed to offer, without taking anything away, least of all cheating people out of something by making them think it is nothing.

Fear and Trembling.., p. 63 [39]

As I mentioned earlier in this essay, just as meaning is something that may possibly be beyond the reaches of reason, so too might this be so for faith. It may very well be that faith can only be understood if experienced; and not through a rational explanation. If this is true, attempts to grasp it in terms of the Aristotelian notions of logic and reason are doomed before they begin. Both faith and meaning are facts of life that cannot be brushed under the carpet because they are assumed to be in conflict with “higher values” [40]. To dismiss faith altogether as something utterly unimportant and useless is itself an act which requires faith. One need only ask to the rationalist why we should put so much trust in reason in the first place, and the response will likely see them use reason itself as an attempt to justify it. Point this out and make them aware it is circular reasoning —that they are presupposing reason in order to justify it— and they will eventually be forced to admit that they value reason based on faith! Reason after all is a human ability; and if, as Husserl said, it evolved with us, then it too has been and will be subject to further change in the future [41]. What reasons do we have to assume it will remain static? Furthermore, just as valuing reason requires faith, trying to dismiss faith presupposes that one must have already embraced it. One can only assume it to be useless, but cannot know for sure. Philosophy, logic and reason certainly have their uses, and this is by no means an argument in favour of dismissing or neglecting them either. Clearly, philosophy has its pragmatic uses and is a great tool in aiding the search for truth. Rather, this is simply a call to take faith seriously and to recognise it for what it is: an inextricable part of life that cannot be pushed aside. 

Kierkegaard explains how one may become a Knight of Faith through what is termed as the “movements of faith” made on “the strength of the absurd” [42]. The movement of faith, or the leap, is made by committing to the act of “infinite resignation”; that is, he who makes such movements:

knows the bliss of infinity, he has felt the pain of renouncing everything, whatever is most precious in the world, and yet to him finitude tastes just as good as to one who has never known anything higher, for his remaining in the finite bore no trace of a stunted, anxious training, and still he has this sense of being secure to take pleasure in it, as though it were the most certain thing of all. And yet, and yet [sic] the whole earthly form he presents is a new creation on the strength of the absurd. He resigned everything infinitely, and then took everything back on the strength of the absurd. He is continually making the movement of infinity, but he makes it with such accuracy and poise that he is continually getting finitude out of it.

Fear and Trembling.., p. 70 [43]

So the Knight of Faith is able to abandon the world and resign from everything in it. Yet despite this, he does not fall into bitterness and is still, somehow, paradoxically able to find joy in the world; in true testament to the absurd. The Knight of Faith does not hold what has been renounced in contempt and neglect it, but savours every moment despite letting it go and is under no threat of unrecoverable remorse or grief due to its inevitable loss. He believes, through “the strength of the absurd”, that although he has let it go he will get it back. He has faith that his sacrifice will be rewarded. This is a parallel to Abraham’s sacrifice, who in his submission to God gave up his son, “believed in the strength of the absurd” [44], and that in the end God would give him back what was lost.  This was all in spite of how impossible it sounded to the rational mind. Moreover, Kierkegaard states that “every movement of infinity occurs with passion, and no reflection can bring about a movement” [45]. Reflection here is being shown as a hindrance in achieving such goals, and it is all of this that can essentially be referred to as the leap of faith. For Kierkegaard, one must realise that faith has its place in life and that one must hope; despite how absurd things may seem to those who reflect too much and try too hard to look at things rationally. One must instead be like Abraham, and push forward passionately on the strength of the absurd. 

It is important to stress that infinite resignation is required for this to take place and it is what Kierkegaard says “is the last stage before faith” [46]. That is, one must be willing to give up everything without end in order to achieve true faith. Failing to do so will only act as a barrier to its achievement. It is through it that one is able to find “peace and repose and consolation in the pain” [47], and be able to bear the sorrow brought on by the absurdity of life. A further clarification of the relationship between the Knight of Faith and the absurd is given in the following:

The absurd is not one distinction among others embraced by understanding. It is not the same as the improbable, the unexpected, the unforeseen. The moment the knight resigned he was convinced of the impossibility, humanly speaking; that was a conclusion of the understanding, and he had energy enough to think it. In an infinite sense, however, it was possible, through renouncing it [as a finite possibility]; but then accepting that [possibility] is at the same time to have given it up, yet for the understanding there is no absurdity in possessing it, for it is only in the finite world that understanding rules and there it was and remains an impossibility. On this the Knight of Faith is just as clear; all that can save him is the absurd; and this he grasps by faith. Accordingly he admits the impossibility and at the same time believes the absurd; for were he to suppose that he had faith without recognising the impossibility with all the passion of his soul and with all his heart, he would be deceiving himself and his testimony would carry weight nowhere, since he would not even have come as far as infinite resignation.

Fear and Trembling.., p. 75 [48]

So it is made quite clear here that faith, according to Kierkegaard’s conception of it, is not to deny that one’s relation to the world is absurd, nor to deny that certain things one may wish to engage in, or may want to happen, might be “impossible”. Rather, it is an absolute affirmation of the absurd and of the limits of reason and the understanding. It is a giving up of everything infinitely, and at the same time accepting the impossible. This giving up everything and getting it all back as a result of the sacrifice presents itself as a paradox, but as Kierkegaard says: “one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow” [49]. It is perfectly possible to see the paradox as being the expression of the limits of our understanding; the unknown presenting itself [50]. Furthermore, from here a leap of faith is not, and should not, be regarded as nothing, but rather that it has the potential to be everything, and the only way to know for sure is to make that leap for oneself. If it does in fact lie beyond the grasp of the understanding, then the experience of such a leap is not something that can be communicated rationally, but only felt. This possibility alone makes it something significant that requires our attention. 

§2 The Myth of Sisyphus

The writer and philosopher Albert Camus lived through the second world war and was well aware of the horrors and atrocities that surrounded it. He was also familiar with the work of both Nietzsche [51] and Kierkegaard [52], and so was well acquainted with concepts such as the absurd and nihilism; enthusiastically taking to them in his own writing. In his book, The Myth of Sisyphus (and many of his other books), he confronts the absurdity of life and how one should respond to it. In this stage of the essay, I will be summarising Camus’ work in order to show that even when someone attempts to dismiss the leap of faith, they still necessarily and indirectly make one.

Firstly, Sisyphus is a character from ancient Greek mythology known as “the great trickster” [53], who was punished in the underworld by the gods for his insolence. The punishment: being made to push a boulder up a mountain, repeatedly, for eternity. Once he reached the top of the mountain, the rock would tumble back down to the bottom only for him to have to make his way down and repeat the task again, and again [54]

Camus’ saw this as analogous to human life in general: repetitive and often pointless or unproductive. In Greek mythology this is clearly meant as punishment and torture for Sisyphus, and I think that the average person might agree in this regard. Camus, however, did not incline towards this conclusion. In fact, he thought the complete opposite; going as far as to say that “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” [55]. In order to understand how he came to this conclusion, I will begin by taking a look at how his argument progresses, and what leads to this conclusion.

Camus was motivated in this particular work by the belief that “the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions” [56]. He notes that people often die because they see life as absurd and not worth living; and that others often get killed for ideas which gave them a reason to live [57]. Life can be incredibly unfortunate, and as a result of this one may ask: why not commit suicide? Why not just end it all now and cease the inevitable suffering?

What then is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. All healthy men having thought of their own suicide, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death.

Myth of Sisyphus.., p. 4-5 [58]

This feeling of alienation, of being a stranger, of absurdity, is brought about because of a constant barrage of paradoxes. Thoughts are consistently undermining themselves as soon as they are put forward; an awareness arises of the laughable attempts of those who dogmatically insist the world is intelligible; the more one lives, the more life reveals itself as absurd. Once gripped by this, Camus claims that one may commit actual suicide, or its philosophical counterpart; one may resort to hope, or faith, in a religion. “Does its [life’s] absurdity require one to escape it through hope or suicide— this is what must be clarified, hunted down and elucidated while brushing aside the rest” [59]. But if one can submit to the absurd without resorting to either form of suicide, they can become ‘superior to their fate’ [60]

The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny or at least there is but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when an glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning towards his rock, in that slight pivoting, he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.

Myth of Sisyphus.., p. 119 [61]

This particular quotation is very passionately written, and certainly has the capacity to inspire one to live life rather than to fall into a state of depressed actionless-ness. This I find commendable and have no issue with. However, my issue is with a detail contained within it; specifically when he says “convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human”. This state of being convinced is what I call evidence of a leap of faith. It is a leap in the sense that there is nothing in his writing thus far that is sufficient to say that one may be justified in such conviction. He may have been rhetorically motivating, but to be convinced that all which is human has a “wholly human origin” presupposes that one has faith in this proposition, as it certainly cannot be called genuine knowledge and can only be called an assumption. 

On the other hand, unlike how he portrays his own leap of faith (albeit, unbeknownst to himself) Kierkegaard is portrayed as one who commits philosophical suicide as the result of his inclination towards faith; going as far as inferring that the leap itself is deceitful:


The leap does not represent an extreme danger as Kierkegaard would like it to do. The danger, on the contrary, lies in the subtle instant that precedes the leap. Being able to remain on that dizzying crest — that is integrity and the rest is subterfuge. I know also that never has helplessness inspired such striking harmonies as those of Kierkegaard. But if helplessness has its place in the indifferent landscapes of history, it has none in a reasoning whose exigence is now known. 

Myth of Sisyphus.., p.48-49 [62]

From this we can understand that Camus considers the absurd hero to be one who refuses to make the commitment to a leap, or that which he doesn’t have evidence for. Rather, they prefer to stay upon the edge with the absurd before them. They face up to abyss, despite it being daunting and refuse to leap into it. But what he is calling his reader away from is what he himself is guilty of with respect to faith, while being completely unaware of the possibility of his own commitments to that which he degrades. The abyss he leaps towards is (ironically) the idea that he does not already have faith in some things, or that he himself makes leaps. The abyss he unknowingly leaps into is the one in which it is thought that he has control over how close to the edge he goes, and that this edge is stable and will not crumble under his feet; plunging him into another abyss while he is too “dizzy” to even notice. For who is to say that there is only one abyss, or that there isn’t layers to it? While a person is preoccupied with one layer, it is perfectly possible there is another that creeps up on them. 

§3 The Leap of Faith

Despite Camus making it clear that he has not made a leap of faith, as I have shown, there is certainly an argument to say that he still makes one. When summarising Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith, I mentioned that even those who dismiss faith as useless and irrational require it in order to come to such a conclusion. The same can be said of Camus. He takes the danger, and therefore the bravery, to be in positing oneself at “the subtle instant that precedes the leap” [63]. However, if he refuses to make the specific leap of faith that someone such as Kierkegaard proposes, he still has to assume that there is nothing to be gained from it, or that there are not any truths that may reveal themselves upon having made such a leap. He must assume that the moment that precedes the leap is superior to the moment that proceeds after; all the while never having experienced the latter because of a refusal to acknowledge Kierkegaard may have (at least possibly) achieved something of value with faith. If anything, I argue that the one who consciously makes the leap of faith is necessarily in a better position to talk on the subject matter, as they have experienced both moments (before and after the leap), and are at least aware of the fact that they are making leaps. As a result of this, they are also able to say whether one position has more or less to offer than the other. Furthermore, as this is not a literal leap like that off a cliff, one may always retract the decision and cease to have faith in the latter, returning to the moment that Camus’ advocates and having faith in that instead. That position may in fact be superior, so long as they acknowledge where they make their own leaps and explore that which can always be explored. Surely bravery is to be found in the one who pushes forward into the unknown —like Kierkegaard— rather than in him who waits behind and plays it safe. 

Either way, the point is made clear that despite his arguments against the leap, he necessarily submits to it and takes one himself; albeit in a different direction to Kierkegaard. The problem with Camus’ position is that he has deceived himself, which is ironic considering he referred to the Kierkegaard’s position as ‘subterfuge’. Despite this however, this example should be sufficient to make the point that I have been aiming towards concluding for this section, which is: “Having an awareness of one’s own leaps of faith (which are an unavoidable part of the human condition) is an imperative for one who wishes to understand their own condition. Moreover, such a person is necessarily superior to other who fails to see how their finite condition incontrovertibly limits them and causes blind spots in their understanding; forcing the very same leap of faith they criticise as futile.” 

I will now move on to part three, where in I shall argue that it is an understanding of the necessity of faith, along with the belief in free will, a passion for the “will to meaning”, and a sense of responsibility, which are required in order to overcome the consequences of a nihilistic society.

Part III – How Should We Respond Today?

Nihilism arrives on two levels. There is the level of the historical malady that plays out societally, and there is pathological phenomena experienced by individuals. As society is made up of many individuals, it follows from this that in order to fix the problem of nihilism, you need not just affect one or two people, but many; and in a lasting enough way for it to take effect substantially. I believe what follows in this section could potentially offer such an antidote.

Nietzsche says in The Will to Power, that the cause of nihilism is that the highest values devalue themselves [64]. He says that in the west, as a result of Christianity’s moral system, two of these values were truth, and reason, and that these values eventually undermine themselves. Firstly with regards to truth, he believes it was formed as nothing more than a means of attaining its “pleasant, life-preserving consequences” while simultaneously being hostile to any truths that were potentially “harmful and destructive” [65]. Holding truth as a higher value is therefore, in some sense, a neglecting of its possibly negative elements which offer no advantage to a society but that actively erode it. Secondly, with regards to reason, it is problematic in the way I have already described in part two. Both of these values give rise to the ‘death of god’, and morph Christianity into Science, collapsing the platonic distinction between “the real world” and “the apparent world”. This is best shown in the Twilight of the Idols, where the “History of  an Error” is played out in six stages, from Plato in stage one:

1. The real world attainable for the wise man, the pious man, the virtuous man—he lives in it, he is it.
(Most ancient form of the idea, relatively clever, simple, convincing. Paraphrase of the proposition: ‘I, Plato, am the truth.’)

Nietzsche, F., Twilight of the Idols, p.20 [66]

All the way to the ‘pinnacle of humanity’ and the conclusion of an error in stage six:

6. The real world—we have done away with it: what world was left? The apparent one, perhaps? … But no! With the real world we have also done away with the apparent one!
(Noon; moment of the shortest shadow; end of the longest error; pinnacle of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.) 

Nietzsche, F., Twilight of the Idols, p.20 [67]

However, although this is the end of an error, it not to be considered the end of humanity altogether. As far as Nietzsche is concerned nihilism is an “intermediate pathological state”, which is to say that is a midway stage between the believing Christian society who valued what they valued and the potential new society that is to form once the process of nihilism has itself been completed. That is to say, upon realising that the highest values have devalued themselves, the society is forced into a position in which they must reevaluate what they value and why. They must take on creating new values and form a new kind of society on the result of this creative endeavour.

As I mentioned earlier in this essay [68], Aristotle claimed the “definition of human is rational animal[69], but that Phenix thinks this is a false description because man is just as capable of being irrational. However, man is always situated in the world in a meaningful way as they are always engaged with meaning. This description is one that can be transferred across all professions and categories without exception. Even when affected by nihilism, the individual is still engaged with meaning insofar as they are either in the process of challenging or questioning the currently established forms of meaning, or in that they see the meaning of things and events as ‘nothing’; which, to note, is not the same as saying that there is no meaning at all and is still, paradoxically, a meaningful interaction. It is for this reason that I wish to suggest that a part of this revaluation process should involve having meaning as one of the highest values.  

§1 The Will to Meaning and its Derivatives

The psychologist, philosopher and survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, Viktor E. Frankl, defines what he calls the ‘will to meaning’ as “the basic striving of man to find and fulfil meaning and purpose” [70]. He claims that this is a means of tackling the “existential vacuum” that is brought on by a psychological exhaustion in the face of an experience of meaninglessness [71]. Further on this drive, Frankl says the following:


Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalisation” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning. There are some authors who contend that meanings and values are “nothing but defence mechanisms, reaction formations and sublimations.” But as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my defence mechanisms,” nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my “reaction formations.” Man, however, is able to live and even die for the sake of his ideals and values!

Frankl V.E., Man’s Search For Meaning, p.105 [72]

That he refers to it as the ‘primary motivation’ is important to not note here. Unlike either Nietzsche, who claimed that all human activity can be summed up by the will to power, or the Utilitarians, who claim that life can be summed up as the pursuit of happiness or pleasure, Frankl considers both of these as “mere derivatives of man’s primary concern, that is, his will to meaning” [73]. His justification for this claim is based on the derivative drives relation to goal achievement in general. For him, power is simply the means to an end, and pleasure or happiness is not an end in itself, but rather is the effect of successful meaning fulfilment. With regards to the former, power is only useful in terms of its function as a tool in achieving a goal, but becomes misguided when it is made the goal in itself. If one seeks power for its own sake, one inevitably gets caught up in a loop that can never be satisfied; the power is used to attain more power, which is then used to attain more power, and so on ad infinitum until its meaninglessness becomes evident. With regards to the latter, when happiness or pleasure themselves are made the goal, rather than being seen as what they truly are —as effects earned in the achievement of a goal— one is again caught in an ultimately unsatisfying cycle of seeking the means to attain pleasure or happiness as a temporary solution to the problem of meaninglessness, while remaining constantly unfulfilled.

To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to “be happy.” But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to “be happy.” Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualising the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.

Man’s Search for meaning.., p.140 [74]

An example he gives as similar to this, and in order to prove his point, is with the phenomenon of laughter. One cannot simply be commanded to begin laughing, “in no way is it possible to evoke real laughter by urging him, or having him urge himself” [75]. To do so would not achieve the desired result, but only a faked and awkward combination of noise and visual display. On the contrary, in order to make someone genuinely laugh you must provide them with a good reason to; that is, you need to tell them a funny joke. The same can be said with regards to happiness. One needs a good reason to be happy, and therefore should not be considered the end in itself as that would mean that one needs to be happy in order to be happy, which is absurd. 

§2 Our Destiny is to Suffer

One of the things Frankl puts forward as a method of achieving a healthy will to meaning is by suggesting that we submit to the understanding that life is filled with suffering. One will inevitably be hurt, feel pain, lose loved ones and eventually die. However, this submission should not be characterised by a pessimistic depression that paralyses the one who submits, but rather, it should be characterised by a “tragic optimism”. This is an understanding that life is difficult, but that this hardship can be overcome and that meaning can arise from it.

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden. 

Man’s Search for meaning.., p.86 [76]

This awareness and submission to suffering as it is described here bears a striking resemblance to Martin Heidegger’s notion of “Being-towards-death” which characterises his idea of the authentic life [77]. They are similar in the sense that they both affirm in what way life is made unique for each individual, and how the experiences which are only our own fortify this uniqueness. With Frankl it was suffering, and with Heidegger it was death. Both can only be experienced by the individual, and no one can suffer or die for us; we must face it alone. 

No one can take the Other’s dying away from him. Of course someone can ‘go to his death for another’. But that always means to sacrifice oneself for the Other ‘in some definite affair’. Such “dying for” can never signify that the Other has thus had his death taken away in even the slightest degree. Dying is something that every Dasein [human being] itself must take upon itself at the time. By its very essence, death is in every case mine, in so far as it it ‘is’ at all. 

Heidegger, Being and Time.., p. 284 [78]

Once this combination of tragic optimism and death awareness has taken place, one can begin to reflect on how one might react to these circumstances; that is, in the face of such adversity, how should one choose to behave? Is it possible to find, or maybe even create, a significant meaning to all the pain?

§3 Free Will vs Determinism

From this I can begin to mention that talks of meaning and nihilism inevitably take a turn towards the question of free-will. Does mankind have choices to make in the face of nihilism, or are they determined by their environment? Are they doomed to their experiences of meaninglessness, or can they will otherwise? There is a philosophical position —referred to as Determinism [79]— which holds that everything that has happened or that ever will happen, happens necessarily; that it could not be any other way. In such a view of the world, the idea of a free will that is capable of making its own choices appears to be quite absurd. However, considering the consequences of this position quickly show that it is problematic. Firstly, ethically speaking, if people do not have free will, and therefore have no choice but to act the way they do, then how can we hold them responsible for any of their actions? If one is a determinist and wishes to be consistent, it makes little sense to praise great accomplishments, or punish wrong doings. Speaking psychologically, there is also a present danger of convincing a pathological individual that their circumstances are completely beyond their control, and only reinforce bad patterns of behaviour. As Frankl says:

First of all, there is a danger inherent in the teaching of man’s “nothingbutness,” the theory that man is nothing but the result of biological, psychological and sociological conditions, or the product of heredity and environment. Such a view of man makes a neurotic believe what he is prone to believe anyway, namely, that he is the pawn and victim of outer influences or inner circumstances. This neurotic fatalism is fostered and strengthened by a psychotherapy which denies a man is free.

Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.., p.132 [80]

Pragmatically speaking, one should avoid holding or preaching this position to others as it only reinforces that which is problematic. Simply telling a person they are free to make choices can sometimes be enough to motivate them to change [81]. Thus from an ethical perspective such a position holds little value. 

However, we are not limited to talking of the world in just pragmatic terms. The determinist may hold that it does not matter whether it’s ethically problematic or not, it is true! And that itself is reason enough to believe it. As Sam Harris says: “In physical terms, we know that every human action can be reduced to a series of impersonal events: Genes are transcribed, neurotransmitters bind to their receptors, muscle fibres contract, and John Doe pulls the trigger on his gun” [82]. But the question arises here, how can he be so sure that the human being can in fact be reduced to only these particular factors? Not to mention that he seems to arbitrarily neglect a lot of information to make such a reduction in the first place; namely, the ‘personal events’ that he disregards with his presence for “impersonal events”, which only show how we was already convinced of his conclusions in the process of trying to prove them. It is certainly a possibility that everything is determined, but this is by no means as obvious as Harris makes it out to be. He may make appeals to a materialistic understanding of the world, and say that the human being is inevitably restricted to environmental factors that are beyond the individuals control; but again, it is by no means obvious that such a materialist worldview is the correct one. Such a view says that because scientific enquiry has purported to show that their are universal laws of physics, that this somehow infers that as we are only physical beings, the same holds for us as well. However, the problem here is the claim that we are only physical beings is an assumption. A lack of ‘scientific evidence’ showing we have a non-material or ‘spiritual’ elements to our being does not mean that it is impossible that such a thing may be true. Not only that, how is anyone meant to supply evidence to a dedicated materialist for a non-material part of our being when their very definition of evidence requires that the proof be demonstrable in terms of the empirical? [83] The (material) determinist is welcome to say that the lack of evidence in such regard is enough to justify the belief that we are determined, but it can only be that: a belief, and one that is not free from justified skepticism or scrutiny. We cannot say with any certainty that we have free-will, nor for that manner that we are determined. And to commit to the latter is fundamentally dogmatic, and with respect to what I mention in the last paragraph, potentially dangerous. Last of all, “effective agency is presupposed by all scientific inquiry and so cannot rationally be doubted” [84], therefore this as well can be said to undermine the very process by which they wish use to prove we are determined.

In part two I argued for the importance and necessity of the leap of faith, and I believe that this free will debate is a perfect example of when this leap is required. To make a claim of knowledge in either direction is not one that can be said to be logically sound. One must then incline towards an intuition and make a leap to the conclusion that one believes; either way, one must have faith in that which is chosen! Another option is to remain undecided, but even then it is likely that one will continue to act in the world as though they believe in free will. If someone wrongs them, or if they achieve something noteworthy, I think they would cease to be undecided and either demand justice for the former, or praise for the latter.

Human beings are limited to a tiny fraction of reality, and our environmental conditions certainly restrict our potential to greater levels of freedom; however “it is not freedom from conditions” that is being defended when discussions on free will takes place, but rather, “it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions” [85]. We must have faith in one or the other, and the more pragmatic and reasonable option is to have faith in free will. This allows us to keep a hold of the sense of responsibility that is central to our “morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment” [86]. If we let go of this, then I can only say that we have chosen to unreasonably give up our freedoms for the sake of a leap of faith in a materialistic determinism.

§4 Taking Responsibility

Frankl was, quite understandably, affected very deeply by his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. He suffered a great deal, but did not see his suffering as futile. In fact, he goes as far as to say that “suffering ceases to be suffering the moment it finds a meaning,” and that this alone should be motivation enough to seek meaning. If one has made the leap of faith and accepts that, despite one’s circumstances one still has the freedom to choose ones attitude, then one has made a step close to achieving an active will to meaning. The concentration camps offered Frankl sufficient examples of such individuals, and no doubt influenced his philosophy:

We who live in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.., p.75 [87]

Despite what certain intellectuals may say— such as Harris or Dawkins, who both promote dogmatic obedience to the “more rational” opinions in society; or the existentialists who try to convince their readers that humanity is doomed to somehow bear the innate meaninglessness of their lives— life always has the potential to be experienced meaningfully, and it is man’s duty to “bear his incapacity to grasp its [life’s] unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms” [88].  As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, there is nothing necessarily rational about the experience of meaning or the lack thereof; and it is perfectly possible that “Logos is deeper than logic” [89]. The dogmatic rationalist’s, despite what they say, have to have faith in reason. As I argued earlier, by the logic of their own system they are not able to use reason to justify itself, and so must resort to something else. Using reason to justify reason leaves one guilty of circular reasoning, similar to that of René Descartes’ “Cartesian Circle”. This is where he uses reason to justify God’s existence, and then claims his use of reason is justified because it is God given [90]. If, rationally speaking, one cannot accept this argument due to its premises relying on the conclusion they are meant to prove, then one cannot accept a reasoned argument in defence of reason itself. An appeal to faith must be made.

There is clearly a tension that is always going to be present between such dichotomies as is present in faith and reason, free will and determinism, and the experiences of meaning and nihilism to name a few. However, this tension should not be avoided by renouncing one side in favour of the other. Friedrich Schelling criticises this very decision in his Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, where he states :

To pull oneself out of the conflict by renouncing reason seems closer to flight than to victory. With the same justification, another could turn his back on freedom in order to throw himself into the arms of reason and necessity without there being cause for triumph on either the one or the other side. 

Schelling F., Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom, p.11 [91]

The tension itself can be seen as a sign of health and a motivation for progress in life. It offers itself as a challenge to one who is willing to take responsibility upon oneself and affirm it. Furthermore, just as there is a tension between the philosophical concepts, there is a tension in life itself. This is between what one was (in the past), what one is (now), and what one can be in the future (or ought to become). “Such tension is inherent in the human-being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being. We should not, then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfil. It is only thus that we can evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency” [92].

Conclusion

To conclude: I began this essay by exploring the significance of meaning and how the human being is such that its very essence is always a problem for it that must be confronted. I further explored potential factors in industrialised, modern societies that might contribute to a feeling of meaninglessness in the face of such existential crisis, and then concluded part one with an explanation of Nietzsche’s conception of western nihilism, what he believed to be its cause, and what he believed to be its consequences. From here, I established that this is a problem that must be confronted and so moved on to part two, where I utilised the works of both Kierkegaard and Camus in order to extract the essential requirement of faith in the life of finite beings who are necessarily limited. Once I established the importance of faith, and how it is unavoidable, I advocated for an affirmation of exactly what one has faith in. Last of all I moved to part three where I began to discuss the will to meaning as a potential antidote to the nihilism discussed in part one. I explained how this will to meaning —combined with a leap of faith in free will and armed with tragic optimism to face the suffering— is exactly what a person living in a nihilistic society needs in order to instil a sense of responsibility in ones life and to allow meaning to flourish and fill the “existential void”. 

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  1. Reblogged this on Blogging Theology and commented:

    This essay is my completed dissertation which I wrote for my final year of university while studying a BA in philosophy. It received a grade of 75 (which is a 1st class, alhamdulillah). It is a very long essay, but it has been broken into chunks to make it easier to revisit. I hope you enjoy reading it, please remember to leave comments, and share to help me out 🙂 Jazak’Allah.

    “The aim of this dissertation is to come to an understanding of how, in the 21st century, one should respond to the problem of Nihilism as it presents itself.”

    Liked by 1 person

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