Escaping nihilism: The logic of meaning

It’s a peculiar aspect of human behavior that we make large demands on the universe.  We expect coherence:  every culture has a story that explains the system of the world, the way things are.  This desire to understand our environment makes practical sense.  But we also crave meaning:  the story of the universe must somehow connect to each of us personally, place each of us center stage as a protagonist in the great cosmic drama.

I have posted on this before.  Those who wish to go deeper into the subject of meaning and symbolic reasoning are referred to those earlier posts (see, for example, Meaning and morality, The meaning of life, Nature as the mirror of  morals).  Here, one last time, my concern is with the neodarwinists who make such a fuss about the purposelessness and meaninglessness of the universe.

The consequences of a cosmic loss of meaning might be expected to be clear and generally agreed upon.  Interestingly, this is not the case.  Most neodarwinist scientists toggle between presenting visions of a cold mechanistic universe and pleading for liberal, humanistic ideals.  Richard Dawkins, for example, describes a universe that is “lacking all purpose” and devoid of reason and justice, yet advocates a “liberal ethic.”

Some academics who accept neodarwinist theories find the leap to humanism illogical, and argue that such theories must lead to moral nihilism.  Tamler Sommers and Alex Rosenberg, for example, find that Darwinism “has made Darwinians into metaphysical nihilists” and “should have made them into ethical nihilists too.”

Yet even among the nihilists there’s no agreement about consequences.  Sommers and Rosenberg posit a “nice nihilism,” in which we are hardwired to do good regardless of the soundness of our moral beliefs.  Richard Joyce, however, views the rejection of morality as “the only honest and dignified course” even if the consequences are nasty rather than nice.

I have noted elsewhere that the universe known to science shouldn’t be confused with the mechanistic universe of the neodarwinists.  The question now concerns the relation of meaning to morality:  whether there can be such a thing as “metaphysical nihilism,” whether it entails “ethical nihilism,” and what the practical consequences of all this speculation might be.

Let’s begin with a series of observations from my previous posts.

First, the craving for meaning appears, on the evidence, to be as powerful a driver of human behavior as the craving for sex and reproduction.  Soldiers willingly face death to defend an abstraction:  their country.  Firemen and policemen endure the same risk to protect strangers.  These are normal, universal human behaviors.  Every culture, including ours, has considered the persons who embody them to be admirable and noble.

Second, meaning is causally linked to value, and value is the basis of morality.  Thus meaning is the bridge between is and ought.  The human world isn’t a clutter of objects but a matrix of judgments.  We ask for a place in the cosmic play; in return, we acknowledge demands that transcend our individual selves.  Typically those demands are on behalf of abstract ideals like God, country, and community.

If we could take a pill to cure our addiction to meaning, nothing outside ourselves would retain any value.  The world would stop at the skin.

Third, the link between meaning and morality — between objects and judgments — between is and ought — is a profound fact of existence rather than a reasoned argument.  Like morality itself, the human capacity for meaning appears hardwired to ancient neurological systems, and powered by emotion.  The emotions are tagged to the world by a kind of revelation:  the accumulated wisdom of the community in a given environment and across time, articulated in its history, religion, art, literature, laws, customs, and habits.

The facts of morality and meaning are social and institutional facts, which are, according to John Searle, “ontologically subjective, epistemically objective.”  In other words, they rely on opinion, but are part of the real world.

If these observations are accurate (and I believe they are) both nihilists and neodarwinists have pitched their arguments entirely on the wrong grounds.  They are playing philosophical baseball on a tennis court, and can wreak destruction but never win.

Neodarwinists like Dawkins, Daniel Dennet, and Stephen Pinker assume that, if only convention and religion are overthrown, an outburst of humanist enlightenment must follow.  But this is a rationalist argument, and we are symbolic, not rational, animals.  The overthrow of one particular story must engender a new one, which will be long deprived of the wisdom of tradition.  It took Christianity a thousand years to burst out of the cultural cocoon of classical paganism.  The twentieth century witnessed the overthrow of ancient traditions and the retreat of religion, and a parallel rise of violent faiths based on the classless society or the Aryan race or Arab nationalism.

Morality isn’t a rationalist deduction from abstract principles, but a question of learning right behavior in specific situations.  The meaning and value of those behaviors is nested in the story we tell about the world.

We treat each other as equals because of a long tradition of equality, despite a large body of evidence showing vast inequalities among individuals and groups.  If we were to use science to destroy this tradition, I doubt the practical consequence would be a rational acceptance by all individuals and groups of their place, high or low, in the scale of values.

Pinker makes a case for morality by saying that “we cannot help but think in moral terms.”  Similarly, Sommers and Rosenberg’s nice nihilism appeals to our hardwired tendency to be “conventionally moral.”  But these are generic notions, while their criticism is aimed at a specific tradition:  our own, which happens to be that of liberal democracy.  And specificity matters.  Thinking in moral terms and being conventionally moral may well have allowed SS gruppenfuehrers and Stalinist commissars to sleep soundly at night.

Further, if the meaning we project onto objects in the world is grounded on emotion, then it doesn’t make sense to speak of “metaphysical nihilism” unless we happen to feel that way.  The universe is physical, not metaphysical.  To ascribe nihilism to the physical universe is to move from is to ought, the fallacy Hume warned against.

Nihilism is no more inherent in the fabric of things than are Buddhism or Christianity.  It can be found only by those emotionally predisposed to find it.  From a practical standpoint, the single commandment of nihilism — anything goes — is untenable for social life, and I suspect for individual life as well.

No tradition ever evolved from a belief in meaninglessness and amorality; none ever could.  The proclamation of nihilism in books and articles is therefore either a pointless mental game or an act of vandalism against established morality.

I incline to the former explanation.  Western academics dwell in a suffocating, self-referential atmosphere, full of furious theorizing but increasingly devoid of points of contact with the lives and reasons of ordinary people.  Rationalist argumentation becomes a game played for its own sake.  How else could one explain that a debate about our biological descent could be conducted so far from human nature — or that an author, having blithely abolished morality, could feel compelled to announce the event in moralistic terms, as “the only honest and dignified course”?


One Response to Escaping nihilism: The logic of meaning

  1. kovid7 says:

    flattered by portrayal of thoughts favoring morality. would prove to be very helpful for me, i’m studyin all of these concepts of anti-realism, morality, nihilism and what not. i’ve been reading these, cuz i want to find it for myself, what i can relate to. i might end up relating with none of these ideas, then a new idea might emerge. * my conception of nihilism and error theory

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