It’s very easy to turn to nihilism in times of despair. One response is to exclaim ‘carpe diem!’. I believe there is a philosophical significance to this sentiment, and one that I argue is enough to challenge classic nihilistic views, of the type ‘everything I do means nothing’. I will attempt to unravel the importance of carpe diem, or equivalents (e.g. YOLO, for my younger readers) in this short essay.
At our lowest points in life, where we feel powerless to our surroundings, or spectators in our own lives, questioning what the point is to all our toils and troubles is commonplace. If it is true that I can never make the person I love return my affections, why should I even bother trying to love in the first place? If it is the case that my becoming vegan will have no sizeable impact on environmental or ethical issues, should I not just keep eating my burgers and bolognese? If I, Sisyphus, no matter how hard I try, will never get my boulder to stay at the top of that hill in Tartarus, what’s the point in pushing anyway?
I think this is, at face value, quite an understandable way of thinking. It’s quite easy to get lost in the complexities of what lies beyond our everyday lives (from the workings of society to why we’re even here in the first place), and when answers don’t immediately present themselves, assuming that none are discoverable is what a lot of people tend to do. After all, how did we get here? It seems there’s no meaning for existence at all.
When we get to this point in our reasoning, it becomes much simpler to see less and less meaning in all the other fundamental aspects of our everyday lives. The central systems to human existence, on which we depend for so many reasons (morality, social structures, love, even economics) become less well-grounded or significant in our perception. Our trust in the credibility of such systems decreases when we become more nihilistic. Why should I be kind to people when nothing really matters anyway? What’s the point in love when we all die in the end?
It is not the job of this essay to address these nihilistic questions. They require intense scrutiny of the like that only individuals analysing their own circumstances will be able to undertake satisfactorily. Instead, this essay offers a sort of catch-all approach to resolving nihilistic tendencies. With a short logical analysis, I hope to present a view that persuades that life does have meaning just by virtue of it being a life itself.
One undeniable fact about life is that we die. I have my own views on exactly When We Die, but that is beside the point here. Similarly, it must also be true that we are born. Again, there are heated debates on precisely when life begins (ones into which this essay will most certainly not wade), but nevertheless, we do begin at some point. With this in mind, it must be possible for us to say that our lives occur within a certain timeframe — that there is a period of time during which it would be true to say that we exist. It’s important that we take and agree on this premise, for it underlies the rest of the argument; I don’t think it’s particularly controversial, though.
From this, I think we can argue that there must be a certain measurable period of time such that during that period, we exist. In other words, if it is true that there is a timeframe during which we exist, it must be the case that that timeframe is measurable. If we cannot measure the time between birth and death (even hypothetically), then this argument does not hold. A sceptic to my argument here might point out that, given my previous concession about the imprecision of our understanding of when birth and death happen, surely measurement of the time between the two should be impossible. I would respond to this by pointing out that it is only the understanding of when these events occur that is imprecise — when exactly they happen in and of themselves is not necessarily the same. In any case, even if all our current measures for time are incorrect, surely it must still be the case that the passing of time is measurable.
So, if we can agree that our timeframes are measurable, we should also be able to agree that such measurement must be quantifiable. This seems almost tautological, but it is important to emphasise — it must be true that every form of measurement works on some quantified basis; otherwise, no real measurement would be taking place.
Then, if it is true that there exists some definite method for quantifying our existence, such that any segment of our timeframes of existence could be given a definite, measured quantity (i.e. that claiming ‘that period of my life lasted x amount of time’ could be true), then it should also be true that no period of existence could be unquantifiable. Given that every period of existence could be quantified by whatever measurement system one might consider accurate, no period of existence could not be quantifiable.
It is here that the crux of this argument is reached. In this essay, I wish to make the claim that the quantifiability of a certain portion of a person’s timeframe of existence is isomorphic with attributability of value to a person’s life. That, because we can say a certain period of your life is measurable, and therefore has a quantity, it is wrong to suggest that any part of your life is meaningless or valueless, and thus that nihilism is, perhaps mathematically, unfounded. This suggestion does not mean to play on the polysemy of the word ‘value’, however. Such polysemy exists wherein ‘value’ can refer both to quantities in mathematical contexts and meaningfulness in the context of human life. Instead, this argument aims to demonstrate that because there can be some definite ascription of a mathematical value to any part of your life, you should not be so quick to consider it (consequentially other things) meaningless. In this way, nihilism is wrong insofar as it fails to account for the fact that existence is quantifiable, and therefore meaningful.
So, how does this relate to that Latin adage, carpe diem? In short, your life is happening. It’s happening right now, and you (probably) only get one of them. It’s because of that fact alone that your life does have meaning. It exists, even this very moment, and we can measure that. Cast aside your Cartesian scepticism as psychologically unhelpful and embrace a meaningful view — it is only by dispelling your nihilism and accepting the world for the way it seems that you will truly flourish.