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Understanding Nihilism: What if nothing matters?

We spend so much of our time caring about things. Thomas Nagel described the phenomenon quite nicely:

[People] spend enormous quantities of energy, risk and calculation on the details [of their lives]. Think of how an ordinary individual sweats over his appearance, his health, his sex life, his emotional honesty, his social utility, his self-knowledge, the quality of his ties with family, colleagues, and friends, how well he does his job, whether he understands the world and what is going on in it. Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern. 

(Nagel 1971, 719-720).

Why so much intense concern? What if nothing we do really matters? What, in other words, if nihilism is true?

That’s the question I want to look at in this post. I do so with the help of Guy Kahane’s recent paper ‘If nothing matters’, which is an excellent and insightful exploration of the topic. It doesn’t defend the nihilistic view itself, but it does clarify what it means to be a nihilist and what the implications of the nihilistic view might be. In the process, it takes issue with a strange trend in contemporary metaethics which assumes that if nihilism is true, then nothing about our day-to-day lives would change all that much. Kahane finds this implausible and tries to explain why.

In what follows, I discuss the key elements of Kahane’s analysis. I start by explaining what nihilism is, and distinguishing between its evaluative and practical versions. I then look at the oddly deflationary attitude of some metaethicists towards the truth of nihilism. And I close by considering Kahane’s critique of this deflationary view. As we shall see, Kahane argues that if we come to believe that nihilism is true, then we are unlikely to be able to go about our daily business much as we did before. On the contrary, we can expect much to change.


1. What is Nihilism Anyway?
Nihilism is the view that nothing matters. It comes in two distinct forms. The first is evaluative nihilism, which Kahane describes like this:

Evaluative Nihilism: Nothing is good or bad — or — All evaluative propositions are false.

Remember that time a few weeks back when you were walking to work, it was raining heavily, you stubbed your foot and ripped the sole off your shoe, then got splashed by a car and ended up being late and soaking wet? At the time, you said that this was ‘bad’. If evaluative nihilism is correct, you were wrong to say this. Nothing is really good or bad because evaluative propositions that ascribe those properties to particular events or states of affairs are always false. And this is just to use a trivial example. Evaluative nihilism also applies to more serious evaluative propositions like ‘murder is bad’ or ‘pleasure is good’. None of these claims is true.

Evaluative nihilism is the core of nihilism. But the typical belief is that it entails another form of nihilism:

Practical Nihilism: We have no reasons to do, want, or feel anything.

The idea here is that values are what should motivate action, desire and emotion. The badness of being wet and late for work should motivate me to avoid this outcome in the future. It should motivate me to leave earlier, wear more sensible raingear and footwear. But if nothing is really good or bad all that motivational force is sapped away. This is a normative claim, not a psychological one (we’ll touch upon psychology later). It is about having reasons for doing, wanting and feeling. Practical nihilism strips us of all such reasons.

Practical and evaluative nihilism often go hand-in-hand, but they are separable. Kahane argues that evaluative nihilism only implies practical nihilism if you accept a consequentialist view of practical reason. If there are non-consequentialist constraints on action, then the goodness or badness of an outcome or state of affairs may not always be decisive in determining whether you have reasons for action. That said, it is worth treating the two forms of nihilism together since many who worry about the implications of nihilism worry about both.

But why do they worry? There are some misconceptions about the consequences of accepting nihilism. Many authors speak of nihilism in hushed and terrified tones. The idea is that if we really believed in nihilism we would be overwhelmed by the emptiness of our lives and driven to despair and suicide. In short, if nihilism were true then our lives would be worse. This is to misunderstand nihilism. To use the classic retort: if nothing matters, then it doesn’t matter that nothing matters. Or, in more evaluative terms:

No Cause for Despair: If nihilism is true, then its truth couldn’t make our lives worse (or better) for the simple reason that nihilism entails that you cannot say that a particular state of existence is worse or better.

Of course, how we react to the truth of nihilism is an empirical matter. It may be that some people do feel despair at the thought that nothing matters. But this is arguably because they implicitly cling to non-nihilistic views. They assume that things can really be better or worse for them; that they can have reasons for their despair. If nihilism is true, neither of these things is actually possible.

2. Deflationary and Conservative Metaethical Nihilism
Now that we have a firmer grasp of nihilism we can consider some broader issues. One is the role of nihilism in contemporary metaethical debates. Metaethics is the branch of moral philosophy that is concerned with the ontology and epistemology of moral claims. Moral claims are all about what is good and bad and right and wrong. Some metaethicists are cognitivists, who believe that moral claims are capable of being objectively true or false (i.e. that things really are good/bad and right/wrong). Non-cognitivists reject this view. There are many different schools of non-cognitivism, but the one that is the focus of Kahane’s analysis is that of the error theorists.

Error theorists hold that our entire moral discourse rests on a mistake. The mistake is that when we say something like ‘Torture is bad’ we think we are making a claim like ‘Water is H2O”, but we are wrong. The latter statement is capable of being objectively true or false; the former is not. In short, our moral discourse is in error: there are no objective values (or rights and wrongs). Famous error theorists include JL Mackie and Richard Joyce.

Described thusly, error theorists seem to embrace nihilism. You might think this would cause them to cast off ordinary moral practice. But strangely enough they do not. Many of them adopt an oddly deflationary attitude toward their metaethical insights. Yes, it is true that there is no objective good or bad or right or wrong, but this shouldn’t change much about how we live our lives. Consider the following passage from Mackie:

The denial of objective values can carry with it an extreme emotional reaction, a feeling that nothing matters at all... Of course this does not follow; the lack of objective values is not a good reason for abandoning subjective concern.. 

(Mackie 1977, 34)

Mackie’s suggestion here is that even if his error theory is correct it is possible for people to care about things and to continue to live their lives as they always have. This is reinforced elsewhere in his work when he talks about the practical utility of continuing to behave in a ‘moral’ way. As some have put, we should be error theorists in the seminar room; but practical evaluative realists in the streets.
Kahane thinks this deflationary attitude is itself in error. It fails to take seriously the implications of evaluative and practical nihilism. As he sees it, in order for us to follow Mackie’s lead, it must be possible for us to do two things after coming to accept the truth of nihilism:

A. We must continue to have the subjective concerns we used to have before coming to believe in nihilism (i.e. believe that some things are worthwhile, not worthwhile etc).

B. We must be able to use these concerns to guide our actions (i.e. engage in instrumental reasoning).

While Kahane thinks it might be possible for us to conform to something like instrumental reasoning, he is much less convinced that we will continue to have the same subjective concerns. He has an argument for this which we will consider next.

3. Against the Deflationary View
Kahane’s argument is somewhat elaborate. I’ll describe a simplified version. The simplified version focuses on two claims about our normative psychology, i.e. by what should happen if we come to believe in the truth of nihilism. The empirical reality might be somewhat different, and Kahane concedes as much, but he thinks his argument works off a number of basic truisms about how our psychology functions.

The two main claims are as follows:

Belief Loss: If we come to believe in the truth of nihilism, we will lose many (or all) of our evaluative beliefs.

Covariance thesis: Our subjective concerns covary with our evaluative beliefs in such a way that the loss of the latter is likely to result in the loss of the former.

These claims then get incorporated into an argument which runs something like this:

(1) If we are to continue to live as we did before, then we need to retain our subjective concerns.

(2) If we come to believe in nihilism, we will probably lose many (possibly all) of our evaluative beliefs.

(3) If we lose many (possibly all) of our evaluative beliefs, then we will probably lose our subjective concerns.

(4) Therefore, if we come to believe in nihlism, we will probably not continue to live as we did before.This is a probabilistic argument. It is about what is likely to happen rather than what will definitely happen. How can its key premises be defended?


We’ll start with the second premise, which is the belief loss claim. The first obvious point in its favour is that evaluative nihilism straightforwardly entails the falsity of evaluative beliefs. If no evaluative proposition is true, then any beliefs we have in such evaluative propositions must be false. The question is whether this subsequently implies that we will lose our evaluative beliefs. The logical implication is straightforward, but human psychology does not always track logic. It is conceivable that people could hold contradictory beliefs in their heads at the same time. But this is an unstable state of affairs. Over time, we might expect them to favour one or the other. Kahane uses a thought experiment to illustrate his thinking:

Witch Belief: Suppose Bob believes that two people he knows (Anne and Claire) are witches. But suppose you manage to convince Bob that witches do not exist, i.e. that no one has been or ever will be a witch. Will he continue to believe that Anne and Claire are witches? It is difficult to see how, at least in the long term. His acceptance of the general proposition (“there are no witches”) is going to be in constant tension with the more specific propositions (“Anne is a witch” and “Claire is a witch”). Eventually, something would have to give.

This certainly seems plausible. And if we expect this to happen in the case of witch-belief, it seems natural to expect it to happen in the case of nihilism. After all, the two scenarios are structurally similar. If I come to believe in the general proposition “Nothing matters”, it’s hard to see how I could continue to believe in specific propositions like “My job matters”. It is, of course, possible that I could waver in my commitment to nihilism, believing in it at times and disbelieving in it at others. This might cause me to oscillate back and forth between believing that my job matters and believing that it doesn’t. But if I am unwavering in my commitment, my other evaluative beliefs should slowly ebb away.

This brings us to the third premise which holds that this loss of evaluative belief should impact upon my subjective concerns. Kahane doesn’t give an elaborate argument for this view. He seems to think the covariance of evaluative belief is a basic truism of our psychology. To reject it, one would have to embrace an epiphenomenalist view of evaluative belief. This would hold that evaluative belief has no causal impact on our ‘pattern of concerns’. There may be some materialist approaches to the philosophy of mind that accept this notion, but these approaches have their costs.

If the second and third premises are correct, then the conclusion follows. The deflationary view of error theorists like Mackie looks to be implausible. Believing in nihilism is likely to have a knock-on effect on our lives. We probably couldn’t be nihilists in the seminar room and evaluative realists in the streets. We could only be one of these things.

4. Conclusion
I don’t have too much to say about all this. Kahane’s argument seems right to me, at least when it is interpreted within its own self-imposed constraints. Kahane deals with normative psychology, not empirical psychology. It would be interesting to have more empirical evidence about the effects of nihilistic belief on someone’s behaviour, but I suspect it would be difficult to conduct any tests on this. I also think that further engagement with the epiphenomenalist view would be interesting.

John Danaher holds a PhD from University College Cork (Ireland) and is currently a lecturer in law at NUI Galway (Ireland). His research interests are eclectic, ranging broadly from philosophy of religion to legal theory, with particular interests in human enhancement and neuroethics. John blogs at http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.com/. You can follow him on twitter @JohnDanaher.



COMMENTS

From a layman’s perspective on Nihilism:

I think Nihilism matters to the extent that it allows one to reflect and evaluate their own belief system.  To clear away the “clutter”, so to speak.

I know from personal experience that Nihilism, Anxiety, Despair is a horrible emotion set to experience, but somehow in the end I don’t consider myself to be a “Nihilist”.  If solely because I see it as a “tool” in which to deconstruct other/self moral/belief systems.  I guess I’ve come to realize since those early days in college in which I experienced such moods.  Is that Nihilism seems to annihilate itself through it’s own logic.  After all if Nothing Matters, it would seem that Nihilism doesn’t matter either.

Thus perversely, having experienced such despair led me into dabbling in philosophy.  And through the philosophical readings, and the fiction readings I’ve done the past couple of years.  I’ve had a realization that Nothing does indeed matter.  If one is capable of going to Orwellian “Doublethink/Doublespeak”, one is capable of seeing a possible play on words/thoughts with the idea that Nothing Matters.  In the aspect that there are both positive, and negative interpretations of the phrase.

Positive in the aspect that I am not constrained by “Anything”, and thus potentially have “limitless freedom”.  Therefore if I truly wanted to I could rationally kill something/someone, but I would have to deal with the consequences later on.

Finally, it is Negative in the aspect that I am not constrained by “Anything”, and thus I am at the whims of those around me.  Do I try to impose limits upon their freedoms?  In order to secure my freedom?  I’d say no, but that leads into politics now.

Overall, I see Nihilism as a stage/stepping stone one has to transverse in order to reach new “heights/stages”.  Thanks for posting the article by the way.

If nothing matters, make something matter. Do something that matters. Happiness matters, so make somebody happier. A smile matters.

Seconded Giulio. If there is no ultimate meaning and there might not be, even if some kind of God exists, we have to make our own meanings. As David Pierce has said in certain words, when people are happy, they don’t tend to obsess so much about the meaning of life.

Blasts from the past..

Most of this technical reasoning is summed up here..

Bhagavad gita

and here..

Ashtavakra gita

For some reason people don’t notice that Christians in the 19th Century, like that pastor’s son Nietzsche, invented “nihilism” as the false alternative to their religion.

I guess this idea existed implicitly in Christian apologetics before the 19th Century. But no one thought of developing it into a bogeyman until Christians saw that their religion started its decline after the Enlightenment.

If nothing matters, should I try to save you, if you were drowning? More importantly, if you were drowning and could easily save yourself, should you?

I don’t see why it should be difficult to test the effect of nihilistic belief on people’s behaviour. In fact I would have thought it should be very easy, and I’m sure there are plenty of clever behavioural psychologists who can conduct experiments (if they are not already doing so) that weed out some of the potential biases.

Anyway, this is an issue I have struggled with myself, and I can indeed confirm that losing faith in any fully objective basis for morality has not made me value-less or unconcerned, either about my fate or that of others. Like death, nihilism is not something we really need to fear.

Ah! PW, its the Loss and grief that we have to fear, if one’s amgydya is properly, functioning. Stoicism may be as the result of evolutionary randomness, as is emotionalism too.

We only really need to fear something if (i) it will be truly bad if it happens, (ii) it’s sufficiently likely to be worth worrying about, and (iii) being afraid is likely to help. As far as nihilism is concerned, I think for most people (with healthy, intact, well-functioning amygdalas) the kind of “practical nihilism” described in the article is too unlikely to be worth worrying about.

As for death, well I did once write an article entitled “Embrace Your Thanatophobia”, and I still basically subscribe to that: in general I think we should embrace our fears, not try to repress them. But whether we really NEED to fear death depends very much on the circumstances. If there is a realistic chance of avoiding it (on the timescale under consideration, whatever that might be), it is something that one really doesn’t want to happen (for example, because of the loss and grief it will cause others), and being afraid helps to avoid it, then sure. Otherwise, not really. In fact, these days I would probably say that we should acknowledge and accept our thanatophobia, rather than necessarily “embrace” it. Whether we should embrace it really depends on our circumstances, and what we are trying to achieve.

There is no such thing as “No thing”?

or moreover..

“Nothing unreal exists”

tis more useful to dwell on “emptiness” (potential), as the Universe(s) did not arise from nothing and thus will not/and cannot resolve to nothing - therein lies truth of value?

ergo..

Nihilism is not truth?

 

@ CygnusX1, Yes (*hesitantly*), but how can we have a grasp of “Nothingness” (or No Thing existing) if there isn’t a “void/absence” of something?  As in if the idea of it constitutes as an ideal/real form (it has to be “real” in some sense otherwise how can it be rationalized/computed?).  To some extent it seems as if the very intellect bends away from trying to grasp such notions, and say, “oh, it’s potential/emptiness”, so I don’t know.

Is it all based upon an implied understanding that the universe exists as an object to subjectivity (a “problem” with “Western Thought”)?

Overall I don’t know, just venturing some thoughts out there for feedback/promulgating an argument.

@ RJP8915

You have opened a can of worms to be sure, where to begin? I can only give you my humble opinions to such profound questions, (please note: this is the short version)


“but how can we have a grasp of “Nothingness”

How indeed? Nothing and Nothingness is in a way analogous to thoughts of infinity, although personally I have a harder time contemplating and reasoning with infinity – not sure why however, but here’s some thoughts on Nothingness.

1. It’s all down to Human evolved intellect, something we Humans still can’t quite handle, and certainly cannot fully understand as yet. Do animals conceive of “nothing” and “nothingness”? This at first sounds unreasonable, but what of animals with qualified “personhood”; Apes, Elephants, Dolphins, Parrots and others species, animals that may indeed have notions of “Self” and some understanding of death, although their intelligence and imaginations may be much more limited? Is it all just a result of the process of intellect, imagination and creativity?

You also hint at “ideals and forms”, (conjures images of ancient Greeks debating perfect circles in market squares as a reasoning for immortal souls and a priori instinctual knowledge). “Nothing” and “Nothingness” is perhaps merely an “abstract contemplation” and extrapolation of some thing that is “not there” as you intuitively point out above – and perhaps not so mysterious after all?

2. “Where’s the baby?… THERE HE IS!”

I always thought this game incredibly frightening for babies, but they laugh at anything, (Q: are they laughing with you or at you?) It could be conditioning that is this simple – here’s a thing, I take it away, ergo “no thing”, extrapolating this to infinity and beyond = nothingness?

3. ” ..rationalized/computed?”

Ah.. glad you mentioned this, because it’s one of my favourite benchmarks – can “nothing” actually be computed or understood by a rational calculating machine like a computer? Not really,  as we Humans need to assign “zero” as a value for computer software and memory, (hardware). Thus zero or nothing is not reasonable and beyond reason for a computer, we Humans merely reinterpret the data we input/output?

Yet this also leads to further speculation. As Humans develop A.I, (specifically), and build artificial people and robots with cognitive language and communication skills, we must somehow aim to program at least a rudimentary acceptance of colloquial Human terms “Nothing” and “Nothingness” for the robot to be useful in communication, else we would get bored and frustrated very quickly?

Robot: “What are you doing?”
Human: “Nothing”
Robot: “Huh?”


4. “..it has to be “real” in some sense”

Hmm.. now it gets a little tricky

“Nothing unreal exists”

Not merely a movie sound bite, but a carefully thought out logical reasoning to support Vulcan philosophy – If I can contemplate “perfect circles” and “Nothing” and “Nothingness”, and even more miraculously, through communication, you can understand the notions in your own mind – then there is at least the reality of these abstract notions as real – and therefore it is not an impossibility, and the merely “thinking” of it makes it an increasing probability? So the thought, the contemplation and notion is at least as real as real can be – but is this good enough?

Such like the notions of “Self” which neuroscience and philosophy of mind can readily deconstruct as delusion until we are left with function and form and brain synapses actively interacting, the Self is no less real, the delusion is real, the mind is real, the thoughts of the mind are real? Does “Nothingness” exist as long as we contemplate that it can?


5. “To some extent it seems as if the very intellect bends away from trying to grasp such notions, and say, “oh, it’s potential/emptiness”, so I don’t know.”

Stephen Hawking and others may claim that the Universe can emerge from “nothing” but this is rather a brash and unqualified statement. Science supports and yet does not understand such hypotheses as “Dark Energy”, “Quantum vacuum”, “Quantum gravity”, and “Quantum Electrodynamics”, (QED), as well as proposals of other dimensions and string theory. In any case, it is proven that even the most efficient attempt at a vacuum does not exclude the energies of the Universe and stuff we cannot see or even detect, (as yet)? Hardly “Nothing”?

This supports my own belief/philosophy that the Universe(s) exists and is comprised within the means and never ending and unceasing “potential” for such things/all things to exist. And this is also a predominant thinking in Hinduism philosophy regarding the existence of all things – it is referred to often as Brahman, and venerated by even the personification of the godhead in Hindu scripture, although it is also referred to as merely “that” which is unknowable, indefinable, and indistinguishable from “this and that”, as it comprises all things both “this and that”, (as it must).


6. “Is it all based upon an implied understanding that the universe exists as an object to subjectivity (a “problem” with “Western Thought”)?”

Another profound point – can we Humans even have notions of “Self” without “Other”, without reference to Object to define our own position, distance and to help substantiate our very own existence by way of physical senses. Brains in vats in darkened rooms – devoid of senses and perhaps even memories of outer worlds, must likely drive them “selves” to insanity without means to continually support notions and difference of “I” from surroundings – does this describe some hellish state of “Nothingness”?

“Consciousness” in Hinduism is also the fundamental attribute which imbues existence and the Universe, although I remember reading in the Upanishads someplace where even consciousness/Brahman was “still” until such time as it reflected upon it-self and thus One became Two, (was Turtles all the way down from here).

Sounds like mysticism and superstition? And yet the computer I am typing on has evolved from the actions and practicalities, (interaction prakriti/maya), constructed by the hands and minds of Humans, their thoughts, which are ultimately Self-reflexive notions that rely upon consciousness - thus even the mind relies upon the prerequisite of consciousness?, (am still undecided as yet as to prerequisite of chickens and eggs).

What does all this have to do with “Nothingness?”

Well.. an entity, (a particle), is believed to be neither here nor there, up or down, and is described as residing in a state of quantum coherence until such time it’s quantum wave function breaks down, (by observer or interaction with “other”), and so it has no motive nor purpose to change it’s state before this event which can be readily described as “timeless” - time is irrelevant in a state of non-changing potential? – is this a description for “nothingness” or “emptiness”?

If there are any Hindu’s visiting, perhaps they can provide a more qualified explanation for all of this?

@CygnusX1

First off thanks for taking the time tilt at this windmill with me, and I yes I do realize that it’s an awfully big can of worms.  Albeit that means a better chance of catching a “Fish” right?

Your thoughts and notions seem to parallel a lot of mine, so it may be beneficial to determine where we diverge in our thought processes.  I too recognize all that you have stated as valid possibilities, but in my contemplation I have regarded the following “catch phrases” (my #1/2) as potentials (meaning true/false or both T/F simultaneously).

1. “Nothing is inherently Unstable” - In that aspect I generally understand that, comparable to your #4 point of, “Nothing unreal exists” (I think I’m understanding it correctly), is that Nothing cannot suffice on it’s own.  A literal rendition of the phrase which means that it falls apart by “itself” (kinda like #5/6).  And by doing so, it creates the realm of possibilities/potentials (a sort of cosmic creative/fertile ground).

2. “Nothing has Worth” - Again there’s the literal rendition that means nothing has innate/inherent value, but subverted/inverted(?) it means that Nothing is of a potential extreme/priceless worth that allows it to stay around.  May be comparable to the notion of the Hindu Godhead (?).

3.  By comparing the two, “Nothing is Unstable/Worth”, it seems to me that it creates a dialectical tension that causes one to constantly reevaluate/adjust their parameters.  A mechanistic understanding of a programmed “0” (maybe your #3) may erupt.

4. By going through my #3, it seems one arrives at the absurdity of it all (Camus type sense), and that in order to “overcome it”.  One has to take a “Leap to Faith” (in a Kierkegaardian sense), power through ala an Ubermensch (Nietzsche), or any combination of all of them.

5.  This I think is fitting in with an overall pattern of Western thought, to achieve “mastery of the system”...to become a “God” (at least in my understanding…, and Transhumanism/Posthumanism seem to support these notions).

6.  Finally, what prompted me to write the “goad” is the following thought(s) I’ve been chewing over.  Does this desire for “Mastery” have to be the end/only “goal”? Is Western thought/science the only way to have a worldview?  Intuitively no, but does this mean that “Magic/Mysticism” in the most esoteric sense have “validity”?  Can I use “horoscopes, oracles,...et al” to create tangible influences/effects?  Yes, for as in your #6 with the recursive intellect which forces/causes us to shape our worlds (I think to some extent), but I’m still trying to figure out to what extent?

7.  Lately, I’m also starting to wonder if the only “Limits” we have to our “World” (in all meanings) is simply self-imposed?  And this logically ties in with the notion that if we’re in a Simulation (as per the hypothesis) what is it’s limits?  Do we need something/one to impose set “rules/boundaries”?... A “Master” to “teach” us?  I don’t think there is a “valid answer” to such a question.  Other than the one we decide for ourselves.

It may seem kinda “fringe” like, but I have an opinion that “we” (in a collective sense) are already “Post-Human (actually whatever we are other than self definitions)”.  We just simply don’t realize it, and/or aren’t capable of understanding the implications (we turn away from them/it because of “conditioning”(?)).  After all if the fate of a world resided in your, or my hands would/could we trust said being?

....sorry for opening more cans of worms….they may be like “Dune/Arrakis worms” now….

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