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The Search for a Rational and Coherent Worldview

Part 1: Defining the "Ism"s – Nihilism



By  V.A. Mohamad Ashrof

Activist and writer – India


(V.A. Mohamad Ashrof is an Indian professional columnist and author both in English and Malayalam. You can reach him at


This series delves into the basics of various worldviews. It explores the philosophical problems inherent in them and paves the way to find an intellectually satisfying worldview. The articles aim at helping the reader have a critical and introspective evaluation of long-held beliefs, their implications and meanings.  


Since the beginning of time, people have been trying to answer questions about their existence and the universe around them.


A worldview is a set of presuppositions which one holds about the fundamental make-up of our world. It is composed of a number of basic presumptions, more or less consistent with each other, more or less consciously held, and more or less true. They are generally unquestioned by most people.

All knowledge involves presuppositions and these presuppositions are derived ultimately from the worldview. If nothing is assumed, it follows that nothing is proved. Presuppositions, by their nature, are neither proved nor disproved, but they can be examined for their internal consistency.

If we are at all serious about life and its meaning, our life and its value, then we will have to think long and hard about who, what and why we believe.

We should realize that our worldview must be thought out deliberately and not to be accepted as 'given'. "Thus in the real world, one of the wisest things one can do is to ask oneself, "How can I be sure that this is right?""(Bloom 1)

But in doing so, people can avoid being tricked by their emotions into doing something they later regret. After all, the Afterlife may depend upon the decisions we make while we are alive. Emotions should not have a place in our search for truth. Our question must be: "Do we have enough reliable data to make a reasonable decision?"(Bloom 2)

One way to get at what a worldview is, is to see it as our essential answers to some basic questions among which the following are the most important: What is prime reality, or the really real? What is the nature of external reality? What is a human being? What happens to a person at death? Why is it possible to know anything at all? How do we know what is wrong? What is the meaning of human history? (Bloom 18)

Every one of us, consciously or subconsciously, holds a worldview. If we are sure that those questions can be overcome without committing intellectual suicide, we are still adopting a peculiar type of worldview — a form of disbelief which may ultimately lead to nihilism.

Nihilism: The Loss of Meaning

Nihilism is a denial of the possibility of knowledge. It proceeds to the absolute denial of everything in that it even denies the reality of existence itself. In other words, nihilism is the negation of everything: knowledge, ethics, beauty, and reality. In nihilism, no statement has validity; nothing has any meaning.

Every event in the universe is caused by a previous state of affairs, including the genetic make-up, the environmental situation of each person, and even that person’s needs and desires. Thus, human beings who are obviously self-conscious and, it would appear, self-determined, can act significantly and be held responsible for their actions.

However, the issue of human freedom, or free will, goes deeper than the materialist sees it. People can do anything they want, but what they want is the result of past states of affairs over which ultimately they had no control.

The self itself is determined by outside factors or forces. We generally perceive ourselves as free agents, but our perception is an illusion.

Nihilists follow this argument, which can be stated briefly as: Human beings are sentient beings incapable of molding their fate; therefore, humans are hopelessly lost beings in an absolute sense.

One of the reasons why materialism turns into nihilism is that materialism does not supply a basis on which humans can act significantly. Rather, it denies the possibility of a self-determining being who can choose on the basis of an innate self-conscious character. We are not persons with self-consciousness and self-determination.

A human being is thus reduced to a mere piece of machinery of impersonal cosmic forces. There is no "self" apart from that machinery. According to Skinner's view every person is only a reactor: "A person does not act on the world, the world acts on him" (211).

Chance is offered as the trigger for humanity's emergence. As Simpson says, "Man stands alone in the universe, a unique product of a long, unconscious, impersonal, material process" (155). So while chance produces the appearance of freedom, it actually introduces absurdity.

Charles Darwin himself once said, "With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?"

Thus there is no way of even establishing the credibility of "ultimate reality" or "truth", let alone proving it. The same problem has been raised by J.B.S. Haldane: "If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true... and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms" (Lewis 18).

"If all that exists is Nature, the great mindless interlocking event, if our own deepest convictions are merely the by-products of an irrational process, then clearly there is not the slightest ground for supposing that our sense of fitness and our consequent faith in uniformity tell us anything about a reality external to ourselves" (Lewis 105). 

Nihilism, thus, does not allow a person to have any solid reason for confidence in human reason. However, we do seem to be able to test our knowledge in such a way that it generally satisfies us. Virtually no one is a full-fledged epistemological nihilist. Summing up the position reached by Nietzche, the philosopher of nihilism, Allan Bloom remarked: "Reason cannot establish values, and its belief that it can is the stupidest and most pernicious illusion" (194).

Nihilism, naturally, does not provide humanity with a sense meaning. Instead, the universe is impersonal and rejects humanity to a large extent.

But, fortunately, most nihilists do not take their philosophy seriously. They are inconsistent. They appear to know and they don't bother to ask how they know they know.

Nobody can live a life completely consistent with nihilism. At every moment the nihilist thinks, and thinks his or her thinking has substance, they cheat their own philosophy. While a limited sort of practical nihilism is possible for a while, eventually a limit is reached.

Nietzsche, the nihilist, ended his life in a mental asylum. Hemingway, another nihilist, eventually committed suicide thereby symbolizing an ultimate self-denial.

Works Cited:

Bloom, Alan, Closing of the American Mind, Simon and Schuster: N.Y, 1987, pg. 194.

Darwin, Charles, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters, Dover Publications: N.Y, (1892), 1958. (Letter to W.Graham (July 3, 1881).

Lewis, C.S., Miracles, Fontana Books: London, 1960, pg. 18.

Simpson, George Gaylord, Life of the Past, Yale University Press: New Haven, 1953, pg. 155.

Skinner, B.F., Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Alfred A.Knopf: N.Y, 1971, pg. 211.


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