Alex Rosenberg’s 2012 Argument for Nihilism

 

In his 2012 book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Alex Rosenberg defends an argument for nihilism.[1] In this article I want to evaluate his argument.

Definitions

Before we turn to his argument, we first need to understand how Rosenberg defines his terms. Let us begin with the word “scientism.” In his own words, Rosenberg defines “scientism” as follows.

But we’ll call the worldview that all us atheists (and even some agnostics) share “scientism.” This is the conviction that [1] the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; [2] that science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and [3] that when “complete,” what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today. We’ll often use the adjective “scientistic” in referring to the approaches, theories, methods, and descriptions of the nature of reality that all the sciences share. Science provides all the significant truths about reality, and knowing such truths is what real understanding is all about. (brackets are mine) (6)

As an aside, I don’t think Rosenberg anywhere shows that all atheists share the view he calls scientism; in fact, I think that’s plainly false. Suppose we adopt a so-called ‘strong’ definition of “atheism”: atheism is the belief that there is no God. How, precisely, are any of the three core beliefs of scientism supposed to follow from atheism? They don’t. A person can consistently believe both that atheism is true and that any (or all) of scientism’s three beliefs are false. For example, given the relative immaturity of the science of cosmology (compared to older disciplines such as chemistry), an atheist may justifiably doubt the claim that, when “complete,” what cosmology “tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today.” Furthermore, philosopher Thomas Nagel seems to be a prime example of an atheist who rejects scientism, as evidenced by his latest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.[2] Whatever one thinks about Nagel’s book, the fact remains that not all atheists share a belief in scientism.

Next, let’s turn to “nihilism.”

Nihilism tells us … [that] moral judgments are … all wrong. More exactly, it claims, they are all based on false, groundless presuppositions. Nihilism says that the whole idea of “morally permissible” is untenable nonsense. As such, it can hardly be accused of holding that “everything is morally permissible.” That, too, is untenable nonsense.

Moreover, nihilism denies that there is really any such thing as intrinsic moral value. … Nihilism denies that there is anything at all that is good in itself or, for that matter, bad in itself. (pp. 95-97)

With definitions out of the way, let us now turn to Rosenberg’s argument.

Rosenberg’s Argument

According to Rosenberg, nihilism is “scientifically and scientistically unavoidable” (101). He claims that, “by substantiating a couple of premises, we can establish the truth of nihilism.”

* First premise: All cultures, and almost everyone in them, endorse most of the same core moral principles as binding on everyone.

* Second premise: The core moral principles have significant consequences for humans’ biological fitness—for our survival and reproduction. (101)

But how shall we evaluate Rosenberg’s claim? It isn’t clear or obvious or self-evident that those premises “establish” the truth of nihilism. So, even granting the truth of both premises, why should we think that nihilism is true? By themselves, the two premises combined do not yield a valid argument for nihilism:

(1) All cultures, and almost everyone in them, endorse most of the same core moral principles as binding on everyone.

(2) The core moral principles have significant consequences for humans’ biological fitness—for our survival and reproduction.

(N) Therefore, nihilism is true.

Notice, however, that (N) does not follow from (1): it’s logically possible that human beings have evolved a set of “core moral principles” which have significant consequences for humans’ biological fitness and which are correct. What to do?

Let’s go back to Rosenberg’s earlier claim that nihilism is “scientifically and scientistically unavoidable.” This suggests two variants of Rosenberg’s argument: a scientific and a scientistic argument for nihilism.

A Scientistic Argument for Nihilism

Here is a scientistic argument for nihilism.

(1) All cultures, and almost everyone in them, endorse most of the same core moral principles as binding on everyone.

(2) The core moral principles have significant consequences for humans’ biological fitness—for our survival and reproduction.

(3) Scientism is true.

(N) Therefore, nihilism is true.

Like the previous argument, this one is invalid. Even when we add the assumption that scientism is true, other options besides nihilism remain. Both ethical naturalism and moral skepticism are compatible with scientism.

Perhaps, however, a more charitable interpretation is to read Rosenberg as presenting an explanatory argument (really, a fragment of an inductive argument) for nihilism. We can complete the argument as follows.

Let us divide the evidence (allegedly) relevant to nihilism into background evidence and the evidence to be explained.

B: Background Evidence

1. The methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything.

2. Science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals.

3. When “complete,” what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today.

E: The Evidence to be Explained

1. All cultures, and almost everyone in them, endorse most of the same core moral principles as binding on everyone.

2. The core moral principles have significant consequences for humans’ biological fitness—for our survival and reproduction.

Finally, let us define the competing explanations.

H: The Rival Explanatory Hypotheses

nihilism (N): the theory that all moral judgments are wrong and that there is no intrinsic moral value.

skepticism (S): the theory that there are true moral judgments but we cannot know which ones are true. (Note: skepticism is ontologically neutral between ethical naturalism and non-naturalism.)

relativism (R): the theory that the truth of moral judgments is relative to culture or time period.

ethical naturalism (EN): the view that moral facts and properties are nothing but natural facts and properties.[3]

ethical non-naturalism (ENN): the view that moral facts and properties are irreducible, sui generis facts and properties that cannot be further analyzed or explained.

Criteria of Adequacy

  • Simplicity: the number of assumptions made
  • Conservatism: how well a theory fits with existing knowledge
  • Testability: whether there is some way to determine if a theory is true
  • Fruitfulness: the number of novel predictions made
  • Explanatory Scope: the amount of diverse phenomena explained
  • Assessment

    Then we can evaluate these hypotheses according to the criteria of adequacy. Although I lack the space to defend it here, the following table summarizes my assessment of the rival explanations according to the criteria of adequacy.

     NSRENENN
    SimplicitySmileSmileSmileSmileSad smile
    ConservativismSmileSmileSmileSmileSad smile
    TestabilitySmileSmileSmileSmileSad smile
    FruitfulnessSmileSmileSmileSmileSad smile
    Explanatory ScopeSad smile?Sad smileSmileSmile

     

    But then it becomes far from obvious that nihilism is the best explanation. On my analysis, nihilism is no better than relativism. More important, nihilism is a worse explanation than ethical naturalism!

    A Scientific Argument for Nihilism

    In his book, Rosenberg doesn’t explain how nihilism is scientifically “unavoidable” from his two premises. In a 2003 article, however, he (and Tamler Sommers) do offer such an explanation.[4]

    Darwinian nihilism departs from [ethical] naturalism only in declining to endorse our
    morality or any other as true or correct. It must decline to do so because it holds that
    the explanation of how our moral beliefs arose also explains away as mistaken the
    widespread belief that moral claims are true. The Darwinian explanation becomes
    the Darwinian nihilist’s "explaining away" when it becomes apparent that the best
    explanation-blind variation and natural selection- for the emergence of our ethical
    belief does not require that these beliefs have truth-makers. To tum the Darwinian
    explanation into an "explaining away" the nihilist need only add the uncontroversial
    scientific principle that if our best theory of why people believe P does not require
    that P is true, then there are no grounds to believe P is true.[5]

    This suggests the following argument for nihilism.

    (1) All cultures, and almost everyone in them, endorse most of the same core moral principles as binding on everyone.

    (2) Our best theory of why people believe the same core moral principles is that such principles have significant consequences for humans’ biological fitness—for our survival and reproduction.

    (3) Our best theory of why people believe the same core moral principles are binding on everyone does not require that P is true. [from (2)]

    (4) If our best theory of why people believe P does not require that P is true, then there are no grounds to believe P is true.

    (5) Therefore, there are no grounds to believe that core moral principles are binding on everyone. [from (1), (3), and (4)]

    (N) Therefore, nihilism is true.

    Although Sommers and Rosenberg describe the scientific principle in (4) as “uncontroversial,” it seems to me that the principle is false. I take “why people believe P” to mean to what we might call “extra-rational” factors such as subjective experiences, psychology, or evolutionary history. While extra-rational factors may cause a person to correctly believe P (albeit on non-rational or even irrational grounds), such a coincidence is hardly guaranteed.

    In contrast, the statement, “there are no grounds to believe P is true,” implies that there are literally no grounds whatsoever to believe P is true. This belies the fatal flaw in (4): “there are no grounds to believe P is true” does not follow from the fact that “our best theory of why people believe P does not require that P is true.”

    I conclude, therefore, that premise (4) is false. Accordingly, even if we grant the truth of Rosenberg’s two main premises (and, indeed, even if we assume that scientism is true), Rosenberg’s argument for nihilism, as it stands, is not successful.

    Notes

    [1] Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012).

    [2] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

    [3] I take it that, contrary to Brink’s semantics, but in line with Quentin Smith’s analysis of compositional vs. identity forms of ethical naturalism, identity naturalism is the superior interpretation of ethical naturalism. See Quentin Smith, Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 167-168. Cf. David O. Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

    [4] Tamler Sommers and Alex Rosenberg, “Darwin’s Nihilistic Idea: Evolution and the Meaninglessness of Life,” Biology and Philosophy 18 (2003): 653-68.

    [5] Sommers and Rosenberg 2003, 667.

    About Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

    • Richard_Wein

      I haven’t read Rosenberg’s book, but his argument for moral nihilism is certainly lacking in substance if it consists of nothing more than is given above. Nevertheless, I agree with his conclusion, though I prefer the term “moral error theory” to “moral nihilism”.

      Jeffery, I think you’re mistaken in your comparison of nihilism with ethical naturalism.

      With regard to simplicity, nihilism scores over ethical naturalism, since it does away with the whole set of alleged moral properties (like moral wrongness and moral obligatoriness). Let’s note that we can’t observe any moral properties. The only evidence for their existence is in the fact that most people believe in them. Skeptics should be wary of believing in such unevidenced properties, and dropping the assumption that they exist is a big score for simplicity, especially given the extreme difficulty of explaining them.

      With regard to explanatory scope, ethical naturalism only explains more phenomena than nihilism if you assume (a) that moral properties are real phenomena, and (b) that ethical naturalism succeeds in explaining them. But to assume (a) is begging the question. And I would deny (b). Moral nihilism (when combined with a naturalistic explanation for why people hold false moral beliefs) explains all the relevant observations. There is no need to explain claimed but unobserved moral properties.

      An important criterion of adequacy that you don’t mention is consistency with the evidence. I would argue that ethical naturalism has very poor consistency with the evidence. I won’t make the argument here. I’ll just say that there are good reasons why the majority of philosophers reject ethical naturalism, and I would say that those good reasons lie in the inconsistency of ethical naturalism with our experience of moral discourse.

      • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

        Richard,

        Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

        Again, I didn’t defend my assessment in the OP and don’t plan to offer a detailed assessment here. Instead, I simply want to point out that there is a big difference between an assessment of the explanatory virtues of rival explanations using the evidence as presented by Rosenberg and an assessment of the explanatory virtues using the genuine, fully stated evidence relevant to nihilism. I have doubts about whether Rosenberg has fully stated the relevant evidence. I also think Rosenberg hasn’t argued his case very effectively; I think one could make a much better argument for error theory than the one he presents.

        In fact, your comments reinforce those doubts. For example, you write, “the only evidence for the existence of moral properties is the fact that most people in them.” Suppose that’s right. Then that proposition can itself be treated as an independent item of evidence which needs to be explained. But (and this is the crucial point) Rosenberg never identifies that proposition as one of his items of evidence! To which we may ask, “What’s up with THAT?” :)

    • Richard_Wein

      P.S. Some further thoughts…

      1. It was probably a mistake to include my (a) as an objection. If ethical naturalism gave an explanation for moral properties that was consistent with the evidence, that would probably put it ahead with regard to explanatory scope.

      2. You can’t assess explanatory scope independently of the other criteria of adequacy (particularly consistency with evidence). There’s little merit in “explaining” many diverse phenomena if those explanations are all bad ones. From my point of view, ethical naturalism’s “explanation” of moral properties is so inconsistent with the evidence that it can hardly be considered an explanation at all.

      3. What we really need to explain are our observations, not theoretical entities for which we have no good evidence. Since we observe moral discourse, but not moral properties, we should be thinking primarily in terms of explaining the former. The traditional mistake of meta-ethicists–it seems to me–is to concentrate too hard on explaining moral properties (on the presumption that they exist), rather than on explaining the things we actually observe.

      4. I’m surprised that you gave nihilism a smiley for Conservatism. Surely it’s deeply unconservative, in the sense that it goes against long-held beliefs. But conservatism seems irrelevant here. Conservatism is (arguably) an advantage in science because science has a track record of epistemic success. Since moral discourse has had no significant epistemic success, there is nothing to conserve. So I would write “Not Applicable” across the whole Conservatism row of your table.

      5. It seems to me that all the explanations in your table rate close to zero on Testability. That’s normal for philosophical questions.

      6. Much the same applies to Fruitfulness. But at least moral nihilism allows us to abandon the futile search for moral truth, and so frees us to spend our time on other, more fruitful projects.

    • HelianUnbound

      It seems to me the choice of the word “nihilist” to describe what you’re talking about is a particularly unfortunate one. It has been used to describe whole hosts of political and philosophical systems, which differed widely from each other, and is generally understood as a pejorative term. I happen not to believe in the Good in itself, but not because of any Rosenbergian chain of logic. I simply see no evidence for it, any more than for the existence of God, and consider the explanation of morality as the manifestation of evolved behavioral traits moderated by culture not only a plausible, but indeed rather obvious, explanation of the imagined perception of Good and Evil objects. I do not consider myself a “nihilist” by virtue of that conclusion.

    • http://universe-life.com/ Dov Henis

      A Comprehensive Scientism Worldview

      “Henis Worldview” Database

      I’m nearly 88 yrs old. Circa twenty years ago I intensified
      my universe-life pondering and scrutinizing of relevant scientific
      publications, gradually crystallizing and compiling a comprehensive worldview
      distinctly different in several aspects from the 21st century generally accepted
      scientific worldview. A compilation of
      most of the brief inter-related inter-twined chapters of this “worldview” is
      now displayed at http://universe-life.com/ .

      In answer to occasional readers’ comments-remarks I have
      been asserting that none of the scientific matters stated in or implied by the
      “worldview“ contradicts the now generally accepted science. Some pedants,
      though, are not satisfied with this assertion even when ascertained correct.
      They demand presentation of “new subject specific data”.

      To this I posit :

      A.

      http://universe-life.com/2013/01/26/science-comprehension-derives-from-data-assessment/

      B.

      ALL data, wherever published, that conform with the
      materials presented in “Henis Worldview” chapters are scientifically ”Henis Worldview” database.

      Dov Henis

      (comments from 22nd
      century)

      http://universe-life.com/


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