Saturday, December 03, 2011

Who's the $#@!ing nihilist around here?!

From City Slickers to The Great Labowski and from The Purpose Driven Life to The Selfish Gene, the question of purpose in life is not just one for philosophers, theologians, and psychologists--it has strong popular appeal as well.

It's perhaps easiest to define purpose by looking at its absence. The Inductivist recently reported on nihilism (as defined by agreeing with the statement that "life does not serve any purpose") and ethnicity, and that post served as the impetus to dig a little deeper into what the GSS reveals about nihilistic sentiment.

So, let's run the standard demographic gauntlet. The following tables display mean nihilism scores from the years 1998 and 2008, computed by taking participant responses to the 5-point scaled GSS item on perceived lack of purpose in life and inverting the averages for ease of reader comprehension. The higher the score, the more nihilistic the group is. One standard deviation is .76 points on the nihilism scale.

The first image that comes to my mind when conceptualizing a person who finds life devoid of meaning is of a person who is unhappy. But I attribute my own sense of contentment with what I see as purposes for my existence, so I have an obvious bias. The GSS also asks a question on self-described general happiness that was cross-referenced with the nihilism question:

Very happy
Pretty happy
Not too happy

Biased as I am, my intuition appears to be accurate. People who feel life has no purpose are more likely to be miserable people than those who see purpose in their lives are.

The next stereotype that comes to mind is a person who is irreligious but vaguely "spiritual" and likes to claim to be into mysticism, etc. They're awash in the sea of life, without anything firm to hold onto. Conscious atheists tend to be adamant that God is unnecessary for meaning or morality in life, not that, having disabused themselves of the notion of God, meaning and morality have consequently disappeared for them as well. And those who firmly believe in the supernatural have had the purpose of existence spelled out explicitly for them:

Uncertain believer
Firm believer

Two for two. But the differences are more modest than I'd have guessed. Parenthetically, to give a little more purpose (heh) to blogging, I always write up impressions of the issues at hand before looking at the relevant data as a way of trying to maintain transparency and also because it's more fun (drilling down through the numbers can have a numbing effect if one isn't careful about how he approaches it).

Bruce Charlton, professor, former medical journal editor, and Christian apologist, colorfully contrasts non-believers with believers:
For the modern hedonic atheist nihilist - to look at the Universe is to feel insignificance, despair, meaninglessness...

But the uncorrupted man sees the heavens as the work of God, is overwhelmed by gratitude, delight, amazement - is moved to praise and worship.
To state with certainty that God exists is still the most common response to the question regarding God's existence (at least in the US), with nearly two-thirds of GSS participants doing so. But acknowledging the big guy in the sky and trying to live one's life in accordance to his wishes are hardly the same thing. Let's look at belief in the supernatural from a different angle, by comparing those who are "moved to praise and worship" with those who are not:

Worship frequency
Weekly or more
More than once a month
At least once a year
Less than once a year

Each classification is exclusive, so the second should actually read "More than once a month but less than weekly or more", etc.

The differences are a bit more pronounced here, and trend in the expected direction, with those who make it a point to go to church regularly sensing more purpose in life than those who do not.

How about children? It's said that once you have them, your life changes forever. What's more important than the well being of one's own children, on both the emotional and biological levels?

# of kids

Swing and a miss. The number of kids a person has doesn't appear to influence the amount of purpose in existence. I guess passing the hot potato around a few more times before getting burned out doesn't necessarily give the silly game any additional meaning.

How about that beautiful organ, the brain, that separates us from beasts in the field? Excepting the supernatural, what thing possesses capabilities for discovering purpose that outranks those of the human mind? SWPLs love being driven by the things they are passionate about, the things that give their lives meaning. If life is devoid of meaning, engaging in abstract thinking begins to seem pretty pointless (even in a world where everything is already pointless, and... never mind). Or, turning it around, the ability to think abstractly allows one to perceive (or more creatively construct?) purpose. The inability to do so makes it difficult to see beyond immediate impulses and the steps needed to satisfy them. Do unintelligent people see a reason for existence? I don't know, do dogs?

Real Dumbs
Pretty Dumbs
Pretty Smarts
Really Smarts

The differences between those of middling to high intelligence and those at the left end of the bell curve are large, with averages that are more than a standard deviation apart. Some of the gap gets closed by those of modest but limited intelligence. Intelligence, more than anything else, appears to influence whether or not a person feels that life has no meaning.

I may be reading too much into marginal differences, but perhaps those at the right end of the bell curve have some tendency to fully grasp their seeming insignificance in the larger universe and hence minimize what otherwise is seen to give their lives purpose.

Maybe it's better that the least intelligent amongst perceive the least purpose in existence. When they opt out of the conventional, established methods of discovering meaning in their lives through religion or professional success, they are liable to create harrowing identities like the ICP-inspired juggalo 'movement'.

More practically, influential people with prestigious careers are in positions to make decisions and engage in behavior for which the magnitude of consequences is much greater than people in the underclass are, and both groups are aware of as much, at least to some extent. Well, maybe greater meaning in one's own personal actions relative to other people translates into the perception of greater meaning in life more generally:


Makes sense to me.

Liberals want to turn Western Civilization on its head, conservatives want to bring Calvinism back into vogue, and wishy-washy moderates don't know what they want! As noted earlier, those who don't know what they believe in or what they want don't know what Fate wants for them, either:

Political orientation

Another miss. Maybe politics just don't matter that much in the grand scheme of things.

Inductivist found that those of Mexican ancestry tended to be the most nihilistic of any ethnic group in the US. As the bulk of Hispanics in the US are of Mexican descent, we'd expect non-Hispanics of various races to be less nihilistic than Hispanics are:


Two-thirds of a standard deviation between the US' founding stock and its Great Society additions. Well, Manifest Destiny definitely insinuates purpose. The Great Cultural Mosaic or whatever the multicult mess will end up being called, on the other hand, is its own end-game, without much definable purpose beyond celebrating itself. We're the ones we've been waiting for, and when we get here, then... (Do I hear crickets chirping?)

I suspect women are less nihilistic than men for a couple of reasons. One, from an evolutionary perspective males are more expendable than females are, so there is less instinct for men to see a purpose in it all. Hell, even if there is a purpose, a bunch of them had no part in serving it! Two, the conventional societal response to the question of whether or not life is meaningful is yes, of course it's meaningful, and women are less comfortable violating social norms than men are:


Small difference in the averages, but as predicted men are more nihilistic than women are.

It's comforting to think that over time, as wisdom accrues and experiences accumulate, I'll increasingly come to perceive meaning in life. That vaguely seems to be the case so far. Yet I'm not oblivious to what the decaying process that is aging can do to a person's spirit. Once a week I spend a few hours with the elderly, and it's obvious that more than a few of them are donning thin disguises with happier visages that appear to be more at ease with what's in the not-so-distant future than the faces underneath those disguises betray. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. What's the point in that?


Looks like while we're young, we're still searching. As we settle into middle age, we come to terms with what we've found and accept it. Then, as the aches and pains creep up and the thrill of living recedes, backsliding begins.

In summation, happy, intelligent, middle-aged upper class white women who are found in the pews on Sundays (and sometimes Wednesdays) tend to see the most purpose in life. Young, dumb, pissed off underclass Hispanic guys who wouldn't be caught dead in a church unless it was to grab a handout see the least. Purpose is so passe! The future is nihilism!

* Respondents are broken up into five categories that come to roughly resemble a normal distribution; Really Smarts (wordsum score of 9-10, comprising 13% of the population), Pretty Smarts (7-8, 26%), Normals (6, 22%), Pretty Dumbs (4-5, 27%), and Real Dumbs (0-3, 12%)

GSS variables used: NIHILISM, HAPPY, WORDSUM, GOD(1)(2)(3-5)(6), ATTEND(0-1)(2-4)(5-6)(7-8), POLVIEWS(1-3)(4)(5-7), KIDS(0)(1)(2-3)(4-8), RACECEN1(1)(2)(4-10)(15-16), CLASS, SEX, AGE


Olave d'Estienne said...

Miserly means stingy. I think you mean miserable.

Lots of surprises and unsurprises in the data. I was surprised that political orientation didn't seem to correlate. I wasn't much surprised by the intelligence correlations, but I was surprised by the social class correlations. (In other words, I was goofily failing to take into account the correlation between intelligence and class!) I expect upper class people to "prove how smart" they are by tossing out nihilistic slogans all the time, but it obviously is not reflected in these data. Rather, believing that life has no purpose is probably strongly correlated with the random-outcomes no-cause-and-effect stupid-teenager school of fatalism* that seems so common these days. (Every teenager I know thinks the best way to win an argument is to say "What's that got to do with anything?" all the time, since doing so quickly establishes their k00l teen cred - they have shown that they believe that no assertion can ever be related to another assertion, logic is useless, nothing can be predicted, etc. Too bad so many of them are procreating.)

In terms of this issue, it's heartening that the working class is so close to the middle class. I just worry that the hammer of government is destroying both. The upper class can probably survive since it is so easy to manipulate the lower class, I suppose, but there will be no place for me.

* This is not really fair to fatalism, which is really not about "everything being random".

Olave d'Estienne said...

As to the women and men matter -

I was asking my wife today if she acknowledged that females just in general get more help on more or less everything than males do. Help moving furniture, help with homework, help at work. (Most of the women I know get a lot more help cooking than I do, which is odd since I am the worst cook to ever crack an egg.)

She agreed. Then I asked if she felt women were in general more social, desiring to spend more time in the company of others than men. She said she believes they are. I had formed a very simplistic (not convincing, but interesting) cause-and-effect between the two: men don't desire to be around people quite as much (or to work around others nearly as much) as women do because, in practical terms, being around others is not going to help a man much and is fairly likely to hinder him.

She dismissed the simple cause-and-effect but agreed that female sociability and the broad habit of helping females are deeply set into the cultural fabric of gender.

I've previously seen data that men have higher self-esteem than women. Assuming that's true, how does it dance with greater male nihilism? Life has no meaning, but I'm an awesome guy? Life is bursting with meaning, but I'm just a so-so sort of woman?

It's about independence, it's about conflict, it's about trust and all of that. I'm not sure if women would make good mothers if they were conceited nihilists, and I'm not sure men would make great warriors if they wanted to cling to mediocre life. The division of the genders into mothers and warriors is depressing and not very Nordic, but it crops up from time to time and it explains a lot.

I suspect in a growing civilization society, i.e. a conservative society in which the economy is growing, crime is stable or falling, etc., nihilism would be low and self-esteems would be moderately low. That is, everyone would be moderately feminine on these two indicators, but this culturally stable society would not offer any conceited-nihilist types (PUAs, I guess), so the women would have to be satisfied with hardworking types who take out the garbage and don't dress in fuzzy hats.

Jokah Macpherson said...

What purposes do you see for existence (besides validating stereotypes, obviously)? I'm looking for ideas.

Audacious Epigone said...


Thanks, fixed it. Response to the thoughtful comments soon.

Audacious Epigone said...


I think people have a tendency to conflate the very upper echelons of society ("the top 1/10th of 1%") with the upper 10%. There are a lot of physicians, surgeons, engineers, and small business owners in that top 10%, and these are not the types of people I imagine to be tossing out nihilistic slogans for the purposes of moral posturing. But very few people with those types of occupations are in the top .1%, where you're probably on the mark.

Isn't Roissy the perfect example of the "life has no meaning, but I'm an awesome guy" type? Ditto lots of guys generally, and probably most young black men. Most women are insecure, especially through their reproductive years, more so than men are. Men have to be cockier and less risk-averse than women do to have a shot at "making it".

Olave d'Estienne said...

That's about right. When I think about self-esteem and nihilism at the same time, I think of Roissy. I guess this add to a saccharine "masculine mystique" that appeals to het-females who have been taught that paternalism, patriarchy, and fatherhood itself are all ... womanish.

But really, I can't assign this to conditioning or miseducation. That's speculation. AFAIK it could be the way women naturally are, and the respect for pro-civilization behavior is the learned behavior. That's what Jane Austen implies. Why is natural behavior privileged anyway? Bathing and brushing your teeth aren't natural. They're just easier for dim and morally unsophisticated people to understand.

Audacious Epigone said...


Yeah, the naturalistic/moralistic fallacies are definitely relevant here.


Doing my best and not worrying about the rest (that is, more precisely, not worrying about what is beyond my control--I'm honestly very comfortable in my spiritual agnosticism that is expressed, by default, as functional atheism). I know that sounds cliched and jejune, and it might not be viable over the long-term (the physical declines in testosterone, muscle mass, and energy levels that are probably 10-15 years down the road could be game-breaking), but it's working well enough so far and just because it's a simple principle doesn't mean it's an unserious one. Really, in every aspect of my existence, I want to perform as well as I'm able to, evaluate all of my experiences soberly, analyze the shortcomings, and close the gap between the potential and the actual. That's in sports, working out, intimacy, competitive gaming, writing, performing professionally, relationship building, financial planning, self-discipline, etc.