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Nihilism

On and off over the past few months, I've been reading Allan Bloom's book The Closing of the American Mind. It is a good book, full of interesting and unusual observations, and I'm sure I will have more to say about it later on. Right now, what I want to talk about is the part about the influence of Nietzsche and nihilism on American culture.

Now, I've never read Nietzsche, and have, or had, only a vague idea of what nihilism is, so it seems only fair that I should start by giving a dictionary definition.

A doctrine that all values are baseless and that nothing is knowable or can be communicated.

I'm mainly interested in the first part of the definition. If all values are baseless, then no one set of values is preferable to any other, i.e., all values are relative. In other words, the idea, common at universities, that all cultures, or sets of values, are created equal is in fact a component of nihilism.

Bloom goes on from there, but I'm going to go off in another direction.

Actually, first I'm going to throw in a small aside. Somehow I'd gotten the idea that Nietzsche was an advocate of nihilism, and that, it turns out, is exactly backward. As Bloom explains,

… Nietzsche with the utmost gravity told modern man that he was free-falling in the abyss of nihilism. Perhaps after having lived through this terrible experience, drunk it to the dregs, people might hope for a fresh era of value creation, the emergence of new gods.

With the above as an introduction, what I'd like to do now is explain some thoughts I've had about relativism.

The first thing I need to do is distinguish between values and beliefs. There's probably some official definition that makes a value a kind of belief, or vice versa, but for my purposes they can just be two different things … and here's how I think of them.

A belief provides me with a fact, a thing that is, while a value provides me with a rule of behavior, a thing that I should do.

Now we can talk about two kinds of relativism, value relativism and belief relativism.

Value relativism, I think, is true … true not only in the annoying and superficial sense of cultural relativism (different cultures value different kinds of hats … and that's OK) but true all the way down to the bottom. The thing that stops me from killing people is not that I think it's wrong, but that I expect I'd be caught and punished. In other words, it seems to me that all values are baseless, that the universe imposes no values … which I guess makes me a nihilist.

Belief relativism, in contrast, is just plain stupid. Is it just as valid to believe that the sun rises in the west as in the east? That bread can cut knives, and not vice versa? That you can walk off a cliff and float on air, instead of falling? Of course not! If you hold such beliefs, you are in for a rude awakening. Beliefs, in other words, can be found to be valid or invalid by checking them against reality.

Of course, checking beliefs against reality is what science is all about, so I guess it should come as no surprise that I buy into the standard scientific worldview. I won't say any more about that here, except to point to my essay on religion.

What if a belief is difficult or impossible to check against reality? Does that make other beliefs equally valid? That's a natural question to ask, but I don't have an answer for it, and in fact I don't think it's very productive. Suppose, for example, I flip a coin and keep it covered up. Is it valid to believe that it came up heads? What do we mean by “valid”? By “believe”? And why would one want to have a definite belief about an indefinite situation?

By the way, even when a belief is difficult or impossible to check, I do still believe there is a reality, an actual fact of the matter. Consider the following examples.

Was Napoleon's paternal grandfather left-handed?
Was John offended?
Who does shave the Spanish barber?
Where is that particle I just measured the momentum of?

The first example is harmless; I only included it because I wanted to say that history is real. The other three are more disturbing, but in the end show only that words are not reality.

So, anyway, now you know what I think about value relativism (true) and belief relativism (false). Unfortunately for my philosophy, value relativism implies belief relativism. If you value rude awakenings, and don't particularly value your life, then perhaps beliefs that don't agree with reality are the way to go.

I'm not entirely sure how to resolve the contradiction, but I do think I know a good starting point. It's no accident that in order to make belief relativism valid, I had to assume that life was a non-value. As soon as you value your life, or even just the life of your species, it becomes very important to have a good model of reality.

And that, finally, points to the real answer. The thing that's gotten us people where we are today, the thing that we're adapted to do, is to ensure the survival not of ourselves, individually or collectively, but of our genes. That's the argument Dawkins makes, convincingly, in The Selfish Gene … but that's not to say that survival of our genes should be the goal! As Dawkins notes at the end of chapter 11,

We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world.

I think you'll have to admit that sounds suspiciously like a fresh era of value creation.

So what have we learned? Only, I think, that if we're looking for a value axiom, survival of genes is the de facto standard.

That's as far as my train of thought goes, but I still have a few footnotes I'd like to present.

I do have some values, even though it seems to me that they're baseless. By amusing coincidence, as I was putting together the first draft of this essay, I happened to read A Case of Conscience, which had an interesting perspective on exactly that, baseless values. I won't spoil the surprise, you should just go read it yourself.

I've probably read too much Ayn Rand—starting with Atlas Shrugged, which is still my favorite—to be an advocate of altruism, but I'm certainly in favor of cooperation. The interesting thing is, you don't need to posit new value axioms to get cooperation—under certain conditions it emerges naturally from the interaction of selfish individuals. That's what The Evolution of Cooperation is about.

Finally, speaking of life as a value, please go read What is Necessary?.

 

  See Also

  Flexibility
  Memes for Good Driving
  Miscellaneous Carroll
  Objectivity

o October (2001)
@ December (2001)