We Are Not What We Do

What does it mean to be human?

Great Article on Nihilism by MIT

This is a question I often ponder. It also has no definite answer…so my pondering will likely last a while.

Something Nietzsche has taught me about what it does not mean to be human is that we are not what we do.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher of the late 19th century and was one of the first philosophers to advocate for existentialism. He challenged topics such as Christianity and traditional morality through some of his works like “The Antichrist” and “On the Genealogy of Morality.”

His argument for existentialism is often coined by his phrase “God is dead.” He argued that the Age of Enlightenment (1715–1789) was enough proof that God could not exist. He advocated for material life as opposed to the metaphysical, believing that there is no supernatural force governing the world or human life.

A large part of his opinion was that our existence precedes our essence.

…what is our essence?

Let’s cut to Plato and Aristotle quickly — they were two great Athenian philosophers of the Classical period who believed that everything has an essence. That is the certain set of core characteristics necessary to make something, something. For example, the blade would be the essential characteristic of a knife, making it that thing.

To draw a parallel, Plato and Aristotle believed that all humans, too, have essential characteristics that define us and our meaning. The kicker here is that they believed this essential quality exists in us before we are even born. That gives rise to this conclusion: we may not even know what it is, but we are imbued with purpose.

The main refutation to this idea is existentialism; the belief that our existence precedes our essence. A simpler, more common phrase that highlights a similar argument is nurture over nature. These phrases suggest that we are born into the world without any real or inherent purpose.

That’s where Nihilism comes in, the belief in the ultimate meaninglessness of life. In coping with this ultimate meaninglessness of life, many engage in seeking ultimate answers to finite questions to determine their purpose. This is known as absurdity; the search for answers in an answerless world.

Then, if there are no answers, there is no truth, right? There are no absolutes to abide by. No cosmic fairness or morality to follow as a species. Sure, we use ethics as a unified code of what is good and bad — but how often do we come across social issues and protests rejecting these generalized assumptions?

The question I ask states my position rather clearly: “what if we exist first — then it’s up to us to figure out our purpose?”

We devote much of our lives to the search for meaning. The paradox here is that any or all the things you do can give your life meaning — but at the same time, none of them can. If everything means something, then everything means nothing. You dilute how much the things you do affect your character if you believe that everything you do justifies your character.

I agree with existentialism for two reasons.

The first is that I disagree with essentialism. I don’t think we are given purpose before we are born/at birth. Your environment and the family, or lack thereof, which you are born into shapes who you are. That identity will later become a sort of self-selected essence.

Our existence precedes our essence. I must draw the distinction here though; I do not believe we create ourselves through what we do in a world with no fixed values or unified moral compass. Rather, I believe we are shaped by what we do in a world with no fixed values or unified moral compass.

I do not believe we are what we think, feel, say, or do because of a lack of consistency. A moment of anger and a horrible thought does not make you an angry or horrible person. A momentary emotion does not define your priorities. A less abstract example of this would be the flash of anger you feel when someone cuts off your car on the freeway.

You might honk.

Maybe even curse.

That does not mean you are an evil and vile human. It means you had a momentary reaction. Instead, patterns of what we think, feel and say create a more populated definition of who we are.

If we remove ourselves from too strongly identifying with every thought, word, feeling we have, we open ourselves up to a higher level of self-awareness. A great analogy for this is:

the difference between being in the storm and witnessing the storm.

Seeking a bird’s eye view of what is going on in your life provides a relatively objective vantage point. It makes it clear that while you react to the things that happen through actions, feelings, and words, you are not the things you do. Instead, seeking truth as to why you react the way you do, is likely a much closer definition to who you are.

A quote by Jean-Paul Sartre that resonates with me is,

“We are painfully shockingly free — if no guidelines, we are forced to design our own moral code.”

I agree that we are born into the world without any inherent purpose. I agree with absurdity. I think we seek answers to questions in an answerless world. Any “answer” comes from someone of equal calibre, a human. By believing that the world and existence have no inherent meaning or purpose, I also believe there are no guidelines, no real justice, no ethics.

By real I mean something ordained by anything greater than human. Anything thought of and created by humans can be disputed. Maybe it’s the skeptic in me, but what credits someone as having the ultimate truth?

Anyways — no guidelines mean we each have to develop our own moral compass. These are all different. If life had an inherent purpose or meaning, would not all our moral compasses aim towards the same goal, harmony?

“Every belief, every considering something true, is necessarily false because there is simply no true world.”

-Nietzsche, Will to Power.

While this is certainly a more pessimistic, radically skeptical lens to take to this philosophy, there is an equally freeing and optimistic side called Optimistic Nihilism.

The crux of this argument is that we don’t remember the 13.75 billion years before we existed…so why would we notice the trillions of years that come after we’re gone?

We only get one shot at life, or to say it more tastefully, YOLO. This should set you free.

Yes, your life is finite.

Yes, it’s scary to think about mortality and oblivion.

But at the same time, every mistake, bad thing, embarrassment etc. you have ever had will be forgotten.

If human life has no inherent purpose, we each get to decide what it is. The only principles relevant are the ones we decide on. If there is no real truth or unified ethical guideline for all of humanity — what reason do we have not to create and abide by a moral compass that makes us happy?

When it comes to constructing a routine and life that makes you happy, an interesting question is how much of that construction comes from your beliefs and how much of it comes from outside pressure?

Another one of Nietzsche’s philosophies is about living a reactive life.

“We are too passive, too reactive. We do not act as ourselves, we are not honest enough, and we are not ‘noble’ enough.” He talked a lot about how many are passive spectators who blindly follow the lead of others.

Put simply; most people exhibit sheep mentality.

His whole stance is summed up with; don’t wait for life to happen to you and learn how to denounce some ways of thinking.

A contrarian point of view I’ll mention here is that I don’t believe we are born with a bias towards action.

I think we all, at some point, exhibit sheep mentality. I also think it’s necessary to follow until you conclude that you would like to lead or don’t understand why you follow.

I think you must blindly follow to decide you wish to denounce someone else’s truth. How can you identify your truth and ways of thinking without first observing and abiding by another’s?

A simple example: if you grow up in an anti-technology household, the restrictions may do one of two things: the first is rev you up and excite you to explore the prohibited topic. The second is to agree and follow. The point is both opinions are a result of first blindly following.

A recent discussion that I had with some friends had me beginning to wonder…

Is Nihilism the default state?

Do we inherently not care about anything? Is it external factors that convince us, eventually, to care about something?

The conclusion I’ve come up with, a strong opinion loosely-held mind you, is that we are generally arrogant for thinking that we have an objective purpose.

I say this because I believe we add layers of complexity to biological truths.

For example, it is our biological imperative to run in packs. For survival purposes, initially, the human species became social creatures. Now that we don’t fight for survival the same way that we used to, we have the time and ability to try and reason why we innately need human interaction.

For all you introverts out there, I said human interaction, not social.

To break it down, I believe our existence precedes our essence. I think our default state is dictated by biology.

Our desire to feel fulfilled leads us to try and form our own purpose. We add layers of complexity and narratives to explain why certain things feel good or bad.

The fact that we form our own purpose suggests that we do not have an inherent one.

We won’t ever all agree on one philosophy.

That’s okay.

What matters, however, is that we explore philosophies and form opinions where there is a delta. Explain to yourself why you agree or disagree with the opinion. Explain why you do.

Let’s get in touch

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Ruhani Walia

Ruhani Walia


econ + statsci lover, curious writer, learner and emerging tech enthusiast.