Monday 28 June 2010

Nihilism and Science

Science (including technology) is a part of modern secular culture – indeed, perhaps the ultimate cause of modernity.

Therefore science has participated in the nihilism (denial of reality and objective truth) characteristic of modernity, and has been itself destroyed by the incoherence of nihilism – like many other good things have been destroyed.

The four types of nihilism* are liberalism (=relativism and non-discrimination), realism (=materialism, and ‘scientism’), vitalism, and destructive nihilism.


Relativism has corroded science from being concerned with discovering the underlying and unifying truths about the world into… well, authoritarian careerism. Since it is characteristic of objective truth that competent and honest enquiry will converge onto it to give a free (uncoerced) consensus – when objective reality is denied then consensus becomes the only measure of ‘truth’.

So modern science has become merely consensus generating – in other words, peer review. Now, if a consensus of (supposedly authoritative) scientists state something, then that becomes operationally-‘true’ – and there is no further court of appeal.

From the earlier insight that ‘science generates spontaneous consensus’ we have now moved to the inverse state of ‘managed consensus defines science’.

Realism/ Scientism

The tremendous success of science through the 19th century led to scientism, in which truth was declared to be unique and specific to science. This was self-subverting, in several ways.

Scientism developed into the idea that truth was the product of scientific method – except that it later emerged that there was no such thing as the scientific method. So, scientific method was (arbitrarily) defined, and people began to suppose that truth could be manufactured by applying the method. Science was rendered into a sausage-machine: observations were fed-in, the handle of scientific method was turned, and sausages of truth emerged at the other end.

Since this does not work, the next step is that evaluation and validity of results must also be controlled – so that the sausages are pre-defined to be good, useful and original – even without need to taste (or test) them.

But scientism is most clearly self-refuting when it renders science pointless and worthless. Since human purpose, meaning and motivation are all rendered meaningless by science; scientism means there is no reason to do science.

Or scientism makes some kind of arbitrary assertion of the value of ‘science for science’s sake’ (equivalent to ‘art for art’s sake') – the idea that science is _obviously_ a supreme and necessary human (or humane?) activity (just *look* at the triumphs of science*); therefore _obviously_ we ought to do science...

But while it may be persuasive, 'look at the triumphs of science' is itself not an example of scientific method; thus scientism destroys any basis for asserting that science or indeed *any* human activity is supreme or necessary.

Truth cannot be a coherent supreme human value, and neither can science – simply because the statement that truth is the supreme value them attacks itself, and cannot validate its own truth; similarly the statement that science is the supreme value or methodology is itself a non-scientific (metaphysical) assertion, which is self-refuting.


Vitalism is the pursuit of emotional gratification, of ‘life’, as the basic human motivation. As a justification fro science it is seen in the rather desperate assertions that science is ‘great fun’, and that scientific truth is life-enhancing.

Skeptical secular scientists and scholars are often reduced to this – to a simple assertion that they do it because they like doing it: Wittgenstein said philosophy was useless and he did it from inner compulsion, Hardy said mathematics was useless and he did it from sheer delight, Feynman said (or implied) that he did physics because he found it fun.

Of course, such a justification from personal gratification would equally well serve to justify any human monstrosity or evil, or would justify being continually intoxicated, or doing nothing at all.

And, truth be told, there are few people who find philosophy, mathematics or science to be ‘fun’, or feel compelled to do them.

And – if someone is doing science for ‘fun’ suppose they find the most fun from management, or money, or attracting admiration, or speaking at conferences, or showing-off in print, or from seducing their students? Supposing they find these peripheral and inessential aspects of a scientific career to be more ‘fun’ than discovering the truth about the world – what would happen then?

To see the answer – just look around at modern science.

Destructive nihilism

There are plenty of people working in and around science (I hesitate to call them scientists) who are clearly mainly operating as destructive nihilists. That is to say they almost entirely lack positive aspirations (except as an excuse) but are primarily motivated by their desire for destruction.

There are many gangs in science whose main unifying feature is hatred of others and desire to harm them. This hatred and aggression is, of course, packaged for public consumption as contributing to some positive good - some speculation about the looming disasters which the hated ones are contributing-to.

But, tellingly, these speculations about the future harms to be caused by others are themselves unscientific; being various mixtures of uninformed, incompetent, arbitrary, undisconfirmable, imprecise, wildly hypothetical, and plain dishonest made-up stuff.

At an early stage, destructive nihilism is a normal component of sophomoric science or technical training – when a partly-trained (and still uneducated) prideful young scientist feels superior to the unenlightened, and delights in publicly and unrestrainedly savaging those with whom he currently disagrees.

Invariably, because it is a consequence of pride, this sophomoric over-aggression is combined with extreme personal sensitivity to slights (real or imagined) – the sophomoric pseudo-scientist can dish it out, but cannot take it.

(I am thinking here of many of the most prominent science and medical bloggers/ journalists; as well as some of the well known successful psychopaths of Big Science and medical research)

And I am also talking about the ‘anti-denialism’ phenomenon, in which people in-and-around science have generated gangs devoted to defining and detecting ‘denialism’, to creating hideous scenarios of disaster causally attributed to denialism, and organizing and stimulating hatred of the denialists.

Of course, destructive nihilistic energies feed upon their own expression, and as the activity expands it requires a growing and changing supply of new enemies.

This activity of destructive nihilism is often charged with demonic energy, because being given a license to hate and harm exerts a direct appeal to the dark side of human nature. So, in the short term, destructive nihilism can seem like creation, and is tempting for the enervated liberal, the bored materialist or the jaded vitalist.

If continued for long, destructive nihilism leads to the utter disintegration of the individual and culture who embrace prideful, demonic hatred – as depicted by Thomas Mann in his novel Doktor Faustus.

If not nihilism…

With nihilism all paths lead to incoherence and collapse. What instead? To be sustainable and energizing and creative over the long term, science must be based on an ultimate vision of the good; and this vision of ultimate good must itself derive from revelation, not from reason or observation – since the validity of reason and observation themselves depend on revelation.