Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Varieties of nihilism

There are different kinds of nihilism. Not coincidentally, these are all associated with atheism (or naturalism, to be pedantic). 

Don't imagine this is a merely academic discussion. These ideas catch on. They translate into law and public policy, when secular progressives become politically dominant. 

I'll be quoting verbatim from scholarly resources. In some cases the writer may disagree with the position he summarizes.  But these are philosophical definitions. It's not something I made up. 

Moral nihilism

A broader definition of “nihilism” would be “the view that there are no moral facts.” “Moral nihilism” is also often associated—though somewhat vaguely—with thoughts about how we should act in the more everyday sphere: as advocating a policy of “anything goes,” as holding that with the removal of the moral framework restrictions on our behavior are lifted. It is true that if the error theorist is correct then there are no moral restrictions on our behavior...Camus writes: “If one believes in nothing, if nothing makes sense, if we can assert no value whatsoever, everything is permissible and nothing is important.” And Sartre declared that “everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to” (1945/1973). Richard Joyce, “Nihilism,” International Encyclopedia of Ethics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) 

Existential nihilism

This nihilism is associated with the idea that “life has no meaning or purpose”—a realization that may sometimes lead to a loss of motivation and even depression and despair. Existential nihilism crystallized as an intellectual movement in France in the post-war period, associated especially with the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. For Camus, the absurdity of the human predicament emerges from the tension between our realization that we live in a purposeless and indifferent universe and our ceaseless propensity to continue as if our lives and decisions were meaningful. Richard Joyce, “Nihilism,” International Encyclopedia of Ethics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

One straightforward rationale for nihilism is the combination of supernaturalism about what makes life meaningful and atheism about whether God exists. If you believe that God or a soul is necessary for meaning in life, and if you believe that neither exists, then you are a nihilist, someone who denies that life has meaning. Albert Camus is famous for expressing this kind of perspective, suggesting that the lack of an afterlife and of a rational, divinely ordered universe undercuts the possibility of meaning (Camus 1955; cf. Ecclesiastes).

We have a presumptive duty to desist from bringing into existence new members of species that cause vast amounts of harm. Extensive evidence is provided to show that human nature has a dark side that leads humans to cause vast amounts of pain, suffering, and death to other humans and to non-human animals. Some of this harm is mediated by destruction of the environment. The resultant presumptive duty we have not to create new humans is very rarely if ever defeated. Not all misanthropy is about humans’ moral failings. David Benatar, "The Misanthropic Argument for Anti-natalism," S. Hannan, S. Brennan, & R. Vernon, eds. Permissible Progeny?: The Morality of Procreation and Parenting (Oxford 2015), chap. 1. 

Another fresh argument for nihilism is forthcoming from certain defenses of anti-natalism, the view that it is immoral to bring new people into existence because doing so would be a harm to them. There are now a variety of rationales for anti-natalism, but most relevant to debates about whether life is meaningful is probably the following argument from David Benatar (2006, 18–59). 

As an evaluative view in the philosophy of life, nihilism maintains that no lives are, all things considered, worth living. Prominent defenders of the view hold that, even so, it can be all-things-considered better for us to continue living than for us to cease living, thus endorsing a ‘soft’ nihilism that appears more palatable than its ‘hard’ counterpart. In support of an intuitive assumption about what nihilism implies, I argue that soft nihilism is incoherent. David Matheson, "The incoherence of soft nihilism," Think 16 (47):127-135 (2017).

Epistemic nihilism

Epistemic antirealism/nihilism, as it is termed, is committed to the claim that there are no epistemic facts. Terence Cuneo, The Normative Web: An Argument for Moral Realism (Oxford 2007), chap. 4. Cf. Allan Hazlett "Anti-Realism about Epistemic Normativity," A Luxury of the Understanding: On the Value of True Belief (Oxford 2013), chap. 9; Alvin Plantinga, "The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism," Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford 2011), chap. 10. 

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