Fatalism Excuses Nihilism?

ImageMaterialist Alex Rosenberg is convinced that a society full of nihilists would get along as well as any other.

By the same token, adopting nihilism as it applies to morality is not going to have any impact on anyone’s conduct. Including ours. (“The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”, p. 96)

He claims because all people have the same moral “programming” due to evolutionary pressures, it, therefore, doesn’t matter what one actually believes.

I expect that even the most passionate of evolutionary psychologists is bound to hesitate here. Surely, not every single thought in our heads is simply dictated to us by our physiology, completely apart from our professed beliefs?

But the materialist might have a hard time arguing against Rosenberg. As he discusses in his book, a consistent materialist should reject the idea that thoughts or beliefs exist at all. And it is certainly hard to argue that non-existent things affect behavior.

I’ve discussed some of the problems with this already. But part of what is going on here, I think, is that Rosenberg and others seem to dismiss the power of cultural pressures. This might seem an odd thing to say about a group that makes frequent use of the word “indoctrination”, but many of them don’t seem to be aware that the same force works equally well in secular circles.

What does this have to do with morality? Social pressure does a lot to influence people, even moral nihilists. This being the case, it simply does not follow that, because there is a small minority of well behaved nihilists in a culture, that a culture filled with them would not decline in their moral standing.

Because Rosenberg is so focused on the physical, he fails to note, let alone answer, this argument. Yet it is the primary concern about the growth of moral nihilism in modern culture.

Of course, none of this is to say that nihilism is untrue. It may well be that morality is a fiction (though I’ll be arguing otherwise in the future). Even then, a nihilism that finds so much time for moral indignation at religious believers seems something of a contradiction.

And that may be Rosenberg’s biggest issue. He can’t seem to give anyone either an intellectual or a moral reason to accept the scientism he so fervently pushes.

In fact, the view leads him to reject the existence of both thought and morality.

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6 responses to “Fatalism Excuses Nihilism?

  • danielwalldammit

    It’s an interesting question. I don’t know about programming as an explanation of moral values, but I’ve never seen any reason to believe they are literally a function of metaphysics either.

    • Debilis

      Much as I disagree with him, there is no denying that Rosenberg is full of interesting ideas.

      As to morality, I’m not sure what is meant by “function of metaphysics”. I expect that most people accept morality intuitively–the same way we accept the idea that our senses are giving us basically accurate information and that other humans have consciousness.

      I’m aware that it has been popular lately to deny the validity of moral experience, but I don’t personally know of any reason for it that doesn’t rely on the presumption of materialism.

      As such, I take the position that it is one more item on the list of things about everyday experience materialism cannot explain (and must, therefore, call illusory).

      • danielwalldammit

        Actually, I think your assertion that most people accept it intuitively would be all that is necessary, both to concede the initial issue of whether or not morality would continue, and the sufficiency of materialism to explain it. They are two distinct questions in any event.

    • Debilis

      I completely agree that these are different topics.
      So, to deal with them separately:

      1. Yes, most people consider moral truth to be real. But this contradicts materialism, as Rosenberg points out. He’s asking most people to abandon that belief.

      Nor did I mean to say that morality would not “continue”. I meant to say that it would degrade.

      2. Materialism cannot explain moral truth. It can only explain some things about why people happen to believe in moral truth. It has to deny moral truth itself as a human illusion (as Rosenberg has written).

      • danielwalldammit

        The question of whether or not morals are ‘real’ rather often turns out to be a distinction without a difference. If most people follow an intuitive sense of morality, then that intuition a reality in itself, and it makes little difference if someone wishes to call it an illusion or otherwise.This is why I am inclined to agree that morality is not strictly speaking a question of what one actually believes.

        After thinking about it a bit, I am inclined to think this concern doesn’t map well onto the argument you’ve set out here. So, barring objections on your part, I will concede the field in this thread and focus more on the other discussion.

    • Debilis

      I suppose we are drifting off.
      Still, I thought I’d add some thoughts. But please don’t feel obligated to read or respond to them.

      I’d say that there is a clear difference. Certainly, there may not be a difference in terms of the observed behavior, or the perception of a given individual, but it seems circular to begin from the position that these are the only differences that are significant.

      That is to say moral realism claims that moral truth exists above personal intuition. This may be true or false, but it is not the same statement as claiming that an intuition is a real intuition.

      Moreover, claiming that there is no real difference presumes that nearly all forms of moral realism are false, as they hold that morals are significant things–to say that there is no difference is to disagree with moral realist positions.

      So, assuming I understand correctly (which is always dangerous), it would be question begging to use this as an argument against moral realism.

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