Friday, June 15, 2012

"Nice nihilism"

 If you don't believe in God, what's left? 

Most people think of atheism as one big negative. But there is much more to atheism than knockdown arguments that there is no God.There is the whole rest of the worldview that comes along with atheism.

So why aren’t scientists more up-front about these answers that we can read right off of science?  Mainly because the answers are bad PR for science in a nation of churchgoers.

Here is a list of most of these questions and their short answers. Given what we know, they are all pretty obvious. The interesting thing is to recognize how totally unavoidable these answers really are. The book explains them in more detail.

Is there a God?


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?


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 happens when we die?

Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.

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.

After all, the trouble most people have with atheism is that if they really thought there were no God, human life would lose its value. They wouldn’t have much reason to go on living, and even less reason to be decent people. The questions theists always ask atheists are these two: In a world you think is devoid of purpose, why do you bother getting up in the morning? And in such a world, what stops you from cutting all the moral corners you can?

Religious people especially argue that atheists cannot really have any values—things we stand up for just because they are right—and that we are not to be trusted to be good when we can get away with something. They complain that our worldview has no moral compass. These charges get redoubled once theists see how big a role Darwinian natural selection plays in science’s view of reality. Many of the most vocal people who have taken sides against this scientific theory have frankly done so because they think it’s morally dangerous, not because it lacks evidence. If Darwinism is true, then anything goes! “Anything goes” is nihilism, and nihilism has a bad name.

As the chapters about ethics suggest, there is good news and bad news. The bad news first: We need to face the fact that nihilism is true: science can’t justify the core morality that almost all of us accept. And any other supposed justification would conflict with science. So, if we are going to be really consistent, nihilism is the only option.

I hope and I also believe that nice nihilism is enough to forestall atheists’ worries. Because when it comes to morality, it’s all we’ve got.

The most important thing to know about reality is that science understands it well enough to rule out god, and almost everything else that provides wiggle room for theism and mystery mongering. That includes all kinds of purposes, including even ones that conscious introspection suggests we ourselves have. Conscious introspection was shaped by natural selection into tricking us about the nature of reality.

For reasons just mentioned, we were shaped to be suckers for a good story, a narrative with a plot driven by motives—peoples’, god’s, nature’s. By making us think that our own behaviour is directly understandable to us as the product of our (usually conscious) will, introspection effectively prevents us from discovering its true sources in non-conscious brain processes.

To use some philosophical jargon, I am an eliminativist about the propositional attitudes. That is, I believe that the brain acquires, stores, and uses information, but that it does not do so in the form of sentences, statements or propositions. The illusion that it does so is another one of those mistakes foisted on us by conscious awareness.

Nihilism—even my “nice nihilism” is a public relations nightmare. Most of my fellow travellers think that if the scientific worldview saps morality of its truth, correctness, justification, then there is no chance it will be widely adopted and every chance the scientific worldview will be marginalized, to the obvious detriment of human welfare. They might be right. It’s an empirical matter.

The four most difficult chapters of The Atheist’s Guide are devoted to this task, and most reviewers have avoided even discussing them. They are too hard for people who have never heard of the problem of intentionality or content or ‘aboutness.’ Once we take on board eliminativism about content, and Darwinism about every other instance of apparent purposiveness in the universe and in our brains, it’s easy to see that what consciousness tells us about ourselves, our motives, our plans, our purposes, is a tissue of illusions. This, not morality, is the part of our understanding of ourselves that requires radical reconstruction, at least for scientific purposes, if not for everyday life.


  1. All right guys, time to pack up and go home, Philosophy of Religion is over because Alex Rosenburg says so.

    First off, where are the knock-down arguments of atheism? Can anyone point me in the direction of these devastating critiques? Please?! I desperately want to stop believing in God so I can go back to living a life like He doesn't exist. Is is so much easier. Then again he would also have to take away the images seared in my brain (and on my body) from when I sought and found Him.

    Secondly, the question isn't "why do you bother getting up in the morning," it's "if this life is all there is, then why aren't you living like it's your only shot at it?" How many of these atheists spend their time watching Youtube videos, or on Blogger, or trolling Christian websites? Cause I gotta tell you, if I knew this was all I had, I would at the very least be trying to meet girls, or back-packing across some foreign country, not sitting back arguing about the existence of God as if it's some sort of noble act for humanity, especially when I have no basis for my nobility.

    Thirdly, is science over too? Do we understand the universe so well that we have proven that the physical world is all their is? When did that happen? This sounds like the same silly self-congratulatory attitude about the knock-down, argumentative awesomeness that is atheism. Science only studies the natural world, presupposing God had no hand in it, to say that science has shown that God doesn't exist is to beg the question. With a proper grasp of omniscience and omnipotence one should have no problem understanding that a Being such as this would be quite capable of creating and sustaining a universe that brought about us.

    On a side-note, I find it really quite intriguing how the only people who take the Genesis account to be literal are YEC's and Darwinists (at least they have that common ground).

    When he says "morality is all we have" the big question is, "huh"? Morality isn't all you have, it's your possessions and as such you should void morality whenever possible to get more of them. It's like an odd form of Hedonism.

    I really wish these moral relativists and nihilists would face their beliefs head on instead of just jumping in and out where they see fit, like a taxicab...fallacy.

  2. Phil writes: "Morality isn't all you have, it's your possessions and as such you should void morality whenever possible to get more of them."

    I am not an atheist, but I can imagine being one (and who doesn't experience those moments or even periods of deep doubt)?

    While for some people, atheism is accompanied by a desire to grab as much material goods as possible in this life, it doesn't always play out that way. The notion of an eternity of black nothingness (both throughout the universe and after death) can increase the sense of isolation, loneliness and even despair, and so we seek to alleviate this with friendship, family and other meaningful human relationships. It doesn't make the nothingness go away entirely, but it makes it recede a bit into the background. These relationships aren't possible when one lives only to please oneself.

    Is this a form of morality? Well, it's a weaker form of one, but yes. Self-sacrifice is involved, but the goal is still one's own personal satisfaction. It's not the total emptying of self as seen in the ideals of the Christian ascetic life, but how many Christians ever manage to embody that level of ethics throughout their lives?

    So whatever one's philosophical conclusions on the universe are, it doesn't eradicate the human need for personal fellowship with others (with the exception of the many sociopaths out there for whom human empathy is absent). Atheism does not equal or lead to malevolence, in other words.

    1. James

      "It doesn't make the nothingness go away entirely, but it makes it recede a bit into the background."

      To pool individually meaningless lives doesn't make life worthwhile. It's just sharing a bit of body heat on an arctic night in the open tundra before you freeze to death.

  3. James ends with this:

    " Atheism does not equal or lead to malevolence, in other words."

    Granting that it doesn't have to, that's not the point.

    The point is that, given atheism, there is no real reason to avoid malevolence if you can make it serve your interests. It may not always lead there, but it does nothing to avoid going there.