In Defense of Nihilism

One of the most influential books in my life has been Robert Paul Wolff’s In Defense of Anarchism [stderr] [wc]. It clarified my politics, to me, and made me able to understand why it was that I was so suspicious of politicians of all stripes. Taken along with Popkin’s History of Skepticism from Savanarola to Bayle [stderr] [wc] it made me feel as though I suddenly understood some things differently and in a more powerful way: skepticism, nihilism, and anarchism are all an alternative to politics or philosophy as usually practiced. That’s a dramatic claim but please let me try to justify it.

Most people’s understanding of nihilism begins and ends with Nietzsche. That’s reasonable enough, as it is, because he was responsible for promoting a sort of nihilism as an alternative to belief in gods, specifically, christianity – except that Nietzsche keeps changing what he means by nihilism, and it’s therefore a bit hard to nail it down specifically. For example:

Nihilism: any aim is lacking, any answer to the question “why” is lacking. What does nihilism mean?–that the supreme values devaluate themselves.

What, huh? A nihilist, as Nietzsche portrays them, wouldn’t even ask “why?” – what Nietzsche is doing is using a caricature-form of nihilism as a stalking-goat to describe the sort of terrible consequences that come when people stop believing in greater things. Nietzsche was trying to make a case that people should make a great leap of faith from decadent christianity (OK, Fred, I’m with you so far…) but that they should not fall into unbelief since that amounts to a belief in nothingness – a desire for nothingness. [There, he is taking a back-handed swipe at Schopenhauer] Nietzsche is setting up the argument that we risk accepting meaninglessness and nothingness and that the alternative is through the construction of a new meaning, i.e.: now that we are free of christian bullshit we should make up some Nietzschean bullshit to believe in, or something to that effect. I’m not going to write a book on Nietzsche and nihilism here, because it’s not necessary – Nietzsche is holding up nihilism as a boogie-man and nothing more, and his basic move is that of many philosophers through time immemorial: they’re trying to sneak in a helping of “you should do this” as the sequel to a “this is the situation, therefore:” to Nietzsche nihilism is something that must be overcome in order for mankind to realize its potential. In that sense, I agree with the writers who say that Nietzsche was the first existentialist: he believes that we need to become ourselves by interpreting ourselves and as long as that interpretation is glorious, then we’ll be glorious, or something like that. I have to confess, here, that I think most of the existentialists with the exception of Camus are a bunch of bloviators who talk a nice game about “radical freedom” but conceal within all that talk a lack of any idea of how radical freedom actually exists and works; the skeptic in me immediately suspects that all that sound and fury is a smoke-screen for the existentialist not having even a basic answer to “how to live?” that is more sensible than “fake it ’till you make it.”

I don’t want to struggle with Nietzsche’s characterization of nihilism, which is protean, but rather to put nihilism on a sound basis as what it is: a system of skepticism. It’s also worth mentioning, at this point, that there isn’t just one nihilism; there are many nihilisms. There is political nihilism: the strong suspicion that politics are bullshit. And there is moral nihilism: doubt that moral systems are coherent, or are anything more than someone’s opinion; after all, Socrates argued once, perhaps what is pious is merely what is beloved of the gods and therefore the opinion of the gods. So what, when the gods are dead? There is philosophical nihilism, a suspicion that systems of meaning and knowledge are not all they crack themselves up to be. And there is linguistic nihilism, a suspicion that language is not an adequate tool to achieve understanding that is sufficient to rely upon. There is probably a nihilism about pop music, but I’m not qualified to produce a thumbnail sketch of that, as I hardly listen to any pop music since David Bowie died. There is one form of nihilism that I do not believe exists, which is the Nietzsche-inspired caricature of nihilism that wants to see the world burn, i.e.:

A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist.

That’s a base calumny; for one thing it would be extreme skeptical malpractice to make an unfounded assertion that the world ought not to be. In my opinion, that would be a pretty dogmatic stance for a skeptic to take; they’d have to present some impressive arguments indeed to convince us that the world ought not to be, when it appears to be and none of us appear to have the power to make it stop being. I’d accuse Nietzsche of just being silly, but that’s probably too ‘edgy’ and he’s not around to stick up for himself anymore.

According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning: the pathos of ‘in vain’ is the nihilists’ pathos – at the same time, as pathos, an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists.

That’s a simple upgraded version of the old, “if someone says they are a nihilist, start punching them until they acknowledge that you exist” high school philosophy student maneuver. Depending on the nihilist you’re talking about, their response might be something like: “I deal with the world as it appears to me to be, and I don’t appear to like the idea of you punching me (pulls a .45 and shoots the philosopher in the knee) and you appear to understand what I mean.” Nietzsche is also trotting out the other old axis of that argument: if you don’t believe anything has any meaning, you’re inconsistent if you complain. Here’s why I am unhappy with Nietzsche making such apparently lazy and poorly thought-out arguments: those challenges to skepticism seem to me to have been effectively dealt with around 400BC by the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis. Now, we can talk about non-caricatured nihilism: the pyrrhonian skeptics.

This amazing rendering of Freddy was done in Zbrush and Cinema4d by Hadi Karimi [source]

Before I switch to talking about the pyrrhonists, let me make another observation on Nietzsche’s caricature of nihilism above: “According to this view, our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning” No, that’s not right. I hope the great Nietzsche was just making a simple mistake, and not being knowingly dishonest, but here’s the problem: radical skeptics (as a Nietzschean nihilist would seem to be) do not make broad assertions about things, on the order of “existence has no meaning.” A radical skeptic would say something more like: your argument that our existence has ‘meaning’ does not work for me, so I’m withholding judgement on that topic.”

Let’s consider briefly one of the big differences between a skeptic and a dogmatist. Dogmatism is the tendency some people have to state their beliefs as true, and expect others to accept them as true per se. A good example of a dogmatist is the pope, who mistakes his opinions for facts, and regularly states them as though they were facts not just the beliefs of some religion-addled lonely old coot. A skeptic is someone who is deeply concerned with the problem of separating beliefs from facts, and who may, in the extreme case, give up on being able to convince anyone of the distinction and just say “I think I’m going to just talk in terms of how things appear to me to be.” The pope might say “it is a sin to kill” but the wily radical skeptic might say, “the pope appears to believe it is a sin to kill.” Or perhaps “that lonely old bugger in the white dress appears to self-identify as a ‘pope’.” The radical skeptic, who couches their response in terms of how things appear to be might say that they are just trying to be honest about the situation (as it appears to be) because they’re aware that they have minimal power to convince anyone what a ‘pope’ is let alone whether that is or is not one, or whether anyone gives a shit. The “it appears to me now that…” formulation is a deadly skeptical maneuver that protects the skeptic from making an untoward assertion, i.e.: being dogmatic. Being dogmatic is a deadly trap in philosophy, as Plato’s Socrates demonstrated over and over: if you lead with your chin in a battle of words against Socrates, you’re going to get tied into knots and you’ll go down in the history of philosophy as a sucker who got in a blog-war with a philosopher who arranged the situation so that they would always have the last word and edit what you said to make you sound even less smart than you probably did.

The reason the skeptic/dogmatist break is so important in philosophy is because the skeptics have always been able to deploy a sort of horrendous scorched-earth warfare against dogmatists by challenging the systems of knowledge by which they can claim to know what they are talking about. I was being somewhat silly in my example of the pope, above, but imagine that you were arguing with the pope and instead of trying to deal with the stupid dogmatic mouth-sounds they are making, you simply fired off a question: “what is a ‘pope’?” I like how Wikipedia describes pyrrhonian skepticism’s reaction to claims of knowledge [wik]

To bring the mind to ataraxia Pyrrhonism uses epoché (suspension of judgment) regarding all non-evident propositions. Pyrrhonists dispute that the dogmatists – which includes all of Pyrrhonism’s rival philosophies – have found truth regarding non-evident matters. For any non-evident matter, a Pyrrhonist makes arguments for and against such that the matter cannot be concluded, thus suspending belief and thereby inducing ataraxia.

“Ataraxia” is the state of being unconcerned with something. If you want to bring pyrrhonism to life, in your mind, translate “ataraxia” to “not giving a fuck” in general, or “not giving a fuck about some thing in specific.” In the example above, our pyrrhonian is trying to not give a fuck about the pope, and the pope’s dogma, and opinions, and pretty much anything to do with the pope in general. I trust that you can get behind that attitude, it’s beatific, or it appears to be.

Pyrrhonian skeptics had a set of rhetorical techniques designed to demolish any claims of knowledge that someone might make. And, this is where, as Popkin describes it in The History of Skepticism from Savanarola to Bayle (which starts with the Pyrrhonians, uh, urr) philosophy moved into the endless wars of epistemology. The problem is that, if you can demolish anyone’s claims to knowledge, you’ve written yourself a winning ticket for every debate. You’ve also made yourself insufferable. [Briefly: the epistemology wars are the history that Popkin writes, and it’s incredible, fascinating stuff. If I can boil his thesis down to a sentence or two: christians during the schism and reformation weaponized skeptical epistemological challenges to attack the authority of popes, and the catholics responded in kind, attacking the reformation’s claims of knowledge, as well. Popkin traces how this left open room for the enlightenment philosophers to come along and try to construct empirical systems of knowledge, which could resist skeptical challenge, until David Hume basically played Godzilla to all of their fine ideas] What I was teasing the beginning of, with my example of the pope, is the pyrhhonian mode of circularity (adopted from Aggripa) which is to keep asking “what is that?” whenever someone attempts to define something in terms of some other thing. It turns out that 5 year-olds often hit of this trick independently, so if you ever have a 5 year-old pull this on you, tell them that they’re just using the circular mode of disputation, and that was old hat by 400BC and they need to learn to argue better. Joking aside, it appears to me that the pyrhhonian skeptical tropes are the Wu Tang Monkey Fist of philosophy: once you’ve mastered the disputational mode, regression mode, and circular definitions, you can never lose an argument again – at the cost of never winning one, either. Right? Because all these skeptical moves amount to flipping the board over and saying “it’s impossible to play with you at this time” and walking away.

Back to nihilism; now we are ready to consider it as a form of skepticism, and not necessarily only a form of radical skepticism. For example, a moral nihilist is skeptical regarding philosophers’ attempts at constructing moral systems. That’s it, it’s that simple. A moral nihilist is not dogmatically asserting that it’s not possible to construct moral systems – dogmatic assertions like that are exactly what skeptics and nihilists are trying to avoid making. In fact, Nietzsche’s claim that his version of a nihilist’s are self-refuting is exactly what the nihilist is avoiding: Nietzsche would have them claiming “morality is impossible!” or something like that, which would be a dogmatic assertion regarding morals – namely, that they are impossible. Saying that would be dumb, and Nietzsche is setting up a very poor straw-man that he then proceeds to thrash. I’d say that the most assertive a moral nihilist might get, regarding morals, is “I’m unconvinced by your moral system” and that’s about it.

A few years ago, Richard Carrier drank a bunch of virtue ethics kool-ade and started going on about how there were “objective moral truths” and Sam Harris also weighed in with some very badly constructed challenges, which – ironically – were the antithesis of the skepticism that Harris has alleged that he displays. I don’t think I should re-hash that entire affair, but if you’re interested you can pursue Richard Carriers’ comments [carrier] [carrier2] The commentary on Coelsblog is also fairly good, but [coels] also takes Harris and Carrier more seriously than they appear to deserve. There are two problems: virtue ethics don’t appear to actually present any kind of objective moral system, they simply catalog a bunch of people’s opinions about what “virtuous” (i.e.: good) behavior is, as a sort of vague laundry-list that is then promoted (if you’re Sam Harris) to being “facts”. Naturally, I decided to play in Carrier and Harris’ challenges, and asked simply, “how do you distinguish your ‘moral facts’ from your personal opinion? Thank you, you can send the $2000 to my address ${address} and I will donate the money to BDS” Carrier frequently referenced the work of Philippa Foot, who was the inventor of the “trolley cart problem.” Foot, in her book Natural Goodness discusses how her virtue ethics respond to a nihilist challenge. She said, “they don’t” and basically, blew a fairly impressive smokescreen that was certainly better written than Carriers and Harris’ efforts, but none of them appeared to address basic skeptical challenges to their basis for knowledge. For example, virtue ethics seem to try to sneak a bunch of pre-existing value systems across the goal-line by calling them ‘virtues’ that are already held by wise people and then we can reify those values into a system. Harris’ moral landscape idea appears to try a similar trick, by claiming that science can determine factually what causes people to flourish and therefore, uh, morals? Basically, Harris’ “flourishing” is the pre-existing value system that gets reified. To a skeptic, this is really infantile stuff – it’s second-ordering someone’s existing opinion, because what we conspicuously do not appear to see coming from any of this is: concrete workable moral advice. Foot, Harris, and Carrier argue that moral systems can be discovered by probing humans’ ideas of virtues and that science can determine these things but: where is the result? There doesn’t actually appear to be any! Because the argument, translated from the original bafflegab, appears as though it might be “science can poll people’s opinions regarding what objective, measurable things have positively or negatively affected their well-being in their opinion, at the time that they are polled.” In other words: it is a fact that people have opinions, but beyond that, so what? We already know that lots of people have lots of opinions about what should and should not happen, but obviously those opinions are not convincing (as universal moral arguments might be, if there were such things) because people disagree about things regarding what they should/shouldn’t do and why. This is the same basic skeptical/nihilist objection that can be levied against things like utilitarianism: if it is possible to reason “what is the greater good for the greater number” then why do people still appear to disagree about these things? Could it be that reasoning about the greater good for the greater number is a pipe-dream given that all humans have partial information, cannot accurately predict the future, cannot predict future accidents, and appear to be kind of selfish most of the time? It doesn’t take rocket science-level skepticism to note that these moral systems are suspiciously short on output. They don’t even get far enough to have any output that we can examine and assess: the “moral calculus” appears indistinguishable from someone going through the process of forming an opinion. This is all very unconvincing stuff. It’s a bit better than the christian’s “god says so” authoritarianism that Nietzsche was reacting to, but calling it scientific, objective facts, seems to be dishonest, or stupid, or perhaps both.

A convincing moral system, if such a thing existed, would – you know – convince people with the obvious truth of the advice that it produces. One litmus test I would want to apply to such a system was the degree to which it changed my existing beliefs based on its arguments and truth. And, of course, if it could change my beliefs, it would seem that it would change others’, as well. It would seem as though a new religion had broken loose on humanity; suddenly people would shake their heads as if to throw off a life-long delusion and say, I don’t know, maybe “it’s true! I should love my fellow man as much as I love myself!” Here, in a manner, I am using the pyrhhonian “mode of dispute” in which a dogmatist’s statements are examined for truth by arguing that if the dogma were true then everyone would agree with it. If it’s not universally accepted then that’s a clue that what we are seeing is a difference of opinion. The mode of dispute is brutal on dogma, because, apparently, dogma are pretty much pure solid opinion being passed off as fact; as soon as controversy is exposed the game is over. The next move is for the dogmatist to appeal to authority, so the skeptic ought to head that off at the pass by observing that controversial “facts” presented as dogma are an appeal to authority and that doesn’t carry any water. Oops, I accidentally disposed of virtue ethics, right there, didn’t I? Here’s a more explicit example: one of the “virtues” is honesty. Yet, we observe lots of people are not honest and being dishonest doesn’t bother everyone and it appears that some people get by quite nicely being dishonest all the time. Therefore, the status of honesty as a “virtue” is unclear because apparently not everyone agrees, as they would if it were, actually, a virtue. Perhaps, what we are dealing with is simply someone’s well-meant opinion that honesty is a good thing – an opinion that is not shared by everyone or even close to it. If you’re a snarky nihilist you can tweak Nietzsche’s ghost by signing off that thought with, “it’s authoritarianism, just like christianity – reifying the collective opinions of generations of ‘holy men’ and elevating their opinions to the level of dogma.”

I should stop beating this dead horse, but apparently I am a necro-equine sadist (a strongly-held virtue, in my small circle of friends) but I have to say I find it quite amazing that Harris can say, with a straight face, that “science can objectively understand and reason about morality – but, we, um, haven’t gotten around to it, yet.” Seriously, how can anyone can not realize that “the well-being of people” embeds a lot of people’s opinions about well-being? We don’t even need to subject “well-being” to the pyrrhonian method of progress ad infinitum – i.e: our notion of “well-being” is so broad that it will have to depend on various subordinate forms of well-being taken together, which we can regress infinitely until we come to a mass of disputed points. Is “well-being” always going to mean that I am free of heroin addiction? What if I have high quality heroin, lots of it, and fantastic self-control? Suddenly, does well-being mean simply that we are in good basic health and free from addictions, or that we are happy? Who is to say? Oh, right, the person who is defining “well-being” is sneaking their opinion into the ring, under cover of alleged agreement. [Regarding heroin, perhaps Keith Richards has a different opinion on well-being than Mitch Hedberg] If I can so easily zoom down and come up with a sub-element of “well-being” that is trivially disputable, shall we talk about cheeseburgers, next? The skeptic/nihilist isn’t saying “it’s impossible to build an objective moral system” they’re just saying “your attempt right there doesn’t impress me much.” What’s sad, to me, as a nihilist who remains unconvinced by many systems of morals, is that so far I haven’t stumbled across even a fair attempt to make a sensible recommendation regarding the cheeseburger or heroin. That’s sad. If moral philosophers want to talk about systems of morals, maybe one of them could turn everyone on the planet vegan with their amazing objective argument for why eating meat is bad. [Note, it’s my opinion that eating meat is bad, but I do it anyway because it’s yummy and I’m selfish.]

So, let me recap a bit: nihilism is not what most people think it is. Most people have fallen for Nietzsche’s unfair characterization of nihilism as a foil that he used against the decadence of christianity. Thanks, Fred. What I am arguing is that nihilism should be seen as part of a skeptical tradition, of not being easily convinced by poor arguments. A skeptic is someone who listens, and thinks, and perhaps asks a few probing Socrates-style questions, then – unless they are convinced, they simply say “I am unconvinced that…” A skeptic is someone who doesn’t charge head-long into the problem of induction at the drop of a hat, and says, “I try to deal with the world as it appears to me to be.” A skeptic is someone who is presented with a trolley-car problem and says, “before we go any further with hypotheticals for our entertainment can I mention that this ‘situation’ you describe does not appear to be what is actually happening, and therefore I cannot say anything sensible about how I might react if I found myself in that actual situation?” followed by, “… and do you wonder why a lot of people who concern themselves with the world as it appears to be don’t take you philosophers very seriously?” [Furthermore, as I mention here [stderr] I did have to deal with a real-life variant of the trolley car experiment and I fucking Kobayashi Maru’d it and nobody died that day.]

Once we understand nihilism to be part of the grand tradition of skepticism, I don’t need to get down into the weeds of the various things various forms of nihilists are unconvinced about. There are some nihilists that are just unconvinced about morals, and others that are unconvinced about political authoritarianism, or religious authoritarianism. There are more esoteric nihilisms, such as being unconvinced of our ability to know if language actually works between us and another person or all the people, or perhaps being unconvinced that we are not a brain in a box or living in a simulation. And, contrary to Nietzsche’s calumny, there are lots of nihilists that aren’t interested in destroying the world; they’re interested in getting along in it – the only difference between them and a typical (let’s say fire-breathing christian) is that they’re rejecting just one more authoritarian dogma than the christian. Well, actually, that may not be right: they’re rejecting the dogma that there is a god, and they’re also rejecting the moral precepts that the alleged god was alleged to hand down because – wow – is that unconvincing. It doesn’t mean that the skeptical nihilist who is unconvinced by christianity wants to blow up the world; they’re more likely to be inquisitive, willing to explore, and willing to ruthlessly flay other people’s opinions.

Pyrrho of Elis [most statues of him have the nose chipped off. What did Pyrrho really look like? I withhold judgement]

There is another caricature of a nihilist, who adopts the position that “I’m not even sure that you exist. Or, I’m not even sure that I exist. Whatever.” You know the one – the high school philosophy student. Sure, that’s nihilism, but more importantly it’s lazy skepticism because they haven’t studied the history of skeptical thought and don’t realize that the Pyrhhonians had gutted that argument 2500 years ago. “Well, my friend, it appears that you are dealing with the world as it appears to you to be, i.e.: you think you are you and you seem to think I am me or you wouldn’t be talking bullshit to me, so let’s continue to interact in the world as it appears to be until or unless a time comes that reveals that we’ve missed some profound understanding, and then we can sort all that out then.” To me, that seems an eminently rational way to deal with the world, but I’m no Nietzsche. So to respond to Nietzsche’s attempt to shoehorn Schopenhauer: “Schopenhauer appears to be strongly influenced by how he interprets the world as it appears to him to be. To him, people appear to be insular and lonely. To him, the arts appear untouchable and false. To him, his world is a cold dark place. But you cannot infer that Schopenhauer’s interpretation of the world as it appears to him to be is the same as mine, or anyone else’s. I’m not asserting any dogma about what is, I’m saying that I appear to be able to deal with what I perceive and how I perceive it.”

No more than any other skeptic, I would say most nihilists don’t wake up wondering, “I wonder if the sun will come up tomorrow?” The pyrrhonian skeptic, if posed that conundrum, might reply, “It has appeared to come up every morning for these 59 years that I have woken up to greet it. If it’s a special effect put on by Industrial Light and Magic it’s so good that for all intents and purposes it has been what I call “a sunrise” and I’m going to go get my morning cup of coffee and enjoy the sunrise while you stand there wanking about your stupid philosophies.” That’s hardly the reality destroying life-denying nihilist that Nietzsche would scare us with, is it?

Perhaps the only part about being a nihilist that’s hard is the formal rigamarole of skepticism sometimes kicks in and then you have to fall back to pyrrhonian-speak. Perhaps you have noticed, as I write this, that I am not using pyrrhonian-speak “it appears to me now…” or “I think I will withhold judgement on…” and “I am unconvinced by…” because that’s frippery; it’s just pro formalism. There have been 2, maybe 3 occasions in my blogging career when a commenter has started taking up an extreme skeptical position, and I’ve had to respond in kind, “it appears to me now that…” instead of making anything that sounds like an assertion. When I first read about the pyrrhonians I thought, “god damn they must have sounded like a bunch of assholes” but I’m pretty sure they also lapsed into informal speech when they were able to. “It appears to me now that I must urinate” is awkward when you have to pee. I suppose there is maybe a nihilist or two who actually talks like that, but someone needs to appear to sit them down and seem to tell them why they appear to have no friends.

There is one more point to make and then I will briefly sketch a few of my opinions about nihilism’s consequences on my life and then wrap this up. That point is that it’s also possible to be a sort of multi-modal nihilist. For example, I’m pretty convinced that there’s a reality out there, and that I live in it, and that there are things like pizza and taxes in that reality and if you put your tongue on yellow hot steel that will always appear to be a bad idea. I’m not dogmatic about these things but I’m willing to deal with them as they appear to be. The Earth appears to be a planet and I appear to be on it and it appears to be round and it appears to have gravity. I could go on all day. What’s interesting is that – most interestingly to me – the scientific method appears to be a way of leveraging repeatability in experience to try to tease out something like cause and effect. I mean it sure as hell looks to me like cause and effect – generally I am completely convinced by the science experiments I have tried and understood. Amazingly science (except when you get to stuff like String Theory) appears to be pretty damn consistent. So here is what I do: I divide things into two buckets: opinions and facts. I’m generally pretty accepting of accepted facts: there is a New York City and there was a Napoleon Bonaparte and there is a class of things called (variously) “pizza” The existence of pizza is a fact, to me, but I’m completely comfortable with the idea that someone else might feel that pizza is entirely a matter of opinion. Have fun, whoever you are! (Probably Nick Bostrom) Pizza skeptics are welcome here but I won’t waste much time on it. It is also a fact that I have opinions, because I experience having opinions, and I don’t waste my time playing Descartes’ rigged game (you know that was motivated reasoning, right?) that allowed him to reify his opinion that there is a god. I actually believe – i.e.: it’s my opinion – that scientists are natural skeptics, and therefore scientists are going to tend toward nihilism. After all, the default position of science is that things need to be “proved” to exist in accordance with rules we’ve inferred that we call physical law, and if there are contradictions we have a very exciting little opportunity to discover something. I hope I’m not offending any scientists or skeptics who accepted Nietzsche’s calumny and think that when I say you’re nihilistic that I think you’d push the button and start a nuclear war if you ha the chance. That would be stupid, right? I’m still vaguely angry to this day that Nietzsche, who was one of my favorites when I was a sophomore (go figure) did such an unfair hatchet job on nihilists. He should have just stuck to bashing christians because, really, those gomers are pretty helpless.

So, in this little article I have followed the method that Robert Paul Wolff followed in In Defense of Anarchism, except my task was considerably simplified by my being able to excavate the linkage between skepticism (radical, to strong rationality) and nihilism. Once I had done that, I could just point to the vast amount of information about skepticism and, presto, change-o, if you’re a skeptic you understand all that, already (I hope) and if you’re a dogmatist you probably stopped reading at the first mention of Nietzsche – before you found out that I was going to disagree with him. I admit that, still, publicly disagreeing with Nietzsche makes my 19 year-old self boggle in wonderment, but looking back at things, I have to say, he lost me a long time ago, because he was just too darned busy kicking christianity in the ballsack while it was down. Will Durant once wrote, of Voltaire, something to the effect that “nobody takes up Voltaire’s fight against catholicism any more, because it is not necessary – when Voltaire left the battlefield, finally, there was no more work to be done.” I feel similarly about Nietzsche: he said 3 important words that changed the time that he lived in, “god is dead.” And after that, there was no more work to be done, except for a few complaints around the edges about how he was pretty much a nihilist, himself, and he should have joined the team instead of bashing it as a strawman. Wolff, not that this is particularly relevant, pursues a method of obliterating the state’s claims to legitimacy, then obliterating the plausible paths toward a legitimate state, and walking away saying “the rest is up to you.” Get it? Wolff withholds judgement on the legitimacy of forms of government, a straight-up skeptical/nihilist position. God, I hope he doesn’t read this, it might make his ageing Marxist heart explode.

What does being a nihilist do to me, or for me? Well, I think that my skeptical framework of dividing my world between facts and opinions (beliefs) probably has a greater impact. I don’t spend my time going around denying some peoples’ existence, or wishing the world would die – non-nihilist humanity already has that project well in hand – basically, it does not affect my life at all, other than that I feel my natural skepticism and cynicism are sharpened a bit. You don’t have to be a nihilist to suspect popes and politicians of being phonies; they take care of that for you if you just listen to them.

But what about the lack of meaning? Do I spend my time screaming at the nothingness or wishing I were dead? Here’s a thing: if we are as meaningless as we appear to me to be (full disclosure: see what I did there?) then we’re all meaningless together, whether we’re Marcus, or you, or the pope. My suspicion is that that understanding is what would officially annoy the pope about nihilism: he doesn’t care if Marcus feels meaningless but he’s not happy that Marcus feels he, the pope, is meaningless. In this regard, I see nihilism, as I experience it, as opening up new avenues of experience for me, of liberating me: the universe has accidentally made sure that there is a pretty steep upper bound on how badly I can fuck things up. Sure, it limits how much I can accomplish, too, but so what? It appears to me that that is how it has always been, and humanity has managed to eke out a tapestry of horror, beauty, creativity, and vileness within that narrow band, on its own. Put another way: if Nietzsche’s caricature of a nihilist wanted to destroy life, they hardly would need do more than stand by on the sidelines and watch.

I don’t have any way to apply some kind of, urr, moral calculus, and weigh whether not being a christian bouys my heart more than being a nihilist depresses me, and besides nihilism doesn’t really depress me that much. I feel that I live more thoroughly, and in the moment, as a consequence of my awareness that nothing really matters. I remain skeptical about the whole notion that humans “mean something”, which seems to me to be a psychological hack employed by the religious to gain a controlling foothold in other peoples’ minds. “Feel like your life is going nowhere? Give it over to jesus!” – that kind of thing. I’m happy that my life is going nowhere because it means that once this brief period of making hay while the sun shines is over, I’ll go back to doing what I was doing before I was born: namely, nothing. You’re probably familiar with that thought; it’s from Epicurus, who made considerable progress on the question, “how to live?” back around 300BC. Epicurus and Lao Tze (and many others) worked on that question and, surprisingly, there is no universal agreement about any of the answers. There I go with the “mode of disputation again” but, seriously, if Epicurus and Lao Tze did not spout the same wisdom in perfect alignment, maybe it’s the case that an ultimate wisdom is simply not available to humans. Besides, as we’ve all seen [I am writing this in 2022] you can spout wisdom like, “get vaccinated” and there will still be people who dispute that advice. It’s hard to imagine humans producing a collectively agreed-upon set of moral precepts. Of course that stuff depresses and upsets me, because I hate ignorance and stupidity; ah, there is another small slice of meaning: I am Marcus-that-hates-ignorance. This bit here is my opinion: whatever “meaning” we may have is simply a great big laundry list of the things we think, do, and interact with. In that sense I’m an existentialist: we are what we do, and doing is being. Beyond that, I think that Sartre (for one) loses his own point in Gallic grandiosity.

The skeptic/nihilist contemplates the many various schemes of control that society applies on us all, and recognizes them as such then chooses which ones are going to be allowed to work, and why. That’s not “freedom” in the imagined sense of “Free Will” because reality constrains our supposed “Free Will” as completely as civilization does. If you are reading this, here, there’s a good chance (I’d say about 80%) that you do not believe in the intuitive form of “Free Will” as such. Let’s pretend that’s the case, and you can consider how much your non-freedom of will has destroyed and stained your life. Probably not so much, right? It’s my opinion that people who believe in these sorts of flights of fancy: free will, meaning, afterlife, souls, etc. – may make themselves unhappy spending time worrying about their phantasms. Freeing ourselves from those things saves us more time we can spend enjoying pizza.


  1. says

    In my commentary about the difficulty of moral calculus determining “flourishing” I intended to argue with an example that gives me pause: the epicure cannibal. What if our society includes a genuinely top-shelf chef whose idea of “flourishing” is to sometimes cook and eat someone’s baby? Obviously, our moral calculus should lead us to conclude the situation is tough luck for the cannibal. But now the cannibal is incapable of “flourishing” and the greatest good for the greatest number is contested ground, revealed to be merely a disagreement over a matter of opinion. We are left arguing what is “true flourishing” and lack a basis on which to decide. The skeptic/nihilist can simply say “I prefer not to be eaten, OK?” By acknowledging that we are trading in terms of matters of opinion we sacrifice the grand scheme of creating a moral system for a system in which perhaps the cannibal can search for people who wish to be eaten, and find their own path without general disapproval. It is possible (but unlikely) that by not tightly specifying people’s ideal diet for “flourishing” we can have a situation in which everyone can be happy. Happy-ish. Accept that people are gonna fight about cannibalism and let the chips fall where they fall, and try not to get eaten if the idea of being eaten bothers you.

    [I’ll note, probably redundantly, that the approach I describe above, which is kind of “everyone do your own thing” can result in a sort of “moral chaos” which seems to make some people very unhappy, and they wish for more stable and predictable rules. That appears to me to be how actual humans actually behave – which is to say that I find “moral chaos” to be more likely to be the situation that exists than that there is some kind of notion of “virtues” that people orient toward because of some kind of moral calculus or other. It has always struck me as odd that anyone is willing to talk about moral calculus, when we never seem to see such calculus in action – we see a lot of opinions, though, as we’d expect to see if moral calculus was a fiction.]

  2. jessea says

    Very interesting stuff. I thought I’d share a few responses from my point of view in case it leads to an interesting discussion.

    Firstly, although I have read some of Nietzsche I have not read works that are explicitly on nihilism. When I read him on the subject, I try to infer his meaning of the word from context and conclude that he is talking about the sort of despair that leads to a belief that life can have no meaning. That is, in the vacuum formed when faith dies, one can come to believe that nothing could fill those unfilled needs again. You refute this despair as a straw man, but perhaps you two are simply referring to different concepts by the same word? In any case, I find Nietzsche at his strongest when he speaks of creating your own values in the context of a society whose values you need not subscribe to, and I suspect you don’t disagree about that point. I don’t see him as advocating creating “new bullshit to replace the old,” especially if that entails convincing others to agree, but rather as taking responsibility for what you personally value and being thoughtful about what it is. But perhaps I give him unwarranted credit for being “playful” in certain passages where others might fairly think he is being straightforward.

    From reading your comments, I surmise that by “nihilism” you mean something like assigning credence to assertions based on the quality and quantity of evidence and reasoning that supports and refutes them. Is that accurate? If so, how does it differ from concepts like skepticism and rationalism? Why does it help to use the word nihilism, which has connotations of being dogmatic about certain opinions? If not, could you clarify the distinction?

    What would you suggest as a first read on nihilism for someone with an “amateur enthusiast” level of knowledge about philosophy?

  3. Ketil Tveiten says

    It appears to me that much of the problems with dogmatism boils down to the impossibility of rigorously defining most concepts under discussion. Start with «well how do you define [whatever]?» and play Socrates for a while with the responses you get; this process almost never terminates in something other than «I know it when I see it». The way out is to be comfortable with dependent and flexible «it depends»-style definitions.

    For instance, it is common to reject «meaning» because (example argument) the Heat Death of the Universe is coming and everything is ultimately futile and pointless. However, that «ultimately» is very very far away, and it takes a long while to prove its point. Going grocery shopping may be ultimately meaningless, but it has meaning now and for a bit into the future because I get to eat. Even if the final future discounted value of the act is zero, you have to also look at the total history, which sums to something positive.

  4. Reginald Selkirk says

    In the words of the great philosopher Freddie Mercury:
    Nothing really matters,
    anyone can see.
    Nothing really matters
    to me.

  5. astringer says

    If I remember right, Nietzsche played 10 (Liebnitz in goal), but that was against the Greeks.

    … I’ll get my coat.

  6. says

    Sorry it took me so long to reply. I really needed to think about what to say.

    Firstly, although I have read some of Nietzsche I have not read works that are explicitly on nihilism. When I read him on the subject, I try to infer his meaning of the word from context and conclude that he is talking about the sort of despair that leads to a belief that life can have no meaning. That is, in the vacuum formed when faith dies, one can come to believe that nothing could fill those unfilled needs again.

    I think that is correct (and eloquently put!) – Nietzsche never really establishes nihilism as a set of beliefs, he leaves it as a “vacuum of belief” – the threat we face when christianity implodes. To me, he’s basically making the same argument that many christians make: “without god, you’ll believe in nothing!” which seems … problematic to me.

    You refute this despair as a straw man, but perhaps you two are simply referring to different concepts by the same word?

    I refer to his nihilism as a “straw man” because I believe that he’s using a skeletal, scary, vague “nihilism” as a counter-weight to christian belief. I.e.: if you’re not a christian anymore, you’re a nihilist and – what? He doesn’t really seem to have an idea. It’s a “straw man” because there is no substance to his version of nihilism. What if, I have to wonder, he explored nihilism and discovered that it’s actually not that bad? That is what motivates my exploration of nihilism, as a form of skepticism in a long tradition of skepticism.

    If you accept my arguments that nihilism is a skeptical viewpoint, then there is still the question of what to fill the resulting vacuum with. That’s where Nietzsche, the great thinker, gets all lazy and hazy and says you need some dionysian mission based on aesthetics to fill your life. Uh, OK. Nietzsche is often credited with being the first existentialist, in that he said meaning in life comes from our self-assignment of what is meaningful. I also see that as in line with skeptical traditions, e.g.: Epicurus, whose argument was that the gods, if there are any, are irrelevant and what matters is how we choose to spend our time. He then recommends cheese, olives, wine, bread, and the company of friends, which formula I substitute into “pizza” in my mind.

    perhaps you two are simply referring to different concepts by the same word?

    So… Yes, but no. We are, except I think he doesn’t actually engage his mighty thoughts to explore the abyss – he simply asserts it’s very abyssy and that’s it. I’m referring to the same concept, except I see it as not an abyss, but rather a skeptical matter that skeptics have been exploring since hundreds-BC.

    I find Nietzsche at his strongest when he speaks of creating your own values in the context of a society whose values you need not subscribe to, and I suspect you don’t disagree about that point.

    I absolutely agree.

    That was what I meant when I said that Nietzsche had swept that particular battlefield. We’ve all encountered christians who seem to think that their beliefs give them meaning and importance… Well, Nietzsche popped that balloon maximum hard. From there, the question is what to fill the void with – which I see as a great question.

    This is sort of tangential but I have a thought-vein I have been mining for a long time, which goes something along the lines of that you can deflect skeptical challenges to your beliefs by treating them as a matter of personal aesthetics. In Marcus-ese I’d say that it’s a “matter of opinion.” Deliberately stepping away from trying to argue that there are moral facts I’m comfortable with saying I’m full of moral opinions as most of us appear to be. I’m not trying to promote my opinions to the status of facts, and as long as I don’t try that I don’t have all the problems of skeptical challenges. I’m not saying “it’s just my opinion” because the “just” does a lot of damage – it minimizes the importance (to me!) and value (to me!) of my opinion. Where things might get interesting is when my opinion comes into conflict with someone else’s. In that case, I am free to act however I opine – ranging from ignoring it to smiting them. I’m still not saying my opinion is right but it’s my opinion and if someone really wants to go up against it, I guess we’ve got to resolve that conflict. I see moral systems as an attempt to produce a “moral calculus” that might facilitate that resolution, except I just can’t but that that works in the slightest degree.

    All of that is, of course, my opinion.

    rather as taking responsibility for what you personally value and being thoughtful about what it is.

    I agree. That’s basic existentialism, I’d say.

    I surmise that by “nihilism” you mean something like assigning credence to assertions based on the quality and quantity of evidence and reasoning that supports and refutes them. Is that accurate? If so, how does it differ from concepts like skepticism and rationalism?

    That’s pretty close. I’d say that nihilism is the consequence of assigning credence to assertions based on evidence. The default skeptical position, however, does not tend to reject everything though the more extreme skeptics do. That rejection tends to revolve around the reliability of sense experience and the problem of induction.

    The problem, to me, is what is left when skepticism has blown holes in our systems of knowledge. Well: nothing. I could just as well ask, “what does an argument look like, once David Hume has finished with it?” Well: nothing. The skeptical viewpoint does not embrace its inherent nihilism and often I encounter “skeptics” like Harris or Descartes or Carrier who skip past the destruction that their skepticism has wrought, and jump to some absurd belief that they are privy to certain facts of existence.

    It’s my opinion that there’s a certain elegance to saying, in effect, “fuck it” and dealing with the world as it appears to be, without systematizing our opinions and trying to push them on others as facts.

    If so, how does it differ from concepts like skepticism and rationalism?

    Rationalism / empiricism appear to be part of the modernist project, which is that we can use our brains and reason and some facts and establish a basic grounding in some kind of reality that we can discuss and share, or prove things about. I tend to see rationalism and empiricism as deceptive; I’m OK with talking about how a certain physics experiment is repeatable and we can argue cause and effect are established by varying this part or that, but it seems to me that empiricists and rationalists can get all non-skeptical suddenly, like Descartes did: “therefore god!”

    I’ll say my sympathies lie with the much-maligned post-modernists, for what that is worth; it’s my opinion. There is a lot we could discuss there.

    Why does it help to use the word nihilism, which has connotations of being dogmatic about certain opinions? If not, could you clarify the distinction?

    I guess that is the point of this posting, such as it is – that nihilism (in my opinion) is not what Nietzsche asserts, namely a pit of despair, or a vacuum created by the death of religion. I do think that Nietzsche’s “nihilism” is close to where I stand, but that he was the one being dogmatic about it. Nihilism appears to me to be a part of the skeptical tradition in philosophy and is thus more deeply founded and well-defended that most of Nietzsche’s airy assertions. [By well-defended, I don’t mean “dogmatic” I mean that it embodies highly destructive skepticism, which can be opposed to dogmatic arguments with apparent effect]

    What would you suggest as a first read on nihilism for someone with an “amateur enthusiast” level of knowledge about philosophy?

    Well, I’ve argued my opinion that nihilism is a form of skepticism, rather than a dogmatic system of assertions. As such, that’s why I recommend people study skepticism – and I recommend people start with Popkin, which is highly readable and very, very, thoughtful. I am not aware of any books that take the view that nihilism is a “thing” we should believe that comes with practices we should believe in, etc. So there’s nothing I know there that I can say is worth studying in its own right. It is also my opinion that a good way of dealing with nihilism is to be an existentialist. I’m not fond of most of the existentialists (e.g.: Sartre) because they seem to be just as fond of blowing big air-bubbles as the religious. But that’s my opinion. I would say, if you held a blowtorch to my toes, that the dadaists and surrealists were, in a sense, existentialists and what we see there is an exploration of the malleability of personal reality. Camus had a similar surrealist tinge to his writing. In that sense, I do agree with Nietzsche: if we feel a discomfort from the hole that the death of meaning and values leaves behind, we can fill it with dionysian romps, whether they are Camus or Monty Python it doesn’t matter.

  7. says

    Ketil Tveiten@#3:
    It appears to me that much of the problems with dogmatism boils down to the impossibility of rigorously defining most concepts under discussion. Start with «well how do you define [whatever]?» and play Socrates for a while with the responses you get; this process almost never terminates in something other than «I know it when I see it». The way out is to be comfortable with dependent and flexible «it depends»-style definitions.

    Yes, that appears to be how it is to me, too.
    In one of my Argument Clinic postings, I refer to the problem of definitions as “linguistic nihilism” – [stderr] – you can draw an interlocutor into an infinite regress or force them to issue a circular definition then throw the table over at them by observing, “you do not appear to know what you are talking about”

    Also, agreed about the way out. If we are in what appears to be a pleasant bistro in Italy on a fine sunny afternoon, it may be all a special effect by Industrial Light and Magic, or the matrix, but I would be happy to share some of what appears to be the house red and what sure looks like pizza, to me. No need to be dogmatic, we can deal with the world as it appears to be and have a good time without having to solve the problem of induction.

    For instance, it is common to reject «meaning» because (example argument) the Heat Death of the Universe is coming and everything is ultimately futile and pointless. However, that «ultimately» is very very far away, and it takes a long while to prove its point. Going grocery shopping may be ultimately meaningless, but it has meaning now and for a bit into the future because I get to eat.

    Yes, I have bumped up against that example before, and it’s an interesting angle. My usual response is something like this: “If I were building monuments that I expected to last for hundreds of thousands of years, I would be concerned with the possibility that climate-change extinction events might render the monument less meaningful, as there would be nobody to appreciate it. Although, if even that were the case, I might say my monument would have meaning if only in terms that it was poignant. I’m not concerned about the heat death of the universe because my sense of meaning does not operate at that time-scale.”

    A less satisfying (to me) opinion is the cause/effect argument, which is that by existing as I do, I am irrevocably changing some very small parts of the universe. I am changing the entire universe, motherfucker! That’s kinda cool. The fact that it’s a vanishingly small change is irrelevant; it’s still an irrevocable change.

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