Does anything really matter?

Does anything really matter?

Some people say no. Such people are proponents of nihilism, the view according to which nothing matters. According to nihilists, there is no reason to care about anything whatsoever. Nihilists do not deny that people care about things, they claim only that there is no reason to care about anything.

Other people say yes. Among the people who say yes, some claim that the only things that matter are the things that we care about and, by caring about them, we make them matter. These people are subjectivists. On the subjectivist view, something’s mattering is always a matter of it mattering to some person or other, or to some group of people or other. Something might matter to me (or to my group), but if you don’t care about it, then it doesn’t matter to you. Something can matter to me or to you (or to us or to them), but it doesn’t make sense to say that something can just matter, full stop.

Such a view is not a view according to which anything matters. Those who say that nothing can matter unless we care about it would express their view more clearly if they said that nothing really matters.

Other people who say yes reject this kind of subjectivism. Of these opponents to subjectivism, there are some who say that things matter only because God exists. If there was no God, these people insist, then nothing would matter. Such people hold,

(G) God’s existence guarantees that things matter. If God did not exist, then nothing would matter.

What would make (G) true? (G) might be true because something only matters because God cares about it. If so, then those who accept (G), despite their opposition to subjectivism, actually accept a version of it. According to subjectivists, something matters only when it matters to someone (or group) or other. Those who accept (G) think that something matters only when it matters to God. Their view is a version of what we might call individual subjectivism. On such a view something matters only when it matters to a particular individual. Those who hold (G) think that the only individual who can make things matter is God.

In order to find out whether such people are right, we should think about some of the things that matter and ask whether God has anything to do with their mattering.

Consider, for example, the agony of a small child who is suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Such agony matters. And it matters whether there are people who try to alleviate this suffering. And it matters whether they are successful.

Suppose now that God does not exist. Would this child’s agony matter any less? Suppose caring individuals successfully treat this child’s malnutrition and nurse her back to health. Would the fact that God does not exist make this successful intervention fail to matter? It is difficult to see how.

Theists who defend the view according to which nothing matters if God does not exist would express their view more clearly if they claimed that nothing really matters. If things matter only because God exists, then nothing really matters.

Let’s return to the more general subjectivist claim that something’s mattering is always a matter of it mattering to some person(s) or other. On this general subjectivist view, things matter to me only if I care about them.

This view is implausible. To see why, consider that I can ask, “Why does what I care about matter? Why should I care about that stuff? I know that I do care about it, the question is why I should.”

A subjectivist would say that the person who asks such questions has misunderstood what it means for things to matter. On this kind of subjectivism, something matters to a person precisely when that person cares about it. But suppose that someone now asks, “But do the things that I care about actually matter?” How should a subjectivist respond?

He could say, “Well, they matter to you” and hope that this ends the conversation. But this will not satisfy, as is revealed by the following reasonable reply: “Yes, I understand that they matter to me, but I want to know if they should matter to me? Telling me that they do matter to me does not answer my question.”

‘Should the things that matter to me actually matter to me?’ Might seem like a strange or even nonsensical question, but it is neither. The person who asks it is saying this: 

Yes, I understand that these things matter to me. But maybe I am wrong about them, maybe they don’t really matter and I should not care about them. I want to know if they really matter.

When we say such things and ask such questions, we are asking for reasons to care about the things we care about. We want to know whether the things we care about are worth caring about. To say that something matters is to say that there are features of the thing that give us reasons to care about it. So, to say that suffering matters is to say that suffering has features in virtue of which we ought to care about whether it occurs. What the person who asks the question above wants to know is whether there is anything that gives him reasons to care about it.

I think that the answer to this question is yes. For example, we ought to care about whether and how much suffering occurs; indeed, we ought to want that as little suffering occurs as is possible. The nature of suffering gives us reasons to want it to not occur and to do what we can to avoid it, to the extent that this is possible.

When the subjectivist says that only the things that we care about matter and that, by caring about them, we make them matter, he is saying that nothing has any intrinsic features in virtue of which we ought to care about it. It follows that agony has no intrinsic features in virtue of which we ought to care whether it occurs. It follows from this that there is nothing about the fact that if a nuclear weapon were exploded over Seoul, millions of people would experience severe agony that gives us a reason to care whether this event occurs. This is why I said that subjectivists would express their view better if they claimed that nothing really matters.

When a theist claims that if God does not exist, then nothing matters, she is saying that nothing has any intrinsic features in virtue of which we ought to care about it. It follows that agony has no intrinsic features in virtue of which we ought to care whether it occurs. It follows from this that there is nothing about the fact that if a famine struck a large swath of Africa, hundreds of thousands of people would suffer and die from malnutrition that gives a reason to care about whether such an event occurs. This is why I said that such theists would express their view better if they claimed that nothing really matters.

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