The Fear of Nihilism is the last of four fears that Steven Pinker sees as the major reasons for rejection of the idea of inborn temperament. In previous blogs we have looked at the fears of “inequality”, “imperfectibility” and “determinism”. Nihilism in Webster’s Unabridged has a variety of meanings. These include
“1. Total rejection of established laws and institutions. 2. anarchy, terrorism or other revolutionary activity. 3. total and absolute destructiveness, especially toward the world at large and including oneself 4. a. an extreme form of skepticism: the denial of all real existence or the possibility of an objective basis for truth. b. nothingness or nonexistence. 5. the principles of a Russian revolutionary group, active in the latter half of the 19th century, holding that existing social and political institutions must be destroyed in order to clear the way for a new state….”
None of these definitions are exactly cheery. # 1, 2, & 5 (and partly 3) are directed at political institutions, while 4 is the philosopher’s form of nihilism. Wikipedia stretches it further giving us Moral Nihilism (rejection of all moral and religious principles) Existential nihilism (“life has no intrinsic meaning or value”) Epistemological nihilism (belief that no knowledge of any kind is possible) and the following additional possibilities:
Metaphysical nihilism: “The philosophical theory that there might be no objects at all….Am extreme form of metaphysical nihilism is commonly defined as the belief that existence itself does not exist..”
Mereological nihilism: this is “the position that objects with proper parts do not exist….and thus the world we see see and experience, full of objects with parts is a product of human misperception (i.e. if we could see clearly, we would not perceive composite objects.)”.
Hmm. I suspect that anyone who has begun to believe that objects and parts of objects do not exist is already far along the road to Existential and Epistomological nihilism, but these nihilists do have a technical point. To take a single example, color does not exist of itself. It is the combined property of differing wavelengths of light and stimulation of receptors in the eye and brain. The old question about whether there is a sound if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, illustrates this point. An appropriate answer would be that there are waves of air pressure created when the tree falls, but without the appropriate sound receptors (human, animal or electronic) there is no sound as we would define that word. Somehow, however, the idea that the properties of objects depend on the response of our brain and receptors, doesn’t seem as though it should be frightening. I suspect that the person who broods about this is not merely alienated from the outside world, but from him/herself.
Ultimately, in all its twisted forms, nihilism is a fear that the universe is meaningless, and with that, that there is nothing we can rely on or believe in. This feeds back to the concept of innate temperament only in the sense that this concept conflicts with some older core beliefs about the world. Threats to core beliefs in turn, raise the fear of nihilism level.
He divides the threatened core beliefs as religious and secular. Religious concerns are easy to comprehend. Religions, in the generic sense, assume an overall power in the universe, assume that the purpose of human life has to do with our relationship to that power, and the ability to be moral and compassionate derives from that. Souls exist outside of the body and outside of our temporal life on earth. Pinker cites Pope John Paul as agreeing in 1996 that there were many good reasons to support the theory of evolution, but still saying that “theories of evolution which…consider the spirit as arising from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person.”
The existence of innate temperament, differing from person to person and based on genetic, biological, forces seems to contradict the concept of a non-material and eternal and spiritually perfect soul. If it does not completely contradict it, at the very least it profoundly muddies the waters. It is not surprising that both individuals and institutions would feel threatened by this. It represents nihilism in the sense that it threatens the loss of basic beliefs and the total loss of life’s purpose as seen from a traditional religious view.
That leaves us with secular fears. By definition, things that are secular are not religious, so the concepts of God’s power in the world, man’s purpose in God’s world, and man’s immortal soul are not directly involved. But, Pinker then goes on to say “Why do secular thinkers fear that biology drains life of meaning? It is because biology seems to deflate the values we most cherish.” In some ways we have come full circle with the previous “fears”. Among the values that many most cherish are the belief in human equality (not as a legal right but as an inherent characteristic), the belief in perfectibility (that the right social order can bring about an end to cruelty and violence, poverty, hatred and all the historic ills of mankind), and the belief in the existence of free will (in the sense that we are capable of being anything we wish). For this last I will repeat a quote given in an earlier blog. This is taken from a geneticist who is also a political activist, Richard Lewontin, who wrote on a book jacket “….our genetic endowments confer a plasticity of psychic and physical development so that in the course of our lives, from conception to death, each of us, irrespective of race, class, or sex, can develop virtually any identity that lies within the human ambit.” If your beliefs include some combination of these, and you hold these beliefs strongly, it is, once again, a threat to core values. For that person the nihilistic threat is, again, that if these things are not true–these things so dear to my heart–then life is meaningless.
I have often thought that there is a curious aversion to things that are tangible. We take it amazingly for granted that things that have measurable mass and measurable physical, biological activity are somehow less elegant and admirable than things we posit to be entirely immaterial and non-measurable.This leads to the question as to what is the matter with matter? I think that the answer is that all measurable, material things have two important qualities. First, they are, to some degree, sharable and quantifiable. We can agree on their existence and properties, and that means that there is a way to decide, at least tentatively, that one thing is true and another is not. Unmeasurable spirits, forces, beliefs that do not include tangible evidence for their content, are not bound by these requirements. There may be truth there, but physical evidence of this is not critical to this, freeing the believer to accept whatever is close to the heart.
The second quality of all things measurable and material, is that they typically give us a world that is rough and tumble, and everlastingly imperfect and unpredictable. Before Galileo I am sure it was very comforting to see human beings as the absolute center of the universe, with a sun that revolved around us for our benefit. The problem was that this was a belief about a material object that could be disabused. (And it is worthwhile to note that once we adjusted to this, life went on.)
Similarly, human beings are born with substantial differences in abilities, motivations, and strengths of will and character. This makes life together harder, not easier, but if it is truth we need to accept that. That human beings are clearly improvable, but not perfectible also seems to be the case. Third, we clearly have will power that enables us to strive for the things that will be most satisfying to the person that we are, but we do not, as Lewontin might wish, have the ability “to develop virtually any identity…”
The fear of nihilism and loss of meaning in life is perhaps the least physically demonstrable of the four sugggested fears. Meaning is inherent for the individual who enjoys being alive, is attached to other people, and to his or her own passions, skills and joys. I expect this can be demonstrated to some degree, by finding correlations between happiness and a lack of the sense that life is meaningless, and between depression and a tendency to hold nihilistic beliefs. But–logically this is a circular argument, as the nihilist would say that his/her life view is the truth, and is the cause, not the result of unhappiness. For myself, I believe that a sense of meaning is a biological given, for most people. I would advise those who find themselves peering over the edge of nihilism to try to hold the faith on this one–that to paraphrase–“the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves”. It is not that life is meaningless, but that we are blocked–by depression, by terrible events, even by stormy adolescence, from experiencing the rich rewards of being alive. My private belief is that life and life’s purpose is not something outside ourselves, not something that is ultimately utopian or perfectible, but is what it is–the process that we participate in, along with all forms of existence.
And we are what we are. Temperament theory allows us to see ourselves as particular people, with particular moods, feelings, behaviors and abilities. Wisdom suggests that we need to accept this package as the person that we came to be and now are, and take responsibility for all the strengths and weaknesses that come in the package. It is my personal faith, that in the long run we are always better off to accept things when they appear to be true, than to reject them because they raise frightening challenges to old beliefs. So–take your honest self into 2012, and take pride in being you!