Breaking down beliefs

'Back to basics' continues with nihilism discussion

By Kyle Doyle | 3/29/17 9:16pm

Nothing matters. There’s no meaning in the world. People exist, and people die. These are common examples of what people believe nihilism is.

German philosopher and poet Friedrich Nietzsche is best known for his work on the theory of rejection of religious and moral principles, and his work on the topic is still very prevalent today.

At a talk by Jeffrey Byrnes, Grand Valley State University affiliate professor of philosophy, this theory was put center stage to examine its current different roles in society.

At the fourth installment of the “Back to Basics: The Liberal Arts and Sciences as Common Ground for Meaningful Engagement” lecture series Tuesday, March 28, in the L.V. Eberhard Center, Byrnes talked about how people’s fears relate to their standing in nihilistic belief, especially in today's “rancorous” political environment.

“Part of why, when I talk about this, is because I think that understanding the way in which we face a kind of looming threat of nihilism can explain some of the behaviors that we might see today,” Byrnes said.

Byrnes said people like to hold their beliefs true to themselves and not let dissenting or opposing opinions cloud what they may see as true. People may see others who do not have the same opinion as their own as a threat of sorts, and the reason people may be afraid is because they are “afraid of bad things.”

Using the example of the president’s recent executive orders barring people from certain Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, Byrnes said the perceived threat is enough to scare many Americans, not because the people themselves are threatening, but because there would be a “threat of difference,” and this would be a “bad thing.”

“You could have a knee-jerk answer: ‘I feel threatened by bad things; therefore, those differences are threatening because different ways of life are bad,’” Byrnes said.

Byrnes said if people run out of excuses for why the other side doesn’t see things like they do (whether they be labeled villains, confused or corrupt), they are confronted with the fact that the opposing party is as true to their beliefs as that person is to theirs.

This creates a type of anguish that causes people to question their beliefs and why they believe them, which Byrnes said is part of the feeling people get when they realize what they believe may not be the inherent truths they thought they were, thus creating a riff in meaning.

“The things I thought were default about me, or the things that I thought were just true unreflectively or unquestionably, are things that I have learned in anguish, are choices that I’ve made,” Byrnes said. “Differences are threatening because they reveal the tenuousness of our own beliefs and commitments.”

Byrnes broke down meaning into four groups, each one slowly progressing toward complete nihilism in a ladder of sorts: Transcending meaning (religious meaning) at the top, romantic meaning (meaning in nature and everyday objects), self-chosen meaning (choosing what has meaning to you) and, finally, complete nihilism (nothing has meaning).

Each different part of the “ladder” shows why people may be afraid of losing what they believe and having things lose meaning. As Byrnes put it, if you go from transcending meaning to complete nihilism, you’ve fallen far down the ladder, and that can be scary.

The talk brought forth many questions from the audience members who were looking to gain a better grasp on what Byrnes had presented. The talk left many people feeling a little unsure about themselves.

“It was a pretty good lecture, and it leaves me questioning some things about myself that I’ll probably have to think over,” said GVSU freshman Christian Bucher.

Byrnes’ talk on how nihilism is a part of life and how people perceive themselves created an opportunity for those who may be guilty of trying to shield their beliefs from criticism to open up a little and see if what they believe is really what they believe.

“If we have to really take seriously that there are those who feel and act differently than we do, then we cannot be assured of our own views and commitments,” Byrnes said. “We have to question them and investigate them and interrogate them.”

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