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RS120 - Nihilism

Release date: November 2, 2014

Are you a nihilist? Forget about wearing all black and being indifferent to the rest of the world -- nihilism is a lot more complicated than most people think. In this episode of Rationally Speaking, Massimo and Julia explain the different types of philosophical nihilism, reveal their own personal views on the subject, and explore why nihilism has such different emotional effects on different people.

Massimo's pick:  Stoic Week

Julia's pick: Boston Review's "Against Empathy"

Reader Comments (9)

Great show, guys! I'm really interested in moral nihilism and found this episode fascinating. To be honest, I think you could do a whole other episode just expanding on moral nihilism and people's reactions to it. I think some people's reactions to it raise interesting questions: do some people *need* religion to avoid falling into nihilistic depression or nihilistic sociopathy? If so, should that change how skeptics treat religion and the religious? If it is not so, how can we bring these people back into being functional, social, and happy?

Also, there are some philosophers who argue that morality is objective, and yet who are also atheists. What would your response be to that?

Personally, I'm not sure how I feel about the idea that the foundations of morality are just arbitrary starting points. I mean, if that's the case, then I think I *can* do whatever I want without guilt, contra Massimo, as long as my beliefs about morality are internally consistent and don't contradict

It's a tough issue!

November 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLTP

Carl Sagan tried to have it both ways with his Pale Blue Dot metaphor:
"Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner."

So the "fraction of a dot" has "rivers of blood," and the "scarcely distinguishable inhabitants" endure "endless cruelties"? If we're going to be consistent, aren't those rivers of blood just a fraction of a fraction of a dot? Aren't the endless cruelties just a blip on the Cosmic Calendar?

November 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Max, I like your point about the "fraction of a dot" and "rivers of blood."

Anything can be made insignificant by expanding the scale (the world, the galaxy, the universe) or highly significant by shrinking it (me). I think playing with scale (like CS did in that quote) to emphasize or diminish a thing is cheating. Things should be considered in their scale.

November 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCurt Nelson

barring some very serious birth-defect or say TBI people can't help but be making worlds (unwelten if you will) full of meanings/associations, the philosophical point is rather that after thinkers like Richard Rorty that we now understand our meanings are contingent alltoohuman creations and not Grounded in something like Objective-Truth, now Rorty still had a great faith in our abilities to co-operate enough without such Truths in something akin to liberal democracies but he died before we could both really come to terms with the nascent research in cognitive-biases and the sorts of machine-enhanced mass effects of human efforts like the Crash of the global economies and the surges of climate change, and given these sorts of emerging catastrophes that are beyond our collective limits to be reason-able about (let alone to make concerted efforts to shift gears and manufacture solutions to) it seems quite sensible that we are heading at accelerating speeds for very grim times without any obvious solution/relief.

November 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdmf

Another great episode folks. Love the ambulances :-)

As a programmer I've always thought that measuring significance with units of extent raises a ZeroDivisionError.

I heard Paul Bloom on The Philosopher's Zone, where he was very persuasive

November 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjalanb

Two things. At one point Massimo said that simply because something is contingent, it does not make it immediately arbitrary. True. In fact, it's anything but; for if something is contingent, it follows that it is somehow causally "dependent", and therefore by some combo of necessity and sufficiency, DETERMINED by antecedent conditions. This makes contingent entities anything but arbitrary, quite the opposite. If any modal conditional is susceptible to arbitrariness, it would be the nebulous idea of Necessity.! N'est pas?
Also, in reference to the archetype of the Ubermensch as the quintessential nihilist subject, it is crucial to note that the most significant later day manifestation of this is actually a certain type of a RELIGIOUS subject. Bearing in mind a plethora of pseudo-epistemic "truth-revealing" technologies (sensis devinitatis), such religious subjects feel well-justified to circumvent epistemology proper--and more importantly ethics-- completely, and through a perverted sense of possessing exclusive access to truth, see themselves warranted to engage in a type of WILL-TO-POWER, usually via the application of an extremely pernicious political agenda. American Protestant Evangelicals, right wing Jewish Zionist settlers, and certain groups of Salafist Sunni Muslims, best embody this neo religious ubermensch personality fully. Some Burmese and Srilankan Buddhists can be said to have joined the fray. Irony abounds!

November 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterOmar Mustafa
Julia raised the point from Frankenstein about how learning the answer to your purpose in life could turn out to be unsatisfying. Robert Nozick, in his book _Philosophical Explanations_, devotes a section of chapter six, on philosophy and the meaning of life, to the question of what meaning we could get or not get from being part of "God's Plan," including what meaning a God himself would have. It's a pretty entertaining read.
September 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJim Lippard
You guys don't get many comments on these videos lol. I probably should be doing English homework, but am too busy browsing through this, quite frankly, amazing catalog of podcasts. Thanks for the insight into moral nihilism. I'm glad someone else is interested.
May 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCaleb
Nihilism seems like realizing reasonable understanding of reality presents serious difficulties, and then just giving up on reason. Realism makes more sense.

Four apples in a row does have physical meaning. The spatial orientation of the apples has consequences to the physical world, such as the amount of difficulty to count them, their exact gravitational aspect, their inertia, and so forth. All the levels of reality, the row, the apple, the cell, the molecule, the atom, the quark, and so forth have significance in reality.

Perhaps disregard nihilism to cope with difficulty, and instead just realize that all events have a limit to their significance in reality.
December 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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