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Too Sucky To Be True

Too Sucky To Be True December 3, 2011

Too awesome to be false

It looks like my use of slang has gotten us all into philosophical trouble. When I was responding to Ross Douthat’s difficult thought experiment, I summarized the logic of Jennifer Fulwiler (and several other Christian converts I know) as follows:

  1. God is not real
  2. Atheism logically requires nihilism
  3. Nihilism sucks so bad it can’t be true

You can’t believe all three at once, and Ms. Fulwiler jettisoned proposition one. I meant to have a fight about the second principle, but a lot of commenters took issue with three, so it merits further discussion. One commenter helpfully split the third idea into two propositions:

3a: There is a certain critical value of suckiness that means a certain idea is intellectually unsupportable

3b: Nihilism clears this threshhold of suck

And it was 3a that drew a lot of flack. So let me say up front, I wasn’t endorsing the idea that we can reject empirical realities because they are painful to acknowledge. That way lies severe congnitive dissonance. In nearly all cases, willful blindness and self-deception won’t help us live and act in the world. We need to have a clear eyed picture of the atrocity we’re up against in order to have a hope of ameliorating it. I wholeheartedly endorse the Litany of Gendlin.

When I talked about a critical value of suck, I didn’t mean to think about physical realities, but about metaphysical hypotheses. And, when I used the highly precise technical word ‘suck’ I didn’t mean it as a measure of how a given proposition would affect human suffering and flourishing, but as a measure of whether accepting the idea as true made it impossible to live and act (happily or unhappily) in our lives. Let me give an example:

What if everything we experience is an illusion? Maybe it’s a computer simulation, maybe you’re beset by Descartes’s demon, or maybe you’re a lonely Boltzmann brain.  Don’t worry too much about how this happened; with no valid empirical inputs, you haven’t a prayer of figuring it out anyway. But if you came to believe that your world was not real, what on earth would you do about it?

Imagine walking around denying the physical reality of matter. I expect it would be an endless series of concussions and traffic accidents. And even if you remained committed to your counterfactual in the face of your injuries, you’d still be bound by the world you refused to acknowledge. After all, every step you took into danger would still involve placing your feet solidly on the ‘ground’ that you regard as an arbitrary fancy.

Your hypothesis has exploded the working model of the world and how to live in it and hasn’t provided any new framework as substitute. That’s not an improvement in accuracy. It’s fine to kick around hypotheticals for fun or to see if you can get them to generate any predictions or prescriptions, so they can be assessed, but trying to live by these kinds of philosophy is dangerous and incoherent.

P.S. This is why I’m extremely suspicious of religions and philosophies that undermine what you already know without offering anything stable as substitute. The idea that this world is of little importance compared to the next, a god that might command apparent moral horrors for his own ineffable purposes, the idea of enlightenment as total disregard for the world you live in… all of these perspectives give me the heebie-jeebies.

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