Nice nihilism?

The topic is again nihilism, but as the author of the book under scrutiny this time puts it: a “nice nihilism”. What could that mean? Let’s see. The book is The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (2011) by philosopher Alex Rosenberg. He generally holds to the same basic understanding of reality that Thomas Ligotti promulgates in The Conspiracy… (see previous post): nothing exists other than matter and energy, meaning and purpose are illusions, humans are subject to the same laws as the rest of matter, the laws of matter are deterministic, thus free will, the self and morality are non-existent. Two major differences here are: 1) Rosenberg’s greater emphasis on getting the scientific details down, and more interestingly (for my study of nihilism), 2) his insistence that the nihilism that results from his worldview isn’t a plague to be fought off by the Ubermensch, as ol’ Nietzsche thought, nor is it a depressive, defeatist acceptance of the horror of emptiness at the heart of reality, as Ligotti suggests. We can deal with nihilism, Rosenberg thinks, as individuals and as societies – and such lives won’t be dramatically different from how we currently live.

Rosenberg opens the book with a quick run-down of the “persistent questions” he aims to provide correct answers to, as well as pithy versions of the answers. I might as well quote them here to give you the gist of his position:

“Is there a God? No.

What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.

What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.

What is the meaning of life? Ditto.

Why am I here? Just dumb luck.

Does prayer work? Of course not.

Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?

Is there free will? Not a chance!

What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on before, except us.

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.

Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.

What is love and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.

Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.

Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with (2-3).”

So what we have here is another rather hard-line materialist position. Rosenberg sees this position as a direct consequence of taking atheism seriously, and I think he’s more or less right. Note: in the past I was reluctant to let free will go, but the more I read on the subject, the less plausible it seems. But we might as well pretend as long as we can. And anyhow, we can’t really ditch the idea without going insane, as Ligotti notes. I’ll now run over the basics of why Rosenberg believes what he believes and then I’ll consider how his nihilism can be “nice”.

Rosenberg’s first premise and his continually repeated mantra is “the physical facts fix all the facts” (20). This means that physics provides “the whole truth about reality”. He means that any explanation of reality that relies on anything other than physics cannot be [correct/true/knowledge] (chemistry and biology are built-up out of physics and so they can). While physics is not nearly complete, he argues that we know enough to answer the persistent questions and that these answers will not change even with new discoveries in quantum mechanics, string theory or whatever. We know, for example, that in physics, purposes do not exist. This because, at the subatomic level, particles move and interact in completely random, indeterministic (quantum) ways, or: at the “basement level of reality, there are just probabilities” (38). The big bang was just another of these random, quantum events, and therefore all the “laws of nature” or constants that came into existence with it, those that “intelligent design” theorists try to cite the complexity of as proof of a creator, must simply be products of chance.

So at the subatomic level there’s no purpose or meaning, but perhaps at the macro level of creatures there is, you may be thinking. Perhaps conscious beings, for example, can imbue dry reality with juicy purpose or meaning? (you might call this the position of Nostalgia and it’s where most philosophers stand on the issue.) Well, no. Randomness destroys purpose at this level as well. Well, randomness combined with natural selection. Reproduction involves random mutations to a combination of parental DNA. Read about the details elsewhere. Some of these mutations produce creatures better suited to survival and reproduction than their fellows. These lucky mutants are more “fit” than their fellows, and tend to survive longer and thus produce more offspring than their fellows. Thus the fit mutants leave more offspring than the non-fit, thereby increasing the predominance of that mutation in the next generation. This happens again and again, and thus certain mutations flourish while others die off. Now, fitness is considered in relation to a particular, local environment and so can’t be used to find any sort of general purpose or meaning to a particular species’ success or extinction. The lobster’s fitness to its environment is not at all fitness in an alpine environment.

To avoid another massively long post: let’s sum up half of Rosenberg’s book: the blind variation of mutation along with natural selection (as well as other purpose-less factors such as genetic drift and catastrophes) are the mechanisms which produced reality as we know it. Dammit, I have to include one tangent: I was surprised to read about how natural selection and blind variation apply even at the level of molecules. After the big bang, atoms bounced around randomly, occasionally joining into molecules if the conditions were right. Most of these molecules would have lacked the correct configuration of chemical bonds between them and so would have been unstable and quickly split up. A few, however, would be stable and would be capable of copying themselves through a process called “template matching” (61). Tangent over. The take home point is that the blind filtering process of natural selection applies at pretty much every level of reality (including the level of your thoughts).

More obviously, blind variation and natural selection have produced us and all other animals. (Almost) everyone knows this. The more controversial aspect of this assertion is that almost all culture, morality, emotion, religion, self-evident truths and pretty much everything else that we do or think about was also produced by the combination of blind variation and natural selection. Thus, all that stuff is, as philosophers say, contingent, which is the opposite of necessary. It all could have went differently, had past mutations went differently, or had the environmental factors that contribute to selection for fitness been different. Therefore: no necessarily true Ten Commandments, sorry, and absolutely no standard for defining what is morally right or wrong. Rosenberg is right to emphasize the simple fact that would put a whole legion of philosophers out of work were it widely embraced: moral judgments are impossible to make because morality just does not exist. Being an “ethicist” must rank as one of the most absurd professions on the earth.

The question now is: how is Rosenberg going to convince us that this nihilism which denies morality, meaning and purpose is “nice”? Let us get to the meat. The gist of his argument is that natural selection and blind variation have happened to make us nice and that such niceness is hard-wired into us and is further reinforced by the soft-wiring of cultural/social factors.

He asserts that pretty much all humans share a “core morality” that is somewhat nebulous if a rigorous definition is sought, but includes such norms as “Protect your children,” “It’s okay to punish people who intentionally do wrong,” “It’s wrong to punish the innocent,” “On the whole, people’s being better off is morally preferable to their being worse off,” and others (104). Moral disputes result, he says, from the combination of principles of core morality with “factual” beliefs about reality. I put factual in quotes because it isn’t easy to see what the facts are when asking questions like “When is a fetus a person?” The answer depends on the definition of “person,” which is itself subject to further debate. Does personhood depend on consciousness, rights, or what? But even though we certainly have moral disputes, we are generally nice to each other, because historically our ancestors that were genetically predisposed to niceness were better at surviving. While we have wars, murder, rape, etc., we tend not to have so much of them as to shatter society completely. Our naturally-selected niceness and its principles of core morality are what allows Rosenberg to be optimistic about living with nihilism. We are all ready nice and bearing witness to the bleak truth of nihilism won’t change that, he argues. And further, “Scientism (which is his label for his brand of nihilism, as it accepts only the truths of science as real) allows for moral ‘improvement.’ It’s a matter of combining the core morality that evolution has inflicted on us with true beliefs vouched safe for us by science” (144). I’m glad to report that he’s not foolish enough to suppose that scientific facts will allow us to find definite answers to moral questions. He rightly admits that the question of what action is to be taken when confronted with a moral problem will most often have to be decided by local facts about that particular problem. Science won’t give us moral rules, just facts on which to base decisions.

That’s it. That’s his conclusion on how to live with nihilism. Essentially: “don’t worry about it”. He advocates an “Epicurean detachment” or “a tranquil self-sufficient life along with your friends” as the good life and pain as the bad life (313). And if you can’t manage sufficient Epicureanism, he offers a second option: modify your brain chemistry. He writes:

“Alas, some people do get everything right about the universe and our place in it and still remain dissatisfied. Satisfying themselves that science answers all the persistent questions correctly, they are still troubled. You, gentle reader, may be one of these people. Fortunately for such people, Epicurus was almost right. If you still can’t sleep at night, even after accepting science’s answers to the persistent questions, you probably just need one more little thing besides Epicurean detachment. Take a Prozac or your favorite serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and keep taking them until they kick in” (315).

That’s nihilism, and I like it. That’s also why I like alcohol. Call it cynical, but he’s right to dethrone the notion of a natural, authentic relation to reality. There’s no reason to suppose that, once we figure out what reality is like, that it’s going to be pleasant. The assumption of such is a hold-over from religion and its notions of reality being designed for us. This is the very same pit of stupidity that most new-age, spiritualist and occult belief systems fall into. Rosenberg might be the first academic philosopher I’ve read to be honest in this respect. No nonsense about living “authentically” or “heroically” as Heidegger or Camus might say.

But I wouldn’t be a philosopher without criticizing Rosenberg in some way, would I? The obvious problem with his scientism/nihilism is that he’s too optimistic about the extent to which core morality and our hard-wired niceness will maintain a somewhat “nice” social order. I mean, genetic modification technology is advancing at light speed. If we can already tweak the genes of fetuses to eliminate genetic diseases and defects, more in-depth modification of ourselves doesn’t seem far off. Who’s to say people won’t choose to shut-off or annihilate their hard-wired niceness? A corporate ladder-climber would probably benefit from the annihilation of some of her/his core morality – it’s been shown that psychopaths do very well in the corporate world… How long will nihilism remain nice?

Anyhow, this is a book I’d recommend to almost any person that tries thinking occasionally, and especially to my philosopher friends. I think it’ll piss most of them off. There’s a lot more to it than I can discuss here. I didn’t even try to mention his dismantling of the notion of “aboutness” in general, or his claims that the brain is just a relatively simple collection of input/output circuits, or his disturbingly wide application of the second law of thermodynamics…



Filed under philosophy

7 responses to “Nice nihilism?

  1. Hey, nice post. My brother Marty mentioned your site. I checked it out and it got me thinking. I put up a response piece at about nihilism and materialism. Cheers.

    • Hey Eric, thanks for reading and replying. I strongly suggest you read the full book as my post does not do justice to its scope. Quickly though, I’ll try to clarify a few of the more important points in the quick and dirty list.

      Meaning: he’s talking about objective meanings, yes. But he actually holds that nothing can ‘mean’ anything in the sense of ‘being about’ anything else, or even about itself. This includes (subjective) thoughts in your mind that are ostensibly ‘about’ anything at all. That chapter is too dense for me to attempt a short recapitulation. It boils down to the brain being functionally composed of myriad clusters of neurons that function as simple pattern recognizers, producing particular outputs when faced with particular inputs. All brain function consists of this simple process. There’s no such thing as understanding or recognition at the conscious or even unconscious level then. Just dumb mechanism.

      The prayer bit: I think he’s referring to the intended effects a prayer, like “please keep X person free from harm, dear lord” or “please make judgement day come sooner, dear lord”. I think it’s safe to say that prayer does not work in the sense of achieving those sorts of ends. (though I am a dogmatic atheist).
      On free will: he would say that while you may feel like you could have done something else in a particular situation, you never could have since everything that ever will happen has been laid out since the big bang. I’m still researching about free will and so don’t have a strong argument against it, (it would be nice if it existed, but science has progressively expelled niceness from reality) but I’m not optimistic. I’m starting to think that optimism is one of the biggest obstacles to dealing honestly with reality.

      And about disregarding human experience: that’s the goal, I think… or maybe just a goal I think is valuable. Since the human being is a wholly contingent structure/being/mode of being there’s no reason to stick to it, elevate it or even respect it, I’d say. There certainly exist better ways to do things out there, with betterness being defined in relation to one’s chosen or ostensibly-chosen projects. The most interesting mission right now might be to ‘get outside’ human experience, to build a new kind.

      Finally, a point about being a dogmatic atheist/scientific materialist. I guess, for me at least, it’s an epistemic issue. I see you endorse the chaoist method of holding no fixed beliefs, but I find myself unable to operate like that because I find some beliefs more justified than others, and the justified ones are generally the ones science produces (let’s not wade into the tedium of epistemic justification though). You dispute Rosenberg’s assertion that science has all the answers, but that’s just his point: many of the questions people keep asking don’t have answers other than the unsatisfying ones (we might call them ”shrugs”) science provides (ex. as to the purpose of life). What he’s saying is that science has shown us that certain questions can’t be meaningfully asked. So in a way, science answers certain questions by pre-empting them from being seriously asked.

      One more thing, and I won’t stand by this due to ignorance, he thinks that while science is far from being complete, major revisions are impossible at this point, certain parameters having been fixed. So that’s how he can assert that physics fixes all the facts. The basic facts won’t change, he thinks. On this, at least, I’ll refuse to fix a belief. Hope that clarifies a few things.

      • Hey James.

        I really do see where he’s coming from on most of this, but I have a few contrary views that aren’t really philosophically soluble with his. For instance, I don’t think we will every truly get outside the human experience, just evolve that experience to integrate it more and more with the facts of the universe.

        Maybe he’ll convince me. I’ll put the book on my short list to read, but my short list is ridiculously long right now so I doubt I’ll get to it soon. Just up the list from Rosenberg’s book is “Free WIll” by Sam Harris, which only recently appeared on my radar. If you’ve read it I’d be interested to hear about it. If not, maybe it’ll spark a future discussion.

        Thanks for the response.


  2. Joel Janisse

    Interesting post. You’ve piqued my interest in the book. Given your outline of the book and Eric’s response above I feel impelled to throw my two cents in about the two positions as I understand them. I actually think Eric’s question about Rosenberg’s “meaning” is also tied to hard determinism in the sense that I can no more act like a hard determinist than I can go on struggling to understand things without language. It’s very seductive to believe that all these words are just stains upon the nothingness, and I do believe they are, but it’s another thing entirely to live that way. If my primary vehicle for understanding “reality” are a bunch of self referential “unreal” words, then so be it. They still do considerable work in helping understand what is otherwise incomprehensible.

    I’m not saying Eric’s position is specifically a sort of po-moish language=the impossibility of knowledge one, but if Rosenberg is one extreme, and po-mo radical doubt is another I find Rosenberg’s ideas more compelling (minus the incomprehensible love bit).

    A semi-related thing this post made me think about is, in a future where human genetic/tech alterations are the norm, will we be able to reduce hard determinism to the atomic level? As we obliterate human nature and any socio-biologic consensus, will we approach a state of almost old school existential freedom as determinism becomes for us a sort of determinism “of the gaps.”

    • Eric: Harris’ book is on my (long) short list too. There also a Very Short Introduction book on free will but I hear it’s not great.

      Joel: can you elaborate on your last point? are you saying we could reduce how determined we are?

  3. Joel Janisse

    I wouldn’t say we can exactly reduce how determined we are, but it seems like you can maybe reduce the number of factors that determine your “self” to a minimum. I’m wondering, if we can free ourselves from biological needs and instincts and become post-human, almost pure, “minds,” (free of needs and desires of any kind) can we not start to think about determinism as having very minute, specific causes?

    And if we can reduce those causes to what are essentially random quantum causes, then it doesn’t really seem like determinism anymore, to me. In other words, if we take it as true that sub-atomic particles behave randomly, and that they are the causes that determine us (when we are pure minds), then I can’t exactly follow a chain of causes because each cause has sprung up randomly.

    I think a key part to most people’s understanding of determinism is that with infinite knowledge you can fallow a chain of causes that lead to the present (and perhaps even predict the future). I would argue, however, that random quantum events dissolve this chain and in a post human future where these random quantum events play a larger role in the sum total of causes we are subject to, we do, in a way, become less determined (in the traditional sense).

    None of this is an argument for free will. Far from it. The debate for me is no free will vs. determinism, but determinism vs. randomness.

    A great TTC lecture series exits about the history of the Free Will/Determinism debate. There’s a torrent of it somewhere.

    • I agree that anyone engaged in philosophy should be charting into their own subconscious tendencies, bringing to consciousness those determining factors they were previously unaware of. That’s mental growth. But with material determinism, “Mind” has been reduced to brain biology, so our selves remain wholly material and wholly determined. It’s a slippery issue, and I have to admit I haven’t completely made up my mind on it.

      I read “Free Will” and it was good. I wrote a review of it here:

      I have a handful of issues and grey areas that Harris doesn’t cover in the book, so my review certainly isn’t my last word on the issue (it’s a generous review). I think there are still some unsettling assumptions being made here without proof. If I had more time now I’d elaborate…but since I have no free will, it’s time to go to work.


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