September 25, 2022

Claims about nihilism

(Here ‘nihilism’ is the view that nothing is good or bad.)

  1. It can be reasonable to find nihilism disappointing. Some people argue that it’s unreasonable to find nihilism disappointing, since if nothing is good or bad, then it’s not bad that nothing is good or bad. But even if something isn’t bad, it might be less good than you thought or hoped. If you go from thinking that the world is full of good things to thinking that nothing is good, it’s reasonable to be disappointed.

  2. It can be reasonable to find nihilism relieving. Same idea as (1): If nothing is good or bad, then it’s not good that nothing is good or bad. But things might still be less bad than you thought or feared. If you go from thinking that the bad in the world outweighs the good to thinking that nothing is bad, it’s reasonable to be relieved.

  3. You should act as if nihilism is false. There is a simple dominance argument: If nihilism is true, it makes no difference whether you act as if it is true. But if nihilism is false, you’ll be better off if you act as if it is false. So unless you are completely certain that nihilism is true—and you shouldn’t be—you should act as if it is false.

    1. This argument has been challenged, but the basic idea is still probably right.
  1. So-called optimistic nihilism is incoherent. Optimistic nihilists present nihilism as an exciting opportunity to “make your own meaning” and “discover what makes you happy”. But if nihilism is true, then neither of these things is good. It would make just as much sense for them to tell you to discover what makes you sad and do that. Also, among the people who made their own meaning are Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

  2. The best argument against nihilism is simply that some things seem obviously good or bad. For example, it seems obvious that happiness is good and suffering is bad.

  3. Most popular arguments for nihilism are terrible. These include: that humans occupy only a tiny fraction of the universe, that there is no God, that humans lack free will, and that humans are mortal. The premises of these arguments may be true, but they do nothing to support nihilism.

    1. Size: If humans came to occupy, say, 76.3% of the universe as opposed to less than 0.000000001% of it, would happiness then magically become good? If only a single person existed, would their torture not be bad because they aren’t physically big enough?
    2. Atheism: If you start out thinking that happiness is good, why should you stop thinking that happiness is good if you become an atheist? It’s silly to think, “Happiness is good, but only because God says so”. Would happiness be bad if God had said so?
    3. No free will: If suffering is bad, then the suffering of non-human animals, which lack free will, is bad too. This doesn’t change if it turns out that humans also lack free will.
    4. Mortality: That all apparently good (bad) things will come to an end does not entail that nothing is good (bad). If you torture me for a thousand years and then kill me, my suffering is just as bad even though I die at the end of it.1
  1. Nihilism is probably true.

  1. Two recurring mistakes in these arguments are (i) conflating cosmic significance with value, and (ii) thinking that the value of an intrinsic good or bad depends on its location in space or time. Size and Atheism (and maybe No free will) might show that we are cosmically insignificant. Size and Mortality show something about the position of human happiness and suffering in space (Size) and time (Mortality). The rebuttals mostly emphasize the problems with (i) and (ii). ↩︎