A Nihilist's Guide to Meaning
by Kevin Simler
“Existence…is fundamentally playful. It’s less like a journey, and more like a piece of music or a dance. And the point of dancing isn’t to arrive at a particular spot on the floor; the point of dancing is simply to dance.” — Alan Watts (writer)
A way to gauge how much meaning something has is by asking yourself, “how much of an effect would removing X from C have on the other meaningful things in C?” The greater the effect, the more the meaning, says Kevin.
“It might be helpful to think in extremes. The least meaningful life, for example, is the causal dead-end — a person so inessential and irrelevant that the world doesn’t so much as bat an eyelash when they die. A hermit who spends his whole life alone in the woods, perhaps. Or someone who toils in utter obscurity, leaving no children and no other mark on the world.” — Kevin Simler
“…if meaning is pointing, then the meaning of one’s life must reside in the arrows that point outward from it, influencing the external world.” — Kevin Simler
On separating meaning from pleasure: “You can close your eyes and bliss out as hard as you like, and the pleasure you experience will be no less valid because it’s ‘just in your mind.’ Meaning, on the other hand, is entangled with external reality, making it possible to be wrong about it. And thus the pursuit of true meaning requires an outward orientation to the world.” — Kevin Simler
Kevin lists out a bunch of things that create meaning (more listed in his essay):
- “…children create meaning for their parents because (in most cases) they outlive their parents and become part of their legacy.
- Helping others…Every action you take to benefit someone else is an arrow pointing outside yourself and influencing the external world. And because other lives are ‘inherently’ meaningful, you get full meaning-points for helping them.
- Community. Consider the difference between a solitary hermit and someone living in a dense, tight-knit community. The hermit has little influence on anything outside himself, while community members abound in connections and relationships — arrows pointing at other meaningful things. All else being equal, then, community creates meaning.
- Ancestors. Your ancestors — parents, grandparents, and beyond — are meaningful to you in at least two different ways. First, they represent meaning that was spent on you (or, as Venkat says, invested in you); they gave up optionality and made other sacrifices in order to produce you. This creates a kind of debt, but one that mostly has to be paid forward.” — Kevin Simler
- Religion, space colonization, your career…plus many others Kevin lists.
My two cents: If you ask every person to define the word “meaning,” it’s almost guaranteed you’ll get a different answer each time. We all derive meaning from so many different aspects in our individual lives. If you read Kevin’s essay and enjoy it, he also wrote a pretty popular book (which I haven’t read yet, but plan to).
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