The tenor of our age: nihilism born of egoism

When I die, my ability to experience will die with me. How I lived, how long I lived, and how I am remembered won’t make any difference to me because I won’t be able to experience it. From the perspective of experience, death voids everything. Unfortunately, from that very same perspective, living is not that much different.

Living is a series of loosely connected experiences of now, each of which is quickly forgotten. We overlook the ephemeral nature of experience because of the illusion of memory. Our memories are an experience of now masquerading as an experience of then. We don’t experience the past through memory. We don’t know it either. We imagine it. Whatever our imagination may conjure for us, there is only now, the experience of now, and nothing.

Nihilism to the left of me; oblivion to the right; here I am, stuck in the middle with now.

But, hold on.

I may not be able to experience again an experience that has past, but many past experiences effect my experience of now. I can’t experience again those many hours I spent reading, writing and studying, but the positive effects of those experiences stay with me. Likewise, I can’t experience again the cigarettes I’ve had, but their harm stays with me too. Experience may be the means through which we interact with the world, but living in the world is not reducible to our experience of it. There is much more to living than experience.

From this perspective — the perspective of living — the focus on the non-experience of death is myopic. The effects of my life will live on, for better and for worse, long after I am here to experience them. This longevity of effect is nothing like the immortality that the experiencing self craves, but it is the easy proof that death does not void everything. The experiencing self will be extinguished, yes, but its effects will persist long enough to be relevant, whether they are experienced by the extinguished self or not.

So, on closer inspection, the fact of death, in itself, is not the source of the nihilism that is often associated with it. Instead, it is the myopic focus on experience. If outcomes only matter to me when they are directly experienced, death may seem like a good reason not to care about any outcome at all because, at some point, all experience will come to an end. However, that very same focus on experience will likely lead someone to also disregard or ignore outcomes that they don’t directly experience while they are living. If a person’s own experience is the only thing that matters to them, why would they care about what’s happening in the next house, the next city, or the next century? The short answer: they wouldn’t.

Nihilism blooms not in the corpse of god nor in the ever-present fact of death nor in the loss of faith and tradition. It blooms instead in the belief that a person’s own experience is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. Nihilism is a product and consequence of egoism, in whatever form it happens to express itself: religious, philosophical, or economic. It this relationship, I think, between egoism and nihilism that best explains the tenor of our age.