Antinihilism and Spirituality

A while ago, I was discussing my spiritual work with a friend. During a long, winding discussion, I came up with a deeper understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish. I’d like to explore that here.

Essential to my personal spiritual approach is the idea that values are relative. I don’t claim one set of values is good and another bad. As I’ve studied philosophy, I’ve found the attempts to come up with some absolute moral justification contorted and hollow. When I look at cultures different than my own, their values diverge significantly. For that matter, my values diverge significantly from many approximations of “mainstream” American culture.

One of the beauties of this work is that I get to see how different people are. I can see how what works for one person would not work at all for another. For me, one of the strongest arguments against some set of absolute values is that diversity. I don’t want to be the person who is deemed to be too far outside—the person who doesn’t get to strive for what they want. I don’t want to be the person deciding someone else is wrong for striving for what they believe in.

Part of what I’m doing is exploring useful tools. One of the big ones is stepping away from judgment. I’ve found focusing on right and wrong gets in the way of connection and understanding. Once I’ve put aside “should” and judgments, I can focus on connecting with people, even when we disagree in the strongest possible terms. While I’ve found that stepping away from judgments has been helpful for me, I wouldn’t go beyond asking someone else whether that would be valuable for them and offering to help refine the technique.

In the discussion with my friend, I tried to side step discussing values. He argued that if the values are arbitrary, we could just accept that none of this matters. My friend seemed to imply that if I didn’t somehow reject that form of nihilism, perhaps there was something wrong in my approach.

I’ve never been drawn to nihilism. Sure, you could do that, but why would you want to? How will that help you decide what to do? If nothing matters, then perhaps your survival doesn’t matter, and even whether there’s a next meal might not mean a lot. If that works for you, and it’s not a result of depression or something medical or psychological, then who am I to stand in the way of your values? It doesn’t work for me at all, so I choose a different approach.

Really, though, I think all we learn from exploring nihilism is that if values are not absolute, we’re responsible for coming into the discussion with a starting point. Saying that the starting point is arbitrary is very different from saying that it doesn’t matter to us. I don’t think I can convince someone on general principles to value love, but I don’t need to. I know I value it, and even if that’s just an initial condition for me, it is still powerful.

Most of us do come into our process of spirituality and introspection with some starting point. For most starting points, the path of nihilism has little to say.

Forward from the Starting Point

As I thought more about our conversation, I realize a lot of what I do is help people find the tools to explore who they want to be and to achieve that transformation. Values are more a part of that than I originally thought. We can evaluate changes in terms of the current values we have. For example, I knew that I valued connection and being able to understand others. I realized that by stepping away from thinking about the “right answer” to situations, I would better be able to achieve that connection and understanding. And so my values evolved. I’ve been there helping others as they explored similar transitions, asking them about who they wanted to be, and working to find ideas that helped them achieve their goals.

Who we are does not need to be constant. We can explore questions like whether we’d be happier doing something else. If so we can ask ourselves whether we’d value that additional happiness enough to make the change. One of the most interesting explorations starts when we realize that we don’t want to make the change even though we think we’d be happier. Perhaps we learn more about our fears, or our sense of duty, or something else.

Then once we understand any changes we would like to make we can look at how to achieve them.

The biggest realization of the conversation was the idea that there is a refinement of values that goes on in the work I do. I had not clearly articulated that aspect before. Then we began to discuss some of the implications of how this sort of exploration comes together.

The Commons

Even if we start from a position of our own values and needs, we’re likely to interact with others. We might want connection or love. To get that we’ll need to look beyond ourselves. To be happy we might need things that depend on others and their reactions. And yet I’ve faced arguments that without some sort of overall morality, jealousy and greed deny us the opportunity to work together and achieve these ends. I particularly remember being presented with the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Like that definition, the interaction was presented as one where betrayal was the rational choice. It wasn’t quite said that without some overarching morality, you couldn’t even build trust. As an adult, I eventually came up with my own answer to the dilemma that I will discuss in a moment. However, my friend showed me something amazing. It turns out that recent research shows again and again that strategies involving forgiveness (and thus trust) do better in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. This article is typical of modern results. The naive Prisoner’s dilemma ignores reputation and the choices we make before and after the game theory event. When that is factored in, working together and building trust makes sense for a lot larger set of values.

In my model, the starting point—the starting values—still matter. If the only thing you value is minimizing the expected value of that one prison sentence, then betrayal may be what you value. However, as events in your life before and after that moment become more important in your values, you face a richer set of decisions in which building trust and cooperation are more likely to matter. This mirrors my experience of the universe. Even if we focus on ourselves as a starting point for our interactions, we will quickly find commonality in our goals.

Changing the World and Our Lens on it

It’s possible for one person to change the world. It’s not easy, and often when we face the desire to live in a world with more compassion, or a world with a better environment, the challenge can seem daunting. Even when we cannot figure out how to change the world in a way we’d like we can change ourselves so that our action—our interactions—will promote the world in which we’d like to live.

I’d been aware of the concept for a long time, but my thinking was crystallized by the Greg Egan short story Singleton. The story presents one of the best explanations of the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. It also mocks Roger Penrose’s hypothesis of quantum consciousness presented in his excellent book The Emperor’s New Mind. So I was bound to find the story interesting. The story opens with the main character doing something he considered brave: breaking up a fight to save a life. He was proud, but realized that if the many-worlds interpretation holds, his bravery was only an accident of quantum probability. The main character wishes he could always be brave in that situation. Talk about a change in the world that is hard to bring about: he’s fighting against the very nature of the universe. He can’t change the universe, but he can change himself (or at least his child).

The particular change proposed is beyond our engineering. However ultimately what the main character does is change how his daughter interacts with the world. My problems are simpler than wishing to avoid quantum probability. Take for example the prisoner’s dilemma. I could simply choose to be someone who valued trust and cooperation above minimizing the consequences of my actions. Or perhaps closer to my heart, I could choose not to be the kind of person who would be intimidated by threats to those they care about.

We can choose to change ourselves. And in doing so we can be the kind of person where others achieve their best results by treating us as we choose to be treated. That realization has been very helpful to me in achieving happiness and personal growth.

Limitations: The Sheep Pit

When I graduated from MIT, Click and Clack were my graduation speakers. I got the impression that the MIT administration was sort of horrified, but some student committee had been asked to find famous alumni after a big-name speaker fell through. Click and Clack certainly qualified. They spoke to the practical side of the MIT engineers in a way that our ivy-league president couldn’t begin to comprehend.

They told us we were unlikely to be happy. It was very simple: they graphed it for us. In one quadrant we had cows eagerly eating grass and happily chewing their cuds. In another quadrant we had MIT graduates, worried about succeeding and whether their jobs really were using their MIT skills to the fullest. Admittedly there’s that little bit at the end for the cows, but no one is completely happy.

They urged us to think about the cows and consider whether we had something to learn. I had already begun to walk a path that valued joy and pride in work over success. But seeing two people who had found happiness and fame doing what they loved (fixing cars) was an inspiration.

And yet, it’s possible to go beyond the cows into what I call the sheep pit (after Animal Farm and the sheep who eventually conclude “two legs better”). If happiness is what we’re after, why not go all the way and decide to be happy no matter what? I feel like the Christian story of Job urges such a solution at least in terms of faith.

And I find that I cannot argue against that path, any more than I can argue someone should include love in their starting point. I suspect it’s possible to get fairly close to that pit using the same tools of transformation I use. You’d be fairly happy at least until the butcher came for you.

While I cannot argue against that approach, I find at some deep level it is not for me. When I speak of choosing to live in the best of all possible worlds, I’m talking about something very different. I’m talking about valuing what is to the extent we’re able. I’m talking about approaching what we see with compassion and empathy. When our expectations aren’t met, we can learn why. I’m not talking about blindly deciding to value what is before us. I’m not talking about being happy because we have no needs and desires.