My four year child recently took to saying “Nothing matters” in response to pretty much whatever she didn’t want to hear. If you refused her a sweet, or more screen time for example, you would hear “Nothing matters” in a child’s imitation of a long suffering soul.
We have no idea where she picked it up from. It’s possible that she originally meant to say “Doesn’t matter” but remembered it wrong. Regardless of the genesis, the kid noticed that neither I nor her mum liked the phrase. That guaranteed its common use.
Before I react negatively to a phrase like “nothing matters” I like to investigate what it means. Sometimes I find that someone has just said something I do agree with but in a way I wouldn’t put it. Certainly our kid was no help in explaining her exact point.
At first glance it seems like “nothing matters” is meaningless. It’s the “nothing” that suggests that. To understand what I mean by that consider the opposite phrase; “everything matters”. That’s clearly meaningless; if everything matters then what does mattering mean? Without any standard of not-mattering to compare mattering to, then mattering means nothing distinguishing. It’s like saying “everything is”. There’s nothing to agree or disagree with there at all.
“Nothing matters” is similar. If nothing at all matters then there just isn’t any use to not-mattering as a distinguishing term. After all it applies to everything. However “nothing matters” doesn’t quite fall into the same vacuum of comparison that “everything matters” does. This is because even when nothing (that exists) matters there can be a non-existent ideal that defines mattering for us. This ideal of importance (mattering), although non-existent, can be the basis for comparing everything to. Then if everything doesn’t measure up to this ideal, “nothing matters” in a way that makes sense.
E.g. We could say that for something to matter it must endure – that is have permanence. From this definition we could argue that because nothing lasts for ever then nothing matters. All our loves and hates, efforts and achievements don’t matter because in a million years they are ground into dust.
The problem with having an ideal description of mattering (like permanence) is that it begs the question of why. Why do only those things which have permanence matter? This is especially true if we are inclined to conclude that nothing has permanence and therefore nothing matters. If we are going to set the bar for mattering in such a way that everything falls short we are beholden to have an especially good reason to do so. That is because we are claiming either a flaw in language (for having a concept like matters) or in the universe (for lacking anything that fits the concept). If our definition is merely arbitrary then we might as well pick one that doesn’t make such large claims necessary.
Ultimately though any objective definition of what matters can’t justify itself. That’s true if it exists or is a non-existent ideal. For example we could say that what matters is what affects other people, which begs the question “Why is it only what affects other people that matters?” There's no way for what matters to just abruptly begin, except by suppressing a perfectly legitimate question "Why?".
This throws us back to our own subjectivity. If “matters” has any meaning then perhaps it is in only in terms of what matters to us. By this definition “nothing matters” is really an expression of personal indifference rather than a description of reality. That’s why it comes out as either nonsense or arbitrary when we think of it as a description of reality.
When a person genuinely does feels nothing matters (unlike when a four year old says it in disgust at parental limits) they may also be in a great place of producing art without the voice of critics in their head. They may be appreciating pleasantly what Romantic philosophy called the sublime – the sense that the world is infinitely larger than our own crap. However more often they are not in a safe or happy place. They are making a cry of ennui – of boredom with and apathy towards the world. This places them at risk of suicide or even risk taking behaviour. It’s the sort of place I might imagine someone who lived for their kids ending up if they lost their child.
If we wanted to understand a person biochemically when they are in a bad place of “nothing matters” we would say they have low dopamine levels. Dopamine is the reward chemical in the brain that plays a key role in reinforcing behaviour. It’s clearly seen in addictions where the reinforcement overwhelms us. One interesting fact is that we are hardwired to avoid low dopamine levels with far greater intensity than we are to pursue high levels. That’s where the risk taking behaviour comes in – as desperate attempts to push our dopamine up.
Philosophically what is tricky is that there is no logical way forward from this position. “Nothing matters” is subjectively true for someone with low dopamine. If subjective truth is the only truth around no-one else can challenge their position as valid as any other. Even more seriously they themselves can’t challenge their own apathy when their initial reality is one in which nothing matters. The image this conjures up for me is one of a person floating in space. With no external reality to push against they have no way to move forward. That’s how I imagine myself isolated in my subjectivity, particularly one in which nothing matters.
That is my explanation for why we have highly developed religions and philosophies which describe mattering as much more than a subjective concern. It is essentially a cognitive trick to give our floating astronaut something beyond themselves to push against. It remains deeply useful, if logically difficult, to do so. However externalized sources of meaning are more preventative than curative. Investing in anything like that from the position of nothing matters is very difficult. We don’t care to.
There are two realizations that can move us beyond a position of nothing matters. Firstly, as I tried to explain in a previous post (Questions of Intrinsic Worth), our subjectivity is not free of reality. No matter what some self-help gurus promise subjectivity does not allow us to freely rearrange the world. We cannot, as young romantics, say that looking at sunsets matters but that eating healthily doesn’t. Eat too much sugar and you’ll lose your eyesight to diabetes and won’t be able to look at sunsets. Similarly I can’t say that my child matters but that my own life doesn’t. My life matters to my child. Subjectivity is therefore not isolation. It is instead engagement with the world from our unique position within it. Think otherwise and “bam”, reality will correct you.
For someone feeling trapped in a sense of “nothing matters” this realization should encourage them to engage with the world, their own body and other people’s in order to properly awaken their subjectivity's wisdom. “Mattering” can be understood as a phenomenon that arises out of a subjectivity which relies on engagement to be sensible. It follows therefore that we shouldn’t expect “mattering” to precede engagement, as strange as that might sound. Fake it if you have to but get out into the world is good advice for any depressed person. It's a legitimate way forward, once we properly understand subjectivity.
The second realization is of the inherent contradiction involved with caring that “nothing matters”. Why does the idea that “nothing matters” matter? Once we realize that “nothing matters” doesn’t mean that the world actually is uninteresting in some metaphysical way but is only so according to a personal perspective this can liberate us to create some interest ourselves. This is particularly true for people who are devastated because they newly feel that nothing in life has the special quality they believed imbued things with “mattering”.
E.g. Someone might have believed that what made the world matter was its relationship with God, until they lost their faith. This could produce a feeling of devastation – that “nothing matters” now. However that feeling of devastation is unnecessary. In fact that feeling of devastation makes no sense as it depends on a whole theology the person no longer holds.
This idea that we can act with purpose in an essentially purposeless universe (not only God-less but without a linear human history) was expressed by philosophers like Albert Camus (and Bill Murray below). Camus' particular brand of existentialism, sometimes called absurdism, did not hold that life had no meaning. Instead it holds that we should look for our meaning in the personal and immediate rather than in the absolute and infinite. The moment we step out our doorway we are surrounded by a world which we impact. Just those impacts give us reason to care themselves, even in if they are not attached to some grand human story, perhaps even especially so.
I haven’t shared all of this post with my four year old (seriously). However we did sit down and have a lengthy discussion about what nothing matters might mean. With my prompts she made up a list of what matters and what doesn’t matter. It made me realize that the “Doesn’t Matters” column is important to her. Her socialization has involved figuring out what ought to go there almost as much as what is supposed to matter. It made her realize that she doesn’t mean that nothing matters at all. She hasn’t said it since.
I’m really glad I listened to my kid on this topic. I haven’t really sat down and asked her what she think matters before in such a specific way. I recommend it to any parent. Here’s hoping you and those around you aren’t in a bad place of nothing matters. In Australia Lifeline is one number you can call if you are.(13 11 14)
1. Don’t hurt anyone
2. Listen to your school teacher at school
3. At Uni you always have your listening ears on
4. You have to put your seat belt on in the car
5. You have to always have fun when you’re playing with other kids
6. If you’re talking at school talk in whisper voice
7. Love is very, very, very, very, very, very, very important
8. Always have dinner.
9. Always listen to your parents.
10. Your dogs’ name
11. Picking too many fruits off trees
12. Leaving people alone if they’re sick
13. Make sure that people aren’t talking so loud and making your ears and head have an earache.
What doesn’t matter.
1. What I wear
2. Your kids name
3. What is actually for dinner
4. How high you can jump