Naturalism and Nihilism: Comparative and Contrastive Essay

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The text, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, by James Sire prioritizes a list of eight basic worldview questions to help one determine the values and accords of specific worldviews. The nihilist worldview is difficult to apply to Sire’s questions. The nihilist’s response to “What is prime reality – the really real?” Nothing. The response to “What personal, life-orienting core commitments are consistent with this worldview?” There are none. Nihilism is the belief of nothing. Not even a philosophy, but a rejection of philosophy, nihilism is a negation of the world and everything in it – from ethics, understanding, reality, semiotics, and more. Specifically, nihilism is more similar to a feeling (malaise, anxiety, pain, etc…) than a particular credo. Here there is no God the cosmos are all that is.

Today nihilism still exists, but certainly experienced it's prime halfway through the previous century. Often viewed as the offspring of naturalism, nihilism is the descendant of naturalism in that it is naturalism carried to its commonsense denouement. Simply stated, many nihilists are former naturalists, though not all naturalists metamorphose into nihilists. Naturalism becomes the connection between deism/theism and nihilism. The birth of nihilism traces back to arguments against naturalism from deism/theism. In preference of renouncing the innermost discrepancies of naturalism in favor of another worldview, nihilists welcome those discrepancies and renounce worldviews altogether.

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The first connection between naturalism and nihilism is the denial of free will. Naturalists have the tendency to show partiality towards believing in free will, but Nietzsche explains that one’s actions are the foregone conclusion of the worldly, environmental, and genetic makeup. Nihilism treats the evolutionary process with resoluteness and significance. The cause and effect system in naturalism is driven here serendipitously in a closed network. There is no purpose or substance as things occur haphazardly. For example, if I cheated on a test it would not be my fault, due to the fact that every event leading up to that moment was not my responsibility. The world seizes on an individual, but the individual does not act on the world (B.F. Skinner, Sire, J. W., 2009). A nihilist would argue that the naturalist view would not provide a just foundation on which an individual might act significantly. Humans are merely machines devoid of the aptitude and capacity to do anything important, therefore humans are of negligible value.

The second connection between naturalism and nihilism is a combination of metaphysics and epistemology. If humans are the corollary of natural selection, which means that they are wired to adapt to survive, there is no incentive to think that there’s any sign of interest in leading a human to the truth. One can’t trust their mind if was created by accident. Holding confidence in that reason results in accepting an act of faith. Taken seriously from naturalism, nihilism questions the realism and correctness of the world. Nothing is real, not even myself. If I am of this world, but the world is all there is, how am I sure that I am of this world?

The final main connection between naturalism and nihilism is the death of ethics. Why are a majority of naturalists not nihilists? The answer is that they don’t take their worldview seriously. Naturalism lacks a definite and exact universal thought, but rather affirms their values and gathers with those who believe the same. Ethics are these groups of individuals who believe in the same social constructs. Nihilists take a step back and say, this is not ethics. There is no right versus wrong, there is no what should instead of what should not. Nihilism recalls that in a closed system there is nothing – no ethical basis, no wrong or right – all these terms without meaning. Briefly, nihilism negates the existence of philosophy and in turn, anticipates a life sans the probability of meaning.

In conclusion, nihilism is not sustainable. From a life without purpose and meaning, any action is fair game. The moment that nihilists trust in their thoughts, they avouch that there is value in thinking and that it can lead to intelligence or knowledge, but this fact alone is a paradox since the core of nihilism is no meaning. Additionally, one can seemingly live a life without limitations and can deny God, but doesn’t there have to be the knowledge of a God to deny in the first place? What does a nihilist actually believe, since there is no God in their life? Finally, a question that presents itself after learning more about nihilism, one may ask, “How can nihilism be transcended?” The answer is through existentialism.

Existentialism is the belief that human existence is about being in the present, primary state, while the essence is secondary. Similar to how nihilism is extracted from naturalism, existentialism is extracted from and is a response to nihilism. Existentialism is basically naturalism with an effort to rescue human meaning from the depths of nihilism. With the goal to transcend nihilism, existentialism branches out into two main branches: atheistic existentialism in response to nihilism, and theistic existentialism in response to dead orthodoxy. In terms of the really real, prime reality of a worldview, the matter is a constant – it has been here and will continue to be here. Spitefully though, some naturalists have advocated for matter originating in the past out of nothing.

Sire asserts that there are two worlds, objective and subjective. The first is one where all things are non-human, a world full of things, objects, and systems that are “it”. The latter is one where self-consciousness and self-determination are the utmost evolved location that a person can experience and can be attained only through experience. The moment a person is a part of the objective world is also the moment where humans become strangers in that world because they are subjective. The structure and chaos of existence are complicated for humans as they are objective and immune to the subjectiveness of humans. Furthermore, the “composition” of a human is defined by their experience-based actions and existence. Sire quotes, “Salt is salt; trees are tree; ants are ants. Only human beings are not human before they make themselves so.” Sire, J. W., p. 121, 2009). Thus the human ability for subjective experiences provides endless liberty to act as they prefer; for their mere existence predates and verifies their life. Drawing back to how existentialism asserts that matter has always been present and is a constant, when that matter finally breaks down, the human-made up of that matter breaks down as well. Death is a quite ludicrous and onerous reality to surpass in existentialism, as a subjective person becomes objective. A once authentic person becomes absurd.

Outside of the absurd and objective is human reason, is a place where a person can experience subjectivity while facing objectivity. Basic human reasoning is the outcome from an arbitrary evolutionary procedure - this is how humans know anything at all. However, how does an existentialist determine what is good and what is bad? What is the competition between good and evil notions? Essentially the choices of others provide a general guideline for what’s good, and kind of offer a checkpoint on the continuum between good and bad. Though Sire expressed that humans will “always choose the good,” existentialism fails to answer what is good for humanity (Sire, J. W., 124, 2009). The self-consciousness of good decisions is the backbone of the nature of human history for this worldview. Though history was meant to be linear in an evolutionary process, this is a new phase. It is meaningful in a way that the biological or natural part is now, and humans represent a new perspective in evolution because of that self-consciousness. To the degree of being self-conscious and self-determined, humans have the choice to define their existence. Finally, the personal core commitment consistent with existentialism is a subjective answer: the duty to his or her own self. All objectivity is rejected, and life value comes through a human’s personal conscious choice.

The similarities between nihilism and existentialism begin with the fact that each says there is no inherent meaning in the world. This leads to a difference where existentialism believes that one has the power that can change who they are and that there is potential in the human being. Existentialism asserts that people create the degree of meaning and value in their own lives and it would not be considered any less valid than what religion could do. Nihilists affirm the absence of any religion and meaning and go a step further into this meaninglessness by saying that any value a person tries to create would not be valid either but only a construct.

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