Nihilism? That could be exhausting!

What if we tried to pursue reality to the bitter end? Not to look for what we hope to find, or want to find, but only to find what’s actually there? One philosopher who thinks that the radical objectivity of science provides the clearest glimpse is Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher of science at Duke University, in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions. He calls his approach “nice nihilism.”


The basic idea is simple. In the natural world described by science, there are no moral values. Organisms do whatever they can to survive and that’s that. Some make it, some don’t. Morality, if it exists at all, applies only to what humans do. So for morality to be part of reality, humans must be outside nature, at least partly. Many religions discuss a supernatural realm. However, if it turns out that nothing can be outside the natural world, that there is no supernatural realm, and that therefore humans are part of the natural world, then moral values are mere illusion.

Rosenberg lays it right on the line with direct answers to basic questions:

Is there a god?  No.

What is the nature of reality?  What physics says it is.

What is the purpose of the universe?  There is none.

What is the meaning of life?  Ditto.

Why am I here?  Just dumb luck.

Does prayer work?  Of course not.

Is there a soul? Is it immortal?  Are you kidding?

Is there free will?  Not a chance!

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad?  There is no moral difference between them.

Why should I be moral?  Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory?  Anything goes.

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.

Does the human past have any lessons for our future?  Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with.

Rosenberg’s rejection of all moral value sounds ludicrous. How can a society be organized if “anything goes”? But it’s not easy to show why he is wrong. Throughly outraged by this bleak view was Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic:

I take this cutting-edge wisdom from the worst book of the year, a shallow and supercilious thing by Alex Rosenberg. The book is a catechism for people who believe they have emancipated themselves from catechisms. The faith that it dogmatically expounds is scientism. It is a fine example of how the religion of science can turn an intelligent man into a fool… 

Rosenberg arrives with “the correct answers to most of the persistent questions,” and “given what we know from the sciences, the answers are all pretty obvious.” This is because “there is only one way to acquire knowledge, and science’s way is it.” And not just science in general, but physics in particular. “All the processes in the universe, from atomic to bodily to mental, are purely physical processes involving fermions and bosons interacting with one another.” And: “Scientism starts with the idea that the physical facts fix all the facts, including the biological ones. These in turn have to fix the human facts—the facts about us, our psychology, and our morality.” All that remains is to choose the wine

Wieseltier makes a valid point when he argues that science cannot be the whole truth because Rosenberg’s book itself is not science. “There can be no scientific answer to the question of what is the position of science in life. It is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question.” What kind of truth philosophy provides is a perennial problem, but not one that refutes Rosenberg’s “catechism”.   

What about aesthetic values?

Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride 1667

in what way is, say, The Jewish Bride a scientific fact? It is certainly composed of fermions and bosons, but such knowledge, however true and fundamental, casts no light upon the power of the painting, or the reasons for its appeal. The description of everything in terms of fermions and bosons cannot account for the differences, in meaning and in effect, between particular combinations of fermions and bosons. But Rosenberg’s complacence survives such an objection, since he holds also that “the meanings we think are carried by our thoughts, our words, and our actions are just sand castles we build in the air.” This leads him to a boorish attack on the humanities, which are “nothing we have to take seriously, except as symptoms.” What they symptomize is “the search for motives and meanings in thoughts about things,” which has all been retired by neuroscience; and also our sad need for narrative.

Wieseltier is wrong if he means that psychology cannot conduct a scientific investigation into why certain images provoke an emotional reaction. He’s right if he means that no such investigation would establish artistic value. Surely, however, nihilism about art is easier to accept than about morality. Calling Rosenberg “boorish” is no refutation.

What’s nice about nihilism?

This shabby book is riddled with other notions that typify our time. Rosenberg maintains that atheism entails materialism, as if the integrity of the non-material realms of life can be secured only by the existence of a deity. Reason does not move him, no doubt because of the threat it poses to the physicalist tyranny. He asserts, as would anyone who does not live in Congo, that “most people are nice most of the time,” because “we were selected for niceness,” which is all we need for ethics. He calls this “nice nihilism,” since it promotes moral values without moral beliefs.

Atheism may not entail materialism, but physics and evolutionary biology may entail atheism. Rosenberg argues, consistent with moral psychology, that most people are nice most of the time, because evolution selected us to have moral feelings. Human groups consisting of nice people outcompeted groups of selfish people. People will continue to be mostly nice, whether nihilism is true or not.

Does atheism entail moral nihilism? If so, what would be the social impact? Is Rosenberg too sanguine about the niceness of people if there is really nothing to be nice about? Does he underestimate the difficulties in living with nice nihilism? Think about giving up all moral judgment. Can you really do it?

In columns over the last week,

David Brooks

and Ross Douthat

question how “liberalism”—aka secular scientific humanism— can provide a foundation for values. Both discuss a book by Patrick Deneen, a Notre Dame political theorist, “Why Liberalism Failed.”

According to Douthat, Deneen argues that “the liberal-democratic-capitalist matrix we all inhabit depends for its livability and sustainability and decency upon pre-liberal forces and habits, unchosen obligations and allegiances: the communities of tribe and family, the moralism and metaphysical horizons of religion, the aristocracy of philosophy and art.” But liberalism will “eventually dissolve all these inheritances, leaving only a selfish individualism and soft bureaucratic despotism…”

Hence Trump. Is there a crisis of values? Can science alone provide the foundation for value, moral and otherwise?

Science poses a threat to moral value because you can’t derive “ought” from “is”. Since science says there is only “is”, that would seem to mean there is no “ought”, though there ought to be.

Finally, this very day (1/18/18) the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy published “Skepticism About Moral Responsiblity” by Gregg Caruso the main thrust of which backs up aspects of Rosenberg and shows the issue is timely. Some excerpts:

Skepticism about moral responsibility, or what is more commonly referred to as moral responsibility skepticism, refers to a family of views that all take seriously the possibility that human beings are never morally responsible for their actions in a particular but pervasive sense. This sense is typically set apart by the notion of basic desert and is defined in terms of the control in action needed for an agent to be truly deserving of blame and praise. Some moral responsibility skeptics wholly reject this notion of moral responsibility because they believe it to be incoherent or impossible. Others maintain that, though possible, our best philosophical and scientific theories about the world provide strong and compelling reasons for adopting skepticism about moral responsibility. What all varieties of moral responsibility skepticism share, however, is the belief that the justification needed to ground basic desert moral responsibility and the practices associated with it—such as backward-looking praise and blame, punishment and reward (including retributive punishment), and the reactive attitudes of resentment and indignation—is not met…

Recent work in psychology and social psychology on automaticity, situationism, and the adaptive unconscious, for instance, has shown that the causes that move us are often less transparent to ourselves than we might assume—diverging in many cases from the conscious reasons we provide to explain and/or justify our actions (see, e.g., Nisbett & Wilson 1977; T. Wilson 2002; Doris 2002; Bargh 1997, 2008; Bargh & Chartrand 1999; Bargh & Ferguson 2000; Kahneman 2011). These findings reveal just how wide open our internal psychological processes are to the influence of external stimuli and events in our immediate environment, without knowledge or awareness of such influence. They also reveal the extent to which our decisions and behaviors are driven by implicit biases (see, e.g., Uhlmann & Cohen 2005; Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz 1998; Nosek et al. 2007) and other unconscious System-1 processes (Kahneman 2011 [the hugely popular Thinking Fast and Slow]). No longer is it believed that only “lower level” or “dumb” processes can be carried out non-consciously. We now know that the higher mental processes that have traditionally served as quintessential examples of ‘free will’—such as evaluation and judgment, reasoning and problem solving, and inter-personal behavior—can and often do occur in the absence of conscious choice and guidance (Bargh & Ferguson 2000; T. Wilson 2002; Kahneman 2011)…

In recent years, empirical attempts have been made to test the practical implications of moral responsibility skepticism. One widely cited study found that diminishing belief in free will, which is ostensibly related to moral responsibility, caused participants to “cheat” more on a problem solving task (Vohs & Schooler 2008)….

Given the mixed results of these empirical studies and the fact that they tell us very little about any long-term consequences of adopting the skeptical perspective, the real-life practical implications of moral responsibility skepticism remain an open question. Perhaps, as these studies indicate, it would have both good and bad consequences. In which case, the practical question would shift to the overall balance—i.e., whether, on the whole, the consequences would be good or bad. Or perhaps adopting the skeptical perspective would over time reduce or eliminate any initial negative reactions—i.e., after an initial adjustment period, people would come to terms with the new reality and their behavior would normalize. An illustrative analogy might be made here with similar concerns voiced in the past about disbelief in God. It was long argued (and perhaps still is argued in certain quarters of society) that if people were to come to disbelieve in God, the moral fiber of society would disintegrate and we would see a marked increase in anti-social behavior. These fears, however, have not materialized, as society has grown more secular over time.

Indeed, 2017 was the best year in human history, according to Nicholas Kristof, citing the persuasive work of social psychologist Steven Pinker.

Yet if human beings are never really morally responsible for their actions it’s hard to see how morality in the normative sense exists at all. That realization would not provoke trouble?

Brooks, Douthat and many other commentators think something is wrong. See BQTA post “The Season of the Witch”. Michelle Goldberg: “Just under the surface of American culture, something furious is brewing.”


lebowski blowing sddefault.jpg


Bunny Lebowski: Blow on them.

The Dude: You want me to blow on your toes?

Bunny Lebowski: I can’t blow that far.

The Dude: [looks at man passed out in the pool] Are you sure he won’t mind?

Bunny Lebowski: Uli doesn’t care about anything. He’s a Nihilist.

The Dude: Ah, that must be exhausting.

Bunny Lebowski: You’re not blowing…

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