It Isn’t Always About The End Goal: An Agnostic Answer to Nihilism

If you haven’t seen Everything Everywhere All at Once, do yourself a favor and do that. Like, now. Some version of you is.

I’ve got it paused in the background while I’m writing this. And of course, spoilers for the movie follow.

Image of Michelle Yeoh in the film "Everything Everywhere All At Once"

Wisecrack did a pretty interesting analysis of the philosophy of the movie, bringing in existentialism, nihilism, and absurdism. If you don’t have a working knowledge of existentialism, nihilism, and absurdism (and even if you do), it’s probably worth the time to watch.

But I think – given my understanding (which is about the level of the above Wisecrack video) – there’s been a glaring omission in both Wisecrack’s analysis, and in the arguments justifying nihilism.

It’s in the critique of Camus’ analysis that the omission occurs, with modern theorists taking a pessimistic nihilistic view of the universe (this is about ten minutes into Wisecrack’s video).

Their argument is that since eventually everything will be destroyed, then events are cosmically meaningless.

Except that we can demonstrate that – at least for now – both absurdism and the possibility that there is some cosmic "meaning" is actually still 100% in play.

Because ineffability is baked into our universe.

At least, from our point of view. And we absolutely know it.

Because our perception of spacetime is absolutely flawed and limited. Not just in a physical sense, but conceptually. We do not perceive time as a full dimension the way we do the three "physical" ones. And it’s worse than that! Our perception is not just linear, but a single point on that line. Our awareness cannot be conscious simultaneously at multiple points in times at once.

Remember, the argument of nihilism is that nothing has meaning because it does not persist. While everything may succumb to the heat death of the universe, thinking that must negate any cosmic-level meaning to the universe is an artifact of our language and perception.

Persistence might be irrelevant to the question of whether or not things have meaning in an metaphysical sense.

Perhaps the meaning is not a single terminal point at the end of a line, but the shape of that line. Something that is literally ineffable to our consciousness.

This isn’t quite the same thing as a religious "leap of faith" to find meaning. This is an agnostic principle: We do not, and probably cannot know whether or not there is a cosmic meaning once you escape our limited perception of time. Even the characters perceiving every multiverse in Everything Everywhere All at Once have this same limitation – they’re traveling through time at the same fixed rate as everyone else in every multiverse.

I am not pretending to know what that meaning might be. I cannot even be sure that even if we did appreciate the full dimensionality of time, that we wouldn’t just find more randomness. And this doesn’t do a whole lot to directly relieve (or justify!) anyone’s suffering, no more so than appealing to some divine "ineffable" plan.

Still, this small "loophole", this disproof of a central nihilistic tenet, is important. Nihilism says the existential embrace of the absurd to find personal meaning is pointless because nothing persists.

But sometimes the point is the journey, not the destination.

The characters are still paused on the television screen.

Joy’s head is cocked to the side, mouth agape, a row of washing machines behind her. They are motionless, meaningless. They will remain that way until I press play.

And then, freed from that single frozen point in time, the characters will flood with meaning again.

Featured Photo by Shawn Lee on Unsplash