Many believe that the truth of nihilism has no influence on daily lives. In a recent paper, Guy Kahane argues that if nothing matters it is very unlikely that our lives will go on as before. In introductory classes, students often reject the possibility of objective values either by expressing nihilist or relativist views. But do we really know what is at stake in nihilism?
Suppose that belief in nihilism will have a dramatic effect on our subjective concerns, it will lead to a life without values, as Kahane argues. What would be the form of this life?
One possible answer is a life without practical reason, but in a broad conformity to instrumental rationality. However, Kahane points out, this answer gives no clue as to what would still motivate an agent for whom there are no practical reasons.
Another possible answer is a life of mere animal striving. Just as animals follow their instincts and habitual desires, our life will be guided by aversion to pain and attraction to pleasures. These basic motivations of reward and punishment are biologically hardwired, which makes them independent of evaluative beliefs. While animal wanting and liking is likely to survive the belief in nihilism, many subjective concerns (long-term goals, personal projects and ideals) will probably not. Kahane suggests that the psychological impact of belief in nihilism might actually push us towards something like selfish hedonism. If nothing matters, there is no point to make something of ourselves. Biology will make us ”satisfied pigs”.
But this life is still active. He goes on to suggest that the psychological impact of belief in nihilism might even cut deeper. One natural speculation is to think of depression. But the depressed, just as the despaired, does engage in valuing behaviour. Depressions can sometimes come from nonsatisfaction with people’s lack of trustworthiness and disrespect for values.
If belief in nihilism undermines a wide range of subjective concern, maybe it could lead to something close to personal death. Kahane gives some examples as an antidote to philosophical views which claim that self-consciousness forces agents to be active. The clinically apathetic has a radical lack of concern, but without the emotional symptoms of depression (sadness, guilt, pessimism, suicidal desires etc.). People with neurological conditions like abulia and akinetic mustism are conscious, in possession of one’s faculties and with complete control over one’s limbs, but in a state of extreme passivity. Abulic patients make no plans, show obvious lack of concern toward relatives as well as to their own condition, and no evidence of needs or desires. After recovery, one patient explained that “she did not talk because she had nothing to say”. Her mind was “empty” and “nothing mattered” (Damasio & Van Hoesen 1983)
Kahane claims that if we resist this suggestion, ”this might be not because we cannot imagine these consequences following, but because we cannot imagine really believing in nihilism.”
Now, one way in which such cases can be elusive is that they make it seem as if belief in nihilism can be easily internalized and we just have to see how the consequences are illustrated. Pathological cases bypass the fact that in our normal lives we form an interdependent network of beliefs. Depending on how intertwined a belief is within the network, it will be more or less revised. And depending on how compatible a belief is with the network, it will be more or less endorsed. We may revise or stick with a belief or we may change other beliefs in our interconnected system. The same applies for evaluative beliefs or subjective concerns, though it is not clear to what extent we embrace holism. There is a correspondence between evaluative beliefs and subjective concerns, but there is also a holistic connection between subjective concerns, as well as between evaluative beliefs. This could explain why it is plausible to think that our lives may go pretty much as before, but not because the truth of nihilism has no psychological consequences in our daily affairs, but because at times holism suspends its truth in the air. The emptiness and nothingness after belief in nihilism may undercut many personal projects but it will face some resistance from our interconnected subjective concerns.
Clinical apathy radically reduces initiative and decreases participation in external activities and interest for any stimuli in the environment, leading to emotional indifference. But not only emotional mechanisms are impaired. Many studies show that executive dysfunction is the most consistent neuropsychological correlate of apathy (Pagonabarraga et al. 2015). Executive dysfunction makes it difficult to redirect attention to novel stimuli, manipulate complex information, or generate plans for action. So, the emptiness of apathy could be the result of both impaired cognitive functioning and deep lack of concern. If this is the case, then apathy is not as representative as it may seem, since belief in nihilism is supposed to radically contract subjective concern in people with full possession of one’s faculties. This makes even harder to illustrate the psychological consequences.
There is another possible way to illustrate the emptiness after belief in nihilism, but one that does not depend on radically undermining motivation. Buddhists aim to achieve a state of zen emptiness in which all thinking and feeling are brought to a halt. Some describe it as ”the absence of the psychic self” (Austin 1998). Maybe higher levels of cognitive and emotional control are more suitable to reach the ”nothingness” state of mind which is supposed to follow from belief in nihilism.
Kahane, Guy. 2016. ”If nothing matters.” Nous
Austin, James. 1998. Zen and the Brain. MIT Press.
Pagonabarraga, Javier, Jaime Kulisevsky, Antonio P Strafella, Paul Krack. 2015. ”Apathy in Parkinson’s disease: clinical features, neural substrates, diagnosis, and treatment.” The Lancet Neurology.