Monday, January 02, 2012

Nice Nihilism at 3:AM

If I were to have written a popular piece reviewing a piece of popular philosophy, here's what I'd like to have written:

Nice Nihilism, by Richard Marshall

It's on Alexander Rosenberg's The Atheist's Guide To Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions.

I suppose I should note that I haven't read Rosenberg's book...so that's what you might call a complication.  On the other hand, I don't need to read it; I know the profile. That is: I know this type of position well. You do, too, if you've spent much time reading Hume. It goes like this:

Hey, we should all adopt my view! It entails that our deepest and most important views about ourselves, the importance of reason, freedom, and the significance of our lives is pathetic hogwash. But my view also entails that we can blithely ignore those entailments and pretend that everything's just like we'd like it to be! Cool, huh?

I'm someone who takes certain varieties of nihilism and skepticism very seriously. I believe that it might very well be true that we are squishy robots, that human reason is, ultimately speaking, of no more significant than a cockroach's ability to sniff out a rotted carcass, and that in fact, our very most cherished views of the universe and ourselves may all be not only false, but cosmic jokes. In my view, nihilism is a serious threat, not to be taken lightly.

Hume was, famously, a skeptic who thought that he could shed his skepticism at the door of his study. As a psychological point, I can't speak to that. Or, rather, I can say: if he could, then Hume was a very different kind of person than I am--and probably than you are. Me, I think that if it's true that my emotions are unjustified and unjustifiable itches and aches, and if morality comes down to nothing more than emotion, then we are relieved of any obligation to take it seriously. That is to say: if morality's a fiction, then we are entitled to treat it as such. Obligated, even, I'd say...but you can see where that would lead...

Folks like Rosenberg want to speak for atheists, though their view isn't really about atheism. It's scientism, really, that's afoot, as Marshall notes. Atheism's one more-or-less consequence of scientism...but they're separable positions. I'm an atheist (basically, though not by the lights of some), but not a fan of scientism. At this point things get terminologically murky, but scientism is, roughly, the view that a certain (I'd say: rather unsophisticated) view of science is correct. Such views are often said to be varieties of naturalism (roughly: the view that every real thing is a part of nature), and/or physicalism (the view that every real thing is a physical thing). As for naturalism: meh. Depends on your view of nature, notoriously. I, for example, could be said to be a naturalist...but that would be non-standard, because I'm happy with a fairly expansive conception of nature. Most "naturalists" are not.

But let me cut to the chase: what I think is really at issue here is final causation. The folks who enthusiastically call themselves naturalists are, in my estimation, what we might better call "efficient causalists." They don't believe in final causation, and, so, think that every true scientific explanation must be given (if in causal terms at all) in terms of efficient causation--that is, the push-me-pull-you causation of the type involved when one billiard ball causes another to to into the corner pocket. Me, I think there's probably final causation, and that makes explaining things like freedom, mind and meaning easier...though by no means trivial. I'm happy for the community of inquirers to issue a promissory note with respect to final causation, and to keep working away at trying to get an account of it. Naturalists, so called, usually are not.

This is the point at which the relevant interlocutors will ask me to start making with the theory of final causation--something I cannot do.

But note: something we also cannot do with respect to efficient causation. We do not know what it is. We will not know in my lifetime. We may know someday, but not soon. The interlocutors in question are o.k. with that.

We're all o.k. with different promissory notes, I'd say.

See, that's one of the things that Peirce thinks is interesting. We're in an epistemic position that basically forces us to take certain things on what we might tendentiously call faith. The question is: can some things be accepted on faith rationally? Or are all bets off once we have to take even a single step down that road?

Me, I suppose I'm currently--if anything at all--a kind of atheistic fideist. In my view, I accept certain things on a kind of provisional faith, and I think I'm probably warranted in doing so. But that doesn't mean that anything goes. And, in particular, faith in the Abrahamic God does not go--IMHO. And Jesus is right out. On the other hand, the vaguer and looser one makes one's conception of God, the more plausible it becomes. If you think that one is a non-atheist for thinking that there is something fundamentally mind-like about the universe...well, then Peirce isn't an atheist, and neither, perhaps, am I (being at least temporarily enraptured by/entrapped in the Peircean vortex...). Matter is effete mind and all that...

But the relevant point is this: in the current context, it's not my job to defend any of that. In this context, it's not my burden to prove to the Humes and Rosenbergs (and Dawkinses and so forth) of the world that any of that is true. Nor is it my job to prove to them that their scientism is false. Rather, it is their job to explain how it can be that, endorsing a view that they openly acknowledge to be such that it entails what is basically nihilism...they can blithely tell us that our lives can go on normally, unaffected. Move along! Nothing to see here! Everybody be a happy, Discovery-Channel-level science groupie...oh, and be a liberal, too, while you're at it... The weakest link over there has always been that one. Such folk, in effect, endorse skepticism/nihilism, but try to argue not only that this needn't affect our view of the meaningfulness of our lives, they also often urge us to be more humane. I'm all for that latter bit about humanity...but only if nihilism isn't true. My beef with them is--or here's one way of putting it--that they underestimate the importance of nihilism. I hope--and believe...but mostly hope--that nihilism is false. But I am fairly certain of this: if it is true we can't ignore it. If it's true, the consequences are universe-shaking. And we need to be honest enough to face up to that fact. If it's true, then, for example: Hitler made no moral error, since there is no such thing as a moral error, since there is no such thing as a moral obligation. Morality is a fiction. If nihilism is true, then the scientific enterprise is not noble, because nothing is noble. These are things which, if true, we should come to grips with. We cannot, with a straight face, stone someone to death for impiety while devoutly denying the existence of God. We cannot wax rhapsodic about the grandeur of science out of one side of our mouths while denying the coherence of the concept of nobility out of the other.

Not that God and morality go together--for, as the Platonic Socrates showed, they do not. And that's the biggest relevant error on the other side: to think that we have to believe in God in order to deny such nihilism. In fact, God doesn't help at all. That's the lesson we learn by reflecting on the Euthyphro--that gods don't help. The idea of justification--moral or epistemic--is the idea of something so conceptually difficult that even adding an omnipotent God to the picture won't help ground or explain it. Another thing won't help us make sense of what it means to be justified in believing or doing something. More objects just don't help. Not even an omnipotent object.God is a a minor philosophical puzzle compared to the problems at issue here. Even if he exists, and even if we knew he did, that would not move this particular philosophical ball a yard nor an inch down-field. God would only solve this problem if something like the divine command theory were true--but it isn't.

In short: scientistic atheists who embrace views that entail nihilism err by trying to have their cake and eat it too--or, rather, by accepting both of the following claims:

(a) Cake does not exist
(b) We all can and should eat cake

Theists of the relevant type err by holding that adding God to the picture solves the problems of value and meaning...and so they err by thinking that all atheists--rather than just narrowly naturalistic ones--face problems about value that they, theists, do not.

Folks like me think: there is no God, but that in no way means that the universe is not a complex place, perhaps containing real things like minds and values and final causes...whatever those might be. God is irrelevant here, hence being an atheist doesn't mean that you have to be a narrow naturalist, nor a physicalist, nor a nihilist. Folks like me still face all the relevant tough questions...but at least we don't think that God waves a magic wand--or magic word--and makes things valuable. Nor do we embrace a view that entails nihilism. Nor do we do the worst thing, which is: (i) embrace a view that entails nihilism and (ii) blithely say that it changes nothing about how we should think and act.

As noted, I haven't read Roenberg's book, so none of this carries any weight against anything specific therein. This is just a quick link pointing you to Marshall's review, after all! So who knows? Maybe Roenberg has finally cracked the nut that Hume et. al. found uncrackable...  Maybe he's shown why all can and should be, to use Marshall's phrase, nice nihilists after all. I'm going to be honest--I know the type of position well enough that, unless some consensus emerges that Rosenberg has cracked the uncrackable nut, I'm not likely to read his book. But for the reasons above, you might want to take that with an appropriate number of grains of salt, read the thing, judge for yourselves, and come back and set me straight if need be.

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