On nihilism, scepticism, absolutism

When you blithely believe there is nothing worth believing in

I read with great interest the essay of Nolen Gertz on Nihilism for the Aeon magazine, published on 2020-02-27. The author presents us with permutations of nihilistic thinking and how they can affect various aspects of our intellectual pursuits or quotidian life in general.

What follows are some thoughts of mine on the broader topic, which extend parts of what I wrote in my previous two publications:

This is not a commentary on Gertz’s work. Just me initiating a process of thinking with “by the way”…

To my mind nihilism is the flip-side of a dogmatic world-view that rests on ultimate truths. The nihilist is concerned with the absolute: perfect knowledge, true meaning, real justice, and the like. Once it becomes apparent that these ideals are not attainable, what remains is the conclusion that they must not exist in the way we originally assumed and are therefore spurious, illusory, or devoid of meaning.

On the face of it, nihilism is scepticism with a different name: it questions the validity of propositions that purport to be founded on some certainty, only to be proven wanting once subjected to scrutiny. Like the sceptic, the nihilist does not take anything at face value, nor do they provide assent to claims whose sole source of plausibility is some social/cultural authority.

Upon closer inspection though, the nihilist has a different attitude towards knowledge and learning than what scepticism would entail. The sceptic will recognise our uncertainty for what it is under the present circumstances: we do not know for sure based on the information we have and the tools at our disposal, but we might learn more when the state that produces this uncertainty is somehow altered.

Scepticism does not preemptively dismiss the possibility of expanding our understanding of things. Such a course of action would imply that we can be sure about the distant future or, more generally, about a state of affairs whose contributing factors have yet to be combined in a particular way while being framed by hitherto unforeseen parameters. Perhaps we might discover a hint that offers us the impetus to revise our methods and rethink our ways, which could ultimately allow us to see things from a vantage point that was not reachable before.

In other words, the sceptic does not have a dogmatic stance towards scepticism: they do not rule out the possibility of revealing some truth, of gradually removing the veil of obscurity over something.

What matters is the sense of perspective that underpins the sceptical enterprise. We may attain proximate certainty, in that we can have a relatively better grasp of the concepts involved. An approximation is just that. It is not perfect. It also is distinct from having nothing at all.

Whereas the nihilist is closer in spirit to the Academic Sceptics of yore who entertained the notion that “true knowledge”, in the sense of the Platonic Form of it, is unattainable and humans are condemned to only ever experience the Form indirectly and falsely through its instantiations.

The issue with this line of argumentation, and despite the surface-level dubitative disposition, is the attitude of certainty. The ancient Academic Sceptic, like the modern-day nihilist, was convinced that absolute certainty is impossible. To which the more cautious sceptic counters with the all too predictable: “are you sure?”.

A sceptical attitude towards life is all about withholding final judgement on all matters of inquiry. I would even argue that scepticism at the meta-philosophical level entails the recognition that philosophy as a whole has no ultimate positive statements to propound and that it merely stands as a body of negative propositions against dogmatic arguments on the finality of the topics examined.

The nihilist will claim to have found liberty in the belief that life has no meaning. But what if it does? What if our existence is, so to speak, put on rails with us heading somewhere we do not know about in advance and have not decided ourselves? How can we determine with certainty that we as humans, or life in general, are not an intermediate stage towards some end, which itself might be yet another point in pursuit of some greater end, and so on?

What irrefutable proof do you have to dismiss this possibility in favour of nihilism? And how can you ever be a nihilist if you have no such proof against the very notion that irrefutable proofs might exist?

If the belief in meaninglessness gives you tranquillity, then there is something valuable in that state of mind that you recognise, some quality that renders it preferable to other possible experiences. That you would value tranquillity over some sort of anxiety suggests that something is at play that makes value judgements or orders your preferences accordingly. If there is nothing whatsoever, then there is no reason to believe that there is any difference between tranquillity and anxiety, or between any possible trade-offs you might think of.

It therefore comes down to a matter of practicality; of accepting that the insistence on the absolute leads us to contradictions and that our biology or however we may frame the human condition—our life in its actuality—gives us imperfect grounds for argumentation and reasoning. As such, we might need to re-calibrate our conception of the ideal as not necessarily exogenous; an ideal that is not treated as external in its origin once examined relative to our presence or the conscience of it. Why not consider the absolute as nothing more and nothing less than the logical extension of what we have in front us and what we do actually attain through immediate experience or inferences that are drawn therefrom?

Consider this example. We interact with dogs of different breeds, character traits, physical characteristics… We derive a notion of what the abstract “dog” is based on the patterns we trace. To our mind the term “dog” is a reference to the commonalities among the plurality of specimens we experience; the patterns in their combination (e.g. not just four-legged or carnivorous, but four-legged and carnivorous).

This allows us to clearly distinguish a dog from a fish or a human and to recognise a heretofore unknown breed based on the taxonomy we have formulated (a taxonomy that remains subject to review and further refinement). There is no need to argue endlessly on what the Form of “dog” is, how unattainable it may be, and why everything else in the absence of the absolute is worthless.

By abstracting from the basics that are available to our faculties, we have developed a criterion that is good enough in light of our imperfect existence. There is some value to having this partial knowledge, in that we can use it to tell what the difference is between this or that. It also serves as a mechanism for filtering and sorting opinions on the matter. We can, for instance, dismiss views that argue on the impossibility and utter futility of ‘truly knowing’ the difference between a dog and a human.

More fundamentally, the core problem with all absolutist claims, be they nihilist or not, is that they fail to maintain any kind of granularity with regard to the domain in which their concepts may be rendered valid. There is no absolute beauty to be found in a given human being because such a person is not absolute, not perfect. There is no “true” dog to be experienced because we only ever deal with instances of an abstraction, patterns that help us outline a mental construct, which itself stands in juxtaposition to other such constructs.

Absolutes can only apply to a domain where everything is taken to its logical end. Conversely, forcing an absolute on an instance (or vice versa) is a fallacy: the conflation between the scopes of application of the items being considered (treating the absolute in terms of an instance, or the instance as if it were an ideal).

Understanding the scope of application has practical benefits as well, such as in our politics. We can discern the difference in role between a single person and a state apparatus. The question “what have you done to tackle poverty?” has aspects to it and a unique set of implications that are contingent on the role of the moral agent. Without accounting for such a critical component of the subject, we fail to distinguish between the capacities of the possible agents. That can only engender falsehoods where we treat the dissimilar as if they were similar.

In practice, nihilism is an alias for a brand of idealism that has gone wild, which in turn is an expedient way of describing a mindset that places disproportionate emphasis on the purity of concepts without sufficient consideration of how these are mapped to phenomena and their underlying mechanics or structures.

There is a difference between (i) holding an ideal and (ii) arguing that only the ideal matters. The former serves as a guide to your thinking, such as the perfect version of something showing you the way for what may be a good status or the subsequent betterment of it. Whereas the latter is an attitude that will force you into submission once you apply it consistently to every aspect of your life.

I am starting to question the motivation for writing this, for I now question whether there are any “true nihilists” out there, in the absolute sense of “true” and “nihilist”. They must have all starved to death, successfully rejecting the absurdity of one “essentially” meaningless meal after another. While none of them formulated any argument about anything, including their nihilism, for that too would be in vein according to their thinking.

Since I already indulged in sarcasm, here is the practically-minded sceptic’s guide to opting for a school of thought in philosophy: if you cannot live in accordance with your teachings, then maybe you need to find some other field of endeavour, preferably one that does not involve armchairs.