Audio File #2: In the Dust of this Planet

Radiolab is a breathtaking exploration of scientific and philosophical topics. Each season is tragically short, but it is always worth the wait for each new show. Jad Abumrad is a former composer and a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellow, Robert Krulwich, an award-winning and inventive science reporter.

One of the most recent episodes, unfortunately Krulwich-free, is slightly out of the norm. Unlike many shows that are wonder-filled takes on science, it’s a little darker. The conversation revolves around nihilism. Specifically, Jad’s brother-in-law’s surprising cultural hit, an academic book on the topic called In the Dust of this Planet. What should have been just a contribution to philosophical libraries was sampled by True Detective, fashion magazines, and a video by Jay-Z and Beyoncé for their tour. The show asks: Is this evidence that nihilism is taking a greater hold in our culture now than before?

As a summary of nihilism, they paraphrase Nietzsche who called it “the most difficult thought”: that nothing about existence matters. We aren’t here for a reason. Life is not here for a reason. The universe’s existence is inherently meaningless. The question then, if such morose thinking is overtaking popular culture, is what draws people to that difficult thought? And what makes it cool?

Nihilistic thinking may draw people today because of uncertainty and disorder in our culture. Unlike past fears of the Soviet Union and nuclear annihilation, today we’re afraid of less-tangible carbon emissions and GMOs. And as our progressive society continues to push for social change and empowerment, individual agency reigns supreme. You can decide to be anything, or anyone. Each person is wholly in charge of their own destiny. But with that agency comes responsibility for constructing meaning in a complicated world. What if we’re just not prepared for that responsibility? Nihilism offers us an out—meaning can’t be had, so it’s not ours to construct.

Jad eventually distills the cool factor down to, “It’s not so much 'I don’t give a shit'. It’s 'I’m not afraid.'” In the face of meaninglessness—and our own mortality—facing those thoughts without fear is what gives a gloss of cool. Or as Brooke Gladstone, in a cameo from WNYC’s other wonderful show On the Media, puts it, it’s being a “badass.”

But the show is not all doom-and-gloom. Nietzsche considered nihilism only a first step. That to go forward into nihilism, to accept it and then move past it, brings us to “a re-evaluation of values.” And in fact love is what may be on the other side. Love in the face of nihilism. Love despite nihilism. Maybe even love because of the meaninglessness.

And in one of the greatest summary statements you’ll find today, the philosopher Simon Critchler takes us out: “In a world where love has been reduced to a series of Tinder exchanges… If that’s the hell that you’re living in as a 25-year-old, yeah you’re going to read these mystics [walking into the desert and burning their flesh for love of Christ] and you’re gonna say, ‘I’ll have what she’s having.’” Passion, even flesh-burning passion, is preferable to superficial exchanges that pass for personal relationships.

I think nihilism may be on an upward trend today because of uncertainty about our future and the many challenges we face and our grappling with the immense responsibility of our own happiness. And Tinder. But maybe what comes on the other side for our culture is a keener sense of love. Love for ourselves. Love for others. If so, maybe it’s worth the trip through the wilderness.