Author - Guy Kahane
The title is brief, but the problem being discussed in this paper is not about is nihilism true or false. The problem is what if nihilism is true, more specifically, what happens if we believe nihilism is true. If nihilism is a new word for you or something that you have heard but not sure how it is different than other answers to the existential question, Kahane opens the paper with the following paragraph which describes the existential question.
Some of us, at some points in our lives, are struck by a vision of the universe as devoid of value. In such a state of mind, all human striving appears absurd, and the grandest achievements seem worthless. One feels that nothing matters.
The goal of the paper is to show that nihilism is not something philosophy should ignore, as the consequences may be too important. Many people that work in value theory apparently have ignored the consequences of what a true belief in nihilism may bring about. Kahane wants to show that total belief in nihilism should be avoided for Pascalian reasons.
To achieve the goal of the paper and address the problem at hand, we first need to understand what nihilism is by clarifying misconceptions of it and bringing to light what nihilism is, meaning, to show what nihilism is as it is and what it is not (it is not absurdism).
Evaluative nihilism is essentially the belief that nothing matters. This is not ignoring that things matter or matter to certain people. Any proposition that expresses value is therefore false in its entirety, not that the proposition makes a mistake by saying that something good is bad or vice versa, that the proposition is false simply because you cannot ascribe value to anything.
This type of nihilism poses a problem to any view of ethics that hinges on things having a good or bad value, namely being utilitarianism and consequentialism. These ethical theories rest on the idea that in some location for some agent, there is an event that can have a good or bad value and the ethical thing to do is to bring about the best consequence, the consequence that does the most good for the most people (there are slightly different variations of this theory).
If the reasons that you have for doing things are based in any consequentialist theory that rests on evaluative propositions being true in some way, then you arrive at practical nihilism. Practical nihilism is the belief that there are no reasons to do anything, to want anything, or to even feel anything. If you have read The Myth of Sisyphus, you would know the absurdist answer to life has no meaning, which now seems incoherent.
If you are under a deontological view of ethics, the way we ascribe value to things is not the same as consequentialism. Deontology ascribes values to things using reason itself, not that things are objectively good (pleasure) and bad (pain). However, the scope of this paper is not about figuring out how to prove for all ethical theories that nihilism is true, the paper wants to imagine that we are there for a second, that it may well be true (or believe that it is true) that there are no things that are objectively good (evaluative nihilism) and that there are no reasons to do anything (practical nihilism). So let us assume, that nothing matters.
If we assume nihilism is true, what does that look like? If you have not been hit by nihilist despair before, you can imagine that the person that starts to believe that nihilism is true will become feeling depressed, maybe even give up on certain things they do as they seem meaningless now to that person. If nothing matters, then there is no reason to act in one way or the other. In other words, because nihilism is true does not imply that you must kill yourself or live your life in a way differently. The reason is that you cannot assign any reason to do or not do anything under nihilism since nihilism says that there is no reason to do, feel, or want anything. It does not say that you cannot get upset or depressed, it says that you cannot have any reason to get upset or depressed.
Our concerns here, however, are not with the theoretical and logical arguments of what happens if nihilism is true, we are concerned with what effects a belief in nihilism causes. The concern with the theoretical and logical is what philosophers have dealt with. The concern is that even if nihilism is true, you could (note: not should) go on living your life doing exactly as before without any reason, just doing it without any reason. Kahane sets out to examine this truism in the philosophy community by trying to show that the opposite may very well happen, the opposite being that we do not go about living our lives the same way.
There are many different answers to how nihilism will affect morality, our concerns, our actions, and our lives in general. Many people hold the view that in theory and in practice it will not change anything, however, there are other views out there than the view that things will just stay the same.
Conservatism is the view that if nihilism is true, we should still keep morality around not because it is good, but because it has some usefulness that is non-moral. Just because there is no objective value, does not mean that there is no subjective value and especially that there is no reason to abandon subjective value. So under conservatism, philosophical morality may still be used similar to how myths and religion work. These systems of morality play an important subjective role in the lives of people. Greek myths were under scrutiny from ancient Greek philosophers and Christianity has been under attack from within (from Christians themselves) forever. These attacks have questioned the objectiveness of these systems of morality, yet, the same people attacking those system also kept on to those systems of morality for subjective reasons. One concern with this is that, we can look at a rise in atheism and the things atheists value. Atheists do not value the same things as people who are religious. Similarly, it might mean that nihilists will not care about things that non-nihilists care about.
Both consequentialism and deontology use reason as a way for deciding whether our actions are rational or irrational. We have discussed consequentialism already. In deontology, specifically the Kantian flavor, an agent will have some sort of subjective rule of action, a maxim. This maxim is of the form
If C, then I'll A for the sake of R, where C = some condition, A = some action, and R = some reason. The general idea is to see if this maxim (subjective) has objective value by some different tests (Universal Law Formulation, Humanity Formulation, Kingdom of Ends Formulation).
So, under these two ethical theories for example, we just drop any of the concerns for objectiveness of actions. Instead of using reason to determine if some action is rational, irrational, and has objective value, we just act on our maxim that sprung out of some desire we had. The issue here is similar to the atheist example above. We may have held some goals/ends only because of the fact that we had no belief in nihilism. Without any reason to achieve those ends, there may be no desire left even to achieve them.
What we have been getting at is that not only are any propositions we can make are false, that any beliefs are false, since what is a belief but a proposition. If our beliefs have been false, all the beliefs that we have been taking as objectively good or bad also false (love is good, genocide is bad).
We can imagine that a lot of things people do will continue without reason (eating, sex, drugs, alcoholism) since those can and usually are pure desire based. However, society and our systems of morals that we have had have perpetuated beliefs over time that we have been taking as true without reservation. What Kahane suggests is that a belief in nihilism will result in Belief Loss.
Belief Loss : Coming to believe in nihilism will result in our coming to lose our substantive evaluative beliefs.
A substantive evaluative belief is something that we hold firm to be true, such as the Holocaust was bad.
Belief Loss is not making a logical statement, namely that if Belief Loss is true you will lose all substantive evaluative beliefs. The reason being that it is empirically true that people hold contradictory beliefs frequently. People believe
not P at the same time. The statement here is piggybacking off of the truisms in real life that after a certain revelation in thought, humans change the ways they think and act. Ex-mormons do not go about living the same way, the same with atheists. Siddhārtha Gautama did not go about living life after his revelations, nor do his disciples. When someone comes to believe that something is worthless, that same someone does not usually keep caring about it. The idea behind Belief Loss is to imagine what would happen to someone who comes to believe that everything is worthless, or even more, there is no such thing as worth.
Epiphenomenalism is the view that mental events are caused by physical events in the brain, but have no effects upon any physical events.
Another objection to Belief Loss is that belief has no impact on our concerns. To object to Belief Loss is to hold the view that
Epiphenomenalism* About Evaluative Belief: Our evaluative beliefs (and beliefs about practical reasons) make no causal difference to our pattern of concerns.
What this says is two things. It not only says that things that do not matter to us do not affect the things we care about and concerned with, but also that the things we do care about do no affect the things we care about and are concerned with. This view seems unlikely given any “intuitive” notions of how people work and also with any sort of modern psychology.
What, if anything, will remain?
Korsgaard takes the post-nihilism life to be similar to one she calls the normative-sceptic. In her Kantian view, we are beings of rationality, which is what seperates us from animals. Nihilism takes away the thing that separates us from animals. A life reduced to animalistic desires might be one that is still similar to life now. We may still have some form of society (apes), we will still have some form of love (mates), we may still care about relaxation, may still have games, and even things tasting good or bad(not objectively).
A belief in nihilism may even be less active than the above animalistic life. Depressed people and people during existential crisis end up doing virtually nothing, lying in bad, barely eating, and sleeping more than being awake. It may be even worse than that. “Rational” beings such as ourselves, fully able to grasp nihilism, may even be able to approach something similar to clinical apathy. Kahane cites a few examples of apathetic patients
His general behavior was characterized by a dramatic decrease in spontaneous activity… he made no plans, showed no evidence of needs, will, or desires. He showed obious lack of concerns about relatives’ as well as his own condition. When questioned about his mood, he reported no sadness or anxiety.
A former university professor (age 60), was described by his doctor as having the
capacity to stay motionless and speechless for endless periods, sitting in front of the examiner, waiting for the first question, totally shut in a profound intertia and passivity…
When examined, the patient would answer
I’m just thinking of nothing, no idea, no question, no thought at all
One patient who recovered from this apathetic state described her mental welfare at the time by saying she
did not talk because she had nothing to say
Her mind was as she said
or as she also said
The imagery drawn up here shows that because of the natures of humans, the fact that we can understand what nihilism rationally means and logically entails, it is possible the extreme end of what our mental faculties are reduced to is not animalistc, but apathetic.
It does seem implausible that philosophical theories and arguments could drive someone to a state of clinical apathy alone, but combined with real life experiences, it may be something to tip the scale and break the human psyche in a sense. The apathetic nihilist would not commit suicide or do anything to bring about death, but it would become something not human, something we call brain dead people, a vegetable. There is something more harrowing about voluntarily being reduced to a vegatable while also having full autonomy.
Stop, close your eyes, and think about that, what would be worse than nihilism being true?
What would be worse than nihilism being true is believing that nihilism is true, but it is false. Once “under the spell” of nihilism, it would seem to be hard, if not by definition impossible, to be convinced by anyone otherwise. If nihilism is false, then it is of the utmost importance to conform to our ethical, objective values. Furthermore, if we do not act as the conversatists would say we would and act as Kahane says we would under Belief Loss, then we would be committing a grave error.
In a Pascalian sense, if nothing matters, yet we go on believing as we do, then we still lose nothing. However, if some things do matter, then we will lose a lot. Even if some things do matter, but we suppose that all of our evaluative beliefs we hold are false (maybe genocide is good, love is bad, etc.), it is plausible as well to say that it is better to believe that nihilism is false. If we assume that we can figure out what things matter in an objective sense, we can still search for the true things that actually do matter. If someone holds nihilism to be true, there is no convincing them as well that we can find out what things matter if they subscribe to the idea that no things matter.
To conclude. If nothing matters, this doesn’t matter either. But if nothing matters, and we believe that, then–although it won’t matter whether anything would still matter to us–it’s likely that far fewer things would matter to us. If nothing matters then this result of belief in nihilism of course also won’t matter. But it would matter, and matter greatly, if we falsely believe in nihilism and stop, in this way, to care about things that do matter. That is what we should fear.
I enjoyed the confidence in the author to not spend too much time examining possible arguments and continuing forth to the point of the story. As someone who regularly feels like Antoine Roquentin, it was nice to have someone write so straightforward about what to do and think at that point. This paper is intended for people who are concerned with the logic surrounding nihilism, but more so the pragmatic concerns around nihilism. As finite beings, what we care about is of the utmost importance due to the limited time we have, and nihilism poses the greatest threat by saying that there is no reason to care about anything, leaving us with just the fact that we are finite, that we will die, and nothing to think or do with or about that fact.
I have not read much meta-ethics to recommend anything. Kahane was not necessarily concerned about how we get to figuring out if nihilism is true, so I will not recommend anything related to that here. I would rather recommend reading about nihilistic literature. First I will recommend you to read Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre. The reason being that for you to understand what is at stake with nihilism and if you have not experienced it, reading Nausea will at least let you read about it. Similary, I recommend reading the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series, specifically the last book in the series which has a first person perspective scene of someone going through the process of euthanasia (the whole series is fantastic, the euthanasia scene in the first book and specifically the ending of the series will bring about thoughs of nihilism).