Saturday, 21 September 2013

Could nihilism be true? (in principle)


If nihilism was true - if there was no meaning in anything - then we could never know it to be true because we could never know anything.

Any evidence that nihilism was true, would refute nihilism - because if there is no meaning in reality then there can be no evidence.

What is peculiar is that people behave (and speak) as if there could be evidence in favour of nihilism - for example that the 1914-18 war or the Nazi Holocaust revealed that life was meaningless or whatever - but this is non-sense for the reasons above.

If there really was no meaning in existence - if it really was all random, contingent, purposeless - then we could never know this. We might suspect it, we might even believe it - but we could never know it and could never point to anything at all as evidence in favour of it.

Even one single piece of knowledge or evidence about anything at all would refute the idea that the universe had no meaning.

How, then, could so many people come to believe that the universe was meaningless and also to believe that they had strong grounds for believing that the universe was meaningless?

How could they believe this?

Yet this is the mainstream contention in the modern West.



Steve Johnson said...

If nihilism was true - if there was no meaning in anything - then we could never know it to be true because we could never know anything.

You're going to have to do more than just assert that if you want to persuade people.

You can derive the Pythagorean theorem (for example) without first showing that human life has a purpose.

Bruce Charlton said...

@SJ - You're going to have to read and understand my argument if you want to critique it!

My point is that if nihilism is indeed true, then there is no conceivable way that this could be known. AND YET people behave as if they have been convinced (by experience, argument etc) that nihilism is true - i.e. that the meaning of life is that there is no meaning to existence.

If you believe that the Pythagorean theory can be derived validly, then you are not a nihilist - because you believe in objectively valid real order, and human minds that can understand this, etc... that is, you believe a whole host of assumptions about the reality of meaning, and you believe that your beliefs are reflective of reality

- that is to say, you believe that human minds are so constituted as to have access to reality (and therefore not just to have access to what is expedient for their happiness/ reproduction).

How are minds constituted in this way? There are several possible answers, but all presuppose a meaningful universe.

Handle said...

The question is not one of defining 'nihlism' but 'meaning'.

If I understand you correctly, then you are saying that if one believes that a human brain, like a computer, can appreciate the truth of any logical sequence - for example to assess the validity of sequence of symbols constituting a proof from axioms to conclusion in mathematical first order logic (which is a complete and consistent set of axioms) - then they ought not also believe in nihilism.

I think there is a serious missing link in that argument.

If one holds that beliefs should relate to and be updated by evidence, and one states that 'there is no evidence that the universe is other than a giant system of particle dynamics governed by stable rules of interaction' then one can believe in the 'order' of physical law without ascribing to that order any 'meaning' in a spiritual or moral sense or with implications towards the existence of the supernatural or 'natural' principles of ethical conduct.

Bruce Charlton said...

@H - I think you are suggesting that a person believes in a universe governed by physical laws, and also believe that humans can know, and do know, that this is the case - and on this basis can deny the reality of moral laws.

In principle I think you are probably correct that it is *psychologically* imaginable for someone to believe (for no reason) that there are a certain specific numbers of things known about the universe, and to believe (for no reason) that other things are known not to be true about the universe. In other words, you are starting from several arbitrary axioms.

What I am getting at is the principle of order, complexity, functionality - and where it comes from. Having been deep into systems theory, which tries to explain complexity without teleology, I recognise that this is only possible on the basis of several arbitrary axioms - which in effect build-in the possibility of functional complexity from the start.

See the appendix to:

Nicholas Fulford said...

The problem is one of interpretation.

Within the universe, life has evolved, including human life, and an aspect of human life is the vesting of things with meaning. Even the nihilist vests meaning in things, and were one to in a Job like fashion remove family, friends, health, and the symbols and forms that have been vested with meaning that person would soon passively or actively exterminate themselves.

What I see you asking is: Does the search for and vestment of meaning imply an axiomatic base?

One can say that since humans exist in the unfolding universe, that which enabled this particular unfolding was part and parcel of the initial state at t=0. (In other words, there is that which is at instantiation of the universe such that meaning seeking intelligence has come into being on Earth.) Thus existential nihilism is refuted.

If we were to leave it here, there would likely be no argument as even atheists would not refute the necessity of a particular unfolding going back to t=0, and that out of that unfolding the human species manifests, and that we seek meaning. In a poetic sense we become the mirror wherein the universe is able to reflect upon itself.

The one caution is to not project backwards upon the universe an anthropomorphic frame. We must have a humility and an insatiable need to know that impels us to not stop at convenient veils, but to keep pushing past those veils. The groom who seeks his bride parts every veil, leaving them all scattered on the floor of the bed chamber. If the groom becomes transfixed by a veil and refuses to part it, he has created his idol.

Joel said...

I disagree with this argument. Strong nihilism is experienced by no one and nobody. We are too much creatures of the body for it. We are animated by various carnal purposes, acquiring food, love, etc. The pursuit of these pleasures provide all of us a limited meaning at various points in our lives. And as bodily creatures, we also feel a lack of meaning at times when we are not acutely animated by desire.

But what about transcendental meaning? What about ultimate aims? The dangerous nihilism says that these do not exist. That animating purposes such as patriotism, love of god, are based on lies.

A world without transcendental meaning is correctly something to be feared. Can such a hell exist? Contra-Charlton: Yes, and it does for some. Unbelief destroys meaning. If you do not believe in nation, god, or your fellow man, you can get no meaning from them.

Two individuals who do not believe in marriage do not have a marriage, even if they really live together, are technically faithful, and practice all the forms (the "reality" of) marriage.

Transcendental purpose comes from the belief in transcendental things (whether or not those things exist). Yet belief is not a function entirely of choice, but also a function of our minds as they construct internal models of reality upon experience of the world. Rightly then, those who value their experience of transcendental purpose worry that it might be taken away from them by contact with a harsh reality.

The answer to whether God and things of ultimate form exist, is not simple logical argument that you can present in a debate. Nor is it evidence of facts that can be summed up in a scientific paper. Belief in God is not going to come out of assurance in ones own logic and reasoning capacity.

God is a subtle arguer. He convinces us on the personal level, by daily calls and minute revelations, and veiled glimpses of greater purpose. We can make ourselves insensible to His arguments by surrounding ourselves with noise, and this is really the nihilism of the modern world -- for we moderns are drowned in the noise of ourselves more than any other time.

There is no way to come to belief in God except through Him and his arguments towards you. Many believe in man-constructed religious thought-systems called God. But to truly believe in Him is not something that can ever come from our own internal investigations.

Titus Didius Tacitus said...

"How, then, could so many people come to believe that the universe was meaningless and also to believe that they had strong grounds for believing that the universe was meaningless?"

Aggressive, persistent, pervasive, skillful propaganda, combined with the guilelessness of targets who trust that "smart people know these things" and combined with a weakness of great liars: a tendency to buy their own stories, partly as part of the acting process (to be as "sincere" and convincing as possible), and partly through a half-narcissistic falling in love with the products of their own deceptive cleverness.

Why the original deception? And its success despite the logical contradiction? Ultimately my answer is supernatural.

But at a practical and historical level: conflicts of group interest. Convincing people that their lives, their interests and above all their futures (beyond the span of a single life) are meaningless and not worth defending is one of the most aggressive moves that a group with superior verbal gifts can make. If you can pull it off, people won't defend their posterity, and over a short chain of generations you can enslave them, each generation selling its children a little more into debt or other forms of bondage for the sake of immediate comfort (or just as a concession to reduced the discomfort from nagging persuaders). After all, why not?

What are the specific means of deception? One is telling people, apparently with authority and certainly with skill, that ultimate meaning is where they will find that it is not. For example, if people "know" as a matter of dogma that the truth is within them, that they are secretly God, and that introspection will reveal all the truth, justice and meaning that there really is, you've got them, because introspection will reveal no such things.

Wm Jas said...

It seems very appropriate somehow that when you click to comment on this post you get the message "Please prove you're not a robot."

Donald said...

You've touched on an issue which I find most insidious!

It drives me nuts the contradictory ideas modern leftists will hold.

Nihilism is true but they are absolutely sure of certain moral maxims (do not discriminate, equality of persons is true and implies redistribution of resources, etc.).

Evolution is true but won't draw out the 'uncomfortable' implications on race, mate choice, sexual deviancy, contraception, abortion - and that the whole sexual revolution is an exercise in decreasing to the greatest degree possible ones reproductive fitness.

For me this question of nihilism and the meaninglessness of life without G-d was THE starting point in my conversion. I intuitively grasped from a very young this fact, and the lack of any objective morality nihilism implies - but didn't really put it all together until early 20's.

This is the necessary starting point for (many in) the post-Christian West. This medicine, if swallowed, makes the biases, slander and propaganda leveled against Christianity shrink drastically in the potential convert. He realizes it isn't the most important thing to weigh the social effects of Christianity, or its historical record, or it's theological peculiarities, or it's particular rituals - the only question is whether it is true.

Because when your options are a soul crushing meaningless, purposeless, valueless, abyss vs a joy, a reality deeper than you could have imagined, a Truth that makes everything 'click' - you realize just how ridiculous nihilism is, how incoherent and how out of touch with real life - and that you've been eating up someone elses silly ideas all your life!

The Crow said...

"Could Nihilism be true?"
Does it matter?
Is there a God?
Does it matter?

You decide what kind of person you want to be, and what kind of life you want to live. And act accordingly. If you chose well, the results will show it.

I couldn't function, now, without my awareness of God. Yet others seem to get by, anyway, without being functional.

Nick D. said...

Nihilism happens when you replace the crucifix with a cross. When you replace the Blessed Virgin holding the Baby, with a blindfolded (artificially blinded) demi-goddess holding a scale in one hand and a sword in the other.

(BTW, I've always wonderd how she could see the scale and know if she was smiting the right target).

Nihilism doesn't care. It doesn't care if it's a logically self-consuming vortex, because based on observation every "ism" fails and so what's the use? The world is gonna crash into the sun, all will be lost.

In a mere few decades, if not sooner, all the past battles, all the passions, seem ridiculous.

65,000 US dead and millions of Vietnamese and now look at the Coca Cola billboards in Ho Chi Minh City. All the Parisian barricades and those kids full of ideals became publicity agents for Multinationals.

The land of the free has 5% of the world's population and 25% of its prison inmates.

Stop the world, I wanna get off. It's a meaningless merry-go-round.

...unless there is a heaven and hell, an afterlife.

But there isn't. Life is a disease and death is a process of turning to muck and then dust, accompanied by bad odors.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - Yes, that is nihilism. But I don't believe you believe it.

@ND - I'm assuming your comment is a mixture of conviction and satire - but "Nihilism happens when you replace the crucifix with a cross." is surely nonsense - empirically verifiable nonsense? - unless you mean it in a much larger and more symbolic fashion... but then it is still nonsense! Devout Protestants and Mormons are *obviously* not nihilists - was Thomas Traherne a nihilist?

The Crow said...

You know, I don't really operate any more in terms of what is true and what isn't.
It's more like what is, as opposed to what isn't.
Does it work, or not work. Does it serve or not serve...

I've often said, to my wife, who seemed to be an atheist for a long time, that it really doesn't matter whether or not there is a God. As long as you deal with life as-if there is. Certainly, such a stance can do no harm, and the benefits may be great.

I may be able to say, with certainty, that there is a God. But others may not be able to. And so, for them, behaving as-if there is, is probably as good as it gets. Close is better than not-close.

Chuck said...

"AND YET people behave as if they have been convinced (by experience, argument etc) that nihilism is true - i.e. that the meaning of life is that there is no meaning to existence."

Your argument rests on equivocation. Existential versus Epistemic nihilism. The former means something like, "There is no absolute or transcendent truth", while the latter means something like "Nothing is logically true."