I recently read James Steinhoff‘s review of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (2011) by Alex Rosenberg and it got me thinking. I consider myself a form of nihilist and I’ve noticed that many people are shocked by the notion. It seems like our culture has a phobia about nihilism. So to temper those fears, Rosenberg puts forward the idea of “nice nihilism”.
I don’t see why we need an apology for nihilism. Think through history about the people who have been killed or injured in the name of Nothing. Now think of the people killed in the name of some belief. Let the believers apologize if they want. Nihilism gives me no anxiety.
I consider myself a nihilist because I make a conscious effort to hold no fixed beliefs. I can watch the sun rise six days in a row and “believe” that it will rise on the seventh. But this isn’t a fixed belief, it’s just memory and understanding. I definitely do not hold the fixed belief that the sun will rise forever. As a matter of fact, I know this is impossible.
Many people assume nihilists are automatically immoral. They have no grounds to do so. I recently read a moronic tweet asking an atheist why he doesn’t just kill and rape anyone he wants? The atheist responded, “I do.” Of course he does, and so do I, because normal people don’t kill or rape. Let’s disambiguate the term nihilist from “asshole” forever. A better synonym for “asshole” would be “fanatic believer”.
Rosenberg takes a staunch materialist view of everything, it seems. He thinks that matter and energy and strict causality created all of reality, and that absolutely everything can be answered by physical facts. I find this ridiculous on a few levels. At exactly what point in history did science gain all the answers? It is a perfectly true fact that science has never had all the answers.
In the early days of the Newtonian revolution, everyone thought his system was The System. Of course Einstein proved that he was completely wrong. Sure, Newton’s theories were a huge jump forward owing to their usefulness, but let me just reiterate, he was wrong. The idea that there is some absolute space and absolute time is pure fiction, false to the facts of the universe. To assume physics will ever have all the answers is to disregard history with a faulty intellectual hubris. Not surprising since Rosenberg believes history is meaningless.
Everything that science has illuminated, it has done so through the human nervous system. There are no cold, hard facts sitting out there in a vacuum. Everything we understand about reality happens as a result of some nervous system interacting with the universe, of which that nervous system is a part. We can talk about the material basis for thoughts and feelings, but in order to express the uniqueness of each individual, we need something more.
Every one of us lives in our own unbelievably complex semantic environment. We interact with symbols, languages and feelings all the time, and all of these experiences become uniquely related to the observer. Even contemporary material science recognizes the effect of the observer on an observed physical system. Of course life loses meaning and purpose when you only consider the material side of reality. The semantic side is full of meaning, and inextricably linked to everything we know or can know about the universe.
Somehow Mr. Rosenberg thinks he can speak for the universe by eliminating the human experience. Then again, I haven’t read his book. I’ve only read the review. Anyway, it’s what I’ve been thinking about this week.
I liked the bullet point Q & A that outlines Rosenberg’s position, so I’ll just give a quick rundown with my first reactions for your reading pleasure. Naturally snappy answers to big questions are oversimplified.
Is there a God? No.
“Yes” or “No” doesn’t matter much to me without any attempt to define God.
What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
Physics itself says nothing. Physics is the name human beings have given to our own scientific observation of the universe. But even physicists don’t agree. There is still no fully developed model of our universe that doesn’t contain huge contradictions. Loop quantum gravity, string theory, etc., are not compatible. Even the Big Bang is just a theory, and one that no monolithic scientific community can get behind. To assume our current science is on the right track to discover everything is ridiculous. As our powers of perception continue to increase there will be always be more unknowns in the universe.
What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
The question is a teleological error. Teleology, the doctrine that final causes exists, is nonsense to most modern philosophers, so the question is a silly one. The answer is correct though.
What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
I dare Rosenberg to define the word “meaning”. If he chooses to define his words with other words, and to define those words with still more words, he will eventually come to either a circular definition or ambiguous nonsense. Meaning is a function of the semantic structure of some human experience.
The term meaning is related to the level of abstraction taken into consciousness. Rosenberg wouldn’t admit that his book is meaningless, while most people should agree that a kitchen sink has no ‘meaning’. Meaning involves a cohesive structure of symbols, interpreted through a nervous system, reason, emotion, intuition, etc. As a writer, I consciously create meaning through the manipulation of symbols. Meaning is what we make it.
Of course if he’s talking about some objective meaning for all of life, I agree there’s no master plan at work here outside of our own.
Why am I here? Just dumb luck.
Yes. Good call.
Does prayer work? Of course not.
On this point he is actually wrong. There have been numerous studies that show results from prayer and meditation. Even if prayer only serves to focus one’s attention on certain concerns, it has had an effect. This type of answer reeks of dogmatic atheism, a fanatical belief which I have no time for.
Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?
Are you kidding? Once again, asking ambiguous questions, making no attempt to define the topics, and writing them off. Forgivable in this short-form index.
Is there free will? Not a chance!
Hmm. It’s tough to define consciousness, but among its criteria is the ability to apply different responses to stimuli. The more responses an organism can have to a given stimulus, the more conscious it is. This is a very reduced and ambiguous definition, but broadly acceptable to my mind. Strict determinism makes a lot of questionable assumptions about why different reactions would be given to the same stimuli. Chaos Theory and quantum effects might form a material basis for an answer, but that level of reality is effected by observation.
It’s very easy to feel from daily experience that the decisions we make come from thinking and not because of material, deterministic factors. To say that thoughts are only the results of electronic impulses is to completely disregard the human experience, to disregard quality over quantity.
What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on before, except us.
To be fair and literal, nothing ever just goes on as before.
What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.
This may sound controversial, but I agree. I do not believe in moral absolutes, and as there is no such thing as a teleological expert, all moral systems are of equal value. Obviously going around killing people isn’t helpful to oneself or anyone else, and so is simply stupid. I do agree with his assumption that people are naturally inclined to be good and nice.
Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.
I more or less agree here. I think personal happiness is a good goal for life, and everyone’s personal happiness is connected with mine.
Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.
To quote the creed of Hassan-i Sabbah “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” Sabbah was the founder of the Assassins…so he’s probably not a great example for “nice nihilism”.
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.
History is a collection of data on the experiences and interaction of organisms similar to myself. If I can glean anything about what motivates people to act, I can apply this knowledge to my own decision-making process.
Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with (2-3).
I have no reaction to this one.
P.S. I was reminded of a scene from The Big Lebowski that highlights the absurdity of this phobia towards nihilism. Three extortionists threaten to cut The Dude’s nuts off. Walter refers to them as Nazis but he is corrected by The Dude – they’re nihilists. Walter gets serious and says, “Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, but at least it’s an ethos.”