Saturday, March 3, 2007

Against Nihilism

The Earth as seen from Voyager 1, at a distance of over 4 billion miles.

Surfing through the Atheist Blogroll, I see that Louie at the straightforwardly-titled blog Everything is Pointless has a lovely post quoting one of my childhood heroes, Carl Sagan, on the insignificance of the Earth in the vast universe:
Our posturings, our imagined self- importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in a great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness their is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves, it is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling and even character building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. For me it underscores our responsibility, our profound responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot the only home we have ever known.
Lovely though Sagan's writing may be, and glad as I am to be directed to it, I thoroughly disagree with Louie's conclusion--which might be expected--that this sort of perspective on the Earth shows us that Everything is Pointless.

I don't think Sagan meant this line of reasoning to support this sort of nihilism at all. As I see it, he's making a different point: a subtle jab at religion ("no hint that help will come from elsewhere") and a call for humbleness and human solidarity in light of our basic aloneness in a vast universe--which solidarity would itself surely be pointless if everything is such. But of course this doesn't prove Louie wrong, it just shows that he's making a separate point from Sagan's.

Louie's point seems to be the following, which is a surprisingly common argument for nihilism: our tinyness relative to the rest of the universe proves our total insignificance and the meaninglessness of the things we find important--which are, after all, such tiny things in the grand scheme.

I find this argument interesting because it somehow seems very compelling, but it doesn't actually make any sense.

Why should the size of something have anything to do with its claim to importance? To borrow a point from the philosopher Thomas Nagel: are short people less important and meaningful than tall people? Would we have reason to think ourselves twice as important if the universe were half its size? Surely this is absurd, so why does the size of the universe make us feel meaningless?

I would guess that people think this way because they tend to assume that the meaningfulness of our lives depends on our ability to affect the world outside ourselves. In some sense, that's surely true, but the dependency isn't a linear one: to live a meaningful human life, we have to have meaningful relationships with others, etc., but this doesn't mean that we are only important to the degree that we can affect the outside world. In the same way that the meaningfulness of a book or a piece of music doesn't directly depend on how many people it affects (otherwise the latest Danielle Steele would have to count as much more meaningful than, say, Kafka), the meaningfulness of a human life need not depend on the percentage of the square-footage of the universe that it affects.

But there's a deeper problem here. The premise of this form of nihilism depends on our ability to do something that I believe is impossible: to take a perspective entirely outside of all human affairs and forms of valuation, and then, by applying some sort of "outside" standards, to find all those affairs and forms of valuation to be lacking in significance. I don't think this sort of transcendent perspective actually makes any sense. To find something lacking is to apply our already-existing forms of valuation--the same forms that we are supposed to find lacking! I don't think it really makes sense to turn our intellect in on itself in this way.

In any event, I think it's vital to distinguish between atheism and nihilism. It should be obvious that disbelief in the Sky Fairy shouldn't require disbelief in meaningfulness itself, but many people seem to believe it does. The "astronomical perspective" does, I think, give some limited weight to the case for atheism, inasmuch as it overturns old religious ideas of our place in the universe, but it gives none to nihilism.


Louie said...

Hey Disambiguation.

I wonder if you can admit that you've misunderstood my position?

You said: are short people less important and meaningful than tall people?

But that isn't what I am arguing. In fact that's a bit of a silly argument.

It isn't that the size of the universe which makes everything pointless. I suggest you read some more of my site including my FAQ

Just because you 'believe' that everything isn't pointless doesn't necessarily make it so.

ellis said...

Hey! I was hoping you might respond.

Of course it's silly to say that short people are less important than tall people--it's supposed to be a reductio of the idea that our size relative to the rest of the universe matters. I don't mean to say that you actually believe that short people are less important (esp. since you think nothing is important), but that the logic of your position would imply it.

I realize that the size of the universe isn't your only reason for believing that everything is pointless, but that did appear to be the implication of the particular post I was responding to.

The FAQ is nice, but I disagree with it nonetheless, if for different reasons than my reasons for disagreeing with the original post. You seem to have two justifications for you nihilism:

1. There is no God.
2. We will all cease to exist when we die.

I agree with both of those claims, but I don't see how either implies nihilism. Why should the nonexistence of God have anything more to do with the meaningfulness of our lives than the nonexistence of unicorns? Why should the fact that we will die make our lives any less meaningful? Books and pieces of music end, but that doesn't make them any less meaningful.

I actually believe the exact opposite of you: that the fact that we will die and cease to exist is a requirement for our lives to be meaningful. An immortal existence (to the extent it's imaginable) would be pretty meaningless. (If you haven't before, read Borges' short story "The Immortal", which encapsulates my reasons for believing this.)

My underlying point is not that I believe that life is meaningful and therefore disagree with you. My point is that I don't think it's actually possible for us to think in any rational and objective way about whether life in general is meaningful, because this involves assuming an outside perspective on our own rational agency which is impossible and nonsensical. This means that in my view it's just as impossible to say that life in general is meaningful as it is to be a nihilist.

Ken Watts said...

Hi everyone. I agree with both of you, and have recently posted a three-part dialogue on the very same subject at the daily mull. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was not the only one dealing with this issue.

Anonymous said...

OK. Universe is OMG so so big. (nice pic btw),and we are so so small. (piece of physical data, measurable.)

But size isn't everything. (Even Louie appears to be in agreement with that bit)

Doesn't matter what the size of your Universe is. Flat earth, Greek gods,the valley- whatever- doesn't the next bit hold true?

Meaning of life? Impossible(?)(well, difficult) to objectively apply value measurements to bla bla bla.

So you disagreed with him and that was your key reason. Well that is my posit. Fair enough, so perhaps in future, be concise, re-read your blog before posting etc..and hopefully elucidate.

So what is all this crap, pompous guess work & assumptions drivel about why the species puts importance on big things??

"I would guess that people think this way because they tend to assume"...

Then "In some sense, that's surely true". Oh really? Why?

This is the one that got me writing:

"to live a meaningful human life, we have to have meaningful relationships with others, etc., "

Did you get that from the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives mob?

I'm starting to feel increasingly nihilist.

Love your comparison of Danny Steele to Kafka. How about Michael Jackson to Mahler? Harry Potter to Proust?

"overeducated liberal coastal elite since 2006"

Did a tsunami hit in 2005?