Creating meaning: a Daoist response to existential nihilism

Geir SigurÞsson1
Received: 12 June 2016 / Accepted: 26 July 2016

© Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture and Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016
The rise of modern science in the Western world produced not only a number of social and technical improvements but also a view of the world as a godless mechanism and thus of human life as devoid of ultimate metaphysical meaning. Some modern Western thinkers worried that this rational scientific view of the world, which presupposes ‘metaphysical nihilism’, or the view that there are no metaphysically grounded values, would also lead to an existential kind of nihilism that rejects human life, action, morality and social values in general as meaningless. Their attempts at preserving the former condition while preventing the emergence of the latter, how- ever, have been criticized as being founded on questionable metaphysical and even religious foundations, and thus for being inconsistent with the modern scientific outlook. Richard Dawkins‘s argument that engagement in the scientific activity of seeking truth suffices to establish meaning in life is generally not regarded as con- vincing, largely because the ‘truths’ of modern science fail to provide anything resembling existential meaning. Apparently, Western culture seems to suffer from some kind of metaphysical yearning in its post-metaphysical scientific world. This paper seeks an inspiration for a solution in early Daoist philosophical writings, most notably the Laozi and the Zhuangzi, and their call for creative self-forgetting and constantly active interpretation. Their treatment of topics such as human life, death and activity uncovers an intriguing worldview consistent with ‘metaphysical nihilism’ and yet inherently meaningful and life affirming.


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