:: Article

Nice Nihilism

By Richard Marshall.


The Atheist’s Guide To Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, Alex Rosenberg, W.W. Norton & Co, 2011

‘This is a book for atheists’. Rosenberg makes this explicit in the preface. Atheism requires a whole view of the world based on science that is ‘demanding, rigorous, breathtaking.’ There’s a feeling you get when reading Rosenberg that he’s fed up with atheists who avoid facing up to the big persistent questions such as: ‘what is the nature of reality, the purpose of the universe, and the meaning of life? Is there any rhyme or reason to the course of human history? Why am I here? Do I have a soul, and if so, how long will it last? What happens when we die? Do we have free will? Why should I be moral? What is love, and why is it usually inconvenient?’ Rosenberg demands that atheists just stop arguing with theists, for one because ‘contemporary religious belief is immune to rational objection’ but also because it eats into the time atheists should be taking to work through the implications of their own worldview. Atheists need to spend more time getting to grips with what they should know about the reality we inhabit because science reveals it is ‘stranger than even many atheists recognise.’

So he’s just not all that interested in going over the old arguments that keep getting reheated by lazy atheists who haven’t any news but do have a publishing deal. The God Delusion, God Is Not Great, Letter To A Christian Nation and so on are dull books that probably make more sense in the USA than from where I am but they bring nothing new to the table, play to a home crowd and change no one’s mind. Rosenberg is doing something different from being a cheerleader. He’s bringing a few home truths to the table. I suspect some atheists will not be able to swallow them whole and that just like the theists will also find ways of ducking the question.

So what are his answers to the persistent questions, as he calls them, the ones at the head of this article and his book, the ones we have that begin early in life, get crowded out by thoughts of sex in adolescence and then come steaming back afterwards? There is no God. Reality is what physics says (and evolutionary biology). There is no purpose to anything, anywhere. Never was, never will be. There is therefore no meaning to life. I’m here because of dumb luck. Prayer doesn’t work. There is no such thing as a soul. There is no freewill. When we die, everything stays the same except without us. There is no moral difference between good and bad, right and wrong. You should be good because it makes you feel better than being bad. Anything goes. Love is a solution to a strategic coordination problem. It’s automatic, programmed so there’s no need to go out looking for it. History has no purpose (see above) because the future is less and less like the past. Ditto economics. Technology makes predicting the future a guessing game and their rational choice theories are outrageously bad psychology.

Rosenberg argues that belief in free will and purpose and all that (see above) is belief in hokum of the same order as belief in God. The atheists’ self-image as the hero nihilist choosing her fate is condemned as being just as hopeless as the religious self image. This is why this is a book with some tough and strange lessons for the atheist. His book is a genuine guide, giving the reader a thorough reading list of the key texts that everyone should read, summarising the main points quickly, smartly and expecting you to go away and do further work. He’s a teacher after all, a very, very smart professor who assumes you too can be even smarter if you sweat a little more and put in the hours. So he’s a good teacher with high aspirations for us all. But what reason does he have for his worldview? He argues for a naturalism that results in what he calls a ‘nice nihilism’. By this he means that atheists are not nihilists (although their scientific world view is) and that for good evolutionary reasons everyone tends to be nice.

Nietzsche was probably the best philosopher who guessed this naturalist worldview without knowing the science (Hume did pretty well too), but these days we can all get the science as well, even if only via reports from the front line, and even if we don’t always follow the ins and outs. After all, it was genius physicist Richard Feynman who told us that we weren’t to worry if we didn’t follow the implications of quantum mechanics because no one does, even him. Now, it’s only relatively recently that Nietzsche has become accepted as being a naturalist. The post-modernist readings of him, typified by Simon Critchley, for example, are, simply wrong according to this new picture. The philosopher Brian Leiter’s brilliant 2001 guide to his ethics outlines the basic naturalistic position that he considers essential to a proper understanding of Nietzsche. Nietzsche held three crucial views: science proves we have no freewill, that we can’t know ourselves because we are full of hidden inner drives and that we are all different so a universal morality is immoral. Science has pretty much proved him right.

So reading Rosenberg reminds us of how much of contemporary naturalism has borne out Nietzsche’s inspired guesses. But Rosenberg is an extreme case of the position and so becomes someone with arguments that are urgent, vital and iconoclastic. What does Rosenberg argue?

He takes naturalism to be the thesis that the natural sciences are the best guide to what exists in the world and that its methods are the best ways of extending knowledge of what exists. And then he argues that the naturalistic programme is constructive. Wilfred Sellars considered that naturalism aims to make humanistic scholarship safe in a world of science. Rosenberg agrees with this naturalistic, Sellarsian project of reconciliation.

Now we’ve read how this is supposed to work out when we read the likes of evolutionist philosopher of consciousness Dan Dennett, and nihilist post-modernist philosopher Simon Critchley. Critchley argues that the nihilism of the meaningless universe requires us to work hard to reclaim that lost meaning. So in Very Little…Almost Nothing Critchley argues that once we accept the ultimate meaninglessness of the universe – God is dead and all that – what we have to do is work back meanings through understanding our relationship to the ordinariness of our common existence. Critchley assumes that we have a choice, that we have the freewill and potential self knowledge required to confront and build new meaningfulness out of this nihilism. But by assuming that freewill and self-knowledge are unproblematic Critchley underestimates the naturalistic challenge. It helps explain why he thinks he can be a nihilist, something that Rosenberg disputes, as we’ll see.

Nietzsche’s nihilism is much more thorough than Critchley’s. In fact, there’s a sense that there’s really nothing too nihilistic at all about Critchley’s version. If we are still justified in helping ourselves to freewill, responsibility, self knowledge and all that, then for the atheist, what is there to fear, what’s the big deal? With superstitions all gone, the revaluation of values can be turned into a political, ethical, aesthetic programme for freethinkers no longer shackled by voodoo metaphysics. From a certain angle this looks kind of cool and romantic, brave, sexy and underwritten by rationality in a way that gives philosophy a role. Some types, especially those seeing themselves as a philosopher, might be drawn to it. They might see it as endorsing a self image of the thinker as cultural hero. But Rosenberg’s naturalism renders this version of nihilism bogus.

Dan Dennett we might suppose is less sanguine than Critchley and his beard signals a different kind of hip from the Critchley angst. He’s a hard-nosed naturalist philosopher guy who loads up evolutionary theory to dispel the Cartesian idea of mind body dualism, sharing platforms with Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and the evangelical wing of the Darwinists. It’s the brain, stupid, is what his slogan could be. Consciousness is just what our brains produce and he explains the mechanism in terms of what he calls an intentional stance. But after making the case that the brain works in terms of matter and purely causal laws he makes a move not unlike Critchley’s and in the last three chapters of his masterpiece Darwin’s Dangerous Idea explains that we are not brains. Person talk, he says, isn’t affected by brain talk, and the evolutionary acid that erodes meaning at brain state level doesn’t go further into the ontological realm of persons. As with Critchley, if there’s a nihilism on offer, it’s a pretty comfortable one, a tame and domesticated dog that is trained to bark only at targets its master doesn’t like. It kind of leaves everything where the atheist hoped it would be: evolution underwrites the rationalism of being an atheist but doesn’t corrode our human image.

Rosenberg, as I said at the start, is having none of this. His position is a mad-dog scientism. ‘Scientism’, in the past used as a term of abuse, he reclaims as a term of honour. What he argues is for a naturalism of reductive physicalism. Reductive physicalism claims that everything is just bosons and fermions. Physics explains these. They are without purpose, without meaning, are blind, law governed entities that have no encoded propositional or intentional scripts. So the problem is how we can understand ourselves as having intentionality, free-will and purpose if this is the case.

Rosenberg is a reductionist but not an eliminativist. He is committed to the view that natural sciences are obliged to rule on the range of facts we can recognise and the range of theories we can use to explain these facts. So, given that there are thoughts and values and consciousness they must be underwritten by science. The American pragmatist Quine argued that everything that was a fact had to be translatable into science. On this view the best philosophy has to be continuous with science and this means more than that it is just consistent with science. Rosenberg takes a strong Quinean position and argues that it’s not merely the logical compatibility of science with philosophy that’s required here, it has to be shown how they join and cohere. The notion is that of the great ant man E.O. Wilson, which he labeled consilience.

Rosenberg argues that although everything is made of bosons and fermions tables and people and planets really exist because they can be explained by theories of science that at bottom end up with theories about fermions and bosons. He certainly doesn’t claim that we do have the scientific theories to do this with everything at present, or even that we have to in every case, schemata are enough in many cases, but reality is only ultimately bosons and fermions.

The really hard problem is to give an account of meanings and meaningfulness – both in terms of linguistic meaning and values meaningfulness – that are more than merely consistent with the laws of physics describing a universe of only these bosons and fermions. This is the nihilism at the heart of Rosenberg’s naturalism. Can intentionality, freewill, values, forces that drive us, the spiritual bases of wider sensings that are the basis of mystical experiences, Buddhist and Critchleyesque Littles…Almost Nothings, survive being explained in terms of fermions and bosons? Rosenberg’s Naturalism is a position that argues that anything that can’t be underwritten by science, ultimately reduced to bosons and fermions, is eliminated.

So Rosenberg answers in the negative. There is no purpose, no meaningfulness, no free-will in this blind, deterministic universe. The universe of fermions and bosons is our universe. So there is no purpose and meaningfulness in our universe. Now that’s nihilism that isn’t house trained! The atheist was cool with naturalism that removed the hocus pocus of supernatural forces like a Deity. Nihilism was okay when we could inscribe our meanings in humanity as brave intellectual heroes or communes of political purpose or make distinctions between what was true of the brain and what was true of persons. But Rosenberg rips these positions to shreds.


Rosenberg argues that bosons and fermions, governed by the physics of the second law of thermodynamics, Darwinian natural selection and the Periodic Table are more than likely going to be the final word on how to understand reality. Max Weber and Wilfred Sellars thought this kind of rationalism disenchanted the world and that nihilism would result for a while. But Rosenberg argues that they underestimated just how much hocus pocus must be eliminated.

Dennett’s approach is accused of this underestimation. Dennett basically argues that Darwin naturalises purpose as do other top Darwinean philosophers like Dreier and Millikan. This means that this type of naturalist thinks biology has naturalized purpose by showing that purpose is causal. But Rosenberg just thinks this is complete rubbish. He thinks Darwin eliminates purpose from everywhere and everything for ever.

If at the bottom everything is pure blind cause and effect then purpose is just an illusion. And here’s the kick: if the atheist accepts that God has to go because science doesn’t underwrite a purposeful universe then this same reason reaches right down into the very core of our own self image. The very same illusion that makes us think there’s a purpose in the universe governs our self image as purposive and meaningful. ‘The purpose driven life is an illusion’. We don’t have free-will and we’re in the grip of a false self image. (Nietzsche said this too!)

There is a metaphor for purpose, but it’s not real. The talk isn’t eliminativist, so we talk about having plans, of having decided to do something, of having choice, of having a meaningful life and so forth, but the reality is eliminativist. There are no plans, no decisions, no choices, no meaningful lives really.

How could there be if there are no statements of meaning in physics? Rosenberg argues that it follows that therefore in reality there are no statements of meaning anywhere either. There is no propositional or sentential reality, there’s only the appearance of such. The naturalist shouldn’t say brains do things differently from persons. The promissory note of naturalism insists on this. Dennett loses the thread of logical consistency of natural selection as the acid running through everything when he contends that persons survive its corrosion. Critchley is similarly convicted.

And it’s at this point that Rosenberg’s position erodes the ‘easy nihilism’ of Critchley’s picture from a different angle. Critchley’s Littles… Almost Nothings are construed from a position that thinks that our predicament requires us to be nihilists. Rosenberg denies that this is the case. He asks the question: does the Sellarsian scientific image lead to nihilism? Weber has same worry with his disenchantment thesis. If it does, if we are all condemned to being nihilists once the naturalist position is recognised as being the truth, then we might want to know why any of us should bother getting up in the morning or why we should bother trying to be good or make out that there was something wrong with Hitler and Pol Pot.

Rosenberg thinks that if we could become nihilists in the face of the disappearance of meaningfulness, as Critchley thinks we do, then these would be genuinely difficult questions to answer. But he simply thinks it is false to think that naturalism means we have to become nihilists.

Or if we do, we can only be ‘nice nihilists.’ Rosenberg talks about having fun. Nice nihilism implies that attributing meaning to our lives is just an introspective illusion selected by blind evolutionary processes, caused by photons and fermions blindly operating, working in real time in our brains, that has helped us survive. We attach meaning by these determined operations in our brain which give the illusion that there are actual purposes. But there are no such things. As I said, the illusion is explained by natural selection: it has been heavily selected for so that everyone is within two standard deviations of the mean of a happy normal life – the fun life – in the biosphere we find ourselves in. We flourish, or rather, have fun, because we are naturally selected to do so. We trick out statements of purpose but they are illusions. Naturalism cannot solve the problem of philosophy in ways that satisfy those seeking confirmation of a reality that gives purpose because there is no purpose.

At this point it might seem that Rosenberg is being inconsistent. He accepts that tables exist because they are real patterns of fermions and bosons in local equilibria, so why doesn’t he accept purposes as existing as similar patterns in local equilibria? But Rosenberg argues that nothing in science underwrites the value of any categorical imperative such as thou shalt not steal or kill or you ought to look after your neighbour, the frail, weak and so on.

But then, if there are no categorical imperatives (except linguistically) don’t abhorrent values become equal with decent ones? If there’s nothing in the naturalistic worldview to underwrite goodness then Hitler is equal to Gandhi. Rosenberg accepts this but says we shouldn’t worry. Rosenberg says we are all just hard-wired to be nice. Morals are for him a type of norm expressivism. There are facts paired to norms that form a core system that’s universal, shared as a kind of species bedrock. As a species we’ve evolved the same values. There are other facts then that these pairings interact with, local ones including eco systems. So Rosenberg argues that as a species we share the same values and and that all moral disagreement is about factual matters if it persists beyond clearing up background cultural things.

And Rosenberg argues that naturalism implies a left wing politics. The argument runs from the denial of free will. Scientism deconstructs the idea of a meritocracy. A determinist is going to be soft on crime because you can’t punish and ask retribution if there is no responsibility. Core morality says I have a right to what I earn and deserve. But where there are no free choices because they are all causally determined then no one can say they have earned what they have. Nor have we earned our skills and talents. It was fate determined by a deterministic universe. He skillfully distinguishes the mechanism of the free market from the notion of a meritocracy. He recognises that free markets create more wealth than non-free markets. But free markets produce inequalities and these are unfair because deterministic fate rids us of dessert. There can be no deserving poor or deserving rich in a universe where there is no deserving anything. There’s just blind luck.

The USA has presented itself as a nation of luck deniers, although the inspirational and current 99% protest in New York’s Wall Street seem to be denying this denial at last. Redistribution is required to equalize the unearned, undeserved disparities of equality caused by free markets, and this is the role of governments.

What of the response of those who argue that if dessert is unprincipled we should just stop trying to do what we ought to do and revert to doing just what we want to do. If there is no freewill, no actual dessert, then why should we not revert to a Hobbesian state of nature? Doesn’t this imply anarchy?

Rosenberg denies this because he says the state of nature isn’t as Hobbes describes it. Darwinean natural selection has selected for coordination, cooperation, empathy, love and those dispositions that extend what Paul Bloom in Descartes’ Baby calls a ‘moral circle.’ Evolution has selected the illusions that recognise our fates are yoked to living with others harmoniously. As was recognised by the 1980s, we are not inherently aggressive and competitive but gain advantage by being good at negotiating sociability. Rosenberg argues that so long as our environment remains reasonably stable we’ll remain non-nihilistic.

This is a core belief he argues for. The bunch of illusions that our deterministic universe has blindly selected are much, much stronger than weakly selected biases towards valuing truth and coherence. He claims that we won’t be able to be nihilistic even if we have seen through the illusions and know it’s the most rational position to adopt. The illusions are cognitively impenetrable, and are so for scientistic reasons. The illusions are selected instincts that are too overwhelming and powerful to be overridden. This explains the sub title: ‘Enjoying life without illusions.’

Rosenberg is a fearless naturalist, whose ‘nice nihilism’ doesn’t imply that we can become nihilists. He disturbs the comfy domestication of the naturalistic world view. Evolutionism and physics gives us a nihilist universe, purposeless, meaningless, ultimately devoid of everything we think is important. But it has constructed us as having evolutionary reflexes that grant us illusions of freewill and purpose we cannot but believe.

Of course, this is hardly the last word on the matter. There are plenty of people, naturalists and non-naturalists, who contend that he’s plain wrong. But the strength of his book is that it sets out his position clearly and therefore allows those who disagree to know what they must do to answer him. A recent dissenter from the Rosenbergian view is the philosopher Timothy Williamson at Oxford who recently wrote in the New York Times that ‘Naturalism tries to condense the scientific spirit into a philosophical theory. But no theory can replace that spirit, for any theory can be applied in an unscientific spirit, as a polemical device to reinforce prejudice. Naturalism as dogma is one more enemy of the scientific spirit.’ And he points out that oddly mathematics seems to elude this scientific world. Williamson thinks the bad news for naturalism is that mathematical proof seems to be just as effective a route to knowledge as the scientific method of observation and experiment. Williamson adds that there may be facts that can only be investigated and found by non-scientific means. There may even be unknowable facts about reality. His brilliant book The Philosophy of Philosophy takes up these arguments. Williamson is just unconvinced by the idea that science will be better at answering the question as to what caused the First World War, for example, than history. He doesn’t agree that we don’t have knowledge when we know the plot of, say, a Stewart Home novel. Literary critics pay careful attention to literary texts, much more so than the casual reader, and what she knows is genuine. He wonders how much science would be possible without history. He argues that Collingwood knew that our knowledge of past experiments is itself historical.

Williamson’s general line of attack is reminiscent of the attack that proved fatal for the logical positivists. The statements of the Logical Positivists contradicted what the positivists argued were the criteria of meaningful statements. Therefore Logical Positivism was meaningless. Williamson, in replying to Rosenberg’s response to his own article denying the naturalist position in the New York Times writes: ‘We can formulate the underlying worry as a sharp argument against the extreme naturalist claim that all truths are discoverable by hard science. If it is true that all truths are discoverable by hard science, then it is discoverable by hard science that all truths are discoverable by hard science. But it is not discoverable by hard science that all truths are discoverable by hard science. “Are all truths discoverable by hard science?” is not a question of hard science. Therefore the extreme naturalist claim is not true.’

Nevertheless, Rosenberg has written a provocative and clever book that is fresh, shocking and revelatory. Kant in 1748 thought that there would never be a Newton for a blade of grass. Then came Darwin. Then Nietzsche. Things keep changing, and the human image is not immune from this. It’ll make you think.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 21st, 2011.