Friday, May 28, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: ‘Good News’ Nihilism

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

English philosophy professor James Tartaglia has co-authored a 70-page study provocatively entitled “A Defence of Nihilism” which argues two main points: (1) that life is meaningless, and (2) we shouldn’t sweat it.

Somehow we are supposed to find this encouraging.

Tom: Canada’s CBC Radio recently gave Tartaglia and his Australian co-author Tracy Llanera the opportunity to air their views on its Ideas program. You can find a summary of that here.

IC, how on earth does one come to the conclusion that widespread belief in a meaningless existence “poses no significant problems or threats”?

Embracing Freedom

Immanuel Can: Having discovered that the putative “death of God” implies the death of a whole bunch of other things as well, various recent philosophers such as secularist Joseph Margolis and Catholic John Caputo have actually written books in a kind of celebratory mood. According to them, nihilism — the belief that there is no meaning to life, and hence no grounds for things like objective morals or social and political values — is potentially a great liberator of the human race. Since all human values are fakes, they say, why not embrace the freedom and make the world what we choose to make it? And now, Llanera and Tartaglia are claiming nihilism gets a bad rap. They argue that it is actually a kind of ‘good news for postmodern man’, giving us a basis on which to get together and feel alright.

You’ve read a little about their argument, Tom. What do you think: Does giving up on things like meaning, morality, faith, values and God give the human race a chance to come out ahead?

Tom: I guess it depends on what you mean by “ahead”. I don’t think Tartaglia, for one, understands the implications of his own philosophy. Either that or his tongue is firmly in his cheek when he uses expressions like “a particularly evil nihilist” to describe Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in the Batman movie series. How can anything be “evil” if actions have no universal meaning external to the individual? Tartaglia seems to think that since his own nihilistic outlook on the world doesn’t prompt him to go around destroying things and hurting people, it shouldn’t necessarily prompt anyone else to do so. But that doesn’t follow at all. I would argue that Ledger’s Joker character is the one who really ‘gets’ nihilism and is living out its implications, if only in the movie world. There’s no reason real-world human beings could not choose to do the same, and Tartaglia’s philosophy, lived out consistently, gives him no possible reason to critique them when they do.

IC: That’s absolutely right.

Beyond Good and Evil

I have noticed this before about the pro-nihilism set: they want to keep all kinds of valuable things in their worldview — concepts like justice, truth, good and evil, purpose, meaning, and so forth — but they want to keep them by way of cheat, because they throw out the worldview that makes them believable at all. If you’re a nihilist, there is literally nothing that can be called “evil”. As Nietzsche famously put it, you are “beyond good and evil”. But these people want to say that pessimistic nihilism is bad, but optimistic nihilism is good, though they mean it in some sense they’ll have to explain to me, since they claim “good” and “bad” are now meaningless terms.

They’re like Wile E. Coyote in the Warner Bros. cartoons; they’ve jumped off a logical cliff, but want to stop halfway down. And their rational “legs” are just spinning in the air.

Tom: Precisely. These are people who have grown up in societies which were, we might say, “residually Christianized”, and have not noticed that the benefits they enjoy from living in those societies are contingent on other people practicing a faith that nihilism rejects. Take that away from them, as they are trying to do, and you will not like what results.

IC: We see this doublespeak again in Tartaglia’s comments about atheism. Did you notice them?

Tom: I didn’t, actually. I began to doze off when it became evident he is insane, which was fairly early on.

IC: He thinks he needs to fend off both religious and atheist world views. Of course, he rejects the “religious” in all forms as superstitious. That’s expected. But it’s interesting that he’s also concerned that atheism “tends towards replacing the divine meanings of life with another non‑human equivalent, such as a worshipful attitude toward technology”. He worries that “too many leaders perceive technological advance as a force that must be allowed to progress regardless of whether humans desire the consequences or not.” He adds, “It could go in very bad directions, and that’s why nihilism seems worthwhile.” So “technolatry”, the worship of technology, is bad, he says — though he denies that any criterial for judgments of “bad” exist.

Tom: Oy.

IC: Now, maybe he does have one point here: Atheism does often become fertile soil for a kind of god-replacement: humanism, the myth of progress, technolatry, misanthropy, rage, social justice, communism, egoism, political extremism, occultism, and so on. All that can be quite bad. But has he got anything better?

Tom: Not at all. But aren’t nihilists atheists too? Or do they just not care about his existence one way or another? They should. It seems like the absence of God is necessary to their philosophy.

IC: Totally necessary. Nobody can rationally be a nihilist if they believe in God. They can believe in “gods”, in many demonic sub-deities, of course … occultists do, for example, or polytheists. And since there are many different quarrelling “deities”, and human beings are at their mercy, that can certainly lead toward nihilism. Or if you believe that God exists, as the Gnostics do, but also believe that God is malevolent or hateful, as they do, or cruel and distant, as the Muslims do, then you could become nihilistic. But if you believe in the God of the Bible, no way.

The “Positive” Stuff

But let’s see about the “positive” stuff Tartaglia thinks nihilism can offer. The article says he claims that nihilism can “offer a potential common ground upon which extremes of religion and secularism could meet, since it dispenses with all their competing claims to an ultimate meaning of life”. He goes on:

“Life is the common ground. If you’re a nihilist, you don’t think that anything goes beyond life. If you’re not a nihilist, you think there’s something extra. OK, but there’s still this massive common ground. Fundamentalists on one side or the anti-religionist brigade … [with nihilism] we can all understand each other, right? We can all agree on life.”

So let’s consider that claim, Tom.

Tom: I think he totally fails to comprehend the Christian view of life, the chief end of which is to glorify God and enjoy him both now and forever, if you’ll forgive my mangling of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Every time the Christian has to choose between the eternal and the temporal, he loses in emphasizing the values and interests of this life over the next. And we know it, so we aspire to make something of ourselves for the glory of God in eternity. I don’t see any common ground there at all.

IC: I wondered, too, what he means by “We can all agree on life.” Which life?

What seems to be far from his thinking is that life is to be invested, not merely extended for extension’s sake. He’s got no concept of what constitutes a valuable life, a life worth living there; and the answer to that is not obvious.

Do we all agree that on abortion, or trans-ism, or politics, or what kind of society we ought to be shaping, or what justice is, or on “the right to die”? If we can’t even agree that life has a right to exist, or that we are what we are born into life as, or that a good life has a particular shape and set of values in it, or who deserves what in life, or even that we want our lives to go on … in what sense are we “agreeing”? The statement is utterly mystifying.

Tom: Right. So we are free to make the world whatever we want to make it. Unfortunately, the catch is that — as the ex-girlfriend well put it — there is no “we”.

IC: Very clearly, merely by referring to the word “life” we don’t all understand each other. So what are we agreeing to? And how is adopting nihilism, which after all, offers no specific guidance at all in terms of what the right values might be, helpful in creating that agreement?

Undue Optimism

Tom: I notice even the CBC writer Tom Howell finds Tartaglia unduly optimistic:

“Tartaglia’s optimism in this regard might appear out of all proportion with the world’s many unending and brutal conflicts over much smaller doctrinal differences between all manner of groups, religious or otherwise. But then, a nihilist can dream.”

The words “out of all proportion” seem on point. In fact, I don’t believe for a second that most nihilists think like Professor Tartaglia. I’m not even sure he really understands what nihilism is. Merriam-Webster defines it as the viewpoint that “existence is senseless and useless”. If that is the case, what’s to be optimistic about? The only possibility is that he’s importing his optimism from elsewhere, because it does not derive logically from his belief system.

IC: That’s exactly right. And he actually gives us the key to understanding it.

When he’s talking of atheists, he points out that they too often are prone to “replace the divine meaning with something inhuman” like the worship of technology. Well, why do they do that? Because their atheism creates a vacuum, an empty space where meaning, morals, truth, justice and hope used to live, and that human beings simply must find a way to fill or become totally despairing.

Well, what if Tartaglia is trying to fill the same gap with twaddle about “life”? What if he needs something positive to guide his projects and hopes going forward, and lacking one because of nihilism, he grabs something to fill the gap? But when we look at what it is, it falls apart like tissue paper; because nothing in his nihilism grounds it or makes it coherent. And this is what I mean about him behaving like Wile E. Coyote; he’s got nothing under his feet, but wants us all to stop short of falling all the way into total nihilism.

And this is the way I find that nihilists always go. They give you all the premises, all the statements that they hope will make it necessary for you to stop believing in anything, and then turn around and say, “But it’s not so bad; we can still have morals, or meanings we make up for ourselves, or social cohesion, or hope”; but they claim these things utterly gratuitously … without foundations, reasons or proper explanations as to how this is possible. They float them on nothing.

Theory and Practice

Tom: And it’s only the philosophical nihilists, for whom the belief system is merely theoretical, who tell you it’s not so bad. Real nihilists don’t. They get that “meaningless” means, well ... meaningless. The internet body builder Zyzz called himself a nihilist. He was a hardcore hedonist who died young, probably of a heart attack from steroid abuse. The nihilist Nikolai Rysakov murdered Tsar Alexander II of Russia by throwing a bomb at his carriage. These folks at least were consistent with their belief system. Now, I have no doubt James Tartaglia is more pleasant to deal with than either of these folks, but they exemplify an ethos he only natters about academically.

IC: I understand what makes nihilism attractive. It promises to “free” us from all constraints and obligations. It is an acid that dissolves all rules, all precedents, all traditions, all structures and all values, and leaves the field completely clear for us to make life whatever we want it to be. That sounds good, at least to some, at least at first. But it’s no good at providing any positive grounds for a person or a society going forward. So to hide that fact, its proponents put on a facade of being casual, cheeky, truculent, and unworried. And they trust that that will paper over the massive gaps in their logic. They think that if they hold their nerve and don’t show concern, we’ll all buy in without looking too closely. But it’s all bravado and style, with no substance.

This “good news nihilism” is just another example of atheist whistling in the dark.

“Molotov” by Joy Garnett (2003), CC BY-SA 2.5.

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