Thursday, April 25, 2013

The spectre of nihilism

It might seem from some of my previous posts that I see philosophical thinking as outmoded and impotent. This is not my view, however, as I have consistently argued that there is and will remain an important place for philosophical thinking within – and on the margins of – the various sciences.

But I do – as I have most recently discussed here – have misgivings about pursuing areas like ethics and metaphysics independently of scientific investigations.

At the risk of boring those who don't have a vital interest in these matters and aggravating those who do, I want to air here a couple of my doubts about ethics.

I acknowledge that I am making very general and sweeping claims that reflect a personal – and also, in a sense, a conservative – perspective. But I wouldn't be making them if I didn't think they were objectively plausible.

Philosophical ethics, as I see it, is fatally incomplete because it carries within itself an implicit promise to provide fundamental justifications which it cannot fulfil.

Even if foundationalism is out of favor amongst philosophers, it seems to me that the very existence of a discipline of normative ethics inevitably raises expectations that philosophical reason can provide a basis for morality. But, of course, it can't. (And nor can science, I hasten to add.)

Moral philosophers have done some valuable work over the years clarifying ethical questions and elaborating ethical systems or frameworks of various kinds. But, more often than not, they have brought to their work strongly formed but unacknowledged convictions.

Most have been aligned with traditional religious and/or humanistic schools of thought, while some have operated within radical traditions of various kinds.

My point is that, loosed from the constraints of such implicit, culturally-formed convictions and beliefs, reason can all too readily become a destroyer of values, a kind of universal acid.

Our values are bio-cultural products, and there is every reason to see some of them as quite delicate and vulnerable.

In fact, the spectre of nihilism (which Nietzsche grappled with) has been a very real one in the West for at least the last century-and-a-half.

Writers in the Western tradition, from the Greek tragedians on, but especially within the last two centuries, have often written of a realm of chaos that lies behind or beneath the veneer of civilization. And many non-Western religious traditions also give credence or recognition to dark forces. (Think of the Hindu goddess Kali, for example.)

But philosophical ethics generally bears the stamp of two very optimistic (overly optimistic, in my view) traditions of thought: Western humanism, deriving from the Christian Platonism of the Renaissance, and the 18th-century Enlightenment. Both of these traditions looked beneath the surface of life and found, not darkness and chaos, but a reassuring order.

And yet the darkness and chaos is there – as a psychological reality, and maybe as more than that.

The view of the world which modern science is revealing has, in my view, a lot more in common with our darker religious and literary intuitions than with Platonistic humanism or with the cheerful deism of the 18th century.

Science is also throwing light on how our brains work, and the picture that is emerging seems, in general terms, to vindicate thinkers such as Nietzsche and Freud (who emphasized the role of unconscious elements over conscious rationality) rather than the rationalists.

Increasingly, I am coming to see ethics in terms of what is conducive to mental well-being and the social integration of the individual.

And certain forms of rationality-based introspection and discourse can actually work against these goals.


  1. Your story looks more than a little paradoxical. Bad philosophical reason, which tells us that there is a deep and reassuring harmony between us and nature, threatens to destroy some delicate and vulnerable bio-cultural values, because it overlooks modern brain science and our darker religious and literary intuitions.

    I'd like to comment, but I'm not sure I follow you. I feel I am being hypnotised.

  2. Our new knowledge about the sheer bulk and importance (for conscious thought and behaviour) of unconscious processing is somewhat mesmerizing.

    But it's not just brain science I am concerned about here. Biology also. And physics. I tried this morning to put up a video (David Albert speaking) on the other blog which is pertinent to this discussion, but there was a technical problem. I'll try again soon. Towards the end he defends the view that science reveals a very hard and confronting view of reality.

    Even certain types of religious thinker would be sympathetic to (at least part) of what I am trying to say. Think of T.S. Eliot: "human kind cannot bear very much reality." That sort of thing.

    We delude ourselves. And we must delude ourselves to get by.

    I don't like it any more than you do – but what if this is just the way things are?