To create change: question everything, but separate skepticism from nihilism

Skepticism is a critical attitude that treats every claim to truth as up for debate. A skeptical attitude is doubt as to the truth of something. It’s an approach that goes beyond just demanding evidence and, instead, questions the evidence itself. Skepticism, in its best form, has opened up mind-boggling ways of thinking about ourselves and the world around us. Using it to be combative is a short-sighted and corrosive way to undermine the difficult task of living a well examined life. Skepticism is a behavior. Someone who is a skeptic questions data before accepting it as fact. You could be skeptical and believe in anything so long as you had good evidence of it. Nihilism differs from skepticism in that skepticism does not reject claims to truth outright, it only rejects these claims if there is insufficient empirical evidence to support them. To create change we must seek out ideas that make a difference.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) considered nihilism a transitional stage that accompanies human development. It arises from frustration and weariness. When people feel alienated from values, and have lost the foundation of their value system but have not replaced it with anything, then they become nihilists. The nihilist neither accepts nor rejects the proposition or thesis. For that matter, the nihilist is unable to characterize the proposition or thesis as “meaningful” or “meaningless,” to begin with, because that would entail making a substantive evaluation or value judgment. The nihilist is indifferent. The most common mistake people make in trying to define nihilism is that they think it is “about” something. Not only is it not about something, it is not even about nothing. The nihilist doesn’t care that he doesn’t care, and so on recursively.  For these reasons, nihilism is not particularly useful for introducing change, except possibly as an extreme counterexample.

Skepticism is very much in vogue today. Buoyed by the efforts of an army of lobbyists, and a cash-strapped media keen to exploit controversial debates, the climate skeptic movement, in particular, has been extremely successful in popularizing the skeptical attitude, which is widely perceived as the appropriate stance of struggling working-class towards the policies of perceived elites. On the other side of the debate, we find scientists and progressive journalists struggling in vain to persuade the skeptical public that science is itself a skeptical enterprise; that it is driven forward through the process of disproving, or ‘falsifying’, the results of previous research, and thus that any consensus view is based on a firmer foundation than people might expect. The challenge of the COVID pandemic is that science and evidence and knowledge is always evolving and is emerging fast. The twists and turns around vaccination advice and authorizations led to skepticism and increased vaccine hesitancy.

Nihilism was notably cited during U.S. Senate deliberations after rioting Trump supporters had been cleared from the Capitol. “Don’t let nihilists become your drug dealers,” exhorted Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse. “There are some who want to burn it all down. … Don’t let them be your prophets.” How else to describe the incendiary rhetoric and grievances that Donald Trump has peddled since November? What else to call the denial of the electorate’s will and his deep disdain for American institutions and traditions? Playacting at revolution at the behest of a man seeking to cling to power, the rioters ultimately only managed only to vandalize the building, though they left five people dead in their wake. Nonetheless, to act violently on the basis of such fictions – and to transgress against the humanity of others for nothing at all – is perhaps the most nihilistic act of them all. In his 1872 novel, Demons, Dostoevsky was appalled that politics could be dehumanizing to the point of murder.

Fyodor Dostoevsky had, in his work, explored what happens to society when people who rise to power lack any semblance of ideological or moral convictions and view society as bereft of meaning. But then a disturbing public trial spurred him in a more overtly political direction. What would happen when people lacking any semblance of ideological or moral convictions rise to power? A young student had been murdered by members of a revolutionary group, The Organization of the People’s Vengeance, at the behest of their leader, Sergei Nechaev. His focus turned not only to moral questions but also to political demagoguery, which, he argued, if left unchecked, could result in devastating loss of life. Although set in a sleepy provincial Russian town, Demons serves as a broader allegory for how thirst for power in some people, combined with the indifference and disavowal of responsibility by others, amount to a devastating nihilism that consumes society, fostering chaos and costing lives.1

It has been over a century now since Nietzsche explored nihilism and its implications for civilization. As he predicted, nihilism’s impact on the culture and values of the 21th century continue to be pervasive, its apocalyptic tenor spawning a mood of gloom and a good deal of anxiety, anger, and terror. Interestingly, Nietzsche himself, a radical skeptic preoccupied with language, knowledge, and truth, anticipated many of the themes of postmodernity. It’s helpful to note, then, that he believed we could – at a terrible price – eventually work through nihilism. If we survived the process of destroying all interpretations of the world, we could then perhaps discover the correct course for humankind. Extreme skepticism, then, is linked to epistemological nihilism which denies the possibility of knowledge and truth; this form of nihilism is currently identified with postmodern anti-foundationalism. An anti-foundationalist is one who does not believe that there is some fundamental belief or principle which is the basic ground or foundation of inquiry and knowledge.

French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard characterizes postmodernism as an “incredulity toward metanarratives,” those all-embracing foundations that we have relied on to make sense of the world. This extreme skepticism has undermined intellectual and moral hierarchies and made “truth” claims, transcendental or transcultural, problematic. Postmodern anti-foundationalists, dismiss knowledge as relational and “truth” as transitory, genuine only until something more palatable replaces it (reminiscent of William James’ notion of “cash value”). The critic Jacques Derrida, for example, asserts that one can never be sure that what one knows corresponds with what is. Since human beings participate in only an infinitesimal part of the whole, they are unable to grasp anything with certainty, and absolutes are merely “fictional forms.” This opens the door to gaslighting – a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.

Gaslighting is typically a preferred tactic of narcissistic and aggressive personalities bent on doing whatever it takes to gain and maintain a position of advantage over others. Their point is to disorient and destabilize people. They want to harness people’s self-doubts, ruin their capacity for seeing the world ironically, destroy their capacity for making judgements, in order to drive them durably into submission. When (for instance) gaslighters say something, only later to say that they never said such a thing and that they would never have never dreamed of saying such a thing, their aim is gradually to turn citizens into mere playthings of power. When that happens, the victims of gaslighting no longer trust their own judgements. They buy into the tactics of the manipulator. Not knowing what to believe, they give up, shrug their shoulders and fall by default under the spell of the gaslighter.

In The Banalization of Nihilism (1992) Karen Carr discusses the anti-foundationalist response to nihilism. Although it still inflames a paralyzing relativism and subverts critical tools, “cheerful nihilism” carries the day, she notes, distinguished by an easy-going acceptance of meaninglessness. Such a development, Carr concludes, is alarming. If we accept that all perspectives are equally non-binding, then intellectual or moral arrogance will determine which perspective has precedence. Worse still, the banalization of nihilism creates an environment where ideas can be imposed forcibly with little resistance, raw power alone determining intellectual and moral hierarchies. It’s a conclusion that dovetails nicely with Nietzsche’s, who pointed out that all interpretations of the world are simply manifestations of will-to-power. Today, the government of Justin Trudeau operates with smug indifference and patented, virtue-perfumed arrogance towards the House of Commons.

Not only do we pick and choose information that best suits us, we are not privy to all the information available to us. Psychologists have found that our attention is selective; our brains simply cannot process the trillions of bits of information hitting our senses at any one moment, so it focuses down on some of the information and blurs out the rest. But it gets worse. We fail to understand risk. This influences our perceptions and how irrational beliefs develop. Though driving the car to work is likely the most dangerous thing we do everyday, we are more afraid of flying. With social media driving beliefs, the anti-vaccination movement is gaining strength, promises of personal genomics is spawning new and dubious treatments, and health gurus sprinkling the word “natural supplement” on everything like an over-used spice, skepticism should be, now more than ever, a liberally applied tool.2

Where is the main resistance to change? There is a small group who have been made very wealthy by the existing system. Change is a threat to them. It is this group that loves its status quo so much that it sees its own change as an underhanded attack on its way of life. The debate is no longer how fast the ocean is rising, rather how fast will we rise to the occasion to introduce change. This is about introducing equality, justice and fairness so that it not just a perception, but a reality, that the system is no longer gamed for those at the top. For the critical thinker, discovering and understanding our cognitive foundations is tantamount to a new beginning, a fresh way to look at the world. Learning how to think about thinking, learning how to navigate the perils of human cognition, is the road map for change.

1 Ani Kokobobo (17 Jan 2021)

2 Kyle Hill (26 July 2012) Skepticism And The Second Enlightenment

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