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February 26, 2018 | by  | in Opinion Philosoraptor | [ssba]


Does anything really matter? Many of us, in our more existential moments, might find ourselves thinking about this question. Nihilism – the proposition that nothing matters, or that nothing has value, or that we have no reason for doing anything – might appear very plausible. After all, it seems that a modern scientific worldview leaves no room for facts about value or goodness or badness.

If nihilism were true, what would that imply for our everyday life? This question is investigated by the philosopher Guy Kahane. Kahane begins by dismissing two common fears. The first is that if nihilism were true, that would be a bad thing. The second is that if nihilism were true, we would have reason to despair. Kahane points out, as many philosophers have done before him, that these fears are seriously confused. If nothing is good or bad, then it cannot be bad that nothing is good or bad. If we have no reason to do anything, then we have no reason to despair about that fact. To put this differently – if nothing matters, then it does not matter that nothing matters.

This means that the truth of nihilism, startlingly enough, would have no normative implications. The truth of nihilism would not imply that we ought to change anything about our behaviour. Many philosophers prior to Kahane have used this reasoning to dismiss any concerns about nihilism as being fundamentally silly. As Kahane writes:

“At first sight the question of nihilism can appear to be immensely important, perhaps the most important question we can ask. But now it begins to seem as if nothing at all is at stake in nihilism.”

But Kahane is not satisfied with this answer. He accepts that, if we believe that nihilism is true, we would have no reason to despair. But that does not mean that we would not actually fall into despair. After all, many people are actually sad despite having every reason to be happy.

Kahane points out that, if we came to believe that nihilism is true, this would likely result in us abandoning many of our normal pursuits. The reason we pursue many things is because we think they are valuable. So if we ceased to believe that anything was valuable, we might stop pursuing those things. Kahane argues that the life of a person who truly and fully believes in nihilism would be almost animalistic – driven by temporary inclinations and instinctive desires, and lacking any broader projects or aims or structure. This is not how we ought to react to belief in nihilism – but how we likely would, given our psychology.

Kahane’s conclusion is that, while we have no reason to fear nihilism itself (because the truth of nihilism would not matter), we do have a reason to fear mistaken belief in nihilism. Consider the following possibilities:

  1.    Nihilism is true. In this case, nothing matters, and it doesn’t matter whether or not we believe in nihilism.
  2.    Nihilism is false. In this case, things do matter, and since believing in nihilism would make our lives much worse, we ought not to believe in nihilism.

Because of this, Kahane says, we have strong practical reasons to believe that nihilism is false. We gain nothing (and stand to lose very much) from believing that nihilism is true, and we lose nothing (and stand to gain very much) from believing that nihilism is false.


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