Alex Rosenberg’s “The atheist’s guide to reality” (2011) argues for a nihilism similar to that expressed here: there are only the facts of science; there is no objective basis to morality; and free will is illusory, and hence personal intentions and responsibility along with it. He too criticizes those who accept these principles but still attempt or hope for a way to keep some kind of empirically based morality.
Rosenberg too acknowledges that we still can and do live with such morality as we have through evolution or other influences. He agrees that we live with as much apparent free will as we perceive, though moral nihilism and our lack of real free will suggest we should not take ourselves too seriously.
Rosenberg sometimes goes further. He thinks the facts of science have already definitively answered the question of ‘why there something rather than nothing.’ He believes the consequences of there being no objective right or wrong are generally benign because our morality is mostly shared as a result of evolution. He thinks this means we don’t have to ‘worry’ much about people being too ‘abhorrent’. He finally thinks that any residual discomfort over the insights can and should be overcome by whatever psychological means we care to employ. He suggests Prozac if this ‘nice nihilism’ is too depressing.
I’ve previously discussed why I think the story of the origin of our universe (or at least of our scientific laws) may not be finally settled. I’ve suggested that the difference between those who think so and those who don’t may depend less on who understands the science than on individual differences. Stephen Hawking presumably gets the science but still seems to think it a puzzle why there are any laws of science at all.
As to morality, Rosenberg’s claim that there largely aren’t actual conflicts of morality resonates with Pinker’s recent argument (2011) that things are morally better, or at least safer, than they’ve ever been before. Both take a statistical approach to their claims. Rosenberg observes that most people prefer pain over pleasure and find it more pleasurable to be nice. Pinker observes that the chance of random and unpredictable violence and death have steadily decreased over the course of history.
Both observations are valid. Morality is more shared than not, and Pinker is probably right that any sense of continued or increased violence is due partly to not accounting for the world’s much larger population and partly to ‘historical myopia’, our greater sensitivity to the events we most easily recall. But modern nihilists still experience problems in trying to decide how to live, and the continued conflicts in core values remain causes of ongoing and sometimes deadly conflict. There remains the real possibility that a fanatic with a smuggled nuclear weapon could kill an unprecedented number of people in a single moment. That possibility is not altered by observing that a fanatic’s views are mostly not shared or that there is today statistically greater average safety.
Rosenberg makes the claim that common morality means we don’t have to ‘worry’ much about abhorrent people in general. But ‘worry’ only enters the picture if we assume we are in Rosenberg’s ‘two standard deviations from the mean’ of people who want to be nice and to be treated nicely (despite there being no objective grounding for that view being true or better). It also implies we are operating on the assumption that people’s worries about themselves amount to something. I believe he would argue that this is part of our illusory (though perceived as real) sense of what matters and how things influence us. And, if all else fails, there’s Prozac.
But I think something is amiss here. It’s not any pseudo-moral qualms about using drugs to improve our lives. As Rosenberg points out, mental change is all about rewiring the brain, and different methods – education, therapy, drugs – may differ in approach (and in effectiveness, permanence, side-effects, etc.) but there are no (pseudo-) moral differences.
Perhaps the difficulty is that Rosenberg too quickly dismisses the significance of the nihilistic viewpoint. It’s hard to argue with a lack of significance if one starts from nihilist principles. But if Rosenberg is willing to grant our (illusory) worries can and should be minimized, it seems he might also grant that the (illusory) significance that is reduced for us should count for something. Prozac may or may not help with any excessive sadness that comes from this realization. It will not, however, dampen our sober appreciation for it. We would also not want it to…no more than we’d want to enjoy a perfect life by being attached to Nozick’s experience machine.