Of Nihilists Mourning Their Christian Soul Mates

If you are like most atheists you do not believe in soul mates—or at least you do not believe in them in any literal way. You do not believe that each of us has a One True Love whom we are destined to find.

But imagine with me someone who does believe that we each have a single, solitary soul mate whom we are supposed to meet and fall in love with, but who also believes that not everyone actually finds this One True Love. Rather than being inevitably destined to find their One True Love, many people even find the wrong person by accident and have a “false love”. According to this particular kind of believer in soul mates, there can only be a single One True Love and any other love is, by this standard, a false love—no matter how real it may feel.

Imagine you tell this kind of believer in soul mates that we do not each have a One True Love and they respond to you by saying, “That must mean that you believe there are only false loves! By your own logic, since you do not have a One True Love, you must have only false loves and all your loves in your life have been false! You must believe that even your own current love for your current partner is false and that any future love for any future partner must also be false!”

Would these accusations about what you must think sound at all accurate to you, either logically about what you must think or psychologically about what you must be experiencing? Of course not.

The reason is that one can only believe in “false loves”, in the sense indicated, if one believes that there is some One True Love for each of us who alone, in principle, could ever serve for us as a true love. But when one rejects this false and baseless dichotomy between one’s One and Only Possible True Love, on the one hand, and all other, “false”, loves on the other hand, one is free to say that there are many possible true instances of love. None matches the ideal of being your One True Love. But each is truly and completely a love nonetheless.

What does it matter if one’s love was not preordained? It’s still love insofar as it has occurred nonetheless. And what does it matter if this is not the only person you could ever love? You do actually love this person nonetheless. And you might even wind up loving them for the rest of your life. Or they might be the only one you ever love. Or you might love them far more, or far more purely and fully, than you ever will love or have loved anyone else. All these things that were supposed to make the One True Love so important might still be true about this love that occurred by happenstance and which might have happened with someone else instead.

And so what if this is not the only person you have ever loved or will ever love? What if it is not even the only person you romantically love at the moment? Nonetheless you do love him or her. There is nothing false about a love simply because it fails to match some phony “soul mate” standard. Love is love. It is something that may or may not occur, contingent upon variable circumstances that may or may not come to be. But when it occurs it occurs, and it is perfectly real.

One does not at all devalue one’s loves as “false” by denying the existence of a One True Love. One only rejects a baloney standard that would go around, potentially harmfully, claiming that some very real loves were false when there was actually no good reason to do so. We are better off without this silly standard which would only teach us to overestimate certain loves confusingly and underestimate others unfairly.

Well all of this also goes for truth. There may not be an Absolute Truth that corresponds to a True world beyond the world with which we interact. Yet, nonetheless, there are real truths. The same goes for “meaning”, “purpose”, and “value”. There may not be a supernatural standard of Meaning, Purpose, or Value that “grounds” the meanings, purposes, and values we interact with. But that does not mean there are not objective and naturalistically describable meanings, purposes, and values that are rationally explicable and emotionally satisfying.

Abrahamic monotheism and two centuries worth of essentially Platonic philosophers conditioned the Western mind to think within an arbitrary and false paradigm by which there can be no truth, meaning, purpose, or value if there is no “capital letter” Truth, Meaning, Purpose, or Value.

Many atheists fail to adequately reject Abrahamic monotheism for so long as they become nihilists who reaffirm and apply its bogus standard by saying things like that there is no real truth, no real purpose, no real meaning, and no real value available to us because what we have cannot attain to an absolute standard. That standard was invalid to begin with.

Saying there is no real truth, meaning, purpose, or value because we fail to have an absolute and transcendent standard is like saying there is no true love because there are no soul mates. Saying the world is meaningless because it has no absolute meaning, is tantamount to saying we are in hell because there is no heaven. They are essentially saying—sometimes knowingly and other times in spite of themselves—that there is no true goodness without God. Ironically they are reinforcing a paradigm of Abrahamic monotheism while claiming to be the ones who see through all Abrahamic monotheism in the most clear eyed, courageous, and uncompromisingly honest way.

The opposite of the absolute is not the nothing, it is the contextual. The contextually true, contextually valuable, contextually meaningful, and contextually purposeful (or, more accurately, functional) are all wholly and genuinely real and, relatively objectively, discussable things.

Nietzsche understood the falseness and the danger of nihilism the clearest and he spent a major portion of his philosophy warning against precisely this error. But, ironically, he is routinely confused for a nihilist himself. Part of this is his fault, as he often shifted into the absolutist/nihilist’s perspective and its language in order to address readers who were trapped within it on their own terms and to express its self-destructive internal logic to them (and articulate it for himself). I spent the bulk of my dissertation exploring the internal logic of Nietzsche’s overall philosophy and how his project, taken as a whole, essentially amounts to one of refuting and transcending the nihilistic stage of thought that he explicates in famous ways. He makes explicit statements about the limited truth of nihilism that clearly trump his sometimes misleading forays into adopting its categories.

In future posts, I will explain in detail why, in the final analysis, Nietzsche is not himself a nihilist. In the meantime, below are some posts on Nietzsche that I have already written and which will support my future arguments. Also below are some posts on what I actually think we can say about the natures of love, truth, value, morality, purpose, meaning, and nihilism for those interested.

On Nietzsche and Objective Values:
Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”
Nietzsche’s Immoralism As Rebellion Against The Authoritarian Tendencies Of Moralities

On Nietzsche and Contextualized Truth: 
Mostly True, Not Mostly False Evolution and Epistemology
On Zealously, Tentatively, and Perspectivally Holding Viewpoints

Contextual Love: 
How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count The Ways
Conceptual Problems for the Ideal of Unconditional Love
Call It Volitional Love, Rather Than Unconditional Love

Contextual Meaning:
Thinking According to Scale
On the Meaning of Meaning

Contextual Values:
The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)
Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)
Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities
Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts
Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means
The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Contextual Morality: 
Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.
How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways
How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity
From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism
Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

Contextual Purpose (Reconceived of as Unguided Effective Functionality):
Natural Functions
Can Good Teaching Be Measured?
Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers
Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

Against Nihilism: 

Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?
The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?
A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism
Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory
Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist
If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://Disqus Obliged_Cornball

    This is spectacular stuff, Dr. Fincke.

  • TicklishMeerkat

    I think I physically felt my mind expand reading this. Thank you. Your blog has been tremendously illuminating to me this past year and I appreciate your sharing your thoughts in such a gentle and accessible way.

  • http://bethclarkson.com Beth

    But that does not mean there are not objective and naturalistically describable meanings, purposes, and values that are rationally explicable and emotionally satisfying.

    I’m not sure what you mean by this. Could you give several examples please? Thanks.

    • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

      I wonder if he would see these meaning purposes and values as beyond the realm of physical science. If so that is a huge departure from most atheists. It means a belief in something that I would call super natural. Not that that is a bad thing.

  • baal

    hrm, I’m missing the antecedent. Are modern Christians in the U.S. still promulgating the concept of ‘one true love’? It’s a really bad relationship model. In particular, it says you’re a failure if you found your ‘OTL’ and eventually had a falling out (i.e. being human). Talk about stacking the deck in favor of suffering.

    ———- OT first stab at a comment and 2 words on a better model——-
    ‘Love’ reminds me of ‘free will’ in that the term is nearly meaningless (or so varied of meaning) unless you get a definition from the person using at the moment of use. A second property they share (along with ‘reasonable doubt’) is the more you try to pin down the meaning, the more elusive it becomes.

    That said, I’m a non-philosopher and a materialist. My definition of ‘love’ follows, love is a willingness to support (directly or via consumption of a resource) another person with whom you have an emotional attachment. The various usages and occasionally bizarre behavior associated with love fit well in this definition. For example, you can be asked to prove your love by doing a requested act and the more heinous the act, the deeper the love (more love = more willing to do more support). Under my model, it’s pretty easy to discuss what’s reasonable to expect from someone ‘in the name of love’ (i.e. what’s a reasonable claim on your resources given an affection?).

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Are modern Christians in the U.S. still promulgating the concept of ‘one true love’?

      No, that wasn’t the point. It’s that atheists all understand that not having a One True Love doesn’t make all other loves false. But nihilist atheists don’t see that it’s the same with not having a One True Source of Meaning/Value/Truth/Purpose, etc.

  • jerry lynch

    “But that does not mean there are not objective and naturalistically describable meanings, purposes, and values that are rationally explicable and emotionally satisfying.” To whom?
    The term “objective” substitutes for the word “absolute” for some, and how else can we interprete here. The only reasonable term is subjective, not “relatively objectively.” The so-called nihilism of no “capital letter” Truth, Meaning, Purpose, and Value is absolute relativism. How there be “real truths” unless they are universally shared? It is suggestive of an absolute.

    But I thoroughly enjoyed the reasoning.

  • jose

    Reading the post it’s like the only alternatives are absolutist religion, moral realism, or nihilism. Moreover I sent you an email about non-cognitivism once and you responded with links to posts against nihilism like they’re interchangeable.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Non-cognitivists are usually either anti-realists or quasi-realists. They may not be functionally nihilists but when pressed on the issue of truth, they come down nihilist, no?

  • Brandon

    I just wanted to say that this was a treat and a pleasure to read. Recently, I went through a bought of existential crisis as I tried to reconcile my rejection of absolutes in preference of particulars. One day I locked myself in my office and resolved to find a solution to my existential crisis. I concluded that there was a liberating flip side to nihilism, which was that I was now free to invest as much value as I wished into the world as a creator of values, as an affirming one. Not only that, but it occurred to me that my loves and values, etc, were contingent upon my existence, yes, but were still real; it’s just that there way of being was different from the sort of external, absolute way of being that I’d been trained in whilst in the Christian church. These were all quite liberating thoughts, and I was further delighted to find the same sorts of ideas cropping up in my favorite philosopher’s (Neitzsche) writings. I’m still young to philosophy (only about two years old in my philosophical works and readings), but I’m happy to find more solid thinking along these same lines. Your post was a nice breath of good air!

  • Joe

    Why can’t religions be contextual?