Everything Everywhere All At Once and The Paradox of Nihilism
I’m not the first person to talk about this movie. Rather, it has been incredibly popular, and it brought in over a hundred million to the box office. And I also am not alone, I think, in how many people were able to associate with it, felt seen by it.
Of course, there were also plenty that could not get past the absurd nature of the movie, or got hung up on the cheesy plot elements and tropes. And that’s fine—aside from its central themes and objective, it isn’t anywhere close to a perfect movie. I get it.
Yet, I didn’t realize why it nagged at my emotions while I was watching it. I didn’t realize why I was forced to sit at a slant to somehow get closer to the screen. I didn’t understand why I had to put down the project I was working on—cleaning a stack of Model M keyboards for resale, if you were curious—as it was distracting.
It wasn’t until I watched this video about the movie by Tomas Flight that I started to understand, and had everything snap into place.
If you have not seen the movie yet, do not watch the above video. Actually, don’t watch any video. Go in blind. This movie worked so well on me because I didn’t know the premise or inspiration. Still worth a watch if you’ve been lightly spoiled, but the experience will probably be less impactful.
I do not give any direct spoilers to the movie in this essay, but you will probably figure out what the movie is about by reading this. Do yourself the favor and watch it first if you haven’t.
But I will not be overmuch investigating the movie here, as I did not feel the need to after having watched the above video—it did well to expound upon and give clarity to a lot of my thoughts. Instead, after my viewing, there was a comment by one Plants_before_people that put a name to something I’ve been thinking about recently.
I love how the movie explores both types of nihilism. Jobu Tupaki represents negative nihilism: "nothing matters so why do anything or exist", whilst Evelyn represents positive nihilism: "nothing matters so why not choose what matters to you?".
I think it's important to realise that anyone can choose their own path in life, by making a choice you reduce the chaos of our modern world
Positive nihilism. An interesting concept, and not one I’ve considered before in so few words. And at first glance, something that makes sense. But does it really? I eventually shifted to thinking about this in particular.
I would not consider myself an existential nihilist, which is the particular type of nihilism referenced in the movie and in the above comment. But, both before and now, I can certainly understand the premise of believing that nothing matters. After all, many important-looking science dudes in lab coats will tell you up and down ‘til they’re blue in the face that nature and the natural order can be expressed with formulae, that our world has a lifespan, that the most impact humanity can have on the world is to destroy it, that there is no higher being or beings and the existence of one is a statistical improbability.1
By that logic, if only we, as humans, with our top-of-the-food-chain sentience and perceived understanding of the world, are all that will be, and all that is, and all that can be, with no real hope to influence anything at all, then what is the point? Why bother improving yourself or others if we are all insignificant? Why consider now, if the future is empty? Why attempt to move forward into that future if nothing awaits? Why even continue to exist, if nothing ever mattered, nothing matters, and nothing will matter? Just to satisfy our chemical receptors, and to avoid the inbuilt fear of nonexistence?
It’s possible to wake many a long, sleepless night, pondering these questions and their potentially terrifying conclusions—and for some, nonexistence may very well be their most wanted or possibly only visible answer. Clearly, the aft mentioned “negative nihilists” would put a level of importance on these kinds of questions. But am I pressed on the issue, I would have to respond to such existential and negative thoughts with my own.
If it really is true that nothing matters… Why bother with these pointless questions? Or, put another way: If nothing, truly nothing matters, then why does the fact that nothing matters… matter?
Nothing matters, so why do such thoughts have significance in an insignificant world? It’s a rather cyclic line of reasoning, reminiscent of the torus. Or Everything Bagel, if you will.
While I like the YouTube comment I quoted above, and the way the movie took on Jobu Tupaki’s eventual acceptance of nihilism2 and her beginning to move past it emotionally, I believe that, ultimately, the idea of a “positive” nihilist3 is inherently paradoxical with the very existence of nihilism as a philosophical concept, if one does not strictly separate the subjective from the objective. Nothing matters and everything is infinitely insignificant, yet I exist to declare that something matters, where the supposed lack of meaning and insignificance should be considered the only objective truth4.
On that note, I am not sure if I believe in objective truths. Or at least, give them equal power. Because even if there are objective truths, I can still make the conscious choice to reject them and substitute my own. I mean, who’s going to stop me? If I simply decide that something has meaning, then so it does, and the objective truth of nothing having meaning no longer affects me. Call it delusion or ignoring reality, but what does it do for me to play by the rules? How do I benefit by intentionally limiting myself? And if we take a step further and consider those that disagree with a purely objective reality from a quantum persepective, the meaninglessness of a nihilistic world might very well only extend to that which a nihilist would observe, which is even more damning.
The only conclusion I can draw from this line of reasoning, regardless of an objective or subjective stance on reality, is that I am the sole proprietor of what matters—either I craft my own subjective truths overtop or in defiance of objective ones, or my truths themselves become the sole truths in a subjective world, similar to the reality-bending powers of Jobu Tupaki.
By deciding what matters or what doesn’t, my established worldview and morality means that the personal drive and liberty of others and myself is what matters. That the continued freedom of every creature given the strength of its own willpower is what matters. That commonly understood social system with commonly understood rules and expectations matter. Or, more generally, libertarianism. But that’s another story. context/ideas/blog
Possibly as a result of or caused by my take on nihilism, I also do not consider myself a pessimist. I have even called myself an “optimistic realist” on multiple occasions before, long prior to having any thoughts about nihilism. Really, I think it would be better to describe it as “optimistic nihilism” and “pessimistic nihilism” versus positive and negative nihilism. Because, really, a significant difference between the two is how one deals emotionally with one’s belief in nihilism. Were I a pessimist, I’m sure my outlook on these questions would be much more negative in nature—I might very well trick myself into thinking that since nothing can matter objectively, that naturally nothing can matter subjectively as well, where it is still ones own belief that provides that subjective meaninglessness.
Ultimately, the main distinction between positive and negative nihilism is whether or not we believe or allow our subjectivity on the topic to have meaning. Personally, I believe that we ourselves are what allow things to matter, in our subjectivity. And if that is the case, then it should suffice to say that, until we cease to exist, there will continue to be things that matter, as long as there is someone out there that is willing to give meaning and believe—even if we are the very meaning to defy the meaninglessness. The idea of things having “meaning”, when limited to our own human understanding, is mostly likely something of our own creation anyway, unless you believe in a higher power providing it.
There are things we will never know and meanings we will never quantify—at least not in a single lifetime—yet we attempt foolishly to declare in our hubris and ego that nothing matters. Even if we call something truth, it can become an untruth with the passage of time and accumulation of new knowledge. Like how classical physics got turned upside down with the discovery and recent understanding of quantum mechanics and quantum physics. Things we called laws that we defined our world with, that we called truths that were unbreakable, were suddenly broken, provably and deterministically. And even then, those new mechanics were in and of themselves strange and act in an as of yet incomprehensible, nondeterministic way, that we have yet to fully describe with our rational minds. Like, how the actual fuck does the double blind test change its result depending on if you are observing it?
Moving back to the other themes of the movie that started this whole rabbit hole, the idea of a multiverse directly calls into the forefront nihilism, absurdism, and existentialism. If everything is everywhere and all at once, why do any of those particular points matter more than any other, and how should one respond? It’s a core tenant of the movie, and from seeing feedback online, there were people on both sides of the aisle in regards to the current discussion—that is to say, optimistic nihilists and pessimistic nihilists. These viewpoints were well represented by our two protagonists, Jobu Tupaki and Evelyn—as well as the third, very important one: the blissful idiot Waymond that, living in his ignorance, simply enjoys things as they are and is happy regardless of other factors, without bothering to so much as think about the tenants of nihilism. He just wants to be happy with his wife and daughter, reality be damned.
While the introspection into nihilism did intrigue me during my viewing, I think the points gone over by Thomas in his video really made clear to me the relation to our current modern culture, and perhaps why it affected me so. I realize now that I struggle with it, wading through the endless everything I always have at my fingertips, in the form of the Internet. In retrospect, it is absolutely apparent, and I now know it was an intention that the creators of the movie wanted to convey intentionally.
We, as a postmodern culture, are suffering from information overload, constantly. Nothing is interesting, because we have done everything. There is nowhere to go, because we have been everywhere. There is no feeling of time, because everything is always happening, all at once. Even if none of that is really true and is just overblown rhetoric, it doesn’t change that the feeling of insignificance is yet all the while assaulting many out there with an overbearing sense of chagrin, emptiness, and hopelessness. Perhaps we were never meant to stare into the abyss of the collective consciousness of our own making, but millions do every day anyway. But just as we can have a negative, pessimistic reaction to this revelation, we can also choose to ignore it, decry it, scoff at it in defiance.
The ability to take control of one’s own chaos, I think, is a skill that would benefit many modern people that struggle in dealing with themselves and their thoughts. It’s a skill many lack, and I believe it’s the reason so many of us are so entranced by the Internet and its seemingly endless stream of information. And if they choose to ignore the danger and continue to blindly consume, eventually, their clay pots will fill up too… With TikTok and Twitter feeds.
What an unfortunate way to go. At least there were funny cat memes.
While this is not the foundation of all branches of nihilism, agnosticism and atheism is a common trend I encounter among nihilists—where either there is a higher power but that power provides no intrinsic meaning to the world (think Lovecraft’s Azathoth, where we are all but in a god’s dream), there is a higher power but the meaning it ascribes to us is merely by fiat and thus ignorable or worthless, or there is no higher power at all. There are more specific nihilistic positions, even some that lean theistic, but I speak of it here from a more general standpoint that I think many people today would associate with “nihilism”—namely, existential, atheistic nihilism. ↩
Or rejection of it, depending on your viewpoint—we do not hear enough of her thoughts after the fact to truly get a handle on her feelings. But to me it does seem like she has come to accept the world as it is, which could culminate in a shift toward “positive nihilism” as I alluded to, or a complete rejection in nihilism as a concept. ↩
And even, I am sure, some people’s current nihilistic views and beliefs, that would otherwise not self-ascribe the “positive” label. ↩
Some nihilists disagree with even this and decry all objective truths, however possible it is to decry an objective truth using the very same objective truth. Too big a concept for my brain, I guess. ↩